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Horizon

"It's focusing on me," Shepard shouted, jamming a fresh heat sink into her SMG. "I'm going to run. Keep shooting and stay out of its range."

"Understood," came Garrus's clipped reply. Massani drawled something rude-sounding but the crackle of the Praetorian's lasers sliced his words out of the air. The crate at Shepard's back disintegrated. She hit the ground and rolled.

The creature hummed above her head, legs twitching, eyes flickering with electrical discharge. "Sniper rifles. Open fire," she yelled, and took off running.

Her boys, bless them, did their duty. She ducked behind a shipping container, panting, but the penetrating hum and the smell of burning grass caught up with her. She swore and pushed off towards another container, the lasers hissing at her heels.

"Get out of there, Shepard. It's right on top of you."

"Trying," she snapped, and scrambled for new cover.

Massani chuckled, unconcerned. "C'mon, Shepard. Can't you move those pretty legs any faster?"

She didn’t bother dignifying him with a response, and instead popped her head out to survey the field. The crack of a high-caliber rifle echoed across the lawn, and a chip of plating fell away from the creature's armored forehead. It didn't seem to notice; it kept floating towards her, its blue-white lasers slicing over the empty earth, burning a path for it to follow.

She ducked back and peeked around the other side of her cover. A splotch of yellow shifted between crates on the wide end of the field. Massani. Fragile cover, but as long as the monster kept targeting her, maybe it wouldn't matter.

Garrus’s scope flashed in her peripheral vision. He’d picked himself a spot in the corner, not far ahead from her, nestled in a gap between stacked shipping containers. Hard for bullets or lasers to get into, but even harder for him to get out of. If she kept running and weaving she'd just bring the monster right on top of him, and he'd be fried to death inside his sniper's den.

She should have kept a better eye on them. Massani could handle a little fire, but Garrus—

The monster's hum grew louder, vibrating inside her clenched teeth.

Fuck. Well, maybe she could handle a little fire, too.

If her Cerberus upgrades actually got them all out of this alive, she’d buy Lawson a very expensive drink. She holstered her gun, drew a deep breath, and took off running back the way she had came. Directly into the path of the Praetorian.

"Shepard!" Garrus yelped into her comm, at the same time Massani shouted "The hell are you thinking, you daft bitch?"

Lightning crackled around the creature's glowing eyes. She counted down the seconds as it swelled up— was it inhaling? Its mouth opened, a searing white. It was full of glowing skulls. She shook her head at the oddity. Fucking Collectors. The twin lasers touched down, fizzed against her shields. It felt odd, a little itchy, like pulling off a staticky sweater.

Her feet pounded against the earth. Her shields flickered and collapsed just as she ran underneath the monster's hovering body, ducking in between its segmented legs.

It couldn't shoot her through its own body, but it hummed and thrashed all around her. She didn't want to stick around to see whether those knife-edged limbs were just for show. Dimly, she heard Garrus's voice growling something untranslatable in her ear. A rifle cracked, then another. The Praetorian ignored them. The massive body slowly spun in place, sniffing her out. Static fizzed in the air.

There was a steel container a bit ahead and to her left. She sprinted towards it without a second thought.

Mistake. The Praetorian fired at her immediately.

The smell of burning plastic drifted up through her helmet. Her back felt hot. Really, really hot.

She'd miscalculated. The container was right there— but the thing was too close for her to stop, it was right behind her, she could feel it humming in her bones, the crackle of lightning as it charged up for another burst.

"Shepard!" Garrus's anguished voice.

"Idiot," barked Massani.

Her back seared. Massani was right, she was a daft bitch and an idiot, and now she was going to die an idiot's death. She felt her flesh bursting and bubbling, splitting open like rotten fruit.

Her breath stuttered out as her lungs depressurized. Horizon's grassy fields and purple skies fragmented into sparkling blackness. It felt gentle, familiar. Like falling into the stars. She tried to lift up her hand to touch one, but her arm— her arm wouldn't—

---

If I have to tear you apart, Shepard, I will.

"Fuck. Off." She hurled a vicious, desperate Warp into the Collector's fiery eyes. Its flesh shredded and flaked into ash. Garrus chuckled behind her.

She shot him an annoyed look, which he ignored. He crouched, sighted and fired in one smooth movement. Downfield, a drone's skull burst into fragments.

Nice, she thought. "Something funny, Vakarian?" was what came out of her mouth instead.

"You're in rare form today," he said, and slid in a fresh clip. "Usually you have to shoot them up a bit first."

"Yeah, well, I'm up to here with this stupid place," Shepard growled, tracing a line just below her eyebrows. "That glowy fucker's deliberately trying to piss me off. And it's working."

"Hmm," Garrus said, and executed another drone. She frowned and turned away.

She was tense. It was weird. Even when she was in the shit, she never felt— whatever she was feeling right now. Not nervous, but—

Massani splattered the last one with a quick burst of assault fire, then stood and stretched out the kinks in his back. "Clear."

Garrus scanned the field through his scope, looking for stragglers. The silence settled over her like a great itchy blanket.

Shepard fidgeted with her armor, poked around for fresh heat sinks. Checked her radar, then checked it again.

"Don't get cocky and wander off, now," Massani drawled. "Bet there's more coming."

"Bet you’re right," she muttered, eyes trained overhead, just waiting for the Praetorian to drop in on them.

She was already on the move by the time the two men saw it. "Scatter! Stay out of range!"

"Fucking christ," said Massani, running for cover.

I'm getting you this time, you four-eyed motherfucker, she thought, glaring up at the monstrosity.

"What the hell is that thing?" Garrus said, in horrified wonder. Shepard's stomach did a sharp twist.

What? He should know. Why didn't he know?

If he didn't know— why did she know?

"Let's kill it first, then we can form a committee to investigate," she heard herself retort.

Garrus clicked his jaw at her in what she had come to recognize as a turian noise of exasperation. (He clicked his jaw at her a lot.)

Had she said that to him last time? She couldn't remember.

Wait— wait. What the hell, "last time"? They'd never fought any Collectors before landing on Horizon. Something was messed up. Her brain was screwing with her.

Shepard shook her head. Fixing her screwed-up brain was a Lawson problem. Killing monsters, on the other hand, was a Shepard problem. She reached for her pistol.

---

The Praetorian hit hard, but god, was it dumb. Massani cackled as she coaxed it after her, leading it in slow spirals around and around the gun tower.

"Fine time to play Ring around the Rosie, Shepard. Weren't we here to save a colony or something?"

"Aww, Massani," she purred. "You feeling left out?"

"'Ring around the Rosie?'" Garrus repeated. She heard him exhale into the comm. His shot rang out a second later, striking between two of the monster’s glowing eyes.

"Children's playground game," she replied, ducking behind a container as the twin lasers scythed through the air. "Hey Massani. Less waxing goddamn nostalgic, more shooting your goddamn gun."

"Cerberus isn't paying me enough to put up with your sass." His bullet cracked into the creature.

She'd taken a few good shots where bits of her had popped out as she darted from cover to cover. At this point her toes were probably held on more with Medi-gel than skin and bone. A bit of her Carnifex had gotten melted before she could pull it away.

She was annoyed at herself for that. Taylor would be even more annoyed when she dumped it on him later.

But she was alive and mostly unharmed, playing dance partners with a terrifying floating Collector construct. Garrus was tucked safely away where he could do what he did best, and Massani was— well, Massani was being an ass. All in all, it could be going a lot worse.

She straightened up behind her cover, shook off the last of her weird attack of deja vu, and got ready to move. She had this.

If only it would stop that fucking humming.

"I think we’re getting close, Shepard," Garrus said. "It’s looking a little unsteady. I’ve got it lined up for an impact shot." He breathed out into her ear again, and his rifle cracked across the field.

A thump. The humming stopped. Shepard frowned and popped her head out, her pistol trained forward.

A shadow fell across her face. The creature reared up like a monstrous horse, its long, scythe-like legs unfolding around her, tips brushing against her shoulders. Its armored skin shimmered violet.

"Shepard!"

She shoved its legs away and scrambled back, firing desperately as she went.

It dropped down on her with the force of a bomb. Her skull rattled and her vision went black. Fucking hell, not again.

Time passed. She couldn’t tell how much. She was on the ground, and it was dark. Something wet and cool was running down her face. She reached up a hand to wipe it away. Her fingers squished into pools of gelatinous slime.

Oh. Those were her eyes.

"Shepard," Garrus said again in her ear, desperate. His voice was shaking.

It'll be okay, she tried to tell him, but her lungs had liquefied.

The humming started again, deafening, shaking her body down to her agonized bones. She heard alien joints whirr and click, felt her mangled nerves shrieking, as the monster unfolded itself and rose off of her.

Her ribcage splintered under its foot. Hot, sticky bubbles rose up in her throat, popped between her lips.

The humming grew fainter as the creature moved off, searching for her teammates.

I'm sorry. It'll be okay. I'll do better next time.

---

She flowed smoothly from cover to cover, drawing the monster after her in an effortless dance, slicing into it with her scavenged particle beam when she had the opportunity, keeping her head down when she didn't. She took zero chances, and wasted none at all.

"Shit," Massani said, reluctantly impressed.

Garrus's rifle flashed in the distance. "Shepard. Are you sure Cerberus didn't implant some kind of chip in your brain?"

She frowned, a little unnerved, as she slid behind a crate. "What? Why?"

"It's strange, watching you lead it around like that," he said, his voice low. "It's like you know what it’s going to do before it does."

She huffed. "Give me some credit, Vakarian. You don’t need mysterious powers to outsmart this thing. It’s just a dumb animal."

"Animal?" He made an amused-sounding clicking noise. "Shepard, it's got laser cannons mounted to its face."

She fired another white-hot burst from the Collector rifle and kept moving. "Okay, not an animal. Hybrid synthetic-organic abomination. With lasers. It's still dumb. I'm smarter."

"You're sexy as hell, is what you are," Massani rumbled. "Been a while since I saw anyone control a battlefield like that. I need a cigarette."

"Simmer down, Massani. This thing isn't dead yet."

She sidestepped a laser that got a little too close and jogged backwards, firing as she went.

"Shepard," murmured Garrus's voice in her ear as she slipped into cover. "It's looking unsteady again. Get some more distance. I'm taking a concussive shot."

Something twisted inside her at his words. Don't, she nearly cried out, flooded with the certainty that their world was about to shatter into pieces. Everything— the colony, the mission, their lives— hinged on this moment, this razor-edged precipice.

She hesitated only for an instant. As soon as she had noticed it, the premonition faded away. Garrus's plan was tactically sound. "Do it," she said, and turned and ran.

His rifle snapped. Her feet struck the earth, once, twice, and she felt a biotic pulse slam through her, throw her to the ground.

Shit— too close. She hauled herself upright and into cover. She’d miscalculated. Overconfident in her foot speed. She'd have to tell Massani off for swelling her ego.

Garrus spat out a word with a lot of evil-sounding consonants. "Shepard! Are you all right?"

"It's picking itself back up," Massani warned.

"I'm fine. Point me towards cover." She didn’t want to risk poking her head out to look.

"Stacked containers ahead to the north-east," Garrus replied. "Jump over the one right in front of you and you'll see it."

She took a deep, ragged breath. "I'm running in two seconds. Be ready to unload everything you've got."

That razor-edged feeling was back, and her heart was quaking in her chest. She was astonished to realize that she was absolutely fucking terrified. The firefight was still, all things considered, going pretty damn well. What the hell was wrong with her? She'd spent half her life in firefights. She had no time for this kind of bullshit.

The buzz of the lasers grew louder and louder.

She inhaled, then exhaled. The buzz cut out. She ran.

Behind cover, she trembled, gasping.

"Shepard?" Garrus's gentle voice in her ear. He’d heard her.

She straightened up, clenched her shaking hands into fists. Fuck this. Fuck her stupid brain trying to tell her she was going to fuck it all up. She knew exactly what she was doing. She was Commander fucking Shepard and she was here to murder the Collectors and there was no reason for this poisoned, leaden feeling in her chest, telling her she was making a horrible mistake.

That stupid creature was ninety-five percent dead, and she was here, kicking ass with a giant fucking gun, one hundred percent alive.

She stepped out into the open field and leveled her particle beam at the Praetorian.

She heard Garrus shout her name, as if from a great distance.

She felt her shields fizz and hiss and sputter out. Her armor bubbled and smoked. Whatever. She kept her finger on the trigger. She knew her math.

And if I’m wrong, the thought flashed past her and vanished faster than a blink, It’s fine. I’ll just do it better next time.

Three seconds later, the Praetorian had disintegrated into glowing embers, and Garrus was sprinting towards her, long legs carving up the distance between them. She grinned up at him, feeling oddly weightless.

The strange, cold fear had vanished. What had she been so afraid of? She couldn't remember anymore. It didn’t matter.

Garrus skidded to a halt in front of her, his hands hovering in mid-air— as if he wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her hard, but thought she might kill him if he tried. "Are you completely fucking insane— gave me eighteen separate heart attacks—"

She just beamed at him. She probably looked like a lunatic. She was fine with that.

He sighed and stopped, put a hand over his face. One baleful blue eye glared out at her from between his fingers. "...What the hell, Shepard."

Massani ambled up behind him, shouldering his rifle. "Daft bitch," he said, but it sounded like a compliment this time.

---

Then Kaidan stepped out. Her relieved, welcoming smile faded at the look on his face.

"I thought you were dead, Shepard. We all did."

I was, she opened her mouth to say, but the words stuck in her throat.

The cold fear had sunk its claws back into her heart. She felt dizzy, deoxygenated. Of course she did: her chest cavity had been crushed, her skull cracked open, her skin burnt black and peeling. She'd seen the wreckage on Alchera. She'd seen Lawson's notes.

She couldn't shake the feeling that she'd seen herself, only a few minutes ago, in multiple pieces strewn over the ground.

No one ever came back from the dead. She knew that. Virmire. Edolus. Akuze. She knew it very, very well.

She glanced away. Long, pale grass rustled and shivered in the wind. Clouds massed, low and dark, over the empty buildings. The air smelled like smoke and ozone.

If this was a hallucination, it was pretty thorough.

"It's been too long, Kaidan," she heard herself say, finally.

His face darkened. "Is that all you have to say for yourself? Two years and you just act like nothing’s happened?"

"What?" She raised her hand to her face. "No. Listen, I—"

—What? What else was there to say? She had no idea what the fuck was going on. As far as Shepard was concerned, nothing had happened. There'd been no one for it to happen to.

Who was this bitter, hard-edged man standing in front of her, anyway? She barely recognized him. It pissed her off.

She could tell Garrus was trying not to stare at her in appalled fascination as she floundered, burning bridges left and right.

Massani just lit up a cigar, watching them with open amusement.

Kaidan glanced away. "I loved you, Shepard."

Her heart ached for him, this handsome, furious stranger.

"Goddamnit," she muttered under her breath. "I’m sorry, Kaidan. I didn’t mean to leave you. I was—" No. "—It wasn’t my choice."

Then one of them, or both of them, brought up the ugly specter of Cerberus. It went downhill from there.

Her Kaidan would have tried to be logical, to understand, to draw her out, even if he didn't like what she had to say. He'd had that singularly rare combination of compassion and cool-headedness.

She'd— liked that about him.

New Kaidan apparently preferred to yell a lot and make sweeping generalizations.

New Kaidan stormed off. Her Kaidan lay dead and buried.

Garrus reached out a tentative hand and patted her arm.

Shepard looked up at the sky, blinking, wishing faintly that the Praetorian were still alive. Maybe if it killed her, she could start over again.

Chapter Text

"Commander! C'mere, you gotta see this," Joker crowed from the cockpit as they stomped their way out of decontamination. "You're like— I don't even know. Half Rambo, half Ripley. All badass."

"Half who? What?" Shepard leaned over his chair.

"Old Earth vids. Doesn't matter." He glanced up at her. "Oh, and uh, pretty crazy running into Alenko, huh? All things considered, I think the conversation went better with the Praetorian."

Shepard shot him a quelling look. "Aren't you supposed to be showing me something?"

"Right you are, Commander." He pressed a button and a grainy, monochrome video clip stuttered into motion. Judging from the angle (high), the position (distant), and the giant rifle barrel in the bottom of the frame, it had to be the feed from Garrus's visor.

Joker tapped the interface. "Here's where it gets good."

She watched. A tiny armored human strode out into the distant field, head held high, alien gun held ready. An enormous glowing monster floated steadily towards her. The little human planted herself directly in its path.

It looked like something out of a superhero cartoon. The camera angle shifted suddenly— video Garrus had bolted upright.

"SHEPARD!" His horrified voice crackled through the speakers. Joker turned the volume down.

The tiny human and the monster squared off and unleashed fiery hell upon each other.

One second. Two seconds. Lightning crackled between them. The camera frame swayed and shook as video Garrus sank back down into a crouch, loaded a fresh clip, and fired a shot, then did it again, and again.

Beside her, real-life Garrus twitched. "Somehow, it's even more gut-wrenching watching it like this." Massani just laughed.

Three seconds. The tiny human stepped forward, still firing. The monster thrashed its spidery limbs and fell to pieces. Joker let out a whoop, raising his arms in the air.

Video Garrus exhaled shakily and straightened. Joker flicked his thumb on the keyboard, and the image froze.

Shepard grinned up at real-life Garrus. "Thanks for the fire support, buddy."

He blinked at her slowly, deliberately: a turian eye roll. "Yeah, well. I think I can spare a little ammo for a good cause. Like keeping your fragile human ass alive."

"Hah." She punched him in the arm. "I'm invincible."

He shot her an unreadable look.

"What?"

Joker spun around in his chair. "So, wanna see it agai— Holy shit, Shepard, look at your armor!"

She looked. Her breastplate had warped and melted in the intense heat. There was a fist-sized circle in the center, over her heart, where the material had turned as thin and transparent as glass.

She tapped it lightly with a gloved fingertip. A spiderweb of cracks laced out from her finger. Chips of paper-thin ceramic broke off and clinked down onto the deck. She poked her finger through the hole, bemused.

"Bloody hell. An instant longer and you'd have bit it," Massani said, an eyebrow raised. "You got the devil's own luck."

"Nah. Devil's got nothing on Shepard," Joker said.

Shepard shrugged, trying for casual bravado. That hole in her heart had sent that icy fear crawling up her back again: This wasn't real. This wasn't her. She was burned up and breathing dirt on Horizon. She was frozen and floating among the broken bones of the Normandy.

A ghost had taken her place on this strange, shiny ship.

"Hell of a trophy," Massani said, nodding at her breastplate. "You should hang that thing up on your wall."

Shepard looked down again. Her hand was still raised, hovering over her unprotected heart. Garrus watched her, his bandaged face expressionless.

Joker just leaned back in his chair and grinned up at them. The new Normandy's engines thrummed beneath her feet. Stars streaked past the viewscreen.

Almost like old times. If you squinted.

...Fuck it, she thought. At least I'm a ghost with a gun.

She turned towards Massani and lifted an eyebrow. "Interior decorating advice? From a merc?"

"Won't even charge," he drawled. "That was damn impressive down there. Thought you'd lost it completely for a moment. Feels good to be wrong."

"Thanks." Shepard flashed him a toothy smile. "Feels good to be alive."

---

"Grab your guns," she announced the next morning, as she barged in through the battery doors. "We're going groundside with Taylor. Checking out a distress signal."

"Hello to you too, Shepard," Garrus said without turning around. His talons clicked over his haptic display.

She cocked her head. "Okay. Hi, Garrus. How are you?"

He flicked a mandible at her. "Oh, you know, the usual. Too good for cover. Convinced of my own immortality. Prone to suicidal rushes into enemy fire."

She crossed her arms and leaned back against the battery wall. "You mad about yesterday?"

"Yeah. I am."

She blinked. She hadn't expected him to admit it. "...Well, it worked."

He turned around finally, leaned back against his console. His eyes dropped down to her chest. "It almost didn't."

Shepard glanced down at her shiny new breastplate, fresh from the fabricator. She thumped it with her fist. "I'm fine. See?"

"It was a stupid risk," he growled, his good mandible flaring out again. "We would have had that thing nailed to the wall, if you had just waited another thirty seconds."

She sighed. "Garrus, it was getting too close. I didn't want to hang around and let it surprise us with something even nastier than that biotic knockdown." She unfolded her arms, leaned in towards him. "Sometimes it's worth taking a little fire to finish things quick."

He met her eyes, unmoved. "How did you know you would finish it before it finished you?"

She frowned. "I just— did. It was on the edge. I could feel it."

He tilted his head to one side.

"What," she said.

"Not really helping your case against the psychic Cerberus brain chip theory."

She rolled her eyes. "Take it up with Lawson."

"I might," he said darkly, but he stood up and reached for his rifle anyway.

---

2175 Aeia

Mechs. Why was it always goddamn mechs? Shepard crouched behind the barrier and winced at the singe marks on her armor. The exhaust fans on her shield generator whined in protest.

"So," Garrus drawled over the comm. "Is catching rockets face-first something humans like to do for fun? Or is it more of a competitive thing?"

Shepard shot an annoyed look over her shoulder, knowing it'd hit him at 50x magnification in scope.

"Competitive, then. You know, you could be in the big leagues, Shepard. I don't think any of them have gotten past you so far."

Yeah, all right, her rhythm was a little off. Didn't matter. Mordin had been tinkering with her gear.

And in any case, she'd survive.

"Sweet of you to notice, Vakarian," she purred into her comm. "I was just trying to beat your all-time high score."

He just laughed, the ass. She made a particularly filthy Batarian hand gesture at him behind her back, and leaned out to check the field. The YMIR was out of range now, having shifted behind a palm tree to reload or recharge or whatever the hell it was doing. She hurled a tech Overload into the cluster of LOKIs nearby. The mechs reeled. Behind her, Garrus lined himself up and knocked out two with one shot.

"Showoff."

"You love it."

"Glad you two are having fun over there," Taylor said, voice strained.

Shepard winced. Taylor was definitely having the least fun out of all of them. She popped her head out again to check on him: he was further up, picking off some feral, brain-scrambled humans with well-placed shotgun blasts. He ducked behind a crate to reload just as the YMIR lumbered back out into the field. It paused, head swiveling.

"Get out of there, Taylor. It's locking on to you." Shepard unloaded a clip into the YMIR's well-shielded head. It barely even drew the thing's attention. Shit. She'd be better off throwing rocks.

"Getting," Taylor replied, and jogged backwards towards their position, firing incendiary bursts at the YMIR.

"Watch your six," Garrus yelled, right before Taylor tripped over a wounded hunter that had been crouching in the grass, and went down.

Fuck. Shepard touched her fingers to her armor-plated heart, and took off running.

"Shepard—" Garrus sounded more resigned than angry.

She spared a moment to feel bad for him. He'd been rock-fucking-steady through everything. Saren, Sovereign, Cerberus. He deserved better than a half-psychotic reanimated corpse for a CO.

But, well, not everybody got what they deserved. "Garrus, stay put and keep shooting. Toss in an Overload if you can manage from that distance. I'm going to try to flank and draw the mech off him."

Taylor was a deft hand at close quarters combat, but the feral hunter kicked and thrashed like a frightened animal. A flailing elbow cracked across Taylor's face, stunning him.

The YMIR paused in its approach, looked down at the two men. It shifted its weight back, raised a shiny white arm. Shepard swore and changed course, powering up her tech armor.

The YMIR's rocket launcher unfolded. Shepard stepped directly in front of it, arms open for its embrace.

"Spirits give me strength," Garrus muttered in her ear.

The rocket whined through the air, crashed into her chest. Her tech armor exploded. She staggered. The noise was unbelievable.

Dimly, she saw the YMIR recovering its balance. One of Garrus's bullets chipped a piece off its faceplate as it turned around. She heard a shotgun blast behind her, followed by a wet thump and splatter. The remains of the hunter.

"Taylor, fall back," she said.

"Commander, your shields are down!"

"So are yours. MOVE!"

The YMIR tilted its head down to look at her. Another rifle round chunked into its skull, and was ignored. Its machine gun unfolded and and clicked into position.

She stood her ground until she heard Taylor start running, and then dove sideways. Bullets ripped into the turf where she'd been standing.

"Taylor, stay back until your shields recharge." She skirted around a crate, keeping one wary eye on the YMIR, the other on Taylor's status in her HUD. "When you're ready, I'll let you cut in for a dance."

"Roger that." Taylor sounded a little put out. He was a good soldier, but he wasn't half as bulletproof as he thought he was. They'd have to have a talk later.

Her crate disintegrated under a hail of bullets. Shepard threw herself behind a cluster of palm trees and fired off a Warp. The YMIR whirred and clomped towards her, crushing branches under its feet. She launched herself from the trees and took off for the far eastern end of the field.

"If only you were as good at shooting as you are at running, Shepard," Garrus rumbled, "we wouldn't keep finding ourselves in these situations."

"Remind me to kick your ass when we get back to the ship, Vakarian."

She fired another Warp behind her without looking to see if it connected. Bullets thudded into the ground behind her feet. She threw herself behind another tree and gasped for breath.

It was quiet. Had the YMIR stopped? Shepard cast an impatient glance at her shield charge meter. She just had to hold out for a little longer, regroup her team, reload her gun.

Her radar showed a stationary red blip just north of her position. Now she was picking up four more in an unmoving line at the eastern edge.

Taylor and Garrus were out of range. She frowned. An ambush? What was going on? Had the mech stopped targeting her? "Status."

"Holding," Garrus said. "It went into the trees after you, and I can't get a clean shot from here. Swing back north-west."

"Just move to a better position, you whiner."

"Negative. There's no more cover." An amused note crept into his voice. "The mech blew everything else up while it was chasing you around. I suppose you were a little distracted at the time."

"Yeah, well." Her shields and tech armor thrummed back to life. Shepard glanced around for an escape route.

"I'll get it moving. Coming up on your wing, Shepard," Taylor said.

"No, hold position. Contacts—" Shepard began, but then she heard the whirr-chunk of the YMIR reacting to his presence. The four red blips on her radar scattered and flowed out around them.

Oh fuck. They weren't mechs, they were hunters. Twisted by the toxic planet, stripped of all but the basest instincts. Alone, they weren't much to worry about, but in packs they were terrifying. Between them and the YMIR—

"Taylor, get down," she shouted, rushing out from her cover.

"Commande—" He didn't even finish the word before the crossfire ripped through his body.

God fucking damnit. She grit her teeth and fell back at an angle, keeping the hunters in between her and the YMIR. She poured bullets into the nearest hunter until he dropped, slapped in a fresh heat sink, and trained her sights on the next one. Her tech armor rippled under their rifle fire. "Taylor's down."

"I'm coming for you, Shepard. Just hang on." Garrus's breath came in harsh pants over the comm as he sprinted over the killing field.

They both knew he wouldn't get there fast enough.

Her tech armor burst and knocked the hunters back, buying her a precious half-second to load a fresh clip. She was still putting holes into the skull of the last one when her shields failed.

The feral human had decayed beyond the point of survival instinct, and kept shooting even as he collapsed. The first few bullets dissipated harmlessly into her plate armor. The next few perforated her lungs. Then the YMIR raised its rocket launcher.

The crash was much louder this time.

She staggered, fell to her knees, and then to the ground.

There really was an awful lot of blood inside a human body.

"Shepard!"

She looked up hazily at Garrus. He was crouching behind a panel of corrugated metal, much, much too far away. He'd get slaughtered the second he stepped out to help her. She could see that he desperately wanted to do it anyway.

I'm sorry, she mouthed.

The curse of the sniper: when things went to shit, they were always the last ones left alive.

A cruel reversal of Omega. There was nothing he could do but watch her bleed.

---

The barrier came into view around the curve of the footpath. Shepard narrowed her eyes, and held up a fist. Taylor and Garrus stopped and looked at her.

"Let's talk strategy for a second. Multiple contacts up ahead."

"There are? I don't see anything yet." Taylor tapped on his helmet's HUD.

She ignored him. "Garrus, hold position there. Unleash hell on the YMIR when it comes into view. Taylor, switch to your Carnifex. I want you glued to my side. Don't let them flank. Got it?" She didn't bother waiting for a response. "Move out."

"Affirmative," Garrus said, his expression neutral.

"An YMIR? The hell is wrong with my radar?" Taylor muttered, falling in beside her. He collapsed his shotgun with one hand, the other still tinkering with his display. "Are you seeing all this, Vakarian?"

Shepard tensed, and flicked a glance at him.

"Ah, incoming on your two," Garrus said instead. Taylor snapped into a combat stance.

"Let's get it done." Shepard sunk into cover, and softened up the nearest hunter with a Warp. Taylor needed no prompting; he leaned out right on cue and filled it full of holes. They moved on to the next one, and the next. Garrus methodically picked off the LOKIs from the back.

By the time the YMIR came crunching around the corner, the field was almost entirely clear. Shepard hummed to herself as they whittled away at the mech's shielding.

"Having fun, Commander?" Taylor said pointedly.

She was, actually. Was it wrong?

Taylor's father had turned a tropical paradise into a grotesque, exploitative, Hobbesian mess. He'd built his reign upon the backs of his crew, and broken them in the process. The few that survived had been reduced to animals. Shells of their former selves.

Callous disregard for the rights, the minds, and lives of others. It was just like every Cerberus base she'd ever hacked or shot her way into. It was appalling.

But it didn’t affect her. She was never surprised by the depths that sentient life could sink to. Shepard had learned long, long ago to be prepared for the very worst from everyone she met, to deliver swift punishment when necessary, and to move on without a second thought.

Taylor was pissed off, which meant that he was still innocent. She was startled to realize she wanted to help him stay that way.

She whipped an Overload at the YMIR. "Jacob— if there's anything I've learned in this screwed-up galaxy, it's that you can’t control what other people do. But you can control how you respond."

Garrus made a quiet surprised noise into the comm.

She ignored him and leaned out to pepper the YMIR’s shields with her SMG. "And sometimes, laughter is the only sane response."

Jacob looked thoughtful.

Four headshots, some pistol fire and a Warp or two later, the YMIR was done. Without the behemoth to back them up, the remaining hunters were just cleanup work. She broke off, ignoring Garrus’s protest, crept around the back of the hunters’ hiding spot, and slaughtered all four before Jacob even realized they were there.

The universe could be an awfully shitty place, and her number one rule was to never let things get personal. But shooting her squad's murderers in the head one-by-one, at point-blank range, was— perhaps— a little bit cathartic.

---

Captain Taylor offered them an airy apology for the mechs, pandered and rationalized and lied through his teeth about everything else. The family resemblance to his son was striking. And disturbing.

She and Garrus snapped to high alert when Jacob raised his gun against his father, but he just stood there for a long moment before lowering it again.

Jacob shook his head wearily. "...I don't even know who you are."

Garrus caught her eye, and gestured. Human-shaped shadows skulked through the brush beyond the clearing.

She stepped forward and put a hand on Jacob's shoulder. Gave his father a level stare. "Well, Acting Captain Taylor, I can’t say it’s been a pleasure. The Alliance will be sending ships and medical support for your crew. In the meantime..."

She glanced at Jacob, considering.

The good soldier. His face was perfectly neutral. She could see in his tense back, his tight fists, how much it was costing him.

He deserved better.

"I can see you’re a busy man, Captain," she said. "We’ll leave you to your work."

Jacob fists clenched, but he nodded. "Let's get out of here."

"Now wait," Taylor stammered, reaching out. "Son. You have to take me with you."

Jacob yanked his hand away. "You don’t get to call me that! Not anymore."

"I can’t wait for another ship. Please! You don't know what they'll do to me!"

The hunters prowled behind the fence, eyes hungry, teeth bared.

"I think we have an idea," Garrus said.

Jacob turned his back on Captain Taylor, and the three of them walked away to meet the Normandy.

---

She let herself into the battery.

Garrus didn't turn around from his console. "How's he doing?"

"He'll be okay. Jacob's a tough guy."

"So, it's 'Jacob' now," he said.

Shepard shrugged. "There were two Taylors down there. Didn't want it to get confusing. Plus..." She leaned back against the wall. "Kinda hard to walk side-by-side with someone through their own personal hell, and then keep calling them by their last name."

"Makes perfect sense." An exquisitely judged pause. "Shepard."

She folded her arms. "I said personal hell. Sorry, Garrus, regular hell doesn't qualify. Even if you get extra credit for doing it twice."

There was a long silence. The room was warm and quiet. He'd left the lights off, and the walls were bathed in the faint orange glow of his console.

She looked at his back, trying to remember when it was that she’d finally stopped calling him Vakarian.

"Dr. Saleon," he said, looking up at the ceiling. "...I'd finally hunted him down. And when we were there on his ship, standing face-to-face, you wouldn't let me kill him."

"Mind reader," she accused.

He turned his head fractionally, regarding her out of the corner of one pale blue eye. "It’s been a while, but I think I can recall the gist of the conversation we had." He tapped a long finger against his chin. "Something about... how you can’t control how others act, but you can control how you respond. Sound familiar?"

She grinned. "Nothing in the regs against recycling your inspirational speeches." She looked at him for a moment. "You know, Taylor reminded me of you back there, a little bit. All fired up about injustice. Full of outrage."

"Hmm," was all he said.

"...You aren't still annoyed with me because of Saleon, are you?"

His good mandible flicked up in a lopsided smirk. "I think I'll let you wonder."

"Such a man of mystery," she said, eyebrows arched. "I think I'll survive."

They lapsed into a comfortable silence. Shepard closed her eyes, soaking in the steady warmth of the battery walls at her back.

"So what about you," he said.

She opened her eyes. "What do you mean?"

Garrus looked over his shoulder. "Too good to have your own personal hell like the rest of us?"

Shepard just laughed.

She'd woken up in an unrecognizable galaxy, jammed together from spare parts, a Cerberus logo stamped on her ass. She'd been handed a beautiful, expensive, top-of-the-line mockery of her old ship, crewed by beautiful, expensive, top-of-the-line terrorists.

The Alliance wanted her to shut up and go back to being conveniently dead. Kaidan, it seemed, felt the same way. Anderson was the only family she'd ever had, and he wouldn't even answer her emails.

And either her sanity had splintered under the stress, or she was now some kind of unkillable demigod. Or both.

She slid down the wall to sit on the floor, and buried her head in her hands. "...I think I'm in my special hell right now."

Garrus turned around to face her and crossed his arms over his chest. "Keep sweet-talking me like that, Shepard, and people will start to wonder about us."

"Not what I meant," she muttered. "And you know it, you ass."

He tilted his head to one side, considering.

She dropped her hands with a sigh, and leaned forward to rest her chin on her knees. Her hair fell over her face.

"So. About the YMIR," Garrus began.

"The YMIR?" Shepard looked up. "That’s what you’re being all weird about? I thought... well. The last two years. Getting into bed with Cerberus. Kaidan. There’s a lot to cover."

He waved a hand through the air, batting her personal demons aside like gnats. "That's not what's important right now." He paused, peering at her face. "Uh. I mean, unless it is, and you want to... talk... about it?"

He looked deeply uncomfortable. Shepard smirked. "Maybe another time. Or never."

He exhaled. "Good. So. The YMIR."

She tried to keep her posture relaxed. "Yeah. What about it?"

"It wasn’t on our radar. You knew it was there anyway."

Shit. Stupid of her. Old Garrus wouldn't have pressed the issue; he deferred to her in all things. She’d forgotten that New Garrus was something different.

"I heard it clanking around," she tried.

He tapped his visor. "I pick up mech chatter with this thing, you know. It hadn’t activated yet."

She huffed. "Then I saw it. Or it was just a lucky guess. To be honest, I don’t really remember, Garrus. I was too busy concentrating on keeping our asses out of the fire."

"Which you did admirably. I don’t think my shields took a single bullet."

"Thank you," she said, mollified.

He leaned forward. "...Which is really weird."

"Sorry for being good at my job," she snapped.

"That’s not what I’m saying, Shepard." He spread his hands. "After the Praetorian, and then the YMIR, and then that pack of hunters you rooted out, I just— I know something’s up. I know you know it too. You don’t have to talk to me, but will you at least check in with Lawson? I’m starting to worry."

"Worry about what? That I’m doing what they brought me back to do, and I'm doing it really well?" She rose to her feet. "I’m here for two reasons: to find our colonists, and to kill bad guys. The colonists are still a work in progress, but I don’t think anyone can complain about my job performance on the battlefield."

Instead of replying, he reached behind his console, and held up her ruined breastplate. The light shone wan and orange through the hole in its center.

When the fuck had he hacked into her quarters? She crossed her arms. "Seriously, Vakarian?"

He took a deep breath. "Shepard. I don’t know what kind of fancy and probably illegal tech Cerberus put in your brain to bring you back. With everything you went through..." He shook his head. "I saw some of the reconstruction photos. Frankly, I’d be surprised if you weren’t a different person after that.

"But even if there are wires holding parts of you together now, even if you’ve changed, I know it’s still you."

He looked up, met her eyes. His voice softened. "And I’m really glad you’re here."

She opened her mouth to reply, but had no words.

He glanced down, and fussed with a bit of peeling ceramic. "Anyway. My point was, the Collectors already killed you once." He straightened abruptly, mandibles pulled tight against his face. "I’d appreciate it if you could stop trying to finish the job for them." He tossed the ruined breastplate at her.

Shepard caught the armor, and turned it over in her hands. Tiny shards of ceramic glittered around the punched-out hole in the center. She brushed her fingertips over the ragged edge.

"Ha," she said quietly. "I’m invincible."

He tipped his head back, looked up at the ceiling in a silent prayer for strength. "Shepard—"

"Garrus, I—" She bit her lip, looked away. She knew he trusted her. His faith in her was so strong it was tangible; a heavy, reassuring warmth at her back. But this— whatever it was that was happening to her, it was about forty steps above a brothers-in-arms confession. She’d only barely managed to admit her suspicions to herself, much less out loud and to someone else.

And Garrus knew exactly how high the stakes were, more than anyone else on the ship. If he judged that she was crazy and a threat to the mission, he would be compelled to remove her. She'd be compelled to stop him. They’d probably kill each other in the process.

And then— if she wasn’t crazy— she'd come right back to life, and have to do it all over again.

"...I know you don't like to think about what happened to you, Shepard. Can't blame you. I don't like to think about it either." Garrus leaned heavily against his console. "But it sounds like Cerberus wiped out their savings accounts to bring you back. I doubt they could pull it off twice."

She tilted her head, looking him over. His shoulders were slumped, and he rubbed at a spot on his forehead underneath his visor. He was doing that New Garrus thing again, the one where he sank from fury to exhaustion in the space of a heartbeat.

Old Garrus had always stayed angry right up until the moment his bullet exited the back of the bad guy’s skull. He’d seemed so young to her back then. Limitless energy and determination, fueled by the fire of his righteousness. Ready to ride forth and restore justice to the galaxy.

When she’d met Archangel on Omega, he’d been half-dead from weariness and emptied of hope.

Shepard looked him in the eyes and put all the force of her insane, impossible conviction into her words:

"Don’t worry, Garrus. They won’t have to bring me back again. I promise."

His shoulders lifted. "...Thank you, Shepard. That’s all I want."

She nodded and left, her lips twisting in a sad smile.

He should want more.

Chapter Text

Nos Astra

As it turned out, Lawson actually had a heart buried underneath her crystalline exterior. And nerves. The woman fidgeted, wrung her hands, shifted from foot to foot.

Shepard put her hands on her hips. "Do you have to pee, or do you want to talk to her? Just get over there."

Lawson stilled, with visible effort. "No," she said. "It's better that she never knows who I am. Safer."

Her voice was remarkably even. Shepard almost believed her.

"What would you want, if you were her?"

Lawson looked down at her feet.

"Would you just want to be safe?" Shepard asked gently.

Lawson's face twisted into an expression she couldn't quite interpret. Longing, maybe. Or regret. Or love.

For a ruthless Cerberus die-hard, Miranda Lawson really was a very beautiful woman.

Miranda inhaled and straightened her spine. "I'll be right back."

Shepard grinned, and thumped her on the shoulder. "Go get 'em, tiger."

There was a long, frosty silence. Beside her, the newly recruited Thane Krios raised an eloquent eyebrow, and turned away. Probably hiding a smile. Smooth bastard.

Lawson (she was definitely back to being Lawson now) fixed her with a supremely irritated look, and stalked off.

Well, whatever. Rome wasn't built in a day. "Let’s go get a drink, Krios. Give them some space."

"Of course."

It wasn’t Eternity, but it was surprisingly peaceful knocking back an asari beer (Krios got water) at a little cafe table outside, while they watched the crowd ebb and flow through the transit hub. The sun shone tawny-gold through the late afternoon haze. Shepard settled back in her chair, enjoying the warmth on her face.

Downtime like this was rare lately. She'd been plowing her way through the dossiers, acquiring intel and equipment and credits wherever she could find them, eating and sleeping the bare minimum. Off-hours found her staring into black space through her skylight, going stir-crazy with impossible thoughts. So she'd stopped giving herself off-hours. Much easier to stay right here, hunkered down in the trenches, with only two things to worry about: where to aim, and when to duck.

...Even if ducking hardly seemed worth the effort anymore.

"Something troubling you, Commander?" Krios’s low, rasping voice brought her back to the present.

"Huh? No, I—" Shepard began, then looked up at him and lost her train of thought.

He was handsome in an almost human way, fine-boned and straight of profile, like a classical statue. But something about him— his stillness, maybe, or the empty blackness of his eyes— struck a strange nerve deep inside her. With the full force of his attention trained on her, she felt like a bug under a glass.

Handsome, but kind of creepy. She shook it off. "—I wanted to say, thanks for coming along on this mission. And for holding steady when the parameters changed. I know you've always worked alone before."

He nodded once: a precise, fractional bow.

He was so goddamn graceful. She was just glad she’d managed to get to their table without knocking anything over.

Anyway. He was here to work. He didn’t need to know that Commander Shepard secretly thought he was cool. She tried to marshal her thoughts.

"So, uh. I'd figured the three of us could ease into things, take some time to look for Lawson’s sister. See how we got along as a team before diving into any heavy combat." She toyed with her bottle cap. "I hadn't exactly planned for a squad of Eclipse commandos getting in the way. Sorry about that."

Krios took a sip of his water. "It seems my initial impression of you was correct."

"Oh?" she said warily.

A hint of a smirk graced his lips. "Chaos. Destruction. A swirling storm of gunfire."

Shepard let out a startled laugh. "You’re all right, Krios."

"I was happy to be of service. Operative Lawson seems relieved."

She glanced over the crowd and found her, a slim dark figure among a sea of blue bodies. She and her younger twin stood transfixed and grinning at each other. Miranda's posture was still a little stiff, but both identical faces glowed with pleasure.

Shepard felt something warm and vaguely maternal stirring in her at the sight, and squashed it back down. Cerberus was still Cerberus. These little getting-to-know-you detours for Taylor and Lawson could have been orchestrated by the Illusive Man himself, for all she knew. She couldn’t afford to get comfortable.

Bullshit sessions in the cargo bay, poker nights in the crew quarters— that wasn't happening again. Not on this Normandy.

She missed it, though.

She missed Ashley. Ash had been the straight-talking, hard-drinking heart of the ship. She would have blasted right through all this Cerberus cloak-and-dagger bullshit with her foul mouth and her shotgun.

She missed Pressley, too. And Adams. Kaidan. Tali. Wrex. Her crack team of mismatched misfits and professionals, devoted to a single, shared goal.

She missed Saren. As desperate and gut-wrenching as it had been, always running two steps behind the cybernetic Spectre, trying to puzzle out his next move, to close the distance between them before the galaxy collapsed under the weight of the Reaper fleet— she’d known exactly what she was up against, and what she had to do. They had looked each other in the eyes, said their pieces, and drawn their guns.

He had been terrifying. Infuriating. Cruel. But he'd been honest.

A warm breeze blew through the terminal, carrying the sound of Lawson's laughter across the distance. Shepard picked at the label on her bottle with her fingernails.

Funny how things had changed. She was still running two steps behind, trying to put the pieces together, but now she had to watch her allies even more carefully than her enemies.

Cerberus had reached a smoky hand from the shadows of Akuze and ripped the world out from under her. But she'd survived. Her scars had healed, her heart had hardened. As she'd chased Saren across the galaxy, she'd stumbled across their paper trails, their leftover laboratories, their black ops atrocities. It had wrenched at her, but she couldn’t afford to stay there and put an end to it. She’d just kicked back as hard as she could, and kept on running.

After it was all over, she'd been in no mood to celebrate. She'd walked out of the ashes of the Citadel with one arm limp and twisted, fresh scars on her face, murder on her mind. I'm coming for you next. Just wait.

Well, the Collectors came for her first. And now she owed Cerberus her life.

Shepard scowled and gouged at her beer label in earnest, peeling the wet paper away in long, jagged strips.

She owed them her ship. Her crew. Her colonists.

She owed them Joker. And Chakwas. And Garrus.

He’d have died in that hellhole without her. And for him, it would have stuck.

When she died, time seemed to— rewind. Exactly how far she went back varied from death to death. Little deaths, like stepping out before her shields fully recharged (like a moron) and getting nailed by one of Nassana Dantius’s snipers (like she deserved), those only put her back about thirty seconds.

Shepard smiled, reminiscing. It’d almost been worth it, just to see Lawson’s expression in the instant before everything went black. Partly horrified at the sight of Shepard’s fragmented skull, partly pained at the failure of the mission. Partly revolted at the aerosolized mixture of blood and brain spraying onto her perfect face.

But mostly, Lawson had looked offended. Probably at the realization that she’d sunk years of her perfect life into resurrecting an idiot.

Little deaths meant little time skips. Bigger deaths, fiery and hellish deaths, like the Praetorian, like the YMIR— those picked her up and put her back by several minutes. Maybe four, maybe seven, it was hard to tell. Time flowed weirdly in combat.

Shepard wondered idly what it would take to rewind two years.

Probably something really spectacular.

Movement in the corner of her eye. Krios's hands shifted on top of the table. Thousands of tiny, jewel-like scales shimmered in the sunlight.

"...Perhaps Drell are not the only race that lapse into solipsism."

"What?" Shepard blinked at him. Bits of shredded beer label littered her side of the table. "Oh. Sorry. I spaced out. I’m being bad company."

"Not at all, Commander." A smile lightened his face. "I find the silence refreshing. Considering how our acquaintance began, it was an... unexpected pleasure."

Huh. Shepard tilted her head to one side, considering him.

Since she'd woken up, she'd been holding herself at a certain distance from her own life. Standoffish with her Cerberus squad, downright cold with EDI. Brusque to the crew. Like their uniforms would magically change color if she just looked away long enough.

It wasn't how she liked to operate. It wasn't like her.

She sure as hell wasn't Cerberus. But she wasn't Alliance, either, not anymore. They'd written her off. Her old team was gone. She had to accept that, and move forward.

So maybe it was time to pick up her old habits again. Make some rounds, get to know her people— Cerberus goons and all. Maybe she could let them get to know her too, a little. Maybe something good would come of it.

Maybe not. Either way, she'd survive.

Either way, she still had a safe harbor in Garrus.

But right here, right now, she had Thane Krios. Alien, unaffiliated. Compact and elegant, relaxed in his seat. His stillness reminded her of a coiled snake.

He practiced assassination as an art form, wandering the galaxy righting wrongs where he found them, and he asked for nothing from her in return. He wasn’t even on Cerberus’s payroll. I will work for you, Shepard. No charge.

And he was dying. That probably shouldn’t count as a plus in her book, but, well— she was in a weird place right now.

"You’re all right, Krios," she said again, surprised.

Maybe she could afford to get a little bit comfortable, after all.

He smiled.

---

There was one last item on her Illium agenda.

"I don’t like it, Shepard." Garrus crossed his arms. "It sounds like that Justicar’s making a lot of waves down there. Between the cops and the Eclipse sisters, everything could go to hell in an instant."

Shepard slid the ammunition block out of her SMG and squinted at it. "I know. Given my luck, I’m guessing shit's gonna start exploding the second I walk in the door."

He pointed a long, sharp finger at her. "Exactly why I should come. Without someone to yell at you, you’ll walk right into the center of the blast zone."

"You are the best at yelling at me," she said mildly.

"If you’d stop trying to shield everyone with your squishy human body, I wouldn’t have to do it."

She shot him an irritated look as she stole an oil rag from his work bench. "This Samara person is supposed to be a biotic powerhouse, even for an asari. If it all goes tits up and she tries to kill us, I want to have biotics guarding my back."

He made a low, annoyed-sounding rumble. "Fair enough."

She rubbed at a speck of grit on the gun's muzzle and gave her block slicer a once-over before jamming the ammo pack back home. He caught the oil rag out of the air when she threw it back to him.

"I'll take you out next time, and we can shoot everything that moves," she promised.

Garrus looked slightly cheered by that.

"And anyway, your intel was bad." She knocked a fist against her armored chest. "I’m not squishy."

He rewarded her with an amused flick of a mandible. "I might revise my opinion if you come back in one piece. Who are you taking?"

"Lawson and Krios."

"Not Jack?" He raised a plated brow. "What a shame. She’s got such a way with people."

Shepard gave him her most withering look.

He leaned back against his console, unperturbed. "She’ll be so disappointed to hear she’s missing out on all the explosions."

"Only if you tell her, smartass." Shepard ran an eye over her SMG one last time, and snapped it into place at her side. "All right, I’m out. You’re in charge. Try not to burn the ship down."

"No promises." He tilted his head. "Good luck, Shepard."

He escorted her to the battery doors, one hand brushing against her back. She smiled. It was a rather gentlemanly gesture, coming from a six and a half-foot bipedal raptor. With fangs.

"I would have picked Lawson and Krios, too," he said as she stepped out. "For what it’s worth."

She looked up at him. His bandage was looking a little frayed around the edges. So was he. But he met her eyes steadily.

Old Garrus really was gone, wasn't he?

Her turian little brother had been scorched out of existence. In his place stood a battle-scarred stranger who challenged her, argued with her, offered tactical advice.

There was so much they hadn't talked about. She wanted to marvel aloud at how much he’d grown up while she wasn’t looking. She wanted to let him know how important he was, to thank him for being her oasis of sanity on a ship full of spies. She wanted to tell him that he was right to be concerned for her, that she rarely even bothered with her shields anymore, that death was starting to become a comfortable habit.

Maybe she'd told him already, and that’s why he was looking at her with that probing, worried intensity. It was hard to be sure. Her deaths had begun to tangle time and memory in knots.

Garrus Vakarian was dead. Long live Archangel, main gun and right hand.

She had no idea how to begin again with him. She was a soldier, after all. Fond of violence. Allergic to feelings.

She settled for slugging him one in the arm. "It’s worth a lot, buddy. See you after the debrief."

---

Illium

The rust-red powder whispered over her nerves, struck sparks up her spine. Shepard laughed, a low, rolling sound of unrestrained pleasure.

Lawson dodged a sloppy but powerful Warp from an Eclipse vanguard, and shot her an alarmed glance. "Shepard, it’s toxic. Get out of the dust!"

No way. This shit felt amazing. Her fingers were on fire. She had to test it out.

Besides. Even if she ended up dying in spasms on the floor, it’s not like Lawson would remember it.

"Ashes to ashes," she murmured to herself. Her blood thrummed. She rose from her cover and flicked an experimental Throw at the Eclipse vanguard.

The asari flew across the room and hit the wall with a wet crunch. The body slid down and crumpled to the floor.

An engineer followed shortly in her wake. Two purple smears on the wall. Shepard grinned, her eyes alight with violet fire. Dust to dust.

"Shepard, I'm serious," Lawson yelled. "You may feel fine right now, but it's destroying you from the inside out!"

"I'll step out for air in a minute," she replied, unconcerned. "Krios, soften that one up." She pointed at a yellow-armored initiate, who flailed in panic as Krios's Warp shredded her barrier. Shepard wound up as if she were swinging a bat, and Threw. The merc streaked across the docking bay like a comet.

Yes. Her heartbeat throbbed inside her head. The glow wreathing her arms pulsed in and out with the beat. Again. Another.

"Damnit, Shepard!" Beads of sweat stood out on Lawson’s porcelain forehead. "It took me eight months to stitch your nervous system back together. I went nearsighted from squinting at the bloody microscalpel. I am not going to let you burn out your brain with some trashy street drug!"

"You’re nearsighted?" Shepard said, with interest. "I thought you were perfect."

Hmm. Actually, now that she thought about it, her vision was going a bit fuzzy around the edges. Maybe she was nearsighted too.

Lawson made a strangled noise. "Shepard, get out of the dust!"

Shepard just waved at her and turned away. She was fine. It didn't matter. She'd just do it again if she had to.

There was a flash of movement up ahead. An Eclipse Heavy trying to creep around a side door undetected. Krios saw it too and aimed his rifle, but Shepard signaled him to hold and raised her arm. A Warp field arced from her palm.

The Heavy gurgled as she disintegrated into lavender paste.

"...Kalahira guide them," Krios murmured, lowering his gun.

Shepard’s bones hummed with bloody satisfaction. As she straightened up to look for fresh targets, Lawson leapt out and tackled her.

They slammed to the ground in a tangle of knees and elbows, tumbled and rolled out from under the cloud of dust. Shepard gasped in a lungful of clean air, but the stabbing pain in her ribs made her instantly regret it. For such a slender woman, Lawson hit like a sack of bricks.

"I’m starting to see what Vakarian was talking about," the other woman grumbled, extricating herself from Shepard’s limbs.

Nrrgh. Shepard put a hand to her aching head. "Huh? Garrus said something to you?"

Lawson stood up and brushed ineffectually at the red powder coating her catsuit. "He was concerned about your recent behavior."

Shepard froze. "...What?"

"Recklessness. Risk-taking. He suggested your personality might have been compromised during the Lazarus project." Lawson frowned. "I find that highly improbable. You sailed past all our memory tests and behavioral benchmarks."

Shepard's hand slipped and fell back down to the floor.

She thought he trusted her. He thought she wasn't herself anymore. He'd gone to Lawson behind her back.

Her brain felt like knives. Now her heart did too.

"...That traitor," she whispered in utter disbelief.

Krios came over and reached out a hand. He drew her to her feet.

"You're jeopardizing the mission, Shepard," Lawson said stiffly. "He was right to come to me."

She stood stock-still, flooded with rage.

This— She couldn't even—

Her skull throbbed. It took effort to speak. "I. Am. Not. Jeopardizing the mission. I just cleared this room of hostiles in less than forty-five seconds. Neither of you has taken a bullet to your shields this entire time."

"Our safety is beside the point," Lawson said. "Yours isn't."

"Horseshit," said Shepard.

Lawson sputtered. "If you get yourself killed, there's nothing left! The entire mission hangs on you. You're the only one who can stop the Reap—"

"Miranda," Shepard said heavily. Lawson stopped and stared at her. "Do you really believe that?"

Krios blinked.

Lawson looked trapped.

"The Illusive Man believes in you," she said, finally. "I trust his judgment."

Shepard raised an eyebrow.

"That's good enough," Lawson snapped. "You don't need to worry about my loyalty, Shepard. I'll do my duty."

"Why did the Illusive Man resurrect me?" Shepard said.

"What? You know why. To fight the Rea—"

Shepard cut her off. "Why did it have to be me? Why did he need my memories and personality intact? Why does he think no one else in the galaxy can possibly do this job?"

Lawson looked like she couldn't tell if Shepard was being deliberately condescending, or just an idiot. "You'd already defeated Saren and Sovereign."

"Anyone could have done that." Shepard gestured at their blood-spattered surroundings. "Anyone could do this. There are plenty of other N7s. A lot of them have better combat ratings than I do. Higher commendations. More experience leading strike teams and special operations."

"That's not—" Lawson began, fuming.

"There's more than enough evidence on the Collectors to convince people they're a threat," Shepard continued. "It wouldn't be hard to seduce an N7 over to the cause, even for Cerberus. You could have anyone you wanted. So why me?"

"I don't know!" shouted Lawson, surprising them both. "I don't know why it had to be you, why we couldn't change anything, why we weren't allowed to install any safeguards. He insisted you be brought back exactly as you were, and allowed to do whatever you see fit!"

Shepard folded her arms, and sank back on one hip. "Cerberus murdered my entire unit on Akuze."

"What the hell does that have to do with anything? That was a rogue splinter group, we had no operational—"

"You've read my psych profiles backwards and forwards," Shepard interrupted again. Lawson seethed. "You know what all the reports said about me after that."

Lawson crossed her arms, visibly struggling for control. "Hypervigilance. Restricted emotional affect. Reduced sense of self-worth. Increased impulsiveness and aggression," she recited. "Classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor's guilt."

Shepard tilted her head. "I think they also noted that I lost any compunctions I may have had about putting myself in danger to protect my subordinates. That I do whatever it takes to carry out the mission. And that I look for unorthodox solutions to minimize loss of life."

Lawson grimaced, feeling the trap drawing closed around her. "Yes."

"...Wouldn't you say, then, that I'm acting exactly like myself?"

"You were getting high," Lawson spat.

Shepard flung out her arm, gestured at the bodies littering the perimeter. "Miranda. You know who I am. I don't do anything without a very good reason. There is too much at stake."

She stepped forward and got right in Lawson's face. Lawson's eyes narrowed, but she didn't budge.

"You brought me back exactly as I was. You know who I am, and what my limits are, better than anyone else. The only thing that's changed is now you're seeing it in person instead of on a datapad."

Lawson pressed her lips into a thin line.

Shepard stepped back. "The Illusive Man knows I hate him and everything he stands for. If I get the chance, I will kill him. He knows that, and he brought me back to fight the Reapers anyway, because he knows I will get it done."

She looked squarely into Miranda's eyes. "You believe in the Illusive Man. You can believe in me."

There was a long, fraught silence.

For half an instant, Shepard thought the operative might actually draw her gun.

Miranda let out her breath in a long sigh, and uncrossed her arms.

"Frankly, Shepard, I'm appalled." Miranda shook her head. "Did you really think that ridiculous circular logic would convince me to let you run around doing whatever you want?"

Shepard grinned. "That depends. Did it work?"

Miranda rolled her eyes and turned away.

Krios stood at her side, stoic and unreadable.

Well then. If she and Miranda weren’t going to kill each other, it was time to get back to business. They had a shipping manifest to find.

"All right, people, I think we've done enough damage here. Move out."

The assassin and the operative fell into step behind her.

"Nice tackle, by the way," Shepard murmured, rubbing her sore ribs.

"I know," Miranda said.

---

As it turned out, Minagen X-3 was a lot less fun on the comedown. Shepard felt like someone had taken a branding iron to the back of her skull. Her sinuses were sandblasted raw.

But she wasn't the savior of the galaxy for nothing. She pushed the pain aside, shook out her arms. Counted off a beat. Then she leaned out and detonated her own Warp in a tricky one-two biotic punch.

A satisfying number of merc heads exploded in unison.

"Nice one," murmured Miranda.

Shepard grinned. Coming from her reserved and hyper-critical XO, that was a goddamn trophy.

She still didn't know how the hell she'd pulled it off with Miranda, but it felt good to have this small win under her belt. For all her lack of interpersonal graces, the woman was a formidable officer. Shepard actually kind of liked her, in a weird way. But then, she'd always had a weakness for stick-up-the-ass types.

The crack of a rifle interrupted her thoughts. Krios's bullet punctured the skull of an Eclipse engineer lurking behind a crate.

"All have gone to the sea," he whispered, and slipped the spent heat sink out into his waiting palm.

...It was such a pleasure to watch a professional at work. Shepard tried not to leer.

She ought to sit back and cool her heels for a while anyway, let her squad handle more of the action. She needed to keep the daredevil madness on a tighter leash. Partly out of respect for Miranda— she'd tortured her enough for today— but mostly out of rising guilt. Her dramatic speech earlier had been eighty-five percent bullshit.

Fulfilling the mission. Protecting civilians. Keeping her teammates alive and unharmed. Those were all paramount. She had been utterly sincere about that.

But when she'd stood in the center of the swirling red dust, breathing in deep, it hadn't been part of some genius plan to keep her squad out of the line of fire. She'd just wanted to have some fun, and didn't give a fuck if it killed her.

It wouldn't affect the mission one bit, after all. She had a free pass to screw around. All it cost her was her life.

So was she being irresponsible? Not really. Avoidant? Maybe. There was a lot to avoid. Cerberus. The Collectors. The Reapers. The Alliance.

