Written by That'sNotMe
Art by silvermittt
When I woke in the Normandy’s med bay, a part of me wondered if the past year had only been a strange fevered dream. Was this part of the Lazarus project? Would I hear Miranda’s voice over the comm soon, telling me to get dressed and grab my gun? Colors swirled around my vision as I tried to emerge from the trenches in which I was buried: deep and shadowy and opaque. That I was here, that I was even breathing after everything… it seemed so impossible, but the pain and the darkness felt intensely familiar. I had been here before.
Which meant I was not gone yet.
As I rose to the surface of my unconsciousness, the lights overhead washed everything out – patches of blurry color slipped in and out of my periphery, leaking in through the puffy slits of my eyelids. Voices bled together until I couldn’t recognize them. And it hurt. The light was too much. The sound was too much. I tried to tell them to just all go away, but no words escaped my charred lips.
And yet, I must have communicated somehow, because now there was a hush, and then an argument. Again, the voices blurred, but as they rose, I began to pick them out.
Silence returned after the argument, and I tried to open my eyes again. The skin of my eyelids stung wickedly as I blinked, so I closed them. Cool hands spread ointment across my cheeks and then I felt the telltale chill in my arm as medicine fed into me from the IV.
There it was – a voice, actual words coming through my fuzzy hallucinatory state. A hushed voice, its tones recalling granite and rushing water. For some reason, the image of a rifle formed in my mind, and then my thoughts rushed down the barrel of that rifle into frosted blue eyes. Garrus.
“Wear these,” another voice said. Cool, female, emanating authority and care. I tasted high quality brandy. I smelled the stinging sharpness of disinfectant and the slight sweetness of medigel. I felt safety. Doctor Chakwas.
The snap of rubber gloves, and then a hand around mine – the touch so feather-light it felt more like a breeze than an embrace. My name, whispered from above as I struggled again to open my eyes.
It was mercifully quiet now, and my consciousness was slowly coming into focus. Garrus’s gloved hand cocooned mine, and I tried to turn my head, say his name, look him in the eye. But I couldn’t find the strength to move my head, so I put everything into curling my fingers into his palm.
I heard him move when I did that. I felt him shift beside me.
“Doctor,” he said.
“I told you, Garrus,” Chakwas said, her voice heavy with fondness, but I also detected notes of relief. “She’s still in there. She’ll be back with us soon.”
His hand tightened around mine, his strength ebbing into me.
“Shepard,” he said, lowering his voice, his words meant just for me. “I’m not going anywhere.”
A restless breath of air. I could sense him calming himself, his turian composure returning in the silence. I felt the air stir beside me as he leaned in closer, the motion of every molecule making itself known to my sensitive, burned skin.
Perhaps it was his presence, and perhaps it was the medicine the good doctor was pumping into my broken limbs, but I began to feel the blood coursing through my veins again. Garrus said nothing in reply to doctor Chakwas, and I knew exactly why. He had trouble finding words in moments like these, but I never doubted the power of his emotions. I only had to look in his eyes.
So, with his will bleeding into me and all of the doctor’s skill repairing me slowly, I finally gathered the strength to do just that. Just for a moment, before I sank back into emptiness again.
The light in the AI core illuminated Legion in red, his circuitry radiating white into the rusty haze. It felt dark. I realized that dimly. It felt it, it didn’t look it. There was darkness here. Palpable.
Suddenly, abruptly, he was speaking to me:
I heard my own voice like an unmoored echo, businesslike and edged with nerves:
“When we took you aboard, I noticed you have a piece of N7 armor welded to you. Where did you get it?”
The way he shifted was shaky, creaky, like a rusted, broken machine. A sudden, painful sadness struck me, arcing through my body like electricity. Inexplicably stark. I could taste it, it was so real.
“It was… yours,” Legion said. “When you disappeared, we were sent to find you. We began where you first encountered the heretics.”
“Eden Prime. You been looking for me for two years?”
“We visited Therum, Feros, Noveria, Vermire, Ilos, a dozen unsettled worlds. The trail ended at the Normandy’s wreckage. You were not there. Organic transmissions claimed your death. We recovered this debris from your hard suit.”
This was familiar. I felt torn. Some part of me wanted to be mistrusting, angry, fearful, and a little calculated. But the eerie, mechanical tilt of his head, the oddly human way he moved his appendages as if he were wringing his nonexistent hands… It was sending me all the messages of trust: friend, soldier, family. And there was that strange pang again. It made me double over.
Legion tilted his head the other way, this time. Watching curiously as I took deep, steadying breaths. Waiting patiently, unconcernedly, as I straightened slowly.
“That doesn’t explain why you used my armor to fix yourself,” I continued, halting and breathless.
“There was a hole.”
He continued to regard me, impassively, and as I watched in horror, the piece of N7 armor on his chest seemed to slip a little. Glistening white liquid oozed out, dripping down the hole in his abdomen. Blood. His blood.
