“Commander Shepard? Garrus Vakarian. I was the officer in charge of the C-Sec investigation into Saren.”
Tall, like all turians, with the same mask-like features and sharp eyes. Paler than most, with a savage slash of thick blue running across his face. Shepard fought down the instinctive urge to take a step back as he approached, towering over her, and internally cringed at that bit of subconscious racism.
He’s a person, just like everyone else here. The First Contact War’s been over for a long time.
Turians had been the bogeymen of her childhood, a menacing alien threat that her parents and the other officers on base had talked of in grim, serious tones. As she'd gotten older, she'd learned better, but had never managed to shake an atavistic unease around them.
“Anything I should know?” she asked Vakarian.
He shook his head sharply, mandibles flaring briefly, startlingly outward. “Saren’s a Spectre. Everything he does is classified; I can’t touch him. But I know he’s dirty - the things I can reach just don’t add up.” His teeth showed when he spoke.
“I think the Council’s ready for us, Commander,” interjected Alenko.
Vakarian gave her a nod and stalked past them. “Good luck, Shepard. Maybe they’ll listen to you.”
She ran into him again at the clinic in the wards, when he put a bullet through the head of the man holding the doctor hostage. After the fight was over, the doctor told her about the quarian she’d sent to Fist, who might have the evidence she needed to make the Council listen to reason. She thanked the doctor and thanked Vakarian and spun on her heel to continue the chase.
Vakarian. She halted and turned to face him again, saw that he had stepped forward to follow her.
“Look, this is your show, Shepard. But I want to bring Saren down as much as you do. Let me come with you.”
Unthinkingly, the words burst out of her. “You’re turian. Why do you want to shut him down so badly?”
She was instantly ashamed. Vakarian froze in place a moment before taking another step forward, but didn’t call her on it.
“I couldn’t find anything but circumstantial evidence against him, but the story’s there for anyone to read between the lines. Saren is a traitor to the Council, and a disgrace to my people!” His voice had risen, the alien flanging almost drowning out the syllables, and his head tipped forward, eyes narrowed.
But the frustration in that tone was familiar, and that drive was something she could admire. She took a long look at him, reminding herself that underneath his sharp teeth and strange eyes, Vakarian was a man like any other, with guts and conviction and damned good aim, and that no one ever conquered a fear by running away from it. She met his eyes again and gave him a curt, professional nod.
“Then welcome aboard.”
Vakarian settled into the Normandy almost invisibly. He kept to himself, spending most of his time in the cargo hold. Guiltily, Shepard suspected that he had picked up on the crew’s unease around him. Wrex had parked himself in the cargo hold as well, and she had worried that a fight was brewing there, but nothing ever came of it. When she made her rounds, she made it a point to talk with him when she talked to the others, determined not to let her discomfort with him interfere. He was unfailingly polite and professional. Hierarchy military was evidently not so different from Alliance military, and she was grateful for that shared frame of reference.
He only ever made two requests of her. The first was for food he could eat, on the day she took him on. Involuntarily, she’d glanced at his mouth, with its sharp teeth and mandibles, before her rational mind had reminded her that he couldn’t eat the ship’s levo rations. Some ugly inner part of her had whispered that here was a good excuse to get Vakarian off her ship and sidestep the whole uncomfortable mess. She’d quashed it down firmly and given him leave to make whatever arrangements he needed with the requisitions officer.
The second thing he requested was access to the manual for the Mako.
“You’re welcome to it,” she’d said, eyebrows raised. “But why the interest?”
He shrugged. The motion looked odd with his cowl, and she wondered if it was a human gesture that he was deliberately using to try and put her at ease. “Everyone on a ship needs a job. I’m a fair mechanic.”
After that, she often found him engrossed in system diagnostics or weapons calibrations or minute adjustments to the Mako’s finicky suspension. He always seemed to be working on it, and she began to suspect that he had been modest in describing himself as a “fair mechanic,” or that he was one of those people who always needed something to do. Maybe both.
She had not yet taken him groundside. She told herself that it was because he was an unknown quantity. She already had a ground team she trusted, who were more than able to get the job done. No reason to fix what wasn’t broke.
It was after Therum that things changed.
It had been a brutal mission. They’d gotten the archaeologist, T’Soni, out in one piece, but they’d gone through a small army of geth to do it. Williams was in the medbay and would be out of combat until her elbow healed. Shepard herself had taken a grazing wound on her side and knew she was damned lucky it hadn’t hit a couple of inches closer.
But it was unquestionably the Mako which had taken the worst damage.
Shepard watched as they hauled it in. It was still drivable, just, but the cab listed badly to one side. Something dragged on the ground under it, leaving long trails in the ash of Therum’s surface, and the whole thing smelt unmistakably of scorched metal.
There was a rasping, strangely echoing noise at her side, and she turned to find Vakarian staring, mandibles slack and numerous teeth completely exposed. She glanced away, wincing. The expression and vocalization might be totally alien, but given the context, she could make a reasonable guess at what was going through his mind.
“Can you repair it?”
He came back to himself with a minute shake, and pulled his mandibles in, expression once again inscrutable.
“It’ll take some time, Commander.”
“Let me know if you need any supplies or parts and we’ll put in to port.”
“I’ll let you know.”
She left then to clean up and make her report. When she made the rounds a couple of hours later, the diagnostics terminal was set up at the Mako’s side next to a neat row of tools and parts. All she could see of Vakarian was his boots sticking out from under the vehicle. She left him alone and checked up on Williams, who was trying to figure out what to do with herself with only one working arm.
She ran into Williams again in the mess at the start of the evening watch and sat down to eat with her.
“How’s the arm, Ash?”
A grimace. “Going to take getting used to. I guess we got lucky down there, though. They really did a number on the Mako.”
“Vakarian still working on it?” she asked, a touch concerned. It had been almost six hours since she’d stopped by the cargo hold.
“Yeah. He’s got the whole thing taken apart.”
The conversation drifted on to other topics then, but afterwards, she pulled the mess sergeant aside and got him to give her some of Vakarian’s prepackaged rations.
The cargo hold was mostly empty, but she saw that Williams had been right. The Mako was jacked up and Vakarian was in the process of skeletonizing its undercarriage. The wheels on the listing side had been removed, along with one of the side panels, and there was a long, twisted piece of metal that had once been an axle pushed to the side, along with a host of smaller pieces of scrap. He was still underneath the vehicle, and she took care to make some noise as she approached so as not to startle him. He slid out when she got close and stood, a little stiffly.
She tossed him the package. “Take a break, Vakarian. Eat something. You’re not going to get it all fixed today.”
He blinked, and she thought she might have surprised him.
“Thanks. Lost track of time, I guess.”
He looked down at his hands and made an annoyed sounding hum. He set the package down and turned and fished in the open toolbox a moment, before producing a reasonably clean rag and methodically beginning to wipe the grease off his fingers.
Shepard raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you just take the gloves off?”
He glanced up and blinked again. “It’s generally considered bad manners. In the old days, it meant you were looking for a fight.”
She shook her head. “Go ahead and take them off. I don’t know enough about turian manners to be offended.”
He hesitated, watching her for a moment, and then pulled the gloves off. His hands were long and proportionally narrow, and his fingers were strong and heavy-boned, ending in thick claws. A flicker of unease ran up her spine, and she made sure not to let it show on her face.
He ate like an animal. He wasn’t messy or noisy, but there was little chewing involved, just a strangely delicate grab with his teeth, and a quick tip of his head and a gulp. Shepard looked away, feeling as if she were seeing something she shouldn’t.
It took very little time for him to consume the contents of the package. When he was done, he cleared his throat.
“Sorry.” He gestured vaguely to his face. “I know all the teeth make some people nervous.”
Mortified that he’d caught her, she shook her head. “I’m the one who should be apologizing. I’ll get used to it.” And she would get used to it, she resolved, suddenly angry with herself. Vakarian had been nothing but professional and competent and hardworking, and she’d been letting him go to waste down here because of her own hang-ups.
There was a small, awkward silence. Then he straightened up from his lean against the Mako and pulled his gloves back on.
“Thanks for the meal.”
She made sure to meet his eyes as she replied. “Get some rest, Vakarian. You can finish taking it apart on the morning shift.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, one mandible flicking down momentarily.
She took him with her on the next groundside mission.
Shepard had worried that she’d have a hard time working with Vakarian out in the field, that she wouldn’t be able to trust him at her back. She’d kept a careful eye on her reactions on the way in to Zhu’s Hope, but after that first scrap with a geth scouting party, she realized the worry was unfounded. With his helmet on, Vakarian was just another voice on the comm.
She found herself impressed with him. He was calm under fire, and worked well in a team, putting himself in the right position to set up a crossfire or guard her and Alenko’s backs without being told. He had a knack for seeing which enemies needed to be taken out first, and he did his job efficiently and professionally, without any extra fuss. She’d heard before that C-Sec only recruited the best, but Vakarian was making her believe it.
Now they were huddled near the entrance of the ExoGeni headquarters garage, keeping their heads down while he lined up a shot on ageth on the far side. Everything was very still, and then there was a deafening crack.
“Headshot,” said Vakarian, with nearly tangible satisfaction. It was just about the first thing he’d said on the mission that wasn’t strictly professional, and she grinned. Some things were evidently universal.
Never did know a sniper who didn’t have an ego.
“Nice work. Let’s move.”
One frightened ExoGeni employee, a dead krogan, and a spoofed employee ID later, and they were on their way back to the colony. There was a cold anger gnawing at Shepard’s gut. She'd seen a lot of ugly sights, but the callous greed of the corporation's actions was repugnant in a whole new way. Alenko and Vakarian were silent, taking out the geth they passed just as efficiently as ever, but there was a sharpness to their movements that hadn’t been there before. There was a mood over the whole team like the sharp scent of ozone before a storm.
They were, at least, spared from having to massacre the colony for the moment, but Shepard did not put overmuch faith in the hope that killing the Thorian would return the colonists to normal.
When they found it, they all came to an abrupt halt, staring. ExoGeni had described the Thorian as “plantlike.” It was not the adjective Shepard would have chosen. It was enormous, and the growths extending from it looked more like tentacles than roots or vines. It seemed to breathe, a resonant, wet sound echoing against the chamber walls, the tumorous mass at the center slowly drifting up and down in time to the noise.
“That’s the Thorian?” said Alenko.
“This… was not covered in my training manuals,” stated Vakarian dryly, still staring up at it.
If the Thorian hadn't occupied most of her attention, it would have shocked the hell out of her. Whatever else she’d thought about turians, she’d never imagined they had much of a sense of humor.
There was no more time to contemplate it than that, as at that moment, the Thorian somehow vomited up a live asari. Things degenerated quickly from there, and they were soon caught up in a frantic, fast-paced fight through the atrium, no cover but the curve of the walls and the space their weapons bought them. The Thorian had an apparently endless supply of thralls and the asari didn’t seem to stay dead. She was seriously contemplating the wisdom of beating a hasty retreat when one of the thick fiber bundles suspending the Thorian’s central mass caught her eye.
Alenko and Vakarian obediently flanked her, working in tandem, and she set her sights on the ropy tangle. She put three rounds into it at close range, leaving it tattered and oozing, and hacked through the rest with her combat knife. It parted with a snap, and there was a groan as the Thorian’s bulk dipped lower.
After that, they took turns at hacking through the Thorian’s holdfasts, one doing the cutting while the others covered them. They developed a rhythm as they went, and made short work of it. At last, the Thorian plunged into the pit below. They mopped up the last of thralls and all stood for a moment facing each other, breathing hard and spattered in ichor and glad to be alive.
Much later, back on the Normandy after everything was over, she found Vakarian in the cargo hold, sitting in a quiet corner, contemplatively cleaning his gear. She watched him for a moment from a distance, thinking. It had almost been a shock when he’d taken his helmet off after the fighting was done. In combat, it was easy to work with him, easy to treat him like any other soldier, easy to forget about his plates and mandibles and sharp teeth.
It was easy, but it was dishonest.
She walked up and settled down beside him at the bench at a respectful distance, reaching for her own gear.
“Vakarian. Nice work today.”
He regarded her for a moment before replying. “It was good to get out in the field again.”
“You a glutton for punishment, or just an adrenaline junkie?”
His mandibles flared briefly outwards. She determinedly kept her eyes away from his teeth and mentally cataloged the movement. Was he amused? Annoyed? Something else entirely?
“Neither. At least, not more than any other soldier.” There was that flash of dry humor again. His voice sobered and he continued. “That was an ugly situation with the colonists. I’m glad we could do something about it. A lot of times, something like that happens and you only find out after it’s too late.”
“You see that kind of thing often in C-Sec?”
“Yeah. Not on that scale, but more often than you’d think. Corporations don't look out for anyone but themselves.” She couldn’t tell anything by his expression, but it was easy to read the bitterness in his voice.
There was a short quiet for a while, both of them cleaning their armor.
