Keeping Garrus close was a survival instinct, but that didn't mean he never frustrated her. He frustrated her almost as much as she frustrated herself.
A lifetime ago, when she'd been young and dumb and green, she'd been operating as a counter-sniper working alongside a small exfiltration team on a desert world. The planet hadn't even had a name other than its numerical designation, but the exfil group had taken to calling it 'The Rock,' and the nickname had stuck. They were supposed to be extracting a human arms dealer who'd made his fortune selling to colonists, mercenaries, and the Hegemony alike; he'd agreed to pass along intelligence to the Alliance for an exorbitant fee, but before the Fleet could pick him up, he'd been kidnapped by the batarians.
Shepard's primary directive had been to advise the extraction group and if necessary engage with enemy marksmen, but her secondary directive had been to assassinate the arms dealer if extraction proved impossible. Of course, it all went to shit shortly after they hit dirt; the batarians had known they were coming. She'd ended up pinned down and surrounded at the far end of a canyon. They'd held her there for fifty-nine hours, in the hot hard-baked desert, until strategic use of flash grenades and her own dehydration worked against her. Then they fell upon her.
She hadn't been a prisoner long — reinforcements arrived within six hours — but for those six hours, and for the preceding twenty after her water supply ran out, Shepard had finally understood thirst.
"Damn it," Garrus muttered.
"Solana riding your ass again?"
"No," he said. "Well… yeah, but not right now. Got another interview request."
"Delete it," Shepard said, her attention already pulled back to her own terminal. They were at their workstations in ops; Garrus was sitting across from her, hunched over his tablet and scowling. "Unless you want the money." After a second of thought, she added, dubious, "Or the exposure."
"They don't want me," he said. "They want you. It was a source I trusted, too."
"Really," Shepard said, without inflection.
"Almost trusted," he amended.
"Surprised your VI didn't catch it."
"They scrambled it," Garrus said. "Guess the damn thing isn't as smart as it thinks it is."
"Delete it," Shepard said. She didn't get why it was bothering him; but then, she'd had the media baying behind her for her entire adult life. "Delete it, forget about it." She was reading a breakdown from Liara on the current political climate on Palaven. The faction opposing mandatory service was gaining ground at a surprising rate, and Liara had done some digging on who was funding which side of the argument.
"Sure," Garrus drawled. "I'll delete this one, and the one after that, and the one after that, but when does it stop?"
"If you're angling to shoot a reporter," Shepard said, "I will remind you that it would be better to wait until we come across one that already has a warrant."
"No promises, Shepard."
Unsurprisingly, just about every other political entity out there had a vested interest in the outcome of the forum. The open debates would continue — first with invited speakers registering their opinions, and then with those who hadn't been invited but who wanted to publicly argue the topic — until a threshold number of Hierarchy citizens voted to close the subject and bring it to legislation. By all projections, Palaven was months from reaching that threshold number and years from abolishing mandatory service, if it ever actually came to that. Unsurprisingly, the abolishment movement was largely driven by Palaven's colonies, but the idea had picked up a surprising amount of support on the turian homeworld, too; any proposal that made it to the stage of the forum had to attract a hell of a lot of attention first.
On the other hand, galactic politics were no longer a necessary part of Shepard's life. The outcome of the war had once swung on her knowledge of interspecies relations, but now she didn't even have to read the headlines if she didn't feel like it, however hard that habit was to break. When she finished Liara's letter, she didn't immediately fire back a list of questions. Instead, she pulled up C-Sec's file on the Quisling, scratched the stubble on the side of her head, and dragged her hand through her hair. It was snarled — had she forgotten to comb it again?
Garrus sat back in his seat and crossed his arms.
In the desert canyon, during that shitshow of an extraction, Shepard had been pinned down by the batarians for fifty-nine hours. She'd been carrying enough water to last her thirty-three with careful rationing. The first twelve hours, when it was still dark, had been fine; she had enough stim pills to keep her alert, and her position behind the balcony of an old cliffside observation deck had been, if not desirable, at least adequate enough to provide cover and a choke-point.
