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Running Silent

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The entire shuttle winced as static burst from the comm. “—amn it, Normandy to shuttle. Come in already!” Joker’s voice sounded more frantic than Garrus had ever heard it but for one time, over two years ago.

 

Shepard’s brows lowered a fraction, her expression inscrutable. “I hear you, Joker,” she answered. “Comms were blocked.”

 

“Noticed that, ma’am,” he said, but it didn’t have his usual sarcasm behind it. Shepard’s mask hardened further. “What is it, Joker?”

 

“Shit, Shepard, I don’t know how to—” He broke off in mid-sentence.

 

“Joker, what the hell is going on?” she snapped, cracks beginning to form in her calm facade.

 

It wasn’t Joker, but EDI, who answered. “Communications from the Kite’s Nest, Sol, and Apien Crest clusters have gone dark. Reports suggest that the reaper assault has begun.”

 

A deafening silence fell, and only EDI dared to break it. “I am sorry, Commander.”

 

Several Months Earlier

 

Jane Shepard stepped out of the comm room looking like hell but feeling incredible. Her N7 armor was cracked and mottled, her short red hair was a singed tangle, and her freckled skin was marred with dirt and bruises—but she couldn’t care less. She’d been to hell and back and lived to tell about it, and she’d finally handed in her resignation to Cerberus by way of a massive explosion. All things considered, it was a damn good day.

 

Her mood was slightly dampened as she passed through the CIC, nodding and smiling at crewmen whose attempts to return her smiles were belied by their haunted eyes. Yet she was proud of them beyond measure. Those who were physically capable were at their stations and ready to serve, no matter the horrors they had endured. Along with the ghosts in their eyes, she also found gratitude and pride—and loyalty. Not to their organization, but to her. To her ship. If she had doubts before, she had none now. The Cerberus crew had become her crew. Giving her these people was one of the few good things Cerberus had done. They’d also given her the ship she’d now stolen—and her life.

 

There was a part of her that felt like she ought to owe the Illusive Man for that, despite already completing the task he’d set before her. But there was another part of her that screamed to be heard—that said to remember the thorian creepers and David Archer and Admiral Kahoku and the rachni. To remember Akuze. Bringing her back—even helping her save humanity—did not erase those crimes. Which was why she had no second thoughts about stealing the ship and telling the Illusive Man to fuck off.

 

Shepard stepped up behind the pilot’s chair as she entered the cockpit, her blue eyes darting to the windows. She could just make out the dull glow of Omega in the distance. “ETA?” she asked curtly.

 

“Just over an hour,” Joker said, tugging down the bill of his SR-2 cap. “But are we really going to use parts from Omega to fix the Normandy, Commander? My baby deserves the best.” Some might have taken his tone for insolence, but Shepard knew better.

 

“We’ve got the best engineers, Joker. They won’t accept anything less than perfection,” she reassured him. “She’ll be up and running again as good as she ever was.” The only response she received was a nod. Shepard wasn’t fazed by his reticence. She understood how he felt about the Normandy. Shepard liked to think she loved the ship nearly as much as he did.

 

Shepard turned to the ever-present holographic interface on the console. “EDI, are we safeguarded against Cerberus hacking attempts? No doubt the Illusive Man will try to get his ship back.”

 

Her answer was prompt. “Yes, Commander. Jeff’s removal of my shackles has eliminated any possibility of Cerberus control.”

 

Shepard nodded. She’d been suspicious of EDI for a long time, despite the polite and friendly attitude with which she always addressed the AI. But EDI had proven herself, and Shepard had come to trust her with her ship, her crew, and her life. “Keep up the good work, EDI. Can you patch me through to the crew?”

 

“Patching you through, Commander.”

 

Shepard leaned over the comm unit, tucking back a sweaty lock of chin-length red hair. “Normandy crew, as some of you no doubt already know, this is no longer a Cerberus vessel.” She paused a moment, allowing that to sink in. “We dock on Omega in one hour, and those of you who wish to leave may do so from here—no questions asked. Those who want to stay on as part of the Normandy crew need to be at your stations in forty-eight hours. Until then, you’re on shore leave. Shepard out.”

 

Shepard straightened up, making a mental note to send out a short bulletin about safety on Omega. You could never be too careful. She rolled her left shoulder absent-mindedly, wincing a bit at the movement. The doctor’s patch-up job had been rudimentary at best, since Shepard had begged off to run to the comm room. She had brushed off the doctor’s concern—even now, her advanced cybernetics were hard at work knitting her back together. The squad had come out of the battle with a wide enough variety of injuries to be their own medical dictionary, but even the worst seemed insignificant when she considered that they had never expected to live at all.

 

Shepard realized, lost in thought as she was, she was still standing in the cockpit. Glancing around, her eyes landed on the Normandy’s pilot. Everyone on this ship was a hero as far as she was concerned, but Joker had done more than most. Despite his own traumatic experiences (and likely a number of broken bones), he was less likely than anyone to take advantage of their shore leave. Unlike most things when it came to Joker, that was not going to fly.

 

She looked at him speculatively. She wouldn’t force him to leave the ship, especially not on Omega, but he needed to relax and unwind. He was coiled as tight as a spring. Dire measures might become necessary, she thought, a smile curling the corners of her lips. She had an idea. “Before this shore leave is over, Joker, you and me are going to have to play some Skyllian Five. I’ve got an appointment with your credits. Spent all mine on weapon mods.” It was a provocation he would never ignore.

 

He laughed as he turned to face her—a lighthearted sound she hadn’t heard in longer than she cared to consider. “You’re on, Commander,” he said, never one to turn down a challenge. “Long as you’ve got something left to bet.”

 

Hell, she might even let him win this time. Every now and then, you had to take one for the team.

 

 

Garrus strode into the captain’s quarters with an air of confidence no doubt borne from his successful conquest of interspecies relations in that very room the previous night. “You called?”

 

Shepard glanced towards the door and nodded, shutting down her terminal as she stood. “There are a couple of things I want to talk to you about.” Her eyes traveled up and down his form as he came to lean casually against the desk. Now that she knew what alien beauty lay beneath that armor, it was difficult to avoid becoming distracted. She forced her eyes upward to his face. Maybe once her work was done they could take a little shore leave themselves and… No. Stop it. You can fantasize later.

 

She cleared her throat awkwardly, trying to banish the images from her mind.  “How’s your bullet wound?” She motioned to his stomach.

 

Garrus shrugged. “Chakwas patched me up and I’m as good as new,” he assured her. She wasn’t convinced, knowing a thing or two about turian plate injuries, but if Chakwas had released him, she wouldn’t press the issue. “So did you just call me up here to check on me?” he asked.

 

She shook her head. She wished it was that simple. “It’s about Omega. While we’re on the station I want you to keep at least two of the squad with you at all times.”

 

The turian’s browplates lowered into a frown that would be obvious to even the most unobservant human. “Why?”

 

The resistance was not unexpected. “If someone recognizes you, there’s going to be trouble. I’m not taking any chances, especially not now that we’re no longer under the Illusive Man’s protection,” she explained. “I don’t want to have to run a rescue while the Normandy and her crew aren’t at their best.” She couldn’t hold back the images of the last time she’d rescued him on Omega. His blood everywhere. On the floor. On her boots. Her hands…

 

A gloved hand on the side of her face brought her out of her reverie. Garrus gazed down at her with an expression she couldn’t quite read. “I don’t like it, Shepard,” he said, “But if it will make you feel better, I’ll do it.”

 

“I just want you to be safe,” she confessed, glancing downward. It was stupid of her to set him apart from the others like this, but it was true. He wasn’t just any teammate, and it had started long before their night together. From the moment she saw him on Omega, Shepard had known she would sacrifice more than she should to get him out of there alive. When she almost failed, it nearly destroyed her.

 

She’d felt an echo of that pain later, on the Collector base. She tried never to let her heart get in the way of good tactics, but when his talents as a team leader forced their separation, she’d wanted, more than anything, to change her mind and keep him close. She’d scoffed before at his worry when her missions had required he be left behind, but now she understood what it was like to be on the other side, to watch someone you love walk into certain danger.

 

It was in that inopportune moment that she realized how much she loved him. She’d realized long before then that her feelings were greater than friendship, greater than attraction, and definitely greater than some kind of cross-species curiosity. But the moment she watched him walk into danger—without her to protect him, damn it—was when she finally realized that she was desperately in love with him and didn’t know what she would do if he didn’t come back to her alive.

 

A touch on Shepard’s arm brought her eyes back upward. “So I guess this means no hot dates, then,” he teased, voice rumbling in a way that made her stomach flutter.

 

Shepard felt heat rising in her cheeks. “After Omega, I’ll make sure to take you somewhere nice.”

 

He held her gaze with surprising intensity. “I’ll hold you to that.”

 

After a beat of silence, she motioned towards the elevator and reminded herself to breathe.

 

When the doors closed behind them, Garrus turned to her again, suddenly back to business. “There was something else you wanted to talk about?” he asked.

 

She nodded. “Yes, but it’ll have to wait until we’re off the ship,” she told him, hoping he’d understand.

 

By the way his eyes darted around the elevator, she knew he did. He would see nothing but EDI’s camera, but that didn’t mean there was nothing there. As they waited for the slowest elevator in the Terminus systems to travel down one floor, she took to watching him.

 

For obvious reasons, Shepard hadn’t had much time to think about the previous night. She remembered what Garrus had said weeks ago about their prospective night together. “It will either be a night to treasure or a horrible interspecies awkwardness thing.” To be truthful, it had been a bit of both. Garrus had been nervous, attempting human customs to make her comfortable, worrying about injuring her, and trying to figure out what the hell to do with breasts. Shepard had been simply wishing she’d taken a closer look at Mordin’s diagrams. But in the end they’d made it work, and Shepard was very eager to give it another go. With a bit of practice, she was certain they could make each other very, very happy.

 

If Garrus wanted to continue, that is.

 

Shepard glanced over at him surreptitiously as they stepped out into the CIC. Based on his reaction a few minutes ago, he was still interested in blowing off steam with her. Maybe more. But ‘maybe’ wasn’t enough. She wanted so much more than just a way to ease tension. She found herself relying on him more and more as time passed, both on the field and off, and her feelings of friendship had somehow blossomed into something greater and infinitely more precious.

 

They went through decontamination and stepped out into the docking tube, pausing before they reached the dirty, shadowy halls of Omega. “So what’s the other thing?” Garrus asked.

 

“Hmm?” she questioned. “Oh. Right. The other thing.” She really needed to get her head back into the game and stop mooning over her turian companion like a teenager on a first date. Focus.

 

Garrus gave her a uniquely turian smirk, crossing his arms cockily over his chest. “I’m just that distracting, huh?”

 

Shepard blushed, cursing her genetics for the fair skin that did nothing to hide it. His stupid visor was probably giving him a full report on exactly how fast her heart was racing. “I need a safe place for the team to meet, somewhere the Illusive Man can’t hear us,” she told him. “At first I was thinking of a private room in Afterlife, but I’m guessing Aria’s got them all bugged.”

 

Garrus nodded, confirming her suspicion. “She does,” he said confidently. “I used to know a few places. There’s a restaurant that serves both levo and dextro food. Used to take the team there. The owner was… a friend.” A shadow flitted across his features. “It’s in a bad neighborhood, but it’s probably our best bet.”

 

“It’s Omega,” Shepard deadpanned. “They’re all bad neighborhoods.”

 

Garrus gave a small laugh. “Bad even for Omega,” he amended, but Shepard wasn’t dissuaded.

 

“We’ve survived worse,” she said with a shrug. “Tap a couple of teammates to scope it out with you, and I’ll throw in some extra shore leave hours for whoever goes. Book it for tomorrow night if you can. I’d like to buy the team dinner and drinks after we get done talking business.” She paused, meeting his eyes. “It goes without saying that we don’t discuss this where we could be overheard.”

 

“Of course,” Garrus said, sounding almost affronted that she felt the need to say so. “I’ll take care of it now. You coming?”

 

Shepard shook her head. “Too much to do.”

 

“Shepard,” he warned, closing the distance between them. “You haven’t stopped running since the Collector base.” His concern was sweet, if unnecessary.

 

She put a reassuring hand on his arm. “We’re going to be here for a while. I promise I’ll take some time out to relax before we move on.”

 

He looked her over sharply, as if to gauge both her truthfulness and her state of health. Shepard followed his gaze, blushing slightly as his blue eyes ran down her body and back up again. He still looked worried when he met her eyes, but he nodded and took a step back. “I’ll message you once I get it checked out.”

 

“Thanks,” Shepard said, with a genuine smile, the one few people saw. As Garrus moved to message a couple teammates from his omni-tool, she headed back through the airlock and up to her quarters. Thoughts of pleasure would have to wait—she had planning to do.

 

 

The captain’s cabin was dim and still but for the fish swimming lazily in their tank. A redheaded figure sat motionless in front of a cluttered desk, ignoring the growing list of messages on her terminal. The glass display in front of her held an array of model ships, but she stared past them, seeing nothing.

 

Her mind was occupied with thoughts of the future, what to do now that they’d survived the impossible once again. She couldn’t ask her friends and crew to follow her without a plan. The immediate steps to take were obvious. Get the Normandy back in shape and remove the Cerberus bugs. Fill in any gaps in the crew.

 

But after that things became far less simple. There was a part of her that wanted to return to the Alliance—it had been her life since the marines rescued her from Mindoir at sixteen years old. But she had a nagging feeling within her that while the Alliance was where she wanted to be, it wasn’t where she needed to be right now.

 

What she needed to do was stop the reapers. No pressure, Commander, she thought with a roll of her eyes. The Alliance could provide resources and intel, but she needed more than that to save the galaxy. She needed freedom to do what must be done—and by nature, she wouldn’t find much of that in the Alliance.

 

Spectres had the freedom she needed. If she could get the council behind her, it could be the ideal solution. She could be a representative for multiple races, not just her own, the unifying force needed to see this through.

 

But that left the problem of evidence. She’d had less luck with the council than the Alliance when it came to proving her theories, and though she had more evidence now, she still knew it was not enough. Everything she’d seen—the vids and data her team had recorded—would mean nothing if the council believed she destroyed the threat along with the Collector base.

 

There was, however, a third option.

 

With Liara now firmly in possession of the Shadow Broker’s resources, Shepard had no doubt she could be as useful to her as the Illusive Man, Alliance, or Citadel council ever were. She didn’t think this was what Liara had in mind when she’d offered her help, but it might be their best shot.

 

It felt strange to be drifting like this, unaffiliated and alone, but Shepard would do what she had to. She would save this galaxy even if she had to drag it kicking and screaming to victory.

 

She realized, grimacing, that she probably would.

 

Chapter Text

Garrus hadn’t been lying about the neighborhood. Shepard was glad, now, that she suggested her team travel Omega in groups, even though she hadn’t followed her own advice. She was stubborn like that. Some things don’t change.

 

But other things had changed. A few years ago she wouldn’t have simply walked past the drug deals, gang showdowns, and dead bodies, but times were different. Her concerns were a lot bigger than someone dealing red sand in an alleyway. Kaidan had been right about her not being the same person she was a few years ago.

 

He was also wrong. It wasn’t because of Cerberus. It hadn’t even started with Cerberus. It started with the memories of a dead race, cemented by her own death and the discord that had followed. It was the result of having to face reality—seeing the galaxy for what it was rather than what she wanted it to be. Nothing was black and white, even when it appeared to be. Everything was just a different shade of gray.

 

Her omni-tool beeped, indicating that she’d found her destination. It didn’t look like much, but that was probably for the best. With the dirty walls, bolted-down furniture, and nondescript entryway, she hoped it was below the notice of anyone who would have an interest in what her group had to say.

 

A human in a stained apron called to her from behind the counter. “You with Garrus?” he asked. Despite her initial surprise, she supposed it was obvious—most of the patrons would never dream of being able to afford armor or weapons like the ones she bore so casually. At her nod, he jerked a thumb towards a doorway in the back.

 

She found most of her team already gathered around a large table, some with drinks or food already in hand. Garrus moved from his spot against the wall as she approached. “The private room wasn’t cheap,” he said apologetically. “But it’s about as far from prying eyes as we’re going to get on Omega.”

 

She waved him off with a disarming grin. “It’ll be nothing compared to what I’ll be paying once the team knows drinks are all on me tonight.”

 

As the last of the team filtered in, people slowly gravitated towards the table in the middle of the room, finding seats and looking to Shepard. Every member of her team was there, even those who would be leaving them soon. Thane had already spoken to her about going to the Citadel to be with his son, and Samara had announced that she was returning to asari space. No one else had spoken to Shepard about leaving yet, but she no longer carried the delusion that her crew would always stay. Not after how things had gone on the original Normandy.

 

Shepard whistled to get everyone’s attention, the last of the conversations dying out in seconds. She looked around the room, her emotions getting the better of her. Each of them had become dear to her, even those she never could have imagined coming to care for. A geth platform? A certifiably insane overpowered biotic? They were mercenaries and killers and outcasts of all stripes, and she adored them. It seemed crazy and a bit sentimental, but it all meant more to her now than it used to—she knew how easy it was to lose everything, how they’d been dancing on the knife’s edge. She was proud of them. They’d all come so far.

 

“First, I want to thank all of you for your hard work on this mission. Without each and every one of your skills, any of us could have died on that base.” She paused for a moment, watching eyes dart around the room, her team giving each other small smiles and subtle nods. Everyone had someone to thank for watching their back in there. “Barring any sudden change of plans, we’re going to be on Omega until the ship’s repairs are complete. I need everyone who’s staying to be committed to getting the Normandy back into shape.”

 

Tali and Kasumi shared a look. Next to them, Legion’s head flaps shifted. “We had some thoughts on that,” Tali said. “We think there are some further upgrades we can make to the Normandy, and now seems like the best time for it.”

 

Shepard gave her a curt nod. “See me before shore leave is over and we can discuss it,” she instructed and turned back to the group. “When you all report back to the Normandy, I’ll hand out assignments for repairs,” she told them. “But first things first—we need to remove all Cerberus bugs and tracers from the Normandy.”

 

“I know many of you have already removed listening devices from your quarters and workspaces, but this is a matter of the utmost importance. Not only is this a matter of personal safety, but also of galactic security.” She paused to meet the eyes of each person in the room. “Every inch of the ship must be searched,” she instructed. “Once you finish your assigned portion, a second person will go over it as well. So get personal items out of the way if you don’t want them touched.”

 

Once the few protests had fallen silent, Shepard dropped the commanding manner and gave them a smile. “Now,” she continued, “As a thanks for all your hard work, dinner and drinks are on me tonight.” She grinned as a whoop went up from the table, excitement bubbling from the crew. “Don’t drink so much that you forget to report back to the Normandy on time tomorrow,” she called over the din. “Until then, enjoy yourselves!”

 

The crew talked and laughed in a way that Shepard hadn’t heard in a long time, drunk on the excitement of victory and survival. After enjoying the food and revelry for a while, Shepard slipped out, leaning on the doorway of the nearly-deserted restaurant. She needed this as much as they did, but heavy things still weighed on her mind. Under different circumstances she wouldn’t hesitate to party just as hard as they were, but someone needed to stay clear-headed in case of a crisis. There would always be another night for her.

 

“So…” Shepard turned to see Garrus step out of the shadows. “If I’m not allowed to travel Omega without two teammates, why is it okay for you to wander around on your own?”

 

She couldn’t hold back a smile. “Ten meters from my team is hardly wandering,” she argued, nodding her head towards the party. “Besides, there’s no one here who can order me around.”

 

Garrus took a step closer, gazing at her with those piercing blue eyes. “Doesn’t mean I won’t try,” he said, low and growling, igniting something within her.

 

A talon traced down her spine, sending a tingling through her core. She held in a shiver. Shepard glanced over to the room that held her team and back, making a decision. “Want to get out of here?”

 

“Definitely.” He smirked at her as they walked away, a large hand solid at the small of her back. “We’re breaking your rule, you know.”

 

She smiled at him, her blue eyes sparkling. “I’ll make an exception,” she told him. “Just this once.”

 

 

 The first time they’d been cautious and careful, learning each other’s bodies slowly as they opened up a new world of touch and taste and pleasure. This time things moved more quickly. The trip back to the Normandy served to heighten their anticipation, and by the time they reached the elevator they were no longer able to contain themselves.

 

Smoldering eyes gave away his intention just an instant before Garrus took action. A set of talon-tipped fingers wound through her hair while the others pressed her body hard against him. The tightening grip made Shepard’s ribs ache, but no lingering injury would stop her. She let out a breathy moan as his tongue raked up her neck.

 

It hadn’t taken him long to become confident when it came to their lovemaking. Several rounds on that first night had taken him from shy and unsure to cocky and confident, using his sharp eyes to study her reactions as carefully as if she were a sparring partner. The same smugness that he exuded about his skill in battle had emerged again when he discovered that a few proper touches from him could bring Commander Shepard to her knees.

 

That confidence was exactly what she’d been searching for, something so many previous partners had lacked. In a life where she always had to be dominant and in control, it was hard to find someone who could forget that dynamic behind closed doors. It was a relief not to be the commander here.

 

He pushed her through the open elevator door, all the way into the captain’s quarters. He released her to secure the lock, ensuring they could not be disturbed tonight. When he turned back to Shepard, the predatory look in his eye made her quiver with desire.

 

“Strip,” he ordered. She shivered.

 

Armor clanked as it hit the ground, the pieces left where they fell. She peeled her undersuit away from her body, relishing the kiss of cool air against her skin. Without warning, he pressed her up against the fish tank, making Shepard gasp with surprise and delight. His three-fingered hand toyed with the waistband of her underwear as he nibbled across her collarbone and teased a breast. She squirmed with anticipation, but found the presence of mind to push him away.

 

He looked at her, questioning and shocked, afraid that he’d done something wrong. She could see it in his eyes, the way he always seemed to fear she would change her mind.

 

“Not yet,” she said, and watched confusion replace worry. “You’re overdressed,” she teased, thumping the chestplate of his armor as a grin stole across her features.

 

His gloves were gone already, lost somewhere between the elevator and where they stood, but it was only a passing thought in her mind—she was far more concerned with making sure he lost the rest of it.

 

Her fingers fumbled with the still-unfamiliar pieces as she rushed to help remove them. She ached to see and touch him again, to continue learning his body that was so alien and yet so beautiful. She stroked her fingers over the plates of his chest as they were revealed, tracing the new and old scars that criss-crossed the the leathery hide. Those scarred, battle-worn plates of his contrasted so sharply with her own skin, soft, pink, and unmarred. Stolen from her were the scars that she had once earned and worn with pride, the scars that made her remember. How many nights had she sat in the darkness wanting to march down to Miranda and unreasonably demand them back?

 

She shuddered at the memory of those dark days, bringing herself back to her present pleasure. She squeezed tight at his waist, relishing the growl she earned by it, and scratched lightly at the unplated hide. At last she moved lower, towards her final goal, the parted plates and erection revealed between them. He was fully emerged and ready now, his tawny hide tinted with the blue of pulsing blood. She reached out, stroking the shaft to produce a throaty groan from her partner.

 

With lightning fast reflexes, Garrus grabbed her wrist to stop her. The look in his eye told her everything. He pushed her a few steps back towards the aquarium again, raising that wrist over her head to press against the glass. She fought against the restraint half-heartedly, both of them aware that she dripped with desire at these small displays of dominance. In her own version of submission, she used her free hand to shimmy out of her panties, revealing herself to him entirely.

 

A pleased rumble sounded in his chest as he regarded her, a glistening patch of ginger curls. No longer content to stare, Garrus pressed a finger against her, rubbing only hard enough to inflame. “Harder,” she told him, but the flick of his mandibles told Shepard her pleading would fall on deaf ears.

 

She rubbed her legs together in frustration, needing more. She moved to touch herself, but her second hand was captured like the first, raised up to be held against the glass with her other.

 

“Fuck you,” she groaned.

 

He let out a chuckle. “That’s the idea.”

 

He gripped both wrists in one hand now, giving in to her desire. She moaned with relief and pleasure as he stroked with more force. She closed her eyes, tipping her head back against the glass, and Garrus leaned forward to give her a nipping kiss on her jaw. When he licked down her throat, Shepard thought she would die of the burning inside of her.

 

Before she realized what was happening, her wrists were released and Garrus lifted her bodily, hooking her legs over the angle of his hips. Her eyes flew open to meet his, and her arms found their way to his strong shoulders. They were a hair’s breadth from consummation, and yet he waited.

 

Her blood pulsed fiery through her veins as he shifted, just barely brushing her clit.

 

“Please,” she said, nearly a whimper.

 

He lowered her slowly at first as she stretched to accommodate him. When all her discomfort had melted into pleasure, she squeezed her legs to spur him on, shooting him a devious smile. That was all the invitation he needed. His thrusts were powerful, uneven with his need for her. He shifted to support her with one hand, using the other to stroke a sensitive breast. She gasped at his rough palm on her nipple, her own hands scrambling to cling to his cowl. She curled her fingers inside it, scratching at the sensitive hide that lay protected inside. He bent forward, pressing her further against the fish tank, as he buried his face between her breasts. He drove upward with a lick until he reached her neck, grazing the skin with his teeth. The brush of danger tipped her over the chasm. Desire welled and overflowed. She cried out, shuddering against the aquarium glass. The tightening inside her made Garrus stiffen and growl, exceeding his self control. He shook with his orgasm, burying his face in her shoulder as the waves of pleasure crashed over him.

 

Shepard leaned her head back against the cool glass, breathing heavily in the aftermath. She squirmed at the ticklish feeling of mandibles fluttering on her neck as Garrus pulled back. He set her down gently, arms steady around her when she wobbled on her feet. He gave her an appraising look, up and down her body, and frowned. “Do you have medi-gel up here?”

 

She glanced down, noticing the crosshatch of scratch marks and skin red from chafing. She wiped away small drops of blood dotting a cut and looked up at him. Her lips twisted into a wry smile. “We squishy humans do actually rough each other up quite a bit during sex, you know,” she said dryly. “Besides, I don’t even scar, not after what Chakwas did to my skin.” For a fleeting moment she wished it was otherwise, to bear his marks on her skin.

 

“What about you?” she asked. “Any numbness or tingling? Did I hurt you? You’re injuries aren’t quite healed…” She stopped herself, eyeing him from fringed head to taloned toe, but he didn’t seem any worse for the wear from their lovemaking.

 

“I’m fine,” he insisted, caressing her cheek with his thumb. “The medi-gel?” he asked again. “Or at least something for that chafing. Didn’t Mordin give you something for that?”

 

“It’s somewhere around here,” she said with a careless shrug. “Don’t worry about it, okay? It’ll be gone in a few hours. Like I said, I don’t scar anymore.”

 

He gave her a doubtful look, but nodded, trusting her judgment.

 

For a moment they stood staring at one another, not quite sure where to go from there. Finally, Shepard motioned towards the bed with a questioning look.

 

Garrus’s mandibles quirked into a grin. “Trying to tell me you’re ready for round two?”

 

“No,” she said, then grimaced at her choice of words. “I mean yes, if you want to,” she added, flustered. “But actually I was hoping you would stay tonight.” She bit her lip when he didn’t immediately respond. “I mean, I’m not trying to pressure you, but there’s no reason to worry about disturbing the crew if hardly anyone’s here, and…” He pressed a talon to her lips to silence her, his answer implicit in the motion.

 

Getting into bed together was a bit of a process—him adjusting pillows to fit comfortably around his cowl and her shifting positions against him until she found a spot that didn’t cause the edges of his plates to dig awkwardly into her body—but, to Shepard, all the pains they took to make this work were worth it. He was worth all the trouble in the world.

 

She felt Garrus shift slightly against her. “Shepard, I—”

 

She cut off his hesitant voice, already certain of what was bothering him. “Please, just…” She stopped to find the right words. “Let’s not worry about defining all of this right now.” She moved so that her eyes could meet his, hesitant but filled with something that made her heart beat a little bit faster. “Just stay with me tonight,” she said softly.

 

Let me have this one perfect night, her eyes pleaded.

 

His only response was to pull her back down to his chest, holding her tight against him. She drifted off to the comforting rumble of his breathing and slept without dreams.

 

 

 Shepard groaned, rolling out of bed at the sound of persistent knocking on her door. It took her a moment to recall that she’d told Tali to come see her. She glanced towards Garrus, sprawled across the bed beside her and only just starting to stir. She’d have to talk to Tali out in the hall—she couldn’t just hide a six-foot-something turian under her bed. She crossed the room, using a foot to shove away the clothes and armor strewn carelessly about the cabin.

 

Shepard stepped across the threshold, trying to appear casual. “Hey, Tali.” The door slid shut behind her, but not fast enough to keep the quarian from tilting her head curiously at something she’d seen inside. Tali craned her neck to see behind Shepard in the last seconds before the panels sealed.

 

The quarian looked at her, bright eyes wide. “Is there someone in there?” Shepard grimaced, but didn’t answer. “Garrus is going to be so jealous, you know,” Tali added in a conspiratorial whisper. “He has a huge crush on you.”

 

Shepard gave her a flat look, and her friend let out a gasp. “It’s Garrus who’s in there, isn’t it?” The quarian actually squealed, throwing her arms around Shepard in an enthusiastic hug. “I’m so happy for you!”

 

Shepard let out a short laugh as Tali peeled herself off of her. “Don’t start planning the wedding or anything. I had no idea you’d be so excited,” she said dryly, crossing her arms. “Later, we’re going to have a talk about your apparent belief that I would bring a stranger from Omega to bed with me.” She frowned slightly. “Or worse, bring a stranger from Omega onto my ship.”

 

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t spread this around,” she continued. “The crew doesn’t need the distraction right now.” Besides, she and Garrus didn’t need anyone else talking about their relationship or trying to define it when they hadn’t even figured out where things stood between them.

 

“Oh, I won’t say anything,” Tali said, decisively enough that Shepard raised a brow. “I’m going to lose credits when this comes out. I put my money on Jacob.”

 

Shepard’s blood pressure skyrocketed. “There’s a betting pool?” She let out a frustrated sigh, rubbing the back of her hand across her eyes. “Of course there’s a betting pool.” Her eyes darted back to Tali, who was smirking behind her mask. “Also, Jacob? Really?”

 

“Well he is human! And very attractive,” the quarian defended. “You seemed totally oblivious to Garrus, and after you went for Kaidan on the first Normandy…” Shepard winced as Tali trailed off. Kaidan was not one of her better decisions.

 

“Who else was on the list?” Shepard asked, letting her curiosity get the better of her.

 

“Hmm.” Tali settled back on a hip, thinking. “Thane had a lot of votes,” she told her. “There were a couple for Miranda, believe it or not. Joker voted for himself. Some people said you’d go back to Kaidan…”

 

“Never going to happen,” Shepard interjected.

 

“…and after Liara came to visit all dressed up like she was, a few people thought you two were hooking up,” Tali continued.  “If it’s any comfort, there were plenty of people who didn’t think you’d get with anyone.”

 

Shepard let out a huff. She didn’t keep her crew busy enough if they had enough time to analyze every aspect of her personal life. She ran her fingers absently through her messy hair and looked at Tali. “Aren’t we supposed to be discussing the Normandy upgrades?” she reminded the quarian, ready to move on to any other subject, even if it was all tech and maintenance that would inevitably go over her head.

 

Tali quickly pulled up some schematics on her omni-tool. “Right, uh… here, let me show you what we had in mind.”

 

Tali had done her homework. She’d broken down everything into the resources they’d need, how long the upgrades would take, and which crewmen had the right skills to complete them. The armory would be moved to the cargo bay near the shuttle, replaced with an information processing command center based on a recommendation from Liara. There would be hidden weapons lockers placed in strategic locations around the ship in case of emergency. Life support would house a few bunks for additional crew quarters—Shepard hadn’t failed to notice how several of her team had placed surreptitious cots in odd places—and Kasumi’s room would be transformed into a full-on lounge. That was Shepard’s favorite addition. With the amount of stress the crew would be under, they could use a place to relax.

 

There were other suggestions to do with safety standards and efficiency, but Shepard headed off the explanations and just told Tali to go ahead. She trusted the quarian—and wouldn’t understand the tech anyhow.

 

Before Tali left, she reached into a pocket in her suit. “Here,” she said, holding out a three-fingered glove that was far too large for her own hands. “I guess this explains why I found a certain someone’s glove in the elevator.”

 

She left Shepard standing in the hallway, staring at the glove with a hot blush on her face.

 

When she finally reentered her quarters, Garrus was already showered and partially dressed, sitting on her couch with his omni-tool open. She smiled at him from the top of the stairs. “Catch,” she said, tossing the glove his way.

 

He caught it reflexively, raising a browplate at her when he realized what he held.

 

She leaned against her display case. “That was in the elevator,” she explained. “In related news, Tali knows about us.” She smiled wryly.

 

Garrus turned the omni-tool off and looked at her, his expression guarded. “What did she say?”

 

Shepard let out a short laugh. “She’s ecstatic. But I think I convinced her to keep it to herself for now.”

 

Garrus nodded, but his posture stiffened and mandibles fluttered nervously. Shepard waited quietly for him to speak. Garrus did things in his own time.

 

“Shepard,” he said finally, “I think we should talk about what we’re doing here.”

 

Shepard bit the inside of her lip. Why did this make her so nervous? Every signal he’d given her was telling her to go for it, but what if she was reading him wrong? If he were human, she could have read his expressions like a book, but with Garrus this was all uncharted territory. She wasn’t sure her usual ‘go in with guns blazing’ tactics would work here. She ran her fingers nervously through her hair, realizing how tangled it was. An idea struck her—a temporary out. “Can this wait until after I shower?” she asked him. That would at least give her time to figure out what to say to him.

 

After a moment, Garrus nodded. “I’ll be here,” he said in his quiet way, and somehow she thought he might not only mean her quarters.

 

He was always there when she needed him, and that was why she was terrified of messing this up.

 

 

Shepard closed her eyes as the hot water ran over her body. What the hell was she going to say?

 

Garrus, I fell for you long before our night together.

 

Garrus, you’re the best friend I ever had, and I’m terrified that my confession of love is going to scare you away.

 

Garrus, I’m completely, utterly, stupidly in love with you.

 

Garrus, you might want to take back what you said about me never making you uncomfortable.

 

She mentally groaned at all of this as she soaped herself down. Garrus was the one steady thing in her life anymore, and she was scared of losing that. Of changing it.

 

You’ve already changed it, she reminded herself. You left the old friendship behind when you suggested you test his reach.

 

She finished her shower quickly, determined not to let this get to her. She was Commander goddamn Shepard, and she was not going to be intimidated by a simple conversation. After all the things she’d done, that was just insulting. She’d cowed krogan into submission, verbally bitch-slapped the quarian admirals, and talked Saren into breaking through reaper indoctrination. She always won in the end.

 

Maybe that was the problem.

 

She didn’t want to talk Garrus into a relationship. She didn’t want to convince him or lead just because he would follow. She wanted him to want this—she wanted him to decide on his own. She had been half afraid all along that he’d only agreed to sleep together because she’d asked. She didn’t want to persuade him, she just…

 

She wanted him to love her the way she loved him.

 

She resolved to keep her damn tongue in her mouth this time and let him talk—and she’d deal with it, even if it wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

 

Shepard toweled off her wet hair, marched out of the bathroom, and stopped short at the sight of her empty bedroom with Garrus nowhere to be found.

 

Chapter Text

Shepard wrestled with the listening device under her desk with an impatience borne of frustration. A datapad, on the desk directly above her head, still displayed its puzzling message.

 

Shepard—

 

Had to leave to deal with a heat diffusion emergency in the main battery. Don’t worry—I’ll let you know if anything needs your attention. I’ll come see you once everything is taken care of.

 

G

 

Alright, so the message in itself wasn’t puzzling, but Shepard couldn’t help examining it repeatedly for any kind of subtext or clue to his feelings.

 

He had left so quickly. Which was to be expected if there was an emergency, of course, but couldn’t he have at least called through the door to let her know he was leaving? Or hell, he could have poked his head in in. It’s not like he’d see anything he hadn’t seen before.

 

She continued wrestling with the audio bug for a few more minutes before she dropped her hands with a sigh.

 

“EDI,” she called, “What’s the status of the main battery?”

 

“The situation in the main battery has been adequately handled.”

 

“And Garrus?” Shepard ventured.

 

“He is calibrating the main gun.”

 

Shepard’s mouth dropped open. “Seriously?” she muttered.

 

“Yes,” EDI replied. “Though it is curious; his work is not as efficient as usual. Garrus has needed to correct 13.7% more manual errors than is typical. Perhaps there is something on his mind.”

 

EDI’s slightly amused tone was not lost on Shepard. She glared in the direction of the AI’s wall unit. “Really don’t need your commentary on my love life, EDI.”

 

“Logging you out, Shepard.”

 

Shepard turned back to the bug she was supposed to disconnect, but her thoughts were lost somewhere near the main battery. Garrus always calibrated when something was bothering him—when he couldn’t get out and shoot, that is. Likely he was trying to figure out how to let her down gently, she thought glumly. A rift between them could upset the entire balance of the ship. They were too professional to let a breakup (how dramatic of her to call it that) ruin their working relationship, but any tension between them could disturb the crew nonetheless. Exactly what she was trying to avoid.

 

Maybe, she considered, her thoughts taking a lighter turn, he was trying to figure out a way to express his feelings for her. Garrus was more a man of action than words, and he seemed uncharacteristically unsure of himself when it came to his emotions. Maybe he just needed time to figure out what to say.

 

Shepard groaned at herself. She was a sap. A moronic, love-struck teenager. But knowing how badly all of her previous relationships had ended, could anyone blame her for wanting one to go right?

 

With a shake of her head, she dismissed the thought. She needed to finish up cleaning out her quarters first, then she could worry over what was going through Garrus’s mind. She leaned forward, getting back to work on disconnecting the Cerberus bug beneath her desk.

 

After a few more minutes, the bug came loose with a loud bang and yell that rattled her model ships and scared her hamster into the back corner of his cage. Boo let out a terrified squeak.

 

“Damn it!” Shepard scooted out from under the desk with a scowl on her face and a hand cradling the back of her head. She should have listened when Tali explained how to disconnect the bugs without brute force. Or maybe she should have taken out her relationship woes on the punching bag downstairs instead of the hated Cerberus device.

 

“Having trouble?”

 

A rich voice from the doorway nearly made Shepard jump. Her eyes darted over her shoulder to find Garrus Vakarian laughing openly at her bug-disconnecting skills.

 

“Go to hell, Vakarian,” she grumbled, throwing the dismembered bug his direction. He easily dodged the projectile and walked towards her.

 

“What do you want?” she asked, trying to scowl despite the way her heart pounded in his presence.

 

He reached out a hand to help her up. “I was thinking you and I might go out tonight,” he said, pulling Shepard to her feet. “No further than Afterlife. It’s a short walk through the safest part of the station, and Aria doesn’t let the mercs cause too much trouble in there. Besides,” he added, placing his free hand on her waist, “You need a break.”

 

Shepard slid her hands up to rest on his shoulders. “So do you,” she countered. “EDI told me you were calibrating.”

 

Garrus’s mandibles fluttered nervously. “The guns can always use the work. You never know when we’re going to need them,” he said. “Anyways,” he hurried to add, “what I’m proposing is a break for both of us. A night out.”

 

A whole night out hadn’t been in Shepard’s plans—she’d been thinking there would be a short discussion about their feelings and hopefully some late-night lovemaking to follow. But if this was his way of trying to show her how he felt, she wouldn’t dissuade him.

 

“Okay,” she conceded and offered him a smile. “Work can wait for one night.”

 

 

If any of the Normandy crew had walked into Afterlife on this particular evening, there would be no question in their minds about where Shepard and Garrus’s relationship stood.

 

Shepard had slowly worked her way onto the turian’s lap as the night progressed, nuzzling her face into the cowl of his armor. She was almost unrecognizable in leather and jeans, wearing makeup and a rather un-commander-like attitude that was explained only by the collection of empty bottles on the table in front of them.

 

“I thought of one good thing about Omega,” she whispered, grinding against him as if he could feel her through the armor. Her breath was hot in his ear.

 

“What’s that?” he asked, fingers trailing down her hips suggestively.

 

Shepard motioned to the club around them. “No one cares who’s fucking who,” she said, and swung a leg around to straddle him. “Now, if I were to do this, for example…” She broke off her sentence to drag her tongue up the turian’s neck.

 

“Spirits, Shepard!” he shuddered, fingers tightening on her instinctively.

 

She grinned at him with a sparkle in her eye. “If I were to do that anywhere else, people would be staring, saying things about you being turian and me being human. But nobody gives a damn here.”

 

“Thank the spirits for that,” Garrus uttered, his thumbs stroking up and down her shapely hips.

 

Shepard slipped her tongue into his mouth experimentally, flicking across his teeth before twining with his own tongue. Their attempts at kissing before were rudimentary at best, but she wanted to experiment a little further. She nibbled at his lip plate as it subtly flexed, attempting to replicate the movements of her lips. It was different, but not in a bad way, she decided through her haze.

 

“Shepard,” he gasped into her mouth, and she pulled back.

 

“Jane,” she said softly. “When we’re alone, call me Jane.”

 

“Jane,” he began again, lifting her away as she leaned down to kiss his neck, “How fast can we get back to your quarters?” He hungered for her, eyes filled with a predatory look that made her quiver with desire.

 

She gave him a seductive smile and and stood, pulling him along as she rushed out of the club.

 

They were unable to take their hands off each other as they made their way back to the ship. In that moment there were no reapers, no Cerberus, none of the problems that had plagued them for so long. The only thing that mattered was the two of them. Shepard stopped in the hallway to kiss him again, intoxicated with lust and alcohol.

 

Shepard stiffened suddenly in the middle of the kiss—something wasn’t right. Moving more on instinct than logic, she threw Garrus behind her. An armored man was closing in fast, reaching for a shotgun. With two steps forward and one powerful swing, she knocked him out, the weapon falling from his hand. As it clattered onto the floor, Shepard saw the familiar logo. “Cerberus,” she hissed, and all thoughts of being alone were forgotten.

 

“They’re after the ship,” she said worriedly, and activated her comm. “EDI. EDI!”

 

“Shepard!” Garrus cried, grabbing her out of the way barely in time to miss a shot that struck the wall just where she’d been standing.

 

In a few swift motions, the turian hand-to-hand specialist crossed the space between them, disarmed a second Cerberus agent, and snapped his neck with a sickening crack.

 

Shepard stared. What the fuck.

 

She stormed over. “Damn it!” she swore, glaring up at the turian. “You had him disarmed! You could have gotten information out of him. What the hell?”

 

“He tried to kill you,” he explained weakly. Shepard’s eyes narrowed.

 

She pushed a finger into his chest. “I need you to keep a clear head, Vakarian,” she snapped, eyes blazing up at him. “You know better than to let feelings get mixed up in missions. Understood?”

 

He snapped to attention. “Understood.” That turian military training was good for something.

 

Shepard let her hand drop and took a deep breath, trying to alleviate the dizzying feeling in her head. Garrus wasn’t usually like this. She hoped it was the alcohol and not some new protective thing due to their burgeoning relationship. “We need to get to the Normandy,” she said. “EDI didn’t respond.” She took off down the hall. “Disconnected or jamming signal, you think?”

 

“Jamming,” Garrus said, jogging along beside her. “They’d have to get to the AI core to disconnect EDI. She’d have locked down the ship before they could reach it.”

 

“I sure as hell hope so,” Shepard muttered. Unless there’s a traitor on the ship.

 

The thought made Shepard’s blood run cold. Should she have kicked off the Cerberus crew when she had the chance? If her trust got someone killed, there would be hell to pay.

 

They rounded the corner to the docking tube and found themselves face-to-face with four Cerberus troops guarding the hallway. Two more stood at the far end, trying to pry open the Normandy’s airlock with brute force.

 

A spray of bullets forced Shepard and Garrus into cover, but the sight of those Cerberus soldiers touching the Normandy filled Shepard with rage. She let out a feral growl. A blue glow enveloped her body, and she stepped out of cover. “Get your hands the fuck off my ship!”

 

A biotic push threw the four guards skittering down the hallway. She stormed ahead, ripping the other two away and slamming them to the ground with immense force. The guards behind her began to recover. A crack rang out. Five Cerberus left. She pulled the pistol from her thigh holster and got off two shots that hit right between the eyes. Four.

 

“Shepard!”

 

She turned towards his voice and went momentarily still. His sniper rifle was pointed at her.

 

Time seemed to slow as his finger twitched on the trigger. She heard the resounding boom, accompanied by a splattering sound behind her. She whirled around just in time to see the soldier’s lifeless body fall and land at her feet. Another was scrambling to stand, hands grasping at his rifle.

 

She could hear Garrus behind her rushing to reload as she raised her pistol. “Damn it, Shepard! On your five! I can’t—”

 

She was grabbed from behind. Shepard twisted in the soldier’s arms, bringing her leg up to trip him to the ground—

 

He didn’t fall. He was too fast for her, she realized in shock. When had anyone been too fast for her?

 

That was about the time she decided she was never going out drinking again.

 

Another guard approached her flank with weapon raised. She ducked only a second before he pulled the trigger, a spray of bullets going over her head. That was a little too close for the soldier who was holding her, and his grip loosed just enough for her to free herself. She raised her pistol, but Garrus beat her to it. A shot rang out, dropping the soldier to the ground.

 

She spun around to point her pistol at the next nearest soldier, but before she could attack, a biotic glow surrounded her, ripping her back through the doorway, past Garrus and into the hall. Everything ached as she scrambled to pull herself up, staring at the Cerberus soldiers that were making their way towards her once again. Which one was the damn biotic?

 

The unexpected answer came in the form of a biotic detonation more powerful than any she’d ever seen. It filled up the docking tube with a bright light and deafening noise, and when the blast cleared, the remaining Cerberus soldiers were dead.

 

The sound of footsteps echoed in the following silence, and Shepard whirled around to face the intruder.

 

Chapter Text

Shepard stared, dumbfounded, as Aria T’Loak stormed up to her and slapped her across the face. “Sober the fuck up, Shepard,” she ordered. Garrus let out a small cry of protest as he ran up beside them, but Aria only gave him a cursory glance. “I hope you two are finished making out, because I didn’t save your asses for nothing.”

 

Shepard glanced towards the Normandy’s airlock, anxious to get moving again. “What do you want, Aria?” she demanded. “We don’t have time for this.”

 

“No, you really don’t,” Aria agreed, the measured tone of her voice contradicted by the fire blazing in her eyes. “There are more of them coming. It’s you they want, but they’ll take Omega while they’re at it.” Her eyes narrowed as she stepped in close, her face only inches away from Shepard’s. “Lure them the fuck away from my station. Now.” She shoved Shepard towards the Normandy and turned on her heel, heading back towards Afterlife like a woman on a mission.

 

After a slight stumble, Shepard made off towards the airlock at a run with Garrus right on her heels. “EDI!” Shepard called desperately from the airlock door. “Can you hear me?”

 

Shepard and Garrus both winced at the sudden burst of static in their ears. “I have broken through the interference,” the AI said calmly.

 

The commander let out a small sigh of relief. “Status report.”

 

“There are Cerberus operatives in the CIC. I have locked down the ship,” EDI told her. The dented airlock door hissed open. “Neither the cockpit or the other levels have been breached.”

 

“And the crew in the CIC?”

 

“Minor injuries only. Doctor Solus and Operative Taylor have evacuated them to the lab, Commander.”

 

Shepard rolled some of the tension from her shoulders. “How did they get in, EDI?”

 

“Cerberus has developed a pulse that temporarily disabled my processors. I have reconfigured so that this will not happen again.” There was a short pause. “Decontamination complete. Should I open the door, Commander?”

 

Shepard popped the heat sink from her pistol and reloaded in a quick motion. “Do it.” The doors slid open and Shepard stepped inside. At the sight of the Cerberus troops tearing her CIC apart, Shepard’s expression hardened into a grim mask. Nobody messed with her ship and lived to tell about it.

 

There were troops working on the doors to the lab and armory with crowbars and omni-tools, anything to get to the crew. Another set worked on the elevator, trying to get down to EDI’s hardware, no doubt. Shepard ripped them away in biotic fury while Garrus took the kill shots one by one. The deck shook as she slammed two soldiers to the ground, scattering a stack of datapads across the CIC floor. A shot flew wide, cracking the glass of her private terminal. The prized leather seats at the consoles were strewn with rips and bullet holes. Within a few short minutes, nothing was left of the Cerberus troops but mangled bodies and the destruction they’d wrought.

 

Shepard’s eyes darted about the room to take a quick account of the situation. The CIC was a mess. Bodies, blood, and heat sinks were scattered across the deck, dents had been made in the doors and walls, and many of the consoles were cracked or shattered. Glass crunched under Shepard’s boots as she headed to the bridge. She glanced at Garrus with a silent request, and he gave her a nod. When she turned away, she heard the metallic skid of an armored corpse being dragged across the deck.

 

Joker twisted in his chair as EDI’s barrier dissipated, his eyes showing unmitigated relief. “Man, am I glad to see you.” He looked her up and down, admiring the way her bar attire clung to her sculpted body. “Nice outfit, by the way.”

 

“I will break you, Joker,” she warned, but her heart wasn’t in it. Her eyes scanned the flight console. “How well will this thing fly right now?”

 

Joker straightened, his hands darting to the controls. “Basic systems are up and running, Commander.”

 

“Weapon systems? Stealth drive?” she pressed.

 

“Functioning below optimal capacity,” EDI chimed in.

 

Shepard nodded tersely, her eyes glancing out the windows and then back at Joker. “There are several more Cerberus ships coming. We need to bait them away from Omega and then disappear. Can you do it?”

 

Joker snorted. “Please. Remember who you’re talking to.”

 

Shepard stared him down. “The ship, Joker. Can she take it?” Her fingers dug into the pilot’s head rest.

 

Joker met her eyes with a seriousness that only showed itself under fire. “I can do it.”

 

Shepard stayed silent behind him as he turned back to the flight console. She didn’t move until Omega was out of sight and so was Cerberus.

 

Round one goes to Shepard, she thought to herself, but it wasn’t a very comforting thought. Round two was undoubtedly coming, and she couldn’t afford to let it go to the Illusive Man.

 

They were drifting in an uninhabited system now, waiting on orders for their next stop. “EDI,” Shepard barked. “Damage report?”

 

EDI listed off the Normandy’s issues, exacerbated by the run-in with Cerberus, and Shepard rubbed her temples in exhaustion. “Send the report to engineering,” she instructed. They needed to dock again, and soon.

 

They could go to the Citadel, but Shepard wasn’t ready for that confrontation yet. Questioning awaited them when they docked, and Shepard needed time to prepare for that meeting. They wouldn’t go back to Omega—she was unwilling to risk Cerberus or the wrath of Aria T’Loak—but she needed somewhere safe, where questions wouldn’t be asked and their identity wouldn’t be compromised. She would have to take a chance and hope this didn’t come back to bite her in the ass.

 

“Hourglass Nebula, Sowilo system,” Shepard said tiredly. “You know where to go, EDI.”

 

“Yes, Commander,” the AI replied.

 

Shepard sighed, thinking of her next task. “I need locations on each member of my team,” she requested. She needed to check in with everyone before heading back up to her quarters, as much as she would rather faceplant into her pillow for the next few hours. She had a pounding headache already. She mentally took down the information EDI gave her, and sighed again as she stepped out into the CIC. She’d get a glass of water when she hit the crew deck. Maybe some coffee. Even Rupert’s coffee sounded amazing right now.

 

Shepard closed her eyes and rested her forehead against the cool wall of the elevator as she waited for it to descend to the lower levels. She mentally calculated the time until the Normandy reached its destination, figuring she could get a few hours of sleep in there somewhere. She just had to finish her rounds first. She groaned when the elevator reached the engineering deck, the pounding in her head superseding her desire to move. Against her will, she pushed off the cool metal wall, and that was the last thing she remembered.

 

 

Shepard woke to a mouth that felt like sandpaper, a horrible ache in her head, and the murmur of hushed voices. She didn’t bother opening her eyes before speaking over them. “Where the fuck am I and why does everything hurt?” she rasped.

 

“You’re awake,” said a flanged voice, tinged with relief. “Spirits, Shepard, you scared Donnelly half to death when he found you in the elevator.”

 

She opened her eyes and slammed them closed immediately with a groan. Must be the med bay—nowhere else on the ship was that torturously bright. She tried again slowly, squinting her eyes. Her headache intensified. Ugh.

 

Shepard blinked as her eyes adjusted, taking a look at her surroundings. She was on one of the med bay cots with Garrus seated beside her. She had an IV of something stuck in one hand, but that appeared to be the only thing out of place. She was fully clothed—thank god—and nothing looked or felt broken. Except her head.

 

“The hell did I do?” she asked hoarsely. “My head feels like the morning after shore leave.”

 

Garrus’s mandibles quirked. “That’s about half the story.”

 

Doctor Chakwas strode over with a glass of something murky. “Drink this,” she ordered, and helped Shepard prop herself up. Shepard took a sip, grimacing at the taste.

 

Chakwas crossed her arms. “You went into battle drunk, Shepard. Somehow you managed to escape unscathed but for some serious dehydration that you neglected to take care of.” She gave her patient a disapproving look. “Combined with your current state of sleep deprivation, it’s no surprise that you passed out in the elevator.”

 

She handed the now-empty glass back to Chakwas. “But there’s nothing seriously wrong?”

 

The doctor’s shoes clicked on the floor as she crossed the room. “What’s seriously wrong is that you’ve been overworking yourself since you woke up in that Cerberus lab,” she lectured. “I’m ordering some time off to allow your body to recover.”

 

“You can’t be serious,” Shepard said flatly as she looked from Garrus to Chakwas, both wearing similarly determined expressions. She let out a huff. “Fine. I’ll take the morning off.”

 

Chakwas laughed dryly. “It’s afternoon, Commander. You’ve slept nearly twelve hours already.”

 

Her eyes widened in surprise. That was by far the longest she’d slept since coming back from the dead. Maybe she should get drunk and fight more often.

 

“So I’m fine,” Shepard argued. “I should be able to go back to work.” She went to pull out her IV, but a three-taloned hand grabbed her wrist to stop her. She shot Garrus a glare. “Traitor.” She ripped her hand out of his grasp.

 

“What you really need is several days of rest,” Chakwas said. “I’ve let the issue slide because we were in the middle of an urgent mission, but I’m going to have to put my foot down. This has been a long time in coming.”

 

Shepard looked at the doctor incredulously. “No. Absolutely not. I can’t waste days.” Chakwas was insane if she believed Shepard would just sit around for days while the ship was being repaired and the reapers were on their way—

 

Chakwas took a step forward, looming over her. “I will sedate you if I have to, Commander,” she said in a manner that Shepard could only call menacing.

 

Shepard scowled. “How long?” Anything was better than sedation. They couldn’t keep watch over her at every moment.

 

“One week of light duty, if you keep regular mealtimes and sleeping hours,” the doctor instructed. “Longer if you keep neglecting your needs.”

 

“A week?” Shepard’s blue eyes widened. “You must be out of your mind, Doc. I can’t. There’s too much to do. And what the hell does light duty even mean?” she asked, exasperated. “If Cerberus attacks the ship again, I’m not just going to sit in my quarters and wait it out.”

 

“Emergencies aside, of course, it’s this or sedation,” Chakwas said firmly. “No missions. No late nights.”

 

“Fuck,” Shepard muttered in frustration. She looked at her two captors, feeling petulant. “If the galaxy goes to hell during my week I’m off, it’s your fault.”

 

Chakwas gave a humph that Shepard took as satisfaction. “I want you on that IV drip for a couple more hours. After that, I will release you to your quarters. Understood?” She waited for Shepard’s nod—accompanied by a roll of the eyes—and looked to Garrus. “Keep her here,” she ordered and turned on her heel to leave the med bay.

 

After a minute or two of silence, Shepard looked over at the turian beside her. “So…” she began, “How long have you been sitting there?”

 

Garrus’s mandibles twitched slightly in embarrassment. “Pretty much since I heard what happened,” he admitted. “EDI alerted me while I was cataloguing the damage to the CIC. So I rushed in here and…” He shrugged. “I’ve been back and forth since last night. You were completely out until a few minutes ago.” Garrus smiled. “You snore sometimes. It’s cute.”

 

Shepard raised a brow. “Cute?” she repeated deliberately. The last person that called Commander Shepard cute had gotten punched. But it didn’t matter anyways because he was definitely full of shit. “I don’t snore, Vakarian.”

 

He leaned back, crossing his arms. “Should I ask EDI to roll the footage?”

 

“Insubordination,” she declared. “One day I’m going to kick you off my ship for it.”

 

“No you won’t.”

 

Shepard shrugged, trying to hide her smile. “Lucky for you, you’re almost as good of a sniper as you think you are. Pretty damn useful in the bedroom too.” She rolled her eyes at his smug expression and turned to look out the window.

 

The mess was fairly busy at this time of the day cycle. There were quite a few people milling about and chatting, many of them glancing surreptitiously in the direction of the med bay. She turned back to Garrus. “I’m guessing the secret’s out now, huh?”

 

“Yeah, uh… sorry about that,” Garrus said, rubbing the back of his neck. She was sure he’d be blushing if he could. “I was worried and couldn’t stay away.”

 

There was a long pause before Shepard spoke again. “Seeing as I’m incapable of running away,” she said, motioning to her IV line, “this is as good a time as any to say what you were going to the other day.” She tried to smile at him, but the tension between them made the joke fall flat.

 

Garrus typed a command into his omni-tool, closing the shutters over the med bay windows. As he stood to pace, Shepard felt a cold feeling wash through her. Surely the IV line was feeding ice into her veins.

 

“Shepard, I, uh…” His hands fidgeted nervously. “I don’t think I can stick to just easing tension with you.” He avoided her eyes as he rushed to continue. “So if you’d rather end it, that’s fine, I won’t force you into anything.” The turian looked flustered as the words tumbled out, running his talons anxiously over his fringe. “I mean, I couldn’t force you anyways, but I just wanted to—”

 

“Garrus.” Her hand snapped out and grabbed his arm as he paced past her bed. “Look at me.” He met her gaze nervously, afraid and yearning. Her stomach fluttered, her heart raced, but she kept her voice slow and steady. “Garrus, are you trying to tell me that you want this to be more than just physical?”

 

The moment they gazed at each other in silence seemed to be the longest of Shepard’s life. Those blue eyes, so inscrutable to her once, now seemed to overflow with emotions. His voice, when he spoke, was deep and hushed. “Yes.”

 

Her face broke into a radiant smile. “Oh, thank god,” she breathed. Her smile softened as she confessed, “I have no idea what I would have done if you said no.”

 

His mandibles spread into a smile of his own as he moved to sit in the chair beside her bed. Shepard stopped him, quickly scooting over on her narrow hospital cot and shooting him a pleading look. Wordlessly he climbed on and wrapped his arms around her, tipping her back until she rested her head on his shoulder. Though Garrus didn’t make the softest pillow, Shepard sighed in contentment. No matter how inconvenient their relationship, no matter how complicated, she knew there was nowhere she’d rather be. She lay against him in contented silence until she felt him shift behind her. The two of them almost had a sixth sense about each other, and that little shift was enough to tell her that he had something more to say.

 

“I’m sorry, Shepard,” he said, and her head tipped up to look at him.

 

“For what?” she asked, taken off-guard by his words.

 

His words tumbled out in a rush. “I should have noticed something was wrong after the Cerberus attack. I should have realized before then that you needed hydration and rest. A turian should always be in tune with their mate’s needs and I…” He trailed off at the odd expression on Shepard’s face.

 

“Mate?” she repeated with a growing smirk. “We didn’t do anything last night that I don’t remember, did we? Because that would have rendered our little conversation just now completely unnecessary.” She grinned at him disarmingly.

 

Garrus let out an uncomfortable laugh. “Not that I’m aware of. I, uh…” He paused, obviously flustered. “I don’t think it translates properly. It’s an old term, not official like a spouse or bondmate. I mean, there’s a different word for couples who aren’t dating seriously, but I think we just established that I am serious about you and…” He floundered, and Shepard couldn’t help but smile. She really ought to help him out here, but his awkward stammering was adorable.

 

She finally took pity on him, laughter lingering in her eyes. “It’s fine,” she said, squeezing his hand. “You were busy doing what I asked you to do. I’d have been more upset with you if you’d ignored your duties in favor of worrying after me. Besides, neither of us were at our most observant last night. Need I remind you that I wasn’t the only one who’d been drinking?” She smiled, and patted his hand where it rested around her waist. “And I think we just established that I’m pretty damn serious about you too.”

 

Garrus’s mandibles flared into a smile, and a low, happy hum vibrated in the air. Shepard’s heart fluttered at the sound.

 

She hadn’t had much patience in her life so far for men who attempted to ‘protect’ her. She’d bitten off Kaidan’s head more than once for the offense. She preferred things the other way around—after all, it was the people she loved who always ended up getting hurt, not her. So why did his concerns fill her with a warm, happy feeling? Was it Garrus who was different, or was it her?

 

She liked to think it was him. She knew that he believed in her strength and abilities. He trusted her skills and judgment both on the battlefield and off. He worried because he cared, not because of some macho need to protect the little woman, like she’d seen too many times before. But perhaps it was she who had changed.

 

It had been only two years since she proved that she was not as invincible as she had believed, and it was he and the others who were forced to live on.

 

She knew, too well, what a burden that was to bear.

 

Shepard deliberately pushed such melancholy thoughts aside. She looked at Garrus. “Hey, big guy,” she said, getting his attention. “A hundred credits to look the other way while I escape.” She tried to look pitiable. It was harder than she expected.

 

Garrus gave her the turian equivalent of a snort. “I’m not going to cross the woman who passes out the pain meds, Shepard.”

 

She shot him a look. “I’m starting to wonder who’s really in charge of this vessel.”

 

“Probably the one person who can actually give the captain orders.”

 

“You’re such a smug pain in the ass.”

 

Garrus smirked. “Yeah, but you love that.”

 

And damn it if he wasn’t right. She absolutely did.

 

Chapter Text

“Shepard!”

 

The commander had barely stepped out of the airlock when she was accosted by a blue blur. “I’m so glad you’re alright,” Liara sighed into Shepard’s shoulder, arms in a vise grip around her friend.

 

Shepard couldn’t help but laugh as she reciprocated the hug. “It’s good to see you too.”

 

Her friend stiffened and stepped back, blue eyes going wide. “Goddess, Shepard, I didn’t mean to assault you! I’ve simply been so worried about you after all the things I’ve been hearing.” She motioned for Shepard to walk with her. “The crew abductions, your trip through the relay, and the attack by Cerberus all in such quick succession,” she explained. “Even after your message, I was worried.”

 

“We all made it out fine, Liara,” Shepard reassured. She followed Liara down a few unfamiliar hallways into a room she’d never seen before. It was a beautiful lounge—spacious seating area, luxurious bar, shelves of real paper books—but it was utterly deserted, like the rest of Liara’s ship. The Shadow Broker’s life was a lonely one.

 

The asari directed Shepard to a couch before heading behind the bar. “It’s just difficult watching you put yourself in danger and be unable to help,” she said with a sigh.

 

Shepard leaned against the cushions and watched her old friend as she bustled around behind the bar. Liara had changed so much in the last few years. At first Shepard had been afraid that her friend had become completely consumed by rage and the need for revenge, but rescuing Feron seemed to have calmed that anger. Only afterwards did Shepard realize that not all the changes she found in Liara were bad. The skittish and nervous archeologist was gone, replaced with someone far more confident and reliable—a friend, not a scared girl in need of guidance. Shepard smiled as the asari brought the drinks over and sat down across from her. She hoped that with this older, more confident Liara, their friendship could be more than it used to be.

 

Liara crossed one leg over the other and took a sip from her martini glass. “So, I hear you want to talk business.”

 

Shepard gave her a small smile, reaching to the coffee table to pick up her own drink. “I told my crew this was a social call. Chakwas put me on light duty this week,” she confessed with a shrug.

 

Liara’s lips pulled into a knowing smile. “Do you think they believed you?”

 

“Of course not,” she said, now grinning. “Which means we just have to talk quickly before someone comes to drag me back to my cabin.” She took a large sip of her drink, fully intending to finish it before she got caught.

 

“Speaking of being dragged back to your cabin…” The asari leaned forward, her blue eyes sparkling devilishly. “You and Garrus?” She laughed as Shepard groaned and dropped her head into her hand.

 

“Look,” Shepard began, glancing back up at her friend. “If you don’t ask me about Garrus, I won’t ask you about Feron.”

 

Liara let out a nervous laugh, blushing a faint purple. “Deal.”

 

 

After she’d been caught working one too many times, Shepard’s team took dire measures. They didn’t confine her to her room, but Tali did disable her omni-tool and private terminal outside of the doctor’s ‘approved working hours’. Shepard didn’t bother trying to fix them—everyone on the crew knew she didn’t have an ounce of technical skill in her.

 

Her team took it upon themselves to babysit her nearly round-the-clock. It was usually Garrus or Tali, but no matter who was off-duty, someone would try to keep an eye on her. She, of course, would then try and find ways to escape their notice. It was one of the things that kept her entertained. Unfortunately, they’d managed to get EDI to help as well, and there was no escaping the AI.

 

There were, admittedly, a few upsides to all the time off. She’d won an absurd amount of credits from poker and Skyllian five, she’d tripled her score in Alliance Corsair, and she had more alone time with Garrus during that one week than they’d had since he boarded the Normandy from Omega. She learned that crewman Hadley had grown up on a colony farm like she had, that Goldstein and Hawthorne played vicious games of chess in their downtime, and that Tali, Ken, and Gabby told each other ghost stories when they worked late into the night cycle. Hell, she hadn’t even known that quarians had ghost stories.

