meggannn: (s;g → okakuri)
megan ([personal profile] meggannn) wrote2017-05-03 02:01 pm

Water on Mars | DVD Commentary (Pt1)

TITLE: Water on Mars
SUMMARY: With the Reapers gone, there’s Garrus and there’s Shepard, and there’s trying to make it through the aftermath with themselves intact.
Characters: Shepard/Garrus
GENRE: Gen/Drama
WC: total: 45k / Pt I: 12k / with commentary: 18k
SHOUT-OUTS: Tetrahedrals, Jen, and Keely, for betaing!
WARNINGS: There are a lot of typical themes here found in most post-war fic: PTSD, mild panic attacks, injuries and disabilities, recovery, some corpses (including children), references to childhood homelessness and all that entails. None of it is particularly gruesome or descriptive.
A/N: This is a DVD commentary version of a fic originally posted on December 26, 2016. My notes will be indented and highlighted maroon.


Garrus knows the instant he starts bleeding.

This is an overly dramatic introduction for a story where most of the conflict happens in sad conversations and internal monologuing, and similarly, the wound Garrus receives here is fairly insignificant compared to what Shepard has suffered. Obviously with every first sentence, you want to grab the reader's attention, but my intention here was less to scream 'GARRUS IS IN DANGER!' and more, 'Shit, what the hell has he gotten up to now?' It was also inspired by JK Rowling's opening onto Harry in Deathly Hallows -- the chapter opens onto the line 'Harry was bleeding,' and on my first reading I remember panicking, then realizing he'd just cut himself on a piece of a shattered mirror. (Of course, unlike Garrus's wound, Harry's mirror ends up becoming a major plot point, but that's not here or there. I always liked how she twisted the reader's expectation in that opening on the (correct) assumption that we would assume the worst.

“Shit,” he says aloud, which never helps as much as he thinks it will. Something thin and jagged — rebar? — has caught underneath his cracked chestplate, and he’d jerked the slab upward in one swift movement, feeling his underarmor tearing a moment too late. A sharp pain catches to the left of his abdomen: an underplated area, doubly vulnerable without his heavy armor today. His side grows hot and wet. Something begins trickling past his hip and down one leg.

The weird animal trapped underneath the stone block doesn’t budge, continues staring at him with steady amber eyes. He knows the fear of a starving, injured creature when he sees it, just as he knows he hardly fits the picture of a familiar human figure that it might recognize.

I had it in my head that this animal is actually a fox, not a dog; I figured if it were a dog, it would be friendlier to a stranger, even an alien, having learned that people will usually give it food, but it's not like Garrus would know that. I did seriously consider giving Shepard and Garrus a dog to adopt in this story -- James nearly managed to pressure me into it later on -- but with the two of them juggling so much baggage, I decided now wasn't the time.

“Well come on, then,” he grunts. The damn thing had been crying for over an hour as he shifted the debris; straining as he is now, he could only hold a slab up for so long while this weird Earth animal decides whether it wants a rescue or not. His visor, still cracked but churning out statistics, provides the thing’s heart rate and heat temperature. It appears low, for what little he knows of terrestrial fauna, and the way he sees it leaning on its hind legs suggests an injury on its front paws.

A — dog, he thinks? Aren’t those common on Earth? It doesn’t look like any dog he’s seen in the holos, but Vega had once told him dogs look all sorts of different, depending on the breed. It’s hard to get a clear look from his angle through the strain of concentration, but in the dark it looks a sort of rusted orange, with a wet gray undercoat that might have once been a cleaner off-white. It slowly steps into the muggy daylight, peering up at him to sniff his boot before cautiously inching back under, into the dark.

“No, don’t — ” But it sees freedom behind him, and quicker than he registers, there’s a rustle of movement to his right as the animal rushes past him into the street. Exhausted, he lets the slab of concrete fall with a large thud, mindful not to hit his feet and turns to sit atop it, sore arms dragging. Across the ruined street between a darkened alley, he sees two small, bright eyes staring at him from above an upturned trash bin. A blink later, and the thing is gone.

Among other things this fic was an interesting exercise and creative challenge in seeing the aftermath of a futuristic global war on Earth, in a game universe that... doesn't really spend a lot of time on Earth. I took a lot of liberties in this fic, accounting for humanity's jumps in technology, and emergency evacuation procedures, etc., and also tried to account for Reaper intelligence. Obviously a lot of structural damage has been done on a physical level, but Hackett's speech at the end of the game implies humanity and other races will be able to rebuild with enough time. When I pictured post-war Earth in my head, though, one thing that I couldn't stop thinking about was wildlife, particularly animals native to cities and urban areas. What happened, especially, to pets that were used to humans taking care of them? Assuming they escaped the fighting, did they starve or were they also turned into Reaper-equivalents? Will there be enough left to ever rebuild their species? Hence this scene.

Garrus looks up. It’s still drizzling, but there's still daylight to see by; a phenomenon he has learned is common here. Traynor had explained on the SR-2 that England was to water as Palaven was to heat, and that was before a mile of the embankment had collapsed and the river — the Thames, as humans call it — had spilled onto the South Bank, flooding several neighborhoods and who knows how many civilians. Now, if he believes the word, this river has become the source of the worst flooding and water damage the country has seen since the invention of the modern dam.the worst galaxy-wide superlatives for a long time coming, but even now, it never quite seems appropriate.

“At least the flood took some Brutes with it,” Vega had said last month, though the words were heavy. There had been several turian units stationed in this area as well.

My idea here is that the embankment collapsed several months post-war as a result of structural damage, forcing people to relocate upriver or north of the Thames. The Brutes that Vega refers to are corpses of the Reapers that hadn't yet been cleared out. I can't imagine many people envied whosever job it was to clean those things out. And of course, in a post-destroy universe, the relays are down, stranding most of the alien fleets in the Sol system. Turians are practical, community-serving soldiers, so I imagine if transportation was restricted then they would busy themselves with volunteering to help the locals. Deaths that come after the war as a result of cleanup are always hard to deal with, but sadly I imagine there must have been plenty of those as well.

Garrus had set out that morning with the intention, or excuse, of finding their ID tags. Standing upright within the street, the water reaches his spur. Not enough to drown in, but enough to deter what little remains of the Earth-stationed Hierarchy from volunteering, especially when manpower is still needed remodeling passenger ships, stabilizing the relays, maintaining would-be temporary base camps that are slowly turning permanent, and cataloguing remains — and the rare survivor — that don’t have the misfortune to be trapped in flooded areas.

He’d passed several human, asari, and a few salarian teams diving down into what Shepard had called the “tube,” an underground labyrinth he understood to have once been an old-fashioned public transportation system, abandoned since the introduction of the skycar. He had even noted some krogans participating — who appeared to be surprisingly good swimmers — and looked to be putting their the extra muscle to good use, carrying larger oxygen tanks to the stranded.

Now, he sits atop a fallen concrete slab in the middle of a flooded neighborhood on a strange planet, and stretches his legs. They hang several inches above the murky water. On his right is the piece of rebar that had struck him, jutting out of the ruins of what he thinks might’ve once been a cafe. The tip is covered in dark blue blood, already drying.

Something about this mental image just really attracted me to this scene. Garrus still trying to do his duty, surrounded by water in the aftermath of the war to end all wars, alone in an unfamiliar neighborhood on a foreign planet, all because one day he followed his gut instead of his orders and asked Commander Shepard if he could come along.

He presses at his waist where he’d felt it break skin, trying to assess the damage without going through the trouble of removing his armor. All of his medigel dispensers are either broken or flashing small warning: low reserves icons. He’d dispersed most of the gel he’d had as he passed by the rescued this morning. Some very resourceful, very lucky civilians had barricaded themselves within underground bunkers or reinforced basements with generators and rations when the Reapers hit, and were still being found today.

“Leftover bunkers from the World Wars,” a young, dripping wet human man had explained as he was smothered in towels and handed a levo protein bar. He seemed surprisingly cheerful for someone who had just been dragged up through a small lake of what looked to Garrus like sewage water, and had nearly the same odor. “Cheers. Sheer chance I remembered. Turns out those A-levels were good for something.”

London -- and for that matter, Europe -- isn't a stranger to war, so I was always curious what local Earth reactions would be to the Reapers. The only other notable in-universe war within memory was the First Contact War, which took place off planet, but I can't imagine people would've forgotten about old bunkers from the World Wars. It's easy to imagine parts of the American South hunkering down into bunkers with rifles and rations. Ultimately I think the Reapers probably targeted major cities on Earth -- lots of European, North American, and South and East Asian cities in particular. Population-wise, I imagine the Americas would've taken the biggest hits, especially the States. For the purposes of this fic, though, Garrus only knows in detail what happened in parts of Europe, because it's all of Earth he's seen.

Plain luck, or some kind of miracle, even now, so long after the last husk had fallen and the monstrous bodies of the Reaper still lay scattered across the cities like collapsed skyscrapers. Some were so lucky, and yet barely an hour ago he’d seen an SAR team mourning their latest discovery: several drowned children in the basement of an orphanage. The water kept them afloat and safe from scavengers, but their skin looked so bloated, nearly translucent, and their eyes still open and so —

His new wound throbs. He applies more pressure, and judges the odds of running into another squad with spare medigel any time soon unlikely. It seems a hassle to call a Hierarchy shuttle for a pickup on a minor injury like this, or even ping Cortez, who’s been eager to put the drop shuttle to good use since it had been put back in his hands.

The drizzle is turning heavier; a small pool is collecting in his collar and beginning to soak his neck. It’s summertime for this planet, and he's been told that while showers during this time of year don’t last long, it’s unwise to be caught outside. He should get going.

Garrus glances up again at the clouds, now darkening, and wonders how long he could lose himself in this ancient, flooded Earth city before someone back home begins to assume the worst.

Shepard is being released from the hospital today. She’ll wonder where he’s gone.

Anyone who knows me knows I like ambiguity and unresolved answers in the fic I read, and the fic I write is no different. This scene was my attempt at doing several things: elaborating on worldbuilding and establishing the state of the galaxy at an unspecified time post-war, exploring what Garrus is doing after the final battle, and setting the hazy tone of recovery and bittersweetness for the rest of the film, all while trying to distract from the fact that I was hiding what's happened to Shepard.

For two months he’d clamored for news, any news, the smallest rumor or faintest lead, and then on an otherwise unremarkable day, the only standing hospital within the greater London area had received a transfer request. Several nameless patients were being kept in an overrun field medic tent about twenty kilometers out, their release delayed by by fried omnitools, lost ID tags, and a million anonymous faces. Some patients were awake and only needed monitoring until release, and others were trapped in induced comas until luck or divine intervention saw fit to save them.

