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The Quarian

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Shepard walked into the homicide department still half asleep but fully intending to enjoy her day once she woke up. She only made it halfway to her desk before Detective Nihlus Kryik looked straight past Vakarian’s shoulder to spot her, his sharp green eyes full of intent locking in. 

“Shepard! I'd like your opinion.” Kryik called out as Shepard neared her desk. 

“Okay, what's the topic?” Shepard asked, taking a sip of her coffee. Her gut told her she’d need to be awake for this

“Human sexuality.”

Shepard nearly spit out that sip of coffee. She managed to swallow it down, though, then let out a short laugh.

“Good morning to you too, Kryik,” she replied, her voice still hoarse in the early morning. She set her coffee down before sliding into her work chair and glanced across their desks to nod good morning to her partner. She then gave Kryik’s incredibly patient partner, T’Saris, a nod as well.

“Morning, Shepard,” T’Saris said in her typical low and pleasing tone, which offered a much more soothing ‘good morning’ than Kryik’s greeting. 

“Where’s mine?” Vakarian asked, gesturing towards Shepard’s coffee. He looked tired and grouchy. Without any evidence, she blamed Livia. Sure, it was unfair, but more often than not, nowadays, his bad moods were directly related to his mate. And what kind of friend would Shepard be if she blamed Vakarian for any of it?

As for Kryik’s question, she was surprised Vakarian wasn't already scowling. He wasn’t particularly bashful about sex, but when Kryik talked about it, he got personal. Stories were shared against Vakarian’s wishes because Kryik did everything full throttle and had little respect for Vakarian’s privacy. It probably also had something to do with Kryik teasing him incessantly, just as an older brother would harass his younger brother.  

“Sorry, meet me tomorrow morning at the coffee shop. We’ll get it together,” she told Vakarian. “It’ll be our little thing, coffee in the morning.” Seemingly happy with that answer, he nodded. They exchanged a smile, and he continued typing away at his console.  

With her partner appeased, she turned back to Kryik, who waited patiently for an answer as she logged into her console.

“So you want to know about mine in particular or….” she asked him, unable to hide the sly grin this conversation was giving her.  

“No. Unless there’s something uniquely important about yours…”

Shepard turned her amused smile to T’Saris, “Where is this coming from?”

“As usual, I have no idea what he’s talking about.”

Shepard turned back to Kryik, “Nope, pretty normal I think. Well, aside from that one thing...” teasing, she let her words hang. 

That finally got a reaction out of her partner. They knew each other well by now — three years at each other's side most days and many nights. So she was expecting the look, and she knew exactly what he said to her with it. Don’t get him started.  

“Sorry, big guy. But you know I can’t resist,” she told Vakarian with a somewhat apologetic smile. Vakarian glanced at her briefly before refocusing on work. That little glance told her he wanted to steer clear — a hundred feet clear — of this conversation but that he didn’t expect her to stay out of it just to make him more comfortable. At that moment, she realized they silently communicated, and often. They were officially two-peas-in-a-pod, couldn't-be-tighter partners. She felt proud.  

 “Listen, you answer a few questions for me, and I’ll answer some for you. Tell you about turian dicks. It’ll be a nice little cultural exchange.”

“What can you teach me about turian dicks that I haven’t already learned from porn vids?” Feeling Vakarian’s eyes on her, she stole a glance in his direction to see him giving her an amused look, a browplate subtly raised — she was definitely getting teased for this later, once they were safe from Kryik’s interjections. She snuck him a smirk before turning back to Kryik, who was either unaware of their little exchange or chose to ignore it. 

 “You’re shitting me,” Kryik replied, mandibles agape. “You watch turian porn?” 

“Turian-human porn, to be exact,” she said, taking a decent chug of her coffee. “Look, you’re not the only one who’s curious.” 

His surprised expression slowly morphed into a sly smile. “Hey, Shepard. You just feel free to call me up if you’re ever at home and you decide those vids don’t satiate your curiosity.”

“Kryik, that’s so sweet,” she said, leaning back in her chair comfortably, getting an absolute kick out of Kryik’s fake flirting.  

His browplate rose seductively, leaning towards her and resting an elbow on his desk casually. “Oh, there’s nothing sweet about what I’m offering.” 

“No,” Shepard smiled from behind her cup of coffee, “I mean it’s sweet that you think you can handle me.”

Kryik let out a hearty laugh, his head rolling back for just a moment before he gave Shepard an approving look. T’Saris laughed along lightly as she typed away at her console. The only one not laughing was Vakarian, who stared at his console, trying to act oblivious to their conversation.  

“I kinda want to see this happen, just to see how much you’d wreck his little soul,” T’Saris said. “Oh, and by the way, Shepard, don’t bother with male turians unless you like being pinned down, licked from head to toe, and pierced in the most intimate of areas with razor-sharp teeth.”

Shepard laughed, a soft, naughty little chuckle as she tried to find the file she should be focusing on instead of bullshitting with her coworkers. “Sounds fun, actually. I’m just wondering if the nibbling is one-sided, or am I allowed to reciprocate?” 

Shepard and T’Saris shared a knowing look and a laugh before focusing back on their work.  

“You seem a bit rough for me,” Kryik said, leaning back in his chair while sending a quirked browplate in Shepard’s direction, making her think that maybe he wasn’t as into receiving when it came to rough play as he was in giving. “Although now I am very curious how rough female humans can get.”

“I’ll send you some porn,” Shepard said, which led to more laughs. 

As much as Shepard enjoyed bullshitting at work, Vakarian had steadily been sinking lower and lower in his chair, and she wondered how in the hell he didn’t realize that made him an even bigger target. 

“Listen, Kryik,” Shepard said with a grin, making sure his attention stayed on her instead of wandering over to Vakarian, “we can do sex ed some other time, but I have some reports to slave over. I’ll tell you all about human sexuality later.”

“Flux, tonight?”

“Sure.” 

“Mind if I tag along?” asked T’Saris. “I need a night off.”

“Of course,” Kryik answered before turning to Vakarian. “You coming?”

“I don’t know. I’m supposed to see Livia tonight." 

“So,” Kryik said. 

“So she’s been in a terrible fucking mood lately. I don’t know if she’ll want to go out.”

“She’s always in a terrible mood,” Kryik said as if he wasn’t stating an obvious fact. Notably, though, Vakarian didn't react. He reacted to Kryik’s gripes about Livia a lot less lately. While Shepard was wary of her, Kryik had always hated her. Though he never shared that with Vakarian. That had been a drunken confession a few weeks ago when Livia threw a fit after Vakarian declined to leave Flux after a few women hit on him. Shepard understood Livia’s discomfort. Women frequently hit on Vakarian, and either he was oblivious to their flirting or was an expert at ignoring it. Livia didn’t ignore it well, though. 

“That’s not true,” T’Saris said, “she was a pleasant person when I first met her. Then she started dating you...” she added with a smirk.

“Funny,” Vakarian replied, voice monotone and eyes focused on his screen. “Did you steal that line from Livia?” 

Her partner was trying to be funny, but the unmistakable insecurity and raw honesty in the way he said it made Shepard stop to look him over. Upon further inspection, he didn’t simply look grouchy, he looked downright miserable. That made Shepard angry and protective. Vakarian deserved a woman who appreciated him and didn’t insist on making his life so damned miserable. 

Granted, he seemed like he could be a real pain in the ass. But, Livia’s pain in the ass qualities made her mean, whereas Vakarian’s just made him a bit obnoxious. 

Livia certainly lacked his charm and sense of humor. Maybe that made her a bit self-conscious?  

Discussions died down around the entire Homicide unit as Pallin came out of his office, making his way towards their side of the room, and stopped just by Shepard and Vakarian’s desks. 

“Vakarian. Shepard. Get to the markets. Dispatch will send coordinates to your omni-tools.”

“What’s up?” Shepard asked as she and Vakarian locked their consoles. 

“Someone fucking eviscerated a quarian,” Pallin answered.

Shepard’s breath caught, and though she'd been reaching for her coffee to chug what she could before leaving, she instead dropped her hand. Her gaze shot to Vakarian, whose sharp eyes just flicked to meet hers. That brief look told her neither of them wanted this case. Their reputation as the best team in Homicide was starting to stack some gruesome cases in their corner. They’d spent the past few months convincing themselves and each other, a break would come soon — but so far, that seemed to be a pipe dream. 

“Hope you didn't eat a big breakfast,” Pallin continued. “The body’s in such bad shape that no one will go near it. We only have one officer at the scene, and Forensics is strung out between so many crime scenes right now they’re having trouble getting there. So hurry it up.”

Shepard held her breath as she and Vakarian rose from their chairs, grabbed their jackets, and checked the heat sinks in their pistols. Images of what they were about to see burst through her imagination. 

What exactly has to be done to a body to qualify as evisceration? What they were about to see wouldn't just be some stab wounds, and stab wounds were bad enough. With those, you had blood, maybe some fat layers leaking out, but you rarely saw the viscera. Depending on where it hit, the smell could be extra terrible. 

But eviscerated? 

The quarian would be cut open, side to side? Organs would have fallen out? Or pulled out? Why eviscerate a quarian? What kind of criminal or psychopath actually cut someone clean open and spilled their organs? Shepard had never dealt with a case like this, never seen a body in this condition, and she wondered if Vakarian had. In the elevator, as these thoughts ran through her mind, their omni-tools finally pinged.

Looking down at their message, he muttered, “Lower markets. We’ll get there quicker on foot, but we should hurry.”

Eviscerated.  

Shepard nodded while watching her partner. She’d been a cop for eight years, and she’d seen a lot of shit in those eight years. Vakarian assuredly had seen more, though, in an equal amount of years serving in special ops in the Hierarchy. But for all those years, he didn’t look any better off than she felt — that fact alone had her a bit shaken. 

“Christ, this is going to be bad,” she said, her nerves so wound up that she was drumming her fingers against her thighs. Eviscerated . It was all she could think. All that played through her head as they rode the elevator down in silence. 

Vakarian just nodded in response. 

Silent moments were odd and infrequent between them nowadays. They both shifted, mentally preparing themselves for what they were going to see. The walk through the markets was quick — they were in a hurry to get to the scene. Despite the din of noise, the people they had to weave through, the people trying to stop them when they saw the badges on their lapels, they moved forward quickly enough. Getting the site secure was going to be vital in preserving evidence. One officer could only do so much. 

That was one thing that shocked Shepard when she first started working for SFPD back on Earth — how so many regular, everyday people wanted to see a dead body, no matter how brutal the murder had been. Most regretted indulging their curiosity. Shepard never felt bad when she saw them tucked to the side at the crime scene, hands shaking and a distant look in their eyes. Call her cruel, but they deserved it.  

They were getting further from the markets and closer to the maintenance halls where Citadel maintenance workers accessed life support, plumbing, and other utilities. They were somewhat secluded, only visited off and on throughout the day and night cycles. Thankfully, there would be fewer people they had to contend with, she hoped. And that meant a more reliable crime scene for gathering evidence. 

As they rounded a corner, Shepard’s gaze fell on the officer who arrived first to the scene. She stood at the entrance to a corridor, lights flickering around them, casting shadows. It was an asari, and she looked ill. Her skin pale, hands shaking, that distant look in her eyes. She was probably in shock. Gunshot wounds, stab wounds, strangulation, and broken necks were all commonplace. But evisceration? Not many officers were prepared for that. And even if they were, it would still stick. That poor asari would be wrecked for life now. 

As Shepard took a deep breath in, preparing herself, she heard a few deep sniffs from her partner. He probably already smelled the blood.  With cases like this, she certainly didn’t envy turian’s heightened senses. Although, maybe the smell didn’t bother them as much. 

Shepard and Vakarian both flashed their C-Sec badges. “Detective Vakarian,” he said before pointing to Shepard, “and Detective Shepard. Is the body behind you down that hall?”

The asari nodded, looking like she was holding back vomit. “I’m Officer Leos, sir. She — the body — is behind me. I set up barriers at each access point, and I haven’t moved from my position here since I arrived.”

Vakarian nodded again, and Shepard offered an encouraging smile as they reached the entrance to the corridor. Still, the asari’s eyes were decently glossy and unfocused, so she wasn’t quite sure the reassurance even registered. Shepard’s gaze looked down the corridor, and sure enough, about fifty feet away, the body of a female quarian rested against the wall. Bright red blood pooled beneath her, but not as much as Shepard expected. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. The victim’s hand still held tight to her stomach, and even from their location, Shepard could see her bowels spilled out over her hand. 

“She…” Officer Leos’ voice shook, nearly as hard as her hands were shaking, “she wasn’t murdered there, I don’t think. I didn’t have a chance to follow it, but there’s a blood trail from somewhere deeper within the corridors.

As Vakarian took out his omni-tool, ready to start taking notes while they waited for the forensics team, Shepard took another steadying breath. “Any reason to believe the murderer is still in the area?” Shepard asked.

“No, I haven’t seen anyone, other than the guy who found her. A drell custodian.” Officer Leos pointed to the corner of the room they stood in where a drell sat, his head between his knees. 

“Stay here while we take a look at the body,” Vakarian ordered. 

As they walked down the hall, Shepard noticed the quarian’s helmet was missing. Long dark hair spilled out over her face, covering it entirely and blocking it from their view. They had to have those on, all the time, or else they’d exposed to all sorts of things in the environment that would kill them. Did the murder take it off to make sure she died? Shepard wondered. Like pulling someone’s bowels out wasn’t enough?

As they got closer, the extent of the damage became clearer. Blood trailed down her chest as well, her hair to skin and suit in clumps. They stepped closer then stopped a few feet away from her feet. Shepard noticed on the ground, written in red blood, were two names. ‘Achillus’ and ‘Traian’ — both male turian names. She wrote down the murderers’ names, maybe? Surely they wouldn’t write something using her blood. And the drag marks looked smooth like they came from a gloved finger, not one with a talon at the top.

Although hair draped over her face and spilled over her chest, Shepard saw enough of her neck to see they’d sliced that as well. Eviscerated, stab wounds to the chest, slit her throat, took off her helmet. Shepard’s stomach turned, the scene and the smell finally getting to her. A seasoned cop by now, yet she was ill, wringing her hands to keep them from shaking. She glanced down the hall, tracking the blood trail until it led around a faraway corner and to another corridor. 

“Christ,” Shepard muttered. “Did she walk here like this? All on her own?” 

Vakarian, whose eyes hadn't left the victim since they stopped at her feet, opened his mouth to reply, but his response was interrupted by the faintest wheezing sound. He froze, eyes shooting wide. Shepard barely heard it, but Vakarian would have heard it clearly. Doubt clouded Shepard’s mind as she looked between Vakarian and the victim. There was no way. The sound had to be a leak from the suit or something.  

Shepard and Vakarian stood side-by-side, waiting in the silent, dark corridor. Shepard had no idea what Vakarian was thinking, but he was as still as her. With her eyes trained on the quarian, she listened to another slow, bubbling wheeze. A bloody air bubble came from the slice in her neck.

Fuck, she’s breathing. How the fuck is she breathing.

Shepard’s pulse pounded throughout her body, sending adrenaline rushing. She’s alive.

Shepard lifted her omni-tool as Vakarian fell to his knees beside the quarian. “Headquarters, Detective Shepard, Lower Markets. We have a live victim. We need medical support ASAP. Female quarian in critical condition. She’ll need an enviro safe stretcher.” She typed quickly, for some stupid reason proud that her hand wasn’t shaky, as she reported some of the most evident and life-threatening injuries into her communication with Dispatch. Ziha’s chances rose if the medical team knew what to expect before arriving on the scene. 

As Dispatch confirmed her call and notes, the victim lifted her hand to Shepard’s absolute shock, reaching out for Vakarian. Without hesitation, he quickly took it, squeezing lightly. “We have help on the way. You're going to be ok,” his soothing, steady voice told the quarian, and despite Shepard’s best efforts, she couldn't help but think about the woman’s chances. Even though she was miraculously breathing and still had the energy to lift her hand, her bowels were spilled, her chest and neck ripped to shreds, and no helmet. 

The victim was a quarian with her suit sliced open and helmet off — she might as well be dead. 

 “Where’s her helmet?” Her partner’s voice was steady but tense. “She needs her helmet.”  

The trail of blood. Shepard turned, legs racing and feet pounding against the floor, following the red drops and smears. Down the corridor they’d found the body in, she jumped the barricade, rounded the corner, and further down that hall for another 200 feet, at least. A small object came into her sight, sitting amongst pooled and splattered blood covering the ground and the walls. That had to be where it happened. Shepard grabbed the helmet while doing her best to mind the possible evidence that had to be everywhere at the scene as much as possible. She raced back to where her partner sat with the victim. 

Not knowing how to attach it, she threw Vakarian the helmet, knowing that even though he wasn’t looking at her, he’d catch it. She stood to the side and watched Vakarian pop it back on, sealing it — whatever good that did. The victim’s suit was compromised. Would the helmet even help? 

They waited with her, her golden eyes open and watching them from behind the helmet. Despite not knowing quarians, Shepard saw so much fear in those eyes. They pleaded for help and for her life — what Shepard would have given to be able to promise her that.

 She didn’t move again or try to say anything. She just held on tightly to Vakarian, watching him with a weak gaze and occasionally glancing over at Shepard. Her breaths were shallow, her chest barely rising, then falling with way too many seconds in between. 

Would she even make it until the medical support arrived? This woman walked all this way, after everything they did to her. Watching her die slowly, knowing everything she went through to stay alive, was tearing a path right through Shepard’s gut. 

It was inevitable, though — the woman was dying. Shepard wracked her brain thinking of something else she could do to help the poor woman live. They’d done all they could, though. 

Shepard watched Vakarian as they waited in silence. She had trouble looking at the horror that was the qaurian’s body, and she couldn't bring herself to get closer than a few feet away. Her body shook, and her stomach continued to turn. Heat radiating from ducts and the thick, musty smell of blood packed a one-two punch, making Shepard uncharacteristically dizzy.

But her partner was calm, seemingly unshaken, and held a steady gaze with the victim while he encouraged her with soothing words. He told her she was strong. He promised her she was going to be okay. That he’d be there holding her hand the whole time. That he wouldn't leave her, and he wouldn't let anything happen to her. 

Shepard had never been more awed by another being. Not only the quarian, who was still alive, somehow. But her partner was acting with more courage and care than she knew he possessed. Somehow, he was able to sit with her and speak with a deep, soothing voice despite horrendous gore resting mere inches in front of him.

Backup officers arrived soon after, but they remained down the hall and close to Leos. No one seemed to want to get close to a quarian knocking on death’s door. Already one foot into heaven, or the quarian equivalent. Shepard wanted to be mad at them for their cowardice, but while she was sticking to the woman’s side, she certainly didn’t feel strong enough to kneel beside her side and talk to her as her breathing steadily grew more shallow. Minutes ticked by, but Shepard couldn't bring herself to do anything other than stand and wait.

Citadel emergency medical services arrived quicker than Shepard thought possible, sirens and flashing lights traveling from the upper level where they parked the shuttle. Several asari and salarian appeared with a circle and two lines, the galactic symbol for medical aid, and the letters ‘CEMS’ emblazoned across their uniforms. They rushed down the stairs and to the victim, pushing Vakarian and Shepard aside and almost immediately securing the quarian in a medically sterile bag. It was a rush of frantic activity for a few minutes before they disappeared as quickly as they came, transporting her to the hospital. 

Shepard realized how much easier her job seemed compared to theirs. They operated under real pressure. They had to save a life. Compared to medical staff, who could actually do something for the living, a detective wasn't much more than a bloodhound, sniffing out the criminal to bring them in so they could face whatever hollow justice the courts doled out. That sad thought made her realize she was spending a bit too much time with her pessimistic partner. Still, emergency medical support were miracle workers, asked to do the impossible. 

After they left, Shepard expected to get a message on her omni-tool letting them know the quarian didn’t make it. It had to be coming. 

Forensics finally came next, processing both scenes and all the quarian’s steps in between. All the while, Shepard was in a daze, and Vakarian didn’t look much better off. 

It was so much easier when they were dead, and there was nothing you could do but treat their body as just another piece of evidence. 

With the victim gone and out of sight and Forensics quick at work, Shepard and Vakarian focused their energy on the scene. Nothing forensics presented surprised them, though. Only a psychopath could have treated another living thing so cruelly. It was brutal, mindless, destruction of life.  

As Shepard remembered the pleading, terrified look in the woman’s eyes, she realized it was more than that. It was the destruction of the poor woman’s body. It wasn’t enough to just kill her; they wanted her to suffer. They wanted to ruin and violate her. 

Officer Leos, who Shepard was surprised to see still floating around, approached them as Forensics began to pack everything up. It was well after lunch, but Shepard didn’t think she’d be hungry for days. 

“We got an ID on the victim from CEMS,” Leos said, sounding absolutely exhausted. “Looks like her name is Ziha’Zorah nar Rayya. At the docks, she listed her reason for her  visit as ‘trade’ —”

“Zorah nar Rayya?” Vakarian interrupted, sounding like he’d just had the wind knocked out of him. Shepard watched him, anxious to find out what had her partner so upset, especially after what they just went through. After Leos answered with a nod, he muttered,  “Fuck. I need to make a call.”

Vakarian stepped away, leaving Shepard alone with Leos. Their eyes met, and for one long, terrible moment they just looked at each other. Words seemed elusive. What could they honestly say?

Finally, Leos let out a shaky breath and looked like she was fighting off guilt or pain. “I stood there the whole time. She was alive. I walked past her. Set up a damned barricade.”

Shepard gave her a sympathetic look. “You had no way of knowing. I thought she was gone too. No one would have thought…” Shepard shook her head, the disbelief still clouding her thoughts, “...looking at her, that even an ounce of life was left in her.”

Leos shook her head, refusing the comfort, and accepting her guilt. “I just stood there waiting for you to arrive. Doing nothing to help her.”

Shepard wanted to tell Leos the quarian was dead the moment they gutted her, slit her throat, and took her helmet off. Reading the look in the poor asari’s eyes, though, she knew that’s not what the poor officer wanted to hear. 

“We can only hope CEMS comes through.” Shepard finished that sentiment with a stiff nod. 

Anytime Shepard was away from Vakarian for more than a short while she always got an itch to at least get her eyes on him. Thanks to his height, locating him was pretty easy. Her seven-foot-tall partner leaned against a nearby wall. Whoever he was talking to, he looked upset and apologetic. When Leos provided the victim’s name his reaction had been odd. Shepard could only assume he’d recognized the name, though he didn’t say so. She watched him for a short while before their eyes met, and he sighed, shaking his head. Whoever it was, the conversation wasn’t pleasant.  

By the time Forensics packed up, Vakarian had finished his phone call, and they headed back to C-Sec. Walking through the markets, he told her that the victim was related to someone he knew — a friend, even. The day was just full of one shock after the next.

“How is the victim’s cousin holding up?” Shepard asked as they entered the elevator up to Homicide. 

“Pissed, but glad that Ziha is alive.”

“I can’t fucking believe she was still hanging on.” Shepard let her shoulders fall, ready for a nap or a drink. Maybe both. “Think she’ll actually make it?”

Vakarian shrugged. On a good day, he was a realist. On a bad day, a pessimist. So a shrug was probably as positive as he’d allow himself to get considering what happened to the quarian. 

“How do you know Tali again?” Shepard asked, hoping to keep her mind off the spilled bowels and pleading, terrified eyes that glowed from behind her helmet. 

“Worked with her and some other quarians on some geth missions years ago.” He rubbed at his browplates. “A lot, actually.”

Shepard offered a weak nod to show him she heard, but she couldn't think of much else to say. The adrenaline crash, and lack of lunch, was probably getting to her. Her mind was getting fuzzy, and her limbs felt like they each weighed a ton. 

The way the poor quarian lifted her hand to Vakarian popped into her mind. “Ever seen anything like that before?” Shepard asked. 

He nodded, “Yeah. A lot worse, too. Doesn't mean I’m numb to it, though.”

“Sick, cruel mother fuckers,” she muttered, fisting her hands and rubbing her fingers along her palms. “What did you do to relax after days like that?”

“Depends on how bad it was. Drink and fuck around with rifle mods. If it was really bad, drink and just fuck until I forgot about it.” 

Shepard started fiddling around with the hem of her jacket, rolling it between her fingers. She had a hard time sitting still when stressed, even when she was exhausted. Maybe that’s what she appreciated most about her close relationship with her partner — she didn’t hide that piece of her anymore.  

“What would you normally do, back on Earth, after a day like this?” he asked.

“See my Gran, get a hug.” She sighed, missing Earth and being around humans who weren’t Alliance military or embassy staff. Neither were her kind of people. “But drinking and fucking works too sometimes. Mostly just swallow it, stuff it down. Guess I have something in common with you turians, hm?”

He offered her a tired smile. “Well, I’m not a grandmother, but I can give you a hug.”

She returned the smile, knowing hers communicated her lack of energy just as much as his. Without breaking eye contact, his large, muscular figure towered over her as he leaned in a bit closer to her, entering her space to offer her that hug, probably. 

“Fuck off,” she said. With her hand placed on his shoulder, she gave him a light push. “I don’t need a goddamn hug.” The thought of needing a hug from her partner made her hate her feelings even more. They were professionals. Adults. She’d been a cop for nearly a decade. She wasn’t a damned inexperienced rookie and didn't need her partner to console her. She needed to buck up and deal with it like everyone else in Homicide dealt with it: a drink and a nap. 

Letting her push him back, he crossed his arms and leaned back against the elevator wall but said, “Look, either take a hug from me or settle for getting drunk and fucking Kryik.”

Caught so off guard by the joke, a laugh burst out of her. “Oh, God. Fuck me ,” she groaned, falling back against the elevator wall, despair and exhaustion wreaking havoc on her state of mind. How the fuck would she forget the sight of bowls resting haphazardly in that woman’s lap?

Vakarian shook his head, a smartass grin on his face. “Sorry, all I can offer is a hug, and I’m not attracted to begging.” She smacked his arm with the back of her hand, though she knew it would only encourage him. “And it's your life, but I'd advise against hooking up with Kyrik. I've heard weird things.”

She laughed again, then nearly doubled over from the sudden onslaught of chuckling. As usual, her partner didn't leave her hanging for long. After watching her for just a moment with smiling eyes his slow, easy laughs joined her silly chuckles.

They were two idiots standing in the elevator laughing with what little energy they had left in them. What started as a rolling chuckle, though, grew to a desperate and loud laugh that washed all the stress out of her and made her cheeks hurt. 

The ride up was long enough that their laughter eventually died down, and silence enveloped the small, enclosed space. During the last moments of their ascent, they regained their composure. It wouldn't look quite right if they came back from a horrendous crime scene in the throes of laughter, would it? She crossed her arms. The last huffs of laughter left her, and her chest settled down while they patiently waited for the doors to open. 

But before she could tell it was coming, a single tear dropped from one of her stinging eyes. She hadn’t even realized she was on the edge of crying until it was too late. She desperately wanted to hide her pathetic display of emotion, but Vakarian took a breath in, and based on the way he stiffened, she knew he already smelled her tears. God damn turians and their super senses.  

“Fuck, sorry,” she said while turning away from the doors that were about to open. Once they did her fit would be on full display for anyone waiting on the other side. She roughly wiped at her cheek, smearing that single tear. If she didn't get herself together before anyone out in the hall saw her, she'd be mortified. 

She didn't want Vakarian to pity her, either; or worse, lose confidence in her. She was fine, but that crime scene was unlike anything she’d worked. She had never cried at work before, and she was proud of that. A few times, she cried after work, but mostly in her Gran’s arms. And, far from anyone who’d judge her soft heart. 

Without saying a word, though, her partner stepped closer, punched the key to keep the doors closed, and rested a hand on her shoulder. He waited there, his comforting hand grounded her and his soft eyes showed her sympathy, but no pity. 

He stood still, neither moving forward nor drawing back. Maybe he was waiting for her to push him away again while telling him she didn’t need a hug. But she didn't want to. She wasn’t fine. What they saw was fucked, and the victim's poor, pleading eyes played at the edges of her mind. 

She didn't want to accept his offer out loud with words, but a hug sounded perfect, and he was her best option out here on this damned space station. So she also stood still, eyes locked on the floor and internally begging him to wrap his arms around her without having to ask for it.

As if he read her mind, Vakarian’s strong arms enveloped her and pulled her tight against his chest. He was a lot warmer than she expected. With the adrenaline rush over, she realized how cold she felt, how shaky her hands were. But Vakarian was like a warm comforter wrapping around her and chasing the chill away. The stress from being at that horrific crime scene, and the fear of seeming weak by accepting an embrace from her partner, had her tense. She willed her muscles to relax and buried her head in his chest.     

For the first time since transferring to C-Sec, living and working on an unfamiliar space station surrounded by alien species who she didn’t even know existed when she was a kid, she knew she wasn’t alone, in any sense. She knew she could rely on Vakarian. For a long time, she’d known that he’d fight for her, get drunk and bullshit with her, watch vids with her and laugh until her cheeks and his mandibles hurt. But after seeing him with the victim as they waited for CEMS and how he was holding her so securely in the quiet elevator, she now realized he could be relied on in other ways. She didn’t have to hide her weaknesses from him. She didn't have to pretend like she could handle everything on her own. 

He wasn’t just good for laughs and petty distractions from the hell of their job. He could comfort, and he could soothe, and he could promise that everything would be ok. And if it wasn’t going to be ok, his promise was enough to make Shepard think that it could be. 

But it meant so much more than that because she didn’t feel ashamed for accepting this kind of support. It felt natural, like the comfort provided by a family member or best friend. She let him hold her a bit longer, her arms settling around his carapace to return his warm embrace — because, hell, maybe he needed it too. 

Why had she been so silly about this? She’d stop a bullet for the man in her arms, so she might as well feel comfortable hugging him. 

They held onto each other as a light flashed on the elevator panel, reminding them the doors were still shut tight, keeping the world out and giving them a moment alone. It was a little slice of time when blood and death and wheezing breaths didn’t nag at the corners of her mind, and instead, all that existed was the trust, support, and honesty that she felt for her partner. Theirs was a friendship she’d never quite felt before — with anyone. He was more than a partner and more than a friend. He was the man who sat beside her as she coaxed confessions out of killers. They saved lives together, saw each other at their worst, and encouraged each other to be their best. 

They walked through hell together, every damn day; of course she would need a hug, and who better to give her that comfort than the man currently holding her in an elevator. The sad, sick, world that lurked behind the elevator doors — and didn’t show its beautiful side nearly enough — could just wait a fucking minute. 

Chapter Text

With Shepard in his arms, Vakarian forgot for just a moment all the anger that burned inside him. He forgot how much his trigger finger itched every time he closed his eyes and saw the bowels and blood. He forgot how easy it would be to take matters into his own hands, to take care of the monsters that would do something so horrendous to an innocent, defenseless person. Feeling her within his arms reminded him that he was a detective and that his job was to find them and put them away, even though they deserved less civilized punishment. They deserved to have their throats slit, bowels spilled, and to be left for dead without hope of surviving. 

And he could certainly give that to them. 

This little human in his arms had no idea just how much she changed him, saved him, from being the person that would give that to them — even while wearing his badge. There had been moments when he thought of telling her that, but every time logic and sensibility told him to keep his dramatically sappy, heartfelt revelations to himself. With those thoughts in mind, he held her tight; the warm embrace they shared sort of told her everything he felt, anyhow.  

“Alright,” Shepard took a shaky breath, her chest rising against his, and playfully pushed Vakarian away while wiping at her wet cheeks. “Let go of me. I don’t want to be the one responsible for making you question your turian-only sexuality,” she deadpanned, and a chuckle rippled through his chest. 

She looked up at him, feigning exasperation. “I’m not kidding. That’s a lot of weight to put on my shoulders.”

They laughed as he unwrapped his arms from around her small, soft human body and pressed the door release key on the elevator console. “You watch turian porn. I think I’m the one that needs to be worried about overly intimate contact.”

“Ohhh, you wish , Vakarian.” She gave him a tired half-smile that was so familiar and warm it made him smile for no reason other than he enjoyed these moments with her. Somehow, he got lucky with his human partner, and there wasn't a day that went by that he didn’t acknowledge that.  

Exiting the elevator, they were met by a few officers gathered around the doors. Dirty looks and a few huffs fell from the officers; they had to be angry about the hold-up that little hug-fest caused. Vakarian and Shepard glared at the officers with enough heat to convey that they weren't in the damned mood to be harassed, which was enough to make every last one of them glance away and hurriedly walk onto the elevator. Sometimes having a reputation around C-Sec as Homicide's best had its perks, like most officers at central knowing who they were and not to fuck with them when they weren't in a good mood. They all knew their bad moods were usually for a good reason, like holding a quarian's hand as she bled out. Telling her not to give up despite the slit throat and bowels casually resting in her own lap. 

They continued down the hall towards Homicide. “Just do me a favor and keep the erogenous zone talk to a minimum tonight.”

As he said that, two human officers passed by, giving them queer looks. Shepard and Vakarian glared at them, too, because they weren’t even in the mood for suffering through queer looks from beat cops who spent all their time patrolling the wards hunting down kids swiping vid games.

“You never know. You may want to understand female human sexuality someday. Maybe some lucky lady will catch your interest.” She winked at him. And she would have pulled off the impish effect she was going for — had it not been for the red, puffy eyes.  

“Unlikely, Shep, I’ve never been attracted to any other species. But I’ll be sure to go to you for advice if that ever happens.”

They walked through the doors into Homicide. Most of their fellow detectives ignored their entrance because they had a mountain of their own work. You’d have to come in guns firing to get that group to pay attention to anything other than the stacks of reports and evidence, or whatever distraction they were using to give their crime scene wary minds a break. The path to their desks seemed agonizingly longer than normal. 

As they reached their desks, Kryik and T'Saris both looked up with sympathetic expressions. So, they must have heard about the scene.

“What the fuck?” T'Saris asked, her typically hardened demeanor rife with sympathy. “You guys ok?”

“You two look like shit. Have you eaten?” Kryik asked.

Detectives — especially turians —  rarely offered that kind of support to each other after working a scene. It had to be really bad. They must have gotten wind of some of the specifics, which wasn’t really surprising — it wasn’t every day someone was cut open like that and actually still alive. Word would have already gotten around. It was horrific. The energy buzzing through him, his tensing hands, and racing thoughts told him just how much this one got to him. And it was Tali’s cousin, too. Fucking bastards.

Shepard and Vakarian both shook their heads as they sat down, mimicking each other’s body language as they leaned back and allowed their bodies to succumb to the exhaustion. 

“I’ll order you guys some food.” T'Saris was already typing at her console.

“That quarian must be one tough motherfucker.” Kryik shook his head and let an astonished expression peek through his typically stoic demeanor. 

Vakarian and Shepard didn’t respond to anything else Kryik and T'Saris said. They didn’t have the energy, and honestly, what could they really say?

After a moment of silence, Vakarian looked over to Kryik without lifting his head. “Can we go somewhere a bit more low-key tonight? I’m not up for Flux.” Even he had his limits when it came to how much stimulation he could handle in one day, but he was still hoping for a welcome distraction after the day they’d had.  

After yawning, putting her strange little pink tongue and dull teeth on full display, Shepard chimed in, “I second that.” 

The reports could wait, they both needed a minute to either process what they just went through, or at least wash it from their minds. Shepard and Vakarian both looked across their desks at each other, and he was certain she saw the same worn out, emotionally exhausted, and horrified sight in him that he saw in her. They both sighed, smiled, and then let their heads fall back. 

A belated lunch eventually got them through reports and at the end of the day they wound up agreeing to go to an asari bar near the docks that was popular with humans, which Kryik and T'Saris both requested. He was pretty sure Shepard readily agreed to the bar because there was zero chance she’d get drunk and lured out on a nonexistent dance floor by Kryik, just so he could give her shit about her sloppy dancing. 

And in the back of his mind, Vakarian thought that maybe Livia would pass on going out to an asari bar near the docks. Maybe she’d stay home and he could just relax with his coworkers. He’d given up on Livia being the type of mate who could help him forget the bad days and offer a little sense of peace in a dark world. Wasn’t her fault. There were other things she was good at. 

He left his jacket at work and rolled up his sleeves — about as comfortable as he could get without going home first, and if he went home he'd’ stay there. But Shepard had left both her jacket and her shirt at work, choosing to go out in just a tight black tank top she always wore under work shirts. She also changed into some dirty sneakers she always kept at her desk that seemed to be meant for especially dirty crime scenes — or going out. He wondered if Shep had ever even been in a dress, but didn’t have the nerve to ask her. He got smacked for lesser offenses and wasn’t willing to take the hit just to find out. 

On the way to the bar, he told Livia where they were going, and to his disappointment, she was still interested, but he figured he could tell her they’d arrived after he had a few minutes to enjoy a drink with his friends. They used to have so much fun together, but lately, her mood started out negative and it took a lot of energy to get her comfortable and calm — energy he just didn't have at the moment. 

He and Shepard walked into the bar together — the relaxed atmosphere made it seem busy rather than overcrowded. The place explicitly catered to humans and asari, who valued comfort and the atmosphere reflected that. The wood counter had a warm finish to it and it was intricately carved with what looked like symbols from prothean mythology. Instead of cold metal seats or easy-to-clean fake leather, the stools were topped with rich asari velvet. For the docks, it was actually really nice. 

It only took a minute to spot Kryik and T’Saris sitting at the bar. Vakarian longed to sit down and enjoy a few minutes of peace bullshitting with his friends but just as they sat down in the seats Kryik and T’Saris saved for them a message pinged on Vakarian’s omni-tool. He dreaded looking down, knowing it was from Livia. He could still just ignore it for a few minutes…

“I like this place!” Shepard called out to T’Saris over the steady beat of the mellow asari alternative-synth music. 

Shepard and T’Saris shouted a few things to each other about the bar and the music, and Kryik argued that it was nice but Flux was still great. Listening to his friends talk and laugh, he pushed Livia’s message to the back of his mind so he could order a drink. 

The annoying thing about going out with Kryik and T’Saris is they were both flirts. But, the nice thing about going out with them was that they were very good-looking, fun flirts, so the bartender was usually nearby. As Kryik tapped his forearm to Vakarian’s in greeting, Vakarian nudged Kryik with his spur. “Mind letting the bartender serve us?” 

The bartender looked his way with a mandible-wide grin. When their eyes met, an interested trill traveled from her throat to his ears, sending an embarrassed wave of heat up his neck. 

“Oh don’t bother with him, he has a mate,” T’Saris shouted with a silly smile slapped on her face and two empty glasses sitting in front of her.

The bartender laughed softly, “Well fortunately for him, I can’t refuse service based on having a mate or not. What can I get you?”

“Horosk,” Vakarian said, trying his best to stifle an anxious trill that threatened to broadcast his nerves. Clearing his throat he looked over to Shepard, who was staring at the wood bar and running her fingers over the delicate carvings. “And what do you want Shep? Whiskey? Beer?”

She pulled her hands away from the carvings so she could place an elbow on the bartop and let her head rest in her hand. “Beer, but I’ll want a whiskey soon after.”

“Hmm, how about we save you some time,” he said to the bartender, who leaned into the bar, getting a bit too close. “Two horosks, a beer, and a whiskey.”

The bartender returned his smile, nodded with a slight tilt so that her neck flashed just briefly, then left. 

Irritation washed over him; the woman was a turian and should know better than to flirt with him when he had a mate. But, this was his fault, really, wasn’t it? Without Livia’s scent on him, he seemed available to others. Something about having another’s scent on him made his chest hurt and his stomach turn, though, so he always removed it, explaining to Livia it was for the job. It wasn’t. He was a liar and a coward. The only thing that made him feel less like an ass was the fact that Livia didn’t seem to mind. So long as they scented and she kept his, she said she was happy. He told himself he’d get used to wearing another’s scent someday, but so far that day hadn’t come. 

Once they received their drinks, Shepard clutched her beer so tight he wondered if she thought someone would wrestle her for it. Her hand reached out to gesture towards his omni-tool. “You got a message when we sat down.”

He almost growled when she pointed that out because now he wouldn't be able to pretend it didn’t exist. He sucked up his nerve and glanced down to read it. 

Livia: Are we going out or not? I’ve been waiting to hear from you.

He glared down at his omni-tool, trying to figure out what to do. Regardless of how long he delayed finally spending time with her, he’d still be more miserable than he already was. He was tired and grouchy, and she’d want him to be in a good mood. Because if he wasn’t, that meant she didn’t make him happy. And then they’d get in a fight, and he’d have to spend the next three days convincing her she made him happy. And that was becoming less and less an accurate portrayal of his feelings for her. He missed the early days, four short months ago, when they were happy, and she wasn’t constantly disappointed with everything he said or did.  

He took a long drink of his horosk, savoring the burn of the smoky alcohol on his tongue. He was supposed to be forgetting his shitty day, and instead, he was busy worrying about his shitty relationship. Before he fully thought through his plan, his fingers started making his decision for him. 

Garrus: Sorry, got caught up in work. 

Fighting the guilt eating away at him for tiptoeing towards a lie, he stared down at his omni-tool waiting for her reply. The longer he waited, his anxiety built. He could picture her sitting in her apartment, fuming and tapping her talons as she cursed and called him an asshole to herself. A ping came eventually, but only after he’d worked himself up worrying over what she was going to say. 

Livia: Sometimes I think you work late on purpose.

Garrus: Liv, please. I’m sorry. 

Livia: Fine. I’m going out with friends instead.

Her feelings were hurt — understandable. She probably wanted him to ask her to come out with him instead. He probably should. 

He didn’t.

Garrus: Sorry. I’ll message you when I get home, and I’ll make it up to you tomorrow night. 

“Ouch,” Shepard said, and when he looked up, fully expecting her to be watching some poor sap getting rejected, he saw her eyes glued to his omni-tool instead.

He closed the message and scowled at her, “When did I say you’re allowed to look at all my messages?”

She started surveying the room and took a giant gulp of her drink. Then, turning back to him, she shrugged and nudged him with her elbow. “Do you really care if I look at all your messages?”

No, he didn’t, actually. What he cared about was getting caught being an asshole to his mate. “Don’t let her find out about this,” he pleaded. 

Her brow rose in slight confusion. “About what?”

“Letting her think I’m still working.”

“Oh ok, when she and I get manicures together, I’ll be sure to keep your secret.” Shepard punctuated her point with a sly grin. 

Vakarian lifted his drink as Shepard made that smart little remark, and he was sure to give her a dirty look before he pressed his lips to the glass. He wasn’t actually mad at her, and she knew it, so she just smiled up at him. Her legs started bouncing as she sat on her stool. Her endless energy was impressive sometimes. 

“Sorry, I won’t read your messages if you don’t want me to. But if you need a break, you should be able to tell her.”

“I don’t care if you read my messages,” was all he said. He couldn't respond to her other point because she was right, he should be able to tell Livia he needed a night with his friends without hurting her feelings. Somehow he was too stupid to figure how to go about that, though, because no matter what he said, Livia was upset.  

“Hey, wanna go to the range tomorrow?” Shepard asked, casual concern on her face. How in the hell had a human become such a wonderful friend? He answered her with a nod. Already, his shoulders felt twenty pounds lighter. 

“Shepard!” Kryik called out from Vakarian’s right side to Shepard, who was on his left. Knowing they were about to revisit their morning discussion, he sincerely regretted sitting between them. “So are you going to just provide some general information, or are you going to give some tips too?”

Shepard’s head fell back as she laughed, “You actually think you can convince a human female to fuck you? Maybe if you weren't such an ugly bastard...”

“I’m just fascinated at this point. I just learned about the clitoris. Based on what I’ve heard, the only thing I can compare it to is the nape on turians.” Spirits take him, Vakarian wasn’t sure if sitting with Livia in a miserable mood or listening to his friend and partner talk about erogenous zones was worse. Obviously, he’d thought sitting with Livia was, or she would be there to provide a distraction from those two. He ran a heavy hand over his face and took another drink.  

“Nape?” Curiosity and confusion twisted Shepard’s brows and quirked her lips. She had a wonderfully expressive and endearing face. 

“Thought you’ve watched turian porn?” Kryik taunted her with a smirk. 

“Like on your neck?”

“Yeah, most sensitive place on our bodies, other than the slit.” Kryik lifted a hand to point at the back of his neck, right beneath the soft plates and hovering just over his nape.

Recognition immediately dawned on Shepard’s face, “ Ohhh, that’s what all the licking and nipping on the back of the neck was about.”

Vakarian rolled his eyes, asking any deity that had the slightest possibility of existing to make these two shut up. Why couldn’t they just talk about normal, fun things, like weapon mods and optimizing algorithms?

Blessed silence passed between them for a moment. All Vakarian could hear was the chatter in the bar and loud music, which he could put up with. Even though she was silent, Shepard was thinking entirely too hard about this nape concept; he could tell because he knew her too well. The wheels in her head turned just as clearly as when she was working on a case. Out of the corner of his eye, Vakarian saw Kryik watching her, chuckling softly to himself. 

Almost startling Vakarian, Shepard threw her arms up. “So many overheard locker conversations are starting to make sense!”

When Vakarian turned to make sure Shepard saw the incredulous look he gave her he noticed a male human hovering over her shoulder. Although she was oblivious to the guys’ presence, the guy was gawking, watching her with lovestruck eyes, and clearly gathering up the nerve to talk to her. 

As much as it made him lose respect for the guy, Vakarian understood. She was energetic and blunt, and she seemed so much bigger than she was. Even though she was small, her body was strong, tight, and she carried herself and talked to people like there was no question she was in charge. It had pulled Vakarian in almost from the moment they met, too. If she were a turian, he’d probably react to her the same way. 

Eventually catching on that Vakarian was staring at something, she followed his eye line and looked over her shoulder to see the guy. As soon as she looked at him, he grinned so wide he could compete in a salarian smiling contest. 

As soon as she laid eyes on him, Shepard instantly smiled back. “Hi.”

“God, you are fucking gorgeous,” the guy blurted, making Shepard laugh in delighted surprise while Vakarian and Kryik exchanged a look. They were about to lose Shepard. “Alliance?”

Vakarian watched her body language; she liked the guy. And he looked like most of the guys she was into — fit with light hair. Blonde is what humans called it. “C-Sec,” she answered with a proud smile.  

“I could have sworn you’re Alliance.”

“Oh yeah?” Shepard tossed her hair over her shoulder and leaned forward a little bit.

“You look like you could be the commander of a ship.”

Kryik and Vakarian barked out laughing at the guy’s ridiculous line, but Shepard shot them both a dirty look over her shoulder. Vakarian might have felt bad for laughing if the guy wasn’t so wrapped up in Shepard; he didn’t even notice the two turians laughing at him. 

Quickly regaining her stride, though, she gave the guy her best smile. “Well how about I lead you to that corner over there, and we can get away from these idiots?” Shepard blinked her eyes rapidly — batting eyelashes was a flirting thing for humans, she had told him once. Vakarian thought she just looked kind of crazy. 

And with that, Shepard swept the guy off his feet and into a corner, where they quickly started making out. The poor enamored guy soon found himself in heaven, sitting on a stool with Shepard straddling his lap, and Vakarian was certain that whatever humans called kissing was certainly not conducive to breathing. 

Vakarian felt Kryik’s elbow in his side, nudging to get his attention because he’d been watching Shepard. He was always a bit protective when she wandered off with guys, but he was also staring because kissing was strange . He always caught himself staring when humans or asari wrapped their lips around one another's; but, when Shepard did it, he spent even more time trying to dissect just what it was about kissing that humans and asari found appealing — maybe because Shepard did it so enthusiastically. 

“It looks weird hm, kissing?” Kryik said. “It’s nice, though. Ever thought of making out with a human or asari before, just to see what it’s like?” 

“Not really, looks terrible.” Thinking of his mate sitting at her apartment, upset at him and alone, Vakarian shifted in his seat and took a drink. But he kept watching Shepard as she rocked her hips up against the guy. He sat under her, looking as if he was drowning in an ocean, wave after wave slapping over him. Granted, he’d never seen a guy so happy to be drowning. But still. 

Maybe the commander comment wasn’t so far off.  

Kryik broke Vakarian’s thoughts with a soft laugh.

Vakarian, peeling his eyes off Shepard, turned back to look at Kryik, “Hm?”

“She told me this morning I couldn’t handle her, and I think she’s actually right about that.”

Vakarian nodded with a tired smile. Shepard was such a little ball of fire, and she was going to engulf that guy.

“It’s always made sense why you and Shepard get along, you know?”

“Oh yeah?” Vakarian wasn’t interested in the answer; he was starting to wish he was at home. Shepard may have endless energy, but he didn’t.

“I’m surprised you’ve never thought of something more with Shepard, even though she’s human. She’s your type, you know.” 

“I don’t have a type.” Vakarian could barely get the words out, and for some reason, agitation built up within him as Kryik so comfortably delved into love and relationships, bringing up thoughts and feelings Vakarian always avoided like a thresher maw nest. Especially with Kryik. 

“You do, and it’s not Livia. When we were younger, you always chose women who were full of life, and funny, and tough as a fucking krogan.” 

Vakarian opened his mouth to deny that thoroughly, but Kryik just kept talking. “I get it. Livia was safe. I’m sure deep down, you knew there was no risk of losing your heart to her.”

“Dammit, Nih,” Vakarian muttered, letting his subvocals and clenched mandibles send the message since he didn’t have the words to express how angry Kryik was making him. 

“Where is Livia, hm?” And just when Vakarian was about to tell Kryik to back off, Kryik got a look in his eye that said he was fully aware Vakarian wasn’t going to like what he was about to say. “Shepard reminds me of Cama.” 

Anger leaped up in Vakarian faster than he could register it. Memories and images of the only woman he’d ever loved surged through his tired and slightly drunk brain. Her beautiful happy face as she rested in his arms. Her sad eyes the last time they saw each other and she crushed his soul. Five years had passed since they said goodbye, and he still missed her with every breath he took and every beat of his heart. It was low, and Kryik had to know that just mentioning her name would send him reeling.  

Vakarian found himself growling while trying to push memories of her deep down. “I spent all day at that crime scene. I don’t need your analytical shit tonight.”

Kryik wasn't listening though; he was too busy sharing his unwelcome opinions. “Shepard’s so much like Cama -”

“No, she’s fucking not,” Vakarian finally snapped. He loved Kryik like a brother, but the guy had no idea when to back off.  

He felt Kryik’s eyes watching while waiting for his growl to die down. And only a second after it finally did, Kryik said, “Well, I can’t imagine Shepard ever letting you down, so she’s not completely like Cama, hm?”

Vakarian was barely listening to Kryik by that point and didn’t feel obligated to respond anymore. Of course Kryik thought he was helping, but all he was doing was pissing Vakarian off and forcing him down an even darker and more depressing hole than he’d already been dangling over.

Vakarian didn’t want to hear it. Any of it. He didn’t want to compare Shepard to Cama because that would just make him start to pick apart Shepard’s personality and habits for no reason. Shepard was wonderful, and she didn’t deserve that. And most of all, he didn’t want to think about the only woman he had ever loved, the one who had broken his heart so deeply he swore he would never allow himself to get that close to anyone ever again. Shepard was starting to test that pact he’d made with himself, but at least she was just a human. And just a friend. 

And most of all, he didn’t want to admit that he’d never love anyone like he loved Cama. 

🔪🔪🔪

When Shepard saw T'Saris saying goodbye to Vakarian and Kryik, she wandered back over so she could join in on the ‘goodnights.’ 

After T'Saris left, Kryik turned to Shepard, “Not going home with the human?”

“No,” Shepard said coolly. Her cheeks were sore from grinning so much, and her lips numb from making out for so long. The guy was sweet and had been a nice little distraction. “He was pretty hot, though, hm?”

“Can’t say I’m attracted to human males,” Kryik said. “But if he was so hot, why aren’t you leaving with him?”

“When I meet a guy I really like I get stupid. I got his number, though, so I can always call him later.”  

After flashing Kryik a grin, Shepard glanced over at her partner, who was leaning over the bar cradling his drink. She knew her partner well, almost like the back of her hand nowadays. He was upset about something. Shepard read it easily in his tense shoulders and tight mandibles. “Why are you so quiet?” She nudged him with her shoulder and offered a playful smile, hoping to lift his spirits. 

She watched him sigh, then sit up straighter as if gathering up his energy. “It’s getting late, and I’m ready to be home.” Vakarian stood up then, looking like the weight of the galaxy was pushing him down as he raised his omni-tool to pay his tab. 

She knew it was something more than being tired and knew that if he went home alone, he’d just keep sliding down that slope and would wind up even worse off tomorrow. Vakarian was one to pull away and isolate himself, and the longer she let that happen, the thicker his shell would be and the harder she’d have to work to crack him out of it. “It’s not that late. Come on.” She playfully nudged him with her hip, which got a queer look from him. Sure, maybe it was too playful, but he needed some prodding. “Come over and hang out.”

Thankfully he agreed, and with Kryik in tow, the three of them left together. Only two steps out the door she saw two Alliance guys, dog tags clearly announcing their affiliation, leaning against the wall, eyeing her group. She noted the clear look of disgust and anger and wished she hadn’t because she couldn’t keep herself from glaring back at them. The bouncers, a female turian and an asari were at least thirty feet away arguing with a krogan who didn’t want to go home, even though he had vomit trickling down his chin in a putrid green trail of slime. 

“Fucking turians sure helps you get ahead out here, huh?” one of the Alliance guys called out. 

Without a beat, as if she was expecting it, the asari bouncer yelled over to them, “We told you assholes to stop harassing women leaving the bar. Knock it the fuck off.” For added effect, the turian bouncer shot the Alliance guys a very threatening glare before turning back to the krogan. 

Shepard should have just kept walking, just like Vakarian and Kryik were. She should have ignored the guy. But she was sick of it. Her day had been shitty enough, and she had enough alcohol in her to make her not give a fuck about the consequences of her actions. She’d been on the station three years and was entirely sick of the racist bullshit. She was sick of being accused of riding a turian’s coattails — or worse — to get ahead, and this asshole didn’t even know everything they said about her at C-Sec. Having enough sense not to use words, though, she let her middle finger do the talking. 

They only made it a few feet before the guy slurred, “Takes a lot of energy to let two turians tag team you.” It wasn’t just the words that struck her last nerve; it was the chuckling that bled from the humans like an auditory plague. It infected her, filling her with rage. Instantly the two Alliance men represented all the men they put behind bars for letting their self-hatred fester and rot until they took it out on women with vitriol and violence. Did the men who attacked Ziha shout obscenities at her? Did they treat her like she existed just for their amusement? Like she was an object to be debased and used? 

Shepard stopped. A quick glance told her the bouncers were tied up with the krogan who was starting to get shove-y. Although she could feel Vakarian’s hand gently grasp her arm to convince her just to leave, she stuck to her objective. Taking three quick strides towards the guy she shoved his friend out of the way and laid her fist into his jaw with enough force to make him stumble back. Stupid, sure. It hurt like hell and was a dumb place to punch someone, but it was oh so satisfying.  

