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Steps in the Right Direction

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“Steps in the Right Direction”

#

The first year after the war was… anything but normal.  “Normal” was gone from almost everyone’s vocabulary.  Or… well, in some cases there was a new sort of normal, but nothing like the old normal.  There were moments like normal, that came close to it, brushing by like an old buddy you used to know, back before the whole damn world went sideways.  It was a hell of a balancing act at first.  Garrus spent most of it his time at a temporary installment complex on Eden Prime; it wasn’t an Alliance base, strictly speaking — each and every war-affected race had an outpost there, and would, for the foreseeable future.  A central location also allowed for easier communication and fewer layers of bureaucracy.  In theory, at least.  In practice, it was a lot more complicated.  A little bit of the old normal poking through.

It was the best solution for the time being, but even the best solutions didn’t prevent people from complaining.  Things like borders and territories didn’t amount to a hell of a lot when so much had been reduced to rubble, and it was in everyone’s best interests to try and work together.  Some were harder to convince than others, which, as far as Garrus was concerned, only meant that the more things changed, the more they stayed the damn same.  The galaxy had been nearly demolished, countless lives ended, civilizations nearly completely wiped out, but people still bitched and bickered over things like trade routes.  Garrus told himself they were just scared.  The world’s too different now, and that always makes people hold on tighter to familiar things, even if ‘familiar’ means ‘acting like an ass.’  

He told himself that a lot.  Sometimes it even helped.

So you had this strange new normal, sometimes with the old normal sprinkled in.  Even rarer than either those things were the seconds, minutes — if you were lucky, hours — of “better-than-normal.”  Sometimes it came damned — and dangerously — close to resembling good luck.  And good luck was enough to inspire hope, enough to make different species believe again.  Have faith again.

The day they’d recovered Shepard had been one of those days, and the moment was one forever impressed upon his memory.  He could still recall the smooth, cool nameplate in his hands, the feel of it beneath his fingers as disbelief and anger and grief and regret all warred within him.  Disbelief froze him, while his regrets weighed him down, fingers clutched around the nameplate, arms locked in place, refusing to lift her name, refusing to place her with the others they’d lost.  Anger and grief flickered deep within, like twin fires — one burning hot, the other icy cold — searing and freezing him throughout, making every thought, every memory ache like the deepest bruise.

And then a voice over the comms — Copeland’s voice — speaking too quickly for him to register at first, saying the same words over and over again.

They found her!  She’s alive!

That had been beyond normal, beyond luck — the fact she was recovered injured and malnourished and dehydrated all to hell, but alive enough to be all those things.  That day was the closest Garrus had ever come to believing in miracles, eclipsing even a certain hopeless, suicidal standoff on Omega and the moment he spied a far-too-familiar N7 insignia on just-as-familiar armor.  Didn’t occur to him then that it could’ve been another N7, and it didn’t occur to him now that this was an oversight or mistake.  Shepard was alive.

Of course she was.

The moment, the absolute second Chakwas gave him the all-clear, he planted himself at the side of her bed and just looked at her.  She was still out; she looked like hell and was hooked up to what sure seemed like damn near every machine in the hospital wing, but her chest rose and fell on its own, keeping a slow but even rhythm.  It was her.  Her red hair.  Her face, cuts and bruises be damned.  Her.  Shepard.  Jane.

No, nothing was normal yet, not through Garrus’ eyes anyway, but this… this was one hell of a first step in the right direction.

#

The time that passed afterward, passed in a blur.  Victus wanted Garrus’ advice in Palaven’s rebuilding.  The requests were subtle at first — an opinion here, a criticism there — but slowly Garrus found himself becoming the Primarch’s advisor, not somewhere he saw himself, or necessarily wanted to see himself going, but for all he still considered himself a “bad turian,” he found he couldn’t turn his back while his homeworld struggled to recover from the Reaper War.  Everybody struggled, but everyone was recovering — all at different rates (for the most part, things happened at what felt some days to be glacial speed) and with different snags and problems, but it was happening.