“What do you think about this business with Saren?”
She’d already asked the others for their opinion. She needed to know where her team stood, if they would follow her into this. And for better or worse, it looked like Vakarian was on the team.
“It sounds crazy. But so does the Thorian.” He paused momentarily, tightening a fastener in his shoulder guard. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think Shiala was lying.”
Her lips tightened. “I don’t either.” She swiped the rag over her greave and eyed him critically. He held himself a little stiffly, she thought. “You been to the medbay yet? Seem to recall you had a close encounter with a charging krogan back there.”
He rolled his right shoulder, mandibles set forward and down. “No lasting damage done.”
He hesitated a moment before speaking again. “What about you? With the…” He trailed off and tapped a finger against the side of his head. “It looked pretty rough.”
“The Cipher?” She grimaced. “Got a headache the size of the Citadel, but nothing I can’t sleep off.”
He nodded, and they finished their work in silence. And while it wasn’t quite companionable, neither was it as uncomfortable as she’d thought it would be.
She brought Vakarian on most of the missions after that one, and made a point of exchanging a few words with him whenever she passed through the cargo hold, carefully observing his reactions and expressions and trying to map them to the human framework she knew. Her discomfort with him had become a thing to be fought and defeated, and she treated it as she would a flesh and blood enemy, giving no quarter.
She learned that he flared his mandibles outward to show amusement or emphasis and held them close to his face when he was disturbed. A tilt of his head to the side could indicate inquiry or skepticism, and a tip forward signified threat. Gradually, she did get used to the teeth, and no longer had to control the urge to flinch when he showed them. Still, he was difficult to read, and his reactions were frustratingly alien. A quick extranet search confirmed a hunch that a lot of turian emoting took place vocally, hidden in the subtones of their speech. She wondered at that, at how much her translator left out of what he said, and whether the rest of them sounded as inscrutable to him as he looked to them.
Gradually, she became aware of his quirks and habits, little things he did without thinking that made him, if not more human, then less of an alien. He kept his toolbox meticulously organized by some arcane system known only to him. When he had shore leave, he would stop by the local turian market and pick up a box of tiny red fruits from Palaven that smelled hot and citrusy, specially sanitized, to share with Tali. He updated the firmware on his targeting visor religiously and spent a fair number of his off-duty hours tweaking its programming to squeeze a little more precision or speed or utility out of it. When he had the luxury of a good sniper's nest with no possibility of ambush, he listened to music and picked off hostiles in time with the beat.
In the field, she slowly began to rely on his judgment, almost without realizing it. All the members of her ground team were good at what they did. Williams and Alenko were soldiers to the bone, and Liara and Tali were experts in their areas of specialty. Wrex was a goddamned force of nature. But Vakarian had an intuitive feel for the flow of a battle, and was sharp enough to exploit it. His role as a sniper often meant that he had a better view of the field than the rest of them, and she found herself relying on him as an extra set of eyes, trusting him to take out anything sneaking up behind her and let her know when he saw an opportunity to flank an enemy or overwhelm a position.
If he'd been human and under her command, she'd have recommended him for special forces. He had the intelligence and raw ability, and a ruthless streak when it was required, and it was frankly a mystery to her how he'd wound up in police work. She finally gave up and asked him about it, one night after a long day on a dry, windy planet tracking down the ancient, derelict hulk of a long-dead Alliance vessel, still broadcasting an SOS out into space.
"So how'd you wind up in C-Sec, Vakarian?"
He paused in tightening one of the bolts on the Mako's wheels and cast a swift glance up at her. Belatedly, she realized it was a fairly personal question, but if he felt she was intruding, he gave no sign of it.
"I wanted to help people. Make a difference. Why do you ask?"
"You're a good soldier. I'd have thought you'd be military."
He produced a contemplative hum. "I stayed on for a while after my compulsory service. Left for C-Sec when I was twenty-one."
And didn't that give her a start. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she'd known turians entered the service in their mid-teens, but it hadn't really struck home until then.
"Almost became a Spectre instead." Vakarian was eying her, his mandibles flared slightly in what she tentatively translated as humor, and she realized that he was teasing her a little.
She blinked, surprised. "Really?"
His mandibles returned to their normal position and he shrugged eloquently. "It's not as impressive as it sounds. My name came up on a list of about a thousand potentials."
"What stopped you?" she asked, genuinely curious.
"My father wouldn't have stood for it. He's a C-Sec man through and through. Doesn't approve of Spectres taking the law into their own hands."
It shouldn't have surprised her so much that turian parents might be subject to the same foibles as human parents. "It's a lot of power for any one person," she allowed. "I can see why he might have doubts."
"But sometimes it's necessary. Sometimes you need that kind of power to do what needs to be done."
His voice was quiet, but intense, and something in its timbre reminded her of the second time she'd met him, when he'd begged her to let him hunt down Saren with her.
"Yeah," she replied, after a moment. "Sometimes you do, but it's a fine line to walk."
He moved on to the next bolt while she stood there, thinking. After a moment, he cleared his throat.
"What about you? How'd you wind up in the Navy? Service isn't mandatory for you, right?" His head was tilted, and there was a note of honest curiosity in his voice.
The corner of her mouth quirked up. "Military brat. My mother's still on active duty, and my father was in the service as well. Can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a marine."
"Ah," he said, with another mandible flare. "So we're both in this because of our parents."
She let out a bark of laughter. "Looks like," she said, an felt a spark of honest kinship with him, despite his alienness. It was no easy thing to live up to your parent's career, she knew.
She hesitated a second and then asked it anyway, fueled by that moment of familiarity."You ever regret it? Going into C-Sec?"
His hands stopped their work and his eyes darted over to meet hers. "Yeah. Sometimes. There are good parts to it, but there are also a lot of times when you see something happening but you can't do anything about it because of all the regulations in your way. You spend a lot more time writing reports about crime than stopping it."
"Part of the job, Vakarian. Don't think you can get away from the bureaucracy anywhere these days."
He made a sort of humming sound that she couldn't place, and when he spoke again, his voice seemed a little thinner. "Sure. Fact of life. It just... I don't know. I spent a lot of time feeling like I wasn't accomplishing anything." He shook his head, and his voice held the hint of a challenge when he spoke again. "You ever regret joining the Navy?"
She gave it a moment of honest consideration, but there wasn't really much to decide. "No. I've wondered a couple of times what it would have been like to do something different, but I can't say I've ever been sorry I joined up."
"Hn." His mandibles flared again, and she thought for a moment that he might say something more, but he let it go, his attention apparently absorbed with a recalcitrant fastener.
She hesitated before speaking. "Look, Vakarian…. If you're not happy where you are, maybe you should consider re-applying for Spectre candidacy when this is over. It's no walk in the park, and you won't get a free pass on the paperwork and the bureaucracy, but from what I've seen, you've got the skills and temperment for it."
His eyes flew to hers, startlingly intense, and his jaw dropped a little behind his mandibles. After a second, he gave a low laugh. "I'll admit, I was thinking about it."
Before her brain caught up to what she was doing, she grinned and clapped him on the shoulder like she would one of the human crew. "Good man. Give it some thought."
He looked at her hand on his shoulder for a second, and then gave her a sharp nod, and she could tell he was grinning also in his fashion. "I will."
She returned the nod and moved off, trying to figure out when exactly she had gotten that comfortable with him. His voice drifted out across the cargo bay after her, echoing strangely.
She decided that the when of it didn't particularly matter, so much as the end result.
It was one of those missions where everything seemed to go wrong.
They'd been called out to Rayingri in the Gagarin system to deal with a suspected geth advance force. It was obvious from the beginning that they were walking into a trap. They found the research outpost quiet and dead, surrounded by the spires of dragon's teeth, a loose pack of husks milling about the entrance. Shepard gave the order, and Vakarian swept the Mako's guns through the crowd, cutting them down in a burst of flesh and fluid.
They waited a moment after that, but nothing else showed itself and they exited the Mako. They had to wade through the carnage to reach the door, all of them silent, trying not to examine it too closely. Some of the bodies still wore clothes, and a hand near the entrance bore a wedding ring over the silvery traces of circuitry down its fingers.
It took Tali only a few seconds to crack the lock. Shepard nodded to Vakarian, and he moved to her side. They entered the building, guns at the ready, and were immediately swarmed. A desperate, frantic fight ensued, a blur of close range gunfire and hand-to-hand. It was over quickly, and the room was dark and silent once again.
Vakarian nodded to her, the reticle of his visor glowing faintly in the gloom. "All clear, Shepard."
She returned the nod. "All right. Let's go."
They moved to the hallway's exit, and Shepard reached out her hand to open the door. Before she touched it, it slid open and she was nearly blinded by the glare of a geth headlamp. They all dove out of the way, she and Tali to one side of the door and Vakarian to the other. Her shields flared and there was a hard shove to her right arm and a burst of pain, but there was no time to pay attention to it. They all focused fire toward the door in a race to take out the geth before they could reach open ground and overwhelm them. It was a close thing, and she'd never been more grateful for Tali's ability to tear through enemy shields. Finally, the last one went down, and they straightened up from their positions.
"Shepard, are you all right?" asked Tali.
She flexed the arm experimentally. Her breath caught a little when she extended it fully, but she could complete the motion. "Not serious. Medigel kicked in before I really felt much of anything." She took a breath. "Sweep the rest of the place and let's get the hell out of here."
The rest of the facility proved to be empty, but they were met by a geth drop ship when they exited. Shepard cursed as a colossus landed with a ground-jarring crash.
"Get to the Mako! We're not going to take that thing out on foot."
They all sprinted for the tank, hoping to make it before too many of the geth could make landfall. They were about halfway there when there was a loud crack, and Vakarian went down as his leg buckled under him, his voice harsh and flanging over the comm. Without thinking about it, she had his arm over her shoulder, and they pelted the rest of the way to the Mako.
The ensuing battle was short and decisive. The Mako was more nimble than the colossus, and its thick plating was nearly impervious to the weapons of the smaller geth. When it was over, Shepard leaned back in the driver's seat, feeling her arm begin to throb as the adrenaline and medigel wore off. She turned to Vakarian where he sat in the gunner's chair.
"You all right?"
He stretched the leg out and she heard his breath hitch over the comm, but his voice was steady when he spoke. "I'll live."
"Keelah," breathed Tali. "That was close."
The Normandy picked them up and she helped Vakarian up and over to the door, suddenly conscious of his alienness, now that the danger had passed. His arm was strangely thin over her shoulder, and even with his height and armor, he was lighter than she would have expected.
Slowly and awkwardly, the two of them made it out of the Mako, he limping and she cradling her arm to her side. He had to hit the door for her, as her other arm was occupied with steadying him. He sent her a sidelong glance as he did it, and a flash of teeth and mandibles.
"What a pair we make," he said.
The comedy of the situation hit her all at once - the two of them, mismatched and awkwardly lurching down the corridor to the medbay, one and a half a person's worth of working limbs between them. She laughed and felt him echo her, and just like that, the strangeness of his presence disappeared.
The wound in her arm was minor, and she was declared fit for duty after only a few days of rest. Vakarian was less lucky. The bullet hadn't hit anything vital, but it had torn through the large muscle anchored at his knee, and Chakwas restricted him to light duty for a couple of weeks while it knit.
His definition of "light duty" was somewhat loose - the Mako had never worked better, every piece of gear he owned was cleaned and tuned to within an inch of its life, and he had moved on to some sort of mad science decryption project with Tali. He took the restrictions on his activity with good grace, and he was careful of the leg, but it was plain that the lack of action wore on him. Shepard sympathized, never having been a good patient herself, but she also began to get an inkling of how that need to be constantly engaged might have strained the patience of his superiors at C-Sec.
While he was out of commission, Shepard mopped up the last of the geth in the area. She kept expecting to hear his voice over the comm or the crack of his rifle behind her, and she found herself missing his occasional dry comments. She made it a point to stop by the cargo hold and tell him how the mission had gone whenever she got back.
They finished up the local geth and put in at port to take on fuel and supplies. Vakarian's leg was healed, and Chakwas had given him the go ahead to return to combat. He made his customary beeline for the turian quarter of the city, probably glad to get off the ship. Shepard made her usual foray into the local arms market, finding a nice set of shield upgrades and a shotgun with a bit more kick than her current model. After a moment's hesitation, she grabbed a new scope for Vakarian as well.
The next morning, she found him in the cargo hold, as usual, methodically disassembling his rifle.
"Vakarian. Catch." She grinned and tossed him the scope.
He inspected it, and tilted his head to the side, and made a sharp clicking noise before his mandibles flared out wide. "Very nice. What's the occasion?"
"Heard you were cleared for duty again. Feel like cleaning up a merc squad?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
"Suit up and be ready to go at 0900 hours."
And maybe neither of them should have been quite so glad to be going into another firefight, but damn, it felt good to have him at her back again.
They were talking casually in the cargo hold, as they did more and more often these days, when he first mentioned Saleon.