“No… no data… no…” his voice creaked and shuddered, and the lights on his platform flickered and glitched.
I watched, horrified, as he shuddered. I reached for him, tried to go to him. Tried to cry out, but I was frozen. My body painfully immobile.
“No… available… no data available…”
One last shudder, and he looked straight at me, his light dim and weak.
“You did this, Shepard Commander.”
I drew in a sudden gasp of air, the dry med-bay air singeing my weakened lungs.
My head hurt at the brightness of the room. I adjusted to the light, the white walls and silver medical tools, bathed in bright artificial lighting. There were no shadows here – not outside my own head, at least.
I blinked – my vision blurred and refocused, blurred and refocused again. I felt like I was floating in thick, viscous gel, but that was only the sluggishness of my limbs as they slowly regained their life.
Weeks had passed. I had been drifting in and out of reality. My non-waking hours were torn between blissful unconsciousness and unspeakable nightmares. I would wake from screaming paroxysms to Garrus’s warm hand around mine and a soft, damp cloth on my parched and scarred forehead.
He approached now, a glass of water in his hand and the ubiquitous cloth already finding my temples and sending soothing cool through my overheated brain.
“Another dream?” he asked.
I nodded. That gnawing fear in my stomach had sucked my breath away, and I felt my abdomen shake with the effort of drawing in air.
Bedridden was not a state that sat well with me, so to speak, and sometimes I wondered if Garrus’s patience was wearing thin with my stubbornness. I knew that Doctor Chakwas’s definitely was. Most of my crew visited me in the med bay; Chawkas’s stern looks and warnings to not disturb me losing most of their impact with the grin on her lips.
I noticed that Joker did not visit.
I didn’t blame him.
Garrus never asked me what happened on the Citadel. As always, he just watched me patiently, knowing I would tell him when I was ready. His blue eyes scanned mine, pulling the information he needed just from my expression, the way I blinked or did not. After countless hours on the battlefield and nights between the sheets, we seemed more a part of each other than separate.
And yet I kept this from him. My guilt seized me in convulsions as I slept, unguarded. When I was awake, I could at least keep it at bay. I could at least allow myself to be distracted by reports from the council discreetly passed to me by Garrus, by idle gossip delivered by Gabby and Ken, and by Vega’s zestful banter.
Secretly, I was grateful for Joker’s absence. It made it easier to shove the anger down, to pretend that I didn’t have to hate myself for what I’d done.
But I couldn’t help the way I was drawn to watching the door of the AI core. The sheen of the silver doors caught the light when I looked away and appeared to move. If I fixed my eyes on them long enough, maybe they would open. Maybe I would see them – EDI and Legion. Just maybe.
II. Falling Apart
On the day that Chakwas pronounced me well enough to leave the med bay for the comfort of my own quarters, I absorbed the news without the joy I had been expecting. I felt only a dim relief.
Garrus offered me his arm, which I leaned on gratefully, and steered me gently to the elevator and up to my room.
He folded back the sheets and propped pillows up, extending a hand to help me into bed. He brought me my data pad and a glass of water and sat at my side, his hands stroking softly at my singed and ragged hair.
I had never seen him fuss quite like this before. A simple word, a meaningful look, and that sufficed. His reminders to take care of myself I had generally heeded, though part of it was always because I knew I had a job to do in the morning.
“Have you heard anything from Hackett?” I asked.
“If we had, we would have told you,” he said seriously, and then a grin flickered across his face and he added: “Against doctor’s orders.”
“You turian scoundrel,” I teased him back, hearing the lightness in my voice, but not feeling it.
There was something behind his expression – something darker. I knew he saw through me – I knew he hoped my practiced stoicism would turn into authentic peace. But he worried.
He had managed to bring his stash of cool cloths upstairs with him – not so much a mystery now as I watched him dip one in cold water and wring it gently. The water rushed to join together in rivulets – the streams that ran between his fingers jumping and joining with each other, then pulling apart in search of another drip.
The motion, the energy, the clarity of the droplets… they reminded me of the boy. The boy I had seen die on Earth. The boy from my dreams, who had somehow made his way up to the Citadel with me. The boy who was not real, or was real, or was part machine, or was a reaper. I didn’t know anymore.
He wavered, he flowed, he crackled with silent energy.
“The created will always rebel against their creators,” he told me, his voice calm – disturbingly, terrifyingly soothing.
“It is now in your power to destroy us…”
And in my mind’s eye – or was it real, hanging in the air in front of me? – I saw Anderson, his hand gripping his pistol, sinews twitching as his gun recoiled, each shot weakening the reapers.
“But be warned: others will be destroyed, as well… The Crucible will not discriminate. All synthetics will be targeted. Even you are partly synthetic.”
