Happy Valentine's Day, everybody! I hope you're ready for a new story with lots of Shakarian romance. For those of you who are wondering, I got the idea from the epilogue of a certain YA novel which I can't name because I would spoil it considerably (I'm pretty sure those of you who have read it will be able to tell which one in a few chapters) and it just took on a life of its own. Let me know what you think and I'll try to update as regularly as I can. Enjoy!
Theme song: obviously "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls
Chapter 1: Aftermath
The war was over. That was all most of the galaxy could say these days, still in the process of rejoicing the moment that their would-be conquerors had fallen as one. They had taken enormous losses, every world the monsters had set down on was all but demolished, and the shockwave that removed the threat had brought collateral damage on an untold scale. But they were alive. A century of death and destruction no longer lay before them all, and that was enough to celebrate, even for those who grieved.
The COMM buoys that were still intact were threatening to overload as the armies reestablished contact with whomever they could reach, spreading the word that this was indeed victory. However, they also brought some bad news, considering that the mass relays they relied on for travel through the galaxy were severely damaged. Thankfully, they were not entirely broken and could be restored with some effort, but the process would take a couple months, during which time the people deployed to the final battle would not be able to return home.
The fleets instead turned their focus to aiding the restoration of the system they were temporarily stranded in, starting with the burned-down medical facilities in London. The final battle that had taken place in the city had brought on far more casualties than injuries, but the soldiers and paramedics spread out there were still riding the wave of hope left by the Reaper's destruction and did whatever they could to help those who still had a chance. And to ensure that those who did not have a chance spent their last days knowing that their sacrifice had ensured they won.
Once the hospitals were more or less functioning again, some of the troops attempted to dock with the Citadel. The Citadel had established a sort of orbit around Earth's atmosphere, opposite Luna, but they were convinced it wouldn't be that difficult to return it to its position in the Serpent Nebula once the relays were safely restored. They were more concerned with the fact that the station didn't seem to be in one piece. It was still more or less intact, all five Wards still locked in place around the Presidium ring, but the shockwave the Crucible had sent surging through it had obliterated many of the structures and cut power to most all of the station's systems. Those who set to work on repairs took this as good news—the station had been almost completely evacuated when the Reapers came for it, so the only denizens of the station that they might find harmed would be keepers, and no power meant that there would be no security protocols restricting access to what they could and couldn't repair before the time came to attempt a full restoration. However, that was before they first stumbled into a corridor in which keepers were dragging human corpses sent up from London by Reaper foot soldiers. Suffice to say, repairs went much slower on the station than they did in the cities below.
While all the other races were occupied with getting a head start on restorations during the time that reunions would be postponed, though, the quarians were facing a crisis of their own. All of the geth had mysteriously shut down, seemingly in response to the same shockwave that had shut down the Reapers. After all the aid they had received from the geth in the past month, they had been coming to rely on the synthetics and see them as allies, allies that had been hard won and needed. They were trying to see if the geth could be restored, but nothing was working. Eventually, they were afraid, they would have to attempt completely rebuilding the geth and hope that they could salvage the Legion code (as it had come to be known) from the Reaper corpse still intact on Rannoch without threatening to infect the geth with the very programming that had once turned them against their creators. Otherwise, the geth would be gone forever and the quarians would have to re-colonize their home-world alone, reacclimatize to their home environment without any aid to their immunities, and possibly risk their newly recovered standing in the galactic community by creating an entirely new race of synthetics bearing in mind the mistakes they made previously. Admiral Xen was currently hopeful that the geth could still be returned to full functionality if she was given the proper tools and enough time. For once, the other admirals were hoping she was right.
But while the quarians were attempting to prevent their own loss and the rest of the galaxy was in some way celebrating the recent victory, there was one ship that was not celebrating. After a less-than-successful FTL jump away from the epicenter of the Crucible's blast, the Normandy SR-2 had been thrown off-course before even reaching sight of the Charon relay and had crash-landed on an unmapped garden world in a nearby system. Damage to the ship was mostly minor and had almost been completely repaired, but it was not the damage to the ship that had delayed their return to the fleets regrouping at Earth. No, it was the damage to the crew that was why, while the rest of the galaxy celebrated, this one ship mourned.
