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John Shepard should have known.

The Mako's engine revved up as its wheels hit heavy silt, the rocky hills of Edolus giving way to the smooth desert-like expanse of a plateau, devoid of any living being and Shepard should have known.

He'd been listening to Garrus and Wrex bicker over their choice weaponry in the back, letting the now-familiar chatter on the comm link wash over him as he focused on getting them to the structure on the distant horizon in one piece. Questionable driving skills aside, the Mako was still a handful to handle but he was getting better at it.

At least that's what Joker had assured him, with minimal smirking. Shepard'd take what he could get.

A dot on the radar marked their goal, blinking, getting steadily closer. Shepard kept glancing at it, trusting the device over the bland landscape around them, something about it setting his teeth on edge. There was no movement to be seen.

“– am I right, Shepard?”

“Oh now you're playing dirty.”

Shepard turned his head with a highly eloquent “Huh?” – judging by his squadmate's deadpan expressions, they'd both been counting on his opinion to win whatever argument they're having.

Wrex stepped forward, a grin tugging at his scarred face. “Just say biotics are superior. Nothing like bursting into battle head-first.”

Before Shepard could go beyond raising an eyebrow, Garrus shook his head sharply, clicking his tongue. “And get yourself killed, you mean? Be my guest – I can shoot well enough for the two of us.”

“See, that's the problem with you turians. Always relying on tech to get the job done.”

Wrex laughed, Garrus bristled, Shepard prepared himself to interrupt–

And the Mako went flying, ripped off the ground as if it weighed nothing at all. Warning lights flashed, equipment shook loose, clanking, metal on metal – all the air in Shepard's lungs left him in a rush of gravity and vertigo; the belts keeping him in his seat dug into him hard enough to bruise but that was the furthest thing on his mind as they came down with a heavy crunch.

Finally the pressure on his chest lessened, a weak “Fuck” making it past Shepard's lips as the world settled around him, upside-down. Trembling hands searched and found the clasp holding everything together and once it was gone, he spilled on the roof like a box of tools turned on its head.

“Garrus!”, he coughed, picking himself up, straining his eyes to see in the sudden darkness around him. “Wrex!”

Someone groaned to his right, “Present. You alive, krogan?”, and further away: “'m here. I thought you're getting better at this shit, Shepard.”

Ignoring the jab, Shepard's first instinct was to hail the Normandy. Static. Figures. Only local access, then. He readjusted the fit of his helmet before following the nearby wall with glove-covered hands until he hit the door, then started pushing against it. It didn't budge. Behind him: shuffling steps and the distinct sound of a new magazine sliding into place.

Garrus huffed. “Looks like we'll get to test that theory of yours sooner rather than later.”

The ground rumbled, swallowing Wrex's answering quip and shaking the downed Mako enough that Shepard practically felt every bone in his body rattle with it – and a dawning realization made his pulse spike, blood running cold with the instant panic rising within him.

Because he recognized this feeling. It's the same that haunted him in his dreams, the same that had announced the beginning of the end all those years ago.

Shepard should have known.

Power gathered at the palm of his hands and before Shepard could think about it, the door exploded with a blast of biotic energy. “Move!”, he yelled over his shoulder, barely waiting long enough for his squad to make it outside; Shepard turned and threw up a shield just in time to hold off the worst of the debris bursting around them.

“What is that?”, he heard Garrus growl, saw him and Wrex pointing their guns at the phantom hidden in sand and dust out of the corner of his eye–

Shepard didn't need to look. He reached out, grabbed and jerked Garrus' rifle down, “We gotta get out of here”, he said hoarsely, darkness dancing at the edge of his vision, drained from his biotics or fear or both yet adrenaline still sang in his blood, kept him going.

There's no time to check the look in Garrus' eyes, the flash of confusion and indignation enough for Shepard to know retreat was the last thought on the turian's mind, no time for careful strategy, for second-guessing.

“We have to run”, Shepard repeated, louder over Wrex's angry “What?!” – and Garrus yielded, just as a high-pitched shriek pierced the very air around them–

And for the first time since Akuze, Shepard stares into the opened jaws of a Thresher Maw.

*

It all goes to hell faster than Garrus can blink.