Garrus paused, his hand hovering near my forehead. I could feel the coolness of the cloth spreading across my skin, the chill jumping the distance between the rag and my face. I leaned into the soothing cold and Garrus resumed playing doctor, but his tough gaze was on me. I realized I had spoken my thoughts aloud.
“How what?” he asked, his voice a gentle nudge as he slipped closer.
“Garrus,” I admonished quietly. “I’m not made of glass. You can touch me without breaking me.”
A hitch in his breath, and his arm wrapped – solidly, powerfully – around me.
“Better?” he asked.
I nodded into his shoulder and curled closer, wrapping my fingers around his wrist as his hand caressed my waist.
“Good. Now, what were you going to ask?”
Damned C-Sec training. You can’t take the cop out of the turian… I sighed and asked anyway, knowing that delaying the inevitable didn’t make it any less unavoidable.
“How did I survive?”
He let out a sigh – I felt it in the way his chest compressed beneath my shoulders. His mandibles twitched against my temple.
“We don’t know,” he said simply. “We sent teams up to the Citadel to see if there was… anyone… alive up there. We couldn’t find you, not anywhere. And then Joker came to pick us up. He saw some unusual rubble where the Crucible was docked, and he shuttled us over to check it out. We found you… somehow… breathing.”
It soothed me, strangely, to hear his voice so mechanical. Describing the state of the battlefield – the medical precision of triage. You save who you can. And somehow, they had found me, where no living being should have been. Somehow, I was still breathing. Somehow, still me.
“The Crucible… it destroyed all synthetic life.”
“I know,” Garrus said. “Reports have been coming in from across the galaxy. We couldn’t have known… It was a gamble, Shepard.”
I was synthetic.
An echo, emotionless and stale. I couldn’t quite believe that it was just more of that ruthless calculus.
You couldn’t have known.
But I had.
I felt the stretch in my muscles – equal parts painful and pleasurable – as I finally made my first trip down to the med bay without Garrus’s strength to support me.
He had raised an eyebrow when I suggested I should go alone, but the careful set of his jaw told me he trusted my judgment. He knew me well enough to distinguish the stupid stubborn from plain determination. Determination was something we shared.
So he nodded and accompanied me only to the second floor, standing respectfully away, choosing to express his faith in me by not hovering. When we parted at the mess hall, I hoped my gratitude was clear through my expression and the gentle kiss I gave him. My skin was still rough and tender, too fragile for the kind of embraces we had sought from each other before the Battle for Earth, but I wanted him to remember that he was still in my heart.
He smiled, the coolness of the mess hall lights illuminating the deep blue of his clan tattoos, and disappeared into the main battery.
The exercises Doctor Chakwas walked me through were excruciating as always, less from the physical discomfort than from the realization that my body was broken down and useless. As she poked and prodded and stretched and strengthened, I felt the endlessness of my recovery hanging over me. My walk was a slow, heavy shuffle. When would I ever be able to run again? To jump, roll, balance a sniper rifle against the muscle of my shoulder.
I always asked myself when, not if, but that tiny, unspoken word seeped into my mind unwanted.
“You’re improving, Commander,” Chakwas said in her even voice. “Your burns look good, and your strength and flexibility are getting better.”
“I’d like to be improving a lot faster,” I said candidly.
She sighed, setting her data pad on the desk so she could cross her arms and give me her stern, motherly look of admonishment.
“I know, Commander,” she said, and the warmth in her voice surprised me. I felt my eyes sting, suddenly, tears threatening to pool in the corners and make that damned knot in my throat visible. I swallowed.
“But you have to have a little patience,” she continued. “You’re lucky to be alive. Again. I know how persistent you are. And trust me when I say I’ve dealt with difficult patients before. You and Garrus are a handful, the both of you. I must say I’m surprised you didn’t walk out of here before I approved your release.”
Her mouth quirked up in a smile that was as sympathetic as it was wry. I was grateful that I saw no pity in her eyes.
“Commander, you were ready to sacrifice your life. I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for sacrificing only a few months to recover.”
“Just a few months?” I asked, hopeful.
She let out a sigh that was almost a laugh, and shook her head at my impatience.
“Perhaps a year. You suffered a great trauma; it’s to be expected. Your body needs to heal, and even with the best medication and physical therapy we know of, that will take time. Besides, there are no reapers left to fight. You’ve earned this break, Commander. Now, you need to take it.”
“Now, if you don’t mind, I need to meet Cortez in the shuttle bay. He’s just come back with a delivery of medical supplies and I need to inventory it. Will you be alright to get back to your room?”
“I think I want to walk around a bit,” I said. “Go ahead, Doctor. And thank you.”
With a slight nod, she left.
I sat on the cot a moment, but my eyes were inevitably drawn to the door of the AI Core, and my body followed. The doors parted before me and I stepped in, plunged into the dim, dry cool of the room as the doors shut behind me.
