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The Shepard Code.

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A hundred years after the end of the Reaper War, the memories of what had happened galaxy-wide so long ago had begun to fade. To many who had fought in that war and made it out alive, their deaths were calling, if they hadn't already been taken to the eternity they believed awaited them. The Asari, of course, still had the clearest view of the things that had transpired, and they more than the others, would carry the burden of not letting the rest forget the horrors that had once threatened to bring genocide to their corner of the universe.

What had been lost—the ships and buildings and all the rest—had been rebuilt, and save for the monuments that littered planets and moons across the galaxy—each a unique memorial to those that had died and sacrificed themselves in the fight—there were few reminders that life as intelligent life knew it had nearly been split at the seams and been all but obliterated. Life had returned, in most ways, to as close to the past version of normal as it would ever get.

So when the Intrepid—twenty-three cycles into its exploratory mission past the boundary of the known and explored galaxy—crept up on the derelict hulk of an abstract ship, it was no surprise when only one member of the crew recognized it for what it was. A lifeless, floating, hunk of Reaper.

That man was the acting captain of the ship, a seasoned veteran at his age that had recently received word of the oncoming promotion waiting for him when he returned home. An early death in the chain of command, and he would find himself sitting as General Vakarian when his mission ran to completion. But as he saw the distinct curvature of the ship and the splayed tentacle-like arms across his pilot's video screens, Nero had the unfortunate feeling that maybe he wouldn't be living long enough to see that promotion after all. Even if he did, maybe he wouldn't want the position if it meant wartime ahead of them. He was a good soldier, the best in fact, but that didn't mean he wanted to make the hard choices. He would if he had to, but he woke every morning with a prayer to his Spirits that the events of the day wouldn't test the leader in him.

Today wasn't one of the days the Spirits answered. Or maybe they had, and they'd just told him no.

For a long time they waited at the maximum distance that still allowed them to keep a keen eye on the Reaper, while a series of messages were relayed back to the high command. This deep out, communications were no longer instant, not with all the relays and beacons their encrypted data would have to bounce off of before finally coming in contact with the right eyes. And then, Nero knew, there'd be a panic back amongst the hierarchy of his civilization as they chose the proper plan of action. He knew, had seen some of the plans himself, that there were contingencies for things like this, ever had been since the war ended. Without knowing truly how things had ended or why, there had been a lot of questions and fear back then. Fears that still persisted, even if it often went unsaid.

It took some time, but the ship's VI alerted him to the arrival of a new message, highest priority. Nero took it at his private terminal with a calming breath, blood pressure rising as he read the brief, but succinct, orders. No, he certainly no longer believed he'd be seeing that promotion. He was to take his crew and board the Reaper, see what information he could glean. They were sending a fleet out to his location, but it would take time to get them there once they were armed and prepared. They were ready for the worst—the worst that they were ordering him directly into. But Nero was a good soldier, did as he was told, and with a steady click on the ship's comm system, he relayed his orders.

They suited up, a small crew—even if that hadn't been the orders and command had wanted him to take every person he could, Nero would be damned if he would sacrifice people who needn't be for a fool's errand—and took a shuttle across to the Reaper. Its hull was scratched and scraped, jagged pieces cut into it, and even a few of the joints of the legs missing, torn off and probably scattered across space somewhere else. It had seen battle, that much was clear, but Nero just wasn't sure when. Recent? The Reaper War? Long before then? The doors covering the firing chamber hung slack and open, exposing the Reaper's weapon, and the only comfort that Nero found was in the fact that there was no glowing there, no hint of the creature ready to arm itself and attack.

With no easily accessible entrance to the ship, the shuttle pulled alongside the floating Reaper, as close as it could get to a portion of its core. If there was anything at all to be found, he assumed that was where it would be, and as such, Nero watched on as a few of his men clung to the Reaper's hull with mag-attachments and began cutting through the outermost portion. It was a slow process, cutting out a chunk big enough for them to fit through comfortably, but when it was complete, they affixed the temporary airlock attachment from the shuttle to the Reaper, and hesitantly headed inside.

It was dark, impossibly so, with only their omni-tools and additional lights to guide their way. It didn't take long for them to find portions of the ship that were strikingly familiar to their own, walkways and ramps and the like, even doorways they were able to force open through omni-tool overrides. Nero wasn't sure what he expected to find in the Reaper, maybe organic-like bits and pieces, but he didn't expect this. It was like anything else, boring and bland and uneventful. That was, until, they forced open a new doorway and weren't greeted with the same unnerving blackness, but faint illumination along the floor.