We could treat them, the local staff had said, but not without time and resources, and we need the space. There are people who are still dying here and can’t be moved. We’ve already turned too many away.

Tetrahedrals suggested I cut a lot of backstory into the medic tent here, what was going through their minds, the exact status of the patients, etc. I think it was a good decision because keeping those details purposefully vague here eventually gave me the idea to include them elsewhere, so now I am also actually planning a fic going to the specifics of what happened to Shepard between the Crucible firing and her ending up in a medic tent twenty km from Central London. As if I don't have enough fics on my plate already...

In the hearts of humanity’s largest urban centers, two months after the Crucible exploded and took out half the Citadel with it, most of the dying were already dead. Those with minor injuries, or the luckiest few who had managed to survive severe trauma and find aid in time, were already recovered or nearly so. Yes, they had accepted the request.

And then one of the patient’s DNA came back a match on a missing soldier.

They’d shown him a picture. It didn’t look like her. It didn’t look like anyone. Still, he’d wanted to know everything: how many injuries, how severe, how long in surgery, how long in recovery, how long until she wakes. Then they told him he could see her.

A skull fracture; a calf; two fingers; three cracked ribs, several bruised; too many lacerations to count. The leg had been amputated on site; torso wrapped; fracture healing slowly with new cybernetics; none of it without scars. For two months the patient had been in limbo waiting for proper treatment, two months among the other lost, anonymous faces in a wet tent in the English countryside. Things he had heard, but didn’t fully register, not until he saw —

“Garrus,” she’d said when he walked into her room for the first time, and that low, hoarse sound hadn’t sounded like the woman he knew to be Shepard at all. “I need to speak to Anderson.”

“Why?” Garrus replied. Some time in all of this, he had taken her hand; he still remembers the feeling of so many bones in such a small frame, just as he remembers thinking something so frail had no right to be associated with his commanding officer. She was strong. She would make it.

They’d said not to overwhelm her. Don’t talk about the war unless she asks. Head trauma, we can never know. First determine what she remembers.

“It was a trap,” she rasped, and coughed for so long he got her two refills of water. “A nest of thresher maws. The captain’ll bring it to Hackett. I need to report in.”

This of course assumes a Sole Survivor backstory, which is my personal favorite psych profile, though I think a Ruthless or Colonist Shepard might also suffer from severe flashbacks in this scenario here too.

“I’ll tell him myself,” Garrus had said, and held her hand as she drifted off.

Time, the human doctors consoled him when he explained what happened later. They hadn’t said how much.

One of my guilty pleasure tropes is amnesia, but it's guilty because I so rarely see them done well in a respectful way to the victim that I usually end up avoiding them altogether. I think after the war, it's a combination of trauma and shell-shock that has Shepard confused, not lasting brain damage, but I think it's an interesting fanon that Shepard probably suffers from slight long-term memory loss after the Crucible fires. We don't know what kind of energy it was made of or how hard she fell, but in the immediate aftermath, I'd be very surprised if she'd be able to remember everything, which is partly why she was difficult to find even though she's been conscious for a while. I also figure her omnitool along with any tech -- including a fair amount of cybernetics -- were probably fried in the blast and had to be repaired, so nobody was able to track her location.

Miranda had still been missing, back then. He couldn’t help thinking that if she’d been there, a more efficient schedule of surgeries and plans for rehabilitation might already be in effect, plans that might get quicker, less painful results than the waiting they had been stuck in since they limped back into the Sol system. Longer.
He’d told her to come back alive, and she had. They’d never made any promises on condition.

As he reaches the hospital, he receives a quick message from Cortez confirming his predictions: they’ve grounded her, of course. Indefinite medical leave of absence. Completely justifiable, if you ask him, though he’d jump into that flooded district before saying so aloud within earshot of Shepard. She has difficulty walking straight for minutes at a time without needing a rest, her prosthetics still need regular PT, the new eye is still sensitive to daylight without cloud cover, and the only reason they’d released her in the first place is because Chakwas knows her patients well enough to recognize when spending time in a hospital is starting to do more harm than good.

Some people will probably recognize the phrase "the flooded district," which is a level in Dishonored 1. It was originally unintentional to draw similarities between the two, but since Dunwall -- the setting -- was heavily inspired by 18th century London and Edinburgh I figured if it came to mind while reading this scene, the comparison might not hurt. (Here are some pictures of the Flooded District in Dunwall, which isn't entirely unlike how I imagine post-war London in my mind.)

“Garrus,” Shepard calls out from the entrance. She’s waiting for him at the edge of the pickup lot in the wheelchair. Her left eye is still covered, but even with one side of her face visible, he can tell she’s in much better spirits than he’d imagined with a semi-permanent medical leave hanging over her head. “What the hell happened to you?”

Obviously this is a far cry from the last time we saw her, delirious and confused in a hospital bed. This is some time after the earlier scene, but the shift is intentional: I imagine Garrus gets the same feeling of whiplash around Shepard too, particularly during her recovery; slow as it may be, he knows she's making progress. As anyone who suffers from chronic pain or mental illness probably knows, a good day can turn into a bad day in an instant, and he'd want to be there to ride it out with her.

He looks down. He’d grabbed some medigel from a station at the front and removed his chestpiece to apply it himself, but he hadn’t cleaned the blood off his plating. It’s soaked through the underarmor beneath and looks nearly black against his suit. “Accident,” he says. “All fixed.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“Nurse at the front gave me a clean bill of health.” He puts his right hand over his crest as he walks over — a little lower than where his heart is, and on the wrong side, but he’s really been hanging around humans for too long. “Scout’s honor.”

She smiles at that. He hazards a guess that today might be a better one; no doubt she's cheered by the prospect of traveling somewhere that isn't fifty feet within the hospital's perimeter. “Have you seen our chauffer?”

“Not for a few days.” Garrus reaches her wheelchair stopbreaks and grasps the handles, bringing her closer to the street to give Cortez better access. “You saw how thrilled he was to have the Kodiak back. He might’ve coerced Vega to hijack it with him and run off to Riyoo.”

Turians misusing human slang and mispronouncing words -- and aliens in general, though mostly turians for some reason -- is one of my favorite ME tropes. In fairness to Garrus, Shepard can't pronounce a fair amount of turian words or locations properly either.

“Rio, Garrus. Do you — ” She breaks off into a cough that lasts long enough for him to grow concerned, but not enough to convince him to call a nurse over. Shepard waves a hand in front of her, as if to clear the air of whatever was caught in her lungs. “Do you even know where that is?”

“Haven’t a clue,” he replies, eyes scanning the horizon. He spots a familiar vehicle headed their way amidst the dozen dotting the sky. “There he is.”

Overhead, the sun is beginning to break through the heavy clouds and Shepard shields her visible eye with her left hand — Garrus is still getting used to two of her fingers glinting of steel. From the hospital’s position on the hill, London seems to flatten, and rows of crumbling office and thin townhouses roll off into the direction of the river. Just three months ago, the majority of the city’s infrastructure had been abandoned. And then, in a city far to the north — one whose name he still had trouble pronouncing, which Shepard loved to tease him over — what remained of several steel manufacturing warehouses made contact, and offered their tools and labor in exchange for transportation, shelter, and rations. Half of the skyline is now filled with rack supports, towering cranes, and assisting helicopters. He knows it’s the result of several blocks of being reduced to rubble, knows that the planet and many more are filled with the same sights, and yet the view, in a breathtakingly terrible sort of way, is unlike any other he’s seen on Earth so far.
An odd reminder, that the Reapers didn’t destroy everything in their genocidal cycles. They took intelligent life, but left tools to rebuild and reuse.

Exposition like this is my least favorite kind, just a chunk of text dumped into a scene -- I usually prefer to reveal details of the world as characters move through their environments, which is usually how people think about what they're interacting with in real life anyway -- but I felt it was necessary here to give some sense of where they are and how the city is doing on the whole. London has some really beautiful skylines, and it hurt to imagine how much it would've changed after the Reapers.

In front of them, the skycar lands. A door opens and a dark head pokes over the roof of the car on the other side.

“You parked in the wrong direction,” Shepard calls out, and Cortez laughs as he heads around the front. “Cars go the other way here, remember?”

“This is the thanks I get.” He leans down to embrace her gingerly, but Garrus sees her grip is hard on his back, squeezing tight. “Wanted a familiar face to take you to your new home. They finally gave me clearance to fly — I had to take every driving test known to mankind all over again after the crash, can you believe? Hey, Garrus.”

“Good to see you, Steve.” And it is: Cortez’s head injury after the crash in Westminster had taken him out for three months, and by the time the Kodiak was put on the roster for repairs, he’d been itching to get his hands behind any wheel at all. “You sure you passed that exam? I don’t recall seeing your turn signal there.”

“See if you can find another pilot to put up with you for the ride over, then.” Cortez grasps his hand firmly, then steps back for a better look at Shepard. “All right, General, I’m afraid this thing doesn't have handicap access. How are we doing this?”

Cortez isn't a shuttle pilot before ME3, though he mentions he takes over duties after the Earth evac out of necessity. Personally, I think he has a knack for it, so I kept him as a pilot in the aftermath. Plenty of VIPs probably wanted the pilot that kept Commander Shepard out of danger in a warzone flying them around the globe, so I can't imagine he wants for work.

Shepard frowns at that, and Garrus tries to hide his amusement. While her status had still been MIA, Shepard had been posthumously promoted by some hasty decision-makers within the Alliance brass. It was news Shepard had later greeted in the hospital with humor, then disbelief, and finally shock as she realized the news was, in fact, quite true after all.

“Gently, please,” she responds, and when Garrus leans down to remove her from the wheelchair, she squints at him. “I can walk long enough to make it into a damn aircar, Garrus.”

She seems in a good enough mood today. Some days, her struggles to rise from bed set the tone for the rest of the morning. “You didn’t have a leg six weeks ago. Indulge me.”

I don't know diddly-squat about most medical terminology, so here is when my powers of bullshittery start stretching the limits of believability. Smart readers might ask, if this is the future, why couldn't they clone her cells and regrow her leg with enough time? I don't know. I'm going with 1) the necessary resources aren't available immediately after the war, 2) priority was given to saving her life over regrowing bones, 3) her leg was crushed and had to be amputated on site several months before she was discovered, leaving her leg incredibly sensitive to new cells, and 4) infection to her knee, which will likely never recover fully, on regrowing cells was too high to risk. It's possible regrowing a leg with all of that would still be possible because it's the future and space magic is possible, but that is for minds greater than mine to figure out. She now has a very advanced prosthetic, but it's taking some getting used to.