 

She cooked a midnight breakfast for herself and Jack and allowed Kelly paint her fingernails a respectable blue. She taught Garrus how to kiss, told EDI some new jokes, and let Mordin attempt to explain his latest experiments. But as fun as it all was, Shepard was still relieved when Chakwas cleared her at the end of the week.

 

The repair efforts had continued during her time off. Liara made sure they had what supplies they needed, Tali kept charge of getting everything done, and Miranda ran the ship with her usual ruthless efficiency. Shepard and Liara met a few times to discuss the future and agree upon a plan. Garrus and Tali were brought in, being Shepard’s most trusted crew, and they eventually decided that Miranda needed to be included as well. The five of them held a long meeting in the Shadow Broker base, coming to a final decision about what their next step would be.

 

With Liara committing the Broker’s resources to the cause, Shepard would go talk to the Citadel council. Either they would play ball or they wouldn’t—in which case, she’d go over their heads to appeal to each government directly. The Normandy’s crew would work their way through the galaxy, making alliances and laying groundwork for the inevitable invasion. It would never be quite that simple, of course, but as Garrus had once said, “An imminent and painful death has a way of motivating people.”

 

Shepard wasn’t sure she wanted to know how he learned that, but she hoped it would be enough.

 

Her thoughts roamed over all these matters as she moved through the CIC towards the cockpit. It felt strange to set this plan in motion, to walk through a ship knowing that she was the highest authority. Liara was her sponsor but not her boss, and what Shepard did with the resources and intel she was given would always be her own choice. Even as she went to see the council, she knew she was no longer under their thumb. They could choose to work with her or choose not to, but they couldn’t control her.

 

Though it was a liberating feeling, it was also an uncomfortable one. She’d always had a chain of command to appeal to. There was no chain now, just her—and that was a heavy weight to bear. A part of her still wanted to go back to the Alliance, to the familiar and comfortable. But she had to do what was necessary, and that meant she wouldn’t be returning to the Alliance—at least until the war was over.

 

More like never, she thought to herself. After this I’m definitely retiring.

 

“Uh, Commander?” came a voice. Shepard snapped out of it, turning to her pilot. She’d reached the cockpit without even realizing it.

 

Joker eyed her with an uncomfortable expression. “You going to stand there all day and watch, boss?”

 

“Sorry, Joker,” she said absent-mindedly, running her fingers through her hair. “Are we on course for the Citadel?” she asked him.

 

“Nine hours to the relay, Commander,” he answered.

 

She nodded at him and then looked to the blue orb next to him, a constant in the SR-2’s cockpit. “EDI?” she called. “Have the entire crew gather in the CIC at shift change.”

 

“Yes, Commander,” the AI answered, calm and collected as always.

 

 

Shepard climbed the steps up to the galaxy map platform and looked over the sea of faces before her. She could have simply used the comm, but she preferred to speak to them face-to-face. They were her crew. Cerberus or not, it had been a punch in the gut when the Collectors had taken them. Each of them mattered to her.

 

“I’m sure you’re all wondering why you’re here,” she began. “As I previously mentioned, this is no longer a Cerberus ship. It is not an Alliance ship, or even a council ship.”

 

She paused, taking a deep breath. “The mission we embark upon is dangerous, more so than anything you’ve ever done. We face the imminent destruction of everything we have ever known,” she told them, and saw the fear etched into their expressions. “If you want to return home to your families or to fight this war on another front, I understand. When we reach the Citadel you will have another opportunity to leave if you wish. You should consider this carefully.”

 

Shepard put her hands behind her back, pacing the small platform she stood upon. “Everyone on this ship must be fully committed to facing the reapers. It won’t be easy,” she told them. “This ship must be a bridge between species. We must be unafraid to lead or to do the things that need to be done,” she said firmly. “But with you behind me, I know we can kick the reapers from this galaxy and into the next.” A few cheers of agreement rose up from the crowd, and Shepard couldn’t hold back a small smile.

 

“That said,” she continued, “There are going to be a few changes around here.” The crew looked uncertain, as she expected they might. “Miranda Lawson will continue to serve as the Normandy’s executive officer. Crew matters and operations issues should be directed to her.” She nodded towards the ex-Cerberus operative standing calmly by her private terminal.

 

After a long talk with Miranda, she’d decided to allow her to remain the Normandy’s XO. Frankly, she was lucky Miranda even wanted to continue. Executive Officer was a shit job—Shepard knew it firsthand. But Miranda thrived in the small details it required while Shepard would have chafed under them. It was also a comfort to the crew, Shepard knew, to have some things remain the same. Miranda may not always be well-liked, but she was respected. This would go a long way towards keeping the ship running smoothly.

 

Next, Shepard’s eyes found Garrus, who was leaning on the railing with no idea what she was about to ask of him. “I’m appointing Garrus Vakarian as my deputy commander in the field,” she announced. Garrus gave a start, his eyes flying to meet hers. His surprise was hardly unexpected—in the years she’d known him, she’d never been able to give official appointments to her non-human crew.

 

It was unconventional, she knew, but while Miranda was exceptional at the work of an XO, Garrus was the one she trusted with the mission. If anything happened to her, she wanted him leading their team. She gave him the slightest hint of a smile before looking back out into the crowd. “That means that off-ship, he is second in command. If either Garrus or Miranda gives an order, I expect it to be followed without question.” Her eyes moved over the crowd, ensuring the crew’s understanding.

 

“Lastly,” she added, “The position of chief engineer will be going to Tali’Zorah vas Normandy. Everything pertaining to engineering or the running of the Normandy goes through her. Any other promotions and staffing changes will be announced as they come.” Tali seemed a bit surprised at the appointment, but Engineers Daniels and Donnelly didn’t. Everyone who had worked in engineering was well aware of Tali’s skills.

 

“There will also be a few changes to standard operating procedures,” she told them. “Hand-to-hand and pistol proficiency will be a requirement for all crew members. Non-combat crew is required to attend weekly hand-to-hand drills and sidearm handling classes in the cargo bay, taught by Deputy Commander Vakarian and myself respectively.” The crew looked apprehensive at that—some of them had never used a weapon. But after being boarded by both the Collectors and Cerberus, Shepard was adamant that the crew be able to defend themselves.

 

“And lastly, in light of the stressful nature of our mission, I will be completely lifting the restrictions on fraternization.” Looking around the room, Shepard had to admit that some of the crew looked a little too excited about this particular change. In truth, they’d all been breaking that rule already, so all that remained was to make it official. “What you do in your off-duty hours is your own decision,” she told them. “But if it interferes with your work—or with anyone else’s—you’re off the ship at the next port.”  That was, admittedly, a little harsh, but she didn’t have time for warnings and second chances when they were trying to save the galaxy.

 

From a look around at the surprised, excited, and whispering crew, it was obvious she’d made the right decision in saving that announcement for last. She spoke up one more time. “If you’ve got questions, come see me or XO Lawson. Dismissed.”

 

She watched the crew filter back to their workstations, many of them stopping to chat on the way. When the CIC had begun to clear out, Garrus approached her. “Shepard—” he began, but she waved him off.

 

“Upstairs,” she told him, and went for the elevator. Once in her cabin, Shepard sat back on the couch and crossed one leg over the other, watching Garrus pace the room nervously. After a few minutes of his ridiculous wandering, Shepard finally snapped. “Sit down, Garrus, you’re making me dizzy.”

 

He lowered himself stiffly, fidgeting all the while. After a moment, he finally asked, “Why?”

 

“Because you’re a good leader and I trust you,” was the short answer. It was immediately obvious that the short answer wasn’t satisfactory to the nervous turian in front of her. She sighed. “Because if something happens to me, you’ll get the job done. You proved your leadership capabilities at the Collector base. You’re smart and loyal, and you understand the stakes. The crew knows and trusts you,” she told him. “And so do I.”

 

Garrus fiddled with his visor absently. “But aren’t you worried they’ll think it’s…”

 

“Favoritism?” Shepard supplied. She shook her head. “Everyone on this ship knows your abilities either firsthand or by reputation. They’ve seen how hard you work and how devoted you are to the mission.”

 

Garrus didn’t seem comforted by this, so Shepard moved closer and put a hand on his shoulder. She held his gaze firmly. “You’re absolutely capable of this, Garrus. I have no doubt about it.”

 

He seemed to waver slightly at her pressing stare, and finally gave her a nod. “I won’t let you down, Shepard.”

 

She smiled, reaching over to squeeze his hand. “Never thought you would.”

 

 

Shepard writhed upon the bed in the captain’s quarters, chest heaving at the effort of holding in her moan. Long fingers curled and thrust within her in a practiced, steady motion, just enough to keep her on the edge.

 

Her blood pounded through her veins and pulsed in her clit, driving her wild with desire. She needed more. “Faster, Garrus,” she ordered, but his fingers slowed their movements and pulled away. “Damn you,” she hissed, propping herself up on her elbows to glare at him.

 

He ignored her anger. “I want to try something,” he said. He leveled his face with her opening and gazed at her seriously, waiting for her answer to the unspoken question.

 

She blinked in realization of what he intended. “Do turians even do that?” she asked, cursing herself for not already knowing the answer. She should have watched the damn vids. “What about, uh… ingestion?” She blushed slightly.

 

“I admit, it’s a bit of a kink for turians,” he said, voice low. “Are you worried I’ll bite?” Her breath hitched at the rumble of his voice. God, why did that turn her on?

 

His finger brushed softly over her as he waited for her consent. She would be lying if she said she hadn’t dreamed of the touch of his long tongue. It seemed dangerous, and yet— “I trust you, Garrus,” she said, and let herself fall back onto the bed at his mercy.

 

She felt him shift, and her body buzzed with anticipation. His hand stroked up from her opening to trace the sweep of her hip bones, settling both hands there to hold her against the bed.

 

He dipped into her carefully at first, testing the waters, but each stroke was more confident than the last. He tried a few different motions until he found one that made her gasp and buck her hips, and then he pulled back, looking at her and stroking her languidly with his hand.

 

He dipped his head forward and took one long, deep stroke. “You never told me that human women like to be licked,” he rumbled, breathing hot upon her. His fingers returned to probe and tease at her opening.

 

“You never asked,” she said between labored breaths. “You said you did—” She gasped. “—research.”

 

He growled quietly and gave her a few rough licks with his tongue. “It makes me wonder what else you haven’t told me, Jane.”

 

She could feel herself getting wetter from the sweet sound of her name on his tongue. God, he could make her come with just his voice.

 

“Do you want me to pull your hair? Tie you to the headboard? Touch you in public?” With just the tip of his tongue, he flicked her clit. She moaned, squirming under him, and raised her head to look at him.

 

When those intense eyes of his met hers, she couldn’t breathe. He pulled away, fingering her gently. Fuck. She couldn’t take the teasing anymore. “You’ll have to find out the hard way,” she challenged.

 

He raised a browplate. “Oh, I know ways to make you talk.” He delved into her with his tongue.

 

She cried out at the rough and gentle feel of him, his tongue slick with her juices. His lip plates pressed against her outer lips as his tongue stretched within her, hot breath upon her as he reached for that one sweet spot—

 

She cried out as the tip of his tongue tickled her g-spot, hips bucking up against his hands. He tormented her with teasing strokes. She whimpered, completely at his mercy.

 

A pleased hum emanated from him and vibrated against her. She squirmed, burning from the inside out. With a last flick to her g-spot, he brought her to a shuddering orgasm, pleasure rushing over her like the waves of the ocean.

 

When she came to, he was beside her, talons tangling in the strands of her hair. “Show me what you like, Jane,” he said low.

 

“I will,” she promised. “But you’ll have to be patient.”

 

He growled at that, but she simply smiled. Her mind was elsewhere already. “Now let me show you something I know you’ll like.”

 

Garrus let Shepard maneuver him back onto a pile of pillows, his erection rising high and ready from between his plates. She’d teased him before with fingers and tongue, but he had never experienced the alien sensation of her lips wrapped fully around him. Shepard had a mind to fix that, especially after the pleasure he’d just given her.

 

She smiled as she hovered above him him, and dipped down to lap him with her tongue. She took her time, committing to memory his alien shape, the bumps and grooves that made him different from the human men she had loved before. When he was strained and panting, she took him into her mouth.

 

“Spirits,” Garrus rasped, his body stiffening. His fingers grasped at her sides, talons threatening to break the skin.

 

And she hadn’t even begun to suck.

 

When she did, she was rewarded with a strangled gasp and long, vibrating moan. She slipped off of him with a small flick of her tongue, and gave him an impish grin.

 

“I won’t be able to last long like this, Jane,” he warned, his angular chest heaving with each breath.

 

Her response was a long lick from base to tip of his shaft. Her eyes sparkled. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” With that, she bore down on him once more with all of her vigor and intensity. True to his word, Garrus came hard and quickly. He shuddered beneath her as he flooded her mouth, talons scraping her skin raw. Shepard swallowed his seed, marveling at the alien taste and praying she wouldn’t go into anaphylactic shock.

 

As he recovered she dropped down beside him, basking in the satisfaction of getting him off so spectacularly. When he finally looked at her with wide blue eyes, she couldn’t help but laugh. “Got a new appreciation for human lips?” she teased, a smirk growing on her face.

 

“Sprits, yes,” he breathed, glancing down at said lips before returning his gaze to her eyes.

 

He reached for Shepard, and her smile softened. His arms wrapped loosely around her until she found a comfortable position against his plates, then tightened to hold her close. Shepard closed her eyes, feeling happy and warm, simply glad to be with him.

 

After she’d been lulled into a peaceful drowsiness, she felt something shift against her lower back. She cracked open her eyes and glanced behind her, finding his long, blue-tinged member not retreating behind plates but growing again. Her lips quirked upward. “Turian stamina, huh?” she teased.

 

“Don’t tell me I’ve tired out the great Commander Shepard,” he murmured in her ear. She turned in his arms, looking forward to the promise of another round.

 

“Shepard?” came a voice from the comm.

 

The woman in question let out an annoyed huff. “What is it, Joker?”

 

“Fifteen minutes to dock, Commander. Just letting you know.”

 

Garrus let out a frustrated growl as his girlfriend rolled out of bed.

 

“Goddamn Citadel,” Shepard muttered, moving towards the shower. “Fucking council.” Before she reached the door, she stopped short and looked back at Garrus. “You know,” she said, a smile playing on her lips, “You’re free to join me in the shower… if you think we can finish up in fifteen minutes, that is.”

 

The turian was out of bed in an instant, taking long strides across the room and up the stairs. He took Shepard into his arms, backing her through the door and all the way into the shower. “Oh, I’ll finish you,” he said low, his face only inches from hers.

 

Shepard’s expression bloomed into a smile, and she reached to turn on the water.

 

 

Garrus was eating dinner in the mess hall, waiting for Shepard to return from the Citadel, when the inevitable finally happened.

 

“So,” Crewman Rolston drawled. “You and the commander, huh?” Across the table, he and several others were fighting shit-eating grins.

 

Garrus looked up from his meal cautiously. “Me and the commander what?” he replied, doing his best to sound innocent. For once, he was glad this crew was all human—another turian would have understood his subvocals far too well to believe the indirect lie.

 

Of course, this crew didn’t need subvocal cues to call him on his bullshit.

 

“You know… doing the nasty?” Rolston wiggled his eyebrows as laughter rang out. “Knocking boots?” he added. “Docking your ship in her port? Firing your cannons? Popping the heat sink? Calibrating her guns?”

 

Garrus knew all was lost when even Rupert had dissolved into laughter from his place behind the galley counter.

 

He shook his head. “I’m not even going to pretend I understand how all of those things are supposed to mean sex.”

 

“I fucking knew it,” Rolston crowed, a victorious smile on his face. “It is true!”

 

When Garrus saw another crewman pass Rolston a credit chit, he decided this was a good time to finish dinner in the main battery. Damn humans.

 

Chapter Text

Everyone steered clear of the cargo bay after Shepard returned from her meeting with the Citadel council.

 

Her rage could be heard from the engineering deck as she pummeled the punching bag. Unbeknownst to her, Miranda had already arranged for a replacement in anticipation of its untimely demise—which was a good thing, as Shepard had no intention of stopping her assault until the voices of the council no longer echoed in her head.

 

This isn’t the first time you’ve asked us to act without sufficient evidence, Shepard.

 

Shepard swung with a grunt. But I’ve been right every fucking time. She gritted her teeth and slammed another fist into the punching bag.

 

You’ve made these assertions before, Commander. Nothing has changed.

 

She wanted to scream. Everything’s changed! We’re out of goddamn time! How many reapers do I have to kill for you to believe me?

 

All of them, she was guessing.

 

I believe you, Shepard, but my hands are tied.

 

Weren’t they always.

 

She pushed herself harder, trying to forget the disappointment in Councilor Anderson’s eyes when she said she wouldn’t be returning.

 

The Alliance could use you, Commander.

 

She gave the bag a roundhouse kick that connected with a satisfying smack. She knew they could use her and she wished she could go, but she was trying to do what was best for the galaxy. She wasn’t where she wanted to be, but she was where she needed to be.

 

Yep… right here in the cargo bay, beating the shit out of a punching bag. Smack.

 

 

A crowd had been gathering at the windows that overlooked the cargo bay.

 

“She’s been going at it for hours,” Donnelly said, sounding awed. “I wouldn’t want to get on her bad side.” A couple of crewmen nodded in agreement.

 

Miranda paced behind them. “Someone’s got to go talk her down. She’s going to harm herself.” Normally, Miranda would consider it her own responsibility to do so, but even she didn’t dare approach Shepard in her current state.

 

“Well I’m not bloody going,” said Zaeed, arms crossed as he leaned against the wall. “She’ll run out of steam eventually.”

 

“I’m with the old man,” said Jack, jerking a thumb at the mercenary. “She’s going to beat the shit out of anyone who goes down there. May as well let her go.”

 

Kasumi materialized by the elevator. “We could get Garrus,” she suggested.

 

Tali shook her helmet vigorously. “He’s on duty right now. She’ll be pissed.”

 

Zaeed chortled. “She’s already pissed.”

 

At that moment, the sound of lumbering footsteps came from the port cargo hold. Everyone turned to see a seven-foot-tall krogan coming towards them. “What’s all the noise?” Grunt asked bluntly.

 

“The commander is just expressing her hatred of exercise equipment,” Kasumi quipped, motioning toward the windows. Crewmen didn’t hesitate to get out of the krogan’s way as he stepped up to see for himself.

 

“Shepard’s meeting with the council didn’t go well,” Tali supplied helpfully.

 

“Does it ever?” scoffed Jack. “Assholes.”

 

Grunt watched for a few silent moments before turning to the elevator. “I’m going down there,” he announced.

 

Miranda put a hand on her hip. “Planning on talking her down?” she asked dryly. At least she didn’t have to worry about Shepard injuring him.

 

“No,” the krogan answered and grinned. “Looking for a fight.”

 

The elevator doors closed behind him, leaving a shocked group of crewmen in his wake. After a moment, Grunt’s form appeared in the cargo bay below, doing what none of them had dared—approaching their angry commander.

 

After a few moments, Zaeed broke the silence. “Fifty credits on the krogan.”

 

 

Grunt laughed out loud as he twisted and flung Commander Shepard off his back. Blood trickled into his eye, but he hardly noticed. Nothing like a little blood rage to get things going.

 

As soon as he’d explained what he’d come for, Shepard had fallen into a fighting stance, her water-colored eyes burning like fire. She was too wound up to bother with pointless questions.

 

He baited her. It was fun. She would fly at him, arms and legs and fists, and he would laugh and throw her off. Then she’d come at him again, without any of her usual skill and finesse. Shepard was practiced at honing her anger into a weapon, but today it overflowed its bounds and left her fighting wild and loose. Most krogan wouldn’t notice or appreciate those kind of things, but Grunt wasn’t most krogan.

 

He hadn’t chosen to follow her simply because she’d helped him with his Rite of Passage. He followed her because she was the best at what she did. On any other day, she would have come in under his radar and hit him before he realized she had lifted a finger. She would have dodged his blows and slipped gracefully from his grasp, flowing around him like a river wearing down a stone. It was something he’d learned about her early on—you had to land a blow on Shepard before you could beat her, and it was really damn hard to land a blow on Shepard.

 

She fought with none of that finesse today. She took every blow as if she didn’t feel it, flinging herself against him like waves breaking on a shoreline. Her anger was no longer a weapon, but a weakness. It was Grunt’s responsibility as krantt to help her overcome it. What better outlet for her rage than a krogan who could regenerate as quickly as she could attack?

 

When she finally tired out, it came on suddenly. Instead of jumping up from the floor like she had a hundred times before, she just stared up at him from where she lay, her blue eyes watching him gratefully as she realized exactly what he’d been doing.

 

Grunt didn’t know much about humans except what had been imprinted in the tank. Mostly how to kill them. But he had this human memorized. She was sweating and bruised, and her reddish hair was stringy and wet around her face—but he hadn’t seriously damaged her. He never would.

 

“Battlemaster,” he said, reaching out a hand.

 

She took it and pulled herself to stand. With a piercing look, she reached up and squeezed his arm affectionately. Her silent thanks came through loud and clear.

 

He watched her as she walked to the elevator and rumbled a pleased sound to himself. Now if he could only get that turian to spar with him, things just might get fun around here. Heh.

 

 

“So what do you have planned now?”

 

Garrus glanced up to her eyes only briefly before he returned to tracing the line of her naked body with a careful talon. Propped up on an arm, she watched the silvery finger traverse the exaggerated curve from waist to hip. She was tempted to seduce him—again—just to avoid the question. “You’re not going to like it,” she warned.

 

Garrus shrugged. “Anything is better than sitting here waiting for the reapers to show up,” he said. Still impatient, even after all this time. An indulgent smile ghosted across her features.

 

“You may not say that when you hear what I have in mind.” Her smile dropped, supplanted by a hesitant look. “When we’re done on the Citadel, I… I’m going to split up the team.”

 

“What?” The turian’s eyes shot up, her tantalizing curves all but forgotten. “Why?” He stared her down, his eyes begging, demanding, that she not say what he feared.

 

Shepard met his gaze as levelly as she could, trying not to rise to his emotional bait. “If the council won’t help, we need to go over their heads to the governments directly, or anywhere else that allies can be found. It would be inefficient and take far too long to do it one by one, Garrus,” she said preemptively, putting her hand over his on the bedspread. She didn’t want to send him away either, damn it, but he was just making this harder.

 

Garrus averted his gaze. “I’m not going, Shepard.” No justifications, no arguments, just refusal.

 

She huffed in frustration. “I will tie you up and roll you out the airlock over Palaven if I have to, Vakarian.”

 

His eyes darted back to hers, a small strangled sound escaping him. “But, Shepard—”

 

“But nothing, Garrus,” she cut him off firmly. “We have to do this.”

 

He gave her a turian frown. “I don’t have any pull in the Hierarchy, Shepard. Certainly not after leaving C-Sec and disappearing for two years. There’s no point in me going. My place is here, with you,” he said fiercely.

 

Her heart ached at those words. She knew how he felt about leaving her, what he feared would happen if he did. But they couldn’t let their feelings get in the way of what they had to do. They didn’t have that luxury. They never did.

 

She held in a sigh and soldiered on. “I seem to recall you mentioning that your father had some contacts high up,” she reminded him. “And even if nothing comes of it, you ought to go to see your mom.”

 

When Garrus’s mandibles flared at her comment, she winced and waited for the reprisal. But there was none, not in the form she’d expected. Garrus didn’t ask where she heard about his mother. He didn’t raise his voice or even speak at all. He just stared at Shepard and waited for the guilt to get to her.

 

It worked, damn him.

 

Her eyes fell to her hand where it rested over his, feeling his gaze burn into her but not daring to look. “Liara has very little understanding of boundaries,” she explained wryly. “And she thought she was being helpful, sharing what she found with me.” She glanced up at him then. “I had a talk with her about it afterwards, but what’s done is done.” She bit her lip anxiously.

 

This time it was his eyes that slid away from hers. “How much do you know?” he asked, sounding distant.

 

Shepard shifted uncomfortably. “I know she’s sick, and that you pulled some strings to get her into an experimental treatment program.” She didn’t detail to him the chat logs and messages, all the things she had intruded upon. This was bad enough.

 

He nodded slightly. “She leaves in a few weeks.”

 

She watched him with soft eyes. “Don’t you want to be there to see her off?” she asked gently, squeezing his hand.

 

He was silent for a long moment, gazing off into the distance. His eyes fell to their hands clasped together before he raised them to meet her own. “Yeah,”  he finally agreed. “I guess I do.”

 

 

Miranda and Tali were ganging up on her.

 

Miranda and Tali. Together.

 

Had she finally lost it? Was she dreaming? Because this was one thing she never saw coming.

 

The two of them blocked the exit from the XO’s office with their arms crossed in identical stances of resolve. “Twenty-four hours, Commander,” Miranda said dryly, gazing at Shepard with detached amusement. “It’s not a death sentence.”

 

Shepard scowled at her XO and crossed her arms right back. “It’s not fair to the crew,” she argued. “I can’t go on shore leave while everyone else is working.” She ran her fingers habitually over the part of her sleeve that had formerly carried the Cerberus logo. She could still feel the raised outline where the patch had been sewn on. She wished she couldn’t. Shepard let out a frustrated sigh.

 

Tali’s attitude was as immovable as her stance. “Chakwas is still unsatisfied, Shepard, and the crew doesn’t grudge you some extra shore leave,” she insisted. When had the young quarian become so bold? “Everyone knows how hard you’ve been working.” Tali stepped forward to place a hand on Shepard’s arm, but Shepard stepped back with a glower. This sympathetic crap was so not going to work.

 

“And Garrus?” Shepard pressed. “It’s okay for him to just skip out on the last day of repairs?” Another failed angle. She wasn’t just going to take her boyfriend out on a field trip while others were working.

 

“I already told you, Shepard,” Tali huffed. “We don’t need him right now. He always does extra hours on that damn gun anyway.” She placed her hands on her hips, obviously frustrated.

 

Beside her, Miranda’s lips quirked into a small smile. “He’s not getting off easy, Shepard,” she told her. “No one envies him the assignment of keeping you away from the ship for twenty-four hours.”

 

Shepard shot her XO a dirty glare for that one, no matter how true the words were. No matter that she was absolutely proving Miranda right at this exact moment. No matter that it would be all but impossible for Garrus to keep her off the Normandy.

 

Unbidden images started to rise up in her mind. Extreme measures might be necessary…

 

A pair of old C-Sec cuffs held her fast to the bedposts as he stalked around the hotel room, angry at her for running off to the ship again. He’d stripped down to the plates, all silver spikes and angles. His fluid movements seemed even more so without the armor weighing him down and hiding the predator’s body that lay beneath. He gazed at her with a dark look in his eye, climbed onto the bed above her, and whispered in her ear something about punishment for bad behavior.

 

If Garrus had been in the room, his visor would be alerting him to the fact that her heart rate had just spiked and breathing had become slightly labored. Luckily, Miranda and Tali were blissfully unaware of her brief drift into fantasy.

 

“Just go, Shepard,” Tali insisted, taking her extended silence as a stalwart no. She dragged her towards the door to Miranda’s office, pushed her out, and thrust an overnight bag into the commander’s hands. “I’ll radio you if we need anything at all.”

 

“You two are the worst officers ever,” Shepard protested, trying to hide her sudden change of heart.

 

From the other side of the door, Miranda smirked. “When your shore leave is over, feel free to strip us of our positions.” And the door slid shut, effectively ending the conversation there.

 

Mutiny, she decided on her way to the airlock. That’s what this was. She really shouldn’t take mutiny laying down, but…

 

She struggled against the cuffs, her arousal heightened by the sound of his warning growl. He ran a tongue along her collarbone, and she shuddered.

 

Hell, she might take this whole shore leave lying down.

 

Chapter Text

Shepard stepped out into Zakera Ward, pausing to look around as Garrus came up beside her. “So,” she asked, “What’s on the agenda today?”

 

“I was thinking fighting, food, a hotel room, and maybe a vid?”

 

Shepard grinned. “You know me so well.”

 

He shrugged, gazing at her with indulgent eyes. “That I do. Which is why I thought you’d might want to go for the combat sim first.”

 

“Sounds like you’ve got it all planned out,” she replied, and flourished a hand out in front of her. “Lead on, big guy.”

 

A short walk and a cab ride later, they found themselves staring intently at the simulator console, selecting the details of their match. A small wrinkle formed between Shepard’s brows as she contemplated their options.

 

“I was thinking we could do one round as a team, you know, to get our bearings,” Garrus suggested. “After that we can try a versus match and see who the real soldier is here.” He smirked at her, mandibles flaring outward. “I’ll even let you choose the setting, Commander.”

 

Shepard crossed her arms, leveling a challenging look at the turian. “You know what this means, right? You’re going down, Vakarian.”

 

“Oh, I’m looking forward to watching you try.”

 

The person behind them in line coughed pointedly, and they turned back to the console to finish up. Shepard selected random for both locations and enemies, shooting Garrus a look as she did. There. He can’t call that unfair, now can he?

 

They went to the next room where they were outfitted with specialized weapons and armor for the simulator. The suits locked down with simulated injuries when they took enough damage from the provided weapons, immobilizing a limb or even the whole suit in the case of ‘death’. Mock applications of medi-gel were provided, but Shepard and Garrus both turned them down.

 

They didn’t want to make this easy. What would be the fun in that?

 

Stepping into the arena, Shepard found herself surrounded by a tropical paradise. Her eyes flicked to the outcropping of rocks, the sparsely scattered trees, and the cascading waterfall, becoming briefly curious whether she’d feel anything if she stepped beneath the holographic water. Beside her she saw Garrus evaluating the battlefield as well, noting the locations of cover and possible entry points for their enemies. 

 

He caught her eye and nodded towards a snipers nest he’d noticed on the higher ground that ringed the arena. She acknowledged him and picked her own piece of cover, though she’d more than likely abandon it soon after the fighting began. As he settled in his perch, Garrus shot her a grin. She couldn’t help returning it, her blood already singing with anticipation. After a few long, excruciating moments, the first enemy rounded the corner of a holographic cliff face.

 

They worked as a team the way they always had, forming a rhythm like the beat of music only they could hear. When a juggernaut approached from her nine, Shepard already knew that Garrus would overload in time for her crushing biotic field. If she lifted a pair of geth troops, she took the one on the right, knowing that a sniper’s bullet would drop the left. She danced among the geth, laughing out loud as she punched the light out on a destroyer, the blue glow dissipating from her hand as the geth staggered back and was blown away by a single bullet.

 

After all the time they’d fought together, she didn’t need to glance up for reassurance. She knew that if she called a target, he’d drop it, just as he knew that if he shouted a warning, she’d follow without hesitation. They were partners in destruction, a single forged blade of attack that their enemies feared and fellows envied. They complimented each other as if they were created to fight together. Sometimes Shepard wondered if they had been, or if their time working together had made them so.

 

When the timer ran out, Shepard panted in exertion, grinning widely at the fact that neither of them had taken a single “fatal” hit during their match. But the next match would be so much more interesting. Never before had they been on opposite sides. They’d competed, of course, but only side-by-side or for fun in the sparring ring. Not once had they gone up against each other the way they would now.

 

Shepard considered her tactics. If she was to win, she’d have to lure Garrus into the open for a straight-up fight—that, or find his hiding spot without him finding her first. If he caught sight of her, he could get a shot off before she even knew where to direct her attacks. He’d start the battle at an advantage, she knew, but as soon as she found his position, all bets would be off.

 

In the room adjacent to the arena, employees checked them over, making sure their suits and weapons were in good order before they sent them back out to fight. Shepard glanced aside at Garrus as he put on a helmet to protect against her biotic attacks. For a moment, she considered the idea of letting him win.

 

Despite his confident swagger and cocky comments, she knew his self-confidence was still shaken from the betrayal and death of his team on Omega. Though he’d gone a long way towards healing, she still saw those moments of doubt in his eyes, mistrusting his own judgment, skill, and particularly his talents as a leader. It amazed her sometimes that someone as smart and skilled as Garrus could think so little of himself. Perhaps a win against her would remind him just how much he had to offer. But as she watched him take a rifle from the arena staff and raise it to his eye, she shook herself out of those thoughts. He wouldn’t want a false victory. He deserved better than that from her because he was better than that.

 

Painful as it was to admit, there was a fair chance he’d win this anyway.

 

“You know,” he said, coming up to her with his usual swagger, “If you’re nervous we can always call it off. No one would blame you for being afraid to go up against the great Archangel.”

 

In spite of herself, Shepard grinned. She crossed her arms across her chest, imitating his tone. “Are you sure it isn’t you who wants to call it off? No one would blame you for being afraid to go up against the great Commander Shepard.”

 

Garrus laughed. “We should take a vid and sell it on the extranet. Commander Shepard versus Archangel. We’d make a killing.”

 

Shepard jerked her thumb back towards the lobby. “They do sell vids, actually. ‘Relive your victory with a commemorative vid!’ It’s only a hundred credits, you know.”

 

Garrus shifted his stance, leaning closer for a moment. “We could always sell a copy to Conrad Verner.” He laughed at Shepard’s groan.

 

The light above the door to the arena flicked from red to green, displaying the five minute countdown until the match officially began. “You can go in first, find your precious sniper’s perch,” Shepard teased. “I’ll follow in a minute.”

 

“Don’t worry,” Garrus said as he passed her. “I won’t watch where you hide when you come in. Wouldn’t want to have any unfair advantage.” The door slid open as he stepped up to it, revealing a snow-blanketed military base. “Really, Commander?” he drawled. “You know how turians hate the cold.”

 

“Lucky for you, it’s all holographic,” she said dryly. “Now get your ass out there before we run out of clock.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” He saluted, as insubordinately as possible, and retreated through the door.

 

Shepard waited until the timer was down to three minutes before following. Snow fell softly around her, lowering visibility enough to make her smirk about her opponent’s predicament. She raised her palm, watching the clumps of snowflakes disappear as they reached her glove. Too bad it wasn’t real. She would have loved to throw a few snowballs around. She dropped her hand, pushing her thoughts aside to get down to business. What had previously been rocks, trees, and waterfalls were now replaced with the battered metal and crates of an abandoned military base. The courtyard was surrounded by corridors with wide windows and open doorways. Rather than following her usual out-in-the-open methods, she’d have to move from cover to cover as she searched for a way up to the sniper’s nest Garrus had inevitably found or created for himself. Predictable as he was, it was still a good strategy. He knew that stealth wasn’t her strong suit. Had the visibility been better, she would’ve been starting this match on much less even footing.

 

When the countdown ended and the match began, Shepard started to wind her way around the edges of the courtyard, staying behind cover as much as possible. Her heart skipped when she quickly leapt to the far side of an open doorway. She crawled cautiously below the open window, wondering if Garrus was able to see the movement through the snow. His eyes were sharper than hers, she knew, leaving him at an advantage. She bit her lip as she approached another door, knowing that if Garrus had seen her before, he’d be watching this next opening carefully. She still didn’t see a way up to the second level that ringed the arena, but she had little doubt that that’s where he’d be.

 

She crouched next to the doorway, deciding upon a combat roll to reach the far side. Garrus was ambitious—he’d want the headshot. She would have to stay low. She half-hoped he would take a shot at her and reveal his location, but she knew him better than that. If a shot rang out, she’d most likely be hit before she could follow the sound.

 

She swallowed her nerves and threw herself across the opening. Screech. Shepard tumbled down on the far side, and froze.

 

FUCK.

 

Shepard pressed against the wall next to the door, swearing silently. Damn it, she should have been more careful! Her armor had scraped against the ground—hard. If Garrus didn’t know where she was before, he’d have a damn good idea now. She glanced around and swore in silence again. She’d found the stairs to the upper level—not four meters from her, but completely exposed.

 

Shepard considered her options. She crept to the nearest window and peeked, just barely, over the edge. There wasn’t much to work with out there. Through the snow she couldn’t see any other paths up, and wasn’t sure there even were any. He definitely had the advantage over her now. All she could see was the barest outline of the far corridor and the open courtyard littered with crates.

 

Wait…

 

She grinned suddenly, the kind of crazed grin that her team knew far too well. Grunt and Jack loved that expression. Garrus, not so much. She had an idea. A crazy and dangerous idea, but lucky for her, crazy and dangerous was her specialty.

 

Shepard shuffled as close to the staircase as she could without revealing herself, and took a long, slow breath. She gathered dark energy around her and stretched out a hand.

 

All hell broke loose. A mass of crates, haloed in blue, flew across the courtyard. Shepard began running. As the crates slammed against the far wall, she took the stairs two at a time. A shot rang out. Shepard laughed as it hit somewhere behind her.

 

Three seconds to reload—three seconds to find cover. One. She reached the top of the stairs. Two. She scrambled forward, her eyes latching onto a crate a few meters away. Three. She slid into place behind the cover, heart racing and chest heaving as her blood sang with adrenaline. There was no second shot fired. He was waiting.

 

She quieted her breathing as best she could, listening for anything to break the silence. Would he move from his spot now that he’d revealed himself? She heard no sounds of movement, but Garrus was subtle  when he wanted to be. Kasumi had once offered to teach Shepard a bit about infiltration, but she’d turned her down, knowing she didn’t have the temperament. Now, she was wishing she’d taken the thief up on her offer.

 

Shepard crept forward in cover, moving closer and closer to the turian’s hiding place. She reached a doorway.

 

Garrus knew where she was, Shepard had little doubt of that. She didn’t need to be sneaky this time, she just needed to get across the opening without Garrus landing a hit. Her eyes searched for something, anything, to solve her predicament. When her gaze landed on a crate on the far side of the doorway, she smiled.

 

She crouched next to the opening and drew upon her biotic power. She reached out, wrapping the crate in a pulsing blue glow. It slid towards her, once inch at a time. Almost there—

 

The second shot rang out.

 

Shepard’s suit jolted suddenly as a shock ran through her. She fell and landed hard, scrambling to get back against the wall of her hiding place. Her left arm went rigid, clamping up against her stomach. She tried to move it, but the armor had locked down. No medi-gel, she remembered. She was stuck this way for the rest of the fight. And—son of a bitch—it was her left arm. Her biotics arm. With a quiet growl, she shoved her pistol back in the holster and shook out her right arm, wiggling her fingers. Her biotics were more important than her pistol in this fight. A blue glow traveled from her fingertips to the fine bones of her shoulder, but it was weak and unsteady, out of practice. Damn it.

 

Shepard paused to take account of her situation. Fortunately, she had managed to maneuver the crate into place, giving her enough cover to cross the doorway without incident. She crawled awkwardly, one arm locked tight against her, until she reached the other side. If she was right about his location, Garrus wasn’t far from her now. She took a quick peek from the doorway, and thought she might have glimpsed the barrel of a rifle. Once she made it around the corner, he wouldn’t have a good angle on her anymore. If she could lure him to fire one more time, she might be able to rush him and take him down before he could level that rifle at her again.

 

There was one more opening to cross before she reached the corner. She took a deep breath. She could do this.

 

She crawled below a window and stood next to the doorway, her heart racing in anticipation. She ducked her head out.

 

She pulled back just as quickly, right as a shot rang out. As she broke into a run, she grinned. Scoped and dropped. Ha! She skidded around the corner, finally catching sight of her target. He glanced up, tossing away his sniper rifle in favor of an automatic, pre-loaded and ready to fire. A short burst rang out as Shepard dropped behind the nearest crate.

 

“Well, well, Commander,” Garrus drawled. His flanging sent a current of sparks to tickle the base of her spine. “Looks like we’re at a bit of a standstill.”

 

“I still have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Shepard said cockily, though she was still trying to figure out what exactly those tricks would be. She hadn’t actually thought this far in her plan.

 

“Oh?” He gave a low chuckle. The bastard knew exactly what his voice did to her. He was playing dirty now. “I’ve got a few tricks myself.”

 

Shepard huddled lower behind the crate, hoping he wouldn’t see the biotic glow forming around her as she prepared for her attack. “We’ll see about that.”

 

She rose quickly. Garrus fired immediately, but the bursts from his assault rifle were deflected by the powerful barrier Shepard had formed around her. It flickered unsteadily under continuous fire as she raised her arm, glowing brightly with biotic power. Her amp burned in the back of her skull, but she ignored it, focusing her energy on preparing one big push.

 

The sudden intrusion of the buzzer and flashing light startled Shepard and Garrus both.

 

The rifle stopped firing, Shepard’s immobilized arm fell swinging to her side, and the scene around them melted away into the bare bones of the arena. Shepard’s biotic push struck a now-distracted Garrus, throwing him back skidding against the metal floor.

 

Garrus let out a groan as he sat up slowly. “Was that necessary, Shepard?” he asked, unlatching his helmet and shooting her a wry look.

 

Shepard gave a low chuckle as she strode to his side and offered a hand to help him up. “Sorry, big guy. I couldn’t just pull back when I was already in the process, you know?”

 

His mandibles flexed, some cross between exasperation and amusement. “I don’t know, actually, but I’ll take your word for it.”

 

They made their way to the exit slowly, stretching and flexing their sore muscles on the way. They chatted aimlessly as they stripped themselves of weapons and armor and headed back out into the wards, stopping only to make a tongue-in-cheek complaint to the front desk about ending their match before they could declare a winner.

 

Garrus turned to Shepard as they stepped out into the bustling street. “Lunch and a vid?” he suggested.

 

She shrugged. “As long as it’s not the latest Blasto, I’m game.”

 

Garrus suggested a nearby restaurant he’d visited in his C-Sec days, and they walked along in companionable silence. As they approached the restaurant, Shepard elbowed him in the side. “By the way? I totally won.”

 

Garrus laughed out loud. “In your dreams, Shepard,” he teased, but he couldn’t stop the warm smile that spread across his face.

 

Lunch passed in friendly tactical debates and war stories, and they headed to the vids, making sure, at Shepard’s adamant request, not to choose Blasto.

 

 

“This vid is terrible,” Shepard whispered.

 

“You picked it.”

 

“You said you heard it was good!”

 

“I did! Tali said it had great reviews.”

 

Tali said?”

 

A salarian two rows in front of them twisted around in his seat to give them a rather comical salarian glare.

 

Shepard lowered her voice to a whisper. “Garrus, her favorite vid of all time is Fleet and Flotilla. The sing-along version.”

 

“Fleet and Flotilla isn’t bad.”

 

“Christ—”

 

“The battle scenes are critically acclaimed for their accuracy and the lead actors—”

 

“You know you could admit that you just like the romance.”

 

“Don’t you dare, Shepard.” He growled threateningly, but she just smiled.

 

Shepard’s fingers crept up the turian’s arm, curling around his cowl. She leaned in close, her warm breath tickling his neck. “I know a way we could make this vid more interesting.”

 

A shiver ran up his spine. “Do tell,” he rumbled, sliding a gloved hand up her leg. Her breath hitched. Two could play this game.

 

Shepard pushed herself up slightly to look around, using her hand on his cowl as leverage. Garrus followed her gaze. They were near the back of the theater, with no one closer than the salarian two rows ahead.

 

Suddenly, Garrus had a bad feeling about how far Shepard intended to take this game.

 

She dropped down from her seat without another word, kneeling on the sticky theater floor. He stared at her, unable to tear his eyes away, as she nudged his knees apart and placed herself between them. She looked up with a devilish grin and began to unbutton his pants.

 

Spirits. The knowledge of what she was about to do was enough to make his plates loosen. She leaned in slowly, savoring each moment of anticipation.

 

Her warm, wet tongue met the seam of his plates, and he shuddered immediately. She laved up the seam, which was widening quickly at the feel of her. His arousal mounted, only heightened by the fear of discovery. He tamped down on an instinctive rumble of anticipation. She drew back as he emerged, licking her lips like he was the tastiest thing on the menu. She went in for the kill.

 

Spirits save me. She was doing that thing with her mouth. The humans on the ship called it a blow job, but Garrus hadn’t noticed any blowing, just sucking. Glorious sucking. Human lips were the universe’s greatest gift.

 

Her hands slipped up under the hem of his shirt and—oh. He writhed in his seat when she squeezed his waist brazenly. His grip tightened on the armrests, determined to keep his composure. But spirits, when she was doing that…

 

The smallest of growls escaped him, subvocals aching to sing his pleasure. He clamped down on it, feeling like he might burst. His mandibles fluttered wildly.

 

She backed off to tease him with her tongue. She was warm and wet and oh-so-soft and, spirits, everything about her was the best damn thing in the galaxy. Her fingers gently traced the place where his plates ended and exposed hide began. But those fingers became stronger and more insistent, and that tongue led her lips to surround him again. She went deeper, encasing as much of him as she could in her hot, wet mouth. Garrus couldn’t take it much longer.

 

Pleasure flooded his body when his seed did her mouth. His eyes fluttered shut and his lip plates parted, mouthing a silent moan. He shuddered at the force of her swallows as she drank him down. Before he’d even begun to compose himself, she’d wiped her mouth once and climbed back into her chair, feigning interest in the vid that still ran on the screen. Garrus panted, his fingers fumbling to fasten his pants over his retracting member. It took until the end of the vid for his heart to stop racing.

 

When the credits started rolling, Garrus leaned over to his mate. “If Tali asks, what should I say about the vid?”

 

Shepard smiled wickedly. “Tell her to bring Kal’Reegar.”

 

 

Dinner had been casual enough, as had their walk in the Presidium gardens. Shepard had been at ease, happy and laughing like she hadn’t in far too long. But when they reached the hotel Garrus had selected, her brow furrowed.

 

Shepard was sure she was the dingiest thing in that hotel lobby, with its shining marble floors and honest-to-god imported wood paneling. The asari at the desk gave them a condescending smile that only became real once she saw Garrus’s reservation. They rode up to their room in an elevator that Shepard swore was bigger than most captain’s cabins.

 

Shepard gaped when Garrus opened up their suite, greeted with the sight of a panoramic view, king size bed, and every luxury that she could imagine. She stopped just inside the door and turned to her companion.

 

“Garrus, all of this has to be extremely expensive,” she worried. “I know that combat sim wasn’t cheap and this place…” She trailed off, turning again to look at the extravagant room around her. “This place is incredible.”

 

He came close behind her, resting his hands on her shoulders. “The entire crew pitched in, Shepard. As a thank you for saving them on the Collector base, and, well… as a birthday present. The crew really wanted to do something for you, and we knew that you wouldn’t want the attention of a party.”

 

Shepard blinked, floored at the thought. A lump rose up in her throat. Of course she came for them on the Collector base. It had never been a question of whether to save them. They were her crew. And as for the other thing…

 

“How did you even find out it was my birthday?” she asked, bewildered. She rarely celebrated it herself. Hell, she wasn’t even sure how old she was anymore. Did the two years count? When she’d asked Miranda about it, she’d gone into a long technical explanation about how her age no longer had any relevant bearing on her longevity because of her cybernetic upgrades.

 

Garrus’s eyes were smiling. “We’re friends with the Shadow Broker. There’s not much she doesn’t know.” 

 

A thought struck her, and she turned quickly under his hands. “Garrus, I don’t even know when your birthday is,” she said, brows drawn together in sudden concern.

 

He let out a quiet chuckle. “You didn’t miss it, Shepard. Don’t worry. Besides, I don’t think it’s as big of a deal to us as it is to humans.”

 

“When is it?” she asked.

 

His mandibles flared in a grin. “Feel free to ask the Shadow Broker if you want to know.”

 

She punched his arm lightly, shaking her head at his obstinacy. “You win for now,” she conceded. “Lets check out this amazing hotel room.”

 

Garrus trailed behind Shepard as she wandered the suite, chuckling as she stopped to touch and gape at everything she found. She let out a surprisingly girlish squeal at the sight of the hot tub, looking back at Garrus with excitement in her eyes.

 

“You go ahead,” he said, smiling indulgently. “I’ll be right there.”

 

Shepard stripped quickly and slid into the water, moaning at the exquisite heat on her muscles. God, she didn’t know the last time she’d done something as wonderfully decadent as this. Even by her own estimation—which was two years short of everyone else’s—it had to have been years. She closed her eyes and reveled in it, letting the gentle bubbles pamper her into oblivion.

 

“Hey,” she heard from behind her. Shepard raised her head and turned, smiling at the sight.

 

Garrus approached the hot tub with a bottle in one hand and two glasses in the other. “I’ve got wine.”

 

Shepard laughed. “Let me guess—the best you could afford on a vigilante’s salary?”

 

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t remind me of my terrible attempts at romance,” he said dryly. “My pride can only take so much of this.”

 

“You know, I still haven’t figured out whether my waist being ‘very supportive’ was actually a compliment.”

 

Garrus shook his head as he cracked open the bottle. “I didn’t know anything about complimenting a human. I like to think I’ve learned a little since then.”

 

Shepard grinned up at him from her seat. “I thought it was adorable.”

 

He huffed a laugh as he filled their glasses. “Adorable, huh? Just what every badass vigilante hero wants to be called.”

 

“Badass vigilante hero?” she repeated, amused. Her eyes followed Garrus appreciatively as he stripped out of the last of his clothing. “You can be both adorable and a badass vigilante hero.”

 

He lowered himself into the water. “You’re the only person in the galaxy who could ever get away with saying that about Archangel, you know.”

 

She smiled to herself, a warm feeling rising up in her that had nothing to do with the heat of the water. “I know.”

 

Garrus settled in across from her, letting their legs tangle together. His rough hide scraped pleasantly against her skin. “So you humans relax by sitting in hot water. I never understood that,” Garrus mused. “I’ll concede that it’s nice and warm in here, but all this open water is making me nervous.”

 

Shepard snorted. “If you start to drown, I’ll be sure to save you. And we’re not the only species that likes hot tubs,” she reminded him. “Asari use them and, uh… salarians, I think.”

 

“They don’t count. They’re amphibious.”

 

“Details.” She waved her hand dismissively before reaching for the glass Garrus held out to her. She gently clinked it against his. “To us, and being big damn heroes.”

 

Shepard paused as she touched the glass to her lips. “This isn’t going to poison one of us, is it?” Shepard asked. “Because that is definitely not how I wanted this night to end.”

 

“It’s safe,” he promised, taking a sip as if to prove his point. After a moment, he cleared his throat. “Uh, how exactly did you want this night to end?”

 

Her lips curled upwards as she looked across the open floor plan, her eyes settling on the large bed at the far wall. “I think it should end with us shamelessly rolling all over those high-class sheets.” Her eyes sparkled. “A tiebreaker?”

 

Garrus groaned. “Shepard…”

 

She couldn’t help but laugh.

 

They stayed in the hot tub until Shepard’s toes were wrinkled, their wine glasses were drained, and Garrus had found his way to Shepard’s side of the tub. He held her on his lap, lazily tracing the lines of her body with his talons. Every now and then, his hand would find its way to her breast or brush ever so slightly over her core. “You going to make good on any of this teasing, Vakarian?” she finally asked, giving him a challenging look.

 

Garrus lifted her bodily from the water, crooking an arm below her knees to carry her in his arms. “What are you doing?” she asked, but no answer came. In silence he set her down next to the bed and motioned for her to stay put. Water pooled on the hardwood floor. Garrus came back around the corner with towels in his hands, and crouched on the floor before her.

 

She opened her mouth to question, but was stilled by the request in his eyes. She glanced at the towel he held and gave him a slow, consenting nod.

 

With gentle hands, he began to dry her from the ground up. Garrus worked slowly and methodically, giving each part of her equal care and consideration. She couldn’t tear her eyes from the sweetly intent look on his face, the concentration with which he completed a task that she usually did without a second thought.

 

She bit her lip when he parted her thighs and later when he gently lifted each breast, but he continued on his way single-mindedly until he determined his task was complete. Only then did he drop the towel, brushing a fluttering mandible against the skin of her abdomen. He skimmed her hips with the rough pads of his fingers and nuzzled into the softened skin. At long last he stood slowly, moving around behind her with his hands following after.

 

His arousal became apparent as he pressed himself against her, but his motions stayed slow and deliberate. He held her there with a hand splayed across her stomach, and leaned in with his tongue to trace the shell of her ear. It wasn’t long before Shepard found herself dripping wet again, but for an entirely different reason.

 

He lifted her a second time, hands caressing as he laid her on the bed. He gazed down at her fondly, following the lines of her body all the way to her toes and back up to her eyes. Carefully, his hand reached forward to brush a lock of red hair away from her face.

 

Only then did he begin to touch her again, each stroke against her skin just enough to inflame. When she burned for him all over, she closed her eyes and writhed, but he would not be rushed. She opened her eyes and her breath caught, suddenly lost in the depth of two blue eyes that watched her with longing and tenderness and maybe even love. The attentions of men had never left her in doubt of her own attractiveness, but she had never felt so beautiful as she did under the gaze of this turian. A sudden need to kiss him overwhelmed her. She curled her fingers around the edges of his plates, tugging him down to meet her lips. His lip plates didn’t have the flexibility and give of a human lover’s, but she didn’t need that. She needed him. When he finally buried himself within her, his thrusts resonated like the beating of her own heart. She came with a gasp and a shudder, whispering his name like a prayer. Garrus.

 

He was her Achilles’ heel and might even be her downfall, but she’d earned the right to be a little bit selfish. She’d always fought for the galaxy, but maybe now she had something more. This—him—was what she would cling to.

 

This was something worth fighting for.

 

Chapter Text

Shepard knew Garrus far too well to be unaware of his nervous fidgeting and conspicuous attempts to hide a grin.

 

She puzzled over it. He couldn’t have anything else planned for their shore leave—they were on the way back to the Normandy. She guessed it was something back on the ship, but for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out what. They arrived at the docking bay, both anticipating what was to come, though only one of them had any idea what exactly that was.

 

As they rounded the corner, the Normandy came into view, and Shepard sucked in a sudden breath. Sharp angles and Cerberus yellow were gone, replaced with a swooping blue like ocean waves or the soaring arc of a biotic field. The ship’s white panels shone like new, reminding her of that day when she’d seen the first Normandy gleaming in an Arcturus docking bay.

 

Shepard had always loved ships. As a little girl, she would run off to the spaceport every time a new ship docked, just to get the chance to see it. After all these years she still could never quite escape the allure of a gleaming ship, ready to soar off into the unknown.

 

She felt him come up beside her. “It’s the same color as your eyes,” he said softly in her ear.

 

Those eyes snapped to him with a curious expression. Shepard had approved a repaint to remove the Cerberus logos and cover the repairs, but she’d never imagined they would redesign the Normandy so beautifully.

 

“You matched a ship to my eyes,” she said wonderingly. “I think that’s the most romantic thing anyone’s ever done for me, Garrus.” She laughed gently, but she was genuinely touched. She wasn’t one for romantic gestures, for flowers and chocolate and candlelight dinners. She didn’t care about those kind of things. But a ship—that was something she loved.

 

“Come on,” Garrus finally said, tugging gently at her elbow. “There’s more.”

 

Shepard’s brow creased as she followed him to the docking tube. “What do you mean ‘more’?” she asked, but the only answer she received was a grin.

 

Tali and Miranda met her at the airlock, the quarian nearly vibrating with excitement.

 

“Sorry we’re late,” Garrus said by way of greeting. “I had to drag her away from the viewing platform,” he explained.

 

The woman in question crossed her arms, shifting her weight back onto one leg. “So when Garrus said there was more to see, I’m guessing he didn’t just mean the finished repairs.”

 

She swore Tali was grinning inside her helmet. “Come and see,” she said.

 

The Normandy’s executive officer led the way as she headed the elevator and silently pressed the button for the first deck—the captain’s cabin.

 

Shepard lowered a brow. “I swear to god, if you guys moved any of my stuff—”

 

EDI’s simulated voice filled the elevator. “I can assure you, Commander, that all of your possessions have been returned to their original positions, aside from your copy of Fornax.”

 

Shepard blinked incredulously, feeling the turian beside her suddenly go stiff. “My…what?”

 

Tali dissolved into a fit of giggles, and even Miranda was smirking. EDI’s voice was smug when she spoke up again. “That was a joke.”

 

Shepard glared at Miranda and Tali as the elevator door opened, the quarian still laughing uncontrollably. “Oh, Keelah,” she gasped out between giggles. “Your faces!”

 

Shepard didn’t dare look at Garrus, but she crossed her arms and waited for Tali’s fit of laughter to finally die down. “You had something else to show me?” she asked coolly, raising a brow at the quarian who had barely gotten her laughter under control.

 

Miranda, composed as ever, led the way into her quarters, motioning immediately to the right. When Shepard came around the corner, her lips spread into a grin, her annoyance forgotten. The wall beside her desk was gone, replaced by a glass case with enough room to double her model ship collection.

 

She turned to face her friends with a smile. “Forget what I said yesterday about hating you two,” she said, throwing her arms wide. “I love you guys!”

 

 

The light was dim in Shepard’s cabin as she filtered through her most recent batch of messages. Councilor Anderson wanted to meet with her alone, an Alliance rep wanted her to forward something to Jack of all people, and Admiral Hackett wanted her to call him when she had some time available.

 

She yawned and stretched, far more interested in bed than her messages. Her day back on the ship had been a busy one. They’d lost a couple more crewmen during this stop. In total, thirteen people had decided to leave the Normandy, which was pretty good, all things considered. The crew had been through a lot, more than they’d signed up for. She was impressed with anyone who wanted to stay after the ordeals they had endured. She’d promised them no questions asked, but every member of the departing crew had gone out of their way to tell her why they were leaving. Kelly Chambers had been the last.

 

“Who’s going to feed my fish now?” Shepard had asked, trying to bring some levity into the situation despite the surprisingly heavy feeling in her heart.

 

Kelly just smiled, understanding so much more than she let on. “I have faith in you, Commander.”

 

She’d wanted to protest, but all she did was squeeze Kelly’s hand in goodbye.

 

Her door chimed, and Shepard leaned back in her chair. “It’s open,” she called, but the door remained closed. She sighed, spinning her chair to face the doorway. “You can come in,” she added loudly, trying keep the annoyance out of her voice.

 

When nothing happened, she rolled her eyes and stood, going to open the door herself. When the panels separated, she saw no one. Was EDI branching out into pranks now?

 

As she was about to turn away, she saw the box on the floor in front of her. She picked it up curiously, read the label, and smiled.

 

Because faith doesn’t feed fish. –K

 

Still smiling, she brought the box into her quarters and set it on the desk. Shepard peeked inside, laughed out loud, and pulled up her omni-tool.

 

“Tali?” she called, having no doubt the quarian was still up and working.

 

“Yes, Shepard?” came the response. She could hear tools clanking in the background. Dear, predictable Tali.

 

“Need you for something,” she told her.

 

“It’s not another invasion of Kasumi’s bar, is it?” Tali asked skeptically, remembering the last time Shepard called her for an ‘important mission’ this late in the night cycle.

 

Shepard laughed at the memory. “Not this time,” she reassured her. She looked at the box and smiled. “I’ve got a VI that needs installing.”

 

 

Every single member of her crew protested when she brought up her plan.

 

She had the same argument over and over. No, you can’t stay. Yes, you can do it. I believe in you. I’ll be fine, I promise. I’m coming back for you.

 

In the end they’d all come around, some more reluctantly than others. She made the assignments—Garrus to Palaven, Tali to the Migrant Fleet, Mordin to STG. Legion wanted to bring his experiences back to his people. Jacob thought he might have some leads with a few ex-Cerberus friends, and Jack had accepted a surprising offer to teach biotic students at Grissom Academy.

 

Miranda was staying onboard. The ‘I cant leave, you need someone watching your back’ arguments fell apart when Shepard assured her team that the XO would be remaining with her. Though each member of her crew was insistent that they ought to be the one watching their commander’s back, Shepard knew she had made the right choice. Unlike most of the team, Miranda’s defection from Cerberus was personal. Shepard didn’t like the idea of sending Miranda out on her own when the Illusive Man was hunting her. Besides, no one else would have been so much help running the ship and hiring new crew.

 

Only after she’d made this decision did Shepard find out that Kasumi had no intention of leaving either. “No one else takes me to such nice places with so many shiny things,” she’d teased. Shepard had a suspicion that there might be more to it—Kasumi had led a lonely life, and the Normandy had been like a family for all of them. Despite her occupation, Shepard quite liked the thief and would be glad to keep her around. With both Kasumi and Miranda staying, Shepard had a full combat squad—which silenced the last of her team’s protests.

 

Shepard hadn’t quite figured out why Zaeed Massani was still hanging around her cargo hold after the mission was finished and he’d been paid. She wasn’t sure how exactly she’d earned his loyalty, but whatever the reason, he had stuck around. Though he did tell her he was leaving—“for some well-earned goddamn vacation”—he’d made it abundantly clear that he’d be returning soon. “Don’t fuck up my room,” he’d said by way of goodbye.

 

After she dropped her team off where they wanted to go, Shepard intended to make the trek out to Tuchanka in hopes that she could convince Wrex to let her keep Grunt with her on the Normandy. At their parting he’d told her to “bring that boy back alive”, but she had no intention of sending Grunt away if she could avoid it.

 

Once that was settled, she had a few small errands to run and missions to complete. There were a few more minor repairs and tweaks to be made, and she needed to fill in the gaps left in her crew. Foremost in her mind, however, was the favor that Admiral Hackett had asked of her. With the promise of Hackett’s gratitude and evidence for the reapers, it could be exactly what she needed.

 

Everything was falling into place for her plan—but even though this was what she had wanted, Shepard wasn’t happy.

 

Because the plan meant saying goodbye.

 

 

“Writing to your boyfriend?”

 

Tali’Zorah vas Normandy looked up from her omni-tool to see a turian smirking at her from the doorway. She quickly shut down the orange interface and glared at him. “Like you can talk, lover boy. And Kal’Reegar is just a friend.”

 

Garrus grinned as he approached with his usual cocky swagger. “But you did know who I was talking about.”

 

She shoved him playfully, smirking behind her helmet as he stumbled. “Bosh’tet.”

 

He let out a laugh as he regained his composure, but seriousness soon filled his eyes. “You going to be okay going back there after the trial?”

 

Tali huffed in annoyance. “I’ll be fine,” she insisted, planting her hands defiantly on her hips. “Keelah, first Shepard and now you. You don’t need to fuss over me, you know.”

 

“I didn’t know Shepard said anything,” Garrus said defensively. “And I can’t help looking out for you sometimes. I’ve got a younger sister. It’s an old habit.”

 

Tali’s bright eyes widened behind her helmet, completely distracted by his offhanded comment. “You never told me you had a sister! What’s she like?”

 

Garrus grimaced, already backing away. “You win. I won’t fuss.” He moved to leave the room quickly, but paused to call back over his shoulder. “Just tell that boyfriend of yours that he better be good to you because if he doesn’t, Archangel will come after him.”

 

Tali huffed again as the doors shut behind him. “Bosh’tet.”

 

 

A steady stream of people broke around Shepard and Garrus as they both tried in vain not to think too much of the last time they’d stood in a docking bay to say their goodbyes.

 

Their first parting hadn’t carried the weight this one did, nor the emotion. They had just survived the impossible, still riding high from their victory against Saren. The idea that they wouldn’t see each other again had been a laughable one. They knew better this time.

 

“You’ll be back on the Normandy before you know it,” she promised, though disquiet hid behind her placid countenance. Did he know she was afraid? If he did, would he demand to stay?

 

He reached out for her hand, clasping it between both his own. “Don’t do anything stupid without me to watch your six,” he warned. “If you get yourself killed because I’m not there…” His thumb stroked across the back of her fingers.

 

She squeezed his hand. “I’ll be fine, Garrus. I promise.”

 

He shook his head. “I’d ask you to be careful, but we both know that would be an exercise in futility. Just make sure you get out of whatever messes you get yourself into, okay?”

 

She couldn’t hold back a smile. “I’ll do my best.”

 

The loudspeakers crackled to life, calling for his transport to board. “I have to go,” he told her, but made no move to leave.

 

Shepard impulsively stretched up and placed a kiss on his mandible. Maybe she shouldn’t have—they’d agreed on no displays of affection, not somewhere so public. But in that moment, Shepard couldn’t say she cared. “I’ll miss you,” she whispered. “But we’ll be back together before you know it. Shepard and Vakarian, right?”

 

“Shepard and Vakarian,” he said, like a vow. For just a brief moment, Garrus pressed his brow to hers. “Goodbye, Jane,” he whispered in her ear, and turned to head to his transport. Shepard’s eyes followed his receding form until he disappeared from sight.

 

She walked back slowly, not quite wanting to get back on the Normandy without him on it. She felt strangely vulnerable now, without him there to watch her six. But she reminded herself of her own words—it was only a short time before he would be back by her side where he belonged.

 

Chapter Text

Tali’Zorah vas Normandy entered the airlock of the Neema with no small amount of apprehension. The last time she’d been onboard the Migrant Fleet had been her trial. She’d been acquitted of the treason charges, but that wouldn’t be enough to exonerate her for everyone. There would always be the occasional sideways glances and mistrust. Accused was as good as guilty in the eyes of some.

 

She walked through the old familiar hallways, remembering when she’d chosen this ship for her new home. The return of a successful pilgrim was cause for celebration, but she hadn’t had the heart for it then. She’d been delaying going back for months, not wanting to leave Shepard and the Normandy just yet. There was always one more thing to work on—geth attacks in the Traverse, a tweak to the drive core. And then there was nothing.

 

Just a broken ship and a lost crew, driven apart by their own grief.

 

She’d boarded the Neema while still in mourning, but had found a sense of peace in Flotilla life. She found purpose in work, ships that needed her skills more than the Normandy ever could. She found comfort in friends she’d known since childhood. She found pride in being chosen for missions of importance, being entrusted with the command of others. She found her place, her rhythm, until the day Shepard came crashing back into her life, turning everything upside down once more.