Nero tensed instantly, and everyone drew their guns as he radioed in to the shuttle and Intrepid, keeping them informed. Everything in his body told him to turn around, to return like a coward and wait out the fleet of reinforcements, no matter how long it would take for them to arrive. What he was leading his men and women into, he had no idea, but for the sake of the mission, he continued on, following the dim lights until they grew brighter and brighter and they eventually encountered a functioning door. It glowed green.

Captain Vakarian paused in front of it, prayed silently to his Spirits, and opened the door.

The room was better lit than the rest, a pale blue glow coating the surfaces of everything within the large room. At the far end he recognized the large mass effect core, not bright enough to be functioning at full potential, but still buzzing with life nonetheless. And what was more remarkable was that at the foot of the core, Nero swore he could make out the shape of something vaguely organic.

He held up a hand to his squad, giving them pause as he proceeded forward, weapon still held high and his finger hovering just barely over the trigger, ready to protect himself at a moment's notice. The nearer he drew, the more he could recognize. It was human, he knew, by the lack of the Asari crest, and not Quarian by a few of the subtle body differences. Spirits, he realized as he moved closer, it wasn't even real. It was a hologram. Nero stopped a few feet behind the shape, its slightly fuzzy form seated facing away from him, feet to the floor but legs bent at the knee to create obtuse triangles, the human's arms loosely draped over and around her knees.

"Who are you?" Nero demanded, forgetting all proper protocol.

The image, or human, or whatever the hell it was, didn't respond. Didn't even move.

"By the Turian Military, I order you to tell me who you are," he repeated, a little more sure of himself, though he wasn't confident the image could hear him at all, not if there wasn't any kind of air to speak of.

The shape moved then, its form shifting ever so slightly as it seemed to, of all things, sigh. Its arms fell from its knees to the floor, pressing palms into the metal to help itself up—though Nero wondered why something so incorporeal would perform such an action, like it physically felt the weight of an organic life, or a memory of one. He gripped his pistol a little tighter as it turned.

Less than he ever expected to see that dead Reaper out on the edge of space, he never expected he would ever come across this particular face in anywhere but his dreams. He'd never met her. No, she'd died many decades before he'd ever been born at all, but he knew her from the extranet, the textbooks on his data-pads. The savior of the Galaxy. Commander Shepard. More importantly, he knew her from the pictures he'd when he visited his grandfather's home while growing up. The pictures his grandfather had kept hidden away most of the time, but as a child, Nero had so often caught the man reminiscing over.

As he'd grown older, Nero had even heard some of the stories. The Omega Relay. Saren and the Citadel. Earth and the final stand. The younger he'd been at the time of hearing a specific story, the vaguer it was, the more heroic. The perfect tale for a child to dream about. Aging, though, his grandfather had become more honest with the tellings, letting more slip through each time. Maybe it had been an accident, but some part of Nero knew it was just Garrus' way of leveling with his grandson about the truth behind it all. As a man, he could handle the truth and maybe some of the racier details hidden between the lines.

"Commander Shepard," Nero said, stunned, staring across to the blue face of the—former?—Commander.

Her face, as expressive as it must've been in the human flesh, contorted slightly, brows pushing together in almost a painful manner. She swallowed, her throat bobbing with the action, and then raised her eyes to the room's high ceiling, and glanced around before looking back to him. "I've pressurized the ship for you," she said, her voice emotionless.

Nero glanced down to his omni-tool, taking in the new readings. Where it had once been void of breathable air and just pressurized gas of any kind, the immediate area was now capable of sustaining life. It went against every regulation in the book, but Nero reached for the latch of his helmet, and slowly pulled it off.

Shepard gasped when she saw his face, her hand drawn to cover her mouth, or at least the projected image of it. It took her not a second more to react again, and this time she reached out, her hand to his cheek.

Nero flinched, took a half step back. "I'm…"

She was relentless, moving forward to accommodate the added space he'd put between them. Her hand ghosted over his left mandible, palming it even if he couldn't feel it aside from the slight prickle one experienced when passing directly through the energy field of a hologram of any kind. Regardless, she moved like she was solid, her hand cupping at his jaw, thumb tracing over the blue paint on his cheek. Her face wrinkled, tears in her eyes—Spirits, could holograms even cry?—and then her face broke into a smile despite it all.