As the galaxy recovered, so did Shepard.  It was also a slow process, and not without setbacks, but she recovered.  And when Garrus wasn’t in conference with Victus, or putting out fires kindled by asinine bullheadedness, or trying to make heads or tails of what remained of the Hierarchy, he was at the hospital wing on the other side of the complex.  Before Shepard woke, he’d sat by her bed, her warm, slack hand in his.  He’d stared at that hand, remembering the feel of her palm against his face, fingertips brushing beneath his fringe.  Hers were hands that could throw a punch that’d knock him down flat, that could assemble and disassemble damn near any weapon in the armory with speed that put even him to shame (sometimes, not that they ever competed or anything, of course).  They were hands that had, one way or another, saved the galaxy.  They were the hands of a survivor.  A fighter.

And every night before he left, he squeezed those hands, whispered an I love you in her ear (though sometimes it was Wake the hell up already, Shepard, before I shoot one of these idiots because you weren’t around to talk me out of it) and brushed his fingertips over her forehead before leaving.  

The night Shepard woke, he’d been in the middle of this particular routine and when he pulled back from murmuring in her ear, it was to find her blinking up at him, looking as damn bit as confused as she had the right to be.  He, on the other hand, had just stared back, not sure he was actually seeing what he thought he was seeing.  It wouldn’t’ve been the first time he’d mistaken her eyelids fluttering as an indication she was ready to wake.  But this was way more than just eyelid-fluttering.  It was full-on consciousness, complete with recognition in her eyes and, after a second or two, she sent him a sleepy smile, fingers tightening weakly around his.

“D-don’t… go.”

Really, she hadn’t even had to ask.  “You’re gonna have to kick me out now,” he’d told, settling back into his chair.  Mostly so he didn’t collapse to his knees then and there.

#

Once Shepard was awake and alert, Garrus watched as she began the slow process of putting herself back together: healing, gaining strength enough to leave her bed, always recovering — slowly recovering.  But Shepard didn’t have the patience for a slow recovery.  If Garrus joined her at the gym, it was less to make sure she didn’t skimp or cut corners working on the physical therapy goals Dr. Chakwas had set for her, and more to make sure she didn’t reinjure herself by pushing too hard or moving too fast.  

“Don’t push it, Shepard,” he reminded her every time she swore in frustration, switching out one set of weights for another, lighter set.  “Take it easy.  You’ve got time.”

“We always think we’ve got plenty of time,” she’d reply — every time — and every time with the same inscrutable look.  “We never have as much as we think we do, and I don’t want to waste any, Garrus. Not… not anymore.”

The hours they spent together were — as always — filled with conversation.  First she’d asked about those who’d survived, then who hadn’t.  They talked about old cities being rebuilt, about new colonies and multi-species efforts.  They talked about the difficulties, too — of turians who wanted to cling to the old tiers, of salarians who embraced old prejudices, of bitter asari and opportunistic volus, of krogan loners who’d earned Wrex’s wrath by indulging in their desire for revenge.

Gradually, they edged into other topics of conversation — they talked about an afternoon spent at the top of the Presidium shooting bottles, about the words one-turian woman, about the very last words they’d spoken to each other before Shepard turned and hauled ass into hell without him.  At first the conversation felt too fragile to pursue — there were always too many reasons not to talk about it.  But they did.  And with every word exchanged between them, the topic got less fragile, more confident.  Comfortable.  

From there, the natural conclusion was to make plans.  Long-term ones.  Planning was, in a lot of ways, new territory for both of them; hell, just declaring any sort of objective implied they’d both live long enough to see them happen.  Plans were definitely part of the old normal.

Garrus saw Shepard the night before he was slated to return to Palaven with Victus to oversee some of the reconstruction efforts.  It was Victus’ opinion that if Cipritine could get up and running, that would make the rest of the planet’s recovery that much smoother.  Sound reasoning, but it still didn’t mean Garrus was terribly eager to go — or, more accurately, to leave.  

He caught up with her at the gym, surprised to find her, not spitting swear after swear at weights she was determined to lift, but rather standing, arms folded, leaning casually against the doors.

“How about some hand to hand?”

“Hand to hand?” he echoed, cocking a browplate at her and folding his own arms across his chest.  “You serious?”

“Don’t tell me you don’t think I can take you, Vakarian,” she retorted with a smirk.

“Just making sure you know what you’re getting into,” he said, opening the doors and heading in to the facility ahead of her.  “Tell me you at least practiced on someone else, first.  Vega, maybe?  ‘Cause I’m not gonna go easy on you.”

