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Limit of the Flesh

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He never asked what had happened in that last, desperate hour as she hung over London, and because the only person she'd consider telling hadn't asked, there was no one who knew the whole story. In the hospital while hurry-up-and-waiting between bouts of nerve grafts for her new biomechanical leg, Shepard had been sure the Alliance would at least send an intelligence agent to collect an account of whatever she admitted to remembering; but instead they'd left her alone, and eventually she'd concluded that the brass considered that unaccounted period of time between Admiral Anderson's death and the Citadel's explosion self-explanatory. The Crucible had functioned as it was supposed to function, and the Navy was fond of functionality.

And since Garrus never asked, Shepard carried the weight of that hour by herself. She carried it around her neck like a mariner, across her shoulders like an Atlas; she carried it like she carried Kaidan Alenko and James Vega and three hundred thousand batarians who had lived in the Bahak System. Even if Garrus asked to share a portion of that burden, she wasn't sure she would let him take up what was hers and hers alone to bear. The weight of that hour shamed her, but the unrelenting business of living swept her towards something that could in the right light resemble acceptance.

Garrus was reading on the couch when she finished updating the Valkyrie's financial records and going over their operating costs for the month. The Council paid its Spectres generously, and war heroes didn't want for money, but Shepard had only lived as long as she had because of her ability to ration her resources. It helped that Garrus was better at repairing their equipment than any professional gunsmith; Shepard herself was decent enough at maintaining and upgrading her rifles, but Garrus could take a third-hand Elkoss Combine M-8 and rebuild it so it fired like something straight out of the Spectres' special stocks.

The greatest expense was the Valkyrie herself — both the cost of keeping her in the sky, and the cost of all the registration fees and docking licenses required to fly her legally from one side of the galaxy to the other. The communications array cost a hell of a lot to maintain, too, since it was as advanced a system as it was possible to fit on a ship of this size. After the ship and the armory came all the other expenses of living: food for both of them, armor and ammunition, clothes and weight equipment and toiletries.

There were medical costs, too, and not only the bills from patching one or the other of them up when some mercenary bullet punched through their shields; Garrus's jaw was held together with microfilament implants, and his hearing on the right side had slowly failed him until surgeons had artificially reconstructed his entire aural canal. Shepard, meanwhile, was as much machine as woman. Miranda would've probably been able to better integrate her newer prosthetic leg with the older work done by Cerberus, but Shepard managed. Maybe she'd mention it one day; maybe she wouldn't. At any rate, they required periodic check-ups from a bevy of specialists, although they both dragged their feet when it came to making those appointments.

"Reading anything good?" Shepard asked.

"Mhmm," Garrus said. "News from Palaven. They're holding open debates for the entire month."

"You asked to speak?"

"Yeah, I was, but I registered an absence. They don't really expect me to show up anyway, not when I haven't set foot on the planet for a year and a half." At this point, Garrus could publicly denounce the Hierarchy and it wouldn't put a dint in his citizenship tier; not visiting Palaven for a year or two wasn't going to stop the Primarch's office from personally issuing him a priority invitation to the debates.

"What's the referendum?"

He set aside his tablet to scratch his jaw. Shepard leaned over the back of the couch and picked it up. 'A BETRAYAL OF THE TURIAN SPIRIT?' read the headline. 'HIERARCHY INVITES DEBATE OF MANDATORY MILITARY SERVICE.'

"They're talking about abolishing it?"

"It's been mentioned," Garrus said. "Probably a hell of a lot more often than Victus anticipated. The original proposal was about shortening the duration of mandatory from fifteen years down to ten. They invited you to speak too, by the way."

"Look at you turians, pretending to be part of the galactic community." She was ribbing Garrus, but it was true that the turians unashamedly prioritized turian pursuits; while the galaxy was deep in the throes of antebellum reconstruction, Palaven's leaders still controlled enough military forces that very few criticized them for their self-interest. Although at least the Hierarchy made a nod in the direction of multilateral unity.

"That's part of it," he said, "but popular sentiment towards humans is still surprisingly high."