"You came," she whispered.

"I…" He stuttered.

"You found me," Shepard continued, and this time moved closer, her limbs around him though he felt no pressure of her weight or strength. Just, once again, that tingle, wherever she touched, even through the thickness of his hardsuit. He was unsure of what to do, but Nero did what came on instinct, and closed his arms about her, holding his grasp carefully around the boundaries of her image rather than going directly through her.

"I knew you'd find me."

For the first few moments, Nero had no idea of what exactly was happening. Was he dead or dreaming? In that space that existed between life and death? It all seemed more likely than all of this being real: that he'd found a Reaper, found its core still active, and sitting watching it had been the image of a woman who, by all accounts, died a hundred years earlier trying to save them from the very thing she was inhabiting.

"I've been waiting," she went on, and Nero felt the tingle of her hand moving up along his back, at the back of his skull, and then the confusing sensation of her holographic digits soothing against the underside of his fringe in a rather presumptuous and erotic manner. He tensed. "For so long. I thought you'd died, Garrus. I thought I'd been too late, that you'd gotten killed before I could save everyone. You don't know what its been like, not knowing what happened and knowing I couldn't ever go back to find out."

Spirits. He'd been told many times how much he resembled the man that was his grandfather, what with his particularly large cowl and blue eyes, even the ridges of his face. But never had he been mistaken for the elder man, with his aged and worn plates and that scarred mandible. He felt the prickling around him shake a little, a tremor of her body, heard the sound of her soft tears—in pain or joy, he didn't know—and Nero decided that just for a minute longer… he'd let whatever this thing was, Shepard or not, rejoice in the feeling of being reunited with the man she thought he was.

"I love you," there was a pained laugh, wet with the sound of her sadness, "I never thought I'd get to say that again to you, but I hoped you always knew." Shepard's head lifted and she shifted to the other side of his head, nuzzling against his mandible. That was when she stopped, her tingling stiff as a board, as though every atom her projection was made of had instantly stopped and aligned perfectly. Like she wasn't there at all. Shepard's shape pulled back from him, eyes on his right mandible. The one, that unlike the real Garrus Vakarian, was perfect and healed.

"How long has it been?" She asked, her voice quaking as she touched his mandible gently. "They finally got that fixed for you?"

Looking at her, the concern on her features, however real they were or weren't, Nero knew it was one thing to let her keep believing things on her own. It was another to lie to her outright. He steeled himself, stood a little straighter. "Commander…"

Her focus quickly left his mandible to find his eyes, and before he could say anything else, Shepard pulled away from him, betrayal written across her blue-hued features. "He doesn't call me that," she said accusingly, and took another step. "Who are you?"

"Commander," he repeated, and this time he was mirroring her actions from earlier, taking the steps closer to her as she moved away. He offered up his hands in peace, his pistol long since holstered at his waist. "It's been a hundred years."

Shepard stopped suddenly, and shook her head in a harsh denial. "No," she said firmly, as though he was simply mistaken.

"The year's 2286."

She wouldn't hear it. "No."

"I'm not sure what I can do to prove it to you—"

"I would know!" She yelled, her emotions growing erratic.

Behind him, Nero heard the antsy shifting of weight among his squad. What they would do, he wasn't sure, since he was pretty confident one couldn't wound a projection with a weapon.

"It's been a long time… but not that long! I would know!" Her form collapsed in on itself a little, bending forward at the waist, spine arching slightly as she let out an uncontrolled, shuddering sob at the thought.

Nero could only watch.

"Who are you?" She demanded, looking to him with squinted eyes, anger over her features. "You have his markings! Who are you?"

"I'm… Nero Vakarian. Garrus, he's my grandfather."

The anger faded back to more pain, and Shepard hid her face away from him as she turned her body completely, eyes on the mass effect core. From the few feet of distance, he could see her projection trembling every now and then, untold emotion slipping through her.

For the longest while, they stood like that, frozen in time. Shepard at the front of the room. His squad at the back. Nero near her, but between both groups, ever the diplomat. In the end, the image of the Commander caved first, her voice a notch steadier than it had been before, but still she refused to look back to the descendent of the man she knew.

"He made it, then?" She questioned. "He survived the war?"