“Vega’s on Earth for another month,” she reminded him, as the doors slid shut behind them.  “And what makes you think I need the practice, anyway?”  There’d been an odd note in her voice even then, and he’d heard the underlying tension, the huskiness, the strange something that hovered just on the edge of her voice.  It wasn’t anger, but it was something.  Something he thought he recognized.  Something normal.  Old normal.  Better than normal.

As it turned out, it was something that made a whole lot more sense once they were in the ring together, circling each other like a pair of varren.  For all that Garrus had said he wasn’t about to go easy on Shepard, he knew better; he she completely aware that she was still working on improving both strength and endurance, and that Shepard was definitely the type to try something like hand to hand sparring before she was actually ready for it.  But if she was getting restless and wanted to change up her PT workouts with a little sparring, he’d oblige her.

All of that foreknowledge amounted to squat when she got in the first hit, a light, glancing blow against his midsection.

“Not going easy on me, eh?” she asked, lifting her brows as she shot him a smug grin.  “I call shenanigans.”

He snorted and blocked a hit before landing one himself.  “And I think you just made that word up.  Really think you’re going to distract me that easily?”

“Hell, Garrus, you think I’ve got to use words to distract you?”

That did the trick.  That damnably simple combination of words and inflection stopped Garrus, distracted him, made him hesitate, even when he knew better, when he knew you didn’t hesitate around Shepard.  With speed and grace that surprised him even more than her words had, she dropped down and swept her leg out, catching both of his and sending him down hard, sprawled out on his back.  Making no effort at all to hide her grin, she reached out one hand, offering it to him, but when he grabbed hold of it he pulled, sending her tumbling down on top of him.

“You’ve been practicing,” he rumbled.

Her grin didn’t budge.  “Something like that.”  

“Shepard—”

“When does your transport leave?” she asked, situating herself more comfortably on top of him, crossing her forearms over his chest.

“Oh-seven-hundred.”

“Early.”

That… strain was back in her voice.  Now that he heard it again, now that he saw the look on her face, in her eyes, as she spoke, Garrus realized—with all the force of a boot to the head—what it was.  He waited a beat, but Shepard didn’t reply.  Her body language was tense.  Tight.  Heat was coming off of her in waves.

Normal.  Better than normal.  Way better.

“Not too early,” he said, lightly.

“I don’t know,” Shepard tossed back, eyes looking upward, her expression thoughtful — hell, ponderous.  “You’ll probably want to turn in early tonight.  Early to bed, early to rise and all that.”  Looking down again she pursed her lips in thought and propped her chin in the palm of one hand.  “How long are you gone for again?”

“A month,” replied Garrus, running a hand up the length of her spine.  “If it has to be.  Shooting for less.”

“A month, huh?  That’s a long time.”

“You have no idea, Shepard.”

“Actually, I have a very good idea.”  The hand not holding her chin slowly traveled up his chest, brushing a path along the side of his neck, tracing his mandibles and facial plates with light, soft touches.  “Sounds like just enough time to do some heavy thinking about tropical islands, if you ask me.”

“I think I could probably manage that.”

#

SUBJECT:  BEACHFRONT PROPERTY

FROM: VAKARIAN, G

Tell me you had some idea how hard this was going to be.

G

#

SUBJECT: BEACHFRONT PROPERTY

FROM: SHEPARD, J

I hear Noveria’s nice.

J

#

SUBJECT: THAT’S NOT A BEACH

FROM: VAKARIAN, G

No.

G

#

NO SUBJECT

FROM: SHEPARD, J

Now you’re just being picky.  Bothros?

J

#

SUBJECT:  TWO CAN PLAY AT THIS GAME

FROM: VAKARIAN, G

What do you think about Asteria?

G

#

NO SUBJECT

FROM: SHEPARD, J

What’s not to love about arid, sulfurous deserts?  

Okay, kidding aside.  What about Amaterasu?  Terra Nova?  Digeris?

J

#

 SUBJECT:  DIGERIS?

FROM: VAKARIAN, G

You know that’s a dextro planet.

G

#

SUBJECT: DIGERIS

FROM: SHEPARD, J

Hell, one of us is going to have to compromise.  Oma Ker?

J

#

SUBJECT: BEACHFRONT PROPERTY

FROM: VAKARIAN, G

I’ll look into Oma Ker, see what I can find.  You get some info on Amaterasu or Terra Nova and let me know what you find out.

