Chapter 24

I wake up in the med bay. For half a moment, I can't remember how I got there. Then it all comes back to me. The attack, my families, the Normandy, the Black Shadows…Sara…

I almost begin to think again that it was all a dream. Then I open my eyes and my doubts fade away.

She's there. She lies on the bed beside the one I'm in, looking as beautiful as I remember. She must hear me because she opens her eyes to look at me and smiles as she does. "Hi."

I still don't have all my strength back. I still can't pull her over and never let go. But I can't hide how overjoyed I am to see her alive again. Of course, then I remember where we are. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine, Garrus. Dr. Chakwas actually checked me out an hour ago and said I was fine but…I wanted to be here when you woke up." She pushes the covers off and steps over to take my hand as she kneels down beside me to make her eyes level with mine. It's the hand that got broken, so it's very tightly bandaged and she takes extra care as she handles it. "…Liara told me everything."

That makes me turn my gaze from hers. Suddenly, I don't have the courage to keep it up.

She simply places her other hand over the one she holds, attempting to show all the comfort she can. "I know it's been hard, but…I'm here for you, Garrus. In fact…you could say I never left."

"But you did. And it's been the hardest thing I've ever had to go through, harder than fighting the Reapers. I've grieved you for three years now. Coming back to me won't change that…" I then face her again, seeing that my words are actually hurting her on some level. But I can't change the truth either and it's too late to turn away from it now: "…or the fact that I can't take losing you again. I've lost you twice now."

"I came back twice, too."

"What, is that supposed to end now that the Reapers are gone? I'm starting to think your spirit of death is taunting me."

"And what about me?"

I look at her in confusion.

Her eyes are watering. Something is very wrong, I know it. "…I watched you die, too. Every night in my sleep."

oh. That I'm unprepared for. I was not expecting this. I don't know how to…no…no, I do. I do what I did for her during the war and act as her strength again. I place my other hand over hers so that all four of our hands are locked together. I keep my eyes on hers, doing everything I can to show her that it's alright, that I'm here and I won't leave her.

She simply clutches my hand tighter and lowers her gaze. "When I got the vision from the Prothean beacons, it haunted me. Once I realized what I was seeing, when I saw what the Reapers did to them, it got worse. Suddenly, my dreams started translating it into our cycle. I wasn't seeing the Protheans die, I was seeing what would happen if we couldn't stop the war. I saw everyone I cared about harvested…including you.

"After the first Normandy went down and took me with it, after I came back the first time, it started to calm down. But then I found out that you were practically missing…I was worried about you. When we found you, it was like I only came alive at that moment. I started to feel like myself again, fighting at your side. But when you were gunned down, it…I thought I'd lost you for good. Seeing you like that, it killed me inside. I was overjoyed when you came back to me. But…well, you'd changed. I guess we both had.

"I was so worried about you after the fight on Omega and it only got worse when we were tracking down Sidonis. I thought I'd lost you in a way I just couldn't handle. That's why I fought so hard to keep him alive: it was my way of trying to save you. After the mission was over, it made me realize how much I cared about you, that I couldn't do this without you…that I really loved you. I guess we both felt that way from the beginning, just couldn't admit it. Every moment I spent with you was the best moment of my life.

"But after the suicide mission…I started wondering what would've happened if just one thing had gone differently. There were so many times we could've lost everyone and it wasn't just strategy that got us through but dumb luck! I started having nightmares again, not because of the beacon but because of all the what ifs. Every night, I'd lose everyone I cared about but the one thing all of the worst ones had in common was that I watched you die. It felt so real that it hurt, like I was actually holding you in my arms and feeling you slip away. When I woke up, I'd remind myself that it wasn't real, but I couldn't deny the fact that it could have been.

"What if the plating or the shields didn't hold when we were approaching the base and one of the attacks hit you? What if Tali couldn't hack the doors or we couldn't hold off the Collectors and something got through? What if you'd been with us in the Seeker Swarms' hall and Jack's barrier had gone down while you were at the front? What if the others couldn't hold the main doors? What if you'd been with us when the Reaper went down and I couldn't catch you? What if the platform crash had hit just a little harder with you there?" I could tell the thought of losing me was killing her as much as actually losing her had killed me. Because I had never seen her cry like this before.