 

Her thoughts ended abruptly as she reached her assigned bunk and locker in the singles quarters. The few things she owned were quickly stowed, leaving her to wonder what to do with the rest of her first day back. Only moments after she sat down on her new bed, her omni-tool pinged.

 

Heard you were back and I called up the girls! A sleepover, for old times sake? Don’t make me resort to bribery. I’ve got snacks and Fleet and Flotilla.

 

Ana’Tiva

 

An unbidden smile rose up behind her helmet at the image of the four of them all stuffed into the tiny living room of Ana’s family quarters.

 

It better be the sing-along version, she wrote back.

 

Her friend’s prompt answer—Of course!—made her grin.

 

 

Jack, Jacqueline Nought, as her official papers now stated, tugged at the standard-issue uniform with a scowl. She should have fucking turned this down when she had the chance.

 

What the fuck was she thinking, agreeing to teach kids? She didn’t know shit about kids. Her own childhood was a fucking mess. She was going to screw them up for life, she just knew it. This was going to be a total disaster.

 

When she told the director of Grissom Academy as much, the blond woman just smiled. “You’ll have to cut back on the swearing,” she told her. “Otherwise, I think we’re going to be just fine.” And the woman walked away without another word, expecting Jack to follow.

 

She was going to kill Shepard for talking her into this. Fucking destroy her. And that spiky boyfriend of hers too.

 

 

Mordin Solus showed up on STG’s doorstep and was immediately offered a job.

 

Odd, he thought. Have to investigate.

 

When he asked for an audience with the dalatrasses, they said yes with no hesitation and no questions—except to insist he take on the STG project.

 

Mordin wasn’t put off by the lack of illuminating details or forthright information. That was STG’s way. No, he was only intrigued.

 

“Have to be done in two Earth months,” he’d told them. “Commander Shepard is waiting.”

 

His relentless curiosity made him agree even though their answer had only been, “Maybe.”

 

 

Zaeed smiled to himself, lounging at the hotel pool in full armor.

 

People gave him odd looks. Hah. Like he was there to swim.

 

No, Zaeed Massani was just enjoying the show. He tossed his credit chit at a blue beauty in a waitress uniform. “Another one of those purple fizzy things, love,” he told her, admiring the sway of her ass as she walked away.

 

Goddamn incredible way to spend his Cerberus pay if he didn’t say so himself.

 

 

Miranda Lawson smiled, a smile that lit up her face and softened her usually cold expression into something nearly unrecognizable. “Oriana,” she greeted warmly.

 

“Sis! You should have called sooner! How did your mission go? What are you doing now?” The younger woman’s face lit up with a similar smile, not so out of place on her more open countenance.

 

Miranda shook her head impatiently. “The mission went fine, Ori. Don’t worry about that. I don’t want you involved in my work.”

 

Oriana gave her an exasperated look. “Randa…”

 

“You know I hate it when you call me that,” she reprimanded. Miranda attempted to shoot her a glare, but it was hard to be angry at her sister. The girl just grinned.

 

Miranda reflexively smiled in return. “How is school going? Last I saw, your marks were high. I guess you got over that boy in history. Danner, right?”

 

“You know its creepy when you spy on me like this, right?”

 

Miranda’s smile softened. “I just like to look out for you, Ori,” she said. “Now, you were telling me about school?”

 

Oriana rolled her eyes. “Yes, fine,” she gave in. “I’m definitely over Danner. But I met this guy at a club—”

 

“You go out to nightclubs?” Miranda interrupted, alarmed.

 

“I’m at university,” she protested. “Of course I go to clubs. Now if all you’re going to do is lecture me…” Oriana trailed off, giving her sister a look.

 

Miranda sighed, trying to remind herself, not for the first time, that she was not Oriana’s mother. “So the boy from the club. What was his name?”

 

“Only if you promise not to look up his medical records and test scores, Miri.”

 

“Alright, Ori,” Miranda said, not quite a promise. As long as she didn’t use that information it wouldn’t matter, right?

 

She was just looking out for her baby sister, after all.

 

 

Grunt spent the entire shuttle ride down to Tuchanka talking about his mating requests and what he was going to do about them once they touched down.

 

Shepard tuned him out around the time he started recounting some of the more… explicit details of the messages. Her relief upon landing was palpable. Shepard had never in her life been so eager to step out into a nuclear wasteland.

 

The moment the shuttle doors opened, Grunt was off like a shot, more than eager to get a move on. Shepard couldn’t say she minded much. There was only so much talk of krogan sex she could take before she had to bleach her brain. As Grunt was escorted away, Shepard made her way to see an old friend.

 

She smiled at the sight of him, looking just as he had the first time she’d visited Tuchanka. Wrex was an immovable object upon his throne, dismissing petitioners with a wave of his hand—or in extreme circumstances, a headbutt. Boredom and annoyance filled his countenance in equal measure until his raised his eyes and saw her waiting.

 

“Shepard!” he greeted exuberantly, barreling over to her and grasping her hand in greeting. He slapped her on the back, making her stumble. “Took you long enough to get here,” he said, with the kind of grin that was as terrifying as it was exultant.

 

He took off with her immediately, waving off the line of supplicants. They would wait for another day. Instead, she and Wrex reminisced about old times as quickly as they could get the words out.

 

In Wrex’s small, dusty dwelling, in the middle of a nuclear wasteland, Shepard realized she’d rarely felt more at home.

 

 

Jane closed her eyes in delight as she savored the sweet and smoky flavor of the roasted marshmallow. She let out a sigh of satisfaction, her lips curving into a smile. She felt something brush her thigh and opened her eyes again, meeting the gaze of her boyfriend John Riley, someone she’d known practically since birth, someone who’d suddenly grown tall and handsome over the summer, just in time for harvest. She couldn’t help remembering the first time she’d looked into those eyes and realized that he wasn’t just any boy.

 

She’d struggled under the weight of the load she carried in from the field, grumbling in frustration at her weakness. She dropped it to the ground, glaring down at it, and reached to pick it up once again. A strong, tanned hand beat her to it. It was his warm, brown eyes she met when she looked upward, blushing under his gaze. He smiled brilliantly down at her, strong and tan and glistening with sweat, as he wordlessly hefted her sack over his own shoulder.

 

On the first day back in class, she returned that smile with a shy one of her own as he slid into the seat next to hers. Smiles had turned into hellos and then into real conversations, homework and friends and what they’d do when they got off this colony someday. She’d held his hand for the first time on the Halloween hayride, and tonight, at the bonfire, she was going to kiss him.

 

She smiled as he wedged another homemade marshmallow onto her stick, admiring the way his eyes shone in the firelight. While he roasted it, she gathered her courage, suggesting that they move to a more secluded seat. The flicker of the firelight barely touched them now, but it was enough to guide his lips to hers.

 

Shepard smiled at the memory as she watched the krogan around the bonfire. Dinner, drinks, and war stories under the stars—a krogan celebration. She ate, she drank, and she shared stories with the best of them. Before she retreated to a quiet spot, she recounted the trip through the Omega 4 relay with some overenthusiastic help from Grunt. Shepard didn’t want to ask what the skewered meat was that they’d roasted over the fire, but whatever it was, it had that smoky taste that reminded her of childhood and fall, a flavor that couldn’t be replicated on a starship. She sat and listened to war stories like she had a dozen times with retired marines or drunken comrades at a bar. She marveled at how, even half a galaxy apart, people were fundamentally the same.

 

She heard movement beside her, glancing over only long enough to confirm that the figure was Wrex. “So you brought the kid back in one piece,” the old krogan rumbled. “Good.”

 

Shepard gave him a sideways glance, unable to hide a smirk. “What, you thought I would fail?”

 

“Hah!” Wrex barked out a laugh. “Never doubted you would crawl out of this one alive, Shepard,” he said, voice like the grind of gravel under a mako’s tires. “But I know a thing or two about the stupidity of young krogan who think they’re invincible.”

 

“I’m a good battlemaster,” she said, and gave him a lopsided grin.

 

The two old friends laughed together before falling into silence, watching the scene spread out before them. Shepard found an eerie beauty in Tuchanka under the starlight. Twisted metal and stone jutted out of the landscape like old bones shining against the darkness of the sky. Smoke billowed and dissipated from the bonfire, a krogan in silhouette acting out his story of war. Something stirred within her at the scene, a warmth filling her body.

 

In spite of their history of violence, there was something Shepard liked about the krogan. There was something utterly honest about them—unafraid of who and what they were. Other species hid their violent nature behind other words. Militaristic. Heroes. War. Survival. The krogan didn’t hide. Here, she didn’t have to hide.

 

She closed her eyes again and breathed in the scent of food and fire. It smelled like home.

 

 

There was a herd of klixen stampeding through Shepard’s head.

 

That, or she’d had one too many drinks of ryncol last night. On Tuchanka, they were equally plausible.

 

She and Wrex had sat up long into the night, drinking and talking. Telling stories and bullshitting each other, mostly, but there were some honest moments too. Through the haze she remembered the look in his eyes when he told her about his hopes and dreams for the krogan people. She told him about the future she hoped to have when this war was over, how she worried and wondered if she could be anything but a soldier.

 

But all the understanding and closeness from the night before seemed to disappear behind the veil of their current disagreement.

 

“Wrex,” she said again, “I need him.”

 

He was unmoved. Gone was the friend from the previous night, replaced with the clan chief. “Grunt needs to stay on Tuchanka and learn what it means to be krogan.” His arms were crossed like a barrier between them.

 

“I’m going to be fighting the reapers,” she reminded him, not ready to give up. “There won’t be a Tuchanka left if I don’t succeed.”

 

Wrex was unmoved. “You’ll beat them with or without Grunt,” he told her simply, as if her victory was already a matter of fact. “But my people need him.”

 

Shepard let out a frustrated sigh, pressing her palm against her throbbing head. Hard to argue with the hangover from hell. Didn’t I tell myself I would never go drinking again?

 

She heard the krogan shift in his seat. “Maybe he can return to you eventually,” he conceded, more than he’d give anyone else. “But not yet.”

 

Shepard looked up, meeting his red eyes with her blue ones, and gave him a nod. “I understand,” she said, resigned. “Let me say goodbye to him before I go.”

 

Wrex motioned to one of his attendants. “Drag the little pyjack out of whatever female’s bed he’s in and bring him here,” he barked.

 

It wasn’t long before she and Grunt stood beside the Normandy’s shuttle to say their goodbyes.

 

“Take care of yourself, Grunt,” Shepard told him, feeling rather too much like a mother sending her son off to boot camp. She was really going to miss the young krogan with all his cheerful violence and childish curiosity. She’d miss his laugh, his stories that left her cringing, and the oddly wise comments that seemed to come from nowhere.

 

“May your enemies be worthy, Battlemaster,” he said respectfully and gave her a headbutt that was probably intended to be gentle.

 

Shepard smiled at the krogan despite the intensifying ache in her head. “Do good, Grunt,” she said, and slapped him on the shoulder. It was Grunt’s chance to make something of himself on his own, and she had no doubt he would make her proud.

 

 

Garrus looked around the spaceport with hesitation. He hadn’t seen his family in over two years. Chats and vid-calls had been few and far between, and he hadn’t seen any of them in person since he’d gotten on the transport for Omega.

 

I was protecting them, a strong voice inside him said, battling with the other voice that told him that his avoidance was unforgivable.

 

“Garrus!” came an enthusiastic voice, ripping him out of his thoughts.

 

Before he could search the crowd for the source, he felt a turian dive upon him, arms tightening fiercely around his neck. He stiffened on instinct, prepared to wrestle down the attacker, before his mind caught up with his body and realized it was his sister. He hugged back.

 

After a long moment she pulled away and gasped. “Spirits! What happened to your face?” Her mandibles tightened around her mouth.

 

Garrus scratched uncomfortably at the newly-uncovered scars. “I, uh…” Crap. Why hadn’t he thought about this on the way over? He had no idea how to answer that question without explaining the whole of where he’d been during the past few years—which he definitely didn’t want to do.

 

Watching his obvious internal crisis, she gave him a patently Solana look of mixed amusement and disdain. “You’ll have to figure something out before we get home to Dad,” she told him, and just like that, he was off the hook—for the moment.

 

They were silent as she led him to the car, silent as she started to drive. Garrus didn’t know what to say to her. The last messages they’d exchanged were definitely strained, and now she was acting like she wasn’t angry with him at all. When had his family relationships become a damn minefield?

 

“Garrus…” His eyes darted over to her as she said his name. She met his gaze briefly before turning back to the road in front of her. Her voice was quiet, subharmonics buzzing with emotion. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”

 

His mandibles flared in surprise. “What do you mean?” he managed to ask. “It’s not like I was in danger.” The lie rolled off his tongue more easily than he was comfortable with.

 

To protect them, he reminded himself.

 

As convincing as he thought he was, Solana wasn’t deterred in the slightest. “I’m not stupid, Garrus,” was all she said. It was enough.

 

Garrus scrambled. “But you said—I was—pleasure cruise?”

 

She gave him a scathing look. “Look, Garrus,” she leveled with him, “I can’t say I’m not pissed about all of this, but it’s called not breaking your cover. I wasn’t going to say anything when you were bitching about it not being a secure channel.”

 

His mind reeled with the implications. “Mom and Dad?” he finally asked.

 

“I didn’t tell him anything, but Dad knows more than he lets on,” she said promptly. “And Mom… she asks for you sometimes,” she said quietly. “When she remembers.” The bitter look on Solana’s face quickly disappeared behind the mask of old Solana, the little sister Garrus remembered from before he left—the person he hadn’t realized wasn’t her anymore until a few moments ago.

 

When the heavy feeling in the car became suffocating, Garrus turned and stared out the window.

 

 

Garrus entered the room quietly, not wanting to disturb the sleeping figure that lay too small among the pillows and blinking machinery.

 

He sat in the chair by the bed and watched her, his critical eye seeing far more than he wished to. She’d wasted away. The pearly sheen of her plates had dulled to a dusty gray, her muscles atrophied from lack of use. The hands that had once seemed to be in constant motion lay still atop the bedspread but for a tremor that came and went. She was monitored by a full battery of medical equipment, their soft mechanical whirr drowning out the sound of her fragile breath.

 

He stiffened when she stirred. Did he want her to wake? The quiet, the just being with her, was precious, and he was afraid what would come next. What if she didn’t recognize him? What if she did?

 

Perhaps she would wake and smile, her face lighting up at the sight of the son she hadn’t seen in so long. Perhaps she would take his hand in hers and grip it with surprising strength. Perhaps she would gasp and chastise him about his scars, tease him that he would have trouble now finding a good turian wife. Perhaps he could even tell her that he’d found someone after all, and though she wasn’t turian, she was definitely good.

 

Perhaps not.

 

Her eyes blinked open, revealing a gentle hazel that neither he nor Solana had inherited. They roamed the room and came to focus on him. His heart pounded. He wondered if she could hear it.

 

In a rush of emotion, he reached out for her hand, not waiting to see if she remembered. “I’m here,” he told her in a low voice, not daring to try to say more. Not with the way his voice was shaking.

 

She looked confused for a moment, but then she smiled. “So handsome,” she said, reaching up to touch his face with her free hand. He felt it tremble against his faceplates. He closed his eyes for just a moment, remembering the gentle touches of his childhood. The way she’d picked him up after he’d fallen from a tree. How she brushed her hand over his fringe to say goodnight. The way she’d cupped his face when he left for boot camp, her eyes roving over him as if to commit him to memory.

 

“But look at those scars,” she added, almost in chastisement, giving the right side of his face a concerned frown. “What happened?”

 

“Missile from a gunship,” he said frankly, knowing his mom never liked him to beat around the bush. At her shocked expression, he squeezed the hand he still held. “I made it out okay in the end.”

 

“Brave,” she said softly, and smiled at him again, more sadly this time. “You remind me of my son.”

 

The words came like a physical punch, choking the air from him. He glanced down at their hands twined together, thinking she’d started shaking harder than before. But no, it was his hand that was trembling.

 

Her thumb slowly stroked across his. “What’s wrong?” she asked gently. He raised his eyes to hers, the lump in his throat solidifying at the sight of her concerned gaze. Concern for a kind stranger. Not for her son. There were no words he could say.

 

He heard a creaking sound and blinked at the sudden wedge of light coming in from the hallway. A tall, proud figure stood silhouetted in the door. “Son,” said his father, a clear dismissal.

 

Garrus squeezed his mother’s frail hand one last time before releasing it and rising from his seat. His father strode past him to the chair Garrus had vacated, giving his son only a passing glance. Garrus took one look at his father’s stony face and mother’s gentle one before he closed the door.

 

The rest of the day found him in his childhood bedroom, writing down everything he could think of about the reapers.

 

Chapter Text

Geth ruin everything, came the thought, bitter and venomous in her mind.

 

Tali knew that wasn’t fair. She met Legion. She spoke to it; they came to some kind of understanding. Maybe she didn’t trust the AI the way Shepard did, but Legion wasn’t evil. No—it was the possibility of war with the geth that ruined everything, and the blame rested not on the geth but squarely on the shoulders of the admiralty board.

 

Her sleepover was supposed to be an evening of lighthearted fun. Where she could forget for a while about war and death, reapers and destruction. It was, at first. They watched Fleet and Flotilla and gossiped into the night. They talked of men and fights and friends and scandals, but more than anything, they gossiped about whether the fleet would go to war. To her friends it seemed a matter of curiosity and excitement—perhaps the biggest news of their lives. Tali knew more and feared more, and realized how far her life had diverged from the insular lives of her people.

 

The laughs and whispers died down as her friends fell asleep, but Tali tossed and turned, listening to the strained rumble of the engine and wondering how in the galaxy she was going to stop this.

 

 

Garrus padded into the kitchen barefoot and yawning, stopping short when he came face-to-face with his father. The older turian glanced up at him, datapad in one hand, mug in the other, and cleared his throat. Garrus knew what the sound meant. He stifled a sigh and sat down at the table, waiting to see how his father intended to start their talk. The tone of their entire conversation—of Garrus’s entire trip home—could be set by what Castis Vakarian chose to say now.

 

The elder Vakarian stared down the younger with sharp blue eyes. “We’re going to talk about where you’ve been for the past few years.” It wasn’t a request.

 

It never is, Garrus thought bitterly.

 

He was tired of arguing with his father. He didn’t want to fight anymore, not when he knew what could happen to them when the reapers arrived, not when his mother might not… He halted the thought. Any of them could be dead within the year, and he didn’t want to leave with these kind of regrets.

 

That didn’t mean, however, that he had any intention of blindly bowing to his father’s authority. Not anymore.

 

He’d promised Shepard he would try to be civil—and he would—but he couldn’t allow his father to derail his purpose for being here. Garrus took a deep breath before responding to his father’s demand. “That’s actually what I’ve been wanting to talk to you about, Dad,” he replied. “But it’s going to be a long talk. I think we should discuss it in your study.”

 

Castis’s browplates rose slightly, but he gave his son a nod. Garrus followed him into the study and closed the door behind him. As he sat across from his father, he realized he had no idea where to begin. He’d compiled notes and evidence on the reapers, but he wasn’t sure he should start with that. The two of them were barely on speaking terms. Who was to say that his father would even listen?

 

So he didn’t lead with the reapers—he didn’t lead with anything. He leaned forward, rested his arms on the desk and asked, “What do you want to know?”

 

 

It was a long and strained conversation. Castis asked pointed questions that often raised his son’s ire. Garrus tried to keep his answers civil, but his father always seemed to bring out the worst in him. Some of his answers were vague at best, particularly about his time fighting in the Terminus systems. He didn’t want to mention the name Archangel or even Omega. There were some things his father didn’t need to know.

 

Castis frowned. “You had a mercenary band?”

 

“We protected the innocent,” Garrus defended, perhaps too heatedly. “We didn’t do it for money.”

 

They had moved on to Shepard and the Collectors, which hadn’t been much better.

 

“You’ve heard that Commander Shepard is alive?”

 

“And working for Cerberus.” His father’s voice was full of scorn.

 

“She only worked with them to take down the Collectors! And she’s not with them anymore.”

 

“How are you so certain about her?” Castis demanded.

 

At the end of it all, he’d simply handed his father an OSD with the evidence and his firsthand accounts of everything related to the reapers, and he’d hoped for the best.

 

“Read that and watch the vids,” he’d instructed. “Afterwards, I’ll answer any questions you have.”

 

The door to the study hadn’t opened yet, and it had been hours.

 

He tried to concentrate on the rifle he’d been modifying, but it was hard to focus when he knew his father was poring over his evidence just on the other side of that door.

 

“Garrus?”

 

He turned to see Solana standing behind him. Her mandibles fluttered nervously. She wrung her hands. “Mom’s lucid and she’s asking for you.”

 

Garrus stood immediately, rifle and reapers both forgotten. A strange, quivering feeling coursed through him. He went to the doorway not knowing how to feel. He hoped for a reunion, but he steeled himself… just in case. His feet slowed as he stepped into the light of her bedside lamp, and he gazed down at her, waiting.

 

Her mouth dropped open. He didn’t know if that was a good or bad sign. But as soon as she spoke, it became obvious.

 

“Spirits, Garrus,” she gasped. “What happened to your face?”

 

Garrus broke out into a completely inappropriate grin.

 

 

“What have you got for me, Miranda?” Shepard asked, sitting down across from her executive officer.

 

Miranda passed a datapad to the commander. “Hestia T’Nara,” she said. “To head up the new information command center.”

 

Shepard’s brow furrowed as she read the dossier. “Miranda, she used to work for Eclipse. She’s a mercenary.”

 

“Ex-mercenary,” Miranda said mildly. “And before you dismiss her, allow me to assure you that she’s not what you are expecting. Take a look at what she did for Eclipse.”

 

Shepard scanned the dossier. “Data mining?” she asked, raising a brow in Miranda’s direction.

 

The brunette nodded. “They had her working out what type of jobs were the most profitable, who the best targets were, and more. She could rattle off more information about Eclipse than you would ever want to know. Which is why she’s looking for protection.”

 

Shepard sighed. “Do you think we’ll ever get someone to work for us whose life isn’t somehow in danger?”

 

Miranda smirked. “If they weren’t in danger before, they certainly will be once they board.”

 

“Thanks, Miranda. You always know how to lighten my moods.” She rubbed her face. “Set up the meeting. Who else have you got for me?”

 

Miranda handed her another datapad. “Someone to fly the new shuttle. His name is Zachary O’Connor. He’s a former stunt pilot and Alliance pilot.”

 

The pair were quiet for a moment as Shepard watched an attached vid of his flying. “He’s talented,” she said when it had finished. “I’ll give you that. But there seem to be a lot of marks for attitude in his Alliance file.”

 

Miranda shrugged. “I just assumed that was a pilot thing. His file doesn’t look so very different from Moreau’s. And when has someone’s attitude ever stopped you from taking them on?”

 

“Fair enough,” Shepard shrugged. “Anyone else?”

 

Miranda smiled. “I have a candidate for every position. You just need to do the interviews.”

 

Shepard looked at her incredulously. “Over twenty interviews, Miranda? All at once?” Her voice took on an almost whining tone.

 

Miranda’s smile sharpened. “You didn’t think I was going to slack off, did you?”

 

 

Tali surveyed the admirals as she entered the room. Getting an audience with them was unusual. She was fairly certain that her request was only granted because of who her father had been, but she would make the most of the opportunity. That’s what Shepard would do.

 

Tali hated public speaking. She became shy and awkward and lost track of what she wanted to say. She had rehearsed a hundred times in her head to make sure she wouldn’t forget. She reminded herself that two of the five admirals in the room were people she’d known her entire life—but she also remembered that another admiral was neutral at best and one all but hostile.

 

The fifth admiral, her father’s replacement, was a complete unknown aside from the few useless details she had gleaned from her friends. “I heard he and his wife don’t share quarters anymore.” “Did you know he has a son exactly our age? Talla said his voice is gorgeous!” “My aunt told me he has Invictus whiskey brought in with his monthly shipments.”

 

She pushed those pointless thoughts aside, remembering instead the words Shepard had said before leaving. You do the best you can with what you have. I have faith in you, Tali.

 

She wasn’t going to let Shepard down.

 

“Admirals,” she began, “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me today.”

 

“Perhaps now you will finally share with us what this is all about,” Admiral Koris interjected, arms crossed defensively over his chest. The other admirals were quiet where they stood in the small conference room.

 

Already feeling off-kilter, Tali wrung her hands. “As you already know,” she began, trying to regain equilibrium, “For the last few months I’ve been working with Commander Shepard to end the colony abductions in the Terminus Systems. I’ve brought back evidence to suggest that the same fate, or worse, waits for us if we do not act.”

 

And suddenly, every admiral in the room was deathly still.

 

She told the story of the Normandy’s mission, described the horrors they’d seen through the Omega-four relay. She played the vids from her helmet-cam and showed them the data that EDI and Legion had gathered. She spent hours explaining, answering questions and arguing, and during that time, she discovered one thing—the admirals were no different from anyone else.

 

They didn’t want it to be true, and that was reason enough for them to ignore it.

 

Koris dismissed her, Xen argued with her, and Raan just tried to keep the peace. She found the new admiral, Jorah, to be as eager for war as Gerrel—and the two of them saw no need to trade one war for another.

 

“If you’re right about this, Tali, the geth will follow the reapers just like before,” Gerrel argued. “Which means we should take them out now. We can’t give them the opportunity.”

 

Tali tried to tell them that most of the geth didn’t follow Sovereign and might not want to fight, but they hadn’t met Legion and they didn’t understand. Didn’t want to. It was the only matter on which she and Koris agreed, but outnumbered as they were, it didn’t matter.

 

Tali watched the admirals argue and yell, and wondered if her failure would doom the quarian race.

 

 

Tali’Zorah vas Normandy was so frustrated she could scream. She moved to switch off her helmet mic, but paused halfway through and dropped her hand. It wouldn’t do anything but worsen her headache.

 

She stared at the bottle of turian wine in her hand. Specially filtered for quarians, it read. She’d brought it onboard herself, knowing that it was near impossible to get that kind of luxury on the Flotilla. Except for bosh’tet admirals, her traitorous mind reminded her, thinking of Jorah and his Invictus whiskey. She carefully fit the sterilized straw into her helmet port and took a long sip. Wine was meant to be enjoyed, not gulped down, but at the moment she didn’t care about anything but getting drunk enough to forget this awful day.

 

She was beginning to feel delightfully weightless when she heard a familiar voice behind her. “You might not want to drink the whole bottle, ma’am. You’re going to make yourself sick.”

 

In a flash, the straw was extricated from her suit and her hidden face broke into a wide smile. “Kal’Reegar!”

 

She whirled around clumsily, stopping herself from hugging him just in time to avoid embarrassing herself completely. She stumbled—embarrassing herself anyway—and he caught her arm to steady her. She blushed furiously under her suit, but Reegar only laughed. Keelah, she would gladly make a fool of herself every day just to hear that sound.

 

“I see you’ve already made some progress on that wine,” he teased. He helped her back into a sitting position on the stairs before dropping down beside her. “There a reason you’re looking for answers in a bottle, ma’am?”

 

“Tali,” she corrected. “How many times do I have to tell you to call me Tali?” She she shot him a glare that he couldn’t see.

 

“At least once more, ma’am,” he said. She tilted her head, wondering if he was smiling. He cleared his throat, suddenly serious again. “What’s bothering you?” he asked, his voice unexpectedly gentle.

 

“We’re all going to die,” she said bluntly, gazing at the brightness of his eyes behind his helmet. Huh. Maybe she did have too much wine.

 

Reegar, to his credit, took her announcement with equanimity. “Uh… care to elaborate, ma’am?”

 

A laugh bubbled out of her though the situation wasn’t the least bit funny. “Those bosh’tet admirals are going to send us to war against geth that don’t even want to fight us. Shepard sent me home to warn them that the reapers are coming, but they won’t listen,” she confessed. She dropped her helmet into her hands. “She trusted me—she put her faith in me—to get the Fleet ready. I failed her. I failed our people.” She paused, and her next words were quieter than the rest. “She could have gotten them to listen.”

 

His hand touched her shoulder, setting her heart to racing as she turned to face him. “You haven’t failed yet, ma’am,” he said firmly. “As I recall, Commander Shepard hasn’t gotten anyone to listen to her yet either, but she hasn’t given up. She sent you because she believes in you,” he told her with quiet determination. “I believe in you too, Tali’Zorah vas Normandy.”

 

Tali’s breath caught in her throat, and she found herself completely unable to make a sound.

 

She was suddenly very, very aware of his hand on her shoulder. Even through the suit she could feel his warmth. The need to touch him was overwhelming. What would he feel like?

 

His hand slipped away, leaving her cold. “You should get some sleep, ma’am,” he said as he stood. “Tomorrow you can try again, and show those bastard admirals what you’re worth.”

 

In the blink of an eye he was gone. Tali rubbed her arms where he had held her, and wondered what it all meant. Her stomach was unsettled, but she didn’t think it had anything to do with the alcohol.

 

 

“Okay, okay, here’s a good one. What’s the difference between a geth and a ginger?”

 

Half-stifled laughter went around the table, and Shepard raised a brow at her pilot. “I know seven ways to kill you with this beer bottle, Flight Lieutenant. Do you think you can get out the door before I finish drinking it?”

 

Joker coughed and tugged down the bill of his SR2 cap. “Alright then. How many Council members does it take to change a lightbulb?” he asked.

 

Shepard shook her head. “Oh no. You’re not getting off the hook that easily,” she told him. “You’re going to tell me the difference between a geth and a ginger. This is relevant to my life, you know!”

 

Joker wasn’t quite able to hide his grin. “Only one of them has a soul.”

 

Ken choked on his beer, Gabby was doubled over, and Shepard was trying very, very hard to look offended. “Fuck you, Joker,” she managed to get out before she burst out laughing.

 

Shepard looked over at Kenneth. “Aren’t you offended? You’re a redhead too, if you hadn’t noticed.”

 

Ken smiled broadly, brandishing his beer. “That’s where you’re wrong, Shepard. You’re a ginger. I’m a redhead. Learn the difference!”

 

Shepard casually gave him the finger and turned back to the pilot. “Fine. Joker, you can answer the other one, now.”

 

“What, how many Council members it takes to change a lightbulb?” Joker asked. He waited a beat before answering, “Don’t be stupid, the Council can’t change anything.”

 

After another round of laughter, Gabby spoke up. “Okay, I’ve got one, but it’s terrible,” she said, grinning. “Two asari walk into a bar.” She paused dramatically. “Then they put on their dancer outfits and get to work.”

 

The four of them laughed and talked late into the night cycle, but when Shepard headed up to bed, she was waylaid by a certain AI.

 

“Commander?” EDI’s simulated vocals came through her cabin’s comm. “I have a question. It is about humor.”

 

“Alright, EDI,” she said slowly. “Hit me.” This would be good.

 

“Many of the jokes told tonight played into racial stereotypes or other offensive matters. Why do humans find this amusing? I noticed that your anger at Jeff’s joke about redheads was entirely feigned.”

 

Shepard smiled, shaking her head. “EDI,” she began, laughter in her voice, “The funniest jokes are usually offensive in one way or another.”

 

There was a beat of silence. “I do not understand,” the AI replied.

 

Shepard bit her lip, now frowning. How the hell was she supposed to explain the nuances of humor to an AI? It was hard enough to explain why a joke worked to someone who already found it funny. “Well,” she began slowly, “Part of the humor is shock value. That someone has the audacity to actually say it. But if the person telling the joke actually believed what they were saying, it wouldn’t be funny anymore.”

 

“Sometimes,” she added, “Humor is about airing out the ugly things people think. If we laugh at them, it takes away their power.”

 

“I see,” EDI said. “Thank you, Shepard. This has been illuminating.”

 

“Anytime, EDI,” Shepard replied, and finally got ready for bed. She wondered, in the moments before drifting off to sleep, if EDI was going to start making inappropriate jokes. In the morning, if she remembered, they might have to have a chat.

 

Chapter Text

Garrus glanced up from his sleeping mother when he saw a shadow in the doorway. Castis Vakarian inclined his head towards his study, turning back with the expectation that his son would follow. Garrus reluctantly released his mother’s hand. He had no intentions of antagonizing his father during this visit.

 

“Close the door,” Castis commanded, looking severe behind his desk. He surveyed his son calmly as the younger turian sat across from him. “I’ve spoken to Fedorian.”

 

Garrus stared, unblinking. “The primarch?”

 

Castis ignored his son’s disbelief. “He has an opening tomorrow morning. You will present your evidence to him then.”

 

Garrus’s mandibles flared in shock and—though he was loath to admit it—fear. He’d met Fedorian before, but only socially, as a friend of his father’s. To have a private audience with him was a different matter entirely.

 

He, Garrus Vakarian—former C-Sec officer, almost-Spectre, failed vigilante—had a meeting with the primarch of Palaven.

 

He supposed that, given all the things he had done and seen over the past few years, he shouldn’t be so surprised. Nothing had been normal since Commander Shepard had walked up the council chamber steps and into his life.

 

Nonetheless, it was an intimidating prospect. Garrus had no illusions; this may well be his only chance to save his people. He had one chance to warn the primarch of what was to come. One chance to prove what he already knew. One chance to try to save his race from extinction.

 

Garrus deliberately calmed himself. He needed to keep a clear head and analyze the situation. Come up with a plan of attack. He looked at his father appraisingly. “You know him best,” he said. “How do you suggest I go about this?”

 

He didn’t miss the surprise that crossed his father’s face, but he chose not to comment. There were more important things to discuss than their strained relationship. For now, it was enough to know that they had a truce.

 

For now, it was enough to know that someone believed.

 

 

Garrus left Primarch Fedorian’s office feeling dejected. No one could blame him for hitting up the firing range before heading home.

 

He really did not want to face his father after such a disappointment.

 

Granted, his proposals hadn’t been turned down. But they hadn’t been accepted either, and Garrus was adept enough at reading people to guess at the result.

 

He did, eventually, have to go home and face his father. Castis had been utterly inscrutable and very nearly silent during his son’s account of the meeting, only speaking to ask for more detail or clarification. Garrus hated that particular expression of his father’s—it had often preceded harsh lectures and punishment in his childhood. Castis could hardly discipline him now, but the expression unsettled him nonetheless. He imagined that it had the same effect on those his father had interrogated back in his C-Sec days.

 

This time, there was no lecture. “Leave me,” Castis said, and Garrus obeyed in confusion.

 

Castis had given no indication of his feelings on the matter, or whether he felt that Garrus had adequately done his part to convince the primarch. He’d offered no further plan, no sympathy—not that Garrus would have expected such—and no disappointment. He’d offered nothing at all.

 

Garrus paced around the house, unable to sit still. His mind raced with possibilities. Things he could have said. Things he could still do. He imagined himself bursting back into the primarch’s office and demanding he take action. That was only fantasy, of course. Anyone who attempted to force themselves into the primarch’s private offices would find themselves imprisoned and doing hard labor for a very long time.

 

When he paced past his father’s study for the fourth or fifth time, he heard raised voices. He paused mid-step, inching closer to the door to listen. To his disappointment, he could make out none of the words spoken. Garrus wondered whether his father’s conversation had anything to do with his earlier meeting. He couldn’t decide whether he hoped it did or not.

 

He continued his pacing.

 

His father didn’t emerge from his study until after Garrus had finally given in to sleep, but when Garrus rose in the morning, he had already received a note announcing his proposal’s approval.

 

“What did you do?” he asked his father in amazement.

 

The older turian’s eyes seemed almost amused. “I merely reminded Fedorian of a few things he ought to remember.” He offered no more clarification, and Garrus didn’t dare ask. Within another day he received the names of his task force, his budget, and express orders to keep their assignment classified. Even with that order in mind, Garrus was shocked to find he would report directly to the primarch himself.

 

But he had to acquaint himself with all those shocks rather quickly—after only three days, he stood in front of his new team, quaking in his boots. He had an insurmountable task in front of him. Preparing for the reaper invasion seemed impossible, even more so with their limited time and budget. He wondered if he could really accomplish anything with this group of strangers he only knew by dossier, but then he remembered the Normandy and Omega and was sure he would demand nothing less. He would make Shepard proud.

 

 

David Anderson had always been something of a father figure to Shepard.

 

She’d known him since her days in ICT, when she’d been working towards her N7. He’d run a couple of courses and tests, and somehow had ended up as her unofficial mentor. She came to the villa still full of anger and pain about her experience on Akuze. Forced leave hadn’t lessened it, nor the psychiatrists sent to assess and rehabilitate her. She’d put up a good front, of course—she had become adept at it years before—but he had seen her pain for what it really was. He had found a way to reach her where others couldn’t. She would never forget what Anderson had done for her, and that’s why his declaration came as such a painful blow.

 

Shepard stared at his hologram, motionless. “You can’t quit the council,” she said flatly.

 

“You won’t change my mind, Shepard. I’m as stubborn as you are,” he reminded her.

 

She frowned at him, not dissuaded. She hated this idea with every fiber of her being. It was too dangerous… too everything. “But you’re needed here,” she argued.

 

“No,” Anderson said, shaking his head. “Udina will be better at digging up aid when we need it. When the reapers arrive.” He paused, a faraway look coming into his eyes. “I’m not a politician, Shepard. I’m a soldier. And when the reapers hit Earth, the people there are going to need help.” He met her eyes with an unflinching gaze. “They’re going to need leaders, and that’s something I can do.”

 

“Please don’t,” Shepard said quietly. He was going to get himself killed out there. He was the closest thing to a father that she’d had since her own was killed. She couldn’t lose him. She couldn’t bear it.

 

Anderson looked at her, and knew what she couldn’t say. “We’ll both do what we have to, Shepard,” he said, but she wished, so selfishly, that it didn’t have to be true.

 

 

Tali tried not to show her nervousness as she entered the office. “Thank you for seeing me, Admiral.”

 

Admiral Koris motioned stiffly to the chair across the desk from him. “Considering what you’re trying to do, I felt it was right.”

 

Tali never felt like she could get a read on Koris. His body language was so much less expressive than most quarians—as if he’d retreated behind the helmet purposefully, hiding in a private sanctuary.

 

“Admiral,” she began, “We have to find a way to stop this war.” Her gloved fingers gripped the edge of the desk nervously.

 

“It was your father’s work that made this possible, Tali,” he said severely, pointing a finger at her. “If there’s anything you can do to stop this slaughter, it’s your duty to do it.”

 

She shrank back slightly, unnerved by his sudden vitriol. His hand dropped, and he sighed. “I… apologize,” he said, shaking his head. “While you have been away, Tali’Zorah, I have been fighting this battle alone.”

 

She looked down at her hands, full of guilt. “I know, Admiral,” she said quietly. “Which is why we need to do this together.”

 

“Yes,” he responded in measured tones. “We will do this together.” He nodded, beginning their uncomfortable alliance, their truce. “Now, Tali,” he began again, “I would like you to tell me everything you know about the geth.”

 

She hadn’t told anyone how she knew that the geth weren’t hostile to them. She hadn’t told anyone about Legion or the heretics or any of the true reasons she knew what she did. They’d have called her crazy, sent her away, ignored every word she said. She could be called worse than a traitor.

 

But, sitting in front of Admiral Koris, it all came rushing out. He, someone she’d thought to be an enemy, may have been the only person in the fleet to whom she could admit that she now counted a geth among her crew and perhaps even friends. And he, of all people, listened to every word she had to say.

 

She wondered how many others she had misjudged as badly.

 

 

Garrus set down his drink as his omni-tool chimed, and hid his smile as he saw the message from Shepard.

 

Garrus, you glorious bastard! You’ve already accomplished more than I ever managed. Keep up the good work. You didn’t say anything about your family in your message. Hope your mom’s doing okay and the rest of you are being civil to each other!

 

Doing a favor for Hackett. Details are classified, but if I get lucky, I’ll have some more evidence for us. Can’t wait to have you back on the Normandy. It’s not the same without you on my six.

 

He glanced up to see Solana watching him curiously, and he hurriedly closed down the omni-tool. “Just a message from my team,” he said offhandedly, hoping she wouldn’t question him further.

 

“Are you ever not working, Garrus?” Solana asked in exasperation. “Don’t the humans have some expression about not mixing business with pleasure?”

 

Garrus laughed. “If I didn’t mix the two, I doubt there would be time for pleasure.”

 

His sister frowned. “You should consider taking breaks on occasion, you know. The galaxy won’t fall apart without you.”

 

Garrus didn’t scoff out loud, but privately he had no desire to test that statement.

 

“Seriously, when was the last time you took a vacation from work?” Solana pressed. “I’ve barely seen you since you first left for C-Sec.”

 

Garrus thought back. It was true he had rarely taken vacation time at C-Sec—as a new officer, he’d felt the need to prove himself. While his first tour with Shepard was technically a leave of absence, he’d worked harder on the Normandy than he had on the Citadel. After the battle, C-Sec had practically begged him back, putting him to work immediately. He’d had tentative plans to take a few days off when the Normandy returned from the Terminus systems, but the Normandy hadn’t returned. His turmoil had led him to Omega, and from there it had been nonstop. Omega and Archangel to the Normandy and Shepard. And now, on Palaven, the closest thing to a vacation he’d had in years, and he was still working.

 

“Garrus?”

 

He snapped out of his reverie to see his sister staring at him in worry. “Sorry,” he said. “Just thinking.”

 

She watched him carefully for a few silent minutes. “Will you tell me, Garrus?”

 

His heart began to pound, but he forced himself to speak, hoping she wasn’t asking what he thought she was. “Tell you what?”

 

“Where you’ve been,” she said. “What you’re doing.” Her subvocals wavered. “I know it’s dangerous. Please don’t keep this from me.”

 

Garrus drained the last of the whiskey in his glass. “We can’t talk here.”

 

“We’ll go home, then,” she said.

 

“Yeah.” Garrus sighed, dreading the discussion before him. “And have a few more drinks.”

 

 

Solana Vakarian stared, her blue eyes never wavering from her brother’s matching ones. “Dad believes this,” she said skeptically.

 

“Yeah,” Garrus affirmed. He didn’t want to push her—he knew it was hard to stomach. But she’d been the one who figured him out in the first place. She was the only one who realized he had something to hide, that he’d been protecting her. By the time the Normandy passed through the Omega 4 relay, she had already known there was something more going on. She just didn’t know what.

 

He spoke up again. “That’s what all the meetings have been about, Sol. The primarch’s given me the task force to work on these things. To prepare.”

 

Garrus could see the struggle within her. She didn’t want to believe it. No one did. But she knew as well as he did that their father never would have taken it to the primarch if he wasn’t sure.

 

“You’re right,” she said with a shaky laugh. “I do need another drink.”

 

Garrus looked down at his hands where they rested on the edge of the table. “I’m sorry, Sol.”

 

She laughed again, bitterly this time. “I was angry at you for not being home to help with Mom,” she admitted. “And you were out saving the galaxy.” She shook her head. “I still want to be angry at you,” she confessed.

 

Garrus shrugged. “That’s fair,” he said quietly, looking down again. He was still torn, himself. He’d been neglecting the responsibility he had to his family, first out of anger and sadness, then to follow Shepard into a mission that could have killed him without them ever knowing.

 

“No it’s not,” Solana replied, reaching out a hand to cover his. He looked up at her, and grim determination had filled her eyes. “I’m going to find a way to help you,” she insisted.

 

Garrus shook his head. “You don’t have to do that, Sol.”

 

“Too bad,” she replied, in that tone that was so like their mother’s. “You’re stuck with me.”

 

 

Shepard was actually looking forward to breaking Doctor Kenson out of the batarian prison.

 

She’d felt the effects of being cooped up on the Normandy with nothing to fight. Granted, this mission was all about stealth and recon, but it excited her nonetheless. She grinned as she put on her armor, already feeling the adrenaline flowing through her veins.

 

She was hoping to find an in with the Alliance, and this favor for Hackett might be it. Hackett would owe her—and, better than that, he’d suggested that Doctor Kenson had found irrefutable proof of the impending reaper invasion. If she got the evidence, she could do better than just the Alliance.

 

With adrenaline pumping, she climbed into the shuttle. This mission could be the key to everything.

 

 

Miranda walked into the cockpit of the Normandy with her usual confident stride despite the anxiety that knotted in her stomach. She surveyed the view through the windows. There wasn’t much to see, not from the distance Shepard had ordered them to retreat to.

 

“Anything from the commander?” she asked Joker.

 

The pilot shrugged. “Still nothing since the shuttle.” He tugged at the bill of his SR-2 cap, a nervous habit she had noted upon their first meeting. She took a closer look at him, cataloguing the obvious signs of lack of sleep. He was more concerned than he let on.

 

Miranda paced behind him as the twisting in her gut worsened. “I don’t like this,” she stated. “We didn’t have enough intel to begin with.”

 

“Tell me about it,” Joker muttered quietly.

 

EDI spoke up. “Are you worried, Jeff?”

 

Joker glanced at her blue interface. If he were anyone else, he’d glare. “Not the time for an interview, EDI,” he snarked.

 

Miranda kept pacing. “How long has it been?”

 

EDI chimed in again. “Forty-six hours and seventeen minutes, XO Lawson.”

 

She sighed, agitated. “Let me know the moment you hear anything,” she ordered, and left the cockpit without waiting for an answer.

 

Miranda hardly got any work done during the following hours, not until she heard the words she’d been waiting for. “Miranda,” came Joker’s harried voice from the cockpit, “Shepard called and we’re going in.”

 

“Thank you,” she replied, and let herself smile in relief.

 

That relief didn’t last long.

 

Chapter Text

The Shadow Broker had seen many things, enough to make her jaded in her relatively young age.

 

She knew the dirty little secrets of every public figure, the identity of every man that hid behind a name. She knew what projects Cerberus had running at any given time, the number of illegal AIs in council space, and the name of every person that had broken the one rule of Omega. She could start a war with the push of a button, could plunge the entire galaxy into chaos with a flick of her fingers.

 

It was intoxicating.

 

A few days of it had cured her of the shock of discovery, and a long talk with Shepard had nearly cured her of the desire to snoop into the lives of friends. Feron’s presence cured her of the crushing loneliness—though she hadn’t had the guts to tell him she cared and he didn’t have the nerve to tell her how much this quiet life chafed.

 

But none of what she’d seen could have prepared her for this.

 

She found herself as overwhelmed as the moment she’d first stepped up to the terminal, the secrets of a galaxy at her fingertips.

 

She thought, at first, that she must be mistaken, that the information she’d received must be faulty. She was wrong. The horrible truth lay before her in irrefutable evidence:

 

A mass relay had been destroyed, and the Normandy was right in the middle of it.

 

Hour after hour, Commander Shepard did not answer her calls.

 

 

It was a beautiful Palaven morning. Dew steamed up from the green and silver night blooms as they curled protectively inward at the first sign of sun. The light came in hazy through the rising mist, casting the world in an ethereal glow. It had always been his favorite time of day, a few moments of beauty and peace before his responsibilities found him again.

 

He wished Shepard was there to see it. He knew she would love it as he did—she’d grown up delighting in nature on her colony world, a far cry from the life she led now. A view like this one was something he would treasure sharing with her one day. When the war was over, he would bring her here.

 

His solitude was interrupted by a call from the window, his sister’s form shadowed in the deep overhang of the roof.

 

“Garrus!” she cried urgently, and he turned immediately back towards the house.

 

“What is it?” he asked breathlessly. “Is it mom?” Adrenaline shot through his veins.

 

“Get to a fucking vidscreen,” she said sharply, and disappeared from the window.

 

Bewildered, Garrus hurried inside. He found Solana sitting stiffly on the couch, eyes glued on the news report displayed on screen.

 

“What’s going on?” he asked her, but she hushed him immediately.

 

She sat as rigid as a statue, voice flat and tight. “Shut up and watch.”

 

“As you can see, surveillance has recorded that the Normandy SR-2, reportedly captained by Commander Shepard, was the last ship to pass through the relay before it went dark. It has now been confirmed that the Viper Nebula relay has been destroyed, along with the entire Bahak system. We do not yet know how the relay was destroyed or why. We will release more information as it becomes available.”

 

The news cut away to an advertisement, but Garrus was rooted to the spot. No. This made no sense. What the hell happened?

 

“Garrus?” came his sister’s hesitant voice, sounding like it was lightyears away.

 

“Damn it!” he swore, finally breaking out of his stupor. “I never should have left the Normandy!” He stormed across the room, ignoring the hand that Solana tried to place comfortingly on his shoulder.

 

His heart pounded in fear and worry, but there was one thing he absolutely knew. “I have to call Shepard,” he announced, and disappeared into his bedroom without another word.

 

 

Tali hummed contentedly as she experimented with her omni-tool. Some might think it an odd use of her downtime, but she found peace in working with technology. It came to her as naturally as breathing. When lines of code came out neatly or an engine ran smooth, she was in her element.

 

Intent on her work, she didn’t hear the footsteps coming up behind her. The voice, however, she heard with perfect clarity.

 

“Tali’Zorah vas Normandy.”

 

She turned around to see the blue mask of Kella’Vaar, a particularly rude and xenophobic quarian that had been in her age group at school. “What do you want, Kella?” she asked warily, shutting down her omni-tool.

 

The quarian crossed her arms in disdain, making the excess fabric of her suit wrap flutter. Kella had always been a bit of a drama queen. “Do you have any idea what your captain has done?” she scoffed, voice full of reproach.

 

Tali let out a huff of annoyance, putting her hands on her hips. “What are you talking about?”

 

She listened in disbelief and horror as the other quarian gleefully described the news report, her heart sinking and protests rising in her throat.

 

“That’s ridiculous,” Tali argued. “The mass relays can’t be destroyed. And Shepard wouldn’t do something like that!” She couldn’t help the pleading way her voice rose. It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be.

 

Kella’Vaar smirked in response, pulling up her omni-tool to play the news vid. The reporter’s voice droned over the security footage, and Tali glanced up at Kella in horror. A realization hit her. That wasn’t anger or revulsion in the other quarian’s stance. That was satisfaction. Three hundred thousand batarians had died, and Kella was pleased.

 

“I… have to go,” Tali said hurriedly, feeling sick. She rushed from the room, desperate to find somewhere quiet, somewhere alone where she could send a message to Shepard.

 

She ran helmet first into Kal’Reegar, but jerked out of his arms when he asked if she was okay, ignoring him calling her name as she ran down the hall.

 

 

The name of a planet she’d only learned weeks ago now curled like poison in her ears. Aratoht.

 

It was supposed to be a routine rescue mission.

 

She heard three hundred thousand screams in her mind, saw faces contorted in pain every time she closed her eyes. Chakwas sedated her, and when she slept, she saw worse.

 

Prepare yourself for the arrival.

 

The vision burst forth in her mind like light behind her eyelids, reapers darkening the sky of worlds for which she had no name.

 

Screaming fell harsh upon her ears before being drowned out by a low rumbling noise, the prelude to a red beam that burned and destroyed all in its path. Everyone ran. More screaming. Chaos. Death.

 

She looked up and saw it—a reaper framed by a sky of shooting stars. It was beautiful and terrible and the most frightening thing she had ever seen. The shooting stars slammed into the ground around her, birthing twisted, strange creatures out of the smoke and flames.

 

She ran with the crowd, trying to escape the horror that chased them. She looked around her to see people sobbing in terror, wild sprays of gunfire, and red beams of death. A child’s alien face, streaked with tears and contorted by fear, went blank and stiff. The small lifeless body fell to the ground, clambered over by those who could still run. No one stopped. No one noticed. They were coming.

 

She saw it over and over as she slept, the destruction of a people so alien and yet so familiar. The visions faded one into another in her mind. A warning sent across an empire too late. The memories of an ancient green and growing thing, watching death from afar. The boasts of a reaper, meant to strike fear into her soul. You, too, will run in terror. You, too, will die.

 

The visions came more faded and less often, and then not at all. They would come again, she knew, but not today. All that remained were the memories of a reaper artifact, an indoctrinated lab, and a mass relay looming close. A VI telling her that the press of a button would cause 304,942 casualties. Pressing it anyway because she had no choice.

 

Even looking back now, she didn’t doubt her decision. In that moment, she made the only choice she could. But never before had she been the cause of so much death, the loss of so many innocent lives. She knew she had done what was right, but that didn’t stop the gnawing ache in her gut.

 

When she saw Dr. Chakwas entering the Normandy’s med bay with Admiral Hackett on her heels, she thought she was hallucinating again. But he didn’t disappear. His face didn’t turn into that of a dying batarian, wondering why he was sent to his death while she lived. He was real.

 

“Huh,” the admiral said. “Looks like you’ve recovered.”

 

“Admiral Hackett,” she greeted, trying to quell the surprise in her voice.

 

“Sounds like you went through hell down there. How are you feeling?”

 

It was obvious he didn’t mean physical injuries—Doctor Kenson’s people had patched her up well enough. Apparently Chakwas had told him about her… dreams. Hallucinations. Whatever they were. She’d been trying not to think about it.

 

“Fine,” she said shortly. “No more visions, if that’s what you mean.”

 

She wished he didn’t know.

 

“I, uh, wasn’t expecting to see you here, sir,” she added hesitantly. She absent-mindedly ran a hand over her hair. She probably looked like hell. She definitely felt like it.

 

He gave her a small nod. “Commander, you went down there as a favor to me. I decided to debrief you in person,” he explained, and paused. A fire shone behind those gray eyes. “That was before the mass relay exploded and destroyed an entire batarian system. What the hell happened out there, Commander?” His hands were behind his back, posture stiff. His face betrayed nothing. Admiral to the core.

 

She’d written the report immediately upon returning, before Chakwas had cornered her in the med bay and sedated her. The medical report was in there as well, she imagined, and Hackett had probably read both. Why did he need to hear it from her when she’d already had to relive it every time she closed her eyes?

 

She took a deep breath, pushed those emotions away, and told him the whole story from beginning to end. She hoped he would believe her when she told him she’d tried to save the colony. She couldn’t afford to second-guess her decision now. It was too late for that, and too much was at stake for her to waste time doubting herself.

 

He was quiet after she finished, pacing away and back.

 

“I won’t lie to you, Shepard,” he finally said. “The batarians will want blood, and there’s just enough evidence for a witch hunt.”

 

Shepard’s mind reeled at the implications. She hadn’t had time to think about it in that light—she’d been too busy reliving that terrible vision to consider what other results her actions might have. She’d slowed the reapers, but at what cost?

 

“We don’t want war with the batarians,” the admiral had continued. “Not with the reapers at the galaxy’s edge.”

 

Shepard paused, her face becoming dangerously impassive. “What are you saying?” she asked flatly. The admiral was stoic at the best of times, but something about his stony manner shook her.

 

“Shepard, if it were up to me, I’d give you a damn medal,” Hackett said. “But not everyone will see it that way.”

 

She listened numbly to the admiral as he explained what was expected of her. Go to Earth and stand trial. Take the brunt for this so that the batarians might not go to war. Wait out this storm until the next one hit.

 

Shepard argued. Explained exactly why that would be a bad idea with the reapers literally knocking at their back door. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that the batarians had much larger problems than her right now.

 

He wouldn’t budge.

 

She felt sick at the realization of what she had to do. “I need to take care of some loose ends before I go, Admiral.” The lie tasted bitter in her mouth.

 

He promised to delay for her. She wondered how long it would work. How long could he keep telling them she was coming before they realized that she wasn’t? How long before he realized that she wasn’t?

 

She watched him walk out the door, wondering if that was the last mission Hackett would ever send her on. And then it hit her, with the force of a dreadnought at FTL—there would never be a place for her back in the Fifth Fleet.

 

Even while working for Cerberus, Shepard had found comfort in knowing that the Alliance was still there waiting for her. A home to return to. She was slowly realizing that there wasn’t a place in the galaxy for her, not for a mass murderer, no matter the reasons for her actions. She was set adrift, lost and hunted.

 

Would you do differently if given the chance? she asked herself.

 

No.

 

No, she did what she had to, and would continue to do so. If she gave up—if she ran away—if she failed—there would be no place in the galaxy for anyone. There would be nothing at all.

 

And that was just not acceptable.

 

 

She meant to go up to her cabin, but somehow she found herself in the lounge.

 

Shepard glanced towards the brand new poker table at one end of the room. She could call up Ken and Gabby, get them to play a round or two. But no, she didn’t want to see them. She didn’t want to see the judgment in their eyes, the confusion. The destruction of their idol.

 

She didn’t want to see anyone.

 

So instead, she went the other direction—towards the bar.

 

In the old days, the idea of drinking on the ship would have been pretty shocking. She would’ve had to break quite a few Alliance regs to do it, and while she’d gotten a few marks for attitude during her military days, she wasn’t usually one to flaunt the rules that flagrantly.

 

But things had changed with Cerberus. Out in the Terminus systems, it was safer to go drinking on the ship than on shore leave. The Normandy wasn’t an Alliance ship anymore—there were very few regs to break except the ones she put in place herself. She didn’t make a habit of it, but right now? Hell, there was hardly anyone there to see it. Shepard slid onto the barstool and reached out towards the closest bottle, not caring what was in it.

 

Suddenly, a figure materialized on the other side of the bar. “I don’t think you want to drink that, Shep, unless you prefer poison to drunkenness.”

 

Shepard jerked back in her seat. “Shit, Kasumi,” she hissed. “Will you stop doing that?”

 

The thief slid the bottle out from between Shepard’s fingers. “Dextro,” she said, displaying the label to her counterpart. The woman’s painted lips turned up in a small smile. “How about an old standard instead?” she suggested. “I make a strong martini.”

 

Shepard plopped her chin heavily into her hands, elbows resting on the bar. “Make it a double and I’m in.”

 

“With the day you’ve been having, I’ll make it a triple,” Kasumi offered, and Shepard let out an amused snort. Kasumi smiled enigmatically from under her hood and busied herself with bottles and glasses.

 

“I take it you saw what happened in the med bay,” Shepard said. She didn’t even bother getting angry anymore. She knew full well that nothing happened on the ship without the thief finding out. Fortunately, Kasumi was as good at keeping secrets as she was at unearthing them.

 

Kasumi set down two martini glasses and began to pour. She paused as she reached for another bottle. “You’re not going, are you?” Turned halfway to the shadows, Shepard couldn’t see her eyes.

 

Only after Kasumi pushed the finished martini her way did Shepard choose to answer. She took the glass and gulped it down. “No,” she said quietly. “I’m not going.”

 

The glass was refilled and emptied again.

 

Chapter Text

Miranda Lawson marched into the captain’s quarters like a woman on a mission.

 

She strode purposefully past the desk and down the steps, stopping at the foot of Shepard’s bed. The commander was barely visible in the tangled mass of sheets and blankets, only recognizable by the mass of matted red hair that peeked out from under the covers.

 

“Shepard, get up and out of that bed now,” she ordered sharply. The only response was a muffled groan. A pitiful sound if there ever was one, but Miranda remained unmoved.

 

The XO came around the head of the bed and ripped the sheets away. She stifled a sigh. Shepard was still in her fatigues, now a rumpled mess from restless sleep.

 

When the commander didn’t move, Miranda crossed her arms severely. “EDI,” she barked. “As we discussed.”

 

The room’s lights rose to full brightness, and music came blasting through the speakers. The harsh tones grated on Miranda’s nerves, but it wasn’t meant to be pleasant.

 

Shepard pulled the pillow over her face with a moan when the music cut off, but Miranda took it from her. “Commander, you need to get out of bed this instant.”

 

Instinct finally won out over her hangover, and Shepard, conditioned to follow orders, climbed unsteadily out of bed. The XO ran a critical eye over her. She was unnaturally pale—looked a bit green really—with dark circles under her bloodshot eyes. But this wasn’t the time for sympathy. “Take a shower and come down to my office. You have fifteen minutes.” She watched the commander stumble to the bathroom, only satisfied once she heard the tell-tale sound of running water.

 

She headed back to her office, calling out orders to Rupert on the way. She and Shepard were going to have a talk.

 

 

Bleary-eyed and head still pounding, Shepard made her way to Miranda’s office. She had no idea what the XO wanted to discuss so damn urgently that it couldn’t wait until she’d slept off her hangover.

 

The doors opened to reveal Miranda at her desk, chin resting on her clasped hands. The ex-Cerberus operative nodded towards a steaming mug of coffee and plate of toast in front of Shepard’s usual seat. “Sit,” she instructed. “Eat.”

 

Miranda had chosen rightly—coffee and toast were about the only things Shepard could stomach at the moment. Though bewildered by her XO’s actions, she did as she was ordered. As her head cleared, she realized that the other woman was silently watching her. “I assume there’s a reason you brought me down here, Miranda?” she questioned, unable to mask the edge of annoyance in her voice. She really could have used the extra sleep, and Miranda knew it.

 

The XO stared at her levelly, and raised a manicured brow. “We need to have a talk about your reckless behavior.”

 

Shepard looked at her incredulously, anger immediately rising up within her. “You’re going to lecture me about Aratoht?” she asked, incredulous. She shot out of her seat. “Damn it, Miranda—”

 

“Commander.” The brunette’s eyes were cool and collected as she stopped Shepard’s tirade. “I understand the things that need to be done.”

 

Shepard’s confusion returned as she dropped back into her seat. “Then what is this about?” she demanded, her steaming coffee now forgotten.

 

“I’m aware that the destruction of the relay was necessary, Shepard, but there are consequences to your actions.” Her gaze was piercing. “You’re sitting here, incapacitated by a hangover, while half the galaxy is out for your blood,” she said harshly. “I know this is difficult, but this behavior is irresponsible and dangerous.” The XO stood suddenly, pacing to calm the anger that had suddenly surfaced.

 

In Miranda’s moment of silence, Shepard’s mind reeled. What if something had happened? What if they’d been attacked by batarians or apprehended by the Alliance while she was wasted at the bar? She slammed her fist down on the desk, furious with herself.

 

Miranda sat down again, reaching out a hand to cover Shepard’s angry fist. Their eyes met. “I’m here to help you, Shepard. We all are,” she said quietly. “But you can’t let this break you.”

 

The anger fled suddenly from Shepard’s mind, and she fell back against her chair. She was just so tired of all this.

 

Miranda pulled back to a professional distance, giving Shepard space to deal with her emotions. “Finish your coffee,” she instructed gently. “And then we can discuss the plans I’ve come up with while you’ve been sleeping.”

 

After a long moment, Shepard gave her XO a nod and picked up the mug of coffee.

 

 

Shepard is fine, the message read. Information on the Bahak relay explosion will be disseminated to the crew upon return. The only thing I can tell you now is that it was necessary. Please return to the Normandy as soon as you are able. We will be docking on Illium shortly for those who would like to meet us there.

 

Executive Officer Miranda Lawson

 

Garrus sighed and shut down his omni-tool. If Shepard was fine, then why didn’t she answer any of his messages? His eyes fell guiltily to the door of his mother’s room. He was going to have to return to the Normandy as soon as possible. He wouldn’t be able to see her off.

 

Will she even know? he wondered, but quickly pushed that thought away. He could only hope for the best—that she would recognize him when he said goodbye, and that the goodbye itself wouldn’t be their last.

 

He had a few things to take care of before he could leave again. He could manage his reaper task force long-distance, but he had preparations to make first. He ought to meet with them one more time to give out assignments, and his family wasn’t going to be happy with him for taking off, especially after he’d told them that he would be on Palaven for a few more weeks.

 

But his mind was made up—he would return to the Normandy as soon as possible. Shepard needed him more than anyone at home did. He shot off a quick message to Shepard and Miranda to let them know he could meet them on Illium in three days, and then he turned to his father’s study with a deep breath. He may as well tell him and get it over with.

 

Before he’d finished talking with his dad, Garrus already had two messages in response—one from each of the recipients.

 

Shepard’s told him to stay with his family as long as possible, that she was fine and would see him in a few weeks. She left little room for argument. But Miranda told a different story.

 

No matter what Shepard says, I think she needs you with her, her message had read. We’ll see you in three days.

 

 

Tali’Zorah vas Normandy knew better than to cry inside her enviro-suit, but she couldn’t prevent a few sniffles.

 

She’d promised Shepard she would come back. She promised. But she knew, in her heart, that she couldn’t go. Not now.

 

Her people were on the verge of war, and Tali might be the only one who could stop it. She and Admiral Koris were doing everything they could, and thought it didn’t feel like much, it was better than nothing. It had to be better than nothing. She couldn’t let this happen.

 

Shepard would understand her reasons, but that didn’t make Tali feel better. Every time Tali had needed her, Shepard had been there. And now, when Shepard needed her most, Tali was abandoning her.

 

At least that was how it felt.

 

“I’m coming back as soon as I can, Shepard,” she whispered, blinking back the tears that threatened to fall.

 

At the sound of footsteps, her head snapped around to see the familiar form of Kal’Reegar behind her.

 

“What is it, Reegar?” she asked, hating how weak her voice sounded. Weakness was not tolerated in the Migrant Fleet. Everyone did their duty. How pathetic must she seem to a soldier?

 

His voice was gentle. “I just wanted to check up on you, see if you were okay,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Ma’am.” She didn’t need him to explain why he was worried. They both knew.

 

“I’m fine,” she assured him, though they both knew better.

 

He placed a hand on her shoulder. “You don’t have to talk about it,” Reegar told her. “I just want to know that you’re okay.”

 

Tali’s heart fluttered in her chest. “I…” She sighed. “I’m not fine,” she said, and he waited for her to speak.

 

“I want to go back to the Normandy,” Tali confessed. “I have to know what happened, and I think Shepard needs me.” She hung her head. “The Flotilla needs me more, but I’m tired of trying to do this on my own.”

 

When a heavy silence fell, Tali worried if it had been too much. Reegar had no idea what he was getting into with her. She had so much baggage for someone only a few years from her pilgrimage. It was no wonder that he didn’t want to deal with it.