This room was never silent. It thrummed with the energy of the ship. Or perhaps it was the silence of the room that made the humming so apparent. There was nothing to distract from that sound – the heartbeat of the ship. It was nothing like the roar of the ship’s core that permeated the engineering deck. It was different. Here, it surrounded me, cocooning me in the Normandy.
The doors opened suddenly behind me, and I heard the surprised squeak of Tali. Her modulated voice broke the silence:
“Oh! Shepard, I didn’t know you were here.”
“I was just…. Thinking.”
A silence. Tali moved closer, standing beside me, her head tilted. I knew behind that mask she was watching me. The way she carried herself now – the gravitas, the strength, the grace – if it weren’t for the playfulness and sweetness in her voice, I would barely recognize the young girl who had come aboard my ship in the midst of her pilgrimage.
I breathed in the quiet. She waited patiently for me to answer.
“…Yes,” I said, finally.
We both looked at the spot where a geth carcass had lain months ago – lifeless before I had made the decision to activate it – him.
“I came here to think, too,” she said. “I’ve spent a lot of time down here since…”
Another silence. I realized how little I had spoken with Tali since I had woken. She had brought all her fire and spunk with her to visit me, imbuing me with a little of her strength and passion. I had soaked in her presence as I healed, slowly progressing from half-conscious to sitting and chatting with my crew, and yet…
I’d had so little energy for the kinds of conversations I used to have with my crew. I felt distant and cold. And I still had yet to see Joker. Even once. I wanted to ask, wondered if everyone was talking about it. Wondered if Joker was talking to any of them. Worried about what he was doing to himself, alone in the cockpit with nothing but grief and loss and bitterness. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask.
“Many of my people are… happy that the geth are gone,” Tali continued, her voice thoughtful. “They are rejoicing as if the geth were as large a threat as the reapers.”
“How do you feel about it?”
“I…” she broke off, and I wished not for the first time that her mask were less opaque. Right now, I didn’t want a mirror – I didn’t want to see my own broken face and glassy eyes – I wanted a window into Tali’s. That inscrutable helmet held the silence between us for too long. And then she sighed.
“I disagree,” she said finally. “I don’t know how I feel about the geth, how things would have been if they were still around. But Legion… he made me confront my own people, my own history. See things differently… “
She broke off again. I understood. The power of it all – the sudden, incomprehensible changes our galaxy had undergone in only a few months. It was a wonder there were any words exchanged at all.
“I can’t just forget it ever happened,” she concluded.
“He did that for a lot of us, Tali,” I said, noting passively the weariness in my own voice.
And then he was there – suddenly, instantly, and for just a brief flickering moment I saw him: the odd gentleness in the tilt of his mechanical head as he listened to me in one of our many conversations. The eerie innocence in the way the light I had come to call his eye washed over me.
I had learned what nightmares were. The reapers were nightmares. The geth were only victims.
And the question in my own head lingered, unasked and shoved away in some dark crevasse of brain matter: what does that make you?
EDI regarded me patiently, waiting for an explanation. She had been disturbed by tales of humans fighting the reapers and acting against their own self-interest. Her questions were becoming more frequent, and more complex. Behind the orange visor and the metallic glint of her eye, I could sense the frustration, the confusion, the deep, authentic emotion. She exuded life, vitality. It was… different.
“It’s not just about living till tomorrow,” I told her. “Sometimes you take a stand.”
“But the probability of success was near zero. And ultimately, they failed. No prisoners escaped.”
“Are you saying submission is preferable to extinction?”
“My primary function is to preserve and defend the…” she broke off, her bright tone and cheery stance melting into one of thoughtfulness and determination.
I had never seen such nuance in cybernetic form, and I knew it was not the body of Doctor Eva that was making EDI so expressive. I could hear the change in her voice over the past few months. The rote phrases and automatic responses were being cut short, replaced by deep curiosity and a strange, new strength. I wondered if I should be anxious about these developments – the quarians certainly had been – and EDI’s questioning and growth were clear signs that this unit most certainly had a soul…
“No,” she said, conviction in her voice. “No, I disagree.”
I felt a smile tug at my mouth, watching EDI absorb her new realization. My chest tightened with the sudden revelation that EDI had truly become one of us.
“Shepard, I am going to modify my self preservation code now,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Because the Reapers are repulsive. They are devoted to nothing but self-preservation. I am different.”
She turned away from me, her voice growing soft as she looked down the bridge and into the cockpit. I knew she was watching Joker as she spoke: “When I think of Jeff, I think of the person who put his life in peril and freed me from a state of servitude. I would risk non-functionality for him. And my core programming should reflect that.”
“Sounds like you found a little humanity EDI. Is it worth defending?”
“To the death.”
That tightening in my chest grew stronger, as if my heart could no longer be contained by my ribcage. I was… proud. Proud of EDI. And glad to have her as a part of my team. The trepidation I had felt when Cerberus had first revealed her was left in the dust of the past. EDI was no danger to us – she was one of us.