“I won’t get used to it if I don’t test it,” she argues, but lets him lift and relocate her to the back of the car without further protesting. “What, I don’t even get to sit in the front?”

Garrus recites: “‘In the case of an emergency, prioritization should be given to children, the elderly — ’”

“ — I know what the damn C-Sec traffic regulations say, you just want shotgun.”

He hmms. “Consider it payback for all the times you stuck me in the back in the Mako. My legs are twice as long as yours, I need twice the room.”

“You were the only one who knew how to operate that machine gun without it overheating every ten seconds. It was a tactical placement.”

“And we’re off,” Cortez announces, and Garrus registers he’s folded the chair into the trunk and started the car in the time it’s taken him to climb into the front seat. The ignition burns, and within seconds, they’re airborne. “Joker wasn’t kidding about you two.”

In the rearview mirror, Garrus sees Shepard smile. “My pilots are gossiping about their commanding officer?”

“What’s there to gossip about?” Garrus muses as he looks down over the diminishing landscape. “We’re not discreet.”
“Yes, that’s what we gossip about.”

'Cause you know the squad talked about these two the instant they'd leave a room together back on the Normandy...

Cortez drives in silence for a few minutes, in which time the sun finally decides to break its cloud cover and washes the gray from the city. In the year he’s been stationed here, Garrus has learned sunlight is a rare enough occurrence in this city to enjoy it, even if the car’s shields aren’t enough to fully block the window glare.

“We’re nearly there — oh, I don’t think I said where. You’ll be in Islington,” Cortez tells them. “They put Hackett in a place near you while he’s here, though for security I’m not meant to say where.”

“It’s all right, I’ll just open the window and shout ‘till he responds. Islington’s quiet enough.”

I've never been to Islington, so I chose this location entirely off of research. It's difficult to predict two hundred years into the future how socioeconomic neighborhood maps might change, though I imagine some places may stay the same, especially in old places that value tradition like England does. I mention elsewhere in this fic that Shepard is from "south of the Thames" - it's not specified where, but I imagine her work with the Reds would've brought her all over the city for things like raids or thefts enough to be familiar with most areas.

I originally was going to come up with a fake neighborhood in London to put Shepard and Garrus, and nothing other than my lack of imagination coming up with a name for said fake neighborhood really prevented that from happening.

“You’ll — that’s right! I keep forgetting because you sound so American. You’re from here, right, or somewhere around here?”

I can't imagine any other voice than Jennifer Hale's for femShep, so in my head this Earthborn non-American Shepard sound like she does because a) her Alliance service has mostly been spent in the company of Americans, and b) she didn't mind losing the accent to remove herself from her old life as a gangster. (Of course, if we ever heard Hale recite Shepard's lines in a Cockney accent, I'd be all over that.)

“Somewhere around here,” Shepard repeats. Garrus sees her in his passenger window staring down at the tiny buildings. He thinks, briefly, about saying something, but decides just as quickly against.

As Shepard indicated, another few minutes bring them to a quiet neighborhood on the edge of the city. The Reapers had targeted Earth’s largest population centers, but left the suburbs to their mutated ground forces: now, a year later, some of the luckier streets look absurdly picturesque, as though the neighborhoods had been locked down for quarantine and emerged only when the war was over. Garrus recalls from that morning the sight of entire streets flooded with debris, murky water, and drowned creatures. Unnerving, how quickly many communities were able to bounce back, while not two kilometers away, so many others are struggling for anything from spare blankets to children’s toothpaste.

He’s heard some human politicians are considering abandoning certain districts of South London entirely, at least until the flood recedes in the years to come. Privately, Garrus can’t help but sympathize. The shock of seeing those young bodies this morning, so long after the fighting finished, hasn’t quite left him.

I see a lot of post-war fic has Shepard stuck in prefabs or military lodgings, which makes sense, but also I figure if they're in London, some buildings must still have some of the highest security measures in the country, if not the world (provided they're still working). On the Alliance's end, this is a reason to a) give Shepard a bit of a breather from feeling obligated to work while she recovers, b) place her in a secure location they know any terrorists won't think to look, c) while know she's well protected in a well shielded unit with wheelchair access, and d) give her a place for her to retire post-recovery if she so chooses. Narratively, it's also me giving Shepard and Garrus a break from military life, as it's their first time sharing a domestic space together (I don't really count Shep's cabin).

My largest problem with removing them from local Alliance prefabs was setting up more worldbuilding for the area. What kind of destruction did this neighborhood face? I decided to make it seemingly-idyllic, not without thought, to contrast the rest of the city. If the Reapers targeted urban centers, I imagine politicians and other high-level bureaucrats were evacuated first (though obviously the fact that they haven't returned likely means they didn't make it), leaving richer areas empty. Aside from looters and squatters during the war, if there were no people around to kill or turn, I see the Reapers leaving low-density neighborhoods alone; their concern was harvesting, not structural destruction

And now we have a weirdly normal-looking neighborhood post-war while the rest of the downtown is rubble and water. Shepard's psychological state fascinates me most, so in all honesty, this fic is also an excuse to explore it when they're finally out of the fire.
Earthborn Shepard is used to living with nothing and crawling her way up from rock bottom; her childhood and military life has taught her the necessity of frugality and practicality. Practically, the Alliance is trying to take care of her, but now she finds herself living in a former politican's home which she might very well have robbed given the chance fifteen years ago; Garrus considers their accommodations necessary, but by her standards she's being spoiled, and I think she'd resent that. She likely can't help but think about what happened to the people who weren't so lucky in other areas of the city, where she might be still if she never enlisted.

“Rio’s nice,” Shepard says suddenly, and Garrus is brought back to the present as they descend. “I’ll take you there one day. If you want. And, y’know. If it isn’t rubble.”

It takes Garrus a moment to remember what they had been talking about. “Jacob kept mentioning this bar on the SR2.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I know the one he’s talking about. Every candidate who makes it to N7 gets familiar with all the pubs in the city.” She pauses, and in a moment, her voice grows heavier. “But that was a while ago. Not sure if the school’s still even there.”

“The Brazilian Republic reestablished stable communication towers with UK HQ last month,” Cortez says as he steers the car down onto the street, empty save for scattered spots where bullet holes and rubble pattern the concrete. Garrus spots one indent in the road, notes the angle, and recognizes a sniper’s missed shot — then Shepard’s back door is opening, and he quickly climbs out of the car.

“Let me at least walk to the damn house,” Shepard doesn’t quite snap at him, but it’s a rare enough tone that he lets her have her way. “I haven’t stretched my legs all morning.”

Caretaker Garrus is great because unlike a lot of other likeminded characters -- Shepard herself, for example -- Garrus doesn't really consider himself a caretaker, he sees it as natural part of his duty toward those he cares about, without realizing it really does make up a large part of who he is. Seeing that side of him while he tries to look out for Shepard is only natural post-war, but I think Shepard, while she's practical and understands her limits and the necessity to listen to the doctor's orders, would still chafe under the attention. (Meanwhile I think a part of Garrus is trying to be there for her in a way he wasn't there for his mother.)

Garrus notes that Cortez wisely remains quiet as he collects the folded wheelchair from the backseat and brings it to the front stoop. Shepard’s movements are slow-going but steady, and Garrus resists the urge to help her arm; instead, he heads to the front door on his own.

In his mind’s eye, he imagines the man that lived here resembling Udina: a self-assured utilitarian workaholic, and judging by the exterior and neighborhood, a man with expensive tastes. White stucco and symmetrical columns frame black doors down the block, each unit only discernible by the painted figures written over the front door. Exactly why the Alliance thinks they’ll need a three-story unit with a balcony, he’s at a loss. The only signs that the neighborhood is uninhabited are the dead plants hanging over the railings above.

Imagining a city like London or New York or Tokyo as a ghost town is terrifying to me, but what's creepier is imagining the millions of neighborhoods around the world that look just like this.

My idea of this architecture is a mix between what I see on television and what I've seen of London myself.
22nd century Islington is a wealthy but not flashy neighborhood, resulting in a sort of mashup between the aesthetic of fancier rowhouses in Belgravia and an average place in Islington (not unlike 12 Grimmauld Place from the HP series, which was filmed here for the movies).

Garrus flicks open his omnitool and begins inspecting the security shields.

“Here are the codes.” Cortez hands him a datapad. “Should open the front and back doors, and you can adjust the shields inside. Though I’m sure you’ll add your own security locks — just let me know when you’re finished tinkering, ‘cause the Alliance needs full access in case of emergencies.” He looks up at Garrus and smiles apologetically. “Sorry. It’s their property, technically. We’re just borrowing it ‘till Shepard’s fit for duty again.”

And of course the Alliance wants to keep an eye on its investments. It's not malicious, though maybe that doesn't matter to someone as tired of war as Shepard is.

“Since when does the Navy own terrace houses in south England?” Shepard has caught up to them on the porch. Garrus glances at her; she’s frowning down at her left leg, rubbing her knee. Probably unused to the prosthetics’ weight; he’ll remember to adjust the specs.

“It belonged to a Lord of Parliament, actually,” Cortez says as he keys open the electronic lock. “Hence the security. He also needed wheelchair access. But I’m supposed to assure you you’re free to come and go so long as you obey the doc’s orders. Here, I’m hooking it to your omnitools. Should recognize you automatically now.”

“Is there a specific reason for all the extra measures?” Garrus asks.

“Besides your own peace of mind, you mean?” Cortez shrugs and the door finally lights green, swishing open. “Nothing specific, but I think we’d be idiots to count everyone in the galaxy as a well-wisher at the moment. I guess someone called dibs on Buckingham Palace.”

Garrus has been in Alliance prefabs and colony settlements before, though he’s never stepped inside a human civilian’s house, and certainly not yet one on Earth that hadn't been reduced to rubble. He’s grown used to smaller furniture and foreign appliances from his years aboard the Normandy, though there are things within this unit he’s certain he’s never seen before, not even in Anderson’s apartment. The first oddities that grab his attention are the oddly shaped symmetrical hooks jetting out from the wall on the left entry hallway, and a — piano? — sitting behind the staircase leading to the next floor. The entryway on the right appears to lead to a sitting room, and from there, a doorway into what looks like a small but tidy kitchen.

It seems a fair bit smaller than he would have imagined for a politician’s home, and — by his best estimation — would come up short standing next to a councilor’s apartment on the Citadel. In truth, everything about the buildings here seem to prioritize height and narrowness in a way he’s never observed in human architecture before. He vaguely wonders if it’s a preference thing or an Earth thing.

It's a London thing, Garrus.

“Bit much,” Shepard says dryly. “They’ve checked for any surprises?”