Still, she pulls it together enough to keep going: "The thought of seeing you again really was the only thing that got me off of Earth when the Reapers hit. But seeing Palaven in flames destroyed me. Because I thought I'd lost you. I thought for sure you'd be right in the thick of it and wouldn't be able to keep back hundreds of Reaper forces alone. Fighting all the Husks and Cannibals on Menae allowed me a distraction, let me focus on fighting instead of thinking you might be gone.

"Seeing you at the camp gave me my strength back. Even more so when you helped us fight them off. I couldn't have survived that fight without you. You were the only thing that kept me going when the war got hard to take. You were the reason I was able to finish it. Leaving you on the Normandy in the last push for the beam was the hardest thing I've ever had to do—just like leaving me there must have been for you, from what I hear. But I knew I had to protect you. Because even if I did survive the fight, there was no point in going on with my life afterwards if you weren't in it. …the last thing I remember before the Crucible went off…the first thing I thought about when I woke up—the thing that woke me up…" She meets my eyes again, the tears replaced by a spark of joy I've missed more than I can say. "…was you."

I have no words for this. What could I say?

"Never let me go again," she pleads, clutching my hands as tightly as she can without hurting one of us, "There's no Shepard without Vakarian, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember," I answer, "Clearly, there's no Vakarian without Shepard either."

She smiles, her green eyes gleaming as she does. Finally, she pushes the sheets on my bed aside and sits down beside me. Once I move back towards the edge enough to make room for her, she climbs on and pulls the sheets back over, moving closer to me. I wrap my arms around her, hoping never to let go again. She accepts this, seems to pull even closer. Then her eyes lock on mine and, just like in my dream, I lose the will to move. After a few seconds, she reaches up her left hand to stroke my scars. In response, I reach up my right hand to stroke her hair. After a moment, my hand falls away and rests on her shoulder. Then she stops stroking my scars and rests her hand over them. Our eyes lock together again and stay there. Finally, we simply lay there in each other's arms, doing nothing but being together, just like we used to do after the suicide mission. I don't know how long we stay that way before I fall asleep...

When I wake up, she's gone. She's gone! Ignoring the possible dangers, I pull myself to my feet and out of the med bay to start looking.

I find her in front of the memorial wall.

oh

She's looking at the two named at the center: Adm. David Anderson and Commander Shepard. Before I get the nerve up to approach her, I don't know which she's really focused on—the man who guided her with the Alliance, who gave her the Normandy, who she might as well have considered a father…or herself, come back from the dead a second time and no longer sure why?

Slowly, I step over to her side. "Are you sure you're OK?"

She doesn't even take her eyes off the wall. "…I'm not sure that's a thing with me." She sighs, resting her head in her hand. "It's not that I'm attracted to danger, it's that danger's attracted to me. My whole life, everyone close to me has…" She can't bring herself to finish. Instead, she looks over at me.

When I follow her eyes, I find that they lead to my left side. My hand is still bandaged like it was back in the med bay. But now I notice that there's also a bandage over where I was shot.

She reaches over, pressing her fingertips against the wound. The sudden pressure, light as it is, causes a flare of pain, small but enough to make me flinch back with a sharp gasp. She instantly pulls her hand back. Then she steps closer and places her whole hand against it. I almost react the same way, but the hurt subsides almost instantly when she doesn't move. After a moment, she reaches her other hand over to gently take hold of my broken one. As she looks at the injuries and runs her fingers against them so softly I barely feel it, she suddenly lets off a small laugh. "You really are insane."

I give her a small laugh of my own. "Yeah, well…that's just what love does to a guy like me."

Not moving otherwise, she raises her eyes up to meet mine. "Just make sure it doesn't happen again."

I nod. "That goes double for you. To be honest, when I first found out about what happened with the Crucible, I was hoping it was a nightmare. I couldn't take losing you."

Her gaze softens. Empathy. She doesn't even move when I reach my right hand up to her. She knows how much I need this. To feel her here and know for the first time in over a year that it's real. That the love of my life is alive and with me. And she is. I know it in my heart. As I look into her eyes again, I—

Suddenly, her eyes flash, the same blue light I saw on Omega. Just like back then, she recoils, seemingly in pain.

I quickly wrap an arm around her, ready to catch her if she starts to collapse. "Are you alright?"

She forces herself to recover, shakes it off like she'd shake off a concussive shot. "…yeah. I'm fine." She's not. She's trying to hide it, but I can tell.

"That happened before. On Omega. Before you got captured."