Kaidan Alenko. Liara T'soni. Tali'Zorah vas Neema.

And now, she remembered with a sickening lurch, she had one more name to add to the list. Garrus Vakarian. The confrontation with Miranda had distracted her so much she'd almost forgotten how it started. Goddamnit.

In the distance, an Eclipse engineer slid around the wall and crouched down to fiddle with something behind a crate. Shepard reloaded her Carnifex and lined up a shot.

How dare he go behind her back to Cerberus?

Concerned about your behavior. Jeopardizing the mission.

Yeah, okay, fine. It wasn't unreasonable if he thought she might be crazy. She felt crazy, and she wasn't doing a great job keeping a lid on it. But he should have talked to her. He should have trusted her to listen. Not snuck around her back to pour poison in the ear of Operative fucking Lawson, Cerberus loyalist number one.

Accusations of instability were very, very serious. Shepard could be relieved of command. Confined to quarters. Forcibly medicated.

By Cerberus.

Shepard swallowed.

The engineer moved. Shepard squeezed the trigger, once, twice. Both went wide. Fuck.

How could he do this to her?

The merc stumbled and ran for cover. Shepard dragged biotic energy up through her raw, shaky nerves, and Threw. It was weak, barely enough to stagger the woman, but it worked. Krios's sniper round finished her off.

She'd thought he believed in her.

Even if there are wires holding parts of you together now, even if you’ve changed, I know it’s still you.

She'd always believed in him.

When she lay wide awake at night in her too-big bed staring out into the blackness of space, surrounded by spy cameras, dependent on the good graces of a Cerberus AI to keep her room supplied with oxygen, it was him she thought about to keep the demons at bay. Her best and last friend. His warm, steady presence down in the battery radiated safety through the entire ship. But now—

Now—

Enemies everywhere.

She took a deep, rattling breath. She had to stay alive this time. She couldn't risk doing it over again. She couldn't risk this fragile truce with Miranda. It was barely more than a whisper. It was the only meaningful alliance she had left.

She had to stay alive to protect her mind. She had to be certain she would remember his betrayal, and repay it a thousandfold.

---

Absorbed in her thoughts, Shepard stepped through a side door and nearly tripped over a young, frightened-looking asari in Eclipse armor.

"Fucking christ!" Shepard yanked at her gun.

"I'm not one of them!" the asari yelped.

Miranda trained her pistol on the asari's forehead. "Your armor says otherwise."

"I haven't even fired my gun yet, I'm new, I'm not like them, I—"

Shepard put her hand to her head. For fuck's sake. She didn't have any spare brainpower to care about this. "Get out. Now."

"What? I mean— yes, ma'am. Thank you!" She scrambled past them and out the door.

"You showed her mercy," Krios said, surprised.

Miranda radiated distaste. "She's Eclipse. She didn't deserve it."

"It wasn't mercy," Shepard said flatly. "If people shoot at me, they die. If they're not shooting at me, then they're not my problem. Move out."

They continued their slow, methodical sweep through the Eclipse hideout. Krios watched her, his black eyes unreadable.

Shepard frowned at him. "What?"

"You're asleep," he said.

"What?" she said again. Had her translator glitched?

"Asleep. Disconnected." He made an abstract gesture with his hands. "Drell philosophers believe that the mind and body are independent entities. The mind is the judge that weighs evidence, decides the moral course of action. The body acts."

"Acts how? According to what?"

"Instinct. Impulse."

She raised an eyebrow. This had better not be his elaborately polite way of calling her an idiot.

"If the mind and body are connected, they work together, each informing the other. If not..." He brushed his fingers over the top of his rifle. "If the mind is asleep, the body does what it knows best. A body trained in combat follows its training."

"Why do you think I'm disconnected?"

"I couldn't speculate as to what caused it," he said, looking at her carefully. "But I know the signs very well. My mind has been disconnected for a long time."

Miranda made a skeptical noise, but refrained from further comment.

Shepard called a halt to hack into a bank terminal. Time to relieve Eclipse of some of their unwanted credits. Krios stood guard at her back.

"In many ways, it is easier to sleep," he murmured over his shoulder. "Your body becomes an instrument for the will of others. A loaded gun to be aimed and fired."

Her fingers flickered over the haptic keyboard, nailing segments of code into place. "...I'm not sure if I like this philosophy."

"It is relevant to my profession," he said. "And perhaps to yours."

"Aim and fire, huh?" She frowned down at her hands. "It'd sure be nice if that was all I had to think about."

"Undoubtedly true."

The terminal beeped. Six thousand credits for thirty seconds of work. Not bad.

She closed out the account, wiped all traces of her presence. "Do you suppose that’s why the Justicars have their code? So they don't have to think?"

"Hmm," he said, and he sounded so much like Garrus for an instant that she stiffened with rage.

Keep it together. She had to stay alive so she would remember what he'd done. She had to come back in one piece so she could rip him apart for betraying her.

Later, they found the Eclipse sister's voicelog. The little asari gloated about popping a Volus open like a grape.

Miranda arched an I-told-you-so eyebrow. Shepard ignored her, and transferred a copy of the recording to her omnitool. The asari hadn't shot at her. She had more important things to do.

She had to stay alive.

So then, of course, they walked right into a gunship.

---

Her biotics were shot to hell from overuse, her reflexes sluggish from a combination of dust hangover and emotional turmoil, and her shields fried from all the hits she'd been too slow to avoid.

Total shitshow. Shepard fired her pistol blindly around cover and hoped that Joker wasn't watching the feed from her helmet cam. He was probably the one person left in the universe who still thought she was kind of cool.

The gunship streaked overhead. For an instant of wild optimism she thought it might actually keep on flying, and leave.

Ah. No. It was dropping in a whole pack of FENRIS mechs to run her down on foot. Just to be extra helpful.

"Shepard!" shouted Miranda as she scrambled behind cover. "Fall back! They're going to be all over you in a second!"

"Fall back where?" She was pinned down in the middle of the bridge, behind a narrow stack shipping containers. Trust her to pick the least defensible position in the entire fucking shipyard. The gunship had already swooped back to the other side, so now she got to pick whether she would die over there with bullets, or over here with dogs.

Krios was better placed. He aimed, fired and reloaded in a steady rhythm, taking down one mech, then another, then another— until the gunship rose up humming like a hive of wasps, and a storm of bullets forced the assassin back down into cover.

The mechs were fast and strong and armored, and there were still way too many of them. The mob surrounded her, red eyes glaring, motors whining. She fired at them until her pistol began to smoke, struck out with biotically infused knees and elbows, crunched circuits and faceplates with her fists. Her amp screamed at the back of her skull.

Metal jaws clamped around her calf. She kicked and thrashed, grabbed desperately onto a container, her fingernails screeching against the steel. The dog hunkered down and began to pull.

"Commander!" Krios shouted, and blasted one more away with a Warp. "Hold on."

The gunship paused to reload. Its engine was deafening, a swarm of buzzing locusts. Miranda leapt out of cover and sprinted towards her, firing a Warp with one hand and her pistol in the other.

Miranda's bullets thudded into its armored body, but the dog bit down harder and kept pulling, dragging Shepard agonizing inch by inch out from the safety of her cover. She clawed at the ground, kicked at the dog's face, mustered up a desperate, wobbling Warp. She had to stay alive.

Krios’s rifle round cleaved the mech's head in two. It fell and was immediately pushed aside by another, tugging at her ankle. She let go of her container, rammed the muzzle of her SMG against its faceplate and dumped bullets into its head, but the underpowered gun took too long to penetrate the mech's armored skull. It dragged her all the way out into the middle of the bridge before it collapsed, leaving her flat on her back, staring up at the belly of the gunship.

Internal mechanisms whirred and chunked into position. The gunship opened fire.

A stream of bullets drummed into the ground, beating a trail up to her body. It tore through her thigh, ripped across her abdomen, trailed up her chest, shredded her throat.

Remember, she thought fiercely, as her blood steamed in the cold open air, gushing from the wounds in her neck. Her head went dark. She was already dead but the swarm kept crawling upwards, digesting her.

Remember she screamed as her jaw shattered, the delicate bones of her cheeks and nose caved in, her eyes split open and bled down her face. You have to remember, so you can come back and kill him.

Chapter Text

She found herself intact and upright, watching a little tendril of red dust unfurl from its freshly ruptured container.

Fucking hell. They were all the way back at the entrance to the Eclipse base. She'd rewound seventeen minutes.

She was really starting to get sick of Illium.

Well. If she remembered correctly, she had some mercenaries to murder before Miranda started yelling at her again. And now she knew exactly where they were hiding. Shepard made grim sport of it, flinging yellow-armored bodies left and right, pulping skulls into paste with relentless efficiency.

The drug sang in her head. Krios didn't even get off a shot.

She stalked forward, paused to breathe in another deep pull of dust, and hauled the Heavy out from where she'd been tucked behind the door. One hand held her still while the other caved in her face with a Warp. Shepard let the body fall.

"We're done here. Let's push on."

Krios was staring at her, his head tilted thoughtfully.

Shepard ignored him and strode ahead, arms wreathed in blue flame.

"Commander, the drug is toxic," Miranda said, looking a little bit unnerved. "You shouldn’t expose yourself."

"I know what I’m doing, Lawson," she said, and punched an Engineer clear across the docking bay.

Miranda’s eyes narrowed. "Shepard, don't be foolish. It could cripple your nervous system."

"I’m invincible," Shepard replied, utterly serious, standing dead still in a swirling fog of red.

Miranda tackled her to the ground.

Shepard smirked up at the ceiling. She remembered.

Their argument repeated itself nearly beat-for-beat. She tried to muster up the same anger and urgency she’d felt the first time. She was too tired and heartsick to be properly furious, but the urgency was there in spades: it was critical that Miranda believe in her. She was the only one left.

A truce was settled. Shepard’s heart eased slightly.

Her mind hummed, weighing odds, making contingency plans. She couldn't do this alone, after all. She had to strategize. Miranda was a work in progress, but she needed to get Jacob on her side, too. That ought to be simple; he was ex-Alliance, like her, and he already respected her.

She also needed to win over Chambers. That would be trickier. She knew the bubbly airhead thing was a facade. Cerberus wouldn't have hired an airhead to keep an eye on her.

She needed Mordin. He was mission-critical against the Collectors, and also the one person on the ship who might be capable of outsmarting EDI. But salarians weren't generally big on loyalty and self-sacrifice. She had to find a concrete way to demonstrate to him that she was his best bet in this game.

If she could get at least those four behind her back, maybe they would stand a chance of survival when the Illusive Man inevitably decided she'd outlived her usefulness.

And, well— Garrus would probably be helpful too. Her all-consuming fury had died along with the rest of her. In the cold light of her new life, she could now acknowledge to herself that he was an... unlikely candidate for defection to Cerberus.

But still. If she hadn't handled Lawson, she could have been stripped of command. Reclaimed by Cerberus repo men. Locked in a padded room. Tested. Reprogrammed. Carved up for component parts.

Shepard wouldn't make the mistake of trusting anyone like she'd trusted him. Never again. They were done.

"Move out," she said. They moved.

---

She slammed open the side door and kicked the frightened asari out from under the desk.

"I’m not one of them!"

"I know exactly what you are," Shepard replied, and put a bullet in her head.

Miranda nodded in approval.

Shepard smiled thinly. Baby steps. Operative Lawson would be working for her in due course.

Krios watched her again as they made their way down to the docking bay.

"Krios," she said.

"Yes, Commander?"

"Do you think I'm disconnected?"

He faltered in his stride. "You know drell philosophy?"

"Just a little," she said. "A friend told me about it once."

Krios regarded her with eyes as black as the void of space. "...No, Shepard. Your mind is alive, and your will awake."

---

She was in position well before the FENRIS mechs dropped. While the dogs were still all jumbled together and finding their feet, she called out for a coordinated artillery strike of heavy Warps.

A deafening biotic explosion and some bullets took care of that problem. A few more took care of the gunship.

Move out.

---

Shepard cocked her head, looking down at the wobbly volus. "You need help."

"You need help," he retorted. She tried and failed to contain a snort of laughter. That was probably accurate. Too bad she was baselining a thousand levels beyond Chambers's undergraduate in psych.

"Have a nap," she suggested, with a judicious application of force. She could keep herself in check for now. It was time to go kill an Eclipse commando.

---

By the code, I will serve you, Shepard. Your choices are my choices. Your morals are my morals. Your wishes are my code.

Holy hell, she thought, looking down at the thousand-year-old warrior kneeling before her, overwhelmed with a sensation of godlike power. Maybe she stood half a chance against the Illusive Man after all.

They walked back to the ship in neat formation. Miranda was in the back talking quietly with the Justicar, her body language unusually deferential.

"Krios," Shepard said.

"Yes, Commander," he replied. He scanned the shadows while they walked, hunting out Eclipse proximity mines.

"About when Miranda and I... disagreed," she began. "If she had drawn her gun back there, would you have stood with her, or with me?"

He turned to her, brows raised.

"You can be honest," she added hastily. "I mean that. Miranda raised important concerns. I know my command style is, uh. Unconventional. I'm trying to see how I should adjust."

"I would stand with you," he said. "No adjustment needed. I respect Operative Lawson greatly, but there is no doubt."

"Really?" She blinked. "Cerberus owns this ship. Cerberus owns Miranda. You'd be making a powerful enemy."

"Not as powerful as you." He tapped his fingers against the barrel of his rifle. "If I crossed you, I think I would only keep breathing just long enough to regret it."

She let out a breath, unsure if she was more pleased or chagrined. "...Am I cruel?"

"Hardly. You are fierce, but swift. An executor of justice. I'm honored to have a place on your team."

His version of her sounded pretty damn good. She decided she wanted to try to live up to it.

Shepard smiled at him. "You're all right, Krios."

He smiled back. "You too, Siha."

---

By the time they lifted off of Illium— fucking finally— she felt like she'd been awake for a straight year. She wasn't even really that angry at Garrus anymore. She didn't need to yell at him. She was just... done.

The galaxy was a shitty place, after all. You had to be prepared for the very worst from everyone.

You couldn't take it personally when they delivered.

---

Shepard walked the Justicar down to Starboard Observation, and left her to her meditations. Her feet took her halfway up the stairs to the battery before she remembered. Shit.

She pulled a neat U-turn into the mess, pretending like she meant to do that all along. Parked her butt on Gardner's counter and chatted him up for a bit. Stole a couple of beers from the fridge when he wasn't looking, because why the fuck not.

She popped her head into Engineering, listened to Daniels and Donnely trade some verbal jabs, and then went downstairs to have a chat with the one person on the ship who was reliably more insane than her.

"Hey," said Jack. And then "Hey!" when she saw the beer in Shepard's hand. Shepard tossed it to her, and hopped up to sit on top of a crate, legs dangling over the side.

Jack cracked the top open and took a long pull, humming in appreciation. "I'll say this for Cerberus: they don't skimp on the good shit."

Shepard couldn't bring herself to respond. She raised her bottle in a silent toast, and drank.

The walls hummed with the weight of the drive core overhead. It was oddly relaxing, being this close to the beating heart of the ship. Her biotics pulsed gently in time with the field.

But Jack was immune to relaxation, and could only tolerate silence for so long. She drummed her thin fingers against her seat. "So... what? You didn't come down here just to watch me drink a beer."

Shepard smirked. "Can't a pirate queen spend a little quality time with her first mate?"

Jack rolled her eyes. "Whatever, Shepard. Either say what you gotta say, or piss off."

Shepard contemplated.

"Everyone's calling it a suicide mission," she said finally.

Jack snorted. "Yeah. Dunno about you, but my plan is to survive."

Shepard took a swig of her beer. "Well. You know what they say about the best-laid plans."

"...Go oft awry / And leave us nought but grief and pain, for promised joy," Jack quoted.

Shepard raised her eyebrows, beer paused halfway to her mouth.

"—Anyway." Jack shook her shoulders, looking uncomfortable. "So it's a suicide mission. So what? I never stop fighting for my fuckin' life in this hellhole of a galaxy." She rubbed a hand over her stubbly scalp. "Everyone's out to fuck over everyone else, whether they admit it or not. Only thing different about the Collectors is they get to fly around while they do it."

"Maybe so." Shepard rested her bottle in her lap. "If you knew you were gonna die tomorrow, would you do anything special?"

"Shit, no."

"Really? Nothing?"

"I already live like I might die any second. If you don't, you're either fuckin' stupid, or a pussy." Jack jabbed her tattooed fingers at the air for emphasis.

Shepard smiled. Jack had such a refreshing outlook on the world. And such a delightful way of putting it into words.

Jack swung her legs up underneath her and propped her chin in one inky hand. "If I knew for sure I was gonna bite it, though, I'd wanna go out in a blaze of glory. Strap myself to a cruiser, fly it straight into Cerberus HQ. Carve my name into a planet. Blow up a sun."

"A sun," Shepard repeated, a look of divine inspiration crossing her face. Now that would be... spectacular.

"Whoa," Jack said, alarmed. "What's this all about, anyway? Making plans to off yourself in a supernova?"

"Nope," Shepard said truthfully. She was still in the gathering intel phase.

"So what's your deal all of a sudden?"

I'm immortal and pissed off. I'll die in a supernova if I want to. "I'm not on the Alliance payroll anymore," Shepard said out loud, shrugging. "And we're headed past the point of no return. Figured it's as good a time as any to try some crazy shit."

"Yeah?" Jack grinned. "What're you thinking?"

"Well, probably not carving up planets or blowing up suns." Yet. Shepard took another swig of her beer, and rolled the bottle back and forth between her palms. "Something more subtle. I dunno. Plant rotten varren meat in Udina's office. Hack the Council's holoprojectors. Every time they say 'unsubstantiated', it comes out 'Reapers.'"

"You've lived a sad life," Jack said. "Five-year olds could come up with nastier ideas."

Shepard scowled. "Yeah, well. Why do you think I came to you? I need advice."

Jack arched an eyebrow. "I dunno. Scuttlebutt is that you pulled off some pretty hardcore shit on Aeia and Illium."

"Christ," Shepard muttered, shaking her head. Gossip on ships traveled at FTL.

"So..." Jack stretched out her arms. "We have any room in the budget for some of that dust? I bet I could do a shitload of damage on that stuff."

"Feel free to put in a requisition order with Miranda," Shepard said pleasantly. "I'm sure Cerberus can spare the credits."

Jack made a horrible face. Shepard smiled at her.

"—Hey." Jack set the beer bottle down with a thunk, and shifted back and forth on top of her box. "I, um. Listen, Shepard. You've been all right. You got me those files, you always come down here to talk with me about whatever, and you don't care when I yell at you, and... You're all right."

If it had been anyone else, Shepard would have tortured them for going all mushy on her. But Jack was special.

"Thanks, Jack. That means a lot. You're all right, too."

She meant it. Mostly. The woman was a head case, but, well. Fellow head cases had to stick together.

Jack leaned forward. "I got a favor to ask."

---

Shepard left the sub-deck in an unusually mellow mood, and went back upstairs to her quarters. Time to write up her field reports for the missions on Illium. Remembering multiple different versions of each made this chore a bit trickier than it used to be.

She left the cabin lights off and worked in the darkness, kept company by the empty glow of her fish tank, and the silent weight of the stars overhead.

He came later that night and let himself in. He looked momentarily startled to find her sitting in the dark, but then reverted to just looking pissed off.

"Shepard."

"Vakarian," she replied, trying to force her heart rate down to a more normal level.

"We need to talk."

For a moment she considered brushing him off. Probably best to just amputate the rotting limb and get it over with. "So talk."

He folded his arms, mandibles clamped shut, and leaned back against the curved glass of her fish tank. His spiky, broad-shouldered frame cut out a black silhouette against the pale blue. "I went to chat with Lawson. Seems whatever you did on Illium really made an impression on her."

"I'm the savior of the galaxy," she said, and returned her attention to her datapad. "Sometimes people notice."

His eyes narrowed. "What did you say to her?"

"I said a lot of things, Vakarian. We were down there for hours. You'll need to be more specific."

"You know exactly what I mean. How the hell did you get her on your side? What did you tell her to convince her you're not—" He stopped himself.

...Okay, maybe she was still a little bit angry.

She waited, let the silence drag out.

"—Crazy?" she finally offered, with a poisonous smile.

"I didn't say that."

"You were just trying to think of a way to say it that wouldn't get your ass handed to you." She stood up. Tapped her datapad against her palm. "Ordinarily, I would throw you out at the next fuel station for undermining my authority with my XO."

His shoulders stiffened.

"But as we both know, this isn't an ordinary situation. I still need you on my team." Shepard stepped forward. Gestured him towards the door. "We're hitting Pragia tomorrow. Lucky you. Be ready at 0800."

He drew one long-fingered hand over his face, looking as tired and careworn as when he'd pulled off Archangel's helmet on Omega. "Shepard—"

"We're done talking, Vakarian. Get out of my quarters." She took another step forward.

He didn't move. "I went to Lawson because I was trying to keep you alive."

"You went behind my back to Cerberus," she said. "I'm not really interested in your reasons." She took another step, putting herself squarely inside his personal space.

He tilted his head to look down at her. His face fell into shadow. She couldn't see his eyes; only the steady blue glow of his visor, and the outline of one sharp cheekbone against the darkness.

He unfolded his arms and bent his head down slightly, put his face near hers. She could barely see anything, but she felt the heat radiating steadily from his skin. The stillness in the air told her they would touch if she leaned forward just enough.

She was so close she could even make out some of the glowing text scrolling past on his visor. And some fainter words that looked, oddly enough, like they had been scratched in by hand.

"I went to Lawson," he said, his voice low in her ears, "because she's the only other person on this ship who actually gives a damn about you. Even if it's just pride in her own work."

Something grazed her wrist, making her jump. One long, warm finger slid down along the knife edge of her hand, and curled gently into her palm. "It was the only thing I could think to do."

She yanked her hand away. Bared her teeth. "We're done, Vakarian. There is no excuse."

"Shepard." His voice dropped even further, hitting a low, jagged frequency that sent a cascade of ice down her spine. "I'll go. Just tell me what you told Lawson. If it convinced her... maybe it can convince me."

Shepard narrowed her eyes. She'd had to resort to evasions, bullshit, appeals to a higher authority, and ridiculous circular logic to get Miranda to back down. Miranda knew her body from the inside out, but she didn't know her very well at all.

If Shepard tried pulling that same crap on him, he'd make EDI lock her in her quarters for her own safety.

Now there was an idea. "EDI," she said, not taking her eyes off him.

The little hologram popped up by her door. "Yes, Shepard."

She looked at him for a long moment.

Yes. This was right. She was furious, but she needed him on the Normandy. If he came up here again, got in her face with his sanctimonious bullshit again, defended taking a no confidence vote against her to fucking Cerberus, again— she couldn't guarantee he'd stay on the good side of her airlock.

"Officer Vakarian is to be restricted access to Deck 1," she said. "Effective immediately."

"Yes, Shepard." EDI flickered. "Officer Vakarian, I'm afraid I must ask you to leave."

"Really," he said, looking at Shepard.

Shepard stepped back and folded her arms. "I have nothing else to say to you. Get out."

"Don't worry." He pushed off the wall, drawing himself up to his full height. "I'm gone."

Chapter Text

Pragia

Trees erupted from every crevice, stretching their canopies up towards the sky, where the wind shredded their leaves and the low clouds boiled black and blue. The air was heavy with the smell of wet earth and ozone. Lightning flashed cold and white, throwing tree-shaped shadows over the stark geometry of the shuttered Teltin facility.

Jack jumped out of the shuttle before it had stopped moving and stared at the complex with wide eyes, heedless of the rain hissing from the sky, of the goosebumps rising on her thin bare arms.

Shepard hopped down onto the deck and heard the quiet thump of Garrus following suit behind her. The rain pattered against her helmet, making the comm pickup twitch on and off. Their kinetic barriers flickered indecisively.

Jack glanced back at her, jaw clenched. Shepard nodded.

The three of them approached the Teltin facility in silence, shields blinking in and out of the darkness.

The front doors emerged out of grey mist, down at the bottom of a long stretch of walkway. Jack growled under her breath and stalked forward, back tense, arms stiff.

Garrus paused beside Shepard, reached up and switched off his comm. Shepard gave him a questioning look.

"Why am I here," he said, his voice low and flat under the drumbeat of the rain.

She put her thumb over her helmet mic. "Because we're both professionals, and we've got a job to do."

He just folded his arms and looked at her. Water ran down along the underside of his painted cheekbone, trailed down to the sharp corner of his chin.

"I don't want this festering and turning into a thing where we can't work together," she said, irritated. "Plus, I did say I'd take you out next time. A promise is a promise." She glanced down the stairs at the dark sprawl of the abandoned building below them. "Don't know if there's gonna be all that much to shoot though."

"Ghosts," he speculated, gazing down at Jack. The little biotic was struggling with the rusted-out door controls.

"I've heard bullets don't work on them so well," Shepard said.

"Oh? That's too bad. Bullets are all I've got." He leveled a dead stare at her. "Maybe you should have brought somebody else."

So, it was going to be like that. Fine.

Below them, Jack let out a shout of frustration and caved in the doors with a burst of blue fire.

"Sorry, Vakarian. You're stuck here now." Shepard patted his arm, gave him a sugary smile. "If you get bored, you can always try shooting me in the back."

---

Child-sized shipping containers. Child-sized jail cells. Child-sized dissection tables.

Shepard shook her head. Until now, some small part of her brain had been convinced that Jack was just making all this shit up. It sounded like the horror stories she and the other slum kids used to tell to scare the crap out of each other. Mysterious abductors, bright lights, sharp knives. Experiments.

But Teltin sure looked like it was the real deal. The smell of stale disinfectant hung in the air.

They splashed through puddles, crunched over broken glass and tile, crushed ferns and grasses underfoot. They ducked under streams of rainwater pouring from gashes in the ceiling. Jumped over tangled masses of roots muscling up through the floor.

Pragia's lethal ecology was ripping the building to pieces. If they waited five years, there'd be nothing left for Jack to bomb.

Shepard paused in front of a console, fiddled with her omni-tool. "Hold up. The memory in this thing's still active. I've got part of a videolog here."

Jack appeared immediately at her side, vibrating with tension. "Put it on. Show me."

The flickering outline of an armored guard. —The Illusive Man's getting suspicious. When we get results, he won't care what we did here. But if he knew...

Garrus tilted his head to one side. "It sounds like the facility went rogue."

"Bullshit," Jack hissed.

He won't find out, the guard said firmly.

Jack reached a skinny arm over Shepard and slapped at the input panel. The guard fizzed away into static. "No fucking way they didn't know about this place!"

Shepard agreed one hundred-fucking-percent. How dumb did Cerberus think she was? The console stood underneath one of the rare undamaged skylights, untouched by the ravages of rainwater or vegetation. It had just enough power left in its backup system for her omni-tool to detect it and alert her. It had just enough uncorrupted data left in its flash memory for her to recover a complete file.

And the nine seconds of videolog she'd unearthed struck precisely at the rotten heart of the matter. If they found any evidence that the Illusive Man was involved, nothing would be able to stop Jack from launching a nuclear strike within the Normandy. As he well knew.

So Cerberus underestimated Shepard's intelligence. That was good. But EDI lived inside her helmet, its synthetic eye trained on every pixel in the feed from her camera, its artificial ear listening to every cut-off swear word and puff of breath into her microphone. That was... inconvenient. Shepard needed to play her cards close to her chest.

"There may be more answers further along," she said blandly, ignoring Garrus's startled glance. "Let's keep moving."

---

What the fuck was the Blood Pack doing here? Shepard sank behind a low wall as they opened fire.

"Guess you'll get something to shoot after all," she said to Garrus over the comm.

"Just in time," he murmured back. His rifle cracked. A vorcha's head exploded on the far side of the room. "I was starting to get dangerously bored."

Ass. Shepard straightened up and put some bullet holes into another vorcha's chest. Jack flared blue and hurled the creature up at the ceiling. The body slammed and dropped, leaving a gelatinous orange-red stain behind.

"Krogan," Garrus called out as a merc trundled up the walkway towards their position.

"On it," she replied, and moved up to intercept. She leaned around a tree trunk sprouting from middle of the floor and launched a nasty Warp that shredded the merc's nervous system and buckled his armor. The krogan's howl choked out an instant later as a high-caliber bullet punched through the soft flesh under his eye.

Garrus made a satisfied rumble into the comm. "Scratch one."

The krogan toppled to the ground.

Easy as breathing. She really did like fighting with him.

"I'll have to round up some more to keep you entertained," she said, a watchful eye on the bridge, where the Blood Pack leader and his goons were hunkered down.

Jack was up ahead on the western side of the atrium, shouting curses and tearing Vorcha apart with a combination of biotics, bullets, and bare hands. It was probably the most fun she'd ever get to have on this wreck of a planet. Shepard left her to it, and began slowly working her way up towards the bridge, slipping from cover to cover.

"Shepard." Garrus made a harsh clicking sound into the comm. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going in to soften those krogan up for you," she said, sneaking around an upended operating table. "Hang tight."

"I'm coming with you."

In the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of blue and black slide out from behind a column. "The hell you are! Hold position."

He let out a humorless bark of a laugh. "Oh? There's three of them, and one of you. And you're walking in head first." His voice dropped into a low purr. "I thought you were supposed to be good at field tactics. Or is that N7 drawn on with crayon?"

Shepard ground her teeth. Just when she'd been starting to enjoy herself.

Getting killed hadn't been on her agenda for today, but now she found herself eyeing the leader's shotgun— loaded with shredder rounds, if she wasn't mistaken— with grim interest.

She could just... walk in head first.

It would be simple. Brutal. Messy. Four or five steps, then BLAM. Levo-amino brains and intestines everywhere. If she got really lucky, maybe some bits would fly back far enough to land on his face.

Pity that her slow-boiling rage over Garrus's insubordinate, hypocritical, overprotective horseshit was marginally outweighed by her loathing for the Blood Pack. Even a victory instantly rewound and erased was a victory she wouldn't allow them.

Next time they were up against mechs, though... Her lips parted in a twisted grin. First, she'd make sure he was paying attention. Then, she'd walk backwards into their bullets with open arms and a smile. In the instant before the world blinked out and reset itself, she'd savor the look on his face as he watched her disintegrate.

Maybe she could arrange it so her middle finger was last to go.

But, in the meantime, they had some krogan to kill.

"This is a tactical decision, Vakarian," she snapped into the comm. "If you're going to follow orders, then stay put while I strip their armor for you."

She rose and stalked towards the bridge, sidestepping careless shotgun bursts from above, her clenched fists glowing violet, her nerves flooded with electricity.

"And if you're not going to follow orders," she continued as she ducked behind a broken pillar, "You can save us both some heartbreak, and fuck off already."

"Heartbreak," he murmured. "Didn't know you cared, Shepard." But he stayed put.

Her biotic energy pulsed and writhed, singing a high note in her head. Too bad Teltin hadn't hired her on as a consultant. She could have given those scientists an idea or two about enhancing biotic potential. To paraphrase Massani, rage was a hell of a catalyst.

She crushed her murderous intent down into a little ball, and hurled it in the form of a savage Warp at the first krogan. He choked and stumbled, clawed at his eyes with shaking hands.

Garrus's bullet perforated his throat an instant later. The Blood Pack leader started to look a little nervous, and reinforced his biotic barrier.

Shepard ignored him and ducked under an incendiary blast, then rose back up and destroyed his lieutenant with a vicious, twisting Warp that ground him against the wall. His brow ridge shattered as Garrus's rifle round cleaved through his skull, forcing bone and blood and brain matter out of its path.

The leader roared his fury and took off running, barreling down the ramp towards her. Shepard grinned and cracked her knuckles.

Jack stepped up behind her, panting and wiping flecks of orangey blood off her face. "Need a hand?"

Actually, she had been hoping to kill the merc leader on her own, preferably with her bare hands.

But Jack was a good kid. "You're right on time," Shepard said, and stepped aside to give her room.

Warp, Shockwave, bullets, Pull, headshot, dead. The body hung suspended in the air for a long, almost comical moment, then collapsed with a meaty thump.

"Good work, team." Shepard clapped Jack on the shoulder. "Move out."

---

They found a small, dark room with an operating chair, filthy with stains and dirt and blooms of mildew. The wrist and ankle cuffs were rusted open, edges blackened with old blood.

"This is a bad place," Jack said, her voice small.

Another console, and predictably, another videolog. A scientist with a Cerberus logo on his sleeve.

We lowered the core temperatures of all surviving subjects, but no biotically beneficial reactions occured. As a side effect, all subjects died.

So... we won't try that on Zero.

I hope our supply of biotic potentials holds up. We are going through them fast.

Jack stood rigid.

"All of this was for you," Garrus said, disbelieving. "The other children were expendable."

"This is bullshit!" Jack paced back and forth over the cracked tile, hands pressed to her head. "I had it the worst out of everyone! They hated me! I only survived this place because I was tougher and stronger than the rest. Not because they were protecting me!"

"There may have been things going on that you didn't see," Shepard said gently, aware that EDI's synthetic ear hung on her every word. "You were locked in a cell. How could you know?"

The playback skipped to the next log entry. The subjects are rampaging. Zero got loose in the chaos. We're shutting Teltin down. What a disaster.

"A lot of this... isn't the way I remember it," Jack whispered.

Shepard cast a cynical eye back at the console. Probably because the cleanup crew got here first.

---

They stepped between doors emblazoned with Cerberus logos, and found themselves inside Jack's childhood home. Mildew stained the walls. The floor was falling apart. Shepard's boots sank into soft dirt.

A thickness to the air. Breathing. Shepard narrowed her eyes. "Come out. We know you're here."

A human man, haggard and pale, stepped out in front of them. "My name is Aresh." His gaze shifted to Jack, and his eyes widened. "Subject Zero."

"Jack," she corrected him.

"Subject Zero," he breathed.

Aresh apparently had ranked somewhere in between Subjects One and Fifty.

Looking at him, Shepard began to think that maybe the Cerberus scientists really had been trying, in their own warped way, to keep Jack safe. Jack was fucked in the head, but she was young, fierce, alive. Crackling with energy.

Aresh was... well, logically, he and Jack had to be about the same age. But his eyes were dull, his face creased and sunken. He moved and spoke as if he were underwater.

Of course he wanted to restart Teltin. In his head, he'd never left this place. Nothing else made sense to him.

"Are you crazy?!" Jack shouted in his face. "You were here! You lived it!"

"They knew something," he insisted. "There had to be a reason for all of it—"

He crumpled as Jack struck out with a blue-gloved fist.

"Jack," Shepard said, stepping forward, her arms raised.

"He's going to make it happen all over again!" Jack cried, her pistol trained on the back of Aresh's skull. "He needs to die."

"He can't do anything. Look at him! He was in the exact same place that you were. He's dealing with the same shit in his head that you are." Shepard took another step towards her. "You can pull that trigger and shut the door on this place forever, if you want. But there are other loose ends out there. Other survivors. Are you going to hunt them all down, too?"

Jack scrubbed at her face with her other hand. "I don't know! Maybe!"

"My point is that you don't have to, Jack. You're stronger than that."

Jack clenched her teeth, alternating her glare between Shepard and Aresh, who knelt limply on the floor. She shifted her grip on her pistol.

"You're strong enough," Shepard continued, "that you can just walk away from this place. Leave the doors wide open behind you. That's how you show them that your past doesn't control you. Give him the chance that was never given to you."

Jack looked back at her, then Aresh, then her gun. "—Fuck. I don't... Is this right?"

"If you need to feel safe, go ahead and shut the door," Shepard said, gesturing at the kneeling man between them. "It's your decision. I won't interfere."

Jack breathed in, and out. Lowered her pistol.

"Get out of here," she muttered.

Aresh, staring down at the floor, didn't react. She shoved him. "Run! Go!"

He went.

Jack let out a shaky sigh and walked over to her window. Outside, Aresh picked his way over dead bodies and broken equipment, back towards Teltin's surface.

Jack pressed her fist against the glass.

"...I'm still nuking this place."

"Your call," Shepard said, voice neutral.

Aresh glanced back over his shoulder at them, but all he saw in the window was his own reflection.

---

Garrus hung back by Shepard's side as they walked out.

She glared up at him, ready for the inevitable complaints about her tactics, her judgment calls, her behavior, her mental health, her personal hygiene. "...What."

"I was wondering if you heard any of that inspirational speech just now," he said. "It was pretty good."

Shepard blinked. "What? It was?"

"I thought so. The central metaphor was very... potent."

He was fucking with her. Shepard's eyes narrowed.

"You closed your door," he said firmly, pre-empting her from swearing at him. "But mine's still open."

She was still trying to decide whether or not to swear at him as he walked away.

---

Normandy

Jack shuffled wordlessly out of decontamination and headed for the elevator, ignoring Chambers's chirp of a greeting.

Shepard glanced up at Garrus. He glanced back. She opened her mouth, hesitated, closed it again. He turned on his heel and strode off after Jack.

She trudged upstairs to the cockpit instead. She needed some cheering up. "Hey."

"Hey, Commander." Joker spun around in his chair. "So, glad we figured out Jack's crazy! That was really up in the air, you know. Just hanging there."

Shepard sighed, suddenly not in the mood. "Lay off, Moreau. She's a good kid."

He gave her an incredulous stare. "Pretty sure she's neither of those things. You must be even crazier than her."

Shepard bared her teeth in a shark's grin. "Is that a fact."

"So, uh, mineral resources," Joker said quickly, spinning back around. "Hey, good to see you Commander, nice chat. EDI, where we at with our palladium?"

"We are exactly where we were last time you checked, Mister Moreau. That was fifty-two seconds ago."

Shepard rolled her eyes and left them to it. She had some nervous energy to burn off. Time for rounds.

She went back and flirted with Chambers— Kelly— for a few minutes. She was bright, bubbly, and ecstatic that Shepard was finally using her first name. Maybe with some time and judicious encouragement, Shepard could override the Cerberus kool-aid, and start to bring her around.

She wasn't above exploiting the yeoman's obvious crush on her.

Over to the Armory. Jacob gave her a crisp salute and a fist-bump. Hey, Shepard. Thanks for the help earlier. Feels good to put a lid on the past. Don't worry about me, not a baggage kind of guy— I'm all about the mission now. But hey, sorry, don't have a lot of time to talk. These guns aren't gonna repair themselves.

In the Tech Lab, Mordin frowned and squinted at something on his console. No, not the best time. Discovered mutated strain of Elcor virus. Could be effective bio-weapon against Collectors. Nasty. Fast-acting. Surprising, for Elcor. Began modifications for aerosol deployment, but sneezed at critical moment. Keeping virus in containment proving... problematic. Distraction unwise.

Deck 3. Miranda actually smiled at her. Shepard. I wanted to thank you. I couldn't have reached Oriana in time without your help. She has everything I ever wanted for her, now. A normal life, freedom... And— she has me. Thank you. I'm afraid I have to finish looking over these maintenance schedules, but I'd like to talk more. Another time?

Dr. Chakwas craned her head up to look at her. I'm doing very well, Commander, thank you, but I'm afraid I'm not up to indulging again just yet. Oh no? Well how thoughtful of you to check in. ...Are you feeling all right?

Port Observation. Goto tipped her an upside-down smile from where she lay sprawled over the couch. Shep! Would you like a gin gimlet? Don't ask where I got the limes. Okay I'll tell you. You know the designer Giuli Vorn? Lives in a sprawling villa in Nos Astra? He spent a fortune genetically modifying fruit trees from Earth to make his own private orchard on Illium. They're protected by about twelve terabytes of legal patents. Not to mention the electric fence, the retina scanner, the automated turrets, the squad of commandos, the varren... you get the picture. Anyway, help yourself to a drink! Have two! Don't worry about those seed trays. They're for later.

Shepard took the cocktails over to Life Support. Krios politely declined her offer: alcohol exacerbated his Kepral's. He slipped into a memory of a hit he'd carried out in a bar, deep in the Citadel wards. A rare turian pirate. Caius Egan made a career out of desecrating protected Prothean archaeological sites. Stealthing in and abducting irreplaceable artifacts.

Now he waits, drumming his talons against the counter. The buyer is late. An old scar traces from his left brow plate to his lip, shining silver and red in the neon glow. Bone separates from cartilage with a twist and a crack. His body slumps in a shadow between booths.

...Ah. My apologies, Siha. I seem compelled to share these things with you whether I wish it or not.

Starboard Observation. The Justicar cradled a sphere of energy between her palms. The asari warrior and her code were fascinating: uncompromising and ancient, as calm and cold as the void of space. But no, she would not care for a drink. If her judgment were incapacitated in any way, it could have lethal consequences. Thank you for your offer, however. Your kindness is appreciated.

Shepard moved on to Deck 4. Massani scoffed at the cocktail, but then grabbed it out of her hand anyway. Shit, any booze that doesn't dry-boil your insides is a luxury in deep space. I was trapped on a Batarian frigate for a week once, after a job went bad. Entire crew'd been killed, along with my backup. Stench was godawful. Couldn't airlock the bodies fast enough. Only thing keeping me company was a crate of Khar'shan ale. By the time anyone responded to the distress beacon I was so far goddamn gone, I was half dead myself. Hallucinated that the scouts were devils sent from hell to drag me down. So I stayed quiet, snuck around behind them and took off with their ship. Hell of a way to repay a good samaritan. Still wonder what happened to them sometimes. Good talk, Shepard. Thanks for the drink.

Port Cargo. Grunt snarled at her and threw an action figure at her head. Chambers had mentioned something was up with him. She'd deal with it later.

She headed down below Engineering to check on Jack, but the little biotic was already curled up and asleep on her cot.

Shepard tiptoed back upstairs, and checked the time on her omni-tool. Win-win: she'd managed to postpone writing up her field report on Pragia for a solid forty-five minutes, and she'd touched base with everyone on her team.

Except one. She downed the rest of her drink in a single gulp, and punched the elevator button.

---

The battery doors hissed open. Garrus was standing at his console.

She stepped over the threshold. "...Hey."

He didn't move. "You remembered where I live."

"Just checking in," she said tonelessly. "Do you need anything? Mods? New rifle?"

"I'm good," he said, voice flat. "You should be shopping for yourself."

Here we go. She folded her arms, leaned back against the wall, her chin raised at an angle somewhere in between firm and fuck-you. "Oh really. Got something to add to my list?"

He turned to face her, finally, mirroring her defiant pose. "A calculator app for your omni-tool. Since apparently you can't tell the difference between three and one."

She snorted. "If you'd been at my back when I needed you, instead of being an insubordinate waste of my time, it would have been three and two."

"I think you've made it pretty clear that you don't need me for anything." He stepped forward, looming over her. A deep rumbling sound began in his throat. "You're going to get yourself killed again no matter what I do."

"And I think you've made it pretty clear that you'd prefer me locked up in a Cerberus testing lab." Shepard flashed her teeth in a wide smile. "So I'd be dead either way."

His good mandible dropped open. "That's not—"

"It's fine." She patted his arm. "I'll just have to come back again to haunt you."

The rumbling sound rose suddenly, sharpened. It throbbed against her eardrums. He was growling at her. Holy hell.

"Damnit, Shepard," he bit out. "I don't know what's gone wrong with your head. Apparently Lawson doesn't either. But this isn't funny. I saw what happened on Illium."

Her stomach lurched. Illium. She'd splintered apart. Stumbled blindly through a haze of rage and paranoia. Walked headfirst into a gunship.

—No. He couldn't know about that. None of it had happened.

"I kicked ass on Illium," she said.

"You deliberately dosed yourself with a lethal chemical," he said. "You would have ODed if Lawson hadn't knocked you out of the dust. She showed me the footage."

That's all. Thank god. "Vakarian, listen to me." She stepped forward, tipped her head back to look him in the eye. "I knew exactly what I was doing. Sometimes seeing the mission through means taking calculated risks. You're a soldier. You should understand that."

"Don't feed me the party line, Shepard. You could have given yourself permanent brain damage. Blown out your biotics. I'm failing to see how that would help the mission."

"I could have, but I didn't, because I know what I'm doing! What the hell happened to make you this uptight?" She flicked her hand out in a sharp, angry gesture. "You and Lawson ought to hook up. I'm sure you'd be very happy together."

"Stop deflecting." He struck lightning-quick, grabbed her outstretched hand in his. "I thought you just needed time to figure yourself out. That eventually you'd tell me the truth about what's happened to you."

She glared up at him. "I died."

His good mandible flared out and down, exposing rows of needle-sharp teeth. "I know you did. I also know there's more to it than that. Something happened with you and the Praetorian."

"I tore the Praetorian into fucking pieces, that's what happened! As far as I'm concerned, I've done nothing but kick ass at my job and you've done nothing but piss and moan and go behind my back to Lawson. I don't know what the hell you're talking about."

He dropped her hand like it was a rotting corpse.

"I sure hope the Collectors are vulnerable to bullshit," he hissed. "Because otherwise, we haven't got a fucking prayer."

She just shook her head.

How had it come to this?

A week and a half ago she'd woken up on a sterile slab. And day by day, one by one, she'd completely lost the trust and respect of everyone who ever mattered to her.

She clenched her teeth, squeezed her eyes shut. Fine. It was fine. She couldn't stop. She had a contingency plan. Taylor, Lawson, Chambers, Solus at bare minimum. Krios could be relied upon as well, if she was reading him right. The Justicar would obey her oath. Jack— well, who knew about Jack. But the little biotic owed her a favor, and that never hurt.

She could do this without him.

She crossed her arms over her chest and stared up at him. "I don't know what to say to you, Vakarian. If it's always going to be like this, if you're going to question my every move and motivation, you can feel free to clear out right now. I can't lead someone who won't follow."

He met her stare head-on, and didn't say anything at all.

...Fuck.

She exhaled and stepped back, rubbing her forehead. All right. So they were done. She'd already said as much to him anyway, last night, back in her quarters.

She'd said it herself and she'd said it first. So why was her throat so tight? She pressed her knuckles hard against her eyes. Her heart ached.

She could do this without him.

But she really, really didn't want to.

"You know, I would have expected this shit from Kaidan," she said into the darkness. "Nothing I did was ever good enough for him. Even back then."

She pressed her hands in harder, until bright splotches of color burned against the black. "...I never, ever thought that would be true of you."

She backed up until she bumped against the wall, and slid down to sit on the floor.

"Shepard," he said.

Her hands dropped into her lap.

"Shepard," he said again, more quietly.

"Kaidan. Tali. Liara. And now you. I thought we were a team," she mumbled. "What happened?"

"We all went through hell together," he said, looking down at her with an unreadable expression. "...Then you died. And we each went through hell alone."

She drew her knees up to her chest, wrapped her arms around herself. "Why didn't they want to come with me?"

"They're scared," he replied. "A lot happened last time. A lot is happening now. It's not easy to deal with."

She glanced up at him. A long-limbed, blue-black shadow against the battery walls. "You came. Why aren't you scared?"

He let out a soft puff of laughter. "I'm terrified."

She looked up at him for a long moment.

She didn't want it to end like this.

She had to tell him everything. Even if it was the last time they ever spoke. But Cerberus's omnipresent eyes and ears made that impossible.

"Come with me to the Citadel," she said, finally. "I wasn't kidding, I really do need to do some shopping. Let's make a day of it."

He tilted his head, considering. It was neutral ground. It was where they'd first met. Before Omega, it had been his home.

And if he decided to leave her, he could just... stay there.

"Sure," he said lightly. "Buy me dinner, and I might even dress up."

"Keep dreaming, Vakarian."

She reached out her hand.

He stepped forward, and pulled her up.

She gave him a small half-smile as she stepped out of the battery.

---

Later that night, when she was blearily looking over resource reports, projected consumption trends, personnel assessments, and news briefings from the various sources (reputable and otherwise) in the Terminus systems, her omni-tool pinged.

From: Saronis Applications
Subj: You have received a gift! Click the link to download your new software.

Shepard frowned and opened the message.

Omni-Calc2.3_for_Chamelon.app

Gift Message:

Maybe this will help.

-G

Chapter Text

She slept like the living dead.

"Shepard," EDI's cool, synthetic voice murmured. "Shepard. Wake up."

"Wha—" She almost slapped herself in the face as she tried to simultaneously grab her sidearm and hurl herself out of bed. "Jesus. What is it?"

"There is a situation that requires your attention."

Shepard stilled. Cerberus betrayal. Collector attack. Alliance subpoena. Garrus. "...Specify."

Joker's voice crackled over the ship's intercom. "A sexy situation. Or terrifying, depending on your perspective. Jack and Miranda are having a little chat in the XO's office. You may want to get down there before they kill each other."

Shepard let out her breath. "Wonderful," she mumbled, and began yanking on her clothes.

"The perks of command," Joker said cheerfully. "Hey, question. Could a biotic cage match actually do serious damage to the ship? 'Cause I like my Normandy the way she is. You know. Intact."

She wiggled her feet into her boots, ran a hand ineffectually through her wild hair. "I recommend you review some of the old footage from Solcrum. Namely, the part where Liara and I used our mind powers to crush a Geth Colossus into a tiny pile of scrap."

"Yikes. Um, Commander, in that case, can you hurry?"

"Yeah, yikes," she affirmed. "I'm hurrying. Consider this the next time you feel like sassing your commanding officer: you'd be a lot easier to crush than a Colossus."

"You're in a delightful mood this morning," he muttered. "Don't gotta take it out on me."

"Perks of command." She punched the call button for the elevator.

---

"I expect better from both of you," Shepard said wearily, rubbing at her eyes. "Jack, is there anything Miranda could say that would actually make you feel any better about what Cerberus did to you? You were spoiling for a fight and you know it. If you need to beat something up, come to me. I'll point you in the right direction."

She turned to face her XO. "And Miranda, what were you thinking, baiting her like that? You should have nothing to prove. Why did you let her get under your skin?"

Both women folded their arms, shifted their gaze away. Jack looked sullen. Miranda looked like an icicle.

"Listen. I don't expect you to shake hands and make friends. I do expect you to stay sharp, stay focused, and do your fucking jobs. You're here because you're the best at what you do, and that's what it's going to take for us to win."

Shepard stood directly in front of them, back straight, expression fierce.

"If you don't think you can go out there and stand side by side and kill the shit out of the Collectors, you need to get your heads on straight right fucking now, because our people are out there suffering while you waste everyone's time with this." She jabbed a finger into her palm. "We are a team. We have each others' backs. Put this aside. Are we clear?"

"Yes, Commander," said Miranda.

Shepard nodded at her. "Good."

Silence. She raised an eyebrow at Jack.

"Crystal," muttered Jack.

"Then it's settled. This doesn't happen again. Miranda," she said with an acknowledging nod, and gestured Jack out the doors ahead of her.

In the hallway, the little biotic fidgeted, jammed her hands into her pockets. "Hey, uh."

"Yeah?" Shepard said warily. Were they going to have a problem?

"I never talked to you after the whole deal with Teltin." Jack glanced up at her. "So... thanks."

Shepard fought to keep the astonishment off her face. "You're welcome, Jack. Did it help?"

Jack pursed her lips. "You know, I thought after what I heard about Aeia and Illium that I'd get to see you pull some badass shit down there." She cocked her head to one side. "But all I got was a girl scout speech."

Shepard gave her a flat look. "It takes more than a few krogan to get me excited. Next time, tell your friends to bring a gunship."

Jack snorted. "Yeah right." She rubbed a hand over her head, glanced away. "But... yeah, it helped. Girl scout speech and all. See you around, Shepard."

She slouched off to the elevator. Shepard watched her go, bemused.

The mess was deserted. Everyone on morning shift had long since cleared out, and Gardner was presumably off cleaning a toilet or fixing a busted pipe somewhere. She banged around in the cabinets, searching for caffeine. Found a box of expensive-looking tea, undoubtedly from a crew member's own personal supply. Sure. Why not.

"Joker," she called out at the ceiling. "How long until we reach the Citadel?"

"Three hours and change, Commander. Plenty of time to solve everyone else's problems."

Maybe. If she was really efficient about it. She made a second cup of tea, and went to go talk to Krios.

---

By the time they docked, the caffeine had worn off, but she was feeling pretty good about herself and her ragtag bunch of rebels, thugs and misfits.

Rebel and misfit number one met her in front of the airlock. "You dressed up," Garrus said, dry as dust.

"So did you," she replied. They were both wearing full armor, guns strapped to their backs. Of course.

They fell into step with each other as they pushed through the crowded docking bay. It was easy, instinctive, just like it had always been. He shortened his long, rangy stride for her benefit, and stuck to her left, knowing she tended to fire right. She walked slightly ahead, he slightly behind, so she could head off enemies at the front and buy him time to get into position.

It was so easy it swung all the way back around into really fucking uncomfortable. Being here, on the Citadel, with him, was turning her head inside out.

Everything had warped beyond recognition.

Everything was exactly the same.

"Shepard," he murmured, as they stood in line for security clearance. "What are we doing?"

"Hitting Rodam and everywhere else that's halfway decent for mods, armor and guns," she said. "Speak up if you see anything you like."

His jaw clicked. "I mean what are we doing."

She closed her eyes. Not yet. "...Not here. Let's just— pretend to be normal, for a little bit."

He didn't respond for a long moment. The line shuffled forward.

Finally she braved a glance up at him. His brow was furrowed, his good mandible flexing angrily in and out as he stared ahead.

What the hell was he pissed off about now? Goddamnit. "Okay, this was a bad idea," she said, rubbing her forehead. "Forget it. You can do what you want. I'll go."

"Where, exactly?" Garrus made a sharp gesture at the line stretching ahead of them. "Unless you were planning on pulling the Spectre card, and leaving me here to rot."

"I wouldn't leave you. But if you hate being around me so much, I'm not going to make you stay." She glared up at him. "And I'm not pulling the card. You know I feel like an asshole when I do that. I'm hanging on to the title by a thread as it is."

"Of course," he said blandly. "Wouldn't want to make you uncomfortable, Spectre."

She looked away, fuming, and didn't say anything. There was absolutely nothing she could say, not with EDI in her ear. Unless she used her fists to say it.

He stood bristling and silent at her side.

A pair of salarians waiting in line behind them eyed him, then her, and slowly edged backwards.

He let out a long breath, and unfolded his arms. Tipped his head down to look at her. "...Shepard, I—"

"—Shepard?"

She turned to look. "Bailey," she said with relief.

The C-Sec captain was holding a bottle of Tupari, and something in a paper wrapper that looked vaguely like a hot dog. He nodded a greeting at Garrus. "Lucky I spotted you two. Always busy as hell this time of day."

"Haron! We're coming through," he barked up at the main gate. "We've got a goddamn Spectre paying us a visit."

---

They talked shop with Bailey for a few surprisingly pleasant minutes. Then they were spat out into the wards and she had to figure out all over again what to do with her hands, where to look.

Fuck all of this. Fuck the two years. She wished she could put a bullet through her skull and rewind back to fucking Horizon. That would be good enough. If only she'd been better at covering her ass in the beginning, everything now would be—

Well. Not okay. But at least tolerable.

If she'd kept her head together better, maybe she could even have talked Kaidan into joining her.

"Shepard," Garrus rumbled.

"What," she said, resigned to her solitary hell.

"I'll be good. Let's go."

She lifted her head cautiously. "...Yeah?"

"Yeah. Wherever you like."

She managed a faint half-grin. "You may live to regret saying that."

He blinked at her slowly, his turian version of an eye roll. "I'm not scared of you."

Yet. Shepard led them in a slow, meandering path through the markets, stopping to look at whatever caught her eye.

A hack assist module. Omni-tool games. Tiny ships. Fish. The galaxy really was full of useless crap.

"Where are the fucking guns," she hissed, a fruitless half-hour later.

Behind her, Garrus let out a startled laugh. "I thought you were just trying to punish me. You're lost?"

"Hell no! I was just hoping there'd be more. Is Rodam Expeditions really the only place that's worth a damn around here?"

"Ah," he said, looking smug all of a sudden.

"What," she said warily.

He flared a mandible in a sharp grin. "It's a good thing you brought along a local. Follow me."

---

She actually began to enjoy herself, after the second or third shop they poked their heads into. He was giving her an up-close and personal experience of a side of the Wards she'd never seen before. They wandered through narrow alleys spiderwebbed with power cables, picked their way between ramshackle apartment buildings and gleaming skyscrapers, dodged around colorfully dressed members of every major species. For the first time, she could see how people actually lived on the Citadel.

And with his home field advantage, Garrus had even lightened up enough to start being an ass to her again. Win-win.

She was still going to tell him and ruin all of it forever, just... not yet. Hanging out like this, trading jabs, cracking wise, acting like they were hot shit and the galaxy couldn't handle it— even though they were still both furious and fed up with each other, it was the most fun she'd had all week.

He led her through the dark and crowded subterranean shopping district to a little hole-in-the-wall of a shop, surprisingly well-stocked, where they inspected the merchandise with expert eyes and argued happily over every little damn thing.

The customer service representative, a fresh-faced asari, gave up on trying to help them after the first two minutes. Shepard didn't blame her. Shepard and Vakarian made for an absolutely impossible pair of customers.

"Really, Shepard? You're about the last person that should ever get a targeting visor. You shouldn't even be legally allowed to make that purchase."

"Why the hell not? It says it makes your shots ten percent more accurate. Actually ten, not 'up to ten.' You have one. Why am I not allowed?"

"Because you can't wear it under your helmet."

"Obviously." She put her hands on her hips. "So?"

He leaned back against the shop counter and folded his arms. "So, you use your SMG the majority of the time. Accuracy is pretty much irrelevant with that thing. ...I can't believe you actually like that gun."

"Feel free to arrive at your point, Vakarian."

"My point is that your enemies are going to headshot you a lot faster and better than you can headshot them, so don't bother. You're better off with a helmet. And why is every single thing you've bought today an offensive upgrade? You haven't gotten a damn thing that might actually help protect you."

Because it'd be a waste of credits. She glanced up at him, then away. "Christ, fine. I won't get the visor." She dropped the box back onto the counter. "Hey, do you want a new rifle? This one seems nice."

He shot her a look that said I know what you're doing. "No, I'm good. Thanks."

"C'mon." She nudged his shoulder. "Your Mantis looks like it predates the First Contact War. Don't you want something a little sexier?"

He looked righteously offended. Shepard fought down a grin.

"Absolutely not," he clipped out. "The Mantis may be simple, but it's a damn classic. Streamlined, lightweight, packs one hell of a punch." He poked a scornful finger at the display model on the counter in front of them. "The Viper is fussy by comparison. Overdesigned."

The customer service rep poked her head out from behind the counter, a hopeful expression on her face. "Actually, in the newest iteration Rosenkov streamlined the feature set considerably, and reduced the weight to—"

Garrus waved her away with a flick of his hand. The asari sunk back below the counter, resentment in her eyes.

He gestured at the model. "If you're a sniper working alone and you need extra bells and whistles, sure, a gun like this could come in handy," he said to Shepard. "But if you have a team, it's much more effective to send in a tech to deal with shields and armor. Then you can do what you do best, with the best tool for the job. Quick and clean."

He hefted the display model and pressed it to his shoulder in a fluid, weightless movement, his eye up against the scope.

"One shot. One kill. Reload."

He gently placed the gun back on its display stand, then turned to look at her. "...What?"

Shepard couldn't contain her smile any longer. "Nothing."

He clicked his jaw at her, irritated. "I forgot I was talking to a biotic. You all think you're too good for real guns. Let's head out, Shepard, we've done enough damage here."

The neon orange glow of the underground market washed over them, reflecting off his silvery skin, turning the bold strokes of his face paint midnight black. He gestured for her to follow him, and began pushing his way through the crowds with lanky grace.

"I have real guns," she said, matching his stride. "I shoot things just fine."

He glanced down at her. "With a pistol and an SMG? Krogan would laugh in your face. I'm pretty sure those krogan back on Pragia were laughing."

"Sure, up until they died in agony," Shepard said mildly.

"From my headshots."

"Which would have bounced right off their skulls, if I hadn't already gone in and killed them ninety percent dead for you."

His eyes narrowed. "I think your math might be a little off. Didn't you get my present last night?"

She fired up his calculator app on her omni-tool, punched randomly at a few buttons. "Nope, the math's good," she said, looking up at him with wide eyes. "I've got the numbers right here. Ten percent Vakarian, ninety percent Shepard."

"Like hell. Let me see that." He leaned over and swiped at her arm. She skipped out of his reach, laughing. "You better run those figures again, Shepard."

