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One of the advantages, if you can call it that, of my current line of employment is that whenever something noteworthy happens in the galaxy, I know about it almost before the people involved do. I knew platinum futures would triple in value before Aldrin Labs announced their merger to the public. I knew about the murder of Alesta T'Kari before her business partner even disposed of the body. And I knew that Shepard succeeded before her ship had even escaped the blast radius.

Of course, that's somewhat different. Had she died out there, I would have known even faster. And it would have had nothing to do with my contacts.

Benezia explained it to me once, how the bond creates a kind of resonance between those who take part in it, how my great-grandmother standing on the Citadel Presidium knew the very moment her partner's patrol ship was destroyed by the rachni. I'd always assumed it was merely another facet of asari myth that one taught to children, a way of explaining how important the bond was and why it should not be entered into lightly, a cautionary tale against maidens sowing their seeds too liberally. But I was wrong.

When she died, I felt it. And when they brought her back, I felt it.

In the month since the defeat of Saren, it seems that everything has gone wrong: the Council, who owe Shepard their very existence, have been all too eager to sweep the reality of the Reapers under the rug and convince a panicky galaxy that the geth are the real threat. So instead of helping consolidate the Citadel Fleet's defenses, instead of scouring known space for any information we can find about the Reapers and the Protheans, we're banished to the edges of human space to hunt down the last of Saren's wayward troops.

"Well, this is inviting." Chief Williams swabs an armored palm across her forehead and glares at the dusty red planet stretching out before us as if the whole thing is its fault. "I can see why people'd want to sink millions of credits into building a colony out here when there are perfectly good planets back in the Traverse with, you know, water."

I frown. "I imagine the colonists here are more interested in the planet's minerals than its quality as a tourist destination, Chief."

The human marine arches an eyebrow in my direction. "Was that supposed to be a joke, Doc? This goose chase with the geth is having a worse effect on you than I thought."

"I think you're the one who's having an effect on her, Ash."

We both turn to Shepard hopping down from the Mako's hatch, and Williams chuckles. My lover and commanding officer shoots me a wink.

"At least it's peaceful. No sign of the geth."

Chief Williams hums thoughtfully. "Yeah, yet."

Shepard just nods, the stern command mask that inexplicably sends my blood racing snapping down. "Okay, keep your weapons ready, but your finger off the trigger. For all we know, the colony might have just had a transmitter malfunction."

"Yeah, you want to start takin' bets on that, Skipper?"

Shepard just smiles. "Move out."

Words can't describe how much I wanted to go with her when she asked. My life on Illium is nothing so remarkable that I wouldn't drop it in an instant to be with her again, to have had the chance to be by her side on what might easily have been a suicide mission. When I told her about my obligations, and my debts, and my need for revenge...that was only half the reason I couldn't go with her.

She wasn't that far off the mark when she sat across my desk, eyes narrowed in thought, accusing me of turning into Benezia. As small a sliver of my life as two years might be, I've changed so much in that time. So much that, at times, I don't even recognize myself. I see a woman who is cold, and hard, and calculating, and I know with a gnawing certainty that I can't let her love me like that.

Because she would. I know I don't delude myself to think that she would have gladly taken me onboard her ship even with all my new baggage, let my own mission get in the way of hers; she told me as much in that last meeting before she left, with that final, bittersweet look over her shoulder before she walked off to give her life for the safety of an ungrateful and unsuspecting galaxy all over again.

Commander Shepard fell in love with a naive, kindhearted girl whose head was full of ancient trivia and romantic notions. In the last two years, that girl has disappeared. I don't know if I could get her back even if I wanted to.

I know Shepard would still love me like this, love the cynical, practical, coldhearted woman I've become.

But I don't know that I'd want her to.

"What are you thinking?"

She expels a breath and rolls over to face me, one arm hooking around my shoulder to pull me closer while the other tightens the blanket around our naked shoulders.

"About Saren."

I can't help the playful smile that quirks my lips. "For such a skilled diplomat, you really know how to damage a mood, don't you, Commander?"

She flushes, and it makes me smile. "I just meant that..."

"I know what you meant," I murmur, and she nods.

"The Reapers are the greatest threat anything in this galaxy has ever known, and the Council won't even listen to the evidence. Hell, Saren was more interested in stopping the Reapers than the Council's ever been."

We've had this conversation a hundred times, and there's nothing left I can say, so I merely run a hand through her soft, matted hair and lower my lips to the tender spot on the side of her neck.

It's hard for me, sometimes, to be the person I've become. I saw it when she looked in my eyes, that she remembered the young archaeologist just as well as I did, missed that part of me even though she'd never admit it. When she pulled me out of those ruins, let me into her mind, took me with her on a whirlwind tour of a galaxy that was so much bigger than fifty years of dig sites and artifacts had prepared me for, it was all so easy. Now, every minute is a struggle.

She fell in love with Doctor Liara T'Soni, archaeologist. And I don't know how to be that woman anymore. I don't know if I ever will. And until I do, it's not fair to subject someone I love to what I've had to become.

I wrap my thighs around hers, mewling as my center presses against her skin. Her hands are on my back and her lips are at the hollow of my throat, and the connection between our bodies and minds means that I can feel her feeling me, what my own wetness feels like on her thigh, what my nipple tastes like when she leans down to suckle.

I cup a hand around her breast, squeezing softly, and she hums in approval. Her lips rise up to meet mine, and the kiss makes me gasp, like it does every time. Her hand slips down between our thighs, and I moan. She pulls her face back from mine, a shameless grin shaping her lips.

In spite of all of this, there is one thing I do know; this is not the end.

Shepard is alive, has bucked the odds once again, rendered victory from certain death. But this is not the end. The Reapers are still coming, probably faster now than ever. The galaxy will still not believe Shepard, maybe not until it is already too late. But I know that she will stand at the front line of that final battle. And regardless of what I have become, when that battle begins, I will be standing by her side.

Whether as a naive archaeologist, or an information broker, or a biotic warrior, it doesn't matter. I will stand with her, I will explain to her and perhaps, just perhaps, I will earn back her love. I can't stop that anymore than I can stop breathing. I will be there for her.