"I didn't expect it to last this long after the war," Shepard admitted. In the decades after the Relay 314 Incident, Earth and Palaven had reached the impasse of a stiffly serviceable diplomatic relationship, but after the Reapers they might even be called friendly. Part of that was shared sympathy; the Reapers had targeted Earth and Palaven first and had brought the heaviest amassment of their forces to bear in those sectors. Palaven had also unexpectedly extended an open hand to Tuchanka. Meanwhile, the salarians had withdrawn behind their borders while the asari, usually first to spearhead a coalition, had neither isolated nor involved themselves in the new galactic order beyond what was necessary to maintain a seat on the Council, although Shepard doubted that would last.

"Give it a few years, Shepard," Garrus drawled, "and we'll all go right back to hating each other." He tipped his head backwards to look at her upside-down; his fringe brushed the back of the couch. "Up for a few rounds?"

"Think you can take me, Vakarian?" Shepard said, which was as good as a yes. His posture was relaxed, his tone easy; his gaze was watchful, but not penetrating — not like he thought she would vanish if he let her out of his sight. Good.

He rolled easily to his feet, leaving behind an indent on the couch cushion in the shape of his ass that proved he had well and truly settled into their quarters on the ship. "You know, a lot of people have asked me that over the years. Too bad none of them are still around for you to find out how it worked out for them."

"Laugh it up, Garrus," Shepard said, and then, stretching her forearm extensors as she walked, she led the way up the stairs and into the aft hold. This was part of it, too: when Shepard wanted to fight, she found a gym and stayed until exhaustion won or the line of challengers approached zero, but when Garrus wanted to fight, they went into the hold and dragged out the mats and went at each other. Why she preferred the anonymity of a gym, Shepard couldn't have said; Garrus was in many ways the perfect sparring partner. Fast, smart, agile, strong, proficient in a host of techniques… in addition to his skill at marksmanship, he was a ranking hand-to-hand specialist, something he'd never alluded to on the SR-1 but had been comfortable enough to boast about more than once by the time she'd picked him up on the SR-2. "Everybody has a hobby, Shepard," he'd told her.

They were well-matched, too, but despite that, Shepard found herself increasingly averse to these one-on-one sessions. The tension, maybe; however one-sided it was, stepping inside his guard, letting him inside hers, touching him and being touched and trusting him to hit hard enough to challenge but not hard enough to debilitate her — it all set her on edge and would probably continue to set her on edge until she had a better handle on what she felt.

Neither of them wore pads. They had a VI program that monitored their matches and awarded a point for each time one of them tagged or pinned the other, which was supposed to eliminate the need for potentially dangerous strikes but in reality merely curbed the possibility of risk. Garrus was trained in a couple of styles; all turians started out their mandatory service learning the basics of CST, combat strike training, and after that he'd picked up illisus from the staff sergeant of his platoon. Once he'd transferred to civilian life on the Citadel, he'd had both C-Sec's standard coaching and training with an asari matriarch in closed fist and open palm. Shepard's only systematic instruction had been in AMAP — Alliance Martial Arts Program — but she'd been brawling for years, both in a boxing ring and outside of it, and no matter where she'd been stationed, she'd always found a couple of other marines who could teach her some Krav Maga or Muay Thai or huntress technique.

Shepard maintained that the only style she needed was AMAP. Garrus had made it his mission in life to prove her wrong.

"Sure you don't want to spend some time on the treadmill, Shepard?"

"Just give me a couple of minutes to stretch," Shepard said. Turians warmed up faster than humans for reasons that were beyond Shepard's scientific understanding. Her specialty was application, and in this application what she knew was that if she followed Garrus's warm-up, she'd be paying for it tomorrow. He dropped into a series of stretches himself but finished well before she did, so he started to shadowbox his way across the hold. Garrus usually moved with a slow, and yes, cocky, inevitability. Seeing him like this, fast but no less powerful for his speed, was a hell of a thing.

While he was occupied, Shepard took her time working through her routine. Her body had held together pretty damn well for what it had been through — rapid decompression and brain trauma were only the start of the list — and her cybernetics helped compensate for wear and tear, but she was approaching forty, not yet middle-aged but increasingly aware that nobody's joints worked perfectly forever. Today in particular an old leg injury was bothering her; she'd taken a slug just above the knee on a long-ago mission, and sometimes the muscle tissue around the scar was tight enough to throw her off. And now there was the extra consideration of her cybernetic leg, which affected her balance even more; but she managed.