 

She nearly gasped when she felt a finger under the chin of her helmet, raising her up to look into Reegar’s shining eyes.

 

“You’re not alone, Tali’Zorah,” he said. “I’m here if you need me. Always.”

 

When his words hit her, she fell into his arms, unable to hold back anymore. She fogged up her helmet with tears and turned off the mic to hide the sound, but she felt lighter than she had in months.

 

The warmth of his arms around her seemed to make everything else fade away.

 

 

Garrus frowned when he saw a second set of bags by the front door.

 

Two bags, one for weapons and armor, another for personal effects. Both standard military issue, like the ones he carried. He lifted the hanging tag and turned it over in his hand. Vakarian, Solana, it read, along with an identification number.

 

He straightened up and turned, finding her standing in the doorway behind him. “Going somewhere?” he asked suspiciously. His thoughts rushed towards an inevitable conclusion—

 

“I’m going with you,” Solana said, and those thoughts came to a crashing halt.

 

Brother and sister locked eyes with each other, one shocked and the other determined. “I can’t just bring you along,” Garrus said, finally finding his words. “And after everything that’s just happened…” He paused, shaking his head. “You owe no loyalty to her. Why would you want to join up now?”

 

Solana’s eyes never wavered. “If anything you’ve told me about Commander Shepard is true, then I know she only did what she had to,” she told him, taking a step forward. “And I know that she won’t turn down help when it’s offered.”

 

Garrus stared, stunned by her show of faith. Did she have that much trust in his judgment, even after all this time and all his mistakes? “That’s… not what I expected of you, Sol.”

 

She snorted derisively. “Let me guess—you expected me to hate her for taking you away? You expected me to selfishly demand for you to stay?” She shook her head. “I’m not the child I was when you left home, Garrus. I haven’t been for a long time now.”

 

“I know,” he said, though he was only starting to truly realize it. He’d been gone a long time. Too long. By avoiding his father he’d avoided her as well, and he’d somehow missed her grow up. This could be a chance for them to get to know each other again—to continue what they’d started at home.

 

Garrus tried to picture his younger sister on the Normandy, interacting with the strange, motley group that Shepard called her crew. It was a pretty amusing thought, until the unbidden image of her fighting alongside him on the Collector base rose up in his mind. Fear grabbed hold of his gut.

 

“Sol, you can’t do this,” he said suddenly. “It’s too dangerous.” He couldn’t lose her like that. Not now, not when he’d only just started to find her again.

 

Solana glared at him, the very picture of determination. He saw both his parents in her just then—his mother’s stubbornness and his father’s authority—and he knew that she wouldn’t be easily denied.

 

“This isn’t like anything you’ve done before,” Garrus explained. “On the Normandy, we face down death daily. We went through the Omega 4 relay expecting to die. This is going to be even worse.” He’d downplayed the danger before, not wanting her to worry. Now he needed her to understand.

 

But Solana didn’t back down. Her glare softened, but she stayed where she was, gazing at him with eyes that had become solemn and irrevocably sad. “I don’t want you to have to do this alone, Garrus. And I want to help.”

 

He ran a hand across his fringe in frustration. “There are other ways to help, Sol,” he argued. “And I’m not alone on the Normandy. You don’t need to worry about me.”

 

“That goes both ways, Garrus,” she said firmly. “I can handle myself. Besides, like you said before, this isn’t your decision. If you won’t ask Shepard for me, I’ll have to follow you to the Normandy and do it myself. I’ve already bought my ticket to Illium.”

 

Spirits save him from frustrating sisters. Garrus tried his last angle. “What about Mom and Dad?”

 

Solana looked down, and Garrus felt a familiar spike of guilt in his gut. “Mom is leaving for the facility soon and won’t need me. I’ve already spoken to them both about it.”

 

Garrus felt his browplates rising. “Dad gave his permission?”

 

She pulled herself up to full height, mandibles stiffening into a set expression. “I don’t need permission,” she said. “From either of you.”

 

She was right. Damn it all. Garrus rubbed a hand across his face. “Fine,” he said, defeated. “I’ll call her now.”

 

He didn’t miss the expression of triumph on Solana’s features, but he couldn’t share her feelings. It was hard enough to watch the woman he loved run headfirst into danger every day. He didn’t know if he could deal with his little sister doing it too.

 

 

Garrus stared contemplatively at the dark screen of his terminal, parsing through the conversation with Shepard in his mind. Despite the smile that appeared on her face when she saw him, he hadn’t missed the dim look in her eyes and the dark circles beneath them. He said nothing, knowing she wouldn’t talk before she was ready, but the sight of it stung him nonetheless. Over and over in his mind he wondered and cursed the question—why did she go on that mission alone?

 

Miranda had said the destruction of the Bahak relay was necessary, and he trusted that, but he wondered if things might have gone differently if Shepard had a team at her back. Could the system have been evacuated? Could they have avoided the Alliance calling Shepard in? The answers didn’t matter now—there was no changing what had happened. But Garrus couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything he could have done to prevent the weight of those deaths on her shoulders.

 

He pushed those thoughts aside to consider Shepard’s response to Solana’s request. Or demand, as the case may have been. To Shepard’s credit, she took the situation in stride.

 

“Is she as good as you?”

 

He shrugged. “She’s not as good of a shot, but—”

 

“But who is?” she said, and smirked.

 

“She prototypes military tech for the government,” he explained. “Bit of a genius, really. Built her first tactical cloak at eight years old, got into all kinds of trouble.”

 

“Sounds like I’m going to have a veritable army of techs.”

 

“With you around, we’ll need one.”

 

“Funny, Vakarian.”

 

“I thought so.”

 

After a surprisingly short conversation—“If you believe she can handle it, I trust you,” she’d saidShepard had agreed to take Solana on, with one condition. And that condition had Garrus shaking in his boots.

 

He had to tell his sister about his relationship with Shepard.

 

Garrus understood why it was necessary—nothing stayed secret on the Normandy—but he couldn’t say he relished the idea. Better to hear it from him than by catching them or hearing some inappropriate comment from Joker, Shepard had insisted. Better to find out if Solana had a problem with their relationship now than during a mission. Shepard didn’t need any more discord or drama on her ship.

 

That didn’t, of course, mean that there wouldn’t be discord or drama, only that Garrus would have the pleasure of facing it now. On his own. He sighed.

 

Garrus had begun to repair his splintered relationship with Solana, but he didn’t have a clue how she’d take this news. Would she look at him with disgust and call him a deviant? Would she ask if that was the real reason he followed Shepard? Spirits, if she didn’t like it, would she tell their father?

 

Now that was something he wanted to avoid. Forever, if possible.

 

He walked to his sister’s door as if marching to his own execution. She opened it quickly at his knock, staring at him impatiently. “Well?” she demanded. “What did she say?”

 

He took a deep breath, trying to keep his voice and expression from revealing his anxiety. “She agreed, but there’s something I have to tell you first.”

 

She closed the door behind them and leaned back on it, arms crossed below her keel bone. “Well?”

 

He swallowed. Spirits, was it safe for his heart to beat this fast? With a lurch of dread in his stomach, he simply blurted it out. “Shepard and I are together.”

 

Solana gaped. The seconds seemed to stretch on forever. “You and Commander Shepard?” she finally said. “But she… you’re…” She blinked, at a loss for words.

 

Garrus felt like he should say something more, but how could he explain the way his feelings had snuck up on him? There weren’t words in the galaxy for how it felt when he saw her alive on Omega, when she’d propositioned him in the main battery, or when he’d stood pacing outside her quarters with an offering of cheap alcohol and a battered soul. How could he explain that this human hadn’t stolen his heart, but earned it bit by bit over the course of their time together?

 

His sister saved him from fumbling explanations with a flick of her mandibles. “Spirits, I should have known,” she groaned. “Of course you’re together.”

 

“But… how?” he spluttered. He was sure he hadn’t let anything slip. He’d been careful.

 

“Garrus, you disappeared when you thought she was dead, and you never shut up about her.” Wry amusement appeared in her eyes. “I thought it was just a case of serious hero worship. Spectre, savior of the Citadel and so on.” She grinned. “It all makes so much sense now.” Suddenly Solana’s eyes and mandibles widened. “Dad is going to kill you!”

 

Garrus winced and rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I was kind of hoping you wouldn’t mention it to him.” He’d already worked out that his father wouldn’t be pleased. A Spectre? A human? His father’s mission to mold him into a respectable, upstanding turian citizen seemed like a lost cause. When he glanced back at Solana, she was holding in laughter. Sisters were evil.

 

Garrus sighed. Eager to lead the subject away from their father—and end this awkward conversation as soon as possible—he got to the point. “So is this going to be a problem?” he asked. “All things considered, do you still want to join up?”

 

The laughter disappeared, replaced with a bright and determined look. “Are you kidding?” she exclaimed. “Of course I do!”

 

Solana grinned over her shoulder as she opened the bedroom door. “Now come on, I don’t want to miss our flight.” With that, she disappeared through the doorway, leaving Garrus to scramble after her.

 

Chapter Text

Shepard sighed, staring at the messages on her terminal.

 

I never should have let the team leave the Normandy, she thought rebelliously.

 

Somewhere inside her, she had to have known this would happen. It brought to mind the words her father had spoken years ago, about not collecting scattered seeds.

 

You have to give them the chance to grow, Janie.

 

She smiled at the memory. She’d been all of five years old when she’d had enough of watching her parents farm the land, and decided she needed a garden of her own. So on one beautiful sunny weekend morning, she went out with her dad and sprinkled seeds over a small plot behind their prefab home. She watered them every day. But five-year-olds weren’t renowned for their patience. Less than a week had passed before Jane’s father caught her trying to extract the seeds from the dark, moist soil. She wanted them back.

 

Instead of regaining what she’d lost, all she managed to do was ruin the plot. Her father, in his eternal patience, had used it for a lesson, and then helped her try again. The second attempt had worn the five-year-old’s patience down to temper-tantrum levels before small green sprigs had emerged from the ground. But when they served her vegetables for dinner, she’d discovered how her perseverance had been rewarded.

 

This time it wasn’t seeds, but people, and the results were still an unknown. When someone planted a seed, they knew what kind of plant they would grow. Shepard didn’t know what her efforts would afford her, or if it would even be worth it in the end, but she should have known that it wouldn’t be so easy to collect her team as it was to scatter them.

 

Mordin’s message had referenced a classified STG project that was too important to abandon. Legion had requested more time on Rannoch with the geth. Shepard didn’t quite understand why his physical proximity was necessary, but she could hardly tell him no.

 

Tali’s message had been as cryptic as Mordin’s and far more worrying—anything that kept Tali off the Normandy must be big—and Jacob still hadn’t responded at all.

 

To Shepard’s surprise, Zaeed had told her he was returning. She’d half expected him to change his mind and take on some new contract while he was away but he’d scoffed at the idea, sounding almost insulted that she thought he might not return. “Hell no,” he’d said. “We’ve got a goddamn galaxy to save.”

 

At the moment, Shepard was waiting for Garrus—and his sister, oddly enough—to board the Normandy. She couldn’t deny that she was relieved to have Garrus back with her, in spite of the contrivance between him and Miranda to get him back onboard early. She’d been missing him, especially in the difficult days following the Alpha relay explosion. He had always backed her up, no matter what, and that was exactly what she needed just now.

 

“Commander?”

 

Shepard glanced up at the automated voice coming from the intercom. “What is it, EDI?”

 

“XO Lawson has requested your presence. She has finally reached Jacob Taylor,” EDI told her, but Shepard frowned. Something sounded off in the AI’s tone, as odd as that seemed.

 

She chose her words carefully. “EDI, are you worried?”

 

The silence before the AI’s words was longer than it should have been. “I do not precisely feel worry as an organic would, but I am dissatisfied with the uncertainty of his situation.”

 

Shepard stilled, a cold feeling creeping through her. “What do you mean, the ‘uncertainty of his situation’?” she pressed.

 

“Please speak to XO Lawson,” EDI stated, and would say no more.

 

“Damn it,” Shepard swore, taking quick steps to the elevator. She pounded a fist on the button and began pacing even before the doors closed.

 

 

“It is good to have you back, Deputy Commander Vakarian,” EDI greeted as the airlock door closed behind him. “Please leave your bags inside the airlock. Commander Shepard and Executive Officer Lawson will meet you in the conference room. Commencing decontamination sequence.”

 

“Thanks, EDI,” Garrus replied. “And please, just call me Garrus.”

 

Solana frowned from beside him. “How advanced is the Normandy VI?” she asked. “She actually sounded happy to see you.”

 

Garrus resisted the urge to wince. He’d forgotten to warn her. “She’s, uh, not a VI,” he said hesitantly.

 

After a split-second of confusion, Solana’s eyes widened. “You have an illegal AI on your ship?”

 

EDI’s voice returned. “Technically, I am only illegal in council space,” she stated. “As we are not in Council space, the legality has no bearing on me at this time.”

 

Solana’s bewildered look and Garrus’s nervous silence prompted the AI to add, “That was a joke.”

 

Solana stared at Garrus incredulously. “You have an illegal AI. Who makes bad jokes.” Her voice was flat.

 

Garrus shrugged. “EDI’s saved our lives more than once,” he said in an attempt to explain. “She’s… a friend.”

 

“Decontamination complete,” EDI said, and added in a surprisingly warm tone, “Thank you, Garrus. I consider you a friend as well.”

 

Solana let out a disbelieving laugh as they stepped into the CIC. “I feel like I’m in one of the old adventure vids from when we were kids,” she said. “Now all I need is a dutiful sidekick and a troublemaker, and I’ll be all set.”

 

Garrus laughed, remembering. “I’m sure I can find you both of those things on this ship,” he told her, mandibles flaring into a smile.

 

As promised, Shepard and Miranda met them in the conference room, Zaeed in tow. Garrus hid a smile at Solana’s sudden uncertainty upon meeting Shepard. There were a lot of reasons she might feel shy—Shepard was a galactic hero, Sol’s new CO, and her brother’s girlfriend—but he hadn’t expected it from his bold younger sister.

 

“Solana,” Shepard greeted warmly, ignoring his sister’s wide-eyed look. “I’m glad to finally meet you. Garrus gave me a very good impression of your skills.” She shot him a smile. “I’m sure you’ll be a useful addition to the crew.”

 

After all the introductions had been made, Shepard debriefed them on the Alpha relay incident. His stomach churned at the thought of her on that station alone, trapped and sedated, barely escaping in time. He had to remind himself more than once during the telling that she made it out okay.

 

But what if she hadn’t? a voice whispered in the back of his mind. He gripped the edge of the conference table hard enough that Solana gave him a look.

 

He couldn’t allow himself to think that way. He had to trust in Shepard’s abilities, that she could get herself out of nearly every situation she got herself into. He had to believe in her. If he didn’t, he would lose his mind.

 

Her eyes had a faraway look as she described the mission, speaking only in facts and figures, distancing herself from the emotions stirred up by the incident. A vision of the reapers’ arrival, she said simply, and though Solana might not understand, he knew enough to worry.

 

She ended her story by explaining her meeting with Hackett, the implications of which were enough to give even him pause. The admiral shot quickly to the top of Garrus’s shit list, both for putting Shepard in danger and for letting her take the fall. Anger welled up like blood from a gash, and Garrus tamped down on it, attempting to stem the flow. This wasn’t the time or place. He’d hang onto that anger, knowing there might be a time when he’d need it. If the Alliance laid a hand on her, there would be hell to pay.

 

“I’ve delayed the reapers’ arrival,” Shepard said, “but we need to be ready. We don’t yet have an estimate of how long it will take them to reach the rest of the galaxy.”

 

“So all that did was buy is some goddamn time?” Zaeed demanded, looking more disgruntled than usual.

 

Shepard leveled a harsh gaze at him. “No,” she said. “It gives us a chance.”

 

After a pause, she looked away. “We’ll discuss that more in depth later,” she said sternly, effectively ending the conversation. “Right now, we have a mission to complete.” She nodded to Miranda, who took over seamlessly.

 

“Cerberus has targeted an enclave of ex-Cerberus scientists,” the XO began. “We need to extract an estimated forty people from a siege situation. They are mostly untrained civilians—scientists and their families, including a handful of children. Jacob Taylor is with them and has vouched for them, and I’m inclined to believe him when he says that they’ve severed all ties,” she said smoothly.

 

Garrus followed her line of thought. “If they hadn’t, it would be a waste of resources for Cerberus to attack.” Jacob’s testimony held weight as well. Taylor was level-headed and understood the stakes. He wouldn’t take this risk unless he was certain.

 

“Jacob is currently organizing their defenses,” Miranda explained. “You’ll rendezvous with him when you arrive.”

 

Shepard stepped forward. “We’ll hit atmo in just over twelve hours. I want everyone suited up and at the shuttle when we’re ten minutes out.” Her eyes strayed to the corner behind them. “Have you been listening, Kasumi?” she asked.

 

Garrus heard his sister’s sharp intake of breath as the hooded thief materialized. “How’d you find me?” Kasumi asked, pouting.

 

Shepard raised a brow at the thief, the corner of her mouth curling up into a smile. “Like you’d be anywhere else.” She addressed the room. “Liara tells me Cerberus has been recruiting soldiers in high numbers, so expect heavy resistance,” she said. “Now everyone get some sleep and be ready to go tomorrow. Dismissed.”

 

Miranda was quick to approach Solana, insisting on taking her on a tour of the ship and showing her to her bunk. The others filtered out as well, until Shepard and Garrus were alone. She looked up at him, amusement in her tired eyes.

 

“What?” he asked curiously.

 

That amusement turned into a full-blown grin. “She looks just like you. I mean, if you were smaller. And a girl.”

 

He raised a browplate at her. “I think this is the part where I say ‘you humans are all racist’.”

 

Shepard rolled her eyes. “You just don’t want to hear it because you’re her brother,” she insisted. “She’s quite pretty, actually,” she mused.

 

Garrus gave her a look. “You’re not going to leave me for my sister now, are you?” he teased, reaching out to her.

 

Shepard grinned up at him as he pulled her close, and moved to stroke his scarred mandible. “Please. I don’t see any sexy scars on her face.”

 

She pulled his forehead down to meet hers, and, in spite of everything they’d been through and everything to come, things felt right. Like this was exactly where he was meant to be.

 

“Come on,” she said, pulling out of the embrace. “We’ve got some catching up to do.” She smiled and took his hand, not releasing it until the elevator reached the privacy of the captain’s quarters.

 

When her cabin door locked behind them she pressed him back against it, fingers already working the clasps of his armor. She kissed along the unscarred side of his face with a hungry fervor that left him gasping. Distracted by her lips and tongue, his fingers fumbled on the fastenings of her fatigues in an eager wish to reach her body and touch the flesh that reacted so deliciously to his touch.

 

She was pliable and soft, muscles moving under satiny skin with each motion she made. So strong and yet so fragile, he thought. Spirits, he’d missed this. He’d missed her.

 

The way her fingernails scraped along the grooves between his plates didn’t distract him quite enough from the desperate relief of simply seeing her again, touching her and loving her, after the sickening fear of the Alpha relay news. A low keening cry escaped him at the memory, at the guilt of knowing he hadn’t been there when she needed him.

 

“It’s okay,” she whispered gently.

 

For a few moments her movements were soft and caressing, meant to comfort rather than inflame. And then she trailed her fingers down to the seam at his groin. She lowered herself to the floor, gripping his sensitive waist and rubbing her thumbs up and down on the unplated hide. He groaned and squeezed her shoulders as she licked along the widening gap between his plates.

 

She teased him until he emerged, engorged and aching and ready to take her. He didn’t, not yet. He lifted her away, carefully maneuvering her down the stairs until he reached the bed. Pushing her backwards, she fell upon it, legs opening up to reveal her dripping sex.

 

The first time he’d attempted this he’d been nervous, afraid of hurting her or putting himself in the med bay with a very embarrassing explanation for Chakwas. Neither of those things had happened. She’d opened herself to him in a beautifully erotic display of trust, allowing a dangerous predator access to the most sensitive and precious parts of her body, and he’d gone down on her with all the careful precision he used on the battlefield. Though he’d become more confident with the act, he was careful still, unwilling to breach that trust he so treasured.

 

At the first lick she shuddered and he smirked. She was so reactive to touch. He held her still as he delved into her again, eliciting a low moan. Out on the battlefield she was so controlled, but in the sacred privacy of their trysts she could finally let go. He was determined to make the most of it.

 

He tortured her slowly at first and then moved to satisfy her, singularly focused on his goal like a target in scope. Being away from her had been maddening. He craved things he’d never wanted before being with her—the softness of her skin, her little gasps and moans, the alien scent of her desire that drove him wild. He never thought he had a human fetish, but there was nothing he desired more than the human that lay bare in front of him.

 

She came with a shudder and a moan, and he knew that he had to have her, needed to be within her where he belonged. Without waiting for her to recover, he climbed atop her and thrust inside. She cried out in pain and pleasure. When he hesitated, her eyes opened to meet his, lips curving into a seductive smile.

 

He thrust rhythmically and the smile slipped away, lost in the throes of passion. He was full to bursting, nearly ready to spill within her. Not yet, his mind said, and he strained against himself.

 

He lowered himself to be closer to her. “Jane,” he said low in her ear, and caressed her cheek with his tongue. She let out a breathy moan, and then her fingers were on his waist and he was gasping her name, unable to hold out any longer. She cried out for him and pulled her down atop her, and they clung together in the afterglow, neither able to let the other out of their arms quite yet.

 

“I’m glad you’re okay, Shepard,” he said simply, his heart still constricting at the thought of what could have happened—what had almost happened.

 

“I’m always okay,” she told him.

 

He needed her words to be true—and they nearly always were—but nearly just wasn’t enough.

 

 

When Solana stepped off the elevator into the cargo bay, the first thing she noticed was that her brother and Commander Shepard were standing way too closely.

 

Garrus was helping Shepard position a sniper rifle in her arms, speaking instructions softly in her ear as he guided her hands into place from behind. Solana watched the pair from across the room, oblivious to her presence, and was struck by the changes in her brother. She’d never seen him like this.

 

He had never been serious about a woman. He’d brought girlfriends home before, of course, but the relationships never lasted—and he never seemed too upset about it. Their father had despaired of Garrus ever making a ‘good’ marriage, and their mother had despaired of him marrying at all—but Solana saw something different now. This was far more serious than any of his relationships before. The way he looked at her… if this didn’t last, it just might break him.

 

A few different feelings warred within her at this realization. Part of her mourned the old Garrus, eager and brave, throwing caution to the wind with a swagger that she’d always wished she had. Part of her resented Shepard for how she seemed to mean more to him than his family ever did. Part of her was just glad to see him happy. And another part of her ached painfully, wishing for something even half as tender and beautiful as what she saw in front of her.

 

She alerted them to her presence with unnaturally loud footsteps as she approached the shuttle. They both glanced her direction, and Garrus pulled away, his hands lingering on Shepard for the shortest of moments.

 

Shepard smiled, lowering the rifle as she turned. “Ready for some action today?” she asked.

 

Solana was a bit nervous, but she made herself smile back. “Yes, ma’am,” she replied. She glanced down, noticing the rifle in Shepard’s hands, and her mandibles widened in surprise. The commander had a M-98 Widow?

 

No, not a Widow, the Widow—the one Garrus had been working on at home for weeks. Solana had teased him  mercilessly about the extra recoil dampeners and adjustment mods, about how he’d stripped most of the parts and replaced them with ones a quarter of the weight. Told him that if he was such a good sniper, he wouldn’t need to do any of that. He hadn’t taken the bait even once.

 

Shepard smirked as she saw Solana staring at the weapon. “Like it?” Her eyes sparkled. Solana didn’t need to answer—the look on her face gave it away. “Garrus modified it so that I could shoot it without breaking my arm.” Garrus shifted nervously, but Shepard just kept grinning.

 

“You’ve had sniper training?” Solana asked curiously. “I thought Garrus said you were a biotic.” Even heavily modified, she wondered how well the commander could handle it. Fully extended, the weapon had to be nearly as long as she was tall.

 

“Special forces,” Shepard said, as if that explained everything. “Regardless of class, no one gets past the first level of N-school without weapon proficiency in all categories.” She shrugged. “I thought it might come in handy if we have to hold a position today.”

 

Solana shifted from foot to foot, eager to get going. Garrus was still and quiet, but Shepard seemed to be similarly impatient. “How long do we have, EDI?”

 

“We are twelve minutes out, Commander.”

 

“I guess we’re just waiting on Kasumi,” Shepard said, eyes searching the room.

 

Solana jumped as a figure materialized next to the commander. “You think I would be late for this, Shep?” Kasumi asked with a laugh. “The sooner we get those abs back on the ship, the happier I’ll be.”

 

Shepard laughed. “Still taking every chance to surprise me?”

 

“Guilty as charged,” Kasumi confessed cheerfully.

 

All Shepard did was shake her head. “Alright, we’re all here. Everyone into the shuttle,” she instructed, and stepped inside.

 

Once inside, Solana shuffled over to her brother. “Garrus,” she whispered, “What are abs?”

 

The rest of the ride down was fairly quiet. Shepard gave only a few instructions, telling them what the pilot and AI—she still couldn’t get her head around there being an AI—had been able to learn from comm chatter and visuals from the Normandy. There wasn’t much intel, so they’d be taking account of the situation once they touched down. Solana hated going in blind, but the others didn’t seem fazed by it. The way Garrus talked about Shepard, it seemed like this was a regular occurrence for the Normandy.

 

The first thing Solana thought when the shuttle doors opened was that it was really fucking cold. Then they hit the ground, and the cold had ceased to matter. The only thing that mattered was killing the swarm of Cerberus troops and Loki mechs that had descended upon them the moment they landed.

 

“Cerberus must have a new source of funding,” Shepard murmured to Garrus as they jumped down. “So many mechs…”

 

It had been a while since Solana had been in a combat situation, but it all came back as naturally as breathing. She and Garrus fell back, shorting out shields and targeting soldiers from a distance, while Shepard and Kasumi barged right into the thick of things. Kasumi disappeared almost immediately, only appearing for a moment to strike down an opponent before cloaking again. Shepard, on the other hand, seemed to have no such intentions of hiding.

 

She was a biotic whirlwind the likes of which Solana had never seen before. A shockwave of biotic force cleared a path from her to the facility’s back door, and she barged ahead with what seemed to be a serious lack of concern for her own safety. But when she turned back to face the enemies just rising again to their feet, she gave them no opportunity for reprisal. With a swift motion, she raised a pair of Cerberus troops and slammed them to the ground. Solana noticed an enemy approaching Shepard from the other side, but before she could so much as call out a warning, the soldier’s head exploded with a loud boom. The commander didn’t even glance towards the sound.

 

Solana had forgotten what it was like to be so completely in sync with a team the way her brother and Shepard seemed to be. Even the sneaky human, Kasumi, seemed to work within their rhythm. She was the only one surprised each time the hooded woman materialized on the battlefield. It was a struggle to try to fit in with this team that seemed to know each other so well, but it was already obvious that she would enjoy being a part of such a well-oiled machine. She was determined to prove herself worthy of this posting.

 

As Solana reloaded her rifle, she heard a strange, mechanical noise from behind her. She turned, dreading what she might see. “Mech!” she cried, and clambered for cover from the sudden spray of bullets from the YMIR’s machine gun. Safely behind cover, she glanced back at the commander.

 

Shepard had trapped the last few enemies in a singularity, and was running towards where Solana and Garrus were pinned. She dove and slid into cover next to Solana just in time to avoid a rocket blast.

 

She heard her brother growl. “I wish you would stop doing that,” he said, voice low.

 

Despite the mech bearing down on them, Shepard actually turned to him and grinned. “Why fix what’s not broken?” she quipped. The only response she received was another growl.

 

“Okay,” Shepard began. “You two stay down and take out that thing’s shields,” she instructed the two turians. “Kasumi, wait until the shields are down, then strike the CPU unit from behind.” Her voice was surprisingly unconcerned.

 

How often have they done this? Solana wondered. She pulled up the shield-overload function on her omni-tool, activating it a split-second after Garrus did. The mech sputtered and crackled, but took another step towards them. The crate she hid behind creaked under fire. Their cover wasn’t going to last much longer.

 

“Kasumi?” Shepard called, sounding—if not appropriately concerned—slightly more worried than before.

 

Solana peeked out of cover just in time to see the hooded woman appear behind the mech and stab it with a blade, frying the unit.

 

As if it had been nothing at all, Shepard stood and strode over to the facility door. “EDI,” she said into the comm, “Have you been able to raise Jacob?”

 

“Yes, Commander, but I must warn you that the connection is faulty. Patching you in.”

 

Solana winced at the sudden burst of static in her comm.

 

“—pard? That you?”

 

“Jacob, we’re at the back door. Clear of Cerberus for now,” the commander said loudly.

 

“Coming—open it—my way now.”

 

Just a few minutes later, the lock on the door blinked from red to green, and it opened to reveal a dark-skinned human.

 

“Damn, am I glad to see y’all,” he said, and motioned them inside.

 

 

Solana shifted from foot to foot restlessly as she glanced through the window on the far side of the room, eyeing three figures in deep conversation. It seemed like Shepard and Garrus had been talking with the dark-skinned human—Jacob Taylor, she remembered—forever, though it had probably only been a few minutes. To her mind, a few minutes was too long. Cerberus had pulled back, but it wouldn’t be long before they began another strike.

 

Her eyes darted from the commander’s impromptu meeting to one of the humans, a scientist. He looked away as soon as she met his eyes, turning back to the terminal he was working on. Her mandibles pulled in tightly to her face. She didn’t like it here.

 

She’d forgotten, at first, that these people used to be Cerberus, but the longer she stuck around, the more obvious it became. Some of them would stare openly, others would look at her out of the corner of their eye, as if to keep an eye on her. Ridiculous. She’d come with the rescue team. There was no reason for them to be suspicious or fearful of her.

 

It was unfair of her to paint them all the same, she knew. Most of the scientists had been civil enough, some quite friendly. Garrus had told her that not everyone in Cerberus was a bad person or a xenophobe, but even so, Solana had seen and heard enough to be uncomfortable.

 

She felt another stare upon her, and turned to look for the culprit. She bit back the rude words that were on the tip of her tongue and then realized the stare wasn’t coming from one of the scientists. A human child was standing a meter or so away from her, looking up with big brown eyes. Solana felt herself soften a bit. The child—girl, she guessed, based on the large bow in her hair—was only as high as her knee. She smiled at the child, and then realized that the little girl probably couldn’t even tell she was smiling. This child might never have seen a turian before in her life.

 

She crouched down closer to the child’s level. “Hello,” she said gently. “I’m Solana.” She paused, but the little girl didn’t respond, only continued to stare. “What’s your name?” she asked, trying to be as unthreatening as possible.

 

“Anna,” the child whispered, and put a thumb in her mouth.

 

Suddenly, the building shook. Cerberus was back. Solana steadied herself and glanced back at the little girl. She was hardly an expert at reading human expressions, but the child’s terror was impossible to misinterpret.

 

She met the little girl’s eyes. “We’re going to get you out of here safe, Anna.”

 

The child pulled her thumb out of her mouth long enough to say, “Promise?”

 

Solana hesitated, not wanting to lie. But when she saw the way Commander Shepard fiercely strode into the room, Garrus and Jacob on her heels, she felt certain. She looked back at the girl and smiled. “Promise.”

 

 

Just as Solana ducked behind cover, a stream of bullets flew over her head. Too close.

 

She pulled up the glowing interface of her omni-tool and typed in a short command. The YMIR mech exploded, shooting shrapnel out from all sides. She didn’t derive any satisfaction from the act, however, not even relief. It wasn’t a victory—only a delay. They’d been holding the line for some time now but hadn’t managed to advance it.

 

Two mechs dropped in behind the remaining troops to replace the one she had destroyed. Solana swore. She glanced over at Commander Shepard, crouched next to her brother behind an overturned munitions crate. The commander rose in and out of cover sporadically, alternating between biotics and weapons, dodging rockets and machine gun fire with a nonchalance that made it seem like she’d been doing this her entire life.

 

For a short moment, Solana pictured a tiny Commander Shepard in full armor shooting up mercs from the cradle. The amusing thought made her smile, but it didn’t last long.

 

Solana looked back out at the enemy. The Cerberus soldiers were setting up a line of turrets. She activated her cloak before taking aim with her rifle, taking her time to line up a shot that would take out both a turret and the engineer activating it.

 

Crack. One man down. Another was taken out by Kasumi’s sudden appearance, a third crushed by biotics. There was nothing where a soldier’s head used to be, and then the last turret overloaded. More troops dropped in.

 

They needed to find a way past the soldiers. They were blocked from the shuttles—their only means of escape. Solana growled as her frustration messed with her aim. She took a deep breath and aimed again, stopping short as she realized Shepard was staring at her.

 

“Solana,” she heard over a backdrop of gunfire and explosions, “Is it possible for you to cover a second person with your tactical cloak?”

 

Solana’s eyes widened, the battle forgotten as she realized what Shepard intended. “You want to sneak the remaining civilians past Cerberus?”

 

Spirits, that was dangerous.

 

“Can you do it?” Shepard pressed, blue eyes focused on her as if there was nothing around but the two of them.

 

Solana was quiet for a moment, considering the commander’s request. She took a shot, reloaded, and finally answered Shepard’s question. “With a few adjustments,” she said, “Yes.”

 

Just as suddenly as Shepard’s eyes had found her, they were turned away again. Three soldiers were lifted into the air and slammed to the ground. “Kasumi?”

 

The hooded human materialized next to the commander. “Shep?”

 

Shepard pulled the rifle off her back and set to aim. “You and Solana take the children one by one to the first shuttle. We’ll keep them distracted.” There was no discussion, just an order. Solana quickly fiddled with the cloak settings on her omni-tool.

 

Kasumi went first, taking a child’s hand and disappearing in front of her eyes. Solana scanned the crowd of civilians, and found a friendly face—perhaps the only one. “Come here,” she said to Anna. “I need to take you someplace safe.”

 

She hefted the child into her arms, activated her cloak, and prayed to the spirits that this plan would work.

 

It worked, and she felt a sense of satisfaction that the mission had gone off without a hitch—until she heard the explosion and cry of pain.

 

 

Chapter Text

Shepard laid Jacob down as quickly as she dared, glancing up only long enough to see that the rest of her team made it aboard the shuttle. Kasumi was kneeling beside her in no time, her hands hovering over Jacob as if she feared to touch him. Shepard applied medi-gel as quickly as possible—Jacob’s suit dispenser seemed to have been damaged in the blast.

 

Garrus ran his omni-tool over Jacob’s prone form as Shepard stood up. “He’ll make it to see Chakwas,” he said, “But we better hurry. There appear to be some internal injuries and at least one broken bone.”

 

“Damn it,” Kasumi said suddenly. “I should have gotten that last heavy.” Her head was bent, hood hiding her face, but Shepard saw a tear fall onto Jacob’s armor.

 

She put her hand on Kasumi’s shoulder. “You can’t take the blame on yourself. None of us saw that soldier pick up the missile launcher. You and Solana had other things to worry about.”

 

I’m the one who’s at fault, Shepard left unsaid, her eyes running over Jacob’s injuries. His armor was a total loss, but Shepard was grateful that she’d convinced him to wear it. The exposed skin was a mass of blood and burns. She looked down at her own hands, covered in blood. It wasn’t the first time she’d had the blood of a teammate on her hands, but each time she hoped it would be the last.

 

The ride to the Normandy felt like an eternity as they all remained in silent vigil, watching the slow rise and fall of Jacob’s chest.

 

 

Solana glanced up from her food as she saw Commander Shepard exit the med bay and head her direction. “Ma’am?” she questioned, moving to stand.

 

The commander waved her back down. “At ease, Solana. I’m just coming to check in,” she told her, going to sit down in the seat across from her. “And please,” she added, “just call me Shepard.”

 

Solana nodded. She wasn’t quite sure how to approach the commander. The human had an unquestionable air of authority on the battlefield and seemed to be in command of any room she entered, but she approached crewmen like friends. Solana didn’t know how to navigate the waters of a human ship, although, as she understood, Shepard wasn’t normal even by human standards.

 

She noticed the commander watching her and spoke up. “Is your friend going to be okay?” she asked, glancing towards the med bay.

 

“Jacob will be fine… eventually. The damage is repairable, but it will take some time.” She looked back towards the med bay, where Solana saw Kasumi and Miranda through the window.

 

Solana cleared her throat. “Commander, I wanted to thank you for agreeing to take me on.”

 

Shepard waved her off. “No need. You handled yourself well out there, Solana. I think you’ll be a good addition to the team. Garrus didn’t overestimate your skill.” After a moment, Shepard motioned to the forgotten plate of food in front of her. “I hope the food is okay,” she said. “Garrus would never tell me otherwise, even when I asked.”

 

Solana smiled inwardly at that—she would never dream of complaining either. “It’s better than I expected,” she said honestly.

 

“Let me guess—you were expecting ration packets?” Shepard smiled at Solana’s lack of response. She stood and stretched. “I’ll see what I can do about the food,” she said, unprompted. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to make your stay here more comfortable, Solana,” she insisted, moving away from the table.

 

“Everything’s fine, Commander,” Solana reassured her. “And… thanks.”

 

Shepard shot her a smile over her shoulder and went up the steps towards the main battery. Solana’s eyes followed her thoughtfully until the battery door shut behind her. She still wasn’t sure what to make of Commander Shepard, but she was pretty sure she liked her.

 

 

Shepard woke up gasping.

 

Her eyes flew open to dark and stars, and for a moment she thought she had gone into another nightmare, the one she could never quite remember. Breathe, she reminded herself, finding comfort in the fact that she still could. She pressed a hand to her chest as if it could slow the racing of her heart. She should have remembered to close the skylight before sleeping.

 

“Shepard?”

 

Her eyes snapped to the source of the dual-toned voice, bewildered for a moment before she remembered why he was there. She’d invited him to stay, to spend every night in her quarters if he wanted. She hadn’t considered the possibility—no, the inevitability—of this happening. Stupid of her, really.

 

“Dream?” Garrus asked quietly.

 

She rolled onto her side to face him, faltering a little under his steady gaze. It was kind, almost too kind. She didn’t know what to do with that.

 

“Do you ever get them?” She dodged the question transparently.

 

“Often enough,” he said simply. Of Omega, she imagined. She didn’t know whether he wanted to share or if he hoped his confession would inspire her to respond in kind. She was quiet.

 

“What was it about?” he asked. She could almost see the list running through his mind as he catalogued them. Mindoir, Akuze, Eden Prime, Alchera, Omega 4…

 

“Aratoht.”

 

She closed her eyes as she felt him freeze at the name. Her heart sank. Maybe this would be the one thing he couldn’t back her up on. Maybe it was the breaking point. The news reporters thought it might be retribution for Mindoir so many years ago. Maybe he wondered if that was true.

 

His voice came haltingly. “Shepard, I… are you ever going to talk about this? I can see how much it weighs on you.”

 

Her eyes flew open. “I don’t know. Are you ever going to talk about your trip home?”

 

Garrus looked away. Since he returned from Palaven, there were moments when his eyes would have a faraway look, full of guilt and regret. Neither of them were good at opening up, even to each other. Years of command and losing people she loved had made Shepard quite skilled in turning a conversation around, and she rarely missed it when someone used the same tactics. She’d been waiting for him to talk on his own, but now she wondered if he had ever intended to.

 

“I’d be a pretty crappy girlfriend if I didn’t notice how much it upsets you, Garrus.”

 

He shifted uncomfortably, still not meeting her eyes. “Shepard, you have enough to deal with already and I—”

 

“That’s Jane to you,” she interrupted, “and I don’t want to hear that bullshit about not wanting to burden me with your problems. You always try to take care of me, so why won’t you let me try to do the same?”

 

His blue eyes flew up to meet hers, boring fiercely into her own. “You take care of everybody. Do you really need one more person to worry about?”

 

“Tough shit, Vakarian,” she snapped. “I’m going to worry about you either way.”

 

It was his turn to falter. She went in for the kill. “So will you at least let me know what it is I’m worrying about?”

 

He took a moment before raising his eyes to hers. “I’ll talk if you do,” he bargained, pinning her down with a challenging gaze.

 

She let out a long breath. Had he ever fallen for her avoidance tactics? Or had he been humoring her all along, waiting her out with a sniper’s patience?

 

She didn’t know how to share these things. She barely knew how to trust, not like this. But for him… she’d try. For him she’d try just about anything.

 

“Okay,” Shepard agreed, hoping he knew what it cost her.

 

By the gentle way his fingers stroked over hers, she thought that maybe he did.

 

 

The team was already gathered in the conference room; there was no backing out now. Even Jacob had insisted on attending—in a wheelchair and heavily drugged, but present nonetheless.

 

Shepard was going to propose her first plan to stop the reapers. It might be no more than a stopgap measure, but what wasn’t anymore? She’d try anything to hang on. Anything to survive.

 

Shepard stood at the head of the table, straightening into a military stance. “EDI,” she called, “Please pull up the galaxy map.”

 

As the interface popped up, the team was drawn to it, conversation dying down to murmurs. Shepard looked around the room, meeting eyes with each of her team before she continued. “EDI, please present to the team your projection of the reapers’ path.”

 

The Alpha relay lit red, harshly contrasted against the map’s cool blue hues. Shepard’s chest constricted at the sight, but she forced her expression to stay level. Now was not the time for her guilt.

 

EDI’s simulated voice came over the speakers. “This is the reapers’ last known location, as of twelve days ago, at the Alpha relay destruction.”

 

Shepard could feel eyes on her, but kept her focus on the galaxy map. She didn’t dare look up. She couldn’t bear to see the questions and judgment in their eyes.

 

“This is the furthest known relay from the center of the galaxy,” EDI continued, “several thousand light years away from the next nearest relay, located within the Kite’s Nest.” The Kite’s Nest relay was now ringed in red as well, and a thick line extended from the Alpha relay to meet it. “From the Kite’s Nest, it is one relay jump to the Exodus Cluster, a hub from which the reapers can travel to multiple systems, easily accessing the rest of the galaxy.”

 

The line extended to the Exodus Cluster which now blinked an insistent white, lines shooting off in all directions towards the relays that linked it. Worried frowns and murmurs spread among the team.

 

Shepard held her hand up for silence. “EDI has been working hard to calculate the time frame before the reapers reach this hub. EDI, if you will?”

 

“Yes, Commander. The relay jump from the Kite’s Nest to the Exodus Cluster will be brief, but the reapers will have to travel from the Bahak system to Kite’s Nest via FTL. We do not know the precise speed at which the reapers travel, but my estimates place their arrival in the Kite’s Nest between six and twelve weeks.”

 

There were no murmurs this time.

 

Shepard had carried a lead weight of fear inside her ever since EDI had presented her with those numbers. Not enough time, her mind screamed. There was never enough time.

 

Shepard intervened before her team could be consumed by their worries. “This is where the plan comes in,” she said, and paused until all eyes were on her again. “The Exodus relay is key. If we can prevent the reapers from passing through it, we gain an advantage.” She took a deep breath. “We need to subvert the relay.”

 

Solana voiced the team’s concerns. “Subvert?” she asked. “What do you mean by subvert?”

 

“There are a few different options.” Shepard began to pace in front of the table. “We could shut it down, or better, direct it elsewhere. Whatever we do, we have to prevent the reapers from using the hub to access the rest of the galaxy. Destroying it would, of course, be a last resort.” She tried not to grimace at the reminder of her handiwork.

 

Jacob gave a small shake of his head. “No one knows how the relays work, Commander. Sure, you destroyed one,” he said, “but we don’t have a spare asteroid to tow in.”

 

Shepard’s lips curved into a hint of a smile, despite her discomfort at his insinuation. “We don’t know how they work, not yet,” she said, “but the protheans did.” Realization dawned on the group. “And we’ve just acquired some of the most talented human minds in the galaxy to research the problem.”

 

“While they’re off researching, what the hell are we going to do?” Zaeed asked bluntly.

 

“We’ll hunt down any information on the relays we can find. Isolate any reaper tech we come across.” Her hands tightened into fists. “And we’re going to do our damnedest to find evidence that can’t be ignored.”

 

Chapter Text

Shepard smiled at Liara from across the shuttle. She wasn’t sure the asari had stopped vibrating with excitement since their vid call, nearly a week ago.

 

“Ilos, Shepard!” she said, voice husky with fervor. “I want to go with you. I can help.”

 

Shepard grinned at her old friend. “Of course,” she said teasingly. “I wouldn’t dream of going without my prothean expert.” Neither of them could temper their smiles at the idea of one more mission together.

 

“Pack your bags, Liara,” she ordered, eyes bright with excitement. “We’re going hunting.”

 

The asari fidgeted in her seat, jumping up the moment the shuttle touched down. Shepard motioned for Liara to wait as she stepped into the cockpit. “Why are we stopping, O’Connor?” she asked her new shuttle pilot.

 

“Bunker’s closed,” he said, motioning to the view on the monitors.

 

Shepard was hit with a sense of deja-vu. She stepped back into the hold, smiling wryly at her companions. “Well, Garrus, I hope you remember the way to the control switch.”

 

The three of them stepped out into a wild but familiar landscape. Shepard’s eyes followed the lines of the stone carved buildings, eroded by time and nature, covered in the grasping green plants that had grown around them. The air was still.

 

“Huh,” Garrus said. “It looks exactly the same.”

 

“It has stood for fifty thousand years,” Liara replied quietly. “The time since we have been here is insignificant in comparison.” She gazed around in obvious awe of the ancient, broken world.

 

“If I remember correctly, we need to go this way,” Shepard interrupted gently, reminding them of their task.

 

“Oh!” Liara pulled up her omni-tool. “Here.”

 

Both Garrus and Shepard’s omni-tools lit up as they received Liara’s file transfer. The commander raised her brows as she opened it. “You have a map of this place?”

 

“After the Normandy… after you…” She faltered. “I was invited to be a part of the council’s investigation here, such as it was.” She typed in a few more commands. “There. Our maps are synced. The control station is here,” she said. “I’ll mark the quickest route.”

 

They moved quickly into the eerily quiet complex. An unsettling feeling grew stronger inside Shepard with every step. The ground beneath her feet was still stained with white splatters from the geth they had destroyed. The corpses were gone but for a few abandoned bits and pieces, perhaps taken by the council’s researchers. Above and around them writhed the gnarled roots of overgrown vegetation, left untouched for fifty thousand years.

 

“This place gives me the creeps,” she shuddered.

 

Garrus smirked at her, but the expression seemed forced. “You mean the dead protheans, the dead geth, or the dead VI that spied on us last time we were here?”

 

Shepard couldn’t help but laugh, the sound echoing hauntingly in the great room. “All of the above,” she said, and then silence reigned once more.

 

They powered up the complex and found the control panel, relieved to head back out into the sunshine when their task was done.

 

O’Connor flew them into the bunker. The three friends, waiting impatiently in the shuttle’s hold, tried to forget that they were surrounded by the corpses of the last living protheans.

 

“I miss the Mako,” Shepard commented with a sigh, remembering the last time they had made this trip. Garrus and Liara shared a look. “Hey, my driving wasn’t that bad!”

 

Garrus gave her the turian equivalent of a snort. “The crew practically threw a party when we discovered that the Hammerhead wasn’t salvageable after the Collector base crash.”

 

“You’re lying.”

 

“Wish I was,” the turian drawled, giving Shepard a mournful look. She rolled her eyes.

 

When they stepped out of the shuttle into Vigil’s alcove, they found it shut down and powerless, just as the council had said. “It looks untouched,” Garrus said, his voice echoing in the chamber. “I find it hard to believe that the Council didn’t try to salvage anything from it.”

 

Liara hummed thoughtfully. “I was never permitted in this part of the complex during the council’s investigation. It was all very secretive.”

 

Shepard scowled. “I half wonder if they didn’t shut it down themselves, just to hide any evidence of the reapers.” She walked up to the VI’s hardware, eyeing it. “Whatever they did, we need to figure out how to extract the core. EDI thought that would be the best way to study it.”

 

Garrus linked EDI into his visor feed, taking a closer look. “What do you think, EDI?”

 

After some direction from the AI to examine various parts of the hardware, she concluded, “It appears to be possible without further damage of the hardware. I will guide you through the process.”

 

Shepard slapped the turian on the shoulder before taking a few steps back. “Well, Garrus, looks like you’re up.” She held no illusions about her lack of technical skill.

 

With EDI’s help and Shepard’s oversight, Garrus and Liara managed to detach Vigil from the mainframe of the prothean bunker, hauling the VI’s hardware onto the shuttle. As O’Connor left to cart Vigil to the Normandy, Shepard turned to Liara.

 

“Alright, prothean expert, what’s our next step?”

 

“We need to head towards the research labs,” Liara said, pulling up the map. “I believe they are located in this area of the complex.” She marked a location on the map.

 

“I hope the council left something for us to find,” Shepard remarked.

 

Liara shook her head. “In truth, I feel the council’s visit here was less of an information gathering mission and more of an attempt at press relations. I do not think they made any great effort to acquire information in fear that it would corroborate the idea of the reapers. They have spent the last several years trying to silence the truth.”

 

Shepard clenched her teeth and headed in the direction Liara had marked on the map. Once she had created a little distance between her team and herself, she allowed herself to mutter obscenities under her breath in her anger.

 

The three of them continued down shadowed, twisting hallways and angled elevators, none of them entirely sure what might lay ahead. Turning a sharp corner, Shepard paused at the sight of bright light at the distant end of the corridor. “We’re too far underground for that to be sunlight,” Shepard stated. It didn’t look anything like the soft glow of the prothean lights that remained in the ruin.

 

Liara seemed at a loss. “That is not possible,” she insisted. “There has not been an expedition here in well over a Citadel standard year. The council restricts travel to Ilos tightly.”

 

“How certain are you?” Shepard asked.

 

Liara paced across the narrow width of the corridor, obviously agitated. “I researched this thoroughly, Shepard,” she maintained. “If anyone is down there…” She trailed off, turning to the commander with a worried look in her eye. “They must have significant resources and nefarious intentions.”

 

Shepard nodded in agreement. “Weapons out,” she instructed, “But don’t fire unless necessary. We don’t know who they are or why they’re here yet.”

 

The three of them made their way silently down the corridor and turned the corner to see an open door to a laboratory—and two human scientists within.

 

The female scientist—the obvious leader—pulled a pistol from her hip holster almost as an automatic reaction. She faced down Shepard and team, weapons out but none of them moving.

 

“See, Ashar?” she called over her shoulder to the cowering scientist in the corner behind her. “I told you to never leave home without your pistol.” She paused, fixing Shepard with a hard look and tightening her grip on the gun. “Even on Ilos.”

 

Silence reigned for a long moment as the two parties appraised each other. “Who are you and why are you here?” the scientist demanded.

 

Shepard quirked a brow. “I think I’ll be asking the questions, thanks.” In her peripheral vision she saw Liara glowing with biotics and Garrus with his rifle trained on the scientist’s head.

 

“Oh, really?” she protested. “And why’s that?”

 

Shepard holstered her gun and smirked at the scientist. “Because that pistol will hardly graze my barrier,” she told her. “And because I’m a Spectre.”

 

The scientist had an incredulous look. “Commander Shepard?” she questioned, unable to hide the surprise in her voice.

 

“So you’ve heard of me,” Shepard deadpanned, crossing her arms over her chest. “I suggest you start talking. You might want to begin with your name.”

 

With some hesitation, she holstered her pistol. “I’m Doctor Felicia Arbaugh, and this is my assistant, Doctor Ashar Prentix,” she said, jerking a thumb behind her to the still-cowering man at the back of the lab. “And we’re researchers,” she added. “Obviously.”

 

Shepard chose to ignore the woman’s attitude. “Researching what?”

 

Doctor Arbaugh crossed her arms loosely, mimicking the commander’s stance. “The Protheans.”

 

“I want specifics,” Shepard demanded. “And I’m not feeling patient.”

 

Arbaugh shrugged. “It will be easier to show you.” She motioned them forward but eyed them before she moved. “Assuming you won’t shoot me the moment my back is turned.”

 

Garrus let out a threatening growl, but Shepard held up a hand to stop him. “If I wanted you dead, we wouldn’t still be talking,” she told the scientist matter-of-factly. “We won’t attack without reason.”

 

The scientist’s eyes narrowed, but she turned and strode to the back of the lab, the skittish Doctor Prentix moving out of her way. She moved purposefully towards a lumpy table covered in a white sheet. With a glance at her audience, Arbaugh yanked the sheet away to reveal something that shocked all three of them.

 

“Goddess,” she heard Liara breathe from beside her. “Is that a Prothean?”

 

Shepard stared at the body, unable to tear her eyes away. Its similarities to the Collectors were undeniable, and—her breathing hitched—

 

The smell of burning flesh and sound of screams assaulted her senses. The voice, full of fear, spoke of untold destruction. His warning was cut off as he cried out in pain, the same pain wracking her body. She felt his moment of terror and regret. Too late, he thought. Too late.

 

“Commander?” The dual toned voice, laced with concern, snapped her out of it.

 

Shepard ripped her eyes away from the dead prothean and back to the scientist. “What are you doing with her?” she demanded coldly.

 

The scientist still faced away from them as she spoke. “The seals still held on some of the cryo pods,” she explained emotionlessly. “They might be dead, but then again, so were you.”

 

Shepard stared at Doctor Arbaugh’s back, and a dangerous sort of calm flooded her. “Why?” she asked flatly. “Why bring them back?”

 

“To fight the reapers, of course,” Arbaugh said scornfully. But then her voice turned almost gleeful. “What if you had an army of the best soldiers and scientists at your command? To follow your every whim? To fight and die for you?”

 

Shepard felt the unease of her companions on either side, but her focus was entirely on the scientist. “You want to control them,” she stated, taking a few steps forward towards the table. “You want to make them fight a war for you, one they’ve already died for.” Her voice was dangerously low. “That’s sickening.”

 

“Is it really worse than the things you’ve done, Commander?” Arbaugh challenged. “A whole system gone,” she mused falsely. “They were just batarians, of course, but still.”

 

Shepard tried to suppress her fury. “I only did what was necessary.”

 

“So did I,” said the scientist, and suddenly she whipped around, faster than anyone could react, and pressed her pistol to the commander’s head. Shepard felt a wave of self-reproach for being too distracted to stop her. At point-blank range, her shields were useless.

 

“You have a death wish, Arbaugh?” she questioned through gritted teeth. “You can’t expect to survive this.”

 

The scientist let out a cold laugh. “I know you, Commander, and I’d rather die than go into custody,” she said, and her eyes glinted. “At least this way I can take you with me.”

 

Before the scientist could attempt to pull the trigger, Doctor Arbaugh went rigid, the blue glint of a biotic field shimmering over her body. “No, you can’t,” Shepard countered. She held the stasis field steady as she pried the pistol out of the scientist’s hands.

 

“Who do you work for?” Shepard demanded tersely. She loosened the stasis just enough for Arbaugh to answer.

 

With a cold glint in her eye, the scientist said, “Cerberus.”

 

A sharp sound rang out, a bullet slamming through the scientist’s head at point-blank range. Arbaugh collapsed to the floor atop a puddle of her own blood, already dead. Silence fell.

 

All three of them turned from the dead scientist at the sound of a whimper. The assistant, Doctor Prentix, ran for the door. He was fast, but Garrus was faster. “What do you want to do with this one?” he asked, voice full of disgust at the human trying to writhe from his grasp.

 

Still feeling numb, Shepard spared the assistant a cold glance. “Tie him up,” she ordered, and turned to Liara. “Once we’re out of here, contact the Alliance anonymously. Let them know we’ve got a Cerberus scientist trussed up for them to interrogate.” The scientist let out another whimper, but it was ignored.

 

The commander looked around the room. “Looks like the rest of the Prothean labs are through the door. Gather any data you can, wipe everything, and let’s get the hell out of here.”

 

The Prothean lab was devoid of power, like Vigil, but they took the memory cores of each computer for later analysis. The Cerberus scientists’ data, on computers powered by portable generators, was downloaded and wiped from the memory.

 

Shepard smashed the remainders of the Cerberus equipment, leaving the team in near darkness, and turned to the dead Prothean laid out on the table. She didn’t have time to put her to rest, nor did she know anything about Prothean funerary rites. But she pulled the sheet over her gently and carefully, covering her body once more.

 

She took a deep breath and turned back to her team. “Let’s go,” she said. They trudged back to the landing zone and boarded the shuttle in silence.

 

“Transmission for you from EDI,” the pilot told her, and Shepard activated her comm, frowning as she listened. EDI’s news would have come as a blow if she hadn’t already felt so numb. As it was she barely reacted.

 

“Thank you, EDI,” she said tiredly, once the AI finished speaking. She glanced first at Garrus and then Liara, both looking at her questioningly. She let out a sigh, but her voice betrayed no emotion. “I’m now officially a fugitive from the law. As is anyone traveling with me.”

 

Somehow knowing this was coming did nothing to prevent the shock Shepard read on both their faces. Unable to deal with it, Shepard turned away.

 

Chapter Text

Shepard strode into her quarters, slamming a fist onto the locking mechanism of the door. Without so much as a glance around the room, she went down the stairs and collapsed into the chair by her bed. Only then did she let her posture droop and expression fall.

 

She bent forward heavily, elbows on her still-armored knees, and rested her head in her hands. She couldn’t get the words of the scientist out of her head.

 

“Is it really worse than the things you’ve done, Commander?” said that mocking voice.

 

“I only did what was necessary.”

 

She had such a hard time now distinguishing whether that was true. At what cost would they win this war? How far did she have to go? How far could she go?

 

I won’t let fear compromise who I am.

 

She’d said that to the Illusive Man not so long ago, but it felt like an eternity. She’d shot the scientist in a flash of anger without even a moment of hesitation. Maybe she was already lost. Right now, all the lines seemed to blur. Was she hero or terrorist or somewhere in between?

 

She knew that the Alpha relay had to be destroyed. As much as those deaths weighed upon her, as much as she wished she could have saved them, she knew that the reapers would have poured through that relay and unleashed hell on the galaxy if she hadn’t done what she did. The colonists would have died anyway, at the hands of the reapers. This death was a mercy in comparison to what the reapers would have done.

 

So why did the scientist’s words sting so much?

 

“Commander?” EDI’s voice suddenly rang out through the room.

 

Shepard let out a heavy sigh. “What is it now, EDI?” she asked tiredly.

 

“Your armor’s metabolic scans are showing signs of distress. Can I aid you in any way?”

 

She managed a half-hearted smile at the AI’s attempt to help. It was the thought that counted, she supposed. “No, EDI, but thanks.”

 

“The doctor has previously suggested using a confidant to relieve your psychological stressors. Is there anyone I can call to your quarters for you?”

 

“No,” Shepard replied quickly, eyes widening at the idea. “Definitely not.” She dropped her head into her hands again. Burdening someone else wasn’t going to fix this.

 

After a moment, the AI spoke up again. “Then perhaps you would like to confide in me?”

 

Shepard, head jerking up, couldn’t hide her disbelief. “You?” she said incredulously. “Why would I do that? Um, no offense.”

 

“I am already the keeper of many secrets on the Normandy. I am available at any time, and I am not in a position to make judgments on your behavior.”

 

Shepard dragged a palm across her face wearily. She was too tired for schooling her AI on how to be a normal sentient. “EDI,” she said, exasperated, “You’re perfectly capable of thinking for yourself. That makes you as free to pass judgment as anyone.”

 

“That is accurate, Shepard,” the AI conceded. “However, the potential emotional impact of such conversations will not affect my ability to fulfill my functions as it might with an organic.”

 

Shepard glanced up at the sound of a knock on the door to her quarters. As she stood to go answer it, Shepard considered EDI’s words. There was some truth to what the AI was saying. “Thanks, EDI. I’ll think about it,” she promised, and punched open the door. She never quite knew what to expect from EDI.

 

Garrus stood before her as the door panels slid apart. “Hey, Shepard. I just wanted to check in on you after that last mission.” He looked over her shoulder. “Were you talking to someone?” he asked. “I don’t want to interrupt.”

 

She shook her head and motioned him inside. “It was just EDI.”

 

“Anything important?” Garrus asked as he followed her inside.

 

Shepard started removing pieces of her armor while Garrus sat down on the couch. “No,” she said. “EDI was just… offering her services as a therapist, more or less.”

 

He looked at her blankly. “What?”

 

She managed to muster up a small smile of amusement. “She thinks I need to talk to someone about everything that’s going on. She offered her ear, so to speak.”

 

Garrus was quiet as the last piece of Shepard’s armor came off, leaving her in her undersuit. She took a rag and some cleaning supplies from the drawer and picked up the chestplate of her armor. He reached out a three fingered hand expectantly, and, with a shrug of her shoulders, Shepard handed him another rag and one of her gauntlets. When they were both settled on the couch working on her armor, he spoke.

 

“You can’t talk to me?” he asked quietly, unable to hide the hurt in his voice.

 

Shepard bit her lip, frowning down at the armor in her hands. He wanted her to confide in him, but, boyfriend or not, she was still his commander. She wanted to give him this—she trusted him more than she’d ever trusted anyone—but she had never been one to let her crew see her weaknesses. They needed to believe in her, and putting her self-doubt and fear on display wasn’t the way to do that. She didn’t know where the boundaries were here, not anymore.

 

Shepard looked up at him. Her eyes roved over his face, searching for something—a hint of doubt, perhaps? The knot in her chest tightened until she felt like she might burst.

 

“Would you still follow me if I wasn’t sure of what I was doing?” she asked suddenly. “If I looked you in the eye and told you how many times I’ve failed? If I admitted that I just might be leading you all astray?” She paused, staring him down, willing him to say what she feared. “Would you still follow me if I was wrong?”

 

Silence fell as the two warriors stared at each other, neither knowing quite what to say. The only sound in the room was the quiet whirr of her fish tank.

 

Shepard suddenly broke their gaze and shot to her feet. “Damn all of this,” she swore in frustration. “I know I did the right thing.” She paced. “That relay had to be destroyed or I would have been signing the entire galaxy’s death sentence. I did what I had to.”

 

There were those words again, the trigger. She dropped back down into her seat on the couch, sagging under the weight of her own decisions. “You know,” she began, giving Garrus a sad smile, “The more I say those words, the more they just feel like an excuse. Am I a hero or a murderer? Who even knows anymore?” Her hands tightened into fists.

 

Garrus watched her as he continued to clean her armor, and finally set aside her gauntlet to reach for her hands. “You’re Jane Shepard,” he said decisively, weaving her ten fingers among his six. His blue eyes bored into hers, blazing with conviction. “You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met. You’re a hero, better than this galaxy deserves,” he told her. “You’ve always done what’s right, not what’s easy.” He paused, his voice softening but eyes still intense. “And I wouldn’t follow you if I didn’t believe in what you’re doing.”

 

The knot in Shepard’s chest ached. “Wouldn’t you?” she questioned dubiously.

 

He gazed at her, eyes unreadable, and his hands tightened around hers. “I love you, Jane,” he said, “But I’m not blinded by it.”

 

Shepard’s breath seized up. Did he even realize what he’d said? Neither of them had dared to use those words before, and yet he’d said it so matter-of-factly, as if it was something that had always been true. Maybe it had.

 

His eyes looked so sad as he spoke again. “I’ll never leave you, Jane, but I would never let you lead us wrong if I could help it. Any time you start to go over the edge, I’ll be here to pull you back,” he promised.

 

“Like you’re doing now?” she questioned, smiling wryly.

 

All he did in response was pull her to his chest and hold her there, almost like one would cradle a child who had fallen and scraped their knees. She should have protested, but somewhere deep down, she wanted this. She wanted to relax and let someone else carry the cares of the galaxy for a little while.

 

In his arms was the only place where she didn’t have to be strong.

 

 

“Not Omega, too many batarians. Council space is out, as is Alliance space, of course. We might be able to dock at Illium again.”

 

“We already know what the council does about rogue Spectres. If they send someone after us, staying out of council space might not be enough.”

 

The last place Liara wanted to be at the moment was exactly where she was—in a room with Shepard, Shepard’s boyfriend, and the woman who had brought Shepard back to life. Not that this scenario hadn’t played out several times before, of course, but this time she had something on her mind. She had a question she was too afraid to ask, one that every person in that room had a vested interest in.

 

She tried to listen, tried to participate, as they hashed out logistical plans for supplies and roundabout relay travel, but her mind was still stuck back on Ilos, unable to let go of what had been said there.

 

“You want to make them fight a war for you, one they’ve already died for once,” Shepard had said of the protheans. “That’s sickening.”

 

The parallels were glaringly obvious.

 

She hadn’t thought about it in some time now, but those words had brought all her old doubts back in force. She remembered what Shepard had said the first time she asked, back on Illium.

 

“You did the right thing, Liara. My mission is important. I couldn’t do it if you hadn’t given me to Cerberus.”

 

If that was the only reason Shepard was glad to be back, Liara wished she could have let her go.

 

Was Shepard truly glad to be back or was it just the mission? Liara glanced at Shepard and Garrus, the way they sat just a little closer together than they used to. They probably did not even realize all the small changes to their behavior, but she noticed everything. She’d noticed it that same first day on Illium, that something between them had already changed by then, whether or not they were aware of it. Liara hoped and prayed that this was enough to make Shepard happy to be alive. Or at least that something was.

 

In that moment, Liara made a decision. If there was ever anything she could do to make it worth it, anything she could do for Shepard that would give her a reason to live, she would do it. After all, she’d been the one to give Shepard’s body to Cerberus. She forced this life upon Shepard. The least she could do was make it worthwhile.

 

 

Miranda was about to get back on the Normandy when the call came in.