She doesn't even look at me. She didn't then either. Why not? "It's happened a lot since I came back. Some sort of side effect from the Crucible or something like that."

"…it reminds me of Legion."

"As well it should, I suppose. Just a standard from merging with synthetics." She brings back her commander voice for the whole "explanation," calls up all the strength she has to finalize this before I can question further. But in the brief moment our eyes meet, I also find a pleading look in her eyes—Don't ask me about it. Please. That's the end of it then. It's pretty clear it's hurting her. No way am I digging any deeper there.

But that's not all there is. It's time I finally said what's been eating away at me since we first breeched the Shadows' network. "…I saw what they did to you."

She knows exactly what I mean the moment I say it. I feel her tense up. The same tension you would expect from someone who was saved from months of that torture. Once again, she seems…fragile. That hurts us both.

But I still bring myself to say what I know I have to: "I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that. I wish I could've saved you from it." She barely responds. "Well, hey, at least they paid for it." She scoffs, shaking her head. Not like it's a small comfort but like it doesn't make a difference at all. Like what Orion said was true and she really did walk away unaffected. I can't say it would surprise me. But I also can't deny any longer that…well… "…I hate to say it—I regret even feeling it—but I am still somewhat grateful to them. Because they brought you back to me."

"You don't have to feel that at all," she finally says, turning to face me again, "It wasn't the Shadows that brought me back."

I look at her in confusion.

She answers with a smile. "It was an angel." She places her hand over my scars again, her eyes glistening with love. "…an Archangel."

I smile back, placing my hand over hers. "You have no idea how much I missed you, Shepard."

"No, I think I do." She then pulls in closer and kisses me. I return it without a second thought, reaching around to draw her closer as well. Every part of me comes alive, awakened by what I've been missing so agonizingly for the longest year of my life. When she pulls away, I'm already dying to do it again. "…so…what was it you called me on Omega?"

Oh, right. I said it out loud this time. I laugh briefly at the thought before explaining: "Kalwen. It's a turian word that doesn't translate. It means…someone you devote your love to, someone you can't live without. There aren't words strong enough to define it. We just say it means 'light of my heart.'"

With every word, her smile comes back just a little bit brighter until I almost think I see the spark come back to her eyes. "So it's almost like what Thane called his wife. What was it? …siha?"

"Yeah. Something like that."

She just smirks at me. "I like yours better."

I smile. She's always known just how to get that out of me.

After a moment, she takes my hand and pulls me a few steps back to the elevator. "Come on. The others are all in the CIC, they'll wanna know we're OK."

The doors open less than a minute later to reveal all our past squad-mates waiting on deck 2. I watch as everyone rushes to welcome back their commander first. EDI has already repaired herself, Wrex and Grunt have regenerated, and Tali's suit's onboard medical systems have attended to all her injuries. Everyone else who was on Omega with us is somehow injured but it's mostly minor, nothing that can't be patched up and forgotten by tomorrow. That in itself is enough to make Shepard smile again if only from relief.

Tali is the first to make her way to me. "Quit scaring me like that!" she snaps, hitting me in the arm.

"Yeah, I love you, too," I smirk at her. Half-sarcastically.

She just shakes her head at me. "Come here, you bosh'tet." With a sigh, she hugs me and walks away. Glad to see she's back to normal.

"So did you break the news to Joker yet?" I ask the others.

"Yeah," Ashley smirks, "He had a full-blown conniption. You should've seen it."

"I don't suppose EDI got it on camera?"

"Don't even think about it!" a certain pilot calls from the cockpit. …something tells me I don't wanna know how he heard us.

The next five minutes are spent in much the same way. They all make some comment about my wellbeing, but we all know that everyone's real delight right now is having Sara Shepard back. And with no war on, at that. Not entirely sure what we'll end up doing now without any Reapers to take care of, though, but we've always had a way of finding the action anyway. …OK, so, usually, the action finds us. Even better.

I look over at Shepard every…three seconds or so. Each time, she's still smiling. There's no doubt in my mind why. She's just thrilled to be home. Having all of us here is exactly what she's needed. Looks like she'll be taking her ship back. Guess that means I'll have to stick around again. For a long time.

When Miranda makes some comment about our destination, Shepard, probably out of habit, steps over to the galaxy map and looks it over. Makes sense. That's where she belongs. I step over to her, placing a hand against her. She instantly takes hold of my hand and pulls it, bringing me to wrap my arms around her. I smile as I comply. As if I wasn't planning to all along.