Garrus's small is Shepard's extravagant. I think when she first sees the SR-2, she found her new cabin excessive to the point of ludicrousness.

“Bomb dogs were in this morning, the place tested negative for airborne toxins for both of you, no flooding or structural damage, and the shield security passed all their tests. You’re all set.”

She nods. Then, favoring her right leg, Shepard moves into the next room over, where a low-lying couch sits facing a grated fireplace, and sinks into it without another word.

Garrus isn’t quite sure what to make of this, and by the look Cortez gives him as soon as she’s out of the hall, neither is he. The pilot fixes him with a concerned look and nods his head toward her back. Garrus is fairly certain that means: How is she?

The most frustrating thing about human mannerisms, in his opinion, is that they nearly always expect a silent facial gesture in response, most of which turians are incapable of mimicking. Instead, Garrus shakes his head. Not now.

“You’re allowed your pistol,” Cortez says for both of them to hear. “I’ll drop it off later, along with the rest of your things from the Normandy. No heavier firearms, I’m afraid. I think Hackett had to step on some toes to even get you that, so don’t be too loud with target practice.”

The back of Shepard’s head nods in acknowledgment and sinks further into the couch.

They share a look, and Cortez apparently decides it’s time for his departure. He hands the datapad over to Garrus and claps him on the shoulder — he takes that to mean Let me know if I can do anything — and then heads out. A minute later, and Garrus hears the skycar’s engine power on, then drift away.

Garrus peers over the couch; she’s lying on her back, left leg propped up on a throw pillow. “You all right?”

“Fucking knee,” she says without opening her eyes. Not an invitation.

He puts the datapad with the codes on a side table next to a vase of dead flowers. Something strange about Earth flora has always irritated his nose; he takes the vase and heads to the back of the house, past the staircase and next to a thin elevator to the kitchen, where he deposits the flowers in the garbage and pours the old water down the drain.

Over the sink is a window; he peers outside, into the neighbor’s yard. Over the black iron fence he sees stray children’s toys are scattered across the yard, bright yellows and reds against small square of green grass, as though the family had simply left for a day out. Garrus is struck with a sudden feeling on realizing that this neighborhood might be empty at the moment, save for the two of them hidden away in this anonymous little building on the outskirts of the city.

The big question Garrus and Shepard are dealing with is: What now? while approaching it from very different angles. Shepard set out what she achieved at the cost of many of her friendships and mental health and at times, her body, destroying the Reapers and protecting humanity. Garrus found a purpose in his life and managed to find a career he's proud of that suits his skillset. Shepard is in recovery and bound to Earth for the time being; Garrus can leave any time he wants. I think the part of Garrus that isn't stunned they both survived is trying to think of the far-off future, letting himself start indulging in those daydreams he didn't back in the war now that they may be possible, and meanwhile, Shepard is just trying to figure out how she's going to survive living through the day.

He suddenly wants, more than anything, to speak to his father. The thought would have been hilarious not even two years ago — but zetabytes for personal comms outside the local cluster are still restricted, and he’d used up his quota for the week three days ago when Sol had come down with a flu. The colony they had been stationed in was for emergency military personnel, so no doubt his father had pulled some strings to achieve even that — or perhaps used Garrus’s name to receive shelter there, which is a bizarre thought.

The fact that they, too, are living in limbo until the Primarch gives the green light to begin relocation to Cipritine, is ironic. Stuck isn’t the right word, but he feels caught the same way, and yet —

Yet Victus still comes to him every month with reports of squad teams long missing on Earth, destroyed communication towers. But the Hierarchy never wants for volunteers; nothing, really, that would require a leader with his skillset; nothing requiring a sniper, or a combatant, or a fighter. There’s no fighting to be done except the ongoing battle with the elements, with their own technology, until they reach normalcy once again. Garrus has taken a few assignments since the end of the war, though never accepted anything that would bring him from the city for more than a week at a time. No particular reason, it was just — that someone is still here.

He has a sudden, sinking feeling that his father would know the right thing to do. He’d calculate the ramifications of each choice; he’d know how to deal with a shell-shocked partner trapped in slow, disjointed recovery. Know what to say if it becomes apparent if they’ll never fully recover.

Garrus's relationship with his dad kills me, and I love but also hate that their growth as father and son is done subtly. I hate it because we never get a scene of them in the same room, but I also love it because it leaves so much to the imagination and requires players to read between the lines. I'm more than willing to bet the way Garrus speaks about his dad in ME3 and his decision to go to his father post-ME2 for help is more a reflection of his growth than his dad coming around to his thinking, but I also imagine there was some soul-searching on his dad's part as he wonders who his son has become and if it's ever a man he'll understand. In or after ME3 I like to think they reconcile completely, even accounting for the fact that Garrus didn't make it to his mom's funeral.

Garrus is forcibly reminded that he’s never told his father about Shepard. Solana had known there was someone, because older sisters would always be too perceptive for their own good, and she might have even swung a guess at his commanding officer, the only human he'd brought up more than twice in conversation. If so, she had kept her silence, for which he was more thankful than she’d ever know. It wasn’t that he was afraid of his father’s disapproval, or even that he anticipated he would disapprove at all, exactly —

The oddly empty silence behind him alerts Garrus to the realization that Shepard is no longer on the couch.

Ten seconds of searching discovers her in a bathroom behind the staircase, inspecting the wide marble counter. “Who needs a fucking dispenser for cotton buds?” she mutters as he approaches. In the fluorescent light, she looks paler than he’d first thought. “What they spend their money on…”

Being in a person's home who is significantly richer than you is a bizarre and unnerving experience. I feel like I have the most intense sense of dissociation when I'm standing in a wealthy bathroom or kitchen; seeing what extra tools or obscure or high-tech things they have to do everyday functions is usually what feels most surreal.

He watches her from his position in the doorway. She’s never more fond of swearing than when dealing with politicians and bureaucracy, but alone, between them, she’s rarely been so quick to dip into profanity without outside stress.

Shepard is from Earth. He had known that, vaguely, but during the war with both of their homeworlds burning, it seemed as insensitive a topic to bring up as his home on Palaven would’ve been. The specifics of her pre-service history weren’t widely acknowledged, and with Shepard’s steadfast silence on the matter, Garrus has never pretended to know more than most. Yet now, with a sudden sinking feeling, he recalls more, from his first and only foray into the extranet to search her name before he joined the Normandy all those years ago: articles with quick notes mentioning Shepard’s background, phrases like scholarships for disadvantaged children and difficult childhood floating from passing news terminals after her death. Some part of him had been relieved for her on her recovery, thinking her med leave might be easier on Earth, a familiar locale. Shepard was never sentimental: the destruction of her homeland wouldn’t bother her nearly as much as enforced leave and the slow, tedious climb back to physical health.

Watching her in the mirror, he wonders if he’d had the wrong of it — misjudged, or even underappreciated the damage this planet had done to her. With every passing moment, her hands clench the ceramic sink tighter and tighter, she looks more like she’s about to put a foot through the wall.

I explored this another fic of mine, but one of the reason I like earthborn backstory so much is because Priority: Earth feels like coming full circle in the worst way possible. For a former street rat and gangster, the fact that the Reapers would target her home planet -- and possibly her home city -- feels like a gut punch, not out of emotional loss, but more akin to the feeling you get when someone steals something that's yours, something you weren't really attached to but something that was yours. Shepard is from Earth, so she'll protect it because it's the right thing to do and I think on some level it's a point of pride and territorial feeling, but growing up as she did, she can never really have that sense of childhood nostalgia for Earth the way others do.

“Fucking waste,” she says lowly.

Garrus comes up behind her. “Hey.” He hesitates, then rubs one of her shoulders with his palm, wondering if it might be too much to remove his gloves. “You all right?”

“It’s stupid.” She closes her eyes, and her breath hitches. Garrus’s visor feeds him info on her slowly elevating heart rate. “It’s never — bothered me before.”

Garrus says, “Breathe, Shepard.”

“That’s the fucking problem,” she gasps, and in the corner of his eye, he sees her pulse is rising. Her clenched fingers are turning pale. “I was trying, I had to, but I kept — it was getting thinner and then nothing was coming in, it was — there just wasn’t — any air.”

“Okay,” he says, and takes her hand from the counter. “Then let’s get some. This place has to have a roof.”

Shepard is out of breath by the time they reach the top of the building, even using the elevator (lift, she calls it). A cloud of pigeons bursts into the air upon opening the rooftop door, and drops of water fly from the puddles that had collected from the earlier rainfall. To his surprise — though perhaps it shouldn’t be, given the affluence of the neighborhood — there is a park bench at the top facing west, as if to provide a view the sunset. Garrus has seen quite enough of Earth’s sun rising and setting over the past year, enough to dispel the romanticism for any future vids he may watch, but up here with Shepard, looking over rows of rooftops and trees neatly aligned on the sidewalks below, it does feel something more like… a home, or as close to it as he’s felt in a long time.

One thing I admit I kind of kept forgetting while I was writing this was, accounting for the time Shepard was in the hospital, Garrus has spent an entire year on Earth. However I don't think he absorbed a lot of what that really meant: so much time was swallowed by recovery efforts and visiting her in the hospital, I don't think he was able to enjoy Earth for itself.

Shepard heaves out a sigh as she sinks onto the bench with him. Her breathing has calmed, but her heart has not. She buries her face in her hands and rubs at her one open eye. “Thanks,” she mumbles.

In response, he reaches out one hand to twine a loose strand of hair within his fingers.

Her hair is longer after months in the hospital, though it’s — thinner, if that’s the right word, and now it falls around her face like a torn curtain. Shepard has always kept it shorter than most human women he’s seen; now her dark hair falls just to her collarbones, regrown after her cranial surgery. He stretches one arm comfortably around her shoulders, like he’d seen in the vids, and rubs her shoulder with his thumb.

I'm fuzzy with the dates because ME leaves a lot to be desired when we talk about in-universe medical treatments. You could headcanon that her hair grows fast (given the shock her body has undergone, this may not be likely), or you could headcanon (like I do) that Cerberus's cybernetics had something to do with it. The idea that Shepard's body heals so fast, almost without her consent -- it's not like she agreed to be revived -- always struck a really sad note with me.

They spend a while like this. With his other hand he turns off his visor to avoid watching the time. Shepard’s heart rate steadies, and color returns to her arms. Her breathing still sounds loud in the silence, but that she is breathing at all is miracle enough, sometimes, that the sheer improbability of both of their survival is enough to make him dizzy. And yet…

And yet.