Hour thirteen had brought the sun. Hour twenty had stolen her shade. By hour twenty-five, her lips were so cracked they no longer parted without considerable effort and pain. Her throat was so dry that the simple act of breathing, of air moving against the lining of her larynx and trachea, scraped her raw. But down below, she counted five batarians, and in her canteen there were only five-hundred — no, four-hundred — milliliters of water.
That was the worst part: for all she knew, that four-hundred milliliters of water would have to last her for the rest of her life. It would have to last her forever. Her head was hammering and her pee was more orange than yellow and right there beside her were four-hundred milliliters of water and she couldn't drink a drop. Not yet. Every hour she let herself have a mouthful, and when the hour rolled over she unclenched her hands from her rifle and picked up the canteen. She unscrewed the lid. She worked some moisture into her mouth — it was harder every hour — and peeled her lips apart. She put the canteen against her lips and tipped it up and the water touched her mouth, it was warm and wet against her lips, it was warm and wet with a little grit and she set the mouth of the canteen against her own mouth and tipped it up and water ran warm and wet past her teeth and over her tongue and she drank
and then she screwed the lid back on the canteen and set the canteen aside and picked up her rifle again and tried not to think about what it meant that her pee was more orange than yellow.
That was the worst part.
Garrus cleared his throat and sighed.
"All right, Vakarian, spit it out," said Shepard.
He didn't even bother pretending that he hadn't wanted her to ask. "They sent a list of questions," he said.
"Your reporter friend?"
The irritated twitch of his mandible told her just what he thought of her word choice. "'Friend.' Sure. They want to know how you feel about the current non-aggression pact between the Council and the Hegemony, why you didn't force the Alliance to pay attention to the Reaper threat earlier, and who you're scre — uh, seeing."
"I told you to delete it."
"Damn it, Shepard, you can't tell me it doesn't bother you — "
"What doesn't bother me?" Shepard said. "The invasive questions? The entitlement? The criticism of my personal life?"
"That's… a pretty good start."
All right. Okay. She closed the C-Sec file and turned in her seat to face him. The two workstations in the Valkyrie's ops center were massive, three-sided rectangles that shared one side, and the space between Shepard and Garrus was usually littered with jointly-owned tablets, schematics, gun parts, and mugs. More than once she'd taken a sip of her coffee, only to discover it was turian kava. That was Garrus all over: he had slowly, inexorably, and inexplicably invaded every part of her life. She wasn't sure she liked it. In fact, she was increasingly sure she didn't.
"It doesn't bother me," she said. "That kind of public scrutiny can be useful. Even helpful. You know what people in positions of power get away with — "
"Come on, Shepard, that makes it sound like you think you deserve it."
She let that pass without comment. "Not like we can do anything about it, Garrus."
"No, but — what word did you use? 'Entitlement.' They act like you're answerable to them. Convenient, when the official story was that you were lying about the Reapers for attention right up until the invasion started."
That was true enough, at least as far as most reporters went; there were exceptions, but Shepard hadn't been treated close to objectively by the press — not when she was a lone voice calling for resources to prepare for the Reaper threat, and not when she was suddenly the last resort of a desperate galaxy. Worst: in the wake of the war, public fascination with her had skyrocketed, and she now had to deal with the objectionable state of being a celebrity.
"Hell, why do you think I resigned my commission?" she said. "Now that I'm only on the Council's payroll, I don't have to play nice with the media — what?"
Garrus dragged a thumb across his brow and then met her eyes; he'd picked up on all kinds of human mannerisms, either from Shepard or from his years on the Citadel, although that flat stare gave the gesture a twist all his own. "You didn't resign," he said. "The Alliance forced you out, and the Council… they've never treated you like they should."
"The Alliance didn't force me out," Shepard said. "They recommended I resign. It was expedient for everyone involved."
"Because you weren't willing to shut up and follow their rules," Garrus argued.
"At least the Council lets me run my own show — "
"Only because you make them look good," Garrus shot back. Here was her firebrand; there were times when she was almost convinced that he'd left that youthful passion behind for good, that he'd traded all that hot-headed arrogance for a cool, easy competence. She wasn't sure what it said about her that she liked drawing that heat out of him, riling him up, seeing if he'd get worked up over her. He frustrated her, too — it was hard to make him angry without first matching his anger with her own — but Shepard was better than he was at self-abnegation.