Suddenly, they're running. Garrus is dimly aware of the insistant tug of Shepard's hand clamped around his arm, of the blurred blue of biotic shields building and falling around them, of Shepard's strained pants over the comm link. Wrex is only a few paces behind them, a mass of reds and browns and seething rage, cursing under his breath so colorfully Garrus' translator chip simply gives up.

Their boots sink into loose sand with every step, burning the energy they could put into standing their ground and fighting instead. Garrus chances a glance at Shepard, wishing he could see his face beyond his helmet but the glimpse he gets makes his gut drop.

Whatever that thing is: It made Shepard, vanguard fighting machine Shepard, bail instantly. That alone makes the soldier in Garrus swallow his doubts and follow his lead.

It seems to have the opposite effect on Wrex. They bypass a formation of jagged rocks – perfect for cover, Garrus can't help but think sullenly – and the krogan's patience snaps. “What the hell, Shepard?!”, he bellows, breaking a path through the sand like it's the front line of a hostile army. Shepard says nothing.

A few paces are spent in silence, alerting Garrus to the sudden lull around them; looking back, he sees the worm... creature is gone, the horizon once again plain, unassuming dust. Garrus feels Shepard's grip on him tighten. He noticed it too.

“Not yet”, he hears him mumble, almost to himself, “not yet.”

Then the very desert under their feet trembles, shifts, breaks apart–

“Wrex, shields!”

–and Shepard's words start making a lot more sense. Even with two people fueling it, the biotic field around them shudders visibly, flickering out after a second or two – enough to get them out of the immediate blast zone, if just so.

Gaze turned skywards, Garrus's heart almost stops as the creature towers over them. He's never seen anything like it on Palaven. Does it even have eyes? All he can make out is it's huge jaws, gaping and empty and dripping with–

Garrus acts on pure instinct. Diving for his squadmates, he tackles Shepard to the ground and makes Wrex stumble, too; a spurt of clear liquid flies over their heads, close enough that a few droplets land on Garrus' back.

He doesn't pay attention to the burning sensation running up his spine, doesn't stop to worry about the dazed way Shepard's crawling back on his feet – Garrus grabs his Commander, throws him over his shoulder and runs, trusting Wrex to follow.

No matter his previous grievances with krogans: they can take more hits than anyone in a brawl. Even if that brawl includes a hundred-foot monster in the middle of the desert.

The enraged screeches of it only spur Garrus on. He can feel Shepard struggle in his tight grip, hissing at him to “calm down, Commander” as respectfully as he can; “there”, Shepard snaps back, gloved hand pointing past Garrus' head to the left where the slopes of a mountain range meet sand.

“The mountains, huh?”, he hears Wrex's gruff voice behind them. “Keep going, I'll keep that acid shit off of you!”

Protest is halfway out Garrus' mouth yet it's Shepard who goes ballistic, biotics running hot enough that Garrus can feel it through his armor.

“No! Wrex–“

Wrex bares his teeth, “Shepard”, full of warning.

Do not engage. That's an order!”

A glob of acid splashes on the ground. Garrus side-steps it in the last moment. “Can we save our asses first and then talk about details?”

“Just trust me”, Shepard growls. Wrex doesn't reply.

*

They don't stop until their boots hit rock.

Shepard slides off Garrus' shoulder the moment they do, all kinds of dizzy and disoriented, waving away Garrus' attempts to steady him. What he needs right now is solid ground under his feet and some space to think.

His hands are trembling.

The panic he's been holding back since the Mako is a tight coil in his chest, slowly spreading out. Not yet. He can feel the others' eyes on him, painfully aware how weak he must seem to them: This is not the Commander Shepard we know, he can almost hear them think.

The memory of his therapist is blurry, one vague face among many by now but he still remembers her calming tone of voice. Breathe. Shepard does. Forces his back straight, balls his hands to fists.

His amp port is numb with pain. He'll deal with that later.

“Shepard.”

He closes his eyes in the privacy of his helmet. “Wrex”, he sighs, turns around to face him.

Wrex looks like he's doing some holding back of his own, cracking his neck, shifting weight, crossing his arms. “Care to explain?”, is what he comes up with, jaws tight.

Shepard rarely sees him so... fidgety. It's clear he's furious – having to back down from a fight does that to a krogan – yet Wrex listened to his orders when it counted the most, and Shepard knows he owes him for that.