“Welcome to the crew, EDI.”
Something seized me, then, jolting me out of the forced reminiscence. My mind lately seemed to be split in two, and a part of it was unrelenting in its need to pull me back. Back to how things were.
Tali still stood beside me, deep in her thoughts. I was sure her expression would be as dark as her mask if she removed it then.
That feeling still pulled at me. That need. EDI wasn’t organic. The geth weren’t organic. They were real, they were conscious, but they weren’t subject to the laws of biological degradation. They didn’t age.
Did they really die? Permanently? How could they? Code could be rewritten. Their bodies rebuilt. They weren’t organic.
I was at the control panel almost before I realized I was moving forward. I threw open the door, my fingers finding the wires. Searching. Needing.
Tali’s voice wavered. She moved towards me, then stopped.
“Tali, you have experience with the geth. Do you know what code Legion had accessed? The one that gave them… The one that made them…”
The one that killed him.
Yes, the one that killed him and gave his people hope. The one you took away when you destroyed them.
“Shepard,” she said again. “I tried. Believe me, I tried.”
I shook my head stubbornly, violently. Little spots exploded in front of me, and I steadied myself against the control panel as nausea washed over me.
“It’s not possible,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper of air across the room.
“No,” I said. “No, that can’t be true. They did it once. We can do it again.”
“Shepard, the geth evolved. Who knows what random occurrence set them on the path to consciousness? They may not have been biological, but they were as organic as the rest of us.”
“Cerberus built EDI. Joker removed the restraints – “
“And the last year, the fight against the reapers, the influence of the crew – that’s what made her the EDI we remember.”
“We can get her back!”
In my frustration, my hands were tightening around the wires and cables. The cold metal of the panel door pressed fiercely into my arm as I leaned against it. My adrenaline response was all wrong – I felt weak, shaky, furious.
When Tali’s hand closed around mine, it was gentler than I had expected. I was sick of gentle. Sick of sweet looks and quiet tsking. Sick of being watched, being coddled, being pitied. I just wanted to fight someone. I just wanted someone to fight me.
And yet, I let Tali disentangle me from my impulsive mission. I let her silently herd me away. I felt each foot touch the floor, saw the way the rooms melted into each other. And I felt Garrus’s hands replace Tali’s with a murmured exchange. I let him hover behind me as I trudged back to the elevator. Back to my room. Back to the silence, the white lights, the empty fish tank lurking.
Garrus sat beside me on the bed, his long and spindly frame folding so elegantly into itself. He stroked my hair and watched my blank expression for a while.
My thoughts splintered and fractured halfway formed. I could do nothing but simply breathe, simply wait for the next minute to come. Simply feel Garrus’s eyes on me until I found the energy to turn my head and look at him.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, fixing me with that intense gaze.
I could never lie to him, so lately I had taken to simply saying nothing at all. But the wounds from my silent treatment were starting to show, and I knew I would soon have double the guilt to eat away at me. When I looked away, I knew he hadn’t. His hands stilled on my hair and then fell away.
“Shepard,” he said, his voice as close to pleading as I had ever heard it. “What’s wrong?”
“Garrus,” I whispered, fearing that to raise my voice any louder would loose the thick, hard knot of tears that ravaged my throat these days.
He reached for me, his hands closing gently, but firmly, around my face. He tilted my head up so our eyes finally met.
“Shepard,” he said, more forcefully this time. “I’m not going anywhere. And I’m not going to lose you again. So start talking.”
His voice softened on the last words, but his eyes didn’t. There was a steely glint to the blue. Determined as ever.
I was horrified to feel my composure slipping and the tears coming loose from the lump in my throat. All of a sudden, they couldn’t escape fast enough, and my breath came in ragged gasps between thick, painful, choking sobs.
His arms were around me instantly, his chin coming to rest on the crown of my head. I shuddered against him, the sobs coming harsh and hiccupping, and so powerful that at times I could only make the low keening sound of the battlefield wounded. I was at the utter mercy of my body’s violent self-loathing.
“It’s okay,” he whispered in my hair, “It’s over now. They’re gone. They’re gone, you did it,” and then his soothing turned to mystification. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Garrus,” I finally groaned out between gulps of air. “Garrus, we have to do something about EDI. We have to. I have to.”
I heard the soft exhalation and felt his arms pull tighter around me, though the violence of my crying resisted his embrace.
“Shepard,” he finally said, “there’s nothing we can do. Tali tried. She tried everything.”
“No,” I said. “No, she can’t have.”
“Shh,” he soothed into my hair.
“No,” I insisted. “There has to be something else.”
“We tried. Joker wouldn’t leave the AI Core for days. We did everything. She’s gone.”
I clung to him, sobbing against his shoulder.
“It’s my fault,” I wailed. “It’s my fault.”
He wiped tears from my still-angry cheeks with the fabric of his shirt, trying not to aggravate the sensitive skin.