He can handle flashbacks. He can handle medication. He can gladly do all of the work necessary around the house until she grows fully comfortable using the new prosthetics. But there had been no guidebook on helping your human girlfriend being grounded, on coming home at the end of the war for galactic life, on the emotional climb of learning how to be a person again after being a weapon for so long. Some psychologists might say — and he was sure several had already — that growing up as she did, she had never learned to be a person in the first place.

“Kinda falling apart here,” she mutters next to him. He glances over. “Thought I was good this morning.”

“You were good when I left,” he says. “You’re good now. It happens.”

One thing I wanted to capture about recovery is how quickly a normal day can turn on its head. Writing this from Garrus's perspective and still achieving that is the hardest part of it, but I think Garrus, with his background as a cop and as a turian soldier who's worked in crisis scenarios, understands on both a practical and emotional level what Shepard needs and would be prepared to help her through it.

“I need a gun,” she admits.

“You’ll have one this afternoon,” he says, “though I’m not sure it’s a good idea myself.” He’s definitely testing his luck now, but he’s always had an amusing sense that she likes it when he’s rude, if only in the guise of their typical banter. “With only one eye working at the moment, you’ll be an even worse shot than before.”

Shepard is silent for a moment, and then to his immense relief, she snorts quietly. “I want a rematch.”

“Maybe if I’m feeling charitable.”

I go to the school of "Garrus has a hunch she threw the shot, but he's not going to let her know that, and he's not going to give up his title of bottle-shooting champion without a damn fight."

On her other side, her left hand comes up to grasp his. He’s just gotten used to the feeling of it being two fingers shorter when they installed her new digits, replacing three knuckles and a dozen miniscule bones with steel as light as a Viscerator heat sink.

Three fingers isn’t going to help your grip on that shotgun, Shepard,” he had said as soon as he had reached her bedside from Germany, and spirits, sometimes he couldn’t believe the shit that came out of his mouth around her. “Though I know how inspiring I can be with a rifle, I won’t blame you for thinking so.

She’d tried to smile at that, and opened her mouth to reply. Instead she’d coughed enough to hack up a lung, and the nurse had explained something about new medication and if she insists on talking, use the datapads.

“How’s the knee?” he asks now. A close call, that she’d managed to make it out of surgery with it fully intact, but it’s been a constant source of trouble ever since, and the one painful variable that’s preventing optimism about her chances of serving in active duty again.

My working headcanon is: this Shepard will not serve in the field again as she used to; if she does, it'll be as a solo agent on infiltrations or as a Spectre running shorter missions, pairing with Garrus or Ashley for Council-approved missions as necessary. But the bottom line is that her knee is prone to random flares, making it somewhat unpredictable, and in the immediate future (within the next <5yrs) she won't be able to carry out intense, high-stakes missions like the Collector Base, etc.

“Sore,” she grunts.

“Want me to take a look?”

“Later…” Shepard heaves a yawn. “Cor. It’s only two, isn’t it. How was your morning?”

Mass Effect dialogue has this weird blend of occasional British slang -- Garrus once says "bloody" -- so I reason this as him picking it up from Alliance humans, who themselves are a bit of a blend of American and British culture in military space. (There's a huge abundance of British VAs in Andromeda, too, but only semi-consistently in the original trilogy, which is interesting.)

Garrus reaches into his pocket and pulls out the seven fading ID tags he had managed to find amidst the waterlogged ruins of South London. He only recognizes three of the sigils. “More than I expected,” he admits. “There were twelve teams of about fifty men in that area. Most of recognizable identification has been washed away by now.”

“How deep is it?”

“The water? To the spur, or thereabouts. Deeper near the embankment, but on higher ground, just the ankle.”

Shepard stretches out her right leg next to his and frowns at it, trying to relate his system of measurement to her own. His mandibles twitch in amusement.

“Your neck might be the right equivalent,” he offers, and is thanked with a sharp elbow in his stomach, awakening the pain from this morning. The small laceration isn’t quite finished healing, but she doesn’t need to know that. “Oh, watch it.”

Garrus ribbing on Shepard for being short is my absolute #1 all-time favorite headcanon recurring joke between them. (This Shepard doesn't call him "big guy" because she doesn't like to draw attention to the fact that he's so much taller than her.)


“The hell did you just say to me?”

“Another fun local way of saying ‘fuck off,” Shepard says, but she’s smiling again, so in the end, he counts it as a good day.

They settle into a tentative but peaceful routine. (That the idea of settling could be used to fit them at all is strange in itself.) Shepard has been released under the strict condition that Garrus help her with physical therapy every morning and evening. Her weekly appointments in the hospital dwindle to check-ups “as necessary.”

“No reason not to expect a full recovery,” Chakwas says. “Just don’t push it — both of you — and you can expect easier mobility for the leg within the next four weeks, easier functionality within eight weeks. We’ll reevaluate then.”

Again, my inexperience with medicine and trauma recovery shows here. I kept it vague on purpose; Chakwas is also accounting for time it will take Shepard to readjust to living out of a hospital.

Per her instructions, Shepard keeps her left eye covered in direct daylight for about twelve days with a funny-shaped sort of black cloth badge. The fluorescent lighting in the hospital had been kinder to it than direct daylight. Shepard jokes on more than one occasion that she might take Jack up on her offer to hijack the Normandy and run away as pirates, which isn’t a reference Garrus completely understands, but he laughs anyway. After two weeks, she slowly familiarizes her new cornea to the sight of the English sunrise, and then, leaves the patch removed altogether. Garrus had been expecting an eye like Zaeed’s, paler and heterochromatic, but save for some darkened skin around the eyelid, it looks nearly identical to her other.

Her wounds from the collapsing Citadel had manifested in damage that stretched up the left side of her torso, bruising her ribcage, crushing one lung, and left her near immobile for the majority of the past year. Chakwas had privately confided to him that she counts it a miracle Shepard will regain use of her arm. Her left hand has remained largely intact, save for the two fingers that had been crushed at the second knuckle. As it is, they both understand without words that she is very, very lucky to have survived at all.

By comparison, the broken left leg and snapped spur Garrus had received courtesy of that damn Mako seems like an inconvenient bruise. He once joked to Shepard that it would just grow back — not true, but he doesn’t know if she knows it — and she had laughed. “Like a damn lizard,” was her verdict, and that had been that. He still uses the brace for his ankle on occasion, ignores the phantom pain of a long-gone appendage, and doesn’t bring it up again.

Shepard is usually the one who has the worst of it post-Crucible -- and understandably so -- but I imagine very few people who participated in that run to the beam made it out without any injuries.

And yet. Shepard’s knee is still weak, unused to the balance of the prosthetic attached below it, and she spends most of her time inside the rowhouse, where she painstakingly refuses to use the cane provided, opting instead for the crutches only when necessary despite their bulkiness and limited mobility. He knows the combination of drugs in her system keep her from sleeping more than a few hours at once. Bathing has become a new challenge entirely: water reminds her too much of Despoina, of whatever had happened down in the abyss where that damn Leviathan had been lurking. Her first attempt at a bath, she’d locked the door and hadn’t made a sound inside for two hours, and only her steady readings on his visor prevented him from panicking.

I debated for a while on whether or not to include the bath scene itself, but I ultimately decided for this scene, less is more.

Nothing they hadn’t been warned about. Garrus handles all of this in ways he knows how. He mods the heat reader on his visor to alert him whenever her signature rises or drops in too short a time. He stays up with her the nights she can’t sleep, introduces her to classic turian card games he’d played in basic. They install a seat in the shower stall that’s easier on her leg. He never once forgets her medications.

This idea of Garrus taking on a caretaker role without question or hesitation really sticks with me. Just this notion of a constant unspoken question from him, "What do you need?", much like how I imagine their relationship was while fighting the Collectors. So for him, it's not a huge leap from what they used to be, but for Shepard, it feels monumentally different.

(Garrus is resolved not to mention the topic of intimacy at all. Shepard, who had pursued him with no small amount of gusto even in her most stressful days during the war, now seems to have silently agreed that sex is out of the question. Garrus had grown used to taking her libido as an indicator of morale, so her quiet acceptance of this, without comment or joke, is rather unnerving.)

Personally I think Garrus is exaggerating things from memory here -- I imagine Shepard was likely too exhausted and distracted by to feel up for sex most days during the war -- but the most important thing he would notice in the rowhouse is the lack of any physical intimacy at all, not just sex.

The first few evenings, he had made certain to check in at least once, preferably twice each night. Around midnight and four in the morning, he’d crack the door open to find her rubbing her eyes or staring at the ceiling, exhausted but wide awake before him.

“You need anything?” he still asks quietly, every time. “Water?”

“I’m fine,” she murmurs, but it’s a default response: he suspects she’s so tired, she simply hadn’t expended the energy to listen to what he’d said.

If it reminds him a little too strongly of what his father must’ve gone through with his mother as he was playing vigilante on Omega, it’s never more than a passing thought. The parallel is too painful to consider.

I don't usually base my fiction off of real life events or experiences -- except for the rare moment IRL that could inspire or spark an idea for a scene -- but writing this bit struck a little close to home, since for the last year I spent several months helping my aunt recover from chemo and radiation treatments. Avoiding the parallels became impossible, but to draw the line between real and fiction for my own sense of tact, I tried to draw those parallels most with the emotions the recovery process brought both parties, and less with the physical ailments, while still respecting Shepard's pain. Whether or not I succeeded I would be interested in feedback in.

It seems that if he had thought her mood might improve with a change of scenery, he would have been sorely disappointed. While no longer impatient to leave the hospital, she remains strangely distant, and well — it’s just that he would never imagine the word moody to fit Shepard. She certainly doesn’t sulk or brood, yet in some moments, her glances about the house never give him any indication she feels at all comfortable in this place, much less as though it’s a step-up from the surgery table in terms of her recovery. She glances at the oddest things with suspicion bordering on contempt, things he might’ve thought were otherwise normal in human households: the lightly gilded staircase handrail, the crimson ornamental fixture hanging over the fireplace.

I hoped the meaning of this little moment would come across without too much explanation, but I also find it interesting because it shows just how little Garrus doesn't know about human domesticity (no, Garrus, most human households don't have gilded staircases), or even about the state of poverty on Earth. He knows logically that Shepard has a rough childhood, and has adapted his mental, but he still has a difficult time associating her with things he saw on Omega.

He focuses instead on maintaining their status quo. Shepard is alive and wakes up every morning, takes her shots, stretches new limbs, cleans and mods her recently delivered guns, occasionally steps up to the roof for a half-hearted attempt at target practice. He reads the news, keeps up with dextro supply lines, browses the local markets online for mods he’d lost during the last push back on Earth, and checks in with his family when the connection cooperates.