So he nods, “Yeah”, calls Garrus' over from his silent watch over the horizon. A sudden chill runs down Shepard's back as he's reminded why that might be necessary. Threshers rarely hunt outside their territory, however, and Shepard counts on that fact now just as he did during their rushed escape.

They make themselves comfortable on a nearby slab of rock; Shepard sits down heavily while Wrex paces. Garrus stands to his right, a steady presence in the corner of his vision. He's tinkering with something – his comm link, Shepard recognizes with a quick glance.

No more distractions. His squad deserves to know the truth.

“Six years ago I lead my first mission for the Alliance.”

His words are hesitant, and Shepard hates himself for it, hates the fact that what should've been a cornerstone of his career is the reason he can't wear the title of Commander with pride. He stares ahead and sees the arid planes of Akuze, hears the hushed conversations of his marines around him.

“We'd lost contact to one of our colonies and my unit was sent to investigate. Found the settlement empty, colonists gone yet no bodies, no sign of violence... So I told 'em to set up camp in the dunes. No point in searching at night, right?”

A mirthless chuckle catches in Shepard's throat. Wrex's gaze is on him. Shepard holds it for a long moment.

“That's when those things attacked. Woke up to complete chaos around me, made it out in time to see them just... tearing the camp apart.” Wringing his hands, the dry noise of plating on fabric distracts Shepard from the memories that bubble up like bile. He looks down, swallows heavily around the lump in his throat.

“The smell, the– the screaming, I'll never forget it. Went through a unit of fifty marines like it's nothin' and we didn't even know what hit us. Never encountered Thresher Maws before so we didn't know about the acid and, well.”

Others might've been forgotten but Shepard remembers every name, every face of the squad that set foot on Akuze with him. Writing the condolence letters had taken weeks. It was the only way to honor them for their sacrifice.

Shepard exhales slowly.

“Turns out they don't follow you forever. Dragged myself to the LZ and got the hell out of there... I was the only one who made it back.”

Wrex has stopped pacing and even Garrus is motionless. There's more he could tell them: of the months and years he spent wishing he'd died with them, how much he hated it to be hailed as a hero for his biggest failure.

In the end, Shepard settles for: “Doesn't matter if we could've taken that thing on. I won't let it happen again.”

Then he falls silent with a helpless shrug, out of words to say. The silence stretches on, lingers – follows them persistent as a shadow as they board the Normandy hours later. Shepard goes through his post-mission duties on autopilot: skips the med bay by pointing Dr. Chakwas towards Garrus, writes up his report, takes heat from the Alliance brass for losing the Mako. The three migrane pills he's dry-swallowed knock him out eventually.

Hours later he gasps awake with the afterimage of melting flesh and torn limbs burned into his eyes. He spends the rest of the night puking his guts out, the bathroom door firmly locked behind him.

Chapter Text

Garrus Vakarian is worried.

It's been two weeks since Edolus. They're already a few clusters away, en route to one mission or other; how Shepard keeps track of them, Garrus doesn't know. The important thing is that they're gaining on Saren.

He's more the shoot-first-ask-questions-later kinda turian anyways.

That doesn't mean he doesn't reflect on what's going on, though. And it doesn't take a master in human facial expressions – spirits know Garrus still guesses his way through most interactions – to know something's wrong with Shepard.

Not that anything has changed on a structural level: The Commander still leads every mission personally, still fights as hard as before, still does his rounds during the time spent in transit. If he visits him and Wrex a little less than usual, well, nobody's blaming him.

Their last talk wasn't exactly ideal. And the guy's busy. It happens.

Now, Garrus is watching a sparring match between Shepard and Kaidan. Or at least he assumes it's one – there's a lot of biotics and less punches involved, and it looks... careful. Controlled. Kaidan's eyebrows are drawn deep in concentration as he lobs almost playful attacks at Shepard, unphased by the more aggressive comebacks he gets in return.

Two weeks ago, Dr. Chakwas took one look at the burnt mess of Shepard's amp port and promptly launched into a rant that even the crew in engineering got wind of. The result: Shepard's on biotic rehab and not exactly thrilled about it. As a fellow soldier and, more importantly, Chakwasian Rant survivor, Garrus can relate. Fortunate for him, only a few drops of the Tresher's acid managed to melt all layers of his armor, and the wounds on his back healed without much fuss.