“Fucking bitch,” the guy spat, swaying for a moment as he tried to catch his balance. Recovering, he stepped forward, his furious eyes looking her up and down. Shepard held her clenched fist at her side, trying her damndest not to let on that her hand was throbbing. More alcohol would fix that.

“I’m getting real sick of the cock envy,” Shepard calmly said, crossing her arms and staring the guy down. 

The guy’s friend eyed Vakarian and Kryik, thinly hiding the apprehension he clearly felt looking at the two muscular turians who towered over them. “You gonna tell your boyfriends to beat us up?” he mocked, a slight shake in his voice. Vakarian and Kryik casually stood behind her, and were barely interested in the guy..

Vakarian looked the two men over briefly. “I’m more than slightly offended you think we’re dumb enough to get into a fight with two Alliance soldiers,” he drawled, a single mandible flicking up just briefly as he crossed his arms and cocked out a hip. 

Kryik, in a similar stance, added dryly, “She can handle you two.”

Vakarian then laughed, deep and rumbly, “We’re just here to look pretty.”

Shepard knew her turian friends had no interest in fighting the guys — mostly because Pallin would nail their asses to the wall. But, also because no one would be pleased with two retired Hierarchy special ops picking on Alliance soldiers at an asari bar. That one might even make the news. Otherwise, Kryik would take them both out, all by himself, before either saw him coming.  

Both guys glanced at the bouncers, probably hoping they could rely on them to step in. They had to know by now they picked a fight with the wrong people.

The guy she had already punched looked back at her. “Go on home, honey, so your skullface boyfriends ca—” but the guy didn’t get to finish because Shepard had already nailed her fist into his stomach. Much softer than the jaw and more damage to the asshole. Better choice, and the way the guy lurched forward made it just as satisfying as punching his jaw.  

“They’re my co-workers, you limp-dick bitch, but if I want to take them both home and let them fuck me until I can’t walk, that’s none of your goddamn business. Fuck off.

While he righted himself, his friend looked over to Kryik and Vakarian again and did nothing to help the guy with a mouth bigger than his balls. And that big-mouthed asshole didn’t know when to shut up, either. Holding a hand to his gut, a smart-ass look on his face made it clear he would say something else that would piss her off even more, and she wanted to shut him up before he had the chance. She raised her fist, ready to land another blow, anger burning, and blood pumping. In her mind, she could see his dumb face and her fist breaking his damn nose.  

Just as she pulled her fist back, she faintly heard one of the bouncers shout something their way while a large turian arm wrapped around her waist and three turian fingers wrapped around her balled-up hand. Suddenly she felt weightless as Vakarian’s arms pulled her body back and her feet off the ground. 

“Alright,” Vakarian drawled, the amusement flavoring his tone in stark contrast to her fuming rage, “I think we’ve had enough fun tonight. Come on, Shep.” For the second time that day, his arms saved her from a tricky situation, just when she needed him. 

Laughing softly, Kryik turned to the bouncers. “It’s alright. We’re getting her out of here.”

And that was that. Shepard’s turian partner kept her from kicking an Alliance soldier's ass. Vakarian didn’t put her raging body down until they were down the block and around a corner. She may have been outwardly throwing a fit about the whole thing by wiggling around in his arms, but inwardly she was thankful Vakarian was always there for her — even when she would have preferred kicking a dude’s ass and paying the price for it. Vakarian had her back, though, and helped her keep her head on straight.  

A short skycar ride and an even shorter walk gave her enough time to calm down. Shepard and Vakarian walked through her apartment door, taking turns stepping around Rocket. The cat wove an intricate pattern from Shepard’s legs to Vakarian’s and back, like a little fluffy worm, while he chirped some nonsense that only he understood. Shepard smiled, realizing Vakarian had gotten just as good at delicately stepping around her silly cat, who fully expected creatures much larger than him to not step on or trip over him.

With the cat fed and appeased, and Shepard and Vakarian fed and appeased, they each poured their drinks and wandered over to the living room together. Shepard turned on the fireplace for the little cat and the large turian, who both appreciated the warmth.   

They settled in, Shepard nestled in the deep couch cushions, and Vakarian sat down on the floor by her legs and as close to her fireplace as possible. As they sat in peace, the warm glow illuminated the dim room and cast shadows that danced on the walls, the furniture, even on Vakarian’s solemn face. It reminded her of the way the overhead lights kept flickering as they sat with Ziha and waited for CEMS. Away from the distractions at work and the noise of the bar, Shepard couldn't get images of the poor quarian out of her head. No matter how hard she chased them, they hammered back in, unwilling to let her relax and forget about the horror. Bowels sitting in her lap so casually, like it was normal for them to be there. Her blood seeping from stab wounds across her stomach and chest. Her throat sliced open. The way her chest struggled to rise and was all too quick to fall. And that look in Ziha’s eyes as she watched Vakarian telling her it would all be ok.

“What’d Kryik do to piss you off back at the bar?” She knew it had to be something Kryik said because he constantly said something that invaded Vakarian’s comfort zone. If they weren’t completely different colorings with drastically different clan markings, she would have thought they were brothers when she first started working with them.  

“He thought tonight would be an excellent time to make me think about the only woman I’ve ever loved.”

Shepard huffed in response, acknowledging how dumb that was. She didn’t know anything about that story, but she at least understood Vakarian well enough to never ask about it. Then she realized that he never hid that stuff from her because he trusted her not to talk about it. 

She watched Vakarian’s strong chest rise and fall slowly, steadily, and remembered how horrible and anxious she felt watching Ziha use her last remnants of strength to keep breathing. There was something surreal and terrifying, watching someone, expecting each breath to be their last.  

Amidst the cloud of alcohol dulling her senses, Shepard finally realized the sobering truth — those images would never go away. Not tonight, not ever. 

This was the case. Every detective had that case, the one that changed them forever. Shepard let out a shallow breath, watching Vakarian relax with his gaze on the fire, and propped her tired head up with a hand. The room was quiet, but Shepard couldn't decide if it was unnerving or cozy. Her hoarse voice finally sliced through the silence, “Have you ever seen someone die?”

The look on Vakarian’s face instantly made her realize what a stupid question that was. Of course he had; he was a goddamn sniper in special ops. A better question, though she’d never ask it something so horrible and personal,  would have been ‘how many people have you personally killed, and did you ever cut someone clean open like they cut Ziha open.’ A shiver ran up her spine.

He took a slow drink from his glass. “You never have, hm?” 

Shepard tucked her legs up under her even tighter, drawing within herself for warmth and comfort and probably to keep her legs from bouncing around like they constantly ached to do when she thought about stuff she didn’t want to. “No. I’ve only seen people alive or dead, no in-between. No confusing moments that make me question just how long we all have on this…” she stopped there, realizing just how slow her brain was getting from the alcohol. “I’m not on Earth. You know what I mean.” She waved her hand in the air, “How long we have, wherever we are.”

Then she asked what she should have from the start of this conversation. “Are you used to it? Seeing shit like that?”

He was quiet for a moment, and she hoped he was going to say no. Because she wasn’t quite sure what she’d think about herself and her ability to keep doing this job if he made any indication that what they just went through that day was normal for him. That it was ok and he’d just go on like it hadn’t happened.

His eyes stayed on his drink. Or maybe he was looking at his hands. “I’m used to seeing a little speck of a person,” he held up his fingers to indicate how small a body would look to him through his scope, “dropping down after I pull a trigger. I’m used to snapping a neck, letting a body fall as I walk away.” He took another slow drag from his glass. “You never get used to holding someone’s hand as they fade away, though. The crying, the begging...I hate it.”

“Is that why you left the Hierarchy after enlistment? You couldn't take it anymore?”

“Ten years is enough.” He sighed, seemingly thinking of something. Then his eyes hazed, some kind of dark thoughts invading his consciousness. He looked at her for a moment, and she could tell he was considering whether or not he should say whatever he was thinking. 

“I got sick of shooting people,” he eventually said. “And there’s only so much you can do to challenge yourself after ten years. You can only nail a person between the eyes so many times before you start wondering what would happen if you shot them somewhere else. And ten seconds after I indulged that curiosity by shooting a drell in the throat, I decided I’d get out when my conscription was up.” 

Shepard nearly choked on the brandy she was trying to swallow. After taking a moment to force her drink down and wipe at her wet lips, she looked at her tired, worn-down friend. “Fuck, Garrus,” she said, her voice just above a whisper. 

His head turned to look up at her, and after making sure he hadn’t completely scared her off, he continued, “I ended it a second later with a clean shot that took him out. I’d also like to mention that he was part of a merc group that set off an explosion at a colony. Took out a couple of families.” He paused and ran a hand over his fringe. “But...guess I shouldn’t have told you all that.”

His story ran through her head as she remembered how much fun they always had at the shooting range together. How lighthearted he always looked. The joy she saw in him when they shot targets didn’t seem to match up with the darkness he just revealed. “But you like shooting. You love it.”

Vakarian shrugged, staring down at his drink, “I like being good at things.”

“Please tell me you’re not thinking like that when we’re at the shooting range, laughing and bullshiting.”

“No. I don’t think much of anything when I shoot. It clears your mind. Blank space. No worries, no doubts. No thoughts. Just breathe, click, pop. Repeat. Sometimes there’s a living body on the end of your scope, sometimes just a target.” 

Shepard only realized she was staring at him with mild shock written all over her face when he turned to face her, and he looked truly sorry for what he said.

Fueled by guilt she gently nudged his shoulder with her knee because she hated seeing him doubt himself. “It’s ok. You don’t have to hide that shit from me.” He didn’t say anything, but she swore she could see him relax a little like a load had been taken off his shoulders. Hearing him confess that to her, and how just telling him he didn’t have to hide from her, all his dark thoughts and weaknesses, made her feel awful for thinking she couldn't cry in front of him. He trusted her, and she should have known he’d never judge her for her weaknesses. 

They sat in silence a while longer, enjoying the peace and comfort her home offered them after a grueling day. The flames flickered. Periodically, they heard the soft padding of Rocket’s footsteps as he patrolled the apartment. 

Vakarian finally sighed, trying to ignore Rocket, who had eventually wandered over and was dancing in circles on his tiptoes, asking for attention. “Killing people...you get used to it, Shep.” 

Shepard accepted his truth with a nod and would have protested the loss of silence if Vakarian’s voice wasn’t so warm and soothing. 

He continued, “Just like you’re used to seeing dead bodies and treating them like evidence instead of people. But... it just makes me wonder who attacked Ziha. What have they done that led up to doing that to someone? Can you imagine what they’re used to?”

“We should check records, see if there are any similar attacks. Might lead to some suspects.”

Vakarian finally petted Rocket, then picked up a nearby toy and dangled it for the excited cat, whose eyes dilated to the size of dinner plates. “It’s someone else’s problem now. Unless she dies, Assault & Battery will take it over.”

“Fuck...I keep forgetting that she’s alive,” Shepard said, shaking her head. “Isn’t that horrible? It’s like my brain can’t believe she could live through that.” 

“To be fair, your brain is swimming in enough alcohol to tell you that nuzz...kissing that creepy, unattractive guy was a good idea.”

“Hey, he was attractive.”

“He had a weird eye thing. I’m surprised you didn’t notice.”

“Fuck off, no he didn’t.”

“And his nose looked like someone dropped a bowl on it.” 

She had said that once — a story about dropping a bowl on her nose when she was a kid, he’d asked her what it looked like (like someone dropped a bowl on it). It had mutually become their favorite insult for strangers, people who pissed them off, or anytime they wanted to make each other laugh. It instantly made them laugh — a little inside joke between them. Every time. Including this one.

“Alright,” she said between boozy chuckles, “now I know you’re fucking me.” 

His browplate rose, and he looked at her like she just proved his point. It made her pause, carefully replaying what she had just said.

“Fuck, I mean fucking with me.” She chuckled again. “Dammit, I am drunk. But he was attractive. And he wasn’t creepy — what’s so wrong with wanting someone who’ll worship you, anyway?” 

“A lot, unless you worship them right back,” he quickly replied, suddenly dry and bitter.  

“Garrus…” she sighed, wishing she could understand where to go with that comment. Somehow, homicidal confessions were easier to navigate with Vakarian than those of a romantic nature. Waiting for her to finish her sentence, his head turned to look up at her attentively, and he seemed more vulnerable than she’d seen him all day. It brought up a desire to protect him instead of berating him. “I adore you and all the weird and wonderful things about you.”

He smiled at that while slowly swirling the dwindling liquid in his glass. The look on his face told her he knew it was true.

“I just want you to be happy,” she said.

“I am,” he replied honestly.

No, not just now, all the time.

With a heavy sigh, he returned to the case, “Let’s keep hoping it’ll be handed off to someone tomorrow, but we’ll pass along everything we have.” 

He finished off his drink and set the empty glass on the coffee table — and even to her drunk ass, she could tell his depth perception was off. “Mind if I stay here tonight? I don’t think I’d make it much further than your door, and I’m sure you don’t want to step over my hungover body on your way to work in the morning.”

“Yeah, can you make it to your home away from home, or do you want me to bring you a blanket?”

“I can make it.”

Shepard paused, realizing just how often he passed out in her spare bedroom, either drunk or exhausted from working late. “Livia never gets upset about you staying here?”

“Why do you think I’m dumb enough to tell her when I stay here?”

Shepard let out a huff of a laugh, and she momentarily forgot about her promise to protect him instead of berating him. “Real strong relationship you’re building there, Garrus. Built on trust and respect and…”

“Fuck off, Shep,” he muttered. 

“Fricken tell me to fuck off,” she mumbled, only a hint of threat in her inebriated, pouty voice. She nudged his shoulder with her knee, which he answered by shoving his elbow into her thigh. They went back and forth like that, nudging and elbowing each other with just enough force for it to be annoying until they both lost interest or got too tired. 

“You gonna be able to sleep?” he asked, his voice filled with warmth, reminding her of how safe and comforted she felt when he wrapped his arms around her in the elevator. 

“Like a fucking rock,” she knocked back the last of her drink. “I've never had trouble sleeping, once I pass out at least.” 

They sat together a bit longer, watching the flames dance in the dim room. As Shepard leaned in against the back of the couch, Vakarian tucked in so that the couch cushion supported his fringe but didn’t push against his carapace. Shepard mused to herself how strange their bodies were. Turians were beautiful, strong, and strikingly elegant, but they were still strange to her in many ways. 

He looked so peaceful. As he closed his eyes she felt such a comfortable bond with him that the urge to reach out and smooth a soothing hand over his fringe, just like he did when something stressed him out, sparked up in her. 

Watching his handsome face soften with complete relaxation, she blinked, realizing a hug was enough intimate contact between them for one day. Deciding she needed to sleep off the day and those thoughts, her legs shot her upright before she was ready. She swayed a bit as she nearly barked out, “Well, I think I need to get to bed.”

“Night, Shep,” he casually called to her as she took deliberate steps out of the room to ensure her drunk ass didn’t wind up on the floor. She took one last glance back at him to see his eyes still closed and his body reclined back in peace. Offering him a safe place where he could relax and just be himself made her happy. She accepted him just as he was, and after her little episode in the elevator, she realized that he accepted her as well. All her faults and quirks. Even the fact that she went from crying, to making out in a bar, to beating the shit out of an Alliance asshole in a matter of only a few hours. 

With those thoughts in mind, she navigated the staircase leading to her bedroom carefully. And she nearly made it without incident. But, right when she placed her foot on the last step, Rocket shot under her feet, nearly tripping her and knocking her down the entire flight of stairs. She wobbled precariously for just a moment before grasping the railing with a death grip. 

“Fucking cat!” she hissed, but he couldn't even be bothered to look back at her. The wrecker of havoc. In a flash, he disappeared into her bedroom, his black body blending in with the darkness.   

What a fucking day.

Chapter Text

“Wakey wakey,” Shepard’s voice sang through Vakarian’s barely operating consciousness.  After only a moment, he remembered being at her apartment, drinking, and then passing out in her spare bedroom. That’s where he was — sprawled out on a bed — with blankets and pillows haphazardly tucked and twisted around him. Quick tapping followed her cheerful voice. 

He peeked an eye open to see her standing in the doorway, a bright smile on her face as she lazily chewed on a breakfast bar. An irritated, tired drawl rolled out of him. He rested his head back on the pillow gently, careful not to jostle his poor brain, while closing his eyes for a few more seconds of rest in the warm, familiar bed. “I have a headache. How do you not have a headache?”

“I’ve been up for an hour,” she replied, her voice verging on downright chipper. “And I already took my pain reliever and guzzled about a gallon of water.” She was way too awake and happy for hydration and pain killers to be the only explanation. There was something more to her cheerful energy. 

That’s when Vakarian heard the explanation for her chipper mood — the one thing that would make his headache infinitely worse — wailing, crying, pleading vocals set to soft, steady beats traveling from her kitchen. Soul music. 

Although telling her to turn off the music caused even more pain, he needed the torture to end, so he groaned in complaint. Her energizing, happy, wake-up music was his nightmare. 

No relief came, though. She simply stood there, chewing so loud she sounded like a rutting krogan.

“I need some coffee,” he grumbled when she didn’t offer to end his auditory torture. 

“Come on big guy, drag yourself out of bed, and we’ll get some coffee. My treat.”

In defiance, he pulled the blanket up over his head. “Turn the music off, and I’ll come out.”

“You’re such a baby.” She laughed softly, but it still pierced his ears. Her footsteps sounded as she walked away, the door sliding closed behind her.

As soon as Shepard left, he peeled himself out of bed, cleaned up, got dressed, then made his way to the kitchen to join her. Coming around the corner, he was about to complain that the music was still playing but seeing her immediately caused an amused tickle to run through his chest. 

She belted out declarations of love along with the song’s lyrics, and while her execution was out of key (and honestly absolute murder to his hangover sensitive ears), she sang with all her heart. Her hips swayed, almost in time with the music even, as she danced around and teased Rocket with treats. The fluffy little animal turned in circles and shifted around on the tips of his toes, his tail vibrating excitedly. It almost looked like he was dancing along with her. Seeing her so happy, so relaxed, and so... herself , made him forget his physical misery and appreciate moments like this with her instead. 

It only took a few pleading grumbles, albeit made while he still smiled at her, to get Shepard out the door. As promised, she took them to a coffee shop just outside the entrance to C-Sec headquarters, but it was technically located on the Presidium. C-Sec and Embassy staff crowded inside the shop, waiting for their morning fix. A few officers they worked with on cases every once and a while waved good mornings to them. The morning sun sparkled over Presidium Lake, and trees lined the sidewalks. It was obvious to him why she came here for coffee — the location offered an energetic but easy introduction to the waking world. 

They ordered their coffee and tucked themselves into a corner. While energizing everyone else around him, the Presidium morning sun was enough to kill him. He looked down at the floor to get a little relief from the light that pierced his sensitive eyes. The only thing he could see was their feet, and with nothing better to do, he took a moment to consider how small and flat Shepard’s odd feet were. Right there on her feet, he was horrified to see those filthy shoes that she wore to the bar last night. 

If there was one thing he’d break his hangover-induced silence for, it was mocking his partner. It came from concern, of course, but was still mocking. He just didn’t want his partner walking around looking like a duct rat. “You need some new shoes, Shep. Those are repulsive. And I think you’re getting holes in them.”

She shifted her feet around, looking her footwear over. Looking unconcerned, she said, “They’re not actually that dirty. They’re just really faded.” She used the toe of one shoe to rub a small spot on the side of the other, then mumbled, “Mostly.” 

He barely held in his teasing grin and fabricated a disgusted look. “Is that vomit from last month’s drell case?”

She smacked him in the shoulder — not as gently as he would have liked considering his hangover – with the back of her hand. It was hard enough to knock his restrained grin loose so that his mandibles lifted in a toothy smile. Bearing her physical retaliation was worth it, though, because riling her up was just about the most enjoyable part of his day.   

“Well, I don’t usually wear these to the office. But I left my boots in my desk, and I had to wear something in.”

“So they’re not good enough to wear to work, but they are good enough to pick up guys at the bar.”

She rolled her eyes. “Guys don’t give a fuck what’s on my feet.” 

“I wouldn't pick up a woman who wore shoes like that.”

“Well, if I ever want you to pick me up, I promise I’ll wear a clean pair.” She shot him a teasing glance and a cute little smile that easily coaxed one out of him in return. Her voice softened when she said, “I like these. They were brand new when I moved to the Citadel, so they have sentimental value.”

“Can’t you get a new pair on the Citadel? Asari styles must fit you.”

“I don’t want asari ones. I want these.” As she inspected her shoes, sadness fell over her features. It was like she was contemplating the state of the galaxy, instead of merely inspecting something that deserved to be tossed in the garbage bin. That sentimental look instantly made him regret making fun of them, though, because they obviously meant something to her. 

Just as he was about to apologize and withdraw his advice that she buy a new pair, his omni-tool chimed. He immediately let out a hissing curse as his heart leaped up into his throat because he knew exactly who the message was from and could pretty accurately guess what it said.

“What?” Shepard looked up, alarm pinching her brows.

“I forgot to message Liv before I fell asleep. She’s going to be pissed.” Looking from the message to Shepard, Vakarian’s mandibles clicked in tight. “I don’t even want to see what this message says.”

“Want me to look?” She stood up on her toes and peered over to take a peek. “I’ll tell you how bad it is.”

“No, I’d rather you keep thinking I’m perfect. Any message from Livia may lower your opinion of me.”

“A disparaging message from your mate isn’t enough for me to doubt your undeniable perfection,” she flashed a wide, teasing smile at him that stole his focus. She made it so easy to ignore anything unpleasant because she was so bright and happy — like sunshine itself. Natural sunshine, not the fake sun rays created by Citadel tech. A flush of warmth shot up his neck when the term apricus popped into his mind – full of sunlight. That’s what Jane Shepard was — and not just to him, to everyone in her life. 

As he stared at her, letting her easy, natural happiness transfer to him, she playfully nudged his waist with her elbow before retrieving their order from the counter. And just like that — with a simple smile and nudge with her elbow — Shepard lifted his spirits.   

“Stop teasing me,” he told her, taking his coffee and following her through the crowd and out of the shop. “I’m a sucker for flattery, even when it’s fake.” 

“Believe me, your vanity is well-established at this point. And who says I’m teasing?” 

“Clearly my mother is paying you off. It’s not normal to be this nice and supportive. Unless you’re getting something out of it.”

Shepard laughed at that. “If that were true, your mom would be in some serious debt.”

He gave her a dramatically suspicious look — sharp eyes and pinched brows. “She did just say she’s thinking of selling that asari landscape piece she loves.”

She shrugged and glanced over her shoulder. “You caught us. Your mom is selling her beloved belongings to fund the supplementation of her grown-ass son’s self-esteem. Impeccable detective work, Mr. Vakarian.”

He felt like reaching out and playfully pinching her for that one, but he gave her a dirty look and a smile instead. 

As they walked down the street, her words repeated in his head. Undeniable perfection. For some reason, that rang through his head. And her smile looked sincere rather than teasing. His hand lifted to rub at his chest, where a warm knot settled. 

Trying to ignore that knot, he kept joking with her. “Three years of constant flattery. What’s the going rate for that?”

“Annually? 100k credits, at least.”

“Ouch, pretty steep.”

“Oh, I have to charge extra because I have to lie so much. The lies are big, too, let me tell you. You are so good at hacking into things, Vakarian. You’re the best shot I’ve ever seen, Vakarian. You solved that case all on your own, Vakarian.

To keep their game going, he held back the light laugh that tickled his throat. “Hm, must be exhausting. Does she tell you what to say, or do you have to come up with it all on your own?”

“She gives me general ideas to work from, but a lot of my compliments are sort of spur of the moment and topical.”

“Ah, so it requires a great deal of creativity.”

“Yup.”

“Well, you do good work. Obviously, my mom’s debt is worth it because my self-esteem has never been higher than these past three years being your partner.” 

“Listen, if you're going to do something, you have to do it right.” She winked at him then. 

He was about to tease her for sounding like his father (which had been her intent) when they turned a corner heading towards the elevator, and a C-Sec officer stumbled into him. The fool was in such a rush and was so oblivious to her surroundings that she nearly knocked his coffee out of his hand. He steadied it, though, just as the officer’s hand landed on top of his to keep it from spilling. 

“Spirits,” the officer muttered. “I am so sorry. I’m in a hurry.”

“No problem,” Vakarian replied, then looked down at her badge, “Officer Regitus.”

She smiled — awkwardly and eagerly — while her mandibles fluttered nervously. Despite saying she was in a hurry, though, she stood still, gawking up at him like she wanted to say something else. Or maybe she wanted him to say something? Finally, she removed her hand from his. He cleared his throat and excused himself to follow Shepard, who was already three steps ahead of him.     

“That was weird,” he muttered. 

“She couldn't stop staring at your pretty blue eyes,” Shepard teased, her own green eyes flashing at him in amusement. 

“Hm, another compliment. How much did that just set my mom back?”

“That one? Only 50 credits. I don’t make much on compliments when I don’t have to lie.” She took a sip of her coffee as he caught up with her, her eyelashes batting from behind the cup.

A trill threatened to leap out of him, but instead, a nervous chuckle came out. A sound that hadn’t come out of him since he was fifteen. There was something about Shepard complimenting him, even when she was only joking, that made him feel like a foolish fledgling. He never got flustered when turians told him he was attractive, so maybe it was because she was a human. That was the only explanation that made sense.

 “Alright,” he said as if he was asking a suspect to give up a ruse, “Vakarian Appreciation Hour is over. Give my mom’s credit account a rest, and I’ll thank the night sky that humans lie so easily.” 

She pretended to huff. “I do something nice for you, and I get accused of being a liar.”

“Hey, that reminds me,” he said, “have we watched that vid yet where the turian Spectre falls in love with an asari teacher, and he thinks he needs to keep lying to her about being a Spectre or she’ll break up with him?”

“A lying turian? I think I’d remember that. Add it to our queue, and we’ll watch it on our next vid night.”

Damn, that sounded good, just relaxing at Shepard’s place, watching a vid. “Can that be tonight?” he asked. 

“Sure,” she said, to his relief. They’d been spending a lot of nights and weekends together lately — most nights and weekends, actually — and he was convinced one of these days she was going to tell him to stop hanging around so much. She probably wanted to invite that guy from the bar over at some point.

They spent the rest of the journey to Homicide talking about their favorite meals to eat while watching vids, making him even more excited to get through the day so he could just relax that evening. As they sat down at their desks and said good morning to Kryik and T’Saris, a second ping sounded from his omni-tool.

“Fuck,” he hissed, suddenly feeling like he was trudging through deep water with his mate. “I forgot to answer Livia.”

Shepard winced. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I distracted you the entire way here.”

“Believe it or not, I’m not angry at you for giving me something more pleasant to do than answer my mate’s angry messages.”

“You answer your mate before she breaks up with you, and I’ll see whether Ziha made it through the night or if we have a murder to solve.” 

After thanking Shepard for stepping in while he managed his plummeting relationship, he looked down to his omni-tool to read the message Livia sent when they were at the coffee shop. Dread made his throat feel tight. 

Livia: You never messaged me, Garrus.  

And then the one she just sent:

Livia: Please don’t make me beg for your attention, Garrus. 

A pang of shame ran through him. He immediately messaged her back after reading the last message.

Garrus: Morning Livia. I’m so sorry I forgot to message you last night. How’s your morning going?

He knew he was a terrible mate. He just didn’t know how to make any of this better because telling the truth — that his job was draining and sometimes he just didn’t have the energy for much else — always led to her heavy sighs and hurt feelings.    

He waited a moment, but no message came back. She was disappointed in him. Again.

Garrus: It was a long, rough day. I’m sorry.

Livia: You can still make time for me. Don’t use your job as an excuse. 

No ‘good morning’ or ‘how are you?’ in return — she was probably too angry at him.

Garrus: I'm sorry. It’s not an excuse, just a fact. Yesterday was a rough one.

Livia: I never forget to message you. And my job is important. I have ambassadors on my neck day and night.

He felt his browplates knot and mandibles click in tight. She did forget – all the damn time. And not just because of work — it also slipped her mind when she went out with friends or when she went shopping. The only difference was his spurs didn’t get bent over little shit like this. 

What did get him riled up was feeling like he was going crazy. Did she honestly not remember instances when she messed up, or did she think he wouldn’t notice?

Garrus: I remember a few times when you did, but that’s not the point. Let’s just focus on something else.  

Livia: I can’t remember a time that I ever forgot. 

He held himself back from responding — doing so wasn’t going to lead them anywhere good.

Livia: Well, I suppose I can’t argue with a detective, can I? 

Livia: How did I find such a handsome, smart man? Always keeping track!  

The real question was how in the hell she was capable of making a compliment seem like an insult. 

“Good news,” Kryik’s slightly astonished voice broke through Vakarian’s focus on smoothing things over with Livia, “looks like you guys don’t have to solve the quarian’s murder. She’s alive. Bad news is, it looks like the news cycle is picking this one up.”

Vakarian looked up and over to Kryik, then followed his eye line to his console screen, which displayed a news story covering Ziha’s attack. Vakarian was surprised the news covered an attack on a quarian in the lower wards — a poor single quarian gutted in a maintenance corridor wasn’t a threat to their way of life. The general population usually ignored attacks on people they didn’t care about in favor of stories about pretty, young asari, or hate crimes. In other words, crimes that scared the rich, comfortable people who made and watched the news. 

“Well, that’s awesome,” Shepard said, sounding pleased and staring at her console. She probably had the case reports pulled up already. “Ziha is alive, and we don’t have to find those fuckers. Assault and Battery can handle it. And they can handle all the media scrutiny, too.”

Vakarian nodded, eyes glued to Kryik’s console and watching the shots of the dark, crowded lower wards tactically placed to frighten viewers interspersed with shots of Huerta Memorial where CEMS took Ziha. He thought of poor Tali, and hoped she wasn’t watching the coverage. 

Vakarian began to list off everything he’d have to do — he’d have to call Tali soon to make arrangements to see her while she was here taking care of Ziha. And he’d have to finalize their reports so they could hand over the case to Assault and Battery. That was all after he smoothed things over with Livia. Vid night was going to be essential at the end of the day.

A chime rang out on his omni-tool. 

Livia: Garrus! Stop ignoring me. Spirits guide me.

He growled, feeling less sorry for all the negative thoughts he had about their relationship lately. This — this is why she exhausted him sometimes. 

Garrus: Liv, I'm at work. I can't reply as quickly as you want. Let’s make plans, hm? Dinner this weekend?

There was a long pause. He stared at the screen, waiting for her reply. The clacks of console keys, Shepard sipping her coffee, and Kryik and T'Saris giving each other shit about something surrounded him. The sounds were all a comfort to him, though, rather than an annoyance. They were familiar. They were the sounds that surrounded him when he had purpose. While he was an absolute screwup at relationships (and it seemed he always would be), he was good at his job. 

As he debated whether to focus on Livia or to go back to work, he grew more agitated because he knew he had to help Shepard with the casework. However, he didn't want to piss off Livia any more than he already had. Was it normal to feel this bitter towards your mate? 

Right when he gave up on Livia and leaned forward to log into his console, a chime rang, and he simultaneously felt relieved that she wasn't going to give him the silent treatment but also feared what her reply would be. 

He dismissed a nagging thought resting deep within his mind that they needed a break — he needed a break. 

Livia: I’ll forgive you for not messaging me. We can have dinner tonight and just relax. Maybe watch a vid. That sounds nice, right? I have a summit this weekend, so after tonight we won’t be able to hang out for a while. 

Damn all the spirits . He’d have to cancel his plans with Shepard now. The hopes of having a relaxing night with his friend flew out the window. 

He sighed.

“What’s up, big guy?” Looking over at his partner, he saw Shepard’s bright smile shining his way and was thankful for their friendship because it offered him a little reprieve from life’s frustrations.  

“You ever just want to disappear for a few days?” he asked. 

Shepard’s reply was interrupted by a chime on his omni-tool.

Livia: Well? I’ve missed you. 

Scolding himself for his mopey thoughts, he told himself to focus on how much he liked Livia and how much fun they used to have. It made him miss the early days when they watched every palae game together, relaxing on the couch and cheering on their team. 

Garrus: Yeah. You pick the vid. 

Livia: I can’t wait to see you, zucca! 

Garrus: Me too, Liv. Hope you have a good day. 

Despite forcing himself to be more positive, his chest didn’t feel any lighter. And even though a part of him wanted to see his mate, somewhere deep inside he wished he had some excuse not to go over. He just wanted to run from all of this — ignore their arguments and their problems for as long as possible. 

He looked back up at Shepard, who was patiently waiting for him to help out with the case finally.

“Sorry,” he told Shepard, ashamed that his personal problems kept him from pulling his weight at work. 

“No problem. Want me to start compiling all the reports?” she offered. 

Her focus on work gave him the energy to lift himself back up. Work would be a great distraction and get his mind off his problems with Livia for a while. As he scooted closer to his console, he said, “You wanna work on organizing our notes, and I’ll start working them into the report?”

“Sure, who’s writing up notes for the images of the crime scene?”

“Rock paper scissors?” he offered. She’d introduced the little human game long ago, and he was actually really good at it, which pissed her off. But she couldn’t just admit that he was better at it than her. Her eyes narrowed, a look of determination that was simultaneously threatening and adorably endearing fell over her. She leaned forward in her seat and raised her hands into position. He leaned forward with all the intensity of accepting a physical challenge from an adversary.  

“Rock, paper, scissors,” they called out together, knocking fists into upturned palms. 

At the count of three, their fists slammed down in finality. She went with rock, and he went with paper. Ha, he won. He opened up his mouth to declare just as much.

“Ha!” she exclaimed before he could say anything, loud enough to catch Kryik and T’Saris’s attention. “I won,” she declared with a smug little look on her face.  

He couldn't help but look at her, baffled how she thought she won. This may be a human game, but the rules were simple. “No, you didn't, Shep. Paper beats rock.”

She let out a frustrated shout, flung herself back into her chair, then immediately sat up straight again. “This game isn’t fair with you! I can’t tell your paper from your scissors. Your hand looks completely the same!”

“Completely different,” he told her confidently. Then to demonstrate how right he was, he offered his open hand to represent paper. “That’s paper.” He spread his two fingers a bit further apart. “And that’s scissors.”

“That’s exactly the same.”

“Well, regardless, I still won, whether you realized it right away or not.”

“How do I know you didn’t just say paper when you saw that I did rock?” 

“That would be dishonorable, wouldn’t it?”

For some reason, his explanation based on logic and facts just made her angry — her brows knitted, and her lips drew tight— probably because she knew just how wrong she was. Excellent tactic, though – cheating by accusing him of cheating first. “This,” Shepard thrust her hand out towards him, palm forward and fingers stacked tight, “this is paper.”

“Only if you have too many fingers,” he shot back. 

Both of them had their mouths open, ready to fire off another insult or accusation, but T’Saris’ smooth voice beat them to the punch. “Has anyone told you two that you’re absolute idiots?” 

T’Saris’ intervention was enough to end their lighthearted bickering. They stared each other down for just a moment before they both cracked a smile. Shepard’s eyes fell to his omni-tool, then raised again to look at him. She took in a deep breath, and in a flash, her face softened. “I’ll do the notes for the crime scene images.”

He was getting off easy because Livia was giving him a hard time. Shepard’s body language was a clear giveaway. He’d feel guilty about that, but he’d done the same for her in similar situations. He couldn't wish for a partner more perfect for him. And she was a damn good friend, too. 

With his mate placated, they quickly dug into their work, carefully organizing, compiling, and building on their notes so that Assault and Battery had a robust case that would ensure not just that they’d find the attackers but get a conviction. Tali wouldn't get a promise from him that he’d personally find whoever attacked her cousin, but Vakarian would make sure the detective they handed this to start on the best foot possible. 

Near lunchtime and elbow deep in datapads, the only voice as nerve-wracking and authoritative as his father’s rang out through the department. “Vakarian, Shepard!” 

Vakarian’s attention shot to Pallin’s door to see the captain‘s imposing form taking up the entire doorway, his face characteristically unreadable, as he waited for Shepard and Vakarian to set aside their work and look at him. When they both looked over, a slight jerk of his mandible told them to join him in his office. Odd, since they didn’t have a case to catch him up on. 

Regardless, they both rose and made their way to his office, where they immediately sat down. Their body language wasn’t stiff, but they certainly didn't relax into the two chairs set up across from his desk. 

“We need to go over the case.”

“Just prepping it to hand over to Assault and Battery,” Vakarian answered, hoping to confirm they were competent enough to handle a case transition without Pallin watching over them. 

“You won’t be handing it over,” Pallin stated. “I’ll need a full briefing, and I need it now. I have a meeting with Executor Rix in thirty minutes.” 

Confusion fell over both of them, Shepard’s brow rose, and he could feel his browplate quirked as well. They didn’t ask questions or protest, though, just waited for Pallin to explain. 

“Yes, she’s alive. And doctors are confident that they’ve done the impossible by saving her life, and they'll keep her alive. However, Ziha‘Zorah’s aunt is bonded to Councilor Sparatus’ brother. Councilor Sparatus called me personally and made it explicit that Homicide’s best team will be on this case.”

Shepard shifted forward, “Pardon the question, sir, but why doesn’t the councilor want Assault and Battery on this? They won’t be too happy we’re taking their case.”

“That’s Rix’s problem, not yours.”

Vakarian gave her a look, admiring her nerve to speak out. If he had, he’d be getting a call from his father riddled with subtle accusations that he was a difficult turian — still, even as a damned grown man. 

Pallin looked between the two of them with contemplative eyes, then sighed. “This doesn’t leave this room. Are we clear?”

They both answered with a grave nod.

“IA is standing on Assault and Battery’s spurs right now. Someone inside might be tied to some foul stuff going on at Chora’s Den. So, Rix’s confidence in that department is low, and he’s certainly not going to let them fuck up a case involving a councilor’s family.” 

As they listened, he continued. “You two are the best I have, and you just so happen to be the ones I sent yesterday. So, lucky you. Not only do you get the chance to impress Executor Rix, but you get the chance to impress a councilor as well. 

Yeah, lucky them.

Pallin continued, “Tell me, do you have anything? Assault and Battery will be pissed we kept this one, but they’ll be downright livid if we don’t solve it. Not to mention Rix will make my life a living nightmare, which means I will make your life a living nightmare. Are we clear?”

They answered with quick nods. 

Dammit. Pallin saw this as an opportunity. Pessimistic as always, Vakarian only saw this as a way to disappoint Rix, piss off Pallin, and ruin the Vakarian name as far up as the damned Council. And then there was Tali. He’d have to forget all his self-doubt for her and her cousin.  

Vakarian cleared his throat. “Sir, I have to divulge that I know Ziha’Zorah’s cousin, Tali’Zorah.”

“Close?” Pallin asked.

Vakarian shrugged. “Friends. We ran quite a few joint missions together when I was enlisted.”

“Shouldn't be a problem, right?”

“No, sir, but I wanted to make sure you knew.”

Pallin nodded, then watched them with a flat look on his face as if he was expecting something. Right, briefing him on the case...

Shepard shifted, then began to speak. “Our biggest lead so far would be the two names written in what we assume was her blood. Achillus and Traian. I think our next step will be acquiring her records from Huerta Memorial to go over her injuries. We’ll revisit the scene, as well.”

Pallin turned his gaze to Vakarian, so he took over without even being asked to, like a good turian. “I’ll start looking at those names, cross reference any instance where they’re found together in housing, criminal, and port authority records. And I’ll take a look at CC vids. Maybe we’ll get a good shot of the perpetrators.” He looked at Shepard to bolster himself up – usually, they had a chance to chat about the case before a briefing. Their success came from their teamwork, and without prepping with Shepard, his confidence teetered a bit as his brain worked through their next steps. After a quick breath, he finally said,  “Probably should look at her credit account history. I assume she was in the lower markets visiting shops.”

Shepard agreed with a tilt of her head. “Let’s see who we can pull in to grab her movements since she arrived on the Citadel. Cross-reference the names written in blood first. Then we can figure out where she’s been and track her on CC vids.”

They both took in a heavy breath, gathering up the energy to get cracking on a new case, then they looked over to Pallin, hoping to be dismissed.

Pallin reclined in his chair and stroked a mandible, looking satisfied with what they had. “Looks like you two have it under control. Ziha’Zorah is in an enviro-tank now that’s healing and flushing her system of all bio-contaminants, but they’ll take her out in a few days. I want you there. She hasn’t had a chance to say anything to anyone, so when they take her out and she’s able to speak, we need to hear everything she says. It could be vitally important.”

They both nodded, and as Vakarian answered with a simple ‘yes, sir,’ Shepard answered, “Sir, yes sir.” She said it completely seriously, too. Sometimes she overdid it on the military speak. It used just to be funny. Now he couldn’t help but think that it was kind of cute, though. Three years ago, when he first met her, he never would have dreamed he’d believe anything about her was cute. Intimidating? Sure. Strange? Absolutely. 

“Yes, well,” Pallin spoke slowly. Vakarian and other turians in the department picked up that Pallin was working on communicating better with humans. But they clearly still confused him sometimes. “That’ll be all. Brief me again after you visit the victim.”    

They quietly rose from their chairs and left his office. As soon as the door slid shut behind them, Vakarian looked straight down at Shepard with the widest grin on his face. She just glared up at him.

“Not a word, Vakarian. I can’t fucking believe I just barked ‘sir yes sir’ to Captain Pallin.” She shook her head and muttered, “So fucking embarrassing.”

Even though he was itching to tease her, he just continued to grin down at her, and just like she asked, he didn’t say a word. The blush on her cheeks told him she was embarrassed enough as it was. He simply grinned at his funny little human partner and got a gentle elbow in the side for it.  

🔪🔪🔪

Busy work took up most of their afternoon — getting everything lined up, requesting warrants, filling in a few spare detectives who’d help them look through data and evidence. The real work would start tomorrow, which meant that they should have a relaxing evening to themselves to hang out. 

But sometime near the end of the day, Vakarian muttered an explanation that Livia wanted him to go to her place, which wasn’t a surprise — since he stood her up the night before. It didn’t mean that Shepard couldn’t secretly sulk to herself because Vakarian would be spending the evening with his mate instead of her, though. 

She’d never let him feel bad, so she told him not to worry about it — they’d hang out on the next free night they had. She got a strange feeling that he was more upset about it than she was. 

At 3 o'clock sharp, they packed up and left together (like they did every day) but didn’t say much as they walked to the skycar port. She watched him for a moment — his shoulders dropped, hands in his pockets as if he wanted to bury as much of himself as possible. She convinced herself he was just tired. They’d been up late drinking the night before and were pretty damn drunk by the time they went to bed.

She didn’t want to think about the case anymore and wanted to get her mind off the damned horrific images of Ziha’s body taken when the medical staff at Huerta cleaned and prepped her for surgery. Shepard’s thoughts fell to a conversation she’d had with Kryik when Vakarian ran to get them coffee between warrant requests. She was trying to figure out why Kryik was so suddenly interested in humans, but he hadn't offered any explanations.   

“Hey,” she said to Vakarian, who sluggishly lifted his head to look at her, “is muscle definition as important to turians as it is to humans?”

“I don’t know, Shep,” he muttered, then looked back down at the ground. 

Assuming he also needed to get his mind off the case, she continued talking. “You don’t know what turians find attractive all of a sudden?”

“Why do you care? Trying to find a mate?” he asked with a  voice that sounded salty rather than tired. 

“There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to turians, you know,” she pointed out as she rocked back and forth on her heels, choosing to ignore his saltiness rather than return the sentiment. 

“Why are we even fucking talking about this right now?”

That wasn’t salty; it was outright snappy — they never snapped at each other. His response caught her so off guard she couldn't help the childish, hurt feelings that welled up inside her. It made her feel like a kid again, and Gran would yell at her for running in the kitchen.  

She couldn't help it — she snapped back, “I’m just curious, Christ. What’s with the bitchy mood?”

He didn’t answer, just kicked at a crack in the skycar port platform. She expected him to snap back and say something quippy. And she honestly would have preferred that to silence. Silence meant something was really bugging him. 

She sucked up her hurt feelings and looked him over. Maybe he was more worn out from finding Ziha than she had expected. “You look tired,” she said as a peace offering. 

“Isn’t Kryik your go-to for sex talk?” Though he tried to play it off as a joke, there was more heat in that reply than she felt was warranted. She sulked backward from him, their arguing making her feel too close. 

“I wasn’t asking what makes a turian hard , just what they’re attracted to – what they think is beautiful. And you don’t need to be such a jerk.”

His reply came quickly. “I don’t like you flirting with Kryik, okay?”

She almost recoiled; her reaction to that hit her straight in the gut. “I don’t flirt with him. We just talk, that’s all.”

“It’s weird.”

“Yeah, it would be weird. If I was flirting with him.” 

Silence settled between them for a moment. And as that moment grew so did her anger at him for snapping at her. And for accusing her of flirting with Kryik, of all people. Sure, she was attracted to turians, but not Kryik. He was a friend. The thought of even having sex with him was just...no. She’d never even had random sexual thoughts, fantasies, or the occasional dream about Kryik. 

Vakarian, though? All the damn time. Not that she’d let him ever know that...because those thoughts were meaningless. It wasn’t her fault she’d been partnered up with the most attractive turian on the Citadel. 

“I’m not even attracted to him,” she tried to point out subtly. For some strange reason, she needed to clarify that. “We’re just having fun. What’s wrong with that?”

After a quiet, tense moment, he eventually said, “Maybe that’s why it bothers me. I can’t stand to see people having fun.” He sounded bitter, and she wasn’t sure if it was a sad bitter or angry bitter. Was he snapping at her again? 

That’s when it hit her, and she felt like such an ass. He was miserable because of whatever was going on between him and Livia, wasn’t he? And here she was asking about turian attraction. It must have prompted something in him. 

Which, to be honest, was bullshit. Just because his relationship was a steaming pile of shit right now didn’t mean he should be a shitty friend and snap at her or accuse her of flirting with Kryik. A knot balled up in her gut, and a flash of heat traveled up her chest and neck. She loosened her shirt collar for some relief.    

She leaned against the skycar port console casually. Her body language was a stark contrast to how she really felt, which was put off and rebuffed. 

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said, “but I’m excited for you and Livia to either break up or figure your shit out. You’ve been miserable to work with for months.” 

“I don’t need your shit right now, too,” he told her. But instead of angry, he sounded... well, sad. 

In the bat of an eye, she pivoted from frustration directed at him to anger directed at his mate. “Is she giving you shit?” 

His head turned, and his eyes finally found her. There was mild amusement in the way his mandible gently pulled. “If she is, are you going to beat her up like you did that poor Alliance piece of shit at the bar?”

“Maybe,” Shepard mumbled, her tone more threatening than it should be. And, considering she was literally talking about beating up his girlfriend, he should not be so amused. “You, uh, should probably be pissed at me for saying I’m going to beat up your mate.” 

“Yeah, probably,” he muttered. But didn’t say anything else. She couldn't help but wince because this was honestly getting a bit awkward. She tucked her hands in her pockets and slumped back against the skycar port console, just then realizing she’d stood up straight at some point. Probably when she started thinking about Livia being an ass to Vakarian. 

Silence settled between them, all while Vakarian’s face portrayed his steadily growing agitation. His browplates knitted, then his mandibles clicked in tightly. His chest eventually puffed up just before agitated subvocals trilled loud enough that she heard them. Just when she was about to ask him if he was okay, he spoke up.   

“I just…” he started, paused, then started back up again, “can I just get a break when I’m with you? When we’re working or hanging out, I just want to relax. You’re my break from everything. From....”

Shepard froze for just a moment, absolutely bewildered by his snapping and why they were standing at a skycar port fighting. 

She slumped even further on the console, shrinking as she recognized she wasn’t acting as supportive as she could be. “Hey, I’m sorry. I never want you to suck it up. I’m here for you. I just...I hate when you’re in these moods. It makes me want to punch someone.”

“As much as I appreciate your fists for backup, sometimes I need less violent support.”

“Always, big guy,” she said while patting his back, which felt odd at first. It felt more like she was trying to keep him from choking rather than comfort him.  

Maybe he wanted to talk? Maybe she should encourage him to talk about Livia? 

Shepard didn’t want to push, though. She had a sneaking suspicion that the ‘everything’ he needed a break from was the people who pushed too much —his dad, Kryik, and Livia.

She’d wait. Vakarian would seek her out when he was ready. 

Instead of pushing, she offered him an easy smile. “I could hug you. Or...I could sing to you…” 

He laughed lightly, easing her worries. Then, after a moment, he let out a sigh. “I just need a vid night. That’s all. Just me, you, Rocket...and your fireplace. And sober this time, as much fun as last night was.”

“Me, my apartment, my cat, and my vidscreen are available whenever you want.”

“Thanks, Shep.”

“But...just so you know, I would punch the Primarch for you.”

She brightened hearing his chuckle. ”Let’s just hope that none of my problems ever require assault on the Primarch as a solution,” he said. His omni-tool chimed, and just as Shepard was about to actually plan an assault on Livia, Vakarian looked down and read the message.

“Damn, this day just keeps…” he trailed off, shaking his head. 

“What?” Shepard asked.

“My dad. Asked me to come by.”

“Why?”

“Said they’re leaving in the morning to stay on Palaven for a few weeks and want to visit before they go. Which means I’ll be late getting to Livia’s.”

"Bit weird, isn't it?" Shepard asked.

"Yeah, they usually give me more of a heads up than this." He sighed, and his gaze drifted up to watch for a skycar.

“Sorry, this is probably my fault,” she deadpanned. “I just sent your mom the bill from this morning’s Vakarian Appreciation Hour. They must be going back to sell off all their assets.”

Without a beat, a snorting laugh came out of him. As their eyes met, it steadily grew to a huffing, rolling laugh that noticeably lifted his spirits. They simply stood together on the platform a moment longer, laughing and lightly nudging each other playfully. 

Everything was fine. They were fine. 

A skycar eventually came by and whisked him away, and off he went to visit his parents while Shepard tried to come up with something to occupy her time that night. Maybe she’d make herself a nice meal, home-cooked from scratch, even. Start reading that book Miranda had recommended. Do some laundry and go through her closet to get rid of stuff she no longer wanted. Donate them to that program helping the duct kids start a normal life.

It only took a moment before she realized she was kidding herself. She’d work out, eat something delivered, and listen to some soul music while dancing with her cat until she passed out on her bed in a wrinkled, baggy shirt. Just like she usually did. 

Single guys on the Citadel, eat your heart out. Jane Shepard is a prime catch, and she won’t have any of you. 

She smiled to herself, amused by her own joke, then looked down at the ground. That’s when she noticed them — those nasty tennis shoes were still on her feet. She must not have changed out of them and into her work boots. A normal response would be abject mortification, wearing repulsive footwear all day long at work, but she just laughed, much too loud and too hard for a woman standing at the skycar port by herself. She immediately took a picture of her shoes and sent it to Vakarian, then excitedly awaited a teasing reply while she tucked her hands back in her pockets and rocked back and forth on her heels, waiting for the next skycar to roll in and take her home.       

Chapter Text

Vakarian stood at the skycar port near his parents’ Citadel apartment. They weren’t leaving to visit Palaven – his father had made that up to get him to come over because what they had to tell him and Sol had to be said in person. There had been explanations. There had been keening and hugs. They came together as a family and swore they would get through it. 

Vakarian wasn’t thinking of any of that, though. Numb legs and a single thought in his mind got him from his parents’ front door to the skycar port, where he stood as still as stone, waiting for a skycar to rescue him from this nightmare.  

He’d never felt this numb before. Maybe – once he was stuck on a planet covered in ice with no supplies and a quickly dying heating core in his suit – maybe that compared. A cold shiver ran up his spine, making him realize just how tense every muscle in his body was. He wasn’t actually cold, though. The shiver, the muscles — it was all just the adrenaline finally taking its toll on his body. 

It was dark where he stood, too. They needed to install a new light at that port. He felt uneasy standing there — as evidenced by the twitch in his trigger finger buried deep within his pocket — and could imagine how civilians would feel waiting for a skycar in the shadows and wondering who was lurking just behind a corner. 

And just like when he yearned for the warmth of the sun when he was on that planet close to succumbing to hypothermia, he craved the same warmth and comfort to chase away this pain – a real sun, not the fake Citadel sun.  

All he thought about as he stood chillingly still was how badly he needed to see the only person who had any chance at all of making him feel better. Years ago he would have wanted to be alone through something like this. He would have gone home and sat by himself to drink and keen in a dark, lonely apartment. Boxed himself in and pushed the galaxy back. 

He didn't want to be alone that night, though. He wanted someone by his side. For anyone else, that would have been obvious, normal, but he had pushed away anyone who offered an actual connection for years. Others were hurt, rejection, disappointment. 

His trigger finger itched again. To steady the anxious energy, he clenched both hands into tight fists within his pockets. His heart thumped along with the satisfying pressure against his fingers and palms. The breath he took was steady, calm. That damned sniper’s resolve to stay focused despite everything going to shit around you. 

He didn’t want to push the galaxy back, though, because he had someone to reach out to, didn’t he? His own little ray of sunshine who had the power to chase away the dark and the cold. Lift him up, make him laugh...make him feel . The numbness dissipated just a bit, just with the thought of her in his mind. Without even considering it, he felt something pulling him in her direction. 

Finally, after what could have been five seconds or five hours, for all he knew, the soft hum of a skycar pulling up caught his attention. With relief and the promise of seeing her racing to his heart, he felt his body move to crawl inside. He couldn’t even fathom driving, though. For once, he was satisfied with letting the skycar do all the work. 

Knowing that if he didn’t see her soon he’d unravel, he entered the coordinates to his destination and fell back against the stiff skycar seat.

Years later, he’d recognize that was the moment – standing at the skycar port aching to just be by her side – that he finally allowed himself to rely on someone again. That when the walls caved in, instead of ducking down, tucking himself in a safe little corner, he’d reach out to her to help hold them back. 

Over and over, she would help him push those walls back and give him the strength, the hope, to hold them up. And she’d do it with a smile on her face, blowing a wisp of hair from her forehead and giving him a little wink.

🔪🔪🔪

Shepard and Rocket’s evening ritual was more often than not nearly identical to their morning ritual. Both involved begging for treats, soul music, and dancing. While morning dancing was an energetic wake-up for a half-asleep body and mind, evening dancing was a nice little wind-down for Shepard’s aching muscles after she lifted weights or ran on the treadmill.  

Shepard’s muscles were relaxed, and Rocket was stuffed with too many treats, so it was time for them to settle down for the night. Just as she was about to turn the music off and throw on a lighthearted sitcom on vidvision her doorbell rang. Assuming it was a lost delivery person, or perhaps Uncle David on an impromptu shore leave (despite owning the apartment and having the access code he always waited to be let in) she set off jogging towards the door. On her way she pulled at the normally loose tank that was plastered to her sweaty, sticky skin, fruitlessly trying to air herself out before she forced her odor on whoever was on the other side.  