"Ready," she said, when her heart rate had jumped from what in a baseline human would be dangerously low to what a professional athlete would display at rest.

Garrus threw a final right-jab-left-cross and sauntered back to the mats. "Last chance to back out… Jane."

Shepard smirked and settled into a ready stance and said, "Bring it, Vakarian." This was good. She felt like herself: balanced, ready, combative. The Shepard of the past year had been too often the opposite: shrinking, unstable, selfish. Maybe this was good. Maybe this, a match, the clean pain of a hit, maybe this was what she needed.

"Valkyrie. Activate sparring program alpha," Shepard said.

"Program activated," the ship replied, and then Garrus was coming at her, high and fast, trying to catch her off-guard. She ducked under one blow, deflected, deflected, and caught a knee strike with both hands; in a real fight she wouldn't have tried that, since it would have caused bone fractures or outright breaks, but Garrus wasn't coming at her with the force he would use in a battlefield engagement. In a practice match, her hand block did the trick of throwing him off balance. She shoved down on his knee, which pitched his torso towards her... and then she drove the top of her head into his chin.

He staggered backward before catching himself. "Crap, Shepard," he said. "You realize you're not actually a krogan, right?"

"I don't know about that. You've seen how many breeding requests I get."

Garrus grumbled something under his breath. He was stripped down to his waist to mirror her sweatpants and sports bra; neither of them were wearing shoes, either, and when he scratched at his keel, it drew her attention to the burn scarring that licked down the right side of his neck and chest.

"Ready?" he said.

"Ready," said Shepard, and she braced herself to get hit.

There was an art to it. There was an art to taking a punch. She was gifted at it; if Commander Shepard knew nothing else, she knew sacrifice. But she wasn't Commander Shepard anymore, wasn't even Admiral Shepard, certainly wasn't Lieutenant Shepard or Sergeant Shepard or Private Third Class Shepard. She wasn't Jane. Jane had been on Mindoir.

When she braced herself, it wasn't conscious. Nobody allowed themselves to be hit when they were sparring, not unless they were demonstrating a technique. Nor was it muscle memory that made her tense. Muscle memory was what steadied her when she lowered her stance; muscle memory was what drove her punches from the hip; muscle memory was what turned practice into reflex. This was neither conscious impulse nor honed instinct. It came from somewhere deeper, more animal in the raw strength of it but more sentient in its complexity.

Garrus dropped his gaze. Shepard, normally too experienced to fall for an eye feint, looked down. In that hair-second of a lapse, he hit her in the face.

His cross wasn't hard enough to bruise her. It was barely more than a tap. She'd hit him like that herself, a pop right in the jaw as a reward for not paying attention, and he'd returned the favor more than once. It was fine. She'd lived through it before. But right then, in an increment of time smaller than that hair-second, her eyes flicked back up, and she saw the fist flying at her, and she experienced something only comparable to having a prothean beacon upload a thousand foreign memories straight to her head. In one instant, she unlocked a lifetime of understanding. She didn't want Garrus to hit her. She wanted him to touch her; but she didn't want him to touch her like this.

Worst of all was the knowledge that she had to that point enjoyed it — not the pain itself, because Shepard wasn't a masochist, but she was so starved for contact and specifically contact with Garrus that she would accept even a violent iteration of his attention. Not anymore. Now she couldn't stand the thought of him hitting her, couldn't stand the thought that she deserved it, couldn't stand the thought that what she wanted was gentleness, couldn't stand that she'd used him, couldn't stand herself. She saw the fist coming at her, and she froze, and Garrus hit her in the jaw.

Shepard went down hard on her side.

Her vision twinned. On the left was Garrus hitting her not for practice but because he knew the truth, because he'd uncovered what she had paid so dearly to keep from him. On the left was Garrus hitting her with deadly intent. On the left was Shepard, who had fought until she was bloody and sick with it but who even then had gone on fighting, giving up. The lefthand Shepard accepted what had come due. The lefthand Shepard laid her burdens down at his feet, and then laid herself down, too.