Yet, looking at the mottled blueish-green marks that peek out under Shepard's shirt with every movement, a little R&R might not be the worst idea. There's a popular joke among turians about human skin being too soft, easy to bruise, but there's something about seeing it firsthand that takes the humor out of it entirely.

Garrus sighs.

The thing is: While the Commander is both his CO and a tentative friend, he made it pretty clear that business comes first. Orders are orders, and so on. That part's familiar. What to do when said CO-slash-friend is obviously hurting though? Most of the crew seems to be either blissfully unaware or ignoring it on purpose, which gets Garrus precisely nowhere.

Then again, if he's judging the pinched look on Kaidan's face correctly, he's not the only one worrying.

“Garrus! Anything you need?”

Shit. Caught red-handed, Garrus' excuse for standing there and observing comes a beat too late: “Uh, just wanted to ask when the estimated pickup of the new Mako will be, Commander.”

Shepard blinks at the mention of his title – they'd agreed long ago to drop it during down-time and Garrus feels distinctly like hitting himself in the jaw – but lets it slide without comment. Wiping the sweat off his brow with his shirt, Shepard hums pensively.

“Can't tell for sure. I'll run it past Anderson and get back to you, 'kay?” A small smile. It looks tired, mostly. “Getting lonely down there?”

Garrus chuckles, for Shepard's sake. “A little.” Then he nods at Kaidan, waiting discreetly for them to finish talking.

“I'll let you get to it then.”

“Yeah”, sighs Shepard somewhat dramatically.

This time Garrus' laugh is more genuine. He turns to go, leaving Shepard without an excuse to procrastinate his training further.

*

It's deep into the night cycle when Garrus gives up on sleep. There's too many thoughts, too many questions swirling around in his brain; his body begs for rest but his head is on a different plane of existence, stuck in a loop.

There's nothing to do. The Mako's here and has been calibrated and re-calibrated to a point even Garrus got bored of it. His armor and weapons are up to par, too, and completely useless to him now. Nothing to shoot, either.

Then one thought finally sticks: a memory of questionable dextro-friendly food and crew gossip that turned out to be true. When in doubt, ask Joker, Moreau had said with a conspiratorial wink.

And before he knows it, Garrus is stepping into the cockpit, the Normandy's ambient lighting soothing his exhausted mind. Joker's typing away on his console. Good. If there's one thing he can count on, it's that everyone employed on the Normandy is a damn workaholic.

The co-pilot's seat is empty. Garrus drops into it stiffly.

“Moreau.”

Joker turns around. “Vakarian”, he says, mimicking his serious tone of voice.

Mandibles twitching, Garrus huffs. “Yeah, okay. Let me reiterate: Did you marry the cockpit while I wasn't looking, Joker? You two have been inseparable lately.”

“Oh my, funny you'd ask, Garrus! I was about to say the same about you and the Mako.”

Joker holds his hands up at Garrus' unamused glare.

“Too soon? Too soon. Gotcha. Anyways, what's up? Ashley pissing you off again?”

“Nah but good guess.” Garrus scratches at his crest, a nervous gesture he hopes is lost on the human.

“Listen, I wanted to ask you something. It's... about Shepard.”

A knowing glint shines in Joker's eyes. “Oho! Look who got curious about our dear Commander.” He swivels back to his consoles, waving at Garrus to continue. “Shoot. I'll answer what I can.”

Without Joker's gaze on him, Garrus allows himself to lean back, relaxing into the seat that's made with both humans and turians in mind. The Normandy is truly one of a kind. Picking his words carefully, he starts:

“After Edolus, I did some research. Mostly on that lovely creature that paid us a visit, but also on... other things. Are you familiar with a human colony called Akuze?”

“Ah. The less fun kind of gossip then.” Joker's perpetual smirk dims a little. “Horrible story. Was virtually inescapable when it happened – I think you'd have a harder time finding an Alliance soldier who hasn't heard of Akuze.”

That explains the extent of media coverage Garrus found on the extranet. “Lots of rumors?”