Preparing herself to see a stranger or her uncle waiting outside her apartment, she opened the door’s console screen and was surprised to see Vakarian standing in the hallway instead. He stood still but was staring down to the ground, subtly shifting his feet. Whereas Shepard was a jittery fool when on edge, he rarely fidgeted. Son of a bitch, if he ditched Livia two nights in a row…

Her mild irritation at his escalating antics concerning his mate was tempered, though, by the joy that surged through her simply from knowing he was there. With a self-satisfied grin, she stared at his image for just a moment and attempted to dampen down the giddy energy bubbling up in her stomach.   

Shepard opened the door with crossed arms and a quirked brow, fully intending to give him hell before she’d let him in. As soon as the door slid open, she scoffed. “Please don’t tell me you are ditching your mate again. If she…” He slowly lifted his head, and when his eyes met hers she knew something wasn’t right. His tight mandibles, tired and sad eyes, and the way he looked to her as if he was lost rendered her speechless for just a moment. They just looked at each other for a long moment. He didn’t even need to say a word — his solemn comportment silently asked for her understanding, looking to her for a soft place to land.  

Immediately matching his somber demeanor, she asked, “What’s wrong?”

She stepped out of the doorway to let him inside, and his body moved like an anchor dragged and pulled him down. His heavy steps fell, but he didn’t explain. 

“Is Livia mad at you or something?”

He still didn’t answer. She watched helplessly and concerned as he only made it a few feet inside her apartment before he collapsed back against a wall. There was no way he’d be this upset about something involving Livia. Something else was the cause, she was certain. 

With a cautious, worried voice she said, “Come on, big guy, you’re scaring me. What’s wrong?”

“My mom...” He stopped there and looked up at her again, anguish and fear in his eyes. It was like someone had ripped his heart right out of his chest. 

“What about your mom? Is she ok?”

His voice was steady but pained when he said, “She has Corpalis. It’s terminal. My mom is going to slowly die in front of our eyes, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Oh, Garrus ,” a breath caught in her chest as the thought of Vakarian losing Valeria hit her straight in the heart. Sure, most people enjoyed a meaningful bond with their mother, but she’d never seen a mother so supportive and loving or a son so appreciative of his mother’s support. He needed her. 

“I’m so sorry,” Shepard finally said. Compelled to do something, she rushed towards him with quick purposeful steps. Once within his reach, though, she hesitated, unsure of what he needed. Would a hug comfort him? Should she pat his shoulder or take his hand? Joking and laughter had gotten them through so much together, but now he needed something more. But what?

With eyes that implored her for some comfort, he remained slumped against the wall. Her tentative hands lifted. But she was still undecided what to do with them, so they hovered, suspended in the air and without purpose. 

With a swift step, he took the guessing away by closing the gap between them and his long, strong arms encircled her and lifted her up. He held her with what seemed like all his strength. Her feet dangled down beneath her, swaying several feet above the floor. Her damp shirt pressed against her skin, but he didn’t seem to notice or mind. He held her like that for a long moment, her guilt building because she wouldn't have known he needed this from her if he hadn’t just taken the leap himself. To make up for her hesitation, she held him back as closely as her muscles would allow. Time ticked by. 

“How long?” she eventually whispered into his chest.

His voice shook. “Ten years. Fifteen at most. If she’s lucky.”

Her first instinct was to point out the positive — ten years was a long time, better than six months or a year. But that wasn't the point. Vakarian was still young — not even thirty yet — and had so much life to live, and he just found out his mom wouldn’t be there for so much of it. She’d be absent for so many life experiences — seeing him fall in love and get bonded, have children. Maybe she’d never get to be a grandma. Never watch Vakarian’s kids grow up and turn into beautiful, kind, happy turians just like everyone else in the Vakarian family.

And Shepard didn’t even know what Corpalis was, so she wasn't sure what Valeria would go through in those years. Would it affect her body? Her mind? Considering it was terminal, the answer was probably both. It was going to be painful. Vakarian had ten to fifteen years of pain ahead of him. And a life without a mom after that — something familiar to Shepard. That pain never went away. She wondered if he was keening. She wouldn’t be able to hear it if he was. 

Shepard breathed through the emotions that were just a tickle in her chest before they became a storm. She held him as silence fell between them, giving him the chance to talk if he wanted. During that silence, she realized her apartment was very much not silent — her music drifted from the kitchen. Her soul music. The music he despised and that set his nerves on fire.

“Oh god, my music, I’m sorry. Let me...” She tried to pull back out of his embrace so she could turn off the guy singing desperate declarations of love, but he held her so tight she couldn’t and held her even tighter when she tried to pull away. 

“Don’t turn it off. It makes me feel like everything is normal.” He sighed. “I mean, I hate it, but I need normal. I just wanted to be here with you. Listening to your terrible music.” 

“Whatever you need,” she reassured. 

He laughed softly, sadly, waning energy leaving him sounding so small, so quiet. “It at least makes me upset about something other than my mom.”  

Garrus ...” she muttered, her throat clamping shut in grief as she held him tight.

“I don’t want to watch my mom die, Jane.” His mandibles flickered in such a way she could only relate to a lip quivering.  

“I know. I’m so sorry.” She squeezed him tight, as tight as she could, her arms pressing against his solid carapace. 

He moved to release her, arms loosening to let her body slide slowly down his until her feet eventually met the floor once again. She had to say something to make him feel...not better, because how could he feel better? Something to honor his mom, to make him think about her strength and beauty. Something to convince him that despite the darkness ahead, there would still be good days. His mom still had life ahead of her.

“Garrus, I haven’t known your mom long, but all I’ve ever seen her do is live. She’s going to keep living. All those years, she’ll be living. And you’ll be able to see it, and...and…” she faltered, losing faith in her ability to say something that would help make him feel better.

But after a moment, his face softened, and warmth bloomed in his eyes telling her that her bumbling speech actually helped. “Thank you,” he said. 

“If you need anything, it doesn’t matter what it is or when, I will be there to make sure you get whatever you need.” 

He nodded, acknowledging and accepting her promise, and took the first decent breath she’d seen him take since he arrived at her doorstep. 

“So tell me, what do you need? Another hug? Do you want to talk—” 

“I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” he said with a decisive shake of his head and worn voice. He looked repulsed by the idea, with good reason because he had probably been at his parents for two hours — he had to be exhausted, and out of things to say, so she didn’t push. 

She answered with a nod, and the soft breath he let out upon seeing her agree to his request was a confirmation that he needed a time-out from his thoughts and emotions, which didn’t surprise her. Garrus, although just about her favorite person in the galaxy, had a track record of avoiding anything he wasn’t prepared to handle.  

“Wanna watch a vid?” He took in a quick breath he didn’t let out, then in a shaky voice, said, “I don’t want to be alone.” She’d never heard him sound so weak. He sounded so incredibly small — so lost and sad and small for a beautiful, strong, seven-foot-tall turian. She’d give him anything to take that pain away. 

“Yeah, of course,” she answered simply and warmly. Eager to convince him she’d do anything for him right now, she added, “Anything you want. That Spectre one?”

“Sounds great,” he said, a look of relief washing over him so strong she could actually see it in the way his muscles relaxed, and his eyes brightened. Before they took a step, though, a chime rang on his omni-tool. Despite the music coming from her kitchen, the sound was piercingly, threateningly loud. He immediately winced but didn’t take his eyes off her. It had to be Livia, wondering where he was — waiting for him to start their date night. 

A heavy sigh fell out of him. Without saying anything, Shepard could tell he was overwhelmed and exhausted beyond the point of action. 

“You want to stay here?” Shepard asked him because she had to make sure. 

He nodded his head, and the dread she saw in Vakarian was so pitiful and so evident that it spurred her to take control of this little problem for him. 

Shepard hesitantly reached for his omni-tool, waiting for him to tell her to stop, but he stood still, allowing her to take his wrist in her hand so that she could carefully type out a reply to Livia. She read Livia’s message first, which expressed how excited she was to see him soon. It hinted that she had been mad at him, but this would make up for the mistake he made in not messaging her the night before. He just needed to put in the work to once again earn her affection . The tone — whiny, manipulative, and self-centered —  in the message made all the guilt Shepard felt fly out the window and only encouraged her to carry out her plan. 

She knew exactly what her friend needed — she’d pretend to be Vakarian in her reply and make up some reason he couldn’t come over. 

Vakarian’s wary eyes watched her the whole time, slowly blinking but never saying a word as she explained to Livia that his parents’ front door was acting buggy, and he had to stay to fix it so it wouldn’t fly open in the middle of the night. It would take hours to fix it, but a maintenance engineer wouldn’t be available until tomorrow morning. It just had to be done. Hope you understand. And other general relationship placations she was out of practice using. Then she turned his messages to silent, knowing his family would contact her if they found they couldn’t reach him.     

Once she typed her message, she looked up at him, waiting for his response, but all he did was look at her with gratitude. She gave him a reassuring smile. The deed was done. He was free to relax, and focus on himself. At that moment, Shepard realized she’d do anything to make him happy. Someone had to.

Rocket made his way into the room, strutting with soft steps that carried him straight to Vakarian’s feet where he stopped, looked up at the turian that towered over him, and pawed at Vakarian’s legs with a soft ‘mow.’ Vakarian smiled, picked Rocket up, and placed him in the crook of his cowl where the cat sat proudly, accepting wonderful scratches from talons made for pleasing cats.

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk? I can just listen if you don’t want me to say anything.”

He shook his head. “I don’t want to think about it right now. I just want a break. I want to forget for a while.”

“Is she —”

“Really, Shep, I don’t want to say anything else. Later. Just not tonight.”

She nodded. “I can do that.” 

A moment of silence passed. Neither of them moved. 

“Mind if I take a shower before we start the vid?” she finally said. “I just worked out...”

Vakarian nodded, slowly and hesitantly, like he didn’t want to say yes. Of course, he said he didn’t want to be alone, and he meant that. And she promised to do whatever she could to be there for him. She took a strong inhale, got a whiff of herself, and knew she’d have to take a shower, despite his reluctance to let her out of his sight. There had to be a way for her to get cleaned up without leaving him alone.

“Hey, why don’t I take a shower with the privacy setting on the glass? And you can just sit on my bed. We can still talk while I’m in there, or you can just sit with Rocket and wait until I’m done.”

All her thoughtfulness got her in return was his judging look that accused her of being crazy. Vakarian was so opposed to her offer that he stopped scratching Rocket, so the damn cat turned and glared at her as well. As if he knew it was her fault.  

“Hey, you soldiers, males and females, shower together all the time,” she carefully pointed out. “And you won’t even be able to see me.”

“I don’t…” he looked at her as if she was talking nonsense, “that’s different. No, I can just sit down here.” Vakarian resumed scratching Rocket, who leaned into the turian’s touch and slowly blinked at Shepard as if bragging about his good scratches. 

“It’ll be fine, you won’t even be able to see me, but we’ll be able to talk. Just pretend I’m folding laundry or something.”

“It’ll be weird.”

“It won’t be weird.”

“Come on,” she said as she turned away from him and took a step. But his hand wrapped around her forearm, talons pressing into her skin and holding her nearby before she could get far. It caught her off guard enough to make her turn back and look at him. She saw fear and sadness in his eyes that caused her to reconsider whether she really needed a shower. What would he do down here by himself? He’d go stir-crazy, start to take apart her vidscreen or something.  

“Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t you fix that light for me in my closet?” She took his hand, the one that had grabbed her arm, within hers, and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Without another protest, his other hand held Rocket steady within his cowl, and they made their way upstairs. She could tell that he was still hesitant because of how his enormous body dragged behind her, and she had to tug him along. But they made it upstairs to her bedroom.

“Here,” she led him to her closet and touched the console to turn on the light, except one didn’t turn on. “See, a dud. You don’t have to do it, but the task is there if you want it.”

She watched him carefully. She certainly didn’t want him to fix it on her behalf. But she knew her friend well. She knew he liked to keep his hands busy. Working on tasks like this gave his mind a chance to focus on something else. If he didn’t have a distraction, he’d sit and brood. “Probably just a loose wire,” he said. “These boxes were popular five years ago when this building was constructed, but the connectors are weak. I’ll grab some tools and reattach it to the terminal block.”

“If you want, or you can just sit on the bed. It’s up to you. Either way, I won’t be long.” She paused, assessing him and wanting confirmation that it was ok to leave him, “That ok?”

He nodded, eyes fixated on the light as he shrugged his jacket off and threw it on her bed. Taking that as her cue that she was free to shower, she gave him a reassuring smile. He began to roll up his sleeves with subtle flicks of his fingers and wrists as she snuck some underwear inside a pair of shorts, grabbed a baggy cropped tank top, and headed towards the shower. Just as she stepped in, she turned on the privacy setting for the glass walls. Only a second later, she heard his voice coming from behind as he walked through her bedroom. He stammered for a moment, then he explained he’d go look for the tools he kept in her kitchen cabinet.

It dawned on her as she peeled her gross clothes off and flicked them over the top of the shower stall that she should feel hesitant to strip naked and shower with her partner in the other room, but she just didn’t. For one, she’d never been shy about her body around him. She frequently wore nothing but tight shorts and a sports bra when hanging out, because she was unwilling to skip workouts even though they were working late or watching vids. 

Besides, it’s not like he was interested in seeing her naked. Unlike Kryik, he found nothing attractive about humans. So, completely unworried about what they were doing, she flicked a console control and sighed as the hot water rushed over her sweat-sticky skin.   

She showered in silence for just a moment, running shampoo through her hair as thoughts of Valeria and the whole Vakarian family crept in. Her heart broke for them. She wanted to call Valeria, but they needed space. And what the hell could she say right now that would help at all? She heard Vakarian return and fiddle around with the light panel. The electronic hum of a drill echoed through the master suite as he got to work, and Shepard tried to chase away her sorrowful thoughts because how could Vakarian forget his pain if Shepard looked at him with pity all night?   

After only a few minutes, the drill sound stopped. Then, while running soap over her body, she heard Vakarian’s voice carrying from the direction of her bed. “Mmm, does Rocket usually sit outside your shower?”

Shepard glanced over, wiping water from her eyes, and sure enough, a little black blobby shadow of a cat sat on the other side of the glass. “Yeah, that’s normal.”

“You really don’t care about your privacy when you’re showering, do you?” Vakarian asked with thinly veiled yet lighthearted judgment. 

“He’s a cat. He doesn’t know what naked is.”

Rocket pawed at the shower door, then threw his head back and let out a quick, protesting ‘mow’. 

“Knock it off, you big baby,” Shepard told him with amusement in her voice. 

“Wanna talk about the case?” Vakarian asked. 

“Sure, if you do. What‘s on your mind?”

“You worried at all about it? About dropping the ball on this one?”

“No, not really. We have two names, which pretty much hands us their identities – if she got their actual names. And there has to be some CCTV footage showing them in the area. We should have it in the bag, really, don’t you think?” 

There was silence on his end.

“Are you worried about something?” she asked.

“Before Pallin told us why the case was staying with us? No. The case seems pretty easy. But now that I know the Council and Executor Rix are watching us...” he paused. Then in a slightly frustrated tone said, “Knowing the Council is watching us seriously has no impact on you?”

Still unphased, she answered, “Not really. To be honest, I’m still not sure exactly what the Council does.”

He replied dryly, “General sentiment of the populace is that they don’t know what they do either.”

She laughed softly, “Good to know I’m finally fitting in with Citadel citizens. But this is just any other case, in my mind. Why should it be different?”

“Oh, because Executor Rix, Councilor Sparatus, and Primach Fedorian have lunch once a week with my dad, and I guarantee this case will come up. The four turians most capable of really fucking up my future have lunch once a week, and this week they’ll be discussing the case I shouldn’t even be working.”

“How did I not know this? Why does your dad have lunch with them every week? For work?”

“No, they’re all friends, pretty close, actually. And I don’t know how you don’t know. I’m sure he’s mentioned their names before.”

“Well excuse me for not assuming your dad’s friend Cyrus is Primarch Cyrus Fedorian .” Shepard couldn’t contain the disbelief she felt when she said, “You know, you could have clarified that for me.”

“Why does it matter? Honestly, I try to forget.”

“Jesus, I joked about punching him. You have to tell me these things, so I don’t make an ass out of myself.”

“Shep, you know I accept you, ass behavior and all,” he joked. She rose onto her tiptoes to shoot her middle finger at him over the top of the shower stall, which made him laugh — it was small and sad, but it was a laugh. “Besides, you just said it to me. It’s not like I’m going to tell him.”

“No, last month when we had dinner with your parents.”

Vakarian sighed so loud Shepard could hear it over the soft rush of water flowing from the showerhead. “Why do you constantly threaten to punch people?”

“Your dad was talking about some Hierarchy policy that affected a Cipritine case he was consulting on, and I just said it to be funny. To show Castis a little support.”

“I’m sorry,” Vakarian said as soon as she stopped talking. So quickly, in fact, she was left confused. 

“For what?” she said, stepping out of the water flow to rub body conditioner over her skin. 

“Being an asshole. At the skycar port.”

“Ohhh, for yelling at me because you are delusional and the worst detective ever for thinking Kryik and I flirt?”

“No, I’m sticking by that one. It’s weird, and you should feel bad about it.”

“Well, I don’t feel weird,” she said, a bit of brattiness in her voice. “Because I wasn’t flirting. I’m not even attracted to Kryik.” She said that last bit loudly, adamant that he heard her. Then, she muttered to herself low enough so that he couldn't hear, “What is this, high school?”

A moment of silence passed. Rocket pawed at the door again, which she ignored. 

Vakarian’s voice, softer than before, broke that silence. “I…” he cleared his throat, “mmm...” he paused.

“Christ, spit it out, big guy. Did the privacy setting on the shower walls fail?”

Before he could answer, she turned off the water, then grabbed her towel to dry off, squeezing water out of her wet hair while waiting for Vakarian to get to his point.

“No, I’m still apologizing,” he grumbled. With the water off she heard the rough breath he took. “I’m trying to say that everyone makes me feel like shit but you — Pallin, Livia, my dad...even Kryik sometimes. So, I guess I just hate hearing that I’m upsetting you...or that you don’t like being around me. Doesn’t excuse snapping at you like I did, though. Certainly doesn’t make you want to be around me, either. I get that.”

“Garrus, I always want to spend time with you, even when we’re snapping at each other. I’m sorry I said you’ve been miserable to work with. I just said that to be an asshole back. I say mean things when I get yelled at — which is awful, I know. And I should have realized you didn’t want to talk. I just wasn’t paying attention or respecting your boundaries.”

She grabbed her clothes and put them on while still in the shower. It felt weird, but the alternative was to shock her partner with a lewd shot of her fleshy, pale body. Fully clothed in her shorts and baggy cropped tank, she stepped out of the shower and turned towards her bedroom to see Vakarian lying on his back at the foot of her bed. The sight of him immediately made her smile. With a pillow folded and tucked under his neck, arms stretched out and folded above his head, one leg dangling off the end of the bed and resting on the ottoman underneath — he looked pretty damn comfy for someone opposed to being in her room while she showered. Exhausted, but comfortable. 

“Have you eaten?” she asked, making her way towards him and choking down the inclination to ask him if he was ok. It just didn’t feel right not to talk about it, but that’s what he wanted. 

He looked at her, turning his head slowly side-to-side and looking increasingly tired, “I’m not hungry.”

“I’ll get you some snacks and some water, just in case.”

She went downstairs to get a plethora of dextro and levo snacks and a bottle of water. When she reached the top of the stairs, she overheard him talking to someone, and just as the bedroom door slid open, she recognized Solana’s voice.

“Are you ok? You’re not alone, are you?”

“No, I’m not alone.”

“Did you go to Livia’s?” Solana asked, and the cautious inflection fairly transparently told Shepard that Solana had some thoughts concerning that.

“No, I’m at Jane’s.”

“Oh good,” Solana said, sounding relieved.  

Not wanting to interrupt them, Shepard set the snacks and water down and moved into her bathroom to blow dry her hair, a soft whir starting up that drowned out most of Vakarian’s conversation with his sister, giving them some privacy. 

After a few minutes, her hair was nearly dry and Shepard whipped it to the side to dry the last little bit. To check up on him, she glanced at Vakarian’s reflection in the mirror and was caught off guard to find him off the call with his sister, his eyes carefully watching her. If she wasn’t mistaken, his eyes were transfixed on her with something like fascination. He must have been fixated on her hair – he’d always been intrigued by it, but the affectionate smile that played at his mouth and mandibles took her by surprise and made her wonder. 

Their eyes stayed locked for just the briefest moment before his flicked away, then he shifted. She looked back to her reflection, convincing herself that he was tired and grieving. And, that the look he gave her was simple xeno-fascination. 

Pushing those thoughts aside — and the odd way they made her heart flutter — Shepard flipped the hairdryer off and turned to him. “Sol ok?” 

“Yeah, she’s staying at a friend’s tonight. She just called to make sure I wasn’t...”

“Alone?” 

He shrugged. “I got the feeling she called to make sure I wasn’t at Livia’s.”

Shepard eyed him, trying to get a reading on what he was thinking or feeling. After a moment, she said, “I’ll leave it alone tonight, but I’m going to eventually ask you what’s going on with you and your mate. You guys seemed happy when you first got together.”

“Nothing’s going on,” he said and stiffened. His eyes fell to the floor as he contemplated something, then he looked back up at Shepard. “Well, nothing more than my fragile ego,” he admitted. “She says stuff all the time that gets to me. I don’t know why it does, though.”

“Like what?” she asked. 

His words fell out quicker than she expected. “The other night, she said that C-Sec was full of failed Spectre candidates.” Shepard stiffened, immediately incensed. It seemed like that had been sitting on the tip of his tongue. He was trying to act like it didn’t, but Livia’s words clearly upset him. And the look he gave her broke her heart — he agreed with Livia, which was the saddest part.   

Shepard scoffed, knowing that the irritation she felt for his mate was souring her expression. “What a way to a man’s heart. Insult his career path and tell him he’s a failure. So are your feelings hurt, or are you just upset that your mate’s so fucking stupid?”

Shepard walked to the closet and grabbed a spare blanket. She folded her arms around it to hold it close to her chest while her blood boiled at the thought of Livia saying that to him. How fucking dare she? Whereas she was fairly neutral on their relationship just yesterday, in almost an instant, she had jumped on board the Livia hate ship along with Kryik. 

Despite that, she asked Vakarian in a neutral tone, “Did she say it on purpose or—” 

“No,” he answered quickly, “I don’t even think it crossed her mind that she was referring to people like me.”

Shepard wanted to tell him that anyone stupid enough to say something so obviously hurtful to their mate was probably also mean enough to say it on purpose. And Livia might even be smart enough to hide her intentions. 

But maybe Shepard was too generous on that last point. Livia was stupid enough to push a wonderful man like Vakarian away. 

“You didn’t fail,” Shepard said, frustration in her voice because she hated when his self-deprecation came out like this. “Your dad talked you into choosing C-Sec.” 

When he didn’t say anything, Shepard shrugged. “I guess I am going to have to beat her up.”

Appreciative eyes fell on her, but there was gentle chastisement in his tone when he said, “She just doesn’t think about the stuff she says.”

“Hm,” Shepard pretended to think, quirking her brow and pursing her lips, “isn’t diplomacy, like the act of carefully crafting how you interact with people, sort of a requirement to work at the Embassy?”

Vakarian’s mandible fluttered outwards in a reluctant grin. “Never said she’s good at her job.”

Shepard shot him a playfully astonished look — wide eyes and pursed lips. “Ooo, I’m gonna tell her you said that.”

Vakarian’s grin grew, and he reached out to shove her, his hand landing on her hip and giving her a good push. She stumbled back, regained her balance, then lifted her foot to shove his hip with it. They chuckled and shoved each other a bit, all the while her heart swelled to see him smile.

Once he got his last good shove in, his smile faded, sentimentality taking over as he looked up at her. “Why are you so damn easy to be around?” 

She shot him a confident smile. “Because I’m so awesome. And I mean it, I always like being around you. I’d rather hang out with grouchy, moody Garrus than with anyone else.”

Shepard left his side to walk to the head of the bed, drew down the covers, and began to crawl in. He watched her the whole time, horrified, eyes wide and mandibles twitching. 

When she leaned back against her fluffy, comfy pillows, he said, “What are you doing? Aren’t we going downstairs to watch the vid?”

“Turians don’t do sleepover parties?”

“I’m not sleeping on this bed with you,” he declared as if she asked him to commit murder. Ignorant of Vakarian’s declaration, Rocket jumped up on the bed and curled up somewhere between Shepard’s feet and Vakarian’s body, tucking himself in comfortably. 

“I’m kidding. You don’t have to sleep on my bed. Just watch the vid here. We’re already comfortable.” She tossed him some snacks and a bottle of water. “Relax. Once the vid’s over, you can either go sleep in the guest bed or go home.” She used her omni-tool to turn the fireplace on, then turned to Vakarian and, with a raised brow, challenged him to leave now that a fire would be radiating heat, making them all warm and cozy. 

He sighed, giving in to her temptation of a soft bed and warm fireplace, and relaxed back into the mattress. “I don’t even want to argue anymore. I’m too tired. Put on the vid.”

“Good,” she smiled, “what’s it called?”

“Necessary Lies.”

“Oh my god, what a perfect, cheesy title,” she said while using her omni-tool to search for then stream it to her vidscreen. She tossed him the spare blanket she’d retrieved, which he promptly wrapped around his gigantic body that took up the entire end of the king-sized bed. She could already feel the warmth radiating from his legs and warming hers. She watched him for just a moment, perfectly comfortable and seemingly happy for this distraction, so she stifled that heavy urge she felt to ask him just once more if he wanted to talk. Even if it felt wrong just to pretend everything was fine, that’s what he wanted.  

As if he could tell what she was thinking, with a quiet voice, said, “Thanks, Jane.”

“For what?” she asked. 

“Everything,” he answered simply, his eyes stuck on the vidscreen as the vid started up. He had picked up one of the snacks she gave him and was lazily nipping and leaning back his head just slightly to swallow a small bit. Taking her focus off him, Shepard’s omni-tool pinged with an incoming message. She took a moment to tell him ‘you’re welcome’ and nudged her foot towards his leg under the covers before she looked down to see that the sender was Solana.

Solana: How is my brother?

Jane: He’s ok. We’re watching a vid, and he’s eating some snacks. 

Solana: Thank you. You’re a wonderful friend, and you’re always there for him when he needs you. 

Jane: I’d do just about anything for him. How are you?

Solana: I’ll be ok. I’m more worried about Dad and Garrus.

Jane: If any of you ever need anything, I’m here.

Solana: I know. You’re an honorary Vakarian, Jane. I’m doing dinner this weekend, to give Mom a break. I’ll see you then?

Jane: Of course. Now get some rest.

Solana: Goodnight, and thank you again for taking care of Garrus. 

Jane: Always. 

It was then that Shepard realized, embarrassingly late, that Vakarian had come to her when he needed someone. He hadn’t gone to Nihlus or Livia. He needed someone who made him feel safe, someone who could listen if he asked for it or distract him if he needed it. And he chose her. 

Years later she would look back and remember that moment — him lying on her bed, struggling to cope with the news of his mother’s terminal illness but finding comfort in Shepard’s presence — as the moment she knew that whenever she faltered, whenever she hurt, she always chose him too.   

 

Chapter Text

That morning Shepard woke up to quite the sight. Through blinking eyes and blurred vision, she saw snack wrappers littered across her bed. Rocket sat at the edge where he batted one of those stray wrappers around, probably because it made a funny crinkle sound — which had most likely woken her up. 

The memory of last night came back in a wave of emotions rather than pictures. Vakarian’s quiet sorrow that he asked her to ignore. How she felt protective of her partner and wished she could take away all of his pain. At Vakarian’s request, instead of talking about Valeria’s diagnosis, they stayed up late watching vids, eating junk food, and talking about nonsense. 

Shepard lifted an arm from the pillow held tight to her chest so that she could lightly rub the tired from her eyes. That allowed her to focus on the oddest sight of all – Vakarian passed out and tucked under the bottom half of her comforter with the blanket she gave him the night before wound around the top of his head. She didn’t know how he could still be cold enough to wrap an entire blanket around his head because she’d left the fireplace going, and the room was a damn oven. 

Shepard always slept curled up tight, a pillow held to her chest with desperate arms. When she was younger, a stuffed animal had been in the pillow’s place. But somewhere around the age of twenty, she told herself to grow up. Doing so was easier for her mind than it was her heart, though. Hence, the pillow. 

Vakarian seemed to be the complete opposite, though. His arms were splayed loosely at his sides and his legs kicked out in a massive ‘v.’ It looked like a comfortable — if slightly obtrusive — pose for a seven-foot-tall turian. Good thing she had a king-sized bed. 

Despite the massive size of the bed, Vakarian took up a good portion of it. His long, lean body was resting at her feet — so close that with every breath he took, the blankets pulled just slightly against her bare legs. While asleep, he looked so peaceful, so handsome (even with the blanket wrapped around his noggin), and so very large

And, despite the way she cursed herself immediately for the thought, it felt right for him to be there. Her breaths eased as she watched him breathe in and out and heard air fill his lungs, then slowly drag out. There was just something so basic — so instinctual — about hearing someone dear to you breathe. 

They must have both fallen asleep during the second vid they started watching – one from Earth telling the story of a cursed vampire who fell in love with a mortal. They shared an affinity for vampire vids.

At the end of the bed, Rocket batted the wrapper with one good whack so that it soared off the bed then drifted to the floor, swaying gently on its way down. He watched its entire journey with rapt attention, then got a crazy look in his eye that signaled some mischievous intentions were brewing, like taking off across the bed or attacking something...probably Shepard’s feet. 

Or Vakarian’s.  

Shit. Shepard had to subdue him before Rocket did something to make this any more awkward. 

“Hey,” Shepard whispered, praying that she didn’t disturb Vakarian. God, what a way to wake up – in your friend’s bed, her ridiculous cat playing with your feet. 

Based on the look on the cat’s face, her first attempt wasn't enough to wipe the mischief out of his mind, though. “Psst, stop it,” she tried again. 

As typical with most cats, Shepard’s attempt to reign in his behavior had the opposite effect in that he rebelled against her efforts in the most cat-like way that he could. Rocket turned to her, a gleam in his eye as if delivering a wicked threat. With their eyes locked, time stood still. He flashed her a wild look, and she willed him not to act like an idiot. 

From there, it all happened too quickly. Rocket took off, tearing his feet into the comforter for traction and making an absolute ruckus in the quiet room. A startled ‘humph’ came out of Vakarian when four paws landed right in the middle of his chest. Then, and worst of all, Rocket used Vakarian’s keel as a springboard to leap off the bed like a damned action star.

Fuck ,” Vakarian wheezed at the same time Rocket landed on the bedroom floor with a thud. The way poor Vakarian shifted with tensing muscles made Shepard guess that the little stunt was his good morning to the galaxy. 

Shepard held her breath while a soft grunt of air came out of Vakarian. “Was that you or the cat?” he asked.

“Rocket,” Shepard groaned from behind the pillow, which she’d pulled from her chest up to her face and hid behind, only peeking out slightly over the top. She’d probably be less mortified waking up naked than by what just happened. 

While Vakarian continued to stretch, shifting his body so that the mattress bowed under his weight, Shepard took the opportunity to stretch her legs out — even wiggled and curled her toes.

There was something so intimate about that moment — Vakarian waking up in her bed and the two of them so close in a space that they’d never shared before. And mixed with the terrible evening before, Rocket’s blunt insertion of a ridiculous moment...it all had her tongue-tied. What was she supposed to do with such a mish-mash of tragic, ridiculous, and the sincere comfort of friendship? 

“Guess you fell asleep in here after all,” Shepard finally said as Vakarian rubbed at the spot on his chest that Rocket had turned into his personal launching pad. As she watched Vakarian slowly unwrap the blanket from around his head, she experienced the uncomfortable realization that it had been years since a guy slept in her bed. Throughout her adulthood, she had convinced herself that she could never sleep with anyone else present. Other people were large, hot, intrusions compiled of elbows and feet that assaulted you throughout the night.

With that on her mind, she tried to recall any point in the night when he had woken her up by making her too hot, or shifting around too much, or pulling the blankets off her — but as far as she could tell she slept perfectly. Maybe the hope that she’d be able to share a bed with someone in the future wasn’t a lost cause.  

“Guess so,” he murmured.

“Sorry about Rocket.” 

With a resigned sigh, Vakarian replied, “It’s ok, he’s done it before.”

Shepard watched as Vakarian arched his back, lifted his chest, and stretched his long arms out as he yawned. His mandibles spread out wide, flashing his sharp teeth and blue tongue in such a frightening display of predatory features that really should be more unnerving — and less adorable. 

As he finished stretching, one of his elbows landed hard on her foot by accident. 

“Ow,” Shepard said and drew her foot up as pain shot all the way up her calf. 

“Oh, sorry,” Vakarian mumbled. His deep voice, raspy with sleep, soothed her tired mind, making waking up a bit easier.  

“S’okay,” Shepard said through a yawn.

They’d certainly seen each other fall asleep before and had woken each other up just as many times across the last few years. So there was nothing awkward in seeing each other wake up that morning. But Vakarian had never woken up in her bed before. He was curled up so close to her that she felt the heat of his body warming her feet. 

Unsure of what to say, she stared at him as he finished stretching. He stared up at the ceiling, probably giving himself a moment to wake up and let his senses come to him after his harrowing wake-up call. 

After a deep, tranquil breath that he let out slowly, Vakarian’s head tilted towards her slightly. Their eyes met. It was such a quiet, unsure moment between them – but one that felt special nonetheless despite the sinking worry that this was going to make things awkward between them.

Shepard tensed when a dreadful thought occurred to her — about an entire night cylce too late. What in the hell would Livia say to him if she knew where he was? Livia didn’t even know he slept in Shepard’s spare bedroom on nights when they worked late. She would probably be livid if she knew he sat on her bed while she showered and then slept at the foot of her bed all night. 

But he looked so peaceful lying there. And Livia told him he was a failed Spectre candidate. It wasn’t considerate or fair, but Shepard figured if someone wants to know where their mate is — or have any say in how close they are to a friend — they should probably treat them with more kindness. Respect was a two-way lane and based on how Livia talked to Garrus, she didn’t respect him. 

With that in mind, Shepard swore that Vakarian could hide out at her apartment as often as he wanted. He’d worked so hard, grown so much. Aside from the past few months, he was more relaxed, more confident, and happier than he’d been when they first met — and she’d be damned if anyone took that away from him. He was no failure.

Granted, Shepard had never really been in a successful relationship. She was the last person who should be doling out relationship advice or tallying up offenses to lay blame. 

Realizing that she still held the pillow drawn up to her nose, she lowered it back to her chest. With a soft half-smile, she simply said, “Morning.”

His left mandible flicked out just lightly, returning her smile. “Morning,” he replied. 

Another quiet, unsure moment passed before she said, “Are you staying home today? I can get the case going and let you rest.”

He tilted his head to stare at the ceiling again, his smile fading and breaking her heart a little as it did. “No. I’d just be miserable.”

She answered with a solemn nod because she knew that was true. He’d go stir-crazy and just turn despondent if he sat at home with nothing to keep his mind off his mother’s diagnosis. Shepard wished that weren’t true. Everyone should get a break when something life-shattering like that happened, but Vakarian wasn’t like most people. Her friend liked routine and distraction. 

“Can you do me a favor? Just don’t let anyone know for now? Not even Kryik.”

“Of course,” she answered without question. 

A discarded memory drifted into her consciousness of sitting in her room – her new room, at her grandparent’s house. Her parents had just died. She heard her Gran’s soft voice drifting from the living room, telling someone — a neighbor, maybe — not to mention their deaths. Shepard had told her grandmother days before through a quivering lip that she didn’t want anyone to talk about it anymore. Even as a child, she rejected the sympathy that everyone piled on top of her like a suffocating blanket. 

She couldn't blame Vakarian for wanting to avoid that.  

They exchanged a few more awkward glances before he gave her a warm smile that almost convinced her nothing about their morning was strange – that his mom wasn’t sick and it was normal, perfectly ordinary even, for him to wake up at the foot of her bed. 

Their silent, solemn moment ended when he cocked his leg out and playfully shoved her foot with his knee.

“Ow,” she complained even though it didn't hurt. “You and Rocket are monsters. I need new friends.” She gave him a good shove in his knee with her foot, which only made him laugh and gently drive his knee into her again.

“You need to toughen up. Maybe I’ll throw you in the ring with Kryik.”

“You wouldn’t dare. Last time you sparred with him you limped for a week.”

“Did not,” he answered. There was a pause. “It wasn’t that noticeable.”

“Then why did everyone call you ‘Shuffles’, hm?”

“Only you and Kryik called me that.” 

Light chuckles and minor insults about one another’s devious nature were exchanged. The moment eased her worries —  if just for a while. They both got out of bed to go their separate ways. As he ambled out of her bedroom — his work clothes from the previous day rumpled and pulled at his body in various spots — she felt an unfamiliar urge to scoop him up and hug him. 

She let him go, though. He went to the downstairs guest room to clean up, and she got ready for work in her bedroom. 

🔪🔪🔪

Vakarian quietly stepped through the spare bedroom doorway in fresh work clothes thanks to his generous stock of spare outfits that he kept at Shepard’s. He made his way down the hall towards the kitchen, moving slower than normal. He felt the gravity of his mom’s diagnosis weighing him down and was eager to get back to work. Finding the people who assaulted Ziha would be the perfect distraction from the pain and sorrow he couldn’t shake. 

Shepard’s soft voice traveled from the kitchen. He rounded the corner expecting to see her dancing with Rocket, but the sight in front of him — well, the sounds, more than anything — caught him by surprise. Shepard stood at the counter with Rocket in front of her, propped up and sitting like a little primarch. The cat shut its eyes slowly to enjoy the kiss she placed on his furry little head. 

“Listen, what you did was probably fun, right? Gave you a pretty big thrill. A tiny little guy like you taking on a huge turian and making him startle like that.”

“Mow,” Rocket answered, his intent eyes trained on her. Vakarian immediately grinned and stopped to watch this moment transpire.

“Yeah," she said as if she just agreed with a valid point. "But the thing is, it was really embarrassing. Like...really bad. I haven’t had a guy wake up in my bed for years, so I get why you weren't sure how to act. I wasn’t sure either. Let’s just say what you did is the opposite of what you should do, though. You gotta play it cool.”

“Mow.”

“Sorry, but that was not cool. The jump was, sure, I’ll give you that. Real action star material there.” She placed her hands on the counter and leaned forward with a sigh. “But I think he was already uncomfortable because he didn’t want to sleep there, and I told him it wouldn't be weird. Well, it turned out to be slightly strange. While I will take a little of the blame for that just because I convinced him to stay, I think it’s mostly your fault.”

“Mow.”

“I don’t care if it was funny. Sometimes you need to respect other people's feelings if you want them to care about yours.”

The cat leaned forward and rubbed his head against one arm, then the other. 

“Nope, no treats for you today. Gotta earn those. But you just had to make Garrus uncomfortable, and you embarrassed me.”

Vakarian couldn’t stand back and watch this cute little moment any longer; he had to interject at that point by stepping into the kitchen and clearing his throat. The little start she gave at the sound of his voice only made his grin even bigger. 

“Aw, come on, Shep, it wasn't that bad, was it?” he said as he walked over to them then leaned against the counter. “And I’m sure this little talk taught him a lesson.”

Rocket turned to Vakarian and, with a flick of his tail, said, “Mow.”

Vakarian turned to Shepard. “How many times does a guy have to say he’s sorry, hm? Go on and give him some treats.”

Once he got a good look at Shepard’s face, he noticed her skin nearly matched her hair. Just that simple sight made him chuckle. Vakarian stepped forward and grabbed a dextro breakfast bar from the cabinet next to her. 

Shepard’s gaze rose, but Looking him in the eye seemed to be hard for her. 

“Since when have you been so quiet, hm?” 

“I was in special ops. I can be quiet.”

“Could have fooled me,” she lightheartedly grumbled. Her gaze drifted up to his, and once they looked each other in the eye, something changed in her. Her demeanor softened, and that flush dissipated. She nudged his elbow with a forced casualness in her voice and said,  “Are we getting coffee at that place?”

The realization that she was trying to act normal and positive for him — because his mom was dying — sent a tickle of agitation up his spine. This is why he didn’t want to tell anyone or talk about it. This awkwardness. This pity. This reminder that his mom had Corpalis. 

He took a deep breath to settle his nerves. She was just trying to help and was doing a damn good job of it, actually. No one else could have comforted him the way she was — only family could. “Yeah, if you want,” he answered.  

While she reached past him to grab a breakfast bar from the cabinet, her shirt lifted up, exposing a bit of her back. 

And her pale, delicate skin. 

And her gently arched spine. 

Spirits, he had actually thought about her last night while she was blow-drying her hair. 

No. That was just too much to handle — finding out about your mother’s terminal illness and contemplating what your friend's skin would feel like against your tongue all in one night was too much to process. 

And he had a mate. Vakarian began to realize he was an even bigger piece of shit than he had already accepted. 

Dammit. He pushed that thought about Shepard to the deepest recess of his mind, where it belonged. 

Her many dexterous fingers scrambled at the food wrapper, making a crinkling noise as she peeled it aside before taking a large bite. “Just how much of that conversation did you hear?”

He cleared his throat and was happy to move on from that terrible, confusing thought to focus back on her silly relationship with her pet. “Oh, a lot, I think,” he answered.

That flush sure did come and go. Vakarian turned to lean back against the counter and gave Rocket a little pet and scratch. “It’s ok, Rocket. I don’t think you did anything wrong. You're a cat, and I think it’s pretty normal to do weird stuff like that.”

“Mow.”

“Exactly,” Vakarian answered the cat with a light smile and scratch to the head.

“How in the hell were you still cold enough last night to wrap a blanket around your head?” she asked. 

It was Vakarian’s turn to flush. Hopefully, the heat traveling up his neck didn’t cause a blue-hued flush to match. “I...mmm,” he gulped down the mouthful of breakfast bar he’d just bit off, all the sudden feeling very tight in the throat.

Her face dropped. “Was that not about being cold?”

“No, it’s…”

Her hands raised, stopping him there and excusing him from any further explanation. “You don’t have to tell me. It’s fine. I feel stupid for assuming. And for asking.”

“No, it’s fine. Don’t tease me, though.”

“Of course not,” she said, but there was something in her half-smile that made him hesitate for just a moment. 

“I think I probably do it for the same reason you hold onto a pillow all night while you sleep. More of a comfort thing.”

“Oh, gotcha,” she answered. Then her brows knotted. “Wait, why is wrapping a blanket around your head comforting?”

“Why is holding a pillow comforting for you?”

“I suppose because it's like…” her shy, gentle sigh filled him with curiosity and pulled in his attention. He stopped before taking another bite to watch her carefully. “This sounds so pathetic. I guess it’s like a hug. It’s like holding someone all night.”

That made something start up in his chest, right by his heart. She’d been hugging someone all night. Shepard had never been a touchy, feely type of person. Anytime she actually dated anyone for very long she was never overly affectionate. She’d make out with guys, of course, but never really hold hands or hug or do anything that made it seem they shared any type of affection. He eventually had assumed she just wasn’t fond of physical affection or comfort. 

But, she held a pillow to her chest to sleep. 

So, she did need affection and comfort. He felt even better about giving her that hug in the elevator. She probably really needed it. 

He realized she was watching him, looking a bit perturbed. Probably because she just made herself vulnerable and was waiting for him to either acknowledge what she said or because she wanted him to answer her about the blanket, 

Right, the blanket. The comfort of something pressing against your crest. Humans didn’t feel that. 

“The blanket, its, mmm...well, I wrapped it around my head to keep it in place while I tossed and turned. The reason for it is, mmm, pressure is comforting. Against the crest.”

Recognition dawned on her features, making his explanation a bit easier. “Oh, yeah. Is that like the thing you guys do with your crests?” She patted her palm to her forehead. “The bumping? Basi...” she trailed off without finishing the word.

“Yeah, basiums. They can provide comfort, so when there’s no one around to basium, a blanket will do.” 

She agreed with a gentle hum. “Just like a pillow will do when you need someone to hold.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. 

She nudged his elbow with the back of her hand, “Well, it’s a good thing my bed’s stocked with plenty of pillows and blankets, hm? Who needs a boyfriend or girlfriend when you have bedding?”

They both chuckled softly — tension he didn’t realize he’d been holding rolled off his shoulders. Spirits, it felt good to have a friend like her. 

They watched each other for a moment, some quiet recognition and understanding — something really intimate — settled between them. He couldn’t recall the last time he was this open and vulnerable with someone. 

But with Shepard, he wasn’t afraid that intimacy would lead to any kind of hurt. Shepard was...well, she was safe. She was an understanding friend who was never disappointed in him. 

Irritated with him sometimes? Definitely. But he never felt like he had to pretend to be something he wasn’t. 

Sure it had been awkward waking at the foot of her bed. But it wasn’t anything that they couldn't handle. Friends passed out in living rooms together all the time. Spirits knew he and Shepard passed out on her couches several times a month – him on one and her on the other. Why would it matter if this time they had passed out on the same piece of furniture? 

He looked down at her as she ran her hand over Rocket’s head, smoothing his ears back over and over as he purred to her. She leaned down and kissed his head. 

“Alright, I’ll give you some treats. Only because Garrus pleaded your case, though. You're lucky. Not all victims plead for their attacker’s mercy.”

“What a kind judge you are, Shep.” Vakarian drawled. He placed a hand on her shoulder and patted gently. She stiffened at first, then relaxed. “Ready to get to work?” he asked, anxious to get his mind stuck on casework — and thankful that Shepard and he were doing just fine, despite waking up in an awkward situation.     

“Yeah, let me grab my shoes.” She turned to flash him a half-smile with her head cocked to the side and pointed her finger at him. “Not my disgusting tennis shoes, though.”

As she turned from him with a pep in her step, an urge hit him to take her by the arm and pull her in for a quick hug. He let her go, though. Waking up in her bed was probably enough intimacy between two friends for one day. 

Hugging her could get addicting, though. It just felt nice. She was so soft and warm. Spirits, maybe he needed a pet. How expensive could a cat be? They were small, so they had to be cheap, right? 

As if reading his mind, Rocket bumped his head into Vakarian’s arm. Vakarian smiled, and gave him a little scratch, before picking him up and placing him in his cowl where he held him and showered attention on the adoring little guy. 

Once Shepard returned and they were out the door, they headed to the same coffee shop she had introduced him to the morning before. It was only their second trip, but it already felt like a comfortable little habit. 

The shop, however, was so packed when they arrived they had to wait outside until it cleared out a bit. 

Vakarian felt oddly well-rested, considering he slept on the foot of Shepard’s bed all night. He recalled waking up a few times, but something other than his exhausted mind and body kept him in her bed. Even in the dead of night, mind still half asleep and body achingly tired, he realized he didn’t want to be alone. He’d never admit to it, of course, but just being in the same room with her while they slept was comforting. His spirit needed it — just like it needed the blanket pressed to his crest. 

He felt properly ashamed for wanting to sleep in her bed, but she didn’t seem to mind. That was the thing about Shepard — she was so easy-going and quick to offer whatever support someone needed.  

Outside, tucked in by a structural column, they waited for their opportunity to grab a coffee while burying their hands in their pockets and watching the people coming and going. Shepard kept stealing glances at him, which he tried to ignore. He knew she wanted to ask him if he was ok, or if he wanted to talk, or if he needed anything.

But he still just wanted to forget that his mom was sick and that he’d lose her so much sooner than he was prepared to. 

“Hey, you wanna talk yet?” Shepard asked. 

A knot welled in his chest for just a moment, selfishly agitated that she actually asked. But she was doing it because she had to — because she cared. And how could he be angry at her for caring?

“No, but thanks for asking.” He wanted to say so many other things to her. But most were embarrassing. And some of them would make him keen. 

She nudged his arm with her shoulder. “Of course. When you’re ready, I’m here.”

All he could muster up was a nod before he turned his attention back to watching the people hurrying to work. 

After just a short, silent moment between them, Shepard stood up on the tips of her toes and leaned towards him. With a quick, odd movement, her hand hovered in the middle of his face before her fingers brushed his nose. Absolutely dumbfounded by what she was doing, but not feeling threatened at all, he leaned away from her reach just slightly. 

His confusion only intensified, though, when she pulled her hand back and presented it to him, showing him that her thumb was tucked in between two of her other fingers and just peeking out. It was some sort of little display. The only thing he understood about the situation was that she clearly wanted him to see her thumb, despite it being poorly concealed. 

“What the hell was that?” 

“Got your nose,” she explained with a hint of pride in her voice. 

What ?” His mandibles fluttered in his confusion. 

She wiggled her thumb just slightly, still stuck between her fingers. “I got your nose, stole it off your face.”

There was that pride again like she had accomplished some magical feat. Was her thumb supposed to be his nose? Bewildered beyond reaction, he simply stood back, desperately reading every little quirk of her face and running through every last bit of his human knowledge to figure out what the hell she was doing. 

Eventually, though, exasperated and out of ideas, he blurted, “What did you just do?”

“I mean, it’s pretty self-explanatory. Why are you struggling with this concept? I got your nose.” His mandibles jittered again when she waved her fisted hand around.

“Oh, probably because it makes no sense. That’s supposed to be a nose?” He pointed at her silly list fist that was all balled up. 

“Yeah.”

“That doesn't even look like a nose.”

She inspected her thumb through her fingers. “Yeah, well, it kind of looks like mine.” She held her hand up to her face to show the side-by-side comparison between her nose and thumb. “A human nose.” 

He could only guess that she realized how ridiculous this was when she laughed, causing him to laugh right along with her. “My grandpa used to do it to me when I was little and upset,” she said.

“You are so weird,” he said through his chuckles, teasing her while imagining the adorable, strange sight of her grandfather pretending to remove her nose from the small, round face she had as a child. He’d have to ask Ed about it the next time he was at Shepard’s and she called her grandparents. For some reason, he loved hearing stories about Shepard when she was little — it always filled him with nostalgic joy. 

For a moment, they simply laughed together, then gave each other funny looks. The funny looks made them laugh all over again, only to repeat the process. Their laughs were never particularly loud or boisterous – it was the sheer length of time they spent just looking at each other and laughing that made the two of them look a bit mental. It even earned them a few judging and bewildered looks from the embassy and C-Sec staffers passing by who were usually too rushed and self-involved to notice anything going on around them.  

Eventually, their laughter died down, and he took her short, conciliatory shrug as an admittance that the situation was absurd. While leaning comfortably against the pillar, she shoved her hands in her pockets and said, “I’m just trying to make you feel better.”

His mandibles continued to flutter in amusement. “And how exactly is stealing my body parts supposed to make me feel better, Shep? Humans are so weird.”

“Because it’s silly,” she explained simply. Her voice was light, and her smile warm. “Hey, you’re laughing, aren't you?”

“You got me there.”

Their ridiculous exchange was interrupted when they both received pings on their omni-tools – a hospital administrator providing the time and location they planned to remove Ziha from her enviro-tank. The removal would be tomorrow, so Shepard and Vakarian had all day to work on the case. He already started going through the explanations he’d have to give Livia, begging forgiveness for having to work late. There was no way he’d get off on time with a case handed to them at the Executor’s order, though.  

Instead of worrying about how upset Livia would be, he thought about his mom. He looked over the pristine Presidium grounds – artificial sunlight casting a soft, warm glow on the trees, lakes, and people. It was beautiful, but his heart hurt too much to enjoy it. 

The galaxy around him felt new. But not in a good way. New in the same vein of getting deployed to a planet you’d never been to, and you didn’t know what the weather would be like or what supplies you’d get. The only thing you knew for certain was your mission was going to be tough and the likelihood of someone getting hurt, or dying, was high. But, you were completely helpless to change any of that.   

His mom had a terminal illness, and he’d lose her. His life would never be the same. 

Finally, the coffee shop emptied enough for Shepard and Vakarian to squeeze their way inside. He followed Shepard’s lead, admiring how everyone here, regardless of species, made room for her. She had no idea she was parting the crowd with a determined stride and warm smile, though. She had no idea the effect she had on people. 

They ordered coffee and received it while his thoughts stayed on his mother.

Everything he knew had suddenly changed last night. And he’d woken up to this new galaxy on Shepard’s bed — relaxed, comfortable, accepted. Without a doubt, he knew that she’d be there right by his side through hospital trips, doctor’s visits, and test results. That would be his life for the next decade. But she’d be there.

“Listen,” Shepard said, a thoughtful, serious weight to her voice as she glanced back at him and chewed at her lip. The sea of people parted on her way out of the shop. “It’s not like I’m opposed to new tennis shoes. But that pair got me through my move.”

He watched her bounce her way down the sidewalk, talking to him about shoes and moving and how unexpected things keep you grounded through tough times. In a few strides, he caught up to her. They sipped coffee while walking side by side and he hoped nothing would ever change between them. 

Watching his mom grow weaker and sicker was going to take every ounce of his strength. At least he wouldn't have to do this alone, though, because he had a stellar friend at his side. 



Chapter Text

Typical crime scene images never made Shepard so much as blink anymore. She’d seen it all — gunshot wounds, stabbings, poisonings, and asphyxiations. But she’d never had to sit still and look over images of a woman who’d been treated like a rack of meat at a slaughterhouse. 

Ziha wasn’t a chunk of meat, though. She wasn’t even a dead body that Shepard could regard with distance and dissociation. 

Shepard’s mentor in college taught her to look straight past the victim to focus on the evidence instead. It was like reading a map — a start, an end, and pivotal points in between. Don’t worry about the distractions along your path, like the way the face sank in resignation or the way the eyes stared to nothingness. If you do, you’ll just start wondering what they’d been looking at, or what last thought drifted through their mind when they finally let go and released their last breath — and that was a good way to give up a promising career. It led to depression, substance abuse, detaching yourself from friends and family.  

So far she avoided all those fates, so that lesson had served Shepard alarmingly well. Her first couple of cases in SFPD Homicide were rough — a teenage girl who looked like her cousin, a woman who’d been shot by her obsessive boyfriend (who she’d reported several times for stalking), and a kind older man who’d been robbed and suffered a blow so hard to the head his skull cracked wide open. She’d struggled through it all and called her Gran bawling her eyes out one night, rambling on about the victim’s families and lives. While her Gran offered comfort, it was that old advice that allowed her to carry on — focus on the evidence, not the irreversibly lost life. Anything more was a waste of time and wouldn’t help the victim, anyhow. Sentimentality didn’t solve cases. 

But Ziha was alive. She was a living, breathing woman who fought through the impossible with her life intact, even if her body wasn’t. Shepard couldn’t stop thinking about that, despite trying to ignore it. And now Ziha was at a hospital suspended in a tank of fluid with nothing to do but replay and contemplate what had been done to her. Was she scared? Was she terrified that she still might die? How awful that must be, isolated and floating in a tank while you think about the most horrific thing that you’d ever experienced. Did she wish someone could hold her hand? 