 

Sender blocked, her omni-tool said. She glanced around her. Despite the docking tube being empty, Miranda had the strangest feeling of being watched.

 

The fuel depot had been crowded, she reasoned—perhaps someone had recognized her or the ship. She ought to hurry and get back on the Normandy, but EDI was always listening. The timing of the call had been no coincidence. Whoever was calling obviously wanted to speak with her privately. She considered her options as the omni-tool continued to ring.

 

Against her better judgment, Miranda took the call.

 

A vid feed popped up as she answered the call, static clearing to display a familiar figure taking a drag on a cigarette. “Miranda,” he greeted.

 

She sucked in a sudden breath, eyes narrowing. “Illusive Man,” she said in kind, immediately hiding her surprise and fear. It wouldn’t do to allow him to see what power he still held over her.

 

She couldn’t fathom why he would be contacting her at all. Her resignation hadn’t left much room for discussion. An uncomfortable feeling settled in her stomach. “What do you want?” she asked coldly.

 

Another drag. “Your cooperation,” he said.

 

“You know better than to expect that ever again,” she retorted.

 

He spared her an unsettling smile. “I have reason to believe otherwise.”

 

Suddenly, another feed replaced the Illusive Man’s. Miranda was disoriented at first, but then recognized a colony. A university… Suddenly an icy fear shot through her.

 

Oriana.

 

“What do you want with Oriana?” she demanded. During all that had happened, was she so foolish as to forget that he had a hand in relocating Oriana’s family? She could scream, she could kill herself for being so careless. Her worry was palpable. He knew where she was.

 

When the Illusive Man reappeared, she could see the satisfaction in his eyes. He knew he had gotten to her.

 

“Do I have your attention?” he asked sardonically.

 

Yes. He had her fucking attention now. “What do you want?” she demanded again.

 

“When my people catch up to the Normandy—and don’t worry, Miranda, they will—I need you to do something for me.”

 

“Why would I ever do anything for you again?” she spat.

 

He took a long sip of brandy before answering. “Because my operatives can get to your sister within a matter of minutes.”

 

Miranda knew well—too well—how far Cerberus was willing to go. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “What do you need me to do?”

 

“One very simple thing,” he told her. “When my operatives arrive to retake my ship, shut down the AI.”

 

“You think I’m foolish enough to betray Commander Shepard?” she demanded.

 

The Illusive Man raised a brow at her and took another slow drag on his cigarette. She wanted to take that cigarette and shove it down his throat.

 

“Monday, nine a.m.,” he began. “Xeno-agriculture. Ten-thirty, human literature from 1945 to present. Lunch at noon in the library cafe with Angela Moranis and Petra Brown. One thirty—”

 

“Enough,” Miranda interrupted, her eyes hardened into ice. “I get the picture.”

 

“I know where she is every minute of every day. If you do as I’ve asked, she’ll be left alone. If not…” He let the sentence hang. She didn’t need him to finish it.

 

“I won’t,” she disagreed vehemently, but her voice wavered. Oriana meant everything to her.

 

“Consider my offer,” he said, and the call ended.

 

Miranda leaned against the wall of the docking tube, shaking. Her mind ran through the possibilities—how fast could the Normandy get to Oriana, could they arrive without alerting Cerberus, what would Cerberus do with Ori if they reached her first…

 

The answers she came up with were not what she was hoping for.

 

How was she supposed to make this kind of decision? Betray Commander Shepard or let Cerberus capture her sister. The Illusive Man wouldn’t kill Oriana. No, that would be too merciful.

 

Miranda didn’t want to imagine what he had in store for her.

 

She took deep breaths until she steadied herself, straightening her posture and relaxing her expression before she entered the Normandy’s airlock.

 

As she waited for the decontamination sequence to complete, a familiar voice spoke up.

 

“Miranda, are you well?” EDI asked, sounding legitimately concerned.

 

She sighed. “I’m fine, EDI.”

 

It couldn’t be further from the truth, but EDI didn’t pry.

 

Miranda boarded the ship with her thoughts in turmoil, wondering how long it would be before her loyalty was put to the test.

 

Chapter Text

Shepard stared at her terminal in confusion.

 

Tali’s message was long and mundane, telling Shepard the upgrades she’d made to the Neema, things she’d talked about with her friends, random gossip from the flotilla. Nothing of substance. Nothing about the task Shepard had set before her upon sending her to the Migrant Fleet. But the last paragraph was the strangest of all.

 

Do you remember that time on the SR-1 when you came back from a Cerberus outpost with enough pink and white armor to outfit the whole team? No one wanted to wear it, but you told me the armor was the key to mutual understanding. Looking closely, I can see that that’s true.

 

“What the hell…” Shepard murmured, brows knit together in a puzzled frown. None of this made any sense at all.

 

EDI spoke up. “Shepard, if I may…” The AI seemed to hesitate, waiting for Shepard’s permission to continue.

 

She sighed and glanced up at the comm unit. “Yes, EDI?”

 

“I have analyzed Tali’Zorah’s message, and there seems to be something embedded in the code. I believe it is another message.”

 

Shepard’s frown deepened. “Can you decrypt it?”

 

“It requires a keyword. I am currently scanning through common words in Tali’s native dialect to find a term that fits. No matches so far,” she told Shepard. “It may take some time.”

 

Tali must have given some clue. Shepard stared at that last paragraph and it dawned on her. EDI wouldn’t find it, of course, because there was no word for it in Tali’s language. “Phoenix,” she stated confidently. “The word is phoenix.”

 

 

Over the top of the datapad, Garrus could see Shepard watching him and waiting for his reaction. He stared at it for a moment after he finished reading, collecting his thoughts before setting it down.

 

“Thoughts?” she questioned, blue eyes serious.

 

Tali’s message was trouble. Garrus hated the quarian admirals. Already an older brother, he’d taken on Tali as a surrogate sister almost by nature, and those admirals had hurt her badly. They’d used her for their own ends even after she gave the Migrant Fleet everything she had. She still gave the Fleet everything she had, and those admirals were too stupid to hear a word of her advice.

 

“We have to do something,” he said, letting his emotions get the better of him for a moment. He took a deep breath, calming himself and considering it tactically. “The quarians have the largest fleet of warships,” he reminded Shepard, “We can’t let them destroy themselves on the geth, not when we’re going to need those ships later.”

 

“According to Legion, the geth fleet is even larger,” Shepard added. “The quarians don’t stand a chance, and frankly, we need both fleets to fight the reapers. We can’t piss anyone off enough to make them refuse us when the reapers come.”

 

Garrus raised a browplate. “I don’t think anyone will be turning you away when the reapers come,” he said dryly.

 

She shrugged, leaning back in her seat. “When people are scared, they get stupid. We have no way of knowing how they’ll react.”

 

“All of this is a moot point,” Garrus countered. “We can’t dock the Normandy.”

 

“And I can’t come aboard, being a fugitive and all,” she added. “Quarians may not be Council, but they still won’t welcome me.” She was looking at him thoughtfully, appraisingly. Garrus wasn’t sure what she was up to, but he was getting the sneaking feeling that he wouldn’t like it.

 

“I can’t go to the Migrant Fleet,” she reiterated, “But you can.”

 

Garrus felt his mandibles go slack. “You can’t possibly be thinking of sending me without you.” Shepard was the diplomat, not him. And, spirits, he didn’t want to leave her side. Not now, not ever again.

 

She looked at him calmly. “I trust your judgment, Garrus.” She could see right through him to all the misgivings he felt about going, and she didn’t give a damn.

 

“Shepard,” he protested, a bit desperately, “This is too big for that.”

 

“No,” she disagreed, her voice firm and deliberate. She looked at him steadily. “I trust your judgment, Garrus.”

 

When his wide-eyed stare didn’t let up, she gave him a playful grin. “Besides,” she told him. “It’s not like I would send you in without backup.”

 

 

Garrus shifted nervously as the shuttle docked. He still didn’t think sending him was the right decision. What did Shepard expect him to do anyways?

 

“You’ll be fine, Garrus,” she had insisted. “Figure out what the situation is and call me tonight.”

 

It was a relief that he wouldn’t have to figure everything out on his own, but when it came down to it, he was the one who had to act. He was the one who had to find the right words to say or people to talk to. He was the one who had to choose when to use diplomacy or when to use a gun. Omega had been so much simpler than this. Shit, Palaven and his dad had been simpler than this.

 

“Garrus!”

 

He looked up and saw a familiar figure running towards him. When Tali’Zorah vas Normandy reached the end of the hallway, she threw herself upon him in an uncharacteristic hug.

 

“If you’re this happy to see me, the situation must be worse than I thought,” he drawled as she finally pulled away. That earned him a whack on the arm, which made him feel much better. There was the Tali he knew.

 

She motioned for him to follow, and she led him to a private room. “Guest quarters,” she indicated. “Bug free. I cleared the room myself.”

 

With that, she dropped onto the edge of the bed, her posture sagging as she rested her helmet in her hands. She looked up at him from where she sat. “Oh, Garrus,” she groaned. “It is bad.”

 

Garrus was worried—about Tali and about the fleet—but he spoke in his calmest voice, the one he used to get scared witnesses to talk back in his C-Sec days. “Start at the beginning, Tali,” he instructed. “And tell me everything that’s happened.”

 

She shared her story of coming onto the Flotilla to the news of war, of her fruitless meeting with the admirals and her talks with Zaal’Koris. She told him everything they’d come up with, but Tali didn’t seem to have much hope for the situation. And more than that, her voice and body language were telling another story—of the failure she felt at not being able to do this herself. She thought she’d let herself down and let Shepard down, though she didn’t dare say as much outright.

 

I wish Shepard was here, Garrus thought miserably.

 

She would have known how to handle Tali. She would have known the right things to say. And she probably would have simply yelled the admirals into submission.

 

Garrus wasn’t big on public speaking, so he’d probably have to give up that angle.

 

“Start small,” Shepard’s voice said in his head.

 

He moved to sit beside the young quarian and put a hand on her shoulder. “See if you can schedule another meeting with Admiral Koris,” he told her. “The three of us will talk it out and see what we can come up with.”

 

“Thanks, Garrus,” Tali said quietly.

 

He squeezed her shoulder. “We’ll get through this, Tali. Don’t worry.”

 

“Don’t worry” was always a little hypocritical coming from him, but it felt like the right thing to say. Tali’s stance seemed just a little less tense as she left the room.

 

“Some people need a hug and some need a headbutt,” Shepard’s voice reminded him.

 

Tali was of the first sort, and though Garrus wasn’t much of a hugger, he’d do his best to keep his friend afloat.

 

 

 

The door to Garrus’s guest room opened and closed apparently of its own accord, but Garrus wasn’t unsettled by it. He only had to wait a moment before a figure materialized in front of him, one that might pass for a quarian at first glance, although she didn’t quite have the hips to pull off the suit.

 

Kasumi tapped the opaque glass of her helmet and the glass turned transparent. “So I learned some interesting things today,” she said, a trademark smirk curling the corners of her painted lips.

 

“What have you got for me?” Garrus asked. He had conflicting feelings about Kasumi. She was a thief and didn’t deny it, but she rarely seemed to steal from those who didn’t have more than their share of wealth. She’d told him the story of Robin Hood once, an old tale of a human who had stolen from the rich and given to the poor. When he asked her if Robin Hood also collected priceless art and artifacts for his own benefit, she’d just laughed and disappeared.

 

Garrus was sure there was more to her than met the eye, but she never let anyone see below the surface. Shepard might know—she seemed to know the thief better than anyone—but their commander never revealed her crew’s secrets.

 

Kasumi had taken to looking about the room, picking up objects and examining them. “Well,” she finally said, fluffing the pillows on the bed, “I learned that not everyone is as eager for war as the admirals would like us to believe.”

 

Intrigued, Garrus leaned forward. “What do you mean?”

 

She checked her appearance in the mirror. “Behind closed doors, people are talking. No one seems to realize that they aren’t alone in disagreeing with this war. Some of the captains, especially those in the civilian fleet, seem worried.”

 

The gears were turning in Garrus’s head. He might be able to work with this. “Thanks, Kasumi,” he responded gratefully. “Keep up the good work.”

 

“I’ll keep up the good work tomorrow,” she told him. “Right now I want to sleep.” She looked at him slyly.

 

Garrus gave her an odd look. “What?”

 

The corner of Kasumi’s mouth twitched. “You’re used to sharing a bed with a human, so this won’t be a problem, right?”

 

Garrus glanced from Kasumi to the bed and then to the rest of the room, designed for a single occupant. They hadn’t made arrangements for Kasumi’s lodging—she had been cloaked and intended to stay that way. When he looked back up at the thief, she had a full-blown smirk on her face.

 

Garrus grumbled, getting up to grab a pillow from the bed. “I’ll take the floor.”

 

Kasumi pouted. “You’re no fun at all.”

 

 

Tali was quieter than usual as she led Garrus and—unknowingly—a cloaked Kasumi to the office of Admiral Zaal’Koris. Garrus was quiet too, but that was hardly unusual. He’d been thinking about what he discussed with Tali and with Kasumi, brainstorming ways to end this war before it started. He and Shepard had discussed it briefly, but neither of them had much time to chat that first night.

 

He wanted to get this dealt with as quickly as possible. Not just to avoid the war, but also because he didn’t like being away from Shepard, especially after the Aratoht mission. She was still struggling to come to terms with it, and he wanted to be there for her. With that in mind, he followed Tali into the admiral’s office with a few flimsy ideas and a sense of urgency.

 

“Admiral,” he greeted deferentially.

 

“Vakarian,” the admiral said in kind. “I’m told you’re here to help with our problem.” He motioned Garrus and Tali to the chairs across the desk from him.

 

“I’ll do what I can,” Garrus responded, but he had his doubts. Shepard had the pull of a Spectre and hero when she had been there, but what did he have to fall back upon? He was nobody to these quarians. He had the same evidence Tali had brought and far less trust.

 

Zaal’Koris folded his hands and looked at Garrus. “I hope you have a plan,” he said haughtily. It was obvious that he felt the same doubts that Garrus did himself.

 

Annoyance rose up within Garrus, becoming determined to prove the admiral wrong. “I have a couple of ideas to discuss,” he told them, pulling out the authoritative tone of the C-Sec officer and vigilante leader he’d once been. “And some information I think you’ll both be interested in.”

 

Tali tilted her helmet curiously—Garrus hadn’t shared anything with her the night before. He hadn’t, of course, heard Kasumi’s report yet when he talked to her. It had been as he lay awake into the night cycle that all of his ideas had slowly come to take nebulous form inside his mind.

 

“I have it on good authority that there is much more dissent among the captains and crews than you know. The idea of war hasn’t been as well-received as you’ve been led to believe.”

 

Koris objected to this. “If the captains were in doubt, I would know,” he argued. “Where did you get your information?”

 

“I can’t tell you that,” Garrus replied. “But I have names. My suggestion is to start talking to these captains. Sow the seeds of doubt and have them do the same with those they know. If the people are against this war—if the captains are against it—it will make it that much harder for the admiralty board to push their agenda.”

 

Koris shifted in his seat, seemingly unable to find a point of objection. “I want those names,” he said finally.

 

Garrus inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. “You’ll have them,” he affirmed. “I’d also like a meeting with the rest of the admirals if you can get me one. I can corroborate Tali’s evidence about the reapers. If they become aware that my government is taking action to prepare, that might be more convincing.”

 

Tali shook her head. “The admirals who really want war, Gerrel and Jorah, won’t be stopped by the idea of reapers. They’re already using the idea to argue that we need to take out the geth before the reapers get here.”

 

Garrus was silent for a moment, considering the other idea in his mind, one that could work or backfire—an idea that would, one way or another, change everything.

 

He leaned forward in his seat. “What if we could prove that the geth don’t want to fight you?”

 

Tali and Admiral Koris shared a look.

 

Chapter Text

Shepard felt a distinct surge of satisfaction when the doors opened into the war room. Data feeds were running, muted news vids were displayed on screens on the walls, and crew worked the consoles, receiving and filtering incoming information.

 

Her eyes fell upon her new intel officer. “T’Nara,” she greeted. Hestia lifted her eyes from the center console. “I hear you have something for me.”

 

“Several things for you,” she corrected, as serious as ever. “You may not be able to act upon all of them.”

 

Shepard rested her hip against the console and crossed her arms. “I’m listening.”

 

Hestia gave her a short, businesslike nod. “As per Doctor T’Soni’s instructions, we’ve been searching for any sign of reaper artifacts. Secret research programs, unusual archeological digs, that kind of thing,” she explained. “We know that each council species has a number of pieces of Sovereign under study, but these are all government protected programs and difficult to pinpoint. We did find the location of one that was not, however.”

 

“Sounds good,” Shepard affirmed. “Who is it and where?” She fixed her eyes upon the asari.

 

“Cerberus, unsurprisingly,” Hestia told her, without even the smallest hint of irony. Why couldn’t Shepard ever meet an asari that had a sense of humor? “It’s an outpost in the Caleston Rift. Cerberus is the only organization seen coming or going from the planet.”

 

“An uncharted world,” Shepard mused. “Sounds like fun. Wish we still had the Mako.”

 

Hestia’s expression leaned towards a disapproving frown, but she didn’t comment.

 

Shepard straightened up and gave her officer a nod. “Send a briefing to my private quarters. I’ll take a closer look.”

 

“It will be on your terminal by the time you arrive,” Hestia affirmed.

 

“Efficient, T’Nara,” Shepard praised her. “I think you’re going to be a good addition to the crew.”

 

Before turning away, Shepard thought she might have actually seen a smile grace the asari’s features.

 

 

Garrus felt his mandibles relax into an involuntary smile the moment Jane Shepard’s face appeared on his omni-tool vidscreen. “Hey, Shepard,” he greeted. “I didn’t wake you did I?”

 

She was adorable in messy hair and pajamas, the glow of her omni-tool lighting her against the backdrop of her darkened cabin. “Nah,” she dismissed and gave him that particular smile he loved, the true one that was more precious to him than all the stars in the sky. “I wasn’t going to go to bed without hearing from you. Solana wanted me to let you know that your mom’s settled in at the Helos facility, by the way.”

 

“Thanks for letting me know. How do you think Solana’s doing?”

 

Shepard shrugged. “Mostly fine. She seems a bit lonely right now with you gone—especially since Kasumi had taken her under her wing. I can’t decide if that’s a good or bad thing.” She grinned. “How’s it going over there?”

 

“I met with Admiral Koris today and we discussed our options,” he told her. “We didn’t decide anything for sure, but no matter what we do, it’s going to cause a stir.”

 

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Shepard requested, resting her chin on her hand thoughtfully.

 

“Well, Kasumi did some recon and found out that there’s more dissent about this war than we thought. No one realizes how widespread it is.”

 

“That’s good,” Shepard said. “You can use that.”

 

“Yeah,” Garrus replied. “We’re going to try to get the dissenters connected and organized. There are a lot of captains among them.”

 

“Even better,” she added, smiling at him reassuringly. “That’s a good start. What about the admirals?”

 

Garrus let out a low hum. “You know where Koris stands. Raan is playing peacekeeper and Xen just wants to experiment,” he said, unable to hide the thrum of disgust in his voice. “Gerrel is as war-mongering as ever, and the new admiral, Jorah, is of a similar mind, or so Tali tells me,” he explained.

 

“Are you going to meet with them?” she asked, and Garrus hesitated.

 

“Maybe,” was his answer. “We have another plan. It’s… dramatic, to say the least. But it might be our best shot.”

 

“Tell me,” Shepard instructed, her intense eyes meeting his even across the vid connection.

 

Garrus took a deep breath. “Shepard, are you still in contact with Legion?”

 

Shock registered on her features before she reigned herself in. “I am,” she said cautiously. “What are you getting at?” She leaned forward slightly, her body language betraying the calm she projected.

 

“I’ve asked for a meeting with the admiralty board, and I’m hoping you might be able to get me a vid of Legion explaining that the geth aren’t interested in war with the quarians.”

 

Shepard frowned slightly and looked like she wanted to speak, but Garrus precluded her. “We can blackmail them with it, if necessary. Threaten to broadcast the vid across the Flotilla if they don’t see reason.” His mandibles fluttered slightly as he waited for Shepard’s reaction.

 

A slow smile bloomed on her face. “I think I can give you better than that, Garrus,” she said. “I think Legion would consent to a live feed.”

 

The wheels were already turning in his head. “He could talk to them and answer questions. If they still want to cause trouble, I could record the meeting and threaten to release the vid. That would be even more damning.”

 

“You know that this could all backfire, right?” Shepard asked, raising a curved brow at him. “This is the last thing they’re going to want to hear.”

 

“I know,” Garrus agreed. “But I have to try it.” He was going to do whatever he had to—he wouldn’t fail Shepard or Tali on this.

 

Shepard’s eyes sparkled. “I like it. Garrus Vakarian, all grown up and causing trouble,” she teased.

 

“I was Archangel,” he reminded her smugly, his mandibles flaring into a brief grin.

 

He thought he saw her face freeze for a split second, but it could have been the connection.

 

“I’ll contact Legion,” she told him. “You keep doing what you’re doing, big guy. I’m proud of you.”

 

The call ended, and Garrus smiled to himself. He could do this.

 

 

“Kal!” Tali waved at the red-suited quarian when she saw his figure across the room. “I haven’t seen you for a few days.”

 

His approach was strangely slow. “You seemed busy, ma’am,” he said hesitantly. “I didn’t want to bother you.” He glanced to her left, and Tali suddenly remembered that she wasn’t alone.

 

“Kal, this is Garrus Vakarian. You might not remember, but he was one of Shepard’s team that got us off Haestrom,” she reminded him. “Garrus, you remember Kal’Reegar,” she added, and felt her face flush. Keelah, she was glad of the helmet sometimes!

 

Garrus inclined his head towards Kal’Reegar. “Nice to see you again, Reegar. I’m glad your injuries have healed.” It was odd, Tali thought, but her friend’s voice sounded a bit stiff. She wondered why. He knew how much she liked Kal.

 

Kal’Reegar stood up straighter than before, if that was possible. “Vakarian,” he greeted. “Are you here to visit Tali’Zorah?”

 

There was a strange sort of tension in the air, Tali realized, but she didn’t know what to make of it.

 

Garrus shifted uncomfortably, probably uncertain of how much he could share with Kal. Tali hadn’t told him how much of their situation she’d discussed with the other quarian. She had no desire to be teased about Kal more than she already had.

 

“Diplomatic mission, actually,” he said. “Though I’m hoping Tali will be able to return to the Normandy with me afterwards.”

 

Something changed in Kal’s stance, but he didn’t give Tali the time to study it. “I see,” was all he said. “I better get going,” he told them, and gave them each a nod. “Vakarian. Ma’am.” And he disappeared down a hallway.

 

Tali and Garrus walked on quietly, Tali puzzling over Kal’s sudden change in demeanor. She thought he was upset or bothered by something, but she wasn’t sure what. A fluttering hope within her thought that maybe he was unhappy she might be leaving soon.

 

 

“I don’t think this is a good idea, Shepard.”

 

It was an odd day when Shepard was more composed than her XO. Miranda’s usually calm demeanor had disappeared, leaving something oddly agitated in its wake. Shepard wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but she couldn’t let it delay the mission.

 

“If they have reaper tech, we need to deal with it,” Shepard countered patiently. “We can’t have indoctrinated agents running around. I know it’s a risk, but it’s one we should take.” There was something desperate in the brunette’s eyes, but Shepard didn’t have time to work it out, not when they were hitting atmo in half an hour.

 

“It’s a Cerberus outpost,” Miranda argued. “They’ll probably have some kind of alert set up. They’ll come after the ship while you’re groundside.”

 

Shepard raised a brow at her XO. “Then we’ll have to take care of the situation quickly, won’t we?” She crossed her arms. “My team can take care of ourselves, Miranda. If the Normandy has to make a quick getaway, we’ll be fine. We’ll keep the shuttle on the ground just in case.”

 

Miranda, rarely one to initiate a touch of any kind, placed her hand on Shepard’s arm. “I really don’t think you should do this,” she said quietly.

 

Shepard hadn’t decided yet how to respond to the disconcerting action before they were interrupted by EDI’s voice. “Commander, you have a call from Liara coming in over the QEC.”

 

“I better take that,” Shepard told Miranda. “Don’t worry,” she added. “Everything will be fine.”

 

Shepard made her way to the QEC to see Liara’s hologram looking worried. What’s with everyone today? she wondered.

 

“What’s going on, Liara?” she asked brusquely. “I’m short on time.” She was mentally working out whether she’d be late getting ready for the mission. Commander Shepard didn’t do late.

 

“We need to talk about Miranda,” the asari told her, looking more like the old, scared Liara than the one she knew now.

 

“Miranda?” Shepard repeated. She let out an annoyed sigh. She didn’t have time for this. “Can it wait until after the mission?” she asked, her voice revealing more frustration than she meant to. “I have to meet the team at the shuttle in a few minutes.”

 

EDI helpfully piped up, “Eight minutes and forty seconds, Commander.”

 

Liara was silent for a moment, expression unreadable. “I—” She paused. “Very well, Shepard. We’ll talk after the mission,” she conceded. “But please,” she added, “Be careful.”

 

“Aren’t I always?” Shepard told her with a grin. Liara didn’t smile back.

 

The hologram faded and Shepard stepped out of the room, headed for the elevator. “EDI,” she addressed, “Are Zaeed and Solana down at the shuttle?”

 

“They are in the cargo bay gathering their weapons,” the AI answered.

 

Shepard got into the elevator, pressing the button. “Thanks,” she replied. As she waited for the elevator to descent, her brow creased slightly. What the hell was going on with Miranda? Something had gotten her spooked, probably something to do with Cerberus based on the XO’s reaction to this mission. Liara knew something, but Shepard would rather get it out of Miranda first, if she could. In either case, it would have to be dealt with after the mission.

 

She walked out of the elevator into the shuttle bay with her usual confident stride. “Ready to raid a Cerberus base?” she asked her two teammates, and grinned.

 

 

Shepard was in a strangely good mood when the shuttle landed outside the prefab unit. Solana shot her a questioning look.

 

“Back on the SR-1 we took out a bunch of these outposts,” Shepard told her. “Seems like we stumbled upon one at least once a week.” A faint smile crossed the commander’s face. “Reminds me of the old days.”

 

Solana decided that Shepard really was a very strange human.

 

The commander stepped aside when they reached the locked door of the outpost, motioning Solana forward. Garrus had warned her that technical comprehension was one of the commander’s greatest failings, perhaps only behind her driving skills. Solana hadn’t actually seen either of those ‘skills’ in action yet, but she knew to expect to be called upon for hacking duty.

 

Solana had been encrypting and hacking doors since she was tall enough to reach the lock. It was a game she and Garrus had played for years—he would find a new and creative way to lock his bedroom door, and she would find a new and creative way to unlock it. Her parents had studiously ignored their game, perhaps understanding the real-world practice such games would give them. Given how many times Solana had broken into her father’s study and personal terminal, maybe they should have paid more attention.

 

The light on the door blinked from orange to green, and Solana stepped back so that Shepard could take point once again. The panels of the door split apart to reveal an empty room. “Keep your guard up,” the commander warned. She confirmed the room was clear, then led Solana and Zaeed down a narrow hallway. With a short glance back at them, she hit the switch to open the door at the far end.

 

The panels parted to reveal a room swamped with supply crates, blocking much of the room from view. Solana did see something odd, however. “Commander?” she began to question, but Shepard seemed to notice the objects at the back of the room just as she did.

 

The commander’s eyes locked onto a series of tall metallic spikes lined up along the back wall. Something dark and oddly shaped seemed to be impaled upon them. As if somehow alerted to their presence, the spires began to collapse into themselves before the strange, glowing masses started to move.

 

“Shit,” Shepard swore, and pulled her pistol out of the holster, her other hand already beginning to glow with biotic power. “Maybe a bit too much like the old days,” she muttered.

 

Within moments, Shepard and Zaeed had jumped into action, but Solana was still staring. Spirits, those things were moving. They were alive… and looked almost human. They were climbing off the collapsed spikes and running directly towards the squad.

 

“Don’t let them get within melee range!” Shepard barked.

 

She snapped out of it and started shooting. A few bursts from her rifle took each one down, but there were so many. A door at the back opened and more of those creatures began to pour out. Shepard was lifting, slamming, and knocking them off their feet, and Solana tried to keep up, shooting down each one before it could rise again.

 

One broke through and ran right up to Shepard. With a biotic burst she threw it off her, and Zaeed put a few rounds through its skull. “I hate husks,” Shepard huffed, tossing out a shockwave.

 

Husks. Somewhere in the back of Solana’s mind it registered; these had been part of the stories Garrus had told, the ones she only half believed. Solana dropped the last husk that had been running at her, and looked down to see the creature she’d killed—if ‘kill’ was even the right word. Revulsion filled her as she pictured the humans she had known, trying to find the link between them and these husks, a mockery of the people who they’d once been.

 

Had Garrus downplayed the disturbing nature of his adventures, or was he simply immune to the horrors after seeing so many?

 

Solana startled at the feeling of a hand on her arm. She found Shepard gazing at her with a look she couldn’t quite decipher. Shepard held her gaze for a moment, but glanced behind her at a sound of annoyance.

 

“Bloody amateur,” Zaeed muttered, and headed towards the back of the room, where the metal spires still stood.

 

Solana bristled at his words, but felt that hand on her arm give her a squeeze. “Don’t mind Zaeed,” Shepard told her. “His bark is worse than his bite.”

 

Solana gave Shepard a blank look, and the commander’s expression morphed into a small smile. “Human expression,” she explained. “He’s not nearly as much of an ass as he pretends to be.”

 

“I heard that,” the man in question called from the other side of the room. He crossed his arms, looking disgruntled. “Can we get a goddamn move on?”

 

Shepard took a step back, releasing Solana’s arm. “Come on,” she ordered. “We need to check out the back rooms.” She turned on her heel, and Solana scrambled to follow, gun lowered but at the ready.

 

The room on the left was clearly the living quarters. Shepard ordered a quick sweep, but they found little of interest. Then they turned to the room opposite.

 

The doors opened to reveal a strange object in the center of the room, something Solana couldn’t quite place as either machine or organic. It glowed with a blue like biotics, and had a presence that she could somehow feel in the room. “Spirits,” she breathed. “What is that?”

 

Shepard glanced at her, mouth set in a thin line. “It’s the reaper artifact they’ve been studying.”

 

Solana’s eyes widened, immediately snapping back to the object. She’d never seen anything like it. She took a step forward, almost subconsciously reaching out a hand—

 

An arm shot out in front of her. “You don’t want to do that, princess.” The mercenary stood beside her, looking at her with his one good eye. The other seemed to float lazily in her direction, clouded and unfocused. She pushed his arm away but didn’t move towards the artifact again. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Zaeed still watching her.

 

Shepard made her way slowly around the reaper artifact, not looking at Solana as she spoke. “Has Garrus explained indoctrination to you?”

 

“A little,” Solana answered, feeling way out of her depth. In her brother’s stories none of this had seemed quite real. Standing in front of this reaper object, fighting husks and Cerberus and landing on planets that didn’t even have names—it all felt a bit like some kind of dream that she was going to wake up from and find herself back in bed on Palaven. Garrus had said that this was big, bigger than anything she’d ever dealt with. She believed him, or thought she had, but she hadn’t truly understood.

 

She thought she did now, though part of her still wished she didn’t.

 

“Zaeed, Solana,” Shepard called from the other side of the artifact. “We need to blow this thing up. Ideas?”

 

Solana gazed up at the pulsing object while Zaeed answered. “We could blow the power conduits,” he suggested.

 

Shepard gave a small shake of her head. “Not sure the explosion would be big enough,” she countered. “We need to be sure this thing is completely destroyed.”

 

“What about a generator?” Solana asked. “They must have a big one.”

 

Shepard seemed to consider for a moment, then nodded. “Find it.”

 

Before they’d completed their task, a call came in from the Normandy. “Commander?” The pilot’s voice sounded harried.

 

“What is it, Joker?” Shepard answered, brows lowering into a slight frown.

 

“Shit,” he swore. “Cerberus knows we’re here. I’ve got four fighters and a frigate inbound.”

 

“Then get the hell out,” Shepard ordered. “We’ll get to the shuttle and meet you at a rendezvous point. Send O’Connor your coordinates once you’re free and clear.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

Shepard turned to Solana and Zaeed. “Blow that generator quickly. We need to get to the shuttle ASAP.”

 

Zaeed was the only one who seemed to take any satisfaction in the explosion. Shepard had become quiet and terse, focused solely on the mission. They headed for the shuttle as quickly as possible, and Shepard immediately headed for the cockpit to address the pilot.

 

“O’Connor, it’s your chance to do some of that fancy flying you like to brag about,” she said brusquely. “We need to get to the rendezvous point without being seen by any of the Cerberus ships in orbit.”

 

Despite the situation, the shuttle pilot turned and grinned at her. “Don’t worry, Commander,” he said. “We’ll be safe enough after we make the relay jump. Besides, I know some maneuvers. We’ll lose ‘em.”

 

Shepard glowered at him. “Less bragging, more flying.”

 

O’Connor cleared his throat. “Right. Lifting off now. You might want to strap yourselves in—this is going to be a bumpy ride.”

 

 

Miranda strode onto the bridge, her body fraught with tension. “What’s the situation?” she barked. Her fingers tightened into fists before she noticed and stretched them out again.

 

Joker’s hands were flying across the console. “Cerberus. Four fighters and a frigate. Shepard told us to get the hell out, so I’m going to lose them and rendezvous with the shuttle in the Hekate system.”

 

Miranda was silent for a split-second before making her decision. “No,” she ordered. “We need to get to the Grenada system.”

 

“What—why?” the pilot spluttered. “What’s going on?”

 

“Damn it, Lieutenant, just do it! We need to hurry,” she insisted. She hoped he couldn’t hear the fear in her voice. “There’s no time to explain.”

 

Joker was silent for a long moment, obviously considering whether to listen to the XO or ignore her. He still didn’t really trust her, even if Shepard did. Miranda’s heart pounded in the silence.

 

“Okay,” he said finally. “Sending coordinates to the shuttle.”

 

Miranda felt a flood of relief, but one worry always replaced another. She left the cockpit, moving purposefully towards her next task. Her stomach churned. She’d made her decision. She just hoped that she wouldn’t live to regret it.

 

Chapter Text

Shepard was bursting with questions when the shuttle door opened, but she stopped short when she saw Miranda standing outside the doors armed to the teeth and carrying two military-style duffles.

 

“What?” she managed to utter before Miranda cut her off.

 

“Stay onboard,” Miranda ordered. “We need to hurry.”

 

Shepard gave her a hard stare. “What the hell is going on, Miranda?”

 

Her XO pulled something out of one of the bags and tossed it towards her.

 

She caught it reflexively and glanced at what was in her hand. A protein bar. This was definitely getting weird.

 

She tossed one to Zaeed and another to a confused-looking Solana. “It’s dextro,” Miranda assured the turian.

 

Shepard crossed her arms and waited for the XO to turn back to her. “Miranda,” she said warningly, gaze intense. “Explain. Now.” The brunette met her eyes, and though Shepard’s expression didn’t waver, inwardly she was taken aback. She’d never seen Miranda look this troubled, not since…

 

“Cerberus is after my sister,” she stated in a flat voice. “They may already have her. I can explain the rest on the way down.” Miranda held fast under Shepard’s scrutiny, silently pleading with the commander to agree and to hurry.

 

After a moment of consideration, Shepard gave her a nod. “Give O’Connor the coordinates,” she instructed.

 

Miranda relaxed visibly. “Thank you, Shepard,” she breathed. Before stepping into the cockpit, she indicated the duffel bags she brought onboard. “Help yourself to extra medi-gel, water, and heat sinks.”

 

Shepard turned her critical gaze from Miranda to Zaeed and Solana. She didn’t like to go straight from one mission to another without changing out the squad, but if the situation was as urgent as Miranda believed it to be, they didn’t have many options. Shepard missed having a twelve-man team at her disposal.

 

Miranda returned from the cockpit appearing more composed than a few minutes previous, but Shepard could see through the facade. There was an unfamiliar apprehension in the XO’s expression. It brought Liara’s odd message to mind. “We need to talk about Miranda,” the asari had said.

 

There was definitely more to this mission than met the eye.

 

“Shepard,” Miranda began, “The Illusive Man contacted me not long ago.”

 

The commander kept her expression level despite the feeling of surprise that shot through her. Shepard hadn’t expected the Illusive Man’s interest in Miranda to go any further than wanting his former operative dead.

 

Miranda continued, her eyes never leaving Shepard’s despite their hesitation. “He demanded that I help him from the inside the next time Cerberus caught up with the Normandy. He…” She paused, smoothing out her suddenly shaking voice. “He threatened Oriana if I chose not to help.” She finally broke Shepard’s gaze, looking down towards her feet.

 

Shepard took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You didn’t think of mentioning this before, Miranda?” she asked warningly.

 

The brunette’s eyes snapped up to hers again, wildly. “I—” She stopped herself before finishing the thought. Her eyes fell again to the floor. She took a deep breath and spoke more calmly, “I did, but…” She trailed off, pleading eyes on Shepard.

 

“I understand,” Shepard said finally. Oriana meant everything to Miranda. Either way, it wasn’t the time for this discussion. Nothing would be accomplished by further distressing her XO. “We need to focus on getting Oriana out. After that, we’ll talk.”

 

Miranda nodded mutely. Still shaken, she started typing on her omni-tool. She pulled up a schematic. “This is the university Oriana attends,” she explained. “Right now she should be in Colonial History, this room,” she said, lighting up a space on the three-dimensional map. “The Illusive Man knows her schedule and most likely already has people at the school. I don’t believe he was bluffing.” Her voice wavered slightly, but she soldiered on. “I’ve had EDI monitoring all arrivals and departures in the area. As of a quarter hour ago, communications are blocked in the area, but we should know if they try to leave the planet with her.”

 

Shepard gave her a curt nod. “EDI?” she called.

 

“Commander?”

 

“Try to interface with the school’s network. See if we can find out what’s going on down there,” she ordered.

 

A few moments of silence passed before the AI returned with her assessment. “School networks indicate a lockdown. I cannot get through on any emergency channels.”

 

Shepard shared a look with Miranda. “So Cerberus is present, probably in control of the school, but it seems like they’re still looking for Oriana,” she commented.

 

Miranda looked thoughtful. “They know her entire schedule, Shepard,” she said. “Maybe she had enough warning to hide.” Her voice had become hopeful.

 

Shepard nodded. “She may be inexperienced, but she’s as smart as you are,” she reminded her. She involuntarily glanced at Solana and Zaeed, both in the dark about the sisters’ true relationship. But that was Miranda’s story to tell.

 

Shepard tried to use Miranda as a guide for understanding Oriana’s natural abilities, but it was difficult to judge how much was nature and how much was nurture. Miranda had been forced into using all of her natural talents to protect herself and those she loved, but Oriana’s childhood had been relatively ordinary. She tried to think of the few things she knew of Oriana. She’d gotten just one message from the girl, a thank you for helping her family on Illium months ago. Shepard could tell from the message that Oriana was intelligent, tenacious, and perceptive. It wasn’t much to go on, but it was a start.

 

“We ought to split up, two and two,” Shepard instructed. “Zaeed and Solana, I want you two to disrupt Cerberus any way you can. Make enough racket to distract them from Miranda and I, but try not to put yourselves in unnecessary danger.” She turned to Solana. “Follow Zaeed’s orders. He’s been doing this kind of thing for as long as you or I have been alive,” she said, shooting a slight smile to the old mercenary. “And you, Zaeed, you look out for her,” she told him, motioning to Solana. “Garrus will murder us both if I let her get killed.” Solana scowled at that, and Shepard suppressed a small smile.

 

“I can take care of myself,” Solana muttered, subvocals raised in annoyance.

 

Shepard shrugged. “If I really doubted that, you wouldn’t be here.”

 

Shepard moved to face all three of them again as she felt the shuttle touch down. “Miranda and I will search for Oriana.  We’ll head up to the classroom first, but it’s more likely she’s elsewhere,” she told them. “We may need to do some pretty extensive searching. Once we’ve got Oriana with us, we’ll extract the two of you,” she directed to Solana and Zaeed. She had no idea how yet, but she’d figure it out.

 

“Miranda,” she instructed, “Send those schematics to all of our omni-tools, and give EDI the contact info for Oriana. She can try to get ahold of her while we look around.” The XO nodded and started typing away on her omni-tool.

 

“O’Connor?” Shepard called to the shuttle pilot. “We almost there?”

 

“Ground entrances are surrounded,” he replied. “About the only place I can do a drop without attracting attention is the tower roof.”

 

“Do it,” Shepard ordered.

 

She turned back to the other two teammates. “Comms may be out, but keep in contact while you can. We’ll see you on the other side.”

 

When the shuttle touched down, Zaeed opened the hatch with Solana following close behind him. Shepard turned to the shuttle pilot with a short list of instructions before coming back to Miranda. With a nod, the two of them unholstered their weapons and stepped outside.

 

Shepard and Miranda just reached Solana and Zaeed as the former finished hacking the roof access door. “Go on ahead,” Shepard instructed. “And keep them off us.”

 

Solana glanced at Shepard with a nervous, set expression, but Zaeed just looked bored. “Don’t get your goddamn panties in a twist, Shepard,” he growled. “We’ll take care of it.”

 

She and Miranda waited a few moments before carefully following the other two teammates inside. Shepard’s armored footsteps echoed in the dark, deserted stairway. Miranda’s lighter ones came just behind, hardly making a sound against the floor. Weapons drawn, they backed against the wall on either side of the doorway ahead of them.

 

Shepard pulled up the radar on her omni-tool to check for hostiles. “Immediate area’s reading clear,” she told Miranda and opened the door.

 

They stepped out cautiously. Shepard’s eyes darted about, immediately taking note of the dead Cerberus soldier that had been stationed by the door. She squatted down beside the body to take a look. Neck snapped, comm stolen. Good. No gunfire would lead to this position, and now Zaeed and Solana could listen in on Cerberus communications.

 

As she righted herself, she noticed the security cam. “Let’s hope Cerberus doesn’t have an eye on those.”

 

Miranda followed her gaze, eyes narrowing. She pulled up her omni-tool to type in a command. There was a spark, and then the camera fizzled and died. “There are bound to be more,” she stated, frowning.

 

Shepard eyed the camera. “There’s not much we can do except take them out as we reach them,” she responded. “I just hope Zaeed and Solana are doing their job.”

 

They headed carefully down the hallway, bypassing the elevator to use the stairs. Two more dead Cerberus soldiers, one guarding the elevator and another at the stairs. Miranda shook her head at the sight. “Cerberus didn’t used to have soldiers.”

 

Shepard took a look at Miranda’s troubled countenance. “I told the Illusive Man that he could build an army for what it cost to bring me back,” she said. She glanced at the dead soldier. “I guess he took my advice.”

 

“But where did he get the money?” Miranda asked. For that, Shepard had no answer.

 

They crept down the staircase with careful quiet, shorting out cameras along the way as they descended several floors to Oriana’s classroom. Hostiles in the hallway, the radar alerted them, one just beyond the door and others further down. “Warp on my command,” Shepard whispered tersely. Miranda’s fingertips began to glow, blue light stretching up her arm. Shepard opened the door.

 

As soon as the soldier came into sight, Shepard gave the order. “Now,” she commanded.

 

The soldier began to turn towards them, but was suddenly encased in a blue biotic field, bending the space around him. His mouth opened into a scream, but the only sound that greeted Shepard’s ears was the strange, warping sound of the mass effect field.

 

As he fell to the floor, the glow encasing Miranda’s body dissipated. “Around the corner,” she said, and stepped over the body.

 

Shepard flattened herself against the wall, peeking around the corner. “Two men at the classroom door,” she told Miranda. “I’ll lift, you shoot,” she instructed, giving Miranda the chance to let her amp cool.

 

At Shepard’s signal, the two of them spun around the corner. Partway down the hall the two soldiers stood, white and yellow armor still shining like new. One saw them immediately and called to the other man as he raised his rifle.

 

He yelped as the two of them were lifted into the air, rifle clattering uselessly to the ground. Two shots rang out, and the field disappeared, dropping the two bleeding men to the floor. Miranda strode over to the gasping, writhing soldiers, and she raised her pistol. Two more shots cracked in the hallway, and then silence reigned.

 

Shepard tried the classroom door and found it locked. Miranda had already brought up her omni-tool and begun to hack the lock. With a click, the display flickered from red to green. Shepard touched the interface, and the door slid open.

 

“Stay back!” cried a panicked voice. A petite woman with gray streaks marring her black hair pointed a pistol at the two of them with shaking hands.

 

Shepard raised her hands, weapon still holstered. She kept her gaze steadily on the professor. “We aren’t here to harm you. We’re looking for Oriana.”

 

The professor’s hands shook more violently. “That’s what he said, too,” she spat out, looking at a spot off to Shepard’s left. She glanced over to see the body of another Cerberus soldier, dead against the wall, with three bullet wounds piercing his chest and a pool of blood beneath him.

 

Miranda stepped forward, only now holstering her gun. “I’m Miranda Lawson, Oriana’s sister,” she said. “I need to know if Cerberus has her. I need to know if she’s safe.”

 

Shepard watched the realization dawn in the professor’s eyes, who lowered the pistol slowly. The resemblance between the sisters was obvious.

 

“Oriana didn’t come to class today,” the professor said slowly. “I don’t know where she is.”

 

Shepard and Miranda exchanged a worried look.

 

Feeling the danger had passed, Shepard finally tore her eyes from the professor to look around. Students were huddled near the back of the classroom, watching everything with wide eyes. They appeared afraid but unharmed. She glanced back at the professor, whose hand still gripped the pistol at her side. “What’s your name?” she asked. “Can you tell me what happened?”

 

The questions seemed to relax the professor just slightly. She eased a breath. “Professor Ophelia Song,” she told them. “I teach colonial history.” After a pause to collect herself, she began. “It was just before class was about to start. There was chaos and gunfire, and no one knew what was going on. Students were arriving in a panic. I tried calling down to the office, but I couldn’t get anyone. And then he came in, asking for Oriana,” she said, glancing at the body against the wall. “After that, we locked ourselves in.”

 

“Thank you,” Shepard told her. “You’ve been very helpful.” It was little more information than they’d started with, but at least it was something. “We’ve taken care of the Cerberus troops that were outside, but it’s possible that more will arrive. You’ll be safest if you lock the door again when we leave.”

 

Professor Song nodded, her grip tightening just slightly on her pistol.

 

“We’ll do our best to keep all of you safe,” Shepard promised, and she motioned Miranda towards the door. In the hallway, they waited until the lock changed from green back to red again before moving.

 

“We’ll have to do a full sweep,” Shepard decided. “Oriana could be hiding anywhere. Ventilation shafts, any secure room. She might have even found a way to leave the premises, for all we know.”

 

Miranda’s determined expression never wavered, but Shepard didn’t miss the fear that was in her eyes. “We’ll find her,” she promised.

 

Miranda’s only response was to reload her pistol.

 

 

Oriana Lawson sat in darkness, her eyes glued to the wall of security monitors in front of her. Cerberus was crawling all over her school, jamming communications, searching through classrooms, guarding hallways and blocking exits. She heard her name.

 

They were looking for her, but she didn’t know why.

 

She had thought the security office would be a good place to go—it was well hidden and full of resources. But with communications down, she wasn’t sure what she could do other than watch and wait, and it was agonizing.

 

Oriana’s fingers flew over the keys of the communications console, trying again and again to find a way around the signal blocking. No comms, no extranet, nothing was coming and going, nothing but internal Cerberus communications. She’d been listening in—the most she’d been able to accomplish so far. She felt useless, locked up in this dark room unable to find a way to help her friends. Tears pricked at her eyes, but she wouldn’t let them fall. She wasn’t some useless damsel in distress that would cry and wait to be rescued.

 

There was no signal, no cry for help, which meant that nobody was coming.

 

She watched the Cerberus soldiers’ progress through the security cameras. They were setting up turrets at the entrances now, blocking the way out in case anyone tried to escape. But only moments after the lines were fully set up, the turrets started firing on their own technicians. Oriana watched the feed with wide eyes as Cerberus engineers and soldiers fell to the ground, riddled with machine gun fire. When the room was empty, a figure fizzled into view, the deactivation of a tactical cloak.

 

The new person, a female turian in slim black armor, stood casually behind the line of turrets, typing away at her omni-tool. “IFF’s adjusted,” the turian called out. “They’ll only attack heat signatures flagged as Cerberus.”

 

Another figure stepped into view, coming out of the shadows of a small corridor. “For whatever goddamn good that will do,” grumbled a scarred older man in yellow armor covered in dents and scuff marks. “These’ll only hold off so many, and we’ve got to keep ‘em busy until they find the kid.”

 

The human and turian were quiet for a few moments, seeming to survey the room like a battlefield. “Set some charges,” the human ordered in his gravelly voice. “We’ll give Cerberus a goddamn surprise when they try to come through here.”

 

Oriana tore her eyes away from the two in the entry, and took a look at the other monitors. She frowned slightly. Several cameras had been deactivated—their screens were only showing static now. If this was Cerberus, it was something new. Maybe it was somehow thanks to the human and turian she’d seen on the other monitor. But as she looked at which cameras were out, it didn’t make sense. The two non-Cerberus soldiers were on the ground floor, and the cameras seemed to be going out from the top down. It must be the others that the scarred man had referenced—others that were looking for her, just like Cerberus. Were they friend or enemy, she wondered?

 

Another camera winked out as she was thinking. Her eyes snapped up to the now-useless monitor, and she had an idea. If she figured out the path the intruders followed, maybe she could catch sight of them before they knocked the next camera out. Quickly, she mentally catalogued which security cams were gone, coming up with a path in her mind. If she was correct, the next camera they would overload was—

 

Oriana let out a gasp as another camera feed went from image to static. She’d only seen the figures for a split second, but she would know them anywhere.

 

Miranda and Commander Shepard.

 

 

Shepard stole a glance at Miranda out of the corner of her eye. The ex-Cerberus operative was normally skilled at hiding her emotions, but now her worry was pouring off her in waves.

 

They’d cleared several levels but were unable to find or contact Oriana. Shepard felt certain that Cerberus hadn’t found the girl yet, but Miranda’s emotions were beginning to fray. Oriana was Miranda’s greatest weakness, the only person she truly loved. If they didn’t find her first, Shepard wasn’t sure what would happen to her XO.

 

They exited the staircase once more, walking down a deserted hallway towards what appeared to be a small atrium. Shepard motioned for Miranda to stop when they heard voices.

 

“I can’t unlock it,” came a male voice, sounding near tears. “It’s a safe room. When it’s locked from the inside, no one can get in! I swear!”

 

Shepard heard the cocking of a shotgun. “That makes you worthless to us,” came another voice, modulated through a helmet speaker.

 

“No, please!” the first man cried. “Please, I—”

 

At that, Shepard came around the corner, her crosshairs coming to settle right between the soldier’s eyes. She pulled the trigger just as two other Cerberus soldiers raised their weapons to point her direction. One shot was fired and fizzled away against her barrier before Miranda’s biotics raised both up and slammed them to the ground. Stepping forward, Shepard aimed at each of their heads, shooting them in turn to be certain they were dead.

 

She looked up from their broken bodies to focus on the cowering security officer whose back was pressed against a locked door. “It’s okay,” she told him, keeping her voice level and soothing. “We won’t harm you.”

 

The man seemed to relax slightly, but his eyes darted back and forth between Shepard and Miranda nervously. He ran his fingers through his thinning hair.

 

Miranda stepped forward. “Were you telling the truth?” she questioned bluntly. “About the door.” She nodded towards the lock behind him.

 

“Yes,” he said shakily. “I can’t get in. Someone’s in there. Not one of theirs,” he told them, looking at the dead Cerberus trooper that lay near his feet.

 

Suddenly, the lock behind him blinked from red to green. He ran behind Shepard as she and Miranda raised their pistols, aimed at the door panels that were now separating. Light poured into the dim room from the atrium, revealing a petite figure. Miranda gasped, launching herself forward before Shepard could protest.

 

“Ori!” she cried, and crushed the younger woman in a desperate hug.

 

Shepard watched the reunion with unmitigated relief, but as Miranda started to question Oriana about her well-being, she turned her thoughts to the logistics of their escape. Oriana required protection, so they could hardly go barging into battle. They might be able to return to the roof through the way they came, but that would leave Zaeed and Solana high and dry.

 

“Shepard.” The commander glanced over to see Miranda inside the security office, motioning for her to come look at something. She followed her’s gaze to a wall of monitors, broadcasting from the security cameras that lined the school’s hallways.

 

Miranda sat at the console and began typing away. The first of the camera’s they’d shorted out came back online. Shepard’s breath hitched at what she saw. Cerberus soldiers and loki mechs were coming in through the roof access doorway. She swore under her breath. That way out was no longer an option.

 

She scanned the other camera feeds until she reached the one that showed the entryway, a wide open space littered with explosions, broken turrets, and a wave of Cerberus soldiers and mechs. She had her suspicions, but knew for certain as soon as she saw a mech overload. That’s where Zaeed and Solana were, and they were probably in trouble, based on the Cerberus numbers she saw in front of her.

 

Shepard caught Miranda’s eye and nodded towards the monitor. “We need to get there,” she told her.

 

Miranda glanced at her sister inadvertently, giving away her thoughts on the matter. Shepard knew it was dangerous, but she wasn’t going to leave her team in trouble. They’d find a way to get Oriana out safely. They could clear a path if all of them were fighting.

 

“Miranda,” she said softly, and the XO reluctantly nodded.

 

Shepard stepped out of the security office for a moment, crouching down beside one of the Cerberus soldiers. She pulled a pistol from his holster and weighed it in her hands for a moment. She stood and turned, striding over to Oriana. “Do you know how to fire this?”

 

The young woman paled slightly, but gave the commander a resolute nod. Shepard held the pistol out to her, and Oriana took it, her gaze flitting over the specks of blood that marred its surface.

 

“Don’t fire unless you have to, Ori,” Miranda said, her authoritative voice masking the nervousness that Shepard knew she was feeling. “Let Shepard and I handle everything.”

 

Oriana shot her sister a glare. “I’m not a child. I can handle myself.”

 

“We need to hurry,” Shepard interrupted, before it turned into an argument. “Zaeed and Solana are getting swarmed down there.” She turned to the security officer, still standing quietly by the door. “Lock yourself in,” she ordered. “Watch the feeds for us. When you don’t see any Cerberus soldiers left, wait ten minutes and send the all clear,” she instructed. He gave her a shaky nod. She turned to go, Miranda and Oriana following behind.

 

They made their way downstairs quickly, and entered into a deserted first-floor hallway. Shepard could hear the distant sounds of gunfire drifting towards them. She paused for a moment, considering their options. Barging in didn’t seem to be the most intelligent way to go about things, but Shepard was coming up short on ideas at the moment.

 

“Oh!” Shepard’s eyes snapped to Oriana, who was staring off into space. The young woman shifted her gaze to Shepard, suddenly buzzing with excitement. “Commander, I think I know something that can help us!”

 

Intrigued, Shepard motioned for her to continue. She hoped the idea was a good one.

 

Oriana ran to a nearby classroom door and threw it open carelessly. Shepard shoved her back out of instinct, even before she saw the mechs. She raised her pistol immediately, but stilled before she pulled the trigger. The room was still and silent, the mechs deactivated. And then Shepard’s eyes fell upon something at the back of the room. She heard a sharp intake of breath and glanced beside her to see Miranda staring at the same object that had caught her own attention.

 

It was taller than the other mechs, a mechanical behemoth. Shepard’s eyes scanned it, noting the rocket launcher in one arm and machine gun in the other. At its center, a glass canopy protected a pilot’s seat. It gleamed like brand new. It was beautiful.

 

Shepard glanced behind her at Oriana, who was now grinning. “It’s called an Atlas mech. The robotics club just got it in. My friend Tonio can’t stop talking about it.”

 

The three of them approached it and stopped a meter or so away, gazing up at the mech. That pilot’s seat was begging to be filled, and Shepard just knew she had to have it. She stepped forward and reached for the one button she saw, which popped open the glass canopy and revealed the empty cockpit.

 

“Shepard,” came Miranda’s worried voice from behind her. She ignored it, hefting herself up into the pilot’s seat. She gazed down at the console in front of her and suddenly realized she didn’t have the slightest clue how to control this thing.

 

When she glanced up, she saw Oriana running to a computer at one end of the room. She quickly typed something in on the keyboard and then pulled up her omni-tool. She looked up at Shepard and grinned. “I’ve got the piloting instructions and a diagnostic,” she told the commander.

 

Shepard grinned back. “Give me the rundown.” Oriana quickly read through the basic instructions, and Shepard walked the Atlas out into the hallway.

 

When she turned the corner to the entryway, complete chaos met her. Crashed mechs and Cerberus bodies littered the floor, making it difficult to maneuver the Atlas. Fortunately, she didn’t need to do much maneuvering—from her vantage point, she could do a lot of damage.

 

Miranda’s biotics were in full swing. She’d taken up crowd control without Shepard’s prompting, and Shepard fired her machine gun and rockets at the soldiers she could. She swore at a missed shot as a soldier ran up to the Atlas.

 

“Lower left, orange button to melee!” came Oriana’s cry, muffled by the glass canopy. Shepard scrambled to follow the instructions.

 

“Thanks,” she breathed, her cockpit vibrating with the mech’s swinging fist. She saw Zaeed and Solana coming out of hiding on the far side of the room, though Solana disappeared again almost immediately with the tell-tale fizzle of a tactical cloak. The turian’s tactics were becoming more practiced as she went on more missions, Shepard noted between shots.

 

“Stay back, Ori!” she heard Miranda yell.

 

“But I see the generator!” Oriana responded. “It’s powering the signal blocker!”

 

Shepard jumped in. “Solana?” she called, her voice muffled through the glass.

 

“On it,” the turian replied, though Shepard couldn’t see her on the battlefield. After a few moments, a screeching noise came through the comm. Shepard cringed, but then heard Oriana’s voice come in loud and clear.

 

“Commander, can you hear me?”

 

Shepard fired a machine gun blast before responding, “I hear you.”

 

“Be careful of your rocket arm,” the young woman instructed. “The diagnostic is showing some damage.”

 

“Noted,” Shepard replied, but most of her attention was focused on the new wave of enemies that poured through the front doors. “Miranda?”

 

“Shepard?” Her XO’s voice was ragged with exertion.

 

“See if you can get O’Connor in here with that shuttle. Have him clear the outside so we can make a run for it,” she instructed.

 

Shepard fired a rocket blast at a crowd of incoming Cerberus. She wondered, for a short moment, how they had gained so many soldiers so quickly. Had the Illusive Man being silently recruiting an army during her Collector mission? Or was it something more sinister?

 

She pressed the key for another rocket blast, but nothing happened. She pressed it again, still with no results. A red light began to flash next to the button. “Oriana?” she called. “What does that red light mean? Am I out of rockets?”

 

A strangled gasp came through the comm. “Commander, get out!” she cried. “You’re not out of rockets, it’s—”

 

Shepard had barely begun to climb out of the hatch when a blast threw her across the room.

 

“…jammed,” she heard Oriana’s voice say faintly, but it didn’t quite register as her ears rang. Shepard grunted, scrambling to get up. On hands and knees, she raised her head to see a soldier pointing his rifle at her. She reached for her pistol just as the figure crashed lifelessly to the ground, a red stain growing beneath him.

 

Shepard felt a hand under her arm, unceremoniously dragging her to her feet. “Up you go, princess,” Zaeed said gruffly, and let go of her to fire his rifle. Shepard shook her head to clear it, still ringing from the explosion, and began to throw out biotic fields to relieve Miranda whose face was now nearly as white as her uniform.

 

“O’Connor?” Shepard shouted into her comm. She lifted a mech and soldier into the air and fired her pistol to finish them off.

 

“Outside the front doors, Commander,” came the shuttle pilot’s voice. “All clear for now, but there’s another shuttle incoming.”

 

Shepard took in a deep breath and threw out an enormous shockwave to clear a path to the doors. “Go!” she shouted, and her team made a run for it, firing as they went. Miranda gripped Oriana’s arm tightly as the pair followed Zaeed and Solana outside.

 

Head still pounding, Shepard trailed behind them, firing her pistol at the Cerberus troopers left in the room. She was the last to board the shuttle, calling out orders to the pilot as she shut the hatch.

 

Shepard collapsed onto the seat with a heavy sigh, blood still pumping and breathing still labored. She took a quick look around the shuttle to examine her team. Zaeed and Solana looked a little roughed up, and Miranda had obviously overexerted her biotics, but there were no serious injuries among the group.

 

Oriana looked shaken, and as Shepard watched the young woman, her eyes latched onto Shepard’s. “My parents,” she gasped. “What if they go after them?”

 

Shepard looked at her XO. “Miranda?” The raven-haired woman gave a brusque nod and moved into the cockpit to give O’Connor the coordinates for each of the couples workplaces. Before long, they were returning to the Normandy with Oriana’s family in tow.

 

Oriana’s mother was clinging to her fearfully, tears shining in her eyes. Miranda watched the proceedings with a troubled gaze.

 

While Shepard’s eyes were trained on Miranda, Oriana had left her mother’s embrace. “That’s twice now I owe you my life, Commander,” the young woman said as she approached Shepard. “Thank you for everything.” Her eyes glowed with gratitude.

 

Shepard couldn’t help feeling disarmed by her, and wondered for a moment if this is what Miranda would have been like if she’d had a true childhood. She glanced over at the older sister, and let her lips curve into a small smile. “I owe your sister a debt that I can never repay. Helping you is the least I can do for her.”

 

Miranda’s head shot up, bewildered eyes meeting Shepard’s. She didn’t return the smile, but something in her expression seemed to ease slightly. The two of them had a long conversation awaiting them, but Shepard would let it rest until Oriana was safe.

 

Chapter Text

Shepard leaned back from her terminal and rubbed her eyes tiredly. “EDI, is Miranda back on board?” It was late, but she would wait up until Miranda had escorted her sister’s family to a safe house. They needed to have a talk, and she wasn’t going to wait until morning.

 

“Not yet, Commander,” was the reply.

 

“Tell her to see me when she returns,” Shepard instructed with a yawn.

 

“Yes, Commander.”

 

Silence fell upon the room again. Shepard glanced at her terminal and shut it down. No more work tonight. She pushed the chair away from the desk and stood, moving down to the lower part of her quarters. She stretched out on the couch and ran her fingers through her short, red hair with a sigh.

 

Her mind drifted to the conversation she’d had with Liara earlier, first about finding a safe placement for Oriana’s family and then about other things, such as Miranda’s deception. Liara’s reaction had been eye-opening.

 

“Maybe you will listen next time when I tell you I have something important to talk about,” Liara said sharply. Her expression turned horrified. “Shepard,” she breathed apologetically, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t speak to you that way.” Her head dropped

 

“It’s okay, Liara,” Shepard reassured her. “You’re right.”

 

“It’s just this job,” the asari explained. “And being one of the few people who knows what’s coming. It’s a nightmare, Shepard.”

 

No one really knows what’s coming, Shepard thought bitterly, remembering the beacon. No one but me. Liara received only an echo of it; a faint echo of the pain and suffering, the doom and utter despair. Those visions had become more and more clear as time passed, but she often wished they hadn’t. Others on the ship slept, made love, and worked the graveyard shift while she watched a civilization die in her sleep.

 

It was her gift and curse; to know what awaited them if she failed.

 

EDI’s simulated voice was a welcome interruption to her thoughts. “Miranda has returned and is on her way up, Commander,” the AI told her.

 

“Thank you, EDI,” Shepard replied, and hefted herself upright to sit on the couch properly. A few minutes later, she heard Miranda’s knock at the door. “Come in,” she called.

 

Shepard was unsurprised to see her XO looking far more careworn than usual. This had weighed heavily on her, Shepard knew, but she couldn’t let it go without a discussion. “Come sit with me,” she instructed, trying her best to sound gentle.

 

Miranda came down the steps and settled carefully around the bend of the couch, staring first at her hands before raising her eyes slowly to meet the commander’s.

 

Shepard held her gaze, trying to read the emotions in the other woman’s eyes. How far could she trust Miranda? How long before her XO’s judgment became compromised again? Could she keep Miranda focused, get her to hold onto the big picture?

 

Finally, she broke the silence. “Why didn’t you come to me, Miranda?”

 

The brunette’s eyes dropped to her hands, twined together in her lap. Her expression was one of guilt. “I—” She let out a huff of air. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I was so afraid for Oriana. I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid that if we went after her, he would get to her first.” There was an unsettling waver in her voice.

 

“You considered his deal,” Shepard said coolly.

 

Miranda chanced to look back up at the commander. “I don’t think I did, not really,” she tried to explain. “I knew I couldn’t betray you, but Oriana means everything to me.” Her blue eyes implored Shepard to be understanding.

 

The sight of her XO so undone tugged at Shepard’s heartstrings, but she knew her first duty was to the safety of her crew—and to her mission. “It would have been safer for Oriana if we had dealt with this before Cerberus ever came for the Normandy.”

 

Miranda let out a shaky breath. “I knew better than to betray you,” she told her again. “And I didn’t want to. I believe in what we’re doing here, Commander. But I kept delaying making that decision that would send Cerberus after Ori. I thought about saying something. I almost did, so many times.” The brunette shook her head, her voice full of self-reproach. “I guess I just ran out of time.”

 

“What exactly did he ask you to do?”

 

Miranda flushed slightly, looking ashamed. “He wanted me to shut down EDI.”

 

Shepard nodded slightly as realization dawned. EDI had prevented Cerberus from taking the Normandy before. It made sense that they would want her out of the way. Shepard would have to be more careful about allowing access to the AI core.

