"Maybe it's life outside of the Alliance," Shepard said. She was shaving the sides of her head in what had become a weekly ritual; the top of her hair she wore long enough to pull back in a tail, but the sides she kept short. The severity of the style emphasized the long burn weal that ran from her right cheek down to her jawline and the old scarring from Cerberus procedures that had never quite healed right.
Garrus liked to watch. He was leaning in the open doorway of the head with his arms crossed, studying her in the mirror as she used an electric razor to neaten her undercut. "Human grooming rituals. Fascinating," he sometimes deadpanned. They'd watched Star Trek months before, and he was still laughing about it.
"You miss the structure?"
"Twenty years." It was almost an answer. She finished with the right side, leaned over the sink to brush her shoulder clean, and switched to the left. She was wearing a gray tank top with no bra underneath; after a military lifetime, modesty was an afterthought, and at any rate there was no point in formality around Garrus, who wouldn't care even if he did notice. The shirt was clean only because he'd offered to do her laundry — much like she was trimming her hair only because he'd asked about it.
Garrus snorted. "Twenty years of incompetent assholes telling you what to do?" He shook his head. "Civilian life's the life for me."
"Nice try, big guy, but you might as well have 'ASK ME ABOUT MY SERVICE RECORD' tattooed on your forehead." He operated just fine without any oversight, and she knew that he chafed under strict regulations, but for someone who thought of himself as a bad turian, he was in many ways the model of his species — devoted to duty above all else, a force on the battlefield and an honorable man in every other setting. "You're about as civilian as Hackett in a dress uniform."
She was nearing the delicate work around her left ear, and her hand started to shake. It was a small, fine tremor, but for someone who had crafted her life's work around the steadiness of her hands, it was catastrophic. She compartmentalized, took a deep breath, and didn't flinch when the razor slipped and dragged across the back of her ear. Garrus didn't even notice. If she'd been able to watch herself in the mirror, she might've managed despite the tremor, but she never caught her own gaze except out of the corner of her eye in these antebellum days.
Whole galaxies had once swung on the pivot of Shepard's confidence. There was something dark and deep and inexorable in her, something quick and hungry, something so reasonably, ruthlessly pragmatic that it carved the humanity right out of her. That part of her was both rational and instinctive at once; it wasn't why she'd kept fighting, but it was why she'd…
Her hand locked up. She could still feel it, but it didn't obey her command to move. Half a heartbeat later, she realized that Garrus had reached out and wrapped his fingers around her wrist.
"Shepard. You're bleeding," he said.
There were other parts of her that had once believed with all the fervor of a fanatic: not in the sovereignty of humanity, but in its potential — not in the superiority of the Council, but in the strength of diversity.
The realization of her weakness ate at her. She knew about shellshock and PTSD and the complex coping mechanisms she'd had since she was sixteen; she knew how easy it was to depersonalize, to bury the self, to become a siege engine so wholly that conflict became religion; she had an intellectual understanding of the fracture mechanics of the mind; but all of that paled against the gut knowledge that her mother would be disappointed in her.
"Here, let me — "
Shepard had grown up on stories of her mother's service. At no point in her life had she wanted to be anything other than what she was; being a Marine was not her vocation but her calling, so bred into her identity that she couldn't imagine who she would be without it. And she wanted that back. She wanted that sureness, that confidence, that sense of purpose. She wanted to be a soldier again, not this flinching timebomb who no longer recognized everything she had once held sacred and familiar.
"I said let go."
"Shepard — "
"Fuck off, Garrus," Shepard said, because there was nothing too sacred to sacrifice to the pyre of her war.