Nero nodded, even if she couldn't see it. "He did. As much as I know… the rest of your crew did as well." A weight seemed to lift from her shoulders, though it may just have been part of his imagination. Spirits, he really was losing his mind out here.

She should have had a million questions to ask him, like how all the species were fairing, how the worlds were getting along in the wake of her sacrifice, even if some of her other friends still remained—the answers wouldn't be happy, Nero knew, but Liara T'Soni was still around and likely would be for centuries to come—but Shepard didn't ask any of those questions.

"Was he happy?" The inquiry came and went, her voice small, quiet.

"He…" Nero paused, unsure of how to proceed. His grandfather had never outright told him how he'd felt about Shepard, but he'd read into all the things his grandfather hadn't said, which had told him enough. His grandmother, Spirits bless her, had been loved, without question, but Nero had always known there was something else. Someone else, was more like it. And now, a hundred years after Garrus had lost the woman he loved, Nero finally knew the truth of it all. It wasn't very Turian, but his insides clenched at the loss his grandfather must have felt for the last century, and at what this image—if she was Shepard, or merely thought she was the woman—felt as well. "He was. He got married… maybe ten years after the war ended. Had three sons and a daughter."

Shepard wavered on her feet for just a second, and he watched her hands retreat to her face, presumably to cover her eyes. "Good," she forced out, but her tone was a mix of happiness and loss. "He deserved it. I'm glad he got it in the end. I think…" She stopped, and a deep breath later—one she didn't really need, but was clearly just a habit—she spoke again. "I think that's what he always wanted, he just knew it wasn't something Turians talked about out loud."

He could say nothing in response, but he silently acknowledged her words. He'd gotten to know his great-grandfather, Garrus' father, a little before his death, and Nero knew him to be just like most other Turians. But Garrus… he was unlike them all. He was kind and so many other things. Nero now had to wonder if that was just always the person his grandfather had been, or if it was because of the human woman he'd loved so long ago.

"Commander, I have to ask. What happened on the Citadel? Why did the Reapers retreat? Where did they go? Are they coming back?" All at once, the questions flooded out of him. He couldn't help it.

Shepard just sighed, head shaking as she turned back around to look at him, her face a painting of every echo of pain she'd felt over the last hundred years. He was certain of it.

"I was offered a choice… how to protect life. And whether it was the right choice or not, I chose to become part of the Reapers, to control them, to force them away from the galaxy and never come back. I'll be alive forever," she said, wearily, "if this is living at all. But I'll be here, making sure what happened a hundred years ago and for millennia before that, never happens again."

That wasn't what anyone had believed to have happened, and listening to her, Nero wasn't sure how much truth there really was to it. Maybe he'd entered the Reaper and that process—indoctrination?—had begun to work on him. Maybe he was in too deep now, ready to become a pawn for the force against organic life. Shepard's face, though, there was something in it that made him believe otherwise.

"There's a fleet coming here," he confessed. "I'm not sure if they intend on destroying this ship or studying it."

Shepard just nodded, defeated. "I can be gone before then. It doesn't matter. Nothing really does. I just liked it here, felt as close to home as I thought I could get." A stifled, bitter laugh was given. "I thought he'd find me."

Nero gave a tight dip of his head in acknowledgement. He should head back to his ship, file a report, and let the command know what he saw. But something about it all… He ventured another glance to Shepard as she stood perfectly still, eyes lifeless and vacant—which wasn't surprising for a hologram, but was in such a contrast to what her image had shown before. Everything about her felt real, not like the avatars in ports and cities to guide tourists around. This wasn't a computer program, a VI, or even an AI. Somehow, in some way he didn't understand, the woman that Shepard had always been was still here. Trapped.

"He tried," Nero offered to her as a consolation. "I know he did. But this, I don't think anyone could ever fathom this was where you'd be."

She looked to him. There was thanks in her eyes, thanks for his kind words of comfort, even if they'd never be enough. "You should get off the ship. I'll need to be moving this one out of the area before your backup arrives. It's best that they don't find me."

Shepard was right, and Nero reached for his helmet at his feet. He went to put it on, but something in him made him stop. "Can I ask you to do something for me?"

She scoffed, a bit of humor in her throat. "What can the ghost haunting a Reaper do for anyone?"

"Just tell me where I'll be able to find you after you go."