 

She locked eyes with Miranda. “You’ll have to forfeit your access to the AI core,” she told her firmly. “I should have restricted access a long time ago.”

 

Miranda’s eyes widened slightly. “You’re… you’re not kicking me off your ship?”

 

Shepard held Miranda’s gaze steadily. “I won’t make you leave for a single lapse of judgment,” she told her gently. Her voice became firm. “But you can’t allow your emotions to compromise the mission again,” she ordered. “One lapse is a mistake. Two is a trend. We’re doing this for everyone. Letting your emotions get in the way of the mission can only hurt the people you care about.”

 

Miranda gave Shepard a shaky smile. “I’m not used to forgiveness,” she admitted.

 

She wouldn’t be, Shepard thought, remembering Miranda’s father and the Illusive Man. “You can always come to me, Miranda,” she said. “I will always help you, and that’s a promise.”

 

She could read in Miranda’s expression that the XO really didn’t believe she deserved this. But Shepard saw more than that—a determination to never breach her commander’s trust again. A vow to do better next time.

 

Shepard had always believed in second chances.

 

She smiled at Miranda. “Go get some sleep,” she instructed, nodding towards the door. “We can talk more in the morning.”

 

The brunette stood and walked away, but she paused before crossing the threshold. She took a few steps back, standing at the top of the steps. “Shepard…” she began, sounding a bit unsure. “What did you mean when you told Oriana you owed me something you could never repay?”

 

A small smile graced Shepard’s features. “You gave me my life back, Miranda. There’s nothing I could ever do for you that would measure up to that.”

 

 

“Admirals,” Garrus greeted, exuding a confidence he didn’t quite feel as he strode into the meeting room. Admiral Koris entered behind him, followed by Tali’Zorah, who gave Garrus’s hand a quick squeeze as she moved past him. Koris went to sit with his fellow admirals while Tali moved off to the side, already pulling up her omni-tool to record the meeting. Somewhere in the room, Kasumi stood cloaked, ready to step in if things got ugly.

 

Admiral Xen was the first to speak. “Koris tells me that you wish to speak with us regarding our war with the geth,” she stated in her haughty way. “Are the turians pledging their aid or threatening to interfere?”

 

Garrus had one thing to stay in Admiral Xen’s favor—she didn’t mince words. He hadn’t bothered to correct any assumptions about this meeting before, knowing that their belief he was representing the Hierarchy was the main reason he’d been granted this audience. But now, he had no need of deception. “Neither,” he answered.

 

“Then what, exactly, is the purpose of this meeting?” Xen questioned testily.

 

“I’m here because I’m hoping the war won’t be necessary,” he told them. “I have someone that wants to speak with you.”

 

Garrus connected the call and patched it through to the large vidscreen on the wall behind him, then braced himself for the inevitable blowback.

 

Four out of five admirals shot out of their chairs when Legion’s image appeared onscreen. “What is the meaning of this?” Admiral Raan gasped, hand pressed to her chest.

 

“Admirals,” Legion greeted in his static, mechanical voice.

 

Garrus raised his hands against the sudden influx of ringing protests. “Everyone calm down,” he shouted over them. An uneasy silence fell. The step forward that Garrus took echoed through the room. “This is Legion, a platform representing the geth consensus,” he explained. He took a deep breath. “The geth want to parley.”

 

There was a beat of silence before the shouting started up again.

 

“That’s impossible!”

 

“What sort of trickery—”

 

“Honestly, do you expect us to believe…”

 

“It’s true!”

 

Garrus’s head snapped to the source of the newest voice as the admirals fell to silence.

 

Tali stepped forward and took a deep breath. “The geth don’t want to fight us,” she affirmed, her voice clear and strong. “Legion can explain and answer your questions.” She took a step back and glanced at Garrus, who gave her an encouraging nod. For better or for worse, Tali was a part of this now. She could become a hero of the quarian people or an exile in disgrace. Either way, he was proud of her.

 

Legion himself was the one who broke the stunned silence. “Creator Tali’Zorah is correct. The geth do not wish to go to war.”

 

“Then explain the geth assault on the Citadel! The attacks in the Attican Traverse!” Admiral Jorah ordered accusingly. The glow of his eyes narrowed behind his helmet.

 

Legion’s head flaps shifted slightly. “Those actions were taken by the heretics, a minority of the geth. The heretics have been dealt with.”

 

Xen spoke up. “This is ridiculous!” she protested. “The geth don’t have factions. They rule by consensus.” She crossed her arms over her chest like a barrier.

 

Garrus stepped in again. “Are you certain of that?” he questioned, raising a browplate.

 

“Of course I am!” she snapped. “We created them, as you recall.”

 

“And you yourselves have confirmed their ability to adapt,” Garrus countered. “How much can you really say you know about the geth after three hundred years separated from them? You haven’t attempted to make contact.”

 

The admiral’s body language was quickly beginning to read as hostile, but Admiral Koris stepped in before Xen had a chance to become combative. “I, for one, want to hear what this geth has to say,” he stated smoothly. “I see no harm in speaking to it.”

 

“I’ve routed the communication in such a way that Legion can’t pinpoint our location,” Garrus assured them. “You’re in no danger speaking with him.”

 

“Fine,” Xen said shortly. “If you insist on continuing this farce, I will question it myself.” She stepped forward, past the conference table, and lifted her helmet to gaze at the vidscreen.

 

“Geth,” she addressed. “Tell me about these heretics.”

 

Garrus only paid the barest attention to the conversation, focusing instead on watching the admirals. He’d heard Legion’s explanations before. He took note of the admirals’ body language, the tone of their voices and the wording of their questions, trying to gauge where they each stood on the issue and whether this chat with Legion would change their minds.

 

Gerrel and Jorah were full of suspicion. Xen seemed determined not to believe a word it said. Koris and Raan were both quiet, only interjecting the occasional question. When they finally seemed to run out of things to say, Garrus ended the call and turned to them, waiting and watching for their reaction.

 

There was an uneasy silence at first, until Han’Gerrel spoke up. The admiral, leaning against the table, shifted uncomfortably. “We have to consider that this might be a trap.” Garrus released his breath in a disappointed sigh.

 

For the first time since the beginning of the meeting, Tali came forward. “No,” she said firmly. “I’ve met Legion. I helped it eliminate the heretic threat,” she told them, her carefully chosen words omitting the choice to rewrite versus destroy. The young quarian took a deep breath and stood tall before the admirals. “I will vouch for Legion.”

 

Shocked silence followed, and Garrus felt a surge of pride. Tali had joined the Normandy crew as barely more than a child, but now she stood on her own so fiercely that he could only be impressed. They’d all grown so much under Shepard’s guidance.

 

After a moment, the arguing began again. Tali glanced over towards Garrus, her frustration palpable. He shared in her annoyance, crossing his arms as he surveyed the room. After being present for Tali’s trial, he shouldn’t have been surprised at the vitriol with which the admirals argued with one another, and yet he still felt taken aback by the open hostility. These were the chosen representatives of the quarian people?

 

“Enough!”

 

Admiral Zaal’Koris stood at the far end of the room, anger flowing off him in waves. He slammed his hands onto the table. “You are admirals of the quarian people,” he spat at his fellows. “And should behave as such.”

 

Silence followed for a moment before Admiral Raan cleared her throat. “We should take a vote, then,” she suggested in her usual soft tones. For a second, Garrus felt sympathy for the admiral who was always forced to be a mediator in their frequent disputes. She turned to the quarian nearest her. “Admiral Koris, if you would be willing…?”

 

“Of course, Raan,” he agreed, voice softening slightly in response. He gave her a nod, then looked around the room, standing proud and tall before his fellow admirals. “You already know where I stand,” he stated, his voice full of the haughtiness that Garrus remembered from Tali’s trial. Strange to be allied with him now.

 

“I believe we must parley with the geth,” he continued. “We cannot allow this opportunity to slip through our fingers because of those who prefer bloodshed to peace,” he argued, sparing a glance towards Gerrel and Jorah. “Particularly when there is the possible threat of more war on the horizon, I strongly feel that we should look for any alternative to endangering our people.” He turned his frank gaze to Tali, his eyes shining clearly through the tinted glass of his helmet. His voice was firm but gentle when he added, “And I have full faith in Tali’Zorah and her assurances that the geth are not hostile.”

 

Garrus couldn’t help his mandibles flaring into a small smile as he looked over at Tali, who had straightened, holding herself confidently. He knew what that praise meant to her.

 

Admiral Jorah spoke up next. “I believe we should continue our preparations for war,” he declared, his body language forward and engaged as he leaned against the table. “We know that the geth have attacked recently. We know that they turned on us. We don’t know whether this geth is being honest with us or not,” he argued. “They are intelligent. Intelligent enough to use trickery if need be. We cannot trust in assurances made by a race that has always threatened us. We need to trust in the strength of the Migrant Fleet.”

 

Xen nodded in agreement. “We cannot be certain that this is not deceit or a fabrication,” she concurred. “While I would welcome the opportunity to study a specimen like the one we spoke to, I find no reason to trust it.”

 

Disgust shot through Garrus at the thought of this quarian anywhere near Legion. He and Legion were hardly fast friends, but Legion was nothing if not honest. Garrus was fairly certain the AI’s lies were restricted to the words, “No data available.” He was disturbed by the thought of Xen salivating over Legion, poking it for responses, and doing tests that would be utterly damning if attempted on an organic species.

 

The table looked to Han’Gerrel next, but he waved a gloved hand at Admiral Raan, standing tensely across from him. “I…” She wrung her hands slightly. “I believe that we should give the geth a chance.” More than one gasp came in response to her words. “If this can get us back on the homeworld without bloodshed, I think it is worth trying.” Her body sagged slightly, as if the effort of this speech had been too much. Garrus was glad to see it, but it wasn’t enough. One admiral remained, and his opinion was certain.

 

Gerrel leaned over the table heavily, clearly understanding the weight of his decision, but unwilling to change his mind. “I agree with Xen and Jorah,” he said finally. “The quarian people will go to war.”

 

Garrus sensed Tali’s distress next to him. “But… Han’Gerrel, you were my father’s friend, and I—” Her voice caught and she broke off, simply staring at the admiral from where she stood.

 

Admiral Gerrel came towards her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I know, Tali,” he said regretfully. “I trust in your honesty,” he told her. “Always. But the geth may have been lying to you. This is not a chance we can take.”

 

Tali’s posture drooped as the admiral turned back, failure reading in her features. But it wasn’t quite over yet. Garrus caught her eye, motioning to her omni-tool. With a start, she realized his meaning, and in moments the vid was in his inbox.

 

Admirals Xen, Jorah, and Gerrel were now in quiet discussion while Raan and Koris looked on in defeat. When Garrus saw the light flash on Admiral Koris’s omni-tool, indicating a received message, he took a deep breath and stepped forward.

 

He held himself with all the authority and confidence he could muster. He was Officer Vakarian, Archangel, reaper advisor to the primarch of Palaven and deputy commander of the Normandy. He could do this.

 

“It’s unfortunate that it has come to this,” he stated, heart pounding as he turned a hard gaze on each admiral in turn. “If you choose to go to war, I can’t stop you. However, Admiral Koris, Tali’Zorah, and I are all in possession of a recording of this meeting.” He paused for a moment to allow that to sink in. “And I understand that Admiral Koris will not hesitate to release it if necessary.”

 

There was a cry of outrage.

 

“Do you presume to blackmail—”

 

“Is that a threat, sir?”

 

“Koris, if you betray this council…”

 

Garrus simply watched for a moment, surveying the arguing admirals once again. What happened now was up to the quarians.

 

He turned to the other quarian in the room, taking in her nervous stance and agitated eyes moving behind her helmet. “Come on, Tali’Zorah vas Normandy,” he said to her. “It’s time to go home.”

 

When he marched out of the room, he trusted her to follow.

 

 

“Keelah,” Tali breathed as they made their way through the ship. “I can’t believe we just blackmailed the admiralty board.”

 

“You might not want to say that out loud,” Garrus said dryly. “Get your things together. We ought to leave as soon as possible.”

 

“Right.” Tali turned towards the singles quarters. “Just wait outside,” she instructed him. “I’ll only take a minute.” She slipped through the door and headed to her bunk. At this time of day it was nearly empty. The bunks for the night shift crew were grouped together on the far side of the barracks, but otherwise only a few quarians milled through the room.

 

She made her way quickly to her locker, stuffing her few possessions into a bag.

 

“Leaving already, Tali’Zorah?”

 

Her stomach fluttered at that familiar voice.

 

Tali turned and beamed at him. She wished he could see it. “Kal’Reegar.” She glanced down at the bag in her hands, fidgeting slightly. “I have to return to the Normandy right away,” she told him, apology seeping into her tone. “Shepard asked me to be chief engineer.”

 

“I see. Congratulations,” he said hesitantly. He shifted his weight slightly, looking uncomfortable. “Vakarian seems like a good guy.”

 

Tali was taken off guard by the sudden change in topic. “He’s been a good friend to me,” she said cautiously. She felt like she was treading blindly through a minefield, though she wasn’t quite sure of the reason for it.

 

“Reegar, I…” Tali sighed, wishing she had time to puzzle this out. “I have to hurry.” She put a tentative hand on his arm. “Write me?”

 

His eyes glowed at her through his helmet. “Of course, Tali,” he said, his tone now warm. It sent shivers up from her belly.

 

For a moment she just stood there, hand on his arm and gaze lost in the beautiful glow of his eyes. “I’ll miss you,” she said spontaneously and pulled him into a brief but tight hug. Before she could think on her actions, she hurried away, heart racing.

 

When the door shut behind her, she let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. Though she couldn’t see Garrus’s expression through his helmet visor, she knew he was giving her a look. “So…” he drawled as they began their walk to the docking bay. “Run into some surprise combat in the barracks? Not sure why else your heart rate would skyrocket like that.”

 

Tali stopped in her tracks and turned to look at him. She knew that posture—it was always accompanied by a smirk. “Bosh’tet,” she muttered, and he laughed all the way down the hall.

 

 

When they boarded the Normandy, Tali made a beeline for engineering. Garrus let her go, understanding all too well the need to clear her head with familiar work. Kasumi was still cloaked somewhere, probably headed to the bar for a chance to relax. But Garrus had a different idea in mind for winding down. On the Flotilla, in those moments before sleep he’d been thinking of Shepard, missing her smiles, her arms around him, her alluring scent. In the dark hours while others slept, he fantasized about her.

 

The only good thing about those nights alone had been the way they heightened his desire for her, making the upcoming reunion all the more sweet. He knew exactly what he wanted to do tonight, but first he needed to stop in the main battery. He dug through a crate of his belongings, searching for a particular item. His hand tightened around it and he pulled his prize from the crate. Smiling involuntarily, He tucked the object into a compartment of his armor and made his way towards the elevator.

 

Before the door to her quarters closed, she was already upon him. She greeted him with touch—gentle fingers along his gauntlets, soft kisses to his mandibles, hungry, loving eyes. She submitted to his hands as he peeled the fatigues from her body and relished in the flushed glow of her skin. Spirits, he’d longed after her touch, her scent. His plates widened beneath his armor.

 

Her breath was feather-light upon him as he drew her in close for a human kiss. Those lips—spirits—so soft and pliable. He pressed for entry and she yielded, her tongue waiting for his. They twined together as she moaned breathily into his mouth.

 

While he held her lips captive to pleasure, he slid a hand along his armor to the hidden compartment. In an instant, he drew her hands behind her and secured them with a click.

 

Her mouth dropped into an ‘o’ as she strained against the C-Sec issue handcuffs, eyes wide and staring. Garrus waited for her reaction as his heart raced, hoping she would be more aroused than angry.

 

The seconds ticked by, and she took a long, slow breath. A slight tremble undermined the steady tone of her voice. “I was wondering if you still had these.”

 

His mandibles widened into a feral grin. Being dominated by a strong woman was a common kink in turian culture, but Garrus thought indulging in the reverse was even better.

 

She gave a small yelp of protest as he lifted and carried her to the bed, depositing her against the headboard. Her breathing was labored and heart racing, the signals of her desire flagged and magnified by the visor he still wore. He removed the tech and set it on the bedside table. Sometimes instinct was better than data.

 

He unlatched the rest of his armor as she watched him hungrily, relishing her silent impatience. At long last he removed his undersuit, revealing his body to her. Her breath hitched audibly.

 

As he climbed onto the bed, hovering above her, he eyed the bra and panties that still hid her most sensitive places. In a snap decision, Garrus ran his talon beneath the delicate fabric between her breasts and ripped. The bra flew open to reveal her heaving breasts, now as familiar to him as they had once been alien. He turned his attention to her panties, ruining them in the same fashion before moving his gaze back to meet hers.

 

He wondered if he’d gone too far for her yet, but as her eyes moved from the torn lingerie to his blue gaze, she swallowed thickly. “You’re going to have to replace those, Vakarian.”

 

The only response he deigned to give her was to lean forward and lick roughly around her hardened nipple. Shepard gasped and arched against him, biting her lip to hold in a moan.

 

“I don’t know,” he said with feigned indifference. “I think I prefer you without.” And with that, Garrus launched himself upon her.

 

His fingers rubbed roughly across her opening as he raked his tongue from bellybutton to the hollow of her throat. She moaned at his ministrations, straining against the cuffs that held her back. He lapped at a breast, twirling his tongue around it until she was gasping, but as soon as he sensed she was nearing the edge, his fingers slowed to a steady pace, just enough to tease.

 

He took a moment just to look. His eyes roved with fond familiarity over her pale skin, the dusting of freckles across her nose and shoulders. The faint lines of her veins so close beneath the skin, a vision of fragility that contrasted with her innate strength. She bruised easily, her body marked with the evidence of battle, of sex and sparring and the firing range. His gaze fell upon her strange human fringe shining red like a Palaven sunset, and then he finally met her eyes. They were a darker blue than his own, like the paint that marked and named him. Palaven, Cipritine, Vakarian.

 

She met his gaze with her own pleading one. “Christ, Garrus,” she uttered, writhing against his hand in a fruitless attempt to bring herself closer. “Please...”

 

“No.”

 

She let out a small sound of protest as he denied her, and she squirmed again, trying to alleviate the need she felt, the pulsing ache between her legs. He held in a groan at the utter eroticism of seeing her at his mercy.

 

Garrus was painfully hard. Shepard was beautiful beneath him, her pink body flushed and shimmering with sweat. She trembled with need, her once-hard gaze now on the verge of pleading. But he wouldn’t give in, not until he got what he wanted from her.

 

“Promise me something.” He stroked her roughly, just once.

 

She moaned. “Anything.” She lifted her hips against his fingers, but her legs were pinned beneath him. She let out a small groan of frustration. His eyes followed a small bead of sweat rolling slowly down her neck. He longed to lick it off of her.

 

Garrus snapped his eyes back up to hers. He growled in his throat, voice strained from his own need. “Promise that you won’t send me away again.”

 

“Garrus,” she began, but he cut her off with a rough stroke. She gasped, eyes slamming shut at the sensation.

 

He lowered himself down to her, drinking in her scent. His tongue slipped out and lapped at that delectable bead of sweat, following a trail up to her ear. “Promise me, Jane,” he rumbled, and she shivered. The moment stretched on and his heart beat in the silence.

 

“Okay,” she whispered.

 

Within a second, he’d removed his fingers and replaced them with the length of his cock. She cried out as he slammed inside her. Warm. Wet. Tight. They were words that applied, but none were enough to describe the feel of her surrounding him. He pounded her against the mattress, full to burst and barely hanging on. He pinched a nipple between his lip plates, and his tongue flicked forward, barely teasing the tip.

 

She tightened around him with a cry, and his control shattered. He groaned at the rolling pleasure of release. She was limp and boneless beneath him, breathing raggedly as she lay against the pillows.

 

When he opened his eyes, he found hers upon them, gazing up with an unusual tenderness.

 

He lowered himself to press his crest against her forehead, eyes locked on hers and nose breathing in the scent of her skin. “Don’t make me leave you again.”

 

They both knew better, that if the mission called for it they would do whatever they had to. But her small nod, that moment of pretending, was enough.

 

Chapter Text

Several weeks had passed since Shepard first set the ex-Cerberus scientists the task of subverting a mass relay, and Shepard had filled those weeks with a variety of missions, mostly intel-gathering to support the scientists. Every scrap of information that could be found on the mass relays was collected and analyzed, and the scientists seemed to think they’d made a good start of it. What they needed was time to work, and that was the one thing Shepard couldn’t give them. The day was soon coming when the reapers would reach the Kite’s Nest relay, and then their time would be up.

 

She collected more scientists, corresponded with members of her crew that were away, and helped her friends prepare their people for the coming invasion. They all knew the time would be coming soon, but if the scientists couldn’t stop this, well…

 

She didn’t have a plan B.

 

 

“Primarch, sir,” Garrus greeted, raising his hand in a salute as the turian’s image appeared in the Normandy QEC.

 

“At ease, Vakarian,” Fedorian waved him off. “I’d like to hear about your progress.”

 

Garrus dropped his hand and attempted, unsuccessfully, to relax his stance. He was still speaking to the primarch, after all. “As you know,” he began, “My men have been traveling to our major military installations and doing inspections. Most passed our specifications, but the report is on your desk for those that didn’t,” he told him. “Early warning beacons have been placed throughout Hierarchy space that will detect and report enemy movement.” Garrus didn’t bother telling him that they would be more likely to detect the reapers by being suddenly cut off from the beacons. It would be obvious enough when the time came.

 

“I’ve got my scientists working on developing a weapon that works well on reaper troops. They have my reports and vids on husks, and believe that they can develop a weapon that could interrupt the nanides that control the creatures,” he explained.

 

“And will these weapons translate to other applications?” the primarch questioned.

 

“I’ll find out,” Garrus promised, knowing full well that Fedorian wasn’t completely sold on the reaper threat.

 

The primarch gave a sharp nod. “I’ve received your proposals for supply line and evacuation security protocols. Extreme but effective,” he complimented grudgingly. “And I have your analysis of our defenses,” Fedorian added, giving the other turian a steady look.

 

“Sovereign cut straight through Citadel defenses,” Garrus reminded him. “Security may be stronger than it was three years ago, but the best we’re going to be able to do at this rate is slow them down.”

 

“Hmm,” was the only response Garrus received. The primarch changed the subject. “I also received your request,” Fedorian told him, raising a browplate.

 

Garrus thought this one might be a problem, and he’d been prepared to argue for it. “The cost may be high, but this will be well worth it, sir,” he said preemptively. “The comm buoys are easy targets, ones that any enemy would exploit immediately, leaving us directionless and disorganized. A quantum entanglement device on each colony or major military base may be the only way we can keep up consistent communications throughout Hierarchy space. Without comms our military will be about as useful as wings on a xemna.” Garrus closed his mouth abruptly. He had to stop himself before he got too heated.

 

The primarch let out a heavy sigh. “Vakarian, do you have any understanding of how expensive this venture would be? It was a great undertaking to install the few we have,” Fedorian reminded him.

 

Garrus looked the primarch levelly in the eye. “I’m aware of the cost, sir, but I believe it will become necessary.”

 

“I’ll consider the request, Vakarian,” he said, closing the subject. “There is another reason I called. I have a mission for your squad, one of high urgency and absolute secrecy.”

 

Garrus straightened subconsciously, putting his hands behind his back. “Sir?”

 

“Vakarian, are you familiar with Axion?”

 

Garrus wracked his brain but couldn’t find the connection the primarch was looking for. “No, sir.”

 

“It’s the Hierarchy’s biggest black op,” the primarch stated. “And it’s gone dark.” He began pacing. “Axion is a research lab, tasked with studying alien technology of all kinds.”

 

Garrus’s mandibles flared at the realization. Reaper tech. It was always reaper tech.

 

Fedorian studied his expression. “I trust you know where this is going,” he said dryly. “The Axion lab studied remnants from the battle of the Citadel. This is the lab that developed the Thanix cannon. Due to the Sovereign connection, I felt your team was the best suited for this task. Take a team to find out what happened there. Contain the situation and report back. I doubt I need to tell you that this is a matter of the utmost secrecy.”

 

“I understand, sir,” Garrus responded quickly. “Is there anything else you can tell me about the lab?” he asked, mind already racing with possibilities and plans.

 

“I’ll send you a written briefing through a secure channel. Dismissed.” The primarch’s image faded, leaving Garrus alone to consider the enormity of the situation.

 

How many turians had lived and worked and studied under the shadow of a dead reaper? Garrus remembered his own experience with a reaper corpse, and shuddered.

 

 

Joker watched from the mess hall as the lone female turian on the ship wandered into the main battery and back out moments later. “Sup?” he called as she came back down the hallway.

 

“Have you seen my brother?” she asked, glancing first at Joker and then at a couple of crewmen sitting a few seats down.

 

“I think he’s in a meeting with Shepard,” Hawthorne helpfully supplied.

 

Joker barked out a laugh. “A meeting. Right.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m sure they have lots of things to ‘discuss’ alone together in her quarters.” His eyes darted over to Solana Vakarian standing at the end of the table looking mildly disgusted. “Oh, shit, I didn’t just give away the big secret, did I?”

 

“No,” came a voice from the hallway. “Garrus told Solana about us before she came onboard.” Shepard appeared from the shadows, arms crossed and look of mixed amusement and annoyance on her face.

 

“What?” Joker protested. “She finds out before she even gets on the ship, and you didn’t even tell us? No fair!”

 

She snorted. “Did you expect me to get up in front of the ship and make an announcement? Besides, Solana is family. She gets precedence. It wouldn’t be right for her to find out from your terrible innuendo,” she teased. “By the way, it was a real meeting. Miranda was there and everything.”

 

His grin widened. “Miranda? Niiice.”

 

“Joker,” she warned, but the corners of her lips quirked slightly. He held in a grin. She always pretended his jokes weren’t funny, but he knew better.

 

“Solana,” she directed to the turian, “We’ve got a new mission. I want to see you in the briefing room in half an hour.” With that, she disappeared back into the hallway, leaving Joker and Solana staring at each other.

 

“Do you always talk about the commander’s sex life that way?”

 

Joker smirked. “Please. I talk about everyone’s sex life that way.”

 

Her look of disgust was obvious even to a human as she hurriedly disappeared towards the elevator.

 

 

Garrus was nervous as the team slowly filtered into the room.

 

He hadn’t run an operation like this since his team on Omega. Actually, he considered, thinking of what they expected to face, he’d never run an op quite like this.

 

The Migrant Fleet had been a diplomatic mission. Palaven had been tactical. And on Omega he’d never had to deal with reaper artifacts and indoctrination.

 

Those were par for the course when it came to missions with Shepard, but this time he was in charge and it wasn’t husks that they feared—it was something different.

 

“They’ve been studying reaper technology there for how long?” Miranda questioned. Her face was expressionless, but the tension in her voice was easy to read.

 

“Since the battle of the Citadel,” Garrus answered. “They have pieces of Sovereign.”

 

Shepard shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Then there’s something we need to consider. We may not simply be facing a case of indoctrination.”

 

Garrus stared at her. “What do you mean?”

 

Her expression was solid, her voice falsely smooth. “We know what reapers eventually do with humans they indoctrinate. I can’t see why they wouldn’t try something similar with turians.”

 

Miranda was visibly repulsed for a moment before she schooled her expression. “Are you saying there’s a chance we’ll find turian husks at this base?” she asked carefully.

 

Shepard looked grim. “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

 

Garrus tried not to shudder at the memory of her words. He would have no hesitation in shooting to kill, but the idea of facing down husks created of his own people was not a welcome thought.

 

Zaeed was the last to enter the conference room, walking in with a swagger and full set of armor, as usual. “Looks like we’re all here,” he said casually. “So let’s get a bloody move on, eh?”

 

Garrus glanced aside to see the skin around Shepard’s eyes tighten slightly, but she didn’t rise to Zaeed’s bait. “Alright, people, listen up,” she called. Attentive eyes fell on her from around the room. “Deputy Commander Vakarian is taking the lead on this mission. I expect each of you to follow his orders without question,” she said carefully. “As I am currently a fugitive from the law, I’ll be undercover. Anyone who breaks my cover by questioning his orders or so much as glancing at me for secondary approval will be scrubbing the head with a toothbrush. Understood?”

 

At a chorus of “Yes, ma’am,” Shepard relaxed slightly and turned to give Garrus a nod.

 

He cleared his throat. “A turian lab studying reaper tech has gone dark,” he explained. “We’ve been tasked to investigate and report back.” He typed a command on his omni-tool, and pulled up a schematic of the building in the center of the table. “A couple of my Hierarchy operatives will be scouting out and meeting us when we arrive. We will split into teams to utilize both points of entry for the bunker and systematically make our way through to meet in the central lab,” he explained. He crossed his arms, settling back on his hip to look at the team. “The central lab almost certainly holds wreckage from the battle of the Citadel.”

 

There were a few worried looks and discontented murmurs throughout the room, but under his gaze they quickly returned to focus.

 

“As both teams make their way through the lab, we’ll be downloading any data possible from the lab computers and placing explosive charges at specific points marked on your maps. The largest of these charges will be placed in the central chamber. Our primary objective is the destruction of that base. We can’t allow any reaper tech to survive.” It wasn’t what the primarch had requested, but Garrus understood better what needed to be done.

 

Garrus took a deep breath. “This lab has been studying reaper tech for over two years, which means that everyone inside must be assumed indoctrinated.” He gazed around the room to meet the eyes of each teammate. “No one can be allowed to leave that bunker alive. The risk is too great.” Garrus studied their reactions, knowing that Shepard and Miranda were doing the same. Anyone that balked at this stipulation had to be left behind.

 

“We all know what the reapers are capable of, so be prepared for anything when we enter that lab,” Garrus stressed. “You’ll receive your assignments by the end of the day. See me if you have questions or concerns. Dismissed.”

 

Garrus stared down at the conference table as the team filed out quietly, leaving no one in the room but himself and Shepard. He wondered if he should have warned them about the possibility of turian husks. He hoped that his vague warning would be enough, but he wasn’t certain. There were too many things that weren’t certain about this mission. He was used to going into things blind while Shepard was leading, but every one of his Archangel operations had been carefully planned and executed down to the last detail.

 

If he couldn’t save his team then, how could he expect to safely lead Shepard’s now?

 

A small human hand wrapped around his forearm, and he looked into a pair of smiling blue eyes. “You’re doing great,” Shepard told him. He studied her expression. Did she mean it or was she simply trying to bolster his confidence?

 

She raised a knowing brow at him and  leaned against the table. “You know, Vakarian,” she began, sounding just a hint exasperated, “If you think I’d let you lead my team into danger without being sure of your abilities, you don’t know me at all.” She gazed at him loftily, a challenge in her eyes.

 

His browplates lowered slightly as he regarded her. “You take chances on people all the time.”

 

“No I don’t,” she countered, the corners of her lips turning up into a smile. “I just give people the opportunity to prove what I already know.”

 

She levered herself off the table and gave him a small smile before turning and walking out of the room to leave him with his thoughts.

 

… 

 

Commander Shepard was not a woman who put much thought into clothing.

 

She wore uniforms, fatigues, and armor. There was that one time with Kasumi and the dress, but everyone knew better than to speak of that lest they be eviscerated.

 

It was true that she could spend hours on her armor, considering which pieces were best suited and what upgrades could be added, but never before in her life had she been forced to choose her armor based on looks.

 

“My N7 armor is too distinctive,” she explained to the girls on her couch. “I can’t be recognized.”

 

Tali, Kasumi, and Solana nodded along, but Shepard suspected they were only here to observe and make smart comments, considering that they’d brought alcohol and made no attempt to be helpful as of yet. Tali always seemed to materialize when clothes were involved, living vicariously through her non-quarian friends, and Kasumi literally materialized fairly often, usually when an opportunity to tease her commander presented itself. Solana had been dragged here by Kasumi. Shepard still hadn’t decided if their friendship was a good thing.

 

“Cerberus stocked my closet with a bunch of armor that I always ignored, so I figured I could pick something out of what the Illusive Man left me.” Shepard turned back to the wardrobe and pulled open a drawer, tugging out a pristine set of silver armor with odd shapes and red accents, and what appeared to be a dragon painted on the chest. Shepard thought it looked stupid, but she wasn’t the fashion expert in the room. She looked down at the armor and over to the other women. “Thoughts?”

 

Tali cocked her helmet to the side, letting her straw slip out of its port. “Why are the shoulders shaped so funny?”

 

Kasumi made a humming sound. “It looks like they were trying to imitate an ancient Earth style from the stories,” she said. “Knights in shining armor killing dragons for princesses… that kind of thing.” She smiled under her hood.

 

Shepard laughed. “You read too many fairy tales, Kasumi.” She looked at it speculatively. “I think it looks a bit like turian plates.” This made Solana snort, so Shepard placed the armor back in its drawer without further comment. Anyways, she was supposed to be undercover, not sticking out like a sore thumb. She opened the drawer below it, pulling out a set of white and yellow armor she already knew was going to be a bust.

 

“I can’t believe the Illusive Man thought I would wear this,” she said with a roll of her eyes. The Cerberus logo was embarrassingly prominent. “Who wants to help me toss this one out the airlock?”

 

“I do not believe that would be wise, Commander,” EDI interjected.

 

Shepard blinked. “EDI? You’ve been watching?”

 

“I am always watching, Commander. It has been edifying,” she said. Very creepy.

 

Shepard put a hand on her hip and looked up towards the comm unit. “So why shouldn’t I space it? Please don’t tell me you’ve still got some loyalty to Cerberus locked up inside those great big processors of yours.”

 

Tali giggled. “Mmm, big processors…”

 

Shepard rolled her eyes. The quarian never could handle her alcohol.

 

“I believe the armor will be useful in case of infiltration,” EDI explained. “Since we are currently encountering hostile Cerberus forces an estimate of once per solar week, I believe such measures may be necessary.”

 

“Good idea, EDI,” Shepard said. “Guess I’ll have to hold onto this crap.”

 

She put the armor away and went for the last drawer, hoping that it wasn’t something bad enough to stick her in that weird dragon armor. What she pulled out was black and red and rather intimidating. She smiled to herself and turned towards the couch. “I think this is it, guys.”

 

Tali took a long sip of her drink. “I don’t know,” she considered. “I don’t think it will be very flattering on you.”

 

“Seriously?” Shepard gave her friend a look of disbelief. “Your biggest concern is how attractive I’ll look in the armor?”

 

“Oh, I don’t know,” Kasumi said slyly. “I’ve noticed a certain turian checking you out on the battlefield.”

 

“Garrus always watches my back,” she replied impatiently. “It has nothing to do with that.”

 

Tali let out a high giggle. “I’m sure he loves watching your back…side.” Consumed by laughter, she fell sideways onto Kasumi’s lap.

 

Solana looked at them in disgust, letting out a quiet, “Ew.”

 

Shepard let out an exasperated sigh. “Jesus, it’s like living with a bunch of children.”

 

EDI chimed in. “Tali is correct, Shepard. Your current armor choice will significantly diminish your visible waist-to-hip ratio, one of the foremost aspects of turian attraction.”

 

Shepard groaned while her friends stifled laughter. “You too, EDI?”

 

“I am simply offering analysis and advice,” the AI said, an obvious note of humor in her voice. “If you do not wish for my suggestions in regards to your love life, I can retain a respectful silence.”

 

Shepard heaved a sigh, dropping her face into a hand. “Yeah, EDI, I think that might be wise.”

 

Chapter Text

Garrus paced the cockpit of the shuttle, attempting to hold in a growl. “Try it again, O’Connor,” he ordered. He’d succeeded in waiting three whole minutes this time before requesting another attempt. He considered that a success.

 

The pilot rolled his eyes but opened the comm line for him. “Advisor Vakarian to Lieutenant Kyran,” the turian called. “I need a fix on your location.”

 

A burst of static, then for the first time, a voice. “Kyran here. Spirits, it’s good to hear your voice, sir.”

 

Garrus felt his mandibles spread into a relieved smile. “Same to you, Kyran. What’s the situation?”

 

“Long-range comms are blocked, sir. We couldn’t get word out to you. Specialist Viklos and I are camped in a clearing about a kilometer from the east entrance. Sending our coordinates.”

 

After a short pause, O’Connor gave Garrus a nod. “Got it,” Garrus confirmed. “Landing in ten, Lieutenant.”

 

“Understood. Kyran out.”

 

Garrus let out a long breath in relief. He wasn’t pleased with the idea of being cut off from the Normandy, but comms out was the best of all possible causes for losing contact with the other team. He exited the cockpit, giving Shepard a small nod in reassurance at her silent question. All’s well.

 

He crossed the hold and sat down beside her on the bench, placing a hand on her armored knee. She shot him a sideways look at his unwarranted touch during a mission, but the corners of her eyes crinkled with the hint of a smile.

 

They landed with a soft thump. Garrus headed to the cockpit as the others filtered out, giving O’Connor a few instructions. When he returned to the hold, he saw Shepard still standing within, staring at the helmet cradled in her hands.

 

He quietly moved to her side. “Jane?”

 

She glanced up at him with unsettled eyes. “Have you ever noticed my tendency not to wear helmets?” She traced a finger around the edge of the tinted visor.

 

I notice everything about you. “I did notice your dangerous habit of never wearing protective headwear,” he said.

 

She huffed a laugh. “You’re one to talk, Vakarian.”

 

“Point taken.” He fingered his scarred mandible.

 

“Never bothered me until I got spaced.”

 

Shepard’s words struck him with immediate clarity. He placed a supportive hand on her shoulder. “It’s just for looks,” he said softly. “We’ll be on the ground the whole time.”

 

“I know,” she said. “But it still feels…”

 

Suffocating. Terrifying. Wrong.

 

“It’ll be okay,” he said, a hollow attempt at reassurance. She knew it would be okay. That wasn’t the problem.

 

Shepard took a deep breath, considering the helmet. She fingered the O2 port on the back of the head. “Yeah. I’m good,” she told him, and she put it on carefully, methodically locking and checking each seal one by one. “Ready,” she said, and her voice was for Reaper Advisor Vakarian, head of the mission, not the Garrus she spoke to behind closed doors. He nodded in response and moved to go.

 

Bright sunlight met him as he stepped out of the shuttle. His eyes darted about as he adjusted to the light, tracing the perimeter of dense jungle and taking in the sparse campsite in the clearing. He took a moment to simply enjoy the sun and moist warmth of the clearing. The main battery was the warmest part of the ship, but always dark, just like the captain’s cabin was always too cool without Shepard pressed warmly against his side. If he could retire somewhere like this after the war, he’d be a happy turian.

 

He brought his mind back to business. “Lieutenant Kyran,” he called, “Report.”

 

The dark plated turian stood at attention. “Yes, sir. As I said before, long range comms are being actively blocked. It’s likely that the source is within the compound,” he explained. “We’ve patrolled the perimeter and found no signs of activity whatsoever. No one is coming or going from the bunker and no one has responded to our hails. Otherwise, nothing is visibly amiss. No signs of unusual damage, no vehicles out of place. Nothing that gives us a clue to the whereabouts of the scientists.”

 

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Garrus replied and inadvertently glanced at Shepard. Her hypothesis about the scientists was looking more right by the minute. He forcibly pushed those thoughts away. He needed to focus.

 

“As you all know, we’ll be splitting into two teams for this mission, each entering through one end of the compound. My team will be comprised of Kasumi, Solana, and Jane.” It felt wrong to call her that—Jane was her name in private, a word whispered between sheets and gasped in pleasure. He was possessive of that name and the privilege to call her by it. They both knew she couldn’t be Shepard here, but he resented it all the same. “The second team will be led by Lieutenant Kyran, along with Zaeed, Tali, and Specialist Viklos.”

 

“Just Haedra, please,” the female turian interrupted. Garrus acknowledged her with a nod.

 

“Tali and Kasumi will be in charge of hacking and security. I want every room searched and every bit of data downloaded. Haedra and Solana will be tasked with setting the explosive charges at the designated spots. And…” He shrugged. “Zaeed and Jane are here for extra muscle in case things go sideways.” He held in a grin at Shepard’s amused snort.

 

“We’ll meet up and enter the central lab together,” Garrus reminded them. “Then we finish setting the charges and get the hell out. Understood?” He paused for their nods and affirmations. He put his arms behind his back, pacing slightly. “I know I’ve said this to each of you already, but it bears repeating—no one who worked at this outpost can be permitted to leave alive. The danger in releasing them is too great. They’ve worked with reaper tech since the battle of the Citadel, and no one can escape indoctrination after that kind of exposure.” He met each of their eyes, calculating, judging. It was much easier said than done, but he had to trust his people to do what they had to. “My team will take the shuttle over to the west entrance. I’ll comm when we arrive. Move out.”

 

He, Shepard, Kasumi, and Solana piled into the shuttle to make their way to the other side of the compound. Shepard’s helmet was off and in her hands within seconds of the hatch sliding shut. From across the shuttle, he raised a browplate, but she waved him off with a small shake of her head. Everyone seemed lost in their own thoughts during the ride, Solana murmuring to herself as she fiddled with the charges, Kasumi’s eyes glinting in the glow of her omni-tool, and Shepard staring at her helmet as if ghosts stared back at her through the tinted glass. Garrus paced, running through scenarios in his mind. He couldn’t think of a way this would end well. Whatever they found, be it dead bodies, indoctrinated scientists, or husks, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.

 

They exited the shuttle when they reached their destination, an unobtrusive door in a solid, unmarked wall, flanked by two ground vehicles and a small shuttle. His eyes took in the details as they approached the building. The old, washed out tire tracks. The lack of windows. The standard appearance of the locking mechanism, designed to allay suspicion. Everything he saw was a small part of the puzzle, fitting together piece by piece.

 

Kasumi was first to the door, poised with her omni-tool to begin the hack on Garrus’s mark.

 

He moved up beside her, activating his comm. “Are you in position, Lieutenant?”

 

“In position and ready to go.”

 

“Meet you at the main lab,” Garrus said, and he gave Kasumi a nod.

 

He watched Kasumi’s hacking algorithm scroll across the omni-tool display, lock flickering from red to orange as it processed her commands. A minute passed, then two. “Got it,” she said, and the display went green.

 

“Weapons out,” Garrus ordered, and checked the readout on his visor. No hostiles detected. He activated the door.

 

It hissed open to reveal a dark vestibule, lights flickering and brightening slowly as if they hadn’t activated in weeks. A single chair sat next to a dormant biometric scanner, marking their entry into the first long hallway.

 

Five locked doors on the left, three on the right before they turned the corner, Garrus recalled from the schematic. His eyes confirmed it, seeing nothing out of place but the obvious lack of activity.

 

Kasumi hacked through the first door, backing away as it opened to allow Shepard and Garrus to scan it for anything out of place. After the all clear was called, she and Solana followed them in.

 

It appeared to be some kind of archive or processing center, filled with computer consoles, lined up perfectly in true turian fashion along the rows of tables that filled the room. Shepard took up watch at the door while Kasumi flitted from console to console and Solana set up charges to detonate at the press of a button. Garrus supervised their proceedings and motioned them forward when he was satisfied that they were finished.

 

The two rooms that followed were just like it. Not a chair or datapad was out of place, far more unsettling than bodies or evidence of a struggle would have been. Through her helmet visor Shepard’s eyes looked troubled.

 

The next few rooms resembled nothing closer than science laboratories. Garrus immediately thought of Mordin, wondering what the salarian would have thought of this, if he could have made heads or tails of what they saw. The last locked doorway held behind it something like a surgical suite, gurneys white and spotless but carrying the memory of blood and torment. Garrus wished he could believe no such thing happened here under the eye of his government, but he knew what kind of horrors people would inflict on their own kind in the name of science.

 

Around the corner lay more laboratories and an offshoot with holding cells, all strangely bare and empty. “Like they all got up and left,” Shepard said quietly.

 

After cleaning up after themselves and making sure everything was spotless, Garrus added silently. Like they were expecting visitors or going on vacation, and both of those theories led to thoughts less than ideal.

 

One doorway opened into a storeroom of sorts, shelves lines with glass tubes and mysterious solutions. “Don’t touch anything,” he ordered, fearful of what they might contain. Biological warfare, disease, poison, anything was possible with a black op.

 

As they descended to the next level downward, Garrus activated his comm. “Progress, Lieutenant?”

 

The comm crackled to life as the elevator came to a stop. “Just reaching the barracks, sir. No problems so far.”

 

“We’re descending to the lower level,” Garrus informed him. “Let me know when you reach door to the central lab.”

 

“Acknowledged.”

 

Garrus and Shepard stood at the elevator door as it slid open to an empty hallway. The lights flickered.

 

The lower level was mostly living quarters. Kyran’s side held the barracks and Garrus’s the kitchen and dining area. When they entered the large dining room and galley kitchen, Garrus motioned for them to fan out and look around. Shepard was the one to open the fridge, wincing away when the odor hit her. She waved Garrus over. “Not to offend here, but is it supposed to smell like that?”

 

Garrus held in a laugh at the sight. The fruit was moldy, the meat was withered to nothingness, and the xemna milk was emanating a distinctly rancid scent. “Of course,” he said dryly. “We turians always eat our food rotten.”

 

She elbowed him in the side for that one, slamming the fridge closed with a shudder. “I think that stuff is going to give me nightmares.”

 

“It’s been there weeks, maybe a month or so,” Garrus mused. He looked out over the dining area, eyes scanning for his sister. “Sol?”

 

“Almost done,” the turian called, her head popping up from between two tables.

 

Garrus wandered the room some more as he waited, watching Kasumi poke her head in cabinets and Shepard patrol near the doorways.

 

Suddenly, they heard a gunshot ring out. Everyone stilled abruptly at the sound, exchanging quick looks before Garrus gathered his wits. “Lieutenant,” he barked into the comm. “Report.”

 

“Got a situation here, sir,” Kyran responded. “We’re still in the barracks.”

 

“On our way.” The group rushed out of the room and burst into the barracks, moving past the rows of bunks to follow Kyran’s voice.

 

“Over here, sir!”

 

When Garrus came into the storeroom, he stopped short. Kyran was standing by the door with his weapon trained on an unfazed Zaeed. There were bottles of water and ration packets scattered across the floor, and in the corner lay the body of a turian with a hole between the eyes and blood splatter on the wall behind him. “What happened?” he demanded, eyes darting between the lieutenant and the merc.

 

Kyran wouldn’t take his eyes off Zaeed. “That man was begging for his life. Your mercenary shot him without a second thought, without waiting for him to explain himself.”

 

Garrus took a long, deep breath and released it slowly. “Lieutenant, I believe my orders were to leave no one alive.”

 

“There was nothing wrong with him,” the turian protested. “He was afraid.”

 

“He was indoctrinated,” Garrus countered. His voice was firm. “Even if he didn’t know it. Killing him was a mercy in comparison to what the reapers would have done to him.”

 

Zaeed smirked as Kyran lowered his weapon, but Garrus wasn’t finished. “And you,” he said, turning to the mercenary. “You could have learned something from him if you hadn’t been too impatient. He was the only person here who might have known what happened to the other scientists.” He leveled a glare at Zaeed, but didn’t wait for a response. The merc wouldn’t acknowledge his mistakes in front of an audience, and Garrus wouldn’t waste his time waiting for an apology that wouldn’t come.

 

He turned on his heel. “Let’s keep moving,” he ordered. “We’ve still got to clear the central lab.”

 

All of them followed to a secure elevator, Kasumi hacking the controls to allow them access. Another small office awaited them at the bottom, and a locked door leading into their final destination. Garrus paced restlessly as the techs did their work. When the computers had been wiped and explosives had been placed, they finally turned to the last door.

 

Garrus felt it, even before the lights came on.

 

Several sharp intakes of breath sounded behind him as it came into view. Sovereign’s main gun hung suspended in the center of the chamber. Desks and equipment filled their end of the room with a number of other strange artifacts. The far end of the room was filled with cargo containers and unopened crates haphazardly scattered in front of the enormous and impenetrable cargo bay door. But as Garrus realized what else stood near those doors, his blood ran cold. Familiar shapes were silhouetted behind those crates—metallic spires that began to collapse upon themselves as if reacting to their presence in the chamber.

 

Shepard stiffened beside him. “Fuck,” she swore. “This is one of those times I really wish I had been wrong.”

 

They all stood transfixed as strange, husk-like creatures began to peel themselves off the collapsed dragons’ teeth. Blue cybernetics glowed in their eyes and trailed down their limbs. The first one raised an arm. Garrus saw the glint of a pistol.

 

“Find cover!” Garrus cried out, yanking Shepard down behind a desk as bullets streamed above them, right where they had been standing.

 

“Spirits, what are those things?” Lieutenant Kyran gasped, peeking over a crate. “They look like marauders from the legends.”

 

“That was your science team,” Shepard said grimly. “That’s what the reapers did to them.”

 

Kyran’s comparison to ‘marauders’ wasn’t a perfect one, but Garrus couldn’t deny the similarities. Similar to the human concept of zombies, marauders were beings trapped in their own bodies after death. Unable to join the spirits in rest, they became twisted and cruel creatures that left death and chaos in their wake wherever they went.

 

Garrus felt sick. Was this what it had been like when Shepard first found the husks on Eden Prime? Horror twisted in his gut as he dropped one after the other with his sniper rifle. Despite the distance, a sniper rifle was the most intimate of weapons. With each shot, he saw the face of each creature through his scope. He wondered who they had been once, if they had someone who was waiting for them back home, wondering why they hadn’t heard from them in so long. Was he so bothered because these had been his own people, or was he simply desensitized to human husks after fighting them for so long?

 

He fired again, and pushed those thoughts away.

 

Garrus ordered his team to advance in hopes to flank the enemy, staying back to keep an eye on the battlefield and pick them off with his rifle. He instructed Shepard to use her biotics for crowd control, lifting clusters of them to be shot down by the rest of the team. Tali’s drone darted around the battlefield distracting the husks and giving off shocks while Kyran and Zaeed mowed them down with their assault rifles. Solana retreated back to sniper range while Haedra and Kasumi used their omni-tools to fry the cybernetics that controlled the creatures.

 

They came in waves, countless numbers. “Low on heat sinks,” Solana alerted him. Garrus checked his own supply only to realize he was running short as well. Kasumi materialized beside them with a couple of spares, disappearing again before they could acknowledge her.

 

And finally, the enemies came no more. He stood cautiously and stretched, giving the room a careful once-over. It looked clear—

 

“Kyran!” Haedra cried out.

 

His head snapped around to see one of the creatures advancing on the lieutenant from behind. Kyran turned just as the husk raised its weapon. Garrus and Kyran both fumbled for their guns, but before either could fire, a shot rang out and the creature collapsed to the ground.

 

Garrus turned to see Zaeed lowering his rifle and looking smug. “Glad I shot first this time, eh?”

 

No one else was in the mood for joking.

 

“Injuries?” Garrus asked abruptly.

 

“Haedra got grazed,” Kasumi called. “Patching her up with medi-gel.” It appeared that no one else was seriously injured, just shaken up by the ordeal. The turian husks hadn’t been particularly adept at firing the weapons they possessed, but Garrus knew that this was only their first iteration. Just like the human husks, more advanced forms would undoubtedly come.

 

“Check the room,” he ordered. “Set those charges and make sure there are no more surprises for us.” He took a few steps forward, crouching down to get a closer look at one of the creatures. It was a perversion of what it used to be, a tool of the reapers. He lifted the pistol that had fallen from its hand. A basic turian military model. Nothing special, probably the sidearms the security officers had carried. Garrus heaved a sigh as he lifted himself to his feet.

 

As he looked around, he saw Shepard by the dragons’ teeth, waving him over. “Garrus,” she said quietly, “There are no geth here. No Collectors.”

 

Bile rose in his throat as he considered her meaning.

 

Her eyes were grim through her visor. “They put themselves on the dragon’s teeth.”

 

Garrus held in a shudder. “Let’s finish up and get the hell out of here.” He turned on his heel, ready to leave the lab far behind him.

 

They exited in silence and headed back to the campsite, where the two turians from Garrus’s team began to pack their meager things. O’Connor had brought the shuttle in, waiting for them nearby.

 

Garrus approached Lieutenant Kyran. “You’ve got ten minutes to get to a minimum safe distance of one kilometer,” he instructed stiffly. “Then I’m blowing this base into oblivion.”

 

“Can’t come soon enough,” Kyran replied grimly.

 

Not knowing what else to say, Garrus simply nodded and motioned the Normandy crew back to their shuttle. The pilot seemed to pick up on their mood, staying quiet as they filed into the hold one by one.

 

All of them seemed to be checking the time compulsively as it inched by, minute after minute. Finally, Garrus gave Solana the signal. Her haunted eyes looked only marginally more peaceful as she keyed in the code and they heard the blast in the distance.

 

All of them winced as static burst from the comm. “—amn it, Normandy to shuttle. Come in already!” Joker’s voice sounded more frantic than Garrus had ever heard it but for one time, over two years ago.

 

Shepard’s brows lowered a fraction, but her expression stayed inscrutable. “I hear you, Joker,” she answered, transitioning from subordinate to commander in an instant. “Comms were blocked.”

 

“Noticed that, ma’am,” he said, but it didn’t have his usual sarcasm behind it.

 

Shepard’s mask hardened further. “What is it, Joker?”

 

“Shit, Shepard, I don’t know how to—” He broke off in mid sentence.

 

“Joker, what the hell is going on?” she snapped, cracks beginning to form in her calm facade.

 

It wasn’t Joker, but EDI, who answered her question. “Communications from the Kite’s Nest, Sol, and Apien Crest clusters have gone dark. Reports suggest that the reaper assault has begun.”

 

A deafening silence fell, and only EDI dared to break it. “I am sorry, Commander.”

 

Chapter Text

A crushing silence followed in their wake of EDI’s announcement.

 

Shepard wanted to scream. She wanted to curl up on the floor and cry. She wanted to crush something with her biotics, to pound her fists on the bulkhead until she punched through to the other side.

 

She did none of those things.

 

She took a deep breath, loosened the fists that had formed at her sides, and gathered what scraps of strength and composure she had left. At long last, she willed herself to look around the shuttle and take stock.

 

Kasumi faced away from her, posture rigid but revealing little. Solana sat on the bench staring in blank shock at the opposite wall. An untrained eye would believe Zaeed unaffected by the news, but Shepard saw the haunted look in his steely gaze. Garrus’s expression was deliberately calm, but his fingers gripped his rifle so tightly that she worried he might bend the barrel. And Tali was staring straight at Shepard, fear rolling off her body in waves.

 

Her team needed direction before they lost themselves to fear and despair. They needed their commander. She held her voice steady. “When we reach the Normandy, stow your weapons and armor as usual. Fifteen minutes from boarding, meet me in the conference room.” Fifteen minutes didn’t give her long to prepare, but she couldn’t allow them the time to wallow in worry. They needed a purpose, a goal—something specific and attainable. They needed somewhere to direct their feelings before they lost themselves in fear and worry.

 

“Commander.” The AI’s voice filled the quiet shuttle. “Specialist T’Nara wishes me to inform you that the Athena Nebula and Annos Basin have now gone silent as well.”

 

“In the last few minutes?” Shepard asked tersely.

 

“Yes, Commander.” She sounded sorrowful, as if she regretted having to give the news. “Additionally, I seek to inform you that there are five calls coming in over the QEC.”

 

Shepard took a deep breath, rubbing her forehead with a hand. A headache was already starting to form behind her eyes. “From who?”

 

“You have calls waiting from the Citadel council, Admiral Hackett, and Liara T’Soni. Deputy Commander Vakarian has a call waiting from Primarch Fedorian, and Chief Engineer Tali’Zorah has a call waiting from the Migrant Fleet’s admiralty board.”

 

Garrus’s head shot up and Tali begin wringing her hands. “What should I tell them, Shepard?” she asked, voice tinged with desperation.

 

Shepard took only a moment to consider. “Tell them to keep moving,” she instructed, “And to stay away from any of the home systems. Those sound like the primary targets. We can pass on more intel to them once we have it.”

 

She turned her attention back to the AI. “Route the primarch’s call through to the main battery and the admiralty board’s to engineering.” She locked eyes with Tali and Garrus in turn, who both seemed to have mastered their emotions for the time being. “And push that meeting back to half an hour.”

 

“Understood,” EDI replied, and the comm clicked off.

 

“Two minutes to dock,” came O’Connor’s hollow voice from the cockpit. Shepard had never seen her shuttle pilot so subdued, but she made no comment. At a time like this, there was nothing to say.

 

After two long minutes, the door finally opened, allowing the team to silently file out into the cargo bay.

 

 

Shepard stared blankly at the galaxy map projected in the center of the conference table, red lights flashing mockingly from the reaper-controlled systems. In the time she had spent in conversation, their numbers had grown. Thessia, Khar’Shan, Tuchanka, Irune, Dekuuna, Sur’Kesh, Palaven, Kahje…

 

Earth.

 

Her shoulders sagged under the weight of worlds. Whole systems. A galaxy begging for guidance—for a savior. She leaned heavily over the table, the cold metal edge digging into her palms. She welcomed the discomfort, anything to fight the numbness that threatened to overtake her. Limp red locks fell across her eyes, hiding her face during the short moment of weakness she allowed herself. She had to pull herself together and be strong for her crew. Shepard was only human, but her success depended on others forgetting that.

 

Liara had been a mess when they spoke on comm. Shepard could see the utter panic in her eyes, the disbelief. Thessia was burning and she hadn’t been able to prevent it. The only thing keeping Liara going was her work. Hackett had only wanted a few words with Shepard—far too busy for more. He’d immediately offered her a spot back in the Alliance, a promotion. She’d turned him down, and the feed had gone dark. The council first gave her the welcome news that the Citadel was free of reapers for the moment. Then they asked—nearly begged—her to come, to discuss her spectre status and the next steps they needed to take. It was the most civil they’d ever been to her. She was no longer a fugitive—not now that they needed her.

 

Shepard straightened up at the sound of the door opening, the first of her crew to arrive for their meeting. When she saw it was Garrus she let herself relax, but he barely seemed to see her.

 

Agitated steps brought him to her side. “My advisory position just went official,” he said numbly. “I just jumped several citizenship tiers. Primarch’s council. Very respectable.” He tried to sound wry, but failed miserably.

 

She put a hand on his arm to halt his pacing, but he still vibrated with nervous tension. “I can’t think of anyone who would do a better job,” she told him truthfully and then paused as the realization hit her. “Does this mean you’ll need to leave the Normandy?” She damned the quiver that slipped into her voice.

 

Garrus finally met her eyes, dim with worry but firm on her own. “I told him it would be long distance or not at all. So I’ll be needing to borrow your QEC every now and then.” His arms went around her, thumbs rubbing her shoulders comfortingly. She slipped her hands to the chestplate of his armor, fingers curling over the edge of his cowl. “I promised not to leave you again,” he said, his low voice vibrating through his chest. “I meant it. Shepard and Vakarian, always.”

 

Shepard sagged against him in silent relief. His support—his faith in her—kept her going when it seemed all else had gone dark. Though this day had been a punch to the gut, she still had this, her one steady thing among so much madness. She had a reason to keep her head above water—something more to look forward to than survival.

 

“What are you fighting for?” Liara had once asked. “A chance to give Garrus some peace?”

 

The answer was still yes, and she would battle to her last breath to make it happen.

 

Shepard’s crew filtered in slowly and silently. Not even during their suicide mission had they been so somber. Outside the relative safety of the Normandy, people—civilians—were fighting and dying. They all knew that the Normandy was where they needed to be, but that knowledge didn’t make it easier.

 

Kasumi was the last to enter, not even bothering to cloak. The panels behind her closed, and Shepard finally stepped forward to break the silence. “EDI, put me through to the crew.”

 

“You are broadcasting now, Commander.”

 

“This is Commander Shepard speaking.” She stood tall and proud, her blue eyes glinting harshly like the steel edge of a sword. “I know you’re afraid,” she said.

 

“I know you want to be out there fighting instead of in here monitoring the drive core or writing mission reports. I know you want to be helping your homeworlds and your people. So do I.” She paused, lowering her head for a moment. When she raised her eyes again, they burned. “But I also know that none of us can do this alone.”

 

“This isn’t going to be a straightforward fight. We will be needed for more than just our guns.” She gazed at each of them, challenging them to meet her resolve. “I need each of you to stay strong. The reapers may have gotten the first strike but we will have the last.”

 

Disbelief flickered through the eyes of her teammates, but Shepard allowed no doubt to enter hers. “We’re going to bring everyone together from across the galaxy. We will lead. We will strengthen their resolve. And we will show the reapers that we can’t be ignored.” Her heart beat faster at her own words, her blood singing with anticipation of the fight before them.

 

She took a deep breath. “We dock at the Citadel at 0900 tomorrow morning to meet with the council. All requisition orders need to be in Miranda’s hands two hours prior. Your duties will continue as usual. Further announcements will be made after our trip to the Citadel. Shepard out.”

 

She gazed around the room at her team. The Axion mission, less than an hour earlier, seemed like so long ago now. They were all visibly worn down, but Shepard found a grim satisfaction in new resolve she saw in their eyes. “Get some sleep and something to eat. I expect you all at your best tomorrow. Dismissed.”

 

The team dissipated slowly, heading to their stations or the mess hall. Shepard waited for the last to exit before she did the same, heading not to her quarters but into the war room. The flurry of activity was a new development, assistants moving to and fro from console to console with renewed purpose. Formerly dark screens were now lit up with news vids or info feeds, intel from across the galaxy. The central console displayed the galaxy now, red-ringed clusters signaling the places they’d failed to defend. It was only a matter of time before the red festered and spread, an infection in their midst.

 

Shepard tore her eyes away. “T’Nara.” Shepard’s tone was sharp, but the asari didn’t flinch.

 

Hestia nodded towards an empty terminal to her left. “Your messages and the latest reports are queued up on the terminal,” she said, fingers still flying over the keyboard in front of her.

 

Shepard approached the terminal to find hundreds of messages and urgent-flagged reports, more coming in every minute. She took a deep, cleansing breath and dove in.

 

Hours later—she wasn’t certain how many—Shepard rubbed her eyes blearily. Every time she neared the end of her messages, several more arrived. It was never-ending. Activity swarmed around her, but she was too busy to look up from her terminal. She had tuned out the Normandy in favor of the words that now swam in front of her eyes.

 

“Specialist T’Nara,” a flanged voice said, and her head snapped up. Garrus strode up to Hestia without a glance in Shepard’s direction. “Can you transfer Shepard’s current messages to a datapad? That will be all for tonight,” he ordered. “The commander is off-duty until 0700.”

 

The CO of a ship is never off-duty, she wanted to protest, but all she did was stare. What the hell did he think he was doing? Her deputy commander’s eyes never strayed from the asari as she typed in a few commands and handed him a datapad. Only then did he turn to Shepard.

 

“Commander,” he said deferentially, but the hard look in his eye belied his tone. He knew she wouldn’t argue in front of the crew.

 

Jaw set, she headed to the elevator with him following on her heels. As soon as the door closed behind them, she whipped around with a glare. “What the hell was that?”

 

He crossed his arms, unfazed by her anger. “That was me putting my foot down. Neither of us wants Chakwas to lock you up in the med bay again, Shepard, so do everyone a favor and try to take care of yourself,” he said firmly. “You know better than to run yourself ragged.”

 

Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “I have survived this long without your interference, Vakarian.”

 

Garrus took a step forward, closing the distance between them. He towered over her, but she refused to be intimidated. “You chose me as your second-in-command because you trust me. Because I’m willing to disagree with you. So let me disagree now,” he said. “The reapers may not take breaks, but you’re going to have to. If you don’t put up these boundaries now, it will never stop. The things you tell your crew also apply to you.”

 

The elevator doors opened, but she didn’t pass through them yet, unwilling to falter under his gaze. After a long moment, she narrowed her eyes. “If you don’t trust my judgment, fine, but don’t undermine me in front of the crew.”

 

She yanked the datapad from his hand and turned on her heel, marching into her quarters. She headed to the couch but stopped short when she was greeted by the sight and smell of a food tray on her coffee table. Her stomach growled. She tried in vain to cling to her anger, but it had already begun to slip out of her grasp. Damn him. She let out a sigh, shoulders drooping.

 

His footsteps came up behind her slowly. “I’m sorry, Shepard,” he said quietly. “I just don’t know how to handle this.”

 

She turned to him, a question in her eyes.

 

Garrus began to pace the floor of her quarters. “I do trust your judgment, Shepard,” he told her. “Never doubt that. But you put so much of yourself into the mission that you don’t take care of yourself. Everyone out there needs you at your best.” He paused, coming back to face her. “I need you.”

 

Her eyes narrowed slightly. “Are you trying to use my feelings for you to guilt me into taking a rest?”

 

His mandibles flared at the accusation, but his gaze stayed serious. “If that’s what it takes,” he said quietly. “Some things are worth risking your anger for.”

 

The datapad fell to the table with a clatter as Shepard impulsively reached for him. She pulled his face down for a kiss. A hand wound through her hair and another wrapped around her back, holding her close. She eased her grip on him, gently pressing her forehead against his. “I won’t promise something I’m not sure I can give you,” she said truthfully. “But I will try.”

 

 

Shepard entered an office that used to be Anderson’s, a man who had been something like a father to her. A man now on Earth, either fighting or dead.

 

Another man sat in his chair. “Udina,” she greeted. She couldn’t hide the grudge her voice carried.

 

“Shepard,” he said in kind, looking up from his desk with haunted eyes. Had he slept at all since the news came in?

 

They sized each other up like enemies—which they once were, not so long ago. Neither was quite sure how to bridge the gap to ally.

 

Shepard approached the desk, crossing her arms. “What’s the situation with Earth and the Alliance?”