Their comfort with each other's presence on the field had begun to translate into a tentative friendship off of it. They both worked more than their assigned hours, simply because it was in their nature to do so. It made a sort of kinship between them, and they had begun to spend their little common downtime in each other's company in an acknowledgment of that shared sense of duty and purpose. He was easy to talk to, and Shepard found herself surprised by the commonalities in their backgrounds. She had expected an alien's upbringing to be more… well, alien. But he'd gone through the indignities of bootcamp like she had, and had the same stories to tell about dumb young recruits and missions gone pear-shaped. He had a father he didn't get along with and a younger sister who was a pilot in the Hierarchy military and a mother he loved, but didn't speak much about.
They'd gotten in the habit of swapping stories, trying casually to one-up one another. It was a familiar soldier's game, something she'd played at every command she'd been assigned to, made new and curious by the subtle differences in their backgrounds. He mentioned Saleon during one of those contests, when she'd prodded him about his experiences with C-Sec.
"There was this one case," he began, slyly, drawing his words out as he warmed to the story. "Shortly after I made Detective."
"Come on, Garrus. Don't be coy," she said, grinning. Somehow, his last name had fallen by the wayside in their off-hours.
He flashed a grin back at her, a sharp glint of light off teeth, and continued. "As I was saying. Shortly after I'd made Detective, we noticed an increase in black market organs."
"Black market organs?" she asked, intrigued. "I didn't think you'd see that kind of thing on the Citadel."
"There's always a little bit of that trade going on, but nothing like the kind of numbers we were seeing. But that wasn't the strange thing about it. We managed to get ahold of some of the merchandise and run a DNA scan on it. It traced to a turian who was living in Kithoi Ward, alive and well, and very convinced he'd never lost his liver."
"So what did you do?"
"We checked in on all the labs we knew that had dealt in that kind of business in the past. This was a big operation - whoever was behind it had resources and access to production scale equipment. But we didn't turn up anything - not one turian liver, not one salarian spleen, not one krogan testicle."
"Krogan testicles?" She raised an eyebrow.
He shrugged. "Some krogan believe testicle transplants will increase their virility, counteract the effects of the genophage. It doesn't work, but it doesn't stop them from trying."
She squinted dubiously at him. "You're having me on."
He spread his mandibles a finger's width out, eyes half-closed. "You could ask Wrex."
She snorted. "Think I'll pass. So you didn't find anything in the labs."
"Nothing. But the market was still flooded with illegal merchandise. We seized as much of it as we could, and ran all the tests we could think of. All of it traced to people who were alive and well and currently living on the Citadel. The only thing they had in common was that at some point, they'd worked for a Dr. Saleon."
"So you figured Saleon was your man. What happened then?"
"We paid his practice a visit, but there was nothing to find. No illegal equipment, no suspicious orders, nothing out of the ordinary. And none of his staff would talk. Finally, we got a lucky break. One of his employees began bleeding during questioning."
"Bleeding during questioning?" she asked sharply.
He glanced away. "I was probably rougher than I should have been bringing him in. Not one of my prouder moments. But no one did anything that should have actually hurt him. I ordered a full medical work-up." His eyes narrowed, and his mandibles worked up and down once. "He was covered with incisions. He gave us the whole story then. Saleon was growing his organs inside people. His victims were offered a sum of money for every organ he successfully harvested from them. Sometimes something would go wrong with the process and the organ wouldn't form right. In that case, the victim wouldn't get paid and he'd just leave it in." His voice had cooled and hardened, no longer engaged in telling a story.
"So how'd you take Saleon down?"
He shook his head once, sharply. "That's the thing. I didn't. He fled the Citadel with some of his victims. I ordered his ship shot down, but C-Sec countermanded my order. They were worried about civilian casualties."
She filed that away. She'd known since she first met him that Vakarian had a personal dedication to justice that went far above and beyond what C-Sec demanded, and a certain impatience with bureaucracy. Not many people would have quit their jobs to risk their lives chasing after Saren. But for the first time she wondered how far he would go in pursuit of that ideal. "I can see their point," she said. "It's a crowded port with a lot of civilian pilots. There's a lot of opportunity for people to panic and get in the line of fire."
He rocked back on his feet, and some of the intensity drained out of his expression. "Maybe. But it could have been ended quickly and cleanly, right there. As it is, Saleon got away."
"You didn't pursue?"
"Wasn't given the resources." His frustration was audible, a buzz in the undertones of his voice. "I thought I tracked him down a while ago. He goes by Dr. Heart nowadays - his idea of a joke, I guess. Turned in the information, but they didn't think it was worth pursuing. Every once in a while I check up on him."
She eyed him for a few seconds. "Give me the heading," she said at last, wondering if this would prove to be a mistake. "If we run across him we'll check it out."
When they finally did track down Saleon, she had fewer qualms about the idea of letting Vakarian put a bullet through his head than she'd thought she might. When they'd first come in, they'd found a body laid out by the airlock, likely waiting for the doctor to take out the trash. They found another in one of the cabins, and a few people who were plainly drugged out of their minds, in pain and panicking. They checked, found the telltale incisions on the corpses like Vakarian had said. By the time they'd found the doctor, she'd been past angry.
"Are you sure that's him?"
"Restrain him. We'll turn him into the authorities," she said, voice clipped.
He didn't take his eyes off Saleon, but she heard the shock in his voice. "But -"
And then Saleon pulled a gun on them and she shot him herself, just on reflex.
She went over that series of actions a couple of times afterward, wondering if she'd handled it right. If she'd still been Alliance, there would have been no question. But it had been blindingly obvious what had gone on in that ship and equally obvious that Saleon was adept at wriggling out of consequences. And wasn't that what Spectre authority was for? To take action when other agencies couldn't?
But the arrogance of it didn't sit right with her. It would be too easy to grow used to that kind of authority, she thought. Best to use it sparingly, and only when other options were exhausted.
When she found Vakarian in the cargo hold later, she expected anything from an argument to a stiff return to the professional formality of his early days on the Normandy. She had a speech all worked out about the benefits of being the better man, but he beat her to the punch.
"Shepard," he said, straightening up from his seat. He looked her over a minute, mandibles tight against his jaw, and then deliberately relaxed his expression. "Look, I've been thinking about what happened with Saleon."
" I know you wanted to put an end to him there, but that's not how it should work."
"No," he said after a moment. "You were right to stop me." He let out a breath. "I wanted him dead, and it wasn't really because he'd hurt all those people. It was because he got away from me and I didn't like that."
Shepard regarded him for a moment, and then sighed and took the seat next to him. "You're a good soldier, Garrus. But you've got a temper, and it'll master you if you don't master it first. It's a dangerous thing. Makes it too easy to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, or the right thing for the wrong reasons."
"Speaking from experience?" he asked soberly.
"It got beat out of me pretty fast in my first command. You can't make that kind of mistake when you have lives riding on you."
He shook his head once and flicked a mandible out to the side. "As my father used to say, 'do it the right way, not the fast way,'" he murmured.
"He was right," she said pointedly.
They sat there side by side for a bit before Shepard got up to continue on her rounds. She looked him in the eye and held out a hand. "We good?"
He looked at it a minute and then clasped it in his strange grip. "Yeah," he said, with a ghost of a smile. "We're good."
The weight in her chest and the ashen aftertaste of her order would fade with time, Shepard knew. Virmire wasn't the first time she'd sent a good soldier to their death, and it wouldn't be the last. But the empty spot at the weapons bench ached like the gap left behind by a lost tooth: raw and bloody and unavoidable.
The cargo hold was quiet at the moment, its normal denizens off-duty during this shift, and she was grateful for the darkness and the stillness as she moved to the lockers and keyed open the one that used to belong to Ashley. It wouldn't have felt right to do this under bright light or with an audience.
The locker was almost empty. Most of Ashley's gear was still with her body, back on Virmire, and she felt the grief give a bitter twist at that. It would be weeks before the Alliance could send her home. All that was left in the locker were little things that Ashley hadn't had time to clean up or put away. A crumpled candy-bar wrapper. A broken trigger mechanism. A handful of hair ties. A book - an old book, paper yellowed and tattered, dog-eared time and time again. A carefully folded scrap of paper addressed "Dear Sarah."
Such little things left, where a person had been before.
A chime of sliding metal caught her attention, and she looked over to the other side of the hold. Vakarian was seated, far out of his usual place, cleaning a gun by the light of his omni-tool. She felt a momentary flash of irritation at his presence so late in the shift, when nobody should have been around to watch her rifle through Ashley's things. But then he turned the weapon and she caught the blunt, snub-nosed silhouette of a shotgun and remembered how clean and empty that workbench had been.
She let out a breath and gathered the handful of items from Ashley's locker before rising, feeling her knees creak under her. He must have heard her approach, but his hands kept busy. As she got closer, she could see the gear that it had been Ashley's job to maintain laid out before him.
"Garrus," she said quietly. "What's all this?"
His hands stilled, and he looked up at her. "Shepard," he said equally quietly. "Sorry if I overstepped." There was an odd, clipping note underneath his primary voice that she hadn't heard before. He gestured to the assorted gear. "It needed to be taken care of. Thought it would be better to do it on the mid watch."
When there aren't as many people around, she understood.
After a moment, she sat next to him. "No. You're right. Someone needed to do it. I should have thought of it." And she should have. But assigning someone to take over Ashley's duties had been the last thing she'd wanted to think about.
He glanced back down to the guns and resumed his work. "I can take care of it for now. Figured you had enough on your mind." The strange undertone had gone out of his voice, and she realized distantly that he really had been worried he was overstepping.
"Thanks," she said, and meant it. "I appreciate it."
"No thanks necessary."
She watched his hands work for a minute in the dim half-light of the hold before lighting up her omni-tool as well and laying out the things she'd found in Ashley's locker, sorting out what was simply trash and what needed to be sent home to her family. It took only a few minutes, and she was left with a small, sad pile of detritus, the half-finished letter on top. Without meaning to, she let out a sigh and saw Garrus tilt his head to look at her sidelong at the noise.
"You never really get used to it," she said, by way of explanation.
"No," he said. And then, after a moment, "She was a good soldier."
"A good person," she responded, because it was true and because it seemed wrong that everything Ashley had been in life be whittled down to the fact of her death.
There was no sound in the hold for a minute except for the clink of metal as he re-assembled the gun he was working on.
"She was teaching Tali to play poker," he said, and she knew he'd understood. "They kept cleaning Adams out."
She let out a breath of a laugh, and even if it was a little bitter, it was still better than the silence. "She got me and Chakwas and Alenko good a couple of times too. She was always so honest and to-the-point - I don't think any of us expected her to be any good at bluffing."
"But she was."
"Yeah," she said, remembering how pleased Ashley had been. Shepard hadn't known her long at that point, and Ashley up till then had been all duty and discipline. She'd drawn her into the game hoping to get her to relax a little and she'd surprised them all by trouncing them. She remembered being startled by how young Ashley had looked smiling. The weight in her chest seemed to gain about twenty pounds. "Pass me that Vindicator, would you?"
Wordlessly, he handed it over, and she began the familiar task of breaking it down, grateful for the occupation. "What does a turian unit do when this happens?" she asked at last.
He was quiet for a moment. "The historian would record her name and her deeds in the unit history. In a large enough unit, it might be committed to verse." He shook his head. "But it's just the same - it tells you what she did, not who she was."
They worked their way through the weapons carefully and methodically, taking their time with the task. Occasional conversation passed between them as they recounted small things - important things - about who Ashley had been, and not what she'd done. It was a strange sort of wake, but it still felt truer than the half-finished letter Shepard had left in her quarters. When they were done, they moved all the gear back to the bench, careful to put everything back in its place, as Ashley had left it.
They were left standing side-by-side in the dark of the cargo hold, and finally, she felt the aching pull of exhaustion deep in her bones. She took a look at Garrus, and thought he looked tired as well, the skin around his eyes pale and the angle of his mandibles low.
"Hey," she said. "You'd better get some sleep. Shift's half over."
He met her eyes. "I will if you will."
To her surprise, she found a tired smile to answer him. "It's a deal."
The bar was small and dark and noisy, but the drinks weren't bad, and the krogan bartender was unlikely to kick them out any time soon. Shepard's arm and shoulder still twinged a little when she tried to move too fast, but she paid it no mind, enjoying the pleasant buzz of contentment (and a stiff drink) as she watched the crew let loose and make up for months of stress. Wrex, well into a mug of ryncol, was telling a story with a lot of smashing gestures to an enraptured audience of junior servicemen. Pressly, Chakwas, and Adams were drawn off into a circle at the end of the bar, telling their own, quieter stories. Joker was doing his best to goad Tali and a stammering Liara into karaoke, and Kaidan and Garrus were watching the show from the sidelines, apparently taking bets on his odds of success.
She moved off to join them and reached the seat at Garrus' left just as Tali latched onto Liara's wrist and dragged her off towards the stage. Joker pumped his fist in the air and Garrus turned to Kaidan.