It’s only enough because it’s more than he thought he’d ever have again.

Then one morning, Garrus walks downstairs into the kitchen to find his deceased mother sitting at the table.

Oddly, his confusion isn’t over the fact that she should be dead. It’s over the realization that she’s drenched in blood.

Some time writing the sequence above, I had a sudden realization that I was getting bored with my own story, hence this scene. Too much thinking! More stuff should happen!

“Garrus,” she says. It trickles from the ends of her mandibles, but despite that, she sounds exactly like she used to, not like – like she had in the end. She didn’t recognize his name, in the end. “Sweetheart. You’re doing well.”

He can’t move. Her blood is pooling on the kitchen floor. All he can think is, that’ll stain the tile, and Shepard will know she was here.

All jokes aside, I wanted to show Garrus did not come out of the war unscathed, either. A scene to combine his grief over losing his mother with the horrors that he saw with the Reapers.

So I really like this bit -- where Garrus is more concerned about Shepard knowing she was here, and not the fact that he is desperate enough to see her he'd be happy to see her like this -- and it took me a while to figure out why. Garrus is so careful to keep his personal life from his work that he doesn't even mention to Shepard he has a sister until ME3, or that his family might be in danger until she brings it up. He never once mentions his mother or the fact that she died while he was working on the Normandy. I personally interpret that to mean he's so used to drawing the line between work and personal life that even when the line gets blurred with his relationship with Shepard, he still can't bring himself to make the jump. Is it hard to tell your CO your mother is dying in the middle of a suicide mission? Okay, you avoided that conversation -- now how do you tell your CO and steady girlfriend in the middle of a war to determine the fate of the universe, by the way, your mom passed? For Garrus: you don't.

“Mom,” he croaks. “It’s – good to see you.”

“I heard about your engagement. I stopped by to say congratulations.”

I’m not engaged, Ma. “I – right, yeah.” He’s engaged to Shepard. Is he? Yes, it’s a new development. They haven’t told anyone. He swallows. “Thanks.”

They are not, of course, engaged, but for why Garrus doesn't question it: you could chalk it up to it being the hazy logic of dreams, or that it's born out of a private desire he doesn't know how to engage with when he's conscious.

“Sit down and have some breakfast.” She gestures to the table, which is filled with food that nobody’s cooked for him since he left for service at age fifteen. Fresh ignota juice, rutanius sausage, yomburt wraps with the sauce he likes, the kind only his mother knows how to make properly. “Tell me about it all.”

Upstairs, a muffled thump sounds against the ceiling. Garrus wants to look, but he can’t draw his eyes away from the woman sitting at the table, the wonderful and terrible sight of her.

She reaches for a bowl. Blue blood is oozing from between her plates, dripping onto the sausage in fat drops. “Sounds like you’re hiding a new pet upstairs, Garrus. Don’t tell your father. He never liked animals.”

He opens his mouth to reply –

Garrus jolts awake to the sound of another THUMP, louder than before. He knows instinctively it’s the sound of something large collapsing, as close as the room next door.

One thing I'm still not certain if I got across well was the visual grotesqueness of the dream. I ended up taking on a more direct, logical tone in this scene than digging into Garrus's feelings on it, but I'm still not certain that was the right choice.

He rolls out of bed immediately. The sight of his mother covered in blood is still flashing through his mind’s eye in the dark. “Shepard?”

There’s no response.

He hurries to the other room, not bothering to turn on the light. It had been his insistence not to share the same room, the same bed. He figured she’d want space, a place to herself, and he stands by that, but that doesn’t help his impatience when he raps at her door now, heart in his throat as he waits for an answer. “Shepard? Are you all right?”

Nothing. Except – he can hear something. It sounds like a rustling. Blankets? Something on the floor?

“I’m coming in,” he says cautiously, and opens the door.

A tangled duvet lies on the floor next to the bed, with a single pale leg sticking out of the bottom. The nightstand has been knocked over. Shepard’s head appears over the top of the duvet, hair mussed in its ponytail, face pale as though she’d recently awoken from a nightmare of her own. Her eyes are screwed up in pain.

Garrus swiftly but carefully untangles the blanket. Underneath, her hands are clenched around her left knee, which has swollen bright red just above where her skin meets the prosthetic. She’s still meant to take it off most nights, but he knows the comfort of feeling the weight of anything where there is nothing too well to deny her this.

Today's prosthetic would be removed, of course, but in the future I think the ultimate goal is to eventually ease an amputee into the idea of keeping the prosthetic on permanently, with only occasional removal for maintenance or upgrades. For the first few weeks, though, that would not require sleeping with it on. But my idea was that Shepard is still thinking like a soldier, wondering "What if I'm attacked in the middle of the night?"

“Don’t,” Shepard mutters. He’d reached for her knee to assess the damage, but looks up at her now. Her eyes are still closed. “I just – ice. Please.”

He gets ice. He hands are shaking but he gets a fresh wrap from their first-aid kit, he gets painkillers, he gets a bottle of water, and lastly he gets ice, tucked neatly in an auto-cooling washcloth. Once upstairs, he finds her sitting upright, leg stretched out against the duvet. He wills his hands to stay still. Her eyes watch him work as he carefully, carefully ices the swelling – she obviously tumbled right from the bed and broke the fall with her kneecap – and wraps her knee. Only after he’s seen her swallow down some water with two tablets of ibuprofen does he righten the nightstand.

Her voice chokes when she finally speaks again. He’s moving to help her back into the bed when she says “Go,” which is the last thing in the world he wants, or expects to hear at the moment.

“Shepard – ”

She looks as though she couldn’t stand without assistance, sweat on her forehead and eyes red with exhaustion or tears, but her voice is as hard as the day she’d told him to get his ass on the Normandy and not look back. “Leave it. I don’t – just go.”

She’s still avoiding his eyes.

On another night he would argue with her, but tonight, the sight of that blue blood hitting the kitchen table blinks into his vision. It’s three in the morning and he realizes it’ll be a long time before he can think of the person he once knew as his mother again without thinking of that scene instead.

Against his better judgement, he goes. In his own room with only the memory of his mother’s ghost for company, he doesn’t sleep again that night.

I still don't know if I like this choice, because in this fic, Garrus is constantly clashing between what he sees as his duty and his personal needs, and this is the first time he chooses the latter. For that reason his choice to leave still strikes oddly to me, but I do think Garrus also knows a lost cause, and he would realize Shepard would not be in a mood to talk, and may in fact get angry if he stayed. So this is still something I argue with myself about, if he made the right choice.

The second time Shepard had awoken in the hospital, he had missed it. He had been in a place called “Germany,” fringe-deep in a Reaper corpse on the edge of another human city whose name he couldn’t pronounce.

They disembarked on an abandoned, upturned parking lot. The dead Reaper was its own mountain on the terrain, but the monster’s corpse stuck out here far more than the remains would have in a place like London, surrounded by civilization and architecture. Why one was located in quiet farmland, which were normally left to ground forces such as marauders or husks, was a mystery he had been recruited to solve.

Partly inspired by this ME3 trailer, I had this haunting mental image of a dead Reaper laid across the middle of a pasture on an otherwise beautiful and sunny day.

The human who had sat next to him on the flight over turned as he was stepping off the shuttle and said conversationally, “Roermond’s just across that border a ways. You know that was almost the Normandy’s name?”

Garrus started. “That so?”

“The engineers what designed it worked the schematics there,” the human said. “Alliance Council picked Normandy instead. Makes sense — one of the biggest battles in our history, or summat, till we discovered spaceflight, anyway.” The human soldier looked out at the landscape, the empty cars, the cloudless sky. “Got folks in Roermond. Woulda been nice for them.”

Garrus looked at this land again, and tried to see it with new eyes. To him, without a familiar crew by his side, it might’ve been any other planet. He’d stepped on a dozen garden worlds with breathable air and beautiful scenery. Except this was Earth, and it was home for somebody. It had been Kaidan’s; it was Vega’s; it was Shepard’s.

Three hours later, they were nearly halfway done dismantling the Reaper, and Garrus made a discovery that felt like a bucket of cold water tossed on the back of his fringe: the corpse was lying on top of the entrance to an underground bunker.

In an instant, his job shifted from stripping its machinery to clearing a path out of the corpse for survivors, were there any, to reach the surface. He attempted several biometric and life scans for life underground that bounced straight back to him. A half-hour of failed decryption, unsuccessful bypasses, and a very enthusiastic blowtorch yielded nothing. Then, finally, a salarian engineer managed to wire a timed grenade and blew off the latch to the meter-thick bunker door.

“Helmets on, everyone,” Garrus says. “And small firearms for now, but keep your rifles strapped. We don’t know what’s down there, but if it’s alive, let’s not spook it.”

Even behind oxygen masks and plated helmets, opening the latch, the smell of rotten human flesh hit their party like a gas bomb.

Like the children that drowned from the first scene, I can't imagine finding death so long after the war is over ever gets easier.

It was an all-too-familiar scent for Garrus, and to spare most of the humans in their company, he took charge once again. He selected a party to go down with: two turian officers, and a surprising volunteer, the human private that had sat next to him that morning — Walker, his name was.

“Contingency plans,” Walker’s voice mutters over the comm as they climb down the ladder. “Saw a few of these back in London. How many poor bastards’re scattered across Europe, trapped in old bunkers from the 1900s…”

My second (or maybe third) time I've mentioned the bunkers from old Earth wars! I was always miffed we didn't get more context for how Earth was dealing with the Reapers. I imagine people huddling underground and slowly starving to death like this was pretty common.

The bunker wasn’t much of one at all: one large room, a small restroom, and a dorm, where they quickly confirmed the location of the bodies. Down here, his visor picked up no life signs whatsoever, not even an insect’s last breath. The space looked more like an evacuation area for temporary emergency relocation, if anything. But the main chamber was filled not with rations or supplies or clothing, but computers that, to Garrus’s eyes, looked several hundred years out of date. Red lights flashed quietly from every station, and a fine layer of dust coated every panel.

Unidentified presence confirmed.” A VI on the far side of the room began to flicker. “Initiating lockdown. Please deliver my harddrive to the nearest Systems Alliance headquarters for further use.

“Dammit.” One of his fellow officers — Imoria, he thought her name was — looked around at the room full of panels and deactivated screens. “Another top-secret Alliance surprise we should worry about?”

“Not sure.” Garrus scratched his neck in thought. “Might’ve hunkered down here on orders searching for a way to defeat the Reapers. Would explain why one’s planted on top of the entrance, blocking communications…”

He broke off, wandering to one side of the panels. An older human was slumped over a keyboard, the flesh on her fingers in varying states of decay. Garrus pulled her shoulder up, slowly — out of respect, he remembered to close her eyes — and let her fall back into the chair. A nametag written in foreign human script; after a moment to work, his translator spat out: Dr. R. Dimov. Her other hand was still clasped around a datapad.