“A shit ton of rumors. Surviving both Mindoir and Akuze? Shepard became legend practically overnight. Some said he personally wrestled the Threshers, others claimed their acid made him immortal, that sort of thing. I heard the media harassed him to a point he knocked one of the reporters out cold.” Joker flashes his teeth in a proud grin. “Things were more quiet after that.”

Garrus hums pensively. Getting closer. “Did he ever talk about it?”

“Publically?”

“With you.”

“Kinda”, Joker shrugs. “Not really day-to-day stuff, you know? Like, you can't walk up to him all casual and go, 'Remember when your entire squad got slaughtered by huge worm-monsters? Tell me about it!' I just asked him how he's doing, y'know, and he said he's fine. That's short for 'Leave it the fuck alone', in case you were wondering.”

A snort. “I figured but thanks”, Garrus says drily. A beat of silence. “So... Now what?”

The question makes Joker pause. “... What 'what'?”

Garrus remembers the vacant look in Shepard's eyes, how he'd struggled to put what happened in words, wringing his hands over and over and over. It spoke of shame, and guilt, and pain buried so deep it should've never seen the light of day.

Until it did, and left Shepard at a complete loss. Again.

“We just sit by and let him deal with it? You didn't see him out there, Joker. He... shut down, I don't know. Never seen him push his biotics like that either.”

For once, Moreau is quiet, his expression unreadable for Garrus, who grimaces as he re-thinks what he's saying. Talking about a superior like that would've gotten his bony ass kicked back in Palaven or, hell, even C-Sec.

Scratch that. Especially in C-Sec.

“Look, I'm not saying he's– not doing his job, or anything like that. I'm just–“

“–worried”, Joker saves him from his graceless fumble. Garrus nods. “Yeah, me too. It's just... Humans like their freedom, y'know? To have a choice in things. And there's a big personal bubble around mental health stuff, so if you want my humanly advice", Joker's eyebrows wiggle, and Garrus guesses it's for emphasis, "let him come to you. I don't know this guy much longer than you do but something tells me he'll come around eventually. And hey, you already got his back in battle so... That counts for something, too.”

It's Garrus' turn to fall silent as he thinks Joker's words over. In the end he deflates with a sigh. They make too much sense to ignore, even if it means more waiting. Humans are weird.

Joker throws him an amused glance. “Wow, I think I've never seen a turian mope before. Brood? Yes. Mope? No.”

“Shut up” is Garrus' reply, slightly delayed. This seat really is comfy... He shakes himself awake.

“I should go.”

“Not you too”, the other groans, his voice getting louder the further Garrus walks away. “By this rate, 'I should go' will become the Normandy's new motto and I, for one, won't stand for it!”

“Get some sleep!”, Garrus shouts back and waves a lazy goodbye.

*

Wrex has done some thinking.

About Shepard, and trust, and that damn Thresher Maw. You don't have to be a turian to see the problem, and given it's one that can't be solved by knocking heads together or beating something up – not anymore at least – Wrex finds himself chewing on it more often than he'd like.

Because he knows humans, has worked both with and against them for assignments here and there – and while he's aware they're adaptable, ambitious little fuckers, serving under one he isn't constantly annoyed by is a new experience for Wrex.

And he has to give Shepard credit: Not many of his kind would take in a variety of 'aliens', as they like to call them, as casually as he did. Wrex could tell him the most bizarre fact about krogans he can think of, and Shepard would stand there and calmly discuss the finer points of krogan drinking games with him. Maybe there's a drive to collect and catalogue knowledge somewhere in that squishy brain of his that Wrex doesn't know of. Probably the same place the never-ending questions come from.

Should've told him about some of our rites instead, he grumbles to himself. Could've saved them a whole lot of running, if nothing else.

Leaning on the metal wall of the shuttle bay, Wrex bangs the back of his head against it. Could've, would've, should've. The fact remains that he, Urdnot Wrex, former Battlemaster of Clan Urdnot, turned his back on a Thresher he could've killed with his bare hands if necessary, which is already shameful enough. Only a fully grown one from Tuchanka merits a full retreat. On a bad day. That it happened under a human's command just adds insult to injury.

This is all Shepard's fault, really.