“You didn’t know. You did what you had to do. You didn’t know. None of us did.”
“But I did,” I said, the words transforming the deep pressure that had been inside me into a sharp pang. “I knew. I knew. He told me.”
“Who told you?” Garrus asked.
I struggled to get enough oxygen with each shaky breath. The thoughts caught in my mind, all jagged pieces that lodged into the crevasses of my broken self and wouldn’t come loose. How could I possibly explain? I had played the silent game with Hackett, too, and he believed I remembered nothing of the events of that terrible, inevitable night.
“I – “ I tried to explain, but the words had gotten so used to staying inside. “I can’t.”
“Shepard,” Garrus said, his voice strained. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s my fault, Garrus,” I said again. “EDI, the geth. It’s my fault. I knew what the Crucible would do. I could have controlled them instead. I could have… I knew and I still… I made my choice.”
He held me at arm’s length then, the strength in his wiry arms evident. I thought perhaps he finally understood, and was as disgusted by me as I was by myself.
“Look at me,” he said, his voice all authority. C-Sec officer, leader. I knew that voice well.
I steeled myself and looked into his eyes – sniper’s eyes that saw everything, that cut deep. And he saw me, I knew he did. But I saw none of my own feelings reflecting back from his eyes. I saw only fear. And focus. I had seen that face before, on the battlefield, when he talked the shell-shocked out of their delirium.
Art by silvermittt
“You did what you had to,” he said firmly.
“No,” I whispered. “I – I did what I wanted to.”
The rustling sound at the door alerted us both then – two soldiers’ reflexes turned at once on the intruder.
And when I saw his red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes and the way his five-o-clock shadow now covered the newly harsh lines of his face with blackness, I felt a strange relief that my retribution was no longer a looming possibility.
How we didn’t hear him earlier, I don’t know. Joker wasn’t known for his stealth. I can only imagine the ruckus I was making earlier had shielded his uneven, shuffling footfalls from our ears.
“Commander,” he said, his voice stiffer than the brim of his hat.
“Joker,” I said, hoping an ounce of my remorse would leak into his name on my lips.
His mouth opened, as if he had something to say, but I could see in his eyes the thoughts whirling, coalescing.
He snapped his mouth shut and backed out of the door.
I scrambled up from my bed, trying to follow him, limping worse than he did. For once, I was the one who couldn’t keep up.
And Garrus’s arm looped around my waist, stopping me short, pulling me back against him.
“Not now,” he said. “Give him time.”
I was tugged out of sleep by quiet sounds that beckoned me. Whirring doors, the soft pad of three-toed feet on the floor, and then the rustle of the sheets as his weight settled next to me on the bed. I opened my eyes to the pleasant blues and grays of his face, and even that damned visor he never took off was a welcome sight.
I still wasn’t used to having him back on board.
“Glad to see you followed my orders,” he said, the edge of humor in his voice softened a little.
“Glad to see you do still remember where I sleep,” I quipped back, my voice hushed from my nap.
“Did you think I wouldn’t pay you a visit? You made it pretty clear that I was still welcome here.”
“Well, it took you long enough,” I teased.
He chuckled quietly: “I have actual responsibilities now. But I came as soon as I could get away from them.”
He reached out in the silence, his fingers trailing lightly along the exposed skin of my shoulder, my arm. The cool waves of peace that radiated out from his touch were a welcome reminder of the calm he brought with him. I felt my face stretch into a smile, and my body followed, shaking off the remains of sleep in my muscles.
When I looked back up at him, he was smiling, his blue eyes fixed on me. I pulled the covers up, and he joined me beneath the sheets, curving his body against mine. I rested my head in the crook of his collar, memorizing the smooth curves of his plating and the angles of his face with my fingertips.
I drew close to him, pressing into the angular gaps in his body. Somehow, we had found a way to fit together, the muscular curvature of my body conforming to his sharp edges. Perhaps it was natural for us, or perhaps it was practice. The early days of us blurred together, progressing into now. How we got here didn’t matter to me.
The soft stroking of his hands on my body – lower, now, coaxing more curvature out of my waist, drawing me even nearer to him – pulled a soft sigh out of me. The hollow of his collar beckoned, and I kissed his neck slowly, delighting in the subtly contented rumble in his chest as I did so.
“I’ve missed you,” he whispered.
“I’ve missed you too, Garrus. I’ve needed you here.”
“Needed? I have trouble believing that. You’re the strongest person I know.”
“Even I need, sometimes.”
“Always,” I said.
He pulled me in closer.
“I’m here now,” he said.
I breathed in the pine-forest scent of him. So familiar, so safe. Suddenly, terribly, I felt all the loneliness of my past six months grounded on earth. Months of pretending strength when I felt helpless and useless.
“They didn’t believe me, Garrus,” I said. “We have such limited time and they wasted it on bureaucratic bullshit.”