"Pay up, Alenko."
Kaidan heaved a long-suffering sigh, but was smiling as he replied. "All right, all right. Should have known better than to bet against a cop. Let me know when you're ready and I'll pay for your next round." He stood and stretched. "In the meantime, I'm going to get something to eat before it's all gone." He headed off towards the food table, giving an easy nod and greeting to Shepard as he passed. She returned the gesture and sat down in the seat next to Garrus.
"Corrupting my crew, Vakarian?"
He flared his mandibles out wide, and then winced as Tali and Liara launched into a warbling rendition of Highway to Hell. "Of course not. They don't need my help for that."
"Can't argue with that," she replied, watching as an arm-wrestling contest broke out among Wrex's proteges.
They sat for a while in companionable silence, watching the crowd and sipping their drinks. There was a comfortable weariness settling into her bones, and she felt lighter than she had in weeks - months, really.
"Hard to believe it's over," she said.
Garrus hummed in agreement. "But it is. Rogue Spectres and sentient ships all accounted for."
She sobered, remembering that last frantic rush up the tower, the vast alien bulk of Sovereign crouched at its tip, and the VI on Ilos, alone among the dead of the last cycle. "They'll be back, though. We won this time, but there's more to come."
He caught her eye. "But not now. For now, we've won. Time enough to worry about the future tomorrow."
She felt her mouth quirk into a smile. If Garrus, relentless pessimist that he was, was telling her to lighten up, she probably ought to listen. "I suppose you have a point."
He carefully nudged her glass into her hand. "Here, a toast: to the Normandy and her crew."
She raised the glass and clinked it against his. "To friends and comrades," she added.
They both drank and set their glasses down in unison.
"Shepard," he said. "I wanted to thank you."
She blinked. "What for?"
"For taking me with you, for letting me be part of your crew, for everything. You didn't have to, and I appreciate it."
She thought back to those early days, when he had been strange and alien and she nearly hadn't taken him along. She took a good look at Garrus now, his mandibles spread in a lopsided smile, numerous teeth exposed, blue markings stark against his plates in the bar's dim light, and found the sight no longer strange and alien, but simply familiar.
"No thanks necessary. I was glad to have you along." She cleared her throat and grinned at him, suddenly aware that this was treading dangerously close to sappy. "What will you do now? Any plans?"
He tapped a finger on the table in time to the music as he replied. "Headed back to C-Sec for now."
She felt a brief flare of disappointment at that, remembering how frustrated he'd been with his job when she first met him. "You sure about that?" she asked carefully. "You didn't seem too happy there."
He wasn't quite looking at her, but his voice was confident, sub-tones calm. "I think it's the right thing to do. It'll be a lot of work to put the Citadel right again, and they'll need all the help they can get." He flicked his mandibles out in a sudden grin. "And, well, I'm not planning on staying there forever. I was going to reapply for Spectre candidacy."
A broad grin broke over her face. "Good. You need a letter of recommendation or anything, let me know."
He blinked, a little surprised. "I… thanks Shepard."
"Seriously, Garrus, I think it's a good choice for you. I'm happy to do it."
"I'll let you know."
"You heading back right away, or are you going to stick around for a while?"
He shook his head. "Was going to clean up and take my leave tomorrow. Talked to some of my old coworkers - they're still cleaning up geth squads in Tayseri and Kithoi."
She nodded. "And if there's one thing you've gotten good at over the course of this mission, it's cleaning up geth. I hear you."
She took a sip of her drink. "Can't say I won't be sorry to see you go." She hesitated a moment, suddenly struck by how different the Normandy would be without him. No more bullshitting sessions next to the Mako, no more dry commentary on the precise way a mission was going south, no more quiet, serious conversations on the ugly business of being a soldier. Hell, there were things that she'd talked about with Garrus that she hadn't spilled to anyone else outside of family.
She cleared her throat. "Hey, keep in touch. Hate to lose a good friendship just because we're not on the same ship anymore."
Something in the line of his shoulders relaxed, and his mandibles flared out wide. "You're right – that'd be a damn shame. I can do that."
She smiled and clinked her glass against his again. "I'll hold you to it."
There was a cold, dull ache under Shepard's ribs that felt like not enough air and gaped like the spaces between the stars, but it blended in with the bruised pain throughout all her muscles and joints. Chakwas had said it would pass with time as her body knit itself into the cybernetics. In the meantime, she focused on the weight of the gun in her hands, and let the recoil anchor her.
Another one of the men ahead of them fell, and she gave the signal to move up, keeping an eye on Lawson and Taylor as they obeyed. They were competent enough, but their choice of uniform set her teeth on edge.
They were a poor substitute for the team she'd had before.
She spared a glance to the window at the end of the bridge and caught the glint of light off a scope. Archangel had switched positions again. The rifle cracked, and one of the foremost mercenaries dropped. It set the rest of them to panicking, as they realized they were trapped.
Shepard barked out the order to Lawson and Taylor and laid into them.
They mowed their way across the bridge and into Archangel's stronghold. Inside, it looked like any other cheap apartment, except for the blood spatter on the walls and the bodies in the corners, laid out straight and covered hastily with whatever there was to hand. Upstairs, Archangel's rifle cracked out an ugly metronome.
"Taylor. Stay here and watch the doors. Lawson, take the stairwell. Back me up if necessary, but stay out of sight."
"Commander, I don't think -"
"Are you questioning my orders, Lawson?"
Lawson's lips pinched tightly together. "No, Commander."
"If he didn't pick us off crossing that bridge, he's not going to do it now. And if we want him to work with us, the less of Cerberus he sees, the better."
She gave it a minute, but Lawson didn't argue. She continued up the stairs.
Archangel was still crouched at the window, a turian in blue armor that had seen better days, with his rifle pulled in tight against his shoulder. She was careful to make some noise as she entered, but he made no sign that he'd noticed her.
He lifted a hand, and she waited two beats, the length of an inhale and an exhale. Then the rifle cracked again, and he stood stiffly and settled himself on the crates by the door, out of sight of the men on the ground. He pulled off his helmet, and for a second, she wondered if coming back from the dead had rattled her more than she'd thought.
"Shepard. I thought you were dead," he said hoarsely, and the sound of his voice dispelled all her doubts.
"Garrus," she breathed, feeling a smile break across her face like cracking ice, "what are you doing here?"
It was an ugly fight, and a bad situation, but there was a fire in her belly making her just a little quicker, just a little sharper. She could hear Garrus' rifle upstairs and his voice over the comm, and it was so damn familiar she felt almost like herself again, for the first time since she'd woken up. So she anchored herself to his voice and let her gun just be a gun and focused on cutting through the mercenaries. They were close, she could taste it - the Eclipse and the Pack had already taken a shot, and the Suns were doing their level best, but they'd have to let up soon, have to draw back and regroup. They just had to hold out -
There was a hammering of machine gun fire, and then a roar and a crash that shook the building, and Garrus' wordless, choked-off shout over the comm.
Shepard nailed the last two mercs one after the other, and raced up the stairs, Lawson and Taylor close behind her. Garrus was a dark, still shape on the floor, and the hum of the gunship's engines filled the air. She dove for cover and unstrapped the grenade launcher from her back.
"Lawson, Taylor," she said, voice cold and furious, heart pounding, "cover me while I take this son of a bitch out."
They got Garrus up to the rooftop and into the shuttle, leaking blue blood from the wet, shattered edges of his jaw and neck and shoulder. She and Taylor poured medigel into him and did their best to keep him from choking while Lawson got on the comm to the Normandy. Chakwas met them at the airlock, and he was whisked away, leaving Shepard to pace, hands shaking in the adrenaline's wake.
She stripped out of her armor and showered mechanically, brittlely aware that here and now, on this ship with these people, she couldn't allow herself to be seen as less than professional. She dressed and took herself down to the comm room, with a datapad that she could pretend to read while she waited.
The hours crawled by, one, then two, then four, then six, and finally, the door hissed open and Taylor walked in.
"Commander. We've done what we could for Garrus, but he took a bad hit."
She sent Taylor a stare that should have pinned him to the wall. "Did he make it?"
He drew breath to answer, but the door hissed open again, and, incredibly, Garrus himself walked in, patched and battered, but alive.
"Tough son of a bitch," muttered Taylor disbelievingly.
She felt a smile break over her face as the relief swept through her. Garrus propped himself up against the wall in a pose that looked nonchalant, but she knew him well enough to guess that he probably needed the support.
"Shepard," he said, his pronunciation just a little too precise, a little too careful, "How bad is it? No one would give me a mirror."
It was such an easy, casual thing for him to say, something that could have come straight out of any of the conversations they'd had since they really became friends, that she nearly laughed aloud in relief. "Hell," she said instead, "you were always ugly. Slap some facepaint on there and no one will notice."
He laughed in reply, but quickly bit it off in a pained hiss. "Don't make me laugh, Shepard. My face is barely holding together as is." Despite that, his left mandible flicked out in an echo of a smile. "Some women do find facial scars attractive, you know. Mind you, most of them are krogan."
That glimmer of self-mockery caught her by surprise; it wasn't something he'd have said before. "I'll let Wrex know you're moving in on his turf," she retorted dryly. She caught Taylor's eye and jerked her head towards the exit. They waited until the door slid shut behind him, and then she took a step closer to Garrus, getting a good look at him.
His right side was a mess, but that was to be expected. She focused on the other side of his face, comparing it her memories. The same lines, the same markings. But tired, and harder, at the edges of his eyes and in the set of his mandibles. Older. It struck her with awful suddenness what a long time two years was.
Garrus was examining her just as closely as she was watching him. "Chakwas told me the score before I left. Cerberus, Shepard?" he asked quietly.
She let out a hard breath, "Yeah. Didn't have much of a choice." She kept her eyes on his, and ignored the knot in her stomach. "I could use your help. I'm walking into hell here. I want someone I trust at my back."
There was a long, tense silence between them while he looked her over again. Then his expression loosened. "You realize this plan has me walking into hell too, right?" He flicked another weary half-grin at her. "Just like old times."
A smiled blazed across her face, and she felt the ache in her chest begin to ease up.
They fell into a strange sort of limbo. In some ways, things were just the same. Garrus was a steady presence at her back in the field, sniping enemies and calling out tactical advice just as well as he always had. Better, even. He'd adopted the main battery as he'd once adopted the Mako, and spent most of his time elbow deep in painstaking ballistics tuning. He had an inexhaustible supply of dry comments for bad situations. Some days, she could exchange stories and shoot the shit with him and it was like those two years had never happened.
But there were differences as well, small things that amounted to little taken singly, but that jarred awkwardly up against her memories when examined as a whole. He had always been precise, careful about his work, but now that focus had narrowed down to laser-like intensity. He set ever-increasing standards for the Normandy's guns and himself, and consistently met them by dint of long hours, technical ingenuity, and sheer cussedness. He was more aggressive in the field, a little more eager to take risks and close with the enemy. He fell into his old place in her team easily enough, but every once in a while he'd offer an assessment that sharply reminded her that he'd lead a team of his own. He had the same dry humor he had had before, but there was an edge of self-deprecation to it that she didn't remember, a bitterness that he kept mostly hidden, but that slipped out now and again without him realizing it.
Shepard didn't push. She had her own old ghosts. They didn't haunt her now, except in the early dark before she woke and in the choking stink of a close fight. But she'd have gutted anyone who'd pried when they were still new and raw. And now she had new demons made of the cold glitter of stars and the ache in her chest, that woke her gasping in the middle of the night cycle to walk through the halls of the ship until she could breathe again. Chambers had tried to talk to her about those and she'd brushed her off firmly enough that she hadn't asked again. So she gave Garrus his space. And in the meantime she read that dossier with a more careful eye and spent some time chasing down Archangel on the extranet.
She didn't find much, but what she did find gave her plenty to chew over. After the incident with Saleon, she'd once wondered how far Garrus would be willing to go in the name of the right cause. She had her answer, it seemed, and she wasn't sure if it made her uneasy that he'd followed through on that conviction, or proud that he'd pulled it off. Without context, there was no room to judge. Without having been there, she had no right to judge. Her own ghosts had taught her that much.
That detente held between them for a couple of weeks, almost comfortable but for its unexpected sharp edges. Then, one night, working her way through the ship, she opened the starboard observation room to find Garrus already there, seated one one of the couches with his chin resting on his hands, staring out the window. He started at the door's opening and half-turned to face her. She paused, a little nonplussed at finding him so far out of his usual haunts at such an odd hour.
She cleared her throat. "Sorry. Didn't mean to intrude."
He relaxed after a second, and shook his head. "You're not intruding."
She hesitated a moment and then nodded toward the couch. "You mind if I sit?"
"Be my guest."