Shepard stopped herself there — that was the kind of thinking that made a detective’s life hard. She couldn’t let herself slip into that bad little habit. This case wouldn’t be the end of her — she wouldn’t let it. 

As Shepard tried to utilize her training and mused about the possible downfall of her career as a homicide detective, she looked over at Vakarian, who was busy gathering records that would help them find two turians named Achillus and Traian. He’d already spent the morning looking through Ziha’s credit account history for anything that may give them a lead. Shepard knew he’d moved on from that, though — not because he told her so, but because he’d been scowling at his console screen for thirty minutes (mandible sulkily propped in hand), and she couldn’t think of anything about Ziha’s spending history that would give him that determined, agitated look. He was frustrated about something. He had his problem-solving face on. 

“What’s going on over there, big guy? Forget how to smile?” she asked while propping her chin in her palm, mirroring his position.

Even though only a few days had passed since he found out about his mom, she knew it was safe to tease him like that. Though he’d been a bit more sardonic and quiet, he’d generally been in good spirits, and no one had picked up that anything was off-kilter in his life — not even Kryik. Hopefully, her gentle nudges meant to make him smile were helping him cope — it seemed like they were, at least. 

While staring at his screen, Vakarian blinked slowly once, drummed a long, slender talon-tipped finger against his mandible, then looked over at her. 

“This is going to take forever,” he eventually muttered. 

“What is?”

“Finding instances where these two names are mentioned together in Citadel records. I have Housing, Port Authority, C-Sec, and so many others to sift through.” 

The names were fairly common, so simply searching for them separately wouldn’t get them much of anywhere —sort of like searching for two guys named John and William in San Francisco.  

“Did you already do a joint name search through old case files?”

“Yes, and nothing comes up. And of course, I got hundreds of thousands of hits on them individually, which was expected. Cutting down the hits by listing the victim as quarian didn’t even narrow it down to anything manageable.” He paused, huffed, then added, “Which was also expected.” 

He sounded so bitter — like the records were doing this to him on purpose, which made Shepard feel patronizingly sympathetic. She wanted to pinch his side and tell him to stop pouting about it. She also had the strange new urge to give him a friendly hug. 

“Cases take time,” Shepard said in a consoling tone. “Might take us months to get through this one. We just have to dig in and stick with it.”

“The faster we solve this, the further we are from the Executor, the Council, and the media."

A heavy sigh came out of him. He was anxious about this one — too much attention from people in high places, people whose opinion he valued. And the news had been running the story as if no one had ever been attacked on the Citadel before (when in fact someone was stabbed in the lower markets once a damn hour), which only increased the pressure he felt to solve this.  

“Maybe wait until we meet with Ziha before you keep diving through records?” Shepard said. “She might have something that saves us a lot of time.”

His eyes snapped from the screen to narrow on her for just a second, clearly conveying that he was unhappy with her reasoning and consoling. It was also clear he was thinking about something.

“Why in the dark night does C-Sec not have a program that does all this work for us?”

It was like he didn’t even hear her. 

“What work? Solving cases?” Shepard asked, slightly amused and fully intent on teasing him for his rash, hyper-fixated behavior. This wasn’t new behavior, it hit him every so often — just like bursts of frenetic energy hit her every so often.

“No,” he grumbled, “sifting through records. It’s a waste of time.”

“Programs are flawed, so you might miss something. Do your work like a good turian,” Kryik chimed in as his own eyes stayed locked on his console, busily typing away...like a good turian. Shepard always wondered how such a good turian and such a bad turian became inseparable buddies. Their constant bickering didn’t do anything to solve that mystery, either. Their bond was a perplexing one.  

Vakarian didn’t respond to Kryik — he didn’t even look at him — just kept staring at Shepard with that same determined, thinking-too-hard look about him. 

Without warning, he snapped forward and began to type on his console like he’d just been handed a critical mission. “Dammit, if I’m going to waste my time, I might as well waste it doing something productive.” 

That logic twisted Shepard’s brain just a little. Her lips puckered to the side, and brows knotted, but she wasn’t quite sure what to say. She simply watched him typing in a flurry of action and visible determination. At least he wasn’t sulking anymore.   

“How’s the medical report going?” he asked, clearly only half interested in her progress and more focused on his undefined task. “Get anything from it?”

“It’s fucking atrocious,” she said while drumming her fingers on her chair’s arm and swiveling back and forth. “I haven’t seen any shots of her full body yet. Just close-ups. And I’m kind of glad.”

She leaned forward, wrapped her hands around a neglected sandwich that had been sitting on her desk, and took a big bite. “Mostly,” she continued (chewing delicately to avoid offending her turian friends), “I’ve gathered that her attackers were fucking twisted.”

“Twisted criminals. Groundbreaking, Shep,” he said dryly. “Want me to add “twisted” to my search parameters?” 

“Hey, don’t take your frustration out on me. I’ve been reading about and tallying knife wounds for hours. Give me a break.”

They gave each other quick smiles to tell each other no offense was taken. That’s all it ever took for them — just a subtle look and they knew that everything between them was good.

“I’ll send over the footage I found of her arriving at the crime scene,” he said. “Haven’t had a chance to watch it, and I haven’t found any footage prior to that — the markets were packed that day and I haven’t picked her out of the crowds yet. Want to look through what I found, though?”

She stopped chewing to look at him dead on. “And what exactly will you be doing?”

“Something productive,” he answered, busily typing and then grabbing a datapad to prop it up by his screen so he could read from it easily. 

“Tell me,” Shepard asked curiously. 

“Later,” he answered, his eyes briefly flicked to T’Saris, who had her eye on the next open Lieutenant position and was always quick to badger anyone who stepped outside of Homicide’s typical operations.  

Which meant she badgered Vakarian often. Thankfully for Vakarian, she was focus on her own work. 

Shepard wanted to protest and tell him how annoying he was acting with all the secrecy, but a break from the medical reports sounded nice.

A beat after Vakarian made a few clicks on his keyboard the CC footage files popped up on her screen. Instead of immediately opening them, though, Shepard took a moment to stare him down — which he patently ignored. 

“I’m annoyed with you,” she said, stating the obvious.

“I’m ignoring it,” he replied without even a glance her way and stating something even more obvious.

Kryik caught her attention by giving her a little look, a sympathetic acknowledgment between them as if saying “he’s being a pain in the ass”. Kryik didn’t know about Valeria’s diagnosis, though. He probably didn’t know everything else that Vakarian was going through, either — like Livia’s negativity or the fact that Vakarian was terrified of fucking up this case and embarrassing his dad.    

Instead of returning the look, Shepard downplayed her mild irritation by smiling and giving Kryik a lighthearted shrug. She did say a little prayer, though, hoping to god that Vakarian wasn’t pursuing a route that would cause any headaches or reprimands. His one-track mind often cleared a path for them, sure, but sometimes that path offered as many hazards as a jungle trail cleared by machete. 

Shepard turned to the footage to press on. As soon as she opened the file and pressed play, Ziha’s small, faraway figure appeared in an abandoned corridor. She glanced behind her, a nervous little twitch in her step as she quickly moved down the dark hall. A moment later, two turians appeared on screen, not too close but clearly following her. Their confident, slow strides were in stark contrast to her jittery, quick movements. Those two had to be the attackers — Achilus and Traian. 

They followed her — and she knew they were coming for her. But why was she alone in the corridor in the first place? Was she lost? Was she going to meet someone?

As they followed after Ziha, Shepard tried to make out anything identifiable on them — a uniform or colony markings maybe — that would provide a lead. But before she could make anything out they moved up behind Ziha so quickly all she had time to do was startle. They pinned her against the wall simply with their threatening presence. 

The three engaged in some talk, the turians smiled and laughed, Ziha shook her head...and that’s when it started. Shepard barely noticed their hands pulling out knives before they began to stab and swipe in furious, maniacal movements. She held up her hands, pleading for them to stop. When they didn’t, she cradled her arms to her stomach — but they pulled her arms away. She was entirely defenseless. She never had a chance.  

Shepard briefly wished she’d been there to protect the poor quarian. Which was a terrible thought — one that hardened, determined detectives shouldn’t entertain. It led to misplaced guilt. 

Ziha slumped, knees buckling and giving out. One turian held her up while the other took the lead, then they switched. After just a moment Shepard could make out the distinct form of her bowels spilling forward. After a few frenzied swipes and rough digs to her neck, her head tilted sideways.

It was so terrifyingly, sickeningly quick. 

At that point, Shepard put down her sandwich and swallowed the lump of partially chewed food down her tight throat. She worried for one split second that she would gag, then told herself to stop being so god damn dramatic. By the time Shepard sat up straighter and regained her focus to watch for something to base a case on, the turians let Ziha drop to the ground and stood back. 

As quick as the initial attack was, what came next was unnervingly slow. Shepard watched with her wide eyes glued to the screen. One leaned down, pried Ziha’s helmet off her head, and threw it to the side — that’s right, they removed it on purpose, didn’t they? 

The other got down on his knees, wrapped his fist around her braided hair, and pulled. Her neck bent even further to the side, clearly indicating her muscles were ripped to shreds and were unable to bear the weight of her head. The turian who removed her helmet tore at her braids, purposefully undoing them until her hair hung free around her face and shoulders. 

Shepard’s heart ached as Ziha gently reached her hand up and wrapped it around his wrist — so calm and secure for a woman whose body had just been shredded. Words were exchanged once again. 

Shepard wanted to know what they were saying so bad it made pricks fire behind her ears. 

Both turians stood after that. They watched her for a moment and exchanged a few words. Poor Ziha just lay on the ground, the pool of blood around her body visibly grew, even through the low-quality camera image. 

The turians turned and left, moving slowly, not worried at all about anyone discovering them in the act. The outright brazenness of their easy strides caused Shepard’s anger to flick like a cat’s tail. They were monsters, pure and simple. It was senseless. 

After that, Shepard watched Ziha lying in the corridor alone, anxiously anticipating the moment the woman picked herself up to walk to the spot where they found her. Shepard was even more amazed that she survived after seeing the attack on film. Seeing it with her own eyes only solidified the fact that Ziha was alive only by a goddamn miracle. It was brutal, and yet she looked so unbelievably strong the entire time. Like a sparrow caught in a storm.

Her half-eaten sandwich permanently cast to the side, Shepard watched the footage, over and over, taking notes — mental and digital — of every move the turians and Ziha made. Pallin would want meticulous records on this one. Nothing leaped out, though, that would give them a clue as to who these sick bastards were. No clear motive — they didn’t steal anything from her. So far, despite the entire attack being recorded, Shepard was no closer to figuring out who these guys were or why they did this. 

They stalked her, butchered her, and left. 

And, dammit, despite her training, Shepard had stared too long at the little distractions along her path — all the emotional stuff that clouded her mind with sentimentality. She needed to focus, but maybe a break was necessary first. 

While Shepard stared at her screen — the footage frozen at the moment she and Vakarian arrived on the scene — a lithe figure strolled towards her and Vakarian’s desks. She glanced over to see Kasumi Goto, C-Sec tech expert (and Vakarian’s saving grace when he struggled with something tech-related). So that’s what he was up to, pounding a path through the jungle with a machete, for sure.  

It wasn’t Kasumi or Vakarian who Shepard watched, however, but instead Kryik. Like a whip, Shepard’s mind abandoned the footage and hopped to watch his reaction to Kasumi’s sudden presence. The man had a crush on Kasumi, or at least Shepard was convinced that he did. It wasn’t that Shepard was usually interested in other people’s love lives, but Kryik having a crush on someone was beyond typical and was somewhat intriguing to watch. Sure, he flirted (and was damned smooth about it, which was no surprise), but his interactions always seemed a bit different with Kasumi. He always seemed tender, which was not his m.o. 

With a mind full of wretched images and a heart slowly sinking with sympathy for the poor woman, Shepard consciously told herself to take a break — have a little breather — by focusing on Kryik and Kasumi instead. The whole situation was a lighthearted little mystery that piqued Shepard’s interest, and she needed a lighthearted mystery. 

Adding fuel to that little fire blazing between Kryik and Kasumi, Kasumi gave Kryik a sly little half-smile, which Kryik returned with equal intent. Oh yeah , they liked each other. 

“Your help has arrived, Garrus,” Kasumi told Vakarian with a characteristic swagger in her step. Everyone around Shepard swaggered, or swayed, or sashayed. Shepard knew that she just bounced everywhere she went and felt a distinct lack of coolness around all these people. 

Still focused on his covert operations, Vakarian gave Kasumi a cursory glance before looking back at his console. “Here, it’s on this datapad. I can’t figure out why it keeps crashing.”

“Knowing you, you tried a shortcut, and you’re paying the price.”

“It’s not a shortcut. It’s efficient.”

“Not if it doesn’t work, Garrus. Here, let me see it.” Kasumi accepted Vakarian’s datapad with a gently upturned palm, and in a few languid strides, she was at Kryik’s desk. With Kryik’s warm eyes on her, she leaned against the desk, then perched herself on it. 

It was a habit Kryik and Kasumi shared — sitting on other people’s desks without asking and just assuming the person would be ok with it. Kryik often sat on Shepard or Vakarian’s desk, just as Kasumi was sitting on his. It indicated a confident and warm familiarity with people. Shepard didn’t mind when he sat on her desk, as long as she could still see her screen. Vakarian absolutely hated it, though — which probably made Kryik do it more often than he naturally would. 

Vakarian caught her attention, telling her with just a look that he knew why she was watching Kryik and Kasumi so intently and telling her to let it go. She told him with a simple look to go stuff himself. 

Kasumi’s voice interrupted their silent discussion. 

“Holy shit.” Kasumi’s eyes were wide and her mouth slightly parted in surprise. “What are you guys working on?” 

Still perched on Kryik’s desk, she was leaning back and craning her neck to get a better glimpse of Shepard’s screen. Although images akin to the ones currently adorning Shepard’s screen were a typical sight in Homicide, Kasumi spent most of her time in the tech lab and wasn’t exposed to gruesome crap as often as they were. It took a special person to work in the department. Hence the coping mechanisms to get yourself through, like making yourself forget bodies were people. 

And a lot of alcohol on exceptionally bad days.   

“Hear about the quarian sliced up in lower Zakera?” Kryik asked.

Kasumi winced, recognition dawning on her face. “Sure. It was that bad? And she’s alive, right?”

“Yeah, barely breathing when we got to the scene,” Shepard answered. “I don’t think I’ll ever get that out of my head.”

“Wait, why are you guys still working on it if she’s alive?” Kasumi asked, genuinely curious. 

“Orders from above,” Vakarian answered. 

Shepard glanced at the clock. “Shit, we need to get out of here. They’re pulling Ziha out soon.”

Shepard began to close out of her programs and lock her console, while Vakarian did the same. 

While they packed up, Kasumi turned her focus to Vakarian’s code, hovering over the datapad. But she was impressively still able to carry on a conversation while muddling through Vakarian’s sloppy (as she put it) work. “Glad you reached out, Garrus, because you need me for this. It’s just a bit above your pay grade.” 

“I know I need you. And thank you, Kasumi.”

“Sure you can handle it?” Kryik asked Kasumi with a playful smile.

“Psh, this is child’s play.”

“Are you calling me a child?” Vakarian asked with a hint of humor. 

Kasumi took a moment to look up at him with a smirk. “Only children would use sequential programming for this. It’ll still take days, maybe even a week, to get all your returns. I’ll play around with this. Maybe have something for you by tonight?”

“Sounds good,” Vakarian replied, already sounding brighter. 

Kryik scooted closer to Kasumi, and Shepard was suspicious that he did so instinctually rather than on purpose. His knees just barely touched her calves. Watching them was about as entertaining as watching a historical romance. It was like he had an itch that he couldn’t resist scratching. Adorable. 

“What have you been up to?” Kryik asked Kasumi, his voice warmer than usual. “I haven’t seen you around much.”

“Oh, just keeping busy at work. I did pick up a new book that I can’t keep my eyes off.”

Kryik smiled at that, and Shepard couldn’t help but smile as well, certain that he’d ask her out soon. 

“I still haven’t caught up on that book you loaned me — lots of late nights lately,” Kryik told her while his hand rose from his knee to rest on his desk, a mere inch away from her thigh.  

“You’ve never read a book,” Vakarian interjected. “Stop trying to impress people.”

Kryik’s hand curiously withdrew from Kasumi’s side. “I read, Garrus, I just don’t talk to you about it because the only books you’ve ever read are manuals and textbooks.”

Vakarian leaned back and crossed his arms, looking as if he was prepared to defend a bold statement. “Books are for learning. Vids are for stories.”

Shepard’s light chuckles must have caught Kasumi’s attention because she was soon looking her way. “I bet Shepard reads for fun ... Mmm, I peg you for the romance type. Separated lovers determined to reunite. Best friends who can’t admit their yearning. Enemies trapped together, bitterly fighting until they fall into each other’s arms.” An easy but excited smile played on her lips. “You know, the really good stuff.”

Kasumi’s voice had grown warmer with every word she spoke, and so did the sparkle in Kryik’s eyes as he watched her. 

It was true, Shepard loved a good romance book, but she shook her head. “I used to when I had more time. I mostly just read for work nowadays. I’m in the middle of one about interrogation techniques on drell. It’s pretty fascinating.”

Kasumi looked back and forth between Shepard and Vakarian. She never looked disappointed or judging, only ever amused. “You two are very boring. Do you just sit around at night reading math books and procedure books?”

“No, we watch lots of vids,” Shepard corrected her assumption. “Garrus loves vampire vids, actually.”

“I prefer vampire vids over most of the dumb action/romances you like.”

“What the hell is a vampire?” Kryik asked with screwed-up browplates.

Kasumi answered for them, “Hm, how to put this simply. A vampire is a human who’s cursed or infected in some way, so they drink human blood. That’s the general idea.”

Kyrik’s disgust was immediate and dramatically evident in the way he recoiled. His gaze quickly drifted to Vakarian. “What the fuck, Garrus. You watch vids about that? For fun?”

Shepard chuckled at Kryik’s overreaction — though the concept admittedly was a bit twisted when you thought about it. “It’s not like they’re filling up pitchers and guzzling blood down. That’s not what's happening.” Shepard recalled a few of the darker ones they’d watched. “Well, usually.” 

That didn’t seem to make him feel better though, he actually looked ill, and his mandibles fluttered. 

Kasumi turned to Kryik with soft eyes and a tucked chin. Shepard could swear she was leaning forward a bit, too — gravitating towards him, maybe. They were dying to be near each other, that much was clear. “Stories about vampires are quite romantic, really.” Then she turned to Vakarian. “I never realized how romantic you are.” 

Shepard got a kick out of the way that made Vakarian blush just a little, though he didn’t deny Kasumi’s observation.  

Kryik turned his pinched, confused face to Kasumi. “I’m reconsidering my positive esteem for you.”

She answered with a mischievous look, and Kryik’s hand returned to rest near her leg. 

Vakarian’s arms got tighter around his chest. “It’s not that... weird. Once you watch them, it makes sense. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying two people fighting against all odds to come together.” The only thing more adorable than Kryik having a crush on Kasumi was how romantic Vakarian was underneath all the stern looks and bravado. He loved the happy endings just as much as Shepard did. “ The world is dark enough. Someone should be happy ,” he once said. 

Kryik gave Vakarian a disapproving look. It seemed that Vakarian lost a little of Kryik’s positive esteem as well. 

Shepard continued, “We watch all kinds of vids. I just hate comedies, usually.” Shepard turned to Vakarian. “That one we watched the other night was horrible. Or, maybe I just didn’t get the jokes.”

“I have no idea if it was bad or not. I fell asleep.”

“You missed so many jokes about a neurotic elcor.” She deepened her voice and, in a dull inflection, recited a line from the vid, ‘Contemplating impending doom. Yes, we can go to the grocery store’.”

“I think you mean dodged,” Vakarian said. 

Shepard, who had been leaning over to take her pistol from her desk drawer, paused mid-lean to scoff at him. “Goddamit, you chose that stupid vid.”

Vakarian shot her a wicked grin. “Because I wanted to take a nap. And I knew the jokes would confuse you so much that you’d be too focused on the vid to notice.”

Shepard reached for a stray lid from some drink she’d consumed (probably days ago) and chucked it at him. “You wasted my night, damn you.” The lid bounced off his keel and fell to the floor while his unimpressed laugh riled her up even more. 

“Easy, I was just joking.” He paused. “Mostly.” Before she saw it coming, he’d reached for a food wrapper and chucked it at her. And, of course, his sniper’s aim made sure that the damn greasy wrapper hit her square in the forehead. They ignored the detective walking by who’d been hit by the rebounding wrapper and who cursed at them.

“Ha, scoped and dropped,” Vakarian boasted as the wrapper sailed to the floor. 

A little rumbling growl escaped her, making her sound enough like Vakarian that it was clear they spent too much time together. “ Garrus ,” she rubbed at the grease spot she felt on her forehead, “don’t aim for my head.” 

His only answer was shooting her a cocky grin as he leaned sideways to retrieve his own pistol. 

That was it. It was time to get dirty. With Vakarian distracted, Shepard leaned back in her chair so she could scooch down just slightly, stuck her foot towards his, and jabbed the toe of her shoe between his boot-covered pedi-talons, then wiggled it around a little bit. Just knowing how much he hated that provided her with an immediate rush of victory. 

In pure overly dramatic fashion, he jerked his foot back, causing his knee to bounce up. A loud crash sounded through their corner of homicide when his leg banged into his desk. “Dammit, Shep,” he barked, “I hate when you do that. Makes my plates itch.”

Ignoring the hurt look on his face and his mandibles flaring out, Shepard laughed wickedly, victoriously, feeling fully vindicated. Maybe that would make him think twice before he forced her to watch crap she didn’t enjoy or understand. One form of torture was exchanged for the other. 

After watching each other for just a moment, Shepard waiting for a counter-move that never came, he smiled back at her.  

Right, Ziha. And the tank. There was no rest for beleaguered detectives. They had to keep plugging along until they solved the case. They both drew their hands up in surrender.

Shepard turned to say goodbye to Kryik, T’Saris, and Kasumi, and as soon as she had them in her sight, she had to pause because all three of them were just staring at her and Vakarian. And, if Shepard didn’t know better, she would have believed they looked slightly concerned. Maybe bewildered was a better description. 

Ignoring their judgmental reaction to Shepard and Vakarian’s antics (because it wasn’t that weird for partners to fuck around with each other), Shepard grabbed her pistol, tucked it in its holster, and rose out of her chair. 

“Try not to get into a slapping contest around the expensive hospital equipment, hm?” Kryik drawled. His dumb joke was punctuated by a soft laugh from Kasumi. 

Shepard gave Kryik the middle finger and swore that if their romance resulted in Kasumi and Kryik teaming up to harass her and Vakarian, well then, they were just going to lose Shepard’s support. 

“Watch out for the media. They’ve been camping outside the hospital,” T’Saris (who was just about the only detective busily working in the department at that moment) advised.

After an appreciative nod to T’Saris, Shepard and Vakarian were on their way. 

Out in the hall and well out of hearing range, Shepard looked up at Vakarian. “Those two, huh?” Shepard waggled her eyebrows at him.

“Hm?” His browplates pinched slightly, seemingly oblivious to her suggestion, so she figured his mind was back on the case. Or, maybe he was worried about the media possibly camping out and hell-bent on making them look like asses. 

“Kryik and Kasumi. They’re into each other, right? I’m surprised Kryik hasn’t gone for her yet.”

The confusion left his face. “Oh, he has ,” Vakarian drawled. “Never be fooled that Kryik would be slow to ask someone out.”

“Oh.” Shepard filled with disappointment. Then once the surprise hit her, she said, “And she turned him down?”

“It’s not my business. I don’t want to meddle.”

“Why? Kryik always meddles in your business.” Shepard joked. “And Kasumi is a gossip anyway, so I doubt she’d mind.” Shepard paused, giving him the chance to tell her, and when he didn’t, she said, “I’m going to ask him if you don’t tell me.”

Vakarian seemed to think about that for a moment, then finally said, “He asked her out, and she said she’s interested in him, but she’s still not ready.” He paused, then added, “Back on Earth, she lost her partner. He was killed in a raid that went bad. And they weren’t just partners — they were bonded.”

Shepard deflated, her romantic mystery squashed. “Oh. Well, damn. How long of a break does she need?”

Vakarian seemed to tense after her comment. She guessed because he appeared to have taken a long break himself once. “I mean, that makes sense for poor Kasumi,” Shepard explained in an attempt to recover from her insensitivity, “but that sucks for Kryik. He seems to really like her, not just want a one and done, you know?”

“He does like her, but he’s giving her space.” Vakarian shrugged. “Maybe someday it’ll work out for them.”

“There wasn’t much space between them when she sat on his desk,” Shepard commented with a suggestive wink.

“He’s respectful, not dead.”

As she and Vakarian slid into the elevator, brushing past a few fellow officers, Shepard considered the way Kasumi carried herself. After thinking about it, and recalling past conversations, she realized that the signs were all there — Kasumi was someone who had loved, lost, and still hurt from it. It reminded Shepard of Vakarian, actually, and Shepard wondered if maybe he had started dating again too soon. How long had it been since he lost the woman he loved? Four years?

Not knowing what that kind of love was like — the kind that could knock you on your ass like that — Shepard realized how hard it had to be going on after such a loss. With thoughts of her worn-out pillow in her mind, she noted that having a warm body by your side — one that could hold you back and make you feel safe and adored — had to be pretty nice. 

For some odd reason, right at that exact moment and as she was looking up at Vakarian, she recalled a moment between them. In her kitchen, when she’d asked about the blanket on his head, he mentioned how she held a pillow while she slept. Not that she woke up holding a pillow, but that she actively held one as she slept. He wouldn’t have said it that way if he hadn’t seen her in the middle of the night holding the pillow — which meant that he had woken up at some point, knew he was lying in her bed, and then chose to stay with her. 

She wasn’t quite sure what to do with that knowledge. 

He could have left at any moment. But he chose to stay. 

Just the other morning, she had the odd urge to hug him for no reason other than it would feel good. And now, she had the odd urge to reach out so that she could hold his hand. 

And even though there was no romantic love shared between them, she knew that if she ever lost him, it would knock her flat on her ass. 

Instead of hugging him or taking his hand, she smiled softly while looking up at him. His glance fell to her, and immediately he offered a warm smile in return. They simply stood side-by-side for a moment, smiling affectionately at each other. Without saying it, she knew they both felt happy being near one another. Safe. Content. 

With their eyes still locked, a curious little flutter tickled around in her chest. 

Chapter Text

Just outside Huerta Memorial Hospital, a sea of reporters were gathered. Vakarian’s first instinct was to protect Shepard from it, shield her and make sure none of them made her feel the way they made him feel. Watching her for only a second, though, reminded him that she didn’t need to be shielded from this. She marched forward, hips subtly swaying, shoulders set back, with enough purpose and sheer will that the sea parted for her before she even touched it. Instead of shielding her, he trailed after her and knew deep down he looked like the one who needed protection. 

He didn’t fit here. This wasn’t his place in the world. But it was hers. 

Vakarian would have preferred to shoot his way through a krogan camp than try to walk through the beasts he currently had his eyes on. The beasts who parted for them only enough to let them through. Their presence was so stifling that he could feel a force pressing on him as he approached. At least out in the field, he’d have some armor on. As it was, he felt completely defenseless. They were snipers perched on rooftops and he was creeping down an alley hoping to any god that would listen that he’d make it to the other side. 

They were going to bait them, they were going to make accusations and strike at their emotions. The reporters just loved to prod Citadel officials — especially rigid, straight-laced turians — until they snapped. It was great for the news cycle. 

Moments like this reminded Vakarian that he should have stuck with being a soldier. He wasn’t a detective. He didn’t have the skills required for this work like Shepard did. Like his dad did. 

Castis Vakarian had always handled the news outlets with grace and wit. Vakarian spent his childhood watching his dad on the news responding to their obnoxious questions (even as a kid, he could tell they were obnoxious) with tact and composure. So far, Vakarian had only made it through similar situations by clenching his fists and holding his mandibles tight. 

Thankfully Shepard was his partner — she was more like his dad than he was, in more ways than one. 

The reporters must have finally caught sight of the badges that hung from he and Shepard’s lapels because the shouts — the asinine questions with no purpose other than to stoke public fear and resentment — fell on them like a crashing wave. At first, he couldn’t differentiate one voice from another. It was a cacophony in every sense of the word. Sounds. Words. Harsh Tones. If it weren’t for Shepard’s confident stride, he’d feel like the reporters’ bodies were crashing down on them as well.  

And no, it did not escape him that he — a seven-foot turian with enough skill to snap a neck in half a second — followed after his five-eight human partner as if he were a lost child. 

“Do you have any leads?” one yelled.

“Will the victim live?” a salarian pushing through two asari asked.  

“Can you confirm that she was targeted as a quarian?” a particularly obnoxious (who Vakarian recognized from his dad’s years in C-Sec) asari from station 812 asked. There was no reason to make the Citadel’s small quarian population panic at this point. Their lives were hard enough. These people only cared about a story, though, not the poor people who had to go on living life through messes like this. 

He and Shepard just kept pressing through, avoiding eye contact with all of them. Vakarian clenched his fists and snapped his mandibles tight. Halfway through the crowd, and they were almost in the clear.  

One reporter lunged out in front of him, nearly blocking the path Shepard made. “Your father is a well-known C-Sec detective. How does that affect your approach to cases?”

When Shepard looked back at him, he shot her a sideways glance. A kind of “again with this shit” look. She gave him a knowing and secretly sympathetic smile, a little acknowledgment just between them, and he smiled back. It was a private moment between them amongst a swell of hostile entities. Those moments made days easier; not only did they work well together and enjoy each other’s company, but it had become evident that they shared a secret language. They could speak without saying anything at all. It was the kind of closeness you only experience with family, someone you love, or the closest of friends.   

The harsh voice of a reporter caught his attention. “As a human, do you find it hard to keep up with the Council races? How are you capable of handling a case like this?”

Even though his first thought was to snap at the idiot salarian barking racist shit at his partner, Shepard’s smile only grew. Despite the flicker of annoyance in her eyes, she was at ease, which relaxed him and turned off his protective instincts. She’s fine. So he let his smile grow as well. 

“Do you believe this is a hate crime?” another asked. “And do you expect more vicious crimes fueled by racism to occur?”

Spirits guide him, the damn baiting questions. 

As they reached the top of the steps into Huerta Memorial, the doors slid open with a soft hiss, and just as Vakarian allowed himself to believe they’d make it through this varren pit without any fallout, one reporter barked louder than the cacophony of shouts. 

“You’ve just confirmed you have absolutely no leads with your silence. How do you expect the public to react knowing C-Sec has done nothing to find the maniac who attacked a defenseless quarian?”

A shot of anger subtly twisted Shepard’s features. She turned on a heel and landed her cool gaze on the reporter who asked the most asinine question of all with a level of hate in their voice Vakarian could only describe as theatrical.  

“It’s too early to determine the nature of this crime,” she said, projecting her voice with confidence and just enough disdain to quiet the crowd. “We will pursue all possibilities. But, most importantly, we will evaluate the evidence judiciously before we determine the motive and intent.” 

The crowd was quieted, waiting on her next words. She paused and gave them all a stern look. “To do right by Ziha’Zora nar Raya and bring justice upon whoever is responsible for attacking her, we’ll need to keep our minds open and focused. So, please, allow us to do our jobs, and we’ll release pertinent information to the press as soon as we can. But as of now, we have nothing that can responsibly be communicated to you that will not weaken our case. Speculation hurts Ziha. Do your part to help us solve this case by ensuring your reporting has her best interest in mind.”

Vakarian gave her a smile, but this time it was because he was proud of his partner, not silently bitching with her. 

And then his smile was crushed. “Detective Vakarian, sir,” a reporter near the front said. “We want to hear straight from you what it’s like being raised by such a respected man. Will he help you solve this case? Is that how you’ve received such a high-profile case?”

Anger bit at the back of Vakarian’s neck. He didn’t want to talk about his father. Or, if he did, he wanted the freedom to mention that he barely saw the man growing up. His dad was always on a case. Always away. Vakarian, Sol, and their mom were always alone. And if his father was around, it was to haul him off to the shooting range where he would berate him about mediocre shots and dire predictions of Vakarian bleeding out on the field, his mother keening over his death and inconsolable. 

After that, his dad would hide out in his study all night while Vakarian researched the fatality rates of snipers. In his bedroom, huddled under the light of one small lamp, he broke it down by branch and posting. He even found skill rankings and included those figures as well. He ran the numbers over and over — calculated the probabilities of living and dying. 

It was simple, though. If you were good, you probably wouldn’t die. So Vakarian just had to be good.  

It wasn’t a typical childhood, even for a turian. 

That’s not the Castis the media wanted to hear about, though. They wanted the hero, the family man, the Citadel’s star detective — not the one who raised an anxious son full of self-doubt and dread. Painting any other picture would only make Vakarian look like an ungrateful — maybe even jealous —son. 

He took a deep breath and looked at Shepard, who stood next to him confident and calm, despite the flicker of anger he could see in her eyes. She probably felt the same way he did when the reporter asked her about being a human. He wanted to make her proud, just like she made him when she responded to their questions. 

Vakarian turned to the reporters. He knew the right words to say, but spitting them out was the difficult part. 

Maybe if he forced himself to say those words, all the people who made assumptions about his father and their relationship would finally back off. Running from this legacy had just left him exhausted. Maybe confronting it was the best way to escape it.  

Trying to keep his face neutral, Vakarian addressed the reporter who asked about his father. “My father was an inspiration to me growing up, and he taught me to work just as hard as he does. But, as you all know, unless the executor seeks out his advice on this case, it would be against regulation to discuss any details with him.” 

He knew he sounded angry — he was unable to hold back some of that bitterness — but at least he said the right words. As he turned back towards the doors, the reporters’ faces were a sea of shapes and colors, but he made eye contact with Shepard, and she gave him an approving nod before they ignored the rest of the questions being shouted at them and made their way inside together. 

Facing the media could have been a lot worse. One little piece of him wanted to believe he didn’t do a half-bad job.

The way Shepard looked up at him with confidence reinforced that little thought. “Damn Garrus,” she said, “how’d you get such thick skin so quickly? A week ago you would have elbowed one of them, at the very least.” 

“Oh it was pretty easy,” he drawled. “I just imagined myself choking every one of them, slowly, until they shut up.”

“Christ,” Shepard muttered, but there was a hint of humor and commiseration in her voice. She took a deep breath, shoved her hands in her pockets, and turned. “On that note, let’s go haul a quarian out of a tank and ask her about the worst moment of her life.” 

Once again, he followed after her, taking a few quick steps to meet her stride. “First you drag me through the media and now this? You’re full of fun ideas today, Shep. Save some for tomorrow.”

Her elbow met his side in a gentle nudge. “Tomorrow we’ll watch the attack together and play a game. It’s called “spot the colony markings while two turians butcher a quarian.” 

He grimaced — that one bit hard enough to make him pause. Considering how dark that comment was, he assumed the footage got to her. Having a good partner at your side to share in the horror made that stuff a bit easier. He should have been there instead of focusing so hard on his project with Kasumi. 

In silence, they followed the signs directing them to the Intensive Care wing and showed their credentials to the receptionist at the desk while announcing they were there to see Ziha. 

“This one would like to inform you that she’s in the third room on the left,” the receptionist told them. Faint ripples of luminescence traveled across their skin. 

“Can we go in now, or do we need to wait until they take her out and put her in a suit?” Shepard asked.

“She wears modesty garments, so it is acceptable to enter the room now. The doctors will arrive soon to remove her from the chamber and transfer her into an enviro-suit. Please, do not touch anything and stand to the side.”  

They were about to see a sliced-up quarian outside of her suit hauled out of a fancy fish tank. Not many detectives could say that. And for the hundredth time in the last few days, Vakarian wondered how in the hell they were unlucky enough to get this case.    

🔪🔪🔪

As they approached the room, Shepard’s muscles drew tight from the uncertainty — and the speculation — of what she was about to see. Their victims were usually well past dead, pale pieces of evidence under bright, harsh lights on cold metal slabs. The room Ziha was in was warm, and the tank cast a blue tone over everything, dancing shadows on the walls making everything seem so alive and full of wonder. 

She and Vakarian took careful steps into the dim hospital room. Shepard quickly took in the massive amount of medical equipment working to keep Ziha alive. She was isolated in a tank filled with fluids meant to protect her from all of the everyday contaminants that most species’ bodies were able to fight off but would kill her kind. Ziha was suspended within so that her body gently drifted as if she were a treasure suspended deep within the sea. Something lost but precious and hidden, just waiting to be discovered once again. A breathing apparatus covered her mouth and nose. 

She was lucky to be related to a Councilor — no other quarian would receive this kind of treatment on the Citadel.  

But something far more eye-catching than costly medical equipment or the oddity of a body suspended in fluids pulled at Shepard’s attention. 

Her gaze gravitated towards Ziha’s face, a transfixing glow emanating from the quarian’s golden eyes. They were absolutely stunning, holding the light of a warm fire. They pulled you in as if they possessed mystical energy. Shepard noted a certain sense of recognition that flashed in Ziha’s eyes as they looked between her and Vakarian. Maybe she remembered them?

After that, Shepard’s gaze fell on the woman’s body. It was the first and only time Shepard saw a quarian out of their enviro-suit, and she was struck not just by this quarian’s eyes but by her entire form. Pale, lilac skin. Light bronze plates that seemed thinner than turian plates adorned her thighs and shoulders. Tucked behind a plated crest similar to a turian’s was black hair that would have trailed to her lower back if it hadn’t been drifting out like waves of smoke carried by the healing solution within the tank. 

Quarians looked like mythical creatures from human lore – elves or sprites. The certainty that her reaction was downright foolish did nothing to dampen Shepard’s reverence for quarians seeing one out of their suit. 

But the only reason Shepard was able to see this quarian stripped of her protective suit was tragically written across her body, from her ankles to her throat. Looking at the skin stitched back together brought back the nausea and fear Shepard first felt when they found Ziha sliced to pieces and left for dead in the alley. 

No — not sliced to pieces. That didn’t encompass what the sadistic, vile waste-of-life creatures did to her. They had sliced her open. From one side of her abdomen to the other so that nearly all her organs spilled out onto the metal walk. They had sliced through half her neck, the muscles required to hold her head up severed almost completely. 

And the ankles — they had sliced those as well. So she couldn’t run. Shepard had missed that detail the first few times she watched the footage, 

She may not have been able to run, but she was able to walk. She had stood up, used one hand to gather her organs, and clutch them into her abdominal cavity. She used her other hand to tilt her head forward and hold it in place. She carried herself like that, barely holding her body together, for nearly 700 feet until she collapsed. 

At the scene, if Shepard had opened her mouth to utter any of the words she thought of, she wouldn’t have had the strength to hold back the tears that had been burning to get out. Those tears that she choked down so they couldn’t burst out and rip the resolve she so desperately needed to work this case straight in two. 

They fell out in the elevator instead, where she relaxed into her partner’s comforting arms. 

The turians had wrecked absolute cruelty upon Ziha. Shepard had watched the footage start to end no fewer than a dozen times already. No words could describe the hate that built up inside her, either, as she watched the poor quarian, looking entombed within the tank meant to save her life. Ziha was stronger— and more filled with life — than either of her attackers. 

As Shepard silently processed the state of the quarian’s body, Vakarian’s traveled over all the state-of-the-art equipment that produced steady hums and periodic signals and tones. A door opened behind them, soft footsteps announcing someone’s arrival. Turning to look, Shepard saw a female quarian in purple and black attire.

“Would you like to tell me now, Garrus,” the woman said, emotion hanging thick on every word, “while you stare at my cousin and what they did to her, that quarian’s are safe on the Citadel?”

Vakarian’s entire demeanor dropped as he turned to the woman. “Tali. I’m so sorry. We’re going to find the people who did this.”

Tali stepped closer and crossed her arms over her chest. “I know you will. Because if you don’t, I’m going to stay on the Citadel until I find them myself, and I’ll be sure to make your life a nightmare.”

“I know you would,” Vakarian replied sincerely, “but you won’t have to. I’m actually a pretty good detective.” He turned to Shepard. “And my partner is even better than me.”

“Pretty good?” Tali said with a bit of a challenge in her voice, telling him pretty good wasn’t good enough for her cousin. 

Sure, Tali was angry and scared, and yeah, her and Vakarian were friends...but if she didn’t back the hell off her partner soon, Shepard was going to have to have some words. She kept quiet, but her hackles were raised, and she was ready to pounce if needed.  

“Tali,” Vakarian replied calmly, “I work Homicide, but I’m on this case anyhow. Why do you think that is? Sparatus is pulling strings, and our captain put Shep and me on this one because we can find them.”

Tali seemed to relax a bit after that, so Shepard stepped forward and offered her hand, then reversed course and offered her wrist instead. She wasn’t sure how quarians greeted, but she was confident they weren’t familiar with human greetings like handshakes. So, a turian greeting was the best middle ground. Thankfully, Tali tapped her wrist to Shepard’s without a beat.

“I assume you’re ‘Shep’?”

“Yes, Detective Shepard. We’ll do everything we can to find them. I promise you that.”

Tali acknowledged their placations with a nod. “Well, what do you have, then?” she earnestly asked. 

Vakarian’s reply was quick. “You know we can’t tell you that.”

“Bosh’tet,” she snapped. 

Shepard tensed for just a moment before the quarian’s eyes softened, and Vakarian cocked his head to the side and raised his browplates a little. 

After a beat Tali took a breath and stepped closer.  “I’m sorry, I’m frustrated,” she explained. Her voice became kind and familiar, reflecting the fact that she and Vakarian were in fact friends. “And I’m scared, Garrus. Ziha is the baby of the family. And she is too kind to have to endure this.” 

“I know. Don’t worry. We have some ideas, even though I can’t tell you what they are.”

Tali seemed to consider that, then once satisfied, turned to Shepard. “How did you get stuck with this nerd?” Her voice was still slightly tense, but there was definite humor in her intent. 

“I kind of like him, actually.” Shepard shot Vakarian a soft grin, but their conversation was cut short when the medical staff entered the room. 

Two turians, a volus, and a salarian — which should have been the beginning of a lame and possibly racist joke — began the diligent work of slowly draining the tank while some sort of expensive contraption rose to support Ziha’s body. In a matter of minutes, and a flurry of activity that confused Shepard (but seemed meticulously planned out between the four medical staff) Ziha was liberated. 

They took her on a stretcher to a station set to the side, then began the meticulous work of situating her into an enviro-suit.

No one spoke during the lengthy process. Tali was probably anxious to see her cousin safe and comfortable. Shepard wanted to remain respectful of Tali’s nerves, and she assumed Vakarian was giving Tali space as well. 

Eventually, they laid Ziha down in a bed set to the side, safe and secure inside her suit. For the first time since seeing Ziha, she was covered from head to toe. A helmet now masked her face and all her beautifully unique features. 

It was quite the spectacle — all so they could simply ask Ziha a few questions. Once the medical staff left, Shepard settled down in a chair next to Ziha’s bed. Vakarian turned on his omni-tool’s recording device, and they were ready to begin.

“First off,” Shepard said with a warm inflection, trying to ease Ziha’s nerves, “I’m so sorry we had to be here for this. Your privacy is important to us, but it was also imperative that we were present as soon as you were able to speak.”

Ziha nodded with a forgiving smile. In her place, Shepard probably would have given C-Sec officers the finger. 

“I’m also sorry that we have to ask you to speak considering the injury you sustained to your neck,” Shepard began, “but anything you communicate to us must be in spoken words — we can’t accept anything written as evidence. Can you speak, Ziha?”

Ziha’s mouth opened, just hanging there while no words came forth, only a wheezing sound that was so unnerving it caused Shepard to hold her breath. Ziha nodded, though, with so much self-assuredness it made Shepard pause. 

They waited for her, no pushing or coaxing. And no one told her not to try. It was clear that she wanted to say something — her eager eyes said as much, but it seemed her body wasn’t as ready as her mind. 

Shepard sat, entirely at a loss of what to do to ease Ziha’s pain while she closed her mouth, swallowed, then winced and placed her hand to her throat. Her quiet, grated voice produced a slight whine of air before she finally said, “Achillus and Traian.” Instead of looking pained, though, she looked relieved — proud, even. Shepard imagined the pain had to be excruciating. It was an absolute miracle the woman could even talk. “Their names. They did this,” she added with her hand still pressed to her throat.   

“Did you know them before they attacked you?”

Ziha shook her head. It wasn’t enough, Shepard needed the words, but she wasn’t going to push.

“No,” Ziha said.

They had to ask her so much more, but Shepard despised asking her to strain herself any further. For now, they could do this without asking anything else. Hell, they didn’t usually get to talk to their victims, so any words from Ziha were already more than they typically got. 

And they had other evidence — CCTV, her purchase history...whatever the hell Vakarian was working on with Kasumi. 

“Thank you, Ziha. We’ve made the first steps in finding out who they are, but confirming that those two were your attackers helps a lot. Is there anything else you can tell us right now?”

Ziha’s mouth opened, and just as she uttered her first syllable, her face twisted in pain. She shook her head. “Later,” she managed to say.  Her voice came out just a smokey whisper. Shepard filled with sympathy as she read the visible agony on Ziha’s face, even through the helmet’s opaque face cover. A sniffle came from Tali as she shifted uncomfortably.

Shepard offered a nod. “Of course. Tali has our contact information. We’re always just a call away.” 

It felt sort of like a waste to travel across the Citadel for that, but Shepard wouldn’t push any harder. The poor woman deserved some peace and rest. 

Ziha eagerly reached for her omni-tool. They all patiently waited as she slowly typed something in. When she finished, she looked to Tali.

A chime rang on Tali’s omni-tool, and Tali lifted her arm to read. Her shoulders sank, then she turned to Vakarian and Shepard. “Don’t cry, Tali,” she read aloud. “They tried to cut my hair, but I wouldn't let them.”

The light of Tali’s eyes seemed to narrow and dim just briefly — a flick of agitation.

“You Bosh’tet,” Tali said with a tinge of pain, though sympathy and frustration softened the snap in her voice. Shepard could understand Tali’s frustration, for sure. 

Tali touched the top of Ziha’s helmet gently. “They didn’t even braid your hair properly before they put you in this suit. I’ll do it as soon as I can.”

Ziha nodded. Her smile was faint behind the helmet but cheerful enough to make Shepard pause. How could she be so happy and look so hopeful after what they did to her?

Tali turned to Vakarian. “Can I speak with you out in the hall?”

Vakarian answered with a nod. Once Tali and Vakarian were out of the room, Shepard slowly turned to Ziha and offered a reassuring smile while she sank into the bed, making Shepard think the cheerfulness and the hopefulness were just a show for her cousin.  

That suspicion was confirmed when Ziha shook. Her nerves, or the pain — or both — had to be getting to her. And the massive amounts of painkillers probably weren’t helping her state of mind. 

“Can I get you anything? Is there anything that would make you more comfortable?” Shepard asked.

Ziha turned to Shepard, and after a deep breath, she shook her head. 

Seeing Ziha alive and remarkably well considering what she’d been through, Shepard felt sinking guilt in her gut because she just assumed the poor woman would die. She was too pessimistic and uncaring to even give her a chance. And it struck her suddenly, how cold and careless it was to provide dead bodies no more consideration than a drop of blood or a slug hole in the wall.  

“I remember. He...” Ziha’s eyes drifted towards the hall where Vakarian had gone, “held my hand. You...my helmet.”

Shepard nodded. “I’m glad we found you. I’m glad Detective Vakarian was there. I think he saved your life.”

Ziha nodded.

“How’d you get so damned, strong, hm?” Shepard asked rhetorically, just to give Ziha a little boost. Ziha answered with a weak smile, then tucked her hand at her side, wedged in between the bed and her leg. Maybe she wanted someone to hold that hand — Shepard certainly would if she were in Ziha’s place. The simple sensation of a caring touch — someone holding your hand —  had the power to chase away all your fear and pain. 

After a few minutes, Ziha fell asleep. Vakarian and Tali talked out in the hall for fifteen minutes or so, and Shepard just sat by Ziha’s side, waiting and refusing to leave the poor woman alone, all the while wondering how in the hell she survived. She wondered what had kept the gentle quarian going and what she’d been thinking when she carried her own body — nearly in pieces — hoping that someone would find her and help. 

Ziha stirred, and Shepard glanced at the clock. When would Tali be back? Ziha needed someone to hold her hand. 

There were those sentimental thoughts — the distractions along her path. Shepard just couldn’t stop looking at them, though — not with Ziha lying right there, fighting to live. 

At that moment, looking at the distractions was the only thing that felt right. 

🔪🔪🔪

After they said goodbye to Tali, they made their way towards the skycar port. Halfway down the sidewalk, Vakarian watched Shepard glance back at the hospital. She gave it a long look like she had something on her mind. 

“Thankfully, Tali’s here,” Shepard said. He couldn’t tell if her voice sounded sad or tired. “It would be hard to go through all this without someone who cares about you by your side.”

He nodded in agreement but didn’t have much else to say. After a short walk, they got to the skycar, both quickly sliding in. 

As Shepard sat in the seat next to his and pulled the door shut, her hair — those strange strings that hung around her face and still fascinated him after three years — blew just slightly with a light breeze of air. And her lashes – those feathery, wispy little hairs – batted as she looked over at him. He already understood how someone might find humans attractive – after years of looking at Shepard across their desks, he’d had plenty of opportunities to slowly realize that her species weren’t without beautiful features. Many human features were objectively beautiful, in fact. 

He’d never been attracted to a human, though, despite acknowledging their unique beauty. And he absolutely never had a sexual response to a human before. 

That was until the night lying on Shepard’s bed. It had started when he watched Shepard drying her hair. He’d been fascinated with hair since he first met her. At first, it was odd. Then it was intriguing. Not long after that, he found that sometimes he couldn't take his eyes off it. Then he realized how beautiful it was. Shepard’s especially. The color was gorgeous — light played off it in the most spectacular way. He’d only ever seen a few other humans with anything similar.  

So that’s why he had been staring at her — because it drifted in the hair drying tool’s circulating air. Just a simple fascination. But the longer he watched her hair move, exhausted from grief and mesmerized by the sight of fiery tendrils drifting and dancing, the longer he got the chance to notice the long line of her tight stomach as she bent her head to the side. And how her ass — those shorts she always wore around the apartment hugging her form — had this enticing ratio of muscle to plump curve. And just as he actually imagined running his tongue up the line of her gently bent spine, she caught him gawking at her. 

He immediately tried to forget it.

At first, he’d been somewhat successful. As the vid had played, and Shepard laughed along lightly to the romantic banter between the turian and asari, he had convinced himself that he was emotional, that he had been confusing his friendly affection for her for actual desire. He also convinced himself that she hadn’t realized what he was thinking. How could she? He wasn’t attracted to humans. And it was just the briefest, most obscure thought. 

That’s all it was. He had been lonely, needy, and his confused and desperate mind encouraged him to find another type of comfort in her. It was normal. Turians released stress through sex. At that moment, his body would have enjoyed the soft touch and gentle comfort offered by anyone capable of delivering it. 

The fact that he had a mate and didn’t feel the urge to seek her out only added to the confusing, frustrating, dreadful reality of those unwelcome thoughts and emotions. 

But as his grief subsided throughout the following days, those thoughts didn’t go away.

That dangerous little image — his tongue on her skin — kept creeping back in. He finally had to accept that maybe Shepard was sexy. Maybe it wasn’t a simple matter of being satisfied by just anyone. 

Maybe he actually was attracted to her. Shepard. His human partner and close friend. 

Which was a horrible prospect — for so very many reasons, not the least of which that he’d never been attracted to anyone who wasn’t turian. Why now? Why her?

And why in the black night didn’t the fact that he had a mate prevent those thoughts from even surfacing? He’d never been that type of person, and the idea that he could be turned his stomach. 

And — still — he couldn’t chase the image of Shepard's tight stomach and sweeping spine out of his head. He could even imagine his hands on her hips, pulling her close. And her hands trailing up his arms, seeking him out, too. 

Shepard’s tired voice yanked him from his thoughts. “Why do you keep looking at me like that?”

With the imagined risk of being caught thinking terrible things about her, his heart skipped a beat. He focused on the traffic ahead, and after a quick breath, he recovered and said, “Tired, sorry.”

It wasn’t a lie. He was tired, and he was very, very sorry.

“It’s ok,” she replied casually, “just seemed like you were thinking about something.”

Looking out the windshield, she yawned, then wiggled her lips around in that comical way she always did when she was exhausted and trying to pretend that she wasn't. He used to think it was just funny, but it felt so endearing now. It was cute and made him wish she was closer. 

And he had a mate. Spirits, what the hell was wrong with him? He should be seeking comfort from her. Deep down, he knew he wouldn’t get it, though. The last time he tried to talk about a hard day at work, she told him to pick a new career if being a detective was so terrible. 

Livia sort of had a point — he had been brooding. But she didn’t need to be such an ass about it. 

“What’s on your mind?” he asked Shepard, assuming it was better than what was on his. 

She shook her head, her eyebrows pinched in careful thought. “Nothing really. Just...Ziha’s so damn strong, hm?”

He nodded solemnly in agreement. Shepard was still thinking about Ziha and the case, and he was thinking terrible thoughts about her and Livia. He wanted to never think about Shepard like that again. And he wanted to stop thinking about how awful Livia always made him feel.  

Shepard is just a friend. And things can be fixed with Livia.

Shepard changed the music station to something slow and soothing. A love song with gentle melodies. “You going over to Livia’s tonight?”

A heavy, angry sigh came out of him that he couldn’t quite catch. It surprised even him, so he expected Shepard’s raised eyebrow. “No,” he said, “she’s working on a gala thing. Or a summit. I think.”

“You think she’s working on something?”

“No, I know she is. I just can’t remember what it is. She’s tied up for a few days.”

“Oh,” Shepard answered simply. She didn’t say anything else — didn’t ask for clarification or make any observations —though he knew deep down that she had to be thinking something. She had to be making some sort of assessment about what his lack of interest in Livia’s job meant. Yes, of course, he knew it was odd that he and Livia were so distant. It had to be evident that they weren’t as close as two people usually would be after four months.  

Changing the subject, he said, “I want to work on that project tonight. Kasumi should have something for me, too.”

“Dinner?” Shepard asked. She looked up at him, a soft tiredness making her eyes look heavy as she waited for his response. 

“Sure.” His mood instantly eased at the thought of going to her place.

Time passed in silence for a bit. Vakarian drove slower than most other skycars, probably because he enjoyed the quiet moments with his friend and partner. They eventually came to a slow stop at a traffic light.

As they waited, Shepard turned to look at him. “Wanna hear something terrible? When Ziha mentioned she kept them from cutting her hair, do you know what I thought?”

“That they just cut her throat instead?”

He turned to face her to share a knowing look. They were always on the same page, especially when humor turned grim. Shepard smiled — a sad, dark smile. “Exactly, and I wouldn’t necessarily call that a great tradeoff. Hair grows back. Necks don’t.” She paused while he hummed in agreement. “Wait, quarian hair grows, right?”