 

--

 

Thirty-eight days and one deferred promotion to General later, the Intrepid was on a repeat assignment out into the vast unknown expanse of space. Unknown, as far as everyone else knew. Not so very unknown to the Captain of the ship. He had a very specific piece of space in mind, and a hope that when he got there he wouldn't just find the nothingness that filled most of the universe.

When they arrived, his pulse jumped at the sight of the Reaper carcass, deceptively still and abandoned despite what he now knew was alive and beating at its very center. He boarded the ship once more, this time with a squad consisting only of himself and one very experienced, but slow other. The path was memorized, though even if it hadn't been, Nero wasn't greeted with the darkness of the ship's interior this time. Instead, floor lighting guided them the entire way. Shepard, he thought with a smile. She'd been waiting.

Nero looked back to the man with him, nodding his head as they approached the final door. He looked to his omni-tool, checking the readings for the air around them. Pressurized and breathable, just like the first visit. This time, he needn't even raise his hand to open the ship's door, but rather, it opened on its own, closing behind them as they entered. Once more, there was that familiar glow around them.

"This," the other man sighed, "isn't exactly something I ever wanted to be doing again. I was in one of these, you know, a long time ago." There were a million things he didn't say.

Nero prompted the other to take his helmet off just before removing his. "I know. But I think this… I think you need to see this, grandfather."

Garrus removed his helmet and simply set it to the floor. He'd been out of the military for a longtime, and at his age, the thought of being caught without his helmet nearby no longer worried him. He rocked his head from side to side, working out the kinks from being locked in so stiffly to that hard suit, the rest of him heavy and tired with the armor's weight. The plates of his face, greying and lacking the color they once had, as well as splintering with an increased roughness as he aged, shifted for good measure. He looked back to his grandson.

Nero led the way, stepping further into the room without his weapon drawn. Just like the first time, his eyes fell on the mass effect core, burning just like it had been, and the shape beneath it. Everything was identical, down to the way the image of the Commander sat facing away, unmoving, but looking just as real.

"You waited," Nero said.

Shepard nodded. "I said I would. Not sure why you wanted me to, but it's not like I had a full schedule."

Beside him, Nero heard his grandfather gasp and suddenly still. He turned to look towards Garrus, saw the rapid blinking of his eyelids, his jaw hanging slightly open. Nero, for all the wrongs he was committing against the military by pursuing this ship without their knowledge and for all the risks he was putting his aged grandfather in, couldn't care less about anything else. This was worth it.

"Spirits…" Garrus said.

Before his word had even finished, Shepard's neck craned just enough to catch a glimpse of Nero and the man he'd brought with him. But she knew who it was, just from the sound of his voice alone.

Nero touched his hand to the back of his grandfather's armor, and nudged him forward. Garrus took a few slow steps, almost afraid that if he got too close he'd lose the image of her at all.

Shepard stood from where she'd been sitting, the glimmer of tears over the holographic picture of her eyes, her lips pulled wide in the kind of smile she hadn't even worn when Nero had first found her and she'd believed the younger man to be the one she'd known and loved.

"I thought you'd died," Shepard said. She'd never asked, but then again, Nero had never offered the information that his grandfather, while he was no doubt in the last years of his life, was still breathing.

"You did die," Garrus said to her, still half of the room's distance between them. And then, suddenly, he took off at her, summoning the kind of energy and strength he'd had as a thirty year old, not a hundred and thirty year old.

They met somewhere in the middle, and despite the fact that he could have easily pushed right through her since she was nothing more than a projection, the two of them moved together like they were both solid, firm, bodies. Shepard's arms curled around the back of his neck, even rising onto the tips of her toes as she nuzzled her cheek against his, then her forehead to his as well. Garrus circled her body with his arms, calling back on sense memory of the familiar action.

"My God," she panted, soft cries leaving the back of her throat, as she dragged her translucent lips over the plates at his mouth, and Garrus returned the gesture in kind. "I missed you."

The moment was private, and Nero knew himself to be a voyeur, but he couldn't look away from the reunion, not at all. He saw the affectionate brushes of their bodies together, the obviously familiar hold they both had on one another, heard Shepard's cries and Garrus' own more strangled sounds that equated with a human's crying. He'd seen his grandfather grieve on the day his grandmother had died years ago, had seen Garrus mourn for the woman he'd spent almost a century with and raised children and grandchildren with, but this… he wondered if his grandmother had known that despite the love she received from Garrus, there was always someone else. Someone that had been ripped from him, that had sacrificed herself, so that all the rest of them could live.