"Denial isn’t an attractive quality, Vakarian." But she poked at the interface. "...Oh. Hmm. That's odd."

"What," he drawled.

"Now it's saying eighty percent Shepard, twenty percent Vakarian."

"Imagine that."

"It's also saying that's the best you're gonna get, so don't push it."

He flicked a mandible at her. "It's saying an awful lot, for a basic calculator app."

"You only got me the basic version?" Shepard frowned up at him. "Cheapskate."

He reached over and patted her gently on the head. "Well, I thought we should start off slow. For your sake."

She scowled at him, but her traitorous lips kept trying to twist up into a grin. She'd really missed this.

"Where are we going, anyway," she said, after she'd wrestled her face back into something resembling detached professionalism. "Another manufacturer outlet? I think I'm good."

"A cafe," he said. "You owe me a drink for all the hell you've put me through today."

"Just one?" she said, surprised.

"No. But I'm letting you pay me off in installments. Even Cerberus's pockets aren't that deep."

---

Shepard brought the beers back to their table, color-coded labels peeking out from between her fingers, and slid the blue one across to him. "Here. Debt discharged."

She’d expected some sarcastic crap about compound interest or something, but he just said "Thanks," and took a long drink. He gazed out the sunlit window, his sharp chin propped on one hand.

She looked too, squinting against the brightness. The chaotic, irregular sprawl of the wards stretched out as far as she could see. The long starfish arm of the Citadel curved gently upwards in the distance, shimmering inside its envelope of pale blue atmosphere.

"So," Garrus murmured. "You did your shopping."

"I did," she agreed.

"Is this the part where you tell me not to bother coming back to the ship?"

"What?" Her beer bottle thunked against the table. "No. Of course not."

"Oh." He closed his eyes briefly, let out a long breath. "Good."

Shepard pressed her palm to her forehead, squeezed her eyes shut. Goddamnit. She'd been so wrapped up in her own fucking head trying to keep her secrets safe. She'd barely paid any attention to what she'd been saying, how she'd been acting.

Of course he'd thought she was a heartbeat away from cutting him loose. She was the only one who knew it was really the other way around.

This whole time she'd been walking around with him as if things were normal, and he'd been pretending just as fiercely as she had.

"Garrus," she said, her voice rough.

He looked at her. His eyes were pale, piercing blue in the stark sunlight.

She reached over the table and touched the back of his hand. "I've been a shitty friend."

"Yes," he agreed. "But you were dead. That's a pretty good excuse."

Shepard took a sip of her beer, contemplated the bottle in her hands. "We haven't talked very much about the important stuff, have we?" she said. "Tell me about Omega."

"Tell me what's going on with you," he countered.

She grimaced, looked away. "You go first."

He folded his arms. "How old are you, again, in turian years? Eight?"

"You're deflecting," she said, with a honeyed smile.

He sighed, and rubbed at his forehead under the visor. "I... yeah. Can we talk about you instead? I'm not ready."

Shepard looked down at her hands, took a deep breath.

All right. Why the hell not. If the conversation went really badly, she could always find a ledge somewhere and walk off it.

"Okay," she said. She drained her beer in a long gulp. "But not here. Let's pay another visit to Bailey. We need a change of uniform, and I bet C-Sec has some spares."

---

Bailey just waved a hand and told his assistant to get Shepard whatever the hell she needed. Bailey was fantastic. If only the Council could be more like him.

In the women's bathroom at C-Sec HQ, Shepard contemplated her underwear, and weighed probabilities.

Her armor and helmet were bugged. Obviously. EDI had a direct link to her comm, camera and medical software.

Her undersuit was most likely also bugged. At the very least it would have some kind of tracer implanted in the fabric.

Her underwear, though... How far would Cerberus really go to keep an eye on her?

Fuck it. She couldn't even be sure about her brain. She definitely wasn't sure about her bra. She peeled it all off and kicked it aside, then shimmied into the black-and-blue C-Sec one-piece, zipped herself up.

She gathered up the pieces of her armor and stepped out into the hallway, and nearly bounced off of Garrus's shoulder.

"There you are," he said.

She just nodded mutely, trying not to stare. C-Sec Officer Vakarian had risen from the grave.

She dumped their armor in a storage box in Bailey's office. "The visor, too, Vakarian."

"What? No. Why?" His hand flew up to his face.

She just looked at him. Tapped her ear, pointed at her eyes.

"Shepard, there's a point at which healthy paranoia becomes actual paranoia." But he unhooked it, dropped it into the box. His skin underneath was pale, more suede than silver.

She unfastened her omni-tool as well, and made sure he did the same.

Bailey watched them with wary interest. "Don't think I wanna know why all this is necessary. Just try to stay out of trouble while you're wearing our duds, all right Shepard? Don't make us look bad."

She grinned her shark's grin at him as they walked out the door, borrowed pistols clipped to their sides. "C'mon, Bailey. It's me."

Newly minted C-Sec Officers Shepard and Vakarian stood in the atrium in front of the rapid transit terminal.

"Now what," he said, looking down at her.

"I'm not sure," she admitted. "We need to go somewhere where there's absolutely no chance of spies, or bugs, or being overheard." She glanced up at him. "If we were back in my city on Earth, I'd have a million places, but the Citadel... I don't know. A hotel?"

"Spirits, no," he said. "Everyone has bugs in the hotels."

"Then where?"

His eyes sharpened, grew cold and distant. "I have an idea."

---

She stood guard in the silent, half-lit hallway while he hacked the door.

"You're sure?" she murmured.

"Very sure," he rumbled back. "Mierin didn't have any relatives, and he moved into this apartment complex after he quit C-Sec. I think I was the only person who knew he ever lived here." His face darkened. "At least, the only person who's still alive."

Shepard glanced down at him, her forehead creased in worry.

"Ah—" he made a small noise of satisfaction as the door lock disengaged. "We're in."

They stepped over the threshold into an inch-deep layer of dust.

Any doubts she'd had about their security were instantly erased.

The air was dead still, and had been filtered and recycled so many times it smelled of nothing at all. The large window in the opposite wall was set to one-quarter brightness. Wan sunlight slanted over a low couch, a coffee table, a stack of datapads, all of it covered in a pristine shroud of pale grey.

No one had set foot in this space, drawn breath from its air, in over a year. It was a tomb as silent and still as Alchera.

Garrus stood motionless at the door, his face tipped down.

She pressed her hand to his shoulder. "...Garrus. I don't want to disturb any ghosts. We can find another place."

He shook his head and stepped forward, leaving a pair of dark two-toed footprints behind. "It's all right," he said. "Mierin... he would approve of this. He was always the most pragmatic out of all of us."

"Well, in that case." Shepard's lips curled in a tiny smile. "Do you suppose he left us any booze?"

He let out a startled huff of laughter. "If he did, it's dextro."

"Not a problem for me," she said, shrugging. "I'd rather be pleasantly drunk for this conversation. I think you would be, too."

"Fair enough." He went and rattled in the cupboards, produced two glasses and a bottle of grass-green liquid with elegant, unreadable script on the label.

She contemplated the long, low couch and its perfect blanket of grey. A ghost's seat. She moved over to the big window instead and sat down cross-legged on the dusty floor, stirring up a miniature nuclear cloud around her.

Quiet footsteps approached her back. A glass dropped into her uplifted hand.

"Thanks," she murmured.

He stepped around her and sat down, stretching his long legs out in front of him.

They gazed out the window for a moment, in companionable silence. They were up high enough to see the great curving ring of the Presidium in the distance; high enough that the the fragile cocoon of atmosphere cradling the wards disappeared abruptly into starry blackness.

"To Mierin," Shepard said quietly, raising her glass.

"And everyone else," Garrus murmured. "Monteague. Erash. Melanis. Vortash."

"Pressly," she said.

"Butler. Ripper. Sensat. Weaver. Krul."

"Ashley," she said.

"Williams," he said. "...And you."

She met his eyes. "And you."

Their glasses clinked gently.

The liquor was warm and sweet, with a strange earthy, metallic flavor. Somewhere in between honey and dirt.

"This is kind of okay," Shepard said, surprised.

"I'm glad to hear it. You don't want to know how much this stuff costs." Garrus cradled the glass between his hands, long fingers wrapping easily around its circumference. "So," he said, looking at her with sharp eyes. "Why are we breaking into my dead friend's apartment in borrowed clothes? Cerberus?"

"Cerberus," she confirmed. "We may not be safe here either. But it's the best I can do without scooping out my eyeballs."

"What?" He coughed, and had to wipe a bit of liquor off his chin.

"They're synthetic now," she explained, blinking deliberately. "It's possible EDI could have a direct feed from my brain. Miranda said otherwise, but, well. I'm not sure about Miranda."

"Spirits," he said, looking away.

Shepard took a long swallow of her drink. "If EDI's in my brain, we're so fucked anyway that it doesn't even matter."

He grimaced. "You were right about needing liquor for this conversation."

Shepard smiled wryly. "Drink fast. I'll give you the bad news now."

She leaned forward, looking directly into his eyes. "Listen. Cerberus is waging psychological warfare on all of us. They are trying to make us relaxed, complacent. Do not relax. Not even for a second. They are using us to go after the Collectors, and the instant that's done, they will stab us in the back."

He flicked his good mandible out in a fierce, sharp-toothed smile. "Not if we stab them first. I'm relieved, Shepard. I was starting to wonder if you'd gone soft on those bastards. What do you need me to do?"

"Watch my six. Keep your eyes and ears open. Look for opportunities. We need to do everything possible to win over Miranda and Jacob, and get the rest of the Cerberus crew on our side." She firmed her jaw. "Even if it doesn't work— even if all we can do is get them to hesitate before they open fire on us— it still gives us a better chance."

He nodded. "We won't be able to talk about any of this on the ship."

"No. If you need to tell me something, you'll have to get creative." Her fingers tightened around her glass. "We may be in their pockets for now, but we don't have to go along quietly forever. Our moment will come."

"Just let me know when you're ready. I'll be there." His eyes were alight with cold intent. "They have a lot of dead bodies to answer for."

Shepard swirled the green fluid around, watching it glide over the surface of the glass, and shook her head. "Can you believe that bullshit they pulled on Pragia?"

Garrus sank back against the side of the couch. "That was vile. Even for them."

"All those conveniently placed vidlogs, all saying the same thing. 'Splinter group.' 'No direct involvement.' The Illusive Man must think I'm a complete fucking idiot."

He gave her a sharp look. "I thought you were talking about what they did to Jack."

"Oh." She took a sip of her drink, glanced away. "Well. That too."

"Shepard," he said. "...I think you're losing perspective."

"I'm not going to pretend to be surprised every time Cerberus finds a new way to fuck somebody over," she snapped. She looked down at the floor, and let out a long breath. "But you may be right."

Garrus made a low, discontented rumble. "If you're agreeing with me, things must be even more screwed up inside your head than I thought."

"Listen, you ass. We're in a crazy situation. I'm allowed to be a little bit crazy."

The rumble deepened. "Only if you come out of it alive."

"Actually, the plan is to get us all out of this alive."

She drained her glass and contemplated the slow, impassive rotation of the stars outside the window.

He was alive. So was she, if you used a slightly generous definition of the word. It was quiet and still, and no one knew where they were. No cameras. No computers. No spies.

She could feel her nerves gently, finally beginning to uncurl.

"It's really nice, sitting up here," she murmured. "Let's talk about something else for a while."

"The Praetorian," Garrus said immediately.

"Jesus, Vakarian." Shepard grimaced and pushed herself up to find the bottle. Little puffs of dust kicked up behind her heels. "I need about twice as much of this stuff in me before I can do that."

She folded herself back down next to him, splashed a generous amount into her own glass, and topped his off when he raised it in wordless request.

"I have a better idea," she said. "Why don't you tell me more about your opinions on big guns?"

"I'm in favor of them," he said, and clinked his glass against hers.

"Cheers to that." She drank deeply.

The woodsy liquor blazed a path down her throat and pooled inside her, spreading a comfortable warmth out to her fingers. Her shoulders slowly relaxed, and she settled back against the side of the couch.

Beside her, Garrus tipped his head back, and propped one long arm up on his knee. The glass dangled loosely from his hand.

"That was a long list of names you drank to," Shepard murmured into the stillness.

"I worry about you all the fucking time," he murmured back, looking up at the ceiling.

She glanced over at him. "...I'm worried about you, too."

"At the very least you could pick up an assault rifle." He gestured with his hands, nearly sloshing his drink over the edge of the glass. "It's easy. Just point and shoot."

"No way. Assault rifles are heavy. If I'm loaded down, it's a lot harder to use biotics effectively." She smiled and took a long, slow sip, rolling the liquor over her tongue. "And killing bad guys with my mind is fun."

He let out a deep, purring chuckle. "Not as fun as when you line up a shot, factor in wind speed and air density, breathe out, pull your trigger... and then two kilometers away, at the top of a very tall apartment tower, a merc's head explodes like a squishy fruit." He held up his forefinger and thumb in front of her face, then pinched them shut.

"Two kilometers? Bullshit."

"Nope," he said smugly. "Benak Had'derah. Red sand distribution manager for the Blue Suns."

"You are so full of crap, Vakarian."

"I understand your resentment. Not everyone can be this gifted." He patted her on the head.

Even through the glove, his hand was unbelievably warm. Shepard struggled not to close her tired eyes and sigh with appreciation.

"Did I ever tell you how I survived Akuze?" she murmured.

He straightened up abruptly, his hand dropping to the floor. "No. No, you didn't."

"I had a sniper rifle."

She savored the expression of slack-jawed surprise on his face.

"You? A sniper rifle?"

"Yep. Shitty old Avenger model. Hahne-Kedar never could make guns worth a damn. It would overheat if you breathed on it."

He squinted at her. "...The thresher maws must have been laughing too hard to kill you."

She grinned down at her glass, unspeakably grateful that he wasn't going to try to coddle her.

"Yeah, well." She swirled her drink. "With a target that big, you don't need to have good aim. Just fast legs. So next time you feel like sassing me about how I'm better at running than shooting, keep in mind it kept me alive."

He gave her an odd look. "I won't deny that you're a lousy shot, but I've never sassed you about running."

"Yes you did, on Aeia. The—" Oh right. She'd died that time. Of course he didn't remember. "—Nevermind. Must have gotten mixed up."

"Hmm," he said, eyes sharp. Crap. He was mentally filing that one away.

But he let it lie for now. "Alenko mentioned that you wouldn't talk to him about Akuze. Back on the SR1, I mean, when you two were— having your thing. He was worried you might be haunted."

Shepard raised an eyebrow. "Haunted?"

Garrus looked up at the ceiling as his translator burbled into his ear. "When you say it back to me, it translates differently. I meant that the memory was draining your spirit. He thought that was why you couldn't talk about it. It was too painful."

"It was," she said.

"And now?"

Shepard rested her chin on her knees. "...I guess I gained perspective."

He splashed a bit more of the liquor into her glass before topping off his own. "What happened with the thresher maws?"

She smiled. "What do you think? I ran, and fired, and ran some more." She reached over and clinked her glass against his. "Every shot that went wide meant I had to sprint for my fucking life for an extra forty seconds. Couldn't use my biotics, because I wasn't sure when I'd get to eat again. Turned out to be a good call. It was a day and a half before the Alliance sent in air support."

She glanced up at the ceiling, trying to remember. "I managed to kill the first one with the rifle. The next few stayed behind for a while to eat the body, so that earned me a breather. Then I found a cache of bombs. All in all, I think I got about five or six of them, but it's hard to be sure. The memories are kind of shaky." She took a long drink, and leaned back against the couch next to him. "Thank fucking god threshers are so territorial. If they'd all swarmed at once, you'd be talking to a puddle of human goo right now."

He looked at her intently. "And the others from your unit?"

"All dead within the first thirty minutes."

Garrus leaned back and tipped his head back against the armrest, rolled over onto his cheek to look at her. "So why did you live?" he murmured.

"...I'm not sure," she replied slowly. "Even now. The ground started shaking during shift change. Worst possible time. Chain of command fell to pieces. Some of the others were trying to go back inside the shelters for guns, some were trying to get out to the vehicles. I tried to get everyone around me to shut up and just stop for a second, but— either no one could hear me, or they weren't paying attention.

"So I just... stood still, and waited, and watched."

She gazed down into the bottom of her glass. "When I saw that I needed to run, I ran. I grabbed as many as I could and made them run with me. But one by one, everyone else died. And I didn't."

"Hmm," he said, watching her through heavy-lidded eyes.

"Although," she murmured as a thought occurred to her. She held her hand up to the light of the window, looking at the faint traces of surgical scars running down the insides of her fingers. "Maybe I did die. Like everyone else down there. But I just... came back."

"Shepard," he said sharply.

She reined herself in. "Anyway. That's the other reason I tend to steer clear of big guns." She took a long, slow sip of her drink. "Big guns are for certain death situations. If I don't pull out the rifle, or the grenade launcher, it's like... it means that everything's actually not that bad. It's going to be okay."

Silence. She glanced up at him.

"That's a ridiculous superstition," he said unmercifully.

She scooted closer to him and slung her arm over his shoulders, with some difficulty. "You know I love it when you're horrible to me, right? Never stop."

Garrus turned his head to look at her, a little awkwardly since her elbow was in the way of his fringe. "Your 'big gun'—"

She thumped her glass down on the floor. "Are you air quoting at me, you turian motherfucker?"

He gave her an unimpressed look. "As I was saying. Your 'big gun' back then was an underpowered and inaccurate model that was obsolete before it even hit the shelves." He flicked his good mandible out and up in a malevolent grin. "Now, you have a miniature nuke launcher."

"If only we had a thresher maw to fire it at," she said.

"The spirits help the pious to grant their own prayers," he said, and reached around her shoulder to rest his hand on top of her head again. She laughed and leaned back against him.

"You're the only person I talk to like this," she said.

Garrus made a low rumble in his throat. "After how much we've been screaming at each other, I'm amazed you're continuing."

"...Yeah. I should really stop." Shepard straightened her back, and let out a long breath.

"You were a total mess down on Pragia," she said. His fingers tensed against her scalp. "Insubordinate. Unreliable. If we'd been up against worse than a few krogan, it could have gone to complete hell. Distraction gets you killed, along with anyone else who's relying on you. You know that."

"I know," he replied. "You're right. I'm sorry. That won't happen again."

She turned to look at him, astonished. His fingers slid through her hair with the movement. "You what? You're agreeing with me?"

He sighed and pulled his arm back, leaving a cold, empty space behind. "I am a soldier, Shepard. You're in charge of this thing, and like you said, you're kicking ass. It's your job to make the calls, and my job to listen. Regardless of personal feelings."

Shepard fell back against the couch, giddy with relief. "Keep on talking like that, Vakarian, and I'm gonna have to petition the Hierarchy for a marriage certificate."

"Besides," he said, undeterred. "Your call was tactically sound. They had armor and biotic barriers. I couldn't do a lot to help. You needed to take care of it."

"And then stand back and let you steal all the credit for my kills," she agreed. He flicked the back of her hand. "Ow!"

"I'm trying to be serious, here," he growled.

"Sorry." She took a sip of her drink, gathering her thoughts. "I'm just... glad to hear it. After I found out you went to Miranda—" The memory rose up and throttled the words in her throat. Flat on her back in a prefab on Illium, staring up at the ceiling. Her eyes burning from dust. Her heart choked with fury.

She shook her head. "I trusted you, completely. And you went around my back to Operative Lawson. She reports directly to the Illusive Man every single night. And then there was all that crap on Pragia, and..." Shepard drew her knees up to her chest. "I thought you were going to leave me. For good."

"You told me to leave you," he said, annoyed. "I thought you were bringing me out today to give me the 'thanks for the memories' speech."

She glared at him. "I was hoping you'd fall in line if I pulled out the heavy artillery. I should have remembered that you're a stubborn ass."

She tipped her face down, pressed her forehead against her knees. "...Why did you go to Lawson," she said to the floor.

"I told you."

"Tell me again in a way that I'll understand. Because I don't get it. Before I left for Illium, I thought we were all good. Then the next thing I know, Lawson's up in my face saying you think I'm jeopardizing the mission."

She thumped her glass against the ground, and bared her teeth at him. "If you doubted my ability to command, you should have at least had the decency to take me on yourself. Not brought a vote of no confidence to fucking Cerberus."

A low rumble came from his throat. "I never doubted your ability to command," he growled. "I never said anything about jeopardizing the mission. That is not what Lawson and I talked about."

"Then what."

"I said you didn't seem to care about your own life anymore. I called her various names for her role in creating this situation. And I asked her to keep you safe."

She glanced up at him. "You called Lawson names for me?"

Garrus clicked his jaw at her. "Somehow I knew that would be the only part that got your attention."

Shepard sighed. "I do care about my life."

"You care about the mission," he said. "That's different. Are you even happy to be here, Shepard?"

"Those colonists aren't going to save themselves, are they?" she retorted. "The Collectors are inhaling every last inhabitable world we've got, the Reapers are dicking around in deep space with impunity, and for some reason I drew the only short straw in the entire galaxy. So if Cerberus hadn't found me and turned me into their undead indentured servant, our odds would look even worse than they do right now. And you'd still be lying facedown in a puddle of blue fucking blood on Omega."

"You're not answering my question." He tilted his head. "But I'm pretty sure I just figured out what I needed to know."

"You are such a cop," Shepard said, pressing her hands to her face.

"I'm even wearing the uniform," he replied.

They sat in silence for a long moment. She uncapped the bottle and poured a thin stream of liquor into her glass, then his, watching the droplets pearl up and splatter against the surface.

"You're the last person I have left, Shepard," he said into the stillness. "Don't die."

"You're not allowed either," she said fiercely. "I won't die."

Garrus picked up his drink, and gave her a long look. "I'm not going to take your word for it anymore. Enough stalling. Tell me what's really been going on."

Her brain screamed No No No but her mouth said "All right." Fuck! Shepard glared down at her glass.

"It sounds completely insane," she warned him.

"I already think you're completely insane. You can't make it any worse."

Oh goddamnit. She'd done this all fucking backwards. She should have told him everything when they were still yelling at each other. It would have been easy. Get the words out, throw them in his face.

Now she cared again, way too much, and her resolve was shot to hell.

They hadn't talked about Omega— but she could see it. Losing his squad like that had cracked his hard heart to splinters.

If she told him the truth—

And here it was:

She'd lied to him through her teeth every single time. She'd died not just once, but over and over again, and she wasn't planning on stopping anytime soon. She'd been given a sickening kind of superpower and instead of being the better woman and pretending it didn't exist, she was exploiting it for fun and relying on it to rescue her from her own shitty decisions and lack of focus. On Pragia she'd seriously considered killing herself just to spite him.

If she told him the truth, he would find her choices utterly repulsive. He would never allow her to continue. And he would never, ever forgive her. He would walk away, and they would both be left without a single friend in the galaxy when the Reapers came screaming in.

And if she lied to him now, she was betraying him all over again. What kind of friend was she, to keep him blind and shackled to her side? And what kind of friend could he be to her? Not the sharp eye and right hand that she needed in this insane new universe. He wouldn't know enough to help. He wouldn't be able to watch her and make sure she didn't lose perspective. Go too far. Or not far enough.

There was a third option: pick one, see how it worked out, and then shoot herself in the head. They could repeat this whole conversation without him knowing any better, and she could work the angles and figure out how best to play him. Like a puppet in her hands.

What had she turned into? She was a fucking monster.

But she couldn't stop. The colonists were still out there. The Collectors were still out there. The Reapers were still coming, and it just might take a monster to kill them.

It wasn't even a choice. She would just have to screw her head on a little bit tighter, and figure out how to be her own damn right hand. She wouldn't stop until every last Reaper lay in pieces.

"You know that psychic Cerberus brain chip theory of yours," she began.

His eyes widened. "...I may need to retract my previous statement."

"Garrus," she said, putting her hand to her forehead.

He reached out and touched her shoulder. "Sorry. Keep going. I'm listening."

She shrugged uncomfortably. "There's not much to say. I just... see things. Future things. Things that haven't happened yet. It's only sometimes, and only when I'm fighting. I haven't really figured it out."

She pushed her glass around on the dusty floor. "You asked how I knew what the Praetorian would do. That's how."

"And how you knew about the YMIR? And those hunters?"

She nodded.

"And the red dust on Illium?" he asked, his voice low and dangerous.

"I knew it wouldn't kill me," she said. Not permanently.

"It was still irresponsible," he said.

She rolled her neck back and forth and looked away, feeling itchy. "Possibly."

He exhaled. "So. You died a human, and came back a prophet."

Shepard chewed on her lip, and said nothing.

"Did Cerberus do this to you?"

Good question. "Somehow, I don't think so. If they did, they're not taking credit for it," she replied. "But I've been trying to keep it under wraps. For obvious reasons."

"...Yeah."

They sat together in silence for a long moment. Shepard rested her chin against her arm, and traced circles in the dust with her fingertips.

"You believe me?" she asked.

"Yeah," he said. "I do."

She exhaled.

Garrus looked up at the ceiling. "You had EDI lock me out of your cabin over this," he said. "Seriously, Shepard?"

"Yeah, well." She put her hand flat against the floor. Lifted it back up to see the impression of her palm in the dust. "It seemed like the prudent call at the time. I couldn't say anything I didn't want Cerberus to hear. And I was about two seconds from decking you."

"Hah," he rumbled. "You could have tried."

Shepard snorted. "Fine. Come up to harass me whenever you feel like it. Next time, I won't let the AI protect you."

He tilted his head to one side. "If you hadn't been protecting me, all of this would have been a lot easier."

She huffed out a short, harsh laugh. She was a coward and a liar and a horrible person. It had never been about protecting him. It had always been about protecting herself.

Shepard looked at him, her lips curved in a sad smile. "...I know."

---

It was well past time. They drained their glasses, picked themselves up, swaying slightly. Garrus looked down at the dust blanketing the floor, and chuckled. Footprints and finger marks and some indecipherable swooshes from their legs. Smooth round indentations from their glasses. And two remarkably clear impressions of a turian and a human butt.

"Our masterpiece," Shepard said, laughing a little.

"Let's come back here sometime," he said, and draped an arm over her shoulder. "We can make it bigger."

Her brain supplied her with several images of how that might be accomplished. She stiffened under his arm, stared up at him, eyes wide.

"What?" He looked down at her blankly.

"Nothing," she managed, fighting down a scandalized grin. It was just her. Booze always turned her into a pervert. Turian brains probably didn't even think that way.

Garrus made a skeptical noise, but mercifully chose to ignore her. He bent down, pulling her with him, and placed their empty glasses carefully into the dust covering the low coffee table.

"Thanks, Mierin," he murmured.

"Thank you," Shepard echoed quietly. A dead turian she had never met. His sanctuary had given her a few precious hours out from underneath Cerberus's thumb.

It would be better if she hadn't used his gift to lie to her only friend.

But, well. This was the galaxy she lived in now.

---

Bailey's assistant kept an impressively straight face as Shepard handed her the uniforms— wrinkled, caked in dust, and smelling of expensive turian liquor.

"Official Spectre business," Shepard said, conscious of the fumes on her breath.

"Uh-huh," the assistant said. "By the way, you received some communications while you were out. Your ship tried to reach you over the link in your hardsuit."

Garrus tensed at her side.

"What did you tell them?" Shepard said, her voice even.

"Official Spectre business," the assistant replied.

Shepard smiled. "Whatever Bailey's paying you, it's not enough."

"Tell him that, ma'am."

"C-Sec really has changed," Garrus said, looking over his shoulder as they exited the security gate.

"Miss it?" Shepard asked.

"Absolutely not." He flicked a mandible out in a small smile. "I'm right where I need to be. Don't you think?"

They walked side-by-side back to the Normandy.

"...Ah, damn," he sighed, as she palmed the control for the airlock. "I forgot. You were going to buy me dinner."

Shepard snorted. "No I wasn't." The doors hissed open. "Maybe I'll consider it next time. If you're really, really nice to me."

He patted her on the head again. "Keep dreaming, Shepard."

Chapter Text

Heels clicked against the deck plates of the CIC, ticking out a rapid approach to intercept. "Shepard. Officer Vakarian."

A tiny part of Shepard's brain gauged the distance, evaluated relative foot speeds, and voted to just grab Garrus and make a run for the elevator.

The much larger part that cared about things like morale and team-building overruled it.

"Miranda," Shepard said, and laid her helmet down on a vacant console. Garrus came to a halt behind her.

"You were off the grid for three hours and twenty-eight minutes." Miranda crossed her arms over her chest. "Can you please explain where you were, and why you needed to cut off all possible means of communication?"

Shepard had spent the walk back to the Normandy arming herself for the inevitable pissing match with Miranda over her absence, and was locked and loaded, ready to fabricate and prevaricate and throw her weight around and deploy words like 'time-sensitive' and 'mission-critical' and 'need-to-know basis.'

But now— looking at her XO's tense and unhappy posture, the frown line in between her immaculately groomed eyebrows— Shepard couldn't bring herself to start. There had already been more than enough lies and bullshit to go around for one day.

"I wanted to talk to Garrus in private," she said, rubbing a hand over her face. "We snuck out to the wards and had drinks."

"Wh—" Miranda's arms dropped to her side. "...Oh. Well."

Shepard gave her a moment to regroup.

"...You could have at least set your comm to mute," Miranda said, deflating. "In case there was an emergency, and we needed to reach you."

Shepard pointed at the ceiling. "Pretty sure EDI is never on mute."

EDI's hologram popped up on top of the console by the elevator. "That is technically correct. Although I do not actively listen when communication links are muted, I maintain a passive runtime that filters audio for pertinent content."

"That's very comforting," Garrus said.

EDI flickered. "...The vast majority of the data is discarded."

Shepard ignored it, and looked at Miranda. "There hasn't been a moment to decompress since I first opened my eyes. You know I'm never going to sit down and talk about my personal bullshit with Cha— Kelly. I needed a bit of time for myself." She pointed with her thumb at the angular turian looming over her. "We both did."

Miranda gave Garrus a skeptical look. "You have strange taste in counselors. Both of you." She pushed an errant lock of hair back from her forehead. The frown line was still there. "Is this going to happen again?"

Shepard looked back at Garrus. Garrus looked at her.

"It's likely," she said.

Miranda sighed. "Shepard, I had no idea where you were, or if anything had happened to you. I was about fifteen minutes away from contacting our local operatives to form a search and rescue party. For the future, we need to figure out a way to keep a line of communication open that will satisfy both of us. It doesn't have to be much. Even omni-tool messages would be acceptable."

"That's extremely fair," Shepard said, surprised. "Thank you, Miranda. I'm sorry I didn't warn you."

"Well. I'm certainly not happy about it." Miranda gestured wearily at the Cerberus logo on her uniform. "But you had your reasons."

Crap. Shepard stepped forward, and pressed a hand to her shoulder. "Miranda. You're a hell of an officer, and a goddamn dream as an XO. I'm proud to have you on my team."

"But you don't trust me," Miranda said.

"I don't trust your boss," Shepard said. "I trust you."

She actually almost meant it. Miranda was mixed up with rotten people, but she herself had always acted in the best interests of the mission. A little ruthless, but utterly reliable. If only she'd joined up with the Alliance, instead of Cerberus—

But then, if she had, she wouldn't be Miranda. The Cerberus operative respected competence, not seniority, and if something got in her way she pulled out her pistol and shot it. The Alliance tended to take a dim view of their commanding officers getting riddled with bullets.

Shepard really, really needed to win her loyalty. It would be more than just a poke in the eye to Cerberus; Miranda got shit done. With her strategic mind and her network of informants and operatives, she would be a major asset in the fight against the Reapers.

Not to discount the value of a poke in the eye. Shepard bet the look on the Illusive Man's face would keep her warm at night for years afterwards.

She squeezed Miranda's shoulder once, and let go. "I didn't mean to leave you in the lurch. I'm sorry. Next time I want to disappear, I'll let you know ahead of schedule, and we'll work something out together. Deal?"

"Acceptable," Miranda said. "Thank you, Shepard."

"Actually on second thought, disregard that." Shepard waved a hand towards the hatch. "Next time, you're invited. I'm pretty sure I owe you a drink. Or two years worth of drinks."

"Two years and three months." Miranda raised an eyebrow. "All right. But I'm picking the bar."

Inside the elevator, Garrus made a small thoughtful noise.

"What," Shepard said.

"Impressive use of diplomacy."

"I bet you say that to all the girls." She punched the down button. "It wasn't. Bullshitting takes work, and I'm just too tired right now."

"And drunk."

"Am not," she said automatically.

He tapped a finger on his chin. "I seem to recall someone trying to key in the exit code for decon four separate times before giving up and yelling at the AI to 'just fucking open it.' "

"Funny," Shepard said. "I seem to recall a big strong turian having to hold on to a squishy little human for support on the walk over. And a number of near-misses with pedestrians."

He huffed. "It's a high-traffic area. These things happen."

"Uh-huh," she said. "I'm gonna grab something from the mess before I pass out. Want to join me?"

His mandible and upper lip flared out in an eloquent gesture of distaste. "I suppose I have to. Since you didn't properly show your gratitude for your tour guide today."

"You're never going to let this dinner thing go, are you." The elevator doors swooshed open.

"No one holds a grudge like a turian," he said lightly, following her out.

---

Shepard got a second wind after the meal. It remarkable how something as simple as food could make you feel so much better about everything.

Well, food, and also a tenuous truce with your single remaining friend in the galaxy, forged of lies and misdirection and copious amounts of drink.

Anyway. Time to stop dwelling on it. She needed to sit down and look through her dossiers and upgrades and mission briefings. Figure out a plan of action for the next few days. But first, rounds.

She wandered through the bright, shining decks of the Normandy, exchanging greetings with the crew. Patel and Rolston were milling around, pretending to look busy while Patel cooed over baby pictures. They both stiffened when Shepard walked past. "Evening, ma'am."

She slowed and stopped, enjoying the looks of mounting dread on their faces. "Crewman Patel. Rolston. Is there something you need to be doing right now?"

"Ah—" Rolston floundered.

"Are you scrambling to make up something that will satisfy me?"

"Of course not—" Patel sputtered.

"Let me see that," Shepard said.

Rolston gave up, and took his hand out from behind his back to show her the holo. A cherubic, black-haired infant in the arms of a beaming woman.

Shepard smiled down at the picture. "Cute kid. Your family got evacuated safely, I heard?"

"Ah— yes, ma'am. They did."

"That's wonderful," she said. "You're very, very lucky."

She lifted her head slowly. "Remember. We're going to find all the others who weren't so lucky."

The crewmen stood rigid. "Yes, ma'am."

Shepard leaned in closer, pressing all the force of her multiple lifetimes into every word: "We're going to find the Collectors where they live. We're going to reduce them into their component molecules. We're going to get our people the hell out of there, and bring them home to their families."

She stepped back and looked around the wide, mostly empty deck, its gleaming steel surfaces and pristine white walls. "Things are quiet right now. We have a bit of room to breathe. But it won't stay that way for long." She handed the holo back to Rolston. "When the time comes, I know you'll both do everything in your power to help."

"Yes, ma'am," he said quietly.

"Yes, ma'am," echoed Patel.

She gave Rolston a pat on the shoulder. "Thanks for letting me see your family. It's important to remember who we're fighting for."

Shepard walked away, smiling as Patel's whispered "Holy shit" reached her ears.

Deck 2. Hadley and Matthews were on for evening shift, and ribbing each other as usual. "Gentlemen," she said with a nod. "Evening, Commander," they returned in cheerful unison.

Joker spun around in his chair as she stepped into the cockpit. "Hey, Commander. Heard you and Garrus snuck out to the bars right under Miranda's nose." He held up his hand. "Nice."

"Sure did," she said, and gave him a gentle high-five. "Next time, I'm sneaking out with Miranda. You want in?"

"Wow. Uh. No thanks."

Shepard grinned. "No? I bet you two would have lots to talk about." She slouched back against the wall. "How're you and EDI doing?"

"Well, aside from the period when it couldn't find you on the Citadel and was freaking out— which was hilarious, by the way— it's status quo. EDI's good. I'm miserable."

"What now?"

EDI's synthetic voice piped out from the overhead speakers. "Since my discovery that Mr. Moreau performs at greater efficiency under duress, I have been endeavoring to optimize conditions in the cockpit for enhanced performance."

"Notice anything different about the place?" Joker said, folding his arms.

Shepard squinted around. "New coat of paint?"

He scoffed. "Come on, Commander."

"Now that you mention it..." Shepard gave him a surprised look. "It's kind of cold up here, isn't it?"

"It's freezing! You run around all day shooting things up and yelling and throwing people around with your mind, get your blood pumping. Of course you think it's just 'kinda cold.' I'm stuck here in this chair, slowly turning into a human popsicle."

"EDI," Shepard warned.

"Mr. Moreau's response time has increased by eight percent since the reduction in ambient temperature," EDI said primly.

"Feel free to refrigerate the entire ship if the Collectors are on our ass. Until then, let's keep it livable." Shepard nodded to Joker. "I'll come back later to make sure you're still breathing."

"I am not interested in harming Mr. Moreau," EDI said. "That would be counter-productive."

Shepard blinked. Was it possible for an AI to be offended? There was something almost pissy about the way that sentence had been delivered.

Huh. "Glad to hear it. Keep up the good work, you two."

"See ya, Commander."

She poked her head into the Armory, said a quick hello to Jacob, who was wrist-deep inside that complicated-looking shotgun she'd scooped up a few planets ago. She wandered over to the Tech Lab to flick through the list of upgrades, gave Mordin a cordial nod.

Hmm. Amp firmware tweaks. Omni-tool power boosts. SMG disruptor charges. Raining death and destruction upon her enemies, and seeing them crumble before her. How to prioritize?

"Shepard." The doctor's voice behind her gave her a start. "Apologies. Know you're busy with mission. Have urgent matter."

Mordin began to pace back and forth, his coat flapping with each turn. "No, strike that, critical matter. Too important to wait. Complex situation. Still receiving data. Analyzing scenarios. Not sure how to begin." His fingers drummed on the table. "Have a moment?"

"Take it easy, Mordin. Of course I do." Shepard followed him back over to his work table. "What's up?"

---

She thumped her fist on the battery doors and barged in. "Garrus!"

"Wha—" He jerked in surprise, flinging his datapad out of his hands, but he managed to snap out a long arm and grab the pad before it could crack against the wall.

"Nice," Shepard said, impressed.

Garrus clicked his jaw at her, and sat up on his cot. "What the hell, Shepard? I could have been sleeping."

"But you weren't, right? You're still in your armor." She sat down on the edge of his bed, shoving his feet unceremoniously out of the way. "Listen. Something's come up with Mordin, and I'm taking us to Tuchanka tomorrow. We need to stealth our way into a Blood Pack base and rescue his former student. You want in?"

He narrowed his eyes. "Stealth?"

Shepard grinned.

"Ah. So, gunfire, explosions and screaming, then," he said, and pulled his knees up into a more comfortable position. "You know krogan aren't my specialty, right?"

"What do you mean? You put bullets in them good enough for me," she said, puzzled. "And Mordin can do some pretty vicious things with tech. He modded the shit out of his omni-tool. We'll rip apart anything that stands in our way."

"Krios is a fair hand with a rifle, too," he pointed out. "And he can stop krogan from regenerating with that biotic thing he has. I can't do that."

Shepard frowned. "So? I can." She tilted her head. "Don't you want to come? We're going to drop by the Urdnot camp. I was hoping we might run into Wrex."

Garrus perked up at that. "Really? It would be nice to see him again. We can compare scars."

Shepard's frown deepened. He'd come along for Wrex, but not for her?

"Well, regardless." She leaned back against the wall. "Thane is good, but he's a bit squishier than you, and he's used to fighting one-on-one. I'd be worried about him against a horde of krogan. I'd rather have you at my back for this one."

She wasn't sure what she'd expected from Garrus, but it wasn't the look of profound irritation that crossed his face.

"'Thane,'" he repeated.

"...Yeah?"

"What happened to the rule about personal hell?"

"Huh? Oh." She shrugged. "We've been talking a lot. Did you know he was married before? Like, with a family and everything. I didn't realize he was so much older than us."

"Of course I didn't know," he said sharply. "I don't make a habit of wandering into other people's bedrooms late at night for a heart-to-heart."

Garrus leaned into her before she could manage a retort, his voice lowering to a purr. "But I certainly wouldn't want Krios to get hurt. So, yes. I'd be happy to step in tomorrow and face down a horde of angry krogan for you."

She glared at him. "What the hell is your problem, Vakarian? I thought we were good."

He returned her glare briefly, but then sighed and sat back. His shoulders slumped against the wall. "...No. We are. Sorry, Shepard. I'm just tired."

"Fine." She pushed herself up. "I'll stop bothering you. Have a good night."

"Hey," he said, arresting her halfway to the door. "What time? I'll be there."

"1300. It's a long trip. You can sleep in."

She hit the controls, shutting the door behind her. Stared out into the bright, sterile hallway for a long and empty moment. Resisted the urge to rip out handfuls of her hair.

It was like Shiala had said. Why couldn't anything ever just be fixed?

Shepard stalked down to the mess, banged around inside the cabinets, and marched herself and two cups of steaming, fragrant tea over to Life Support.

"Thane," she said shortly.

He glanced up. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, barefoot and elegantly compact, in loose-fitting clothes. Meditating.

"Siha," he rasped, and blinked at her. "Good evening. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

She sat down in front of him, a respectful distance away, and mirrored his pose. "Hi. I'm sorry to interrupt."

She slid the tea over the floor to him with both hands. A ritual offering. "I could really use a story right now. Tell me about you."

A slow hint of a smile. Amused, but gracious. "Certainly. I'll start on Kahje."

---

"Siha." A gentle voice near her ear. "You're drifting."

"Nnh—" her head jerked upright, nearly colliding with his. He was kneeling in front of her, his fingers brushing the air above her shoulder. "Oh, shit! Sorry, Thane."

He took her hands, and helped her up.

"I always do this to you," she said, shaking herself awake. "Stomp into your space, ask a bunch of nosy questions, and then zone out halfway through the answers." Shepard put a hand to her forehead. "But I can't believe I actually fell asleep. You should have kicked my ass out the door."

He was far too polite to do that, and they both knew it. "Your mind is tuned high," he said. "I noticed that when we first met. You find it difficult being idle with your thoughts, so you seek out the company of others, even when exhausted."

"Huh," Shepard said. That sounded... accurate.

He looked at her, his black eyes impenetrable. "You would benefit from meditation."

Silence. He chuckled at her mutinous expression. "But until that day arrives, I'm happy to serve." He followed her over to the doors. "And I'm flattered that you find my presence so... relaxing."

"Don't put this all on me," she retorted, one hand on the exit panel. "Maybe if your stories had more shouting and fiery explosions, I'd be able to stay awake until the end."

"If my stories had more shouting and fiery explosions, I would not be a very good assassin," he replied, unperturbed. "Goodnight, Siha. You should get some sleep."

---

Shepard stood in the hallway, rubbing her eyes. A stack of mission briefings still awaited her attention upstairs.

She felt scattered to pieces. Cerberus. Collectors. Colonists. Mordin. Miranda. Jacob. Jack. Garrus.

All she ever did was run full-tilt from one problem to the next, and it was getting harder and harder to set priorities. She still didn't have any leads on how to pass safely through the Omega 4 relay. People were dying every second. Who knew how many colonies went dark every time she pulled the ship off-course for one of these personal detours?

Including her own personal detour. The dusty apartment on the Citadel had provided a rare moment of peace. But due to her last-minute attack of cowardice, it hadn't actually fixed anything.

She still had to watch herself around Garrus. She still couldn't rely on anyone else. How many dead colonists had it cost for her to figure out what she already fucking known?

Maybe Thane was right about her. She slapped her cheeks a little, trying to feel alive, and went to knock on the door to Starboard Observation.

She could stand to pick up a lesson in serenity before bed. And she could stand to forge some connections with her new squad. The Justicar would be a good start.

---

The mission briefings stayed ignored through the morning, then mid-morning, then lunch, and then it was time to go.

They assembled in the hangar. She kept a close eye on Garrus, but he was being his normal self— slouching against the side of the shuttle, exchanging wry banter with the pilot. Whatever his deal was, it seemed like he'd gotten over it.

Fine. She wasn't going to invent problems where there weren't any.

Tuchanka was a blasted waste.

"Charming," Garrus muttered, peering out the window of the shuttle.

The earth was rust-brown and the air not much lighter. Dust storms flashed with lightning at the murky edges of the horizon. Remnants of skyscrapers and satellite dishes and highway overpasses littered the landscape. Jagged chunks of concrete and rusted-out rebar stuck out at odd angles. The skeletal, arthritic remains of a once-great civilization.

Shepard pressed her forehead to the glass to see more. It reminded her a bit of home.

Mordin fidgeted on the bench. The edges of his armored coat tapped rhythmically against the metal. It was an improvement— it had taken a semi-serious threat of violence to get him to stop pacing. Shepard watched him out of the corner of her eye.

No one knew exactly what they would find down there. But no matter what, she had to handle this flawlessly. Find out how much, if anything, the krogan already knew about the genophage adjustment. Secure Mordin's student, along with any and all data. Then perform damage control the best way she knew how: by laying waste to everything and everyone connected.

Not a very salarian tactic, but it'd serve their purpose. There could be no loose ends.

This was exactly the kind of opportunity she'd been hoping for. If she kept a cool head and managed this well, Mordin would be hers.

She'd have to send Maelon a thank-you card for getting himself kidnapped.

The shuttle banked and slowed, dropped down into a massive steel-walled tunnel, and settled. Shepard and Garrus shot each other simultaneous looks that said Be ready. Mordin inhaled, then stood, drawing himself up to his full, reedy height. Shepard blinked up at him. He was usually hunched over his monitors; she'd never realized that the elderly doctor was even taller than Garrus.

Mordin slid the heat sink out of his Carnifex, inspected it with a practiced eye, and slapped it back home. "Yes. Ready."

The shuttle door popped open with a hiss of hydraulics. Shepard took a cautious breath. The air smelled musty, dry, like hot sand and dirt and a lot of animals living in the same space.

They stepped out onto a pile of rubble in a rusted-out shell of a cavern. Faint, dusty light filtered down from tunnels in the ceiling.

A krogan in battered armor eyed them warily. "The clan leader wants to speak with you."

Shepard folded her arms. "Good. I want to speak with him."

---

Holy fucking god, it was Wrex. She could only see a sliver of him behind the guards that planted themselves in her way, but there was no mistaking that blood-red eye, that gravelly voice, that vast, ancient impatience at being surrounded on all sides by fools.

The eye blinked. "Shepard?"

"'Scuse me," she said to the guards.

Wrex stood, pushing the other krogan to the side. "Shepard!"

"Wrex!" She found herself grinning like an idiot as she clambered up to meet him.

Krogan didn't hug, which was regrettable. But he slapped her shoulder with such enthusiasm that it was hard to mind too much.

Fucking finally, someone who was as happy to see her as she was to see them. After receptions from her closest friends that had ranged from lukewarm to disbelieving to openly hostile, this was—

It was really nice.

"You look well for dead, Shepard. Glad you finally decided to stop wasting everyone's time in the underworld."

"Shit, Wrex." She thumped him on the forearm, still grinning. "I close my eyes for two years, and you run off and crown yourself king of Tuchanka."

"It didn't take me two years," he rumbled. "Just a few months. You've got a lot of catching up to do." He shifted, looked at something over her shoulder. "Is that Vakarian?"

Garrus ambled up beside her. "Royalty suits you, Wrex. You're looking good."

"Wish I could say the same for you. What happened to your face?"

Garrus gave him a fanged half-smile. "The Blue Suns. But they're dead now."

"As it should be," Wrex said, satisfied. He resettled his massive bulk on his throne, and fixed them with a red stare. "So. What brings you here? Who's the fidgety salarian?"

Ah, yes. The actual reason they were on Tuchanka.

Mordin stood a short distance back, observing their reunion with keen interest, despite how he had to be churning up inside with worry over his student. Shepard waved him over. "Wrex, I'd like you to meet my esteemed colleague, Doctor Mordin Solus. We have a favor to ask."

---

Blood Pack everywhere, swarming like rats. Garrus whipped out a tech Overload. Circuits fizzled.

The vorcha Pyro glanced at his fuel pack in alarm a moment before it detonated.

"Ha!"

It was shaping up to be a pretty good day.

Shepard ducked under a haphazard spray of bullets, and sank behind a chunk of blasted concrete. "Mordin! Light those fuckers up!"

"With pleasure," the doctor replied, and an instant later the two vorcha were flailing and hissing, trying to beat out the smoldering embers that ground through their armor and burrowed into their flesh. Shepard grinned and peppered them with a quick burst from her SMG. Two down.

Her grin faded as an absolutely enormous Blood Pack merc stepped out from behind a far pillar. Vorcha corpses crunched under his feet as he approached.

"Krogan," Garrus warned, and unloaded a rifle round into the merc's forehead. The hulking krogan just blinked and scowled. Like someone shrugging off a bug bite. Jesus.

"I see him," Shepard called back, and signaled Mordin to throw down another plasma blast. That time there was an answering howl of rage from the krogan. She leaned out from around her cover to fire off a Warp and hung out a second longer, gauging the merc's speed, the distance between them, the terrain. "We're okay. Stay in cover, Garrus. I'm on it."

"You better be," he muttered. When they'd rounded the corner and run into the nest of vorcha, he'd ended up in front. He looked uncomfortable. Shepard smirked. Poor thing.

The krogan trudged closer and closer, shotgun raised, rivulets of orange blood glistening down his face and hump, absorbing their combined fire with nothing more than snorts of irritation. His eyes were fixed on Garrus's position.

"I see you hiding, turian," he bellowed over the howling wind.

"Shepard," Garrus said, glaring back at her from behind his cover. "Krogan."

"Now you understand what it's like to be me," she said sweetly, and unloaded half a clip into the merc's head. "Waiting around for backup while enemies flank you left and right. All because your sniper wants to line up the perfect kill shot, and he's too lazy to just move his skinny ass."

Garrus clicked his jaw at her, and fired off another round into the merc's blood-spattered face. "You think my job is easy? I don't just sit around waiting for targets to pop into scope, you know."

Mordin fired his Carnifex in a steady, precise stream at the advancing merc. "Have served many years as field operative. Also as medical doctor. Would like to offer professional recommendation: Less casual banter. More bullets."

"We're doing fine, Mordin," Shepard said, but she leaned out and sprayed the other half of her clip into the merc. "Garrus, half the time when I look back at you, you're just sitting there filing your nails. Claws. Whatever."

"Shepard." His voice dropped into a liquid purr. "Were you checking me out in the middle of a firefight?"

Ah, shit. She'd walked right into that one. "If you didn't distr— Fuck. Garrus, krogan!"

The merc came in range, lowered his head and charged. Garrus lunged back, firing a round into the base of the krogan's unprotected throat. Shepard hurled a Throw like a right hook and knocked the massive creature to the ground, a scant meter and a half from Garrus's position.

She stepped out and looked down at the body. The streams of blood were coagulating into orange gelatin. The bullet holes were slowly closing up, puckering, forming fresh scars. A muscle in the krogan's neck twitched.

Shepard reached out with both hands and made a sharp twisting movement. The air shimmered and crunched. The bullet holes stilled, and stayed open.

She glanced back at Mordin, confirmed he was unharmed with a quick exchange of nods. Garrus was up and dusting himself off.

He stalked over and pointed a long, sharp finger at Shepard. "You could have done that anytime. You let him close in. That was uncalled for."

"...A bit. Sorry." She tilted her head to one side, smiling a little. "But I wasn't going to let him touch you. Still think I'd be better off with an assault rifle, instead of biotics?"

He sighed, and rested a heavy elbow on her shoulder. "No. You can fling krogan around with your mind all day long, as far as I'm concerned." He shook his head. "Spirits, that merc was like a walking tank. I'm going to have nightmares."

She wiggled him off. "I'm not your armrest. Toughen up, Vakarian. We got work to do."

---

Scars and dents pitted the thick, unfinished concrete walls. The ground was sticky with dried blood and other fluids, indistinguishable in the low, flickering light. The operating tables and equipment were blackened from years of oxidation and neglect.

The Weyrloc hospital was as silent as a cave, and rank with the smell of rotting meat.

It wasn't long before they came across the first body. A human. Shepard blinked. What the hell?

Mordin knelt down, and delicately uncurled the corpse's limbs. His omni-tool bloomed to life; long, tapered fingers flicked over the keyboard. "Sores. Tumors. Ligature at wrists and ankles. Track marks at injection sites." He paused. "Test subject. Involuntary."

Shepard crouched beside him while he pored over the data. The test subject had been male, maybe late thirties. Plain, sturdy features. Plain, sturdy clothes. Probably a colonist.

She let out a short, sad laugh. The perfect victim. No one would notice a few more missing colonists.

Garrus gave her an odd look. Mordin pointed out deliberately cultivated mutations. Deduced that the Weyrloc were working on a genophage cure. And that their research was on the right track.

"Well, crap." Shepard helped Mordin to his feet. "It's Virmire all over again. I hope the new Normandy has nukes. Didn't think to ask."

"But why use humans?" Garrus rumbled behind her, as they strode down to the lower levels. His voice was rough, agitated. "Why not krogan, or varren, or something else native to Tuchanka?"

Mordin's clipped voice echoed in the narrow hallway. "Humans useful as concept test subjects. Genetically diverse. Single stimulus produces wide range of responses." He sniffed. "But this— unethical. Unnecessary. Sloppy. No place in proper science."

In a wide, low-ceilinged room riddled with bullet holes, they found a console with experiment logs and preliminary findings, and some data from earlier efforts that confirmed Mordin's hypothesis.

"Clever," he murmured. His forehead wrinkled.

"You're starting to sound a bit impressed by this researcher," Garrus said, eyes narrowed.

"Methodology horrific," Mordin said sharply. "But principles sound. Genophage brilliant, complex, finely tuned piece of work. Modification an order of magnitude more difficult than creation. Curing it altogether— likely even more difficult than that." He inhaled. "Progress made here... repugnant. But remarkable."

"Garrus," Shepard said, touching his arm.

He made a distressed rumbling noise in response.

"Garrus. The death and suffering here falls on the heads of Clan Weyrloc and their scientists. We will pay them back in kind. Mordin had nothing to do with it."

His good mandible pulled tight to his face. "Of course, Shepard."

"Move out."

They picked their way through a maze of overturned operating tables, stepped over piles of rusty tools, broken consoles. Corpses. A female krogan. A volunteer. God. Garrus looked sick with anger. Shepard just shook her head. "...We can't help her. Let's move."

They moved. Mordin drew up by her side. She gave him a questioning look.

"Shepard. Pragmatism... unexpected," he said quietly. "Human test subjects. Appalling methods. Had anticipated outrage. Accusations of responsibility."

Shepard let out a bitter laugh. "This human's seen way too much to be surprised anymore. If there's actually a point behind the brutality, then as far as I'm concerned, we're having a better day than average." She looked up at him. "What happened here was in reaction to the genophage, true. But that doesn't mean it was your fault."

"Yes. But—" Mordin glanced away.

Shepard frowned. But what?

"Genophage itself, ethically... difficult," he continued. "Involved personally with modification project. Prevented krogan from making a natural recovery. Know you are close with Urdnot Wrex. Revulsion, anger, would not be surprising."

Ah.

"Mordin. Do you think you did the right thing?"

"Yes," he said immediately. "Had to be done. Genophage, or genocide. No other choice. Ran countless simulations. All data pointed to one thing: galactic war. Either obliterate krogan entirely, or krogan obliterate everyone else." He took a deep breath. "Untenable."

Shepard walked beside him, waiting.

"Instead, with genophage... everyone lives." He gazed out into the murk of the laboratories. "But fewer than before. And sadder."

"It's not simple for people like you and me, is it," Shepard said quietly. "Just about every decision we make means someone suffers, somewhere."

She looked up at him. His rust-brown skin was creased with age, slashed with scars. He'd lived a long life in thought and deed, if not in years. And he'd witnessed first-hand the depths of despair and grief he'd caused in service to the galaxy.

Shepard exhaled. "Mordin. Even the best possible decision— the one that causes the least damage, saves the most people— can still cost too fucking much."

"Yes," he said, looking down at the blood-stained floor. "Difficult to sleep, some nights."

"But that is the price of responsibility. So we pay it." Shepard met his eyes. "We carry the weight of our decisions with us. We don't sleep well at night. We move on, but we never forget. That is how we honor the sacrifices."

"...Yes," Mordin said, again. He blinked down at her. "Yes. Thank you, Shepard."

She smiled at him. "Yes."

Shepard slid the heat sink out of her pistol, judged it adequate, and jammed it back in. "Not to say that the person who did this gets to keep breathing. Let's move."

---

Several dead Weyrloc clanguards and one clan leader later, they found Mordin's student alone in a grimy operating theatre, in front of an enormous bank of monitors glowing with line graphs and streams of data. He was alive, unhurt, uncoerced. And surrounded by bodies.

"Explain," Shepard ground out.

He explained.

Garrus tilted his head to one side. "I see. So you tortured all these people out of the goodness of your heart."

"What we did to the krogan was cultural genocide. It was wrong!"

"This is wrong," Mordin spat. "Imprisonment, live experiments, executions. Unconscionable. Disgusting."

"We already have so much blood on our hands. What's the blood of a few more, when my work here could save millions? Save them from what we did. What you taught me to do."

"Our work did save millions," Mordin said. "Had to be done." He pulled out his pistol. "Have to preserve it."

Garrus glanced over at Shepard. She stepped back and folded her arms.

Dark green blood and gelatinous chunks of brain matter splattered against the display.

"I'm sorry, Mordin," she said quietly.

Garrus was staring at her, his expression unreadable.

Mordin looked down at the corpse. Like his mentor, Maelon had been tall and spindly. His long, fragile limbs lay twisted beneath him.

"Never taught him this. Never knew he'd fallen so far." Mordin shook his head. "Should have talked to him, after project. Should have helped him... carry responsibility."

"Maybe," Shepard said. "Maybe not. He became a butcher. Talking to him might not have been enough to fix what was wrong with him."

Mordin shook his head. "Speculation unproductive." He stepped over the body, and tapped out a few keystrokes on the console. "Maelon dead now. Matter closed. Research only loose end. Should wipe data."

Shepard looked up at the display. "...You said the methodology was sound."

"Yes. Immoral. Vile. But sound. And a security risk."

Lay waste to everything. There could be no loose ends.

She thought for a moment, looked down at the blood-stained floor.

It had cost too fucking much.

"Keep it," she said instead. "Hide it somewhere safe. If it's with you, I know it'll be in good hands."

Mordin looked at her for a moment, then nodded, and began syncing the files to his omni-tool.

She contemplated a vision of King Wrex, and a green, fertile future for Tuchanka.

You never knew. The universe could change a lot in a thousand years.

---

They picked their way back over the rubble.

"What," she said to Garrus.

"I didn't say anything," he said.

"Precisely. Something's up. And you're not telling me what it is."

He sighed. "...I don't want to be like Alenko."

"—What?"

"Questioning your every move and motivation."

Oh. Christ. Of course that's what he'd meant.

She nudged him with her foot. "Garrus, just spit it out. You can be honest with me."

She watched him struggle internally for a moment.

"This played out a little differently than the last time we took down a salarian mad scientist."

"Saleon." She'd already guessed. It would have been eating at him ever since they found the first corpse.

"He wasn't a conflicted former STG operative trying to erase his bad deeds. He was a criminal nobody and a complete monster. And you didn't let me shoot him."

She looked up at him. "Garrus— it wasn't that Saleon didn't deserve to die. He did. But I wanted him to go through due process. To be treated like the criminal nobody that he was. I wanted him to rot in jail, day by day, hour by hour, until his sentence was finally carried out. I wanted him to spend every remaining moment of his life bored and helpless and scared out of his filthy, twisted little mind."

Garrus made a low noise. "...I see."

Shepard sighed and kicked a rock out of her path. "I was always mad that he forced our hand when he attacked us. Executing him was too easy. It gave him too much dignity."

"So it wasn't that you distrusted my judgment."

"Of course not."

"And it wasn't mercy."

Shepard raised an eyebrow. "Does it sound like it was mercy?"