He teased her with an incredulous look. “Of course it grows. You think only humans have hair that grows?”

Her eyes shot wide and innocent. “ I don’t know. I’m still figuring all this shit out.”

As he shook his head and pretended to scoff, he watched her from the corner of his eye and let a slight grin peek through. 

“Stop harassing me, Vakarian,” she playfully warned as the light turned, and he smoothly let off the brake, letting the skycar inch forward. “And you know what? You probably haven’t seen quarian hair either, have you? So stop acting like you know everything.”

Vakarian glanced over to continue teasing his partner when he realized just how tired she looked. Not unhappy, just worn down. She usually carried on like a trooper, as did most detectives in Homicide, but ever since they found Ziha alive, Shepard had been a bit quieter. “Hey, you seemed kind of shaken by the footage,” he said, giving her a chance to let some stress out by talking through it. 

“I’ve never seen anything like it. I didn’t expect it to be so gruesome. Did you? 

“Of course I did,” he answered without thinking. 

“Hmm,” she cocked her lips to the side in thought, “suppose I should have too. Bowels don’t just spill themselves.”

“You ok?” he asked tentatively, his voice deepening just a notch.  

“Yeah,” she answered lightly enough for him to believe her. “Makes me wonder, though, what I would have done in her shoes. I feel like I would just keel over and let go. Can you imagine the strength, the will, it took for her to get up like she did?”

“You wouldn’t just let go,” he hummed. The way she so casually said that irritated him.  

“I don’t think I’m that strong. What the hell would I do if I ever got shot or cut up like that?”

“Honestly, I don’t want to think about it right now,” he answered, feeling an uncomfortable tightness in his chest all of the sudden.

“Yeah,” she said finally, settling down into her seat and staring out her window. “Enough dark shit for one day, hm?”

He agreed with every bone in his body, eager to get to her apartment so he could eat dinner and spend the rest of the night meticulously going over lines of code. He kind of hoped Rocket would crawl into his cowl and fall asleep. Maybe Shepard would put on that terrible soul music and turn the fireplace on. 

Going to Shepard’s at the end of a long day was sort of like going home. More so than his own apartment, some days. He finally began to relax, focusing on the idea of winding down at her place and getting some work done. The Citadel’s bright lights rolled over them in soft bursts as he drove them back to headquarters. Tension left his shoulders and he sank back against the seat. 

But then her head whipped around to look at him. “Okay, just give me an idea of how much getting shot hurts.”

A frustrated growl tickled his chest. “Shep, no.” 

Pleading, radiant eyes looked over at him. Her head tilted back and rested against the seat. “Just tell me it’s not that bad and I’ll drop it.” 

“It is bad,” he answered, trying to cover the dread in his voice with a little humor. He had to be exhausted — that was the only reason this conversation could be irritating him so easily. “It doesn’t feel good. So let’s just agree that you won’t be acting as a living target anytime soon.” 

She watched him for a moment as he focused on maintaining a steady hand on the wheel. His fingers instinctively flexed to tighten his grip. He waited for her response, but her eyes stayed on him during a prolonged silence — she was reading him, and it gave her enough time to figure out that he was slightly agitated at the thought of her getting hurt. It made him feel too exposed and pretty foolish — she wasn’t a precious object he had to protect; she was a detective and a damn tough one at that. More often than not, she could take down a turian just as quickly as he could, and with a lot less training.  

“Fine,” she conceded after one too many beats for his comfort. “Guess I’ll have to go on being the brains of this operation.” 

“What does intelligence have to do with it?”

“The brains always have to stay safe.” She tapped a pointed finger to her temple. A half-smile pulled at the corner of her lips. 

“Ah.” He hummed in amusement. “How about this. I’ll let you believe you’re the brains if you agree to avoid bullets and blades at all costs.”

They looked at each other. When their eyes met they made a lighthearted agreement flavored in humor and platonic affection — simply with their gazes. And then he knew what she thought before she even said it. 

“Deal,” they said together. 

Chapter Text

On a typical day, Vakarian’s hips were a minor distraction. A quick glance was all Shepard needed to get a little trail of heat up her neck, so she usually tried to avoid looking at them. 

Her physically gifted partner was pushing his chair from his desk to hers so they could watch the attack footage together on her console screen. His path down the narrow divide that separated Kryik and T’Saris’s desks and her and Vakarian’s turned out to be more eventful than she expected. It was the afternoon and they were both tired and hungry, so his hips were the last place she should have been looking. 

But sometimes Shepard forgot about those little things called professionalism and respect and she allowed herself to watch his strong, tempting hips a little too closely. And then all sorts of bad things happened. As he moved towards her, her eyes focused on the sharp curve between his thin waist and his jutting hipspurs. His movements were so achingly languid they froze time and drowned out all other stimuli in the room. In her mind, they were all that existed. It was like his hips were a pendulum attached to his tight, pinched waist. Each hip smoothly cocking upwards as his long strides carried him forward.

Side to side. 

Long, relaxed, sure motions. 

“Move it,” Vakarian said, tapping her knee with his. Somehow he’d made it all the way to her desk and she’d been so lost in watching him that she forgot to move her chair over. 

“Sorry,” she mumbled as she scooted over, making room for him to set his chair next to her. 

“Get your head out of the stars,” he told her with a soft smile and quirk of his browplate, his hand reaching out to quickly spin the back of his chair so it faced forward. 

“I’m hungry,” she said, knowing it was a perfectly reasonable excuse for her distracted brain. 

He hummed in agreement and eased into his chair. Once settled, Shepard and Vakarian sat side by side at her desk. She was in her chair, and him in his, both slumped back with their elbows propped on their chair’s arms and their chins resting in their palms. 

Shepard used her omni-tool to pull up the footage. The file popped up on her console screen at the spot where she left it the previous day — which was frozen at the moment she and Vakarian arrived on the scene. Their backs to the camera and looking at Ziha, who was on the ground to their left. From simply seeing the image, Shepard could recall the sights and smells from when they arrived so viscerally it made her lightheaded. 

Just before Shepard was about to rewind it to the beginning, Kryik sat down at the edge of her desk, almost blocking Vakarian’s view with his wide shoulders and thick arms. Instantly incensed, Vakarian glared up at him and kicked his knee into Kryik’s foot, sending it swaying — which didn‘t seem to bother Kryik at all. 

“Is this the attack?” Kyrik asked, his eyes focused on the screen. 

“Yeah,” Shepard answered. 

“That’s not you two, is it?” There was a subtle questioning flex in Kryik’s browplate. His eyes were lasered in on something in particular. 

“Of course it is,” Shepard answered with a dismissive look. Who the hell else could it be?

He leaned forward just a bit, looking even closer. “Can’t be. Your ass isn’t that big,” he declared in complete certainty. He wasn’t even teasing her, just talking as if he was making a completely normal observation. Shepard’s mouth opened, ready to fire back, but she was so surprised by his nonchalant tone that she was at a complete loss of what to say other than ‘fuck off’. And somehow fuck off did not adequately convey her emotion at that moment.  

Her partner's drawling voice filled the silence when he spoke. “As the guy who has to push her up to out-of-reach places all the time, I can guarantee you that is absolutely her ass.”

Vakarian flashed smiling eyes her way, teasing her with just a look.

Her mouth fell open even wider. Though, she couldn’t deny the dose of karma this was serving her for ogling Vakarian just a moment prior. They didn’t know what she’d been thinking, though. Or feeling. 

Shepard turned to give them both a harsh look for being dicks, and for focusing on the size of her ass when they should be working. 

Filled with indignation, she drove both of her palms into Kryik’s thick thigh, giving him a hard shove — harder than the one Vakarian gave him because she meant it. “ Get off, ” she huffed, but all that got her was a cheeky grin on Kryik’s dumb face. “Go focus on your own work,” she growled. 

Then she added, “And stop looking at my ass so much, both of you.”

“You going to start carrying a ladder around?” Vakarian asked with a little mischief in his eyes. He thought he was really cute with that comment, she could see it in the way his face lit up. If he wasn’t so damn charismatic — with his piercing, hooded gaze and innocent smile — he’d get smacked a hell of a lot more frequently. As it was, she just stared at him, annoyed and imagining herself hitting him.  

Kryik punctuated that smart-ass comment for Vakarian with a chuckle, then said, “Now why would she do that when she has a turian with broad shoulders and a firm grip to give her a little lift?”

Shepard shot Kryik a confused, annoyed look, unable to believe that he just said that. He really just said that. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Vakarian and was pleased that he finally joined her side, shooting an equally confused and annoyed look at the dumb bastard perched atop her desk. 

Kryik just laughed, warm and wicked. 

“Come Kryik,” T’Saris said with a smile in her voice, rescuing them from his nonsense. “I need that report finished before we leave today.”

Tempted by his beloved reports, Kryik slid off Shepard’s desk and made his way back to his own work area, but only after he shot them a self-satisfied grin. With Kryik out of the way, Shepard started the footage from the beginning. She and Vakarian watched it once in silence, both carefully observing every detail on screen. They barely made it through the full attack before yet another nuisance emerged.

“You guys got that quarian case, huh?” A familiar and irritating — purely based on personality rather than the way it sounded to Shepard’s ears — voice interrupted them when Detective Chellick shouted to them on his way to his desk. “The department golden boy, the heir to the Vakarian legacy, got handed another prime case?”

“Fuck off, Chellick,” Kryik and Shepard immediately replied in unison, equally protective of their friend. 

“You know what’s even more fun than insulting people, Chellick? Solving cases. Try it out sometime.” Vakarian replied coolly. 

Chellick just laughed. “It’s ok, you deserve a handout,” his eyes flicked to Shepard, “considering you’ve made it this far with a human by your side. It’s quite the handicap.”

“Fuck off,” Vakarian said, heat in his voice and gaze. Shepard knew he would have kept cool if Chellick hadn’t brought her into this — Chellick probably knew that too.

An obnoxiously large grin spread across Chellick’s mandibles. “Relax, Vakarian, I’m fucking with you.” Chellick made a tsking sound. “You’re such a hothead.”

As soon as Chellick was out of earshot, T’Saris mumbled, “He’s such an ass sometimes. You haven’t been handed anything, Vakarian, and he knows it. He’s just jealous that you were bagged with a human and still succeeded. Deep down, everyone envies you because you made it when they all failed.”

“Gee, thanks,” Shepard mumbled lightheartedly. 

T’Saris turned to Shepard. “That’s about them, not you because you are one of the finest detectives I’ve ever worked with.” Her eyes flicked to Vakarian and back. “And you deserve recognition because you put up with Vakarian’s over-enthusiastic nonsense. I was sure he’d be out on his ass for assaulting a witness within a month, tops.” 

“Is this a pep talk?” Vakarian asked, a hint of humor in his voice.

“To be fair, you did ram a guy’s head into a wall on our first door-to-door,” Shepard cheekily noted. 

“And you kindly pointed out that was a bad idea, which I eventually agreed with.”

“See,” T’Saris said with a school-teacher smile, “perfect partners. You two are doing great. So don’t let Chellick — or anyone else — give you shit.”

“Thanks, mom,” Vakarian and Shepard said in unison, which got them a grin from T’Saris.

“Alright,” Shepard said while turning back to the footage. “Back to this. Did you see anything I didn’t?”

“Start it up again,” Vakarian said.

A few seconds into the furious swiping and stabbing, Vakarian’s mandible twitched in irritation. “The technique,” was all he said, but the words came out of his mouth as if they left a bad taste. 

“What about it?” Shepard asked. 

“I can’t even replicate how bad that is.”

“Maybe they missed the knife skills section of their “How to Murder” extranet course.”

“I really wish they’d stop offering that class. We have enough work as it is.”

As Shepard smirked, Vakarian leaned forward, his watchful eyes narrowing, and without looking at Kryik beckoned him to take a look too.

“It’s severely sloppy, but it looks like Hierarchy to me. What do you think, Kryik?”

Kryik, still sitting in his chair, scooted a bit closer and leaned to the side to get a better look at Shepard’s screen. “You’re the expert, not me,” he answered while watching the turians’ movements. 

Kryik watched for a moment longer before he said, “Yeah, could be. Most turians have Hierarchy training, though. Nothing unique about that.”

“The movements are uniquely awful. They wouldn’t have made it very far. Long enough to get that training, but they would have made asses out of themselves out in the field wielding blades like that.”

“I thought you were the hand-to-hand expert in your unit?” Shepard asked Kryik. “Why did you just say Vakarian is the expert?” 

“I was. And I’m much better at hand-to-hand in practice than he is. But he knows more about improper technique.”

Confused, Shepard’s brows knotted as she tried to figure out what the hell Kryik was trying to say. “Is that, like, a weird insult? Are you saying he’s bad at it in a roundabout way?”

Kryik relaxed back in his chair. “Let me tell you a story about your partner. He is the only turian I have ever met that would rather go his entire life thinking he’s a fuck up than admit he’s naturally good at something.”

Shepard scoffed. “Are we talking about the same Garrus? Because he reminds me on a daily basis he’s taller, faster, more attractive, and smarter than me.”

“He wasn’t always that way.”

“I’m right here,” Vakarian grumbled, settling his mandible deep into his palm and still watching the attack —as if ignoring this impending conversation would save him the embarrassment. 

“In boot camp, when he started small blade training the instructors were impressed by his skill and told him so. But he just assumed they were playing head games with him, so he dedicated his downtime to researching the incorrect techniques.” Kryik shot Vakarian a look as if this story alone didn’t properly convey how much of a dumbass her partner was — Kryik had to make sure he knew. “He was so convinced that he wasn’t actually as good as the instructors said he was, that he spent his free time researching how to do it wrong before he accepted that he was doing it right .”

Shepard’s brows only twisted even more at Kryik’s explanation. She turned to Vakarian, giving him the chance to refute that story, but he just looked back at her. 

“He’s kidding, right?” she finally had to ask.

“I only trained in guns before boot camp. Made no sense that I was good at blades too,” he explained, sounding quite defensive.

“So you studied how everyone else did it wrong?”

“How else are you supposed to know that you’re doing it right?” Vakarian asked her. And just for a second, his tone made her feel like she was the idiot. 

A grin pulled at Shepard’s lips. “You’re crazy. Adorable, but crazy.”  

“That’s our Vakarian. Overachiever, through and through,” T’Saris chimed in.

“Are we just about done making fun of me?” Vakarian drawled.

Kryik gave Vakarian one last look, T’Saris shot him a warm smile, and they both turned back to their own work. When Vakarian turned to Shepard, though, she couldn’t stop smiling at him. He was such an adorable, endearing, beautiful nerd. She wanted to reach out and pinch his mandibles or something.  

As if he could read her mind, he gave her a warning look telling her not to even try it. Vakarian slowly shifted, leaning back into his chair and crossing his arms. “Tell me about the medical report. What were her actual injuries? Organ damage, arteries severed?”

Shepard grabbed her datapad and pulled up her notes. “Alright, on her neck —all puncture wounds and lacerations. Mostly soft tissue damage. No main arteries hit, no significant nerve damage, and her esophagus and vocal cords were intact.” 

As Shepard listed off the injuries, a scowl on Vakarian’s face developed, but she continued. “All puncture wounds to her chest thankfully missed her heart and her lungs. Again, more soft tissue damage, but no critical damage that would have killed her quicker.” 

That scowl grew. Still, she continued. “Punctures and lacerations to her abdomen missed all her vital organs. Heavy damage to soft tissue. Overall, significant blood loss and heavy damage to soft tissues throughout her entire body, but no vital damage. Thankfully.”

When she finished she looked directly at Vakarian, and before she could ask him what the look was for, he drawled, “I told you they had bad technique.”

“She was lucky,” Shepard insisted, a bit put off that he was more focused on whether or not their knife skills were worthy or not. “That much damage still should have killed her.”

“It’s like they didn’t even try,” Vakarian said. 

“They tried,” Shepard argued, Ziha’s butchered body lingering in her thoughts. Long lines of stitches across her abdomen, chest, and throat like railroad tracks on old maps. “But they were either too bad at it, or too worked up to do it well enough.” 

Vakarian stood up. “Come on, let’s get some food.” She rose up alongside him and watched him lift his omni-tool, swiping through contacts. “And I want to call someone.”

“Who?” Shepard asked

“A guy I know — Lorik. He can get us into Hierarchy records. And I need to talk to him about a legal issue, anyhow.”

Shepard’s shoulders sank, her suspicion immediately jumped to his secret project. She feared that her typical game plan — ignoring it and hoping for the best — wasn’t going to turn out well for them this time. “Seriously? You need to tell me what you’re doing with Kasumi.”

“Sure, on the way. And don’t worry, it’s nothing bad .” He was giving her that look — the charming, obnoxious, sly look that always got him out of trouble. 

The urge to pinch his mandibles returned, but this time she imagined doing it much harder. “‘Nothing bad’ and ‘I need legal help’ don’t quite match up, Vakarian.”

🔪🔪🔪

For lunch, they settled on their favorite bistro-style restaurant. It had good dextro and levo dishes, coffee, wine, and amazing desserts. Their usual table was taken so they sat at the counter and ate while they waited for Lorik to show up. 

Close to Shepard, a bashful little turian boy stood at the counter with his mom. He had to be no more than five. He had small, adorable little hands, and the cutest little feet covered in shoes with some sort of octopus-looking cartoon creature on them. His pedi-talons kept tapping against the smooth floor. Tip-tap. Tip-tap. Like a good little turian, he stood still as he and his mom waited for their to-go order to be placed on the counter, but he was antsy. Turian discipline was still no match for childhood boredom. 

He looked around, quiet but curious, at all the people in the diner — bright blue eyes that reminded her of Vakarian’s, taking in all the stimuli around him. His head turned from one direction to the other, roaming over the various people and objects. Vakarian followed her gaze and smiled when he saw she was watching the kid. 

“He’s cute,” Shepard said. 

“Yeah. They’re damned adorable at that age.”

They both watched the kid for a moment, pressing up so close to the dessert case his flat little nose almost touched the glass. The lighting from within cast a white glow on his enthralled face as his eyes roamed the various desserts. 

“Human kids aren’t as cute,” Vakarian said as if it was a fact. 

She scoffed. “Listen. That kid is adorable, but human kids are just as cute.”

“Nothing beats a turian kid crawling into your cowl and wrapping their tiny little hands on your mandibles and laughing.”

“Is that why you like it when Rocket sleeps in your cowl?”

“Maybe. I’ve already told you cats are kind of like turian babies. The hissing. And always pouncing on shit. An inherent drive to tear anything in their vicinity to pieces.”

“Kind of makes me the proud mother of a turian baby, hm?”

An amused chuckle came out of him, “Guess so.”

They continued eating — Shepard slurped up her noodles and Vakarian knocked back chunks of meat and a dumpling-like side dish. The kid tilted his head back as far as it would go to look up at his very tall mom so he could ask for a crulum — a turian cookie — in the dessert case. His little voice was soft and hopeful. 

His mom’s face filled with sympathy — she knew she was about to let her child down. “Zucca, you know we’re saving to buy our apartment. Not tonight. But I promise you next time, ok?”

Shepard’s heart broke when she saw the little boy’s face drop, but just like a good little turian, he nodded. In the smallest, quiet voice thick with youthful subvocals he said, “Yes, mom. More joy will come from that, hm.” When she looked away, his eyes fell to the crulum. With eyes full of desire he took a big breath and stood up straight. His narrow little shoulders set back as if his five-year-old heart had just gathered up some resolve. The little turian would triumph. 

He deserved that cookie. He deserved a hundred cookies a day for the rest of his life. 

Shepard leaned closer to Vakarian. “Think his mom would get mad if I offered to buy him the crulum?”

“I don’t think so. No harm in offering.”

“Excuse me, ma’am.” The turian mother looked over and glanced quickly at Shepard’s C-Sec badge. “Would it be alright if I offered to…” Shepard flicked her eyes to the dessert case, hoping the mother would pick up her meaning, just in case she said no. No reason to get the kid’s hopes up.

The mother smiled. “Of course. I couldn’t turn generosity like that away.”

Shepard threw on her best friendly smile and looked at the boy, who watched her and his mother’s exchange with bright, observant eyes, not quite understanding what was happening. Shepard ordered the treat on a datapad next to her and then plugged in a code to open the case. She picked up the crulum and offered it to the boy. 

She didn’t think he could get any cuter — then his mandibles started to flutter in absolute glee and his tiny little three-fingered hands shot to his face, his cupped hands hovering just over his mandibles. He was shy and trying to hide his excitement, just like a human might try to hide a goofy smile. Tiny little sharp-as-hell teeth peeked out. And his eyes were warm and shy. 

Shepard swelled with the urge to scoop him up and hug him, but he’d probably hiss and flail in terror. 

“Here, you can have it, if you want.” Shepard inched it a bit closer to him, hoping he’d trust her and take it.

With hope-filled eyes, he nodded then looked to his mother for reassurance. Once she gave it, his excited, adorable little face turned back to Shepard.

One sweet little hand left its place shielding his happy, anxious fluttering mandible to tentatively reach out and wrap around the crulum, and Shepard’s grin doubled in size, making his mandibles flutter even more rapidly. 

He finally took it, tiny little fingers curling around the edges, and held it with both hands tight to his chest. 

“What do you say, Caladan?” his mother asked. 

“Thank you,” Caladan told Shepard, his voice just as shy but happy as the look on his face.

“You’re welcome. I hope it tastes good,” Shepard answered.

He nodded his head enthusiastically as if he already knew it would be absolute heaven and was making a promise to Shepard that he was going to enjoy every drop of his precious gift.  

When Shepard sat down and looked over at Vakarian, he was smiling almost as wide as she was.

“What?” Shepard asked.

He just shrugged. “That was nice of you.”

“Alright, maybe turian kids are cuter.” Shepard joked. Then she gushed, “Did you see his little hands trying to cover his mandibles?”

Shepard slapped her hands to her cheeks, feeling like she was just going to die from all the damn cuteness.

“Mmm,“ he pretended to think while taking a bite of food and swallowing, “I remember seeing a really cute human kid once. It was just a picture that her grandparents sent me. She had skinned knees and red hair and freckles all over her adorable little round face.”

Shepard felt herself blush, then felt a little silly when she realized he’d made her blush — simply from calling her an adorable kid. “Stop teasing me,” she said as if it annoyed her. It didn’t, though. Like most of his teases, she enjoyed the hell out of it.

Just like she enjoyed everything with him. 

“Garrus,” a deep rippling voice drifted from behind them. Shepard turned to see a male turian with bold white colony markings on deep bronze plates step up behind Vakarian and give him a firm pat on the shoulder. 

Vakarian turned to the man, and they tapped their wrists on greeting. “Hey, Lorik. Thanks for agreeing to help.”

“We don’t want two of our own running around the Citadel like this, do we? Knowing that turians did something so brutal to a quarian makes this personal, hm?”

Vakarian answered with a deep murmur in agreement then looked at Shepard. “This is my partner, Detective Shepard.”

Shepard extended her wrist and instantly felt like she was on display because he was looking at her long and hard, a sparkle of amusement in his pale honey eyes.

“Lorik Qui’in, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Detective Shepard.” He tapped his wrist to hers and let it linger longer than was normal, brushing just slightly up her arm as he pulled away. 

She answered with a smile and a speechless nod while staring at the way his thick mandibles gave him a strong jawline she hadn’t seen in many other turians. 

Not that Vakarian didn’t have a strong jawline, but his was more refined and less heavy. Most of Vakarian’s features could be described as classically handsome. And the annoying bastard knew it — when he wasn’t brooding or doubting himself. 

Completely aware that she had already spent too much time thinking about her partner’s physical features that day, she focused back on Lorik and on their case. “Vakarian didn’t tell me how you two know each other.” 

“I’m an attorney. I specialize in matters involving both the Hierarchy and the Council. However, Garrus and I know each other because I once tried to convince your partner to become a Spectre. Which he ignored.” His eyes roamed her face, then flicked down briefly to scan her body. Many turians gave her the same look, simply because she was a human and they were trying to get a read on her. Lorik’s look didn’t seem to have that intention, though. “I worked in Spectre recruitment while I was studying law. And now he’s a detective with a human partner, interesting.”

“Oh don’t hold that against him. Just means he has to work extra hard,” she said, minding her professional tone but attempting to be friendly, which must have worked because Lorik leaned in a little closer. 

He shot her a smooth, confident grin. “I doubt that. You seem very capable.” Unsure of what was on Lorik’s mind, she watched him closely and responded with a simple, light laugh. 

A rumble came from Vakarian. “Alright, stop flirting with my partner, Lorik. What do you have?” Vakarian grumbled. 

Well, that clarified that. 

“Garrus, you’ve always been too eager to work. Always rushing. Why can’t we just sit and talk, maybe enjoy a drink.” Lorik sat down on the empty stool next to Shepard and ordered something from the datapad. He turned directly to her and leaned against the counter with a confident spread in his shoulders. 

Instead of talking to Vakarian about their case, his eyes were drilling into her as steadily and purposefully as she assumed he was imagining his hips driving into hers. He certainly wasn’t one to hide his thoughts — they were written all over his gaze and the way he carried himself. 

He only broke eye contact with her for a moment, glancing over at Vakarian with a look she couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of. For just a split second she considered whether he could be flirting with Vakarian as well. Vakarian’s reaction — which was nothing at all — didn’t help her figure out the meaning at all. 

Absolutely flustered and unsure of what to do, she just gave Lorik a wide, clueless smile. She felt like fidgeting but thankfully kept her body still. 

“How’d you wind up out here, Detective Shepard?”

“Got bored of Earth I guess,” she answered. “A turian and an asari recruitment team visited my precinct and made it sound pretty interesting.”

“I hope you’ve found working on the Citadel as enthralling as you’d hoped,” he said with a warm smile that would have definitely worked on her if she wasn’t working a case. 

“Of course not, who could ever be bored working with this guy.” She pointed a thumb over at Vakarian, who was eating his meal and looked bored with them. “He keeps me on my toes.”

“Yes, Garrus is certainly capable of creating interesting situations.” Lorik’s eyes flicked to Shepard’s hair that was currently ruffled and probably looking like a mess. “Speaking of interesting, I’ve never seen hair quite this shade. It’s beautiful, truly.”

Despite her resolve to remain professional, her smile instantly turned playful. He was doing a damn fine job of flattering her, and he was the first turian to do so. 

A heavy sigh came out of Vakarian, making Shepard wonder why he was so damn grouchy.  

After that, Lorik finally turned to Vakarian. “Alright, Garrus. Regarding the first matter — getting you access to Hierarchy records — I don’t have anything yet,” Lorik said while picking up the deep emerald-colored wine that was dropped off. “But I’ll put a request in once I get back to my office. I should have something by tonight, I’m sure.” He took a slow sip of wine. “As for what you and Ms. Goto are working on, it’s illegal as hell and will get both of you fired, then probably thrown in prison.”

Shepard’s smile immediately fell. She turned her angry, horrified look directly to the deserving source. Frustratingly, Vakarian looked more irritated than upset about Lorik’s answer. 

“What did you do?” she blurted, just then realizing he had successfully avoided talking about his work on the way over. Cheeky, dodgy little bastard. 

Lorik’s deep, genuine laugh should have immediately eased her worries, but it didn’t. “Relax. I spoke with Sparatus, who spoke with a turian Spectre. Vakarian, you have officially been instructed by Spectre Rin to develop a program that will search and merge Citadel records — which you are not authorized to manipulate under normal circumstances — in order to solve a brutal attempted murder in an expedient manner. Now you and Ms. Goto have fun.” After another slow sip, he added, “And remember to turn that little program off when you’re done.” 

“That’s what you were doing? Writing a program that merges all your Citadel records?” 

In a humble voice, Vakarian answered, “I wasn’t even sure I could get it working. But, it’ll save us a lot of time.”

“It’s innovative,” Lorik said, filling Shepard with a bit of pride. Vakarian was pretty impressive, even if he was a frustrating nerd. “I’m sure you won’t mind when Spectre Rin commandeers it.”

Vakaran shrugged. “I suppose not going to prison is a nice trade-off. Kasumi will appreciate that as well.”

“Is that all you require assistance with?” Lorik asked. 

“Yeah. And thanks, Lorik,” Vakarian said, sitting up straighter and looking like a load was taken off his shoulders.  

“Of course, it’s always my pleasure to help. And,” he reached for his omni-tool and typed in something quickly, then gave Shepard a suggestive look, “If I can ever help you with anything, please, give me a call.”

A ping chimed on her omni-tool with what she assumed was his personal contact information. “I’m, uh, sure I can come up with something you can give me a hand with. You seem pretty capable yourself.” She paused. Despite trying to remain professional and neutral she knew what she just said was incredibly, unintentionally, suggestive.

Lorik laughed, low and sultry, and leaned a bit closer. She could feel the rumble in his voice when he said, “I’ll be waiting with, what do you humans say, bated breath .” 

Which is exactly how she would describe the effect he just had on her. 

With that, he stood up, took the last sip of his wine, then left. And she watched every smooth step and swing of his hips as he made his way out of the diner. His stride wasn’t quite as captivating as her partner’s, but it caught her attention well enough. Once he was gone she turned to Vakarian, who was stuffing the last bite of food in his mouth 

“Done looking?” Vakarian said, a strange tinge of forced lighthearted inflection. Perhaps the threat of imprisonment got to him. 

“Listen, I didn't mean to flirt with him. He just...”

His look spoke for him, a sort of a “yeah right” before he glanced at her empty plate then stood up. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

She popped up out of her seat and stood next to him. Together, they headed for the door — him in a smooth stride and her in her usually energetic step. “Can I ask you something?” 

As the entrance doors slid open for them he said,  “Shoot.”

“Do I bounce when I walk?”

He gave her a quick side-eye. “I think I need some context.”

“I see other people walking, and they all seem to swagger or sway. I feel like I just bounce , you know?”

He smiled, watching her gait for just a beat. “Mmm, kind of. Sometimes you seem pretty springy. I like it, though. You look happy.”

She scowled at him despite his genuinely positive response. While he meant well, it didn’t make Shepard feel any cooler or less foolish. “I probably look like a fricken lap dog.”

He questioned her meaning with a simple quirked brow and flexed mandible. 

“You know, like the one that guy has at the human grocery store. That little dog with the curly hair that’s always yapping and bouncing around.”

He nodded in recognition “Mmm. No, you don’t bounce around like that. You walk more like a cat. Like you own the place and you’re not going to put up with anyone’s bullshit.” He paused to smile at her. “A happy cat, though.” 

That answer was more satisfying and made her feel a little flutter in her stomach. “Thanks. I’ll take ‘happy cat’.”

After only a few more steps down the sidewalk, she asked, “Hey, feel like going for a walk?” 

“What do you have in mind?”

“Do you have Ziha’s purchase records on you? I wanna walk the route from the market to the scene. Maybe we can get a feel for what would have made her go into the maintenance corridors. Maybe even ask some vendors if they remember her.”

“Sure. I don’t have the records on me, but I can remember them. I already plotted them out on a map this morning.” He swept his hand out. “Lead the way.”

She stood back and looked up at him “Why do I have to lead?”

“Because I like following after you,” was all he said. Then with amusement in his eyes threatening to ruin the line he was about to feed her, he said, “That crazy, bouncy way you walk clears a path.”

She gently swatted his shoulder and looked up at him with a cheerful smile. “Can it, Vakarian.”

“Everyone just scatters. ‘Who’s that lunatic’, they mumble.” After that, his smile broke out along with a rippling chuckle.  

“I get it,” she said with a deep, warm laugh. Instead of swatting him again, she bumped her shoulder into his arm. If she hadn’t been bouncing before, she absolutely was now. 

 

Chapter Text

Perfect partners aren’t made, they exist on their own terms and it’s the complete luck of the draw when two detectives are brought together to form a fully functioning and effective team. At least, that’s how Vakarian felt about his partnership with Shepard. Because they were perfect together. And despite their pairing being pure luck (aside from some initial hesitation and a few miscommunications), they fell into a comfortable rhythm almost immediately — like two gears made for each other. 

Which meant they worked in perfect tandem out in the field. He’d provide the details — timelines, locations, people involved, etc. — and Shepard did all the dirty work talking to people and coaxing information out of them. They trusted her, opened up to her, and filled in the case holes with everything they provided. With a complete picture, he and Shepard were able to experience the victim’s life and death for themselves. This is how they solved so many cases. They complemented each other. Fed off each other. One might even say they completed each other. 

So they headed to the Markets because that was the last place Ziha was before she was attacked. They had two goals. One, to interview the vendors she spoke with, hoping to get a few leads. And two, revisit the scene with fresh eyes — maybe get a feel for the type of person that would commit a horrendous crime like that.    

Their perfect partnership that functioned like a well-oiled machine didn’t speed up the process of interviewing everyone, though. If anything, Shepard’s tactics slowed them down. She worked her magic with each one while Vakarian followed her through the close-packed crowds. That evening it was hot down in the lower markets, and not the good kind of hot like his home planet. The air was stale and so thick it felt like it stuck to your skin.  

She had to befriend every obnoxious and minimally helpful vendor they spoke with. Not that he was complaining about her work — but it was a long day. The sour air, harsh artificial lights, and roar of skycars flying by so close that pedestrians' clothes fluttered in the slipstream wore him down to his last nerve. Even Shepard looked like she was worn thin.  

Most of the vendors mentioned they spotted two turians possibly following her, but none could remember anything about them. Some vendors didn’t even remember her. A few mentioned she got what she deserved, and that her kind belonged on stations like Omega, not on the Citadel. 

Shepard and Vakarian made their way to the last booth Ziha visited, where she bought a new memory chip for her omni-tool. It wasn’t the best on the market, but the best one she’d be able to afford. It was a fairly inexpensive unit that packed more punch than a lot of people gave it credit for. Tali probably told her to buy it — that thought sent a flash of anger and sadness through him. This wasn’t just a stranger, it was his friend’s little cousin. 

Thinking he and Shepard were customers competing for the vendor’s attention, a volus began to push their way to get in front of them but had a sudden change of heart upon seeing their badges. The volus quickly backed off and turned around. Shit like that always made Vakarian want to pursue them — see what the hell made them want so desperately to avoid a cop. There was that little thing called just cause, though. Usually, he just ended up glaring at them, and Shepard would nudge him with her elbow. Anyone who thought humans were soft and squishy had never been elbowed by Shepard.   

“Hello, sir,” Shepard said brightly to the vendor standing behind the front counter, despite the hint of tiredness Vakarian heard in her voice. “I’m Detective Shepard, and this is my partner Detective Vakarian. Mind if we ask you a few questions about a customer who purchased something from you a few days ago?”

“This is about the quarian, right?” the vendor said.

“Yeah, you remember her?”

“Sure I do.”

“Can I get your name for the record?”

“Galin Selu,” his large dark eyes blinked just once as he leaned forward and settled his arms against the countertop.

“Thanks,” Shepard said casually, mimicking his stance by leaning against the counter as well. She once said she did stuff like that on purpose, it made people feel comfortable. Vakarian couldn’t figure out how she made intentional actions seem so natural. “A few vendors couldn’t remember her. Mind telling me why she stuck out to you? Anything unusual about her and the event would be helpful, we’re trying to get the two assholes who attacked her behind bars. People like that make doing business hard, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that.”

The salarian nodded, falling for her manufactured comradery. “Well, the first thing that made her stand out was how nice she was — nicer than any customers I see around here. But what really made her stick in my mind were the two turians following her. Soon as I saw her on the news that night cycle, I knew exactly what happened and I’d make a bet that they were the ones who attacked her.”

“You could be right about that,” Shepard responded. The way she interacted with him made it seem like she trusted him — like he was an old friend. “Do you know the turians? Are they regulars?”

“Nope, they seemed familiar, but I see a lot of people come through here.” He gestured out towards the packed open market. “I’m sure you can imagine,” he added with only a hint of disdain. A hint was enough to make Vakarian’s nerves prick, though.

“Sure,” Shepard answered affably, she cocked her hips and settled down on her elbow, taking a quick look at the market. She paused for a beat, probably to get the guy comfortable and ready to share.

Her methods certainly worked, but Vakarian was tired, and just wanted to get to the damn point. “Recognize the colony markings?” Vakarian asked, his tone nowhere near as steady and congenial as Shepard’s.  

Galin eyed him for a second before saying, “Cipritine on one and the other’s were yellow, lines down the mandibles and dots along the side of the nose. 

“That sounds like Madra,” Vakarian quickly said, excited to finally get something that would actually help with their search. Vakarian pulled up an image of Madra markings on his omni-tool and after Galin took a cursory glance he answered with a flippant nod. “You sure you got a good look at them?” Vakarian asked. 

“It was hard not to. They weren’t necessarily hiding the fact that they were trailing her.” 

The idea that this guy just watched two turians hunt down a poor defenseless quarian fed Vakarian’s temper and he couldn’t hold in an angry scoff. “Did you think to call C-Sec?”

Galin answered his scoff with a cold, pointed look. “Do you know how long it takes an officer to get down here, kid? Better yet, do you know how fast C-Sec would hang up on me if I told them to send an officer over because someone was acting suspicious in the lower markets?”

He did. Admittedly, it was a dumb question. That didn’t mean that he appreciated the smart-ass comment, though. And the fact that he asked a dumb question didn’t make Galin ignoring the dangerous situation that turned to tragedy right. 

And the damn salarian was probably the same age as him — calling him 'kid'.

Shepard flashed Vakarian a smile, a gentle ribbing for his misstep — and possibly for his optimistic estimation of C-Sec’s delivery of justice, too. Vakarian only knew how to be either depressingly pessimistic or naively optimistic, there was no in-between for him. It was a fault he hadn’t figured out how to fix. Among many others. 

After letting his arrogant glance linger on Vakarian for a beat, Galin looked at Shepard. Even though he was talking to the good cop again, his voice was a bit less patient when he said, “I warned her, okay? That’s pretty much all I could do. She thanked me, paid for her crap, and scuttled off.”

The way he said scuttled irked Vakarian — like she was vermin. Every word out of this guy’s mouth was irritating Vakarian. Maybe he was in a bad mood, though, and seeing prejudice where there was none. Maybe the vendor didn’t mean anything by it. Vakarian glanced at his omni-tool, hoping to see a message from Lorik or Kasumi, but his inbox was a big fat disappointing ‘zero’. Aside from the markings, this guy wasn’t giving them anything they didn’t have before, besides a damned headache. 

“When she was done here I think she went down that way,” Galin said, pointing in the direction of the corridor that led to the area where Ziha was attacked. 

“Did you see whether or not the turians followed her?” Vakarian asked as he glanced up from his omni-tool.

“No, I had customers lined up. Saving lives is your job, detective . I have sales to make.”

Vakarian could have easily leaped across the counter and choked the salarian until his eyes popped out. 

“Thanks for your help,” Shepard quickly said, standing up and leaning ever so subtly so that her body was in between Vakarian and the vendor, which was probably a good idea because Vakarian had inched forward just slightly, his body ready for that leap. His keel pressed against Shepard’s shoulder, and she leaned back and gave him a little shove. Without breaking her tone or dropping her smile she said, “If you think of anything else, just give us a call.”

Galin agreed with a friendly enough nod. Vakarian made sure to glare at the asshole for his smart mouth, then followed after Shepard as she turned away and left his stall. 

“You are so uptight,” Shepard playfully chastised. 

He answered her with an ill-humored scowl. 

“Mind your temper, Detective Vakarian,” she said sweetly.

“Why do I have to mind my temper when they could easily mind their mouths?”

She laughed — a soft, pleasant sound that always made him relax. “You are fucking perfect, Garrus, never change.”

Despite the gentle humor in her voice, he knew she was being genuine saying that. He missed a step as he smiled, and felt his mandibles bashfully flutter, making him embarrassingly aware that he probably looked like that little kid Shepard gave the cookie to earlier back at the restaurant. He cleared his throat and kept walking.   

Shepard leaned in close and raised her voice to speak above the crowd. “Can you add that to your data searches? That they’re from Cipritine and Madra?”

Vakarian lowered his head just a little so she could hear him clearly. “Interrupting the parameters now would slow it down. It’ll be better to just add it once I get that round of results.”

As they made their way towards the corridor, he refocused their energy back on Ziha’s journey. “From here she probably went straight to the corridor.” He estimated the calculation in his head quickly. “So, based on the time of her purchase at that fucking idiot’s stall,” Shepard let out a huff, “and the time she hit the CCTV camera in the first corridor, she didn’t have much time to do anything else.”

It took a minute or two to wade their way through people en route to the corridor, which matched up with Ziha’s time. Once there, they turned to face the markets and stood at the entrance. They both took a moment to look over the large room with no less than fifty vendors all operating busy booths, people pushing, crowding, arguing, and laughing — the market area was loud and full of life and not the type of place someone would leave if they knew suspicious types were stalking them. 

As for the corridor behind them, it was completely abandoned — only maintenance workers would go down there. And though it was only slightly dimmer than the market, it was clear even from where they were standing that the adjoining corridor further in was lit almost purely with muted red industrial lighting. It was dark and ominous -- a threatening path sure to attract only those with ill intentions. Maintenance workers didn’t even like going down there. 

“Why,” Shepard finally asked, shaking her head in frustration. 

“Why did she go down here?” Vakarian said. 

“Yeah, why this corridor? It’s clearly not a part of the markets. Did she think this was a shortcut to somewhere? The footage showed she had a decent lead on them, so I’m guessing they didn’t coerce her or kidnap her.”

Recalling his conversation with Tali at the hospital, Vakarian shook his head. “Tali said Ziha doesn’t know the Citadel well. That they talked the night before and Ziha said she always follows specific paths that she plotted out because she was afraid of getting lost. I doubt she thought this was a shortcut and just wandered off.”

“So they got her down here, but kept their distance?”

“She knew they were following her,” Vakarian recalled.

“Maybe she got scared,” Shepard took a guess. “Their body language in the footage was imposing, threatening.”

“So they kept their distance, but got her headed where they wanted her.”

“They herded her,” Shepard said, her voice subdued as that thought seemed to settle into her mind. Shepard was silent for a moment, but he sensed the gears in her head were turning. “You already said you think they’re Hierarchy. Any position especially trained for moving people like that?”

“Mmm,” he hummed as he thought, “the Hastatim. But considering the suspects’ shocking lack of skill, I’d be surprised if they were ever trusted enough for that kind of work.”

“Is it possible they would have received Hastatim training before being evaluated and accepted?”

“I don’t know the process, actually. I kept my distance. The less I knew about them the better.”

“Why?” she asked, genuinely curious. The innocence in the question made him pause.  

Already predicting Shepard’s reaction to the explanation, he took a deep breath and looked her square in the eye. “Hastatim are death squads. They’re deployed to dissenting colonies, round up anyone who surrenders and then execute everyone else. No second chances. No sympathy. It’s efficient and ruthless.”

A pained look sharpened her features. “Jesus.”

“Yeah. Can’t say it was ever my dream job.”

“Understandably,” she said with a cock to her head and wide eyes. “Takes a special soldier to seek out that kind of work.”

“Sickos and honor seekers,” he said in agreement. “Our suspects were sickos, sure, but serving as a Hastatim takes discipline and skill, and I didn’t see any of that in them.”

“Hm,” she said. Then after a beat, she turned to him. “You turians scare the shit out of me sometimes.”

“What, you think suppressing dissension is accomplished with cakes and hugs?”

“Maybe you all should try using a talking stick to hash out disagreements.”

He looked at her with a curious flick of his mandible. “I’m pretty sure I can take a guess, but what exactly is a talking stick?”

“You pass it around,” she said. “Whoever has it gets a turn to talk and share their feelings.”

A quiet, intrigued hum left him. “I’m glad I asked because that’s not at all what I thought. I just assumed it was used to beat people when they talk without permission.”

“Jesus. No.” Shepard gave him a pointed look like she was disappointed in him. 

Confident in his assumption, he shrugged off her unspoken judgment. “It makes more sense to beat someone with a stick than to use it to grant them exclusive talking rights.”

She stared at him offended and speechless, and he couldn’t quite understand why. She was the one talking nonsense.  

Taking advantage of her baffled silence, he mulled over the concept a bit more and just kept talking. “Though, I suppose in that case it would be more accurate to call it a quieting stick. Logically speaking, at least. It makes more sense to name a tool after what it does, than what it doesn’t, hm?”

She sighed but gave him a little half-smile. “If you had a stick right now I’d take it away from you.”

He returned her smile. “Planning to attack me? Follow me, I know of a great little place this way.” He stepped aside and waved his hand out with a flick of his wrist, gesturing for them to start walking down the route to where Ziha was attacked. 

Shepard shook her head as she turned towards the adjoining corridor and started walking — though she didn’t take her eyes off him, so that mildly judging look lingered. “No, you big dope, I’d take it from you so you stop talking.” 

He hummed in amusement. “Jane, you should have known better. Give a turian a stick, they’ll beat someone with it.” 

“Man you are just on a roll tonight, Garrus,” she said as she shoved her hands in her pockets. A little satisfied ripple tickled his chest when she stood up on the tips of her toes and leaned in closer to nudge her shoulder into his. 

The way she looked at him —all bright eyes and teasing smile — made him realize that he was a bit uptight, and maybe he should do something about that. His first step would be to solve this high-profile case, then maybe he could work on himself a little. 

🔪🔪🔪

With each step down the corridor, the thunderous market sounds — a clamorous mix of laughter, shouts, and incoherent chatter — gradually quieted. As the sounds faded, freeing Shepard’s senses, she instead could hear the gentle padding of their boot soles hitting the metal grates and echoing off the walls. With each step growing louder and more distinct, the harsh illumination faded and turned from warm ersatz daylight to a disorienting wash of red maintenance lighting. 

She and Vakarian remained silent as they slowly made the journey down the connecting corridors. It was all so eerie, and Shepard could imagine just how terrifying the walk would be on your own. Alone, in an unfamiliar environment. The safety of a crowd and bright lights fading behind you. Further in, their footsteps seemed incredibly loud to Shepard’s alert ears — metallic echoes sounding off the dark edges of their path. 

Shepard glanced behind her— no one was there now, but she could picture in her mind two large, powerful turians stalking in the distance. Whether or not those two possessed deficient knife skills, turians could be downright menacing. Sharp teeth and talons. Hawk-like eyes. The height and speed to turn a dangerous situation deadly in the blink of an eye. 

An abrupt clank — some insignificant clattering in a pipe behind them — almost made Shepard’s heart catch before she settled her nerves.   

“Think she could hear their footsteps behind her?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Vakarian said with a certain weight in his voice. He had to be thinking exactly what Shepard was —  that Ziha must have been terrified. Lost and scared and her hope of escape growing dimmer and dimmer as the lights and sounds of the market faded away. 

Every twenty feet or so a faint spotlight left a circle of illumination that stood out starkly against the red glow that coated the narrow passage. Just under one of those lights, they passed by a door and Vakarian raised his omni-tool, his eyes now softly iridescent in the dark passage.  

“Locked?” Shepard asked.

“Yeah, and I assume any others will be as well. They’re hackable, but not by someone who’s scared and needs time to focus.”

“She knew she was trapped, then. With each step she took, she knew her hope was fading. And the sick fuckers probably knew it, too.”

Vakarian nodded silently in agreement, then said, “Maybe they planned it out. I’m thinking they know this area. Maybe one or both are maintenance or custodial.”

“Yeah, makes sense. They knew she had no way out this way. If they’re going to herd her, it logically follows that they’d have a destination in mind.”

After a few minutes, they passed by the spot where they found Ziha slumped against the wall and near death. They weren’t there to see that area, though — their destination was the exact spot where the attack was carried out. So, they continued on. The scene had been cleaned and cleared by now, but they weren’t looking for evidence, they were getting a feel for the environment — analyzing and assessing. Getting into the mind of their suspects. 

Once there, they both examined the scene, two sets of keen eyes traveled over every inch of their surroundings. There was nothing there except metal walls, ducts, and pipes, though. Everything washed in a menacing red.

Why , Shepard wondered. Why here? Why Ziha? And who the hell decides to slice up a quarian and leave her for dead, just for shits and giggles?  

As Vakarian’s eyes continued to scan the space, he said, “They had her confined here. Might as well have been locked in a room with two sadistic pricks. I’d call it a torture chamber, but they didn’t take their time. It’s more like an execution chamber.”

Shepard nodded then glanced up to the ledge above some ductwork and saw a few stray drops of blood that clearly had been missed by the cleanup crew. A quick scan with her omni-tool indicated it was quarian — so, it was just more mess and not evidence. But if blood was still there, maybe the area had been overlooked. “Think Forensics checked up there?”

Vakarian followed her eye line, glancing up to the ledge, then back down, probably checking to see if there was anything either of them could stand on to get a better look, which there wasn’t. “Should have. Wouldn't be the first time they missed something though. Here, I’ll give you a boost.”

Shepard turned to him, hoping her look fully conveyed how astonished she was that he was even asking after the teasing he and Kryik put her through that morning. “Yeah, no thanks. I was recently given advice to buy a ladder.”

“Come on, it was just a joke,” he said with his signature charm. “I didn’t say you should, just that it was an option.” She couldn’t decide whether his sincere, kind eyes or the mischievous grin on his face reflected his actual intentions. He stuck his hands out as if they were a peace offering, something to tempt her into trusting him. 

That damn charm and those sincere eyes won. “Don’t make fun of my ass with Kryik anymore. Okay?”

“I won’t,” he promised genuinely. “Now that I know you’re self-conscious, it’s off-limits.” 

“I’m not self-conscious,” she muttered but had to leave it there because she didn’t want to explain the real reason for making the topic off limits, which was that she’d prefer to think Vakarian wasn’t even aware that her ass existed. It would bring up too many thoughts, and those thoughts could turn to wishes. 

After letting her warning look linger just a moment longer she turned towards the wall and felt his hands slide around her waist, then firmly cupped her hips. She relaxed her weight into his hold while he lifted her up with ease as if she was as light as a feather. The size of her ass made it clear she wasn’t, though — not to mention all the densely packed lean muscle she maintained. Wrestling meaty, bulky masses like turians and krogans took agility and strength, and she refused to be the human that couldn’t hold her own if a situation went south. 

Once eye level with the ledge, Shepard tapped a key on her omni-tool and raised her wrist, flashing the light in various crevices in a sweeping motion. Other than the few drops of blood at the edge of the duct, there wasn’t anything of interest up there. Not even a dead bug. As her eyes meticulously swept the area one last time for good measure she felt Vakarian’s soft, warm breath at her back — a tickle crawled up her spine — her shirt must have lifted up and exposed her skin. She suddenly felt embarrassed and incredibly exposed, and in response nearly leaped out of his arms. Fucking karma.

Instead of making a wild and dramatic dive for the floor, she lowered her omni-tool and tapped the flashlight off. “Nothing,” she hurriedly announced and waited for Vakarian to lower her back down. 

His hands unexpectedly tensed around her hips and without a word, he began to slowly lower her. Once her feet hit the ground his hands left her as quickly as she hoped they would.  

“So,” he said as she found her footing and turned around to face him. “I guess we’ve learned everything from this trip that we can for now.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, a heavy breath shuddering as she looked straight up into his sharp blue eyes. 

The incredibly obvious notion that they were too close to be having this conversation fell on Shepard like a wave of heat. It made her feel flushed and self-conscious, and she imagined that there was a strange little look in his eyes that really made her realize she was too close. This is what she got for ogling him that morning, and it was a good lesson in why one shouldn’t admire their partner’s incredibly sexy and tempting form. 

With one step backward her back brushed against the wall, and just as she did that he stepped away from her as well — far back, against the opposite side. They both leaned against their walls, shoulders relaxing.

“So, that’s where we’re at, hm? Wait for the Hierarchy and Citadel records to come in?” Vakarian said, the glow in his eyes enhanced the further away he was. Instead of finding it eerie or alien, she found them quite beautiful. 

“Yeah. Hope to see two turians named Achilus and Traian, from Cipritine and Madra. Maybe they work custodial or maintenance”

“Hierarchy records showing poor combat proficiency,” he added. “I’d be willing to bet they have conduct violations as well. Violence like that doesn’t appear out of nowhere.”

“Yeah. And maybe some kind of tie to the Hastatim?” Shepard proposed. 

“I don’t know about that one,” he said, furrowing his brows in deliberation. Then after a moment he added, “I guess we’ll see, though.”  

“Here’s the part where we wait for someone else to give us something we can use. Twiddling our thumbs and guessing.” It was unnecessary to point that out, she just felt the odd need to talk through that moment to drawn out the awkward way she felt. 

He agreed with a slow nod. 

Shepard glanced over about ten feet to her left to the spot where Ziha first fell — before she began her desperate journey to find help. Staring at that now innocuous spot, she took a deep breath and realized just how damn tired she was. She lowered herself slowly along the cool metal wall until she sat down on the floor and stuck her legs out in front of her. As Vakarian did the same she leaned her head against the wall, enjoying the cool metal against her warm head. If she was tired, he had to be exhausted, with everything he was going through. He looked it, at least. 

“You been sleeping ok?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Well enough.”

He was so tall and took up so much of the width of the corridor that their feet nearly touched. She examined his feet, which were half again as large as hers. Thick boot-covered toes, each the length of her palm, curved out. She playfully poked the toe of her boot into the sole of his and wondered if turian feet got tired like human feet. Did they enjoy foot rubs? They’d never discussed it, but her feet were aching and ready to be freed from her stiff, stuffy work boots, and a foot rub sounded amazing.   

She should have worn her tennis shoes and suffered Vakarian’s teasing — because it was inevitable; he never turned down an opportunity. Those wonderful, comfortable shoes were going to give out on her any day, though, so she wanted to make them last. 

As she stared at his feet, she wondered what talons felt like and thought about how strange it was that she knew so little about turian bodies, despite working with a turian every day. If she ever dated a turian, she’d probably learn real quick. Would a turian’s pedi-talons cut her legs if they laid in bed together?

Until Lorik, she never thought she'd actually get the opportunity to experience dating a turian. Once the case was solved, maybe she would consider contacting him...

“He’s hot, right? Lorik. You think he actually wants me to call him?” 

When Vakarian didn’t respond she lifted her eyes from his boots to look at him. His chest rose, and for a second she thought he was going to huff or say something smartass, but then he just simply said, “Yeah, he wants you to call him. And he’s more attractive than the human you rubbed lips with at the bar the other night.”

“Is he? Well, you’re not attracted to humans, so you wouldn’t know. Is Lorik attractive, though? I mean, in turian standards.”

“Sure.” 

She waited for him to say something more, but all he did was look at her with soft, tired eyes. Trying to lighten the mood, she tapped his boot again with hers and said, “How attractive? Like, on a scale of 1-10?”

“I’m not rating him. He’s attractive,” was all he said, though he didn’t sound irritated.  

“Yeah, but is he fuckable ? Like, would you fuck him?” Remembering the way Lorik had looked over at Vakarian when they sat at the counter, a wild thought occurred to her, that maybe Lorik had been interested in them both. “Wait, have you fucked him? He was kind of eyeing you.”