She took the opposite end of the couch, and for a while, they sat silently like a pair of gargoyles, staring out into the blackness of space and waiting for it to flinch. Gradually, breathing got easier, and the window became just a window. Garrus was a solid presence at the other end of the couch, and in the quiet of the room, she could hear him breathing too, slow and steady.
After what seemed like a long time, he spoke, voice rusty and oddly flat. "I never told you what happened on Omega."
Carefully, she turned to look at him, catching only the faint edges of his scars in the room's dim lighting. "You're not under any obligation to."
He chewed on that for a while, and then laughed a little, quietly but not at all bitterly, to her surprise. "Spirits, Shepard. Who else would I tell it to?"
And he told her about his team - who they were and what they'd done, and how they'd ended. Mierin and Vortash and Sensat and Erash and Ripper and Butler and Weaver and Melanis and Monteague and Grundan Krul. And young, angry Sidonis. She listened to him talk and didn't interrupt, remembering that long-ago night after Virmire. He'd said then that a turian unit would record the names of their dead in the unit history. She didn't doubt that somewhere, Garrus had marked down all his team's names where he'd remember them.
At last, he drew to a close, and she shifted. "You ever figure out what happened to Sidonis?"
"He emptied his accounts and got off the station. Don't know where he went, but I've got people looking. I'll find him one day and pay him back for what he did." His voice was tired, but clear and sure.
She nodded slowly. She hadn't expected anything less. And maybe, she thought tiredly, it would even be the right thing. There wouldn't be any authorities looking out for Sidonis. No place to bring him to legal justice. No system to record that betrayal and mete out punishment.
And Garrus had given her the names of his team to remember. The least she could do was see it through.
"When the time comes," she said, "you need anything, you tell me."
He froze for a second, and then nodded slowly. "I will."
Their night cycle meetings became an almost regular ritual. Shepard would wake, coughing and gasping in the dark, and pace the ship's halls for a while before circling back to the observation room to stare down the stars until she could look at them without blinking away. Sometimes, the room was empty, but more often than not, Garrus would already be there.
They both knew equally well why they were there, but neither commented on the other's presence. She didn't question his choice of location or his timing. Perhaps the company helped. Or maybe their nightmares just followed the same schedule. Sometimes they didn't say anything, just exchanged nods and sat side-by-side until the edge wore off and one or the other of them would nod again and leave.
And sometimes they did talk quietly together, most nights about nothing in particular. Old stories about past friends and family. Half-serious arguments over whether Elanus gear was worth the money. Shitty jokes from all over the galaxy. Sometimes, they compared notes on their respective cultures. They spent one night hunting down pictures of some of the last remaining wild places on Earth and Palaven on the extranet. Another, they spent telling each other the half-remembered (and consequently much-abridged) old stories of their people.
Very rarely, one or the other would say something about the real reason they were awake in the observation room in the middle of the night cycle. He told her small things about his team on Omega. Bits and pieces of the people they'd been. She learned that Melanis had had a tempestuous relationship with an asari commando that had occasionally taken its toll on the rest of the team. Grundan Krul had been krogan, but unable to hold his liquor, and deeply embarrassed about it. Weaver had spent much of his downtime playing aimless blues on an ancient guitar.
She told him about the vast bulk of the Collector ship bearing down on the Normandy and the sight of the stars through the shattered hull. How Kaidan had gotten the survivors into escape pods and Joker had almost gone down with the ship. She didn't tell him about those long seconds she'd spent gasping for air as the white planet under her blurred across her eyes, just as he didn't tell her about coming back to find his team dead or dying and Sidonis gone. Some things were too painful and private to speak aloud, and they both respected that.
Gradually, those meetings took on a life of their own. As time went on, she often found her way down to the observation room just for the company, even when she didn't need to stave off sleep for a while. The old friendship between her and Garrus reknit itself around the hole left by those two years she'd been dead. It wasn't quite the same as it had been - they weren't the same as they had been. But it was comfortable and easy, and there was an openness to it, born of common experience, that none of her previous friendships had ever held. It was a solid place to stand while she felt out how the galaxy had changed while she was gone and carved her place into it.
And then one day, the message came from Admiral Hackett. A memorial for the first Normandy's crew. To be placed on Alchera, that white planet they'd gone down over.
Shepard went down alone. Alchera was blindingly bright and still, and the Normandy's bones arched over her like the buttresses of a cathedral. The hiss of her breath was very loud in her ears. She searched, found dog tags and personal effects scattered throughout the wreckage. She gathered everything she could, and at the end, set the memorial down in the center of the site, facing the crew quarters. She stood there a moment in the quiet, feeling strangely disoriented, before turning to head back to the shuttle.
Her foot caught, and she nearly tripped, lurching forward to find herself staring down at the faceplate of her old helmet. The paint job was beginning to flake off, and half-frozen in the ice, she could see the severed oxygen line that had killed her. She stared at it for almost a full minute before continuing on.
She didn't bother trying to sleep that night. Just went straight to the observation room. She wasn't surprised to find Garrus waiting. She took the seat next to him, and they sat quietly for a while.
At last, she spoke. "It's all frozen down there. Everything's being swallowed up by the ice."
He let out a breath and she could feel his eyes on her. Before he could say anything, she went on. "It's very quiet. Felt almost like I was intruding. Like I didn't belong there."
Garrus made a sub-vocal noise just barely within her audible range, quickly cut off, and then she felt his hand clasp gently over her shoulder. The outline of his palm and fingers across her collarbone and the point of her shoulder was strange, but he was startlingly warm, even through his glove and her shirt.
"Shepard," he said, and for the first time in a long time, she couldn't read his subtones in the slightest, "you don't belong down there."
Her breath caught a little in the back of her throat, without her quite knowing why, and she darted over a glance at him to find him watching her intently, mandibles pulled in tight against his face. She caught his eyes and he blinked, looking suddenly abashed, and began to withdraw his hand. She swallowed the ache out of her throat and put her hand over his.
"Found my old helmet down there too. Trapped in the ice. Almost took it with me, but in the end, I thought I'd better leave it."
His hand tightened briefly, and then withdrew. "Good," he said quietly. A second passed, and then he cleared his throat and said, more lightly, "You must be running out of room in those display cases by now anyways."
It was a shitty joke, but it startled a laugh out of her and she finally felt the lost, adrift feeling she'd carried since she'd gone down to Alchera break up in her chest. She leaned over and shoved an elbow into Garrus' ribs.
"You're an ass," she told him affectionately. He flicked a grin at her, and they passed the rest of the night on more comfortable topics.
"I'll report back to the Citadel," said Kaidan, his voice flat and terse. "They can decide whether they believe your story or not."
Almost, Shepard asked him to come with her, just for the comfort of another face she knew aboard the Normandy. But he'd made it all too clear how far he trusted her.
"So long, Kaidan."
He paused, back to her. "Goodbye, Shepard. And be careful."
She watched him go with a sense of finality and things broken, keenly aware of Garrus and Lawson's silent presence at her back.
"Joker. Send the shuttle to pick us up. I've had enough of this colony."
She went through post-mission cleanup and debriefing as usual, and then sunk her attention into the myriad small tasks of running the ship. It helped some. But that conversation on Horizon lingered, bitter and unmoving, under the anger and apprehension for the colonies hit by the Collectors and the familiar busywork of reports and duty rosters.
It bothered her far more than she'd like to admit. She felt the same as she always had. Was as certain of herself as she could be, given the situation. Was sure that she was working for Cerberus because it was the only option there was, not because anybody was pulling her strings.
But if anybody were, how would she know? Was she really the same Shepard who had died over Alchera? Or was she some clever imitation, programmed to be amenable to Cerberus' goals and methods?
Kaidan's distrust of her stung. But it didn't hurt nearly as badly as the conviction that it was a justified distrust, and that he'd been right to question her motives.
The buzzer at her door rang, and she started. For a moment, she stared blankly, before getting up and moving over to answer it, wondering what exactly had happened to bring someone up to her cabin.
The door slid open, and she blinked. "Garrus. What's wrong?"
He tilted his head and raised a browplate at her, a thoroughly human expression he'd picked up sometime in the last two years and exploited shamelessly. "You missed dinner. Got Gardner to box some up for you."
He gestured, and she saw he was holding a box that steamed slightly and smelled… well, it smelled far better than any galley meal had a right to. She realized suddenly that she was ravenous, and checked her omni-tool for the time.
"Thanks," she said, unexpectedly touched. "You didn't have to do that." She sent him a smile, a little tired, but genuine. "Come in. I could use the company."
They moved over to the couch and she unpacked the box (a thermos of beef stew with a generous chunk of bread, still warm) while Garrus leaned back, stretching out his neck and shoulders with a sigh that was almost a groan. The flanging in his voice made it sound odd, as if he were in two places at once.
"Stiff?" she asked, with a slight grin. "You must be getting old, Vakarian."
He flared his mandibles at her, but answered the question seriously. "Got caught up in tuning the cannons again. Almost missed dinner myself."
She shot him a sharp look, and he shrugged apologetically. She resumed eating and he watched her, expression thoughtful.
"You all right?" he asked quietly, when she reached the bottom of the thermos.
If anybody else had asked that question, she'd have told them she was fine and sent them on their way. But it was Garrus, so she let out a heavy breath and told him the truth.
"Yeah. Will be at any rate." She ran a hand through her hair, feeling her mouth thin to a straight line. "I should have expected it. Hell, he's completely right not to trust me. I just…." She shrugged helplessly. "It took me by surprise."
Garrus threw her a flat look. "That's bullshit. No one could have seen that coming. Alenko served with you before. He should have known you better than to assume you'd work for Cerberus if there was another choice."
"I was dead, Garrus. Lawson says they brought me back the way I was, but how believable is that really, that they could bring me back from the dead?" She swallowed. "I could be a clone, or a body-double with a lot of reprogramming. I might not be the Shepard Kaidan knew at all."
Garrus was watching her, eyes steady on hers while she talked. "No," he said, quietly. "You're Shepard."
She gave him a thin smile. "I appreciate the vote of confidence, but we both know it's more likely than not."
"No," he said again, and breathed in deeply. "You're right that memories and looks can be faked. But every time you aim a gun, you start a little to the left of where you want to shoot, but you correct before you pull the trigger. You tap your right ear every time you make a call on the comm, even though you're not using an in-ear speaker. You've got a little bit of a limp when you start a run, but it works its way out of your stride in a couple of paces. That stuff's muscle memory. You can't fake that." He looked her dead in the eye. "I knew it was you from the moment I saw you on Omega."
She blinked, stunned that he'd noticed all that and unspeakably relieved that he had. "Thanks," she murmured. And then, disbelievingly, "You caught all that?"
He flicked a lopsided grin her way. "I used to be a cop. Give me some credit."
"Even so," she said after a moment, "two years is a long time. People change. And I must have sounded crazy, asking you to work for Cerberus. Why did you join up?" What made you trust me that much? she wanted to ask.
He went quiet for a second, and when he answered, the subtones of his voice were evident, thick and resonant behind his words. "You have the most honest sense of personal integrity of anyone I've ever met. You're one of the best friends I've ever had. You needed me to watch your back. Of course I joined up."
The simplicity of that answer struck to the heart of her. She swallowed thickly over a sudden lump in her throat, feeling something hot and sweet stab through her chest as she looked at him. "I'm glad you did," she said at last. "Not sure what I'd do without you here."
He threw her another grin. (Gentle and teasing and deliberate, and when had she learned nuances of his expression so well?) "You'd manage. Not so stylishly, of course."
She laughed, and the conversation moved on to less weighty topics. But the heavy warmth in her chest stayed, familiar and impossibly strange at once because of who he was and who she was. At the end, they said their goodnights and she watched him go, faintly dazed.
Just what the hell was that?
She found herself sneaking looks at Garrus when he was unawares, examining the heavy arch of his cowl in the moments before he turned to face her in the battery, the curve of his profile in the half-dark of the observation deck, the deft motion of his hands across a keyboard. The strength and consistency of her response unbalanced her thoroughly.
Shepard had had crushes before as a young girl, and more serious romantic feelings as a young woman, but they'd made sense. She'd been smitten with handsome, human men, with dark hair and nice smiles, and the kind of personality that put you instantly at ease. Garrus had no hair whatsoever, a mouthful of needles, and when she'd first met him, she'd found him subconsciously terrifying.
She prodded at that, trying to find an echo of her earlier unease with him, letting her eyes linger on his teeth and mandibles and taking note of the way he loomed over the human crew. It made no difference. His face had become familiar, the teeth and mandibles simply a natural part of it, and his height had become comfortable next to hers.
Maybe it made a certain kind of sense. Somehow, Garrus had become the closest friend she'd ever had. 'Trust' was a word with a lot of weight in the military. She trusted him to have her back in a fight, to do what needed to be done, but she trusted her entire team for that. That kind of trust was something you respected, but it was also something you expected.
The kind of trust it took to talk about bad dreams in the middle of the night was something else entirely.