"So why did you let—" Garrus gestured at Mordin, who was trailing some distance behind them, muttering and fiddling with his omni-tool.

Shepard glanced back at the elderly doctor, and then further back, at the dark and dirty laboratory receding into the distance.

"Because Maelon was different," she said. "He was messing with something that could plunge the entire galaxy into war again, and he didn't give a damn if it did. What he knew was too dangerous. If he went to jail, all he'd have to do is get one message out, and the entire krogan race would be fighting tooth and claw for his release." Her face hardened. "This has to stay quiet, and Maelon's death was the best way to assure that. We can't afford any distractions now."

He laughed softly. "Only you would call a second Krogan Rebellions a 'distraction.'"

"Compared to the Reapers, everything's a distraction."

"That's what I like best about you, Shepard," Garrus said. "Your sunny optimism."

She elbowed him in the side. "Wiseass. Shut up for a bit and help me think. Wrex is going to want to know what we ran into down there."

His voice lowered. "You're going to lie to him?"

"I was hoping to just... leave some parts out. But yeah, I might have to lie." She watched him for a moment. "Do you have a problem with it?"

His good mandible flexed in and out. "I don't like it. But I've been around the other races long enough that I've come to terms with the concept. And we don't exactly have a lot of options, here, if we're trying to avoid galactic warfare."

"No. We don't." She reached out and touched his forearm. "Look, I won't ask you to back me up. I'll do all the talking. You can leave whenever you want to. You can even leave right now, if you prefer."

"I'm staying," he said.

"Okay." She gave his arm a grateful squeeze. "And hey— if it'll cheer you up, you can push the button for the nuke."

"Not necessary, Shepard," Mordin piped up behind them. They stopped and turned, and he hurried to catch up. His omni-tool beeped softly. "Have exchanged communications with STG. Operatives will come in to cover tracks, run interference. Much more subtle than a nuclear detonation."

Shepard smiled. "Great. That's a huge relief, Mordin. Thank you."

"Happy to help. Salarian mess. Salarian clean-up only appropriate." A hint of a rueful smile. "Have the most experience in the business, after all."

---

"What happened out there, Shepard?" The blood-red eye regarded her steadily. "I heard some interesting rumors."

"You heard right." Shepard folded her arms, expression grim. "The Weyrloc were trying to develop a genophage cure. But it wasn't a laboratory. It was a slaughterhouse."

"Corpses everywhere," Mordin said quietly. "Riddled with tumors. Blood and death."

"Turns out undoing something isn't as easy as doing it," she said.

He looked down. "It never is."

"...I'm sorry, Wrex."

He waved her sympathy off. "It's not the first time we've had a massacre in the name of a cure. And it sure as hell won't be the last."

Shepard pushed the guilt down deep. Kept her head up high. "No. Probably not."

"Well." He thumped down from his throne, and came over to stand in front of them. "It's over now. I'm just glad the bastard who did it is dead."

"Oh, speaking of," she added. "We killed Weyrloc Guld. Hope that doesn't cause any problems for you."

"Hell, no," Wrex said. "Always hated that guy. But I'll have to meet with the female clan leader about absorbing the Weyrloc survivors." He thumped her shoulder, knocking her off-balance. "Well. See you around, Shepard, Vakarian. Solus. Good luck saving the galaxy. Wish I could come."

Shepard sighed, and shifted her shoulder guard back into place. Yes. She did too.

But she understood. If he left Tuchanka, everything he'd built would crumble back down in an instant.

"Ah, Wrex," she said as a thought occured to her.

He turned. "Yeah?"

"I have a krogan on my team. Tank-bred, genetically perfect, kind of a special case. He's been acting all pissy for the last few days. I think he might be sick. Or something." She fidgeted. "Could you, uh... take a look at him?"

It was hard to decipher even simple krogan expressions, but Shepard had seen that particular one from Wrex a lot. Usually when some puny, short-sighted creature was being an idiot, and was too puny and short-sighted to even realize it.

It warmed her heart to see it again. Even if it was being directed at her.

"Bring him here," Wrex rumbled. "I'll look at him." He shook his head. "Genetically perfect, huh? Guess that's what it takes to replace me."

She smiled. "Wrex. Be serious. No one could replace you."

That time, his thump to her shoulder knocked her off her feet.

---

Mordin begged leave to go back to the Normandy, citing cell cultures that required his attention. Shepard went up with him to wait for the shuttle.

Thrusters hissed and powered down. Grunt hopped off, greeted them with a silent scowl, and wandered away.

Mordin paused at the hatch, one hand on the door. "Shepard."

She stepped closer. "What is it?"

"Have been thinking. Asked for help. Received it, swiftly. And more than that. Have been given... new perspective." He looked down at her. "Worried about whether project was right decision. Agonized over involvement. Wanted, like Maelon, to erase past. Started clinic on Omega for that reason."

She tilted her head, waiting.

"Agonizing now over Maelon. Perhaps failed him, in some critical way. Will reflect. But no longer need to erase past decisions. Can't, anyway, and shouldn't. Will carry them instead."

He paused, looking out at the dust and rubble that surrounded them. "...Will embrace both pride, and regret. Lives gained, and lives lost. Together." He nodded at her. "Thank you."

She nodded back. "Anytime, Mordin."

The shuttle lifted off.

On her mental list, Shepard ticked a checkmark by the doctor's name.

She meandered back to camp.

"So," Garrus said, leaning back casually against a cracked pillar, ignoring the hostile glares from the krogan surrounding him.

"So," she said. "What'd you find out about Grunt?"

He grinned. "Feel like helping a boy become a man?"

Shepard put a hand to her face. "Oh my god. Seriously?"

He nodded. An amused, trilling hum sounded from his throat.

"I'm going to murder Okeer."

"Already dead," Garrus pointed out helpfully.

"Doesn't matter. I'm going to storm my way into the underworld and murder him all over again." Shepard sighed. "What do we have to do?"

"Don't worry," he said. "You'll like it." He put a conspiratorial hand on her shoulder, and leaned in close. "They won't tell me the details, but I'm pretty sure it involves killing big things."

"Hmm." She clicked a fresh heat sink into her SMG, and smiled. "You're right. I do like it."

Chapter Text

For a race of bloodthirsty barbarians, krogan were surprisingly strict about protocol and ceremony.

Good thing she'd always been a quick study. Shepard rubbed her forehead, and glared at the retreating figure of Gatagog Uvenk. Asshole.

The shaman chuckled. "Not bad, human. Bring that fire with you to the rite, and Grunt will do well."

Their Tomkah truck rattled over a vast, crumbling stretch of highway. Ruins drifted past the grimy windows.

Grunt sat on the bench in a cloud of hostile silence, arms folded over his chest, glaring out at nothing and everything. The cabin jolted over each pothole and crack and chunk of debris, bouncing Shepard half out of her seat. A nasty bump cracked Garrus's fringe against the wall. He hissed a curse that made her translator fizz in protest.

Grunt and the shaman stayed solidly in place, unperturbed.

They streaked past ruined skyscrapers, collapsed overpasses, the twisted and charred remains of communications towers.

The truck shuddered to a stop, depositing them in a cavernous underground tunnel. The thick iron walls were pitted with centuries of rust, scored and scraped high along the sides from the passage of traffic. Rivets the size of her forearm anchored the seams. The dark reaches of the ceiling disappeared in the gloom overhead.

Shepard stared up at it, feeling somewhat puny. New Tuchanka was a ramshackle mishmash of flimsy prefabs, bombed-out craters and cannibalized machinery. This was Old Tuchanka. Enormous, spartan, and built to last.

But now it stood empty. Starved and useless. An entire planetary network of highways, but Grunt and his little entourage were the only passengers.

Shepard's forehead wrinkled. She knew Mordin had been careful with his math, had run simulation after simulation, but... this couldn't be sustainable. You only had to look around to see that Tuchanka was a dying place.

Maybe she'd need to revisit Maelon's data sooner than she'd thought.

The shaman led them to a crater blasted into the curving walls. "Climb."

They climbed.

She found herself aboveground, blinking against the harsh sun, in the middle of low, wide platform overlooking a blasted concrete arena. Two distant staircases led up to dark tunnels at either side. The ruins of an amphitheatre, maybe, or a coliseum.

The shaman stood at the lip of the crater, breathing deeply from the dusty, sun-baked air. "This was the last surface city destroyed in the rebellions. The keystone lay at its heart." He looked up.

Shepard followed his gaze. They stood underneath an enormous steel and concrete spire that pierced up through a set of concentric rings. A signalling tower.

"That's the keystone?" Garrus said.

"What is it?" Grunt asked, sounding interested for the first time.

"Who knows?" said the shaman dryly. "It is for you to contemplate. Act. Adapt. And thrive."

He turned and thumped back down the tunnel.

"So polite," Garrus said. "So helpful. Now what?"

Shepard squinted up at the spire. "No idea. Your call, Grunt."

"I'm going to look." Grunt stomped up to the base of the tower. A minute later, his voice crackled in over the comm. "Shepard. There's a... thing here. It's glowing green."

"Could be a switch for a power generator somewhere," Garrus said, scratching at his bandage. "Or some kind of communication device. Or, knowing our luck, a bomb."

"Or it could turn out to be another Prothean beacon, and scramble our brains like an egg." Shepard clambered up on top of a rock and peered in Grunt's direction. "Huh. From here, it just looks like a button."

Grunt frowned, and poked it.

Something shot up the tower, too fast to see. A krogan voice bellowed over the loudspeaker, and a shockwave ripped outward from the keystone, knocking Shepard off her rock.

"Regroup, Grunt," she called out. "Whatever that was, pretty sure that was it."

Garrus edged closer to her and unhooked his assault rifle, scanning the perimeter with a wary eye. "How do you want to play this, Shepard?"

"Who knows?" she said lightly, checking her heat sink. "You heard the shaman. Adapt. Thrive."

"Cute," he drawled. "My guess is the keystone's going to summon a horde of blood raging krogan. Or just explode. Either way, I'd prefer to have a plan."

"Fine." Shepard assessed the field as Grunt thumped his way back over to them. "We're wide open. Anything could come from anywhere, but my hunch is that it'll take those tunnels, and keep the advantage of cover until the last possible second. Garrus, take that pillar. Watch the west stairs, shoot anything that moves. Grunt, get behind that metal thing and guard the east side. Stay alert, stay light on your feet. I'll hang back and cover our rear. Got it?"

"Affirmative," said Garrus.

"Hah," said Grunt, and crashed his fists together. He was starting to look excited.

"I'll take that as a yes. Switch to incendiaries."

They fanned out and took their positions.

The keystone hummed.

Her heartbeat crept up steadily. Her fingers twitched around the grip of her gun.

Pointless. Stupid. It wasn't like she had anything to be nervous about. If she died here, once or a thousand times, no one but her would remember.

Her short, violent life had taught her three valuable lessons. One: never let it get personal. Two: you can't control how other people act, only how you respond. Three: any organization calling themselves a 'family' is bad fucking news.

The Tenth Street Reds had been a generous source of learning opportunities.

She'd shoved that part of her past far, far behind her, but she still remembered her initiation rite.

It had been completely fake. Exploitative. Entertainment for the others. But it had felt real to her. She was strong, she was a survivor. She had earned this. She was wanted. She belonged.

If she died here, if she cheated her way through this— it would strip all the meaning out of Grunt's rite.

So... she wouldn't die. Simple. Plenty of people had survived it before.

Those people all outweighed her by a factor of twelve and had backup lungs and nervous systems, but—

"Incoming," growled Grunt. Varren poured over the eastern staircase. The plan immediately went to hell. The dogs were too fast. Didn't matter. She'd never put much stock in plans anyway.

Shepard picked off a few varren that were circling around Grunt's back, exhaled, and let her amp bloom to life. She had this.

"Damned— thing—" Garrus looked less comfortable with the changing situation. "Get off!" A skull cracked under the butt of his rifle.

Shepard knocked the swarming dogs off him with two blue flicks of her fingers. "Having problems?"

He kicked out viciously at the varren, panting. His assault rifle chattered. "One less, now."

"That's the spirit," she purred, and punched another clear across the arena. "Adapt, Garrus. Thrive."

He glared down at the tooth marks in his armor, then at her.

"Fuck your biotics, Shepard."

She cackled, delighted.

"And your ancestors. And your hometown." His gunfire echoed over the field, punctuated by Grunt's shotgun bursts. "I can't believe I let you talk me into setting foot on a planet where every single form of life wants to eat you."

"Only the ones too dumb to know any better," Grunt growled behind them. "Turians taste disgusting."

Garrus's good mandible snapped down with an audible click.

"...Tank imprint, right?" Shepard said, voice flat.

"Yeah. Why?"

"No reason. Grunt, knock back that group with a concussive. I'll cover the incoming on the west stairs. Garrus, after me."

She swept over the arena, pouring bullets into bodies, throwing out biotically enhanced fists and feet, flinging dogs into the distance and using them for target practice on the way down.

Yelps and barking. Paws thumping against the earth. The sharp thwack of a concussive round slamming into a body. Garrus snarled off to her side.

"Need some more help back there?" She blasted another varren off the platform, grinning. "I can do the heavy lifting for you. I don't mind at all."

He just growled at her, and fired a stream of bullets behind them. "I'm not the one who decided to bring a sniper to an arena fight. This isn't exactly my scene, Shepard."

"Sure it is," she said. "You're keeping morale up."

He spat something that her translator parsed into 'progenitors' and 'fuck' before trailing off into confused static. "I'd rather take on a factory full of hotwired mechs."

"I can arrange that."

Grunt barreled past them, his shotgun smoking, the smell of burnt flesh and a bloodthirsty chuckle trailing in his wake. "East side's clear, Shepard."

"Good job, Grunt," she called, and booted a dog down the stairs before splattering it with a quick burst of gunfire. "Garrus, mechs are tedious as hell. All they do is march straight at your face and soak up ammo. At least varren keep you on your toes."

"Varren eat your toes," Garrus corrected, executing another with a swift kick and a few rounds to the head. "And mechs aren't tedious. They just take a bit of finesse. If you hit the hydraulics in the neck, the head pops right off. One bullet."

"My ass. I've never once seen you do that."

"Because you insist on staying right on top of them, and an unlucky ricochet could pop your skull open. So I always have to do things the hard way."

She made a skeptical noise. "All right, hotshot. Next time we're up against an YMIR, I'll stand back so you can demonstrate."

"Dragon," Garrus said.

"What?" She finished off the last two varren, kicked the corpses to the side. That had to be another translator error.

"Big flying snake thing," he said. She twisted and looked. Shit.

She sunk low, watching it warily, but the winged worm-like creature seemed content to skulk around the perimeter. "Grunt? Any background?"

"Harvester," he muttered, thumping up the steps behind her. "Territorial. Slow. Strong, but not aggressive. Spawns klixen. Aim for the neck."

"Right." Shepard scratched her forehead. "What's a klixen?"

"I'm on it," Garrus said, reaching back for his sniper rifle.

Shepard put her hand on his arm. "Hold up a sec." It was hard to hear anything over the wind and the beating wings of the harvester, but there was something faint, sharp. Scratching.

A half-dozen insectoid creatures, two meters tall and as wide, surged over the edge of the platform.

"Klixen," Grunt announced, pleased.

Before she could say anything, he charged in and shotgunned the leader at point-blank range. The bug reeled, limbs thrashing, then unhinged its jaws and spewed out a jet of flame.

Grunt retreated, smoking.

Shepard jogged backwards alongside him, spraying bullets into the advancing mass of bugs. "Uh. Grunt. Didn't you know it would do that?"

Grunt nodded. There were black scorch marks on his face. "Yeah. But I wanted to see it."

Shepard smirked. Her vat-grown krogan was a barbaric, amoral menace. But he could also be kind of cute sometimes.

"Plan," snapped Garrus, firing into the thick of the crowd.

"Keep them at range, and shoot like crazy," Shepard said.

It worked, for a little bit. Garrus and Grunt knocked them back with concussive and shotgun blasts and she knocked them back with her fists and her brain. But there were too many of them, and they were awfully fast for something that had that many legs to coordinate, and the harvester kept circling and swinging back down, dropping more, and more, and more.

"I'm up against the rail," Garrus announced behind her.

"Understood," she said. The skittering, scritchy noise grew louder. "Get ready to move. I'm breaking west, and I'll try and draw them after me. You two throw down concussives and then fall back south. Stick to the perimeter, circle around and keep firing, but don't pull their attention. On three."

"Classic Shepard strategy," Garrus rumbled. "Split up and run like hell."

"We're not running, wiseass. One." She aimed a last Throw at the bug in the vanguard. "We're executing a tactical maneuver. Two." She picked off another on the edges with a spray of bullets. "Watch and learn. Three!"

"This is the Shepard strategy," she panted into the comm, feet pounding against the earth. The klixen chittered behind her. She glanced at her radar. The lure had worked. "Make the enemy chase you—"

A blast of fire singed her heels. Crap, they were fast. If she stopped to aim another biotic punch they'd fry her to cinders. She'd just have to haul ass and hope.

There. She darted towards the corner of the platform, penned in on three sides by the railing. The klixen closed in around her, little flames licking from their mouths.

She reached out for the rail and vaulted herself over it, thudded to the ground below. The bugs surged after her, crowding against the bar.

Shepard whirled and unleashed a heavy Warp and a Throw in quick succession, followed by a clip and a half of incendiaries into the mass of trapped bodies.

Scrabbling legs thrashed and stilled. High-pitched shrieking slowly trailed off into silence.

"—Until you catch them," she finished.

"Hah!" barked Grunt's voice over the comm. "I want to try."

She glanced overhead. "You'll get your chance, kiddo. The harvester's coming around for another pass."

Grunt executed the Shepard maneuver perfectly, albeit with a lot more blood and shouting and flaming insect guts.

He frowned and toed the corpse of the nearest klixen. "Is that all? I want more."

Garrus looked up at the sky, praying for strength. "...Krogan."

Shepard jammed in a fresh heat sink.

"Pure krogan," Grunt muttered.

"We know you are," she said absently. She felt— strange. Unsteady. Like she'd knocked something loose in her brain.

She put a hand over one eye. Nope. The landscape was definitely moving.

"...What's that noise?" Grunt squinted at his feet. "Why is the ground shaking?"

Shepard stiffened, and twisted to look back at Garrus. He was already looking at her, eyes wide.

"Fuck me," she said with horrified delight. "Big things."

"I told you," he rumbled, snapping his sniper rifle to full extension. "Reach out to the spirits, and they reach back. You brought the nuke launcher?"

"You bet your ass I did." She unhooked it from her shoulders. "Jacob said it takes forever to warm up tho— oh shit." She whirled as she saw Grunt's white-armored figure trundling off to the edge of the arena, where a great pile of rocks was beginning to shift and rattle. "Grunt!"

The thresher maw erupted from the earth.

Grunt stood in its shadow, transfixed. Stared up at the massive, coiling body, the legs unfolding like knives.

Shockwaves tore through the arena. The pavement buckled and cracked under Shepard's feet. "GRUNT!" she shouted again over the crashing noise, hoping the comm filter would make it intelligible. "FALL BACK!"

He scurried behind a distant chunk of concrete. Turned to look at her, wide-eyed. "Shepard. It's a thresher maw."

She cupped her hand over her helmet mike. "I know. It's okay, kiddo. You've got this. Stay in the open, stay at range, and keep moving. Cover is useless."

He scowled at her across the arena. "That makes no sense. We should get behind—"

"Damnit, Grunt!" Shepard scowled back. "These, I know how to fight. I'm the galaxy's leading goddamn expert. Listen to me, or get yourself squished. Your call."

"The tank says to shelter—"

The thresher maw spiraled up, shoulders hunched like a cobra.

"Fuck your tank!" Shepard bellowed. "MOVE!"

A stream of acid hurtled at her face. She dove to the side, heard Garrus doing the same behind her. Droplets spattered and fizzed against the earth.

The maw roared.

Her heartbeat drummed in her ears. The edges of the world sharpened, settled into crystalline focus.

Another set of shockwaves rippled through the ground. She rocked back into a low stance and rode them out, swaying easily with the movement.

Grunt looked a bit singed, but he was up and shouting defiance at the beast. And he was taking her advice. Good boy.

A slow, uncontrollable grin stretched her lips. Cracked wide across her face.

The sun blasted down upon her. Her cheeks hurt from smiling.

Alive. Alive. I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive.

Shepard clicked the safety off, and sparked the warm-up sequence for the Cain.

And you're dead, you fucker.

---

She dropped her helmet to the ground. Rubbed the sweat off her face, leaving behind finger-shaped streaks of dirt. The arid wind whipped sand into her eyes. Snarled her hair.

Garrus leaned over, his hands braced on his knees, taking in gulps of air.

"...A nuke launcher, Taylor called it." Inhale. Exhale. "It barely made a dent in the damn thing."

"It made a dent. We would have been out here a lot longer without it." She pinched the bridge of her nose. Her nerves were crawling with stale adrenaline. "It doesn't matter, anyway. The maw's dead. We're fine. And Grunt got the kill shot."

"True." Garrus straightened. "He might be the first person ever to shotgun a thresher maw to death."

"Mm," she said.

"What's wrong?"

Shepard looked up at him. "Huh? Nothing. Why?"

He tilted his head to one side. "I'm not an expert on humans, but I'm pretty sure that expression means you're pissed off about something."

She pushed her hair out of her face and looked away.

In the distance, Grunt's little white figure clambered over the corpse of the maw. He tugged on its slender, serrated legs. Stuck his head under its armored plating.

Shepard switched off her hardsuit comm. Tapped the side of her head. Garrus gave her a funny look, but reached up to fiddle with his visor.

A click. The low buzz in her ear cut out.

"It was too easy," she said.

Garrus choked. "Seriously?"

"Seriously. I can't count how many times I came within inches of getting melted on Akuze. Getting crushed between their coils, or buried under rocks. Getting my leg bitten off. Or my head."

Shepard shook her head angrily. "This? This was nothing. It was big and it made a lot of noise, but it didn't even touch us. This is what killed my entire unit?" Her empty hand curled into a fist.

Had it just been kind of a small and puny one? Or was she too much— whatever she was now, for anything to be a challenge anymore?

On the other side of the arena, Grunt reached out and poked the monster's long blue tongue.

"You were hoping for a grudge match," Garrus said.

The tongue shuddered and twitched. Grunt leapt back like a startled cat.

"...Yeah. I guess I was," she said.

Embarrassing. Stupid. She'd let it get personal. Never let it get personal.

It didn't even fucking matter. It was Grunt's kill, not hers. He stomped around in the thresher muck, laughing with homicidal delight.

The maw was dead, and she wasn't. She survived. And she'd keep on surviving.

Maybe forever.

She gazed out into the swirling sands of Tuchanka. Exhaled. Unclenched her fingers. Let the Cain fall to the dusty earth.

Garrus holstered his rifle, and came to stand next to her, a steady, silent presence at her side.

She turned and looked up at him. Opened her mouth, then hesitated.

He looked back at her, eyes soft, waiting.

"Fuck your big guns, Vakarian," she said.

He patted her head. "...There, there, Shepard."

She just glared at him. But she did feel a little better.

"So mini-nukes aren't your style. We'll try something else. I'll convert you eventually."

She kicked the spent Cain, scowling. "Nope. I'm done. Next thresher maw we find, I'm taking it out with my pistol."

Garrus examined her bruised forehead. "Uvenk must have hit you harder than I thought."

"I'll do it," she warned. "Don't think I won't."

"I'm having you sedated before you get into any more trouble," he said, pressing a finger to his comm link. "EDI? Get me Doctor Chak— ow, Shepard!"

Off in the distance, Grunt crouched down in front of the massive corpse. Something glinted between his hands.

He straightened back up. The maw's electric blue tongue dangled from his fist.

Shepard squinted against the brightness. "That better not be what I think it is."

Garrus took advantage of her distraction to pry his elbow out of her joint lock. He rested his arm on her shoulder. "Look at that. Our little boy's a full-grown killer."

"I'm telling him you said that."

He made a flat noise. "Please don't. I prefer my tongue attached."

"Shepard," Grunt called, striding up to them. "Shepard. Look." The tongue was still twitching, its pointed tip curling in the hot air.

"Hell of a trophy, kiddo," she said. "Good work out there. You kicked ass."

"Hah," he said, as pleased as she'd ever seen him.

He shoved the slab of tongue into her arms. Shepard staggered under the weight.

"For you, Battlemaster. Eat it tonight to celebrate our victory."

"Thank you, Grunt," she said faintly.

She looked down at the pile of flesh. It was covered in dime-sized tastebuds. They pulsated gently.

Well. At least he wasn't trying to bring it onto the Normandy.

Grunt grinned at her. "I'm going back to get some teeth."

---

Uvenk returned like a bad penny, and this time he brought backup.

Shepard swatted his biotics aside. Grunt laughed and cocked his shotgun.

The bodies thumped into the dirt. Timewasters.

Back in Urdnot camp, awed whispers followed them up to Wrex's platform. "Well done, Urdnot Grunt."

Grunt bowed his head. "Thank you, clan leader."

Wrex rose, and nodded at one of the guards. "Orek, get him something to drink. Throw some more meat on the fire."

"This too," Shepard said, holding the maw tongue out to the guard. Her arms wobbled with the effort.

Wrex grinned. "Hell, Shepard, look at that. You think like a krogan. We'll eat it and gain its strength."

Shepard pointed wordlessly at Grunt.

Wrex shifted his gaze. "...I see."

The two krogan faced each other for a long moment. Grunt, unblinking, steady. Wrex, narrow-eyed.

"You know our old ways. That's unexpected."

"Okeer's teachings were thorough," Grunt replied. "Empty. Bloodless. But thorough."

Wrex's red stare lingered on the cluster of maw teeth in Grunt's fist.

"I can see you've been given a lot, Urdnot Grunt. It's up to you now to figure out what to do with it."

He lumbered over and slapped Grunt's shoulder. "But tonight, we're celebrating. Let's get you a drink. You can tell your new clan brothers all about the maw. It's been a while since they heard a good battle story."

Grunt grinned.

Wrex shifted slightly, looked back at Shepard and Garrus. "You two coming? Or do you have to get back to your ship?"

Shepard paused. Garrus glanced at her. So did Grunt.

Aw, hell. It was an important day for him. And it wasn't like she had any leads yet on the Collectors.

She came up and slapped Grunt's other shoulder. "Damn right we're coming. I'm his battlemaster now."

"None better," Wrex said, pleased.

"Oh, uh," she said. "By the way. We killed Gatagog Uvenk. Hope that's okay."

"You're on a roll, Shepard," Wrex rumbled. "Just another reason to celebrate. Good thing there's plenty of ryncol to go around. Not that you aliens should drink any."

Shepard smirked. "Who's gonna stop me? You?"

"Hah. I haven't survived this long by being a fool." Wrex leveled his red stare at Garrus. "Vakarian. If she dies again, you're carrying the body back."

---

They stood in the center of a thick, sweaty crowd around the fire. Embers snapped and sparked. Strange smells drifted up in the air: wood smoke, roasting meat, sizzling fat. Burning plastic. Ammonia. Hot metal. Ash and dust.

Protocol and ceremony dictated that Wrex make the first toast, which he did with his usual grace.

"You have completed the rite. Your strength is our strength, and our strength is yours. Your enemies are our enemies, as our enemies are yours. You are Urdnot Grunt. Welcome."

He crashed his mug against Grunt's, then drained it in one long gulp. Grunt followed suit, coughing a little.

"All right, you bastards— I see you all fidgeting out there." Wrex slapped Grunt on the back. "You know he killed a thresher maw. Go talk to him about it."

Grunt was immediately swarmed.

"Beautiful ceremony," Garrus told Wrex.

Wrex squinted at him. "...Have a ryncol, Vakarian."

"Ah, I'll pass, thanks."

"Hah." Wrex turned to Shepard. "What about you? I hear you're made of sterner stuff these days. You might actually survive."

"Why the hell not? —Oh! Hang on a sec." She flicked on her comm pickup. "Miranda!"

Garrus gave her a questioning look.

Miranda's tinny voice filtered through the speakers in her hardsuit collar. "—Shepard? What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong! Grunt's an Urdnot now. We're celebrating. Come join us."

A long pause. "...Shepard, I recall telling you that I would pick the bar."

Garrus tapped his comm link. "What's the matter, Lawson? Tuchanka not your scene?"

"Vakarian." Miranda's voice flattened. "I should have known you'd be in on this."

His good mandible flared out in a grin. "Oh, come on. What's not to like? The sunshine. The fresh air."

"The eligible bachelors," Shepard chimed in.

Wrex snorted.

A heavy sigh. "Keep an eye on her, Vakarian."

"Hey," Shepard said, offended. The comm link buzzed emptily.

"New friend?" Wrex rumbled.

"Not exactly," she said. "But I'm working on it."

---

Later, they retreated to Wrex's platform. Masses of Urdnot warriors jostled for position by the fire, where the maw tongue crackled and spat over the flames. Grunt's pale armor blinked in and out of view among the crowd. The shaman was trying to engage him in conversation, but the young krogan kept getting distracted by all the others coming up to him. Offering congratulations, welcomes, a punch to the face, a quick grapple.

Wrex handed her a mug of clear, bitter-smelling liquid. "Here. If you're brave enough. Put your new digestive system to the test."

Shepard took a sip.

"—Jesus fucking christ, Wrex." She clawed at her tongue.

Garrus hummed, half sympathetic, half amused. Wrex laughed and took the cup away from her. "So, there are some things even you can't do. Good to know."

"Don't spread it around," she said, wiping tears from her eyes. "I have enemies. ...So. What do you think of Grunt?"

"He's an interesting case," Wrex said slowly. "Tank-bred aren't well regarded. Anything contaminated with science isn't. But there's no denying he's strong."

"And fast," Garrus added. "He kept in shotgun range of the maw the whole time. Barely caught any acid at all."

"Okeer was twisted. Corrupt. But he knew what he was doing." Wrex shifted his weight. "I talked to the kid for a bit, earlier. He's smart. Lot of knowledge in his head, and he picks things up fast. He knows more about our lore and traditions than I do."

"Smart? Grunt?" Garrus cocked his head to one side. "On the prison ship he charged headfirst into an YMIR. Tried to punch it to death."

"To be fair, that almost worked," said Shepard.

"I said smart, not wise," Wrex rumbled. "He's still too fresh. He noses all over like a varren pup. Sniffing and pawing at things to see if they'll bite."

Shepard smiled. "Yeah. I noticed that, too." There were still a few scorch marks on Grunt's face.

Wrex stared out at the throng below them. "But he'll learn."

"Glad you think so. I don't want to know what that tank's been telling him about turians." Garrus glanced between her and Wrex, then stepped back from the platform. "—I'm going to go look around for a bit. I'll catch up with you two later."

They watched him pick his way down the slope. His loose, long-legged strides carried him off into the surging crowd.

"...Shepard." Wrex regarded her out of the corner of one red eye.

A small, nervous tendril coiled up inside her. "Yeah?"

"When you finish blasting the Collectors into dust, send Grunt back to Tuchanka. We're going to need him."

She made a face. "Pretty sure if I tried to send him anywhere, he'd try to squish me into a bloody pulp. Battlemaster or not."

Wrex laughed. "True. But if it's you, you'll manage. You can talk anyone into anything. You talked me into not shooting you on Virmire."

"Wrex, I didn't talk you into shit. You know blowing that base was the right call."

"I know. Those clones weren't worth the air they breathed." He let out a vast sigh. "Now here I am, welcoming one into my own clan."

"But— Grunt's different." She tilted her head. "Isn't he?"

"He's better," Wrex said, shrugging. "Better instincts. Stronger genes. More educated. But still a clone." He scratched his massive crest. "It's difficult, Shepard. We're krogan. We have to stay true to what we are. But we're dying. Where do I draw the line?"

She exhaled, and gazed out at the mass of bodies.

"Uvenk made him an offer," she said. "Provisional clan membership. Gatagog in name, but no breeding rights or land."

"That idiot got what was coming to him," Wrex rumbled.

He watched sparks fly up from the fire. Took a long drink from his mug.

"I never wanted children of my own, you know. Not after what happened with my own father. I thought I'd wander the galaxy until I found an enemy good enough to kill me, and then die alone."

She nudged him with her elbow. "You trying to make me cry, Wrex?"

"Hah." He took another quaff from his mug. "Point is, now I'm responsible for more than just my own hide. I need to find a way to steer us through this. To give our race a future. Our children are dying in the womb. Maybe it's time we started making them in tanks."

"Wrex," she said.

"I know. It turns my stomach, too."

She laid her hand on his arm. "You sure that's not the ryncol you're feeling?"

He gave her a toothy grin. "Just because you can't take it."

A clamor erupted from the pit below. Grunt was hoisted on the shoulders of a pair of hulking Urdnot men. A blackened hunk of something was clutched in his meaty fist.

He took a massive bite out of the hunk. Pumped his arms in the air. The cheering grew thunderous.

Shepard shook her head, smiling.

Wrex watched the spectacle with narrowed eyes. "Cloning might be our last hope. But I'll be damned if I hand our fate over to another salarian scientist. If we do this, we do it on our own." He scowled down at the pit. "Nothing good ever comes of alien meddling. Maelon proved that all over again."

Shepard stilled.

"I didn't think I ever told you his name," she said slowly.

"You didn't. He came to me before he went to Weyrloc. Asked for volunteers. And a lab."

"...So you knew what he was doing all along."

He chuckled darkly. "And you were trying to be so delicate. Shielding your professor from my wrath. Shepard, salarians aren't the only ones who can spy."

She said nothing for a moment. Queasy dread unfurled in her veins. What the hell else did he know? Her eyes flicked to his shotgun.

"So, that slimy little pyjack was his student." Wrex began to pace along the edge of the platform, a dark edge in his gravelly voice. "Solus, was it? Too scarred up to be just a science teacher. And he's with you. So, STG, then, both of them. But a thousand years too young to be involved in the genophage. That means the salarians must have been up to some other funny business on Tuchanka recently. Something that might have caused some of them to develop a guilty conscience. I've already got my people looking into it." He paused and looked at her. "Of course, you could make the investigation a lot shorter. If you wanted to."

"You know I can't tell you anything about him." Her voice was hollow. "Mordin's part of my team. He's under my protection."

He stopped in front of her. Clapped her on the shoulder, hard. "Well. Glad you could take time away from saving the galaxy to drop by, Shepard. It's been informative. Lucky for you Maelon didn't manage to undo any of the salarians' good work. Or were you lying about that too?"

"No," she said. She put her hand to her face. "Damnit, no, Wrex. That's not it. You're right about the STG stuff. But we didn't know what you knew about Maelon. We didn't know why he was here. Mordin thought that the Blood Pack had kidnapped him as revenge for his— STG days. That they were going to torture and kill him. Make an example."

He fixed her with a red stare. "Really."

"Yes." She met his gaze. "We went there to rescue him, as a personal favor to Mordin. That was all." Her face darkened. "Turned out Weyrloc were the ones that needed rescuing from Maelon. Mordin ended up pulling the trigger himself."

"You and your personal favors," Wrex rumbled, eyes narrowed.

"They always fucking go like this." Shepard rubbed her forehead. "Start out with the best of intentions. Wind up in a bloodbath. I guess my good luck carried over from the afterlife." She looked up at him. "I didn't tell you earlier, but... we found one of Weyrloc's women in the hospital. A volunteer. Her body was a mess. Every organ covered in tumors. Maelon's experiments ate her alive."

"What a waste." Wrex shook his head. "That's why I turned him down when he came to us. I could smell the desperation bleeding off of him. I knew that he would hurt people. That whatever he did, it wouldn't be worth the cost." He let out a long sigh. "Wish I hadn't been right."

He turned to face her, then, scowling. Pointed a finger at her chest. "I learned my lesson on Virmire, Shepard. We'll find a way to survive this, but we'll find it on our own terms. We might have to change. Adapt. But we don't have to put our fate in the hands of aliens. We don't have to destroy who we are in order to live."

"No," she said. "You don't. Nothing's worth that price."

Not that it mattered. The price had already been paid, in human and krogan flesh.

And perhaps, in a moment, she'd be paying it with hers. But that didn't matter either. Next time, she'd talk faster. Lie better. Make him believe her.

And then maybe in the future, when the time was right, she could tell him about Maelon's data. Reveal that she'd kept it safe. Her gift to him.

Maybe he'd be grateful to finally have some concrete hope. Or maybe he'd dismiss her offering as too blood-stained, too contaminated by alien influence, to be of any worth.

Maybe he'd kill her all over again for hiding it from him in the first place.

She looked up at him. "Your day will come, Wrex." Maybe.

"I'll make it come." He rested a hand on her shoulder. "Sorry I doubted you, Shepard. You've always been a friend to me, even if we haven't seen eye-to-eye the whole time. I know you'll help me look out for my people."

Oh. She let out her breath.

Her heart sank. She felt coated in grime. But she stood straight and tall, forced her respect and affection for him to the surface. Buried everything else down deep.

"Damn right," she said with a smile. "You better name some of your future daughters after me."

"You have to be dead to get children named after you," he rumbled.

"Well, I plan on living forever. You'll just have to make an exception."

Wrex snorted.

She looked out over the pit of Urdnot men, rowdy with alcohol and testosterone, or whatever the krogan equivalent was. Thought back to the sepulchral stillness of the hospital.

"Five," she said. "At least."

"You drive a hard bargain, Shepard." His eyes slitted. "All right. You can have your daughters. But I get five of your sons. I'm not waiting around until I'm dead, either."

"Five! That's pushing the limits of human fertility, Wrex. I don't even know if I'll ever have kids at all." She blinked as a thought occurred to her. "—I don't even know if I can."

"If it's you, you'll find a way," he said, shrugging. "But all right. I'll just name your first, then."

"Deal," she said. "After all this crap is over, I'll bring him to Tuchanka. You can teach him how to be a warrior."

"Deal." He gestured down at the crowd below them. "I'll need your help keeping all these idiots in line."

"Oh hell no. I'm not helping you with shit. I'm dropping my kid off on your doorstep, and then I'm gonna retire to some tropical planet in the middle of nowhere. You'll never hear from me again."

He gave her a skeptical look. "Didn't think you were the type to die of old age, Shepard."

"Well, I'm not letting the Reapers get me, that's for damn sure."

"Just make sure you leave some for the rest of us to fight." Wrex thumped her on the shoulder. "I'm going to go crack a bottle open for our newest Urdnot. You should find Vakarian. Make sure he's not getting into trouble."

She thumped him back. "I will. See you, Wrex."

"Shepard." He trundled off.

She exhaled. Her heart flip-flopped with relief.

She wanted to find Garrus and unburden herself immediately. But nowhere on Tuchanka was safe from Wrex. And nowhere, period, was safe from Cerberus.

Shepard kicked out at a chunk of concrete, then wandered down the hill, hunting for a slim, solitary blue figure in the mass of red and black.

---

He found her first. "Shepard."

She glanced up. A three-fingered hand waved to her. He'd staked out a relatively quiet corner, dark, elevated, ringed by waist-high chunks of masonry. Snipers were nothing if not predictable.

"Hey." She clambered up into his little base. "Anyone tried to maim you yet?"

"So far, Urdnot seem like friendly drunks. Lucky for me." Garrus settled himself on a broken pylon. "Looked like you and Wrex were having a good chat."

That was one way to put it. "I may have just promised him my firstborn son," she said, rubbing the back of her head.

He gave her a long look. "...I guess it's true what they say about women and scars."

"Ha," she said, and sighed. "Christ. I need a drink."

"Ryncol or groundwater," Garrus replied. "Your choice— they'll both kill you. And we have these." He gestured at a pair of blackened skewers with charred lumps on the ends.

"Is that—?"

"Grunt's little souvenir. Dinner, if you like, since you're levo-amino."

What the hell. You only live twice. She tugged off her gloves and reached out for the skewers.

Garrus's good mandible dropped open. "I was kidding. Really, Shepard?"

She sat down cross-legged in the dirt and pried the cubes of thresher tongue off the sticks. Pungent, vinegary juice trickled down her fingers.

"I'm hungry," she said, shrugging. "And curious. Wish you could join me. Sorry about your freakish alien biology."

"Don't be," he rumbled, glowering down at her. "It smells awful."

Couldn't really dispute that. She chewed silently.

"...What does it taste like?"

"It's actually not bad," Shepard said, in between bites. "Savory. Light, despite the smell. Texture's pretty weird though."

He slid down to the ground across from her, watching with revolted fascination. "So. Are you stronger now that you've feasted on the flesh of your enemy?"

"No," she said in disgust. "It was a crap enemy. I wasn't even scared."

"Shepard."

"Fine." She kicked his foot. "I was scared. But not enough. I changed my mind about the pistol. The next one's going down with my combat knife in its neck."

"Shepard—" He shook his head. "You know what I told you about making wishes."

She grinned around her mouthful of thresher maw. "That they come true. Because of spirits or being faithful or some bullshit. Exactly."

"I'll overlook your appalling racism, but only because we're at a party." One finger tapped against his visor. His voice lowered. "Did you see anything... out of the ordinary, back at the arena?"

It took a second before she realized what he meant. "—No. Nothing out of the ordinary. We're good."

A puff of breath. "Ah."

"What?"

"Nothing much," he drawled. "It's a perpetual source of delight, trying to figure out if you're being regular Shepard insane, or extra-special Shepard insane."

She popped the last bit of maw into her mouth and scowled at him. "Vakarian, this is getting old. If you're going to keep calling me crazy, you could at least do it in a nicer way."

He folded his arms. "You want to find a bigger, meaner thresher maw and kill it with a knife. There are no nice words for what you are."

"With my fists," she said. "I changed my mind again. Grunt punched an YMIR, I get to punch a maw. And there are plenty of nice words. You just need to try harder."

"Like hell."

"I'm serious. Back on Illium, Thane called me a loaded gun." She settled back against a large, jagged rock. Brushed her fingers over her smiling lips. "I think that might be the sexiest thing anyone's ever said to me."

"Really," he said, watching her fingers with narrowed eyes. "Thane."

She frowned, and dropped her hand. "What's your problem with him?"

"I don't have one. I recommended you bring him along, remember?"

"So you have a problem with me, then."

"No." He sighed, and rubbed under his visor. "...Yes."

"Let's have it, Vakarian."

"It's a stupid problem," he growled. "Of course you're going to chat up all the new recruits. Become best friends with everyone. It's what you do. I'll get over it."

Shepard blinked. "You're not— jealous. Are you?"

He let out a soft hiss, and turned his face away. "I told you it was stupid."

"Garrus." She scooted forward. Leaned in close.

He watched her out of the corner of his eye, his silvery skin lit by the glow of the distant fire, and made no comment.

"Of course my team is important. But nobody is more important than you." She pushed her matted hair back from her face, and smiled up at him. "When I find the king of all thresher maws and rip it apart with my fingernails, it's you I want at my side."

He clicked his jaw at her. "Don't think I haven't noticed that you keep downgrading your armaments."

"It's fine." She patted his knee. "You'll be there to pull my ass out of the fire."

He started to say something else when Grunt stomped up, flanked by two rust-colored Urdnot men and grinning like a berserker. "Shepard! There you are!"

Alcohol fumes wafted from his body. If she set off a spark, he'd probably ignite.

"The man of the hour," she said. "Have a seat, Grunt."

He collapsed beside her. "Shepard. Tur— Vakarian. This is..." He squinted up. "Urdnot Jarv. And Urdnot Drax. My brothers."

Shepard nodded up at the pair. "Thanks for looking out for him."

"This is your battlemaster?" One of the Urdnots leaned forward, peering at her. "So small. Scrawny. Underfed."

"I know! That's why it's so great," Grunt said, flailing his arms. "You'd never expect that kind of power from a creature that looks so feeble!"

Garrus turned aside, vibrating with suppressed laughter.

Shepard ground her teeth. "Thank you, Grunt. Did you talk some more with Wrex?"

"Yeah! He knows lots of stuff. Asked lots of questions, too. He was very interested in tank mother."

"Was he." She glanced over at the dais, eyes narrowed.

Grunt was formidable, but he was still just a child. Innocent. Uvenk had wanted to exploit him for his brute strength, but Wrex had other goals in mind.

—No. She shook her head. Wrex was trusting her. She had to trust him. He was looking out for the future of his race, but he wouldn't exploit anyone else to do it. He'd treat his young charge with care and respect. Grunt needed to be among his own people, and Wrex was the best out of all them. End of story.

Until that day arrived, though, Grunt was hers to mold. She'd make sure he returned to Tuchanka with honor and purpose. That he'd be an asset to the krogan race in and of himself, not just because of the science behind his creation.

And she'd make sure that if anyone else ever tried to use him for their own interests, he'd be sharp enough to put a stop to it.

"I just don't get how something that puny could survive the maw," the first Urdnot rumbled behind her. "Much less kill it. A single blast of acid would tear that body in half."

The second Urdnot gave them a speculative look. "The turian looks reasonably tough, though. Battle-scarred."

"Thank you," Garrus drawled, folding his arms behind his head.

"We'll fight later," the Urdnot said, nodding to him. Garrus suddenly looked a lot less relaxed.

"I like it here," Grunt said to her. "Can we stay a bit longer?"

"Of course, kiddo." Shepard patted his shoulder. "And by the way— congratulations. You earned this."

"I did," he said happily. "I know who I am, now. I am Urdnot Grunt. I have a strong clan, strong krantt, and strong enemies." He flung his arms out. "Everything I could ever want."

Enemies? She pursed her lips in thought.

Without Cerberus, without Saren, without the Reapers, who would she even be? Some PTSD nobody. Stuck on a colonial outpost somewhere. Stagnating.

Krogan philosophy might have a point.

"And you led me here." Grunt passed her his mug. "For you, Battlemaster. This is your victory."

Shepard looked down into the clear, evil-smelling liquid. Grunt watched her expectantly.

She took a deep breath, and drank. Tipped her head back, throat pulsing. Wiped her mouth. Passed the empty mug back into his hands.

Grunt let out an ear-splitting whoop, and pointed a finger at the startled Urdnots. "See?"

"Cheers, Grunt," she managed, clapping him on the shoulder. "We leave at dawn. Don't make me have to carry you back to the ship."

"Hah!" he said, grinning, and punched her arm.

Garrus stood up. She nodded to the Urdnots, pushed herself to her feet. Kept walking in a reasonably straight line until they were around the corner and out of view.

Garrus caught her as she staggered. "You're full of terrible ideas today," he murmured.

"Unit cohesion," she ground out. Her throat was on fire. "Bonding rituals. Impressionable youth. I've got to get out of here before I throw up."

She tottered down the hill to a shadowy, rubble-strewn path curving behind Wrex's dais. Garrus followed, hands outstretched.

He helped her over a broken column lying in the way. "I'm young," he tried. "I'm impressionable."

"Yeah, right." She thumped him on the chest as she slid past. "It's way too late for you. You've already seen me at my worst."

She swayed. He grabbed her arm. "Steady. —I don't know, Shepard, I'm pretty sure vomiting would be a new low."

They followed the path into a rusted-out tunnel, sloping gently upward. Hazy pools of sunlight filtered down from gashes in the ceiling. Dust glittered in the air.

"I want to die," she muttered, her hands over her face.

Garrus's fingers tensed around her forearm. "If you do, I'm telling them to put 'unit cohesion' on your gravestone," he said, voice light.

"Ha."

"Don't think you have to worry about it though." He tapped his visor. "Your bio-signs look pretty normal, considering. Seems like Cerberus knew what they were doing."

"Oh good," she mumbled. "Good for them."

He steered her around a fragmented chunk of piping before she could trip over it. "So. When have I seen you at your worst?"

"Ffff. Pick one. Horizon. Getting schooled by Kaidan and not even having a comeback. Crying and moaning to you about every little thing. About my special hell. About Tali and Liara not wanting to be friends anymore. About Aku— all that stupid garbage."

A mandible flared out in surprise. "What— all of that?"

"It's your fault," she slurred. "All of it. You're so easy to be around. To talk to."

He hummed, low and warm. "You're a mean drunk, Shepard."

"Ha." She bumped him with her elbow. Well, she tried, but her depth perception seemed to be off.

Thank god he hadn't been there on Illium. Talk about rock-fucking-bottom.

...Wait. She frowned. He was the reason she'd hit rock-fucking-bottom in the first place.

But no. That wasn't true. Not exactly. Right? You can't control what other people do. You only control how you respond.

Even if he'd been a self-righteous, overprotective ass. Even if he'd opted to follow his own incomprehensible turian logic and not common fucking sense. Even though he'd snuck off to tell Cerberus all about her frayed wires the instant she wasn't looking—

She pressed a hand over her racing heart. No. It was still her own goddamn fault for freaking out. She was the one who'd decided to keep secrets. Tell lies. She had to own that.

It was a fucking miracle Wrex hadn't shot her.

"If that's you at your worst, I think you're being overly dramatic," Garrus said, amusement threading through his voice. "You're allowed to complain. You're just one human."

"N'm not," she said.

"Well, mostly human. But either way, you can't blame me for you and Alenko. That's just unfair."

Shepard groaned, tipping her head back. "I've got th' worst goddamn ideas."

"What, trying to out-drink a krogan?" Garrus looked down at her. "Or did you mean Alenko?"

She hated this. She was so tired of this tightrope act.

"...Or did you mean talking to me?" he added quietly.

"All of it," she mumbled. "—Huh? No. Wait. Not that." She glanced up at him. "...Well. Kinda. But it's not like— I like talking with you, I just don't wanna get— I rely on you— I'm tryin' not to—"

"I see," he said.

"No, I mean— I want to— you... you're my best— I'm just—" Her hands scrunched into fists. "Fuck! I'm doing this part over." She gestured violently. "Supernova."

"Shepard," he said, putting a hand to his face. "I don't know if 'loaded gun' even begins to cover this situation."

"Sorry. Sorry. Nevermind. It's okay. I'm fine." She patted his arm. "Let's just get outside."

A dark rumble rose up from his chest. "Fine."

---

The sun hung low in the sky, blurred with reddish smog. Pale silhouettes of broken buildings shimmered in the heat. The wind swept little swirls of sand over the ground, and tugged gently at her hair. She breathed. Slowly, deeply. In, out.

"Feeling better?"

"...Yeah," she said. Surprisingly. She closed her eyes and rolled her head from side to side, testing.

Still conscious. Not collapsed in a puddle of nausea. "I think it's burning off. The cybernetics must have kicked in."

"Good." He came over and sat down beside her, and stretched his legs out. "You were making even less sense than usual."

"Sorry." Her cheeks flamed. "I have no idea what I was talking about. Just— ignore all of that."

"Done," he said, voice flat.

The tunnel had led them to a high, empty plateau littered with old plastic containers, broken crates, the wrecked and rusting skeletons of ancient machinery.

Not much for comfort. But it was hard to argue with the view. Shepard leaned back on her elbows, soaking up the warmth of the lingering sunlight.

"...Miranda doesn't know what she's missing," she murmured, at the same time Garrus said "What a hellhole."

They looked at each other.

Garrus made a wry noise. "If Lawson saw this, I think she'd be happy to keep on missing it."

"Oh, c'mon." She nudged him. "You know what I mean. You're planet-born too. I love the Normandy, but planets are special."

"Not this one," he muttered. "I feel sorry for the krogan. Almost."

"What's your deal, Vakarian? You've been complaining nonstop ever since we got here. Even a blasted hellhole can be beautiful, in its own way."

"It's not the way it looks. It's—" Garrus made a sharp, discordant noise, and turned his face away.

"What?"

"It's the smell," he muttered. "Ash and chemicals and burning meat. It's everywhere."

Hmm.

She tilted her head, watching him closely. His expression was shuttered. "Omega?"

He glanced at her, then away. "...Yeah."

"I thought the place just smelled like stale ventilators and garbage."

"It did. Most of the time." His mandible flexed.

Shepard turned her gaze back to the sun.

The wind gusted, hot and ashy. Motes of dust clung to her eyelashes.

"We were betrayed," Garrus said quietly.

She said nothing. Watched a thin trail of smoke unfurl from some burning wreckage off in the distance.

"They bled out on the ground floor of our base. Every single one."

She made a soft noise to show she was listening.

A muscle in his throat jumped. "...I couldn't leave the bodies. Scavengers, organ thieves— vermin. But the only airlock within two kilometers was a garbage chute. I would have had to hack them into pieces. Feed them into the compressor one by one. I couldn't—" He shook his head. "It didn't matter anyway. I didn't have the time."

He fell silent. The landscape was still and quiet. The distant coil of smoke slowly lengthened.

Shepard looked up at him. "What did you do?"

His shoulders were stiff, his brow furrowed. His good mandible twitched in and out in short, agitated movements.

"I burned them," he said.

She reached out and touched the back of his hand.

"The Blood Pack had sent in their advance troops. I managed to scavenge a flame thrower. Didn't have a lot of fuel left, though. I had to improvise."

He laughed. Low, black, and bitter. "Turns out vorcha burn pretty hot."

"At least there's one thing they're good at," she said.

"It ended up being a pretty respectable funeral pyre, actually." He stared out at the dust-swept ruins spreading below them. "I was almost proud of myself."

"Wish I could have been there with you," she said.

He closed his eyes. "...Yeah. Me too."

Shepard studied his tired, careworn face.

The more she saw of him— the exhaustion, the loneliness, the buried embers of rage and shame smoldering underneath— the more she wished it.

She imagined his sharp-edged silhouette before the roaring fire, fury and grief written up the long lines of his body. Watching with empty eyes as the stinking corpses disintegrated. Watching the fat bubble and spit in the flames. Watching the muscle char and shrivel, the skin curl and flake away like paper. Listening to bones creak and snap in the heat.

Breathing in the black smoke. Letting it sear his lungs, and settle deep.

Shepard wrapped her fingers around his.

"I'm sorry, Garrus."

He glanced down at his hand, then at her.

"I'm so, so sorry." Her voice was low and fierce. "I know it doesn't matter that I am. I know there's nothing that helps. I know you want to deck every last asshole who tries to tell you it wasn't your fault."

He took a deep breath. "Yeah. I do."

"Good thing I have a heavy bone weave. It wasn't your fault."

His hand clenched around hers. "The hell it wasn't, Shepard. I pushed them too hard, too fast. I should have seen it coming."

"Maybe you should have," she said. "I don't know. But you aren't the one who sold them out. You aren't the one who pulled the trigger."

He yanked his hand away. Got up and stalked over to the edge of the plateau.

"Their deaths weren't your fault, Garrus. But they are your responsibility." She pushed herself to her feet. "You were their leader. So be responsible for them."

His shoulders stiffened. "You think I'm not being responsible?" he snapped, whirling on her. "Fuck you, Shepard! I haven't stopped thinking about them— all of them— ever since—"

"That's not it," she said sharply. "That's just blame. You're letting it burn you up. Letting it own you, instead of owning it. You think I don't know the difference?" She grabbed the cowl of his ruined armor and pulled him in close. "Accept what happened to you. It's part of you now. Look at it. Learn from it. Let it make you better and smarter and faster."

Easier said than done. She knew that. But it still had to be said.

"—It takes time. It takes work. It hurts. I know I sound like an asshole right now, but listen to me. If you accept it, next time, you'll do better. You'll be able to protect them."

Garrus glared at her in silence for a long moment. She released her grip on his armor. He turned away, towards the rust-red glow of the dying sun.

"Damnit, Shepard." His voice was tight. "I didn't even want to talk about Omega."

"You still mostly haven't."

He put his hands to his face. "I just— damn it. How does this always happen with you? I wanted things to be different this time."

She blinked. "...You've lost me, Garrus."

One hand rubbed underneath his visor. The other gestured between the two of them. "We didn't talk much, before. On the SR-1."

"What the hell? We talked all the time. C-Sec. Turian culture. Your dad."

"Exactly." He pointed a long finger at her. "I talked. You listened. Sometimes you gave advice. But you never shared anything about yourself."

"...Huh," she said.

"Remember the first time you came to find me on the SR-2?" He crossed his arms, and leaned back against a boulder. "You brought that six-pack of beer from Taetrus. We cracked into it right then, sitting on the floor of the battery. And you told me the story about how you and Anderson met each other, back on Earth."

Anderson. Shepard looked away.

He was the best thing that had ever happened to her. He was the only reason she'd ever made anything out of herself. The only reason she hadn't died before she'd reached twenty.

And now he was a stranger. Like everyone else in this fucking galaxy.

"You'd just gotten half your face shot off, Garrus," she said, folding her arms. "I wasn't going to make the guy with the broken jaw do all the talking. Sorry if I bored you with my story."

He looked supremely annoyed for a moment, but then closed his eyes. Took a deep breath. "Shepard— I wasn't complaining." He stepped forward and put his hand on her shoulder. "I was honored you'd share it with me. So... keep talking. Please. I want to listen."

She blinked up at him.

Well. Maybe not everyone else.

Garrus slid down his rock to sit on the ground again. Shepard settled herself beside him.

A moment passed. She fidgeted. Glanced at him out of the corner of her eyes.

"How the hell did you get Taetran beer on a Cerberus ship, anyway," he said.

"It was on Gardner's grocery list from the Citadel." She raised a finger. "—Before you say anything, I did all the work. And used mission funding to pay for it. So it wasn't stealing. Gardner probably never even missed it."

An irritated rumble. "I wasn't going to say anything."

"Once a cop, always a cop," she said.

"...But Gardner? Really?"

She shrugged. "I guess he's got cosmopolitan tastes."

Silence stretched out. The wind pushed little eddies of dust around their feet.

"I really did like listening to you talk about C-Sec and your dad," she murmured. "I was honored, too. That you'd share with me." She glanced over at him. "I kinda felt like you were the little brother I never had."

His good mandible fell open in surprise. "You did?"

She shrugged, embarrassed. "Yeah, well. You seemed a lot younger to me back then. All fired up and idealistic. Raring to go. You'd be bouncing off the walls waiting to get out of decon." She smiled. "It was so cute."

He gave her a wary look. "And now?"

She grinned. "Less cute."

He glanced away. "Well." His fingers brushed against his bandage. "I have a medical excuse."

"Oh, c'mon. I didn't mean it like that." She bumped him with her knee. "Just that you're older. More seasoned. And the scars are an upgrade. You were cute before, but now you're— um—"

Garrus raised a plated brow.

"—Ruggedly handsome," she decided.

His eyes narrowed. "...And dangerous. And alluring."

"Don't push your luck, Vakarian."

They settled into a short, peaceful silence. Little burnt fragments of something— plastic sheeting, maybe— drifted past like snow in the wind.

She reached out and caught a flake on her palm. "I can't remember why I didn't talk about myself before."

"I couldn't tell you." He tilted his head to one side. "You've changed a lot, Shepard."

Yeah. She glanced up at him. "You have, too."

"Good change?" His voice was carefully neutral.

Shepard cracked a smile. "The opinion of an undead cybernetic psychopath matters to you?"

"Just this one particular psychopath," he said. "We have a bit of history."

She looked at him for a long moment.

"I miss cute Garrus sometimes," she said finally. "But new Garrus is pretty hot shit."

He made a pleased rumbling noise.

She watched the flake curl and twist in the heat from her hand.

"I don't know if it's you, or me, or whatever," she said. "To be honest, I don't care. I'm just really glad we can talk like this now."

"Me too," he said.

She raised her palm and let the little fragment fly away on the wind.

"Sometimes I think if it weren't for you, I'd have lost it completely," she murmured.

"Then I'm glad I didn't die on Omega," he said.

"Me too," she said. And had to fight down a wave of nausea at the memory.

The reek of copper and carbonized flesh. Her knees skidding on the slick floor. Inky blood, oily and thin, spreading out, staining everything it touched. The terrible wet sound from his ruined throat. Her medi-gel was all levo-amino. Worse than useless. Fucking Cerberus. She'd pressed her hands to the steaming wound in his neck, no no no no come on please please please but his life kept pulsing out between her fingers, hot and slick and slippery, wicking up into the fabric of her gloves.

"Joker," her voice barked into the comm. Inside her head she was screaming. White-hot noiseless fury. How dare you. How dare you bastards bring me back for this.

She should have just let him go.

Pulled out her pistol. Blown a hole through her temple.

She would have come back and she would have known. She would have done it all better. Done it faster. Run back to his side. Kept him out of the line of fire. Shot the gunship out of the sky.