We are seven members of the Crew SF-Novena, assigned to the Crucible on December 5th, 2185. We were tasked — [[[[ERROR////]] the Catalyst fails. We have had no contact with the other teams. We have [[DATA NOT FOUND]]

On May 18, 2186 at approx. 14:50, the Reaper you see above us discovered our position as we opened the hatch for a routine delivery. The external comm interference installed to protect this bunker from detection has been used against us. We estimate our supplies will last [[DATA NOT FOUND]]

The VI will enforce a lockdown the moment any outside party attempts to access our findings. Any attempts to hack the system will result in a full-scale deletion. Deliver the data on this system’s hard drive directly to the Systems Alliance Council, or in the event of their unavailability, the highest-ranking operative presently in command, regarding Project Identification Code B-21-A24. Deliver it to no one else.

May the universe see this through without us.

Dr. Regina Dimov

Project Director

July 6, 2186

A little over a year ago. How many others were trapped in Earth’s bowels waiting for rescue that never came, indeed.

He pulled the stiff fingers free.

“Let’s hope this wasn’t in vain, Doctor,” he muttered.

“Could be nothing, sir.”

“Could be,” he agreed, “But let’s get it to Hackett so someone in the brass can be sure.”

It wasn’t for another six hours, when they had passed the hard drive over to an Alliance shuttle headed straight to where Hackett was presently negotiating a trade summit in Geneva, and they were climbing back into the shuttle to deliver them back to London, that he realized his omnitool had pinged while he was down in the bunker. Chakwas’s name at the top: She’s asking for you.

Not the first time Garrus has unintentionally chosen professional duty over personal duty and later found himself regretting it.

It wasn’t easily forgettable, that humanity was a species with its fair share of militaristic conquests and enough Armistice Days to rival even the Hierarchy’s long and bloody history. Intelligent life had developed on Palaven sooner, certainly, but humanity had hardly been sleeping for all that time, as he’d learned quickly on the SR-1. Shepard and Williams could discuss novels and holos in the mess just as easily as they might dive into a tactical analysis of the first airborne warfare used on Earth. What the Citadel, and the rest of the galaxy — and himself, for a time — saw of humanity was largely based on their Navy’s military, political ambition, and recently disastrous attempts at colonization.

But Earth is a homeworld, and it had needed help. When Shepard asked, he came. The threat was over, and there was still work to be done, but she hadn’t asked again — hell, nobody had. He was in Germany on his own offer. Victus’s stream of requests had slowed to a trickle, and he felt no guilt or regret now recommending SAR or anti-terrorist teams more appropriately suited.

He told himself that it might as well have been Palaven. Except humanity had far fewer ex-military civilians, and even fewer capable volunteers. With work on the Citadel picking up speed, so few of his calibre were left stationed planetside. Even fewer of Shepard’s.

So he stays.

He comes up with all these excuses for staying that don't involve Shepard. (It's okay to want to stay with your girlfriend, Garrus!) But I also think he is preparing himself to defend his choice against superiors -- and his father -- who might grill him for it later.

Vega is their first visitor, as soon as word gets around.

“Lola!” he hears James greet in the doorway. “Good to see you out of there.”

It’s been a week since the nightmare. Two days later, he had walked downstairs to find Shepard quietly cleaning all of his guns at the table with his breakfast already waiting for him — an apology, or a white flag — and she’s seemed determined not to speak of that night since.

Fair enough.

“You know,” Shepard’s voice says dryly, and from the kitchen, Garrus hears the shuffle of boots as she lets him in. “Just because we’re not on the SR-2 doesn’t mean ‘Lola’ is still an appropriate address for your senior officer.”

“You’ll always be my CO in my heart, Commander.”

I haven't read the ME comics, but I hear that James's character is greatly expanded, and his view for Shepard is incredibly high before ME3, so though Priority: Earth kind of throws him for a loop, I imagine it meant a lot to him that Shepard supports him in his interest in ICT but refuses to give him an easy time of it. I think James is the kind of guy that respects Shepard more than he lets on.

“General,” Shepard insists. Garrus refrains from pointing out how she argues against the title when spoken by practically anyone else. “I know you’ve heard by now.”

“They promoted you posthumously, then it turns out you weren’t dead. It doesn’t count anymore.”

I always wondered why the Alliance didn't promote Shepard posthumously after she "dies" in the Collector attack on the SR-1; I have a vague understanding of military procedures at best, but it seemed like a reasonable development considering Shepard was viewed as a hero and she died in the line of duty. The reason I settled on was that Shepard's rise to her position in the Navy by age 29 was, by most standards, already meteoric even without the Battle of the Citadel to boost them further, and there is a minimum length of service for higher ranks. After ME2, of course, nobody knew about the Collectors so that couldn't be put on official record, and then Shepard was incarcerated and politically toxic, and only after ME3 when her service was more publicly known would they formally reconsider her status.

Shepard snorts loud enough for him to hear from the kitchen, and they move into his line of sight in the living room — drawing room, she insists on calling it, though Garrus isn’t sure if he’d ever understand that one. Garrus sees James has two cans each of dextro and levo beer hanging from his fingers. He drops them onto the side table.

“Ash was stationed in Rio two weeks ago,” Vega goes on, “And Joker’s stuck flying the Alliance Council to Vancouver and back, so who knows when he’ll be free. But I thought if enough of the crew’s around, we could break this place in — you know you’ve got the nicest digs of all of us?”

“Didn’t they put you in some Chelsea flat? You can’t complain.”

I stayed in South Kensington/Chelsea when I studied abroad in London, just off the King's Road, a popular shopping area. Beautiful area in the city, but the apartments are ridiculously tiny. (For comparison, I live in Manhattan. My room now is three times the space I had in London.)

“Sure, but es pequeño, Lola. Can’t swing a dead cat without my elbow hitting the wall.” He deposits the alcohol on the couch side table, then spots Garrus in the kitchen, where he’s been attempting to make a dextro meal that doesn’t taste like the inside of a ration can. “Spurs, how much turian whiskey should I dig up?”

“Enough to make me forget you ever started calling me that.” Garrus finally manages to turn the stove off and joins them with his lunch. “I worked hard on my scars, they haven’t gone anywhere.”

I can't be the only one who winces when someone tries to make an awkward nickname fit when it just... doesn't fit, right? James is just teasing here; I think both he and Garrus respect the history behind Garrus's scars too much to ever change that nickname.

“Gotta keep a fresh cycle of nicknames, keeps things interesting.” James wanders into the kitchen, digs around a bit in a drawer, then finds what he’s looking for, a bottle opener, and cracks open two beers. Shepard waves her hand and James shrugs, putting the second aside for later.

“Who’s still around?” Shepard has sunk back into the couch. Her prosthetic leg is propped up on the footrest and her hand lingers on her knee; a silent indicator that it’s hurting more than normal.

“Me, Chakwas and Cortez obviously, most of the engineering and piloting crew, Traynor’s at a garrison in Essex but she could come around, and,” he pauses. “Not sure about most of the non-Alliance, but I think some are still on Earth, like the krogan. Jacob flew to America with Brynn. God knows where Jack and Kasumi are.” He shrugs. “And there’s Garrus, of course.”

“Where’s Javik gone off to?” Garrus asks, already halfway through his panlecta. “There was some talk about him with the hanar.”

“Citadel, I think.” James scratches his jaw, where growing stubble has begun to form. “Went to go bug the Council about giving Protheans a representative in the embassy” — Garrus snorts — “And Tali’s splitting her time between remobilizing the Fleet and recolonizing Rannoch, of course, and Liara’s still got her computers hooked to the Normandy, so she’s stuck there while it’s grounded. She said if it bothers you, she can move out.”

I rationalize Liara and Hackett have some exchanges going on. Like Priority: Mars, he provides secure protection, space for her to work, help if she needs it, and she provides him with information.

“Fine by me.” Shepard hesitates. “Where is the SR-2, these days?”

“Nobody told you?” James holds out the other bottle to her, a second offer, and she shakes her head more firmly. “It’s in Geneva. They’ve got some dozen engineers up to their knees in engine fluid still trying to restore it. Turns out repairs to the fuselage weren’t as complete as we thought. By all accounts we shouldn’t have made it back to our system at all. Surprise, surprise, it turns out we never should’ve let Joker oversee the repairs…”

Garrus puts his dish on the side table and begins to drift after that, head tilting against the couch. Shepard hadn’t slept well, so he had spent most of the night up with her in the living room bullshitting some old trouble he’d got up to as an ensign. Then, as she had finally drifted off, a distress signal came in the early hours of the morning when one of the elderly turian generals recovering a block over had lost his emergency dextro epinephrine. He’d appeared to be suffering a severe allergic reaction to one of the medications a human nurse had administered the previous night. After rushing over, stabilizing his blood pressure, and waiting until a Hierarchy-sanctioned med team arrived, Garrus had reached the house around noon, where Shepard had been eating lunch in the dining room, cane propped against the table.

The sight had been enough to leave him stunned for a few moments. “I could’ve made — ”

“I’m good,” Shepard had said around a mouthful of… something pale and sludge-like. “What happened? You look worse than I feel.”

“General Melanis had an emergency.” Garrus dropped into the chair next to her with a groan. “You take your — ?”

“Yes, doc, I took my meds.” She nudged a mug of kava toward him, steam so thick it looked nearly tangible, the way he liked it. “All seventeen of them.”

“If you took seventeen pills this morning,” he said around a yawn, “you did something wrong.”

She’d shaken her head and waved a fork at him, filled with something soft and yellowy at the end. “Just took the same one seventeen times. Why, is that worse?”

I still struggle to twine flashbacks and exposition into the present tense in a natural and understandable way. I'm still not entirely sure if I succeeded here, but I liked the thought of Garrus helping other turian war heroes in the area when he isn't too busy with Shepard, and feeling a little protective of someone else in the area. Unfortunately I couldn't figure out where else to take that kernel idea, but I liked it too much to cut it.

He dozes now in the armchair to Shepard and Vega’s light conversation, and in the half-daze of sleep he can feel his visor slipping off the end of his fringe, dripping down to brush his mandible.

His next breath of awareness brings a hand on his shoulder, and Shepard’s blurry image leaning over him.

“You want to relocate to the bed?”

“Mm,” he grunts, shifting groggily. “How long’ve…”

“An hour or so. Vega just lef — ”


“Jesus! You okay?”