They were all under stress. It was probably natural that she develop an attachment to him, under the circumstances. It was profoundly weird, and more than a little awkward, but it wasn't serious. Given enough time, she concluded, it would blow over on its own.
It did not take long for her hard-won equilibrium with the situation to be upset.
Garrus had just exited the battery, and she'd been seated at one of the mess tables, idly watching him walk down the hallway. (He had a long stride, made oddly fluid by the way his legs jointed.) He caught sight of her and raised a hand in greeting before diverting to the galley to get his meal. She felt a smile break over her face and returned the gesture. Mordin, seated next to her, glanced rapidly back and forth between them. He blinked twice and tapped her on the shoulder.
"Shepard. Available after meal?"
"I have some time."
"Good," he said firmly. "Meet me in lab. Medical matters to discuss."
Nonplussed, she agreed, and watched him go. Garrus joined her shortly after, and they spent the meal discussing the new shielding upgrades and trying to one-up each other's "dumb things I did as a kid" stories. Afterward, she went up to the lab and found Mordin absorbed in dissecting one of the Seekers they'd taken from Horizon. He looked up when she entered, holding something wet and stringy in a pair of forceps.
"Ah. Shepard. Glad you came."
"What is it, Mordin?"
"Noted your interest in Officer Vakarian." He smiled broadly. "Good match. Very happy for you both."
She gaped. "Wait. What?"
Mordin continued, unperturbed. "Human-turian relationships uncommon, but emotional and physiological similarities between species sufficient for long-term viability. Have forwarded reference materials to your terminal. Please review before attempting intimacy."
"'Intimacy?'" she repeated, feeling her voice crawl up a couple of notches.
Mordin gave her a look that suggested she was being particularly dense. "Species broadly sexually compatible, but key differences require research in order to ensure safe, mutually satisfying experience."
Finally, her brain managed to reengage with her vocal cords. "Mordin. Garrus and I aren't together."
He rocked back on his heels and blinked rapidly. "No?" He paused to examine her and she tried not to squirm. "Perhaps should consider it. Reference materials still available. Happy to answer questions."
Awkwardly, she thanked him for his concern and fled the lab.
It hadn't even crossed her mind as a possibility. While she'd somehow developed a perplexing romantic attraction to Garrus, they were members of different species who'd evolved on different planets a quarter of a galaxy apart from each other. She'd never seen a naked turian. Hadn't really wanted to. She wasn't even sure they, uh, did the deed the same way humans did.
The thought stayed with her though, and she was intensely conscious of Mordin's reference materials sitting in her inbox.
When she finally succumbed that night and opened the message, it took only a few utterly mortifying minutes to dispel her comfortable ignorance of turian reproduction. Turians fucked more or less like humans fucked. It was possible for a human and a turian to have sexual relations. And responses on both sides of the fence lined up pretty well, all things considered.
The realization that her suddenly non-platonic interest in her best friend was potentially more than theoretical shook her. She felt vaguely guilty and increasingly dirty for sneaking glances at Garrus, but now that she knew the possibility existed, she couldn't help but look at him in a new light.
She couldn't call him attractive, at least not in any sense she'd ever have used before. But there were things about him she found aesthetically pleasing. She liked the sweeping line of his fringe, and the stark contrast of his markings against his facial plates and eyes. She liked the way he balanced on his feet, and the graceful surety of his movements. The solid warmth of his presence and his voice.
Was that enough to add up to a sexual attraction?
It certainly seemed to add up to something.
She knew something was off the moment Garrus turned to greet her. He stood straight and tense, his shoulders hunched like a man a breath away from putting up his fists. In the half-dark of the battery, his face was shadowed; all she could see was the glow of his eyepiece and the ragged edge of his right mandible.
"Shepard. I was about to send you a message." His voice was clear, but there was a buzzing tone underneath his words that had her on alert.
"I got a tip on Sidonis."
She stepped fully into the battery, feeling her lips thin to an angry slash. The door hissed shut behind her, and she leaned up against the crates to the side, watching Garrus.
"There's a specialist on the Citadel. Fade. Helps people disappear."
"And you think Sidonis made use of his services?"
Garrus had settled into a pace across the length of the battery. Two steps up and two steps back. "He was seen in his company."
She drew in a deep breath. "So. What's the plan?"
He stopped and turned to face her again. "He owes me ten lives. I plan to collect." His voice was clear, preternaturally calm and certain.
"You sure about that?" she asked quietly.
He glanced briefly away. "I know you don't like it, Shepard. I'll take care of it on my own if you want to stay out of it. But I'd like your help."
She got the feeling that there was something else going on here, maybe something to do with Hierarchy culture, or something peculiar to Garrus' background in particular. The whole thing made her uneasy - she'd never seen Garrus agitated like this before, and it reminded her sharply that he'd spent two long years fighting a private war on Omega. She hadn't been there, couldn't offer a judgment on Sidonis' guilt or say whether Garrus was right about this. But it was a hell of a lot of trust he was putting in her. Like hell she'd let him do this alone.
"You've got it," she said, firmly.
They found the trail of Fade - Harkin - easily enough. Garrus was a live wire at her side, humming with suppressed energy. He was sharp and on-alert, and kept his voice level. But his subtones backed every word like thunder heard over a distance, and the crowds on the Citadel carved out a wide space around him. Shepard set her jaw and watched him, waiting for any sign of a break in his composure. She'd commanded men in the past who'd carried that kind of intensity, and she knew how to talk them down or push them back. Garrus might be right about Sidonis, might be willing to pay whatever the cost was to put that particular ghost to rest. But she was damned if she'd let him risk Citadel murder charges on some nameless thug.
It was not until they were face-to-face with Harkin that she realized her mistake. Garrus was in no danger of losing his temper. On the contrary, he was frighteningly in control of himself.
She'd fought beside Garrus dozens of times. She knew he was capable of violence, like any other soldier. But she'd never watched him apply it with such ruthless calculation. He hurt Harkin precisely and deliberately - not enough to do permanent damage, but plenty to make him follow orders.
She knew what went into that kind of cold anger, and she didn't like seeing it on him.
When he took aim to cripple Harkin, she grabbed his arm, sent the shot wide. He tilted his head, so that he could look at her while still keeping an eye on their prisoner. She stared back.
"He's not going to get away. C-Sec's on their way. There's no need to shoot him."
He held her gaze for a half a second before holstering the pistol. She half-turned, and before she could react, he lunged forward, snake-quick, and landed a blow that sent Harkin reeling back to slump against the wall, dazed.
He stared her down. "I didn't shoot him."
She sent him a warning glare, but bit down on her immediate reaction. They were on a schedule, and couldn't afford an argument. "Let's get out of here."
The ride to the meeting spot was tense and quiet. At last, the cab landed, and she turned to look at Garrus. He was watching out the window, scanning the street.
"You all right?"
He turned a look on her. It was a dumb question, and they both knew it.
"You didn't go easy on Harkin back there," she said by way on explanation.
"He deserved a lot more than that."
"He was right, though. It's not like you."
He let out a slow hiss through his teeth. "What do you want from me, Shepard?" He sounded tired. Older than he was.
Impulsively, she gripped his arm, forced him to meet her eyes. "I want to be sure you're sure about this. You don't have to go through with it."
"If I don't take care of it, who will? No one else knows what Sidonis did. No one else cares about what happens on Omega. Ten good men died long, ugly deaths for him. He can't be allowed to go unpunished for that." There was a barely audible tremor in his voice, and his subtones hummed under his words like a hornets' nest.
She found no ready answer to that, and he pulled his arm out of her grasp, looking back towards the boulevard.
"I need to set up. I'll have a clear shot from over here." He swung back around to look at her. "Get him out in the open and keep him talking."
He got out of the cab, and she watched him go, heading for the shadows of a maintenance ladder.
Sidonis was easy to spot, even without Garrus' pointing him out. A thin man, hunched in on himself on a bench to the side of the main thoroughfare, his hands clenching and loosening around each other rhythmically. Even after long association with Garrus, she still found strange turians difficult to read, but she thought this one looked ill, his eyes sunken back in their sockets, the skin around them pale.
He started, came off the bench to meet her.
"Don't say that name aloud!" His voice was younger than she'd expected.
Garrus' voice came in over her earpiece, thin and tense. "You're in my shot. Move to the side."
She took a long look at Sidonis, and for a moment teetered on the brink before coming to a decision.
Damn him. And damn me.
"Listen. I want to help you. I'm a friend of Garrus'."
She watched Sidonis' mandibles clamp spasmodically to his face. "Is this some kind of joke?" he asked weakly, even as Garrus' voice hissed furiously into her ear.
"Damn it, Shepard. If he moves, I'm taking the shot." Almost, she could feel his crosshairs hot on the back of her head.
"Screw this," said Sidonis, his voice fraying. "I'm not sticking around to find out."
He made to back away, and she grabbed his arm and jerked him back towards her. "Don't move. Right now, I'm the only thing between you and a hole in the head."
He stared at her for a moment, wild-eyed. "Fuck," he said, in a very small voice. "Look, I didn't want to do it. I didn't have a choice!"
"Everyone has a choice," ground out Garrus' voice.
"They got me," said Sidonis. "Threatened to kill me. What was I supposed to do?" He was agitated now, moving nervously back and forth. She kept pace with him, keeping herself in Garrus' sights.
"Let me take the shot, Shepard. He's a damned coward."
"You were trying to save yourself?"
Sidonis seemed to deflate at the question, leaning heavily against the safety rail at the edge of the street. One hand covered his eyes, resting there for a moment before he lowered it. "Yeah," he said bitterly, "I saved myself. And the rest of them died because of me. I know what I did." His subtones were a low, whining thrum at the edge of her hearing. "I'm already a dead man. Some days, I think it would be a relief for it just to be over."
"Just give me the chance," snapped Garrus.
She took another long look at Sidonis, and hoped like hell she was making the right decision.
"You've got to let it go, Garrus."
"Like hell I will," he said, but his voice was thin, more grieving than angry.
She took a chance, turned sideways to let him get a clear view of Sidonis, who had not moved from his place slumped at the rail. "Come on. Look at him. There's nothing left to kill."
There was a heavy silence over the comm as the seconds ticked by, and then Garrus spoke again, his voice thick. "My men. They deserved better."
Sidonis spoke up again. "Tell Garrus…" He trailed off into discordant subtones. "I guess there's nothing I can say." He sounded defeated. Lost. He still hadn't moved.
After a moment, she heard a breath in her ear.
"Just…go. Tell him to go."
She turned to face Sidonis again. "He's letting you go."
He blinked up at her, and for a moment, she thought he was on the brink of arguing, but at last he exhaled and straightened up, looked up toward the dark of the maintenance tunnels, where Garrus waited out of sight. He stood still for a second, and she thought he would say something more, but he only shook his head and murmured, "Thanks."
She did not think he was honestly grateful.
She met Garrus back at the cab. The energy seemed to have bled out of him, his shoulders slumped and his hands loosely curled at his sides. Before she could say anything, he skewered her with a look.
"I know you want to talk about this. But I don't." He glanced away. "Not yet."
She let out a breath. "All right."
It was a tense, quiet week after the incident with Sidonis. Garrus kept to himself in the main battery, and Shepard let him be. He was professional about the whole thing. Did his work, took his meals, wasn't shy about letting her know if the guns needed anything or he saw a problem brewing somewhere. But he stopped showing up in the observation room at night, and kept the talks between them during the day strictly to business.
The sudden distance was unsettling, shocking almost, like a sudden draft of frigid air through a warm room. She felt strangely adrift and unbalanced, and the thought that the friendship between them might be irrevocably damaged weighed heavy on her.
She still wasn't sure she'd made the right call in letting Sidonis go. It was easy to stand back from a distance and call it the moral choice. But she remembered the bodies in the corners of that apartment on Omega and the edge Garrus had carried for the weeks afterward. How did you reckon the cost of a thing like that? And how did you pay it when there was no law to take the case?
She'd put herself in front of Sidonis for Garrus, not for the sake of some abstract moral principle, that much she knew. Watching him hunt down Sidonis had set the hairs at the back of her neck prickling. Harkin, of all people, had put it clearly: that cold, vicious fury hadn't been like Garrus. It was true that he had a temper, and a calculating, ruthless streak that made him a good tactician and an excellent sniper. But she'd never seen him so driven by his emotions. The man she knew and had come to call a friend was one of the most self-disciplined people she'd ever met. When Garrus was disturbed, she was used to him exerting his self-control to the utmost, sinking himself into calibration cycles or gun mods or decryption programs while he sorted out whatever was going on in his head. She'd never watched him focus his anger on an external target before, and the implied loss of self-control was distubing.
After a week or so, she found herself in the main battery again, Garrus' back to her as he hunched over the console. She hesitated a moment, and then stepped forward so the door closed behind her.
"You ready to have that talk yet?" she asked quietly.
He was still for a moment before straightening up slowly and turning to face her. "What's to say? You made your point."
"There's more to it than that, and you know it. I wasn't trying to make a point."