If she'd died violently enough, maybe she could have rewound even further. Maybe she could have reached him before the massacre ever happened. Before he'd had to watch the bodies burning. Before he'd been left all alone. Maybe she could have saved them all. Maybe—

"Shepard?" His pale eyes were sharp with concern.

"Nothing. Just—" She swallowed. "—I wish I'd found you sooner."

"Hey." Garrus placed a gentle hand on top of her head. "You found me. That's what matters."

Shepard took a deep, shaky breath. "Yeah."

"Besides. If you'd come earlier, I'd still just be your cute little brother." Garrus's voice dropped to a sly purr. "Now I've been upgraded to dangerously handsome."

She snorted. "More like dangerously crazy."

He patted her on the head. "Guess that makes two of us."

Shepard tipped her head back against his palm, and let out a long sigh.

How on earth had it turned into him comforting her about Omega? Christ. She was a fucking trainwreck.

But he was right. He was alive. And he was here. That was a good place to start from.

She scooted in closer, nudging his elbow out of the way, and settled herself against his side. Rested her head against his armored shoulder.

Garrus tensed, his hand hovering in mid-air. "...Shepard. I'm not your pillow."

"Deny it all you want, Vakarian. We've got some hours to kill, and I'm sleepy." She blinked up at him. "—Uh. Unless I'm making you uncomfortable? Or stepping on a serious cultural thing?"

He made a soft clicking noise which she had no idea how to interpret. But he settled his palm on her head again. "No. You're not."

"Good." She closed her eyes.

This close, she could hear his breath humming faintly through his vocal cords. A low, rhythmic whisper over the wind.

The tension in his shoulders slowly eased. Her breathing quieted. The warm breeze and the gentle weight of his hand were melting her into a sleepy, boneless state.

His fingers stroked lightly, experimentally, through her hair.

"...Is this okay?" Garrus murmured.

"Very," she murmured back.

"I always wondered what your— what do you call this?"

"Hair," she said. "It's caked in dirt right now. Don't judge me."

"Right." His fingers snagged on a tangle. "—Ah. Crap. Um, Shepard, I think I broke something."

She reached up, her knuckles brushing against his, and teased the knot apart.

"Freakish alien biology," he muttered.

"Shh," she said, smiling.

Maybe she hadn't been able to fix things, back then. But she could damn well fix things now. This was her new life, for better and for worse, and she was going to use it.

Even if it meant running the Omega 4 relay a million times. Even if it meant burning in the red glare of the Reapers, over and over again, until she got it right. Even if it used up every last heartbeat.

She'd keep him safe.

She'd keep them all safe.

Shepard closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

She woke up with a wretched taste in her mouth and the three bars of Garrus's shoulder guard indented in her cheek. His eyes were closed, his chin tucked down into his cowl. He breathed softly.

The sky was dark, swathed in gauzy grey layers of cloud and dust. Little blooms of orange light dotted the surface from underneath, fading out into the murky horizon. It was still and quiet. The air had cooled, and the breeze carried the smells of gunpowder and wood smoke.

She extricated herself from Garrus's arm. He stirred and made a low, sleepy noise of protest. She held still until he relaxed again, then tiptoed a safe distance away, around piles of building materials, stacks of crates. She sat down cross-legged in the dirt behind a heap of corrugated steel and touched the comm button in her collar.

"Miranda," she whispered.

Silence.

"...Miranda. Miranda. Miranda. EDI."

"Yes, Shepard." EDI's voice hummed through the speaker, much too loud.

"Shh! Get me Miranda."

After a moment, a tired-sounding voice came over the line. "Shepard, it's 0200 ship time. Something had better be bleeding or on fire. What is it?"

"Miranda, you're a really good XO," Shepard said. "Seriously. Really great."

"I know," Miranda said shortly. "Is that all? I'm going back to bed."

"I guess. No. I don't know." Shepard flopped down onto her back and looked up at the opaque, fathomless sky. "Can we talk for a bit?"

"I suppose." Rustling noises came over the line. A long pause. "Well? I'm listening."

"—Come work for me." The words spilled out of Shepard's mouth. "Uh. After all this Collector crap is over, I mean. I want you with me when I take the fight to the Reapers. God knows I could have used your help the first time around."

A sigh. "We can discuss that once we've completed the mission at hand, Shepard. We're still a long way from the Omega Four relay."

"I know."

"Do you? I can't help but notice that lately the mission log looks like a long list of personal favors." A pause. Miranda's voice quieted. "Not that I'm not grateful for what you did for me. Or Jacob. I just want to make sure you remember why we're here."

"Of course I remember." Shepard sat up. "Every second of every day, I remember. Our people are still out there, enslaved, or dying, or worse. But we're the only hope they have, so we have to do this right. Our focus and teamwork has to be bulletproof." Her voice was rising. "If we cut any corners, the Collectors will kill us in a heartbeat. And then the Reapers will swarm in and fuck the whole galaxy right on top of our corpses."

A brief, appalled silence. "...You certainly have a way with words, Commander."

"Sorry. It's been a long day." Shepard let out her breath, and eased herself back down. "A really weird day. I'll tell you about it later."

"Of course you will. I debrief you after every mission."

There was a short pause.

"Well then, Shepard, if there's nothing else—"

"—How's Oriana?" Shepard said quickly.

Miranda sighed again.

"Really," Shepard said. "Is she doing okay? Settled in at the new digs?"

"She's doing fantastic," Miranda replied. "Barely even set foot in the house before she packed off to Nos Astra U."

"Does she like it?"

"Loves it. She's already tested into a graduate level bioengineering course." Miranda's voice warmed. "She wants to be a doctor. Started planning her thesis project the first week. She's trying to figure out a way to improve gene therapy treatment for the next generation of colonists, so they can adapt to alien environments more effectively. I looked at some of her preliminary work. It's brilliant— of course. Given the proper resources and development, she could open up a whole new spectrum of worlds for humanity to explore."

Miranda paused. Faint rustling noises came over the comm. "But who knows. She's only a freshman. She'll probably change her mind twelve times before the year's up."

"Sounds like you two have been talking a lot."

"We've exchanged a few messages here and there."

Shepard smiled. "That's really great."

"Yes," Miranda said. "It is."

Shepard stretched her arms up to the sky, and wiggled her gloved fingers in the air. "I never had a family."

"I know," Miranda said.

Shepard suppressed a sigh.

"I tried to find them, actually," Miranda said, after a moment. "Your biological parents. Siblings, cousins. I searched for a long time."

"You— really? Why?"

"Their DNA and medical histories would have been incalculable assets during the Lazarus Project."

"Oh."

"But mostly, I wanted to know more about you. I thought if I could just— I thought it might explain some things." The rushing sound of a faucet. A clink. "Didn't have much luck, though. That's a hard city to track people in, even for someone with my resources. And you didn't leave much of a paper trail behind you."

"Sorry," Shepard deadpanned, before she could think better of it. "Next time I'm orphaned, I'll try to take better notes."

"Thank you," Miranda replied smoothly. "Next time I'm resurrecting your frozen corpse, I'd appreciate the help."

Huh. Shepard cracked a smile.

A gentle wind stirred. A few pale stars shone through the curtain of dust.

"What did you study when you were in university?"

"I never went." Miranda sounded distant. "My father hired instructors to come to the house instead. The best minds in their fields, all of them."

"Oh." Shepard folded her hands behind her head. "I guess that makes sense."

Silence.

"Miranda?"

"I'm here."

Another long pause. The comm link hummed in Shepard's ear.

"...I wanted to go." Miranda's voice was subdued. "I wanted to go to school. I wanted it so badly. I dreamt about it all the time."

"I dreamt about running," Shepard said.

"I was going to major in art history."

"Really?"

"Really," Miranda said.

"Not— political science, or— I don't know. Something more applicable?" Shepard scratched her ear. History of galactic warfare? Bioweapons? Whatever major taught you how to kill and dominate.

"It is applicable," Miranda snapped. "Art reveals everything about the people who make it, and even more about the people who consume it. Their beliefs, their desires, their blind spots and weaknesses. If you understand someone, you can influence them, control them. Art is a path to that understanding."

A pause.

"It's also beautiful," Miranda added, more quietly.

Shepard looked up at the stars. "That's a good argument," she said. "Very persuasive."

"I know."

"I'm sorry it didn't work on him."

"Thank you." Miranda's voice was tight.

The sunlit corridors of Illium. Miranda had stood at the edges of the crowded station, twisting her slender hands.

Oriana Lawson had turned at the sound of her sister's footsteps. A mirror image of Miranda, but lightened. Unburdened. Smiling.

Shepard rolled onto her side and looked out over the edge of the plateau. One of the orange lights in the distance winked out.

"Ori's going to have a really good time," Miranda murmured. "Going to parties. Making new friends. Learning about philosophy, history, music, relationships, ridiculous pop culture— whatever she feels like. No one to tell her she can't. That she's too special, too important. That she's wasting her potential." A short pause. More rustling noises. Miranda's voice sounded muffled. "It's everything I ever wanted for her."

Shepard raised her eyebrows. "Kinda sounds like it's everything you ever wanted for yourself."

"Yes. It was."

Shepard thought about it for a moment. Another life, another world. One where she'd had a family. Stayed in school.

Gotten slaughtered with all the rest when the Reapers came screaming through the relays.

"I used to talk with Niket like this," Miranda said.

"Yeah?"

"Ages ago, when we were children. My father had our network on lockdown, but he always forgot that I was smarter than he was. I hacked into a local news station's intranet and set up a private vidchat link on their server. Only Niket and I knew how to find it. On the access logs, it looked like we were just checking the news."

"Nice trick."

"I had to compress the data stream down to almost nothing. Anything bandwidth-intensive was too risky." A quiet laugh. "We looked like blobs of pixels. Our voices sounded like static. But it didn't matter. We'd stay up until dawn, just... talking. About everything and nothing."

"I'm sorry, Miranda," Shepard said. "He must have been a good friend."

"He was. He was the best friend I ever had."

A pause. Miranda's voice lowered. "I wanted to thank you for stopping me, back there. I would have... regretted that."

"I'm just glad I could help."

"You really mean that, don't you?" Another pause. "You're quite something, Shepard."

Shepard wasn't sure how to respond to that, so she didn't. The wind rustled. Swirls of dust settled in her hair.

"It's funny, you know," Miranda murmured. "I've always believed that regrets were a waste of time. You do what you can with what you have, and you never look back."

"That's good advice," Shepard said.

"Accomplishments outlast love. Power before people. My father used to say things like that, and I believed him. But now..."

"Yeah?"

"Oriana showed me how wrong he was. You did, too. And now I'm sitting here wishing I'd come down to Tuchanka with you, after all."

Shepard smiled up at the sky. "You would have kicked ass at art history, Miranda."

A low, warm laugh came over the comm line. "I know."

---

After the call ended, Shepard meandered over the silent plateau, too restless to sleep. She poked through the detritus of the millennia. Did some push-ups. Attempted to meditate. Gave up after thirty seconds. Finally she sat down at the cliff edge again and gazed out at the horizon, her mind unspooling.

Colonists. Collectors. Reapers. Forward. Stop. Rewind.

Her body, her blood, her brain. Whatever it was inside of her— digital or divine, Cerberus or supernatural, it was hers to use. A sword against time. A shield against death.

The first blue-tinged rays of sunlight pierced through the clouds. Armored footsteps clicked behind her.

"Good morning," she said, tipping her head back.

Garrus rubbed his neck. "How long have you been out here?"

"Couple hours. Couldn't sleep." Shepard flashed him an upside-down grin. "Why? Were you lonely?"

The look he gave her suggested uncharitable things about her intelligence. He folded his arms and turned to face the horizon. "So, this is sunrise over a nuclear wasteland. Pity I didn't think to bring my paintbrushes."

"Yeah, yeah, all right." She pushed herself up, dusted her hands off on her hips. "I won't force you to enjoy any more of it. Let's go collect our boy."

They picked their way back down through the tunnel. Faint noises from the settlement filtered through the still air.

"Suppose Grunt's hungover?" Shepard murmured. "Maybe we should ready weapons."

Garrus rolled his neck from side to side. "Pretty sure hangovers are biologically impossible for krogan."

"I was born into the wrong race," she said, awed.

He made a brusque noise. "Wrex certainly seems to think so."

She glanced up at him, opened her mouth— then thought better of it. He was probably cold and underslept and sore. He was almost certainly hungry. Maybe he was wishing he hadn't told her anything about Omega. Maybe he was wishing he hadn't come with her, period.

—Hell with it. She reached out and patted his hand. "There, there, Vakarian."

His jaw clicked sharply.

"You've been such a good boy," she cooed. "So patient. So brave. We'll get you home soon."

He squinted down at her. "I shot Weyrloc Guld through the eye before he could blast you with that Singularity."

"What? Horseshit," she said. "I was ready for him. All you did was steal my kill."

Garrus ticked off points on his fingers as they strode up the path. "I kept you from getting mowed down by klixen while you were tearing around the arena like a pyjack on fire."

"You should slap a ceramic patch on those teeth marks," she said lightly, toeing his ankle with her boot. "Looks like some of 'em went pretty deep."

"I pulled the thresher maw's attention off you while you spent a half-century trying to figure out how to reload the Cain."

"That just reaffirms my earlier statement. Fuck your big guns."

"And since I'm such a good person," Garrus continued, "I won't mention how I had to babysit you all night after you decided to go one-for-one against a genetically perfect krogan. We'll call that one a freebie."

"All night, my ass. You babysat me for fifteen minutes. Half an hour, tops."

"Is that how long it seemed to you? That's cute."

She powered up her omni-tool. "I may have been drunk—"

"And raving," he pointed out.

"But I also have the logs from my biomonitors. Thirty-eight minutes. That's not 'all night.'"

"And I never even got any dinner," he murmured, looking off into the distance.

"You got a perfectly good chunk of thresher meat," she said. "Not my fault you're so fussy. What's your point, Vakarian?"

Six and a half feet of wounded turian dignity turned to look at her.

"Be nice to me," he said.

She reached out and patted his hand again, laughing. "There, there, Garrus."

They wandered into the hushed Urdnot camp. Krogan lay heaped and snoring in their armor, their massive heads pillowed on duffel bags, supply crates, loose rubble, each other. Dozing varren huddled together for warmth, noses tucked under paws. The gleam of Grunt's pale armor caught her eye. He was squatting near the embers of last night's fire. Wrex and the shaman conversed in low voices nearby.

Grunt stood when he spotted them, bright-eyed and disgustingly alert. "Battlemaster! I'm ready."

The shaman nodded at them. Wrex rose to his feet. "Wondered where you two got off to last night. You missed the fighting."

Garrus coughed politely. "Did we? What a shame."

Grunt trundled over and fell in behind her, mirroring Garrus's position on her right.

Wrex squared off in front of them. Lowered his massive head, and leveled one great eye with hers.

"Shepard. Vakarian. Urdnot Grunt. Do me a favor while you're out there." His red stare bored into her. "Fight well. Kill them all. Leave nothing but ashes behind you."

Shepard patted the grip of her pistol. "Don't you worry. We'll blow the Collectors to hell."

"Wish I could help," Wrex said to her, more quietly.

"You already have," she replied.

---

After Tuchanka, the Normandy felt cold and sterile and very, very small. The lights were dimmed for the skeletal night shift, the cockpit dark and shuttered.

Grunt turned and gave her an oddly formal nod, then stomped off for the elevator. A bleary-eyed Matthews scrambled out of his path.

Chambers leaned out from behind her console as they walked past. "Welcome back, Commander."

"Ch— Kelly," she replied, startled. There were dark circles under the yeoman's eyes. "Since when are you on third shift?"

"I'm not, actually. The Illusive Man wanted to speak with you as soon as you returned. It's urgent. I've set up the link for you in the briefing room."

Hm. She glanced back at Garrus. He nodded and strode off.

She pushed through the doors to the comm room.

"Shepard."

Holographic smoke flickered in the still air.

"We've caught a break. I need you to go to the Korlus system."

---

The lights rose. She stood in the empty comm room for a moment, frowning at the floor.

"Shepard." EDI's globe blinked into view. "Do you require assistance?"

She lifted her head. "What's our ETA?"

"Forty-six minutes. I have alerted Mr. Moreau."

Shit. She spent two and a half seconds debating her options, then toggled the general squad frequency on her comm. "Look alive, everyone. We're off to infiltrate a derelict Collector ship. Remain on standby until further notice. Lawson, Vakarian, you're up. Grab your guns and meet me in the shuttle bay in forty."

"Affirmative," Garrus said.

An irritated sigh from Miranda. "So much for the mission debrief. I'll be there."

Shepard looked up at the ceiling. "Good. And Garrus— eat something first. If you get all cranky on me again, I'm leaving you behind."

A flat, rude-sounding noise came over the comm line.

She grinned up at the speaker. "See you in a bit."

---

A three-minute shower. Dust and dirt swirled down the drain. Hair stuck to her forehead in wet clumps. Her eyes felt gritty, unfocused.

She peeled into a clean undersuit, dumped the crusty, sweaty, boozy-smelling one from Tuchanka into the laundry hatch, and began reassembling her armor. Propped one foot on the bed to reattach her greaves. Clipped her pauldrons into place. Wiggled back and forth, settling the fit.

A gleam caught her eye. Her old breastplate lay face-up on her dresser.

She wandered over and picked it up. Brushed her fingers over the delicate, splintering edges of the hole through its ruined heart.

Something was off about this mission. The details didn't add up.

A trick. A trap. It had to be.

Well, fine. No better way to defuse a trap than to spring it. And no one better for the job than herself.

She was a sword and a shield. She was invincible.

---

After retrieving her guns from Jacob and some last-minute medical firmware updates from Mordin, she wandered up towards the cockpit. The Collector ship loomed in the viewscreen.

"Mornin', Commander. Nothing like waking up to a giant spiky deathtrap right outside your viewport, don't you think? Really puts some pep in your step."

"Joker," she said. Hadley was staring up at the two of them from the gangplank.

"Right. Sorry." Joker turned back to face the silent ship. She leaned over his shoulder to get a better look.

Miles and miles of rough, stony carapace, broken up by bands of steel. Great brown slabs curved like grasping fingers around the hollow core.

The Normandy's hull peeling away in silver sheets. Power cables writhing and spitting in utter silence. Airless, glittering black. Shepard's eyes narrowed. "That looks exactly like—"

"—I know. EDI's been trying to match the profiles." Joker's lips pressed into a thin line. "Without an engine signature, it's impossible to be sure."

No lights. No movement. No thrum of eezo in the drive core.

No blast marks, either. No impact craters. No debris.

Joker's voice was uncharacteristically quiet. "How in the hell did the turians manage to take this thing out?"

They hadn't. They couldn't have.

Was the Illusive Man really buying this?

"Silent running until I get back," she said, and spun on her heel. "Keep your eyes open. Be ready to leave hot."

"Yeah," he said, without looking away from the ship. "Good luck."

---

Garrus leaned back against the shuttle, watching her approach with his pale hawk's stare.

She squinted at him. "Are you sure you ate?"

He batted the question aside with a wave of his hand. "What's the situation?"

"Cerberus found an abandoned Collector ship. Looks identical to the one that destroyed the SR-1." She tossed him a blue-striped ration bar. He caught it with a hum of surprise. "We're going in to poke around their databanks, hunt for any intel that'll lead us through the relay. Hopefully steal some useful tech while we're at it. You got enough sleep planetside, right? You're not too worn out?"

"I'm fine, Shepard." He tore the foil off with his teeth. Took neat, rapid bites, his mandible flaring out with the movement. "So you just want me and Lawson on this? Why not Goto, too? She's a whiz at cracking into systems."

"I know. But— I don't know. Something's funny about this one. I want to keep the team small, in case we need to haul ass out of there." She ran a practiced eye over her pistol and SMG, clipped them back into place. "And Miranda's a non-negotiable asset for this mission. Whatever we find in there, I need her to see it in person. Some things just don't translate over vid uplink."

He tipped his head back to swallow the last of the bar. Licked a crumb off his fingertips with a flash of long, dark blue tongue. She bent her head and pretended to fuss with something on her omni-tool.

He dusted his hands off and unhooked his Mantis. "Glad I'm not the only one with a strange feeling about all this. You think the ship is worth the risk?"

"I think it's a giant ticking time bomb and we'll be lucky if we find anything at all before it explodes."

Garrus paused halfway through wiping a bit of dirt off his scope. "You know, Shepard, your pre-mission pep talks could use some work."

She rolled her eyes. "It doesn't matter what I think. It's the best lead we have, so we have to try. And either way, Miranda needs to see that Collector ship up close, because she'll notice things and make connections that I won't. Then she can put that over-engineered brain of hers to work figuring out how best to blow them up."

"Fair enough." He snapped his rifle to his back. "That still leaves me. Or am I just here to make you look good?"

She pried open a ration bar of her own. "You're an investigator. Investigate. You'll see things I miss, too."

"Sure," he drawled, folding his arms. "But Lawson's the only one who gets to be a 'non-negotiable asset.'"

"C'mon, Garrus." She grinned up at him through a mouthful of protein mash. "Of course you're non-negotiable. You have to be there to hold my hand if I get scared."

He was unmoved. "I have a better idea. Use your hand to shoot whatever's scaring you."

"That's your job, big guns."

"So I'll be investigating, holding your hand, and shooting things?" His jaw clicked. "I want a pay raise."

"Denied. Everyone's gotta multitask, Vakarian."

"Really? It's starting to sound like Lawson and I are pulling all the weight on this one. Why don't you stay home, Shepard? Drink some tea, vidchat with Wrex. We'll bring Goto out instead."

She jabbed a finger at his chest. "You think Goto's gonna keep your bony butt alive when things start blowing up?"

The click of heels against the decking preempted his retort. Miranda drew to a halt in front of them. "Commander. Vakarian. If you're finished with your preparations, I'd like to get a brief assessment of the last two missions for Doctor Solus and Grunt."

Shepard blinked at her. Miranda's eyes looked a little tired, but if not for that, Shepard would have thought she'd hallucinated the entire midnight heart-to-heart.

"It's just a placeholder for the file until we can go back and do a comprehensive." Miranda glanced at her omni-tool. "We still have six minutes, if you were wondering."

"Um—" Shepard began.

"'Depressing' and 'Uncomfortable,' in that order," Garrus said. "That should cover it for now."

Miranda spared him a frosty look. "You're a paradigm of efficiency."

He flared a mandible at her. "I try."

Shepard frowned at him— was he flirting with her XO?— but then the shuttle pilot turned up, looking a little pale and sweaty, and then EDI began the approach countdown, and then it was time to go.

Shepard stayed up front with the pilot, a round-faced woman named Kozlowski.

Investigators. Strategists. Her left and right hands. Garrus and Miranda were the most logical choices on any number of levels. But the dark little engine burning inside her brain wanted this chance to observe them in each other's company. Just in case they were—

She didn't know what, exactly. But just in case something.

The Collector ship hung in the viewscreen. The pilot's arms tensed. Garrus and Miranda leaned forward to get a better look.

The monstrous black whale grew larger, larger, larger, until finally it engulfed them.

The shuttle touched down. The clamps engaged with a hiss and thunk. The pilot flicked off the engines.

"Good work, Kozlowski. Hang tight, keep your eyes and ears open. And if shit hits the fan and I tell you to bail— you bail. Understood?"

The pilot nodded jerkily.

"You know what I like most about you, Shepard," Garrus began, helmet in his hands.

"My sunny optimism?" Shepard tightened a gasket on her air hose.

Miranda frowned at her from behind her breathing mask. "The engines are cold. Long-range says the entire system's empty. I understand your caution, Shepard, but whatever else you might think of the Illusive Man, his intel is good."

"Hope you're right, Miranda. For all our sakes." Shepard flipped the seals on her helmet. Took a deep pull of recycled air. Tried to shake the crawling certainty that there was a hiss just below the threshold of her hearing.

Garrus's voice buzzed through her comm link. "So what's the plan?"

"We have no idea what we're walking into," she said, drawing her pistol. "So there isn't one. Stay sharp, stay close, expect trouble. Let's move."

One last check and pat-down. The hatch swung open. She stepped out onto—

What the hell? The ground felt pliant. Almost spongy. Like skin.

"Fascinating," murmured Miranda, looking around.

"They left the lights on for us," Garrus said. "And the gravity. How thoughtful."

Shepard tapped her comm. "EDI, I thought you said this thing was powered down."

"The drive core is offline, as is life support. However, gravity and other non-critical systems are still drawing reserve power."

"The turian patrol ship must have concentrated fire on the engines," Miranda said.

"Must have," Shepard said blandly.

Miranda frowned at her. "Or they could have hacked into the ship's system core and shut it down remotely. There are any number of possibilities."

"I'm sure you're right." Shepard flicked her hand forward. "Move out."

---

The ship was cavernous and still, and hummed with empty energy. Light filtered down from pods embedded in the fleshy ceiling. The deck plates grew in leathery clumps, with patches of bare steel shining underneath. Tendons stretched up the length of the walls. Corners and junctions sprouted fibrous lumps of scar tissue.

No dead bodies, either Collector or turian. No spent clips. No bullet holes.

Garrus peered up at the honeycombed surface of the light pods. "Strange. It's almost like an insect hive."

Miranda's footsteps halted behind them.

Shepard turned to look at her.

"You're right," Miranda said, staring up at the pods. "That is strange."

Shepard glanced back at Garrus, but couldn't read his face through the tinted visor. "What do you mean, Miranda?"

"The architecture of this ship. It doesn't make sense."

Shepard blinked. "Architecture? What?"

"Look at the hallways," Miranda said impatiently, waving a hand at the leathery walls around them. "Organic, seamless, curvilinear. An insect hive, just as Vakarian said." She gestured at a cluster of support beams jutting through the ceiling. "But there's all this rectilinear steel infrastructure underneath. Supports grafted in wherever they'll fit, with no regard for aesthetic integration. No regard for usability, for economy of space, for flow of internal traffic. No hierarchy of spatial organization."

Garrus tilted his head to one side. "...What exactly are you saying, Lawson?"

"I'm saying—" She frowned down at her feet. "I'm saying, I don't think the Collectors actually built this ship. Not on their own." She prodded the floor with her boot. "Look at the decking. The turf has a hexagonal growth pattern. But the plating underneath is cut square."

Shepard chewed on her lip. Flesh and metal slapped together. A graceless, stitched-together synthesis.

Garrus looked up. "So someone else built the ship, or most of it, and then gave it to them."

"Yes," Miranda said. "They must have been uplifted by another race. But crudely. Suddenly. They're either still adapting, or— they're not able to adapt, for whatever reason."

There was a short silence while they all digested that.

"Motherfucking Reapers," Shepard said.

"Good for them," Garrus said. "They made some new little friends."

"Or manufactured them." Miranda made a vexed noise. "This should have been our operating assumption from the get-go. I don't know why I never considered the possibility that the Reapers might have engineered more than one slave race. It's so bloody obvious in hindsight." She began pacing back and forth, boot heels tapping against the deck. "Damn. I wish we had more data. Of course the Keepers self-destruct if they're interfered with. Of course Collector bodies disintegrate after death. The Reapers don't want anyone else getting close enough to put the pieces together!"

"You ever think that maybe this whole galactic war thing could be avoided if we just taught them some basic social skills?" Garrus fiddled with something on his omni-tool. "How to play nice. How not to indoctrinate and enslave everyone you meet. Lawson, I'm sending you a file. We managed to scan some Keepers two years ago. Not a lot of data, but it's a start."

"Downloading. Did you find out where the process begins? How were they brought under Reaper control? Obviously, indoctrination has to play a part, but the genetic reengineering would take years to fully—" Miranda stopped, put her hand to her forehead. "Could they be capable of indoctrinating an entire race at once? Getting them to voluntarily submit? Is that what happened to the Collectors? Is that what they're trying to do to us?"

Shepard slashed her hand through the air. "We'll worry about the implications later, Miranda. Right now, we're here for hard evidence. Let's move."

Garrus took her left flank. Miranda fell in at her right, an unhappy crease between her eyebrows. "I can't believe I didn't see any of this before."

"You're seeing it now, Lawson," Garrus said.

"If I'd made the connections earlier, I would have been a lot more aggressive about retrieving samples. We should have interrogated that quarian witness. Our research team could have developed better countermeasures. We could have saved Horizon's—"

"Miranda," Shepard barked. "Quit it. If you start going down that rabbit hole, you'll never come back up."

Miranda pursed her lips and said nothing.

"Do what you can with what you have, and never look back." Shepard glanced back over her shoulder. "A friend told me that, once."

A pause. "I suppose your friend was right."

"Yeah," Shepard said. "I've found that she usually is."

Miranda's face softened fractionally.

"Pretty kickass at art history, too," Shepard added, after a beat. "An expert in Collector architecture. Loads of advanced degrees."

"...All right, Shepard, you're laying it on a bit thick." But there was a smile under her breathing mask.

Shepard smiled back.

They pressed on.

Chapter Text

The Collector ship became grimmer and even more inexplicable as they ascended. Glittering arrays of empty glass tubes lined the walls. Sticky webbing stretched across dead-end corridors. Shepard rounded a corner, took a sharp breath, and held up her fist. Garrus and Miranda came to a halt behind her.

A pile of half-melted human corpses lay heaped in front of them. Torsos, heads, and elbows jutted out of the rotting mass.

"A failed experiment?" Miranda picked her way around the pile, her forehead wrinkled in distaste. "But why would the Collectors just leave these bodies lying here?"

A flash of hot pink caught Shepard's eye. A body in Phoenix armor, half-buried in flesh. The tip of the soldier's ponytail dangled into a pool of reddish slime. Her swollen face was young, dark-skinned. Pretty.

Garrus noticed. "Alliance. She must have been part of the guard force on one of your colonies."

Shepard crouched down and felt along the soldier's neck. The dog tags read Perez, Susana L.

"Horizon, I'd say, judging by the lack of decomposition." Garrus cleared his throat. "Relatively speaking."

An Ashley Williams from a mirror universe. A good soldier stuck in a shit posting on a beautiful backwater of a planet.

Horizon. What a clusterfuck.

The silence of the landing site, the empty prefabs, the pods, the colonists flash-frozen in their horror. All of it only amplified the strange sense of unreality that had been shadowing Shepard ever since she crawled off the operating table.

Then she'd watched herself sliced to pieces in the Praetorian's gaze. Shaken apart in its blastwave. And come back again for another round.

She'd panicked. Charged ahead on blind instinct, and then gotten herself and her squad the hell out of there. But if she'd understood back then that death was her ally, not her enemy; if she'd just been able to just keep a level head and a firm hand on the situation— maybe she could have gone back again. Done it right. Saved the colonists. Maybe Kaidan—

It's okay, Commander, a phantom voice murmured in her ear. I don't regret a thing.

Shepard snapped off Private Susana Perez's dog tag, and pocketed it.

The rabbit hole had bottomed out for her long ago. It was too late now. She'd come too far.

She'd never jumped back further than twenty minutes. Horizon had been over a week ago.

And Virmire— well. Even a supernova probably wouldn't be enough to rewind that.

But the present moment stretched out in front of her, infinite with possibility. Hers to write and rewrite. As many times as it took. She'd get it right this time.

Shepard pressed the soldier's sunken eyelids closed. "Let's move."

---

The next room was crowded with steel tubing, empty transport pods, vacant operating tables— and one occupied one. Miranda drew in a sharp breath. A glassy grey body lay under a nest of sensors and analysis equipment. The Collector's ropy muscles were slack, its eyes blank, heat signature null. Dead— but intact.

Monitors flickered in the gloom. Miranda stalked over to the nearest console, omni-tool aglow. "EDI. Are you seeing this?"

Shepard watched the exits while Garrus went to rummage inside the medical lockers. A clatter and a surprised noise made her glance back at him. A haphazard collection of guns lay strewn at his feet.

She put her hand on her hip. "Can't take you anywhere, Vakarian."

"Ha." He prodded the pile with his toe. "Seems like the Collectors aren't much for housekeeping."

Shepard bent down to examine a familiar silhouette. "Isn't this the rifle you wouldn't let me buy for you?"

Garrus peered over her shoulder. "So it is. That's the current model, too. Your colonists were well-equipped."

"Shame you're too much of a snob to use one yourself." She hefted it in her hands. Huh. Lighter than she'd expected.

"The Viper's a solid gun. Never said it wasn't. But a specialist deserves a specialized weapon." He patted his Mantis fondly.

Shepard was silent.

"What is it?"

"Look." She lifted the Viper. A hot pink stripe had been painted down the length of the stock.

Garrus's head tilted to one side. "I suppose we can guess who that belonged to."

Shepard stood and clipped it to her back.

He regarded her for a long moment.

"What," she said, wishing she could see his face.

His voice was soft and dry as dust. "Whatever happened to 'fuck your big guns'?"

"This isn't a gun. It's Horizon. It's—" She gestured back at the pile of bodies.

A reminder. A scar. A promise.

"—It's her funeral pyre," she said, finally. "Let's see how well Collectors burn."

He made a quiet thrumming sound.

"What," she said again.

He shook his head. "Nothing. Just—" He paused. "Sometimes, Shepard, I think you were born into the wrong race."

She snorted. "Wrex'll be glad to hear you agree."

The black stripe of his visor regarded her steadily. "I meant you should have been a turian."

She blinked up at him.

EDI's synthetic voice buzzed in her ear. "Shepard. Operative Lawson and I have found something remarkable."

"Protheans," Miranda said, eyes wide, hands pressed to her head. "The Collectors are bloody Protheans."

---

They proceeded through tangles of empty corridors, climbing up and up, towards the silent heart of the ship. Shepard bent down to scan a heap of mysterious, glittering tech that burst out of the fleshy wall.

Organic and synthetic ships. Organic and synthetic servants.

Sovereign had been filled with nothing but contempt for Saren. For all organic life. We are eternal. You wither and die.

Something wasn't adding up. Why did the Reapers even give a damn about organic species in the first place?

It wasn't as though organics posed a credible threat. Even if every race in the galaxy united and came out in force, they would still be thoroughly outclassed by the Reapers.

So why the servants? Why the tricks and gamesmanship? Why dick around harvesting human colonies one by one when the Reapers could just swarm out of dark space and annihilate every single living thing in a matter of days?

She stood up, shaking her head, and gestured for Miranda and Garrus to fall in. They continued up along the sloping tunnel. Soft light bloomed up ahead, beyond the crest of the hill.

Extinction couldn't be their real goal, no matter what Sovereign had said. It had to be something else. The Reapers needed organics for something.

And— oh.

"Unbelievable," Garrus murmured.

Apparently they needed a whole hell of a lot of them.

She turned around to face Miranda. The cavernous hall reflected back at her in the operative's glass breathing mask. Millions— billions— of little glowing pods. One for every human being alive.

"This is it," Miranda whispered. "The Reapers have decided. Humanity is going to be their next slave race."

"Somehow, I feel insulted," Garrus said, looking around.

Shepard gestured up at the sea of pods. "Still think this ship's a derelict, Miranda? It looks pretty damn functional to me."

"There's no energy signature from any of the pods. Even the occupied ones. Everything's still reading as offline." Miranda shot her an impenetrable look. "I understand your history affects your judgment, Shepard, and I'm not without sympathy. But our intel is reliable. The Illusive Man doesn't make mistakes."

Shepard grit her teeth. Must be nice, having someone place that kind of pure, unquestioning faith in you. Especially someone like Miranda Lawson.

She hoped the Illusive Man appreciated the gift.

"In any case, what matters is the evidence." Miranda strode off towards an array of consoles clustered at the end of the platform. "EDI, I've found a command node. Access the ship logs."

"Synchronizing." A low hum rose as the data storage banks spun to life.

Shepard looked out towards the hazy, indistinct end of the cavern. Garrus leaned back and draped an elbow over a steel pipe.

"Really, though," he said. "Did they even try to kidnap any turians?"

Shepard snorted and opened her mouth to respond, but something pulled her attention back to the nest of consoles. The pitch of the hum had changed. Miranda took a step backwards, looking wide-eyed between her omni-tool and the stream of data on the console screen.

Something shook under their feet. A thunk, then a bone-rattling hum, as if some great machine had just been kicked awake.

Miranda shouted something at EDI. Joker's voice, thin and panicky, responded. Movement caught Shepard's eye. A platform spinning in through the distant haze. Beetle-headed silhouettes of Collectors swarmed over the surface.

"Garrus," she said.

His rifle was already in his hands. "I see them."

Then their platform began to spin, too.

She clung to the pipes for balance. EDI's synthetic voice buzzed in her ear. "Shepard. This is not a malfunction. This was a trap."

The platform slowed, then stopped.

Garrus and Shepard turned to look down at Miranda.

Miranda stared back up at them, face pale. "It's not— I didn't know."

"C'mon," Shepard said, and helped her up. "Incoming on our seven. Look alive."

---

Garrus and Miranda fought in perfect sync without even trying. Biotics, bullets, grenades, repeat. Her left and right hands.

"EDI, how are we going on that exit?" Shepard struck out with a blue fist. An assassin few backwards off the platform and plummeted out of sight.

"Nice," murmured Garrus. His rifle cracked. A distant Collector-shaped shadow staggered and fell.

"Processing. I cannot override any system locks until I complete the file transfer. You will need to go back the way you came. There will be resistance."

"Damnit, EDI," Miranda snapped.

"Scion in my scope. One-thirty."

"I see it. Miranda, get in cover," Shepard said. "Keep the Collectors off our ass. If you can help out with a Warp, do it, but stay out of sight."

"Affirmative." Her pistol barked. "Assassin down."

"Firing." Garrus's rifle round exploded into the Scion's throat. Greyish fluid spurted from the crater. Its head lolled and twisted, dangling from a sinewy cable.

The creature staggered, then righted itself. Raised its gun arm, and fired.

"Fucking Reapers." Shepard dove behind the barrier. The shockwave crunched through the decking. "How can it be so hard to kill something that's already dead?"

"You know, they probably say the same thing about you," Garrus said. "Reloading. Your shot."

Time to ride, Private Perez. Shepard hefted her scavenged Viper.

She rose to a crouch. Pressed her eye to the scope.

CRACK. The rifle jolted against her shoulder. The Scion's sac burst, raining black pulp over the platform. The body swayed and fell.

"Ha!" Shepard punched the air.

Garrus's voice was a low purr. "Rethinking your stance on big guns?"

"Maybe." She was grinning.

"That was ninety percent me, by the way."

"Like hell. Maybe if you'd gone for center mass, instead of trying to be all slick about it—"

I will direct this personally.

Crap. She whirled.

"Ten o'clock," Miranda said. "One of them's glowing."

"On it. Barrier, Lawson." Garrus took aim.

"Affirmative." Miranda bloomed with blue fire.

Movement on the radar caught Shepard's eye. A drone was trying to creep in around their right. She aimed. Fired once, watched its shields flare and die; fired again.

The drone collapsed, trailing slime from its forehead.

"I think I'm in love," Shepard said, looking down at her Viper.

Garrus let out a huff of laughter. "If I'd known all it took was an overdesigned piece of tin—"

She turned to him with a raised eyebrow. "—Yeah?"

You cannot stop us.

"It's advancing. Barrier's still intact," Miranda said.

Garrus reached for his ammo pack. "Switching to concussive."

"Save your shot, Vakarian." Pistol fire. "There. Barrier's out."

"Excellent. Firing." CRACK. A bitten-off turian swear word. "Still up. This thing's tough. Reloading."

"I'll cover you." Miranda rose.

Shepard spared a moment to watch them. A scarred-up ex-cop vigilante, and a beautiful black ops terrorist. They fought at each other's sides like they'd been rehearsing it for years.

She narrowed her eyes and peered into her scope. "Stay down, Miranda. Firing."

Her bullet punched through the Collector's armored chest, splitting it apart. Glowing fragments bounced off the deck and hissed into dust. She sank back into cover.

"That was just lazy, Shepard," Garrus drawled. "Eighty-five percent me. Lawson, fourteen and a half."

"You're an ass, Vakarian," Miranda said, flexing her hands.

Assuming control of this form.

Not again. Shepard thumped her head against the barrier.

Miranda slapped a fresh heat sink into her pistol, and sighted over the barrier. "We've got incoming. Another glowing at our three, plus a new Scion—"

I am the Harbinger of your perfection.

Shepard leaned out and fired at the Collector. "Christ, do you ever shut up?"

"—What?" Miranda twisted to look at her in surprise at the exact instant the Scion's shockwave ripped through their platform.

It punched through her shields. Knocked her flat on the ground. Her skull cracked against the decking.

"Fuck!" Shepard lunged forward, grabbed Miranda's limp arm. Plasma fire crackled against her shields as she hauled the woman back behind cover.

Miranda's eyes were closed, lashes still. Blood dripped through her inky hair. Shepard felt for a pulse, pried an eyelid up. Slick blank white underneath. Her status indicator on Shepard's HUD flashed yellow. Fuck fuck fuck.

The whirr-chunk of another platform locking into place. "Shepard," Garrus warned. His rifle cracked. Dots swarmed on her radar.

"I know. Fuck." She lowered Miranda to the floor. "Lawson's out of the fight. You— no, switch to assault. I'll take care of the Scion."

"Affirmative," he said, face unreadable behind the helmet. She took aim. Fired once and clipped the creature in the arm. Her nerves were jangling. Goddamnit. She'd been doing so well. It'd been so long since she'd had to die.

Shepard exhaled. Tossed a quick Warp, to bleed off her adrenaline. Sighted, then fired again, and again, and again. The Scion crumpled to the ground.

"Down," she said.

"Good," said Garrus, over a barrage of gunfire.

Irrelevant, said the voice. A pair of assassins had winged out from the glowing Collector. The Harbinger. Whatever.

"Switching to crowd control." Shepard clipped her gun to her back, shook out her hands, lined up her neurons. Took a deep breath. Her amp thrummed at the back of her skull. "Status update, EDI."

A pause. EDI's voice sounded stilted. "Shepard. There is someone else in the system. I am attempting to quarantine. Please hold."

Garrus jammed in a fresh sink. "Guess we're on our own."

A beam of plasma fire raked overhead and forced her down. "Guess so."

Miranda's medical status icon flashed again and turned red. Shepard ground her teeth. Why did it have to be a fucking head injury? She couldn't do anything for a head injury.

Garrus's rifle chattered. The Harbinger's barrier flared. The bullets fell, useless, to the ground.

We will end you.

"You can try, asshole," she hissed.

"Shepard," Garrus said.

Electricity crackled down her arms. She hurled one of the assassins over the edge. "Little busy here."

"Are you—" He ducked under an energy blast. Fired a stream of bullets in retaliation. "Are you talking with it?"

"Yeah." She crouched back behind the barrier. Glanced over at him. "Wait. You can't hear it?"

His blank, empty visor turned to hers. Her own dull reflection stared back at her. "...Hear what?"

We are Harbinger. Nothing stands against us.

"That," she said. "That. Just now. It called itself Harbinger. You can't—?"

He shook his head.

"Oh shit," she said quietly.

He rose and fired half a clip into the glowing Collector. "Maybe it's a beacon thing. They used to be Protheans. Maybe they still have some kind of connection with you."

She reached out with blue hands and crunched the air tight around the Harbinger. It twisted, writhing in her grip. "...Or maybe I'm just crazy."

Garrus's voice was low. Soft. "Maybe."

No. No no no. This was real. She hadn't lost it. Not yet. She grit her teeth. Crushed her fear down into a bright blue ball. Stood and smashed it into the Harbinger's cracked lava carapace.

Destroying this body gains you nothing.

The Collector scattered into ash. A drone on their left flank, standing much too close for comfort, began to glow.

You cannot kill me, Shepard. We are limitless.

Shepard pitched another Warp at its head. "It's body-hopping. Pick off the others while I keep it busy."

Garrus made a discordant noise and slapped in a fresh clip. "Was it doing that on Horizon?"

She sidestepped a smoking energy pulse. "Between you and Massani, I think we were killing them too fast to notice."

"Forget Goto," he muttered, dumping bullets into one of the drones. Plasma fire hissed against his shields. "Should've told you to bring Massani instead."

"Probably still wouldn't have listened." She yanked him back down into cover as his generator failed. Tossed out a hasty Throw, trying to buy time.

"Probably not," he agreed. "Shepard, we're losing it. We need to retreat."

"No go. Neither of us can fight and carry Miranda at the same time, and one person can't lay down enough fire to cover." The Collectors were closing ranks. She drew a deep breath. Fed energy down, down, down along her arms. Gathered it in her palms, her skin buzzing. Threw.

Drones went flying. Two fell over the edge. The Harbinger stood unfazed.

"...Shit," she said.

"I'm out of heat sinks," Garrus said.

She handed him her spare pack. He looked down at it for a moment.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his posture change. His spine straightened, his shoulders settled. And she knew the exact words that would come out of his mouth.

"We have to lea—"

"No."

"Shepard." A puff of breath. "Your safety is Lawson's highest priority. If you get yourself killed saving her—"

"Miranda said that? When?"

He made an impatient noise. "We've been talking. It doesn't matter. If she were conscious, she'd tell you to run."

"Yeah, well." She slipped the heat sink out of her SMG. Glanced down at Miranda's pale face. "If she were conscious, she'd tell you I only listen to her about half the time."

Shepard shook out her shoulders. Rose and wrenched through the Harbinger's barrier. Sunk back down. A rifle beam sliced through the air where she'd been standing a moment ago.

"Drones on our ten." Garrus's voice was distant. Calm.

"I know." She unhooked Perez's Viper. Slotted in her final heat sink. Aimed. Fired. The Harbinger kept walking.

He lodged a round in an assassin who'd drifted out of cover. Another popped up to replace it. "I can't hold them back."

She launched a Throw at a drone skulking up on his side. "I know."

Garrus twisted to look at her. His opaque visor gleamed in the greenish light. "...What?"

"I know," she said again, and sighed. This is it. "I can't hold them back either. Just— don't worry. It'll be okay."

"Shepard." His back stiffened. His voice was taut. "What the hell are you saying?"

She sat down and leaned back against the low wall. "I'm sorry, Garrus. I should have done better. I'll be more careful next time."

Garrus was silent.

Harbinger advanced. Reinforcements fell into step behind it.

She tipped her head back. "Cain would probably come in handy right about now, huh?"

"Shepard— what— I don't even—" His voice was rattled. She'd shattered his graveyard calm. And then, low and resigned, he said: "Fuck my ancestors. You really were crazy all along."

Oh. Her hand rose to cover her heart.

She'd prepared herself for death, but somehow, not for this.

She'd been so fired up on her own magical sense of purpose and destiny, ready to throw herself into the abyss to save him, to save them all, and do it again and again and again. Somehow she'd forgotten that he would see things a little differently.

She blinked hard. "...Yeah. Maybe I have been." She rose and unloaded the last of her clip into the center of the advancing spearhead. "But not as crazy as you think."

He fired a series of staccato bursts down the field, then crouched back down. "So— what? You're just giving up? To hell with Lawson, to hell with me, to hell with the galaxy?"

"No." She glared at him through her visor. "I'm not ever fucking giving up. It's not the end, Garrus. I'm coming back for you."

He stared back at her. Held very still. Said nothing for a long time.

The red dots on her radar grew closer and closer. A trail of smoke snaked through the air, winding its way towards their hiding spot.

Clear fluid dripped slowly from Miranda's ear, crept down the collar of her uniform. Blood pooled and congealed in the seams between the deck plates.

"I trusted you," Garrus said, finally.

Shepard breathed in deep. Okay. Fine. This was part of the price. She would pay it.

You cannot resist. Harbinger's voice echoed in her head. Face your annihilation.

Yeah, yeah. "Garrus—" she began.

A hissing ball of energy smashed into their wall, spraying plasma everywhere. Shepard swore and batted at the flames on her armor.

Garrus lobbed a grenade over her head, then pushed her down. His hand lingered at her shoulder. His face was very close. "Shepard. Listen to me."

BLAM. Two dots blinked off their radar.

"What," she said, wishing she had more than the slick, blank surface of his helmet to look at.

"Run." He pointed down at the sealed entrance. "There's cover to the west of the main doors. Not much, but I can keep them busy for a while. Buy you and EDI some more time."

Her whole body went rigid. "No. Absolutely not." How could he think that she would ever—

"Shepard." He grabbed her hand. "I don't know what's wrong with you, but—"

She shook off his grip. Fired a Warp blindly over the wall, not watching to see if it connected. "No."

"I still believe you can put an end to this. Collectors. Reapers. All of it. Just—"

You prolong the inevitable.

"No!"

"Damn it, Shepard! Just run!"

She threw down her empty rifle. Stood. Turned to face Harbinger. Plasma beams lanced out of the darkness. Crackled against her shields.

Garrus's arms shot up, grabbed her by the belt, yanked her back. She wrenched his hands off of her. Staggered forward.

"Shepard— DON'T. Shepard—"

"I'm saving you, you asshole," she bit out. Her shields sparked and collapsed.

Harbinger's fiery gaze fell upon her. We are unstoppable.

A grim smile twisted her mouth. "Yeah? I'm invincible."

"—SHEPARD!"

Rifle fire sliced through her lungs. Bit into her heart. Blood pumped out of the split, red and steaming in the gloom.

A second shot pierced her helmet. Brilliant, glittering light crashed down upon them.

And that was that.

Chapter Text

Take two. Billions and billions of glassy, human-sized pods. Shepard didn't have to try very hard to be shocked all over again.

This time, when Harbinger showed up, she kept her mouth shut.

They sank into cover, guns and neurons at the ready. The Scions swept in from the edge of the echoing cavern. Shepard's eyes flicked to Miranda. Her dark, glossy hair. Her fragile skull.

She grabbed a fistful of clips out of her pack and shoved the remainder into Garrus's hands. "Change of pace. I'll hang back and deal with the Scions. Garrus, switch to assault and take front. You're on crowd control. Miranda, help him."

Garrus nodded, his face unreadable through the visor, and turned away.

"Stay close. Stay in cover. And watch the shockwaves," she added.

Violet fire swirled through Miranda's fists. "Affirmative."

The buzz of beetle wings filled the air. Shepard's radar pinged with proximity alerts. Gunfire rattled her eardrums. It still wasn't loud enough to drown out the voice in her head.

I am the Harbinger of your ascendance.

Yeah, okay. Whatever. Shepard rose to one knee, exhaled, and readied her rifle. The first Scion lurched into scope.

CRACK. CRACK. CRACK. One in the throat. Two in the face.

Not as pretty as Garrus would have done it— but not bad for a non-specialist. She braced herself behind the wall as the shockwaves thumped past, and patted her Viper, smiling.

Two and a half heat sinks later, Shepard's smile vanished. The Scion finally dropped, oozing green and grey from dozens of bullet holes.

This was fucking impossible. Last time, she and Garrus taken it down in seconds. Why was this so much harder on her own?

"Reloading." Garrus fell back, came to crouch by her side. "How you holding up, Shepard?"

"I should be asking you that." She rummaged in the ammo pack. Stilled. "You're this low? Already?"

His voice was taut. "These bugs soak up a lot of bullets before they drop."

She put a hand to her forehead. What? Why? Just with this one difference—

They still had another wave left. At least. Who knew when or if EDI would manage to get the door open.

"Vakarian." Miranda sank back on her knees, sheathed in blue, sweat beading on her brow. Smoke drifted up from a pile of carbonized bodies behind her. "The leader's closing in. I need fire support."

Garrus pushed himself up and returned to her side. Bullets and beams ripped across the battlefield.

You are shortsighted, Shepard.

She bit back her retort and took aim at the remaining Scion. Fired. Breathed in, then out, fired again, and again, and again.

She popped the sinks out of her pistol and SMG, took one for herself, tossed the other to Garrus. Miranda's hands flared and wrenched Harbinger's barrier out of existence. Garrus lodged a cluster of rounds into its forehead.

Harbinger let Shepard know how doomed and useless she was as it crumbled into dust.

She glanced at her radar. A sea of red glared back. Fuck.

"Tapped," Garrus said. "Lawson, give me your sidearm."

Fuck. Shepard dodged another shockwave. Rose, aimed, fired.

"Shepard, they're flanking." Miranda sounded a little frayed. "We could use your help over here."

Fuck! She fired again, tagging the Scion in the knee. While the creature lurched and swayed, she scrambled up to join them.

"All right, Miranda— you set 'em up, I'll knock 'em down. Garrus, fall back and find yourself a spot. Finish off the Scion for me." She shoved her Viper into his hands.

"Affirmative." Garrus retreated from view.

Miranda rubbed her temples. "EDI? Any progress on the door?"

Buzzing. Static. "Please hold." Fuck.

A pulse of light from beyond the barrier. Assuming direct control.

FUCK.

Beetle-headed soldiers clustered beyond their wall. The air thickened with smoke.

Garrus made a frustrated noise over the comm. The massing drones had blocked his view downfield. She signaled Miranda, then breathed in deep, her arms flaring, and together they blasted him a clear path to the Scion.

Garrus took his shot, reloaded, and moved to a different position along the barricade. Took another shot. Moved again. Took another shot. The Scion staggered. The Collectors swiveled their heads back and forth, trying to triangulate his position.

Like hell she'd let them. Shepard pitched out Throw after Throw after Throw, bouncing Collectors off the walls, over the edges, into each other. Miranda scrubbed sweat off her forehead, shredded barriers left and right, pulverized bodies in her violet grip.

Harbinger stepped out from the crowd, eyes burning. One by one, the Collectors turned their rifles towards the lone gunman.

I sense your weakness.

No. Shepard powered up her tech armor and launched herself over the wall. She punched an assassin with a blue-clad fist, picked up the plasma rifle it dropped, and fired point-blank into its gut. She grabbed the body by the arm, heaved it straight into Harbinger, and dumped the rest of her ammunition into its smoking head.

Molten beams bored into her and burst open her tech armor. Pistol shots and wingbeats rattled her ears. Harbinger disintegrated into powder. She darted behind another wall, panting, chanting at her shield generator under her breath, come on come on come on.

"Shepard—" Garrus's voice, sharp with alarm. She glanced back at his position. Collectors swarmed, hovering, blocking him from view. His shield status in her HUD flickered and died.

No! "—I'm coming. Hang on." She swallowed her fury and panic, fed it out into her fists, and Threw. The cluster of winged bodies broke apart. She charged in, kicking and punching and pushing them out of the way, a snarl twisting her mouth, fire scorching her back.

There were so many of them. They were everywhere. How had she let this happen?

She whipped an elbow across a Collector's face and slammed its head into the barricade, then turned to see a drone staring at her down the barrel of a plasma rifle.

Miranda's Warp field ripped through its body before she could react. "Vakarian's pinned. We have to—"

The Scion's shockwave slammed into them, knocking Miranda to her knees, tossing drones into the air. Shepard staggered. Her head was ringing. The ground swayed and blurred in front of her. Flashes of rifle fire lit the cavern walls.

A short, sharp gasp came over the comm link in her ear.

No.

"Vakarian," Miranda said again. Her face was blank. White.

Shepard ran.

A drone stood over him. Shepard flared and put her fist through its throat. The body exploded into dust.

She sank to her knees. Garrus's armor was a blackened, smoking scar from hip to collar. She groped around his wrist for the medi-gel dispenser on his trauma unit. Powered up her omni-tool to give the command override for a second dose.

Her fingers trembled over the keyboard. This was not the plan. She was supposed to die for them. Not the other way around.

Garrus's hand lifted and brushed against hers. She tilted her head to look at him. "...Hey."

"A sniper in an arena fight," he murmured thickly. "What did I tell you?"

"Shut up," she said, doing her best to smile. "It's your fault for being non-negotiable."

His status on her HUD glowed a dull, rust red. Warnings scrolled past. Lung inflammation. Tissue death. Fluid damage. Massive immune response. The medi-gel could stop the bleeding, but it couldn't stop what would happen next.

She pressed her hand to his armored cheek. Cursed the opaque visor of his helmet. "Garrus. It's going to be okay. "

Pistol shots. Another shockwave ripped through the decking around them. She braced herself against the barrier, shielding him with her body.

He tried to speak. A wet bubbling sound rose up from his throat.

She squeezed her eyes shut, suddenly sick with fear. Omega all over again. "—Don't try to talk. You're going to be okay. You have to be here to hold my hand, remember?"

He gasped out a laugh. "Want. A pay r-raise."

Miranda crouched down beside them. Flakes of ash clung to her hair. "Scion down. Collectors regrouping."

Garrus heaved himself up on one elbow. "G— give me—" His breath rasped. "The Vviper. I can still—" He broke off, coughing. Something splattered against his comm pickup.

Shepard swallowed the lump in her throat. Pressed her forehead against his. Their visors clacked. "Shut up."

He was silent. His gloved fingers came up to brush the edge of her visor. His lungs rattled.

She eased him back down to the ground. "Just rest. You'll be fine, Garrus. You'll be okay. I promise."

"Sszhepard, you—" He coughed hard. His long body twisted with the convulsions. "R-rrotten. Liar."

We will end you.

She picked up her Viper, rose to her feet, and punched up her tech armor. "Hang on. I'll be right back."

"Shepard?" Miranda stared as she strode past. "—Wait. What are you doing?"

Shepard's shields rippled with plasma fire. Her fists bloomed violet. "That glowy fucker's making trouble again. Stay put. I'm going in."

"What?" Miranda grabbed her forearm and yanked her back behind their wall. "What are you talking about? We have to retreat."

"Not an option, Miranda. There's nowhere to retreat to."

"There will be, once EDI gets the door. Give Vakarian the rifle. He can hold them off while we fall back—"

"Like. Hell."

Miranda's lips thinned. She put a hand over the comm pickup in her collar and lowered her voice. "Shepard, I'm sorry. Truly, I am. But you know he's not coming back from this."

Shepard eyed her radar. She wasn't going to have this conversation again.

"Vakarian knows it too. He accepted the risks when he signed on." Miranda leaned forward. "Shepard— let him help you. He wants to see this mission through, no matter what. We all do."

Coughing erupted over the comm line. Then bubbling, gargling.

Shepard stiffened. He was drowning in his own blood.

Miranda put her hand over her face.

A low, rattling gasp. Then silence. Shepard stood. Gunfire raked at her armor. Her vision blurred.

This hurts you.

She scanned the battlefield, eyes narrowed, jaw tight. Hunting for the trail of smoke. The glowing body. The hellish voice.

"Shepard, stop. Shepard— Shepard, don't you dare—"

There. Back ranks. She took a step, then another step, and began to run.

"Shepard! Damn you—" The air twisted and grabbed at her legs. "I said stop!"

Shepard struggled forward through the grip of Miranda's biotics. Harbinger turned its head to track her.

She wrenched free of the biotic field, and ran. She vaulted over walls. Blasted drones out of her path. Her shields shuddered and burst.

Harbinger took a step towards her. A warp field— not hers— cracked its armor apart. Molten liquid glowed between the plates.

Its hands reached out. Little flames danced along the knuckles. Smoke boiled off its skin.

Miranda screamed behind her. "—SHEPARD!"

You will know pain.

Fine.

She threw herself into Harbinger's embrace.

Her nerves flooded with acid. Her armor smoked and hissed and fell off in molten chunks. Her oxygen supply steamed out into the void. Her body tried— despite herself— to fight it, to thrash and punch and kick and scramble away. Harbinger's burning hands held her fast.

You cannot resist.

As her skin swelled and split in peeling sheets from the blackened meat below, as her fingers carbonized and crumbled away, she heard her own voice stutter and climb into a scream. The comm feedback blistered her ears.

Some part of her watched her flesh slough off her bones in detached fascination, and thought about Miranda, pale and desperate, howling at her to stop.

When Shepard burned, did everything burn with her? Or would Miranda keep going without her, all alone, until she couldn't anymore?

Did it hurt her to watch Shepard die like it hurt her to watch them?

Your interference has ended.

Just wait.

---

Take three.

She'd memorized every inch of their path through the ship, every beat of their conversation. Garrus and Miranda marched alongside her like wind-up toys, poking at consoles, reciting their lines.

She'd killed them over and over. She'd probably kill them again before the hour was up, and they didn't even know it.

They didn't know anything at all.

"I understand your history affects your judgment, Shepard."

She ground her teeth.

They plodded onward. Miranda communed with EDI by the command node, omni-tool aglow. Shepard watched from the upper ridge. The platforms would drop in about forty-five seconds.

Did they really not remember any of this?

"A sniper in an arena fight," she murmured.

Garrus turned to look at her. "What?"