"Okay, hotshot, what's the alternative?" she said. "Working for the Council at least makes use of my training and experience, and there aren't a hell of a lot of opportunities for an ex-special forces operative. ST&R isn't a bad hand."
"You've been useful, Shepard. It's a miracle you survived at all. There's nothing that says you have to spend the rest of your life doing…" He shook his head. "Any of this."
"Shipping me off to the retirement farm already?"
"No, I — damn it, that's not what I meant. They don't deserve you. Not after they refused to listen to you, blackened your reputation, got you… well. You know. And then, once they finally decided to believe you, they made it so you and only you were responsible for winning."
"That's offensive," Shepard snapped. "Millions of people gave their lives — "
"That's not what I mean."
"Then drop it," she advised. She didn't want to talk about it. She never wanted to talk about it, because some coward, craven, self-gratifying part of her liked the immediacy with which Garrus defended her. No, she didn't just like it — she coveted it. She yearned for it, yearned for his assuredness that she deserved to be respected, that she owed nothing to the people she had failed, that her choices were made with reverence and care, and that her actions had served the greatest good.
It was so seductive, that line of thinking: she could see herself abandoning her more rational assessment in favor of his utter conviction that she was a good person. Garrus Vakarian thought Jane Shepard deserved to be defended against those who doubted her. Garrus Vakarian felt Jane Shepard was worth the indulgence of passion. Garrus Vakarian had never questioned Jane Shepard in his life.
That was reductive and untrue — Garrus was plenty willing to call her on her bullshit on a micro scale — but the spirit was honest. It was his black-and-white thinking all over. On a macro scale, Garrus Vakarian was willing to throw away the promises of career, family, power, respect, meaning, and satisfaction in favor of following Jane Shepard on a series of mercenary jobs and trying to protect her from petty accusations. The entire situation was a clusterfuck; Shepard couldn't even remember the last time someone had tried to protect her. At some point he was going to pull his head out of his ass and leave, or she was going to pull her head out of her ass and make him.
What made her most disgusted with herself was that she'd given in to the impulse anyway. She could've led the conversation towards a series of practical solutions — better VI screening, a press agent that would refuse all requests, a controlled interview with a trusted source that would at least slow the tide of interest — but instead Shepard had allowed him — Shepard had allowed —
"You don't have to do this, Shepard," he said.
She wasn't sure if she was deliberately misinterpreting him or not when she said, "What else am I supposed to do? Working for the Council may not be my first choice, but it beats the hell out of farming."
In the desert, during a shitshow of an operation, Shepard had been pinned down by the batarians for fifty-nine hours. She'd been carrying enough water to last her thirty-three, and she'd rationed that water down to the last, had meted it out not by the milliliter but by the nanoliter. The sun had beat down and the dust baked on hot hardpan rock and Shepard had measured out her water drop by drop because what she valued and what she'd made her strength was the control that was not borrowed but was instead worn on her bones like a steel splint. She was control. She was made of it. Her control was the dam that held the flood of her thirst at bay; but even the beaten metal of her will couldn't banish thirst entirely. The thirst was still there. It was always there. Shepard was gifted at self-abnegation, but not that gifted.
She was realizing that what she'd lost on the Crucible was not her clarity but her control. During the war, she would never have been weak enough to consider any of this. The press was sometimes an obstacle and sometimes a tool; what they said about Shepard didn't matter unless it interfered with her work. Garrus was a good partner, but pity and friendship sometimes made him run his mouth; what he thought about Shepard didn't matter unless it interfered with their efficacy. Shepard knew what made her useful and what gave her purpose; what she felt didn't matter unless it interfered with the mission.
And that, all of it, all of the bullshit, all of the navel-gazing, all of the nightmares only meant that it was time to remember herself — that it was time to remember that her will made her what she was. In the desert, she hadn't wanted water half as much as she now wanted Garrus to love her, but that only meant she needed twice as much control, and in the years since the desert, Shepard had hardened exponentially.
But like her thirst, the dreams were still there. When she went to sleep, she dreamed a dream where Garrus touched her and asked how long she'd been waiting. That was the sixth day.