“No I haven’t, he was making sure I wasn’t going to tell him to back off of you. And, I have a mate, so I’m not rating him, checking him out, or telling you whether or not I’d fuck him.”

Fair enough. 

The salacious idea of someone asking her and Vakarian for a three-way nearly made her giggle. She kept it contained, though, and instead turned to Vakarian’s love life. She’d seen him date guys before, but not as often as women, which made her curious. “How long has it been since you were with a guy?”

He hummed in thought. “Two years, I think? After I moved to the Citadel, but it’s been a while.”

“Are you more attracted to women?”

A simple quirked browplate indicated his curiosity, but he seemed comfortable with her question. “Why are you asking?”

She leaned her head back against the wall and, thinking that she could just nap right there, let it rest slightly cocked to the side. “I don’t know. I’m only attracted to males, so I don’t know what it’s like — whether or not you have a preference. You don’t need to talk about it, though, if you don’t want.”

“I don’t mind. I prefer females — more attracted to them physically and romantically, generally. But guys are better at certain things.”

“Like what?”

A cocky, devilish grin made his left mandible flutter in an alluring way. “Having a dick, mostly.” 

A tired but amused giggle came out of her. “I do like dicks,” she said, a bit more salaciously than she originally intended. “I wonder if I’d like turian dicks more than human dicks.”

“Guess you’ll have to call up Lorik and find out. Why do you care whether I think he’s attractive?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’m curious about attraction across species. You know — are turians attracted to beautiful humans or ones that aren’t traditionally attractive to humans? Are the turians I’m attracted to considered attractive to other turians? Would we rate turians the same?”

“Comes down to personal preference, I’m sure. What would you rate Lorik?”

“Hmm,” Shepard thought for just a second. “Eight? A solid eight.”

Vakarian shrugged, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. But, while only barely hiding his entertained curiosity asked, “What about Kryik?”

Without having to think about it she answered, “Also a solid eight. I’d say nine, but he’s so god damn smug.”

Vakaran laughed. “I’m telling him you said that.”

“Go ahead. He told me yesterday he likes perkier breasts than mine.”

Vakarian’s chuckle deepened, mandibles flaring out, making her feel a bit defensive even though she chuckled lightly along with him. 

“It’s not that mine aren’t perky, they’re just small.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it. And at least I don’t have to worry about you flirting with him anymore now that I know he thinks your breasts are subpar.”

She gave him a warning look — both for the continued flirting accusation and for the mention that her breasts could be subpar. They weren’t. They were glorious breasts and she was quite proud of them. She had half a mind to explain to Vakarian just why they were so amazing, but he wouldn't get it, not being attracted to women with breasts. 

“To be fair,” she admitted, “I started it. I asked him why your fringe is so much longer than his.”

That made Vakarian stop and look at her, his surprised mandibles loosening, but she could see a bit of egotistical pride in him. “Shit. Why were you picking a fight like that.”

“He was being obnoxious about a report I was working on, insisting I start a new paragraph.”

He hummed in acknowledgment, then after a beat asked, “So who is a ten, then?” 

You , she immediately thought, but couldn’t think of a way to tell her partner how insanely hot she thought he was without it being weird. She wasn’t clever or funny enough to tell him the truth while making a light-hearted joke about it. So, she thought for a moment, trying to come up with a good example. Celebrities were always safe. “Umm, that guy on that show we watch. The one about the krogan rebellion. What’s that actor’s name?”

“Caius Polari?”

“Yeah. He’s pretty dreamy. And the way his hips move, like he’s constantly promising that he’s going to fuck your brains out.”

She wasn’t sure why she was being so candid — she was tired, and maybe a bit starved for some satisfying contact. 

Vakarian’s browplates rose, agreeing with her. “You have good taste. And a thing for hips, hm?” 

Her smile dropped and throat tightened, Vakarian’s own hips swaying from one side of her mind to the other. Just as silly as it was to go on pretending Vakarian was unaware she had a body, she also hoped that he’d never realize that she admired his.  

Vakarian’s laugh broke her out of her embarrassing stupor. He had no idea what she was thinking, of course, but her inability to slap on a natural expression had to look suspicious.

A teasing grin and delighted eyes looked at her and made her feel cornered. With a rumbling, slow voice that she could actually feel he said, “Are you ok, Jane? Have a little moment there?”

After a final arresting beat of her heart, she laughed to release the tension while her fingers fidgeted at her jacket hem. “Now you know my secret, I have a thing for turian hips.”

Vakarian tapped a pedi-talon to her boot. “Just as I’m about to get dumped, you finally find a turian who’s into you. And here I thought we’d have more free time for vid nights.”

Shepard rolled her eyes. “Livia adores you, she’s not going to dump you. Are you guys doing anything fun this weekend?”

“No, we’re at the point where I have to beg to see her. She’ll ignore me until I do. And right now I’m not in the mood to beg.”

The lights flickered around them. Red to dark to red again within the blink of an eye. 

“You say this like it’s a normal thing for you two.”

“It’s starting to be.”

She gave him a real hard, scrutinizing look. The longer she looked at him the more apparent it became that he was beginning to understand just how atypical and sad his explanation was. The brightness faded from his gaze and his eyes finally fell to stare at her feet.

“Pretty new relationship to be dealing with shit like that,” she eventually said.

He grumbled in agreement but didn’t say anything else. 

“When did you talk to her last?”

“Before I went to my parent’s home. When I found out about my mom.”

So she must not even know about Valeria’s terminal illness. Fuck.  

“She hasn’t answered any of my messages, even the one you sent,” he said, and must have seen the concerned look on her face, because he followed that by saying, “It’s not that unusual for her, though. She ignored me for three days straight once. We were working the Jones case, and she took offense to the amount of my time it took up.” 

That one was bad. A woman shot her husband and their kids were in the next room, crying hysterically for thirty minutes straight before social services showed up. They’d seen her do it. Her and her husband were both Alliance, and moving out to the Citadel made something snap in her. Shepard wished that they had left the kids on Earth with relatives. Maybe they still would have lost their parents, but at least they wouldn't have personal knowledge of the damage a point-blank shotgun wound wrecked on a human body. She wondered where those kids were now, and how they were doing.

Shepard pried those intrusive, sentimental thoughts from her mind and really looked at her partner. He seemed tired — miserable, even, at times. And this was before he found out about his mom’s illness. He was too smart and funny and wonderful to be this sad all the time. She wanted him to be happy, and she wanted her friend back. 

A nagging thought itched at her mind, something she wanted to say, but was afraid to put out there. Would he get angry with her? Would he tell her to mind her own business? She had to say something, though. That’s what friends were for, and he needed one more than ever right now.

“Garrus, I’m just going to say this and risk you getting angry with me.” A wary look flashed in his eyes as if what she said was a threat. “If I’m out of line just tell me to back off, but you and Livia aren’t happy. And I don’t think you’re good together at all.” His eyes narrowed and mandibles drew tight, but she persisted. “Haven’t you thought about breaking up with her?”

Instead of getting angry or dodging the question with sarcasm, it was like something opened up inside of him. 

“The first two months all I did was try to impress her, and for a while, it felt like it worked. But now all I do is disappoint her and breaking up with her is just another way to do that. I keep thinking I can just ignore all this and things will get better, but it keeps getting worse.” A tired, resigned sigh left him. “And I don’t think I have enough energy to impress her right now.”

Shepard’s voice grew low and careful, the usual desire to say something comforting replaced with the urge to reach out and take his hand. “She’s not nice to you.” 

He seemed numb to the situation — his dull eyes reminding her of a caged creature. “I’m not nice to her either. This is what relationships are, aren’t they? Bickering through bad times.”

Unconvinced by his words, and certain he wasn’t being honest with himself, her head cocked to the side. “Do you really believe that? Your parents don’t fight like this.”

“My parents are in love,” he said. It was like the words fell out of his mouth and he didn’t actually realize what he said until it was too late, and they were out. His mandibles drew in tight, but his gaze never left hers.  

They both fell silent after that. The gravity of what he said sunk into them both, it seemed, and created a heavy, telling moment in which neither of them spoke. It wasn’t the fact that he said he didn’t love Livia that seemed so harsh — they’d only known each other six months or so, after all. But, he said it in such a way that seemed so final. Like he would never love her. It all made Shepard feel so incredibly sad for Vakarian and for Livia. 

“My parents bicker,” Vakarian said, half-heartedly still trying to argue his point. 

“Your parents banter . There’s a difference.” 

”No, we banter. They bicker.” 

A flash of affection raced through her. “Give me a few more years stuck with you and this banter may turn to bicker.” 

One of his mandibles flicked out in a lazy smile. “You’re giving me a headache.”   

A single, deep thump beat in her chest and she gave him a half-smile in return. “You gave me one five minutes ago.” 

They watched each other for a long moment, simply smiling and she didn’t expect anything else to be said. She knew somehow that he didn’t either. She thought of how much she adored spending time with him — even like this, sitting on the floor in a dirty corridor. They had only known each other for three years, yet it felt like a lifetime — in the best way possible. This is how she wanted to spend her life. Working at his side.  

“Come on,” he eventually said, “I think that’s enough for today. And Kasumi should be done so I’ll get those searches running.” 

Together they rose. As they made their way to the skycar port there was a little less bounce in her step. She wasn’t sure if it was due to her tired feet or their talk. 

“Hey, do turians do foot rubs?” she asked. 

With a curious tilt to his head, he turned to her. “Are you asking for one or offering?” 

“Depends, do turian feet stink like humans’?” 

“Yeah.”

“Then asking for one.”

Their chuckles bounced off the metal walls along with the sound of their careful footsteps that carried them home. 

Chapter Text

There’s a certain experience in detective work that provides the most exhilarating high. Most of their day is filled with monotonous reports, gathering information, having the same conversation with twenty different witnesses — shoot, reload, and repeat. But there’s this moment when all that work becomes worthwhile — when you’ve been waiting for something really integral to come in, and then it finally does. All of that waiting feels like standing still, and then you get something and it hits you with jolting inertia; it snaps you into attention and you know the one thing that has consumed all your energy will finally move forward. Vakarian lived for this moment; it was unlike anything that made his work in the Hierarchy exciting or worthwhile. As a detective, he pursued an answer like a target. To him it was thrilling, knowing that the low-life would be caught and justice would prevail.

Vakarian, unfortunately, had no such experience the next morning at work.

Nothing came in the night before, which was fine; he was too exhausted after their trip through the markets and that sobering moment he and Shepard shared in the corridor to process anything case-related in any capacity. Besides, despite the program he and Kasumi wrote being nearly perfect, it was going to take more than a few hours to sift through all the data and isolate the information he was looking for. Of course that didn’t keep Vakarian from checking for returns every few hours as he tossed and turned in bed. Nothing came from the Hierarchy, either, which did disappoint him a bit. That damn naive optimism that he couldn’t quite shake struck again. 

Instead of wasting time that morning by idly tapping their talons (twiddling their thumbs, Shepard would call it), they settled on another avenue. She suggested over their morning coffee they search for knife attacks in the lower market. The returns were enormous, of course, but without anything else occupying their time, they might as well look for leads wherever they could get them. 

A few hours later, bored to the state of keening, Vakarian was just about to suggest they sneak away for some fresh air when a chime rang on his omni-tool — Ziha calling from Huerta. While Shepard shot up out of her chair to join him at his desk he hit record then answered the call. 

“Detective Vakarian,” he answered, “and Detective Shepard is here too. What can we do for you, Ziha?”

“Hello. I’m feeling better. I can speak easier now, at least, and I wanted to tell you something. I thought it might be important.” Her voice was indeed less raspy, though still strained. 

“Glad to hear you’re feeling better,” Shepard said as she relaxed the weight of her body against his chair. “We’ll check with your doctors and arrange for a time to conduct a more thorough interview. In the meantime, what would you like us to know?”

“They talked about doing this before. One of them said something like ‘I can’t wait to cut this slut up like the one we did by Chora’s Den last month’.”

Hearing that made his pulse quicken, and he guessed Shepard was going through the same response when he noticed her arms tighten against her chest. 

“What happened next?” Vakarian gently asked. 

“The other one with Cipritine markings and a scar on his left mandible, he said ‘Don’t call her that. She’s beautiful, so show her some respect’.”  

Why did he and Shepard keep stumbling across the creeps — the sickos and head cases?   

“And then?” he asked, trying to remain neutral despite the gathering urge to find these bastards and take them off the streets. In a different occupation, he’d look forward to putting a slug through their crests. As it was, prison was the worst they’d get. 

“They just started stabbing me. They kept talking, taunting me is all. That’s not the important part though. I thought the part about attacking someone by Chora’s Den might help you. And I thought if they’ve done this twice, well I just don’t want anyone else to get hurt.”

Ziha had to be the kindest, most caring person he ever encountered. 

Shepard spoke up then, “It does help. Thank you, Ziha. Is there anything else?”

“Not now. The doctors are coming in soon because I have another surgery. I will see you soon, though?”

“Yes, we’ll visit as soon as we can.” Shepard promised.

As soon as they hung up Vakarian pulled records for knife attacks occurring in the vicinity of Chora’s Den in the last month. Two came up, one a drug deal gone wrong — a male salarian with a knife sticking out of his back. The other was a female turian victim, sliced across the abdomen and stabbed in the chest. The attack hadn’t been as violent as Ziha’s, but the victim wasn’t as lucky as her. Someone found the turian a day later; she bled out alone at the dead-end of a maintenance corridor. 

He could tell Shepard was still contemplating their motives and actions, that the gears in her head were turning, when she said in a low tone, “There’s some planning going into these attacks.”

He hummed in agreement. “They at least have their spots picked out. There’s no other evidence though — no DNA, no murder weapon, no witnesses. They have less than we do.”

While he felt disappointed and frustrated that they weren’t any closer to wrapping this up, Shepard just looked more determined. 

“I’ll reach out to the detectives who worked it. Maybe there’s something there they didn’t put together.” He warily watched as her eyes scanned the screen, then focused on a specific spot. Her head cocked to the side and she let out a low groan. The team was a turian and salarian pair that had been absolute assholes to the humans who tried out and left Homicide. 

“Want me to reach out to them?” Vakarian offered.

“Fuck that,” Shepard immediately said. “I’m a better detective than either of them. I’m going to solve our case and theirs, so they can gather up their quads and face the icky human.”

“You got it,” Vakarian answered with full confidence in her ability to handle them. “I think we should hand all the knife attacks in maintenance corridors over to floaters, at least have them sift through the data looking for patterns.”

“Sounds good,” she answered, busily typing on her console with a deep scowl. He knew without asking she was already typing her message to the team who worked the turian case. She had that determined, commanding look on her face that filled him with pride.

As she worked on her message Vakarian started pulling the assault records and typing a request to Lieutenant Jun for some floaters. 

Kryik and T’Saris had been pulled in early that morning to work a scene, and Kryik’s loud grumble announced their return. Making a show of dragging his ass to his desk, Kryik passed behind Vakarian then sank into his chair. T’Saris’s journey to her desk was less dramatic, but she ran a hand over her crests. 

“Bad one?” Shepard asked.

Kryik hummed, agitated and tired. “Why are krogan such assholes? Crushed a salarian over a damned fish dinner.” 

“Poor bastard never had a chance,” T’Saris added, propping her feet up on her desk and tossing her head back. “That’ll be in my head for a while.”

“Hey, let’s go out tonight,” Kryik said. “It’s the weekend and I could use a few drinks.”

“Can’t,” Shepard answered. “We’re having dinner with Garrus’s family.”

Kryik looked at Shepard with a dead stare. “Why do you always get invited? I love Valeria’s cooking.”

“Don’t be jealous, Sol’s cooking,” Vakarian added, hoping to dissuade Kryik from wanting to join them. That night was their first family dinner since finding out about his mom, and he just wanted a quiet, comforting evening with his family. Shepard would be there, of course. He caught himself smiling as he watched her diligently work. Damn , they’d gotten so close. He hadn’t even thought about the fact that she’d be there for such an important family moment. It wasn’t just him who wanted her there, either, though; his whole family did.    

“That’s a shame,” Kryik said. “I was going to tell you to bring leftovers.”

“If it’s decent I will,” Vakarian answered.

A longing trill came from Kryik, but before he could go on about it anymore a shout from Pallin took T’Saris and Kryik to the captain’s office.

Not long after, Vakarian and Kasumi’s program returned Housing and Port Authority records. Throughout the afternoon, he and Shepard meticulously went through the 58 households containing an Achilus and Traian one by one, throwing options back and forth. The first was a father and his three-year-old son. Nope. The second was a pair of cousins attending university. Possible, but unlikely. The third was a couple, they had four kids. Also unlikely — who would seriously have the time to attack strangers with four kids to take care of? They also eliminated a dozen others because they were no longer on the station, as per Port Authority records. 

That left them with a handful of options, all equally as likely on paper to be sick bastards. 

“Any favorites?” he asked Shepard, who was much better at pegging people as criminals purely based on their profiles. Part of the reason was she was good at reading people. The other reason was that, admittedly, Vakarian thought everyone was a criminal. It was one of the few things they argued about. 

Before he could anwser, a chime rang on his console, followed by a large file popping up along with a message from Lorik — the Hierarchy service records. They’d gone from nothing to look through to a wealth of data. How could they be so damned lucky? Vakarian promptly sent the file to Shepard but kept the message to himself for some petty reason. Normally he wouldn’t care, but Lorik’s overly flattering tone when he mentioned Shepard almost made him huff.  

He was starting to dislike Lorik. 

An excited sound came out of Shepard. “Let’s hope Lorik came through,” she said, crossing her fingers.

They spent a moment quietly sifting through the records, Shepard taking half, Vakarian taking the rest. A few guys rang some alarms — overly enthusiastic on deployment missions, but their combat skills were too highly remarked, or their birth colony didn’t match.

That’s when he stumbled across Achilus Calix — born in Cipritine, poor hand to hand, including small blade handling.  He had a few conduct violations. This one looked good. Vakarian’s senses sparked, blood pulsing and his mind clearing with focus. This could be it. 

His curiosity was piqued when he saw Achilus’s “Classified” file which contained the details of his conduct violations. That’s when Vakarian felt that jolt, that inertia whipping him out of his state of stillness. Each incident involved one other soldier — Traian Basilla from Madra. They had cornered civilians in two instances, using excessive force, ending in serious injury in the first occurrence and death in the second. Achilus had been discharged immediately after; a look at Traian’s record showed he was as well. That was a year ago. 

“Hey,” he said to Shepard. “Look up these two in the Port Authority and Housing records.” He sent her their IDs and watched her with simmering anticipation.  

After a minute she replied, “Arrived on the Citadel a year ago. Who are they?”

Without answering he sent her their files and, despite his growing excitement, waited patiently as she read through them. After only a moment she looked up at him with eyes widened in excitement. She tapped a finger vigorously to her desk. “It’s these guys. They applied to the Hastatim and were both rejected. That’s them.” Refusing to let go of her bragging rights, she boasted, “I was right. I told you about the Hastatim.”

She was right. A woman as funny, beautiful, and smart as her deserved to be teased, though. “Gloating isn’t a good look on you, Shep,” he told her. 

He wasn’t sure if her smile or her eyes sparkled more. “Everything looks good on me.”

“Oh, and I’m the egotistical one?”

She shrugged. “Guess your vanity is rubbing off on me.”

“The only issue,” Vakarian said, returning to the case, “is that they disappeared a month ago. There aren’t any up-to-date housing records.”

“Hm. What about employment? Any indication they’ve worked custodial or maintenance?”

He took a moment to check. “Nothing. No employment records since they arrived a year ago.” 

She turned her attention to her screen and typed a few things in. After a moment, she replied,  “But they shared three apartments since moving here. The last was with a female turian, listed as the girlfriend of Achilus, but they left that apartment a month ago. Where the fuck are they… shit.” A moment passed and then she said, ”shit” again, even more frustrated the second time. She paused, her eyes looking up and to the side at nothing in particular as she thought. “Well, they didn’t leave, they couldn't have because they just attacked Ziha.”

“There’s no record of them leaving. That doesn’t mean they didn’t, though. Remember that bulletin about the ex-cop smuggling people off-station?”

Shepard drummed her fingers on the desktop, a mildly intrigued look in her eyes. “They still haven’t caught him?”

“Not yet.”

There was a short pause as she contemplated that. “Well, it doesn't matter. Because they didn’t leave.” 

The conviction in her voice inspired him, but he had to voice his concern. “They could have left after they attacked her.”

Shepard groaned, leaned forward to prop her elbows on her desk, and rested her jaw in her palms. “God, don’t be so pessimistic. Until we know anything else, they’re here. We just have to find them.”

“Well, since we can’t spend all our free time parading through maintenance corridors hoping to bump into them, do you have any ideas where we can start looking?”

“No,” she admitted and scrunched her nose. As much as it gained his sympathy, that agitated, pouty look wouldn’t help them figure out where Achilus Calax and Traian Bassila were at that very moment. They were on to something — but whatever it was, it would have to wait until tomorrow. They were due at Sol’s for dinner. 

🔪🔪🔪

Solana lived in the turian ward, as did Castis and Valeria. Shepard enjoyed the entire ward because she’d grown particularly fond of turians and their culture, but she especially liked Solana’s neighborhood. Whereas Castis and Valeria lived in an area that featured modest yet stylish buildings and established families, Solana’s was filled with singles and younger couples who typically worked in less traditional (in turian standards) fields, like education and diplomacy. And so, the buildings were a bit more unique, the distinctive turian style more pronounced. 

Vakarian’s choice of living conditions was another matter entirely. He lived in Zakera because it was close to work and cheap. Anything more than the barren closet that he called an apartment would be a waste of hard-earned credits, he’d told her once. Not that Shepard was in any position to judge — she lived rent-free in her Uncle’s previously vacant, luxurious apartment as he traveled the galaxy on an Alliance ship, only crashing there every few months for no more than a night or two.  

Despite her cushy setup, if it was possible, Shepard would jump at the chance to live in this neighborhood instead. She wasn’t sure what she could afford, though, or if she would even be welcome as anything more than a guest. For the residents, it was probably one thing to see a human walking past on the sidewalk beside a very large and confident turian, and another thing entirely to face that human every morning as you stepped foot outside your front door. 

So, turian architecture wasn’t a waste, in Shepard’s mind at least. Just like the turians themselves, the visual impression of their buildings was beautiful yet imposing. The designs were intricate and appealing, yet symmetric and orderly. Sleek, linear geometric shapes in the buildings, windows, doors, and everything else. They reminded her of old buildings in New York or Chicago, and sometimes she just stared at them as they strolled along, filling with awe and admiration while taking in the shapes and patterns in the columns and reliefs that decorated doorways or windows. 

While ambling along and admiring the way a deep emerald, metallic door on a building they passed glinted in the light she dreamily asked Vakarian, “Why don’t you move here? I love this neighborhood.”

“I probably will someday. If I ever start a family,” he answered simply. But Shepard was more consumed by discreetly eyeing a couple nuzzling on a bench. As she watched, they tenderly pressed their crests together. Once the contact was made a visible transformation fell over them. All light and warmth in their smiles and eyes. And the way they held each other close made Shepard’s heart melt. Touching crests was such a foreign exchange, something she didn’t really understand, but she knew it was beautiful.  

Having the good sense to stop gawking at that point, and now filled with a nagging curiosity, she turned to Vakarian. “Can I ask you something sort of personal?”

“Sure,” Vakarian answered right away.

“Well, it’s really personal,” she admitted. “I think.”

He eyed her for a second, then with a bit of hesitation said, “Okay.”

“When you fell asleep in my room, you wrapped that blanket around your head. But why didn’t you go to Livia’s if you needed the comfort of a basium?”

“We don’t do that,” he said, shoulders stiffening. 

“Oh, sorry.” She felt a sharp pang of regret. He looked so uncomfortable, she worried that she crossed a line. 

“They’re…  well, they’re a meaningful thing. It takes a lot of trust and…” he paused. There was a tinge of something in his voice. Shame, or maybe disappointment? “I don’t know how to explain it,” he finally said. “But she and I just aren’t there.” 

“You don’t have to explain,” Shepard offered quickly. “I was just curious. I don’t really know what basiums mean to turians.”

He sounded lighter and more humorous when he responded with, “Have my parents tell you, then you can experience my awkward adolescence like I had to.”

That remark eased the heavy mood. They exchanged a quick, humorous look then strolled at a comfortable pace the rest of the way in silence, simply enjoying the early evening. Families were heading out for walks and children played in small parks scattered between buildings. It was so incredibly comforting and relaxing to see them living their lives — she and Vakarian were rarely afforded the luxury of slowing down and witnessing people simply enjoying their everyday habits. It was easy to get caught up in the dark, depressing world that took up so much of their time and minds. 

A little boy caught her attention while running into his mother’s awaiting embrace with the happiest smile on his face. Gushing just as she had at the diner, she turned to Vakarian to point the endearing moment out only to see him looking down at the ground, sorrow darkening his gaze. She knew him well enough to know that he was purposefully looking away from the sight of a young boy spending a precious moment with his mother. 

She wasn’t sure if he wanted her to ask, but she did anyway. “Are you okay?” 

“Yeah,” he answered. And that was all he said. Despite his downcast body language, he seemed at ease beside her. She figured if he wanted to say more, he would. To comfort him she nudged him with her shoulder and was satisfied when a soft, contented hum came from him.   

After another short moment, she looked up at him again. “I don’t know how to act when we get there,” she admitted. “And I don’t want to accidentally upset anyone. I don’t really know how you guys handle these things.”

“Just act normal. She won’t want you to get sad, but it’s okay to ask how she’s feeling.” 

“Humans act differently. They comfort and console.”

“For turians, it’s disrespectful to dwell on it. You can acknowledge it, but don’t act too sentimental.” 

Shepard nodded and before she knew it they were just outside Solana’s door. She gave Vakarian a reassuring smile, and he answered with an appreciative one in return. 

As they entered Solana’s apartment it was Castis they saw first, standing in the living room and facing the kitchen. Like always, he was excited to see them — he perked up and seemed to fill with energy, though usually he was just as cool and collected as his son. They were similar in that way, you had to watch for the subtle cues to know what his true feelings were. Castis’s tell was the gleam in his eye and the way his shoulders widened and chest puffed out just a bit. 

“Shepard. I saw your response to the press earlier,” he said, his voice filled with his typical warmth and pride. “You handled it perfectly . I couldn't have done better myself.”

“Thanks, Castis. It’s not my favorite part of the job, but I try.” She and Vakarian began to slide out of their jackets. 

With the same subtly beaming energy, Castis turned to his son. “I was very pleased with your response too, Garrus.” When he replied with a dismissive huff, Castis added, “I was , your patience is improving. And you only looked like you wanted to punch them.”

A smug look fell over Vakarian as he took Shepard’s jacket from her and hung it up on a hook next to his own. “Well, I fooled you too, then, because I was actually imagining myself strangling them.”

Castis answered with a disapproving thrum and a tilt of his head. 

“He did great,” Shepard agreed then teased Vakarian with a light reprimanding glance for being a pill with his dad.

“Thanks, Dad,” Vakarian finally said.  

Shepard felt a surge of sympathy for Castis, looking both happy that Vakarian responded positively but disappointed by yet another awkward exchange between him and his son. She wished Vakarian could see it — hopefully someday he’d lower his walls and open his heart to his dad. 

Castis turned towards Shepard, but the beaming energy was now slightly subdued. “Shepard, did you receive the book I sent you on interrogating drell?” 

“Yeah, it’s really interesting. I have to say, though, that using their memory against them to force a confession seems immoral. Not that I’ll hesitate to use it, it just seems like an unfair advantage.”

Castis hummed in agreement, his mandibles spread ready to speak when something in the kitchen caught his attention instead. A warm, sad smile spread across his mandibles. Everything went from normal to painful and unfamiliar. When Valeria emerged from the kitchen it was like someone lit a fire -- she warmed and lightened a room merely with her presence. Shepard thought for just a second she’d get choked up seeing Castis soften at the sight of his bondmate. 

Valeria smiled wide, opened her arms, and walked over to Shepard and Vakarian. Soon, Shepard was caught in her warm embrace — which was how Valeria always greeted her. Being close to her always made Shepard wonder what she could have had if her mom was still alive. 

“Hello, Jane,” Valeria said as she tightened her hug. 

“Hey, Val. How’re you feeling?” Shepard said into Valeria’s shoulder. She wasn’t as tall as her son, but every turian was taller than Shepard.

“Very good today, thankfully. Feeling better just in time to have a wonderful dinner with my family.”

Shepard filled with a heavy mix of happiness and sadness that made her throat burn with emotion. As Valeria pulled away to take Vakarian in her arms Shepard tried to hold her emotions in. Seeing Vakarian hug his mom back longer and harder than he usually did threatened to make her crack. The memory of Vakarian holding Shepard tight the night that he found out, whispering that he didn’t want to lose his mom, was the breaking point; she had to look away for just a moment to quickly blink the burning from her eyes. 

Shepard had already shared so many moments with Vakarian’s family — so many dinners and celebrations and days off just relaxing together or going on excursions, like to a museum or to see a vid. She was so grateful they had the chance to have more moments together like this. It wasn’t the end. She’d do whatever she could to help Vakarian see that, too.  

Valaria drew back to give both Shepard and Vakarian looks. “Sol’s just finishing up.” Valeria paused and lowered her voice, a hint of conspiracy shading her expression. “She’s doing pretty well so make sure you tell her how good it is.”

Just as Shepard was about to teasingly comment that pretty well sounded less than enthusiastic about Solana’s accomplishment in the kitchen, the host emerged, standing proudly in the doorway. But before Solana got a word out, Vakarian projected his voice to brattily say, “No mom, I won’t lie to Sol and tell her dinner is good even if it isn’t.” 

Every female in the room groaned. 

Solana gave Vakarian a warning look, her mandibles flaring and snapping just once. “Not tonight, you slack-mandibled miscreant.” She wiped a hand across her crest. “I’ve been slaving away to cook this meal, and if you don’t show some respect I’ll ask you to do the dishes.”

While chuckling, Valeria swatted at Vakarian’s arm, and a self-satisfied grin broke out on his face.

“I’m sure it’s great, Sol,” Shepard said, already knowing that Solana would have made a levo version for her as well — she was always included and treated like one of them.   

Solana gave Shepard a quick, appreciative smile, then sounding both excited and nervous, announced, “Everyone, get to the table. It’s just about done.” 

Valeria wrapped one arm around Shepard’s waist, the other around Vakarian’s, then guided them towards the dining room like ducklings under her wings. “Tell me about your day,” Valeria said. “Did you do anything interesting?”

Vakarian’s voice rumbled a bit, a clear giveaway that he was going to say something he thought was incredibly amusing. “Met with an attorney to make sure I don’t go to prison.”

Fearing Valeria’s reaction, Shepard’s heart jumped,  but his mom only made a tsking sound and squeezed Vakarian tighter. She turned to Shepard. “Jane, please get control of him. His jokes are getting a bit ridiculous.” 

If only his poor mother knew. Shepard wasn’t going to be the one to tattle on him, though — especially with Spectre-despising Castis two steps behind them. 

“I’ll try my best,” Shepard said with a light laugh while trying to ignore the little smirk Vakarian gave her. She was certainly going to warmly scold him for being such a damn brat tonight.   

As soon as they reached the table Valeria released them to drift into Castis’s arms. He nuzzled her sweetly and pulled out her chair. 

They all sat down, Sol at the head, Castis and Valeria on one side, and Vakarian and Shepard on the other. Sol smiled at them all individually, then said, “Thank you for honoring me by allowing me to prepare this meal for you.” She bowed her head, each person at the table including Shepard bowed theirs in return. 

As Solana began to pass around the first dish, Valeria turned to Shepard. Her voice hummed with humor and amusement. “So, Jane, what have you been up to? Talking to attorneys as well?”

A low, snarky-sounding hum came from Vakarian. “Even better. She’s getting dates with attorneys.”

While the three members of the Vakarian family who were not intent on harassing her turned their attention to her, Shepard blurted out, “No I haven’t. He just gave me his contact information if I…” She wasn’t sure how to finish that. In case she ever needed representation in a matter involving both the Hierarchy and Council? Not very likely. 

“Oh spirits, how exciting,” said Solana, handing a dish to her father.  

“Who is this attorney?” Castis’s scrutinizing scowl focused on Shepard while he completely ignored the dish Solana held aloft for him.

“Lorik Qui’in,” Vakarian answered for her.

That knowledge only exaggerated the concerned angle of Castis’s browplates. His hands rose, fingers splayed wide on the table, making him look very much the senior detective. “Shepard,” was all he said, a deep tone of disapproval that immediately made her feel like she let him down, though she was certain he didn’t intend for her to feel that way. And it wasn’t like she did anything, for christ’s sake. After a calming breath, he took the dish awaiting his attention and warmly said, “Wouldn’t you prefer someone younger, and less entangled in disreputable Council politics?”

“Tighten your mandibles, dear,” Valeria said with just a hint of dismissal and a truckload of warm, humor-laden charm. Her hand caressed his forearm lovingly.

“Who’s Lorik Qui’in?” Solana asked. 

While spooning out servings for Valeria and himself, Castis answered, “The Council’s lead attorney and Hierarchy liaison.” 

An impressed trill came from Solana. Hearing his actual position, Shepard nearly let out an impressed trill as well — which Vakarian had to have sensed because he gave her a teasing look. 

“He didn’t seem too old,” Shepard remarked casually, hoping to allay Castis’s concern. “And he seemed really nice.” 

“He’s forty-five. How did you meet him?” Castis narrowed a look at Vakarian, his suspicion clear in the way his mandibles jittered just slightly. Perhaps he was worried Vakarian was being approached for Spectre placement again. If that topic came up this dinner would be going straight to hell. 

Shepard quickly answered for Vakarian, though she really shouldn't have covered for him considering his bratty behavior got them into this interrogation. “We were eating lunch and he ran into us. He just came by to say hello to Garrus.” That’s when Shepard remembered that her levo dish sat in front of her, so she picked it up and served herself. It’s not like she could hide behind the plate, but she absolutely wished that she could. 

While spooning chunks of sauce-covered meat over a pile of a stiff, starchy carb, she avoided Castis’s hawk-like eyes that looked between her and Vakarian for a short, tense moment. “Hm,” he finally said and picked up his skewer to pierce a piece of meat. 

“Are you going to go out with him?” Solana asked. The excited hum in her voice made Shepard feel like saying ‘no’ would greatly disappoint Solana. The truth was she didn’t know if she would, but she began to focus all her energy on figuring out how to dig herself out of this conversation. 

“Maybe,” Shepard said while taking note that Vakarian was especially quiet, pushing food around his plate before gently piercing his meat. Was he dubious about the meal, sad about his mom, or just generally worn out? The answer could be all three, honestly.  

Valeria spoke up, “Well, if you don’t, I’m sure there are other turians who would love to take you on a date. There’s no need to settle just because he showed interest. Someone who holds your heart will come along.”

Castis, Solana, and Valeria suddenly exchanged sideways looks. It made Shepard feel somewhat awkward, in the way that you feel when sitting with family and you know they all have opinions but are holding their tongues… or tightening their mandibles, if your family was turian. Maybe Lorik wasn’t very well-liked amongst the Vakarians? But if that were the case why wouldn’t her partner have given her the heads up? He had made no indication they disapproved of the guy. Shepard eyed them suspiciously, wondering what the hell they were up to. They had some secret conversation going on between them, she was sure of it. 

While she mulled all of that over everyone sat uncharacteristically quiet, though they all glanced at her as if she was supposed to say something. How had this dinner turned into an analysis of her love life?

With everyone’s eyes on her, she swallowed a mouthful of food. “My dating life can’t be the most entertaining topic, can it?” Shepard finally said, a warm flush running up her neck as she smiled and risked a peek at them all, then shoved another spoonful of food in her mouth. 

Everyone’s energy immediately picked up, save for Vakarian’s, who was fiddling around with his omni-tool. 

Completely ignoring Shepard, Solana turned to her mom. “Ohhh, isn’t he the one who tried to convince Garrus to join the Spectres?” 

“Mhm, he’s very handsome,” Valeria gushed. Castis huffed, earning him a loving but warning sideways glance from his bondmate.

So, her dating life was the most interesting topic at dinner — and there went the supposition that they didn’t like Lorik. While Castis seemed perturbed, Valeria and Solana were buzzing with excitement. Solana and Valeria turned to one another and shared smiles so wide and giddy Shepard thought they might just start giggling like teenagers. 

Shepard abruptly put her fork down when the idea that Solana and Valeria secretly gossiped about her dating life when she wasn’t around occurred to her. She gave them all hard looks, feeling slightly betrayed because she thought that they all just gossiped about Vakarian’s dating life. How naive of her. Well, it seemed like she was paying the price for participating in gossiping and joking about Vakarian’s mates because now the joke was on her — she was the topic of their gossip. None of them saw her surprise or hard looks, though; they were still wrapped up in this business with Lorik.  

“His appearance doesn’t negate the fact that he’s employed by the Council,” Castis grumbled. As if a thought just surfaced he whipped his head to give Vakarian a harsh, disbelieving look. “Garrus, you can’t seriously want your friend to date someone like that.”

Vakarian stayed focused on his dinner when he answered. “We don’t usually ask each other for approval.”

Castis sent Shepard a meaningful look. “Well perhaps you should. You both would be better off for it.” She knew immediately what he meant by that — that Vakarian would be better off if Shepard basically told him who he should be dating, which she never would, so Castis could just drop the look. She told him just as much with a look of her own.

“And you’re friends with Sparatus,” Vakarian snarkily remarked. “So stop giving Shepard shit for going on a date with Lorik.”

“We’re not going on a date,” Shepard muttered while picking her fork back up, seemingly to herself because everyone’s attention was on Vakarian and Castis.

Castis’s subvocals rumbled in mild agitation. “We were close before he chose his career. He knew how I felt about his decision.”

Valaria smiled sweetly at her bondmate and took his hand. That was love — seeing them indulging in their flaws and quirks, and adoring them anyway.  

Solana snickered. “What a nice world it would be if we all did what you wanted us to, Dad.” Her words got her a playful scowl. 

“Have you dated a turian yet, Shepard?” Solana asked.

Shepard’s eyes darted between Vakarian and Castis who were not so subtly eyeing each other and Valeria and Solana, who were both staring at her with expectant, eager eyes. A soft chuckle fell out of Shepard. If she had the chance to adopt a family, it would be the Vakarians. As long as they were here on the Citadel, she had a safe place and at least the feeling of being with family, even if they weren’t actually hers. 

Right when she opened her mouth to respond a skewer sneaked onto her plate — Vakarian poked at a piece of her meat and stole it right from under her. 

“Stop it,” she mumbled, ineffectively swiping at Vakarian’s skewer with her spoon. 

“I just want to try it,” he explained, cockily popping the stolen goods into his mouth. 

“Fine, then let me have some of yours.” Shepard’s attempt at snagging a piece of his meat was immediately thwarted by his hand, which came out of nowhere, to nudge her wrist away. The bastard chuckled. “You are terrible at sharing,” she mumbled, though she couldn’t contain the grin his antics gave her.  

Solana made a sarcastic noise. “Don’t even bother, Jane,” she drawled, her skewer hanging lazily from her hand mid-air as she looked between Shepard and Vakarian. “He’s never let anyone else have something he wants.”

His family all stopped again to exchange sideways looks — another awkward moment where they all just looked at each other dragged on. 

Enough was enough. This — the looks and the inquiries and the giggles— needed to end. She suddenly thought of the perfect thing to say to wrap this all up. “Well if we’re going to be talking about my love life, I better get this over with. Garrus thinks I should learn about turian intimacy.”

Solana nearly choked on her food, Castis’s browplate quirked up in confusion and curiosity, and Valeria stared blankly at her. Vakarian couldn’t hold in his grin while staring at his plate. 

It was Valeria who laughed first, slow and heartfelt, followed by everyone else at the table. 

“Fine, fine,” Valeria said through chuckles. “Your message is received. No more talk about dating. Although, if you’re ever serious, we’d be happy to.”

Knowing full well that Valeria and Castis would give her the talk, even with her being a fully-grown adult, she politely declined. Turians were generally quite comfortable discussing sex, even around family, and Shepard was simply not ready for that conversation with them. Thankfully, everyone at the table knew that. After that, they talked about mundane things like vids and workplace gossip. It was a lovely evening, spent with her favorite people on the Citadel. 

Chapter Text

Standing up on the tips of her toes, Shepard reached across the counter, her jacket sleeves dragging in an unsettling way through the sticky countertop as she picked up her and Vakarian’s coffees. This is why she hated the lower wards...every surface was tacky and everything smelled like greasy food. Coming down here had been her idea though. She had all weekend to come up with a plan for locating Achillus and Traian and come Monday morning the best idea she had was to check with some of their previous landlords.   

Their questioning got them nowhere — no one recognized the suspects and they couldn’t remember when seeing them last, so she and Vakarian decided to take a break by grabbing something to boost their energy. Active minds require fuel. Getting food down here was out of the question (for her at least, Vakarian was less picky), but Shepard guessed that coffee wouldn't be so bad. Coffee was coffee, right? Even if it wasn't great, she needed the caffeine.  

As soon as she turned to her partner, who she left near the skycar port, she stalled. A short, undignified giggle leaped out of her at the sight of him. Vakarian’s body casually leaned forward against the railing, his forearms resting on the top bar. She had a perfect view of him — back sensuously arched, one knee slightly bent forward, his wide hips and taut ass on full, enticing display. 

Shepard barely caught a warm, gravelly voice nearby, bubbling with amusement. “ Lessia , stop gawking.” 

Shepard turned in the direction of the voice to see a turian and an asari unabashedly staring at her partner. The woman, who had to be Lessia, giggled (a sound nearly identical to the one she just made when she first caught sight of him) which made her bristle with embarrassment but also feel somewhat vindicated. “I will if you do,” Lessia said, nudging the tall, handsome turian next to her.

Mischievous laughs lingered for only a moment longer before the two disappeared into the crowd. Shepard continued on her way as well, arguing with herself whether or not her gawking was that bad. Others were captivated by him, it wasn’t just her. So that meant it was sort of justified, right? That reasoning may have worked if she had stopped ogling him. But that was a nearly impossible task, given that Vakarian possessed an ass a woman could sink her teeth into. Maybe she should search the extranet for advice — how to stop checking out your partner at work. 

The most frustrating part was that the beautiful bastard had no idea how effortlessly sexy he was — especially at that moment, leaning forward and looking as though the weight of the galaxy pressed down on his wide, capable shoulders. That was the thing about her partner, physically he manifested unfaltering confidence. Inwardly, though, he was a jumble of self-doubt and social awkwardness. The nerd was probably contemplating gun mods or figuring specs for a computer rebuild as he gazed out towards midday traffic zipping past and weaving amongst buildings that reached higher than the eye could see. 

As she neared her partner, he turned to her slowly but didn’t adjust his stance at all. If anything, his hips cocked out even more drastically. 

She stepped up beside him and offered his coffee. “Do you pose like that on purpose hoping some horny bystander will come and tell you how irresistible you are?”

Vakarian’s browplates pinched. She might as well have erroneously accused him of stealing based on the look he was giving her. “What are you talking about?”

She smirked and gestured towards his body, as if that was evidence enough. “The brooding cast on your handsome face as you give everyone a good look at your ass.”

He immediately stood up straight. “I’m not…” Instead of finishing his sentence, his mandibles tightened as he snatched his cup from her outstretched hand.  

“Oh yes, you are.” 

To make her point perfectly clear, she leaned forward against the railing, arching her spine drastically and jutting her ass out in exaggeration. She looked over her shoulder at Vakarian with a thoughtful expression that verged on ludicrous and pouted her lips. Almost immediately, someone shouted a catcall, which she should have expected given the neighborhood. If she had seen who it was she would have given them the finger. 

“See,” she said playfully then stood up. 

“See what?” His hand landed on his chest. “No one made suggestive sounds at me. You’re the only one calling attention to the way I looked.”

Shepard nearly stuttered at his accusation. It was an accusation, right? He had just called her out for looking at him. Thankfully, she remembered that she had scapegoats in this situation. She brushed aside her paranoia and casually gestured towards the crowd. “I overheard an asari and turian ogling you on my way over. If you want to charge someone with something, they’re over that way.”

Vakarian smiled sheepishly but didn’t care to take a glance at the crowd. “Listen, Shepard, if I beat back all the people who check me out my arms would get tired.”

Shepard gave him a disbelieving look and lifted her coffee up to take a sip, but not before pausing to mutter from behind her cup, “You are such a cocky bastard.” She should have riffed off the comment about getting tired arms by telling him he must have poor stamina — that’s what he deserved — but it was probably best for this conversation to end. 

After a brief moment of silence in which they simply eyed each other, they leaned sideways against the railing and finally took the first sips of their coffee. 

As soon as the coffee hit her taste buds, a disgusted noise burst out of her mouth. As she lowered her coffee cup and reluctantly swallowed, Vakarian made a similar noise and his mandibles flicked out. Just the tip of his deep blue tongue peeked out between his lips, making her softly laugh. A grossed-out turian was a pretty adorable sight. At least, grossed out Vakarian was adorable. 

“Yours is bad too?” she asked. 

“Spirits, yes. We should have just gone back to the Presidium to get some coffee.”

“I’ve never seen you stick your tongue out because something tasted so bad.”

“Yeah, I don’t know if I can drink that.” He glanced down at the cup, his tongue reactively peeking out again.

Shepard laughed harder at the second appearance of the adorable little appendage. Unable to resist the urge, she lifted her hand up near his face, hovering just a few inches from his mouth. It’s not like she’d really grab his tongue, but the thought was tempting.  

His gaze narrowed and his nose scrunched while she inched closer. “Are you doing that body part stealing thing again?”

“No. Your funny little tongue poking out like that makes me want to pinch it.” She made a pinching gesture. Mimicking him, she stuck her own tongue out. 

Vakarian pulled his head back, as if he was afraid she would actually reach out and grab his tongue, which only encouraged her wicked desire to tease him. 

“Stop it,” Vakarian said, but instead of batting her pinching fingers away, he reached his own hand up pretending to pinch and grab her tongue in return. While chuckling, they dodged each other’s reach and bumped forearms, each pretending to grab one anothers’ tongue. After a few seconds, they both gave up.

“What is it with you and trying to take hold of my facial features?”

“I don’t know,” she said honestly with a quick one-shouldered shrug. 

“Our friendship has gotten really weird,” Vakarian drawled, sounding just as amused by their ridiculous antics as her, while he relaxed, crossing one ankle over the other. 

She grimaced comically. “Imagine what it’ll be like in ten years.”

They both made playfully horrified faces at that thought before grinning again. She considered risking another drink of her coffee but wasn’t quite desperate enough.

“What next?” Vakarian asked. “Back to the office?”

Looking down at the skycar port console a few feet away, she read their location and a thought surfaced. “Hey, the last address on their residence record is nearby, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, about a five-minute walk. You thinking of going there?” He raised his coffee to his mouth, then must have thought better of it and lowered it back down. She waited to see if his cute little tongue would peek out again, and was slightly disappointed when it didn’t. 

“Yeah. I think we should meet Achillus’s ex — Jilin Ol’in. Maybe we’ll get a read on what kind of guy he is.” 

“Sounds good.”

They dumped their coffee in an over-full trash (the keepers never seemed to keep up down there) can and headed out. Growing increasingly agitated simply by walking through the rough neighborhood, a few times Shepard rolled her shoulders, flexed her hands, and wiggled her fingers. By the fifth time, Vakarian turned to her. “Are you getting ready for a rumble or something?”

“I get nervous down here. It reminds me of this terrible neighborhood in San Francisco that I always got called to when I first joined Homicide. A detective I was close to got stabbed there and I’ve been anxious about places like that ever since. It wasn’t even a suspect that stabbed him, just a junkie who started tripping and thought the officer was the devil.”

“Did the detective die?”

“No, just got a scar he bragged about at parties.”

Vakarian answered with a simple hum. 

As they made their way down the neighborhood corridors in the direction of the apartment the most satisfied grin she’d ever seen plastered on his face. Whatever thought that bounced around that head of his tickled him so thoroughly that his mandibles fluttered. 

With a suspicious side-eye, she asked, “What?”

“You called me handsome,” he gloated. 

She shook her head and refused to look him in the eye. “You are so egotistical. Like you really need one more person in this galaxy calling you handsome.”

Her hands felt hot and tingly all of the sudden. To indulge her urge to fidget, she rubbed her fingertips against her palms and was immediately repulsed at the way they dragged against her tacky skin. Disgusted, she wiped her hands on her blazer, though carefully avoided her crisp white shirt. 

Vakarian scoffed. “Considering how gross your hands are, I’m offended you tried to grab my tongue.”

She rolled her eyes. “Next time I try to grab your tongue, I promise I’ll wash my hands first.”

“Thank you. That's all I'm asking for, a little consideration.”

“Our friendship has gotten really weird,” she muttered. Despite their surroundings and the fact that they were on their way to ask a woman about her probably murderous ex-mate, she embraced the humor bubbling around in her chest. God , he could make her smile during a hurricane. 

He nudged her with his elbow while keeping his eyes on the path ahead. “Yeah. I like it, though.”

🔪🔪🔪

Vakarian knew better than to say anything when she was already agitated, but Shepard’s apprehension about their location wasn’t entirely unfounded. In general, the lower wards were pits of poorly circulated air thick with the smells of grease, piss, and the body odor of at least six different species. Where cheap coffee was peddled to people desperate for a caffeine kick to get them through their shitty day. Everything tasted like dirty water and regret to them, so it didn’t really matter to them that their coffee was fucking horrible. 

This particular pit was also filled with the dregs of society. None of the lower wards were pleasant, but Jilin O’lin’s neighborhood contained a lot of criminals and people poor enough to make criminality look like a nice option. Not that the upper wards weren’t, but those people had the nerve to act like they gave a fuck about social norms. The people down in the lower wards didn’t have that luxury. A politician on the Presidium feigned respect for the law. Down in the lower wards, a badge got you sneers at best, or in a hostile situation if the officer couldn’t handle the pressure. Plenty rookies lost their cool down there and either got hurt or did something stupid enough to lose their badge. 

Which is why they tucked their badges away as soon as they stepped foot in the residential neighborhood. Keeping them out of sight only accomplished so much, though. Their determined, confident strides at each other’s side made it impossible for them to blend into civilian environments. Even at C-Sec headquarters, they stood out from their peers. Hopefully, residents saw their uptight business attire and assumed they were upper-class criminals.  

When they rounded a corner near her building and a krogan nearly bulldozed them, he, in perfect krogan form, looked back over his shoulder to give them a glare. Vakarian and Shepard glared right back, and the krogan huffed but kept going, though he smashed his fist into a bug scuttling along the wall to make some kind of point. 

Shepard’s eyes connected with his, her nose scrunching in disgust. 

He leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “How sticky do you think his hands are?” he asked, anticipating her laughter. His own soft chuckles joined in once he heard hers.  

Their journey eventually led them down a long corridor that ended at an open space, two apartments to the right, one to the left, with Jilin’s straight ahead. Their footsteps echoed off the walls. It was a fifteen-square-foot dead end — a tactically shitty position, but also ironic. Just like the victims, he and Shepard had been led to an enclosed space with no way out.  

When he and Shepard stepped up to the apartment door, he couldn’t help but place his hand to his waist where his pistol sat in its holster. He reflexively touched his talon to the grip, it was a tic – he just wanted to make sure it was there and ready. He anticipated the look Shepard would give him, because he always did it when they knocked on doors, and it always made her anxious. She rang the doorbell as she shot him a dirty look. Checking his gun during door-to-doors was a jinx, she’d told him long ago. He certainly wasn’t going to risk their safety to avoid ridiculous superstition, though. 

They waited a few seconds. Nothing happened. No response. They both impatiently huffed before she reached up and rang it again.

Seconds ticked by. Again, no answer. A baby screaming in a nearby apartment, drell by the sound of it, added to his irritation.  

Vakarian raised his omni-tool to scan the door. Three heat signatures inside. He turned his wrist,  allowing Shepard to see.

Words were unnecessary for them at that point in their career. All they had to do was share a look and they were on the same page. Jilin was most likely inside with two others — hopefully just friends, but the possibility that they’d just stumbled on their suspects couldn’t be ignored.  

Shepard, her brows now pinched, raised her hand up again and rang the doorbell a third time. 

A neighbor walked past and nervously eyed them. Vakarian gestured to her with a nod of his head to get inside her apartment. She obeyed by quickly opening her door, sliding inside and disappearing within. 

The third knock must have done the trick — or given whoever was inside enough time to plan something. The door slid open, but only enough for a female turian to peek through. Vakarian recognized her from the residency record — Jilin.  

“Yes?” Her too-soft voice rasped.  

The first thing Vakarian noticed was the swollen eye. The second was the crack in her left mandible that seeped a trickle of bright-blue blood. 

“Hello, Jilin?” Vakarian said. 

She nodded and tilted her injured mandible ever so slightly away from them.

He gave her a reassuring smile. “I’m Detective Vakarian.”

Shepard chimed in, her voice warm and reassuring. “And I’m Detective Shepard. Do you have a moment to speak with us?”

She shook her head. Too quickly. She was in distress and wasn’t hiding it as well, as she had probably been instructed to do. Achillus and Traian had to be inside, the second and third heat signatures.

Shepard spoke up. He could sense her tensing, but her voice remained steady. “We’re just canvassing the area looking for someone who stole some food from the market around the corner.”  

“I’m sorry, I can’t help with that,” Jilin replied. Her mandibles jittered, the cracked one less so. Bastard had probably done some internal damage. 

That’s when Jilin locked her fear-stricken eyes with Shepard first, then Vakarian, and she shifted just slightly to the side. Someone was crouched in the kitchen behind a countertop, a poorly hidden arm sticking out while holding a gun pointed at her. Shepard took a quick breath. Vakarian placed his hand on his hipspur, within drawing distance. The inept soldiers didn’t even notice she had exposed them.

Jilin wisely shifted again to block the door completely, giving he and Shepard the chance to prepare themselves without alerting Achillus and Traian. 

Vakarian glanced at Shepard. They shared a knowing nod. When they turned back to Jilin they were ready for whatever was about to happen. Slowly, they reached for their pistols at the same time. Without a worry in his mind, his blood beat a steady thrum. 

“Alright, Jilin, we appreciate your help. Sorry to have interrupted your day,” Vakarian said calmly. He motioned for Shepard to step aside. 

“No trouble,” Jilin answered. Instead of moving back into the apartment, she suddenly surged forward and dove to her right, straight past Shepard and out of the way. As she did, Shepard and Vakarian hurried to position themselves on each side of the door —  just in time to miss a few shots that sought out Jilin as she made her escape.

Jilin was out of the apartment in a flash. She didn’t stop, though, her long legs swiftly carrying her down the corridor then out of sight. Her instinct to get the fuck out of there was sobering. Vakarian’s heart thumped only slightly quicker. He gave Shepard a glance. She looked fine, confident even. In the three years they’d worked together they’d only been in a few standoffs, but all had ended well for them. Ten years in special ops gave him nerves of steel, and Shepard was the most combat-capable non-soldier he’d ever worked beside. 