"Mm? Nothing." She unclipped the Viper from her back. "Hey, didn't you say a while back that this thing was supposed to have a bunch of fancy bells and whistles? I'm not seeing any."

"It's a rifle, Shepard. It's not going to make you coffee." He took it from her and turned it over in his hands. "But it's got the best heat sink efficiency in its class. Firing rate's excellent, recoil minimal." He tapped a finger against the barrel. "Not great on penetration or stopping power, though. Heavily armored targets won't go down easy. A one-shotter like the Mantis is better for that."

"Hmm," she said. Scions.

He passed the rifle back to her. "I don't blame you for being jealous, you know. It's only natural."

"Ha," she said reflexively. "There's nothing natural about your relationship with that gun."

"You're unqualified to judge. You've never handled truly superior equipment." He stroked a finger along the edge of his scope. He leaned in close. His voice lowered to a purr. "But if you ask really nicely, I might let you touch it."

She snorted. "In your dreams, Vakarian."

It was time. The platform began to vibrate. She squeezed his arm. "We've got incoming. Stay here."

This time she bunkered down in front with Miranda. Shredded barriers, sent bodies flying, put bullets in the skulls of the stragglers. Behind them, Garrus did what he did best. One shot. One kill. Reload.

They stayed cool and calm and deadly under pressure, as they always were. For them, it was just another day on the job. Shepard was all alone with her memories of fire and blood and fracturing reality.

All alone, with a pile of Garruses and Mirandas slowly stacking up behind her.

She bit her lip to blot out that thought. It didn't matter. Even if they weren't the originals, even if they were just Garrus- and Miranda-shaped marionettes, it didn't fucking matter. They were still here. Still hers to protect.

She'd do her job. And she'd do it right this time.

"Pick off the small fry first. Don't let anything get closer than twenty meters. I'll keep an eye on the shockwaves, so duck when I say duck—"

Assuming control of this form.

"—And watch out for the glowy fucker."

"Affirmative." Miranda slapped a fresh clip into her Carnifex.

Shepard glanced back over her shoulder. "Garrus, you're on the Scions. Take 'em out."

The crack of his rifle echoed across the field. "You got it."

She punched an assassin off the edge of the platform. Filled a pair of drones up with bullets. Tore through Harbinger's defenses. Punched holes through its leathery skull. Pulled Miranda down into cover with her as the Scion's shockwaves pounded through the floor. Got up and did everything all over again, beat by beat. Her focus was absolute.

Garrus made a sharp, satisfied noise into the comm as the first Scion dropped.

Shepard checked her radar. "Short-range clear. How're you two doing on heat sinks?"

"Sixty percent," Miranda said.

"Same," said Garrus.

"EDI?"

Static. Beeping. "One moment."

Wave two. Wings filled the sky. Shepard swatted the drones aside. Harbinger reasserted itself. Our power is unmatched.

Shepard ripped through its barrier. Miranda leveled her pistol. Smoke exploded from its throat. The body crumbled into ash.

"Four left. One o'clock." Miranda pivoted and kept firing. Paused to reload. Launched a Warp at a drone that had fallen out of cover. "One left."

Shepard unloaded her SMG into the remaining assassin. "Got it."

CRACK. Pause. Reload. CRACK. "Second Scion down. Perimeter clear."

"EDI," Miranda said.

Shepard waited, perfectly still.

A hum and a click. The door behind them slid open. "I have restored access."

Finally. The cold knot inside of her began to loosen.

"Good work, you two." Shepard pushed herself up and flashed them a sharp grin. "If the Illusive Man wants us KIA, he's gonna have to try a lot harder than that."

Miranda stiffened. "Shepard, that's a ridiculous accusation."

Shepard tilted her head. Gestured back at the console, the raised platforms, the discarded plasma rifles surrounding them. "Is it?"

"Of course it is! He has absolutely no reason to risk you. You're the most valuable investment Cerberus has ever made."

"I've seen how Cerberus treats their investments." Shepard clipped her gun to her side. "Especially once they become inconvenient."

Miranda scowled at her. "If the Illusive Man didn't tell us about the opposition, it was for a good reason. He would never—" She stopped, and put her hand to her forehead. "I don't know why I even bother trying. You're every bit as bad as Alenko. Too blinded by your hatred to listen to reason."

Shepard narrowed her eyes.

Miranda crossed her arms.

"...Just another day on the Normandy," Garrus drawled into the increasingly hostile silence. "Layers of conspiracy. Certain death. Miraculous escape. Just a thought, but we probably ought to keep working on that last part."

Miranda wrenched her eyes away from Shepard. "...Right."

Shepard shot him a grateful look. His blank black stare met hers for a long moment. Then he draped his Mantis over his shoulders and turned away.

---

Garrus kept up a stream of ironic commentary as they retraced their steps. Miranda eventually thawed enough to respond to him, here and there. Shepard stayed silent while they zigzagged back down through the twisting, snakelike corridors, passing familiar landmarks in mirror image and reverse order.

Their voices floated in her ears. She barely heard the words. Waves of deja vu gripped her. What had just happened? When was she?

...Was she really being unreasonable?

She remembered Kaidan's face, distorted with suspicion, anger. He'd stepped back from her as if physically repulsed.

I trusted you, Garrus had said, despair staining his voice, while Miranda hemorrhaged out onto the dirty floor.

—No. She was right about Cerberus. She was doing the right thing. She was doing exactly what she was here to do: spring the trap, then save them all. Everything was fine. Garrus and Miranda were fine.

At least for now. At least these versions of them.

But if she died and had to do it all over again from the beginning, what would happen to this Garrus, this Miranda? Would their world just blink out of existence, or... not?

She imagined Garrus carrying her vacant, mangled body back to the Normandy. Miranda, ashen-faced, explaining to the crew. What would they do without her? Would they keep chasing after the Collectors? Would they build up their defenses in time before the Rea—

Fuck. She was barely paying attention to her surroundings. Shepard put her fist up. The footsteps behind her stopped.

"Garrus, you take point. I'll keep an eye on our radar."

He tilted his head to one side. Reflections of honeycombed light slid across the surface of his helmet. "Sure. You okay, Shepard?"

"Fine. Let's move."

It was easier if she didn't have to watch the landscape rewinding around them. She could just follow the sounds: footsteps, creaking armor. Barbed comments. Laughter. The sounds were new. The sounds were different.

Comm silence was SOP for a tactical withdrawal, for obvious reasons, but she couldn't bring herself to give the order.

EDI guided them past a set of double doors and up to the crest of a long ramp. A dark, leathery cavern stretched out below them. Garrus turned back to look at her.

She nodded. He planted a hand on the ledge and launched himself over. She landed behind him with a thump.

Shepard turned and frowned up at the walkway. "Miranda? You coming?"

Miranda was standing very still. "There's something moving out there, Shepard. Long range. I think it's spotted us."

Garrus unclipped his rifle and pressed his eye to the scope. "Praetorian."

Fuck. Shepard took a deep breath. "We'll split up and keep moving from cover to cover. It can't target all of us." She helped Miranda down and unhooked the Viper from her back. Shitty armor penetration or not, it was the best gun she had.

Of course she'd left all the heavy hitters back on the Normandy. What was the point? She'd thought she could die her way out of anything.

And she could. But— she was starting to suspect that they couldn't.

"Collectors incoming. Eleven o'clock." Garrus sank down into a firing stance at her right. "Looks like they decided to throw us a going-away party."

Light bloomed in the center of the crowd. I will direct this personally.

"Miranda. Take out that lightning bug."

"On it." The low whoomph of a Warp field. Pistol fire.

"Garrus, focus on the Praetorian. I'll keep the others off your back."

CRACK. Eject. Reload. "Affirmative."

Shepard picked off the rest of the Collectors one-by-one. Loaded a fresh clip into her Viper. The Praetorian floated lazily towards her. Its hum vibrated in her teeth.

"It's closing. Miranda, fall back and find some cover. Garrus, stay here, but stay loose— you might need to move. Keep the pressure on. I'll run and try to pull it after me."

"Just like Horizon," Garrus said. CRACK. Eject. Reload.

Fuck, she hoped not. "Yeah. Just like Horizon."

The hum was deafening now. The Praetorian's eyes flashed.

Shepard tensed. "Miranda—"

"I'm in position. Go!"

The beams touched down at her feet. Shepard turned and ran.

Bullets pinged behind her, chipping away at the Praetorian's plating. Lasers hissed at her heels. Shepard raced towards the port end of the cavern, vaulted over a low wall, then turned and hurled a Warp into the creature's face. Garrus's rifle round met it an instant later. The Praetorian reeled.

"Reloading," Garrus called.

"I'll keep it busy." Miranda's pistol flashed from the far corner.

The humming reflected off the walls, rattled back and forth inside Shepard's skull. Her eyes were locked onto the Praetorian, but something else tugged at her attention. The smoke from its lasers was drifting away from her. A shift in the air currents. A door had opened somewhere.

On cue, her radar flared.

"Husks. Shepard—" Miranda's voice rose in pitch. "They're closing on me. Fast."

The Praetorian hovered just beyond Shepard's wall. Sniffing her out. "I'm coming, Miranda. Garrus, pull this thing off me for a second."

CRACK. Pause. CRACK. "Doing my best."

Shepard could hear the husks moaning, now, over the comm. Thumps. Pistol fire.

Wingbeats. Assuming control. She still couldn't move. "Miranda—"

Plasma fire flashed across the room. The snap-hiss of Harbinger's biotics. A scream pierced her helmet speakers. Miranda's status icon went rust-red.

Shepard felt the blood drain out of her face. "—Report!"

"I can't see her," Garrus snapped. "Praetorian's backing off. Fifteen meters, your ten. I'll cover you. Move."

Shepard launched herself over the barrier and ran. Static crackled in the air. The Praetorian swung around to watch her as she streaked past.

Shallow panting came over the comm. A bitten-off moan. Shepard skidded into an alcove, flung husks aside with a biotic punch, tossed a Collector drone over the wall.

—Oh. Oh no. No no no. She dropped to her knees.

Miranda's bodysuit was fused to her blistering skin. Her hair had melted into a tarry sludge. Her face was peeling, dripping, unrecognizable.

Garrus's voice crackled in her ear. "Status."

"Harbinger," Shepard said, voice low.

"What?"

Smoke poured off the distant figure. It spread its arms in greeting. Pulsed with hellish light. Shepard.

Shepard stood. Raised her Viper. Started firing, and didn't stop, until the body dissolved into powder.

At her feet, Miranda's arms twitched, groped for purchase against the ground. She was trying to push herself up. She was still alive. She was still conscious. Shepard stared down at her in disbelief.

"Praetorian found me," Garrus said in her ear, dead calm. "Thirty meters and closing."

She stood frozen for a sick instant, one hand still on her rifle.

"Ssz—" Miranda's lips were stuck to her teeth. "Sshepard? Are you there? I can't— I can't see—"

"Twenty-five," Garrus said.

Shepard knelt. Her fingers hovered over the melted ruin of Miranda's cheek. "I'm here. It's going to be okay. You'll be okay, Miranda, I promise."

The noise that came from the operative was thick. Clotted. But it sounded kind of like a laugh.

Shepard's hands shook as she synced their med units and entered the command override. FIELD EUTHANASIA AUTHORIZED.

The combined dose of sedative and opiate slipped into Miranda's bloodstream. She breathed out, once. A quiet, whimpering rattle.

...She wasn't protecting them. She was torturing them.

What kind of sick joke was this?

Shepard stood, picked up her Viper, and ran.

Garrus didn't look up as she slid into cover by his side. "Lawson's gone?"

"Yeah," she said.

"Bad?"

"...Yeah."

He pressed his eye to the scope. Took his shot. The Praetorian lurched. "Shepard—"

"If you tell me to leave you behind, I'll shoot you myself."

Garrus exhaled. "—Nevermind."

They pumped round after round into the Praetorian. It wobbled and crashed down in front of them, barrier pulsing.

Shepard took a moment to consider her options. Getting liquefied in a biotic explosion hadn't been much fun. Better to go out with lasers. She grabbed Garrus's hand and pulled him with her as she ran.

He sank down beside her, breathing hard, then loaded his next round and took position. She pitched a Warp at the Praetorian's force field. Readied her rifle.

"We're going to die together in this spirits-forsaken hellhole," Garrus muttered.

"Quiet," she said, aiming. And then: "I thought turians loved dying in battle."

"Usually we prefer to get killed somewhere really scenic. Or for an honorable cause." CRACK. The recoil rippled through his arms. "We're not doing so great on either front."

She couldn't really argue with that.

Shoot. Eject. Reload. Shoot some more. They needed to get it up and moving again. The Praetorian's scythe-like legs unfurled. It pushed itself up from the ground.

"And you never even bought me dinner," Garrus added.

"I brought you a ration bar," she said, in between shots.

He slotted a fresh clip into place. "So you did."

The fragile peace she'd made with her new life lay in ashes at her feet. It was all her own fucking fault. She wanted to scream. She wanted to rip apart the fabric of the universe and set the tattered threads on fire. She wanted to hunt down whatever twisted god had done this to her and spit into its molten eye.

Instead, she nudged him with her elbow. "Let's see some gratitude, Vakarian. I wouldn't do that for just anyone."

"I've always been grateful, Shepard," he said quietly. "For everything about you."

She turned to look at him. The reflection of her own helmet stared back at her from his faceplate.

"Hey. I— You— um. Me too." She reached out and squeezed his hand. He squeezed back.

The thrumming rose steadily around them. Their barricade began to vibrate.

"Garrus, listen," she said. "I'm— this isn't the end. I know it looks bad, but we're going to be okay."

He tilted his head to one side. "You have a history of beating the odds, Shepard, but unless you're hiding a tactical nuke behind your back, I don't see us getting out of this one alive."

"I'm not. We're not. But— just— I don't want you to—" She grabbed him and hugged him fiercely.

He made a low, soft hum and folded his arms around her.

Laser fire crackled overhead. She pressed her armored cheek against his.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. For all of this."

His voice was very gentle. "Don't be."

"I'll do it right next time," she said. "I promise. No more fuckups."

His arms lifted, and he pulled back. "Wh— Shepard—" His voice slid up into a strange, thin register that she'd never heard before. "What are you saying?"

She suppressed a sigh, and stood up. He grabbed her elbows and wrenched her back down.

"Shepard! What are you— No. Don't."

"I'm sorry. Look, the Praetorian's right on top of us. It'll be fast. We'll both be back soon." She tugged at his hands.

"Shepard— DON'T. Shepard—"

He wouldn't let go of her. She wrestled with his grip, then gave up and struggled to her feet, dragging him with her.

The Praetorian's mouth opened before them, white-hot, electric.

Garrus wrapped his arms around her, and pulled her back.

At least they would die together this time. Sort of.

He screamed her name.

They burned.

---

Blink. Reset.

Oh good. They'd bypassed the glass pods. No more speeches about the infallibility of Cerberus intel.

Miranda was giving her an odd look. Had she missed a cue? Whatever. Didn't matter.

Shepard readied her Viper as they came up to the ledge. She sank to one knee and unloaded the entire stock of her remaining ammo into the Praetorian before they'd even seen it.

"What the—" Miranda grabbed for her pistol.

The Praetorian's barrier flashed. Shepard hopped down from the ledge and gestured at them. "Miranda, Warp. Garrus, pick off those Collectors. Now."

"What Collectors— oh." He sank into a firing stance.

Harbinger flared into existence. My attacks will tear you apart. Two Warps ripped through its force field. Two rifle rounds perforated its skull. Harbinger crumbled out of existence.

She filched fresh heat sinks from Miranda's hip pocket and kept firing, firing, firing at the Praetorian as it drifted infield. "It's about to drop. Let's move. Miranda, take out those husks."

"What husks— oh." Blue fire wreathed her hands.

"Garrus, get behind me. Keep firing, don't stop. Miranda, shred that barrier." Shepard slapped in a fresh sink. Fired again and again and again, not bothering to scope. "It's regrouping. Get up. We're getting more distance."

She herded them into fresh cover. Kept firing until her Viper clicked, then swapped out for her pistol. Her eyes never left the Praetorian.

"Shepard—" Miranda began, sounding unnerved.

"Garrus, concussive." BLAM. "Miranda, wreck its armor." WHUMP. "Good. Now open fire. Rip it apart."

The Praetorian shrieked and flailed and broke into pieces. White-hot shards of magnesium rained over them.

Shepard turned on her heel and strode off.

"Bloody hell," said Miranda, staring after her.

Shepard marched them back down through the bowels of the ship, obliterating all obstacles in her path.

She'd thought it was a gift. She'd thought she was a god. She'd thought she'd be their sword and shield and keep them safe. Instead she did nothing but fuck up and watch them die, disillusioned and abandoned, over and over and over again.

She was in hell and she was all alone.

A pack of drones alighted before her. Shepard dispatched them with a quick flurry of biotic punches and two rounds each to the head. Her armor was on fire. She patted it out and kept moving.

Another flash of light. Swarm their position. Husks erupted from the hallway up ahead.

"On it." Miranda stepped out from behind the corner to corral them.

"Hold it, Lawson," Garrus barked, but not quite quick enough. The blast from a distant Scion ripped through the walkway and knocked Miranda off her feet. Her head cracked hard against the ground.

No. Not again. Shepard shoved the husks back with a biotic pulse. "Garrus."

He unclipped his assault rifle and stepped in front of her. "Covering. I'll take 'em down."

She dragged Miranda's limp body back behind the wall. Miranda lay still for a long moment, eyelashes fluttering. She blinked, looked around. Tried to push herself up, then made a strangled noise and fell.

Shepard crouched and helped her stand. Miranda leaned heavily on Shepard's arm. Blood dribbled from her mouth.

A yellow alert flashed on Shepard's HUD. Fractured collarbone and jaw. Moderate concussion.

Medi-gel would stabilize the collarbone; Chakwas could take care of the jaw. It was that last part that worried her. "Miranda? How do you feel? Do you need another dose?"

Miranda's voice was slurry. "Mmm?"

Shepard closed her eyes and let out a breath.

She'd walk head-first into the Scion. She'd destroy them all. She'd do it over and over and over again, as many times as it took. If she had to.

"Miranda. Are you okay?"

"Nnm— I'm— I'm fine. I'm fine, Shepard." Miranda's eyes still weren't quite focused. Her left arm dangled oddly.

Shepard stared at her. The bones would heal. But what about her brain? "Can you walk?"

Miranda's eyes cleared. Her voice firmed. "Yes."

...God, she hoped she was making the right call.

"Then walking is all you do. No shooting. Absolutely no biotics. Stick behind Garrus. I'm on point."

Shepard jammed a fresh sink into her Viper. Harbinger was up ahead waiting for her. Good. She had a few things she wanted to return to it, at near-lightspeed velocity.

Four bullets, one for each eye. Signed by Perez, Lawson, Vakarian, and Shepard.

---

Kozlowski looked like she might faint with relief as Shepard clambered back into the shuttle. They tore out of the docking bay. The great maw of the Collector vessel swung around, slowly, slowly, to square off with their little ship.

The vast plasma cannon sparked and began to glow. Garrus and Miranda stared at the viewscreen, gripping their seats. Miranda's face was pale, the blood on her chin dry and cracking.

Shepard crossed her legs and leaned back in her chair.

"By the way," she said. "Good job, both of you. You really work well together."

Garrus and Miranda shot her twin looks of surprise, then glanced at each other.

The hangar doors of the Normandy slammed shut behind them. Joker shouted for everyone to hang onto something, then punched the engines. They streaked out of the Korlus system. Goodbye and good riddance.

Shepard ripped off her helmet the instant EDI released them from decon.

Chambers was waiting for her by the docking elevator, beaming. "Commander, well done! The Illusive Man—"

"—Can wait." Shepard dropped her helmet into the startled yeoman's hands. "I'm taking Miranda to medbay."

They made a picturesque trio in the elevator. Shepard stared out into nothingness, her face cold and blank. Garrus leaned against the wall, shoulders slumped, worn out. Miranda stood carefully, holding her arm motionless. Her face had started to swell. Dried blood crusted between her lips.

"I'm fine, Shepard." Her speech sounded thick. "You should go and make your report to the Illusive Man."

"I'm not 'reporting' anything. He already knows exactly what happened to us."

Miranda opened her mouth, then closed it, and looked away.

Shepard uploaded the data from her hardsuit logs into the medbay terminal and helped ease Miranda onto a cot. Chakwas shoved a pair of electrolyte drinks into her hands and shooed her out of the lab.

She walked with Garrus to the battery doors. "Thanks for the help. You're off-duty for the next six shifts. Eat some real food this time, all right?"

He looked at her for a long moment. "Everything okay?"

"I'll talk to you later," she said, more quietly. He nodded and turned away.

She punched the button for the main deck. Stalked into the comm room. Slapped the door panel shut behind her. Killed the lights.

It wasn't personal. The Illusive Man could fuck with her all he liked. He'd paid for the privilege.

But he'd compromised the safety of her crew.

She activated the link.

A holographic curl of cigarette smoke flickered in the dark. "Shepard."

She lifted her chin. "Surprised to see me?"

"Hardly. I knew you'd pull through. It was a calculated risk, and it paid off. The Collectors needed to believe you'd fallen for their trap."

Then the Collectors underestimated her intelligence just as much as he did. She held her tongue. Better if it stayed that way.

"Miranda almost died down there," she said instead.

He took a long, thoughtful drag on his cigarette. "That would be a regrettable loss. But I understand— as does she— that the mission has to come first."

He hadn't seen her body burnt and blistered. Her hair melted down to sludge. The fluid seeping out of her eyes. He had no fucking idea. "Horseshit."

The Illusive Man raised an eyebrow. "Calm down."

"No. If you truly cared about the success of this mission, you would have given me the tools and the intelligence I needed. You didn't."

His projection frowned at her through the smoke. "Shepard, try to see the bigger picture. If you'd known it was a trap, you would have acted differently. Or not gone at all."

"You don't know me at all, do you?" Shepard leaned forward. "I always expect the worst. If you'd seen fit to treat me like a person, instead of a puppet, I could have expected the right kind of worst. I could have gone with bigger guns and extra heat sinks and a plan, and we could have kicked ass instead of barely escaping with our lives."

"You're being dramatic. One bump on the head isn't I'd call 'barely escaping.'" He sat back in his chair. "The mission was a complete success. Now we know who the Collectors really are, we know how to get through the Omega Four relay to find them, and we took zero losses acquiring the intel." The cigarette flared between his lips. "Judge me if you must, Shepard, but judge me by my results."

"I'll start when you judge me by mine." Shepard folded her arms. "You brought me back to life to do a job that only I can do. It's about time you quit this chessmaster bullshit and let me actually fucking do it."

"That's enough." The Illusive Man's voice hardened. "I have a team securing an enemy IFF for the Normandy. EDI will fill you in on the details. In the meantime, Shepard, I suggest you take a moment and remind yourself of everything we've already accomplished together."

Shepard glared at him.

He stubbed out his cigarette. "I'll be speaking with Miss Chambers. The stress is clearly getting to you."

He made a cutting gesture with his hand. The projection blinked out. The lights rose.

Dismissed as if she were a child throwing a tantrum. Underestimated and undermined at every turn. It was the motherfucking council all over again.

Shepard took a deep breath and counted to ten before leaving. She greeted Chambers pleasantly. Thanked Joker, and EDI, for getting them out of the Korlus system in one piece. Downstairs, she found Kozlowski in the mess hall and thanked her too.

She wanted to throw things, break all her datapads in half, scream, beat something up.

EDI's invisible eyes watched her in silence. So she went up to her cabin. Sat on the couch for a long time, motionless, staring out at nothing.

Shepard? Are you there? I can't— I can't see.

Damn it, Shepard, just RUN!

"Joker. Set a course for the Citadel."

"Aye-aye, Commander."

...You really were crazy all along.

Shepard shifted down in her seat, and watched the stars streak past.

EDI's invisible eyes watched back.

Chapter Text

She woke up two hours later, cold and stiff, and headed down to medbay.

Miranda lay nestled in a small mountain of pillows, her arm propped in a sling, her swollen face mottled burgundy and plum. She regarded Shepard with an expression of sorely tested patience.

"Hey." Shepard sat down on the unoccupied bed. Her feet dangled over the side. "How're you feeling?"

"Better than I look." Miranda's voice was hoarse. "I heal fast. The brain bruising was minimal, and the bone wraps will fuse by morning. I'll resume duty at 0800."

Charred fingertips crumbling against the ground. Melted flesh dripping from her chin. Shepard shook her head to banish the image. "Just rest and heal up properly. Take a day. Take two days."

"Don't be ridiculous." Miranda struggled to push herself up with her good arm. "We got the intel we needed. We have to secure that IFF. Keep moving— umph— forward."

"Towards what? Another death trap?" Shepard crossed her arms. "Kaidan wasn't wrong about us being manipulated. I don't know how much pull you have with your boss, Miranda, but—"

"Less than you do." Miranda didn't quite keep the resentment out of her voice. "And it doesn't matter. Manipulated or not, we fulfilled our objective. The mission was a success. The Illusive Man bet on you, and won."

"Hell of a gamble. Making it out of there alive was a one in twenty shot."

Miranda scoffed. "That's an absurd exaggeration."

EDI materialized on top of Chakwas's desk. "That is not entirely accurate, Operative Lawson. I have run a number of simulations using data extracted from your camera footage, cross-referenced with tactical analysis of previous missions, and predictive personality models. With your team composition and weapons loadout, the odds of escaping the ship with no major losses fell between five and twelve percent."

Miranda looked taken aback. "...Really."

"However, the historical mission data points do not follow a predictable bell curve. When placed in extreme situations, squad combat efficacy actually increases to a statistically significant degree. This tendency has become quite pronounced in the case of Commander Shepard following her resurr—"

"Thank you, EDI, that's enough." Shepard rose to her feet. "Miranda, I'm not satisfied with leaving our success or failure up to luck. I want to leave it up to superior intel, superior armament, superior teamwork, and superior will to kick ass. We're not going anywhere near the Omega Four relay until we've checked all of those things off our list."

"It's not that simple, Shepard!" Miranda grimaced and rubbed her bruised jaw, then continued more quietly: "Time is running out. The Collectors keep hitting our colonies one after the other, and they're picking up the pace. Our people are dying. Or worse." Miranda thumped her fist against the blankets. "While we just— sit here."

"I know." Shepard spread her hands. Her voice was weary. "Trust me. I feel the bodycount going up every single minute."

Miranda looked up at her, a crease between her brows.

"But I'm not willing to sacrifice strength for speed. No one else is fighting this fight. We are their only chance. We owe it to our people not to go in half-cocked."

"We owe it to them to go in right now." Miranda gestured sharply with her good hand. "You just took on a whole army of them, inside their own ship, with nothing more than an infiltration team. Once we secure the IFF, we could stealth past the relay and do it again. Turn their own forces against them. Vakarian and I could lead separate squads while you—"

"NO," Shepard barked. She put a hand to her temple for a moment. Tried to calm her breathing. "Sorry. But no. Five to twelve percent, Miranda! And even if we win every single ground fight, even if we have the IFF, in the air the Collectors are still faster and stronger and better than us. You saw their main cannon. One hit from that, and this Normandy would go down just like the first."

Miranda frowned at her. "That's supposition. The SR-2 is much more advanced than its predecessor. And Moreau is a highly capable pilot."

Shepard folded her arms. "And you're a highly capable combatant. But if it weren't for your shield generator, I'd be having this conversation with a coffin. You really want to take that kind of risk?"

Miranda let out a slow breath. "...No."

"Good. Moving on. Once we arrive at the Citadel, we'll be docked for the next three shifts. Jacob and Garrus found some contractors who can upgrade our hull plating and main battery. Barring any emergencies, I want to spend the next week consolidating material resources, strengthening our teamwork, and tidying up whatever loose ends are left. We need everyone's heads in the game."

"Acknowledged."

Shepard patted her gently on her good shoulder. "I want you to rest up until Chakwas clears you. I don't care if it's tomorrow or if it's next week. Don't even think about the mission until then. Read a shitty romance novel or something."

Miranda's lips flattened. "Is that an order?"

"Romance novel's optional."

"Then aye-aye, I suppose."

Shepard nodded. The door swooshed open. She paused at the threshold, considering.

She palmed the control panel. The doors slid back shut.

Miranda gave her a questioning look.

"I told the Illusive Man I nearly lost you," Shepard said.

Miranda shifted up a little in her bed.

"He told me that your loss would have been regrettable, but the mission has to come first."

"He's right," Miranda said.

"I told him he was full of shit."

Miranda looked like she was trying not to roll her eyes. "Shepard, we all know the risks. We're going past the Omega Four relay. Casualties are—"

"No. We are not playing this by Cerberus rules." Shepard leaned forward, her face thunderous. "There is no such thing as 'acceptable loss' and I refuse to resign myself to it. We are going to get every single person out of this alive, including you. You will strategize accordingly."

Miranda stared at her.

"Do I make myself clear?"

"...Yes, Commander."

"Good." Shepard tapped the door panel. "Get some rest, Miranda. I'll see what I can do about that romance novel."

Miranda shook her head, her expression unreadable, and looked away.

---

Her hand hovered over the elevator call button. Shepard glanced back towards the battery— but no. Not yet. She needed to get her thoughts in order first. Rounds.

She stepped out onto the main deck. Chambers had gone off-shift. Joker snored softly in his seat. The research stations and communication arrays sat empty.

The armory was dark and shuttered, but light glowed from the research lab next door. Mordin hummed and flitted back and forth between monitors scrolling with data. Something pulsated inside a specimen containment tube nearby. He looked up, and brightened. Waved her over.

A few minutes later she staggered out of his lab, face flaming.

God. No. He was her best friend, she didn't even think of him like— well, occasionally, but— No.

On to the next deck, and to forget that conversation ever happened.

Thane's door was locked. Asleep, then. Port observation stood empty; Goto was either out or just having fun being invisible. In the starboard wing, Samara sat as still and silent as if she'd evolved beyond the need to breathe. Shepard tiptoed back out the door.

Engineering. Jack glared at her through one slitted eye and told her to fuck off. She received bleary salutes from Donnelly and Daniels on her way out.

Grunt's snoring rattled through the hallway. No need to investigate further. Down at the other end, Massani raised a mug of— something alcoholic, anyway— and invited her to join in. Maybe another time.

While the elevator whirred its way down to meet her, she glanced out of the windows over the hangar deck. Jacob mopped his face with a towel and waved a greeting from his treadmill. She waved back.

The elevator doors slid open. Her hand hovered in front of the controls.

She still felt like she'd been awake for days. She could rest. She probably should rest.

Our people are dying, while we just— sit here.

Shepard tapped the elevator button, and looked up at the ceiling. "EDI, open a line to Goto."

"No need," chirped a disembodied voice behind her ear.

"Jesus," barked Shepard, one hand over her heart.

"Kasumi," Goto corrected, materializing with a smile. "What can I do for you, Shep?"

---

A little later, Shepard poked her head around the medbay doorframe. "Still up?"

"Of course I am," said Miranda. Her eyes were closed. "Have you ever tried to sleep on a broken clavicle?"

Shepard held out a datapad. "I brought you something to read."

"Shepard, honestly, you—" Miranda stopped and blinked at the title. Identity and Otherness on the Galactic Frontier: Human art before and after First Contact, 2103-2183.

"Eleanor Zegna's last work," she murmured, flicking her finger down the page. "It was published posthumously. I'd been meaning to download it." She looked up at Shepard. "How—?"

"Goto assured me it's a lucid and nuanced exploration of the topic," Shepard said. She scratched her forehead. "I hope she was right. If it'd been up to me, I probably would have gotten you a Blasto coloring book."

"It's perfect. Thank you, Shepard. This is... really thoughtful. I'll enjoy reading it."

"You're welcome." Shepard smiled. "Figured you could use a distraction, trapped in here with nothing to do. You're probably about ready to start chewing on the furniture."

"Not at all," Miranda said. "I'm quite skilled at meditation, actually."

"Yeah, right. I bet you meditate like you're executing a precision air strike."

Miranda let out a startled puff of a laugh. "I guess you know me better than I thought."

She shook her head. Dark hair spilled over her bruised face.

"...It's hard to be around you sometimes, Shepard," she said quietly. "You make it look so easy."

"I— huh? What do you mean?"

Miranda gestured with her good hand at herself, the datapad, Shepard— then made a vague, unhappy circle that seemed to encompass the whole Normandy.

"I don't know how you do it," she said. "Half the time it seems like you don't even give a damn, and you're just making things up as you go along. But you tore through the Collectors like you were born to fight them. Like you were reading their minds. It was incredible."

Shepard tensed. "...Thanks."

"If that were all, I think I could live with it. But people like you. They trust you. And whenever someone needs help, you're just— there, in a heartbeat. No questions asked." Miranda twisted the bedsheets between her fingers. "I thought the Illusive Man was insane for sinking so much of our resources into one person. Now I finally see what he saw, and... I almost can't believe you're real."

Shepard just stared at her, at a loss for words.

Miranda met her eyes. "Everyone on this ship, every single last person, would follow you down into the gates of hell. And they barely even know you."

Look at their options, Shepard thought, half-hysterically. Cerberus would just write them off as a 'regrettable loss.' But she wasn't going to start that fight again.

"I was engineered to be the best at everything. Given every opportunity to maximize my potential. But I never had what you have, and you have it without even trying."

"Miranda—" Shepard began.

"People only follow me because of my track record. My rank. Because they're too afraid not to." Miranda's face was expressionless. "They follow you because they want to."

"Miranda, no. People follow you because you're a goddamned genius." Shepard swept her arm out. "You figured out that the Collectors were bioengineered Reaper constructs just from from looking at their architecture. We didn't even need the intel. We could have turned around and left right then, and you would have put all the pieces together in about half an hour."

Miranda frowned up at her. "I don't—"

Shepard held up a hand to forestall her. "You see the big picture. You aim straight at your goal, and you tear through anything standing in your way. That's who you are, and fuck anyone who doesn't like it." She leaned over the bed. "The galaxy has all kinds of people in it. It needs all kinds of leaders. It needs you, Miranda, exactly as you are."

"Well, look at that." Miranda spread her hands and gave her a dry, bruised smile. "You're doing it again, Shepard. I feel bloody well inspired. Let's go down and find the gates of hell right now."

Shepard glared down at her. "Look. I know you feel weird about being talented and genetically perfect and whatever. Like you were given something you didn't earn. But we're all given things we didn't earn. It doesn't fucking matter what your dad tried to make you be, because you're your own person, and you always have been." She crossed her arms. "Everything you told me last night, about Niket, about your hopes for Oriana, about wanting to go to school? That was all you. Your dad didn't make any of that. You did."

Miranda's face flushed. "How— how dare you use that against me. I told you those things in the strictest confidence, and— You just— God damnit, Shepard."

"The hell I'm using it against you! I'm on your side," Shepard snapped. "You may not have what I have, but I don't have what you have, either. Sometimes I think I'd kill for what you have." She made a frustrated sweep with her hand. "If I were you, with all your brains and accomplishments and connections, maybe I could have gotten the council to actually fucking listen to me about the Reapers. Maybe I could have kept an eye on the big picture. Collected and preserved evidence, instead of just scrambling from one disaster to the next."

At that thought, she sat down abruptly at the foot of the bed. History was cracking apart and rewriting itself in her brain. "...God, what that would have changed. We could have started fortifying Alliance defenses. If I were you... The Normandy would still be intact. I never would have died." She put her hands to her face, overwhelmed. "If I were you, maybe I could have saved—"

"If I were you," Miranda said, "maybe I could have had more than one real friend growing up."

Shepard lowered her hands, and turned to look at her.

Miranda held her gaze. "Someone I know once told me to never go down that kind of rabbit hole."

"...Yeah. Well." Shepard let out her breath. "Someone you know apparently talks a big game."

Miranda's expression softened a little.

"All the friends I made on Earth ended up dying," Shepard said after a moment. "Even the ones who signed up with me."

"I didn't know that," Miranda said. "I'm sorry."

"Thanks. Me too."

Silence. Miranda fidgeted with her blankets.

"I don't think you're perfect, Miranda."

"Why, thank you."

Shepard waved that aside. "I think you're remarkable. I really do. It feels like no one in this entire galaxy gives a shit about protecting anything but their own interests, but... you do. You work harder than anyone else I've ever met. I mean, hell." She gestured at herself. "You don't even like me, and you sunk two years of your life into bringing me back."

Miranda attempted to cross her arms, then remembered one of them was in a sling, and settled back down with a huff. "Shepard, that was a massive undertaking with an entire cell's worth of resources and intelligence—"

"Not my point. My point was that even though you thought it was a crazy idea and a lost cause, you did it anyway. Because our people were hurting, and you cared, and you wanted to help them. So—" She paused. "I don't know exactly what I'm trying to say, here. But looking at you now, who you are now..." Shepard lapsed into silence again.

Miranda watched her, waiting.

Shepard shook her head. "Your dad was so stupid. He should have known better than to create someone as extraordinary as you. He should have known from the instant you opened your eyes, that one day you would just— explode out into the world. And be free."

Miranda's face went very still for a moment. Then she blinked hard and looked down at her hands.

"Um. Anyway. Good talk." Shepard patted her knee, and stood up. "I hope you like the book. Feel better soon."

"Thank you," Miranda said again, her voice tight.

The door slid shut behind her.

---

The mess hall lay deserted. Shepard stared out into empty space for a moment.

She'd done nothing but fuck up, over and over again, and Miranda had no idea.

Miranda didn't remember being burnt alive at Harbinger's hands. Getting her skull smashed in by a Scion. Screaming curses as Shepard abandoned her. Miranda thought Shepard was a miracle made flesh.

Shepard exhaled. Fine. It was fine. This was what she'd wanted all along, wasn't it? Operative Lawson in her camp. A true believer.

She scrubbed her hands over her face, then went to poke around in the cabinets. Might as well refuel before the next storm swept in.

She found an acceptable-looking MRE, ripped it open, and wolfed it down cold.

"Commander. Do tell me that wasn't the last of the curry and rice."

Shepard jumped and banged her knee against the counter. "Ow. Uh. Hi, Doc. I think there might be a couple left in there. How's Miranda?"

Chakwas stepped forward to rifle through the drawers. "Recovering well, thank you. I'm glad the jaw fracture was relatively clean. That's never a fun surgery, for either party." She straightened, prize in hand, and raised an eyebrow. "How are you?"

"Oh, you know." Shepard suppressed a curry burp. "Holding up. No injuries."

"Oh?" Chakwas shifted the MRE to her coat pocket and switched on her datapad. The glow spilled over her face and hands. Lit up her silver hair. "Have a seat."

"Here?" Shepard edged back. "Now's not the best time for a checkup."

"Have you been sleeping?"

"What? Sometimes. A normal amount."

"Really? Your circadian rhythm markers are so disrupted, I can hardly make sense of them. Are you sure you're all right? You're not feeling fatigued, for example, or moody? Unfocused? Disconnected from your surroundings?"

"Um. No?" Damnit. She was bad with doctors at the best of times. Shepard tried to quell a rising sense of panic.

"Hm. Well, otherwise, your body seems to be fine. Bathed in unbelievable levels of stress hormones, of course, but that's about what I'd expect. It's your brain I'm more concerned with." Chakwas's finger tapped over a jagged line graph. "There's something quite odd about your biotics lately. Normally your energy output starts around eighty-five percent of maximum, spikes to full once you've warmed up, then gradually declines with fatigue. But look. On this last mission, you had a spike, then another spike, then another..."

Shit! Fuck! Shepard stared down at the graph. "...Huh. That's weird."

"I can't fathom it. Honestly, it shouldn't be possible; that kind of pattern hasn't been seen before in humans. Not even Jack. And I know you're not consuming enough calories to account for the total energy output. So where's it coming from?"

Shepard scratched her head. "I don't know. You'd have to ask Miranda, I guess." Please don't.

"I already did. She's as puzzled as I am." Chakwas squinted up at her. "Pardon my bluntness, but you look a little frayed, Commander. I'm beginning to grow concerned. How's your short-term memory?"

Shepard crumpled up her MRE wrapper and dropped it into the compactor chute. "You know, Doc, that reminds me— I really ought to go write up my mission report while it's still fresh in my head."

Chakwas gave her a flat look.

"I promise I'm doing okay. Well, stressed, apparently, and I guess I'm not eating enough, but we both know that's nothing new. I'm okay. Really." Chakwas still looked unconvinced. "I'll, uh, come see you later?"

"Please make sure that you do."

Shepard didn't flee, exactly, but it was a very brisk walk back to the elevator.

---

Two hours until shift change. Five until they reached the Citadel. Shepard paced in her quarters. Her ruined armor lay on top of her dresser. She swept it into a drawer and slammed it shut.

She blew out her breath. Picked up a datapad. Might as well actually write up the mission report, now that she was here. Not that the Illusive Man actually needed one, what with all the helmet cam footage and hardsuit logs and the omnipresent hand of EDI, but old habits died hard.

Her fingers ticked over the holographic keyboard. The strange, hybrid ship design. The decomposing pile of colonists. The oddly well-preserved Collector corpse, and its Prothean DNA.

She chewed on a fingertip. That had to be a deliberate gesture. It didn't make sense otherwise. As Miranda had pointed out: Collector bodies disintegrated. Keeper bodies exploded. The Reapers didn't like anyone messing with their toys.

The Protheans were supposed to be the wise and noble progenitors of the entire galactic community. Harbinger could have left the evidence there just to fuck with their heads.

Or maybe it had just wanted to fuck with her specific head. Like it always did.

Did it know about her history with the beacon? Garrus had thought that might be why she was the only one who could hear its voice, but—

Fuck it. It didn't matter. None of this was going into the report anyway.

Back on track. After the corpse came the sea of abduction pods. Then the command console, and the ambush. She'd—

She stared down at the blinking cursor. She'd— wait. Which version of the fight had actually happened?

Which version of her was she supposed to be? Which version were they?

All she remembered now was losing them. And leaving them. The Miranda who had screamed at her, tried to cripple her with a Warp field. The Garrus who'd cursed at her, pleaded with her, told her to run and save herself.

They were still alive when she'd left them. Where were they now?

Maybe nowhere, erased out of existence. Maybe bleeding and burnt in the airless gloom of the Collector ship. All alone in their empty, abandoned universes.

Why hadn't she ever stopped to think about this before today? Why hadn't she considered what she might be doing to them, and not just what she was doing to herself?

What had happened to the Garrus on Aeia? The Miranda on Illium?

What the fuck was wrong with her?

Shepard bent down and rested her forehead against her desk, and sat very still for a long time.

A click and a whirr. Her door lock disengaging. She shook herself back to the present.

Garrus halted at the top of her stairs, sleek and spare in black underarmor. "—Hi."

"Hi," she said, startled. Then had to fight down a rising flush. Goddamnit, Mordin.

He tilted his head to one side. "...Were you expecting someone else?"

"What? No. I wasn't expecting anyone at all." Shepard frowned at her door. "EDI? Why'd you open it without asking?"

The blue-white globe blinked into view. "You lifted the access restriction on Officer Vakarian fifty-one hours ago. Your exact words were: 'Let Garrus do whatever the hell he wants.'"

Garrus flared a mandible in a smirk. "I'll be sure to take advantage."

"This is why nobody likes AIs," Shepard muttered, cheeks still a little pink. "Anyway. What's up? Did you need something?"

"No." He rested a hip against the railing. "I went to see Lawson. She's holding up well."

"She's tougher than she looks." Shepard leaned back in her desk chair and stretched her arms. "Practically had to pull rank to get her to stay in medbay. Cerberus found an enemy IFF for us, and she's already raring to go."

"Ah," he said.

The silence stretched out. Her empty fishtank buzzed in the stillness.

"...What is it?"

"Fighting went well down there," Garrus said.

"Yep."

"We kicked ass from start to finish."

"Sure did."

"Shame that Lawson took such a bad hit right at the very end," he said slowly, watching her.

"Yeah," she said.

"That could have been nasty."

"Yeah." She met his gaze. "It really, really could have been."

They looked at each other for a long moment. Shepard kept her face carefully blank.

Had he watched her carving her way through the ship like a perfect god of destruction, and understood that for what it really was? Or rather— the half-truth, half-lie that he thought it was, that she'd told him, lifetimes and lifetimes ago?

Did he understand what she was trying to tell him now?

Garrus shook his head. Rubbed his hand over the unscarred side of his face. She tried not to remember the burnt, smoking crater in his chest. The way he'd called her a liar with his last liquid gasp.

"I see," he said.

Did he?

There was so much they couldn't say to each other— because of Cerberus, because of a death and life apart, because of all her stupid lies and secrets. She could only hope his alien mind was meeting hers across the aisle of silence between them.

"Sit," she said finally. "You're going to put a kink in my neck."

He stepped down and settled himself on her couch. Crossed one long leg over the other. The leather creaked under his weight.

A pause. "This is astonishingly uncomfortable," he said.

"All flash. No function. Just like everything else Cerberus does."

"...So many jokes I could make at your expense right now."

She shot him a look, then sighed and turned back to her datapad.

"Mission report?"

"You know it." She scowled down at the keyboard. "I've been trying to think of synonyms for 'clusterfuck' for the last twenty minutes."

"That seems a little extreme, Shepard. It was intense down there, sure. But we handled it."

Her brow wrinkled. "...Yeah. We did."

"So what's the problem?"

"Other than that we were deliberately sent unprepared and undergunned into a known trap that could have destroyed the ship and killed us all?"

"Well, it's a Shepard operation." He draped an elbow over the back of her sofa. "I think it'd feel pretty weird if the top brass wasn't trying to screw us over."

Yesterday, she would have laughed and agreed with him.

"—Shepard?" He'd leaned forward to look at her.

"Sorry. I'm just..." She shook her head. "I'm getting a little tired of having to fight on all fronts."

"Ah." He hummed a low note. "Yeah. I can understand that."

Shepard sighed, and returned to her report. The letters on the screen slid and blurred into each other.

Miranda, still and pale, blood pooling around the back of her head. Garrus, broken open and drowning on dry land. The breath bubbling up from his ruined lungs.

She blinked hard, and shook her head again, trying to wrestle her brain into cooperation. She got about halfway through rereading the first paragraph she'd written before having to start over. And then over again.

Miranda, burnt blind and groping in the dark with brittle charcoal fingers. Garrus, clinging to her arms, the ache of betrayal thick in his voice.

She buried her hands in her hair.

"Take a break," Garrus said gently. Shepard snapped her head up and stared at him, disoriented.

He lifted another datapad from where it'd been tossed onto the coffee table. "Let's talk about something else for a bit. What's the next mission?"

She rubbed her eyes. Willed herself into the present. "There isn't one. We're off to the Citadel to get your Thanix cannon, and an asari armor thing that Jacob looked into. I'm not getting us into any more firefights with the Collectors until I'm confident we can come out the other side."

"And after that?" He scrolled rapidly through the files on the datapad, eyes flicking over the text.

Shepard watched him. "...Thane said he has something personal he needs to take care of on the Citadel. He asked for my help."

"Ah," he said. Flicked onward, unfazed.

Perhaps it was just like he'd said. His problem hadn't been with the assassin. Just her. She turned back around and began rifling through her bottom desk drawer.

"You still have one dossier left?" His voice carried over her shoulder. "I thought we had a full complement already. Who's the last person?"

Shit. She stiffened.

A sharp, surprised noise. "—This is Tali."

"Yes," Shepard said, straightening. A bottle of protein-stripped wine in one hand, a pair of glasses in the other.

The datapad dangled from his fingers. Tali's glassy faceplate stared back out at them. "Why," he said.

Shepard set the wine down on the table. "I ran into her on Freedom's Progress."

"I know. You told me that much." He fixed her with a pale stare. "You didn't tell me she was on the lineup for the suicide squad."

"Is that what people are calling it?"

"Shepard."

She shifted. "Tali was— she wasn't happy to see me. Especially not with Cerberus. I don't know if she even thought I was real, and not a lookalike, or a clone, or a corpse with a VI, or something."

His mandible flicked out sharply. "Even if she does think that, it doesn't matter. Let's go get her. We need her."

"Do we?" She looked away, a wrinkle between her eyebrows.

"Of course we do. She's a fighter, and she's a friend. We could use both."

"But what if she—" Shepard gestured. The wine glasses banged against her thigh.

"—Is thrilled to see us? Joins our engineering team? Lends us a fleet of Quarian warships? It's worth a try." He folded his arms. "Unless, of course, you can see into the future."

...Sneaky son of a bitch. She glared at him. "Fine. Ship upgrades, Thane's business, Tali."

"Fine," he said, looking satisfied.

"Did you come up here just to bully me?"

"No." He rose from the couch and extracted one of the glasses from her hand. "I came because I could use a good friend, and a stiff drink."

Shepard glanced down at herself, and then the bottle.

Garrus shrugged. "I'll take what I can get."

She popped the cork and scored a perfect 3-pointer into the wastebin, then settled back onto her horrible couch. Their glasses clinked loudly in the stillness of her cabin.

"Here's to never doing that again," she said.

"Here's to bringing bigger guns next time we do it."

"Fuck," she said fervently, shaking her head. "There isn't a gun big enough for Praetorians."

"You'd just complain about it ruining the challenge anyway."

She grimaced. The thrill had burned up along with Miranda's body. "No. I wouldn't. Not anymore."

Garrus shot her a puzzled look. Shit. Of course. He only remembered the version where she'd obliterated everything around them in forty-five seconds.

"...Praetorians really creep me out," she said, by way of explanation.

"Cheers to that," he said.

They drank in silence.

She tilted her head down, pretending to examine her glass, and watched him through her eyelashes.

I've always been grateful, Shepard. For everything about you.

He really didn't remember any of it.

Once, that had seemed like a blessing.

"Christ," she muttered, and leaned her head back against the wall.

"My translator doesn't touch that word," Garrus said. "You say it a lot. What's it mean?"

"Huh? Oh. It's a figure from an old Earth religion. I'm not a believer, but Ash was pretty serious about it."

"What kind of a god was it?"

"Not a god, a human. He died for what he believed in, and then he came back to life. Then... I guess he became a god after all?" She shrugged. "I'm not too clear on the whole thing."

"Fascinating," he drawled. "That's all you humans have to do to become a god? Die and come back?"

"Don't sass me, Archangel."

Garrus leaned back into the sofa. "So what did he believe in that he had to die for?"

"A different kind of god than everyone else, I think. It was a big deal back then."

"But you don't believe in this god." He tipped his head towards her. "So. What do you believe in?"

Shepard thought about it. "Reapers."

He let out a wry chuckle, and contemplated his glass. The stem looked absurdly delicate between his long fingers. "The Shepard I knew before wasn't like this."

"...Like what?"

"Putting off mission reports to sit around and drink wine. Worrying about whether people still like her or not."

She flashed her teeth in a smile. "I can kick you out and go back to writing reports, if it'll make you feel better."

"No need," he said. "It's decent wine. Hate to see it go to waste."

Another silence. She took a long drink. Rested her head back against the couch. The skylight flickered and pulsed electric blue.

"I still miss the old Shepard sometimes," he said softly.

She rolled her head over to look over at him. He looked back at her.

"...But, well." One mandible tipped out in a smile. "The new Shepard is pretty hot shit."

The knot in her stomach loosened. She let out her breath. "Really?"

"Really," he said.

"I thought—" She waved a hand through the air. Kaidan. Tali. Liara. Anderson. "I don't know. Everyone else from before seems like they don't— I thought maybe you—"

"I couldn't tell you what the others think. But as for me..." He looked down. Toyed with his glass. "You were a hard person to get to know, back on the SR-1. We talked, but there was always this— distance. I felt like I was standing in your shadow."

"And now?"

He lifted his eyes to hers. "Now I'm standing at your side."

She ducked her head. Laughed ruefully. "You never saw me as an older sister, did you."

"Not even once."

"Shit," she said, reaching over his knee for the wine.

He made a low, purring noise of amusement. "I saw you as a god."

She gaped at him. Her glass tipped, dripping wine onto her leg.

"And then you died. And came back. And now I don't know what you are, but you're the best friend I've got." He gave an elegant, loose-limbed shrug. "As far as I'm concerned, becoming a god made you more tu— ah, human than you ever were before."

She was still for a long moment, too overwhelmed with gratitude and relief to respond in any meaningful way.

So instead she grinned and elbowed him. "You were going to say 'turian,' weren't you."

He draped his arm over the back of the couch. "Guilty as charged."

"Hey. Do you want to do this again when we land? Properly? We could take another field trip."

"Of course." He drained his glass and sat up. "Sorry to interrupt. I'll let you get back to work."

"I didn't mean it like that. I just meant—" She flicked a glance at the ceiling, with EDI's invisible cameras tucked in every corner. "—Stay. I do have to work, but I could use the company."

He relaxed back against the sofa. Propped a booted foot up on her coffee table. "I don't know, Shepard. My schedule's pretty packed today."

She smirked. "I have intel that says otherwise. Scoot over."

He just stayed put, and lifted his arm in invitation.

Shepard hesitated.

Goddamnit, Mordin.

Garrus gave her a questioning look. She mentally shook herself, then slid in underneath his arm, and curled her back up against him. He was much slimmer without the armor. His skin was astonishingly warm.

"How long until we reach the Citadel?" His voice rumbled through her body.

She stretched an arm out to grab the pad with Tali's dossier from the table, and poked a button. "Four and a half."

"Perfect," he said, and yawned, good mandible flaring wide.

"You haven't slept yet?"

"Couldn't. Wanted to talk first." He settled his cheek carefully against the top of her head.

Shepard smiled down at her datapad. "I'm not your pillow, Vakarian."

He made a low, contented humming sound. "I have intel that says otherwise."

She opened up her fragmented mission report again, and chewed on her lip.

Her memories of the Collector ship still clawed at her. But pressed up against his warm, solid, alive body— the horror felt a little more manageable.

She knew this much for certain: overthinking it, second-guessing herself, getting caught up in self-hate and fear and guilt and loneliness— that only made it worse. She wasn't doing anyone any favors like that.

There was only one thing to focus on now. She had to make her ship and her crew the strongest they could possibly be. Everything else was tangential. Even her fucked-up immortality. Even her many, many mistakes.

She'd screwed up, badly and often. But she was still here. Still trying. Still learning. She could bounce back from this. She had to believe in that.

Beside her, Garrus's breathing slowed and deepened. His arm slipped down off the backrest and landed with a thump around her waist.

"You're heavy, you turian bastard," she murmured.

No response.

She remembered him holding her back as they stared down the Praetorian, his grip too tight to break. White light and blistering pain. The last thing she'd seen was their armor melting together in the heat.

That Garrus was gone. All the other versions of him, Miranda, everyone else— they were all gone. People had died on her watch before; this wasn't any different, not really. She'd failed them. It was awful. But it was over.

If she wanted to move forward, she had to look it in the eye, and let it go.

She couldn't keep carrying the ghosts with her. She'd never be able to walk under the weight.

She closed her eyes for a moment, and sent a small, awkward, atheist prayer out into the universe.

Hi. It's me. I'm sorry I didn't save you.

Her body still felt bone-tired. But the words were coming back to her. Her fingers flicked over the holographic keyboard, tentatively at first, then with increasing speed and confidence.

But I'm still here. And I remember you. I'll do better next time. I promise.

Above her head, the skylight pulsed blue and violet.

They streaked on towards the Citadel.

Chapter Text

Clanging, stomping, drilling. Grinding discs screamed against the layers of metal and ceramic overhead. Electrical arcs crackled outside the windows.

Joker glowered at her, hands over his ears.

"Okay," Shepard yelled at him, waving her arms. "I get it. You're on shore leave. Everyone's on shore leave. Get outta here."

"Thank god," he mouthed back, and staggered out of the cockpit.

"EDI, deliver the good news. Retrofits should be complete tomorrow morning, so I want everyone back here by... let's say 0900 tomorrow."

"Acknowledged." Little blue avatars popped up on every console stretching back to the elevator. The whoops of the crewmen were only barely audible over the din.

Shepard turned on her heel. First things first. She had a promise to keep.

The noise wasn't quite so bad on the second level. Medbay stood dark and empty. She knocked on the office doors across the galley. "Miranda, you in? It's me."

The mechanism chimed and slid open. Miranda's face was still a little discolored, but otherwise... "Wow. You weren't kidding about healing fast."

"Well, I can't smile yet. It hurts too much." Miranda tapped a datapad briskly on her desk. "But somehow I suspect the crew won't notice the difference."

Miranda Lawson, telling a joke at her own expense. Shepard felt her eyebrows lift almost to the ceiling.

"Did you need something, Shepard?"

"Oh, right. I was gonna go out for drinks with Garrus again. If you're feeling up to it, do you want to come hang out with us? Unwind a bit? Shore leave includes you, too."

Miranda's face froze. "Oh. Well. Thank you, but I think I'll abstain this time. I have some reports to file."

"I... okay." Shepard frowned at her, feeling oddly stung. "If you're sure."

"I do appreciate the offer. Will you be going off-radar again?"

"Yeah, if that's all right. I'll send a message before we do."

"That will be acceptable," Miranda said, and turned to face her terminal.

"All right. Uh. See you later." Shepard backed out of the room.

What the hell was that?

She slunk into the battery, brow furrowed.

"What's wrong," Garrus said, without turning around.

"How—?"

"Your walk changed." He glanced over his shoulder. "And you're being quiet."

"Oh. I dunno. It's not really a big deal, just... I invited Miranda to come along with us, and she—"

"You what?" He pivoted and stared at her.

"I told her I would, remember?"

"Well— sure. But I thought you were just inviting her out with you, not with us."

"Oh." Shepard shrugged. "I didn't really make the distinction. Is it a problem?"

Garrus's expression was indecipherable. "I guess not."

"She turned me down, so it doesn't matter anyway. She just seemed so— I don't know." Shepard sighed. "I'd thought that we were actually kind of starting to be friends."

He tilted his head to one side. "...You're really bothered about this."

She shrugged again, and laughed a little. "Yeah. I am. Uncool of me, isn't it?"

"Extremely." Garrus contemplated her for another moment, then stepped in close and draped an arm over her shoulders. "C'mon. I'll take you somewhere nice."

Shepard lit up. "Really? Where?"

"Surprise." The battery doors slid shut behind them.

She cackled, delighted. "Look at you, all suave and mysterious. What's happening? What is this?"

"Surprise," he said again, escorting her through the empty mess hall.

"It better be good."

"Don't worry." He flicked a mandible at her. Punched the elevator button. "It's good."

---

Her excitement was somewhat squashed by the time they confronted the queue for security. She'd spotted Joker far up the line, leaning against a tolerant-looking Hadley, but then they cleared the gate and vanished.

"No Bailey to save us this time," Garrus said, looking around.

"We're going to go see him anyway. I could just— do the thing. Assert myself."

"Nah. You hate doing that. And we're not in a rush."

Eventually, they made it through. Bailey looked up from his terminal in surprise. "You could have called me."

Shepard waved the suggestion away. "I don't want to abuse my privileges. Especially not when I'm about to ask you for a favor."

His expression went impressively flat. "What is it this time."

"A clean omni-tool. And clothes."

Garrus spoke up from behind her. "Civvies, if you've got 'em."

"You know we do. C'mon." Bailey sighed and heaved himself up from the desk. "This may come as a surprise to you, Shepard, since you've been out of the loop for a while, but there are in fact a wide variety of boutiques just outside this very office."

She patted him on the shoulder. "Thanks, Bailey. I owe you one."

He unlocked the supply room and gestured them in. "Yes, you do."

Garrus immediately grabbed a utilitarian-looking suit and boot set in gray and blue, and started unsnapping the catches of his armor. Shepard wandered among the shelves, contemplating her options. C-Sec's undercover operations department catered to a surprising range of sizes, species, and occasions.

Footsteps approached her from behind. Garrus balanced a large box on his hip, and tugged at a collar that wasn't sitting quite right. "You're still standing here? Just pick something."

"But I don't know where we're going. What's the dress code?"

"There isn't one."

"Fine, then." Shepard spotted something at the bottom of a pile and fished it out. A slinky, wine-red cocktail dress. She held it up against herself. "Here. Perfect. Does it look like it'll fit?"

"Hard to tell with the armor on," Garrus said, deadpan.

Challenge accepted. She began shucking the pieces and tossing them into his box.