He leaned back against the console, crossing his arms over his chest, but his voice remained level. "Then what were you trying to do? You had no right to interfere, Shepard. It was my choice to make."
She watched him for a moment, and then took a deep breath. "Yeah. You're right. And I'm sorry."
Garrus paused and tilted his head to look down at her, startled.
She met his eyes. "You had me worried. I didn't - I didn't want you to do anything you'd regret. But I still shouldn't have tried to make the choice for you." She swallowed. "So. How badly did I screw up?"
He regarded her steadily for a moment before giving a small shake of his head. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet, the same timbre he used when they talked about bad dreams in the middle of the night in the observation room.
"Maybe you didn't." He looked away. "I never could figure out what made those men follow me on Omega. That wasn't a war we were going to win."
That admission felt like a blow to the gut. She'd never questioned - hadn't really wanted to think about - the how and why of Garrus' crusade on Omega. But she held her peace and let him talk.
"But they followed me. Trusted me. I owed them a better end than that. I made a mistake with Sidonis. And I thought I would have paid any price to correct it. But when I had him in my sights…. " He shook his head again. "Even if you hadn't stepped in front of him, I'm not sure I'd have taken the shot. Or maybe I would have and then regretted it later. I don't know."
Heart heavy in her chest, she moved to stand next to him. He let her, moving over a little to make room, and she leaned back against the control console alongside him.
"He turned himself in to C-Sec, you know," he said after a moment. "Same day we tracked him down. They won't be able to do anything, since it's out of their jurisdiction. But I guess it's something."
"Nothing's ever black and white, huh?" she asked quietly.
Garrus gave a bitter laugh. "I used to think it was. It was one of the nice things about C-Sec: you knew who your bad guys were. Sometimes you didn't get them, but you always knew who they were. Things were simple. Clean. But the older I get, the more shades of grey I see." He shook his head. "I just don't know what to do with that."
"You make the best judgment you can based on the information you have. And sometimes you've just got to trust your instincts."
"My instincts are what got me into this mess in the first place."
"Don't be too hard on yourself."
He gave a dissatisfied grunt in response, but she knew better than to push.
They stayed there for a little while, side-by-side, thinking their own thoughts. At last, Shepard stirred and turned to face him.
"I ought to get back to those reports." She looked him square in the eye. "Are we okay?"
She'd asked him almost the same thing after Saleon. Garrus must have remembered it too, because this time he stuck his hand out first.
"Yeah. We're okay."
They clasped hands and she turned to go. She made it about halfway back to the door before his voice stopped her.
"Shepard. Thanks. For everything."
She hesitated briefly before swiveling back to face him. "See you in the observation room tonight?"
He gave her a grin, the one she'd grown to think of as gentle, with his mandibles fanned out a little.
"Yeah. I'd like that."
Things weren't quite the same between them since Sidonis. Once again, something had imperceptibly shifted in their relationship, leaving them both fumbling a little to find their way across the gap between them. Little things. Subtle things that maybe wouldn't mean much to anyone else. But Shepard knew things were different, and she was damned sure Garrus knew it too.
They'd stopped the pretense that their meetings in the observation room were coincidental. She'd started that, when she'd asked if she'd see him there after they'd made up. But Garrus had continued it the next night when he'd sent her a message that he was on his way, asking if she wanted him to grab her a beer. That was another thing that was different. Sometimes, they had a drink. Nothing excessive or inappropriate. But it was oddly intimate, a tacit acknowledgment of lowered barriers. They talked about the same things they always had - dumb jokes and old stories and the latest mission. And sometimes they didn't talk at all, and there was nothing uncomfortable in the silence.
Sometimes, in those quiet spaces, Shepard found herself stealing looks at him and wondering.
The incident with Sidonis had given her a lot to chew over. The number of people she'd willingly put her head in a set of crosshairs for was damned small. The weight that had settled on her in the aftermath, when she'd thought she might have pushed their friendship past its breaking point, had been heavier than she'd expected. And the relief when they'd made amends had been startlingly sharp.
Altogether, it was enough to make her think that that weird attraction was something serious. Something she ought to act on.
Sometimes, she caught Garrus looking at her too, and she wondered if maybe she wasn't the only one nursing an unexpected streak of xenophiliac curiosity.
She had no idea how to broach the topic. She'd had a few (mostly regrettable) one-night stands in the earlier days of her service, and a couple of more serious relationships. But they'd always started from a safe distance, and it had been clear from the outset what both parties wanted. Pursuing a relationship with a close friend was a different matter entirely, even leaving out the fact that she knew next to nothing about turian romantic etiquette.
And then, one night, they'd been telling each other old stories, tallying up the risky missions they'd been on in the past. It was something halfway between a game of psychological chicken and a pep talk - neither one of them was mentioning the fact that going up against the Collectors was likely to be the riskiest mission they'd ever done, but the thought was there. Talking about the risks they'd run and survived did something to make it less insurmountable.
Shepard finished up her story - it was the one about the time she'd nearly blown herself up with her own grenade deep in the middle of a slavers' camp. Now, years after the fact, it was funny, in an awful sort of way. At the time, it had been terrifying.
Garrus snorted out a laugh with her at the end, and one of those comfortable silences came between them for a bit. After a while, he shifted, tilted his head to look down at her.
"It's strange serving on a human ship, sometimes. You don't prepare for high-risk missions the way turian crews do."
She arched a brow, curious. Garrus had never had a problem fitting into the Normandy's routine, but he'd spent a lot of time around other species in C-Sec. "How do turian crews prepare?"
He shrugged casually. "With violence, usually."
Shepard blinked, startled, and Garrus flicked her a grin, pleased with getting the verbal drop on her, before continuing. "Hierarchy ships have more operational discipline, but fewer personal restrictions. Our commanders run us tight, and they know we need to blow off steam. There are combat sims, training rooms, full-contact sparring… whatever lets people work off stress."
"You have crewmen fighting each other before a mission?" she asked, fascinated.
"Supervised, of course. It's a good way to settle grudges amicably."
"Does it work?"
"Sure it does." His words slowed into that cadence he got when he was telling a story, and Shepard grinned and settled back to listen. "I remember this one time…. This recon scout and I had been at each other's throats for the whole tour. Nerves, mostly. But we were about to hit a batarian pirate squad, and she suggested we settle it in the ring before the mission."
"Took her down gently?"
Garrus flicked a mandible at her. "We were the two top-ranked hand-to-hand specialists on the ship, actually. I had reach, but she had flexibility. It was brutal. Nine rounds before the judge called it a draw. Lots of unhappy bettors that day."
"A tie, Vakarian?" she teased. "That must have stung."
He coughed and glanced away. "We, ah, had a tiebreaker in her quarters afterward. I had reach, but she had flexibility." His voice was caught somewhere between smug and uncomfortable. "More than one way to work off stress, I guess."
Her brain seemed to freeze up for a second, and before she knew it, the words burst out of her. "We're on a pretty stressful mission right now. Maybe we should relieve some tension together."
Garrus turned to face at her, looking utterly flummoxed and more than a little bit wary. "I, ah, didn't think you'd feel like sparring."
For a moment, she wavered. She could back out, and things would continue as they were. Or she could seize on the opening and follow it through.
She took a deep breath. What the hell. She'd never believed in doing things halfway.
"I was thinking we could skip right to the tiebreaker."
Garrus stared blankly at her, utterly still, and she watched him, heart in her throat.
"I… huh," he said slowly. "Never knew you had a weakness for men with scars." He blinked, inhaled sharply, and locked his eyes onto hers. "Well, why the hell not? There's nobody in the galaxy I respect more than you."
She felt something yield and give inside her, and a broad smile blaze its way across her face.
"If we can figure out a way to make it work, then yeah. Definitely," said Garrus, his grin answering hers.
Daring, she sought out his hand with hers. It took a little fumbling, but they found a way to lace their fingers together.
"Yeah," she breathed. "We'll make it work."
Shepard found her way down to the main battery early the next day. Garrus was at his usual spot, the familiar curve of his back hunched over the controls console. She could feel her pulse pick up a little on seeing him.
It had felt easy, the night before, to push that conversation past the boundaries of friendship. Not the kind of easy that came without trying or the kind of easy that meant insignificant, but the kind of easy that happened when you were caught up in something and it was pulling you along for the ride. Like jumping over a chasm: gravity was there, pulling you down, but momentum and adrenaline were there to push you forward.
Now, in the light of morning, the gap looked a lot wider and deeper than it had last night.
The door closed behind her, and Garrus turned to face her. In spite of her nerves, she felt felt herself smile, and something inside her unclenched on seeing him do the same.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey, yourself," she rejoined, and there was a second of awkward silence, while they both stood there, grinning stupidly at each other.
After a moment, he shifted his weight, just as she opened her mouth to speak.
They caught each other's eyes, and the tension that had been building between them dissolved as they both laughed.
"You first," she said.
He nodded slowly, and leaned back against the console, his expression gone serious. "What we talked about last night. Are you…" he hesitated, and cocked his head in the way that meant he was thinking over his words carefully. "Are you sure about this? You have options, Shepard. You could find something a little closer to home, if you wanted."
There was a thread of uncertainty lurking in his voice, and she remembered, suddenly and vividly, those weeks after she'd first met him, when his eyes and teeth had made her flich. She felt a brief flash of shame at the memory, and knew that she had to make herself completely clear to him right here and now.
She took a deep breath and stepped closer to him, not quite in his space, but right at its borders. "I don't want something closer to home." Deliberately, she let her gaze linger on the planes of his face before looking him straight in the eye. "I want you. Not someone else."
She was close enough to hear his breath hitch a little. "What about you?" she asked quietly. "Are you sure about this? I don't want to pressure you into something you're not comfortable with."
"Shepard. You're the best friend I've got. You don't have to worry about making me uncomfortable." His mandible flicked out in a familiar smirk. "Nervous, maybe. But never uncomfortable." Garrus took a short step forward, and now they were in each other's space. He leaned down a little, examining her face as closely as she'd examined his a moment ago. "I'm not going to pretend I have a fetish for humans. But that's not what this is about."
She met his eyes again, and felt that connection strike through her like the toll of a bell. "No. It's not," she said, feeling herself smile. She hesitated briefly, and then closed the gap between them and laid her hand on his left cheek, her thumb overlapping the blue streak under his eye. Garrus leaned into her touch, and carefully mirrored her. His cheekbone was smooth and hard, but warm under her fingers, and she could feel the subtle twitch of his jaw muscles as his mandibles fluttered briefly. His hand on her cheek felt strange, large and oddly proportioned, but she leaned into him, and his fingers curled to follow the line of her skull. It was an alien sensation, but also a peaceful one.
"I have no idea what I'm doing here," she blurted out after a moment.
Garrus blinked, and then laughed, his voice bright with relief. "Neither do I. I guess we're going to have to do some research."
She smirked. "Research, huh?"
He groaned. "Not going to take it easy on me, I see."
"No free passes, Vakarian."
They separated a little ways, both of them smiling. "You're probably right. About the research," she admitted, and then grimaced. "Mordin may have some suggestions."
He tilted his head inquisitively. "Mordin."
She shook her head. "Don't ask."
Garrus made an amused subvocal hum before turning his attention back to her. "We can take it slow," he suggested. "Take some time to figure things out."
"Yeah. We can do that," she grinned back at him. "We're both adults. I'm sure we can work out the logistics."
Abruptly, he leaned down and pressed his forehead to hers. Shepard blinked, startled at the sudden warmth and pressure and the closeness of his eyes, all at once aware that she was out of her depth.
"For what it's worth, Shepard, I think we're off to a pretty good start."
She felt her heart beating fast at the base of her throat, and had the sense of things settling into place. She pressed back against him.
"Yeah. I think you're right."
They pulled apart after a moment, and just watched each other for a breath. Garrus looked surprised and a little off-balance, and she thought she probably looked the same.
She took a deep breath. "So. I'll see you after shift tonight?"
"I'll let you get back to work, then."
Garrus scoffed and flicked a mandible at her. "Because I'm in a great place to optimize firing algorithms right now."
Shepard laughed, relieved that even with this new thing between them, the fundamental character of their relationship remained familiar and comfortable. Yeah, she thought, with sudden, irrational conviction. Yeah, this is going to work.
"Just concentrate on those calibrations, Vakarian," she said, and exited the battery, heart light in her chest.
They took it slow.
It wasn't in either of their natures to rush ahead blindly, and the situation was new to both of them. Their friendship had built itself incrementally, shaping itself out of layers of shared experience and mutual respect so gradually that Shepard couldn't pinpoint the start of it with any certainty. In light of that, it was natural to let things take their course as they would.
But even if they had wanted to hurry things along, the realities of interspecies dating proved daunting.
The information Mordin had been able to provide was sobering. Although human-turian relations were possible, they weren't simple or easy. The clinical literature was haunted by words like abrasion and chafing. And anaphylaxis.