#

SUBJECT: INSUBORDINATION?

FROM: SHEPARD, J

You ordering me around now, Vakarian?

#

SUBJECT: DEFINITELY NOT INSUBORDINATION

FROM: VAKARIAN, G

Pretty sure as the Primarch’s advisor, I outrank you now.  Besides, you’re retiring.

#

SUBJECT:  DEFINITELY INSUBORDINATION

FROM: SHEPARD, J

I think I like you when you’re bossy.

Get back here soon.

#

SUBJECT: MAYBE INSUBORDINATION

FROM: VAKARIAN, G

You love me when I’m bossy.

#

SUBJECT: INSUBORDINATE THIS

FROM: SHEPARD, J

I love you even when you’re not.

#

NO SUBJECT

FROM: VAKARIAN, G

Soonest transport’s leaving day after tomorrow.

#

NO SUBJECT

FROM SHEPARD, J

Hurry.

#

Ameratesu won out in the end.  

They found a spit of land — an actual island, no less — big enough (or, depending on your point of view, small enough) to suit their needs.  The actual construction was more difficult to manage, since most anyone who could hold a hammer was occupied those days.  Still, they’d acquired both the land and the necessary permits (including a special permit to build an in-home hydroponics bay to support a dextro-based garden, and damned if acquiring that wasn’t its own brand of hell) which had been to build on the land.  

Near the end of the second year, there was a house to go with the land and the permits.  

For the both of them it was an exercise in learning how to live with another person.  They’d shared Shepard’s quarters back on the SR2, and once Chakwas had given the okay, Shepard moved into Garrus’ quarters back on Eden Prime.  But this was a house.  This was their home.  Problem was, they were both so used to military life, so accustomed to quarters rather than whole rooms to move about in.  Even Garrus’ apartment on the Citadel had been little more than a glorified closet.  It was so much space — partially because they didn’t have a whole lot between them to fill a house with.

Really, though, whatever was or wasn’t in the house didn’t matter when they were lying bonelessly on a sun-drenched beach, a cooler of Earth lager and Palaven ale between them.  It especially didn’t matter when the bottles were empty, like they were now, and Shepard was lazily assembling an old M-98 Widow. The sun was setting behind them, turning the sky a riot of burnished golds and deep pinks and purples as the shadows of the palm trees lengthened across the stretch of pristine sand.  The sharp click of the rifle being loaded broke into the gentle lulling rush of the waves as the tide moved out.  He stood, rolling his shoulders — he was a little older now, old injuries had left him a little stiffer — and plucked an empty bottle from the cooler, tossing it leisurely in one hand.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Aren’t I always?” she retorted, lifting the scope to her eye.

He chuckled and hauled back, letting his arm snap forward as he flung the bottle out over the open water.  “You really don’t want me to answer that honestly, do you?”  

The shot resounded through the air as the bottle disintegrated.  “I’m always ready, Vakarian.”

They went back and forth, trading the gun as they trade quips, goading and teasing and laughing with every perfect shot, until there was only one solitary bottle left.  This time it was Garrus’ turn.  Shepard grasped the longneck and flipped it over in her hand for a moment, a tiny smile at her lips before running forward, bare feet pounding against cool sand, and throwing the bottle as  high and as hard as she could.

And Garrus… missed.  As he knew he would.  As she knew he would.

“It was windy,” he told her, shouldering the rifle.

“There’s no wind, Garrus.”

There isn’t.  Damn.  “All right,” he tried again.  “The sun was in my eyes.”

“Sun’s behind us.”

It’s grown harder and harder to come up with excuses neither of them have used before.  “Oh.  Well.  How about… you’re gorgeous when you gloat?”

That was enough to make her laugh as she crouched down and picked up the cooler.  “Okay, that gets you points for originality.”

With a shrug he said, “Figured it might make you gloat less.”

“Not a chance, Vakarian,” she said with a warm laugh, linking her arm in his.  “Not a chance.”

Together they made their way back up to the house, another day ending with another waiting just on the other side of the horizon, filled with the promise of more laughter and rifles and even more broken bottles. Maybe it wasn’t anything like old times, and it definitely wasn’t anything like any sort of normal either of them had ever known — it was better.

What they were building was theirs.