Vakarian focused on the suspects while Shepard called out on her omni-tool. “Detective Shepard to Dispatch, we have two armed suspects barricaded in an apartment. Requesting backup. Coordinates going out.”

The droning voice of a disinterested dispatcher answered, ensuring backup was en route. A resolving breath fell out of Shepard as she set her shoulders, all while Vakarian’s thoughts were occupied by whether these fools were leaving that apartment via surrender or smoke bomb. He leaned towards the smoke bomb. 

“Achillus. Traian,” Shepard’s calm, stern voice called out. “This will be a lot safer for you if you put your weapons down, your hands up, and come with us to headquarters. We just want to ask a few questions. There’s no reason to escalate this.” 

Vakarian spotted movement inside, caught the gleam of a gun barrel as it lowered and pointed in their direction. 

Before they could get their shot off Vakarian fired first. Close, but no intention of a direct hit. 

“Fuck,” a voice shouted. Something crashed. Vakarian almost chuckled at their ineptitude. 

“Shots fired,” Shepard relayed to Dispatch. 

The second voice whispered loud enough to be heard. “Where the fuck is Driz? What are we paying him for?”

“He just left. Maybe he’ll come back soon. We can hold them off.” The krogan they passed had to be Driz. Thank the stars he left when he did, because they’d be in trouble with him still around. 

“My partner is a good shot,” Shepard warned. “Retired Hierarchy special ops—” 

“Fuck you, human bitch,” one guy spat. 

Vakarian almost delivered an insult back at the guy, but held his mandibles because insults would only make her job more difficult. 

“Listen. Call me names if you want, but the only way you’re getting out of here unharmed is if you put your weapons down and hands up. I’m sure you’d rather this ended with you sitting in a comfy chair over at headquarters with a cup of coffee instead of lying in a hospital bed tonight. You just have to come with us and answer a few questions.”

Silence.

“I don’t want to fucking do this,” the one behind the kitchen counter said. Vakarian saw a glimpse of his colony markings, yellow dots down his nose -- that was Traian 

“If we take em out we’re fucking free,” the other, Achillus, answered. “You take the human and I’ll get the turian.”

“Well, at least they’re telling us their plan,” Vakarian drawled.  

Shepard flashed him a relaxed smile. 

“Achillus is at 2 o’clock. Traian at 10.” 

Shepard acknowledged that with a quick nod, then called out calmly, “Traian, listen to me. Achillus is going to get you hurt. Put your gun down and come out, and we’ll make sure this is all over quickly and without pain.”

Another moment of silence. Hopefully the guy was considering his options and was smarter than his suicidal friend. 

Shepard persisted. “Got a nice comfy chair and a cup of coffee waiting for you at headquarters.”

“Fuck this,” Traian finally said, then put his gun down. Raising his hands as he stood, he began walking towards the front door. “I just want to get the fuck out of this.”

It deescalated rather quickly and efficiently. Achillus didn’t try to shoot the surrendering Traian — could have been out of some sort of loyalty, but Vakarian guessed Achillus was at least smart enough to know he was a dead man if he tried. Within seconds, Shepard had Traian in omni-cuffs at the wrists and ankles kneeling outside the apartment to their left. 

So there it was, Shepard had talked the first down. Now, for the second. Looking even more focused and confident, she resumed her position by the door with her gun raised. 

Vakarian caught swift movement inside as Achillus dove behind the kitchen counter. The tip of his fringe gave away his path as he fled deeper within the apartment. Didn’t matter, because backup was on their way with enough smoke bombs and overload charges to take down an entire neighborhood. 

“Headquarters, suspect Traian Basilla apprehended,” Vakarian called out to Dispatch. “Send a unit for transport to headquarters for processing.”  

“Processing?” Traian spat out, subvocals firing off hisses and growls. “You didn’t fucking say you were charging us with anything.” 

Vakarian cracked a smile when Shepard scoffed and said, “ You shot at us .”

Traian struggled against his restraints, arms and legs jerking with pointless effort. “You fucking lying whore! You barefaced bitch!”

Vakarian turned to make fun of the idiot when a loud, terrible roar ripped through his chest and turned his muscles to steel. He didn’t even have to look; it was a sound well known to him, one that made him groan and ready his body for a fight that was going to leave him battered and exhausted. Hopefully not dead. Please, no biotics .

One loud thump shook the metal floor beneath them, followed by a second and third — the long corridor was the perfect damned path for a charging krogan. Just as Vakarian turned towards the sound, arms strong enough to crack his carapace wrapped around him. Vakarian’s feet left the ground. The simple impact of the krogan’s body slamming into his knocked the air from his lungs and before he could catch a breath his back smashed into the metal wall behind him.

Instinct born from intensive training kicked in. His legs scrambled for leverage while he thanked the stars it was him and not Shepard. She had to hold off Achillus. And Vakarian… fuck, what options did he have? No armor. Their piece of shit standard issue pistols wouldn't make a dent in krogan hide. 

“Let them go!” the krogan roared, hot, sour breath making Vakarian wish he still couldn’t inhale. Unfortunately for his stomach, his lungs were strong.  

“Put him down, Driz,” Shepard demanded. “ You can just walk away from this.”

Driz’s eyes bulged with flashes of anger, nostrils flaring, his agitated breaths almost as loud as his snarls. The strong, young krogan had Vakarian pinned against the wall, holding him up, and crushing him so terribly that he could feel his carapace failing against the pressure. Pain spiked through his chest and back. 

But he had just enough time to position his legs against the krogan’s stomach, pedi-talons precariously digging into an armor fold. Fucking slick-soled dress boots didn’t make his job easy. Still, it bought him some space and held the krogan back. He’d be a pile of pulverized meat already if he hadn’t. Krogan arms were strong. Turian legs were just as strong, though, if used effectively. 

Locking his legs on Driz only bought him some time, though. One of them would get tired and slip, and that would probably be Vakarian, not the five hundred pound krogan surging with rage. 

He caught sight of Shepard, still in position to the left of the door holding off Achillus. Her silver tongue and quick mind were their only hope. She would get them out of this — she’d gotten them out of much worse. 

“Put him down,” Shepard shouted, her voice strained with uncharacteristic fear. Fuck . The krogan’s massive body blocked most of their surroundings out of Vakarian’s view, but he saw Shepard’s gaze was focused on them and not the apartment. Vakarian tried to make eye contact with her to reassure her, but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. 

“Stay on Achillus,” Vakarian told her. 

“Drop him now or I’ll fire!” Her voice was shrill and her pistol primed. Even though she kept it aimed at the apartment he had no doubt she was ready to shoot Driz. Vakarian almost shouted out for her to stop. If she shot at the krogan he’d drop Vakarian, and turn directly to her. And then they’d have Achillus out here as well. She knew that. She had to. 

“You dumb fucking bastard,” Vakarian provoked Driz. Pain spiked across his entire carapace, lungs burned. “Are they paying you enough to go to prison for killing an officer?”

Driz growled, saliva dripping from his smiling lips. His eyes narrowed as his face inched closer to Vakarian’s. “I’ll kill a turian for free. The human I’ll get paid for.” The menacing threat made Vakarian’s heart thump, his train of thought derailed. His eyes drifted to Shepard. His heart thumped again when he saw her hand tense too tightly on her pistol.  

With a bone-cracking force, the krogan drove him harder against the wall. Every plate on his body was about to crack. Good. Stay on me. Driz roared again, sour breath now making Vakarian lightheaded. Or maybe that was the loss of oxygen. Vakarian wheezed, strained lungs gasping for air. 

His strength began to fail. Fatigued legs shaking. His foot slipped just slightly. Fucking dress boots were going to get him crushed to death. 

Driz shoved his fist in Vakarian’s soft stomach, and he was unable to hold back a pathetic groan. Krogan punches fucking hurt. He looked at Shepard, terrified that the noise caused her nerves to spike.

“Now!” Shepard’s scream was commanding but the desperation in her voice made him ache to reassure her.  

No, this isn’t how things were going to go. Shepard was not going to get hurt trying to save him from a dumb fucking krogan. How long until Achillus realized they were out here wrestling with Driz and he took advantage of the distraction?

Driz’s fist drove into his stomach again and it was all Vakarian could do to hold in the pain. “Drop me, asshole. Backup is on the way. Assault charges are better than murder.”

Driz’s grasp only tightened as he growled in frustration. Vakarian’s hope that he would actually be the one to talk someone down was dashed when a shot rang across the corridor. The krogan screamed, not in pain but anger. Shepard shifted her aim from Driz to the apartment. There was absolute fear in her eyes, a look he’d never seen before. 

Vakarian struggled to take filling breaths. His legs tingled, numbness lurking just around the corner. His arms were locked with the krogan’s and useless. “I’ve got th—” he tried to tell Shepard, but his words turned to a wheeze as the krogan dug in and pushed. The edges of his vision blurred, the pressure becoming insufferable. 

Driz shifted his arm, relieving some of the pressure, Vakarian guessed to reach for a gun, so he thrashed around to deny him the chance. With his legs braced against the krogan, Vakarian had enough room between their bodies to glance down and check for weapons. A knife on one hip, pistol on the other. It was the gun Driz had tried for. If things didn’t turn around real quick Vakarian would have to go for the knife. 

Shepard fired another useless shot. They were fucked unless Driz decided to back down. 

In an instant, Shepard left her position, flying at them to add her body to the struggle by scaling the krogan’s back. She dug her fists into his eyes. Driz’s head rolled back. He screamed so loud shots of pain pierced Vakarian’s ear. His grip on Vakarian failed, who slid down the wall but gained his footing. 

Vakarian grabbed the knife. Driz, with Shepard still on his back, grabbed his pistol. 

Driz thrashed until Shepard lost her hold and fell to her feet, stumbling back several steps. He and Shepard both aimed their pistols at each other. 

No. 

Vakarian kicked the pistol out of Driz’s hand, the clanging of metal against metal giving him the faint idea that it wound up somewhere down the corridor. 

Knife in hand, Vakarian leaped on the krogan’s back, wrapped one arm around its throat, and plunged the knife five inches upwards from the left eyeball. It sank in the skull plate seam with ease, filling Vakarian with a dash of hope. Vakarian shifted his hand, switching his grip, and with all the strength he had, pivoted his wrist to pry the knife upwards. 

Driz flopped backward, smashing Vakarian between his body and the wall. Vakarian lost his grip and fell to his feet. He hooked his arms in Driz’s, drove his knee into his back, and locked Driz’s arms behind his back. Holding him like this and getting back on him to pop his plate was going to be fucking tricky. 

Driz’s foot stamped down on Vakarian’s. Vakarian grunted in pain and his grip slipped. 

Shepard leaped on Driz, wrapping her arm around his neck and hauling herself up. It took a lot of forearm strength Vakarian wasn’t sure she had, but the grotesque pop that sounded only a breath after Shepard yanked the knife down was sickening and thrilling. She’d executed it perfectly, of course. Thank the spirits Kryik had trained her in the technique. 

Driz groaned and just before he began to crumble Vakarian released his arms and stepped back. The krogan fell to the ground with a thundering thud, reverberations traveling across the ground and up Vakarian’s shaking legs, his muscles burning.  

The dead krogan’s blank eyes stared up at nothing. Blood oozed from his skull, his cranial plate was perfectly severed, the blade still wedged into his brain. The stupid fucker should have kept his knife out of Vakarian’s reach instead of going for his pistol. Vakarian stood over the dead body, smug, and relieved that it was over. Another dead, stupid krogan. If he were a better man he might have felt a little sympathy for the exploited young krogan. As it was, it was all he could do to keep his anger in check enough to refrain from kicking the dead body out of spite.  

This wasn’t over, though. A quick glance told him Traian was still restrained, kneeling, and looking pissed. 

Vakarian drew his pistol and joined Shepard with her gun raised at the apartment door just in time to see Achillus rushing towards them, gun pointed at them and primed. Vakarian should have shot him. S pirits why didn’t he shoot him then. A thousand sharp glances and pedantic lectures from both Shepard and his dad taught him better, though. Restrain. Shoot only if necessary.

A mere heartbeat after a shot fired, Vakarian had Achillus’s pistol knocked out his hand, restrained him, and omni-cuffs wrapped around his wrists in record time. It was quick, painless, and he didn’t have to fire a single slug. Vakarian wrapped the omni-cuffs on Achillus’s ankles and with a soft hiss they clicked in tight. It was over. It was over. They’d restrained both suspects and fought off a damned krogan and it was over. Damn , they were good. 

He lifted himself up, his battered body buzzed with proud energy as he smirked down at the snarling idiot.  

“Fuck,” Shepard’s soft voice shook, pulling his attention. He lifted his head to look at her. A soft keen escaped him the instant his eyes landed on his partner. 

There were few moments in Vakarian’s life that had rendered him so terrified that he was completely, pathetically useless. Each of those were moments when something that he desperately needed to remain happy and sane — something that defined who he was and kept him grounded — was ripped out of his grasp. One of the earliest was realizing he wouldn’t be going to art school at the age of fourteen. The most recent was finding out his mother would die a horribly painful death in as few as ten years. That was just a week ago, which is why seeing his partner standing a mere ten feet from him and just out of his reach, her hand pressed to her side where deep crimson blood spread across her abdomen, was so incredibly, unfairly, terrifying. He simply stared for longer than a man experienced in war and injury should have.

It was her second ‘fuck’ along with a simple, quiet cry that finally brought him back to his senses. Shepard —Jane, his Jane — stood just as immobile and out of her senses as him. She needed him.  

He couldn't lose her, not like this. 



Chapter Text

Vakarian had never been so hopelessly incapable of action during such a dire situation at any point in his life. His heart pounded, mind telling him move — go to her, reach out to her, do something —but his body refused. 

Shepard’s hands pressed to the wound in her abdomen. Deep crimson blood steadily streamed between her fingers and spread across her white shirt. When she lifted her head to look at him, she swayed unsteadily. It seemed like she struggled to keep her focus on him. That was enough — that little pleading look in those trusting green eyes — to knock some sense back into him. With a focused mind and swift feet, he rushed across the short distance separating them.

“Hey,” he wrapped his hands around her shoulders to steady her, “sit down so you don’t fall and knock yourself out.”

With her hands still pressed to the wound, she went down to her knees right there — quick but steady — like a frightened kid following an adult’s orders. Seeing her so uncharacteristically compliant made his heart hurt. 

He went to his knees as well, kneeling in front of her and holding her steady with a solid grasp on her shoulders. “Dispatch, Detective Vakarian,” he called out. “We need CEMS now. Detective Shepard is down. Gunshot to left abdomen.”

“Fuck,” she said again. Her breaths grew frantic, rising and falling. Chest heaving. Desperate eyes searched his. She tilted sideways, her body weight pressing against his hold. If he didn’t get her resting against something she’d hit the ground like a slab of metal. 

Without letting her go, he shifted, sitting down on the grime-coated ground so that his back rested against the apartment complex wall. Leaning back and spreading his legs he said to her, “Come here, sit with me,” while guiding her closer. She leaned into him, her back pressed to his chest. Her head fell forward, fiery hair cascading down to conceal her face. Once she was settled against him he finally felt a little more at ease, allowing him to forget his grief and shock to focus on her. He tore off his already ripped jacket sleeve, sliding it under her hands and pressing it to the wound. Her easy compliance ended there, though, because she stubbornly fought him with batting hands to hold the fabric in place herself. Which was a first for him — who the hell refused to let someone else keep pressure on their wound? His partner, that’s who. The kicker was, just before her hands shoved at his, he knew deep down she was going to do it.

“I’ve got you,” he told her, placing his hand over hers for added pressure against the wound. Thankfully, she didn’t protest that. “You’ll be fine. CEMS will be here soon with some medi-gel. Then we’ll get you to the hospital. The worst thing that’s going to happen to you today will be your liquid dinner at Huerta.”

“Is this how I die? Saving your ass from a charging krogan." Her chest rose and fell quicker than he would have liked, but honestly, the gunshot was in an ideal location. It was ok. She’d be ok.  

“You’re not fucking dying on me, just get that out of your head.” She’d be out of the hospital by tomorrow. All pain and tightness from the surgery would be gone in a week or two. She’d be fine. 

“You won’t be stuck with the dumb human partner anymore,” she said, trying to joke, but her voice was so strained that he’d rather take six more punches from that damned krogan, endure a cracked carapace — or, hell, a gunshot himself — than hear the pain and fear lurking just under the depths of that comment. 

“You know I like my dumb human. And if you die I’ll have to partner up with Kryik. I’d keep you around just to prevent that.” 

Her chin lifted and she leaned her head back against his chest. Sweat beaded across her face, matting wisps of hair against her forehead. He imagined her blowing them off with a soft puff of air past her lips while holding back walls that would otherwise crush others. That’s who Shepard was, and this… this couldn’t be happening, not to her.  

Pieces of her hair fell in her eyes. Careful not to scrape her delicate skin with his talons, he reached to brush his hand over the wisps, guiding them off her face but paused. “Damn. Hair is soft.” He couldn't resist the urge to brush his hand over the top of her head, just to experience the sensation again, letting her hair tickle the smooth skin of his appreciative palm and fingers. Not only did he do it once, but he did it a second time, gently traveling across the curve of her head. Silky hair, tender skin, and fragile bone rested beneath his hand. How could she be so small and soft?

She looked up at him with a look so pitiful it made his heart catch. “I’m bleeding out and you’re petting me?”

Shaking the reverence away and returning his focus to her, he forced a soft laugh. “You’re not dying. CEMS will be here soon.” 

Maybe he enjoyed touching her hair at that moment because focusing on something so beautiful allowed him to ignore the tremors traveling through her whole body as she leaned against him. Whatever the reason, he used his fingertips to brush her hair back again, getting the last strands of silk off her forehead. “I’ve never felt hair before,” he admitted. 

He lifted his hand, but before he withdrew it completely she leaned forward and pressed her forehead to it. He paused. Touching one’s crest, or allowing them to touch yours, was one of the most intimate forms of physical affection for turians; whether it was crest to crest, mandible to crest, or hand to crest, all contact was equally intimate. For a human, though, it was probably just comforting, so he swallowed his initial discomfort, held his hand up, and allowed her to rest her forehead in his palm. Her cheek grazed his cupped fingers. When she took a steadying breath he swore the tremors subsided, even just a little. 

“Hey, you’re gonna be all right,” he murmured.

She nodded, her forehead brushing from side to side against his palm. Sitting as they were, her head only reached his keel. Spirits, she was so small. And yet she was strong enough to sever a krogan’s skull plate.  

“Humans are weak,” Achillus rasped, interrupting their quiet and calm. Vakarian instantly glared the suspect down, anger building so rapidly that his pulse pounded. 

It all washed away, though, when Shepard rested her head back against his keel, giving him the intense desire to cradle it against him. He took a relaxing breath; she followed with one of her own. She was safe within his arms and nothing the suspect said could hurt her.

“Do you know how many I saw bleed out on the battlefield? Pathetic little sacks of flesh.”

“Stop talking.” Vakarian’s words were steady and cold. He didn’t take his eyes off Shepard. 

“She’s going to die.”

Vakarian took a second deep breath. A moment after, her tremors returned to full strength and her eyes closed. She couldn’t. The shot wasn’t that bad. But her blood escaped past her hand and over his. And she was so incredibly small in his arms.  

Achillus’s wild laugh was so grating it bit into the back of Vakarian’s neck. Despite being fully restrained he tried in vain to rise, one single leg struggling against the ankle restraint. “Better say goodbye now. They’ll ship her back to Earth in a bag.” 

Vakarian’s anger instantly spiked, thrumming rage beat through his veins as he glared at the smug suspect who was still on his knees, leering at Shepard with a delighted, sick grin on his face. The fucker just shot Vakarian’s partner. He was the cause of her pain and Vakarian’s fear.   

It was stupid, just like most moves Vakarian made when he was scared — with a steady hand he reached for his pistol at his side. In one swift move, he un-holstered it, clicked the safety, aimed, and pulled the trigger. Just as he felt it release and the slug expel, he heard Shepard mumble not to do it. It was too late, though. 

The quick pop of the heat sink instantly satisfied him. What was infinitely more satisfying, though, was the sight of Achillus flinging to the ground, his face twisted and mandibles flared in sheer terror. He fell silent, though. A tendril of smoke rose from the hole in the prefab siding where Vakarian’s slug had landed, just six inches to the right of where the guy’s skull had been only seconds earlier. Perfect shot, as always. 

“Another word and I’ll empty this heat sink through your crests.” Vakarian’s gaze flicked from Achilus to Traian. “Both of you.”

Achillus flinched. Traian looked at Vakarian, terrified, and then dropped his head, muttering some appeal to the spirits. 

If they thought he’d refuse to shoot them out of honor, or job preservation, they were sorely mistaken. The little human in his arms was the only reason he cared at all about being a good cop and following the rules. Without her...well, enough darkness had descended on his life lately. Best not to allow that uncomfortable thought to sink in.

Shepard closed her eyes, winced, and muttered, “Fucking Christ.”  

While holstering his pistol Vakarian looked down at her with cool assuredness and shrugged, “Hey, he shut up.”

That cool assuredness faltered when he felt his shirt grow wet against his stomach — blood spilling from her body and coating his. This was his worst fucking nightmare. 

Even though she complained about it, touching her hair calmed her before, so he ran his hand over her head again, trying to ignore the crimson streak he left at her temple. Eventually, she nestled back against him, her soft body easing into his hold. She’d be fine. 

“If I die…”

“You’re not dying,” he told her, his voice wavering between humor and comfort.

“Will you take care of Rocket?”

“Sure.”

“He loves you.” Her eyes fell to the wound. Not a great decision, considering her bleak state of mind. She lifted her hand to take a peek — an understandable, morbid curiosity. Also not a great decision.  

“He’s pretty cute, I have to admit,” Vakarian said while gently lifting her hand to slide his own under, applying pressure to the wound himself. If she passed out on him he might just panic. Thankfully, this time she didn’t protest having his hand over the wound instead of her own. He pressed down with firm, consistent force. 

“Does medi-gel take away the pain?” 

He kept a watchful eye on her wound and tried to ignore how small she sounded. “Some.” His hand was soon coated in her red blood, trickling down his fingers and over his knuckles. 

The tiniest whine dragged out of Shepard at his answer. 

“But you'll feel better, promise,” he added. 

She breathed in quickly, but it was a shallow breath, alarming him slightly. She shouldn’t be breathing this quickly or whining this much. “God, I don’t wanna die in space,” she whispered.

“What does it matter where you die?” he asked, honestly curious to hear the difference while glancing down at the wound to make sure the expected amount of blood, and no more, was escaping past the pressure he applied with his hand. It looked good, the bleeding was slowing.

“I’m so fucking far away from my family.” Her hands shook, the adrenaline would be coursing through her system now. Still, everything was acceptable. She was doing great. 

“Want me to call your Gran and Papa so you can talk to them?”

He heard the thump of her heart spike. “Fuck no. Jesus Christ, Vakarian, you want Papa to die of a damn heart attack?” Her head tilted backward and eyes shot to his, the worry on her face filling him with regret. She winced. “Did you ask because you think I’m dying?”

“No, you’re not dying,” he said. “Sorry, turians would want to talk to a family member, just to check in and get some comfort.”

“They’d…” she took a shallow breath, “worry. It wouldn’t make them feel better.”

“To comfort you , not them. I can call your Uncle David, then?”

She shook her head, her eyelids blinking slowly.

Accepting that her refusal was some sort of cultural difference, he nodded and wrapped his arms around her, trying to keep the cold from setting in. The ice that licked at your body after sustaining a gunshot was worse than the pain — in his opinion, at least. He probably shouldn’t have asked her why it mattered where she died, though. Leave it to him to say the wrong thing at the worst time. 

“I hate this.”

“I know, but I’ll take care of you. I'll always be by your side, no matter what.”

Even though she looked pitiful, she smiled. Warm and bright.

“Thanks for saving my life,” he whispered against her ear, taking a slow, calming breath. Her hair smelled fresh, a welcome relief from the stench of dead krogan and ground that hadn’t been cleaned in probably years. “You’re so damned strong, Jane.”

“I think I broke...my arm.” Her head slid further down his keel, her eyes threatening to shutter closed. 

He nudged her a bit with his chest. “Hey, stay awake.”

Disregarding him completely, she closed her eyes. She was always an obstinate little ball of fire that made him fret like an over-concerned mother. He didn’t resent her for it, though — quite the opposite; it felt like a privilege to be in her orbit. 

A brilliant idea popped up — something she had done to make him feel better, so he was certain it would brighten her spirits. He softly pinched her nose, stuck his thumb between his two fingers, and proudly displayed his hand to her. “Look. I removed your nose from your face.”

She peeked through barely open eyelids to look at his hand before her eyes snapped shut with disappointment. “Not the time, Garrus.”

Another failed attempt at making her feel better. He refused to give up, though. There had to be something that would make her feel better and distract her from her morbid thoughts. 

“Let's call my mom,” Vakarian said in an upbeat tone. 

“Don’t you…” she paused to take a slow breath, “dare,” she said through clenched teeth.

She wasn’t the only one who could disregard orders. He quickly dialed his mom on his omni-tool then rested his arm across Shepard’s chest so that they would show up on the screen together. His mom answered with the same smile that had soothed all his worries since he was small enough to rest in her cowl. “Hello, my wonderful son. What a surprise! You don’t usually call me in the middle of the workday.”

“Hey, Mom.” 

Her eyes took a moment to focus on what had to be quite the sight — her son sitting against a wall, his partner’s head resting against his chest as she breathed slowly, her forehead flecked with sweat. “Spirits, what’s going on?” 

“Shep got shot.”

“Is CEMS on the way?” his mom asked, her warm voice comforting him and probably Shepard too. 

“Yeah, we’re just sitting here, got a little bored. Thought we’d call my mom.” He paused, waiting for his mother to realize why he called her — Shepard needed to talk to family, so his would have to do. 

Understanding almost instantly why he called her, his mom looked at Shepard directly. “Jane, how are you? Are you feeling ok?”

“Fuck no.” A sad whimper puffed past her lips. 

“Have you been shot before?”

“No.” She whined again, wincing and writhing. Her legs wiggled around, hips and thighs rubbing and pressing against his legs so hard he feared she’d give herself bruises. “It fucking hurts.”

Vakarian pulled her in closer against his chest, tucking his arm around her shoulders to hold her securely. “Hey, sit still,” he said.

“Where is the wound?”

“Outside, lower rib area,” Vakarian answered. “She’ll be fine, nothing too bad.” 

While Vakarian tried to get Shepard to stop squirming around like an antsy child, his mom watched. There was a strained, almost fake look on her face as if she were trying to hide her concerns. She had to be wondering why Shepard wiggled around and whined so much. He looked at his mom as if to say ‘ Can you believe this funny little human ?’

“Hey hey, don’t worry Jane,” his mom said, “they’ll be there soon. And medi-gel will take the pain away like that.” She clicked her talons together to make a clacking sound. He loved when his mom did that -- he always got flashbacks of climbing on the counter to get in the junk food cabinet. She’d come around the corner clicking her talons and shooing him away with a smile and a tsk in her subvocals.

 “Well did you get the suspect?” his mom asked. 

“Yeah, got both of them actually. She saved my life, though, Mom. Jumped on a damn krogan, pried his skull plate off.”

Her hands flew to her shocked and appreciative face, veiling her jittering mandibles. “ Oh, Jane, you beautiful little spirit. They’ll give you a commendation.”

“Mm,” Shepard hummed with her eyes closed, the slight vibration warmed his chest. “Most Stupid Cop,” she mumbled. 

“Nah, Best Partner, for sure,” Vakarian said. 

“Why are you arguing with a dying woman?” Shepard said. 

His mother tsked. “Listen zucca, you’re not dying. You’ll be fine.”

His dad walked by in the background, only glancing at what his mom was looking at briefly before stopping to get a second look. His browplates pinched, curious, but not concerned. “What’s going on?” 

Vakarian’s chest tightened at the sight of his dad, a response he was used to after almost thirty years of knowing he was a disappointment. During his long career at C-Sec, Castis Vakarian never allowed a partner to get hurt, and he’d never been injured either. In stark contrast to that record, Castis’s son sat before him, cradling the partner he should have protected. Only three years into their partnership, too. 

“Hey Dad,” Vakarian said, tucking those thoughts into the deepest recesses of his mind. “Shep got shot.”

“CEMS on their way?” his dad asked.

“Yeah,” Vakarian answered.  

He took a sip from the coffee cup in his hand and turned his gaze to Vakarian’s suddenly quiet partner. “Hey, Shepard.”

“Hey Castis,” she replied. Finally, she was sitting still. The whimpering subsided, too. Of course she wouldn’t want to appear weak in front of his dad. Vakarian almost rolled his eyes at her show of bravado for the great Castis Vakarian. 

“You working that quarian case?” his dad asked. 

“Yeah, bringing in the suspects,” Vakarian replied.

Shepard’s brows quirked in annoyance. “Makes sense that the bastards who disemboweled a quarian would fucking shoot an officer.” 

A sly grin cocked out his dad’s mandibles. “Solid deduction, Shepard – just a bit late.” 

Vakarian froze and bit back the instinct to snap at his dad. Usually, Shepard loved jokes like that, but she’d been whining a lot. Vakarian waited in fear for Shepard’s reaction. But instead of whining or crying, she laughed. Long and hard. She laughed until she realized how much it hurt and she stiffened. That’s when the whining returned and she instinctively placed her hands over his, a vain attempt at soothing the pain. 

“Good one, Dad,” Vakarian drawled. Her leg suddenly shot out and kicked him in the leg spur, but he held in the hiss that tried to escape because he didn’t want her to feel bad. 

His dad began to mutter something about not coddling Shepard, but out of the corner of his eye, Vakarian saw the flashing lights of a CEMS skycar pull up to the end of the corridor. An asari and a salarian dove out, running towards them with bags stuffed full of medical supplies flopping at their sides. 

Shepard sighed, so casually she might as well have been saying goodbye after a long, monotonous day at work. “Well CEMS is here, so I guess I should focus on getting this hole shut.”

“Call us later Shepard,” his mom said, “we’ll visit you at the hospital.”

“K, thanks guys.” 

His parents both nodded and gave comforting, calm smiles. With appreciative subvocals, Vakarian thanked his parents for their kindness to his friend. 

As Vakarian ended the call, a CEMS tech crashed beside them while the other, clearly more seasoned, eased down to her knees. They exchanged a few pleasantries with the techs, and the younger, more eager one began to pull out the medi-gel pack.

“Is it ok if I remove your shirt, Detective Shepard?” he barked, eyes blinking a click a minute. 

Vakarian made no attempt to hold in the growl that escaped as he imagined strangling the damned idiot. “ Cut it, ” he said as calmly as possible, but for all that effort the guy just stared back at him as if he didn’t know what scissors were.

Shepard groaned as she drew her arms to her waist and pulled at her shirt, untucking it herself and then unbuttoning it. Vakarians’ heart ached as her fingertips turned white with the effort of unfastening the little buttons. Oddly, the wound made Vakarian a little light-headed. He’d seen thousands of gunshots in his life – so it caught him off guard just a bit. He supposed it was different when it was someone you really cared about. Shepard wasn't a soldier. She was a partner, a friend….but, spirits , she was so much more. He had never felt so much affection, so much respect, and appreciation, for anyone before. 

And like she read his mind, Shepard looked up at him, her eyes warm and trusting but begging for comfort. “You’re my best friend, Garrus.”

His throat tightened and his chest burned. He found himself forcing a keen down. “Hey, no deathbed confessions about how pathetic your life is.”

“Shut up. You are. And you said I’m not dying.” 

He closed his eyes for just a moment, gratitude beating in his long-lonely heart. “You’re my best friend too,” he whispered against her hair. 

A tiny sound that only slightly resembled a laugh dragged out of her. “Our friendship is actually perfect. You don’t even think humans are attractive so I never have to worry about you wanting to fuck me.”

Her words shouldn’t have stung, but they did. Too many thoughts over the past week concerning the curve of her back or the swing of her hips had already filled him with shame. At that moment he swore to make those terrible thoughts go away — a silent promise to her. “There’s that. Never have to worry about things getting complicated, hm?” Feeling like he was about to choke on those words, his mandibles clenched tight.

“Perfect partnership.”

Only a slow breath after saying that, Shepard held her hand up expectantly. He hated the hand pat thing she did to establish their camaraderie, it looked insane — palms slapping together awkwardly. Regardless of his reservations, though, he’d do anything to make her happy — especially at that moment with her pleading eyes looking up at him. So he held out his hand, allowing her to execute her declaration of their excellent teamwork. 

But when their hands touched the contact wasn’t a slap at all. She gently pressed her skin to his, sending a thrilling tingle straight from his hand to his heart, and instead of removing it immediately her hand lingered. The sensation made him pause, reluctant to end the sweet touch. Although it was simply fatigue keeping her hand there, he considered weaving his fingers with hers, holding her clammy hand within his — just to keep her warm, just to tell her she’d be all right — but before he had the chance her arm fell, hand plopping down at her side. He swallowed the lump in his throat and lowered his hand as well, returning to holding her tight within his arms. 

“Well, we got ‘em,” Shepard sighed, her eyes glancing over to the two suspects being led away by their backup. Vakarian hadn’t even realized they’d arrived along with CEMS because he was so focused on her. A few officers surrounded the krogan body, mindful of the massive pool of blood and expressing their awe and respect to whoever took him down. All were turian, and not a single one would believe Shepard was the hero that day. 

Vakarian’s hands were pushed away from the wound by the no-nonsense asari. The shouting tech’s shaking hands caught Vakarian’s attention, pawing at and struggling to rip open the pack. A small glob squirted out, wastefully leaking to the side before he started to apply the first round of gel. Vakarian had to fight the instinct to growl at the nervous rookie. After flailing about just a moment longer the medi-gel was opened and shaking hands applied it with a frustrating level of care. 

Shepard hissed as the gel worked its way into the wound, but otherwise, she and Vakarian stayed quiet as the techs stabilized her. He held her tight and could tell she was doing her best to sit still. The other officers began to secure the scene, the familiar orange glow of security barricades obscuring the grime built up on the filthy floor. Poor Shepard, she’d been so bothered by all the filth down there...and she ended up on the ground next to a container of half-eaten krogan slop and some puddles that looked like vomit but somehow smelled worse. Suddenly the distinct reek of the krogan’s breath made sense. 

Time ticked by, and all Vakarian could do was hold her. 

“This next dose will probably knock her out,” the nervous tech warned.

Despite the sedation already kicking in, Shepard’s pulse raced again. Her eyes, half-lidded, drifted to his and her voice was just a whisper when she spoke. “I don’t want to go to sleep. I want to stay with you.” Her hand wrapped around his forearm, grasping him with what strength she could manage and begging him for comfort with her touch. 

“Shh, just breathe,” he said and placed his chin on the top of her head. Never in his life had he worked so hard to hold someone that close, and worried so much about ensuring they were safe and cared for. He hoped she felt safe with him and told himself that maybe she did when her body relaxed and she nestled against him. 

They administered the second dosage, she hissed again, and after only a few drawn-out blinks her eyes closed. He took in a breath, and as he did her chest rose alongside his, pressing against the firm hold of his arms. 

For one calm, contented moment they breathed together, soft steady breaths lifting their chests as if linked. He barely had the chance to truly enjoy that moment because without warning her full weight melted into him. She was out. The tiny droplets of sweat that scattered across her forehead reminded him of the freckles that flecked her cheeks and nose in a precious pattern he’d memorized long ago. Since the day he met her, he’d studied the strange facial markings, wondering why they captivated his attention so often; eventually, he knew them so well he could sketch them perfectly, from one golden point to the next. 

Turians believed that spirits rest amongst the stars that blanket a cool night sky. So, it was the image of fiery flecks scattered against a contrasting backdrop that his kind turned to in a moment of crises, when they yearned for hope or inspiration. Vakarian was born too pragmatic to believe in anything so mythical — that spirits actually existed and provided guidance — yet the weight and beauty of the vast night sky had always held some inexplicable significance to him. It drew him in. Every creature, even him, was just skin and bones — beautiful, yes — but weak and small beneath the power of the stars. He found solace in that. 

Even as a child, peering upwards provided comfort and guidance when he had to look inwards. He never admitted it, of course, not to anyone. On a few occasions his dad caught him, chin raised and eyes wary, looking up at night, but even then he hid his fascination and need. Watching for ships, he’d explained to the dad who saw through every one of his falsehoods. 

So it was truly ironic that he met someone, a human, who in her delicate little body possessed all the warmth of a star and the comfort of a mythical force. But of course she did — just like stars across the night sky, freckles blanketed her pale skin. They danced across her cheeks and nose as if painted there.   

“All right,” the asari tech’s calm voice interrupted his wandering thoughts. They had her bandaged up, and had done a decent job. “We’re ready to transport her. You can lie her down and we’ll get the stretcher.”

He nodded but only held her tighter while his eyes drifted from one single freckle to the next. He’d give anything to offer her the comfort and guidance she always gave him. 

The techs began to pack up their supplies. While one group of officers set to work isolating evidence another group remained huddled around the dead krogan, deep in a conversation that Vakarian didn’t give a shit about. Amongst the chattering and droning voices, the careful footsteps, crowding bodies, and glances that lingered on him and Shepard, she stayed safe in his arms until the very last moment. When the time finally arrived, he placed her on the stretcher himself. Just before they wheeled her to the skycar, he wrapped his hand around her small forearm to give it a reassuring squeeze, making sure she knew that he was still there. He still had her, even if he had to let go for now.

Chapter Text

The adrenaline had worn off hours ago, around the same time a doctor had told him Shepard made it out of surgery. What he was left with was a battered body and frazzled mind.  If there was ever a night that Vakarian missed living planetside, it was the night a piece of shit criminal shot Shepard in a dirty alley. He would give anything to sit out in a backyard, let his exhaustion settle in, recline back in a giant chair, and just stare at the night sky, patiently waiting for his succor. 

The journey from Huerta to his apartment existed in a realm he wasn’t quite connected to. His body floated along as if something flowed beneath his feet, a wave pulling him towards his destination. Not home — he never really thought of his apartment as home. Featureless faces and nondescript bodies traveled the same sidewalks as him, he was certain of that, but whether they drifted around him at the same sedate pace or darted past him, he couldn’t tell. 

Something about the flashing light in the elevator snapped him back to the realm that he existed in. He made it to his apartment building — his apartment floor, even. The elevator doors hung wide open, waiting for him like an impatient old woman. Mildly surprised, he stared out into the hall for a moment while the light pulsed, insisting that he leave with every uniform beat. 

From the moment he set foot on his floor, he felt the ground shaking. He ambled on, reasoning that it must be the crappy HVAC struggling that turned the entire floor into unsteady ground. As he turned a corner, the quaking grew so violent he nearly sank to the floor. That’s when he realized it wasn’t the long-failing HVAC that shook beneath his feet, but that his legs themselves were shaking. His buckling knee snapped him back to reality. He braced a hand against the wall, taking a few steadying breaths (each one a chore because his carapace felt like it had been jackhammered to the point of cracking) until he felt balanced again. With the pathetic thought of passing out in the hall stuck in his head, he forced himself to get to his apartment, where he could crumble to the ground in peace. The path wasn’t an easy one, though — it was a maze of corridors that he had to weave through before he could finally collapse.

Not that he was excited to get there, though, because it was always dark and lonely, and once again, in the short span of a week, he was too distraught to be alone. This time he couldn't escape to his best friend’s apartment, though, because she was sedated and hopefully peacefully sleeping in a hospital bed. He had cursed the nurse for refusing to let him sit with her until she woke, but a quick look at himself at the hospital had convinced him to leave Shepard, to go home. His jacket was missing an arm, crisp white shirt soaked in blood across the abdomen. Staring down at the ground as he walked, he noticed that his shoes were so scruffed and smashed they might as well have been through a trash compactor. 

Still, it tore him up to leave Shepard alone. Maybe he’d get a message from her soon letting him know she was okay. Maybe she’d say that getting shot wasn't so bad. She’d make a little joke about it, and he’d promise to visit as soon as he could. 

The possibility that Shepard woke up after he left sent a tickle of agitation through him. Maybe she was sitting up in her bed now, in a hospital room just as dark and lonely as his apartment. 

With that uneasy thought nagging at him he took a shuddering breath and, uncertain how far he’d made it, lifted his heavy head to figure out where the hell he was. His apartment door was just a few steps away, but that wasn’t what surprised him. Just next to his door was a figure, arms crossed and hips cocked, her estimating eyes filled with something he could only interpret as displeasure. He paused, their eyes locking. It had been a week since he talked to his mate. Brilliant damned timing, Livia. Never around when I need you, and lingering when I can’t manage anything but myself. 

He lifted his heavy feet to step forward. 

“Spirits,” she said with a tight breath. Her eyes traveled from his feet to his fringe, making him wish he could hide himself from her hard look.  

He bit back his anger because his body ached to feel a comforting touch. His hurt feelings weren’t as important as moving on. And he didn’t have the energy to hold a grudge. 

As if to make a point, her eyes looked him up and down again and before he could muster up the energy to say a single word to explain the state he was in, she spoke. “You look horrible.” Her voice wasn’t unkind, and her subvocals were soothing, but the look on her face was disgust. To be fair, he couldn’t blame her — blood and gore had always made her sick. Seeing his reflection at the hospital had made him sick, too.  

He hummed in agreement. “Bad day.”  

“Apparently,” she said, averting her gaze as he stepped up to his door, opening it with a wave of his omni-tool. The speed of the doors opening almost startled him, but he settled his nerves to enter his apartment, Livia following close behind. 

He made no attempt to turn the lights on, but Livia took care of that, weak illumination falling over his empty couch, perfectly tidy workbench, and the art piece his mother gave to him that always filled him with regret but he couldn’t hurt her by refusing to display it. 

It was a cheap apartment, lacking possessions and comforts. All of his spare money, alongside any desire for a life deserving of a mate and family, were put to the side with the faint idea that someday, something would compel him to build a home.

But for now, it was just him. And one sad, lone male didn’t need anything more than a box where he could sleep, shower, and eat. 

Before anything else, he stepped into the kitchen and stiffly shimmied out of his jacket, stuffing it in the trash. As quickly as his fingers could manage he tore at the fasteners of his blood-soaked shirt, peeling it from his shoulders that were too stiff to move any more than a slight shrug. With fingers only pinching the edges, as if touching it more intimately would leave permanent stains on his skin, he threw the shirt in the trash along with the jacket. It had to be out of his sight — permanently. He’d never dig the image of Shepard standing, hands pressed to her body as crimson bled across her stomach, out of his head — but getting rid of that shirt made him feel like he was at least putting some distance between himself and the horrible thoughts and emotions swarming his mind. 

Livia stood in his kitchen, focused on her omi-tool at her wrist and absolutely oblivious to his exhaustion and spiraling mind. 

“I need a shower,” he told her, already headed in that direction.  

She caught his armspur, keeping him by her side. He made sure to keep his back facing her so she wouldn’t have to see the dried blood caked on his keel and stomach. “Of course. Are you hungry?” Her eyes were on a menu she pulled up on her omni-tool. 

He shook his head. “I should probably eat, though.”

“I’ll order something. I’d like to spend some time with you tonight. And you look like you could use some taking care of.” 

He nodded, trying to ignore the prickling across his skin when she brushed her hand along his. His nerves were still frazzled, making every touch and sound overstimulating. He yearned to be held, though, and couldn’t bear to turn her away. 

“Are you going to tell me what happened? I didn’t see any of your blood, so you must be ok.”

“Shepard got shot. She’s in the hospital.”

“Thank the spirits it wasn’t you. What in the hell were you two doing?” She placed a hand on his shoulder and soothed him with a tender touch that immediately made his muscles tense instead of relax. Maybe letting go of his resentment for being ignored wasn’t so easy. 

“Stumbled on our suspects,” he answered. “She’ll be ok, though.” 

While Livia’s fingers scrolled through menu items, her nose scrunched. “You reek of blood. I’m not sure how you can stand it.” 

He nodded again. He had spent hours in that wretched state, sitting in a too-bright waiting room at Huerta, and had grown immune to the sharp scent of Shepard’s blood. “I’ll shower.”

He slinked into the seclusion of his bathroom and into the tiny, dark shower stall. Instead of feeling crowded, the walls that surrounded him provided protection —  he was safe and secure from the sad, sick, world that lurked outside. Walls offered an embrace when arms were absent. When the hot water burst from the noisy pipes, spilling over him, he closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see Shepard’s blood washing from his skin and down the drain. With his crest pressed against the cool metal wall, he wrapped his hands around the back of his neck and finally let out a keen that had been stuck in his throat since he first saw crimson crawling along her abdomen. Fear had sharpened her eyes — that’s what stuck in his mind as water splashed and trickled over his plates and skin. Not bright, sparkling, emerald eyes. Sharp, vacant eyes darkened by fear. The sound of his keens echoing off the crushing shower walls turned his stomach, but he couldn’t hold in his fear or the way his loss of control made him feel desperate and crazy.

What the hell was Livia doing there? Of all nights to just show up. He was a wreck. Just a week ago he found out his mom would be gone too soon. And now thoughts of his strong, fragile, funny, wonderful friend holding on to him with trembling hands and looking at him with fear in her eyes pushed him towards the edge. It was just too much. He needed a drink. He needed to drink until he passed out and then he could go see Shepard tomorrow and would know she was okay. If he could just see her awake and smiling, make sure that sunshine still filled her. The thought of her light and warmth fading sent another keen rattling through his battered and aching chest. When his knees shook his hands barely made it to the showerhead in time to keep him from crashing to the shower floor.  

Keening and crumbling. Alone in the shower. Every muscle screaming and shaking. Never before had he needed guidance so desperately. Something, anything, to help him look up and move forward. 

His keens quivered through his chest and throat as it dawned on him — there was nothing special about watching the stars at night. He was just chasing the feeling of being a kid, when perceived insurmountable problems were actually small and forgettable. When the world seemed static and sure. When the idea of stars possessing the ability to offer any sort of succor was still a preternatural possibility. 

How in the hell was he going to keep himself together enough to eat dinner and watch a vid with Livia? 

He had to try because that was his only option. If he told her he needed sleep, her feelings would be hurt. She’d refuse to talk to him for days. Again.  

Once he was sure he wouldn’t fall, he forced himself to pick up his bar of soap and run the fine grit over his chest, keel, and abdomen. Soft keens randomly erupted from his grated throat, but by the time he finished washing the rest of his body, the pathetic cries died out entirely. The hot water soothed his muscles enough for him to imagine walking back out to the living room instead of crawling to his bed. 

That was how he managed to gather himself together — hot water, the soothing herbal scent of his soap, and allowing his body to expel his despair rather than trying to hold it in.

Once out of the shower, he toweled off, threw on some workout pants and a shirt while resisting the urge to send Shepard a message, just to know she was okay. He’d probably wake her up, though, so he denied himself the relief of reaching out to her. 

When he finally forced himself from the bedroom to the living room, Livia was already relaxed on the couch with her legs tucked under her while she scrolled through vid stations. She looked up at him with a warm smile that made her mandibles flare. “There you are, looking as handsome as ever.” 

“I feel like shit, but thanks,” he said as he placed his hand on the back of the couch to sit at her side. His arm shook with the effort.  

Her gaze stayed on him through his entire journey — and carefully getting himself on the couch was a journey — from slumping his full weight upon that one arm, slowly lowering himself, then settling into the seat delicately to avoid jostling his legs or torso. 

“You’re moving like a skycar ran you over.”

“Nothing that dramatic.” He leaned his head back, allowing it to sink against the plush cushion. As his neck bent, spikes of pain shot from his nape to his fringe. “Just a krogan.”

Her browplates pinched with sincere concern, a comforting hum soothing him. “Spirits, Garrus, I have no idea how you’re still alive.”

Shepard,” he said simply while his unwatching eyes trained on the images that flashed across the vidscreen.  

She made a surprised, slightly impressed noise, but said nothing in reply. So, they watched whatever show she’d thrown on in silence.  

When the doorbell chimed, Livia eased off the couch (Vakarian couldn’t help but envy the way her rested, unbattered body moved without hindrance) to retrieve their food, which she carried to the kitchen to unpack. He closed his eyes and tuned out the sound of cabinets opening, dishes clanking, and water running. The sound of the trash bin lid opening followed by her gasp made his stomach clench.

Fuck , his shirt, she must not have seen the truly horrifying state of his clothes when he took it off because she’d been staring at the menu. 

His eyes opened and his neck snapped in her direction. To Vakarian’s absolute horror, she didn’t close the lid. Her arm dove right in and pulled out the blood-soaked shirt, held it up in an outstretched hand, and shook it at him.

Garrus ,” she chided, “I bought you this shirt as a gift. How could you just throw it away?”

His mandibles flared out wide, anger beating into his veins at the sight of his mate holding up the shirt he thought he’d discarded permanently. It took every ounce of control to remain calm. “Put it back,” he told her. “Can’t you see it’s soaked in Shepard’s blood?”

She shrugged, and she turned the shirt in her hands to inspect it. “It’s not that bad. It can be cleaned, I’m sure. I’ll take care of it for you.”

Vakarian leaped off the couch, twisting his ankle and growling out in pain. Charging Livia, he snatched the shirt from her hands and ripped it out of her hands so violently that she stumbled forward. He ignored the shock in her eyes and her protesting trill to throw the shirt back into the bin, letting the lid slam closed to make his point clear. 

“Don’t, Livia,” he said through gritted teeth. “It’s not about a damn shirt. My best friend’s blood is all over it.”

“Best friend? Your partner gets shot, and all of a sudden she’s your best friend?” Her soft, patronizing laugh only strengthened his anger. “You’re acting sentimentally. I admire that about you, really, but you’re so broody sometimes.”

“Are you actually trying to tell me who my best friend is?”

“Your best friend is Nihlus,” she insisted as if just by her saying it that meant it was true. “I know you.”

“I’m not arguing with you over who my best friend is.”

Feeling crazy, he stared at her, stunned and speechless. 

“We don’t need to argue at all.” she finally said, wrapping her arms around him. Her subvocals vibrated and soothed his nerves slightly. Countless times before, he’d sought out comfort from her after a bad day. If there was ever a day that he needed a soothing touch and some comforting words, it was that one. Maybe today would be that day. Maybe he’d fall into her arms, and she’d hold him. Maybe their relationship would change, she’d learn to be comforting, and he’d lower his walls long enough to let this work.  

“I’m trying here. Meet me halfway, hm?” His subvocals trilled, pleading with her to relent. He felt rejected. He felt ashamed. For some reason, at that moment, he realized he had never told her about his mom. But if he said something to her then, he might just keen again, and it just didn’t feel safe to break down in front of her. Sentimental and broody. What would she think of him if he keened in front of her?

“I am, too,” she whispered, nuzzling her mandible against his keel. 

Her arms wound around him in the embrace he’d been yearning for all night, but instead of soothing him, the urge to shrug her off and crawl away itched at him. He fought it though. He told himself to calm down and let her in.

Try. Spirits, just try.

After a moment, he convinced himself to enjoy being held. He wanted so badly to feel that comfort and care, and if he tried hard enough he’d allow this to feel good. Why couldn’t he just enjoy being held by her, when he yearned so badly to feel the pressure of a warm body against his? 

Shepard had to be awake. His mind conjured an image… her sitting in the passenger seat of a skycar with him, deep in some asinine conversation, a soft laugh swelling her cheeks and quaking her chest. He felt lighter. They’d be back to normal soon.  

“Come on,” Livia’s voice startled him. “Sit down with me, and eat some dinner. Your nerves will calm once you’ve eaten. I already picked a vid, too.”

He allowed her to lead him back to the couch and help him recline to avoid minimal discomfort. She curled up at his side. Once the vid started, he forced down as much food as he could muster without making himself sick. The story was a ridiculous militaristic romance — just the type Livia adored. Throughout the first half, he kept checking his omni-tool, just in case Shepard reached out. If he missed a message from her, he would never forgive himself. 

At one point, Livia noticed the glance he gave his omni-tool and made a little chastising noise. “This won awards, you know. I’m sorry it’s not some mindless buddy comedy.”

He was too. A melodramatic story about sacrifice and death was the opposite of his ideal relaxation device that night. “This vid sucks,” he mumbled as the main character stood proudly of their mate’s pyre. “Who cares about honor if you’ve lost the love of your life?”

“Sentimental and you don’t care about honor. You are such a bad turian.” Her eyes locked on his while she shook her head. There was a fine line between teasing and mocking, and the look in Livia’s eyes made it clear which side of the line her grin was on. “I should be dating a good turian, someone I can proudly take home.” 

He scoffed but said nothing. If being a good turian meant you cared more about a shirt than someone’s feelings, he was proud to be a bad turian. And suddenly the fact that he still hadn’t met her family made a lot more sense. And it fucking stung. 

Her hand reached for his. “You know I didn’t mean it like that. I’m teasing you.”

He looked away and folded his arms across his chest, ignoring her attempt to placate him with a comforting touch. “Sure, my mistake.”

“You’re trying to fight with me.”

He couldn’t stand even the idea of looking at her. “If I’m trying to fight with you, then you’re trying to make me feel bad about myself.”

“I think you’re wonderful. Why would I say things to hurt your feelings?” 

“Exactly.”

“Don’t play your stupid detective head games with me. Save it for work.” 

He paused to take a breath and bite back a response, choosing to stare at the vid instead of engaging in any additional rapid-fire with her. He was trying. Spirits he was trying

There was no peace, though. Her voice was bright and bitter when she continued. “You’re too confident to care what I say, whether it’s a compliment or a criticism, so it really doesn’t matter what I say or how I say it.”

Still unable to look at her, he stared straight forward. “If you think I’m confident, you have no idea who I am.”

She leaned to interject her presence in his line of sight, forcing him to look at her sad eyes. “Why do you keep saying I don’t know you? Are you that intent on pushing me away?”

“No,” he promised as he wrapped his hands around hers, pulling her closer. Something told him to think about her question a little harder because deep down in the recesses of his mind, he knew that he might just be a liar — maybe not to others, but certainly to himself. 

She curled up beside him, resting her head on his shoulder and laying her hand across his keel, right where Shepard’s forehead had rested as she shook and whimpered. He forced himself to focus on the dumb vid and just relax with his mate. 

Her hand stayed on his keel for only a short while before it began to wander to his neck, softly stroking the sensitive skin. Her subvocals rippled. Maybe it was because he needed it so much, but despite his anger, the sound and vibration soothed him when he thought he was incapable of relaxing. 

He barely heard the dialogue and music coming from the vid while her light touches along his neck and chest helped him forget his pain. She quickly lulled him with dulcet subvocals and tender touches into a sedate, dreamlike state. Need and exhaustion made her job easier. Every touch along his neck, chest, and stomach allayed his anger and worry. He was half-asleep when her hand slid from his stomach to his waist, and from his waist to his thigh. Dulcet tones turned to suggestive ripples against his neck. Her mandible slid against his.