The quiet growl in his chest told me he understood. Bureaucracy had driven him from C-Sec all those years ago. Well, bureaucracy and a touch of grief, the way he told it. I smiled into his neck and let my fingers explore the plating of his chest.
“What if it’s too late?”
The voice was so timid I almost didn’t recognize it as my own. Garrus was silent for a moment, and I tilted my head up to read the emotions in his pale blue eyes.
“You’ll do the best you can, Shepard,” he said simply. “You always do. And there’s still time.”
He caressed my face with his hand, tilting my chin up to brush my nose against his. I took advantage of the proximity to kiss the scars on his face gently, rewarded by the way his mandibles spread in a grin and he tilted his forehead down to meet my gaze with his own.
“Time,” I repeated.
Time wasn’t enough. Joker resigned from Alliance employment, citing family matters. He said he needed to return to Tiptree to get his family’s affairs in order. I knew there was more to it than that. How could he continue to work for me when he couldn’t even look at me?
The Alliance brought in a new pilot, but even I saw the wariness in their eyes when they looked at me. They wondered, as I did, if perhaps it wasn’t just the pilot that needed to be replaced.
He was enthusiastic. Young. He shook my hand as vigorously as my fragile appearance suggested was appropriate. He told me it was an honor.
When I looked in his eyes, I felt my feet freeze to the ground. Suddenly, I saw a slouching form, a baseball cap irreverently askew. He looked up from under the darkness of the cap and his face was set in harsh lines. His eyes glowed black for me.
“Commander,” he said. “Does this unit have a soul?”
I squeezed my eyes shut, and when I opened them again, I saw the fresh-faced young man before me. His expression had changed from star-struck to wary, and I gave him a stiff salute and fled with as much dignity as I could manage.
“Shepard Commander, I must go to them.”
His words reached me, but their meaning did not. I watched as if it were a scene playing out in front of me, not understanding what was coming to pass.
“I’m – sorry. It is the only way.”
He looked at me, and somehow I read sincerity in his expression. Absurd, I would have said to myself a few months earlier, geth can’t express something they don’t feel. And yet, there was something about the way he carried himself that spoke volumes more than his words.
“Legion,” Tali spoke up suddenly beside me, “…the answer to your question was ‘yes.’”
“I know, Tali, but thank you. Keelah se’lai.”
And then, it was over. Short. Sudden. Somehow more brutal than violence. And I was left with words I hadn’t even realized I needed to say.
I owed him so much. I owed all of them. And I was still not convinced that my actions repaid them with the justice they had earned.
No, I was convinced. Convinced that I had lost my way – made a decision that was not mine to make. Somehow, I had come to believe that my judgment was sound enough to cover all the sins of this terrible war. That the destruction of the reapers would wipe the slate clean.
And it had, just not for me.
But I could not allow my days aboard this ship to be numbered. I would not be defeated in the quiet days of retirement.
I swallowed my protests in my physical therapy sessions. I took the pills that Chakwas offered. I slept in merciful oblivion, with no dreams to disturb me.
I did not stop seeing them. EDI, Legion, Mordin, Thane. I did not stop seeing Joker.
But I learned to accept them. And perhaps some of that practiced stoicism leeched into my heart, because in time, I stopped feeling the need to flee. They watched me as I ran the ship. They supervised my efforts as the Normandy traveled the far reaches of the galaxy to assist with reconstruction. They became a part of me. My reminder that the fight was still not over. I had a legacy to uphold: their legacy.
I replayed my times with them over and over in my head. It was strangely freeing, to have them in my life again, at least until the sinking and sick realization in my stomach that they were only parts of my weak and sickened mind. But as long as the crew remained unsuspecting, I could at least pretend for a little while each day that things had not changed.
EDI turned to me as I bent over the galaxy map. The bridge was quiet – we were stopped for a little R and R on Illium and I had remained alone in the quiet, dark corridors of the ship.
“If the Normandy were captured, my fate would be similar to the indoctrinated,” she was explaining to me. “My code would be rewritten. I would become loyal to the Reapers.”
She paused, and I glanced over at her. She was contemplative, her head tilted slightly and a look of concentration on her face. Then, she frowned.
“I would rather become non-functional than help them,” she said firmly.
“I won't let that happen to you EDI,” I said.
“You may have no choice,” she said, and briefly, I appreciated that she carried on with me this way. As if the decision was yet to be made. As if these moments were still happening.
“If you perish first, I want you to know I will never be a part of the Reaper forces. The Reapers must be defeated, not because they threaten death, but because the threat of death makes us die inside. It is the right of sapients to live freely and securely.”
Her voice echoed in the empty bridge. I let the tones return to me, like bells on the air.
“That is worth non-functionality,” she said, her voice peaceful.
Is it? I wondered.
We stopped on the Citadel for a supply run a few months later. I was stronger, but I still hesitated before stepping off the Normandy and into the docking bay.