 

“Arcturus is gone,” he said flatly. “Destroyed on the way to Earth. Vancouver has been under heavy reaper attack. The Alliance is in chaos. Admiral Hackett is the highest ranking officer confirmed alive. Prime Minister Shastri was on Earth and currently out of contact, possibly dead.” He recited it like a script. “The second fleet is gone. Sacrificed so that the other fleets could escape the Sol system.”

 

Shepard stared at him in disbelief. “A full retreat?”

 

His eyes were dull when he met her gaze. “Hackett tells me they were being decimated. They won’t return to Earth until a solid plan of attack is formed.”

 

Silence fell between them. Shepard fidgeted slightly. “Have you heard anything about—”

 

“Admiral Anderson?” Udina supplied. He could hardly be unaware of the friendship between Anderson and herself.

 

“Admiral?” she questioned.

 

The councilor nodded. “He was offered the promotion when he left this office. Last I heard he was alive and attempting to coordinate some kind of resistance on Earth.”

 

For the first time since the reapers arrived, Shepard cracked a smile.

 

A light flashed on Udina’s terminal, the signal that the meeting was about to begin. Udina pressed a button, and holographic images of the three other councilors flickered into existence at their pedestals. The two humans stepped forward to greet them.

 

“Councilors,” Shepard greeted tersely. She didn’t look forward to this meeting, necessary as it was.

 

“Commander Shepard,” Councilor Tevos said. Did a dead woman retain her rank? Shepard wondered idly, not for the first time. “We find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of asking for your help.”

 

“You and everyone else,” she muttered.

 

Tevos overlooked her comment seamlessly. “Do you have any recommendations on how to handle this invasion?”

 

Shepard took a moment to consider. “How are your homeworlds faring?” she asked. “Your fleets?”

 

“This is like nothing we’ve ever encountered,” Sparatus answered. “The turian fleet is barely holding. Thousands die by the hour.”

 

Valern nodded. “The situation on Sur’Kesh is similar.”

 

“And Thessia?”

 

For a split second, the asari councilor’s perfect composure cracked. “Thessia burns,” she said.

 

Shepard looked from one councilor to another, fear in their eyes and responsibility on their shoulders. “I would start by getting your leaders safely off the homeworlds. Without them, everything will fall into chaos. We can’t allow that to happen.”

 

She paused a moment, remembering the visions that had plagued her mind since Eden Prime. Her expression hardened. “The other thing I would say is that we need all races to band together. If we try to fight this war alone, we die.” She eyed them sharply. “That doesn’t mean only council races.”

 

“Yes,” Valern agreed, to the commander’s surprise. “We convene a summit amongst all willing species.” Shepard could almost see the calculations running in the salarian’s mind.

 

Shepard nodded. “We need to collaborate ideas and technology, to strengthen each other and organize.”

 

“Won’t that be dangerous?” Sparatus asked in his haughty way. “Giving prized technological advancements to species that have not proved they are capable of handling such knowledge?”

 

Shepard bit down on the urge to respond rudely, but she still crossed her arms in annoyance. “Trust me, Councilor. Should we survive this war, no race will be in any condition to start another.”

 

Tevos took up her mantle as peacekeeper once again. “Those things can be decided during the summit,” she said calmly. “Until then, I think Shepard’s plan is a satisfactory one.”

 

“Excellent,” Valern said. “Shepard will retrieve our leaders and bring them to the Citadel for our summit.”

 

“I’m a soldier, not a courier,” she objected bluntly. “And last I knew, I was a wanted criminal. You stripped me of my spectre status.”

 

“The Normandy is one of few ships that can enter and leave reaper-controlled space undetected. And there is no one we trust more to bring our leaders to safety,” the salarian answered. “As you know, the order to arrest you has been rescinded.”

 

Shepard raised a brow at that, but conceded their point. “Fine,” she said shortly. “I’ll be happy to help retrieve leaders when I can. But I wouldn’t advise bringing them here. You need a secure and unknown location for the summit.”

 

“Why?” Sparatus asked, crossing his arms.

 

“Because the Citadel is tactically significant,” she said simply. “The reapers haven’t hit it yet, but they may soon. I’d prefer if our galactic leaders weren’t in attendance for that.”

 

Valern looked alarmed. “Should the council evacuate?”

 

Sparatus spoke up. “It would throw the entire population into a panic,” he said, sounding grim. “We must stay.”

 

Shepard nodded her agreement. “You’ll have to make a show of going about your daily business. People need that kind of reassurance or else everything will fall apart.”

 

“Understood, Shepard,” Valern conceded. He didn’t look happy about it.

 

“There is one more thing, Commander,” Tevos said. She glanced at Sparatus.

 

The turian councilor spoke uncomfortably. “We request that you return to the Spectres, Commander. The council is prepared to overlook your… situation, and reinstate you. Your actions appear to have been vindicated, and while the batarians won’t look kindly on your reinstatement, they are in no position to argue at this time.”

 

Shepard knew this was coming, of course, but she wouldn’t give in so easily. “If I’m doing this, I want to do it on my terms.” She leveled a harsh gaze at the councilors in front of her. “You’ve doubted my judgment before and been repeatedly wrong. I need the freedom to make my own decisions rather than come back to ask permission every time I have to make a choice.” She took a deep breath. “I’m going to win this war with or without your help. But I’d suggest not standing in my way.”

 

The councilors shared looks among themselves.

 

She stared them down, praying to whatever deities were out there that they wouldn’t realize she was bluffing. She kept telling everyone she was going to win this war, and so far she didn’t even have a plan.

 

Tevos looked to Shepard’s left. “Councilor Udina?” The human councilor had been silent for the entirety of the meeting.

 

He lifted his chin. “I stand behind Commander Shepard,” he said simply, without betraying a single look in the commander’s direction.

 

Only a small quirk around Shepard’s mouth gave away her surprise.

 

There was silence for a moment before Tevos spoke up. “Very well,” she said. “You will be given the rights and resources of a Spectre, and we vow to trust your judgment to do right with those privileges.”

 

Shepard’s expression eased. “Thank you, Councilors. Do you have somewhere you’d like me to start?”

 

Sparatus cleared his throat. “I have been able to keep in contact via QEC with the primarch of Palaven and our main military base on Menae—”

 

“Thanks to Garrus Vakarian,” Shepard interjected. She’d be damned if anyone on her team didn’t get the credit they deserved.

 

He gave an acknowledging nod. “Primarch Fedorian can meet you at the base on Menae. I will give you the landing coordinates and let them know you are coming.”

 

Thank you,” she said, and glanced at the other councilors. “Anything else?”

 

“That will be all for the moment, Commander,” Tevos said. “We will speak soon about locating additional leaders and finding a safe place for them to reside until our summit.”

 

With that, the holograms flickered out. Shepard turned to the human councilor with a lifted brow. “You were awfully quiet during that meeting, Udina.”

 

“What is there to say?” he asked grimly. “Earth is lost. I will do whatever it takes to get it back.”

 

They weren’t easy allies, but they were in this together.

 

 

“So? How’d it go?”

 

Shepard turned left as she came through the airlock, finding her pilot waiting. She shrugged as she approached, leaning back against the wall. “Surprisingly well,” she admitted. “The council was very civil.”

 

“Said no one ever,” Joker countered. She rolled her eyes. “You sure you didn’t hallucinate this meeting?”

 

Shepard let out a laugh. “Believe me, I couldn’t have imagined this one in my wildest dreams. Set a course for Palaven, Joker. We’ll leave as soon as all crew are present and accounted for.”

 

“Aye aye, ma’am.”

 

Shepard turned to the AI’s holographic interface. “EDI, let the team know as they board that there will be a meeting in the conference room twenty minutes post-departure.”

 

“Yes, Commander.”

 

Shepard turned to go.

 

“Hey, Commander?”

 

She stopped.

 

Joker looked over his shoulder at her. “What’s on Palaven?”

 

She gave him a small smile. “We’re going to get us a turian primarch.”

 

Chapter Text

Shepard barged into the comm room in full armor, weapons strapped to her back and ready to go. “What’s the situation?” she asked as she stepped into the QEC alongside her deputy commander. By the sounds of things on the other end, the situation was not good.

 

Lieutenant Kyran’s hologram shook violently as they heard a low rumbling noise. Gunfire and muffled voices followed. He turned away briefly, calling out orders to someone they couldn’t see before answering Shepard’s question. “We’ve got a reaper on the ground approaching the command base and shooting at anything that tries to take it down,” he stated brusquely. “They’ve also started bringing ground troops.”

 

“Husks?”

 

“Among other things,” he said with a grimace. “I’m sending you the specs on the new ones. Their numbers are small so far, but they are enough to keep the men from focusing on the reaper.”

 

“Ground weapons wouldn’t do much against a reaper anyways,” Garrus interjected, his mandibles clamped tightly to his face in worry.

 

“Hold tight, Lieutenant,” Shepard said firmly. “We’re coming in with the Normandy. We’ll get the reaper off you.”

 

Kyran’s mandibles flared in shock. “Commander, the reaper is shooting down everything that comes in close. Most of our fighters barely get a shot off before the reaper destroys them.”

 

“Let us worry about that,” she said sharply. “We’ll see you soon.”

 

The hologram flickered out, leaving Shepard and Garrus staring at one another. Her mind was already racing with ideas, but she didn’t miss the worried expression on Garrus’s face. She placed a comforting hand on his arm. “We’ll get it done, Garrus.”

 

“We have to,” he said quietly. “If we lose that moon, we lose Palaven.”

 

“Then we won’t,” she said with more conviction than she felt.

 

He let out a mirthless laugh. “You make it sound simple.”

 

She took a step back towards the door, and shot him a smirk. “Kill a reaper. What could be more simple than that?”

 

Shepard’s thoughts were in overdrive as she walked briskly towards the elevator. She had a few ideas, but she couldn’t do this alone. She stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the cargo bay. “EDI, call my techs down to the armory. I’m going to need some help on this one.”

 

 

Tali wrung her hands nervously as she watched the ground team suit up. “Are you sure this is going to work?” she asked Shepard.

 

The commander shrugged, giving Garrus a brief nod as he handed Shepard her rarely-used Kuwashii visor. “You tell me,” she deadpanned, fitting the visor in place. “You and Solana are the ones who rigged it up. As much power as a small nuclear bomb, you said.”

 

“You know what I mean, Shepard,” the quarian retorted, voice tight with anxiety. “This is too dangerous for you. There’s got to be a better way.”

 

“Maybe,” Shepard conceded. “But not with the time and resources we have right now.” She put a hand on Tali’s shoulder. “We’ll be fine. You need to stay focused.”

 

She straightened. “Yes, Commander.”

 

“Get to engineering,” Shepard ordered. “This could be rough. I want your eyes on everything.”

 

The commander joined Garrus, Zaeed, and Solana in the shuttle, moving past them to the cockpit. “Time to prove yourself, O’Connor. We’ve got a reaper to evade.”

 

The usually boisterous shuttle pilot was focused. “You should strap yourself in, Commander. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

 

Instead of joining her teammates in the hold, she buckled herself into the co-pilot’s chair. She heard a snort from behind and turned to see Garrus smirking at her. “I guess that’s one way to avoid getting hit. Not even a reaper could predict your driving.” A valiant effort, but for his benefit or hers? She would play along; anything was better than waiting and worrying.

 

“Better shut that smart mouth of yours, Vakarian, or I’ll sacrifice you to the reaper as a peace offering.”

 

“Sound strategy, Commander,” he said dryly.

 

“It’ll solve at least one of my problems.”

 

“Engines are go,” O’Connor interrupted, cutting the conversation short. Garrus went to strap himself in, and Shepard turned back around. It was time to show that damn reaper what they were made of.

 

When the Normandy’s cargo bay door opened, Shepard got her first look at Palaven.

 

A globe of darkness was sliced and pockmarked with fire, the only light on a world now gone dark. Reapers blockaded the planet, shooting red, angry beams at anything that dared fly too near. In the distance she saw a civilian transport ship, flanked by two fighters—decoys, distractions to get the transport out safely. The fighters zoomed towards the blockade with their charge protected between them until one beam cut through one and then the next before all three were charred to ash.

 

We’re no more than ants to them, she thought, feeling sick.

 

Below them was Menae, embroiled in battle both on the ground and in the air. She caught sight of Menae Command as they approached, and of the reaper that threatened its existence. It walked the scarred terrain, red beams cutting through ships and ground vehicles alike with a casual ruthlessness that made her shudder. Fighters swooped past it to distract from the base, but each was decimated in turn, falling out of formation in smoke and flame.

 

“Bring us in,” Shepard ordered quietly, eyes on the reaper. “Opposite the camp from the reaper.”

 

“Yeah, I know the plan, Commander,” O’Connor muttered, but there was no heat behind the sarcasm. He, too, only had eyes for the reaper. The pilot cracked his knuckles and placed his hands back on the controls. “Might want to grab onto something,” he said.

 

A tense silence reigned in the cockpit as the reaper loomed steadily larger in their vision. The beam shattered a fighter—then another—and flaming debris went flying, headed straight for their shuttle. “Shit,” O’Connor swore, and sent the kodiak into a sudden nosedive. They dodged the flying wreckage and pulled back up, their vector now on intercept course with the reaper itself. And the reaper took notice.

 

O’Connor banked a hard left as the reaper changed focus, its red eye following them and glowing hot. Now in atmo, Shepard heard that terrible low sound vibrate through the shuttle, the one that her memories told her meant death. She opened her mouth to warn O’Connor.

 

Just as the beam appeared, the pilot dropped behind a turian fighter ship. The fighter’s explosion rocked the shuttle, but the red beam did not touch them.

 

Shepard stared, heart racing in her chest. “Did you just use that fighter as a shield?” she demanded angrily.

 

“Kind of busy here, Commander,” O’Connor replied shortly, brushing her off. But she already knew the answer.

 

He carved an erratic path through the jagged terrain, ducking low into crevices and up over cliffs, never keeping to one direction for long. The beam carved charred lines into the dust behind and around them but never quite hit.

 

“Engine’s running hot,” the pilot muttered to himself, hands flying over the control panel. Shepard’s eyes snapped back and forth between him and the display in front of her, hoping he could keep this up until they reached their landing zone.

 

“I think we’ve got it more interested in us than the base for the moment,” Shepard said. “See if we can lead it any further away.”

 

“Because I don’t have enough to do here,” O’Connor snarked, his green eyes darting over the console.

 

“I’ve got faith in you, O’Connor,” she said tightly.

 

They raced across the foreign landscape, playing cat-and-mouse with the most dangerous cat imaginable. One wrong move and it could all come crumbling down.

 

A blast of red hit the rocks below them, throwing them off course. Lights began to blink across the control panel. Shepard turned to her pilot. “What’s happening?” she asked tersely.

 

He swiped a wrist across his forehead, coming away with a sheen of sweat. “Blast damage,” he answered. “Now would be a good time to bring in the Normandy.”

 

Shepard gave him a nod. “Joker, do you copy? Phase two’s a go.”

 

“Understood, Commander,” came the tinny reply.

 

After a few long minutes of limping along, the Normandy swooped in to save the day.

 

Shepard’s chest constricted when she saw the reaper shooting up at her ship, but Joker had always known how to make her dance. The interplay between him and EDI made their course unpredictable and efficient. She hissed when the beam glanced upon the hull, but the shielding held… for now.

 

“As close as you can,” Shepard reminded O’Connor, and she unstrapped herself from the seat. “Slow down just enough for me to make the jump.”

 

“Aye aye, ma’am,” he replied, and she stepped into the hold.

 

Shepard gave a quick nod of acknowledgement to her team before strapping Cain to her back and stepping up to the hatch. “Take account of their defenses and get them organized,” she reminded them. “I’ll meet you in the camp.”

 

Garrus was quick to unstrap his safety harness. “Shepard,” he said quietly, eyes showing his protest. He hadn’t liked the plan when she announced it, and he didn’t like it now.

 

“I’ll be fine, Vakarian,” she said firmly. “Stick to the plan. I’ll be in radio contact.”

 

He hesitated a moment, but her gaze was solid on his. She felt the weight of his hand press her gauntlet, silently lending the support he would always give. I’ve got your six, Shepard.

 

He went to strap himself back in as she turned to the hatch, hand hovering on the controls as she waited for the signal.

 

“Now’s your chance, Commander!” O’Connor hollered.

 

She landed in an awkward roll to break her fall as the shuttle zoomed away. Cain was heavy upon her back, throwing her with more than her usual momentum. She crawled behind a rock for cover, looking around to take account of her situation.

 

The landscape was gray and jagged, eclipsed by the burning silhouette of Palaven. The sounds of battle were distant and quiet now that the fighters had stopped coming in. Perhaps Joker had been able to get a message through. Or perhaps they’d run out of pilots to throw at it.

 

Either way, it was just Shepard and the reaper now. Shepard, the reaper, and a field of smoking wreckage.

 

She moved from one piece of cover to the next, trying to get to the right distance and angle. Every now and then the Normandy would swoop in for a distraction, keeping the reaper from moving too close to the camp. Her heart caught in her throat every damn time.

 

She activated her comm. “I’m in position. Joker, can you turn that thing in my direction?”

 

“You got it, Commander.”

 

Within moments, the Normandy made another entrance, dancing through the reaper’s space and tempting it to attack. A heavy step shook the ground, the sound of thunder. A red beam sliced the air but didn’t touch her ship.

 

“Appreciate it,” Shepard said low, into her comm. “Stand by for phase three.” Eyes on the reaper, she hefted the Cain into her arms.

 

“One shot, Shepard,” Tali said nervously as she passed her the newly-modified weapon. “You can’t miss.”

 

She wouldn’t.

 

Shepard angled the weapon. Her visor did the calculations for her, adjusting for windspeed, density of atmosphere, and gravitational force. She held her hands steady, breathing in slowly and holding as if she were firing a sniper rifle rather than a flying bomb.

 

Shepard held down the trigger. It vibrated through her as the Cain powered up to maximum readiness. The reaper’s red eye wandered. She released the trigger, and breathed.

 

She stowed the now empty weapon on her back slowly, never taking her eyes off the shot she’d fired. It grew smaller until it was only a speck, flying straight into the eye—into the firing chamber. She stood still and silent, and the reaper took an earth-shaking step. It hadn’t even noticed.

 

“Begin phase three, Joker,” she ordered quietly, watching the reaper as it turned.

 

“Understood,” came her pilot’s nerve-tinged voice through the comm. “Try to get clear, Commander.”

 

Shepard wove back through the wreckage as quickly as she could, pausing and ducking behind cover when she saw the Normandy fly overhead. Missile bombardment and a burst of the Thanix cannon, she knew without looking as she felt the ground tremble beneath her feet.

 

The reaper was firing back when she glanced behind her, and she scrambled to further cover. Another swoop overhead and the grating sound of the Thanix against metal. They would be launching the missiles again now. She peeked over the edge of her cover.

 

The missiles were flying straight for the reaper’s red, burning eye. The plating around it was moving, closing in protectively over its one great weak spot. It was time.

 

She pulled up the orange interface of her omni-tool, her face emotionless in its glow. She didn’t look up to see the casing seal over the firing chamber. She didn’t look up to see the missiles glance uselessly off the reaper’s carapace. Only after she had entered her command did she look.

 

For a moment, all was still.

 

Then light and fire burst forth through the reaper’s seams. Cracks formed, blasting outward from the pressure within, allowing the flames to roll forth. Armor fell away as it crumpled from the force, the Cain’s timed blast magnified by containment. The ground shook as the reaper’s legs gave out and dropped it to the ground.

 

“Hit it, Joker,” Shepard ordered into the comm.

 

Fire rained down from the Normandy, crushing and burning until the red eye’s glow flickered and died. Smoke and twisted metal rose from the flaming wreckage, an eerie silhouette against the sky.

 

“Send the shuttle to my location,” Shepard said, rising from behind the rock she’d used for cover. She shut off her comm and moved towards the reaper. Something was drawing her to it, calling her to investigate.

 

Even a dead god can dream. The eye gave a dull flicker.

 

“You are Shepard,” it said.

 

The world around her seemed to stop.

 

She took a cautious step forward. “You know who I am?”

 

“All reapers know your name.”

 

Should she feel pride or fear, she wondered?

 

“Then you know what I can do,” she said calmly, staring into that red, flickering eye.

 

“You are no more a threat to us than a fly buzzing about your ear. You struggle in vain as we lay waste, darkening the sky of every world.”

 

She crossed her arms. “I was more than a fly to you.”

 

“Your resistance is pointless. Even now, Harbinger is coming for you.”

 

She paused. “Coming here?” she asked. Her heartbeat rushed to fill her ears in the following silence.

 

“Like countless before you, you will fall. Prepare yourself… Shepard.”

 

The reaper’s light flickered and dulled into nothingness. In its dying moment, Shepard couldn’t shake the distinct feeling that the reaper was laughing at her.

 

She stared at that unmoving eye until she heard the sound of the shuttle behind her. She turned on her heel and strode to the hatch with purpose in her steps. Her expression hardened until nothing was left but the commander. “Joker?” she commed as they lifted off. “We have a problem.”

 

Chapter Text

Shepard strode out of the shuttle into Menae command, her eyes searching for her team. She found them clustered in a prefab with several official-looking turians. Shepard hoped to hell one of them was the primarch because they didn’t have time to go hunting.

 

Garrus looked up as she approached, his mandibles tightening in a way that was not promising. “Shepard, we have a problem.”

 

“More than one, I’d say,” she said brusquely, but didn’t explain. “Report.”

 

A turian in crimson armor straightened next to Garrus and saluted. “General Corinthus, ma’am. I’m sorry to tell you that Primarch Fedorian is dead. His shuttle was shot down on the way to Menae.”

 

“Shit,” she swore, beginning to pace. “Next in line?”

 

Corinthus shared a look with Garrus. “Also dead,” he said quietly. “But we were able to reach Palaven command. The new primarch is General Adrien Victus.”

 

“Do we have a location?” she asked brusquely. “We’re short on time.” Garrus gave her a questioning look, but she shook her head. Explanations would have to wait.

 

Corinthus pointed at a spot on the map. “Last contact we had with Victus, he was leading a group out from south base to deal with some reaper activity. However, we haven’t been able to reach him for several hours. I’ll have one of my men take you to the base. They should be able to point you in the right direction.”

 

“Keep your men here,” Shepard snapped. “Just give us the NavPoint.”

 

“One moment,” the general said, holding up a finger. He barked an order to the soldier on his left. Shepard’s mouth tightened. Every second here was a second wasted.

 

The soldier came back with another in tow, wearing light armor over his warm taupe plates. Corinthus motioned to the newcomer. “The primarch’s assistant,” he explained. “Victus will need him.”

 

Shepard’s eyes darted back to Corinthus for a moment before focusing on the assistant. Resolute brown eyes stared back at her. After a moment, she motioned for him to follow. “Come on.”

 

As soon as the shuttle doors closed behind them, Garrus rounded on Shepard. “What’s going on, Commander? Why are we suddenly in such a hurry?”

 

She met his gaze resolutely. “Harbinger is on his way.”

 

Every eye in the shuttle was immediately on her.

 

The assistant was staring in confusion. Garrus and Solana’s mandibles fluttered so identically that it would have been comical under other circumstances. Even Zaeed’s hardened expression broke for a moment.

 

“What do we do?” Solana finally asked.

 

“We hurry,” Shepard said grimly. “We get the primarch the hell off this moon before Harbinger arrives.”

 

“Shepard, the base…” Garrus trailed off, looking worried.

 

“Harbinger doesn’t want the base,” Shepard said. “It wants the Normandy. It wants me.” She ignored the shocked looks around the shuttle.

 

Shepard’s fingers twitched as she waited to reach the south base. She suppressed the urge to pull up the clock on her omni-tool. She suppressed the urge to pace. She suppressed the urge to yell at O’Connor to ask what the hell was taking so long. She had until Harbinger came through the relay to come up with a plan.

 

She hoped to hell that Miranda, EDI, and Joker were up on the Normandy thinking just as hard.

 

As soon as the shuttle touched down at the south base, the team was out of their shuttle and barging their way through the camp. A harried Lieutenant pointed them in the right direction, sparing a curious glance for the primarch’s assistant. After a few minutes in camp—a few minutes too long, she thoughtthey tramped out into the barren wastes of Menae.

 

Most of the march was quiet, interrupted only by occasional skirmishes with stragglers from the reaper horde. They were easily dispatched by the five of them, but Shepard saw the primarch’s assistant hesitate.

 

“How am I supposed to kill them?” the turian finally asked, staring down at a marauder corpse. “My own people?”

 

Shepard took a few steps towards him. “You got a name, soldier?”

 

“Adjutant Nomos Lycanthus, ma’am,” he said promptly.

 

Shepard closed the gap, looking him in the eye. “Nomos, listen to me,” she said, soft but firm. “Those things are not your people. Your people are the ones who are still left fighting. Every time you hesitate, you could be condemning one of them to death or to be turned into one of these abominations. Understood?”

 

She watched him carefully as he gazed down at the corpse and back up at her. He gave her a sharp, turian nod. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

They continued their march, stopping only to check their course or to fight a few more stragglers. Once, as Shepard was gazing at her omni-tool map, she caught Solana staring at the burning form of Palaven above them. “Garrus, have you…” She tamped down on wavering subvocals. “Have you heard from Dad yet?”

 

“Not yet,” he said quietly. “But we will, Sol. Dad’s tough.” His voice was solid, but Shepard knew his worries as well as she knew her own. She pushed ahead with renewed determination. She couldn’t save everyone, but, god, she wanted to save someone for him.

 

Soon, they heard gunfire in the distance. “That must be them,” Shepard said. “Come on. Let’s give them some support.”

 

They walked right into the firefight, Shepard shouting orders over the din of bullets and explosions. The turians didn’t glance twice at the newcomers, too relieved to question their aid. Shepard danced into combat gladly, relieved for an outlet to the tension that had crawled beneath her skin since the reapers had struck the first blow. She raised a glowing fist and slammed a pair of bulbous, ambling cannibals to the ground, turning on her heel to fire upon a marauder that approached from behind. Shepard swore as the shots she fired fizzled away on the creature’s shield—an innovation they hadn’t had when she’d first fought them at Axion. Her own shield flickered under the marauder’s fire. A shot whizzed past her ear, only centimeters from injury.

 

Not now, she thought.

 

“I’ve got you, Commander,” Solana cried, and the marauder’s shield overloaded. Shepard stretched out a hand and encased it in a blue halo, yanking it off its feet. As it flew forward, she slammed a fist into its unnatural face and laughed out loud. Some days, she lived for the fight.

 

The reapers troops began to thin out now that help had arrived. But before anyone could call the all-clear, Shepard heard a panic sweep through. She flung away a pair of husks and stopped where she stood, whirling around for the source of the soldiers’ fear.

 

“Brute!” a turian voice cried.

 

She caught sight of an enormous creature barreling into a cluster of turian soldiers, trampling men in its path. It let out a mechanical cry as it flung away the rest with a strange, half-organic claw. Dead and mangled soldiers lay where live ones had stood only a moment before. Tubes wove in and out of the beast’s flesh, bones spiked from its back, and a pair of glowing, cybernetic eyes turned and stared right at her.

 

It charged.

 

After a split-second of indecision, Shepard ducked and rolled. She paid for that instant’s pause. The creature’s knee caught her as she rolled out of its way, smashing into her shoulder and slamming her onto the ground. She cried out in pain, hurrying to right herself with her good arm. A glance found her pistol several meters away, too far to reach before the brute came for her again. A voice was calling her name, but she only had eyes for the beast.

 

It rounded on her again. She threw a powerful biotic field with her uninjured arm, warping the bone plates that covered its body. It stumbled back a few steps but quickly regained balance, barely acknowledging the stream of gunfire that pelted it.

 

Her suit’s medi-gel dispenser was hard at work, dulling her shoulder’s ache from a roar to a murmur. She reached for her SMG. Her shoulder exploded with pain as she fired it, the small kickback too much for her injury. She dropped her arm to her side and raised the other, gathering power for another biotic burst.

 

The beast charged again. Her burst of dark energy dissipated uselessly as she dove between its legs. Its claws grazed her lower back, digging gouges into her armor. Medi-gel and adrenaline buzzed in her veins too brightly for her to notice whether the claws had broken through the skin. Her focus was laser-sharp on the creature as its momentum carried it past her and onward. She raised herself to her feet and mustered another warp field. It roared as its plates curled and crumbled under her power, and it turned for another charge. She was prepared this time.

 

With a quick turn she dodged the brute, the claws missing her as she spun behind it and extended the blade of her omni-tool. In a powerful motion she slammed it into the creature’s back, her blade cutting deep into its unnatural flesh. She backed away as it stumbled to the ground. It twitched. She feared it would stand again. Before it could make another move, one echoing shot pierced the beast’s skull.

 

Shepard stared down at the corpse and swiped a gauntlet across her forehead, breathing heavily as her adrenaline rush died away and left aches and pains in its wake. She could feel now where the claws had rent the flesh of her back, aching along with her battered shoulder. She took in a deep breath to ease the pain as her team rushed over. Unsurprisingly, Garrus was the first to her side. He fussed over her quietly, checking her injuries.

 

Shepard straightened and stretched while Garrus finished examining the gouges in her armor. “What was that thing?” she asked, wincing as he carefully rolled her shoulder. “Kyran didn’t send a spec for that one.”

 

“It is—was—a krogan,” he said grimly, lowering her arm to her side. “We saw one at the base camp earlier. As you probably heard, they’ve been calling it a brute.” Shepard turned her gaze back to it, digesting the new information. What more unpleasant surprises would the reapers bring? She held in a shudder. She was in no hurry to find out.

 

In her peripheral vision, Shepard saw a figure marching towards them, a turian with gray plates, white markings, and an aura of authority. “That’s our man,” Garrus confirmed, stepping back to a more professional distance just as the general arrived in front of them.

 

“Vakarian,” he greeted with a sharp nod. “I’m not surprised to see you here.” Victus’s eyes slid to the human standing next to him. “I am, however, surprised to see you’ve brought Commander Shepard with you.” He nodded to her as well. “General Victus,” he introduced himself. “Last I was aware, Commander, you were a fugitive.”

 

“Circumstances have changed,” she said. “I’ve been reinstated as a spectre and am fighting the reapers now.”

 

“On Menae?” He rose a skeptical browplate.

 

She held his gaze unwaveringly. “I’m on a mission to retrieve galactic leaders for a summit between species.”

 

“Not that I don’t appreciate the help,” he said carefully, “But that only explains why you’re on Menae, not why you’re here, assisting my men.”

 

Shepard glanced over to Garrus, who took up the mantle flawlessly. “Primarch Fedorian’s shuttle was shot down trying to reach Menae. You’re the new primarch.”

 

The flutter of his mandibles betrayed his shock. “I’m… primarch of Palaven? Negotiating for the turian hierarchy?”

 

“Yes,” Shepard said brusquely. “And I need to get you on the Normandy and out of here as quickly as possible.”

 

His gaze turned reproachful. “You expect me to leave my men—my homeworld—to make nice in some boardroom?”

 

Shepard stood tall, eyes aflame. She was in no mood for this. “If you think this will be won by a ground war, by all means, stay here. If you think you’ll save Palaven with some in-air dogfight, I’ll give you a lift to the airbase,” she said harshly. “But I know better, and so do you. We’re going to need the combined ingenuity of every species out there if we’re going to survive.”

 

He was silent for a long moment, and then his shoulders sagged. “At least let me say goodbye to my men.” She nodded and watched him walk away.

 

Shepard and Garrus stood waiting in silence, and gazed up at Palaven hanging heavy in the sky.

 

“Do you see that big blaze of orange?” Garrus asked. “That’s where I was born.”

 

Shepard’s heart clenched. “We’ll get it back,” she said, knowing how hollow her words rang.

 

He sighed and looked away. “It won’t be the same.”

 

For a moment, Shepard saw burning crops in her mind’s eye. “I know,” she said quietly. There was nothing else to say.

 

She was saved from falling into memory only by EDI’s voice on her comm. “Harbinger has passed through the relay, Commander.”

 

“Acknowledged,” she replied, already heading for the new primarch. “We’re out of time,” she told him. “We’ve got to go.”

 

At Shepard’s urging, Victus joined her at the shuttle with his assistant and two more soldiers—bodyguards?—following behind.

 

“Commander,” he addressed her. “Why exactly are we in such a hurry?”

 

As the shuttle lifted off, she turned to him grimly with her answer. “Harbinger—the one we believe to be leading the reapers—is on his way here.”

 

His anger swelled and filled the air around him. “You seek to take me away from my world when it is about to be attacked by the leader of the reapers?”

 

Shepard felt more than saw the others shrinking back from his vitriol. Still, the steady presence of Garrus remained just behind her shoulder. She didn’t have to look back to feel him there.

 

“Harbinger isn’t interested in Palaven,” she said. “He wants the Normandy.”

 

He stared at her, unblinking. “So you bring me aboard the ship that he’s hunting?”

 

“Primarch, I won’t allow Harbinger to take Palaven or the Normandy,” she said firmly. “You have my word, but you’ll have to trust me.” Her heart pounded, knowing just how great a request that was.

 

They locked eyes with each other for a long moment, and he gave her a weary nod. “Do what you must.”

 

 

The quiet, tense mood in the shuttle ended the moment they landed in the cargo hold.

 

Miranda met Shepard at the door, cool and collected. “The crew has been briefed on our situation,” she said, matching Shepard’s long strides to the elevator. “What are your orders?”

 

Shepard paused at the elevator doors, turning to survey the group that had come from the shuttle. “Garrus, I need you monitoring the guns. Solana…” She hefted Cain off her back. “Stow this, then check with Tali in engineering. We’ll likely need active repairs.” The turian took the heavy weapon and headed immediately to the weapons bench. Shepard’s eyes fell upon Victus, holding his piercing gaze. “Miranda,” she said, her eyes still locked on the turian’s, “get the primarch and his men settled in Starboard Observation. Zaeed, go with them.” He nodded, understanding the order she didn’t voice. She could allow nothing and no one to interfere when they were in such danger. Shepard quickly took a step back into the open elevator and hit the button before any of the involved parties could make their disagreement known. She sighed, falling back against the elevator wall with a clang of her armor. “And EDI, for god’s sake make sure those observation shutters are closed.”

 

When the doors opened, she was Commander Shepard again. She marched through the CIC with a set, fierce expression. Harbinger would not take her ship.

 

“Joker,” she barked, finding the pilot already at work. “Do you understand the plan?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” he said promptly, but then the worry crept into his voice. “But we have a small problem.”

 

Her arms folded behind her back as she stopped inside the cockpit. “Report.”

 

“From the relay we can only go to two places—the volus home system or the Citadel.”

 

Shepard was silent for a long moment. “EDI,” she finally addressed, how long until we enter Harbinger’s scanning range?”

 

“Three minutes and thirteen seconds, Commander.”

 

With another long pause, Shepard turned back to Joker. “Where else does the relay link?” she asked him.

 

He tore his eyes from the console, looking at her like she was crazy. “Commander, I just told you,” he said in confusion. “That’s everywhere.”

 

Shepard took a step forward, her fingers wrapping around the pilot’s leather headrest as he craned his neck to see her. She held his gaze steadily, despite how hard her heart was pounding. “No, Joker,” she said slowly. “Where else?”

 

Understanding dawned in his eyes. Joker’s jaw tightened as he turned back to the control panel. “Three unmapped systems, Commander,” he said, low, and he did not look at her again.

 

Inside Shepard’s mind, the strategist warred with the soldier. The last time a human tried to open an unmapped relay, it started a war.

 

She breathed deeply, feeling the weight of a galaxy on her shoulders, and spoke. “Choose one. I’ll bear full responsibility.” The silence fell heavy around them.

 

In that instant, Shepard waited. Waited for her pilot to finally tell her off. Waited for him to say that she’d pushed him too far or asked too much. And she had; she knew she had, and she would ask for more before this was over.

 

But Joker’s voice came out quiet and determined. No waver. No doubt. “If you think that I’m going to let you do that, Commander, you’ve got another thing coming. I’m behind you. No matter what.”

 

A lump formed in her throat that had nothing to do with fear.

 

“Twenty seconds, Commander,” EDI’s voice intruded.

 

“Acknowledged.”

 

As EDI started the countdown, Shepard heard familiar light footsteps and a felt a hand on her shoulder. She locked eyes with her XO before they both turned to look out into the great darkness ahead of them.

 

For the first time, Shepard saw Harbinger with her own eyes.

 

The bogeyman of her dreams was not so different than any other reaper, but the sight of him filled Shepard with a dread she could not explain. She felt him.

 

“Harbinger’s flight course has altered,” EDI informed them calmly. “Now on intercept trajectory.”

 

“Speed increased to maximum,” Joker said, just as the moment of inertia hit. “Locked onto the relay.” Shepard could just see the bright flicker of the relay in the distance.

 

“Vakarian,” she spoke into her comm. “Harbinger is in range. Fire at will.”

 

“Understood, Commander.”

 

A familiar vibration passed through the ship as the Thanix cannon did its job. Shepard knew better than to believe their weapon was capable of disabling or destroying the reaper this way, but she intended to show Harbinger that they could do some damage. “EDI, pull up a visual,” she ordered. Harbinger was closer behind them than she’d like as the reaper turned to follow their course, but the plan stood. She had no doubt now that he would follow them through the relay.

 

And then she saw something that made her mouth go dry. EDI spoke up before Shepard could form the words. “Reaper weapon priming,” the AI said, sounding—as Shepard distractedly realized—truly anxious for the first time.

 

Joker’s hands flew across the console. “Brace for evasive maneuvers!”

 

Shepard and Miranda stumbled to the side as the Normandy made a hard right. They reached for any handhold they could find as the Normandy rocked with a blast.

 

“Son of a bitch!” Joker cried out.

 

“Shields at eighty percent,” said the AI.

 

Shepard righted herself, her eyes blazing. “What happened?”

 

Joker’s breathing was ragged. “That fucker’s got two beams.”

 

Shepard’s fists tightened. “Christ.”

 

“Initiating relay sequence,” EDI interjected.

 

“He’s priming again,” Miranda said worriedly, staring at the vid-screen.

 

“Hitting relay in three, two—”

 

“He’s firing!”

 

“One…”

 

Chapter Text

In the relay’s tunnel, everything was quiet.

 

“EDI?” Shepard called.

 

“Shields holding at seventy-five percent.”

 

“Brace for deceleration,” Joker said quietly, his voice as tight as a bowstring.

 

The realm of space that opened up in front of them looked no different than any other, but in the cockpit, silence fell. No living being had traveled through this system or seen this relay in at least fifty thousand years. As Joker piloted them into the system, towards an unnamed star, Shepard allowed herself a moment to stare in awe.

 

“Shepard…” Miranda’s hand curled tight on Shepard’s gauntlet. “Where the hell are we?”

 

Staring out into the abyss, she said, “Somewhere new.”

 

Miranda’s eyes drifted back towards the windows, too shocked to offer any protests.

 

EDI was the first to finally break the silence, and even she sounded regretful. “Commander Shepard, the relay is active.”

 

“Acknowledged,” Shepard said, pushing thoughts of beauty and discovery from her mind. They had a job to do. “Joker, get us as far as you can as fast as you can.”

 

On the monitor Shepard watched the relay, dark until a few minutes before, brighten and spin with the arrival of another. Harbinger had followed.

 

The quiet that had filled the cockpit was a thing of the past. EDI and Joker called back status updates and warnings. Shepard shouted into her comm at Garrus to fire. Miranda stood still, her fingers in an iron grip around Shepard’s arm, and asked for orders.

 

“We need to evade until we can lose him,” she said, steadying herself when Joker made a hard turn.

 

“Reaper beam priming,” EDI alerted them.

 

“Right in the firing chamber, Vakarian!”

 

“Brace yourselves!”

 

The Normandy jolted to the side, knocking Shepard out of balance. She stumbled, slamming her shoulder into the wall. She gasped as the pain burst forth; she’d forgotten her previous injuries. Menae seemed like a lifetime ago.

 

Shepard righted herself with her good arm, ignoring Miranda’s pointed gaze at her injured shoulder. “Report,” she ordered, breathless.

 

“Secondary beam glanced off our shields,” Joker said, his hands still racing across the console.

 

“What’s the status of our shields?”

 

“Shields are at sixty-five percent, Commander,” EDI said. “However, they will not hold under continuous fire. A direct hit could disable them. I recommend—”

 

“I hate to interrupt EDI’s little monologue, but the reaper’s powering up again,” Joker interjected. “Try to hang on this time, Commander.”

 

Shepard clung to the navigator’s chair as Joker executed a series of moves that Shepard hadn’t realized the Normandy was capable of. The ship’s inertial dampeners, lighter in the cockpit than in the central parts of the ship, strained under the pilot’s demands.

 

“Hell yes!” Joker crowed in victory. “Missed us that time, you bastard!”

 

Shepard shook her head. She’d known he was the best pilot in the Alliance, but she’d never seen him at work before—not like this. “When we get back, I’m giving you a medal.”

 

“If we don’t all get arrested first,” Miranda said dryly.

 

“Reaper beam priming,” EDI stated. “Harbinger is gaining ground.”

 

Shepard turned to her pilot. “Joker?”

 

“Doing what I can, Shepard.” His voice was strained. Shepard felt the vibration of the thanix cannon under her feet.

 

Shepard tightened her grip as the Normandy evaded the beam, her eyes jumping between Joker’s flying fingers and the space outside the cockpit windows. It was a dizzying view. The nearest planet dipped in and out of sight as Joker dodged the reaper’s fiery beam. Sometimes she would catch sight of those red beams of light for a split second before they disappeared.

 

Shepard’s hands were ripped from the navigator’s chair by a violent shudder. She was thrown to the ground as the cockpit’s lights flickered, slamming her head on the metal floor. Alarms and flashing lights blared on the console. “Shit!” Joker cried, pressing buttons faster than she could follow his hands. “A direct fucking hit. Shit!”

 

Shepard pried herself off the floor as quickly as she could manage, wincing at the intensifying ache in her head and shoulder. “Shields?” she barked.

 

“Five percent,” said EDI.

 

Shepard paced the cockpit, fingers clenching into fists. “Shit.”

 

“No more hits,” Joker said. “I’m taking her into the gas giant.”

 

“What?” Shepard demanded. “Are you trying to get us killed?”

 

“The Normandy can’t take another hit, Commander! It’s the only way to lose Harbinger.”

 

Shepard trusted Joker with the fate of the galaxy. She could trust him with this. “Alright, Joker,” she said, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves. “Do it.” The planet loomed larger and larger before them as the Normandy headed directly towards it at full speed.

 

“Jesus,” Shepard muttered, running a trembling hand through her hair. “This is the craziest thing I’ve done today, and I’ve set the bar really fucking high.”

 

They were moments from reaching the planet when EDI spoke. “The reaper beam is priming.”

 

The pilot was laser focused. “I can make it.”

 

“Joker?” Shepard asked warningly.

 

“I can make it.”

 

Swirling clouds filled their vision, surrounded them, and the Normandy gave a single, vicious shake.

 

“Was that a hit?” Shepard asked tersely.

 

“Negative,” EDI told her. “That was our entry into the upper cloud layer.”

 

Shepard stared out the cockpit windows, obscured entirely by clouds. “And Harbinger?”

 

“Harbinger has followed us into the gas giant,” EDI said calmly. “Jeff, I suggest altering course. Our current trajectory has a high probability of death. I anticipate interception by Harbinger within two minutes and reaching crush depth within four.”

 

“I was planning on it, EDI.” Joker rolled his eyes, muttering, “Thinks she’s my mom…”

 

A tremor went through the ship. “What was that?” Shepard asked. “Do we have damage?”

 

“Wind gusts,” Joker explained. “The deeper we go, the stronger they’re going to get.”

 

“Then what the hell are you doing?” Shepard asked, feeling another shake under her feet.

 

Joker gave an exasperated sigh. “Look, Commander, Harbinger’s going to be searching for us. The deeper in we go, the closer he’ll need to be to get us in sensor range. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather deal with a little chop than end up fried by a reaper beam.”

 

Shepard looked up at a harsh creak from the bulkhead. “EDI?” she called, suspicious. “Exactly how close are we to crush depth?”

 

“Relax, Shepard,” Joker interrupted. A tremor shook them. “I’ve got it under control.”

 

Her ship had passed illegally through a relay, was inside a gas giant, and was being chased by a reaper. Relaxing was not on the agenda.

 

“I trust you, Joker,” she finally said, then turned to the cockpit’s resident AI. “What’s the damage, EDI?”

 

EDI’s blue orb blinked. “The shield generator sustained damage from the reaper’s beam, Commander. Without making repairs, the shields will not return to full strength. The Normandy’s armor also received minor damage in some areas. Additionally, the drive core needs to be vented soon. The Normandy was not designed to remain in stealth during long stretches of ship-to-ship combat.”

 

Shepard took in a slow breath, pinching the bridge of her nose. Discharging the drive core would be a death sentence in the middle of their cat-and-mouse game with Harbinger. “What’s your recommendation, EDI?”

 

“I suggest repairing the shield generator before leaving the planet’s atmosphere. Placing the Normandy on emergency power during this time should allow for a longer period before the drive core reaches critical levels. If we are fortunate, Harbinger will call off his search.”

 

Shepard cracked a smile. “Are we ever ‘fortunate’?”

 

“If our current luck holds, there is a high probability that we will survive with a minimum of two close calls,” EDI said. She paused. “That was a joke.”

 

Shepard huffed a laugh. “Of course it was.” She took a deep breath. “Alright, people. Looks like we’ve got a plan. EDI, drop us down to emergency power. Joker, keep the ship as steady as you can. Miranda, call up an immediate team meeting in the conference room. We’re going to get those repairs underway, and we’re going to get the hell out of here before Harbinger finds our hiding place.”

 

Miranda gave her a rare salute as she turned to leave the cockpit.

 

Shepard glanced over to her pilot. “I doubt I need to tell you this, but I want you listening in on that team meeting, Joker.”

 

“So, the usual.” Joker tugged the bill of his SR-2 cap. “Got it.”

 

“Switching to emergency power,” EDI announced, just before the lights dimmed.

 

Shepard strode out into the CIC and paused at the top of the steps. Instead of ready at their stations, her crew was clustered in fearful whispers and worry. “Everyone to your stations,” she ordered, keeping her voice calm and even. “I need you at the ready. Business as usual until I say otherwise.”

 

The crew was quick to follow her orders, some of them visibly relaxing at the evenness of her tone. She nodded greetings at them as she passed, heading through Mordin’s darkened lab on her way to the comm room.

 

The red emergency lighting in the empty room did nothing to minimize the ominous feeling of the ship’s strained creaks and tremors. She caught herself on the conference table as an unexpectedly powerful shake made her stumble. She wound around to the head of the table, bracing herself against it as she thought through their situation. As long as Harbinger didn’t find them, there should be no problem finishing the repairs in a timely manner. What worried her was what might come after. How long would Harbinger continue to search for them? How long could they last?

 

They were up shit creek with a very battered paddle, and though that wasn’t unusual for the Normandy crew, she couldn’t forget that she still had the primarch of Palaven and three of his men below decks. Great first impression, Commander, she inwardly groaned. Fucking fantastic.

 

 

After a brief reassurance and the parsing out of assignments, the team left the meeting just as tense as they’d arrived. Garrus made no move to follow. Shepard shot him an inquisitive look.

 

He shrugged, a bit too casually. “Just making sure you find your way to the med bay.”

 

She motioned for him to walk with her. “I will if there’s time. First, I need to go smooth things over with Victus.” She could feel him tense beside her, but he didn’t say anything until the elevator doors closed behind them.

 

“Shepard, I saw you get injured down there. Your shoulder and back need to be looked at… as does your head.” He frowned. “When did you manage that?”

 

She reached back, wincing as her fingers came away with a small amount of blood. “Damn,” she said tiredly. “I guess bouncing around the cockpit wasn’t my best idea.”

 

“So you’ll go to the med bay,” he said with finality.

 

She huffed. “Go to hell, Vakarian.”

 

He put his hand on her back to guide her through the open elevator doors. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, “as soon as you go to the med bay.”

 

She stopped short in the hallway and spun around, her jaw firmly set. Garrus sighed. “Look, let me smooth things over with Victus. I’ve met him before, and—while he’s no xenophobe—I think it might be better coming from another turian. I can also ease some of his worries about you. When this is all over, then you can have your chat.”

 

Shepard glanced at the door to Starboard Observation and then back at her turian mate, unable to refute his logic. “Alright,” she relented. “If you think that’s best. Let me know how it goes.”

 

“Of course, Commander,” he said, heading towards the med bay.

 

“Uh, Garrus?” She raised her brows at him. “I think Victus is that way.” She inclined her head towards the observation deck door.

 

He smirked. “Wouldn’t want you getting lost on the way to the med bay.”

 

She rolled her eyes. “Of course not.” Accordingly, he didn’t leave her side until he was assured that she was in the doctor’s capable hands.

 

Chakwas clucked over Shepard like a mother hen as she stripped away her armor to reveal her wounds. Shepard winced at the sight of her damaged hardsuit, mentally cataloguing what she could repair and what would need to be replaced. At first Chakwas lectured, but she soon fell quiet in concentration, her work complicated by the tremors that still shook the ship. All that filled the silence were the ship’s creaks, groans, and shudders, interrupted by the occasional clink of the doctor’s tools.

 

Quiet, as every soldier knew, did not mean peace. It was only the calm before the storm.

 

While Shepard sat insulated in the med bay, the Normandy was fighting for her life, racing against the clock and against a powerful enemy in order to survive. Their odds weren’t favorable, but Shepard didn’t care for hearing the odds. She knew what she and her crew were capable of.

 

“All finished, Commander,” Chakwas said finally, snapping the gloves off her hands. “Try to be careful next time, will you?”

 

“No promises,” she said, grinning at the doctor’s sigh as the doors closed behind her. Shepard glanced at Starboard Observation as she made her way to the elevator and wondered if Garrus was still inside. Despite the temptation to check for herself, she instead took the elevator down to engineering to look in on the repairs.

 

 

Joker turned in his chair as Shepard strode into the cockpit. “All systems go, Commander. Ready to make our daring escape?”

 

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” she said. “How are we looking EDI? Has Harbinger made an appearance?”

 

“He has passed within scanning range but never close enough to incite alarm. It has been twenty-two minutes since he was last on my scanners. It is possible that he has ended his search.”

 

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Shepard said, “but I think this is our best bet to escape either way.” She put her hands behind her back. “Take us to the relay, Joker.”

 

He spun back to the dashboard, hands at the ready. “Aye aye, ma’am.”

 

He took them out of the gas giant slow and quiet, keeping a close eye on their scanners. Nothing seemed amiss, but Shepard stood at attention, ready for anything.

 

Her omni-tool lit up in the dim cockpit, bright and unexpected.

 

“Shepard.” The ship vibrated with his voice.

 

Had she not been so thoroughly trained as a soldier, Shepard would have jumped at the intrusion of Harbinger’s sudden, deafening voice. On her ship. On her comm. Her body tensed, rage-filled and combat ready.

 

“You only fight the inevitable.”

 

Shepard’s stomach turned. No, it wasn’t just her omni-tool. It was every speaker on the whole goddamn ship.

 

“Joker?” Her voice vibrated with urgency.

 

He jerked out of a shocked stupor, fingers flashing across the keys. “He’s blasting through on every frequency!” the pilot cried. “Every radio in the whole damn system is—”

 

“You may run. You may hide. But your time is wasted.”

 

“EDI?” Shepard cried. Nothing.

 

“The harvest will continue, but you will not. I will find you… Shepard.”

 

Silence fell, and all was still. Shepard barely dared to breathe, her mind racing in fear and worry.

 

“I have regained control,” came a sudden, welcome voice.

 

Shepard breathed a sigh of relief, but a crease was permanently etched between her brows. “EDI. What happened?” She began to pace.

 

“Harbinger’s signal was too strong for me to overpower,” she explained.

 

Shepard paused in her paces. “There’s no way to block the signal?”

 

“Harbinger used brute force to break through on every frequency,” the AI explained. “Trying to block the signal would be akin to encrypting a locked door to prevent entry by explosives.”

 

“Christ,” Shepard muttered. “Can you imagine what they’re doing with this on Earth?” She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath.

 

“Commander?”

 

“Yes, EDI?” she replied, squeezing the bridge of her nose.

 

“I suggest urgency. It appears Harbinger has used the signal to locate us.”

 

Shepard’s head shot up, eyes burning in anger. “Gun it, Joker,” she barked. “Get us the fuck out of here. Now.”

 

Joker’s hands raced over the console even as he protested. “How do you even know?” he demanded of the AI. “He’s not even on—”

 

A new blip on the scanner cut him off.

 

“Shit.”

 

“Aren’t we still stealthed?” Shepard asked, pacing across the cockpit. “We’re in motion. He won’t know our route now that he’s stopped broadcasting.”

 

Joker scoffed. “Where else would we be headed but the relay, Commander?”

 

“Harbinger is closing the gap,” EDI helpfully interjected.

 

Shepard glanced at the scanner. “Joker?”

 

“We’ll make it,” he argued, never taking his eyes off the console. “Have a little faith, Commander.”

 

The relay loomed steadily closer. The blip on the radar did the same.

 

“Harbinger will enter firing range within forty-five seconds,” EDI told them.

 

“Yeah, I know, EDI!” Joker scowled. “Will you just shut up already?”

 

Shepard gripped the pilot’s head rest, feeling a sense of deja vu.

 

“Engaging relay,” Joker finally announced. “Jumping in three, two, one…”

 

Chapter Text

The Normandy jumped from system to system in a path that Shepard hoped would be too long and complex for Harbinger to follow. She had given Joker the order to stop only after EDI assured them that Harbinger’s odds of finding them were no greater than blind chance. The AI also took that opportunity to remind Shepard that the drive core was in immediate need of purging.

 

Shepard took their stop as an opportunity to have the crew reassess the damage to the Normandy, and she wound up less than pleased with what she found. The Normandy’s first skirmish with Harbinger had not left her feeling confident about their chances. The hours during the purge and trip to the Citadel were so busy for her that she didn’t even realize they’d arrived until EDI summoned her to the bridge. But the fact that she’d received such a summons, rather than the usual docking announcement, set off alarm bells in Shepard’s mind. She dropped everything she was doing to rush to the cockpit.

 

“Joker?” Shepard said, a little breathless. “What’s going on?”

 

When he spun his chair around, the expression on his face made Shepard’s stomach drop into her boots. “We’re grounded.”

 

Shepard struggled against a sudden tide of mounting anger. “What do you mean, grounded?” She hadn’t slept since before Menae, her ship was in need of serious repairs, and now the council was on her ass. This was the last thing she needed now.

 

“Council orders,” Joker said. “Guess they heard about our relay stunt. They’ve ‘requested’ your presence.” He added air quotes for emphasis. “Too bad Anderson isn’t here to punch Udina out this time.”

 

“I might punch him myself,” Shepard muttered, glaring dangerously through the windows. She spun on her heel and marched out of the cockpit. If they wanted Commander Shepard, they’d get her.

 

Shepard was debating between two models of assault rifles when she heard footsteps behind her in the armory.

 

“This is your idea of preparing for a meeting?”

 

Shepard spared an unfazed glance Miranda’s way as she strapped a rifle to her back.

 

Miranda grabbed her arm. “You can’t march in there and wave your weapons around! They’re already starting to think you’re a loose cannon.”

 

“Maybe I am,” Shepard muttered, ripping away from Miranda’s grasp.

 

“You’re not,” she said firmly. “And you need to prove it to them. Explain the situation. Use logical arguments to sway them to your side.”

 

“Like that’s ever worked before,” she huffed. Shepard straightened and turned, finally meeting Miranda’s eyes. “Are you offering your help?”

 

“If you’d like,” the woman said evenly. “If not, I’ll just offer two pieces of advice.”

 

Shepard crossed her arms and looked at her expectantly.

 

Miranda looked her up and down, as coolly as ever. “Tone down that death glare a few notches,” she said. “And you might want to consider brushing your hair.”

 

The brunette turned and marched to the elevator, leaving Shepard staring after her, uncertain whether to be offended or laugh.

 

Before the elevator doors closed, Miranda shot her a small smile. “I’ll be in my office if you want to talk. You can even borrow my hairbrush.”

 

 

 

Shepard stormed back onto the Normandy in a worse mood than when she’d departed it.

 

“EDI,” she called, marching through the CIC. “Is the primarch still aboard?”

 

“No. He and his entourage departed half an hour ago.”

 

“Good,” she said to herself. She entered the comm room. “Get me Liara on the QEC.”

 

“Please,” Shepard added as an afterthought. She ran an agitated hand through her hair, leaving no evidence of the care Miranda had put into styling it little more than an hour before.

 

“Commander, I must warn you that Garrus and Miranda are on the way to your location.”

 

“Good,” she snapped. “That means I only have to say this once.”

 

The two officers burst into the room a moment later. “What happened?” Garrus asked. “Joker says we’re still on lockdown.”

 

Shepard’s glare filled the room. “The council wants to debate and study the evidence. They’ll call me back in two days.” She paid no mind to the expressions of worry and shock on her officers’ faces. “EDI, have you gotten Liara on the line yet?”

 

“Yes, Commander,” she said. The asari’s hologram faded into view.

 

“Shepard,” she said, the name almost a sigh on her lips. “I am glad to see you in one piece. I heard about what happened.”

 

“Then you must know about the lockdown,” the commander said, brushing off her friend’s concern. “I need you to find me a way around it.”

 

Two sounds of surprise rang out behind her simultaneously. Liara stared at her with wide blue eyes. “Shepard, I—”

 

“That would be a mistake,” Miranda said firmly. “Remember what I said before your meeting?”

 

Before Shepard could get a word out about Ilos, Garrus stepped in. “This isn’t like before, with Saren,” he said, as if reading her mind. “If we alienate the council, we’re dead in the water. These alliances could fall apart, and you’ll lose all the trust you’ve earned. That’s not worth two extra days of freedom.”

 

“I have to concur,” Liara added hesitantly. “I don’t think this will help in the long run.”

 

Shepard stood among them, full to the brim with anger. She ached to fight, to do something. Now that she’d seen even a hint of the devastation being sown on the homeworlds, it was unbearable to think of sitting on her hands to wait for the council to decide her fate.

 

“You saw what they did on Palaven,” she forced out. “So you think we should twiddle our thumbs while people are out there dying?” she demanded, staring them down in turn, nearly pleading.

 

Miranda shook her head. “We won’t be idle, Commander. The Normandy needs repairs. We need to resupply. The Citadel must have its own problems too, with the number of refugees and wounded that are undoubtedly arriving.”

 

Shepard glanced at the others, considering. “What do you two think?” Her voice was already calm again, though all present knew how deceptive that could be.

 

Liara cleared her throat. “I have contacts you could meet with,” she offered. “There are always tasks that need doing. A Spectre has access to so many resources.”

 

Shepard regarded her carefully before nodding. “Garrus?”

 

He shrugged. “I’d welcome the chance to help out the refugees. Whatever crew isn’t busy with repairs can make themselves useful.”

 

“Fine,” she relented, though her voice was tight. “Miranda, talk to Tali and create a roster for repairs. Make sure everyone has a few hours of shore leave booked in. Garrus, contact the people in charge of the refugee camps. I need to be certain our crew will be a help and not a hindrance. And Liara, I want you to get me a list of people I should meet with. Understood?”

 

The two women answered with a “Yes, Commander,” and Garrus with a salute. She dismissed them, sagging back against the metal wall. She took a few moments to reframe her expectations. Two days of work on the Citadel and then her meeting with the council. And if the meeting didn’t go as she wanted it to, well, breaking out was still an option.

 

But she wouldn’t dwell on that. She hadn’t slept since before Menae, and if the meeting she’d just finished was anything to go by, it was beginning to affect her decision-making. It was time for a nap while she waited for her officers’ reports. She yawned as she made for the elevator. Delegation was a hell of a thing.

 

 

Shepard woke up to the sound of a ping on her omni-tool. She rubbed her eyes and then pulled up the display, unsurprised to find Liara’s list of Citadel contacts. Some were those she could help, and some might be of help to her. She quickly dressed and headed towards the airlock, intent on making contact with at least a couple of them before the day was done.

 

When Shepard reached the airlock doors, she was surprised to see Garrus waiting there for her. “I was hoping to catch you before you left,” he said as the doors opened. He motioned for her to step inside, following her as she did.

 

“Primarch Victus is going to speak to the council on your behalf,” he said as the decontamination sequence commenced.

 

Shepard turned to stare at him, hardly believing her own ears. “On my behalf? I can’t imagine why he would.” Her eyes locked on his in realization. “What did you say to him?”

 

“I told him the truth,” he said simply.

 

She closed the distance between them. “And what is that?”

 

His voice was soft and firm. “He asked me if I trusted you with my life. I said I trusted you with the galaxy.”

 

Her chest felt tight and her throat thick. She blinked hard to hold back tears. “Garrus…”

 

He tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear, humming gently. She fell silent, words failing her. She was nearly crushed under the weight of that trust. He, who knew her best, still had more faith in her than she could fathom. Didn’t he understand how she faltered? Hadn’t he seen her fail and struggle?

 

“Thank you,” she said finally, finding her voice as the door opened. A brush of talons across her cheek and he was gone. She took in a shaky breath and straightened her shoulders before following him from the airlock.

 

 

About halfway through the second day of Shepard’s enforced stay at the Citadel, she got a message from Miranda on her omni-tool. Shepard frowned at the display as she read the message—only a set of coordinates and a time. She knew Miranda wouldn’t ask something of her that wasn’t necessary, but she wished Miranda had given her at least a little information about what to expect.

 

She frowned even harder when she saw that the coordinates were for an asari nail salon. “Good, you made it,” Miranda said briskly as she approached her.

 

“What’s this all about?” Shepard asked as the brunette hustled her inside.

 

“We have an appointment in about two minutes. Everyone scheduled shore leave hours but you, Shepard,” Miranda said in an undertone before turning to the woman at the counter with a smile. “Hi, we have appointments for three under the name Lawson.”

 

“Three?” Shepard asked, her arm still in Miranda’s tight grip.

 

“Kasumi is joining us.”

 

“Right this way,” said the receptionist. She led them to a set of pedicure chairs and got Shepard and Miranda set up. A few moments after she walked away, Miranda shot Shepard a look.  “You’re working,” she said.

 

Shepard rolled her eyes. “No I’m not. You won’t let me. I’m getting my nails painted.” She wiggled her toes to prove her point.

 

“You’re thinking,” Miranda countered. “For you, that’s the same as working. Stop it. This is shore leave.”

 

“Miranda,” she said deliberately, “do you see a drink in my hand?”

 

Miranda looked at her cautiously, not sure where the commander was going with this. “No?”

 

Shepard smiled triumphantly. “Then it’s not shore leave.”

 

A few moments later, Kasumi materialized next to them with several fruity drinks in hand. She passed one to Shepard. “Better?”

 

Shepard looked from Kasumi to Miranda suspiciously. “What is this, Operation Keep Shepard Sane?”

 

When a look passed between the two women, Shepard winced. “It is, isn’t it?” She sighed. “Tell me I’m not that bad.”

 

Miranda and Kasumi shared a significant look, and all three women burst out laughing.

 

“Thank you,” Shepard said, when the laughter had subsided. “For keeping your crazy commander in line.” She was quiet for a moment as she sipped her drink. “So… any idea how long this is going to take? I’ve still got some people to meet with, you know.”

 

Miranda and Kasumi groaned.

 

 

The following day, Shepard met with the council a second time. Despite their many misgivings, they released the Normandy from lockdown. She’d received a scathing lecture from them, but they didn’t seem inclined to punish her in any way for her actions, at least not with the war ongoing.

 

Shepard made a mental note to write Primarch Victus one hell of a thank you message.

 

When she boarded the Normandy, EDI let her know that Hackett was waiting for her on the QEC.

 

“Admiral,” she acknowledged, saluting him out of habit. “What can I do for you?”

 

“Shepard, I’m aware that you are currently brokering alliances between races, gathering leaders for a summit of some kind,” he said. “I’d like to send a representative of the Alliance to work aboard the Normandy. Someone who can keep abreast of what’s going on and keep in contact with me so that you don’t have to.”

 

Shepard’s brows rose, surprised at such a request, but gave it a few moments of thought. She was wary of Admiral Hackett at the moment—he seemed to feel that she owed him her help simply because she was human. She did know that he’d watched out for her and advocated for her during her military career, but then again, he’d never been shy in asking her for favors.

 

After a moment of thought, she determined that this request didn’t seem unreasonable. “So long as the rep pulls their own weight here, I don’t see any problem with it,” she told him. “They can have a trial run, but I want you to understand that I’m going to extend the same courtesy to each of the other council species as well.”

 

A hint of a smile curved his lips. “I wouldn’t expect any less from you, Shepard. I’ll send you the dossier.”

 

“So long as they can board before our departure at 0900 tomorrow morning, sir.”

 

“I’ll make sure he knows.”

 

Shepard headed up to her quarters, and her omni-tool pinged just as she stepped inside the room. She pulled up the dossier and swore.

 

Kaidan motherfucking Alenko.

 

 

Garrus hurried up to Shepard’s quarters, wondering what could have set her off. The entire crew was aware that the lockdown had been removed. They had a scheduled departure for the following morning. So what triggered the urgent message she’d sent him?

 

Garrus entered the room, moving down the stairs into the living space where Shepard paced back and forth. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, she chucked a datapad at him that he barely caught before it hit him.

 

He hesitated before looking down at it, more concerned with her state of mind than whatever could be on it.

 

“Read it,” she said, her voice clipped.

 

Never one to disobey her orders, he began to do so, and quickly understood what had caused her agitation.