They were fortunate. Neither she nor Garrus displayed anything more than mild sensitivity to opposite chirality proteins, but an allergy could develop at any time. Both now carried sublingual anti-anaphylaxis tabs with them.
There were other, more ordinary obstacles to be overcome as well. Even the simplest physical intimacy could take a few attempts to work out. The first time she tried to embrace him, she was stymied by the jut of his keelbone, before realizing she would have to angle her body along his side. Garrus had been unsure where to place his hands, hovering them awkwardly over her cowl-less shoulders before settling them against her back. Turian affections involved a lot of face-to-face gestures. The forehead-touching she could reciprocate. The gentle glide of his mandible along her jaw, less so, though she did her best to compensate with hands and lips and tongue. Kissing was a similar exercise in negotiation and compromise. It would be a grave injustice to call their first attempts at necking anything but "sloppy" and "awkward." It made her feel uncomfortably young, like a pawing, fumbling teenager again.
There were occasional flashes of dissonance as well. Moments when she was suddenly aware of the alien feel of his plating and the strangeness of his features. She suspected Garrus had them also - there were instants when he would go still against her, his eyes wide with something like surprise. Neither of them ever mentioned it aloud, both preferring to make their apologies with their actions.
With another partner, it would have been enough to put her off. But for all the difficulty and strangeness of romancing someone of another species, there were also things that fit together so rightly it took her breath away.
Sometimes, they got things lined up just right, so that the warmth and closeness and the feel of each other's breath set her blood racing and shadowed the undertones of his voice. The first time it happened, she almost laughed aloud in relief: she had not been entirely sure that response would be there. Both were quick learners and not averse to practice, so it happened more and more often. And even when they flubbed it, when one of them moved too fast and they wound up knocking heads, or getting her hair snarled around his mandibles, they could lean against each other and laugh about it, which was an intimacy of an entirely different sort.
Their everyday relationship was, outwardly, much the same. They were discreet and professional. They performed their duties as they always had. And if sometimes they'd casually brush shoulders as they passed and exchange a glance, it was no one's business but their own.
The thing of it was, it was the same friendship they'd had before, with the same serious conversations and old stories and shitty jokes. But now the careful distance they'd kept was peeled back and it felt so damn honest that she had to wonder just how long this had been building up between them and how they'd failed to notice.
She was pretty damned sure they'd passed "blowing off steam" a long time ago.
"This was a good idea," she said to Garrus one night, gesturing to encompass the both of them. They were in her cabin. Most of their late night talks took place there, now that talking was no longer the only thing on the agenda. At the moment, they were leaning into each other, not discussing anything in particular, idly holding hands. His gloves were missing, and the top few buttons of her collar were still undone from earlier.
"Glad I'm up to your exacting standards."
He flicked her a brief grin before sobering.
"Sounded crazy at first. Still does. But I'm glad we took the chance."
"Well worth the risk," she said quietly, and squeezed his hand.
Garrus made a contented-sounding noise in the back of his throat, and settled further into the couch. She let the change in position tip her against him, a long line of warmth along her side where they touched. She was suddenly struck hard by the peace and stillness of the moment, and its ephermerality.
The Omega-4 relay. A suicide mission, if there ever was one.
"Hey," she said, around the sudden thickness in her throat. "When this is over, what do you want to do?" She felt the wrongness of the question as soon as she said it – up to now, they'd carefully avoided any talk of the future.
Garrus went very still for an instant. Then, he exhaled quietly and shifted to face her more directly.
"I think," he said, his tone deliberately light, "we should take a vacation. Surely by now we're owed a paid leave."
Something unknotted in her chest, and she gave his hand another squeeze before answering, making her tone of voice match his.
"Sounds like a lot of paperwork."
"Hand the paperwork off to Lawson. That's the XO's job."
She snorted. "Thought this through, huh?"
"You know I like to plan ahead." His chin was resting on the top of her head now, and she could feel the resonance of his voice as he spoke.
"Planned out where we should go?"
He was quiet a moment before responding. "Up to you. I'll go wherever you want me to."
Her breath caught a little. Then Garrus cleared his throat and drew back slightly to look her in the eye.
"Except Noveria," he said, very seriously. "I know you thought it was scenic, but that's where I draw the line, Shepard."
"Noted." She laughed softly to cover up the ache in her heart, and pulled him down for a kiss.
Rating bumps up to an M here. Nothing graphically described, but NSFW.
The Normandy was still around her, silent in a way that reminded Shepard of the cold bleakness of Alchera. Her steps rang loud on the deck, echoing in the empty air of the CIC. Behind her, Joker hunched into his chair, a small figure lost against the blackness of the cockpit windows.
There was an anger in her, a patient, smoldering burn looking for the right time and place to ignite. It was an old friend that she knew from many battles, and she'd be glad to have it when the time came to fight. But under it, she was weary, sick with the absence of the crew.
A whole ship full of people who'd entrusted their duty and safety to her. Gone.
Garrus was waiting for her, leaning against the bulkhead across from the elevator. He pushed off the wall as she approached, so that they stood side-by-side. His hand clasped over her shoulder, and he leaned down to touch his forehead to hers.
"We'll get them back, Shepard."
Had there been anyone else to see, she might have protested the intimacy. But they were alone, and she was grateful for the steady warmth of his presence. She leaned into him and breathed deep.
"We will," she said firmly, covering his hand with her own.
For a while, they rested against each other quietly. Finally, she pulled back and met his eyes again.
"A while to go till we hit the relay. Keep me company?"
He searched her face a moment before he nodded. Then, he coughed and glanced to the side.
"Let me make a stop in my quarters first. I got us a bottle of wine. I was thinking… well, it doesn't matter what I was thinking. But I figure we could both use a drink right about now."
She squeezed his hand. "Meet you in five in my cabin, then."
Garrus arrived promptly, dressed in civvies which had seen better days, bottle in hand. He raised it as he entered, and in return, she raised the glasses she'd dug out of her cabinet.
After the wine was poured, they sat together on the tiny, stiff couch and drank. The taste was bland, lukewarm and faintly bitter.
"Not much, is it?" said Garrus wryly.
"I've had worse."
He grimaced. "Best I could afford on a vigilante's salary. Their selection of dual-chiral alcohol was somewhat lacking."
"Were you saving it for something?"
He gave a small, nervous laugh. "I thought, maybe once this was over…. Hell, Shepard," he said, sounding suddenly tired, "I've seen so many things go wrong. We both have. What we have here," he took a breath and gestured with the wineglass at the space between them, "I want to do this right."
She swallowed against the sudden tightness in her chest, and set her glass down, reaching out to cup his face in her hand and turn it towards her.
"I don't think you have anything to worry about there."
He watched solemnly for a moment before she felt him relax into her hands and she leaned over to kiss him.
They took their time with the act, slow and thorough. Garrus' hands settled at her waist, thumbs stroking along the curve of her hipbone. Shepard let her hands drift to the sensitive places at the back of his neck and under his fringe, and smiled against his mouth when he hummed appreciatively at the contact. For a while, she closed her eyes and guided herself just by the feel of his breath and tongue and the pressure of his hands, steadying herself against the warmth of his body.
They broke apart for air, and Garrus leaned over her shoulder to nip gently at her earlobe, flicking out a mandible to skate along her jaw. The sudden sensation startled a laugh out of her. It did her good, eased some of the weight that had been bearing down on her for hours. Garrus pulled back, looking inordinately pleased with himself, and she regarded him fondly, feeling her heart swell and thunder in her chest.
She caught his hand and, on impulse, pressed a kiss to the inside of his wrist before standing and pulling him to his feet after her. "Come on, Vakarian. If we're going to do this right, let's get off the couch."
"You always were a stickler for proper procedure."
Her laugh turned into a gasp as he leaned in and ran his tongue along the tendon from the hollow of her clavicle to the hinge of her jaw. In retaliation, she grabbed hold of his shirt and set about undoing the clasps at his collar.
They stumbled their way across her cabin to the bed, shedding clothing as they went. When they got there, they toppled over in a mutual bid to undo each other's pants. Finally, they were naked, and they both paused, taking each other in. A flicker of uncertainty reasserted itself in Shepard's psyche as she tallied up all the strange differences. Garrus was silent, watching her intently. After a second, his eyes met hers.
"So this is the part where I prove I really did watch all those vids Joker sent, right?"
She produced an undignified choking noise. "Joker sent you vids?"
"Don't worry - I trashed all of them except for the really good ones."
He was wearing the grin he got when he was bullshitting her for all he was worth. She sputtered into laughter, and he joined her. The last bit of her unease melted away, and she reached out to cross the gap between them.
Their instincts didn't line up one-to-one. Garrus was more interested in the bony crest of her hip and the sweep of her collarbone than her breasts, and she doubted a turian woman would have paid so much attention to the pattern of the plating across his chest and stomach. But the thing was, it worked, even if it didn't work in the ways she was accustomed to. They found the places on each other that drew a groan, or a clenched hand, or a hitched breath, and eagerly sought them out, a private game - almost a competition - between them.
"Always did like a challenge," she told Garrus somewhere in the middle of it, having just discovered the sensitive patch at the top of his hips.
"You and me both," he gasped out, and rolled them over to mouth at her breasts.
The actual act, when they got to it, was clumsy as hell. The fit between them was awkward, different from what either was used to, and there were a number of frustrating false starts. But at last, they shifted a little and caught each other's eyes and felt something ignite. And that, too, worked.
Afterwards, they lay wrapped loosely around each other, and the thought of Omega-4 crept back into her mind. Garrus was still and quiet against her, expression gone distant. She watched him a moment, wondering briefly how such an alien face had become so familiar. Swallowing back the bitter thought of the future, she reached out to clasp his hand.
"So. I guess next time it's my turn to bring the wine."
She watched his attention refocus on the here and now before he pressed his forehead to hers and replied, subtones a little rough.
"Yeah. Next time."
She ran. Her heart was hammering in her chest, her ears full of the rush of feet and alien buzzing behind her and the occasional impact of a shot that made it through her shields. The timer on her HUD ticked through a countdown, indifferent to the frantic, ragged metronome of her breath.
Up ahead, the great sleek shape of the Normandy hovered, her side cargo hatch open and Joker leaning out to shout at her to Move it, Commander!
One minute and forty-three seconds, read the timer.
She put on a burst of speed and leapt. For a moment, she thought it would not be enough.
And then her hands caught the edge of the hatch and there were other hands pulling her up and into the ship. EDI said something indistinct, and Joker cursed and rushed for the elevator. A moment later, they all lurched to the side as the Normandy put on a hard burst of acceleration. Under them, the floor hummed as the drive core engaged, and there was the momentary sense of weightlessness that came with FTL speed. Joker's voice came in over the comm, tired but triumphant.
"All clear, Commander."
There was a second of stunned silence, and then the hold exploded into raucous, breathless cheering. She found Garrus at her side and pulled him into a crushing embrace, felt him return it, saying something with a lot of subtonals that her translator didn't pick up.
She paid no attention to the wetness at the corners of her eyes.
There was a celebration afterwards. The crew gathered in the port observation room to drink and talk and brag and flirt. And if there was something a little strained and desperate about it, no one mentioned it. They'd come out alive. That would have to be enough.
Shepard caught Garrus' eye across the room and gestured to the door with the bottle in her hand. He nodded, and she quietly made her way out into the hall. A few minutes later, he joined her.
"Hey," he said softly.
Without much thought, they crossed the hall to the starboard observation room. In another hour or so, the party would probably spill out to encompass the rest of the crew deck, but for now, the room was empty. They sat together on the couch, close enough to touch at the shoulder. She passed him the bottle she'd snagged for him and cracked open her own. With a groan, she leaned back into the couch, feeling the stiff muscles in her back and shoulders protest. After a second, she felt Garrus do the same.
"Long day, Shepard?"
She snorted, but felt a crooked smile cross her lips at the familiar teasing. "The longest."
"We made it." He sounded faintly disbelieving.
She reached for his hand. "Couldn't have done it without you."
"Of course you -"
She turned to look him in the eye. "I mean it."
After a moment, he relaxed and squeezed her hand back. "You know I've got your six."
For a while, they drank quietly, listening to the sounds of the party going on behind them. They didn't let go of each other's hands. When the drinks were almost gone, Garrus turned partway to look at her.
"So. What now?"
The question momentarily blindsided her. It had been a long time since there had been a future to decide. She knew it wouldn't last, but for now…
She leaned across and kissed him, slowly at first, and then harder. When she broke away, they were both a little out of breath.
"I know I promised I'd bring wine next time. But I'm hoping you'd be willing to overlook that for now."
He laughed and rested his forehead against hers. "I think I can let it slide."
She swallowed and smiled. "And maybe later we can start talking about that vacation."
Garrus went still a moment before returning the smile. "Yeah, we can do that."
That vacation wasn't coming anytime soon. They both knew it.
But for now, the promise was enough.
And we're done! Thanks for reading!