The dress fit pretty well, actually. Long skirt, short sleeves, high neck, open back. Matching gloves. Classy. She swished back and forth, experimentally. It'd been almost a decade since she'd worn an actual dress.

"Hurry up."

"Let me have my fun." She swished past him once more just for spite, then unsnapped her bra from behind her back, pried the strap down around her arm, and shimmied it out through the other sleeve.

Garrus's eyes widened. "Wait, what? How—?"

"Human magic. Don't worry about it." She peeled out of her underwear and put it in with the rest of the pile, then stepped up close and tapped his visor. "This too."

He looked down at her underwear, then back at her. "Really?"

"Yeah, really. C'mon. Visor. Off."

He sighed and dropped it in. "How many dinners does this add up to? Four? Nine?"

"Zero. I never signed anything."

She picked out more-or-less matching waist belts for them both, and clipped her SMG to her back. Garrus did the same with his sidearm.

She tapped her wrist. "Miranda, EDI, we're going offline. I'll be back in touch in—" She glanced up at Garrus. "Five hours? That'll put us right around sunset." A nod. "Five hours or less. I'm taking a C-Sec omni-tool with me. If anything comes up, you can call them and they'll call me. Shepard out."

She unclipped her own personal omni-tool and chucked it into his box along with the rest of their gear. "All set?"

"This is heavy, you know," Garrus said, in tones of martyred patience.

She laughed and held the door for him. "C'mon."

---

On their way out, he grabbed a grungy turian-sized jacket and a drab hooded cloak, and draped them both over his arm.

Shepard raised her eyebrows. Garrus ignored her, and strode over to the rapid transit terminal.

The deck of the train hummed under their feet. Skyscrapers flashed past the windows. A smooth asari voice rattled off sector and station names she didn't recognize. Garrus stared up at their little dot bleeping its way across the transit line map.

She nudged him. "How long till—"

"Soon." He handed her the cloak. "Put this on."

She gave him a look, but tugged it over her head.

He led her out the doors at the next stop. She scanned their perimeter, noting the position of the Presidium ring, now hazy with distance; the flat white light of the artificial sun; the well-dressed pedestrians bustling around them; the sleek, brand-new buildings packed densely into the landscape.

Garrus gestured to her. She raised the hood of her cloak, and fell in at his side.

He set a leisurely pace, taking them down a long, zigzagging path between clean and shiny condos, then through a collection of well-kept older apartment towers, then past some towers that were less well-kept. They crossed a wide, sparsely landscaped plaza. The pedestrian population had thinned and scattered. Garrus angled towards a cluster of ugly, shadowy, high-density tenements. Rust stains bled through the cracking concrete.

Shepard glanced up at him. "This is your idea of a surprise?"

"Just wait."

A kilometer or so past the tenements, the landscape changed again. This area was even more run-down than the one before, but the underlying architecture was different: these buildings had been beautiful, once. The carved moulding was crumbling off, the ancient tiling cracked and falling away, but the bones underneath were graceful. Elegant.

Hundreds of years and layers of grime ago, once upon a time, this neighborhood must have been pretty damn ritzy.

It was early afternoon, but the streets were quiet. The few locals she saw looked listless and unhealthy. Mostly salarians. A smattering of asari and turians, an odd batarian or krogan here and there. No humans at all. Shepard started to get why Garrus had her pull on the cloak.

"What's going on here?" she said quietly.

"Pick one," he murmured. "Unemployment. Ghettoization. Bottom rung of the caste system. Illness. Drug addiction."

"Huh." Shepard frowned. "So where are the gangs?" She gestured at the lackluster graffiti splashed over the buildings around them. Nothing was in her language, but tags looked like tags no matter where you went.

"Officially it's Olor Six turf, but there's barely any money here. Even the street dealers spend most of their time ringward."

"Wow," Shepard said softly. "That's when you know things are bad."

"Yeah," he said, and turned abruptly into a shadowed alley. "Through here."

She followed him through a heavy steel door and down basement stairs, through murky, damp-smelling hallways, then up again, past signs too old and weathered for her borrowed omni-tool to translate.

They stepped outside into a tiny four-meter square of a courtyard, penned in on all sides by ancient, looming towers. A shaft of artificial sunlight sliced down through the narrow gap, and fell on a little yellow flower poking up through the concrete. Shepard only had a moment to wonder at it before Garrus led her back into the maze.

He pushed through a series of doors plastered with starkly lettered signs bearing the old logo of the Citadel Housing Authority. She didn't need her omni-tool to tell her they read DO NOT ENTER.

They clambered up half-collapsed staircases, hopped over shattered columns. She paused when they came to a cave-in of broken plaster, concrete, and rebar that had choked out most of the hallway ahead of them.

Garrus turned to look back at her. "Problem?"

Shepard hiked up her long skirt in one red-gloved fist. "Nope."

"All right then." He picked out handholds, and scrambled over.

She contemplated her options for a moment, then snapped out a side kick at the center of the pile. The resulting explosion of plaster and dust wasn't all that pleasant, but at least she got through it without tearing her dress.

He paused when they came to an open elevator shaft. "Hm. It's sunk since last time."

"What has," she said. He reached out into the empty darkness and took hold of the chain, then braced a knee against the wall and yanked, hard. A horrible shrieking erupted above them. Flakes of rust rained down over his gloves.

He grinned back at her appalled expression, adjusted his grip, and yanked again. Slowly, slowly, the top of an ancient service elevator shuddered up into view.

Garrus pressed on the elevator with one foot to test his weight, then, apparently satisfied, stepped out and walked across to the open gap on the other side.

Shepard stared out at him through the haze of rust particles. "Seriously?"

"What. You need me to hold your hand?"

She scowled and stepped out, still holding up her skirt. The chains rattled as the elevator lurched and swayed underneath her. "This better be worth it."

"We're almost there." He waited for her to make her way across, then turned and led the way up a staircase. This one was in better shape than the others; dusty, but solid, with delicate patterning carved into the steps. The banister was polished wood.

"I give up," she called out, following his footsteps up through the increasing gloom. "Where are we? What is this?"

His smug, disembodied voice floated back down to her. "You'll see."

She felt a little light-headed. The elevation gain must have put them near the upper limit of breathable atmosphere. She forgot to listen for his footsteps stopping, and nearly collided with him at the top of the stairs.

"Sorry. Doorknob's stuck." Rattling noises. "Ah—" A click. And then she had to squint against the light.

The first thing she noticed was the soft breeze tugging at her clothing. The air was cool and fresh, with none of the sweaty, overripe quality of the streets below, or the mold and decay thick inside the disused passageways. Her eyes adjusted, and the space slowly took shape around her.

Deep, narrow skylights cut at intervals into the ceiling filtered and softened the Citadel's artificial sun. Light shone in soft square pools onto the dusty wooden floor, sparkled against cut crystal chandeliers, glinted off of polished tables.

Shepard glanced around at the decor, trying to gather clues. Elegant, curving sofas. Armchairs in unfamiliar shapes and sizes. Faded rugs and moth-eaten tapestries. A hotel? A restaurant? Whatever it was, this place had clearly been high-end, once upon a time. She didn't even want to think what that wood panelling would cost in today's money.

Something caught her eye. Movement in the darkness shrouding the far wall. She tensed, reaching for her sidearm— oh. She wiggled her hand. It was her own reflection.

The whole wall was mirrored, actually. But there was something big right in front of it. A long counter, and shelves, stacked with—

She whirled and stared up at Garrus. "Is this a bar?"

He flared a mandible at her. "I told you it'd be good."

"Jesus. You weren't kidding." She stepped forward to examine a table lamp. The bulb was blown glass, in a shape and style she'd never seen before. "How old is this place?"

"Not sure exactly. Four, five hundred years? Some of the design looks asari, so it could be a lot older. They build things to last." He shrugged out of his borrowed coat. "Could have tried harder to find out, but I didn't exactly want to shout my discovery from the rooftops."

"You found this on your own?" Shepard paused halfway out of her cloak to gape at him. "How?"

"Got in trouble for mouthing off at work. Busted down to a shitty beat patrol for three months." He reached up and carefully hung his coat over the top of the door. Shepard dumped hers onto a dusty table, earning a look. "But, as you saw, not much actually goes on around here. So I had time to explore."

He was trying to play it cool, but she could see the deep pleasure he took in impressing her. It was written all over him, the proud line of his shoulders, the angle of his chin. He was eating this up.

Well, she was happy to oblige. "It's fantastic in here, Garrus. The only thing that could possibly make it better is actual, drinkable booze."

"As it happens." He gestured towards the back.

"You're shitting me."

He couldn't keep the satisfaction from his voice any longer. "Shall we?"

A delighted laugh rippled out of her. "Let's."

---

He disappeared behind the counter to rummage. Rattles, clinks. The occasional sneeze. She leaned back against the rich, warm wood, half watching him, half drinking in the details of their secret lair.

"This'd be a lot easier if I had my visor." His voice was muffled.

"Sorry," she said, unrepentant. "Need help? I can fire up my flashlight."

"No, I think— Got it. Here." Two squarish, elegantly cut glasses thunked onto the counter.

Shepard hefted one in her hand. "Wow. This isn't actually glass, is it?"

"No. Some kind of purified transparent ceramic." He crouched behind the counter again. "Thessian. Ancient. Patented to the edge of the galaxy and back, as you might expect."

Shepard shook her head, smiling down at him. "What's next? Brandy distilled from the tears of a krogan? The martini shaker of the goddess Athame?"

"Close." He rose to his feet, squinting at a simple, cylindrical bottle with a faded label and pale blue fluid sloshing inside. "This is it."

"What?"

"Krogan tear brandy," he said, blowing dust from the glasses. He uncapped the bottle and held it out for her to smell.

"Oh." She pushed her hair back and leaned in closer, putting her face directly over the opening. "Oh. Oh wow."

"Good. That means you'll like it." He poured a thin, steady stream into one of the glasses.

The liquid flowed freely inside the bottle, but as it splashed into the glass, it changed, thickening, folding over on itself like molten metal. "What the—? What is this?"

"It's from Palaven," he said. "The old capital, before the government moved to Cipritine. One of the last bottles. The distillery hasn't existed for about six hundred years."

She wrenched her head up to stare at him. "Garrus. I can't possibly drink this."

"My family was from there, originally." The stream of liquid twisted and shimmered in the low light. "I spent a lot of summers in the old house. And I mean old. We had to bring camping gear because it was so run-down. Half the roof was missing, and each year the storms would rip off a little bit more. Trees started growing up between the floor tiles."

"Garrus, I'm serious. Stop pouring."

"All of the family moved away when the capital did, and then everyone was too busy to maintain the place. It always bothered me that no one was taking care of it. When I was little, I thought that maybe when I finished my service, I'd save up some money, and come back and live there for good. Fix it up again. Make it like how it was."

"Garrus—"

He raised the bottle, gently, gently. The stream thinned and vanished.

He paused for a moment, then lifted his eyes to hers. "...But, well. The galaxy's a pretty distracting place. And now I'm here." He nudged the glass over to her. "With you."

Shepard leaned over the bar. "Garrus!"

"What?"

"I can't drink this. It's too important."

"So?" He shrugged, and tipped out another slow, precise stream into the second glass. "I want you to."

"But—" She looked down at the pool of liquid in her cup. It was changing again, shimmering, melting. "...How does it do that?"

"Turian magic. Don't worry about it."

She smiled. "C'mon."

"I'm only half kidding. It's a non-Newtonian fluid. Distilled from mella, but that's all I know. No one's ever been able to reverse-engineer the recipe."

He squinted at the level in his glass, then straightened, and capped the bottle.

"Anyway." Garrus leaned a hip against the back counter, and swirled the glass in his hand. "There wasn't any real point to that story. Mainly I just wanted to stall you long enough to let me pour you the damn drink."

Shepard laughed, and dropped her face into her hands. "Okay. Fine. You win. Well played."

He made a low, satisfied humming sound. "Have to admit, it feels pretty good to hear those words coming from Commander Shepard."

"Well, then." She raised her glass to his. "To your victory."

"Cheers."

As the liquid approached her lips, she had to stop for a moment, and just breathe again. Let it wash over her.

Garrus had paused to watch her. She flushed and took a sip.

The fluid pooled and spread slowly on her tongue. It tasted just like it smelled. It tasted like glacier melt. It tasted like ancient well water from miles deep below the earth. It tasted like rainfall on Ontarom. Clear and cold and familiar and strange and a thousand different things at once. An entire world in a drop.

A smile cracked across her face, and slowly turned into a laugh.

"What," Garrus said, amused.

"I don't even know." Shepard took another sip, still smiling. "This is so goddamned good."

"Are you glad I didn't listen to you?"

"Of course. I was an idiot who didn't know any better." She leaned forward. Rested her elbows on the bar. "I can't believe you brought me here. This place is amazing."

"You're welcome," he said, looking deeply gratified.

"And this— whatever this is— is so good I don't know how to deal with it. I've never tasted anything like this." She took a long, slow pull from her glass, and rolled it around in her mouth. "It's making me homesick for a home I never had."

Garrus stilled, then shook his head, and came over to stand on her side of the bar.

She bumped him with her hip. "Hi."

He looked down at her. "Sometimes, Shepard, you say the most incredible things. And I don't think you actually have any idea what you're doing."

"What? Was I incredible just now?"

"I'm not sure I can explain it to you. But yeah."

She clinked her glass against his. Or, more accurately, she clinked her transparent ceramic antique of inestimable value against his. "Some sort of turian cultural thing?"

"Half turian thing, half me thing. Trust me when I say it was masterful."

She grinned up at him. "Cool."

He regarded her with what looked like real fondness for a moment. She hadn't seen it on his face before, and wasn't sure if she was reading it right. But it warmed up her whole body just the same.

"So," he said, after a moment. "We're out from under the spycams. Anything you want to talk about, while we have the chance? Or is today a pleasure cruise?"

She straightened up. "The Collector ship."

"I thought so." He leaned back on one elbow, watching her. "What happened? You were acting— different."

Shepard took a deep breath. How to frame this? What would get the most information across to him, without screwing her cover story?

She rolled her glass around in her hands, watching the liquid slip and fold into itself.

"I don't know what the Illusive Man's game was, sending us into that thing," she began, cautiously. "But most of the futures I saw down there ended up with all of us dead."

A pause, as he took that in. "But we're not. Thanks to you."

"Basically." She glanced up at him.

Sszhepard, you're a rotten liar.

"Garrus, I— it was really bad down there. I saw horrible things happen to you. To Miranda."

He made a soft humming sound. "Well, it seems like she's doing fine now. And I'm standing right here."

Your replacement is. Shepard fought down the surge of shame that roiled up inside her at the thought. Took a drink, hiding her face behind her glass.

No. She was moving on from this. She had failed him before; she might fail him again. But she wouldn't ever, ever take him— any of him— for granted. Not like before.

"Shepard?"

"Yeah. You're right." She tried to smile up at him, but felt it twist into something different, something distorted. Shit. She turned her face away again. "You're right."

He hummed again, set down his glass, and reached out to her. His fingers wrapped around her hand. She blinked down at it.

He pulled, gently. She stepped forward, bewildered, and found herself enfolded in a lean, one-armed embrace.

"What's this," she mumbled into his shoulder.

"It's called a hug." His bandage rustled against her hair when he spoke. "You looked like you could use one."

She laughed a little, and wrapped her arms around his back. "That obvious, huh."

"Yeah." His voice rumbled through her body. "It must have been awful, to get to you like this."

"...Yeah." She pressed her face into the hollow between his shoulder and cowl, trying to blot out the images. "It was."

And it was all her fault.

His arm around her tightened. "I'm sorry."

She pressed into him harder, in response.

They stayed like that for a long moment. She listened to the hollow, windy note of his breathing, the strange rhythm of his heart. Soaked up the warmth of his spare, solid body.

If only she'd been faster.

If only she hadn't second guessed herself. Hadn't let that asshole Collector get under her skin.

If only she could let down her guard for one fucking second, with him, her last and strangest and dearest friend—

"I need to tell you something else," she said.

His shoulders tensed. He drew back, watching her face. "What is it?"

"Harbinger."

His expression went blank. "What?"

"The strong Collector, the glowing one. It has a name." She shifted her feet. "When we're fighting them, it talks to me. Maybe it's just in my head. I'm not actually sure."

Garrus let out a long breath. "Okay. Since when?"

"Since always. Since Horizon."

"Do you talk back?"

"I— sometimes? It's not really a conversation. Mostly it just taunts me. Tries to demoralize me. At some point I figured out I was the only one that could hear it."

"All right," he said, and raised a finger. "First things first. Let's accept for the sake of argument that you're not insane."

Shepard gave him a flat look. "Thanks."

He glanced out into the distant murk of the room, brow furrowed. "The Collectors used to be Protheans. Maybe your contact with the beacon lets you understand them."

"Yeah, that's what you s— that's what I was wondering." She bit back a wince.

Garrus's posture was unchanged. Maybe he hadn't noticed her slip.

He drummed his fingers against the surface of the bar. "Could the Collectors' minds really have survived the Reapers' grooming process, though? Language, head games. That's pretty high-level stuff."

Shit. Shepard's eyes widened. Mordin had already mentioned something to that effect, last night, but— she'd been distracted. Hadn't considered the ramifications. A formless dread began unspooling in her gut.

"Judging from what we've seen— the husks, the Scions, the Keepers— Reapers like their pets mindless and obedient," Garrus continued, folding his arms. "And except for that glowing one, the way the Collectors fight doesn't suggest a lot of individual intelligence. They're more like a swarm."

Oh, fuck.

Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck. Oh fuck her! He was right. There was no way she was talking to a Collector. Not with what she knew about them. Not with that name. Not with that voice. Not with that attitude of ancient, genocidal superiority. Why hadn't she recognized it?

"Shepard?"

She held stock-still, every muscle locked, as a tidal wave of panic swept through her.

"Shepard. What's wrong?"

She could control her body, but not her voice. She sounded thin and desperate. "It's— you're right. You're right. It's not a Collector. There's no way it could be. Harbinger— this thing, this voice, that's been in my head this whole time— is a motherfucking Reaper."

Garrus froze. "You're sure."

"I'm sure. I've never been more sure of anything."

His good mandible flexed rapidly. He put a hand up to his temple. "I don't know what to say."

Shepard could barely hear him speaking. The Reaper was inside her fucking head.

Everything she'd ever done was suspect. Every action she'd ever taken, every word that had ever parted her lips. She replayed all her memories, frantically, trying to see when it had gotten in. When it had begun to corrupt her. Influence her. Indoctrinate her. Or worse.

Had it made her— what she was?

Nightmare static swelled up and strangled her thoughts. Drowned out all her senses.

She wobbled and sank down to the dusty floor. Her borrowed skirt spilled out over her knees.

"Hey. Stay with me."

She felt movement in the air. A blurry shape crouched in front of her. A hand gripped her arm.

"When do you hear it? Just during fights? When you're by yourself?"

"Just during fights," she echoed numbly.

"Just when that glowing Collector shows up?"

"Yeah."

"What about when we're fighting mercs?"

"No."

"Never at any other times? When you're tired, or stressed? When you're falling asleep?"

"No."

"You're sure."

"I... I don't know. Pretty sure."

"Shepard, I think you're in the clear."

She blinked. Refocused, slowly, on his face. "What? How can you say that?"

"It's not in your head. It's in theirs. Whenever that glowing Collector shows up, the rest of them suddenly start fighting a lot smarter. I think the Reaper must be using it as a puppet. Eyes and ears on the ground."

She stared up at him, hardly daring to hope.

"I don't know why only you can hear it." His eyes were locked on hers. "Maybe because it's using a former Prothean as a shell, it can only use a Prothean's voice. I'm not sure about that part. But I'm sure it's not coming from inside you."

She kept staring at him for a long moment. A strange, hiccuping laugh burst out of her. "Aha. Ha. Oh my god." She pressed her hands to her face.

Garrus let out his breath. "You had me terrified for a moment, there."

"Me too. I was so— Fuck. Why didn't I think of that? Thank god. If they'd gotten into me somehow—"

She was unstoppable. Unkillable. It was too horrifying to even contemplate.

Godlike as they were, even Reapers weren't immortal.

Garrus shifted his legs to one side, and sat down on the floor next to her. A rumble came from his throat. "...A lot is going on for you right now, isn't it?"

He had no fucking idea. Everything he knew about her hinged upon a lie.

Shepard just nodded, mutely. The abrupt adrenaline surge and crash had left her feeling hollowed out.

He put his arm around her shoulders. Squeezed, gently. "I don't think I realized just how much."

She had no good way to respond to that.

He pulled her in close. Rested his chin against her head, and hummed a low, comforting note.

It didn't really work. But at least she was still too numb to feel any guilt.

---

He led her over to an ancient sofa, and pressed her glass into her gloved hands. Shepard took a sip. Then another. The strange, cold liquid puddled and melted over her tongue.

Once her brain came back online, and her eyes agreed to start focusing on things again, she lifted her head to look at him.

"Feeling better?"

"Yeah." She sighed. "Sorry. You always end up babysitting me on these dates of ours."

"I'd call Tuchanka an even trade. And last time on the Citadel, I'm pretty sure you were the one babysitting me." He reached out and patted her head. "So, you're paid up in full. Might as well take advantage."

She offered up a wan smile. "You're the best."

His good mandible tipped out in response. "I know."

He sat down beside her and settled himself against the backrest. She leaned her shoulder against him. Gazed out into their elegant, empty room. The light beams lancing down through the ceiling were angled, now, and golden in color. Dust motes glittered and faded as they passed through.

She could just tell him.

He'd invited her to. He already knew part of it.

And she was so, so tired of being alone.

The shadows around them had deepened since their arrival. The far walls faded into darkness.

"...Is this real?" she murmured.

Garrus stiffened beside her. "Shepard?"

She stretched a red-gloved hand out into the empty gloom.

"I see such awful futures ahead of us sometimes, Garrus," she said quietly. "But then I change them. So I remember all these things that never happened."

He watched her silently.

"When it comes to the mission, I know what we need to do. I know we're going to beat the Collectors. I don't see it, but I feel it. We're going to find them and stop them. For good." She looked down at her lap. Watched the alien liquid curling inside her glass. "But— lately, all I can think about are these nightmare memories. All these versions of us that aren't even real." She let out a small, rusty chuckle. "...And as a bonus, I've got a Reaper calling me names inside my head."

Silence. She could feel his eyes on her.

"I wish I could just go back to being normal. But if I were normal, we'd all be dead right now."

Silence. She tipped the last of her drink back.

What if this was already too much for him? What if he thought she wasn't fit to lead anymore? She hadn't even gotten to the bad part yet. What if—

Shepard turned to him. "—Garrus, say something. I'm cracking up."

"I know." He shifted forward, elbows resting on his knees. Contemplated her outstretched hand. "I'm trying to find the words that will fix everything forever."

She smiled, and patted his arm. "Thanks, buddy."

"In the futures you've seen, am I ever gone? Not dead, but just— not there?"

"I can't see very far ahead. But no. You're always there."

He nodded and straightened up. "Good. Then you can ask me."

"What?"

"If you don't know what's real, ask me. I only remember the one set of memories." He looked at her. "Shepard, I know I can't do much to help with what you're going through. But I'm real, and I'm here. I'll always be at your side."

He was wrong, but— he made it sound so simple. So straightforward. So unconditional.

The look on his face, the confident line of his shoulders.

"...You know, Garrus," she said finally, once she was sure her voice wouldn't crack. "Sometimes you say some pretty incredible things, too."

His good mandible flared out in a smile. "Hold tight. I'll get you a refill."

---

Halfway deep into her second glass, she slid down to sit on the floor, her head resting back against the couch seat. Her red skirt was streaked with dust. "I really thought Miranda was coming around to me. I actually like her, you know? As a person. Even if she's too brainwashed to realize how goddamn brainwashed she is."

Behind her, Garrus stretched out his legs, and made a thoughtful humming noise. "It sounded like you made a pretty good connection with her that night we were on Tuchanka."

Shepard glanced back up at him, surprised. "Yeah. How did you—?"

"You're not the only one who's allowed to chat up Lawson, you know."

She grumbled, and rested her drink on his knee. "Showoff."

His jaw clicked. "You told me to make friends with her."

"Yeah, I know." She sighed. "Thanks."

"Turned out to be more pleasant than I was expecting," he said. "Lawson likes people who can stand up to her. And she's good conversation. Surprisingly well-versed in turian history. She's read all the classics of the Unification Wars, even the revisionist account that came out from Apparitus last year." He paused. "Actually, maybe it's not all that surprising."

"Know thy enemy," she quoted, and reached back to clink her glass against his.

"I'll drink to that." He took a long sip.

"I went to talk with her in medbay, after she got out of surgery. I was still pissed off and shaken up after— everything. Maybe I should have waited. Maybe it didn't go as well as I thought it did." Shepard swirled her drink in her hand. "But it felt like there was something, there, at least for a little bit."

"Well... Lawson's got a lot going on for her, too. You did openly accuse her boss of attempted homicide."

"True." Shepard tipped her head back and gave Garrus a wry smile. "I also told her that I hate him and everything he stands for. And that I'd kill him if I ever got the chance."

Garrus outright laughed. "I'd forgotten about that. One of your finer moments."

"You heard about that too?"

"Yeah. We were talking about you after—" He gestured. "Illium."

"Oh." Shepard felt her face stiffen.

They'd worked it out. She understood the position he had been in. She even understood his logic, sort of. If she seriously thought Garrus was going to kill himself, she'd team up with anyone short of the Reapers to stop him.

It still didn't feel good.

"Lawson's in a tough spot, you know," he said. "You're a hard person to resist."

"Yeah." Shepard's brow wrinkled. "That's what she told me."

She sighed again, long and deep, then put her glass down and pushed herself away from the couch. She fell back flat onto the floor, arms stretched wide. Dust clouds bloomed around her like explosions in miniature.

"Bailey's not going to appreciate the cleaning bill," Garrus said, looking down at her.

"The Illusive Man is going to kill us," she said.

Garrus slid down off the couch and stretched out on the floor beside her, propping himself up on one arm. "Well, yes. But that's not news."

"After that stunt he pulled, I don't trust him to wait long enough for us to finish the mission anymore. He's a treacherous shit. We have to be ready to make a clean break before we head to the relay. The squad, the crew, Miranda, EDI— I've got to get everyone behind us, one hundred percent, if we're going to survive." Shepard stared up at the murky ceiling. "How the fuck do I do that?"

"Just be yourself," Garrus said, looking at her like she was an idiot.

"Garrus, I'm serious."

"So am I. You're already most of the way there. Do you realize how much everyone looks up to you? Do you realize how far out of your way you go for absolutely everyone who asks?"

She tipped her head back to frown at him. "You never ask me for anything."

"Everyone takes," he said. "I figured I should be the one to give."

Shepard stared up at him for a long moment, her mouth parted.

Garrus met her eyes. His sharp edges were blurred and softened in the darkness.

"You know, sometimes I can't believe my luck," she whispered. "I found you twice."

He reached a hand out to her. She thought he was going to pat her on the head again, but instead his fingers, feather-light, brushed against her cheek.

She watched, spellbound, as he traced a slow, careful path down the spiderweb of surgical scars that mapped her face.

His voice was very low, and very soft. "I know the feeling."

Her breath stopped. She had to swallow against the ache in her throat.

She sat up. Peeled off her glove, and reached out, slowly, tentatively, holding his gaze with hers.

She touched her bare fingertips to his scarred cheek.

"...Does it hurt?"

"Not anymore," he murmured. His eyes were locked on hers.

She stroked her fingers along the underside of his silvery brow. Traced slowly, gently, down the contour of his bandage, testing the torn edges of his plates, the glassy, ropelike scar tissue.

He brushed his fingers through her dusty hair. Grazed his thumb over the delicate skin of her eyelid. Trailed down along the outer shell of her ear, down the curve of her jaw, then along the rim of the dress collar winding around her throat.

She shifted closer. Mapped out the peaks and valleys of his cheekbone, mouth, mandible, chin. She traced over the stripe across his nose. Laid her palm against the open, un-plated length of his neck. The skin there was smooth, pliant. And so, so warm. It surprised her every time.

He brushed the corner of her mouth. His eyes were heavy-lidded. Dark.

She pressed her cheek into his hand. Looked up at him through her eyelashes. His gloved thumb dragged over her bottom lip.

Her body felt hot, languid. Like she was moving in a dream. She leaned into him. Laced her fingers back through the points of his fringe.

...When had this started?

When had he become so important to her? When had the space he took up in her heart begun to eclipse all the rest?

Maybe when he'd cussed her out for frightening him, back on Horizon. Maybe when he'd told her that he knew she was still herself, despite all the wires and circuitry.

Maybe when he'd asked her not to die.

Or maybe it went even further back than that. Maybe it had started when she'd found him again, against all odds, and then nearly lost him forever in the same instant.

The memory still burned. If only she'd known, back then—

'If only' a lot of things.

"You know I couldn't survive this without you," she said quietly.

His eyes were still on hers, her face still cradled in his hand. "You'll never have to."

She glanced down at his gloves. "Take these off."

He gave her an indecipherable look. Bit down delicately on the cloth, and pulled.

Christ. Her thighs clenched together. Her fingers tightened in his fringe.

His eyes grew dark with intent. He cupped her chin in his palm and drew her in, until she was practically in his lap, their faces scant centimeters apart.

She slipped her fingers underneath his mandible. Stroked the delicate, suede-like skin of his jaw.

He flicked her fingers with his long, flexible, blue-black tongue. She jumped, but then, emboldened, stroked a finger over that too. It was smooth. Slippery. Firmer than hers, and hotter. It rippled under her touch.

She drew back, and kept her eyes on his as she licked the taste of him off her hand.

A deep rumble rose up within his throat. "Not worried I'll put you out of commission?"

"Not allergic anymore," she replied. "Perks of undying. So give it your best shot, Vakarian."

Garrus chuckled, and slid the rough pad of his bare thumb over her lips. The edge of his claw pressed into her skin.

She parted her mouth for him. Let him test the wet heat inside. His rumble deepened into a growl.

She closed her teeth around his thumb and gave him a long, hard stroke with her tongue.

His eyes narrowed. He pulled out, smearing her own wetness over her lips. Licked up a stray drop from his glistening hand.

She gave him an evaluating look. "And what about you?"

"Who knows?" he drawled, looming over her. "Give it your best shot, Shepard."

She grabbed him by the cowl, wrapped her hand around the back of his neck, and pulled his mouth down to meet hers.

---

Oh. It was different. But it worked. Licking, biting, grabbing, pulling. Skin and hide, lips and teeth. Legs and arms tangled together. Ink-dark pupils and rising body heat. He'd been warm before, but now he was smoldering. She felt feverish. Dizzy. His tongue was wet and hot and hard against hers.

How long had it been since she'd been touched like this? Since she'd touched another? Her whole body trembled.

Shepard stilled, poised over him. One hand was fisted in his fringe, her other stroking the soft skin under his unfastened collar. "What are we doing," she whispered.

He licked a rough line up her throat. "No idea."

His palm slid up her skirt. His talons dragged against her bare thigh. She shivered. She wore nothing at all underneath her borrowed dress.

Damn him. Mordin had been right.

"I want to see you," Garrus murmured. His fingers brushed back through her hair. He reached behind her neck for the zipper.

She swallowed against the stab of heat that pulsed through her. "You first."

He squinted at her, then leaned forward and bumped his forehead against hers. "How old are you, again, in turian years? Five?"

"Shut up," she said, laughing, and then gasped as a line of cold air shot down her back.

His voice was darkly amused as he peeled the wine-red dress from her shoulders. "Sorry, Commander. You've been outflanked."

"The hell I have," she bit out, and slid her hands down his pants.

He stiffened underneath her. Made a low, jagged sound. "Shepard—"

"Hush." She crouched over him, taking in the textured skin that shifted from pebbly to silken, the hard plane of his abdomen, the sinuous curves of his hipbones. Exploring everywhere but the place at his center that radiated heat and need.

She stilled as two large, heavy hands snaked up along her thighs and cupped her ass. He squeezed, experimentally. Adjusted his grip. His fingers curled over her, wrapped almost all the way back around to— God. She froze. Two centimeters and he'd practically be inside her.

One fingertip grazed against her wetness. She jumped. He tilted his head to one side, regarding her. Pulled his hand back, and gave it a slow, considering lick.

She had to bite her lip to keep from moaning.

How dare he do this to her?

He fixed his ice-blue stare onto hers. Stroked a long, thick finger up through her dripping folds. Skimmed over the sweet spot at the top.

She jolted. The moan ripped out of her.

His good mandible flared out in a wicked smile, and he made a sound she'd never heard before. Dark and deep and liquid with satisfaction.

He grabbed hard onto her hip, kept her pinned in place. Flicked over her clit lightly, then roughly, at irregular intervals. She shook. Pressed her face into his shoulder. Clutched hard at his hips. Panted for air. How— fuck. Had he done research?

Slowly, she scraped together her determination, and began to move, inch by inch, halting with each fresh shock he sent through her. She shifted her hips back against his talented hand. Sat up, and spread open the front of his trousers like a book. His cock pulsed in time with his alien heartbeat, long and glistening and violently blue.

Her lips parted at the sight. There was a startlingly deep groove carved along the top, and his proportions were a little different, but... yeah. This worked for her. This worked really, really well.

She wrapped a hand around him and squeezed, gently, watching his face for a reaction. His skin was hot, slippery, oil-slick. She glided up his length. Brushed over his head. Traced down the line along the top. The liquid sound in his throat turned rough and ragged.

She stroked him, twisting her fingers, flicking her thumb over his tip, varying her rhythm to keep him off-balance. He arched up into her grip. The long muscles in his legs tensed and trembled beneath her.

She paused to give him a slow smile. Licked the taste of him off her palm. Musky. Tannic. Earthy. She liked it.

He growled. Grabbed her wrists and pulled her in close. Pushed her skirt up around her hips. Poised her entrance directly over him. She could feel the heat radiating up from him. Her body pulsed in answer.

"Do you want me," he bit out, panting. His tip grazed against her. They both shuddered.

"I want you," she whispered, and felt the truth of it well up and flood over her.

She was half-dead from wanting him. She'd wanted him forever. The professor hadn't told her anything she didn't already know, somewhere, deep inside of her; he was funny and sharp and handsome as hell, even with half his face scarred over, even with his claws and teeth and clicking jaw. He made her feel safe and cared for and whole and sane. He was her partner in all things. The lightning rod of her life. And he didn't even know—

Fuck. Fuck! She pulled away from him. "—Wait. Wait. Time out."

Garrus made a discordant noise. "What? Why? What's wrong?"

Shepard climbed off his lap. Sank down onto her knees. "I— we can't. Not yet. It wouldn't be right."

"Shepard?" He pushed himself up onto his elbows, looking confused and frustrated and still heavy-lidded with desire.

Her hands clenched in her rumpled skirts, then let go.

"There's one last thing I have to tell you."

Chapter Text

The room was quiet and still. A light breeze tugged at her hair. Her exposed shoulders prickled with goosebumps.

Garrus dropped his gaze to his straining erection. Laughed, once, dryly. "So this is what it takes to get the whole truth out of you."

She stared at him. "...What?"

He shot her a flat look. "Shepard, I was a cop. I know how to tell when someone's holding out on me."

She turned her face away. Looked instead at the upholstery pattern on the ancient sofa behind them. The golden-orange shafts of light retreating into the murky distance. The blooms of dust still swirling lazily in the air.

Her gaze fell on their abandoned glasses. She leaned over and retrieved her drink. Pushed his over to him, cutting a trail through the dust.

"How long have you known," she said.

He finished fastening his trousers, and lifted his glass. "Realized as soon as the alcohol burned off, after we left Mierin's apartment. You said some things that didn't add up."

She snapped her head back up. "And you've just— what? Been biding your time ever since?"

He nodded.

"...Pallin was an idiot to let me take you out of C-Sec," she said.

He shifted and leaned back against the couch. Watched her with a pale stare. Waiting.

She looked up at the ceiling. Collected herself. Took a deep breath.

Her body still ached with slow-dying arousal.

"You know the YMIR on Aeia," she began.

He nodded slowly.

"We'd split up. You hung back to cover while Jacob and I swept up the sides." She closed her eyes. "We were too spread out. He got surprised by a group of hunters, then went down in the crossfire before I could help. Then the YMIR was right on top of us." She rapped her knuckles against her breastbone. "Took a rocket at point-blank. I bled out in the grass in front of you."

Garrus was staring at her. "That's... not how I remember it."

She smiled faintly. "That's because we did a lot better the second time around."

"What?" His good mandible fell slack. "Shepard, what the hell—" He shook his head. Pressed one hand to his face. "No. I'll wait. Keep going."

Shepard took a sip of her drink. Rolled the glass between her palms. "Horizon."

"The Praetorian," he said.

"Yeah." She looked down at her hands. "Got myself lasered the first time. That was just stupid."

He sat perfectly still. His eyes were fixed on her.

"The next time I got cocky. Went in too close. Ended up pulverized by that biotic knockback thing." She blew air out through her teeth, remembering. "That really hurt."

A thin, unpleasant noise came from somewhere inside his throat. "I think I'm starting to see the pattern."

She smiled again, a little strained. "Yeah."

"Illium," he said.

"Twice. A sniper in the Dantius towers. Then a gunship." She rubbed the back of her head. "...The dust may have been a contributing factor."

"The Collector vessel."

"Three times."

He tipped his head back against the couch and closed his eyes.

She waited.

"Is that all," he said, finally.

"No." She pulled her knees up to her chest. "I think I'm at twelve or thirteen now. Not quite sure. The little ones sort of blur into each other."

He took a long, slow sip of his drink, and said nothing.

"Actually," she murmured, "Now that I think about it, there've been more. Back on Freedom's Progress, I was still fresh off the operating table. Stumbling around, kind of out of it. I told myself at the time it was just memory issues— deja vu. But now—"

Garrus's hand had frozen around his glass in mid-air. "Shepard."

"I die, Garrus," she said. "That's what I do. I die. Again and again. One minute it's all blood and bullets and screaming, and the next... it's like none of it ever happened. Like rewinding a vid. Or—"

"Resetting a game." His expression was fixed. Unreadable.

She rested her chin on her knees. "Yeah."

"And the rest of us?"

His voice fraying through the comm line. His hands fused tight to her melting armor.

"I'm not sure," she said.

Miranda's ruined eyes, shriveled and blackened from the heat. Beads of plasma glistening between the cracks in her blistered skin.

"I think you die too. But no one else ever seems to notice. To remember."

Gasping, bitter, blood-soaked laughter. The last breath bubbling in his throat.

She glanced up at him. "But I remember everything."

Garrus stared at her.

A sharp, thin noise made them both jump. He looked down at his hand. The priceless antique glass had cracked between his fingers.

He stood up, pivoted, and hurled it against the wall.

It exploded into fragments. Shards rained down into the dust. Drops of molten-metal liquid spattered around them.

Shepard scrambled to her feet and backed away, eyes wide, hands raised. "Garrus."

He just stood there, breathing hard. A dark silhouette, tall and stiff-shouldered, staring out into the gloom.

"You were the last person I had left," he said, without turning around.

She took a deep breath. Stepped forward. Her boots brushed through the dust, stirring up swirls and eddies. "Garrus—"

He tilted his head fractionally. Wan golden light spilled over one cheekbone. "I asked you not to die again."

"...Yes," she said.

"You promised you wouldn't die."

"Yes," she said again, her heart sinking.

"You said you didn't know what I was talking about when I asked you about the YMIR. About the Praetorian."

"Yes."

"You didn't just leave things out. You lied to me."

She swallowed. Fuck. "—Yes."

"You lied," he said again, his voice cracking on the word.

"I—" She stopped herself. Bit her lip. "I didn't want to lose you," she managed, finally.

His jaw clicked sharply. "That's your justification?"

"I just— Garrus—" Shepard put her hands to her face. "I died. I'm dead. But look. Here I am, new and improved."

He made a complicated, multitonal noise that she couldn't interpret.

"Everyone's forgotten me. Forgotten the Reapers. It's like none of it ever even happened. And now I'm not just undead but actually fucking immortal, and working for Cerberus because no one else will take me, and nothing makes any goddamn sense anymore." She dropped her hands to her sides. Let out a short, sad bark of a laugh. "Even the fucking guns are different now."

He turned to face her, finally, chin lowered. Arms folded.

"Everything that's happened is so crazy, I feel like I'm drowning in it. But you're here. You're sane." She spread her palms. "I thought if I told you the whole truth, you would hate me. That you would find me disgusting. That you would leave me. I couldn't— I can't—" She let out her breath. Gestured down at her body. "Back on Earth, we tell each other horror stories about this kind of thing, you know? Monsters that die, then come back to life."

A discordant rumbling noise. "Sounds like your monsters and your gods have something in common."

She looked down at her hands. The fine, threadlike surgical scars glimmered faintly in the low light. "Yeah. I guess we do."

Silence.

"Did you ever do it on purpose?"

"Do what?"

He glared at her. Pointed a finger at her heart.

"Oh." She hesitated. Fuck. "Uh—"

His eyes narrowed.

She sighed. "...The Collector ship."

"Tell me."

"It was just— a clusterfuck." Shepard turned her head to the side. Closed her eyes. "Miranda's skull cracked open. Scion pulse. It was my fault, I put her out on the wing, and she wasn't covered. Then, the next time, I overcompensated, and you— your shields were out. They cut through your armor. Depressurized your lungs. The medi-gel bought you an extra minute, but you weren't— I couldn't—" She exhaled. "I wasn't going to let that happen to you. Either of you."

"You killed yourself," Garrus said slowly, his voice taut with disbelief. "You killed yourself to fix a mistake."

"I did it to save your life," she snapped, leaning forward. "What would you have preferred? To lie there rotting on that platform while the Reapers storm in and screw the entire galaxy?"

"We were a unit," he said patiently, as if explaining to a small child. "And you abandoned it. You left me behind." He tilted his head to one side. "I realize humans and turians are different, Shepard, but military is military. I would have thought by now you'd picked up a thing or two."

She lifted her chin. "Sure I did. How to salvage a shitty situation. How to look for alternate solutions. How to see the mission through."

"Strange solution you found. Don't you Alliance have a saying? Something about loyalty? Honor?" His voice softened to a dark purr. "Or did Cerberus decide to leave out those bits when they were stitching up your brai—"

She grabbed him by the cowl. Yanked him in close.

"Fuck my honor," she hissed, glaring up at him. "If honor doesn't keep you alive, then it's useless to me." Her fingernails dug into his undersuit. "I hated every motherfucking second of it. I hated leaving you there. You screamed at me to stop and called me a rotten fucking liar and I kept going. I walked straight into Harbinger's— into that Reaper's hands and listened to it gloat while it fried me to ashes. It. Hurt."

His eyes were wide in the darkness. Pale rings of blue around the black.

"I burned to death to save you," she said, more quietly. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I'd do it over and over again. I'd do it every day if it meant I could keep you by my side." She released her grip on him. Lifted her other hand to his injured cheek. "...I wish I'd done it on Omega."

He was silent for a long moment, that indecipherable look on his face again.

"I'm touched, Shepard," he murmured, finally. "Never figured you for a romantic."

Before she could retort, he shifted in her grasp. Tilted his face down towards hers. She opened her mouth to— protest? crack a joke? something— but then he kissed her, long and hard. The shocking heat of his mouth pressed her into silence.

Heavy, warm fingers curled around the back of her neck. A thumb brushed against the corner of her jaw. His forehead rested against hers.

His voice thrummed, soft and rich in her ear. "But as far as grand gestures go, I'd prefer ones that involve you staying alive."

...God damnit, did he think she hadn't tried?

She shoved him back and threw up her hands. "Tell it to the fucking Collectors, Vakarian. I did my best."

A dark rumble rose up from his throat. "If you have to walk headfirst into a Reaper to fix it, Shepard, then your best isn't good enough."

Ah.

There it was. The rotten heart of the matter.

"Well." She wiggled her scarred fingers at him. "I have a medical excuse."

His eyes narrowed. The rumble deepened. "...You've changed."

She flung her arms out. "No shit, Vakarian. I'm fucking immortal!"

"Not what I meant." He gestured at her head, her heart.

She put her hands over her heart and glared at him.

"Other people don't seem quite real to you anymore, do they?" he said slowly. "It's all just a game."

"...How dare you," she hissed.

He chuckled, once. A low, bitter sound.

"Lawson really is a genius, isn't she," he said, looking her up and down. "I was completely taken in. Started to think you might even be better than the original."

She looked down at her fingers, still folded over her chest.

"But then again." His voice was soft. Poisonous. "Lately, it seems I'm not the best judge of character."

The last person left who still believed in her.

She'd killed herself to save him. And now she'd lost him too.

She closed her eyes. Lowered her hands.

Her lips twitched.

Her mouth curled into a strange, warped smile. It stretched and deepened. Cracked wide across her face.

A chuckle bubbled up out of her, startling them both. She hid her face behind her hands. Then another muffled snort, and another, and then she was laughing helplessly, doubled over, a sick, hateful ball of laughter.

It was actually really fucking funny, if you looked at it from the outside. All the lies. All the bullshit. All the late nights lying awake, all the loneliness, all the fear. All the panic and fury and wretched, grinding self-doubt. And for what?

To protect this last, fragile thread of connection— to protect her best and strangest friendship in the entire universe— to save his life, she'd committed the one crime her bad turian could never forgive.

Her body shook. Her sides cramped. She could barely breathe. Her heart felt boiled dry inside her chest.

A warm, heavy hand came to rest on top of her shoulder.

She looked up at him, still panting from laughter.

He looked down at her.

"Infida," he said, or something that sounded like that.

After a brief moment her translator parsed it: 'Faithless place.'

She wiped at her streaming eyes. "What?"

"In turian philosophy, there's a special hell for people like you." His good mandible tilted out at an angle she couldn't read. "Too bad you can't stay dead long enough to experience it."

She let out a hoarse chuckle. "Whatever turian hell's like, it's got to be better than this."

He turned his face away. Looked out into the murky room, his gaze unfocused.

He still hadn't moved his hand. His fingertips brushed idly through the ends of her hair.

"Of course, if there's one thing I've learned in my life," he murmured, "it's that the bad guys run too fast for hell to catch up."

"I was always good at running," she agreed.

His thumb stroked over her collarbone.

She stepped in closer. Tipped her head down, and let it rest against his shoulder.

After a moment, he wrapped his arm around her.

They stayed like that for a long time, in silence.

"Typical," he said into the darkness.

"What?"

"You somehow managed to pick a secret that was even worse than all the horrible things I'd been imagining about you."

She glanced up. "Like what?"

"That you were a preprogrammed clone. That your brain had been hijacked by Cerberus implants. That you were some kind of synthetic construct, infused with Reaper tech."

"Jesus," she said, appalled.

He was silent for a long moment.

"So you really are a god now," he said, finally. "How does it feel?"

She huffed out a laugh into his shoulder. "Shitty."

Another wordless pause. She listened to him breathing.

"...I'm sorry," she whispered.

"I trusted you."

She closed her eyes. "I know."

"You should have trusted me."

"I know."

His hand shifted from her shoulder. Trailed down to the small of her back. Pressed her close.

She stretched up on her tiptoes. Wrapped her arms around his neck.

"I'm furious," he said, his voice low and soft in her ear.

"I know," she murmured, and hugged him tighter.

"I hate this. I hate what you've done. I can't make sense of it."

"I know."

He kissed her again, hard and lingering. Her eyes stung. Her cheeks burned. She kissed him back, fiercely, the dormant arousal shuddering to life inside her.

"Promise me you won't sacrifice yourself like that ever again," he whispered, looking intently at her face. "Promise me next time you'll do whatever it takes to get out alive. That you won't leave me to die alone in an empty universe without you."

She stilled. Stared up at him.

"No," she said.

His shoulders stiffened. "...What?"

"No," she said again. "No. I can't promise that. If I'd run when you told me to, you and Miranda would both be dead right now. For keeps. I'm not going to let that happen."

His hands clenched around her. "That's not the point. Those other versions of us were real, too. So Lawson and I are both dead right now. And because you're not there with us, because you gave up and left, our deaths don't even mean anything. That's worse than going into an unmarked grave. That's worse than—"

"—God damnit, Garrus," she said, her throat tight. "Do you think I don't know that?"

He'd grasped the fucked-up metaphysics of the situation a whole hell of a lot quicker than she had.

"You're going to do this again," he said.

"If I have to," she said. "Yes. I will."

His good mandible snapped down hard against his jaw. He yanked her arms from around his neck. Stepped back. Bent down and picked up his gloves.

Something wrenched inside her. "Wait. What? You're leaving?"

Garrus shook his head, and let out a short, scornful laugh. "...As if there were anywhere else I could even fucking go."

He went over to the doorway. Collected his jacket. "I'll be there for missions when you need a sniper. Don't bother coming by the battery. EDI can keep me apprised."

"Garrus. Please." Shepard pressed her forehead into her palms. "I did it to save you."

"You didn't ask me if I wanted that kind of saving."

He paused at the threshold. Put his hand on the doorframe.

"Why did you even bring me along, if you weren't going to rely on me?" His voice was low. Strained. "You kept me in the dark this entire time. Was I only here to be your barometer for insanity?"

"I'm sorry," Shepard said again, dropping her hands. "I do rely on you. I trust you. And I need you. More than anyone else."

"No, you don't." His good mandible flicked out in a black, bitter smile. "You're invincible."

She recoiled.

"Fuck you, Shepard." He turned on his heel. "Do whatever you want. You always have."

---

She stumbled backwards. Sank down onto the dusty couch. Stared out at nothing.

Her shoulders prickled with goosebumps. The back of her dress was still undone.

A beep. She blinked down at her wrist. The alarm. She had to— she had to contact the ship. She had to go back.

It was almost pitch-black inside the room now. Faint traces of blue sky reflected off the shiny parts of the floor, where the carpet of dust had been disturbed. Footprints. Butt prints. Leg prints. Swishes and swoops from her skirt. And a large, empty swath where their two bodies had tangled together.

She tapped on her borrowed omni-tool.

A moment later, Miranda's tinny voice came through the speaker. "Normandy SR-2. This is Lawson."

"It's me." Her voice sounded hollow. Unfamiliar. "Checking in. I'm heading back now."

"Acknowledged. See you soon."

The line cut out. She didn't move.

The last of the light vanished.

A cold breeze swept over her bare shoulders.

Shepard sucked in a deep breath, and pushed herself up. Flicked on the omni-tool's flashlight. Made her way to the door. Burrowed into her dusty cloak.

After a long pause, she turned back, and retrieved the bottle. The precious, ancient fluid twisted inside the glass. Bent the beam of her flashlight into broken fractals.

She shut the door behind her, and began to retrace her steps.

---

By the time she made it back to C-Sec, her stomach was cramping from hunger. She hadn't brought rations. Stupid. Even if she wasn't actively fighting, her metabolism still carved her up from the inside out.

Bailey was off on break. His assistant asked no questions. Shepard told her where to forward the cleaning bill.

The pieces of her armor lay alone in their box. He'd come and gone.

She clipped and snapped her way back into uniform, tucked the bottle of priceless Palaveni liquor into her spare pack, and left.

The wards thronged with people. Barflies, shoppers, restaurant patrons. She stood in front of the gate leading back to the docking bay for a solid minute before she turned around again.

The chef plunked a steaming bowl onto the counter in front of her. She wolfed the noodles down without really tasting anything. Wiped her mouth on her hand. "Hey. Is there a theater or something around here?"

"You must be new," the chef said. "Three stairs down, right below this shop. —Wait, did you mean a movie theater, or a theater-theater?"

"Either," Shepard said. "It doesn't matter."

"Oh," he said, eyebrows lifting. "Well then. Three stairs down."

She tapped out a message to Miranda. Talking felt like too much.

Changed my mind. Staying out for a while. -S

Acknowledged. Vakarian just returned. -ML

The venue three stairs down turned out to be a movie theater. She bought a ticket for the one with the longest runtime. Settled into her seat.

Her omni-tool pinged again.

Shepard, is everything okay? -ML

She didn't bother responding.

---

Beautiful holographic actors punched and argued and wept their way through the beats of their plotline. Shepard didn't take much of it in.

Why had it gone like this? Why couldn't he understand?

Lying to him was— well, she regretted it. But it seemed like he would have forgiven her for that much. Dying to save him. Walking into Harbinger's hands. Why had that been the breaking point?

She didn't know all that much about turian cultural values. Just the standard stuff from xenoanthro courses during officer training: Unit loyalty, above all else. Steadiness. Discipline. Accountability. Honor. Self-sacrifice.

She'd royally fucked up on five out of six.

So... that wasn't great. But he hadn't just expressed a general disgust with her actions. He acted like he'd been specifically, personally, betrayed.

Was this an Omega thing? He'd said something about dying alone. Dying without meaning. Worse than an unmarked grave.

She scrubbed her hands over face. Thanked every god and goddess she could think of that she'd never killed herself to spite him, like she'd been tempted to on Pragia.

It horrified her, now, to think she could have been capable of that kind of cruelty. Now that she was actually thinking about someone other than her own damn self. Now that she could see more of the universe than just the three feet in front of her own face—

Other people don't seem quite real to you anymore, do they?

Fucking hell. He'd been right. He was right.

But what was she supposed to do about it?

Her reality was the only reality. She was the player, and this was her game.

If only she didn't have to play it all alone.

Chapter Text

Decon took forever. Shepard thumped her forehead gently against the doors. The Normandy still rattled and pounded under the contractors' efforts.

She shucked her armor. Stowed the the precious purloined liquor bottle in her bottom desk drawer. Paced the room. She needed to do something. Keep moving. Get some distance. Get some perspective.

"EDI, where's Samara? Is she on board?"

"Justicar Samara is in Starboard Observation. The noise does not appear to bother her."

"Thanks."

A slight pause. "You are welcome, Shepard."

Samara sat in full lotus, eyes aglow, hands cradling a sphere of energy that trembled in its containment. Her finely chiseled face was still and serene.

"Shepard," she said, without turning around. Surprise tinged her cultured voice. "I had thought you were on leave."

"I was." Shepard leaned against the side of the couch. "Hi. How are you doing?"

"I am glad you came." The sphere between Samara's palms feathered down her arms and vanished. She stood up. "I told you about the dangerous person I was hunting. The one who eluded me, back on Ilium."

Shepard nodded. Samara looked at her for a moment, then stepped over to the window.

Skyscrapers glittered against the false evening sky of the Citadel. Ships hummed in and out among the docking bays, green and orange guidance beacons blinking along their paths.

Samara glanced back over one armored shoulder. "I have found her."

"Great." Shepard straightened up. "Let's go get her."

A slight pause. "...I must confess, I did not expect you to agree so readily."

"Is there some reason I shouldn't?"

"Perhaps." Samara's pale eyes were unreadable. "Her name is Morinth. She is my daughter. And I am going to kill her."

"I see," Shepard said.

Samara stood still, waiting.

"Well." Shepard folded her arms. "Does she deserve it?"

Samara gestured sharply. "She is a monstrous predator, completely without morals. She slaughters innocents and leaves only devastation behind her."

Shepard pursed her lips. If asked, a fair number of people might say the exact same thing about her. Maybe Morinth just had a case of bad PR.

Hell with it. She wasn't here to weigh anyone else's soul, not when her own needed so much work. If this was what it took to get Samara on board, then fine.

Time to take a page out of Thane's book, and be a loaded gun.

"Of course I'll help, Samara. Tell me what I need to know."

---

It was a rough story. Samara's entire life had been upended. Her lover, her family, her world stripped away from underneath her. And she blamed herself for her daughter's genetic sociopathy.

Four hundred years spent friendless and alone, outlasting everyone she'd ever loved, chasing after an impossible enemy. And yet— somehow— she was still sane.

Shepard hadn't even managed two months yet.

"How do you do it," she murmured, without thinking.

Samara looked over at her. The light from the beacons glinted off her jewelled crest.

Shepard hadn't meant to say anything, but suddenly, she really needed to know. "Samara, what you've been through— How do you cope? Where do you find the strength to keep moving forward?"

Samara turned her face away again. "I am nearly a thousand years old, and still, I do not know."

A long silence stretched between them. They watched an overburdened cargo ship struggle into a nearby berth. Dockhands from three different species swarmed the gangplank.

"Nothing in this universe is permanent," Samara murmured, gazing out at the minor chaos unfolding on the docks. "Without accepting that, attachment only brings suffering. A maiden must resolve to cherish her joys while they last, to accept her sorrows with open arms, and let them both pass through in peace."

An asari forewoman shouted and gesticulated at a pair of testy-looking crew. The turian freight captain stood by, impatience written all over her body language. The ship lurched as another pair of asari, wreathed in biotics, yanked a massive container out of the hold.

"Sounds like good advice," Shepard said. "Does it work?"

"No."

Shepard turned to look at her.

"Just as my daughter struggles to outrun her fate, so I have struggled against mine. That was why I turned to the code. It was the only answer to an unanswerable question." Samara's face was as cold and still as stone. "Now it is the only thing I have left."

Shepard reached out to touch her arm. "...I am so sorry, Samara."

Samara held up one gauntleted hand. "Do not be. I am living for something far greater than myself, Shepard. I would not wish my path on another, but I have no regrets."

---

The observation doors slid shut behind her. Shepard leaned against them for a moment. Contemplated the decking below her feet.

This strange, shiny ship. This strange, superpowered life. Hounded by her enemies, haunted by her failures: a single player, alone.

It sure as hell wasn't what she would have chosen— but it didn't matter. She was here.

She could live for something greater than herself. She would keep going.

Her omni-tool blinked. Shepard, we need to talk. -ML

She shut it off.

Her heart still hurt, but maybe she didn't need it anymore.

"EDI, where's Thane?"

"Mr. Krios is currently outside C-Sec headquarters. I believe he is waiting for you."

"Damn. Has he been there this whole time?" She made a beeline for the mess. Grabbed a fistful of ration bars.

"No, he left shortly before you returned to the ship. He had a brief encounter with Officer Vakarian."

Shepard stilled, looking up at the ceiling. "He what? What did Garrus say?"

"Very little. Mr. Krios observed that he appeared to be upset. Officer Vakarian told him that we already had one detective on board, and didn't need another."

Heh. Shepard smiled, despite herself, and resumed stuffing bars into her uniform pockets. "What an ass."

"Shepard, if I may ask a question." EDI sounded odd. Hesitant.

"Yes?"

"When you and Officer Vakarian disembarked, you appeared to be enjoying one another's company."

"Yes, we were." Where was the AI going with this?

"You went offline for a period of approximately five hours. When your hardsuit data feeds resumed, you both displayed low percentages of blood ethanol, and significantly elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Then you returned to the ship separately."

"That sounds about right."

"...What happened?"

God help her, her ship wanted gossip.

But it was funny. EDI sounded— if it was possible— genuinely curious. Despite that smooth, robotic voice, there was something almost childlike about her intonation.

"We got in a bad fight." Shepard poked at the call button for the elevator. "He disagreed with the way I'd been handling some things. I disagreed with his disagreement."

"Who is right?"

Shepard laughed, and rubbed at her eyes. "Hell. I wish I knew. Maybe we both are."

"I don't understand," EDI said. The elevator doors hissed open.

"Me either, EDI," Shepard said. "Can you take me to my cabin, please?"

"Certainly, Shepard."

---

The AI hovered around her as she showered and changed into a fresh suit of underarmor. Shepard tried to fill her in on the situation, in general terms.

"It's hard to explain. I don't think it's something that can be settled logically. It's more like a difference in perspective. The way he looks at it, he's right; the way I look at it, I am."

"How can you both be right if your positions are opposed?"

"Well..." Shit. She scrambled for an analogy. "Okay. Take the genophage. On the one hand, the krogan are suffering, badly. Tuchanka is depopulated and demoralized, and their culture is falling apart. In Alliance systems, forced sterilization is normally considered torture. It's a disgusting thing to do to another person, much less an entire species."

"Yet Doctor Solus participated in maintaining it."

"Yes." Shepard checked over her SMG, and snapped it to her side. "Because on the other hand, the krogan tore the entire galaxy to pieces. They killed billions. Destroyed entire planets. And right now, there's every reason to expect that they'd do it all over again if they got half a chance."

EDI was silent for a half-beat. "I have pulled data from archives on krogan history, culture, war strategy, and demographics, as well as the names and personal records of all living warlords and clan leaders, and constructed an analysis of Tuchanka's current political and ecological landscape. If the genophage were eliminated today, odds of a second galactic conflict within the next two centuries approach ninety-three percent."