Teeth clenched in pain, he nods jerkily. In his move to get up, he’s shifted and unthinkingly jammed his sensitive broken spur into the wooden chair leg. It burns now as though someone had stripped the top layer of his plates off and pressed a hot poker to it. Humans and their damned low furniture —

“I’ll get the salve. Stay there.”

Garrus sinks back into the chair, lifting his leg onto the coffee table. He swears out loud this time — still doesn’t help — and gingerly rolls up his trouser leg. He wouldn’t be surprised if it’s bleeding again. The skin there has been thin since it regrew, which isn’t uncommon for broken spurs, but he’s starting to regret not taking up that offer of bone surgery when it was first offered. Solana always said his devil-may-care inclination to let his injuries heal the way fate would have it would eventually bite him in the ass —

I think of this as a combination of Garrus wanting to seem like a badass who doesn't care how his injuries heal because it'll make him look cool, but also just poor maintaining of own injuries because he's been so busy expending that energy to take care of Shepard. I don't think the spur will ever grow back, but it's hardly the first time a turian has lost one in a fight; I figure they're an evolutionary holdover from a common dinosaur-like ancestor but today are mostly used for balance. It is a little uncomfortable at first to live without one -- or both -- but ultimately doable, and the only pain that should occur is in accidents like this.

He’s leaning down to pick up the visor that’s fallen to the floor when Shepard comes back into the room with their dextro med kit (he’d insisted to Cortez it wasn’t necessary when they first moved in, which sure shows him), limping like a woman who’s refused to use her cane for the past several weeks. She wobbles her uneasy way to the floor, sticking her prosthetic out of the way as she inspects his leg.

“Ow, Shepard, don’t poke it.”

“You felt that?”

“Of course I felt it — ”

“Chakwas said your nerves go funny sometimes, after enough of a beating, they can take a while to regrow.”

“It’s been nearly eleven months. Trust me, they’re regrown. I can do this myself, you know.”

She glances up at him as she unpacks the kit, digging out the bottle of salve. “At least it’s not bleeding. You never said why you didn’t get it re-attached.”

“Shepard, the bone snapped clean off during that sprint to the beam. I couldn’t find it again if I — ” He breaks off in a hiss as the ointment stings. “Would you want to go rooting around the city for your missing fingers on the off chance they could reattach them?”

“There are all those commercials about regrowing spurs,” she continues.

“You know they’re a scam,” he hisses, partly in pain, partly annoyance at the thought of those smarmy salarian salesmen conning turian veterans who’d done their service — ”Ah, okay, that’s enough.”

Garrus, true to his don't-complain-about-it-if-it's-not-a-real-problem turian mentality, probably wouldn't mention his spur at all to Shepard. But think she'd see through that in a second and realize he's still uncomfortable with the idea of it being gone, so she'd discuss it only through banter like she did after he took a rocket to the face. And Garrus, of course, doesn't realize she's distracting him with words while she applies the medicine.

“All right.” She caps the bottle and opens another pocket inside the kit. “Okay, the most important decision you’ll make today. Do you want the sexy black bandage, or the bright yellow with a pyjak on it?”

“Surprise me,” he says dryly, and to his complete not-surprise, she chooses the pyjak and wraps it tenderly around his sensitive spur. His pride can manage, he thinks, if it means her grinning like this again.

Zipping up the med kit, she seems to have now run out of things to do with her hands. Instead of rolling his pant leg back down, she instead places her fingers at the base of his wounded spur, rubbing tentatively, like an insecure masseuse. Most adult turians wouldn’t feel much of anything in any massage a human would be capable of giving, himself included, but the skin down there still feels raw, hypersensitive on off days, and her fingers are cooly therapeutic. His spur has never been in enough pain to muster a complaint about, especially when she’s facing her own injuries day after day, but perhaps it was too much to presume she wouldn’t have noticed his discomfort as often as he does hers.

After a few minutes, Garrus realizes he’s been staring at the cane lying next to her knee. She’s watching him.

He nods to it. “Why don’t you like using it?”

Shepard twists her mouth in a way he’s come to realize signals uncertainty, or trepidation. “I don’t know,” she says finally. “The crutches feel temporary.”

“The cane’s temporary, too.”

“I know. I guess it’s a — we associate canes with age, you know, and immobility.” Uselessness, is the unspoken word, and he nods. “I suppose it’s pride thing,” she mutters and pushes herself back to lean on her hands. “It’s stupid.”

As an able-bodied person, I did my best to make this conversation sensitive to her disability while still staying true to who she is and how I think she'd respond to living with new limitations.

“You should’ve seen the ones Chakwas stuck with me on the Normandy,” Garrus says. He would show them to her now, but he’d happily donated the damn things months ago. “When we were stranded after the relays went down. Apparently the Alliance only expects humans to have leg injuries. Those things nearly took off my other spur.”

“You might’ve let them,” Shepard says diplomatically. “Symmetry.”

I eventually settled on black humor, because it seems the one thing I could be certain they'd meet halfway on.

“Har, har,” he tries to say, but he can’t help smiling back at her grin. Her wounded left hand has moved to where his lays on the armrest. With a grunt, he joins her on the floor and rubs over her small knuckles with his thumb and middle finger. Her hands and face are fuller than they were even two weeks ago, but still too thin and her skin far too pale for his comfort.

“What’s going on with Victus?” she asks suddenly.

He blinks. “Nothing? Why, did you hear something?”

“No, I meant — does he have anything for you? How long are you staying?”

Garrus looks at her steadily. It’s entirely possible she’s forgotten their earlier conversations back in the hospital, high on painkillers as she was at the time, but it’s equally likely she’s expected the Hierarchy has changed their mind, ordered him on the next ship to Trebia. “I told you. On paper I’m working light admin. I can do that anywhere. Might as well be here.”

“A step down from Reaper Advisor, surely.” The joke falls a bit flat, but he finally starts to grasp what this is all about.

The truth comes out. Shepard's losing her touch, but I think part of her wants to talk about it, however much she's mortified by the thought of someone seeing her weaknesses. The fact that she needs someone, and realizing part of her even wants him to know that she needs him, would not be something she deals with well.

“Nobody needs me back home, Shepard,” he tells her, and even as the words leave his mouth she brings her right hand up to her face, elbow on her knees. “You’re not keeping me from…” From what? From bigger opportunities? He can see in her face she doesn’t believe him.

“Garrus,” she says to her knee, eyes hidden by her hand, “I can’t sleep.”

I imagine her emotional restraint a bit like a dam: impregnable most days, but if part of the wall breaks at a particularly sensitive moment, the other cracks will show, and it snowballs from there.

“I know, sweetheart.”

The skin on her forehead crinkles and her voice tightens. “My port’s cold, my left foot feels like it’s walking on needles — “ Your left foot’s gone, Shepard — “My head’s so fucking hot some nights, it’s this constant fever, but you say my temperature is normal. I wake up and I’m trapped under the rubble again and I can’t breathe until you come into the room. I wanted out of that hospital so badly, but I’m supposed to be getting better out here and I’m not — ”

Garrus hugs her. He dreads for a moment that she'll pull away, but she clings tighter, and in a way, that's just as hard to rationalize.

“It’s just — I was fine, you know, I'd made peace with it,” she's saying into his collar now, voice muffled. “The end.”

I think Shepard had accepted, in the moment, the necessity of her death for the rest of the galaxy to live. Now, though, she needs to cope with living like a normal person (what even is that?). But she also found in that moment that preparing for death (the choice at the Crucible) wasn't any easier than being faced with it when it comes unexpectedly (the SR-2 Collector attack). So I don't believe her when she says she'd made peace with it; for someone like Shepard I don't think she'd accept platitudes from herself like that; I think it was just as hard, if not harder, than the first time.

And then she’d woken up again in a body that didn’t feel right, and she’d lost time, and the galaxy had moved on again without her. Yeah.

“On top of all this bullshit.” The fingers on her left hand cling to his. Her grip strength still isn’t what it used to be.

All of the things he wants to say — You know I don’t mind, or You’d do the same for me, or maybe even I love you — don't seem enough. Instead he says the only thing he knows she wouldn’t be able to doubt or sweep aside.

“Nobody does it alone, Shepard.” He pauses. “The Alliance doesn’t have a gun to my head here. You know that.”

Against his carapace, he feels her huff. Her right hand comes up to the back of his crest. “I wouldn’t put it past Karin.”

This needs to get better, he thinks fiercely, this — spirits. He knows PTSD hits all soldiers hard, particularly humans. Shepard is allowed all the time she needs, but he’ll be damned if he loses her to herself. And if he needs to say this every day to prevent that, he will. “I’m where I want to be, Shepard. As long as you need me.”

“I know. I — shit. Shit. Sorry.” Telling her not to apologize in moments like these is as pointless as telling the city to stop raining. She leans back a bit — to his immense relief, her eyes are dry — and rubs her face again. Her forehead is still creased. “Hard to feel yourself, like this. And Vega wants a party. I just don’t know. This isn’t like me.”

I'm still not thrilled with this scene, and this last little exchange might be why. It might be telling without showing, but at the same time, I think it's what they would want to say to each other -- whether or not they would find the courage to actually voice it aloud is another matter.

He flashes back to the final vidcall he’d had with his mother back on Palaven, shared from Solana’s omnitool in the med facility on Tenipus. The salarian doctors had given her a month. He’d called to — to tell her goodbye, dreading having these last memories of her so untrue to the woman he knows, and over the line, she’d called him by his long-dead uncle’s name.Goodbye, Amertus. Talk next week?
The sound of this strange, frail woman on the line, the complete antithesis to the mother he knows, calling him a dead man’s name still hasn’t left him.

They’ve won the war, and yet it’s hard to believe any of them could ever be as they were again. Maybe this is who they are now.

“I love you,” she says. It takes a moment for him to process the words. “I couldn’t tell if you — believed me, on the Presidium. This is a crap time to say it but you need to know. I meant it then. I mean it now.”

The L word is a big deal for me -- I can't remember the last time I wrote a character say it to another -- but for some reason I like it when it's said during moments that are intimate and private for reasons other than romanticism.

He hears what she’s trying to say instead: Please don't leave.

Garrus puts his mouth to her crown, then tips his forehead down to hers and closes his eyes.

I read one headcanon in another fic that turians believe the soul lies in the forehead, meaning this touch is reserved only for very sensitive moments with beloved members of their community; in other words, it's not like, a greeting or goodbye between lovers, but it's something you reserve so as to not dilute its meaning. I kind of liked that thought, so I adopted it.

Okay, that's part one! It took me weeks to write just this one, but hopefully it won't take as long to do the others.

Pt I / II / III / IV

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