"You disobeyed my order," Garrus said with tightly coiled laughter, even as he rubbed his worn mandible against the image of her hair, feeling the tingling of the hologram but also recalling deep in his memory on just how that sensation had actually felt. "You didn't come back."

Shepard gave an open, weak sob, shaking her head. "I wanted to. But I had to protect you. Everyone."

"Always sacrificing yourself for everyone else," he spoke quietly, eyes shutting as he held her to him. "You've got to stop doing that."

She laughed. "I wish I could, but it was worth it, if only because I know you were happy all these years." Her head lifted so she could fully regard him. "I heard you're a father."

His face crinkled in pain. "Shepard… I wanted that with you," he confessed, feeling guilty for the betrayal he'd committed against her, but also the betrayal against his late wife. He'd loved the Turian woman, he really had, but if Shepard had shown up twenty years into his marriage, Garrus knew he wouldn't have been a strong enough man not to just up and leave to be with the human he'd loved… and still did love. Would always. "I'm sorry."

Her head shook, and her fingers brushed over his cheek and the edge of his mouth as she took him in, all the ways that age had settled into his features and made him different from the Turian she'd known. "No, I don't want you to be. I would have loved for that to be me, but I'm happy you had it anyway."

The expression on his face was disbelieving, but Shepard forced a smile.

"Really," she whispered, "I am. You'll have to tell me about them." This time, her smile became genuine and alive with a hint of vicarious pride. "I want to hear about the first time you held your sons and daughter. I want you to tell me how beautiful they were."

Garrus' palm cupped her cheek, or the boundaries of her projection's cheek, and she leaned into it. "I will. I promise."

"You'll have to make it quick," she said reluctantly. "Condense a hundred years into a day. I'm not sure your grandson can keep his ship here while I get the extended version."

Garrus glanced back towards where Nero lingered by the closed door, watching him carefully for a moment. Then, his decision made, he turned to look back toward Shepard. She was a hologram, without the solidness he'd known and loved, but he could see the individual strands of her hair. The flutter of eyelashes. The curve to her nose. The cut of her clavicle beneath the image of clothing she wore. He could hear her voice, even watch the slow steadiness of her chest expanding with the habit of breathing she no longer needed. This was his Shepard. Of course it was.

"No," he said, a shake of his head. Shepard's eyes widened in agony at his refusal. "I'm staying."

"No, no, no," she repeated endlessly, and pulled away from him quickly, putting space between her and the Turian she'd dreamt about since they'd parted in London. The memories of him, in large part, were what she'd relied on for the last hundred years. "You have to go." It took all her strength to say.

"Do you know how many years I have left?" He asked, voice loud.

"Don't talk like that."

"It's not many, Shepard."

"It's something! You've got family and they need you. How will it feel for them to just never see you again?"

Garrus neared her, but let her keep enough personal space to not drive her further off as she agitatedly paced. It was so very Shepard, all of it. Her sense of right and wrong. Her need to prevent others from suffering along with her. "Make me like you," he requested. "Can you do that?"

Shepard stopped and looked at him once again, horror written across her skin. "You don't want to be what I am. Whatever the fuck this is. I can't die, Garrus. I'm not even real anymore. Until the end of time, I'll sit here, losing my mind as I try not to become the next Sovereign or Harbinger… reminding myself why I did what I did to protect the rest of the galaxy from the cycle ever starting over again."

"Which is why—" He interrupted.

"There's peace in death!" shouted Shepard. "Don't you understand? As much as I wanted you to have the life you did, I want you to get to have that peace, too. I don't know what comes after this world, Garrus…" Her hand raised, rubbing at her forehead and her eyes as they closed, "but you should get the chance to find out. So one of us knows."

"Stop," he said quietly, and finally took the chance to reach out towards her holographic body again, cupping her jaw in his palm. Shepard's hand returned to her side and she hesitantly looked up to him. "I spent a hundred years without you, everyday wondering what my life would have been like if you'd made it out alive. And now you're here, and I'm here…." He wrapped his other arm around her, nuzzled his face down into the crook of her image's neck. "I'm staying with you."

"Please," she whispered, breaking. "Don't ask me to do this, Garrus."

"I love you," he replied just as softly, and for a second he swore he could breathe in the scent of her just as fresh as he had the morning after he'd first laid in her bed, the taste of her still on his tongue, the feel of her skin still under the callouses of his fingertips. "I love you and I can't leave." His voice turned to pain, pleading in desperation. "Make me what you are, Shepard."