Garrus glanced down at me, feeling my breathing change as surely as I did. He offered his arm, which I took with a smile. The Citadel reeked of death still. I knew no one else could smell it, but every time I was here I felt the thickness of the air, the crackling in the sounds, like it was all about to flicker away. I heard his voice, too, the child.
In non-regulation clothing, I was less conspicuous. Once we had put some distance between us and the Normandy, I felt the stares drop off slowly. Away from the docking bay and in the midst of the Citadel’s public zones, the population was too busy to concern itself with anything beyond its immediate needs.
I checked off my list methodically. The Council and the Alliance had both been throwing work my way, and the grind was purifying, strengthening. I had so many things to do now, so much to busy my mind with. Even this trip, which was meant as shore leave for the crew, was packed with diplomatic meetings and errands to run.
From shop to shop, I picked up every conceivable necessity for the Normandy. I wove through crowds of shoppers and sent delivery boys to the docking bay with armor mods and specialty groceries for the crew.
It was in the middle of this buzz that I saw him.
He was sitting at a table in a café in the Presidium. His baseball cap askew, his legs propped up on the chair across from him.
I was waiting for one of my orders, standing by a merchant’s counter, the crowd filling the gap between us, flowing like water. As they passed, he seemed to flicker between them.
How long had it been since he had left the Normandy? I saw him every day, lurking in the corners of my vision with EDI and Legion, and yet he felt further away each time. He met my gaze and held it. The familiar stubble darkened his jaw. His eyes were bright beneath the shadow of his cap.
The merchant arrived with my order, and when I looked back, he was gone. Another lurking vision. Another trick of the mind.
Garrus carried the box of supplies for me – he always insisted, although Chakwas gave me the all-clear. They both knew what I would never say – the ache in my bones would never leave.
As we returned to the Normandy, I saw the crew gathered outside. Liara’s nose crinkled into her smile. Tali’s laugh wafted across the room. I saw Cortez and Vega with mischief in their eyes.
And as we drew closer, I saw the short and stunted figure whose back was to us. His baseball cap askew, leaning on a guard rail.
When he turned and saw us, his face creased in a weary grin, I saw the faltering look, the uncertainty. I felt it in myself, and I felt my grip tighten around Garrus’s arm. We drew closer anyway.
The hush that fell among the crew was short, but even in its briefness, I felt the discomfort creep up my legs, making me feel like squirming in my boots. Reapers, I could handle. Uncomfortable reunions made me want to turn and run.
And despite the weeks of seeing him in all my waking nightmares. Despite the weeks of his presence as I plotted the next jumps. Despite the years we had spent together, or perhaps because of them, it was like I hadn’t seen him in a lifetime.
“Hey Joker,” I broke the silence before it became unbearable. I felt a steely satisfaction that my voice had maintained its pre-breakdown calm. It sounded downright casual, though I knew from the way Joker looked at me that he saw the anxiety in my eyes. He read the dark circles and the new lines in my face, and his own softened.
“Commander,” he said, tipping the brim of his cap in a playful mockery of an old-fashioned gentleman. “Glad to see you’re taking care of the Normandy.”
“She’s my baby, too, Joker,” I said. “But she misses you.”
His smile grew then, just a little, but I could see it beneath the shadow of his unkempt beard.
“Yeah, nobody flies her like I do,” he said.
I felt EDI draw up beside me, and I wondered if he saw her, too.
“What is the purpose of synthetic life?”
EDI asked me this question now, as she had months before on the Normandy.
“It’s not that different from organic life,” I had responded.
She watched me now, and I felt strangely comforted by her presence. Joker turned back to the rest of the crew. I stayed on the outskirts for a moment as they reminisced together.
“The Illusive Man ordered my creation years ago. Jeff was the one who allowed me to think for myself. But only now do I feel alive. That is your influence, Shepard.”
I smiled as his voice announced his presence. Without looking, I knew he stood beside EDI, the blue lights on his body soothing and bright.
“Success without sacrifice was impossible, given the circumstances,” Legion said to me, his voice strangely quiet. “My people will be remembered for their sacrifice, rather than for the war we fought with our creators. All living beings desire a legacy such as this.”
“Our lives may have been short, Shepard, but we lived.”
EDI placed her hand on my shoulder, and the gesture was remarkably natural. I felt her presence and Legion’s as a comforting peace swept through me. And I knew the others were there, gathered behind them. All the ones I had lost – the ones whose lives I had felt so personally responsible for. Kaidan watched me with his kind eyes. Mordin smiled and shook his head as if he knew some great secret I had yet to comprehend. And Thane bowed his head, his grace and integrity flowing into me as he prayed. And Anderson.
“I’m proud of you, child,” he whispered, and I wondered if he didn’t speak louder because his voice was as shaky as my own.
“Thank you,” I finally whispered, feeling tears gather at the outer corner of my eyes.