One of their losses had sent them into the same worried scramble as the quarians. The ship's AI, EDI, had suddenly shut down when the shockwave reached them. Even her recently-acquired android body had ceased functioning during the crash, something that had made their pilot panic. The techs on the ship were still inspecting the AI core for some sign of functionality, some code that would allow them to restore her. They remained hopeful, even had reason to believe EDI had somehow backed up her systems to prevent deletion, but there was no sign that their AI friend would be the same as she was even if they could find a way to restore her.
The other loss that had occurred was what crippled the crewmen with sorrow. While they could hope for synthetics to be restored if enough code was salvaged, organics that were gone would be gone forever. So when they reestablished contact with Earth just long enough to hear that Commander Echo Shepard, the one who had forced them to evacuate and then activated the Crucible in the first place, was MIA during a time when MIA was as good as dead, the crewmen who had served under her had been paralyzed by grief. Nearly a week went by where it seemed the entire ship was silent—something that made it all the worse for them since her ship was never silent—before they finally resorted to holding a sort of memorial for her to prompt them all to move on and focus on repairs so they could leave this uncharted planet. It was only when her name was inches from the memorial wall, when the one meant to place it there hesitated, that their reasons completely switched: "This is Shepard we're talking about. She's come back before. We can't give up yet."
So they had hurried the repairs and rushed to make an FTL jump back to Earth. News was still poor with no sign of the commander, but her crewmen took this as good news—MIA was only KIA if there was a body.
She's only dead if we find a body.
Her squad first took this as a challenge, joining the salvage crews attempting to restore the Citadel so that they could search for some sign of Shepard. Some of them had shrunk back when they attempted to search the corridors upon corridors of human corpses. Some of them threatened to withdraw simply from weariness as it sunk in that the station was massive, these recently opened chambers were never fully mapped to begin with, and they had no clue where Shepard had even first arrived, no clue where their search should start. But some of them resolved to turn the entire station upside-down if it meant they could find even the smallest sign of her presence.
Garrus Vakarian was one of them.
The turian never once slowed down, seemingly ready to tear apart anyone who suggested he should. The sheer scope of the search and the toll it was already taking on him didn't even deter him. It was only because Tali'Zorah vas Normandy was right behind him that he didn't search until his lungs gave out. He was too focused on saving the one who'd once saved him to worry about what happened to him while he tried. His searches eventually grew more desperate and lost all form of a pattern, Tali's meticulous records on what maps they did have the only thing keeping him from wasting time and effort backtracking every time he turned a corner. He was growing desperate, and Tali's assurances that if anyone could've survived, it was her, and if anyone could find her, it was him, were the only things keeping him sane.
It was a testament to the commander's memory (as well as proof that what Tali told Garrus was more than simple encouragement) that none of the others even thought to suggest Garrus should give up. Hours turned to days and still none of them attempted to tell him that he would've found her by now, that she would be dead anyway by the time he had searched the entire station, that she wouldn't want him to do this to himself. No, they all stood back and let him search, convincing themselves there was still a chance. Whether or not they truly believed that or simply wanted to, however, is another matter entirely.
It was on the fourth day of the search that things changed.
Garrus stepped out of a room, so tense with rage and concern that he would have slammed the door shut behind him had it not been an automatic one. "Nothing."
Tali sighed, giving him a small touch of encouragement. "We'll find her. We just haven't looked in the right place yet."
He scoffed. "What was it Joker said? 'Always in the last place you look'?"
"And then she'd say 'Well, obviously, why would you keep looking after you've found it?'"
Garrus smirked to himself. One reason he was glad Tali had stuck with him through this was so she could keep his spirits up when concern threatened to turn to fear. Though he couldn't deny that it was clearly weighing on her as well, she had put her own worries aside for his sake. And for Shepard's. Her two closest friends in the galaxy. Another reason to find her now. "OK. Next room."
Tali nodded and turned to check her omni-tool. But before she could open the map that was currently being used to log their progress, she noticed something. "That's odd…"
"What?" Garrus asked, his detective side pushing curiosity temporarily to the front of his mind.
"I'm picking up some sort of reading." Setting the map aside for a moment, she turned to examine the strange reading. What she found nearly made her burst with a hope she hadn't dared to feel since her place in the search had become ensuring Garrus didn't kill himself trying to complete it. "Garrus…look at this."