"So what happens now?" I ask, keeping my arms around her waist.

She smiles back, turning to wrap her arms around my neck. "I believe we had a plan to retire someplace warm and tropical and then find out what a turian-human baby looks like."

"I thought biology wouldn't cooperate."

"We'll make it." She pulls me closer and kisses my scars.

The way she did the last time we were reunited.

I smile at the memory now. I never have to push them away from grief again. Because she's here. She came back. And I won't let her go this time.

"Never."

Wrex looks at us and groans. "Get a room."

I notice Shepard shooting him a quick look and him waving her off. But I just think over what he said. As the others start talking, I lean over enough to whisper my idea in Sara's ear: "Why don't we?"

As soon as she catches my meaning, she turns to look at me. I can tell she knows what I'm asking. Finally, beaming with delight at the suggestion, she takes me by the wrist and heads for the elevator. The doors close to take us up to her cabin exactly one second before the others realize we've left.

Once we're in her cabin, I seal the doors and block off EDI's surveillance. When I finish, I notice Shepard has already headed over to check on her hamster. I just barely suppress the urge to laugh. "What, did you miss him, too?"

"Yes." One hand pressed to the cage, she starts looking around, as if comparing this space she hasn't seen in so long to her memories of her home. She even takes a second to look over the paper-made books left on the shelves, the ones she apparently collected on Earth 20 years ago—collections of the myths she loves so much, writings of authors with names like Tolkien or Poe or Tennyson—and runs a finger along the covers almost affectionately. I watch her for a moment, both enjoying the sight of her and appreciating the irony behind the fact that someone who spends every day of her life around aliens actually dreams of "elves" and "dragons" and such.

…wait…huh. I haven't thought of it like this before. But everything in here is a representation of the life she left behind and fought so hard to come back to. It's her second chance to live that life completely. And more… This isn't just a second chance for her, but for me. For us. I can make up for the mistakes I made last time, starting with letting my nerves get in the way of letting her know how I felt. No waiting this time. The moment she takes a step back, I take a step forward, and I take her hand in mine.

As she notices, she gradually turns her gaze over the hand I grasp and up to my eyes. In an instant, I get lost in the emerald eyes I've missed so much for more than a year. I can't look away, but I still reach up to run a talon through her hair. Any nerves threatening to come through fade away the moment I do. "…I love you, Sara Shepard."

She smiles so strongly that I almost think I see her eyes start to water again. That's enough to convince me, but she still says it out loud one more time: "I love you, too, Garrus."

In that moment, everything I've ever felt for her comes rushing in at once and I lose control. Before I know what I'm doing, I've grabbed hold of her and pulled her in to kiss her. She responds wholeheartedly, and the embrace turns passionate enough to remind me of Omega-4, of the top of the Presidium, of our last night together. For the first time in over a year, I manage to subdue the memories entirely, to push them away before they ever reach me, because they don't matter anymore. What matters is this, right now.

Commander Sara Shepard. My kalwen—love of my life, light of my heart. A reason to believe again.

I don't realize we're moving at all, but somehow we end up on the bed. When we break off to catch our breath, it turns into an embrace like what we had every night after Omega-4, just me and her together watching the stars fly past. If I could freeze time forever, this is the moment I would do it.

It's perfect.

"So," her voice whispers in my ear, warm and beautiful, enough to make me fall in love all over again, "before we cash in on those retirement plans, where do we go next?"

As soon as I know what my answer is, I smile with a passion I haven't felt since the last time we kissed on Earth. "I vote for Palaven. I got to see your world without Reapers pouring over it. I'd love to show you mine."

I don't have to look at her to see her smile or the spark in her eyes as she gives it. I know that look by heart. "I'd like that, too." She moves closer to me, wrapping herself around me. "I'll be sure to tell Joker to set a course."

"Won't we have to leave the cabin?"

"I didn't say 'now.'"

I can't resist giving off a small laugh as I turn onto my side and wrap myself around her as well. We've been apart for too long. Never again.

We've said our last goodbyes.

THE END…?

Ta-da! Thank you all for reading and reviewing. Hope you enjoyed!
P.S. If you felt like this wasn't enough, look out for the two-part epilogue I'll be posting separately sometime in the next week (probably Saturday). ;)