He barely noticed when her hand left his thigh and began to tease him. The pulsing between his legs pulled him back from his soothed state. 

“I’m tired, Liv,” he said, hoping she’d go back to just touching him tenderly.   

“Just relax and let me touch you.” Her warm breath fell against his neck. Her hand never relented, stroking, teasing, dipping to tease him out. It felt good, and terrible at the same time. Something inside him wanted to just feel good, to just relax and embrace the distraction. But something closer to the surface sent a subtle wave of panic through him. He twitched within her grip and his whole body tensed, waking him out of his supplicant state. Realizing how turned on he’d grown, his skin crawled and his stomach turned. 

She had no clue, though, what he felt. He froze but she dove upon him eagerly, using her free hand to pull his face closer to hers. Her mandible barely touched his when he turned his head to avoid it. He used the opportunity to look at the time on his omni-tool.

She huffed in agitation. “ Spirits, Garrus, pay attention to me.”

“I’m sorry. I’m tired. And all I want to do is go check on Jane.”

“Really?” Her mandibles flicked, making him wonder why the hell he revealed that thought to her. “What kind of man would rather sit in a hospital creepily staring at his sleeping colleague than have sex?”

He stared at her for just a moment, at her tight mouth and cold eyes that revealed a selfish spirit, wondering how he had never seen how deeply inpatient and unkind she truly was. 

“You know, when we started this relationship you could have warned me that you enjoy crushing your mate’s soul with subtle attacks on their confidence.”

“I don’t do that,” she snapped. 

“I’m a bad turian that you’re too embarrassed to introduce to your family?”

Instead of looking regretful, her eyes burned with anger. “I told you I was joking.”

A wry laugh escaped past his guard. “If that’s true, then you’re not funny.”

She pulled her hand away, his erection falling against his stomach. He felt betrayed by his body for getting so turned on when he had no conscious interest. 

“Why do you wash my scent off?” Her gaze stayed locked on him, adamant that he answer her. When he couldn’t muster a reply or an apology, she continued. “You don’t care about my feelings, so I don’t care about yours.”

“I don’t wash your scent off to hurt you,” he finally said, though he was sure it was much too late. There were questions that centered around the heart, pride, and comfort that required an immediate response, and he’d just failed that little test. 

“Then why do you do it?”

He had no explanation that he could give her, at least not one that he could actually say out loud because he didn’t even want to acknowledge the truth himself. Because it hurt. Because sharing scent with someone was a reminder of loss and loneliness and abandonment despite trying your hardest to show your love. Because the intimate act didn’t make him think of a future with someone new, it only made him miss what he once shared with a woman who probably wouldn’t even look him in the eye if they crossed paths again. 

Livia watched him, waiting for a justifiable answer, but he had none. 

“You said you didn’t mind,” he finally managed the weak explanation. 

Her hands flew to his arm to shove him roughly against the back cushion. He winced, his entire carapace turning into an inferno of pain. “Of course I mind, you insensitive bastard.”

He stared dumbly, hissing in a breath to stifle the pain surging across his carapace. If she cared that much, she should have said something. Not that he would have been able to keep her scent, even if he knew washing it off hurt her feelings. But knowing the truth would have allowed him to navigate her feelings, maybe even address them. They could have discussed boundaries and needs. 

That was a downright lie — he would have run, fast and far away if she had insisted he retain her scent. He just wasn’t ready for that intimacy. 

Five years after Cama and he still wasn’t ready. Fuck. 

“You’re bad at scenting anyway,” she snapped.

“I don’t enjoy it,” he replied before he had the good sense to shut his mouth. 

He had no business being in a relationship; he was too broken, too hurt. His heart was still an open wound that he had kept prodding, refusing to let himself heal. What the fuck was he doing? This relationship was such a sad, terrible mistake. 

“I wasn’t ready for this.” The words tumbled from his mouth. They were true, but he wasn’t sure how he allowed them to escape the tight walls he kept all of his true feelings locked behind. 

As she looked him over a deep sinking feeling settled in his gut — fear and regret. Breaking up with her felt awful, especially now that he knew she’d been hurting and ached for more with him, but the idea of staying in a relationship with her, with anyone really, filled him with intense panic.

Something flashed in her eyes but he wasn’t sure if it was fear or anger or something else. Disappointment, that’s all he could read, but her hand landed on him again, moving slowly upwards despite his softened state. “Shh, relax. Let’s just start over.” 

His body shrank under her touch, begging to put distance between them. 

“No.” He tried to shift away, but he felt too heavy with guilt because she didn’t hear what he was trying to say. “I mean, I’m not ready for a relationship. I’m sorry.” 

Her expression was blank for only a moment before her mandibles snapped tight so quickly it had to hurt. “My hand is still on you and you’re breaking up with me?” 

His mouth opened but no words came out. 

“I came all the way over here to spend time with you, and you just break up with me?” Her scoff was downright venomous. “You’re pathetic .” The word rolled off her tongue like she’d been stifling it for days, weeks, even, and relished finally freeing it.

The insult caused his anger to surge up like a hot lash. “Sitting in this damned apartment with you was the last thing I wanted to do tonight.” 

After saying that she finally released him. “You selfish, brooding piece of shit.” She leaped up, recoiling from him as if he was diseased. He fastened his pants and tried to rise from the couch, but his back seized and a spark of pain flared along his spine. 

His anger fell when he saw her mandibles quiver. She scrambled to pick up her jacket from the back of the couch, her grip slipping in her haste, causing her to drop it. He didn’t want it to end like this, not with insults and accusations. He truly just wanted them to go their separate ways. They’d be happier apart.  

“I’m sorry,” he repeated as she picked her jacket off the floor. When he finally managed to peel himself off the couch he wobbled before catching his balance.   

“What the fuck is wrong with you? You’re just a broken, depressed…” her mandibles jittered again, “You were just a waste of my time. You’re a waste of anyone’s time.” 

The insults she slung hurt, of course, but she wasn’t wrong. He’d been a fool. Selfish, too. “Yeah,” he solemnly agreed with her. 

A low, frustrated growl leaped out of her so suddenly he stepped back, his twisted ankle flaring. 

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. 

She growled again at his meaningless apology. “Stop saying you’re sorry.” She stalked towards the door, then stopped and looked back at him. “You know, I really hope for any woman stupid enough to love you that you fix yourself.”

The joke was on her if she thought he was capable of fixing himself; he’d always been like this — scared and stupid. Only one woman had been foolish enough to love him as is, and even she wised up eventually. 

Livia stood in his living room, glaring at him, as all those thoughts ticked away at his self-confidence. He wasn’t quite sure what else to say though. What else could he say, other than one more pathetic I’m sorry . He never meant to hurt her, but that wasn’t a helpful sentiment either. Finally looking fed up, she spun on her pedi-talons and marched away from him In a flash, disappearing through the doors that shut with a grinding lurch. He’d been meaning to fix that. The property management wouldn’t do it correctly. 

He sighed. 

It didn’t escape him that he just broke up with someone while her hand was wrapped around him. It was pretty much the dumbest and most embarrassing thing he’d ever done in a relationship. He stood there, preoccupied with a malfunctioning door instead of worrying about her, making him feel infinitely worse. 

A moment of harsh clarity fell over him — he worried more about the malfunctioning door than he was about the feelings of the woman he just broke up with, which had to be a clear sign that he was an absolute asshole.  

The door hadn’t called him names. 

Pathetic . Waste of time . Her words bit again.

Stunned, he tried to recall moments throughout their short time together when he tried to make ‘them’ work. He had tried, right? At least at first? He came up with absolutely zero evidence to accompany that claim, though. 

Turians are taught not to lie to others, there were ways around it, of course, but any good turian felt intense shame for the act. There were no lessons on lying to yourself, though — he could have used a few sessions on that topic.

All he could remember were moments when he tried to avoid her anger and disappointment. And in those moments he had only been trying to ignore her unhappiness and his failure. He had dodged and ignored, never really addressed the cause of their issues. 

He had put in some effort, but not the right kind and never enough. His walls had been too close, too thick.  

Living dishonestly with yourself was as destructive as lying to others, and because he had told himself throughout the entire relationship that he was ready to give to someone else, and that he was trying, he had broken her heart. He was intimately aware of the pain of a broken heart.   

Being a detective, he really should have spotted it sooner, but it occurred to him that there was an uncanny parallel between the last months of his relationship with Cama and his entire relationship with Livia — distance, hazy communication, and unspoken hurt feelings.

T’Saris was right when she said a week ago that Livia was a happy person before he came into her life. She hadn’t said it to be mean, it was just a joke, but damn was it the truth. How many little moments — sour comments and hurt feelings and subtle slights — had led up to what just transpired between them? Livia had done nothing wrong at first, other than start dating a man who was scared and guarded. She deserved better. He hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings, to make her feel undeserving and lonely, but inadvertently, he had. Everyone deserves to find the person who will love them, body and spirit, and hopefully, that day would come for Livia soon. 

He eventually peeled his eyes from the door and checked the time. Visiting hours were over, and Shepard never sent a message, which he couldn’t believe. There was no way that little ball of fire wasn’t awake, probably pestering the nurses with questions and jokes. Simply imagining her smiling face lightened his mood just a notch.

He could have lost her. The idea of her being out of his reach, out of his grasp, was unsettling in a way he knew wasn’t quite normal, even for two people as close as them. Life without his best friend felt so fragile and meaningless, though. Just three short years together, and she felt like a delicately engrained piece of him.

Because his arms felt empty, he hobbled to his bedroom, pulled a sweatshirt from the dresser, and delicately slid it over his aching arms and carapace — just to feel the comfort of something soft and heavy against his skin. 

 

Chapter Text

There wasn’t much to do in a hospital, especially once visitors were shooed away and lights were out. Bedtime , like she was a damned child. 

Despite orders to rest, Shepard defiantly sat upright, alone in her room in the uncomfortably quiet post-op wing. Well, almost upright — it hurt a bit too much, so she was reclined just enough to relieve some of the tight, ripping pain that couldn’t be ignored or wished away. 

A subtle flicker of light pulsed in the dim room. Besides the almost nonexistent glow from a fixture above the head of her bed, the vidscreen was the only light allowed. The vid that played on the screen hanging on the wall across from her barely kept her attention. As figures moved and mouths talked, her mind wandered to childhood and her parents. It had been so nice to talk with Valeria and Castis while Vakarian held her in that disgusting alley, but there had been a little tingling of sadness, too. They were supportive, kind, and caring. And they made her miss her mom and dad. Having lost her own parents so young, she clung to the moments with them, though they were nothing more than hazy, opaque, rolling mists in her mind. More a series of collected sensations than actual memories: 

Lying in her parents’ warm bed, Mom holding her tight, soft blankets wrapped around her little body. Blue pajamas with happy ghosts hanging like clouds. There was a storm outside — wind whooshing and wheezing, rain pattering, leaves tapping against the windows as they fell. She had a cold. Loud breaths through her mouth drying her lips. The lightning flashed, but she didn’t flinch. Everything was okay because she was in her mom’s arms. Dad brushed her hair with the palm of his hand, guiding strands from her forehead. 

Just like Vakarian had done in the alley. 

A deep ache, stronger than the pain in her side, dug into her chest at the thought of her parents. Gran and Papa had given her a wonderful childhood filled with love and support, but it would never make up for the hole their loss left in her heart. She would always miss her mom and dad, always ache, wishing the two people who chose to bring her into the world were more than flashes of memory. They loved her, taught her how to tie her shoes, danced with her in front of the tv, kissed her knees when she skinned them. There was something different, being comforted by the two people who put all of their hopes and dreams into you. Who had planned and hoped and waited for you to be theirs. 

Even though she was an adult, and knew deep down that it was silly, she wished that she had been a good kid for her mom and dad. That she had made their lives easier, and allowed their small family, the three of them, to only have good moments. Vakarian’s parents were so incredibly proud of him, whether or not he saw it. 

But in truth, even no higher than her dad’s knees, she had been a bit of a pill. Sassy, smart-mouthed, and ornery. 

She leaned her head back against the hospital bed and let out a deep breath, trying to ignore the twist of pain that flared as she did. Painkillers only did so much when you had a hole blasted straight through your side, which was probably why the nurse had told her a dozen times to go to sleep. But she was too uneasy. Exhausted. In pain. Alone. Slipping off to unconsciousness in Vakarian’s arms, even though she had wanted to stay awake, was at least comforting. Now she would have to fall into the darkness all alone. 

She missed Rocket — the little lump of soft, warm fur. His absence solidified the fact that she wasn’t home. At least she knew he was okay. Solana had fed him because Vakarian had told her to. 

She could message Vakarian, just to check on him, but he was probably asleep. 

With the touch of a button, she reclined the bed just a notch. Conceding to the pain and the tiredness made her skin feel too tight. 

Afraid of moving even an inch, she carefully shifted, frustration building because her core was a mess of mangled viscera and stitches so she couldn’t allow her restless legs to wander, couldn’t feel the sheets drag against her bare legs. And despite the three blankets piled on top of her (thanks to the turian nurse who grumbled about too-cold hospital rooms) her body just didn’t feel warm enough. She squeezed her eyes shut, and tried to calm herself against the frustration souring her mood. 

Burying her cheek deep into the pillow, she felt her heart pulse in her lonely chest. In sync with the pulse was a soft pat that echoed in her drug-heavy mind. Followed by another, and another. The painkillers were playing tricks on her, turning internal sensations to sounds not of her body. She opened her eyes. A deep breath helped her gather her senses. 

Her heart beat again, followed by a resonating pat, convincing her it wasn’t coming from her own body. She listened carefully. It seemed like a foot falling against hard flooring somewhere in the distance. With each beat of her heart the sound drew closer, and she was more certain her mind wasn’t playing tricks. Gentle footfalls in time with her heartbeat drew nearer, but the sound wasn’t made by hurrying nurses. 

The footfalls became a familiar pattern sounding against the tile, echoing in the empty, barely lit hall. It was a pattern she was so used to that even without seeing him, she could identify the man whose feet produced it. Slow, deliberate, and nearly imperceptible despite his towering height. Hearing the steps just down the hall captured all of her attention, filling her with tempting hope. 

But it was too late. 

He was at home, resting. Visiting hours were over.

But maybe...maybe he... 

Despite herself, she waited, her heart quickening along with the steadily amplifying footfalls. They paused outside her room. 

Holding her breath, she turned her head just in time to see Vakarian step into her doorway, framed by the soft hall light at his back. As their eyes met, a smile gently parted his mandibles, like he was as happy to see her as she was to see him. Everything instantly seemed okay. All boredom and fear and loneliness dissipated, replaced with a simple happiness strong enough to light a lonely soul’s way through the dark. 

“Hey,” she said. 

“Hey,” he answered. 

They smiled across the room at each other. She let her head relax, cheek pressing into the smooth pillow while he leaned against the door frame. His typically easy posture was only slightly affected — too tight in the shoulders and hips. Despite looking calm and confident, it was clear to her that he was in significant pain. 

“How'd you get in here?” she asked. “Visiting hours are over.”

Slow steps brought him into her room. He favored an ankle but covered it up fairly well. “Charm, good looks,” he drawled. “Gets me a lot of things.”

Humor warmed her chest. “Wish I knew what that’s like.”

“Maybe next time you get shot you’ll die and come back a turian.” 

“Ohhhh, you’re so funny.” 

He reached out, placing a hand on the back of a chair tucked right next to her bed. Shepard held her breath when she saw the way he lowered himself slowly to sit. An almost imperceptible shudder rattled through his arm from the strain. With great effort, he relaxed into the chair. 

In the quiet room, his soft exhale felt like a grand declaration of his pain. As she watched his chest fall, though, all she could think of was how safe she had felt in his arms. Despite the vomit on the ground, the krogan body resting in a pool of its own blood, and the antagonizing suspects, Vakarian had made her feel safe. She had kept time with his chest rising and falling, and it had kept her calm. Had chased away some of her pain and almost all of her fear. Her eyes lifted from his chest to see her own deep-seated affection for him mirrored back at her in the warmth of his blue eyes. 

“How you feeling?” he asked. 

“Okay. The pain isn’t unbearable.” Too tired to lift a hand to point, her eyes flicked up to the vidscreen. “This movie is, though.”

On screen, neighbors on their way to falling in love argued over something.

“I think that’s my sister’s favorite vid.”

“It is, she put it on. I think she thought it would make me feel better.”

“Sol came by?” He looked surprised but also inexplicably disappointed. Not in her, but himself. 

“Yeah, about the same time your parents came.”

She could actually see him deflating. “They came to see you too?” 

Because she was too worn out to nod, she released a soft hum instead and tried to show through her casual voice that he shouldn’t feel bad. “They just left a bit ago. We had dinner. Well, they had dinner. I got a fresh nutrient bag.” She lifted her left arm, the attached tube that fed into her bloodstream tugged at her skin. 

“I was worried you’d be sitting here alone all night.”

“Your dad said I’m never alone on The Citadel. Said they’d always be here if I needed them.”

A slow nod was his only answer, his gaze faraway. He was in pain from their altercation with the krogan, but there was something more going on. He had the look of being emotionally raw as well. Like he had something on his mind, weighing him down. If she asked, would he give her an honest reason? Or would he deflect? Would he throw up a wall?

“I’m ok, really,” she promised. “You need the rest as much as I do, so don’t feel bad for not being here with them.” That wasn’t wholly true, she absolutely wanted him there because she hadn’t felt as content since waking up as she did the very moment she saw him standing in the doorway. “But, I’m happy you’re here now,” she added. 

At her last words he perked up. He shifted in his seat, wincing as his carapace pressed back against the chair, then leaned to the side again instead. 

“Why are you in so much pain?” she asked. “Shouldn’t you be all hopped up on drugs too?”

“I’m stupid. Refused a stronger painkiller so I’d be awake. I thought I’d be sitting with you when you got out of surgery.” 

“You could have taken the good stuff, I already assumed you were resting at home.” She gave his body a once-over for effect. “You took a beating.”

“You should see the other guy,” he tried to joke, though it felt sad and forced. 

She groaned, the gruesome sight of the dead krogan crept into her mind. The feeling of his skullplate severing under her hand. The sick pop echoing in her mind made her stomach turn. But then the look in Vakarian’s eyes had left her panicking. His fear. Her fear watching him get crushed against a wall and she’d felt helpless to make it stop. Fuck that krogan . She gave him more than one chance, and he chose his fate. “I did see him, up close and personal. His plate was detached from his head. If we had to name losers in that whole fight, he was definitely the biggest.” She gave a wry smile. “Then me.”

“Then Achillus and Traian.”

Challenging that statement, her eyebrow rose. “They were untouched, and you got your ass kicked.”

“Hey,” he drawled, voice filled with easy confidence. “I’m the only one who walked away from that alley on my own.”

“Fair point.” A moment of silence passed. While remembering what it felt like to have Vakarian’s arms around her as she whined and writhed she balled a blanket up in her grasp just to feel pressure against his skin. She laughed softly, recalling Vakarian shooting a slug and scaring the shit out of the suspects when that asshole had been harassing her. “Achillus called me a sack of flesh,” she muttered. 

“Mhm, pathetic sack of flesh.”

Lying in Vakarian’s arms she’d felt like a sack of flesh. A vibration of anger ran through her, and she wasn’t sure if it was her loopy brain but she wondered if she felt a literal vibration of anger emitted from Vakarian. He had actually shot at a suspect, simply for sowing the idea that she’d die inside her mind. Inside Vakarian’s mind.

“I don’t like that word,” he said plainly.

She hummed in agreement. Thinking of Achillus’s smug face twisting into cowardly fear when the heat sink popped. She narrowed her eyes. “Bet you he can’t pry off a skull plate.” 

Vakarian winked at her. “He failed his hand-to-hand training, of course he can’t.” 

I didn’t fail my hand-to-hand training.”

“No,” he murmured, giving her an encouraging nod. “You didn’t.” 

She wanted to sound proud, but the shudder that ran through her gave away her disgust — she hated taking the krogan’s life. Vakarian knew, too. She did it for him, though, and she’d do it again in a heartbeat. Did that make her a bad person? 

“Before you got here I was thinking about my parents.”

“Yeah?”

“I wish I had been a better kid for them.”

“What do you mean?”

“I always gave them a hard time. Like, one time my mom yelled at me for running around the pool and I immediately, without a thought, yelled back that I hated the last batch of cookies she made. It wasn’t even true, I just wanted to have something to yell back.”

Vakarian’s browplate rose just a tad and his eyes warmed with amusement. “What did she do?”

“My dad looked so disappointed in me, like saying something mean to my mom actually hurt him too. But my mom asked me why I ate ten of them in two days if they were so terrible. Then told me to step away from the pool or I’d never get another cookie in my life unless I made them myself.”

Vakarian’s smile broke free. “I think that’s where you got your smart mouth. Your mom.”

“Yeah, probably,” she agreed. It felt good to hear him suggest she carried something of her mother with her. “I was five, though. What kind of five-year-old says that? I was such a shit.” She paused, hesitating to speak the sad thought that surfaced, but only Vakarian would hear, and he was the safest place she had. “That had to have been close to when I lost them.”

His smile dropped, replaced by sympathetic eyes. She could hear his soft breath as he exhaled. “I’m sorry…” 

He stopped there. Maybe with his own mother’s life ticking away, he wasn’t able to say much more. Shepard understood. 

“It’s ok. I don’t mind talking about them. I guess I just...I don’t have a ton of memories.”

“You miss them.” His voice was warm. Soothing. She never had to tell him exactly what she felt, or thought...he just knew. He knew her .

“Yeah. But I turned out ok. My grandparents were good to me. And I got sent to space, so I did pretty well.” After a quick glance out the window to look at the dark sky she turned back to him. “And I learned early on to show how much you care, because you never know when you’ll lose someone you love.”

There was a pang of sadness in his eyes. He scooted his chair closer, plastic legs dragging against tile, and gave her wrist a nudge with his knuckle. “I don’t know much about your parents, but I’m sure they’d be proud of you.”

Would they? Without hesitation, she had abandoned her family on Earth to prove herself up in space. And she took someone's life. It felt wrong that she didn’t regret it, but she had protected her best friend. She took a life to save someone dear to her. Her parents had taught her to be brave and help others. To them that had meant stopping their car to carry a tortoise to the other side of a road. It just so happened that in her line of work, that meant something much darker and horribly gruesome. Vakarian didn’t know them, but he was right. Of course they would be proud of her. 

She thanked him with a smile. A quiet moment passed but eventually his warm smile turned teasing as if he couldn’t hold back whatever he was thinking. 

“What?” she asked.

“You’re still a shit.”

Shepard laughed softly, trying to ignore the pain stabbing into her side with each purposefully tempered exhale. “I know I am,” she said. “Takes one to know one, though.” 

“That's why we get along so well,” he said.   

His hand remained on her bed, only a finger’s reach from hers. Mimicking how he just touched her, she tapped her knuckle to his wrist. “What have you been up to tonight? Did you at least get some rest while I was passed out here?”

His eyes were steady and his mandibles tight as he propped his chin in his palm. His fingers drummed against his cheek. The suspiciously stony look was one she’d seen countless times before in her line of work — he was holding something back, and doing his damndest to look natural. Trouble was, it never did, not on anyone, and certainly not on her best friend.  

“What’s that look for?” 

“There’s no look.”

He was more doped up than she thought if he actually believed he could hide something from her. “Yes, there is. What is it? You couldn’t have gotten into too much trouble in one night.”

“I had Sol feed Rocket for you,” he said. 

Diversion. Nice try. 

“I know, she told me.”

She waited patiently. A flash of orange light and quieted explosion on the vidscreen couldn’t steal her attention away from him, and couldn’t lure his steady gaze from her either.  

With no indication that he had been  

“Livia showed up to my place and we...broke up.”

“No shit!” she blurted. Damned drugs gave her a loose mouth. A mixture of surprise and guilt-inducing satisfaction swept over her; he’d be happier now, but she took no pleasure in his pain.  “Are you okay?” she asked after correcting her tone. “What happened?”

A quick embarrassed trill sounded from him,  but he didn’t avoid eye contact. “Can we skip the specifics?”

So there it was, his reason for looking so raw. Judging by the messages she’d seen when she took his omni-tool to send Livia a message the night he found out about his mother, the breakup had probably left him as battered and bruised as the krogan fight.  

“I’m not going to sleep anytime soon, so tell me.”

After pausing for a moment, he sighed. “There’s one person in this galaxy I enjoy disappointing, and that’s my father. Constantly failing to meet even one more person’s expectations is too big a job for one man.”

The smooth thunder of a cart pushed down the hall by hospital staff interrupted their quiet exchange. Once the nurse passed and the thunder subsided to a distant rumble, Shepard spoke. “I don’t think you were ready for a relationship.”

“Telling me that four months ago would have saved me a really horrible night.” His tone was a perfect cocktail of humor, embarrassment, and gloom. 

After a slow blink that blurred the room briefly, she said, “I’ll speak up next time, because I’m sure some gorgeous turian will be chasing you down soon, anyhow.”

He ignored that comment, looking over her vitals once again. Her latest full-body scan results flashed on the screen. They were unchanged, and normal, but his hand tensed. “You should be sleeping.”

She challenged him with a flick of her brows. “Then why’d you come by?” 

His gaze landed back on her. “Because I knew you wouldn’t be.”

As his caring eyes watched her, she rolled the edge of the blanket in her fingers. It was clear just by looking at him that he was done talking about the breakup, so she wouldn't push. “I’m bored. Play a game with me?”

“What kind of game?”

“I don’t know. Just not a shooting one.”

“Good idea. You already lost one shooting game today.”

“Fuck off,” she said with a weak smile.

After flicking a grin at her, he opened his omni-tool, ostensibly to find a game for them to play. While she waited, she tried to shift her body to relieve the pressure on her aching lower back. Pain striking up her side filled her with frustration over this whole situation, renewing her hatred for the fucking stupid krogan who caused it all. She ached to be home, in her own bed, next to Rocket. 

The comfort and happiness she’d felt the night Vakarian fell asleep at the foot of her bed rolled into her mind. It was an opaque mist of sensations, just like the memory of lying in bed with her parents. Not because of the distance of time, though, but the deep, confusing, raw emotion that was a weight on her chest. It shouldn’t have felt so good, so normal, seeing his contented face only a moment after waking up.

But it did. 

He was so easy to be around. So open and caring. His fast fingers fiddled with his omni-tool. His eyes flicked over the games he perused. It made no sense that he wasn’t bonded. An adoring woman should have scooped him up years ago. 

It occurred to her she was staring dumbly at him. His typically incisive eyes that were currently glazed with exhaustion stayed fixed on the games, though, so she was safe to continue staring at him like an enamored fool.

Shepard’s eyelids shuttered against her will, imagined stars fluttering through the edges of her mind.   

“Here,” his low voice felt like a gentle touch against her aching body. It coaxed her eyes back open. “I’ll upload this to your omni-tool and we can play a few rounds until you go to sleep.”

“K,” she replied, then turned her head on the not-soft-enough pillow to look out the window. The night sky hung over the hospital grounds — a dark backdrop blanketed by soft gold flecks. The image didn’t feel real. 

Because it wasn’t. She was on the Citadel, staring out a hospital window at a massive visual simulation. She longed to be under an actual night sky. Maybe hand-in-hand with someone who loved her. That’s what people in love did, right? Stare at a starry night sky together, dreaming about their future. Huddled together. Seeking arms. Needy lips. A dulcet melody, one of her favorite songs, played in her head. Longing, pained vocals pleading for love. She hummed along to it, soothing vibrations tickling her throat, wondering what it was like to laugh with someone you loved, to dream with someone you loved...to love. 

“Want me to put some music on?” Vakarian asked. 

“No,” she answered. 

“This is the one and only time I’ll offer to play soul music for you. Better take it.”

She was too sentimental at that moment to listen to music. Her own mortality, Vakarian’s mortality…she was too raw. “I want to see the end of this vid,” she told him instead of the truth. She had no idea what was going on in it anymore, but Solana would be sad if she didn’t watch it all. “Hey, can I ask you?” Shepard said. She could see his reflection in the glass. He was still messing with his omni-tool. 

“Hm?”

“If it’ll upset you, you don’t have to. But…”

Not looking up, he waited patiently for her to finish. 

She turned back to look at him, figuring it was only fair to look him in the eye while she asked him about the one thing she’d never had the guts to bring up. Maybe, though, talking about it would bring him some long-awaited healing. And, somewhere deep down she was more than a little curious about what Vakarian’s experience with love had been. “The woman you loved years ago. Tell me about her?”

He stiffened. Fearing that she overstepped a boundary, she watched for a flash of irritation or pulse of anger. Would his walls rise? She could apologize, or she could wait patiently. Trusting that they were close enough to talk about his past pain, that he trusted her enough to lower his walls for her, she chose the latter.

Within the blink of her very tired eyes, the tension finally left him. “Cama,” he said without hesitation, lowering his omni-tool. “She was in my squad, in special ops. She was good with a pistol, even better with explosives. She was mean to anyone she didn’t like.” A sad warmth settled in his eyes. “And she was sweet to me.” 

Shepard smiled. His description was tender and fitting; she wouldn't have expected him to describe a woman he loved any other way. It filled her with genuine joy, because someone had loved him. And he deserved that. 

“She got me through some rough times,” he added, his voice quieter. 

“What rough times?”

“Mm,” he hesitated. “Once upon a time, me and my dad didn’t get along as well as we do now.”

“Jesus,” she muttered.

“Yeah, Jesus.” His subvocals rippled with a hint of humor. 

She smiled at how funny the human expletive sounded coming from him. “What was going on between you and your dad?”

“Dumb shit. But we didn’t talk for an entire year. She encouraged me to start talking to him again, though. And she helped me let go of anger I’d carried for years. I learned how to relax a little. But it wasn’t just about that. I never knew life could be that good, not until I met her. Everything was sweeter. Nothing seemed impossible.” 

Shepard was so lost in the radiant, reminiscent mood that had fallen over him that she forgot the story had a bad ending. The words that followed reminded her of that.

His mandibles tightened. “I couldn’t do the same for her when she lost her arm in an accident.”

Before she could catch herself, Shepard winced — her strong reaction no doubt digging into his open wound. 

His expression turned pensive. She could only imagine the memories that were running through his mind. “A mission went sideways.” All the warmth faded from his voice. “Thankfully it was just her arm and some burns up her shoulder, but her recovery wasn't easy. It took a toll. So…” he paused, “she gave me confidence when I needed her, and I didn’t give her enough when she needed me. And I lost her.” Shepard almost reached out to take his hand when he released a shuddering sigh. “The only time I tried the whole love thing it ended, badly. I failed.”

Only for the sake of his feelings did she hold back a scoff. “People don’t fail at love, Garrus. That’s not a thing.” 

“I failed her.”

The certainty and sorrow in his voice softened her reaction. “How?” she asked, unsure if he would continue to open up about it. When she’d originally asked, she never expected him to say this much. 

“I never felt closer to anyone in my life, before the accident. And then after… she’d decline calls, look at me like I was a stranger, if she even looked at me at all. I know I never tried, not really, with Livia. But I swear I did for Cama.” He took a quick breath, stifling a strained trill that made Shepard’s breath hitch. “I tried everything to be what she needed. I gave her all of me.” 

With an aching heart, Shepard eagerly nodded, hoping to convey that she was as sure of that as he was. “Of course you did. Sounds like she was depressed. I’m guessing she lost her position in special ops.” 

He replied with a solemn nod. “I read books, talked to three Hierarchy psychologists about what I needed to do. How I could help her cope and adjust to all the changes. No matter what, though, nothing I did worked. There were good days, but so many more when she was despondent, distant, hopeless. I couldn’t help her.”

“I don’t believe that for one minute. You've been there for me like only my family has ever been. And I’ve never seen you let down someone you care about. I know you tried.”

He stared down at his shoe, not meeting her eye. “Then why’d she leave?”

At a loss for words, Shepard simply listened. Her thoughts were vague and tangled. What should she say to him? What could she do for him? Somewhere down the hall a patient whined, calling out for a nurse. Still, she couldn’t think of the right words. 

“It’s not easy, losing someone you love, the only person who has ever made you feel whole, one unanswered message at a time.”  

She gave him a moment, but when he didn’t say anything else she said the first thing that came to her buzzing mind. “I wonder if love only works if you let the person in. And she didn’t let you in, maybe. It sounds like she pushed you away because she was too hurt to let you help.”

“She was always so disappointed.” His voice had never been so small. 

“Maybe in herself, not you.”

His browplates gathered while he tapped his trigger finger to his thumb. Quick footsteps sounded down the hall; a nurse sailed by. 

“I’ve never met a more kind-hearted, good man. You may think you don’t know how to help, or take care of someone, but you do.”

Vulnerable blue eyes lifted to meet hers. His chest rose and fell with deep breaths, and she found her own matching his rhythm. You have to stop building up my self-esteem, Jane. One of these days I might start liking myself.” 

He usually called her ‘Shep’, so hearing him say her name  — Jane — so casually, yet so ardently, caught her off guard. Her toes and fingertips itched with blooming, tickling warmth that radiated to her core. Was it the painkillers? Or was it the intimate ease she felt between them?

“I’m sorry it hurt so much.” She breathed sincerity into her words. “But you’ll find love again.”

“Unlikely. Life is painful enough. Rather not put myself through it again.” Despite the slight humor in his voice, he was completely, frustratingly and endearingly, serious.

She blew at a few stray hairs that tickled her forehead and smiled. “You are so dramatic.”

His eyes flashed with mirth and indignation. “Let’s talk about the spectacle you made in that alley.”

I was in pain , Garrus ,” she huffed, but couldn't help her wide grin, “you insensitive fucker.” 

They shared smiles and soft laughs that drifted into silence. Hard fabric beneath him grated as he shifted in his seat, uncrossing one leg to cross the other. He watched the steady pulses of her heartbeat on the monitor, and she watched him, wondering how badly that must have hurt him, watching the love of his life slowly drift away, and he was helpless to keep her close. She could only imagine that pain. 

“The worst of it was the waiting,” his too-quiet voice broke the silence, surprising Shepard that he was still open enough to reveal more. “At the end, I was never sure whether she was actually going to show up to see me on my shore leave. Sometimes she would, and those were the best days of my life. Others, she didn’t. I spent so many nights waiting for her to walk through my door, watching for a message saying she was on her way.” He nodded solemnly, a faraway look in his eyes. “Waiting and worrying.”

God, Garrus.” Her heart ached for him, picturing him sitting, waiting, missing the woman he loved.  

“I finally stopped allowing myself to hope she’d show up after the third straight no-show. But out of nowhere she just appeared at my door one day, and everything felt good again. Her smiles lit up the room. Her laughs were real, and she was warm with me. I had a whole week with her like that, and it was perfect. We said goodbye, and I was sure everything would be all right. But that was the last time I saw her.”

Shepard took a deep breath in, resisting the urge to blurt out a slew of hollow reassurances. She had expected a typical sad breakup that he took hard, but nothing quite this raw. All of his pain, all of his towering walls and his constant self-doubt that hovered just under the surface of his cocky, confident shell, made perfect sense. He wasn’t just scared of giving someone his heart, he was a broken man who believed if anyone else made it inside his walls, they’d both end up crushed.

His confidence, the part of him that she adored and wanted to see more often, wasn’t just a shell, though. That’s who he really was, without the broken heart weighing him down. 

“No messages, no explanations… just gone. Her mom eventually told me she was okay, just needed space. But it messes with you, you know? Makes you wonder how you could let the best thing you ever had slip right out of your grasp. Slowly.” He stopped and looked her in the eye. “How I could let her carry that much pain and never help.”

A status beep from the equipment tracking her vitals grated through the room.

“Leaves you a bit broken, you know? Never quite sure...of anything.”

“That wasn’t fair,” Shepard said quietly, aching to make him understand that no one deserved that, even if their partner was depressed. She could see the pain in his eyes, hear the sadness in his voice, and it hurt to see him still carrying all that pain. She’d take it all away if she could. “Even though she was struggling, and she didn’t mean to hurt you, doesn’t mean…” Shepard shook her head, grasping desperately for the words that would comfort him. “Even if she pushed you away because she was struggling, that doesn’t make it right.”

His attention zeroed in on the vidscreen. Eventually Shepard turned her gaze to it as well. If she had known about even half of his story, she wouldn’t have hesitated to tell him sooner that he needed time to heal. But how much more? It had already been, what, three four years?

“Think you’ll ever see her again?” Shepard asked.

He shrugged. “Not sure what I’d do if I saw her. And if she wanted to see me, or even just talk, she would have reached out.”

“You still worry about her.”

He answered with a simple, slow nod. 

She let him watch the vid for a while before she returned to their conversation. “You’ll love again. And next time it’ll be better. You just have to put yourself out there. When you’re ready.”

His only reply was an obstinate, huffing sigh. 

“Come on,” she teased, hoping to coax a smile out of him. “You’d really deny all your charm and good looks to a woman who falls madly in love with you just because you’re afraid of a little heartache?” 

A rumble of dry amusement darkened his rich subvocals. “Obviously no one's ever broken your heart. Lucky.”

He was spot on, but he probably didn’t know how pathetic the truth was. Her fingers played at the edges of one of the many blankets piled on top of her, warm fabric against her sensitive skin. “I’ve never been in love, actually. So no, I suppose I haven’t.” A sad, soft laugh fell past her lips. “Not sure that makes me lucky, though.”

The surprise in his eyes was expected, the pity was also, but there was nothing like pity to make Shepard toughen up, which she tried to do while the outer edges of his browplates lifted. 

 “Damn,” he said. “I’m sorry. You’re right, I’m an insensitive bastard.”

With a purse of her lips the awkward self pity dissipated. “No, you’re not. I probably should have fallen in love at least once by my age, hm? It’s kind of weird.”

His mandibles spread in that unique way that indicated he was surprised, but also grimacing slightly. “Really? Never ?”

“No. I cared about a few people, but never loved. ” If she had been in less pain, and had more energy, she would have shrugged. “Not like I avoided it on purpose. It’s just that work and family always came first. Didn’t leave much room for anyone. So, things just always sputtered out amicably before there was even a chance to develop any real feelings, or hurt each other.”

His chin dipped. “That’s insane.”

“Bout as sane as someone refusing to fall in love again when they know how good it was.”

That got an affectionate glare out of him, one she gave right back. 

She tapped his wrist with her knuckle again . “Are you going to play a game with me or just take all my free therapy?”

He sat still, chin tucked. “You‘ve just never met anyone that was good enough for you,” he said. No teasing. No joking. Just sincere and warm. 

Her heart thumped — one solid, curious, deep pounding beat in her chest. It was an unfamiliar sensation, one that she couldn't quite attach a definite meaning to, but the warmth in his piercing eyes made her feel something she’d never felt before when looking at anyone else. Safe, happy, home. 

It wasn’t obvious how much time passed while they stared at each other. The drugs were making time and space a bit hazy, but it seemed like she should say something. That strange feeling in her chest made her lose track of her senses. 

Or maybe it was just the drugs. 

“Yeah,” she finally said, “let’s just say I dated a lot of Livia’s .”

A chuckle rippled out of him then died out in a stifled sputter. “That’s not nice,” he told her.

“She wasn’t nice.” 

A heavy sigh dragged out of him. He lifted his chest and shoulders, bringing his body back to its broad, easy stature. With renewed lightness in his movements, he cupped his chin in his palm and rubbed his mandibles with his fingers. “I’m never dating again.”

She giggled, stupidly, because of the drugs and because she was tired. “S’okay. We can spend our nights together, eating take-out and watching dumb vids till we’re old and grumpy.”

“Sounds wonderful.”

A nurse poked their head in the room. Vakarian gave them a disinterested glance over his shoulder before he turned back to Shepard. After flashing a scowl at the back of his head, they moved along.

“Are they going to kick you out soon?” Shepard asked, hoping she didn’t sound as small and desperate as she felt.

He answered with a confident shake of his head. “No. I’ll be here as long as you need me.”

She relaxed at his assurance. “The game?” she asked.

He leaned forward, taking her omni-tool in hand and with a few presses and swipes had a game interface pulled up, bright blue symbols in some type of pattern.

“What is this?”

“A matching game. Should be about your speed right now.”

As she tried to focus her tired eyes on the dazzling symbols, the vid ended. Shepard lifted her hand, reaching for the console at the side of her bed to turn the vidscreen off. Her trembling fingers almost made it before Vakarian’s thick finger swooped in and pressed the key for her. When her eyes rose, she saw that his were heavy with concern.  

“I’m just tired,” she explained easily. She lifted her heavy hand to demonstrate and offered a reassuring smile despite her hand jittering like she'd consumed a tub full of coffee. Her stomach turned at the sight of it, but she hoped her confidence would wash his concern away. She tried to tighten the muscles, control the tremors, but just couldn’t manage. “See?”  

It hung in the air, palm quaking and fingers trembling, for one small moment before his hand that had been propped on her bed jumped to take hers. His palm pressed to hers, three fingers twined with five. Within his solid, protective grasp he brought her hand back down to rest on the bed.  A few more tremors ran through her hand before his warmth, and the pressure of one body pressing against another, calmed them away. When their eyes met, instead of letting go, he squeezed. 

Garrus ...” she said, but lost her words. All thoughts were replaced with simple sensations. Warm skin. Comforting eyes. Happiness by his side. Never before had she been such close friends with someone, truly adored them to their very bones, and felt equally appreciated by them. How? How had she been so lucky to be partnered with him? A man who could offer an embrace after witnessing hell at her side. Hold her as she bled buckets of blood. Who could offer a hand when all she needed was the comforting touch of someone who cared. 

“Hey, I’m here,” he told her, his voice firm but tender. 

Hopefully always.

“I’ve got you, always,” he said, as if he knew her thoughts. She silently watched his curious, thoughtful eyes search her hand, rolling the pad of his thumb over each of her fingertips. Perhaps it was the first time he’d ever held a hand with five digits; it was the first time someone with three had held hers. “But, mmm, make my life a little easier, will you? Don’t scare me like that again.”

Her heavy body melted into the mattress beneath her, each soft breath carried her further down. 

“Aw, come on. It was so much fun,” she said with a breathy sigh. 

They had joked like this in the skycar, just days ago when she asked how painful knife wounds and gunshots were. He’d given her the same serious, unamused look he was giving her now. They injected humor in every topic they touched, but it seemed she’d stumbled upon a topic off-limits to him — her own fragile life.

 A flick of tension ran through his browplates. “Seriously. I need you, okay?”

He gave her hand another soft, sure squeeze. She needed him too, he had to know that.

She blinked slowly. Sound seemed delayed. He reclined back in the chair, settling in as if he were going to rest. It occurred to her that he’d done it on purpose to trigger a sympathetic response, to get her to settle in for rest too. 

And damn him, it worked. She allowed the weight of her exhaustion to blanket her body. Finally, her toes felt warm. Her limbs heavy. Her mind at ease. Instead of bleached linen she smelled his familiar herbal soap. 

He should be home, resting in a nice comfortable bed. But instead, he chose to spend his night in a cold hospital room, his body propped uncomfortably in a hard chair. For her. 

Her voice was so low, body so tired, that the words drug out of her throat. “I’d do just about anything for you.” She blinked. “So I guess staying alive is doable.”

“See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

She hummed, though she wasn’t sure whether it was an agreement or a laugh or just her tired mind saying goodnight. Regardless, it was good enough for him; he sunk down a bit lower, cheek pressed into his palm. 

Her tired mind conjured up the sensation of a hand brushing over her hair. Her dad’s. Maybe Vakarian’s. 

She’d lost her parents too soon. If it took clinging to him with all her might to prevent losing him as well, then that’s what she’d do.

“Talk to me,” she said, her voice not much more than a whisper. 

“About what?” 

“Anything. Memory modules. Rifles. Whatever you want.” 

I just want to hear your voice. Deep and warm and soothing. Sunshine on bare skin. 

“You hate when I talk about those things.”

“Well maybe I don’t hate it as much as I used to.” Lips felt too slow. When she closed her eyes she saw a dark night sky blanketed with golden flecks of stars.

“It’s a pretty picture, but doesn’t quite soothe the soul.” She let out a questioning hum. “Do you ever miss seeing a real sky?” she asked, forcing her eyelids open so she could see his face.

His answer came quickly. “Yeah, sometimes.” 

Sleep pulled her into a sweet embrace, but she refused to let go. Not quite yet . As she turned her head to look out the window the room spun, the stars she sought out dancing in her swirling vision. “It just doesn’t feel the same. Maybe only because I know it’s fake.” 

He paused, she could see his reflection in the window looking out at the pristine, unnatural view with her. “I don’t know, skies are nice,” he said. “But I think if you take a minute to stop looking up, maybe you’ll realize there’s comfort in other things. Things that are right in front of you.”

He was looking at her now. She turned back to face him. His caring eyes. Calm presence. A tired, contemplative hum vibrated in her throat as she wondered what brought him comfort. What soothed his soul and allowed him to rest? 

The image of him standing at her door the night he found out about his mom flashed into her mind. Then his body wrapped in blankets at the foot of her bed. He’d sought her out, hadn't he?

She hoped the look she gave told him how much it meant that he sat by her bed with her, but didn’t betray the need she felt. The fragility. 

The affection.

He squeezed her hand again. Though still right by his side, she felt herself drifting away. Her eyes closed and she knew she wouldn’t, couldn’t, open them again. Sleep captured her and was dragging her under. 

“I’m going to sleep, again,” she murmured, disappointed. It was the second time that day she was going to fall asleep as he held on to her. 

A gentle rumble from Vakarian told her he was speaking. Though his words escaped right past her senses, his voice thrummed through her body, convincing her to allow herself to fall asleep. With a willing heart she listened. At the edges of her consciousness she realized it wasn’t his flanging voice forming words that she heard and felt, but a deep-chested, soothing purr. The rich hum of his subvocals and the touch of his sure hand filled the last vestiges of her consciousness, along with her own easy breaths and heartbeat. Fingers twined within fingers. Filed talons pressed against the back of her hand. Sinking. Drifting. She held on tight.

And he never let her go.  

 

Chapter Text

Vakarian gripped the skycar steering wheel, knuckles sore from the tension. Every ounce of his self-restraint was required to keep himself from cursing Pallin and the Council. Even an hour later, and half the Citadel away from Pallin’s office, their captain’s words ground through his mind — too much undeserved praise for him and not enough earned praise for Shepard.

“Nice work Vakarian,” Pallin had chirped. “Looks like you put a lot of time into tracking down those two. They’re even speaking very highly of you at the embassy, from what I hear.”

Vakarian shifted in the hard chair opposite Pallin’s desk, hearing all those words but not truly accepting them as fact. What were they really saying? That, finally, he was showing some of the promise they had all been waiting for since hearing Castis Vakarian’s son joined the force? 

Pallin’s gaze flicked to Shepard, tension in his mandibles, hesitation in his eyes.

“And Shepard...who would have thought you were capable of something like that? We were told humans could surprise us with their grit, but...well, I’ll just say you turned out to be a perfect partner for Vakarian. You complement him well.” 

Vakarian had waited for Pallin to follow that with something more — praise for the time she put in lying on her couch at home reading over evidence and messaging Forensics when she should have been sedated and resting, or the fact that she found three more victims the same day she was released from Huerta based solely on the knife they found in Achillus’s duffle bag...but Pallin just smiled at her, then dismissed them to take a call. 

“You’re annoyed.” Shepard’s calm voice interrupted his perseverating thoughts and his steadily marching agitation that kept time with his thumping pulse.  

He sighed. “I hate how you’re treated here.”

Her skin was a canvas for the city lights, washed in starkly contrasting flashes of bright hues — yellow, blue, red. For a moment he stared, worrying over the dark circles under her eyes. The Citadel didn’t treat her kindly, not like she deserved, and yet she was bathed in it, wearing the city with grace and ease. 

“You know that, right?” He continued, focusing back on traffic and wrapping his grip even tighter around the wheel. “You deserve half the credit for our work, and they toss you a scrap of recognition.” 

She shrugged. “I think you care enough for both of us.”

An indignant chirp clicked in his throat. She laughed.

“Really,” she said. “I don’t mind as much as I probably should. I’m just happy to be here. I’m happy to have an amazing partner. And I’m proud of our record.” She shifted, a wince on her face reflecting the wound in her side that was still healing. She pointed to it. “And this earned me some respect around the academy, so you know, good thing I got shot, right?” She chuckled, and winced again, then blew a puff of air past pursed lips. 

They shouldn't be going out to dinner; she should be going home to rest — she still needed it. Shepard had insisted, though. Tali offered to take them out as a thank you, and Shepard said it would be rude to turn her down — the least they could do is spend some time with her before she left. That was Shepard, though, thinking of others before herself. 

He made an effort to relax his grip a bit, because she was right; anger and irritation weren’t the answer to the deficient respect they gave her. It would take time, and patience. They’d recognize how brilliant she is in time. Accepting an injustice didn’t come easily to him, though. He wanted to fight. He wanted to break it down and demand a wrong be made right. His irritation and impulsivity rarely accomplished his goal, though. It had actually gotten him into trouble more than a few times. 

Which is why he admired Shepard with every ounce of his spirit. If he could just be half as patient as her...  

“How are you so strong?” Vakarian asked.  

“How do you not see how strong you are?” she replied easily. 

Traffic kicked back up, the skycar beside them jerked forward and blasted ahead, but he had no desire to keep up. The Citadel was always thick with other people, always bustling and pressing in around you, but in a skycar it was just them. Just her calm presence, the smell of her shampoo mixing with stale, cold coffee, and the sound of their quiet laughter. Those moments healed something in his aching spirit. 

🔪🔪🔪

Shepard stared out the skycar window, yellow lights from cars zooming past flicking through her unfocused eyes. A giant billboard atop a building caught her attention — a woman’s too-serious face next to pink neon text, “Don’t love her, she’ll only hurt you”. Fucking ridiculous perfume ads. A short, derisive chuckle squeezed her chest. The cheap, facile, romanticized danger inside a sentient being’s soul was obnoxious. If they wanted darkness, they could go take a look in the lower wards. That was actual danger. It wasn’t a pretty face next to a dumb-ass slogan. It sure didn’t make anyone fall in love, and it didn’t smell like fucking roses. 

She paused, catching her slide into pessimism. It wasn’t like her, but getting shot, killing someone with her bare hands...well, it was normal to walk away from that with a few emotional scars to match her physical scar. It might take time, but both would heal.  

She turned to look at Vakarian, calm and cool behind the steering wheel despite his irritation after meeting with Pallin. 

She didn’t want to think about work anymore. Her thoughts wandered to dinner, and Tali, and how Tali had called Vakarian several times since they saw her at the hospital. Tali had even gone to his apartment last night. There was some familiarity there. Had there been more? He said he wasn’t attracted to non-turians, but maybe Tali was interested in him?

“You hung out with Tali last night?” she asked.

“Not really. She just came by to pick up an omni-tool processor. She said I owed her a new one.” A mischievous grin parted his mandibles. “I overclocked hers a while back and it blew.” 

Shepard turned to him with quirked brows and wide eyes, which made his mandibles flick sheepishly. 

“Did you and Tali have a thing?” she asked.  

“She’s nice, but no,” he answered honestly. “I’ve never been attracted to non-turians before.” 

Before?

That was a curious, and misleading, way of putting it. It was just a slip-up, she could tell by the tone in his voice he wasn’t interested in Tali, but he frequently created awkward moments because he wasn't as thoughtful with his words as you’d expect from a detective. This is why he sometimes struggled in interrogations — and she took advantage of every available opportunity to teach him to be more selective with his words. 

“Before what?” she asked. 

“Hm?” 

“You said before. Like you used to only find turians attractive, but at some point that changed.”

He froze, watching the traffic, though she could tell he wasn’t focused anymore on the skycars zipping past; the wheels so obviously turning inside his head were taking up too much brain power for him to properly manage a second task. His mandibles slackened, the turian look of being dumbstruck. “No. I mean.” An awkward trill resonated from his throat.

In one quick beat Shepard lowered her voice, adopting a serious tone. “Mr. Vakarian, I’ll need you to expand on that statement.”

“Stop,” he warned. 

She shot him a cheeky grin. 

The look on his face was unreadable.“This isn’t an interrogation and I'm not a suspect. No detective games right now. I’m too agitated and too tired.” 

“Relax, I’m teasing.”

“You’re hilarious,” he drawled.

“I know.”

It had been her first day back from medical leave, and the exhaustion suddenly hit her. She gave Vakarian a break and relaxed into the seat, wondering how she would make it through dinner. 

The rest of the ride was quiet, which did nothing to help her fight off her body's steady descent into the realm of slumber. Her back hurt. Her side hurt. For some reason, her feet and legs were so tired they hurt too. Getting shot was a bit of a drag. Truly. Even if it had earned her respect from officers who all but sneered at her only weeks ago. 

Within minutes they arrived at the port near the restaurant. Getting out was tricky, but she made it without a misstep or, hopefully, any outward sign of her discomfort.

Thankfully, none of the bustling pedestrians jostled her. An accidental elbow to the side might have been the end of the evening. 

At the bottom of the restaurant steps Vakarian paused and turned to her. “We don’t have to stay long, okay?”

“I’m fine, no need to rush through dinner.”

He gave her a once over, just to show he wasn't fooled by her placation. “I know you’re tired, don’t be stubborn.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and started up the steps.

She shot a scowl at the back of his fringe-tipped head and started up right behind him. As soon as she lifted a leg, she regretted her foolish confidence; a shot of pain pulled at her side. She drew in a quick breath and paused. 

Before she could even hope that he wouldn't notice, Vakarian flinched, turned to look at her, and was beside her in an instant. 

“Let me take you home,” he said. She could hear the concern in his voice even though he tried to hide it. 

“Really, I’m fine, I just need to go slow.” She lifted her leg again, gritting back the wince that begged to be set free and grabbed tight to the railing. The pain sent her reeling, head spinning, she felt herself lean slightly backward; her grip tightened so she wouldn't fall.

With graceful, snappy reflexes that didn’t surprise her, Vakarian fell to her side. His hand settled on her lower back, pressing in close for support. The intimate touch surprised her, sending a jolt of tingles to her fingertips and toes. She recalled the last time his hands had been this familiar on her body, when he had lifted her up in that dark corridor searching for evidence. His breath on her back. The way she couldn’t wait to be put down because of the thoughts it gave her. 

She felt herself teeter again, on the edge of something dangerous, but knew that this time the disorientation was just her mind.  

She hushed the worry away. He was just trying to help. Just her friend.  

“Is that okay?'' he asked, his hand tensed, she could feel he was ready to withdraw it if she asked him to. 

“Yeah, “ she answered, and his hand pressed closer, cradling her to his side. “Yeah, it’s fine.” Her gaze rose to meet his. “Thanks.” 

Her first step was cautious, but with him by her side, every step after was sure. As he guided her through the restaurant his hand was firm but tender, warming her back. Promising. Secure. 

And what harm could come from that kind of touch? They were best friends. Their friendship was solid, secure, built on trust and support. 

Just like his warm, tender, perfect touch.