On the right he was soft with her. On the right he reached out and cupped her jaw, slid a hand under her hair, traced the hairline on the nape of her neck. On the right he slid an arm around her waist. On the right he breathed against her throat and set his cheek against her own as he ran his hand down her bare spine. The righthand Shepard surrendered not with acceptance but with a frozen ire so intense she couldn't move. The righthand Shepard wanted to know what the hell he was doing.

"Jane? Jane!"

Neither of them, not the right hand nor the left, would give name to what they desired. It wasn't absolution, although absolution colored it; it wasn't grace, although it lived where grace yielded to tenderness.

The starry field in her vision drained drained away, leaving Shepard facing the floor. She was on her hands and knees, breathing hard. Blood throbbed in her temples.

"Shepard, if you don't say something — "

"I'm fine," Shepard said. She sat up and wiped the back of her wrist over her mouth. Garrus was crouching beside her, his face tight with tension; he reached out for her slowly, taking her shoulder with one hand and then seizing her chin with the other.

"Damn it. I'm sorry, I didn't think I hit you that hard," he said, tilting her face to inspect her jaw. Shepard shuddered under his hands and his regard. That rush of understanding had collapsed inward and burrowed into a dense knot in the pit of her stomach. She felt nauseated.

"You didn't," she said. "I'm fine. Just knocked me for a loop." Against the instinct that urged her to press harder into his touch, she pulled away and climbed to her feet. It took her half a second too long to find her balance, but then she steadied herself into a ready stance and brought up her fists.

"You… Shepard, you've got to be kidding," Garrus said.

"What, think this means you win?" said Shepard. "Good try, big guy, but I've got a few more rounds left in me."

"Was it a flashback?"

"Garrus," Shepard said, "come on," meaning, Come on, Garrus, don't dig into this; come on, Garrus, I'm always fine; come on, Garrus, I've lived through worse.

"No," he said. "We're done for the day." And then — when had he gotten so pushy? — he started to herd her towards the hatch. "You're going to sit down while I look at your head, and then you're going to relax for the rest of the day."

"It wasn't a flashback."

"Ask me if I care," Garrus said.

And Shepard, who had stared into the dying red eye of a Reaper she had killed with her own human hands, backed down. It went against instinct, but lately she'd spent a lot of time fighting her instincts and winning. Didn't Shepard always win her battles?

So she let Garrus guide her back to the couch, let him check her eyes and her reflexes for a concussion, accepted a mild anti-nausea medication and a cup of thin coffee, and stayed off her feet for the rest of the day. She yielded, although she wanted to freeze him out and retreat to her cabin, because she was exhausted. She yielded because she needed his care and hated herself for needing his care. She yielded because he deserved to be indulged after having spent so many years deprived of indulgence. She yielded because she couldn't afford to drive Garrus away.

Shepard was not accustomed to shame. She understood self-loathing but largely considered it an affectation cowards used to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. In the past, when she had experienced regret, she used it as fuel to set right her wrongs. Now, though, after London and the Crucible, she was lost in a labyrinth of guilt. Around every corner was a reminder of her failure, and the knowledge that she had earned the full measure of her disgrace drove her deeper and deeper into that black maze of defeat.

There was no question she had earned it. Garrus had never asked, so Shepard had never told him the story of what happened on the Citadel in that final hour; but if he had asked, she would have told him that she had dragged herself past Anderson's body to the heart of the Citadel. She would have told him that the Catalyst was nothing more than an unshackled AI. She would have told him that the Catalyst had presented her with a choice — that with the capabilities of the Crucible, she could have forced a union between organics and synthetics, or she could have controlled the Reapers at the expense of self, or she could have destroyed them by paying the toll of xenocide.

She would have told Garrus that victory over the Reapers meant very little when Shepard didn't understand how it had come to pass. How could she understand? She had been bloody and sick, on the very verge of blacking out. When the Catalyst had given her three choices, she had fought for consciousness only long enough to refuse all three. Her refusal should have cost the galaxy its last, best hope; but instead she had woken weeks later in an Alliance hospital, where they hailed her as a war hero because they were unaware that the rot of her failure was eating her from the inside out.

And that —

That was the fourth day.