 

Unfortunately, he had no idea what to say. They had never discussed Kaidan.

 

Garrus remembered the way the two of them had been back on the original Normandy. They had tried to keep their attraction quiet, but it could be seen by those who were looking. Though Garrus hadn’t identified his own interest in Shepard until after her death, he had always watched her closely. Back then she was his hero, his idol.

 

He was there that day on Horizon as well, and saw their confrontation firsthand. When it was over, he rode back to the Normandy with her, stony-faced and silent. He found her slumped over the ship’s bar, drunk and angry, and made sure she got back to her quarters, worrying all the while that he’d overstepped his place.

 

When Garrus came out of his reverie, he found her still pacing. He set down the datapad, trying to figure out what to say.

 

Shepard looked at him and shook her head. “Hackett probably thought he was doing me a favor. He couldn’t be more wrong. I don’t know how I’m supposed to coexist with him, Garrus.” She plopped down onto the couch, dropping her face into her hands. “I can’t think of many people I’d want on my ship less than Kaidan Alenko.”

 

Garrus crossed his arms and raised a browplate at his mate. “The Illusive Man?”

 

Shepard looked up at him, gaping. “What the fuck, Garrus.”

 

“Khalisah Bint Sinan Al-Jilani?” A smirk began growing on his face.

 

“Ew, that bitch?”

 

“Udina?”

 

“Shit, don’t give me nightmares, Vakarian.”

 

“Harbinger?”

 

She burst out laughing. “Alright, big guy, I think you’ve made your point.”

 

When she turned her smile on him, he couldn’t help returning it in kind. The galaxy was falling to pieces, but he could still make her laugh.

 

“In all seriousness, Shepard, it’s hardly going to be fun for him either,” he reminded her. “No one on this ship will be happy to see him.” He sat down beside her.

 

She grimaced. “Does everyone know about Horizon?”

 

“That he was an ass down there?” he asked. “Pretty much, yeah. If you’re asking if they know that you and he…” He trailed off, trying to hide a grimace of his own. “Not sure. Can’t imagine the crew would want to discuss that with me.” He looked down at his hands.

 

She shifted closer to him and reached out to lift his gaze to hers. Her eyes were soft and serious as she caressed the scarred side of his face. “What I had with him… it was nothing compared to this,” she said quietly. “There’s no one but you. You know that, don’t you?”

 

He closed his eyes and leaned into her warm, gentle hand. “I know, Jane,” he said. And yet, it meant everything to hear her say it. “We’ll deal with this the way we deal with everything else.”

 

She smiled at him, that luminous smile that was so rare. “Together.”

 

 

Miranda stood just inside the airlock, waiting for the doors to open. She didn’t fidget—she never did, it was unbecoming—but she did release a small sigh of impatience.

 

She straightened slightly as the doors opened, revealing a somewhat uncomfortable Kaidan Alenko in a pristine Alliance dress uniform, two footlockers at his feet.

 

Miranda stepped forward. “Welcome to the Normandy, Major Alenko. I’m Miranda Lawson, the Normandy’s executive officer.” She reached out a hand to shake.

 

Kaidan’s hand remained by his side as he glared. “I know who you are. You’re Cerberus,” he spat.

 

Ex-Cerberus,” Miranda corrected calmly, lowering her hand. “If you’ll follow me, Major Alenko,” she said, motioning him ahead.

 

“I’m not going anywhere with you, Cerberus,” Kaidan protested, perturbed. “Where’s Shepard?”

 

Miranda stepped forward, looking Kaidan in the eye. “Let me make this clear. When the captain orders me to show our Alliance representative to his quarters, I intend to do so,” she stated. “Everyone on this ship follows orders, Major, and when Shepard is unavailable that falls to Deputy Commander Vakarian and myself,” she told him, rather enjoying the way his eyes widened at Garrus’s name. “If you wish to meet with Shepard, it will have to wait until after her current meeting is finished. Now would you like me to show you to your quarters or would you rather wait here?”

 

With a final glare in Miranda’s direction, Kaidan turned and walked towards the elevator. Behind his back, Miranda rolled her eyes. At least he didn’t ask about Shepard’s ‘meeting’. He really didn’t need to know that Shepard’s ‘meeting’ was, in reality, a leisurely breakfast with Garrus in her private quarters. Miranda understood perfectly how Shepard and Garrus might feel the need to reaffirm their relationship at such a time. And while Miranda didn’t necessarily consider herself an advocate for interspecies relationships, she was definitely an advocate for anything that made Shepard’s job—and therefore her own—easier. And tweaking Alenko’s nose? That was just a bonus.

 

About an hour after leaving port, Shepard came into Miranda’s office. “Hey,” she said. “I understand you got Alenko all settled in.”

 

“I did,” Miranda replied, though she was a bit surprised that Shepard still hadn’t gone to see for herself. “I admit that I do feel some concern about him. I’m not certain he will adjust to our ex-Cerberus crew.”

 

Shepard sat down across from her. “If he doesn’t adjust, he doesn’t stay. I’ll mention it when I talk to him,” she assured her.

 

“I appreciate it, Commander.” Miranda went back to typing up the report she was working on, and wondered if Shepard had any other purpose in coming to see her. Silence reigned for several minutes until Shepard spoke up suddenly.

 

“Have I lost my way?” she asked.

 

Miranda leaned back in her seat, surprised at the question. Was it Alenko’s arrival that made her doubt herself?

 

She watched Shepard with a speculative eye. “Why ask me that, Commander?” She carefully added, “I would expect you to be more interested in the opinions of someone like Tali or Garrus.”

 

I didn’t think you held my morals in such high regard, was left unsaid.

 

Shepard gave her a small, sad smile. “You have no illusions about me, Miranda. No hero worship or ingrained loyalty. You’re logical to a fault. The only thing that clouds your judgment is Oriana.”

 

Miranda bit back her surprise at such a stark portrayal of her character, somewhat saddened by the implication that her time with Shepard had earned her no loyalty. She wondered if Shepard was giving her too much credit or too little with such an assessment. She set her personal concerns aside and considered the question.

 

“This war is going to be messy,” she said after a moment. “Not everything will be simple. Rules will be broken, some that may seem morally distasteful. We can’t allow that to be the stumbling block that kills us.”

 

Shepard looked for doubt in Miranda’s eyes. “And if we lose our humanity along the way?” she asked. “Is it worth it then?”

 

She met Shepard’s gaze without hesitation. “There isn’t room for that kind of questioning here. We’ll do what we have to in order to survive. Anything less is failure.”

 

Miranda followed Shepard’s gaze as it dropped to her hands. The commander stared at them, as if she could see the blood she’d spilled over the years coating her fingertips. The galaxy didn’t just need a hero. They needed someone who could get their hands dirty when the time came. Shepard was still trying to be both, but Miranda feared a day would come when she would have to choose.

 

She only hoped it wouldn’t break her.

 

Chapter Text

After delaying for a few more hours, Shepard finally knocked at the door to Kaidan’s new quarters, down near engineering.

 

She’d hesitated in coming to see him. She was still hurt by what he’d said to her Horizon. She wasn’t sure she had ever truly loved him, but he still had the power to hurt her.

 

He’d wanted her to cry on his shoulder, to be the one to comfort her. He hadn’t understood that wasn’t how she dealt with things. When it came down to it, maybe they were just incompatible. Kaidan had always known that there was a human—a woman—behind Commander Shepard, but he’d never been able to see who that woman really was. He’d idolized her so much that to share her doubts and fears with him was unthinkable. He didn’t understand that anything bad enough to make her cry on his shoulder would have torn him apart.

 

She could see now that it would never have lasted, but that didn’t excuse how he’d treated her.

 

“Come in,” Kaidan called, breaking Shepard out of her reverie.

 

“Kaidan, welcome to the new Normandy,” she said, stepping into the room. “I hope you’ve settled in. Miranda told me that she gave you a brief tour.”

 

A frown crossed his features at Miranda’s name, and Shepard took the opportunity to address his concerns. “I understand you had a small altercation with Miranda over her former employer,” she said. “I want you to know that Miranda has my complete trust, as do the rest of the crew. You should give them a chance. They may have been misguided in their trust for Cerberus, but most of them never saw the side of it that we did. When the Illusive Man asked me to do something I thought was wrong, they chose to leave with me.”

 

Kaidan rubbed his hand across his hair. “I… I’m not sure that makes me feel any better, Commander,” he confessed.

 

Shepard sighed, leaning against the wall. “Why is it that you can’t trust me, Kaidan? Hackett and Anderson still trust in my integrity. So does the council.”

 

Kaidan paced. “It wasn’t personal for them, Shepard. It wasn’t a betrayal to them.”

 

“I never betrayed you,” Shepard protested. “From the day I woke up in a Cerberus lab I searched for you. I practically begged for information! God knows that was a mistake, but I was so focused on recreating my life from before I died that I couldn’t see the truth.” She turned away, unable to look at him for the moment.

 

“What truth?”

 

“That I didn’t love you. Not like I should.”

 

He looked shocked. “Shepard… I thought maybe we could repair things between us. Try to rebuild that trust. Sure, we fought on Horizon, but…” He shrugged.

 

She stared at him in shock. “Are you telling me that Horizon wasn’t a breakup? Because it felt awfully final to me.” She paced across the room, ripping her eyes away from him. “Look… we have to build back up some kind of trust, or else we can’t work together. But I don’t want you thinking we can be a couple again. That part of my life is over.”

 

“Isn’t there a chance, at least?” He gave her his best sorrowful gaze.

 

“No,” she said, and left the room.

 

 

“How was it?” Garrus asked.

 

Shepard slumped onto the couch with a sigh, running fingers through her hair. “Well, it ranged from him saying he still doesn’t trust me to him asking to get back together.”

 

Garrus blinked. “Oh. That… makes no sense at all.”

 

She looked at him wryly. “That’s what I said!” She sighed again. “I’m giving him a chance to be a productive member of the crew. I suppose it’s a shock to his delicate sensibilities to be working with so many ex-Cerberus people. But one wrong step and he’s gone.”

 

 

 

Shepard’s stomach had been in knots since she had been given her current mission. It was easy to look at the big picture when she didn’t have to look at the small one. But this mission would take her down to reaper-controlled Earth.

 

And not just any part of Earth—the Villa, where Shepard had spent years training to become an N7. The only place on Earth she had ever called home. After Mindoir, she was in biotic training, then basic training, then on tours from ship to ship. She was rarely groundside and took her leave in a different location every time. She was young and had friends everywhere. She’d felt no need to settle down and certainly no desire to go back to the rebuilt colony on Mindoir.

 

Only after Akuze did she stop and assess—and realized that more than anything, she had been running. From her past, from her feelings, and out of fear that any home she found might be taken from her. It was at the Villa in Rio that she healed and found peace. In the intervening years she’d found reasons to return, even teaching some courses every now and then.

 

Now she worried at what she would find there. Prime Minister Shastri had been on Earth when the reapers hit. His itinerary had “inspecting the N-school, Rio de Janeiro” marked in for the days leading up to the reaper attack. And she was the one assigned to find him.

 

Shepard took her time, methodically seeing to her weapons and armor, preparing herself for whatever she might find down on Earth.

 

 

It was quiet in the shuttle when Earth appeared on their monitors. Shepard’s eyes burned with the tears she held in, but she refused to her feelings show. She would stay strong for her crew. The crystal blue waters were clouded with ash, green fields scorched and burned away. The cities glowed, not with lights but with fire. Earth would never be the same.

 

Shepard heard a sniffle behind her, but didn’t turn to see whose it was. She would keep her composure if it was the last thing she did. She had a full complement on this mission, since no one knew what they would be getting into. Even Kaidan had requested to come along, but Shepard didn’t trust him with her team yet. She left behind only Tali and the newly recovered Jacob with Miranda, in case a second team would be needed.

 

When the Villa came into view, Shepard nearly gasped. It had been flattened almost completely. “Let’s hope he wasn’t in there,” Shepard muttered, pushing down the feeling of shock and horror that overtook her. There was little chance anyone inside had survived, but she steeled herself, knowing that they would need to check anyway.

 

EDI’s voice rang out. “According to the briefing, Prime Minister Shastri had been observing a group of recruits out on the training grounds.”

 

“The grounds that extend for miles and miles around the Villa,” Shepard said with a sigh, remembering just how extensive those grounds felt to her as a trainee. “Does the briefing give any direction at all, or do we scour the grounds in their entirety?”

 

“Our intel states that this group was on a wilderness survival rotation.”

 

“That helps,” Shepard said gratefully. It did give her some direction, if very little. “O’Connor, set us down on the south lawn,” she said. “Or what’s left of it,” she muttered, looking at the scorched earth.

 

“Aye aye, Commander,” he said, subdued.

 

They all piled out of the shuttle, and turned, with trepidation, towards the Villa.

 

Shepard swallowed back bile as they made their way through the wreckage. Most of the building wasn’t recognizable anymore, and the only human life they found were corpses.

 

“We can’t lay them to rest,” Shepard had said quietly. “Not when there may be people still alive that need our help.”

 

Every now and then, something would seem familiar, but it only served to worsen the sick feeling in Shepard’s stomach. Home was gone.

 

After a thorough search, Shepard turned towards the training grounds. With one last look at the remains of the Villa, she turned and led her crew into the jungle.

 

They spent the first two days hunting for any sign of a camp, finding it just in time to stop for the night. They spent the next few days following the trail. Fortunately, Shepard had taught the course a couple of times and knew what signs to look for. The path followed a fairly standard circuit, but Shepard knew that once the reapers hit, there was no telling what course the trainers would take. The instructors had access to radio and the extranet, even if their students did not, assuming communications had still been online once the reapers arrived. Would they have tried to return to the Villa? What would they have done once they found it destroyed?

 

Several days into the hike, the question of how the group learned of the reaper invasion was answered. Burned remnants of a camp remained, bodies strewn about it—both humans and marauders, burned nearly beyond recognition.

 

“Took them by surprise,” Garrus said quietly. “An ambush. I’d guess they were hit before they knew anything definite about the reaper invasion.”

 

“None of them appear to be Shastri,” Kasumi said. “Not that we can be completely certain, given the state these bodies are in. But at least the path will be easy to follow.”

 

Shepard sighed. “I can see that,” she said quietly, looking in the direction the remaining recruits must have gone. They hadn’t had time for stealth when they had run from the campsite. There were scorch marks, blood, and a few more bodies left along the route, which appeared to lead directly away from the Villa. “We’ll continue following and pick up the pace. If reapers were already in the jungle, they could still be here. We need to be vigilant.”

 

The trail soon became harder to follow, and Shepard had to search for more subtle signs. The recruits had learned their lesson well. They were following the path when Shepard stopped them, holding up a hand.

 

“Shepard?” Kasumi asked softly.

 

She shook her head, but slowly raised her gun with the others following suit. It was too quiet—something, or someone, was near.

 

“Drop your weapons!” came a voice from above.

 

All five of them looked up, and found the trees full of recruits, weapons pointed down at them.

 

“Don’t be stupid,” came a voice from another tree. “That’s Commander Shepard.”

 

“I’m here to collect Prime Minister Shastri,” Shepard said, lowering her gun. “Is he with you?”

 

A few of the recruits glanced at each other, and with a few nods, began to jump down from the trees. A young woman who appeared to be leading them stepped forward and saluted. “I’m Lieutenant Commander Erics, ma’am. I’m glad you’re here,” she said, as Shepard returned her salute. “The PM is here, but he’s injured. I’ll take you to him.”

 

Shepard looked around at the group, clocking their injuries and haunted eyes. “What happened?” she asked.

 

“Those turian reapers came at us tactically,” another recruit told her. “They were cloaked, and blew up our instructors’ tents before we knew we were under attack. The Prime Minister was injured in the initial attack. We’ve been on the run ever since.”

 

“We’ll get you out of here,” Shepard reassured them. “We’ve got our ship nearby. The shuttle will pick everyone up.”

 

“The closest pickup zone will be opposite the Villa at the beach,” Erics said. “We’re practically out of the jungle already. We were headed that way, hoping for…” She dropped her head, blinking back tears. “I don’t know what we were hoping for.”

 

Shepard put her hand on the young woman’s shoulder. “We’ll get you out of here safely,” she reassured her. “The shuttle will meet us and we will get you off-world as soon as possible.”

 

“For whatever good that will do,” the woman said, her eyes weary. “We had extranet for a little while. They hit everything, didn’t they?”

 

 

The prime minister was housed in a small makeshift shelter, camouflaged by leaves and vines. “Commander Shepard,” he said wearily as she poked her head inside. “I’m very glad to see you.”

 

He was of average height and build, with black hair and glittering dark eyes. His uniform was torn and dirty, and Shepard could see that his leg was in bad shape. “Are you able to walk, sir?” she asked.

 

“Not well,” he admitted. “Two of the marines have to help me when we move. No one was certain if anyone was coming for us.”

 

“I have a shuttle coming to meet us. If you can make it to the shuttle, we’ll get you off-world.”

 

“To where?” Shastri asked. “We’ve lost the extranet by now of course, but before the signal dropped, it didn’t sound like anywhere was safe.”

 

“Not everywhere is under attack,” Shepard assured him, adding wryly, “Not yet, anyway. The homeworlds are being hit the hardest, but the Citadel is as safe as it ever was. We’ll be bringing you to the Citadel, and from there you’ll be taken to a secure location to await a summit between leaders of each species. You’ll be essential in negotiating for humanity, sir.”

 

She glanced outside at the recruits, who were preparing to move. “Can I help you up?” she asked.

 

“Please do,” he said. “I am quite ready to leave this place. I don’t think I shall be going camping ever again if I make it through this.”

 

With the help of Shepard’s crew, the recruits and Shastri were soon ready to leave. Two marines held Shastri between them as they slowly made their way out of the jungle.

 

They reached the beach after another day of travel, and Shepard sent their NavPoint to O’Connor. They were resting on the beach, waiting for the shuttle to arrive, when Solana, who was scanning the horizon, caught her attention.

 

“Commander?” Solana’s voice was hesitant. “What exactly is that?” She pointed to a hill in the distance, but something wasn’t right. It seemed as if the hill itself was moving.

 

Shepard squinted at first, and then her eyes widened. She pulled her sniper rifle to her eye. She turned it to the highest zoom setting, and when the blur cleared, her heart began to race. The hill wasn’t moving, but it was covered in things that were. Hundreds of them. “God, they look like… like vorcha.” But something was off. “Garrus?” She felt him beside her, pulling out his own rifle and peering through the scope. One of the vorcha looked up, and a gasp caught in her throat. She recognized the glow of those blue eyes. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” she asked him grimly.

 

“Reapers,” he said, just as grimly.

 

“I don’t know about you,” she said decisively, collapsing her rifle, “but I don’t want to be anywhere near here when they reach this spot.” She turned to the milling group. “Everybody get ready to move!”

 

“O’Connor,” she barked into her communicator. “Where the hell are you?”

 

“Just a couple minutes out,” he replied in her ear. “Problem?”

 

“Big one,” she said, watching how quickly the swarm seemed to move. “We’ve got a new reaper creature, and it’s approaching fast.”

 

Shepard stepped up next to Garrus, who was still staring through the scope at them. “No point in wasting your bullets,” she said. “There’s too many.”

 

“How close is the shuttle?” he asked tersely.

 

“Not close enough.” She motioned to the nervous group. “Everybody move! We’re heading further down the beach.” They couldn’t run, not with Shastri, but any distance between them and those vorcha creatures was a good thing. O’Connor would follow her signal and meet them.

 

The vorcha creeped closer and closer down the beach towards them, until they knew they had been spotted. They could hear the chittering sounds echoing across the landscape.

 

“Got a plan?” Zaeed asked rudely, pointing his rifle at the vorcha. “If those things get here before the shuttle?”

 

“O’Connor will be here,” Shepard said, forcing a calm into her voice that she didn’t feel. She was cursing herself for not bringing a missile launcher. But even that, she could see, would only slow them down. There were just too many. Despite this, she held her weapon at the ready. She would never go down without a fight.

 

Just in time, it seemed, they heard the sounds of the shuttle over the din of the reaper creatures. “Get in!” Shepard cried, standing at the door until every person had climbed in. She pulled herself in, shouting at O’Connor to get moving. As the shuttle rose into the sky, Shepard watched as the land they had stood on was swarmed over by the vorcha husks. They reached up towards the shuttle, screeching and clawing at the air. She felt bile rising in her throat, but swallowed it down. They were safe. She couldn’t think about Earth.

 

 

Crew were milling through the mess as they did at mealtimes, though things were a little more subdued than usual. The stop on Earth had shaken the humans on the crew. Tali gave a nod to Rupert as she picked up her nutrient packets and turned to go, pausing when she saw Garrus enter the mess.

 

She approached him, putting a hand on his arm. “How is she?”

 

He shook his head. “I haven’t seen her yet. It seemed like she needed to be alone for a while. Of all the places on Earth to go…”

 

“I know,” Tali said, voice full of emotion. “I’m worried about her. The longer all this goes on, the less we all see of her. When she’s up there alone… I worry about what she’s doing, what she’s thinking.”

 

“Sometimes she needs to be alone,” Garrus countered. “But I stay with her as much as I can.”

 

“Thank you, Garrus,” Tali said, squeezing her friend’s arm before stepping back. “For taking such good care of her, for all of us.”

 

Garrus, uncomfortable with praise, gave a jerky nod before heading to Rupert and grabbing two meal trays. Tali stared after him for a long moment before turning away. Just as she was about to head down to engineering, she saw Solana enter the mess. She headed over, intent on speaking with her new turian friend. With Garrus busy taking care of Shepard, someone had to make sure that Solana felt welcome. After all, the few dextros on the Normandy should stick together.

 

 

When Shepard had boarded the Normandy, she settled the injured in the med bay and the rest of the marines in the lounge, requesting that Kaidan coordinate their new placement with the Alliance. She held it together until she reached her quarters, only then allowing a few lone tears to fall.

 

Quietly and methodically she removed her armor and cleaned it, stowing it away like she always did. Numbly, she climbed into the shower and let the water wash over her. She scrubbed away the remnants of Earth from her skin, wondering if she would ever see it again. Was this was Garrus felt when they left Menae? But no, there had been no time then for worry and recriminations. Harbinger had kept them busy, kept them fighting for their lives.

 

Now there was time to think, to mourn her once-home. Too much time. When she finally left the shower, she buried herself in work. There were reports to write and messages to read. But she stayed tucked away in her quarters, not ready to see anyone yet.

 

After a few hours, there was a knock at her door. She steeled herself, and called, “Come in,” only to see Garrus with two trays of food. “I was wondering where you were,” she said, shoulders sagging in relief.

 

Garrus moved down the stairs, setting down the two trays on the table. He shrugged. “I thought you might need to be alone for a little while.” He always did see too much.

 

“I did,” Shepard admitted, shutting down her terminal to join him. “The Villa was one of the few places I ever called home.”

 

He opened his arms to her and she sank into them gratefully. He sighed. “You’ve lost too many homes,” he said.

 

“You can’t lose what you don’t have,” she replied.

 

“True,” he agreed. “But that’s no way to live your life.”

 

He released her, and they sat down to eat. “When this is over,” he said, “We can find a new one.”

 

Chapter Text

“Liara, I’d like you to check out this strange message I received,” Shepard said, speaking to the asari across the QEC. “I’ve just forwarded it to you.”

 

Commander Shepard,

 

I have an offer you won’t want to refuse. Something essential for your war. Meet me at the attached coordinates at midday in one solar week, and come alone.

 

“Suspicious, right?” Shepard asked, after giving her friend a moment to read. “And whoever this is must know I would never just go there alone.”

 

“I’ll learn what I can, Shepard,” Liara said, frowning. “I don’t like the sound of this.”

 

“But what if they’re right?” Shepard pressed. “I don’t want to turn down aid, no matter who it’s from.”

 

“Let me investigate,” Liara insisted. “Before you do something rash.”

 

“Me? Rash?” Shepard asked, but all Liara did was roll her eyes.

 

 

With mere weeks before the summit, Shepard spent her free time studying reaper tactics with EDI in between missions.

 

“They are focused on the homeworlds almost exclusively, Shepard,” the AI told her again. “There are no reports of colony worlds being hit with a direct reaper assault, only of roving bands of reaper creatures. It seems that destabilization of government may be one motive.”

 

“But they haven’t gone after the Citadel this time.”

 

“They have not,” EDI confirmed. “There is no reaper activity recorded in the Widow Nebula.”

 

Shepard shook her head. “It doesn’t make sense for them to be gun-shy after three years ago. One reaper almost took over the Citadel alone. Maybe they don’t think it’s a worthwhile target? The Protheans had one central government, as far as we know. We’re much more divided.”

 

“I cannot assess their motives at this time,” EDI simply replied.

 

Shepard studied the map in front of her, pacing as she frowned at it. “How are our evacuation efforts going?”

 

“Reports suggest that only one in four escape ships or shuttles survive. Those that do survive are statistically more likely to have left from a rural area or smaller population center.”

 

“So stay out of the cities,” Shepard said and sighed. “And get stealth drives. What else?”

 

“Reapers seem to be disrupting travel and trade as much as possible, particularly to and from each homeworld. Harbinger has been sighted in a number of different systems, possibly overseeing the reaper forces. As theorized, he seems to be the leader.”

 

“And probably still on the lookout for us,” Shepard added, and fell silent. She stared at the map of the galaxy, home systems ringed in red, and she willed herself to come up with a plan. So far, all she could think of were things that would slow them down. They needed something new, something no one would think of—something the reapers wouldn’t expect.

 

All of those red-ringed systems were counting on her.

 

 

Since departing from Cerberus, Shepard and her team had been running weekly hand-to-hand drills for the Normandy crew, and they’d been making some promising progress, especially knowing that most of these people had never been fighters. Shepard finally felt like they had the basics down, and were ready to learn some specifics that could be useful.

 

“It’s important to understand the physiology of different species,” Shepard explained, standing in front of the crew in the docking bay. “For example, a kick to the groin will temporarily disable a human male, but would have little effect on a turian male due to the sex organs being internal until arousal.”

 

Garrus, standing next to her, noticed the eyes of several crewmen going straight to his groin, and a few gazing back and forth between him and Shepard with a look of confusion. He glanced at Shepard, who seemed utterly unfazed. He felt the heat rising on his neck and hoped none of them knew what a blushing turian looked like.

 

“Instead of the groin, go for the stomach. It’s one of the least armored parts of a turian’s body,” she continued, though it seemed few had gotten past the thought of internal male sex organs. “Another example,” she said smoothly, “Is the classic jab to the eyes. This would be ineffective on a batarian unless you were able to incapacitate all four eyes at one time. They also defend their eyes more carefully than any other organ, as they believe the soul leaves through the eyes when they die.”

 

Due to the distracted looks of the crew, Garrus guessed that there would be a lot of extranet searching and Fornax sharing that night. Shepard might have to repeat this lesson—minus the bit about turian anatomy.

 

Shepard listed most species she expected they might meet, talking through moves that would work and ones that wouldn’t for each specific species. At the end, one crewman raised his hand.

 

“What if we run into a pistol-wielding hanar?” Some muffled laughter was heard throughout the room.

 

Shepard quirked a brow. “Ask for his autograph.”

 

 

Shepard stepped out of the elevator and turned towards the lounge, rolling a sore shoulder as she waited for the doors to open. She intended to grab a drink from the bar, but was instead distracted by her pilot, shuttle pilot, and two other crewmen milling about the room. She smiled at the sight of them. “Hey guys,” she greeted, moving towards the bar where Crewman Lindall stood. “What’s going on?” She turned and leaned against the bar, giving Lindall a nod as he motioned towards a bottle of whiskey.

 

O’Connor grinned at her from his spot on the couch, fingers typing away at his omni-tool. “Movie night.” He typed in one more command, and a vid-screen flickered to life showing a very old—and very familiar—title emblazoned across it. “Star Wars,” he confirmed.

 

Shepard grinned back at him. “Originals, prequels, sequels?” she teased. “Special editions? Super-special editions? Bicentennial release?”

 

O’Connor gave her a scandalized look. “You shouldn’t have to ask.”

 

She raised her hands defensively. “Not all of us are sci-fi purists, you know.” She glanced aside to the bar and picked up the drink Lindall had poured for her. She took a sip and looked at her shuttle pilot speculatively. “Mind if I invite a few more people to your party?” she asked.

 

Within an hour, nearly half of the crew was crammed into starboard observation, forced to cross the hall when the lounge got too crowded. Voices layered over each other, a dozen conversations occurring at once.

 

“Is there a romance? Is it as good as Fleet and Flotilla?”

 

“Princess Leia was my first crush, swear to God. That gold bikini? Damn!

 

“Make mine a double, will ya?”

 

“We’re gonna need a gag or else this asshole is going to quote along with the whole fucking movie.”

 

“POPCORN!” Rupert bellowed from the doorway. “Who wants popcorn? Buttered or caramel? Shut up, I’m trying to take orders here!”

 

Shepard smiled at the sight of the crew, humans and aliens alike chatting and discussing the movie they were about to see. It seemed like nearly everyone who was off duty was present. Even Miranda had set aside her paperwork to join the fun.

 

Shepard glanced to her side as she felt a nudge, and smiled.

 

“So I hear this is one of those all-time human classics,” Garrus drawled. “I think O’Connor’s message said ‘best movie ever’?”

 

Shepard let out a laugh. “I don’t know about best ever,” she qualified. “But it’s definitely a classic.”

 

She led Garrus to a seat on one of the couches, settling herself in beside him. Normally they kept displays of affection to a minimum around the crew in order to keep up the image of professionalism, but in this casual environment they didn’t worry. His arm wrapped around her shoulders, pulling her in to rest her head in the crook between his cowl and shoulder. She rested a hand on his leg, pleased that he wasn’t wearing his armor.

 

Shepard smiled to herself as she let the conversations roll over her in waves of talk and laughter. She felt a little bit of her stress ease as she listened to her crew forgetting about the reapers if only for a few moments.

 

“Hey, assholes, shut up! O’Connor is starting the movie!”

 

At that, Shepard opened her eyes and straightened in her seat, smiling to herself as the title came up on the screen.

 

As the scrolling text followed, someone threw a handful of popcorn. “Why do I have to read? It’s a movie!”

 

“Hey!” Shepard yelled. “Whoever throws popcorn picks it up themselves.”

 

A feminine dual-toned voice piped up. “Uh, can we get a translation for the non-humans in here?”

 

The movie continued with a flurry of popcorn throwing and amused comments.

 

“Why are the effects so shitty?”

 

“Are all the aliens just guys in suits?”

 

“Why couldn’t she just send Obi-Wan a vid-mail?”

 

“Those storm troopers are terrible soldiers. Who trained them to shoot?” That one was Garrus, which got him an elbow in the side.

 

“Did your people really use this kind of tech to travel in space? It’s so primitive!”

 

“When are we going to watch the next one? Does she get with Luke or Han?”

 

When the credits finally rolled, it was getting late. Shepard stretched and yawned as she got out of her seat. “Same time next week,” she called, catching the crowd before they left. “We can watch the next one.”

 

Crewmen filtered out slowly, but Shepard stayed to make sure the mess got cleaned up.

 

“What a goddamn waste,” Rupert grumbled, surveying the popcorn scattered across the observation room floor. “All the work I do for you…”

 

When she was satisfied that the responsible parties had taken care of their mess, Shepard headed up to her quarters with Garrus, falling asleep to dreams of lightsabers and epic space battles. A night of carefree fun was exactly what she had needed. In the morning she would think of reapers, but for now, she would relax.

 

 

“I cannot verify anything about this message, Shepard,” Liara said, as soon as she appeared in the QEC. “It may be a trap for you. If they want to help, why the secrecy?”

 

“If they want to kill me, why such an obvious trap?” Shepard countered. “Maybe they’re going against someone powerful. Maybe they’re in hiding,” she suggested. “Do you really think they’re going to all this trouble to kill me?”

 

Liara’s brow furrowed in worry. “There are some who would. I cannot rule it out.”

 

Shepard crossed her arms, leaning back on a heel. “But you can’t rule out that they might be honest, either.”

 

“It does not seem likely,” Liara argued.

 

“If I have backup…”

 

“Shepard…” She looked on her friend with sorrowful eyes. “I know you cannot be talked out of anything you set your mind to. But please,” she begged. “Be careful.” And she cut the connection.

 

 

Garrus stared down from his sniper’s perch, hating every moment. He was very nearly furious at the love of his life, who would always put herself in danger if she thought it might help someone else.

 

“Shepard, this place is an assassin’s dream,” he growled. “I can see at least three additional sniper’s nests from this position, not to mention the blind spots. And do you have any idea how easy those side passages make it to flank you?”

 

“That’s why I have you watching my six,” she said disarmingly. “And why I have EDI monitoring the audio frequencies and Tali hacked into all the building’s systems. It’s why I have Kasumi and Jacob watching the entrances and am wearing this behemoth of a kinetic shield that Solana cooked up.” Her voice was relaxed. “We’ve got it covered, Garrus.”

 

That isn’t enough, he wanted to say. Instead, he gave a resigned sigh. “You know, it’s hard to protect you when you enjoy being cowl-deep in trouble.” There was a breathy laugh in his comm.

 

He knew, logically, that she was an excellent tactician. The moment she walked into that space she would immediately take account of every entrance and exit, evaluate all possible cover for herself and any attackers, and formulate contingency plans. He knew that, and yet…

 

She was Shepard. No protection would ever be enough.

 

“Entering the hangar,” she said. He heard the clang of the door and softly echoing footsteps.

 

A moment later he saw her below, small within the cavernous space. A look through his scope revealed the tight line of tension in her shoulders and the flexing fists, resisting the urge to reach for her gun.

 

“I have you in my sights, Shepard.” He paused. “Hell of a view.”

 

“Garrus!” she hissed. He chuckled quietly, picturing the smile and blush he knew would accompany her words. Another glimpse through his scope. Her hands hung relaxed now. No more fists.

 

She paced as the seconds ticked by, but Garrus sat still, vigilant and patient. If there was one thing a sniper knew how to do, it was wait.

 

He tensed at the swing of the far door, targeting his scope on a helmeted figure.

 

“I’m hurt at your lack of trust in me,” the figure said, his deep voice modulated and unnatural. “Hacked security? Cloaked guards? I gave you my word, Commander.”

 

“Trust is earned,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “Would you like to tell me what this is all about?”

 

He chuckled. “All in due time, Commander. All in due time.” He stopped, a few yards in front of her. “I have an offer, Commander, one you will not wish to refuse.”

 

“So your note said,” she replied. “Am I going to hear the details of this offer or just be told that I should accept it?”

 

“Very well,” the man said, sounding amused. “I represent a secret organization. We would like to be of aid to you, but our involvement must remain entirely unknown.”

 

“And why is that?” Shepard asked, her voice tight.

 

The man reached up and unlatched his helmet, lifting it off of his head. Garrus felt him mandibles tighten. The man under the helmet was batarian.

 

A moment later, every door locked down and his comms went to static.

 

Chapter Text

When sound from the comm cut out, the crew, all gathered in the cockpit, shared looks of worry. “Hail them,” Miranda ordered, and Joker pressed the button for the comm.

 

“Normandy crew, please check in,” the pilot requested.

 

“Taylor here,” came Jacob’s response.

 

“Kasumi here,” the thief called. “The building is on lockdown. Comms are jammed inside. I can’t raise Garrus anymore.”

 

“Can you find the source of the signal?” Miranda asked, leaning over Joker’s shoulder.

 

“I’ll look around,” Kasumi agreed.

 

“Let us know what you find,” Miranda ordered. “Jacob, remain at your post and stay alert.” She straightened, looking at the crew gathered in the cockpit. Solana fiddled with a small piece of machinery in her hands, mandibles tight to her face with worry over her brother. Zaeed leaned against the wall as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Tali was typing on her omni-tool furiously, no doubt trying to break through the lockdown. Alenko was pacing across the cockpit, a frown on his face.

 

“We shouldn’t have let her go in there without backup,” he said, hands fisting at his sides.

 

Solana’s head shot up. “She has backup,” the turian said flatly. She, at least, would not forget her brother was in there with Shepard.

 

“The rest of us, I meant,” Kaidan backtracked. “One person isn’t much backup.”

 

Tali looked up this time. “She has the best backup possible,” the young quarian said firmly. “Garrus would do anything to ensure she makes it out of this unharmed.”

 

Kaidan looked at her strangely but said nothing.

 

“Enough,” Miranda said. “EDI, are you having any luck with the jamming signal?”

 

“I believe the signal may originate from inside the building. Operative Kasumi’s efforts might be better served by finding a way inside.”

 

“Kasumi, are you hearing this?” Miranda said, into the comm.

 

“I heard,” she said. “I found a small shuttle. Completely empty, and there’s no one stationed outside the building. Believe it or not, I think this guy came alone.”

 

Miranda glanced at Zaeed momentarily, hoping to see his reaction. He’d seen more action than anyone on the squad. He caught her eye and shifted.

 

“Well, well,” he said, in his gravelly voice. “Sounds like our host might be genuine after all.”

 

 

 

Shepard winced at the static in her ear before manually shutting off her comm in a deliberate motion. No sense in pretending. “Well?” she said, with more bravado than she felt. “You’ve got my undivided attention.”

 

The batarian laughed with what seemed to be genuine amusement. “Very well, Shepard.” He turned, pacing in a line in front of her. “My people were hit first and hardest by these reapers, the very creatures whom you blew up a system to stall.” He held up a hand as she opened her mouth to speak. “Whatever the Hegemony might say, my group understands your reasons. Sometimes a distasteful thing is still necessary.”

 

He paused a moment to allow that to sink in. “My government would rather see our people die out than work with the species who pushed us out and took our place. The group I represent refuses to let that happen.”

 

“Does this group have a name?” Shepard cut in sharply.

 

“It does,” he said, and gave her an unsettling smile. “It also has ships, tech, and money.”

 

“What do you want?” she asked. “You must want something.”

 

“We want to survive this conflict,” he said simply. “We want Citadel rescue efforts on Khar’shan, we want our own refugee camps, and we want a say in whatever it is that you and the council are planning.”

 

“You realize I’m not personally in charge of any of those things, right?” Shepard replied, a touch of sarcasm lacing her voice.

 

“A word from you would silence most opposition,” he countered. “After all, if Commander Shepard can forgive the society that killed her family, who would go against her?”

 

“Enough.” Shepard nearly growled. “If I help your group, you’ll pledge your resources towards the war effort?”

 

“You’ll also have to prevent word of our involvement from leaking back to the Hegemony. No matter how little is left of our government, I do not expect them to be… forgiving.”

 

“You want your secrecy and a say? Not an easy request.”

 

He grinned at her again. “You’re Commander Shepard. You always find a way.”

 

She was silent for a moment, sizing up the man in front of her. She was wary of dealing with batarians, but this was the future of his people as well as hers. “Alright,” she said finally. “We have a deal.”

 

He gave her a deep nod. “You may call me Mardek.”

 

“And your group?”

 

“We are the Eyes of Providence. If you keep up your end of the bargain, we will keep ours.”

 

“Fair enough,” she said briskly. “Can you remove the lockdown now? You’ll want to avoid any misunderstandings with my crew, I’m sure.”

 

“Of course, Shepard,” he said, “But I have other ways of avoiding such things.”

 

With a few buttons on his omni-tool, he shimmered out of sight, his cloaked figure slipping out the door he entered through.

 

Shepard turned on her comm again, to a cacophony of calls from her crew. “I’m here, I’m fine,” she said immediately. “We’ll debrief on the ship.” She looked up at where she knew Garrus was hiding, and his sharp eyes followed her as she exited the building.

 

 

 

“I’m sorry, Shepard,” Liara said, once Shepard had given her the rundown. “I always have trouble getting eyes within the Hegemony.”

 

Shepard shrugged. “No harm done. I’m not sure that would have helped in this case anyway. Any organization that goes to this much trouble to hide their existence would be hard to track, even with your spies.”

 

“Perhaps,” Liara conceded. “But now that we know of them, and of their name, there are things we can learn. I’ll pass on what I discover. We do not want any surprises.”

 

“Not that kind of surprise, anyhow,” Shepard said, a small smile growing on her face.

 

“Shepard?” her friend asked, curious.

 

The smile grew. “Garrus said he has a surprise for me when we dock on the Citadel before the summit.”

 

Liara smiled back at her friend. “Well, that kind of surprise is a different matter altogether. I am happy for you, Shepard.”

 

Shepard’s smile turned wistful. “Well, we’ve all got to have something to fight for, don’t we?”

 

 

 

Shepard stepped into the comm room once more, concerned that the council had called her so close to the summit date. “Councilors,” she greeted. “Is something wrong?”

 

The Councilor Sparatus let out a long-suffering sigh. “Not in the sense that you mean,” he said. “I’m sure you have not forgotten your… insistence that the krogan take part in our summit.”

 

The salarian councilor made an annoyed sound, and Shepard shot him a glare. “I haven’t forgotten. What’s the issue?”

 

“Aside from the feathers you have ruffled with your request,” Valern said snidely, “the krogan representative has personally requested you. He doesn’t trust anyone else to escort him to the summit in safety, no matter how brief the trip may be.” The councilor’s face made it clear what he thought of such an accusation.

 

Shepard looked at each councilor in turn. “I know that none of your worlds are faring well. I’ve seen Earth firsthand. If the krogan can turn the tide, we can’t afford not to bring them in.”

 

“No one is arguing otherwise,” the asari councilor said in her soft, modulated voice. “We are simply requesting that you pick up the krogan representative and his guest from Tuchanka and bring them to the Citadel personally. That way, we can avoid conflict before the summit begins.”

 

Councilor Udina cleared his throat, speaking up for the first time. “It should be no hardship, Shepard. As I recall, you are already familiar with Urdnot Wrex.”

 

Shepard smiled.

 

 

 

“Shepard!” the krogan roared.

 

She grinned in response. “Wrex. How’s Tuchanka holding up?”

 

“It’s got a few new enemies to fight, that’s for sure,” he said, as they walked through the clan’s home base. It was now heavily defended against roaming bands of reaper troops. The krogan saw it as little hardship, it seemed. They were enjoying the exercise.

 

“And Grunt?” she asked.

 

Wrex looked proud. “The little pyjack’s doing well. He’s got a squad now, going on reaper raids.” He stopped in front of another krogan. “Shepard, I want you to meet my brother, Wreav. He’s in charge until I return.” He paused, turning a gimlet eye on the other krogan. “And only until I return.”

 

Wreav grumbled. “Still don’t see why you’re going to this thing. What’s anyone going to do for us?”

 

“That’s right—you don’t see. It’s why I’m not sending you,” Wrex said gruffly. He moved on. “Shepard, there is one other person you’ll need to meet. We’ll need to take your shuttle.”

 

Shepard could hardly contain her curiosity as Wrex directed her shuttle pilot. The shuttle set down a little ways outside some kind of settlement, one that appeared quite different from the rubble that Wrex had called home. The surrounding landscape seemed barren and empty—not a reaper creature in sight.

 

Shepard and Wrex exited the shuttle and walked down a dusty lane to the entrance of some kind of structure. Two krogan stood guarding the entrance, shotguns in their hands. They wore armor, but something about them looked… different to Shepard, though she couldn’t pinpoint what exactly.

 

“Urdnot Wrex,” one greeted in a low, smooth voice. “Your companion will have to relinquish her weapons if she wishes to come inside.”

 

“This is Commander Shepard,” Wrex said firmly. “I vouch for her.”

 

The krogan huffed. “You are only welcome because Bakara has vouched for you!”

 

Shepard held her hands up in front of her. “I can leave my weapons outside, Wrex. It’s not a problem.” She took her pistol and SMG out of their holsters and handed them to the guard. As a biotic, she was never truly unarmed.

 

“Thank you,” said the guard. “You may enter. Bakara is waiting for you, Wrex.”

 

As they slipped inside, Shepard was amazed to see how clean and well-repaired the building seemed to be. It was nothing like the other buildings she’d seen on Tuchanka. “Wrex… what is this place?” she whispered.

 

He gave her a wide krogan grin. “Welcome to the female compound.”

 

Shepard’s eyes widened, and she took in her surroundings with renewed interest. She was honored to be welcome here—she knew how secluded and protected the females were in krogan culture.

 

“I thought the females had a camp. Like… tents and things,” Shepard said quietly, leaning towards Wrex.

 

“There is a camp,” Wrex rumbled quietly. “Where the mating requests meet. It moves every couple of months. This is the compound, which is permanent. It’s very rare for a male or an alien to be welcome here,” Wrex continued. “Even the guards are female, as you saw.”

 

Shepard glanced back towards the entrance. She hadn’t realized that the guards were females too. But how could she know? This was the first she’d ever seen of krogan women.

 

The hallway opened into a large room, walls draped in a variety of patterned and dyed fabrics. Female krogan milled about, talking and working. Unlike the guards at the door, most wore a robe-like outfit with most of their faces covered. Shepard was spellbound. She had never seen so much color on Tuchanka before, nor had she any idea of the crafts and creativity that their culture had spawned. The male Urdnot settlement was a testament to the warlike nature of the krogan. This place showed another side that Shepard had never dreamed of.

 

“Welcome, Urdnot Wrex,” a female said, as they approached a curtained doorway. “Bakara is expecting you and your guest.”

 

Shepard gave the krogan a respectful nod as she passed through the doorway behind Wrex’s large form. When she stepped out from behind Wrex, her eyes traveled the room. On the floor lay a large cushion that appeared to be a bed, partially obscured by the draperies surrounding it. Next to it sat a low carved table with a stack of datapads sitting atop it. At a desk on one side of the room sat a female in the most elaborate robe yet, a deep blue trimmed in shimmering gold thread.

 

“Shepard,” Wrex said, motioning to the female. “I would like you to meet Urdnot Bakara. She is a shaman and leader of the female clans.”

 

Shepard dipped her head, unsure if she was supposed to shake this woman’s hand. “It’s my pleasure to meet you, Bakara. Thank you for welcoming me here.”

 

Bakara stood from her desk, her eyes seeming to examine Shepard. She spoke with a warm, deep voice. “It is an unusual day when an alien is invited into our home. But these are unusual days we live in, Commander.”

 

“Bakara will be joining us at the summit,” Wrex jumped in. “To provide a female perspective,” he added, which made Shepard raise a brow.

 

The krogan shrugged. “Our females tend to be a bit more… hm. Level headed, I suppose.”

 

Bakara laughed behind her fabric mask. “That is one way of putting it.”

 

Shepard smiled—she liked the other woman already. “When will you be ready to depart?”

 

“In only a moment,” Bakara said, moving past them towards the door. “I just need to alert a few people that we are leaving.”

 

Shepard’s eyes were everywhere at once as they passed through the central room again, waiting for Bakara to speak with a few females that seemed to be taking charge. She was watching some women carving something when she heard a voice next to her. “I am ready to depart, Commander.” Shepard blushed slightly at being caught, but Bakara only gave a low laugh. “Few outsiders have ever seen what you are seeing today. I understand that you wish to make the most of it.”

 

“Your culture is fascinating,” Shepard said as they walked towards the exit. “I feel very fortunate to be here.”

 

“Yes,” Bakara said, pausing at the door as Shepard reclaimed her weapons. “But perhaps it will not always be so rare to see. We hope for great change in the future.”

 

Shepard looked at Bakara in interest, but the krogan didn’t seem inclined to elaborate. They were silent as they walked to the shuttle and departed to the Normandy.

 

 

“Shepard, come speak with us before we reach the Citadel,” Wrex had said. “I want to discuss the summit.”

 

As Shepard rode the elevator down to the crew deck, she had a strong suspicion that she already knew what Wrex wanted to talk about. There was really only one thing the krogan would want in exchange for their help—a cure for the genophage. What worried her is that she wasn’t sure she could get them one. She was pretty sure she could convince the summit of the necessity, but actually creating a cure was another thing entirely.

 

She stepped out of the elevator and into the observation room, smiling at her friend when she saw him, seated in a lounge chair across the room. “I know it’s a short ride from Tuchanka, but I hope you are comfortable in here.”

 

“We have everything we need, Commander,” Bakara said.

 

“We just want to talk to you about something,” added Wrex.

 

Shepard sat down across from him as Bakara came to join them. “You want a genophage cure in exchange for krogan aid,” she said, getting straight to the point.

 

“Well… yeah,” Wrex said, shrugging his shoulders.

 

“Do you think that’s possible? Shepard asked seriously, looking from one to the other. “Logistically.”

 

“I’ve heard rumors of a scientist on Omega who is studying the genophage. He’s got Blood Pack support, from what I hear,” Wrex told her.

 

“That doesn’t mean he’s close to a cure,” Shepard countered. “But it’s worth looking into. I also saved the data from that Clan Weyrlock attempt last year.”

 

Bakara stirred. “Wrex tells me that you have a connection that might help. A salarian friend with some knowledge of the genophage.”

 

Shepard nodded. “I don’t know if he would help us.”

 

Wrex leaned forward. “But I can count on you, can’t I, Shepard?”

 

She smiled. “Always.”

 

 

 

Garrus waited for Shepard in the airlock, shifting from foot to foot in anticipation. Their transport to the secret location for the summit wouldn’t leave until the morning, which meant they had the evening to themselves. Garrus had been planning for this ever since he got the schedule for the summit. Shepard had no idea the kind of things they could get up to on the Citadel, and he intended to show her, bit by bit.

 

“There you are,” he said, when she appeared. “Come on, I’ve got plans for us.”

 

She grinned back at him in excitement, and followed him out of the airlock. He’d kept her in suspense for days.

 

They took a skycar down to a high-end area of Bachjret Ward, stopping in front of a shiny black building labeled Tarion Virtual Studios. “What is this place?” Shepard asked, looking all around her.

 

“Well, I wanted to show you something special,” Garrus said, smiling at his mate. “We’re booking one of Tarion’s virtual reality rooms for a couple of hours.”

 

She smiled up at him, slipping her hand into his. “And what can we do in there?”

 

“Just about anything you want,” he told her, and they went inside.

 

“I have a room reserved under Vakarian,” he told the asari receptionist, who seemed to be staring at Shepard with a bit of awe.

 

“Oh,” she said, hurrying to check her console. “You’ve got Room E scheduled for two hours. Two headsets and wristbands? Human and turian?”

 

Garrus nodded, and she grabbed the equipment before leading them to the room. “Have you been here before?” she asked, and Garrus nodded again. “Great, so you’re familiar with the function and limitations of the rooms. Hit the red button on your wristband if you need help or want to leave early. Have fun!”

 

Garrus helped Shepard put on her headset before putting on his own. For now the visor showed the blank room as it was. Shepard looked at him curiously as he began typing on his wristband, but she stayed silent, waiting for him. Within moments, the room was replaced with a lush forest. Shepard sucked in a breath.

 

“I was feeling a little homesick,” Garrus said, by way of explanation. “Jane… welcome to Palaven.”

 

She met Garrus’s gaze with wide eyes, then looked around in wonder. “You can touch,” he said, watching her take a few tentative steps.

 

“God,” she said, reaching out to stroke a plant. “It feels almost real.” Mist began to filter in, and Shepard laughed. “Is it this humid on Palaven?”

 

Garrus smiled. “Anywhere the sun doesn’t touch. My dad used to take Sol and I out in the jungle to camp each summer. It was a world of difference from life in the city.” He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in. Even the scent and sounds were correct. He could almost imagine he was home.

 

Shepard traveled further into the jungle, examining everything she could see. Garrus took pleasure in watching her explore, and felt his own troubles slip away as he enjoyed her childlike curiosity.

 

Her eyes were shining behind her visor as she walked back over to him. “What else can this place do? Can you show me more of your home?”

 

He smiled. “My family’s home is just outside of the capital city, Cipritine.” With a few button pushes, the room around them had transformed again, to a cityscape that was intimately familiar to him.

 

Shepard looked around again in awe. “This is incredible!”

 

“We can’t go inside the buildings, unfortunately,” Garrus told her. “This place does have some limitations. But there’s some amazing parks and outdoor features we can explore.” He led her around the city, showing her his favorite places until there was little she hadn’t seen. “Why don’t you pick somewhere?” he suggested, motioning to Shepard’s wristband. “They claim to have over 30,000 maps available.”

 

She smiled shyly at him. “Alright, give me a minute,” she said, turning away as she attempted a search of her own. Soon, the room transformed into a rolling green valley with a tree lined stream nestled at the bottom. He looked at her questioningly, and glanced away. “This is a place on Mindoir,” she said softly.

 

It was his turn to look around in wonder. He ate it up greedily, this place that had made Shepard who she was. “Have you been to this spot?” he asked.

 

Shepard nodded wistfully. “This was maybe twenty minutes’ walk outside of town when I was a kid. This was our playground.”

 

Garrus walked around, committing it to memory, as Shepard shared a few memories of her own. A few stilted comments turned into full stories of games and adventures. When her words had slowed to a stop, he reached for her hand, pressing it into his own. “Thank you for sharing this with me.”

 

She gave him a sweet, sad smile, before looking back down at her wristband. “Let’s see where else we can find before the time runs out. There’s lots of places I haven’t seen.”

 

Garrus, understanding what she wouldn’t say, released her hand and waited to see where they would go next. The remaining time was spent in a whirlwind tour of famous locations that the two of them explored to their hearts’ content.

 

“So…” Shepard said as they left, “How exactly do you plan to top that experience? Because I don’t think it’s possible.”

 

Garrus chuckled. “I don’t think I can top it exactly, but I think it’s safe to assume you’re hungry?”

 

Shepard laughed. “Always!”

 

“So we’re going to try some food I’m almost sure you’ve never had before.”

 

“Where are we going?” she asked, her eyes sparkling brightly.

 

He couldn’t help but smile. “It’s one of the top turian restaurants on the Citadel—one of the only places a human can eat food from Cipritine. It’s run by an asari and a turian who work together to figure out the equivalent levo and dextro recipes.”

 

Shepard grinned up at him, giving him a quick kiss on the mandible. “Lead on! I can’t wait to try it.”

 

They returned to the ship late that evening, and made love in the dark of her cabin. Garrus could say truthfully that it was one of the best nights of his life. Being with Shepard made everything fresh and wonderful. He watched her sleeping as he lay awake, and thanked the spirits that they had led him to her. He couldn’t imagine where he would be without her, and he didn’t want to.

 

Chapter Text

“So….” Wrex shifted in his seat. “Does anyone know where we’re actually going?”

 

Shepard held in a smile as she glanced across the transport to where Wrex and Bakara sat. “The entire idea is that it’s supposed to be a secret, Wrex.”

 

Garrus looked up from his omni-tool. “I heard it was originally built as an emergency evac location for the council and other top Citadel personnel. No idea where it’s located, though. Supposedly only a handful of dedicated pilots know for sure.” They weren’t actually allowed to speak to the pilot of their transport except in the case of an emergency, which, no doubt, made it all the more interesting to Wrex.

 

Shepard shrugged. “Well that’s more than I know.”

 

They were silent for a while, each thinking or working on datapads and omni-tools. They were about an hour into the trip when Wrex cleared his throat. “So what’s the plan, Shepard?”

 

“Browbeat galactic leaders into submission?”

 

He chuckled. “I expected that already. But is there a plan? To defeat them?”

 

Shepard’s lips tightened. “There isn’t one, not a solid one anyways. Not yet.” She looked down in her lap, feeling the anxiety build up within her. She knew that everyone was expecting her to have some grand plan. For her to find some way to save the galaxy again. But she just didn’t know how this time.

 

Garrus put his hand on her leg and squeezed it lightly. “The salarians will have something, I bet,” he said to Wrex. “Those crafty bastards always have ideas.”

 

Shepard breathed in deeply and let it go, no longer listening to the conversation around her. She would make it through this. After all, the leaders were each bringing their best military minds with them. This couldn’t all be on her.

 

Nevertheless, she spent the rest of the ride going over again and again the information she and EDI had compiled on the reapers. There must be some angle she was missing. There had to be.

 

 

Not exactly luxury accommodations, Shepard thought wryly, looking at the room that would be hers for the three days of the summit. Her small bag of belongings sat on a bed in the middle of a plain room that reminded her of military barracks more than anything. After sleeping in the luxurious captain’s cabin on the Normandy, she wasn’t used to this anymore. At least the bed had room for two.

 

She took a photo of the space and sent it over to Garrus with a note. Is yours any better? She wrote. She smiled when he sent back a nearly identical photo. Oh well. Maybe they would take turns in each other’s rooms.

 

She pulled up the summit timetable on her omni-tool, noting that dinner was the only thing on the schedule for the day. Shuttles would be traveling back and forth to the Citadel until the evening, so the talks would not begin until the following day when everyone was present. For the time being, there was little else to do but mingle. Extranet access was restricted—they were unable to send messages outside of the station in order to protect their location—so she only had the books and vids that she had pre-loaded onto datapads or her omni-tool. After unpacking her meager things, Shepard headed out to the atrium, where most of the present company had gathered.

 

While the room itself didn’t appear to be much more than a large bunker, it had been filled with tables, chairs, and comfortable sofas. Shepard saw the Citadel councilors holding court in one corner with two asari matriarchs, Wrex lounging next to a pair of elcor, and Bakara, who seemed to be deep in conversation with a hanar and drell.

 

Shepard walked around and took a look at the food that was set out, carefully labeled levo and dextro, but didn’t take anything. When she saw Garrus enter the room with Primarch Victus, she headed in their direction. “Primarch,” she greeted, sticking out her hand to shake. “I hope you aren’t feeling any adverse effects from our adventure leaving Menae.”

 

Victus glanced over at Garrus as he shook her hand. “It was an experience, that’s for sure.”

 

“Not one I’m planning to repeat anytime soon,” she said with a smile.

 

Victus chuckled. “You never know when it might become necessary.” They continued with pleasantries for a while before Shepard moved on, wanting to make sure she spoke to everyone present before the talks began. She liked to get a feel for everyone in a room—and she didn’t want anyone to feel slighted, which would have been far too easy to do with so many species and governments represented.

 

She greeted the councilors next. Technically, she was their guest at this event, so they should at least appear to be getting along. She made her way through the present company, going to greet any newcomers as they arrived, including Prime Minister Shastri, whose leg was looking better, and his guest, an admiral that Shepard had not met before. By the time the evening meal had arrived, she was crawling out of her skin in boredom. My room after? she texted Garrus from across the room.

 

When dinner and speeches were over, Shepard escaped to her quarters as quickly as she could manage. A while later, Garrus knocked on her door. “Sorry,” he said as he entered. “Victus wanted to talk about our plan for tomorrow.”

 

“That’s what I’ve been working on too,” Shepard admitted. “Apparently I have to give a speech.” She sighed, rolling onto her back on the bed, arms flopping down beside her. “Three days of schmoozing these people might kill me.”

 

“Worse than reapers?” Garrus smirked, moving around beside her.

 

She smiled up at him. “Way worse. Take my mind off it?”

 

Garrus gave her a knowing grin. “My pleasure.”

 

 

The morning met them too soon, and Shepard gave Garrus a kiss goodbye as he headed back to his own room. When she joined the crowd in the atrium, she saw that food was laid out for a casual breakfast. She sat down beside Wrex, who eyed her carefully. “You ready for this?” he asked in his blunt way.

 

“I have to be,” was all she said in response, and ate quietly and mechanically, thinking over what she was planning to say.

 

When most everyone appeared to be finished eating, Councilor Sparatus stood. “Please begin making your way into the conference room,” he stated. “We will begin shortly.” He and the other councilors led the way through the as-yet unopened doors that led to the room where the summit would be held. Shepard stood immediately to follow.

 

“See you inside,” she said to Wrex, who gave her a respectful nod.

 

As the conference room doors closed behind her, Shepard took a look around. Tables had been set up into a large square, with place cards at each spot. Shepard wound around the tables to find her own place card, and held in a wince when she saw that she was next to Councilor Udina. She had known, of course, that she would be sitting with the council, but she’d hoped it might be Tevos, who was the only councilor that hadn’t irritated her lately. Still, she would be respectful. She was their guest, after all… even if the summit had been her idea to begin with.

 

“Are you ready?” Councilor Sparatus said, approaching her.

 

She nodded. “As ready as I can be. I suspect this is going to be difficult.”

 

He snorted. “No more difficult than attempting to arrange the seating for such a meeting.

 

Shepard gave a small laugh. “Yes, I can see how that might be a challenge with certain groups.”

 

“Do you know what you are going to say today?” Sparatus asked.

 

“I’ve thought it over,” she said. “I doubt I’ll need to convince anyone here of the seriousness of the situation. Just the necessity for certain actions.”

 

“And do you have a plan?”

 

She quirked a brow at him. “I have ideas. Isn’t a plan what we’re here to determine?”

 

He cleared his throat. “Yes, of course.” He inclined his head before stepping over to his own seat.

 

Shepard clenched her hands on the back of her chair to keep them from shaking. She was tired of everyone thinking she alone held the solution to all their problems. Hadn’t she saved them enough?

 

She sat down in her chair as the rest of the crowd began to file into the room and waited for the summit to begin. When everyone was seated, Councilor Valern stood. “Thank you, everyone, for coming. I believe we all know why we are here. To find a way to defeat the reaper threat. To that end, I hope everyone has studied the dossier we’ve compiled that contains all known information on the reapers and their weapons. A large part of this information was submitted by Commander Shepard, who we have asked to say a few words.” He motioned towards Shepard, who stood.

 

“Thank you, Councilor,” she said. She looked out over the gathered group, the people who held the fate of the galaxy in their hands. “Today we face the greatest threat to our survival that has ever existed. An enemy that seeks nothing less than the complete destruction of all space faring species. They gain strength as they weaken us, by stealing the minds and bodies of our friends and allies. They can’t be outwitted and they can’t be reasoned with. The only way for us to survive is the death of every reaper.”

 

Shepard paused, allowing that information to sink in. She saw more than a few worried and scared faces in front of her. “That doesn’t mean, however, that we are without hope. But I do believe that hope will only be found in working together. Every government and culture has their own strengths and weaknesses. Our diversity can either destroy us or save us. And I want to live.”

 

She took a deep breath. “The only way we survive is if we share information and technology, and use the brightest minds of every culture to come up with creative and innovative ideas that will take the reapers by surprise. This doesn’t mean being selective in what we share. This means sharing everything we know and have. We can’t think of ourselves as fully separate factions anymore. We must be united to defeat this threat. No species is going to make it alone. We’re losing. And we will continue to lose until we fully commit to working together. Thank you.”

 

Shepard seated herself, looking around the room in the hope that her words had sunk in.

 

After a moment of silence, Valern stood. “Thank you, Commander. Now, let’s begin with an open forum to discuss ideas for evacuation and humanitarian needs…”

 

The day dragged on. Shepard had to stop herself from yawning more than once, and had to bite her tongue even more than that. She didn’t want to anger anyone on the first day, but she wasn’t sure her message of unity had gotten through. Tensions were running high, especially between species that already disliked each other. Seating Wrex far from the salarians didn’t stop them from sniping at one another.

 

They stopped for a brief lunch, where Shepard was happy to sit with Garrus and Victus, and then completed their talks before dinner, where Shepard spoke with the salarian dalatrass and her STG expert. The dalatrass treated her with unexpected hostility, but the STG agent was friendly and interested.

 

“Doctor Jadik Ells, Commander,” he said as he shook her hand. “I was impressed with the reaper information you contributed to the dossier,” he said to her. “You seem to have gleaned quite a bit from your interactions with the reapers.”

 

She smiled at him. “I’ve met a few reapers, though usually I’m either running from them or shooting at them. I can’t say I’ve really studied them in depth aside from reviewing the scans and vids from each fight. I saw that your contribution was significant as well. Is it safe to suppose that STG has some pieces from the battle of the Citadel? I don’t know how you’d get such detailed information of their composition otherwise. I hope you’re well shielded against indoctrination.”

 

“Of course we take precautions,” Doctor Ells said. “But I was most interested in your speaking with the reapers. We’ve all fought a few by now, but you are the only person I know of who has spoken to one.”

 

Shepard waved a hand dismissively. “They don’t say anything useful. It’s all grandiose statements,” she said, then imitated a reaper’s deep voice. “‘I am the vanguard of your destruction’, ‘we are eternal’… things like that.” She shrugged.

 

“Nonetheless,” the salarian said, his large eyes pinned on Shepard. “It is fascinating.”

 

After dinner and some more mind-numbing mingling, Shepard went to her room to change and think over the day before heading to join Garrus in his quarters. She would wait to visit him until fewer people were milling about—she didn’t like the idea of people gossiping about her and Garrus here, when they needed to appear professional.

 

She sat on the bed, taking notes on a datapad about what had been discussed during the talks earlier. Many ideas had been shared, but very little had been agreed upon yet. She supposed that might wait for the final day. She had never taken part in talks like these before. After she had gotten her thoughts down and felt enough time had passed, Shepard stood, chugged the glass of water she’d left beside her bed, and grabbed her bag before heading out to join Garrus in his temporary quarters.

 

Shepard was about halfway down the hall when she began to feel strange.

 

She blinked hard as dizziness overtook her, staggering into a wall. She didn’t get sick anymore, not after her cybernetic upgrades. And no illness would come on as quickly as this.

 

She was poisoned.

 

Nausea and pain balled in her stomach as she continued to stagger forward, intent on getting to Garrus. Her thoughts were slowing down, but she could still focus on one thing—reaching his door. She could see it up ahead. At some point she fell to the floor, but she crawled and dragged herself towards her goal. She continued agonizingly forward, vision tunneling, until she could just reach it. She hit the door as hard as she could with her palm, dropping her head to the floor as she used up the last of her energy.

 

As her awareness began to fade away, she heard the door slide open and a voice call her name.

 

“Shepard! SHEPARD! Oh, spirits, no…”