Garrus knew by now what it meant when her voice took on that particular tone. Quickly, he stepped closer and checked what was pinging off her omni-tool. When he saw what it was, he nearly stopped breathing. "…is that…?"
"Two active Alliance COMMs! On the other side of this wall!"
Garrus immediately dove for the wall as if his touch would magically open it. Even as he frantically searched for a door, he turned back to Tali. "How come none of the scans picked this up?!"
"They weren't sending any signals to pick up," Tali reasoned as she turned from her own scan back to the map, "but now that they're in range…" She took a moment to check the map before giving off a growl of frustration. "The map isn't even showing a room on the other side of this wall. How are we supposed to get in?"
Garrus couldn't help but smirk at the answer that came to him: "Well, now we know where we're headed…there's always the direct approach."
So they marked their position on the map and raced back to the Normandy. Neither of them stopped for a second to let the fear sink in that "no signal" might mean anything other than "unconscious." Instead, they did what Shepard would likely have done and recovered some unused detonators to remove the wall entirely. By the next hour, the entirety of Shepard's former squad had heard what they'd found and was gathered on the other end of the hall to watch the satisfying explosion that busted through to the other side.
Garrus, naturally, was the first one through the resulting hole. There was a drop on the other side, but the expansive room that had once occupied this space was so trashed by the Crucible's detonation that there was more than enough rubble to break any falls. Garrus took this as a good sign—the place most damaged by the Crucible had to be the source of the blast, which was exactly where Shepard would be. "Tali, do you still have a lock on the COMMs?"
"Yes," Tali said as she dropped in and reopened her omni-tool, "but there's some kind of interference. I can't pinpoint exactly where they are, I just know there's two of them."
Garrus was only concerned with one, but he'd take what he could get. "Right. Start searching, then."
"Way ahead of you, Vakarian," Ashley Williams assured him as she started turning over debris.
So they all spread out and started looking for some sign of their lost commander. The room was easily one of the largest in the entire Citadel, even rivaling the Council chambers, but with so many of them searching, it still shouldn't take too long. All this time, they'd been driven by having something to fight for, and the life of the one who'd given them that should be more than enough incentive to do so now.
Garrus started at the backmost corner of the room, leaving no stone unturned as he worked his way towards the center that would converge all of their search routes. With every second, the same thought rushed through his head—She's here, she's in here, she has to be… But he couldn't deny that, with each second passed, another thought was creeping in—What if she's not? What if we find her and she's gone? He had spent so long chasing away that thought that, presented with the moment he would find out, he didn't know what he would do if it was true. He didn't know how to fight the fear clawing into him that this might be the day he truly lost the one he—
The second he heard James Vega saying that over the COMM (because the room was too big for even turian ears to catch a whisper from the other side), Garrus' insides clenched up. He still brought himself to turn around and head over to see what the problem was. There's two COMMs, remember? It might not be her. But even when he got there and saw that it wasn't, not all of his tension was alleviated.
"Anderson?" Ashley gasped as she fell to her knees, checking for a pulse even though she knew she wouldn't find one.
Garrus' C-Sec instincts quickly started examining the body. Gunshot wound to the lower abdomen, tore through the stomach, could've recovered if not for internal bleeding that even medi-gel might not have patched up. He did wonder who shot him, but Ashley's reaction and James' attempts to calm her stirred something else in him. He had heard that Admiral Anderson was MIA as well, but he had been so focused on finding Shepard that he had neglected to consider how she would feel if she came back only to find out that her mentor was dead. Still, he would prefer her alive and grieving rather than dead and unable to mourn. Knowing there was nothing they could do, then, he helped the squad pull the body aside so that they could return it for a proper burial. Then they set back to their search.