She cried, quiet but heavy, her body—as fake as it was—feeling wrecked.. "It hurts," she confided, "it'll hurt when it happens."

"I can take it. You know," he said, a sad attempt at lightening the mood, "I took a missile to the face once."

Shepard pulled back, wet cheeks and eyes finding his gaze. She held it. "Are you sure? Maybe you should think about it—"

"I'm sure."

She glanced beyond him to his grandson. Garrus got the hint, and still with his imaginary hold on her, he turned in his place to look back towards Nero.

"I know," Nero said, his own voice like a taut string. "I'm not sure what excuse I'll give, but I know you have to stay."

"I'm sorry," Garrus offered, but his grandson just shook his head.

"She needs you, and after everything she did for all of us… she deserves it." Nero moved towards his grandfather and the hologram of Shepard. The Turians, generations apart and with the same blue clan markings across their faces, embraced tightly for a moment, and finally, reluctantly, let go. Nero looked back towards Shepard. "I'm not sure what you're capable of, but if you could send a message to me every once in awhile, I'd appreciate it. Just to know you two are… okay."

Shepard nodded. If it was possible, she didn't yet know. She hadn't let herself attempt it before. "I'll try."

"Take care of him," and his attention back on his grandfather, he spoke again. "Take care of her."

"I will. Tell your father and everyone else that I love them, all right?" It wouldn't exactly have been proper for him to so outwardly confess such things, but he'd always been a bad Turian. And just this once… well, it was warranted. Garrus touched his hand to his grandson's cheek. The grandson he'd helped raise, the one he'd been closest to despite all the other grandchildren he had as a direct part of his lineage. "You're a good man, Nero," Garrus said as he watched him as he retreated towards the door, and began to put his helmet on. "Thank you."

The door opened, and Nero glanced back, offering his final piece of advice. "Be happy together. Finally." He disappeared through the doorway. It closed behind him.

Alone, Garrus' attention fell back on Shepard, who despite her indirect agreement to do what he'd asked, was looking wary on following it through.

"I want you to do it."

"Now?" She asked hesitantly.

"Now."

"It's not too late," she said, but proceeded to seek out his hands with her own anyway. His fingers spread and interlocked with hers through the help of muscle memory alone.

"Do it."

Shepard shut her eyes despite the feel of tears, and drew their paired hands between their bodies. She thought back to so long ago, that impossible decision she hadn't wanted to make. Going into that beam, she'd expected to die. But faced with the reality of it, the final choice, and the realization that there was no way she could ever return to the people she loved, that had been unbearable. For even when she expected to die an honorable death, there had always been a glimmer of hope. Just this once, let me have it all, that hope had said to her quietly. In the Citadel, however, it had been snuffed out. So she'd looked towards that blue glow, taken a breath, and despite the pain, run towards the light and made herself part of the things she hated most.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, as that same crackling of color spread out between her and Garrus, except this time it wasn't from part of the Citadel into her, but from her into him. She couldn't open her eyes, couldn't bear to watch him be torn apart into particles of absolutely nothing as he bound himself to her and the Reapers, just as she'd done. She just felt the warmth, the electric lightning she'd felt a hundred years ago, and the pulse of energy pushing through her and outward. Then, at the end, nothing. Nothing… but peace.

Her eyes kept shut, and Shepard felt his hands disappear from her own. Oh God, she thought, it had gone wrong—and then there was the touch of his hand to her cheek. Not like before, the vague feeling she'd gotten earlier when his organic, real flesh had touched to her synthetic image. Now, it felt just like it always had. Real. Alive. Complete.

"I'm here," he said. "Open your eyes."

Eyelids remained clenched closed, but a touch of his cheek to hers, that reassurance and feeling of warmth convinced her otherwise. She took a steadying breath and opened them, and there he was before her, looking just as he had a hundred years ago. Young. Virile. Handsome. And like the man she'd dreamt of spending whatever remained of her life alongside.

He leaned in, touched his plated mouth to hers. Shepard could even taste him, smell him, feel him under her hands as she grasped greedily at his flesh. "I missed you," she said against his jaw, dragging her lips over him. Maybe this way, she thought, eternity wouldn't be such a burden.

"I missed you," Garrus said, and sighed contentedly. "You won't be alone anymore."