...But then again, losing a full squad to those things on his first command is pretty rough. Shepard's what, thirty-something? Wrex has kept varren that're older than that – and those only had their own scaly hides on the line. A little fear isn't unreasonable, even Wrex would grant him that.

Over seven hundred years of existence have made him tough, not heartless.

Be that as it may; Wrex shakes his head to free himself of these pointless musings. Enough. No battle has ever been won by thinking, after all. Communication is not Wrex's preferred form of conflict resolution, but something about Shepard makes him want to try.

To the void with him for that, too.

*

Making the decision to talk some sense into Shepard is easy. Actually tracking him down, however, turns out to be harder than expected.

Wrex tries Pressly first and, after hitting the wall of his tight-lipped disapproval fairly fast, asks Joker instead, who shakes his head about "recent spikes in interest" concerning the Commander but points him towards Chakwas. That trail quickly leads to Kaidan and then to Garrus and his suggestion of waiting it out makes Wrex change his mind about one thing: asking other's opinions about anything.

The turian doesn't attempt to stop him, though, which is... interesting.

Regardless, Wrex is still huffing insults under his breath minutes later on his way to the last possible place where Shepard could be: the captain's cabin. It's not like the Normandy is very big – just that Wrex would've preferred some sort of neutral ground over private space, even if Shepard's kind isn't as territorial as Wrex's.

They do love their diplomacy, though, and for a moment Wrex resents the amount of pyjak shit he's willing to put up with for this particular human.

When he makes to request entry, he finds the terminal blinking a cheery green, already unlocked. Wrex steps inside, his customary greeting of "Shepard" going unanswered and that's a red flag if there's ever been one. They've been playing this little game too long for the other to miss his cue; the fact that there's a half-empty box of pills on Shepard's desk and clothes thrown carelessly on the undone bed doesn't help either. Annoyance quickly turns to concern – not that Wrex'll ever admit it.

Either everyone's wrong about the Alliance-labelled stick up Shepard's ass... or the guy's more messed up that he lets on.

"Shepard?", Wrex asks more sharply, head snapping towards a faint noise to his right. A flash of red: The locked bathroom door is no match for a krogan's strength, bending to his will easily enough.

One look inside, and Wrex's suspicion is confirmed. Shepard's in the furthest corner of the tiny room, knees pulled up, head hidden behind crossed arms. Even from afar Wrex can see he's shaking like a leaf too, and judging by the smell, it's not hard to determine why.

Definitely a mess, then.

"Alright", Wrex sighs quietly to himself. Then, louder: "Hang on, 'kay?" It's debatable whether Shepard even registers he spoke at all, but it doesn't really matter. What matters is that this damn shoebox of a bathroom is too small for Wrex to move in, much less carry someone out of it, and that there's a solution to that problem.

A flick of his comm device switches it to a private frequency.

"Get your pointy ass up here, and fast."

*

There's darkness, at first.

It's nice, well-known, a calm space to breathe and rest his weary mind. Here, he's himself, just John, with no orders to give and no expectant faces turned towards him for guidance. The eye of the storm, and he knows there's no hiding from it when it hits, not really.

Only this time, there's voices. A blur of blue, a cool touch to fever-hot skin; John recoils, not yet– But they're insistent, calling him "Commander" and he shudders under the weight of it all.

Yet he pushes himself upright, follows the pull of hands that drag him to his feet – and it reminds him of a different time and a different set of hands, of a piercing shriek in his ears, and he almost prefers it to the deafening silence around him now.

"I got you", rumbles that familiar voice beside him then, and John is ashamed of how desperate he clings to it. Piece by piece, the world shapes itself around this presence, bright lights and muffled sounds and crimson eyes on him, undemanding.

They trail him as he's guided to his bed; John wills his wobbly legs not to drop him, gaze firmly on the ground as he mumbles a quiet "Thanks". A squeeze to his shoulder, then the grounding touch is gone.

"Shepard."

He chokes out a laugh, "Wrex", John answers softly, the name barely making it past his lips; there they are again, Wrex to one side and Garrus to the other and in the middle is Shepard and doesn't know where to begin fixing things.

Because there's no coming back from this. Shepard's damaged goods, can't focus enough to eat or sleep, let alone command a ship, and it's on him for hoping against hope he could pull it off somehow.