Garrus felt that fear creeping through him, ice across his bones as he returned to his former position and went from there. That tormenting thought was repeating in his head—What if she's gone?—and seeing someone she cared about, the second COMM they'd found, gone was not helping to quell it. Simply to have something to tell himself to chase that thought away, he searched his memories for some evidence that she would have made it even through this. Given how long he'd served on an Alliance ship, he eventually settled, somewhat against his better judgment, on what they called the "rule of three": humans can survive for three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. Three weeks had not yet gone by (though two were not recommended), so that eased some of the worry. Three days was long past, but all Alliance hard-suits were equipped with an apparatus to administer stimulants and nutrients to prevent malnutrition or exhaustion or dehydration during long battles, and, presumably, the most protected feature of a space-worthy armor set would still be intact even after however much punishment it had taken since the Normandy left her in London. Three minutes without air was what worried him; life support was one of the station systems that had lost power after the Crucible went off, which was why their little search party was all using oxygen masks, but surely whatever air had been on the station when it lost power was still present and that much air could have lasted for one person even for this long. Surely. It had to… No, his concern for her safety should lie in whatever injuries she'd have sustained since he last saw her and, given that she previously returned from being spaced (albeit with some assistance from Cerberus and two years in which to do so), he was confident that none of it would keep her down for long. She would be fine.
She had to be.
Once again, Garrus was thrown from his thoughts by a sound from one of the others over the COMM. This time, it was a gasp from Liara T'Soni. Unlike James' signal, this could mean anything, so Garrus forced back the fears tearing through him and joined the others at the asari's location. When they got there, though, they all stopped cold.
The Illusive Man lay there, dead from a gunshot wound like Anderson. He was clutching a gun, all the proof they needed to reach the conclusion that he'd been the one to kill the admiral.
Though while the others were debating this, Garrus was inching back. Rather than inspecting the situation and putting the facts together like he had with Anderson, he was doing his best to avoid them. That was two. Two COMMs. Two bodies. And neither of them were Shepard. He was amazed he was still breathing, still standing, as it sunk in that she wasn't here. It can't be true. She has to—!
Suddenly, Ashley let off a furious growl, drew her gun, and shot the corpse at her feet.
"Ash!" James immediately snapped.
"I'm just mad!"
Tali sighed, shaking her head as she opened her omni-tool again. "I know we're all upset, but we—" Suddenly, she froze.
Liara took notice first. "Tali, what's wrong?"
"He's not the second COMM."
"What?" Garrus gasped, the feeling slowly returning to his nerves as her words sunk in.
"His COMM's been deactivated! There's still one more here!"
It's not him. There's still a chance. Garrus didn't bother waiting for the others to finish talking this over before racing back to his search area and again looking for some sign of the commander. Frantically, he rushed through mounds of dust, around slabs of steel, and under exposed wires to—
He stopped. He had been about to go around a collapsed platform that appeared to have fallen from some room overhead only to come to rest against the wall when his foot had hit something. Holding his breath in preparation for the worst, he looked down. He had indeed stumbled upon the boot of an all-too-familiar armor set. On his knees before he knew he was moving, he tossed aside all the rubble in his way until he had confirmed it.
It was her.
Light brown hair hung loose beneath her still form, silvery blue eyes closed and unaware. The sight, so much like the many nights he'd seen her sleeping less-than-peacefully, was meant to be beautiful even to a turian, but instead it was marred in too many places by cuts and burns. The dark red blood that, in some places, was still flowing out of her and the unnatural blackened cracks in her ivory flesh were heart-wrenching to look at, and the thought that they were necessary to achieve the victory she had so long ago earned was sickening. But the soft (too soft, not often enough) rise and fall of her chest and the gentle pounding of her pulse against his fingertips told Garrus that Echo Shepard was alive, and that was more than enough for him.
He didn't know what brought his squad over, if he had called out to them without noticing or if his sudden stillness had given it away, but they were at his side in an instant, everything from relief to horror stampeding through them. They were talking, probably calling the Normandy for medical support or arguing about how to safely get her back themselves, but Garrus didn't hear a single world, too focused on the clinging-to-life human lying on the floor in front of him.
When they finally started to clear the chamber and head back to the ship, he stayed close, his hand in hers. She was still unresponsive, still broken and battered, but still alive. "Stay with me," he whispered to her as he clutched her wrist to feel her too-slow pulse remind him that she was here. She didn't even move, made no acknowledgement he was even there to speak to her. But he simply clung tighter to her. He knew her. If she was alive at all, she was bouncing back. The Reapers weren't taking her with them, no matter how hard they tried. The thought chased away the last of the icy what-ifs in his mind, giving him the courage to say what he needed to while he could: "I love you."
She moved then. Her fingers turned to clutch his in return. It wasn't much. But it was more than enough for the turian that loved her.