Someone caught the whole fucking thing on camera, of course. EDI forwarded the article; she kept tabs on all of her crew, former and current, although only Williams, Joker, and Sam Traynor still served aboard the Normandy. The headline made Shepard wince, but the picture was the really damning part. The photographer had caught them in the moment Garrus had first reached out for Shepard's hand; she was staring at him wide-eyed and enthralled, lips parted, the flush on her cheeks made all the more obvious by the pallor of her skin, which had always been stark but was made even more so because she spent all her time on starships or in heavy armor.
It didn't matter that the slant of her brow in the picture tended towards a scowl; Shepard could see the astonishment, the reverence, in her own face, and it repulsed her enough that she didn't read the story that accompanied the photograph. It was probably the same tabloid garbage that had been plaguing her since becoming the first human Spectre—since Mindoir, if she was being honest, because the moment she'd stepped off the SSV Einstein as a traumatized sixteen-year-old, the press had been waiting.
They were en route to the Far Rim when their local network downloaded EDI's message from a nearby comm buoy, and Shepard was, regrettably, not alone. The Valkyrie had a rather spacious lounge between their separate quarters; they'd converted most of the area into a gym using portable partitions, but there was still a snug alcove with a sizeable monitor, a couch, and a game table wedged in the corner. Garrus was slouched on the couch with his feet kicked out in front of him while he watched one of his holonovels; Shepard was on the opposite side of the couch, browsing through the library on her tablet and wondering irritably why all she read was stellar fantasy or military history. There wasn't a book under four hundred pages in the entire collection. That was when she saw the notification from EDI.
Garrus caught her sudden tension, because he paused his drama before she flung the tablet off her lap. "Shepard?"
"It's nothing," she snapped.
"Ah," Garrus said, and then he picked up the tablet and looked at it. Shepard wanted to yank it out of his hands, but it was only a matter of time until he saw it. Media interest in her had died some since the war, but that was largely because Shepard traveled with Spectre security access and spent most of her time in portions of the galaxy that could be… difficult for the press to reach.
A moment later he echoed her sound of distress, and when she looked over, he was pinching the bridge of his flat nose between his fingers. "Damn," he said, softly enough that it was more to himself than to her. "I didn't even see them there."
"Could have been a nano-drone," Shepard said. "Or a long-distance camera or… shit, who the hell knows."
"They shouldn't be making insinuations like this." Garrus drummed his thumb against the surface of the tablet, and Shepard realized he was angry. "'Lauded galaxy-wide as the paragons of interspecies cooperation, insiders have long speculated that Shepard and Vakarian's relationship goes deeper than'—dammit." He broke off in a snarl.
This was the long and short of it: once Shepard had been the most capable Marine of her generation, a swift and deadly operative that went where her superiors pointed her. While her personal life might have been in shambles, she had a promising career ahead of her, was on good terms with the Alliance brass, could outshoot most computers, and felt both pride in her accomplishments and cautious optimism for her future. She had always, of course, been a hard woman, prone to fighting, with a mouth too smart for its own good and a history so soaked in blood that it had to be either a tragedy or a farce, but…
More accurate: once, she had managed to hold the blackness away, but now it had overflowed its floodwalls. This wasn't the passing shower of self-loathing or the trickle of depression that occasionally threatened her operational effectiveness after a mission like Horizon; this was a deluge, an onslaught, a tidal wave that swept her out to sea. Sometimes she wondered where all the cocky assurance of that young Marine had gone, and then she was forced to consider the idea that her arrogance had only ever been an act all along.
She went days without sleeping and started to snarl if she went too long without a fistfight; her only skills had military applications, she was still struggling to adjust to life outside of the Alliance, her body was a clusterfuck of cybernetics and scar tissue, and the word 'love' hadn't passed her lips in nineteen years. Meanwhile, there was Garrus, who at the beginning of their friendship on the SR-1 had deprecatingly expressed a desire for children. Even if she had been the right species to give him a kid, there was nothing in her that wanted to take on that burden of responsibility. Before 2170, she had shared that vague dream of family; after 2170, family was an impossibility.
There was still hope for Garrus, though. In spite or maybe because of his facial scarring, he was appealing; people noticed when he walked into a room, and not only turian people. Maybe it was his wry humor and air of competence, or his ease with his own deadliness contrasted against his charmingly awkward interpersonal skills, or something entirely ineffable, but he'd never had a shortage of offers. If he was picking up women, though, he wasn't doing it in front of Shepard; in the entire time she'd known him, he'd never so much as gone on a date.
She could only think that was out of consideration for her delicate fucking sensibilities. Did he know? No, she thought, not that; it was more understandable during the war, when they'd all been run so ragged that libido had seemed like a thing of the past, but now he probably felt like he was too busy babysitting her to accept any of those many offers.
Like someone turned a dial to tune her into the right radio frequency, she jolted out of her own thoughts. Garrus was still snarling his way through the article, reading snippets aloud and then cussing out the news source. "Shit," he was saying, "I thought they'd finally let go of this garbage. Shepard, I'm so sorry—"
"What the hell do you have to be sorry about, Garrus?" she said. "It's not like you wrote the damn story."
"No, but the last thing you need to deal with is another case of libel. Particularly when it's so, uh." He scowled. "Obviously untrue."
Maybe her old ego hadn't left her entirely, because she felt the last of it whither when she heard him say that. It was one thing to know he deserved better, another to suspect he wasn't interested, and a third entirely to hear him outright say that he didn't think of her like… that.
"I'll get EDI to coordinate with the Council's legal team," Shepard said. Weariness washed over her, but she forged ahead before Garrus could respond. "She still owes me a favor for introducing her to Jordan Detweiler. They'll get the outlet to print a retraction. Don't worry about it, Vakarian—I'll make sure it doesn't hurt your prospects." She summoned up a smirk, just one soldier giving shit to another, nothing to see here, and then she stood up and cracked her neck.
"Yeah," Garrus said. "Yeah, all right, Shepard. If you say so."
"I do," she said.
"Just need to stretch," she said, and he was so used to her inability to sit without purpose for any length of time that he didn't question her further. She went aft, to the hold; if he started up his holonovel again, she didn't hear it.
In the hold, she took her pistol out of her locker and ran through dry-firing exercises until it felt like someone had painted fire up her forearms. She didn't take any medication before going to bed, and within hours her hands seized into stiff, twisted claws. It wasn't the pain that kept her from sleeping, though, because she was used to pain; only her fear could do that.