Wrex moves before John can open his mouth to try, the bed dipping considerably under his weight until they're shoulder to shoulder. His voice is calm when he says:

"I haven't been back to the Hollows. Can't, of course, not without playing into the hand of my father's old tribe. Still think about it, from time to time."

He breathes a deep sigh.

"Even if I wanted to, I don't think I could. Go back, that is. Lost a lot of friends that day, 's not something you can just put behind you. Took me a while to get that a part of that pain remains even after your wounds have healed. When you're back on your feet and think you're doing fine."

“You miss them”, John murmurs without meaning to, the words just... slipping out. It's not a question but Wrex answers with a low "Yeah" anyways.

Then he shrugs, jostling Shepard, too.

"That's not the point, though. Point is: I'm still here. I survived, they didn't, and it's shit but it can't be changed, either.”

It's then that Garrus breaks his silence as well, preceding what he wants to say with a pensive hum:

“On Palaven, a platoon's sacrifice is part of their commander's history, yes, but their remembrance is a responsibility shared by many, not just one. That squad you lost... War was what they signed up for, it was their decision, and no soldier would wish their commander a life of guilt because of that.”

Shepard's shoulders pull down, curve inward, around that heaviness that has been at his core since that day. Rationally, he knows what they mean, can trace along the lines of their reasoning like rivers and canyons on a map but he doesn't hear the rushing of water or see the ridged line of the horizon, as it were.

Comforting words mean nothing when he can't stand on his own, when he can't fight and fucking function like his crew needs him to.

He grits his teeth, rubs his hands over his thighs to keep them from trembling. It's not working. It's not–

“John. Breathe.”

Garrus is kneeling in front of him, and John would feel patronized if he wasn't so damn grateful to have his face to focus on rather than the panic attack lurking just out of reach.

“We're here. You're safe. Just breathe.”

He does, breathe that is, one heaving gulp after another, eyes caught by Garrus' steady gaze. Only when he's certain his voice is steady does he say, “Okay”, and “Sorry”, because he owes it to them. “Just– Give me a minute. I'm fine. Got it under control.”

“'Under control', huh?”, mutters Wrex under his breath, and Garrus' warning glare is there and gone in a flash but Shepard catches it anyways. Wrex snorts. “What? Calm down, Vakarian, I'm actually on your side on this one. Listen, Shepard. Things happened, it fucked you up–“

Instinctively, John bristles, the ache in his chest flaring bright. “I'm not–“

“–and we're here to help. So cut out that little 'I'm fine' act of yours and let me and bird brain over there do our jobs.”

Shepard puts his head in his hands, ignoring Garrus' confused “Bird brain?” as he rubs his face hard enough to hurt.

“I can't. Okay? I can't. They barely let me have the Normandy in the first place because I'm– like this. Chakwas is already asking shit like she knows something's up, and if she or anyone else breathes a word to Anderson I'm fucked. I'll lose the crew, the ship, everything–”

“Who said anything about telling Anderson?”

It's Garrus who asks, back on his feet now, and again he shares a look with Wrex that's less hostile and more determined. Shepard stares at him, disbelieving.

“The Alliance CoC requires soldiers to–“

“Yeah, well, last time I checked we're not Alliance. And I already told you, the Hierarchy handles these things differently. So: I'm not required to report a single thing.”

“Oh for– The council, then.”

A very particular grin spreads on Wrex's lips. “Fuck the council. I signed on to help you, not them.”

Garrus nods. “Same here.”

For once, Shepard finds himself speechless. Both his squadmates are looking at him with varying degrees of smugness, an unspoken challenge to prove them wrong, and their expressions merely lose some of the intensity when he asks in a small voice:

“But... what now?”

“Nothing. You decide where to go”, answers Garrus after a beat of silence, casually, like he's stating the obvious, “and we'll cover your back.”

Gruffly, Wrex huffs, “Yeah. Next time one of those bastards show up, I'll blow it to bits. Garrus can help, too.”

“Aw, how generous of you”, the turian quips back easily, and Shepard can't help but smile a little. He runs his fingers over his buzzed hair, sighs – and with it he exhales some of the tension wracking his frayed nerves.

Then he drops his hands back in his lap – limp, steady for the first time in weeks – and nods.

“Okay.”