...Wow. Shepard wondered if she should tell Mordin that. "Okay. So, was committing a war crime to prevent a war the right thing to do?"

"Based on the data in Doctor Solus's files, the number of krogan that have been prevented from being born to date far exceeds the death count from the war itself." EDI paused. "Life for life, it was wrong."

"But that's not life for life," Shepard said, strapping on her greaves. "Preventing someone from being born isn't equivalent to killing an adult. Or a child."

"As I am not alive, I am not qualified to judge," EDI said serenely. "However, a ninety-three percent probability of war isn't a certainty. There is still a chance the krogan could find a way to stabilize their own population growth over time."

Shepard flashed a smirk up at the ceiling. "Now you're getting it."

A pause. "Shepard, what do you think was the right choice?"

"I still don't know," she said. "Both sides are right, and both sides are wrong."

"I see."

She stood up and shoved her feet into her boots. "Oof. But, you know, punishing someone for something they might do has never sat well with me."

"I see." EDI's voice had that hesitant note in it again.

"Hey, EDI?"

"Yes, Shepard."

"If you come to a decision, let me know what you think. I'd like to hear your perspective."

"I will. Thank you, Shepard. You have given me a considerable amount of data. I will be processing it for some time."

Shepard smiled up at her invisible cameras. "You're welcome."

---

She stopped by the armory before heading out. Chatted up Jacob for a little bit.

"Vakarian looked pretty pissed, earlier."

God damnit, did everyone know?

"We had some words. He might not get over it."

Jacob whistled. "Damn. Must have been some words."

"We know each other pretty well," she said, as he handed over a pouch full of heat sinks. She clipped it to her thigh. "Usually that'd be a good thing. But sometimes all it does is give you more ammo."

"You're telling me." He frowned down at the deck, in the vague direction of Miranda's office.

"The plasma rifle, too. That warty-looking one from Horizon. Is it good to go?"

"Uh? Sure, Shepard." He reached for it. "You usually don't mess with the heavy weapons. Special occasion?"

"No, but from now on I think I'd rather be prepared for anything. The Collector ship kind of spooked me."

He nodded. "Sounded hairy down there. Thanks for getting Miranda out in one piece."

Her lips twisted in a rueful smile. "It was more like two or three pieces."

"You know what I meant."

"I do." She clapped him on the shoulder. "Anytime."

As if on cue, her omni-tool blinked again. Shepard, this is serious. I'm not going to chase you all over the ship. Come find me. -ML

Shepard flicked away the notification, nodded to Jacob, and left.

---

She had no compunctions about pulling the Spectre card this time. The intake queue was at least fifty meters deep.

Thane paced in front of C-Sec Headquarters, drawing glances from the passersby. Mostly curious, some appreciative. A few very appreciative.

"Thane. Sorry for the wait."

He came to a dead stop. His coattails swished around him. "Thank you for coming, Siha."

"Of course. I'm here to help. What do you need me to do?"

---

Another long, sad story. She left Thane and Kolyat alone in the small, darkened conference room, and walked over to Bailey, who was polishing off the last of his takeout. "Hey, thanks. You didn't have to put yourself out for us like that. I really appreciate it."

"Yeah, well." Bailey slurped up a noodle. "Think he's the only father who's ever screwed up raising a son?"

Shepard rested her hip against his desk. "That's three I owe you now."

"Yep."

---

Thane was unusually quiet on their walk back to the ship. Even for him.

"Hey. Are you sure you don't want to stay out for a bit? Get some dinner?"

"I—" He lifted his head. Looked at her. Neon flashed over the surface of his glassy, ink-black eyes.

"We don't have to talk."

"Then yes," he said, slowly. "I think I would like that."

She smiled, and patted his arm. "C'mon. I know a place."

He fell into step beside her. His hand brushed against hers. His finely scaled skin was cool to the touch.

She'd thought it was an accident, but then he did it again, and squeezed her fingers gently. "Thank you, Siha."

Hmm. She squeezed back, once, and let go. "You're welcome."

---

Miranda finally cornered her by the elevator on the crew deck. "God damnit, Shepard."

...Fuck. "Hey. Want in on these leftovers? They're from the Thessian stand on 28th."

Miranda glanced down at the box in her hands, then resumed glaring at her. "You've been avoiding me. What happened with Vakarian? Is this going to affect the mission?"

"Yes, a fight, and no. In that order."

Miranda crossed her arms. Lifted an eyebrow.

Shepard sighed and gestured her into the elevator. "C'mon."

The doors shut. The mechanism whirred.

"I'd been worried something like this might happen," Miranda said after a moment.

"You were?" Shepard looked at her in surprise. "Really? Why?"

"You've both been changed by your experiences. You're both post-traumatic and under significant stress. He's become extremely protective of you. And you... well." Miranda made an expressive gesture.

"I'm a maniac," Shepard translated.

"Essentially."

"I guess that makes sense." Shepard rubbed at her forehead. "He's my best friend, though. Or was. Damn it."

"I'm aware." The chime sounded, and the doors slid open. Miranda looked at her. "Are you going to be okay, Shepard?"

"As long as I keep busy. Which I ought to be doing anyway." She took a deep breath and led the way into her cabin. "It's fine. Just gotta keep moving."

Miranda paused at the top of the stairs. "I recall you lecturing me rather forcefully about the importance of downtime and recovery, not that long ago."

"Yeah, well. I recall we established that I'm all talk." Shepard tossed the leftovers onto her desk, and collapsed onto her uncomfortable sofa.

Miranda settled herself carefully on the far corner. "I think it would be good for you to start making other strong connections on the ship."

"Oh?" Shepard raised an eyebrow. "Who do you propose, exactly?"

"Jacob... is a steady man, and a good friend."

Shepard gave her a sharp look. "He cares about you more than anyone. Why are you trying to rent him out to me?"

Miranda's eyes widened. "That's not—"

Shepard waved her into silence. "—Look. I like you, Miranda. I think you and I could be good friends. But after we're done with this mission, you're going back to the Illusive Man, and I'm going on to kill Reapers, and that's that. I need people who I can keep at my side. And I don't see a lot of options here."

"You could come work for Cerberus," Miranda said, perfectly neutral.

Wow. There it was.

"Pardon?" Shepard managed.

"You know we're committed to pushing this war forward. We'll give you all the resources you need. You'll never lack for allies ever again. You and I could keep working together indefinitely."

"I'm amazed you can say this to me with a straight face."

"I mean it, Shepard. Now that I've seen what you can do— honestly, I wish we'd recruited you a long time ago."

It took a great deal of effort to quell her furious, automatic retort. But she had to make them think there was still a bare chance. That she was still worth keeping around to work on.

"I'm impressed by you," Shepard admitted. "I'm impressed by Cerberus's reach and power. But it's not going to happen."

"I understand you have reservations." Miranda spread her hands. "But please at least consider it. We could accomplish a lot together. We already have."

Parroting the Illusive Man's own lines after the Collector ship. Did she know what she was saying? Had he fed this to her? Told her how to get under Shepard's skin?

...How in the hell had he gotten under Miranda's?

That thought infuriated her all over again. Oily, manipulative bastard. God damnit, Miranda was too smart for this bullshit. She was better than him. Better than Cerberus.

Shepard had to admit her technique was masterful, though; worthy of a cult leader. Miranda had waited for her to become isolated, stretched thin. Hurting. Then she'd reached out to offer everything Shepard had ever, ever wanted.

Support.

It helped that Shepard honestly didn't know how the fuck she was going to do this without Cerberus resources.

"I'll consider it," she said, and picked up a datapad. "After the retrofits are done, we're going back to Omega. Samara has something there that can't wait."

"Understood," Miranda said briskly. Had Shepard imagined the tiny flicker of satisfaction on her face? "While we're in the Terminus, I'd like to take the opportunity to hunt down some more mineral deposits. Solus has been tearing through our supply of platinum. There are also a few lower-priority agenda items in the area." She met Shepard's eyes. "I thought we could use them as an opportunity to evaluate squad integration and combat readiness."

Huh. Guess all of her yelling about preparation and teamwork had actually sunk in.

"Good idea," Shepard said, oddly touched. "I'll take a look at them. EDI, can you let Joker know the plan?"

"I will inform him as soon as he is awake," EDI responded. "He is currently facedown at a table in the Dark Star, in non-REM stage 2 sleep. His tab has not been settled."

Aw, hell. Shepard pushed herself up. "Thanks for telling me. I'll go get him."

Miranda forestalled her with a hand on her arm. "You should get some rest. I'll go. I'm the XO, after all."

Shepard grinned and sat back. "I'll pay you to get a vid of the look on his face."

"Save your money. I make more than you do." Miranda stood up. "Well then, if there's nothing else—"

"Just one," Shepard said, holding up a finger. "Will you promise to actually come out with me next time? I'm not the only one who's been avoiding people."

Miranda's lips pursed slightly. "...That's fair. All right, Shepard. We have a deal."

Shepard smiled at her. "Good."

Funny how things came full circle sometimes. Back on Earth, during her heyday with the Reds, Shepard had been accused of acting like a cult leader herself. Scooping up the distressed, the vulnerable. Pulling them into her fold.

Back on Earth, she'd been offended.

The door slid shut behind Miranda's heels. The elevator whirred.

Shepard exhaled, and slumped down in her seat.

Now, she just hoped like hell that they'd had been on to something.

---

Itchy silence settled around her. Shepard paced the length of her empty cabin. Tried to read for a while. Answered a few emails. Banged out some pull-ups on her door frame. Lay flat on her back, staring up through her skylight at the far arm of the Citadel. The wards glowed reddish-pink through their thin layer of atmosphere.

I hate this. I hate what you've done.

Your best isn't good enough.

The argument played on infinite loop inside her brain.

When she managed to wrench her thoughts off that track, they just sped down along another: what they had been about to do before the argument. The heat and texture of his silvery skin. The weight of his hands. His long, long tongue sliding into her mouth. His fingers sliding somewhere else. Just the memory was enough to—

Fuck. She shook her head violently, and pushed herself to her feet. "EDI, I need to get out of here. Is there anyone in the gym?"

"Officer Vakarian is currently employing the punching bag."

Fuck! "Uh. What about the mess?"

"Crewman Rolston is currently in the mess, but it appears that he is about to leave."

All right then. Tea time. Why not.

Downstairs, she rattled in the cabinets until she procured something with asari script on it that smelled sort of minty. Got lost in thought watching the bright, grass-green leaves diffusing their color into the water. Didn't notice the faint whirring sound from the elevator shaft behind her until it was almost too late.

She darted portside and hammered on Thane's door. She caught a glimpse of familiar black underarmor and a long, slender leg emerging from the lift, but then she was inside, and the holographic lock was back up and glowing. Safe.

Thane blinked at her. "Siha."

"Hi," she said, trying to look nonchalant. "I made you some tea. How are you feeling?"

---

Thane had shed a lot of his cool reserve around her, now that Kolyat was safe. He'd been badly rattled by the close call. He was grateful. Relieved. And lonely. It showed.

His wife had been very brave. Selfless, too, and fiercely moral. An extraordinary person.

Shepard really didn't deserve the comparison.

She patted his hand. "Thank you for telling me about her."

"All the memories I have are yours to share," he said simply.

Hmm.

She stood up. Collected his empty teacup. "Get some rest, all right? I know today was rough on you."

"I will, Siha. Thank you for coming by."

"Goodnight, Thane."

---

The next morning. Omega. It smelled like it always smelled. Shepard wrinkled her nose.

Samara walked at her side in silence as they picked their way through trash-strewn corridors. They spoke to Aria, and then a grieving mother. Examined her late daughter's journals.

How did this happen to me? I'm just dumb trash from Omega.

Shepard ground her teeth. This case was rubbing on some old, raw nerves.

She'd seen it before. People in suits would come through Reds territory, sometimes, standing out like silver dollars in a sea of dirt. Smooth talkers. Predators. They came for the prettier girls and boys; for the ones that were too young to know any better. The ones that thought too little of themselves to say no.

She left those suits flayed open and baking under the hot sun, to set an example. Then the pretty girls and boys started flocking to her instead.

After that, the name had stuck.

"Shepard," Samara said.

She glanced up. The bouncer stood waiting at the top of the stairs. "Right."

It'd been a while since she'd come alone to a club. The music was deafening, the drinks stiff, the patrons a standard mixture of cheerful, sleazy, dangerous, and desperate. It didn't take long before a black-clad body stepped out of the shadows in front of her.

Morinth was beautiful; a languid, slender, smoky-voiced version of her mother. A smooth-talking predator like all the rest. And now Shepard stood here flirting with her.

They went back to Morinth's tastefully furnished apartment. She brought Shepard a drink. Laid her arm along the back of the couch. Shepard's skin crawled.

Morinth brushed her fingers over Shepard's cheek.

Shepard's jangling nerves fell silent. She leaned into Morinth's touch.

Togetherness, closeness, oneness, like she'd never felt before. It pulled her in with the force of gravity. It filled her empty spaces.

"Look into my eyes," Morinth whispered, and the world went black.

---

She floated through a soft, dark space.

"I know you, Shepard."

"Yes," she murmured.

"I understand you. I'm the only one who can."

"Yes."

A warm, heavy weight settled into her lap.

"We both have something different about us, don't we?" the voice murmured. "I can feel it in in you. Something strong. Something special. Something that sets us apart from the others."

"Yes."

Fingers stroked up the line of her throat. Caressed her cheek.

"Tell me you want me."

"I want you."

Soft lips brushed over hers. "Tell me you'll do anything for me."

"I—" She hesitated. Frowned.

"I know you, Shepard." The fingers gripped her face. "Give me what I want, and we'll always be together." Another long, lingering kiss. "Stay with me, and you'll never have to be alone again."

The lie rang out like a bell inside her mind.

Shepard blinked back into reality. Morinth's beautiful face hung before her, black eyes wide, a greedy smile on her parted lips.

Shepard wrenched away from her, nauseated, furious. Heartsick at the loss of connection. "You— you don't know anything."

Samara strode in, wreathed in violet. Morinth turned, snarling. The apartment lit up with the force of their biotic fistfight.

A wet crunch, a spray of lavender blood and grayish brain matter, and it was over.

"Let's go," Samara said, her voice low, her hand dripping.

"I'm sorry," Shepard said again, knowing that it didn't help. It never helped.

---

At the docking bay, Samara paused and looked her in the eye before opening the hatch. Nodded, once, and turned away. There were no words.

Shepard saw her safely on board, then walked back out into the slums.

She meandered through the commercial district. Looked at a few shop kiosks. Poked through the goods without a word to the attendants, feeling mute and hollow and dissatisfied with everything. Drifted out again as silently as she'd come.

The stale, brownish air thickened as she wandered down along the needle arm of the station, twisting and turning through the maze of ruined tenements.

Omega. The first place she'd gone after Freedom's Progress. The first place where she'd started to feel awake. Like she was herself again, not just a stumbling, reanimated shell.

She turned a corner and emerged into a dark, quiet shantytown. Corrugated metal roofs. Prefab wall units lashed together with rusty wire.

Something about it looked familiar. Shepard stopped and checked her map.

Of fucking course. Ten paces forward, around the corner. Shrouded by the distant murk. That pale, unforgettable fortress. Archangel's base.

A downed electrical line sputtered near her feet. She toed it away from the path, then clambered her way up a pile of busted concrete blocks and crumbling balconies to perch on a ledge, and sit, and gaze out at the building where she'd fought some of the most desperate minutes of her many, many lives.

The debris had been cleared away, but bullet holes and blast marks still peppered the exterior tile. A gray blanket of old, oily smoke stained the front wall. And there it was: the mass grave, the one she hadn't even noticed at the time. All that was left of his people. An enormous, scorched-black circle on the steel decking below.

He hadn't been kidding when he'd said vorcha burned hot.

A flash of blue armor stopped her breath for an instant— but it was just a merc. A surly-looking batarian, guarding the bridge. Looked like the three-way truce had dissolved, and the Blue Suns had won jurisdiction.

She hopped down off her ledge. Strode up to the building.

The guard whirled and drew on her. "This base is off-limits. Get out."

She raised her hands. "Sure, one sec. Is it true that Archangel's dead?"

He kept his rifle steady. Brought one hand up to his comm unit. "Yeah. It's true."

"Damn." Shepard whistled. "I was off-station; only just heard. Ruined my week when he took out Had'derah. Wish I'd been here to watch the bastard go down."

"It was something else." The guard eyed her armor, her stance, the well-worn SMG at her hip. His hand still hovered over his comm button. "We sieged him for days before he finally started getting sloppy. Pack of freelancers tried to interfere at the last minute, but in the end, Tarak took him out. Got him full-face with a rocket."

"You saw it?" Shepard said, suddenly very, very glad that she hadn't bothered to wear her distinctive helmet. "What was it like? Where were you?"

He glanced away from her, over at one of the apartment buildings across the boulevard. His rifle tracked slightly to the left. Shepard reached out and grabbed his helmet, wrenched it to one side, then pushed. Felt, more than heard, the vertebrae crack and separate.

"Sorry," she murmured, and stepped over the body as it fell. "You don't belong here."

The walls still reeked of smoke and stale blood. She walked around the perimeter of the carbonized circle. The decking had warped a little from the heat.

She'd been hoping for— she wasn't sure, exactly. Ashes. A bone. A wedding ring, or an OSD, or a holo, or something. Some personal token of his team, however small, however grim; some remnant of the place in the world that he'd carved out for all of them. But she could tell at a glance that the base had been stripped clean. Other souvenir hunters had been and gone before her.

This was it, then. She stepped carefully into the center of the circle, and knelt down. Dug her fingertips under the edges of a panel, and began to pull.

The metal creaked in protest, then came away with a sharp snap. She turned the panel over in her hands.

It was weirdly beautiful. Powdery carbon black on one side; the shimmering blue and gray and violet of overheated steel on the other.

A strange memento for a massacre. But it was the best she could do.

She rose to her feet and left, cradling the fragment between her palms.

---

Back on the ship, she stowed the panel carefully inside her desk drawer, next to the ancient Palaveni liquor, and called for a general meeting in the comm room. "15 minutes ought to do it. Thanks for getting the word out, EDI."

"You are welcome, Shepard."

The room filled steadily. Garrus stood next to Massani at the back, expressionless. Jack sauntered in thirty seconds late.

Just being in the same room as him did strange, violent things to her nerves. Shepard took a breath, and willed her heartbeat to settle.

"All right, people." She let her gaze slide over the crowd. "Miranda pointed out to me that we're critically low on material resources. We're going to be at loose ends in the Terminus for a little bit while Joker and EDI secure some more for us, so I figure now's as good a time as any to start changing things up. You all need to get used to fighting side by side with each other, not just with me. We don't know how things are going to shake out past the Omega 4 relay."

She gestured to Miranda, who stepped forward and placed a datapad into her hands. Shepard flicked through it. "So, there are a few problems that could use our personal brand of attention. We got a report about a secret Eclipse base that's taken a Cerberus operative hostage. There's also a downed cargo transport with a shitload of haywire mechs running amok, and a mining facility that's been overrun by what are almost definitely husks. Jack, Thane, you'll be with me on husk cleanup duty."

Thane nodded his assent. Jack cracked her knuckles. "Finally."

"Miranda. Pick a team, and go rescue your guy. You know how to handle Eclipse."

Miranda's shoulders straightened. "Certainly, Shepard. Justicar Samara, Doctor Solus, and... Massani. With me, please."

Massani leered at Samara. "No complaints here."

"Save it, Massani." Shepard leaned back on one hip. "That leaves the mechs. Garrus, you're on it. I know they're your favorite."

She met his gaze. Ignored the ripple of surprise that passed through the room.

He cleared his throat. "All right. Goto, Taylor, and Grunt. Hope you're ready for a field trip."

"Finally," Grunt echoed, grinning.

"Can't wait," Goto purred, and draped herself over Jacob's arm.

Shepard rolled her eyes. "Save it, Goto."

The room rustled. She spread her hands, asking for silence. Waited a moment until she got it.

"Everyone: Stick with your team leaders. Watch each other's backs. And stay sharp. I'm trusting you with this, so keep the daredevil bullshit to a minimum, and get yourself in and out in one piece." She met Garrus's eyes for a half-instant. "I won't be there to pull your ass out of the fire if things start blowing up."

Jack crossed her arms. "Aren't you usually the one blowing things up?"

"Then aren't you glad you're coming with me? Good hunting, everyone." Shepard tossed the datapad to Garrus. He caught it neatly. "Here's the briefing. You're first up; Joker can give you the ETA. Dismissed."

They filed out. Garrus hung back for a moment, looking at her.

Each silent second between them felt leaden.

She longed to go over to him. To try and explain herself. To apologize. To ask him what he was thinking. Look at his face. Touch his hand.

Hell, if she could just elbow him in the side and make a shitty joke at her own expense— that'd be good enough. That'd be plenty.

She stayed where she was, despite the empty ache. Kept her expression neutral. Tilted her head to one side. Waited.

Garrus opened his mouth, then closed it. Shook his head, and left.

Chapter Text

The upgrades had gone smoothly. The crew was solidifying beneath her. Miranda and Garrus's away missions had passed successfully and more or less without incident, and they were nearly maxed out on platinum again.

Shepard felt... okay. Not great, but okay.

She was moving forward. She'd get it done.

Inhuman wailing echoed along the cavern walls. A husk floated in front of her scope. CRACK. Its forehead burst open with a spray of black mist. "Another."

"This is boring," Jack muttered. But she repeated the mnemonic, and tossed another one up.

"You've improved remarkably, Siha." Thane's low, rasping voice came behind her. "Remember to wait for the right shot, rather than the first shot."

CRACK. The husk spun wildly, bleeding from its missing ear. Shepard gave him a look over her shoulder. "You distracted me. That one's on you."

He made an amused noise. "My apologies."

She adjusted her aim. Breathed out. Waited. CRACK. A crater bloomed in its skull.

Thane nodded his approval. "You've been trained well, and you have a fine eye. All that's left to learn is patience."

"In that case, I'm probably a lost cause." She smiled back at him. "Thanks for all the advice, Thane. I really appreciate it."

"If I might make one last suggestion," he began, lips quirked. "Meditation could be very benefi—"

Shepard stood up and clipped her Viper to her back. "Okay, Jack, your turn!"

"—Another time, then," Thane said, unfazed.

"Ugh. Finally." Jack straightened up, flared, and punched a blue-white shockwave into the mass of bodies pinned behind the piled-up mining equipment.

The husks slammed hard against the walls, then each other, bounced off the heavy mining lasers, smashed into the walls again. Skulls cracked. Bones snapped. Murky blood misted the air.

Damn. Shepard stopped mid-stride to watch. "Impressive," murmured Thane.

Jack mopped up the survivors with a few careless shotgun blasts. "Shepard, when's it gonna get interesting? I thought this place was supposed to be crawling with them."

"Yeah, yeah." Shepard crouched to hack through the lock to the next tunnel. "Ever heard that saying, 'Careful what you wish for?'"

The massive steel doors screeched open. Fifty pairs of glowing eyes turned around to stare at them.

"Now that is what I'm talking about," said Jack.

With any other team, it might have been cause for panic. But two talented biotics— well, one talented, and one godlike— made the cleanup mission feel more like some sort of demented playground game. Shepard and Thane kept the perimeter clear while Jack tossed husks into the air by the dozens with each loose, easy swing of her arms. The creatures flailed and wobbled overhead, hissing, impotent.

Shepard tipped her head back to watch, smiling. Jack tapped a blackened foot with her shotgun as it floated by and set the husk spinning crazily in midair. "Give me ten minutes and one of your energy bars. I'll turn this place into installation art."

"Not sure we're supposed to be having this much fun down here," Shepard said, but handed her the bar anyway. "Feels a little sacrilegious."

"Hey, we're doing them a favor." Jack shoved the bar into her mouth in two bites. "Nobody wants to live like this."

"Let's finish the job, then." Shepard pitched a throw that ping-ponged a handful of them between the tunnel walls. Brittle limbs snapped off in pieces. The glowing eyes went dim. Jack cracked her neck, flexed her hands, and ripped into the floating mass with another shockwave.

"Kalahira guide them," Thane murmured, fists aglow, picking off the husks who'd managed to escape Jack's blast radius. "If indeed there is anything left to guide."

They pressed on. Then got ambushed by a pack of husks all wired up with incendiaries. Those were a lot less fun. Then Shepard discovered the foreman's logs.

Smithson's crew dug out some kind of glowing machine today. I don't get paid enough to expose myself to weird alien artifacts. Gonna try and pawn it off to ECRS, since apparently they're into this sort of thing, and get it out of here quick. Gotta admit, though— the humming sound is kinda nice.

An unspecified amount of time later: Smithson and the crew ain't doing so well. Not feeling so good myself either. Stay near the machine, feel better.

Not so sure about selling it to Elanus anymore. Think maybe it should stay right here with us.

Shepard felt the blood drain from her face. "We— Fuck. We have to move. Now."

Jack opened her mouth to say something. No time. Shepard threw the PDA aside and ran.

Where was it? How close? Christ, they'd just been playing around this whole time— how long had they already spent down here, bathing in Reaper brainwaves?

If they'd gotten their fucking tendrils into her—

EDI gave directions she barely heard. Shepard raced down the tunnels past clumps of husks, punching them back with blue fists, spraying bullets with her SMG. Jack struggled to keep up, her shorter legs holding her back.

"Shepard, wait—"

"Thane, watch her!"

Shepard tore around the corner. There. Up ahead. The machine. Graceful arches of gray-black metal, a glowing white sphere on top. It hummed a low, soothing note. Classic Reaper tech. Her stomach roiled at the sight.

Time to blow it the fuck up. Biotics, maybe? Or just shoot the sphere and see what happened? Either way, it had to happen fast—

Oh, look. 40-kilo sacks of gel explosive, heaped up in the corner. And cord, and blasting caps. Miners thought of everything.

A husk screamed in her ear. Latched on to her elbow. Shepard punched it off. She hauled the sacks up and threw them into a pile at the base of the machine.

Thane burst into the alcove, dragging Jack behind him. She snarled, flinging biotic pulses right and left, kicking and hissing like a frightened animal.

"Keep them back while I get this set up," Shepard barked. The machine hummed its empty song in her head. Sweat rolled down her temples. Dampened her helmet liner.

Cord, unravelled. Cap, secured. Explosive— good enough. "Run," she said, and took off again the way they'd come, trailing cord behind her.

"Damnit, Shepard," panted Jack. "This— sucks—"

"Just a little further. Keep going. Keep going. Just a little—" She glanced over her shoulder. "Okay, now. Get behind me and stay down."

Husks howled, sprinting towards them.

Shepard dropped to one knee. Pried the casing off her gun. Ripped out the tiny battery that powered her block slicer, and touched it to the wires in the cap.

The shockwave knocked her clean over. A hot, gritty wind scratched at the exposed skin on her face. Her ears were ringing.

She sat up, dizzy, and watched the mob of husks stagger forward and fall flat on their faces.

Lights out, motherfuckers.

She fished the bits of her gun out of the rubble. Winced. She hadn't been all that careful with the disassembly.

Behind her, Thane helped Jack up. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, yeah." She batted his hand away. "I'm deaf. But fine. Go worry about Shepard."

"Very well. Siha?"

Was she all right? Shepard paused and listened to the flavor of the white noise in her brain.

The usual stuff. Survivor's guilt, loneliness. Low-level self-loathing. Lists of things she ought to be doing. A much longer list of things she wished she'd never done at all. Slow-boiling rage at Cerberus, at the Council, at her life. A wildly sprawling strategic map of the future. And abject, total, full-body terror of the Reapers.

But also: absolute, genocidal, full-body hatred.

She could live with that.

"No more indoctrinated than usual," Shepard said cheerfully, and pushed herself up. "Good work, you two. Things got a bit wild back there."

"No shit," said Jack.

"C'mon," Shepard said, and threw her arms over both their shoulders. "Kozlowski? We're done here. Heading back to the shuttle."

Joker's voice crackled over the comm link. "You know, Kozlowski and I were taking bets on whether you'd manage to get out of there without blowing the place up."

"You and everyone else," Jack muttered.

Shepard ignored her. "Who won?"

"Me, obviously. But in a way, didn't we all win?"

---

After briefing Miranda, she made a beeline for Gardner's fridge. Her stomach was a ravaged, howling wasteland.

Jack and Thane both looked up from their well-laden plates. "Hey," Jack said, mid-chew.

Shepard grinned, grabbed what looked like half of a rotisserie chicken but was probably something else altogether, and sat down with them. Thane acknowledged her with a slight wave of his drumstick. He was eating the other half.

She felt— okay. Not great, but okay.

Maybe even kind of good.

---

"What's next," Miranda asked her, some time later that night. She was sitting at her terminal, chin resting on one hand. Scrolling lines of orange text reflected off her glasses.

Glasses. Shepard tried not to stare. Miranda really hadn't been kidding about going nearsighted from the Lazarus project.

"Haestrom," she replied. "Time to go pick up Tali. Or try to."

"Ah," Miranda said, straightening. "Finally. Why the delay, Shepard? I'd thought once her dossier reached us, she'd go straight to the top of your priority list."

Shepard laughed a little, and looked down at her hands. "Yeah. I don't know. Scared of rejection, I guess."

Miranda blinked up at her. "...You?"

"Yeah, me. What? You must have noticed that I haven't exactly received a hero's welcome from my former crew."

"I suppose. I just thought... I don't know what I thought."

"That I wouldn't let something like that get to me?"

"Well, yes."

Shepard smiled toothily. "Surprise, Miranda. I'm human."

Miranda resumed reading her screen. "In a technical sense, perhaps."

"...Was that a joke?"

Miranda rubbed at the bridge of her nose under her glasses. "Yes. A bad joke, I suppose. Sorry, Shepard. I'm tired."

Shepard watched her for a long, silent moment.

"...How much of me is really me?"

Miranda met her eyes. Her face was still and serious. "Everything that we could preserve, we preserved. What we had to grow new, we cloned, using an averaged sample of your DNA as a template. Where we couldn't integrate the cloned tissue, we augmented with synthetic materials and cybernetics. You're as much yourself as we could possibly make you."

"So?" Shepard folded her arms.

"So— what? You want a number? Eighty-three percent. I don't know." Miranda rose from her seat, scowling. "Is a person with a cloned replacement limb less themselves than they used to be? Is a person with gene mods, or a biotic amp, less human than anyone else? This is a very abstract question, Shepard. Come back to me when you know what you're really asking. I'm going to bed."

Shepard found herself standing on the other side of the door, bemused, as the holographic lock bleeped and turned red. Apparently Miranda grew fangs after midnight.

Or maybe it was just the subject matter.

Shepard made a fresh tea, and headed upstairs. She was just settling into bed herself when EDI's voice hummed through the speakers. "Shepard, Officer Vakarian is currently en route to your quarters."

"What? Jesus. Really? Why?" Shepard heaved off the covers and shot upright. There went her newfound equanimity.

"I am not privy to that information," EDI replied. "However, considering the recent change in your relationship, I thought you might like to be alerted ahead of time."

"You were right. Thank you, EDI. Damn." She ran an ineffectual hand through her hair. Tried to figure out how to arrange herself for an impression of cool nonchalance.

The door whirred open while she was still weighing her options. He stood at the top of her stairs, waiting, eyes unreadable.

She couldn't even pretend to be calm.

"What," she said.

He stepped down. Came forward. Too close. Looked at her.

She stared back up at him, rattled.

"You know how I never ask you for anything," he said. His voice was toneless.

"Yeah?"

"I'm asking now."

---

He gave her the outline of the situation.

"EDI, please change course for the Citadel. You can let Joker know in the morning."

"Yes, Shepard."

Garrus gave her a surprised look. "I didn't think you would—"

"Of course I would," she said.

He exhaled. Stepped back. Collapsed onto her couch.

She sat down, carefully, beside him. "Do you know what you're going to do?"

"Absolutely." His voice was cold and hard.

Shepard didn't say anything. Garrus glanced up at her after a moment.

"You don't think he deserves a bullet to the brain?" His good mandible flared out, exposing a stripe of silvery teeth. "You're right. He doesn't. None of the others got to enjoy a quick, clean death, did they? But I like to think I'm better than that, so I won't make him suffer."

She stayed silent. Looked at him.

Garrus rumbled at her. "Don't bother preaching at me, Shepard. You're perfectly comfortable playing judge, jury and executioner when it's convenient for you. When it fulfills your goals. For once you can stand back and let me fulfill mine."

Silence. He only looked more irritated with every passing second.

"What is your goal, Garrus," she said, finally.

"To make him pay for what he's done," he bit out. "Ten good men burned to ashes because of him."

"That's not payback," she said. "You said he deserves to suffer. He won't suffer with a headshot."

He scowled. "He just needs to die. He's still alive, and they're not. I'm going to correct that. And I want your help."

A pause.

She contemplated her desk drawer.

"I'll be with you every step of the way," she said carefully.

He stared at her, frowning. His jaw tensed. Then with a sharp click, he unfolded himself from her couch and stalked out.

---

They docked at the Citadel the next morning. She stood just behind the threshold of the battery doors, arms crossed. "Are we going to run into trouble? Do you want to bring backup?"

His back was to her. He worked over his Mantis with a rag. "Possibly. I don't know. Bring whoever you want."

"Fine." She touched the comm button at her collar. "Massani, you're up. Look alive."

His voice came drawling over the line. "Been hoping for another chance to stretch my legs. Thanks, Shepard."

Garrus squinted through his scope, then bent down to clean it again.

She watched him for another long moment. Then exhaled, and walked away.

---

Bailey looked thoroughly unsurprised to see her again. "What is it this time."

"You know a guy named 'Fade?' Helps people disappear?"

"Sure do." He tipped back in his seat. "Affiliated with the Blue Suns. Might have an inside source at C-Sec. Network division's been trying to put him in a cell for years. If you're looking for him, maybe you can do me a favor, this time."

He pointed them towards a warehouse on 26th. Two bleeding and disarmed krogan bodyguards later, Fade's front man gave him up.

"Harkin?" Shepard echoed, disbelieving. "That scummy asshole cop?"

"Ex-cop," said the volus.

A low rumble came from Garrus. "Now we have two reasons to put him out of business."

She gave him a sharp look. "Bailey wants him alive."

"So do I," he said darkly. "At least a little while longer."

---

Harkin looked about like how she remembered him, plus a little beer gut, minus a little hair. "What the— Vakarian? Shepard?"

"Guess you haven't been paying attention to the news," she said.

Garrus put a neat hole into one of the Blue Suns flanking him. Massani splattered the other two with assault fire. Shepard didn't even have to uncross her arms.

Harkin turned and booked it into the factory.

"Looks like things are about to get interesting," Massani drawled.

---

LOKI Mechs. Blue Suns. A sprawling maze of crates and shipping containers. It actually wasn't all that interesting.

Shepard flicked her fingers. A fuel canister skidded across the floor, and came to rest at the feet of a blue-suited merc. He glanced down at it just in time to see her incendiary round puncture the hull.

She stepped forward through the wisps of flame and locked eyes with a well-armored, well-shielded batarian. A tech mine and two bullets later, and his eye count was down by fifty percent. Massani barked a laugh and put out the other two before the batarian dropped.

They carved a bloody path through to the shipping and distribution sector. An overhead conveyor belt whirred and clanked and abruptly reversed course, raining disoriented LOKI mechs down upon them. Shepard flared blue and punched them aside. Small fry.

Garrus snarled abruptly and pushed ahead of her, switching out for his assault rifle. "Harkin's close. I can smell him."

A flash of something large and white passed overhead. The ground shook underneath her. Through the smoke and dust ahead of them, she saw the silhouette of an YMIR slowly rising to its feet.

Garrus was standing, wide-open, right in front of it. She lobbed another tech mine, and yanked at her Collector rifle. "Garrus! Move!"

He leapt behind a partition as she unleashed a stream of molten plasma downfield. Massani raised his assault rifle and pitched in.

The YMIR's armor melted. Innards sparked. It lifted its gun arm, turned to aim at them, shuddered, then stopped.

Had its auto-targeting locked up? Fine with her. She kept her finger on the trigger. The YMIR just stood there, frozen in a hellstorm of bullets and plasma, until it finally blew.

"Idiot machine," Massani said.

Shepard toed the wreckage with her boot. "I almost feel bad for it."

"Feel bad for Harkin once we're through with him." Garrus stalked forward.

She shot him a look, which of course he missed.

Massani paused to fish around for spare heat sinks. "Here, Shepard. Fuel up."

She caught it out of the air. "Thanks."

"Vakarian's having a rough time of it lately, eh?"

She glanced up at him, then continued frowning after Garrus. "It's mostly my fault."

"I can relate," Massani said.

"Oh? What'd you ever do to piss someone off that bad?"

Massani grinned at her. "I meant I can relate to him. You're a real pain in the ass sometimes, you know that, Shepard?"

She glared. "You know what else is a pain in the ass? Trying to keep an entire refinery's worth of civilians from burning alive after you—"

He waved her off. "—Yeah, yeah. I know. Ancient history. I'd forgotten it already."

She sighed and checked her radar. "Let's move. I don't want Harkin dropping another mech on his head while we stand around."

---

They caught up to Garrus in the foreman's office, crouched over a laptop. "Found some extra identities. Documentation in order, all ready to go." He looked over at her. "You ever want to disappear, Shepard? Just say the word."

It didn't sound like a friendly offer. Shepard ignored him, and concentrated on relieving Harkin's bank accounts of their assets.

Massani poked a button on the console near the desk. The window shutters lifted, exposing a vast landscape of shipping containers stacked on top of hydraulic platforms, and a long ramp leading up to another office on the second story.

Shepard turned her head just in time to catch a white blur of movement in the corner.

"More mechs?" Massani pursed his lips. "For an identity broker, this Harkin fellow's not very creative."

"He's hiding up in that observation room." Garrus growled low in his throat and pushed off from the desk. "He's cornered himself. Let's go get him now, before he can tip off Sidonis."

"Garrus—"

He looked back at her. "Are you going to help me, or not?"

She dug her fingers into her temples, against the distant premonition of an oncoming headache. "Just... don't kill him."

He unhooked his Mantis, turned, and stepped out the door.

---

More mechs. More Blue Suns. Conveyor belts dropping exploding crates.

"You know what, I take it back." Massani crouched to reload. "The crates are a nice touch. Very homey."

They cut their way through, pushed closer, closer. Harkin actually started taunting them over the PA system. Shepard made a face. You've got nothing on Harbinger, pal.

She climbed up to the next platform and booted the remains of the Blue Suns squad commander off the edge. Garrus walked a few paces past her, then stopped.

"Ah, crap," he said, gazing up at the ceiling.

She tilted her head to look.

YMIRs. Plural. "Massani, get up here," she yelled, unhooking her nearly-spent Collector rifle.

---

Massani hunched below a crate on the lower left-hand platform, swearing and shooting in roughly equal proportion. She'd ended up on top with Garrus, pinned behind the same battered container.

"One bullet to the neck, you said." Shepard laughed, a little hysterically, as rockets and gunfire rained down around them. "And the head pops right off."

Garrus flicked a mandible at her. Jammed a fresh clip into his Vindicator. "Maybe if you were a better shot."

"Then you do it, asshole." She popped off the last rounds in her heat sink. "You think you're here just to look pretty?"

Shit-talking between the bullets. Almost like they were friends again.

Hydraulics whirred and thunked. The YMIRs stopped, turned, and started stomping their way towards Massani. Time to get to work. She tossed a tech mine into their path and triggered the overload charge. Their shields bloomed with static.

"I'm here to do a lot of things, Shepard. Looking pretty just happens to be first on the list." Garrus rose to a crouch and fired four quick, precise bursts downfield. The mechs paused in their advance. Slick white heads slowly rotated back to face them. "Second is getting those shields down."

Garrus unloaded the rest of his clip into their faceplates as they marched forward. She put her eye to the scope of her Viper, and joined in. One. Two. Three shots. In near-perfect sync, the YMIRs shifted their weight. Lifted their arms.

Shepard dove behind the edge of their container. Rockets whistled through the space where her head had been.

"All right, you two, take a breather. My turn." Massani's assault fire cracked into their plating from the left. Servos whined as the YMIRs paused again, twisted around, and started lumbering back towards him.

Garrus flashed her a quick look, and readied his rifle. She eyed her heat sink and judged it adequate for another round. Cued up another overload. Waited.

Once the mechs started firing on Massani again, Shepard and Garrus sprang into action. They laid down some damage to pull the YMIR's auto-targeting system in their direction, unleashed as much hell as they could get away with, then ducked out again while Massani repeated the process and drew the heat off them once more.

The YMIR's heads swiveled back and forth between their platforms like they were at the galaxy's slowest tennis match. Idiot machines.

Somehow she hadn't noticed that the mechs were actually gaining a sliver of ground with each pass, until one of them fucking climbed up onto the lower platform. Massani stood directly in its path, behind what was now very inadequate cover.

"Fucking hell—" He threw himself to the side as its rifle ripped through his shields. The YMIR stepped forward. Flattened his crate under its foot. Loaded a fresh rocket.

Fucking hell. Shepard pitched a near-useless throw at the mech's arm just to buy an extra half-second, powered on her tech armor, and stood up.

Garrus made a low, grating noise, but he was too busy shooting to stop her.

She vaulted over the edge of their platform and thudded down next to Massani. His armor was splotched with red; his leg dragged as he scooted himself back with one arm, dumping bullets into the YMIR with the other. His rifle hissed and smoked in protest.

She stepped directly in front of the YMIR and stretched her arms wide. The rocket smashed into her chest; her tech armor exploded into static. Electricity flickered along the mech's cables. She shook her head to clear the ringing. Pointed her Viper up into its blank black face, not bothering to scope. Squeezed the trigger until the heat sink started hissing. Switched out for her pistol, and fired everything she had in that, too.

Her bullets chipped, millimeter by millimeter, through the tempered glass plate. The noise changed pitch as she cracked through to the inside.

The YMIR stood still for a moment. Sparks spat from the tunnel she'd drilled into its face.

Shepard stared up at it, unblinking, breathing hard. She'd punch it to death if she had to.

The YMIR slowly tipped over backwards, and collapsed. The explosion rattled their platform.

No time to celebrate. The second YMIR was close behind it, and advancing fast.

Shepard tucked herself behind a too-narrow pillar, and glanced down at Massani. "You're bleeding. Need medi-gel?"

"Duck," Massani shouted.

She ducked. A rocket whined past her ear, trailing smoke, and crashed into the underside of the platform above. Flame exploded and boiled out around them. She bent low, trying to shield her face from the heat.

"Shepard," yelled Garrus, somewhere above. The second YMIR stepped onto their platform, and tilted its head down to look at them.

"Keep firing," she yelled back, and sucked in a lungful of smoke for her trouble.

Her throat spasmed; her eyes streamed. She threw down her empty pistol, punched up the sequence for her tech armor, and stepped out again to meet the mech.

The YMIR paused to consider her. Shifted its weight back. Raised a shiny white arm.

She pitched the last of her tech mines into its chest, and deployed the charge. Its shields crackled and hissed with blue-white static.

POP. POP. POP. Pistol fire cracked into its faceplate from the right. The YMIR recovered, whirring, and slowly turned to regard the new threat.

"Massani, STOP HELPING!" Shepard lunged forward, biotics wreathing her fists.

She punched straight up into the YMIR's gun arm as it opened fire on him. Her knuckles splintered in agony, then went numb. The YMIR's bullets sprayed uselessly into the flames above.

She shook out her ruined right hand. Yanked at her SMG with her left. Poured every single last bullet she had into its face. The underpowered little gun barely made a dent.

The mech refocused on her. A rifle round thunked into its head from somewhere behind it. Garrus was back on sniper duty, and moving.

The YMIR swung its arm around to bear on her. She found herself staring down a long, black barrel.

Walled in on her left; Massani, injured, to her right. Nothing at her back but a steep drop. And fresh out of heat sinks.

Well then. Nowhere to go but forward.

She ducked low and charged directly at the YMIR. Bullets pinged off her shields, striking over her chest, chin, eyes. Her tech armor detonated as she ran between its legs. She staggered. The mech swayed. Whirred. Recovered its balance.

"Shepard, you daft bitch," Massani shouted after her.

Just like old times.

Her shields were out anyway, so she pulsed another overload charge through her mine, planted a foot on its massive knee, and launched herself up. She grabbed the edge of its chestplate with her injured hand, hissing at the pain, and reared back. Biotics bloomed around her fist.

"SHEPARD!" Garrus's voice tore through the comm line.

Her punch smashed into its faceplate, snapping its head back. The mech lurched. Shepard's bad hand stiffened and lost its grip; she dropped to the ground, flung herself to the side to avoid getting stomped flat, then grabbed onto the mech's gun arm and heaved herself up again.

"Shepard, get down! Are you fucking insane—" Oh, there he was. In a sniper's crouch at the far edge of the platform. "The ricochet might— I can't shoot it if you're on it!"

"Ran out of clips," she panted, clinging to its shoulder, and kicked the YMIR's arm to the side as it tried to launch a rocket at him. "You know I get bored when it's too easy."

The YMIR turned its head to look at her. Her own dull reflection stared back at her from the cracked, sparking glass. Servomotors hummed. It shifted its weight back, and raised both arms at once. Was it going to try to shoot her off of itself? That'd be hilarious—

The arms kept coming closer. Oh shit. No. It was going to crush her.

It already had boxed her in; she didn't have enough leverage for another punch. She flared and whipped an elbow across its head, but the mech just stuttered and whirred and kept moving.

Her shield recharge meter flickered. Seventy percent— eighty— come on. The YMIR would mow her down the instant she dropped.

"Garrus," she called out.

Garrus stared up at her for a half-instant, then pressed his eye to his scope.

CRACK. The bullet smashed into the thick cables of its neck, right in front of her face. The massive arms creaked to a stop.

Shepard slithered down out of the mech's grip and backed away.

There was a loud, musical twanging sound as a steel cord snapped apart. Then another, and another, and then a dozen more all at once, like a harp struck with a sledgehammer.

The YMIR's head popped off as if it had been spring-loaded. It traced a long, high arc through the air, then crashed back down onto the ramp, rolled, and came to rest near her feet.

The body reeled back and exploded. Bits of white ceramic plating rained down around them.

"Well, I'll be damned," said Shepard.

"Told you so," said Garrus, sounding a little stunned.

---

Shepard squeezed out the last of her medi-gel onto Massani's shredded leg. "This'll take care of the bleeding, but I don't know about the muscle damage. It's better if you don't walk."

"After all the shit he put us through, I want to look this Harkin bastard in the eyes," Massani growled. "I'm coming."

"Anyone ever told you that you're a real pain in the ass, Massani?"

"Not in the last ten minutes."

Shepard sighed, ducked down and threw his arm over her shoulders, then straightened up. "C'mon."

She helped Massani limp his way up the long ramp to the door. By the time they got there, Garrus had recovered his equilibrium, or whatever passed as equilibrium for him these days. He lurked in the shadows at the far side of the office, waiting for them, the line of his shoulders tight and hard.

She exchanged a glance with Garrus. Nodded. Then walked (limped) in the door with Massani, pistols drawn.

"Hi, Harkin. Long time no see."

They were both completely out of heat sinks, and she couldn't actually move her swollen trigger finger, but Harkin didn't need to know that.

He turned to run from them, and bounced directly off Garrus's armored cowl. Garrus followed it up with a rifle butt to the face.

Shepard couldn't really find it in herself to protest.

---

Harkin continued to be a smarmy piece of shit, even with blood streaming from his broken nose, even when cornered by three of the galaxy's most pissed-off and dangerous people. It was borderline impressive.

"There. You have your meeting. So, if our business is concluded, I'll just be going–"

Garrus slammed him into the wall.

A brief back-and-forth. He dropped Harkin, drew his sidearm, and put a bullet into the man's knee. "Might as well leave C-Sec a blood trail to follow."

Shepard checked the urge to shout at him. Kept her face cool, neutral. Never show outsiders the fault lines in your unit.

She opened her omni-tool and tapped in a message to Bailey, over the sound of Harkin's gasping and cursing. Coordinates for 'Fade.' Familiar face. Bring analgesics and medi-gel.

She lowered her wrist and looked over at Garrus. "You were holding out on me," she said lightly. "Could have really used that extra heat sink earlier."

Garrus shrugged, and turned away. "You didn't die, did you?"

So much for concealing the fault lines. She gaped at him as he walked out.

"Rude," said Massani.

---

They rented a car. Took Massani to Huerta to get patched up. Shepard didn't bother mentioning her own injury.

"I don't see why it can't wait until we get back to the ship," he griped from his stretcher. "Our doctor has the look of a competent professional. And a lot of looks in general." He waggled his eyebrows. "Wouldn't mind getting to know her bedside manner a little better."

"Shut up, Zaeed." Shepard patted his good leg with her good hand. "Get well soon."

---

Garrus drove them to a dim, shadowy lot above the rendezvous site, and disengaged the omni-tool linkup. The car shuddered and powered off.

They sat there for a moment in silence, looking out the windshield.

Even now, being alone with him still had her entire body on high alert. Every glance. Every breath. Every millimeter of empty space between them.

"Garrus," she said, finally.

"What."

"Are you sure you want to do it like this?"

He didn't bother looking at her. "It's like you always say, Shepard. You can’t control what other people do, but you can control how you respond."

"You know what else I always say," she ground out. "Don't ever let it get personal."

He twisted to face her, good mandible flaring low and wide. His teeth flashed in the darkness. "Of course it's fucking personal! Because of him, my entire team is dead! Because I didn't see it–"

"Listen to yourself! It's not about him anymore, it's about you. Because you didn't see it, you're going to shoot him? How is that going to help?" She grabbed his cowl. Leaned in close. "It's not his failure you want to punish. It's not his head you really want to put that bullet into."

"You're one to talk," he hissed. "You've been trying to put bullets in your head ever since you got up."

He wrenched himself out of her grip. Unfolded his Mantis, slammed open the door, and left.

Shepard leaned back in her seat, and closed her eyes. The distant headache had finally marshaled its forces, and was marching in at strength.

And her hand hurt.

---

She went to meet Sidonis.

He hunched over, even when standing. Moved slowly. Stumbled over his words. A shadow of a man.

Underwater, just like Aresh. At sea in grief and confusion.

"Look at him," she murmured over the comm. "Just look. He's already suffering. Just let it go."

"Stand aside, Shepard."

"Garrus—"

"Shepard."

"I just want it to be over," Sidonis said quietly.

She hesitated. Then stepped back. It was Garrus's choice; she wasn't going to make it for him. If he wanted to move on— if he wanted to accept it—

The bullet winged past her ear.

Inky, oil-slick blood sprayed out over the tile. Someone behind her gasped, then screamed. She walked away.

Garrus stood by the car, radiating with a strange, carnivorous satisfaction.

"Thanks, Shepard," he said. "Feels good to put it behind me."

"Yeah," she said.

He started the car, and flew them back to Huerta.

She tapped out another message to Bailey. Spectre business. Sorry about the mess.

---

Chakwas reset her knuckles, gave her a painkiller and a trio of energy drinks, and ordered her to rest.

Back up in her cabin, she sat on the edge of her bed for a long time, staring at nothing.

She woke up five hours later, on top of the blankets, still in her sweaty, sleep-wrinkled underarmor. She showered and dressed in a haze. People cleared out of her way a bit more quickly than usual. Small talk with Hadley and Matthews felt oddly strained.

In the cockpit, Joker looked up at her. "Shepard? The hell happened to your face?"

There weren't a lot of mirrors on the Normandy. She stepped up and leaned into the window of the cockpit. Looked up at her dim, hazy reflection in the glass.

Hellish red light glowed from the crack in her cheek.

"Let me know when we're thirty minutes out from Haestrom," she said.

"Uh. Aye-aye, Commander."

Her eyes were dark. Sunken.

She put a hand over her face and went back down to medbay.

Chapter Text

Her legs felt leaden; her head swam. The corridors around her blurred and swayed. After a long, stomach-sucking moment, the universe snapped back into alignment. Shepard blinked away the afterimages.

"Commander? Just dropped into Dholen system. The Neema is in range and hailing."

"Comm room, Joker. I'll be right there."

She drummed her fingers against the walls of the elevator. Brushed past Chambers with barely a nod. The comm linkup hummed, and an image materialized: A red-suited, glass-masked woman staring back at her from the screen. Compact, slender, and stiffly upright.

"Captain Shepard vas Normandy." The woman inclined her head. "Heda'Nael vas Neema. You're here for Tali'Zorah, no doubt."

Shepard opted not to bother her with the technicalities about her ex-Alliance rank. "Yes. I need her for a mission of vital importance. With your permission, Captain, I'll send a shuttle to dock for pickup—"

Heda'Nael shifted. "Tali'Zorah is on Haestrom."

Shepard's shoulders tightened. "Still? I last spoke with her over two weeks ago."

"We haven't had contact from the ground team in several rotations. They may be struggling with the environmental hazards, or... the geth may have detected their presence, and attacked. We have no way to confirm. None of our scanners or signalling equipment can pierce through the static cloud."

Shepard stared. "So— what? You're just waiting? No reinforcements? No extraction plan?"

The captain's eyes slitted. "We have no stealth capability, no intel, no communications, no backup, and precious few of our operatives left to spare. What would you have us do, exactly?"

"Whatever it takes! Those are your people down there. Call for help, if you can't help them yourselves. The Alliance would—"

"Would what, Cerberus? They did precious little to help us against you."

Shepard's face froze. "...What?"

A pause.

"The Idenna," Captain Nael said, at length. "And her scout ship, the Cyniad. Supporting seven hundred souls between the two. Infiltrated, sabotaged, nearly detonated in dead space. Your operatives."

Not my operatives, she wanted to shout. Not me! And yet here she stood. Dressed in Cerberus uniform. Flying Cerberus colors.

"I didn't know," Shepard said, her tongue feeling thick.

"I see," said Heda'Nael vas Neema. "A rogue splinter group, perhaps?"

Shepard did not answer.

Heda'Nael regarded her for a moment.

"I do not share your confidence in the kindness of strangers, Captain Shepard vas Normandy. My people have had some centuries of experience. Nevertheless." Heda'Nael leaned over and flicked at something just out of frame. "I am forwarding Tali'Zorah's last known coordinates. If you can find it in your heart, or your operations budget— whichever is larger— to retrieve our other crew members while you seek her, we would be most grateful.

"May the stars guide you to your destiny. Keelah se'lai."

The transmission cut out.

"Shit," Shepard breathed, and sagged against the console.

Joker's voice came over the speakers. "EDI filled me in. Stealthed and hustling. We'll be in range in fifteen."

—-

The elevator spat her out into the shuttle bay. Kozlowski spared her a distracted nod, then went back to rushing through the pre-flight checklist. Garrus was already there, slouched against his usual crate, running a cloth over his Mantis.

If he was startled by her appearance as she stalked across the decking, he gave away little; maybe a slight downward tilt of his mandible. Maybe his eyes flicked to the split in her skin. But maybe she was imagining it.

"Glad we're finally going to get her." He pried apart his Vindicator, and scrutinized the innards. "Who's our third?"

"Miranda," Shepard said shortly, jabbing at her omni-tool.

"Lawson?" He paused in his inspection. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"It's a Cerberus vessel, with Cerberus crew, running on Cerberus money. There's no getting around that. I don't want Tali to feel bait-and-switched. Assuming we even find her in one piece. She should know what she's getting into." Shepard rubbed her eyes. "If she makes the choice."

"Tali's tough. You know that better than anyone. She's fine." Garrus lowered his gun, and looked at her. "She'll come."

Shepard looked back at him.

"How are you feeling," she said.

"Great," he said. "Thanks."

"Good. That's good."

They stared at each other for a moment. Then he bent his head back to his rifle.

Boot heels clicked up behind her. Miranda stepped in close and touched Shepard's cheek, frowning. "Damn. I'd thought this might happen. Wilson said your epidermis would need two more weeks at rest to gel around the weave. Frankly, I'm surprised you've held up so well until now. Did you speak to Doctor Ch—"

"Yes," Shepard said, trying not to bat her hands away. "I'm fine, Miranda. It's just cosmetic."

Miranda huffed. "Even if it's not bleeding, it's still an open wound. Be careful to keep it clean. Your immune system was substantially modified to allow the grafted cybernetics to integrate."

Huh. So maybe that's why she wasn't allergic to dextr—

Nevermind. It didn't fucking matter anymore.

"Noted," Shepard said, and resumed prodding at her omni-tool.

A short silence. She finished syncing up their combat medical suites. Tested her shield battery. Spot-cleaned the filter of her CO2 scrubber. Watched Miranda through her eyelashes.

No need to bother asking. Rogue cell. Unsanctioned. We didn't know.

Shepard closed her eyes for just an instant. Then straightened, exhaled, and ran through her sequence of weapons checks. Jacob had kitted her with a squat, heavy electrical arc rifle that he seemed quietly proud of. "Good to go."

Miranda snapped her Carnifex into place at her hip. "Ready."

Shepard gestured them into the shuttle hatch. "Kozlowski, let's move."

—-

Dead quarians left and right. The sun sizzled against her shields. At least Haestrom's poisoned atmosphere kept her from smelling the cooked flesh.

They were late. She was late.

What if it was too late?

They found an audiolog. Tali's voice, soft and quiet. I wish Shepard were here.

Her thumb twitched on the console keyboard. The playback stopped mid-breath.

Garrus rested a hand on her shoulder. She barely felt anything through the armor. The phantom heat of his palm made her skin crawl.

She looked up at him.

"We'll find her," he said.

Why was he being nice?

"Not if we don't hurry," Miranda said crisply. "Incoming."

Stuttering clicks and chirps. A pair of drones swooped into the sky. Bullets pinged off Shepard's shields. She threw herself behind a cracked pillar, lobbed a tech mine blindly overhead.

FZZAK. Twin explosions. Machinery crunched against stone. Garrus hummed his approval.

Her brow wrinkled, but she elected to ignore him, and crept around the shadowed edge of her pillar to scope the perimeter.

Miranda drew up close by her side. "Radar's clear, Shepard."

Shepard squinted out into the empty, sun-blasted arena, and did not move.

Silence. The wind gusted. Dust swirled over the pale stones. Across the courtyard, a block of shimmering heat distortion separated itself from the wall.

Shepard threw herself to the ground, yanking Miranda down with her. A high-caliber round whipped through the empty air. "Cloaked!"

"I'm on it." Garrus dropped to one knee, took aim, fired. The cloaking field sparked and shredded. A broad-shouldered, hook-headed silhouette stepped out, one hand to its back.

"That's odd," Garrus said, as he loaded a fresh sink and re-aimed. "Their sniper units are usually a lot smaller—"

The geth unhooked a massive shotgun, and charged towards them.

"Destroyer!" Shepard barked, though it clearly wasn't, and flung a biotic right hook.

The geth staggered back. Miranda pitched a tech mine and triggered the charge. Shepard unloaded everything in her pistol, cracking apart the armored plating around its throat. Garrus's next shot buried itself in the exposed wiring. The geth dropped.

"Well. That was novel," Miranda said, then checked her omni-tool. "Radar's still empty."

Shepard exchanged a glance with Garrus, and switched out for her Viper.

Clicks. Chattering. It echoed between the broken columns. Shepard tamped down the threshold on her helmet's audio input and leaned out, swiveling her head, trying to triangulate the source.

The chattering intensified. Grew louder. Guttural barks. Hissing.

And then: a bone-shaking, many-voiced roar, so loud her speakers shrieked with feedback. It rattled the stones under their feet. Kicked her heartbeat into double-time.

Intimidation. From a species of zeroes and ones.

She'd thought the geth were predictable, before; maybe even a little dim. But her working knowledge of their race had expired the same instant she had. And under Haestrom's blanket of scanner-killing static, they might well have dropped an entire colony. One armed with new shapes, new weapons. Incomprehensible synthetic motivations.

They were late.

Miranda flattened herself into the shadows, fingers pressed to her comm switch. "Normandy. Lawson to Normandy, come in. Normandy!"

Faint, shuffling footsteps echoed across the plaza. Then more. And more.

"Never an orbital airstrike around when you need one," Garrus said, sliding a fresh clip into his Vindicator.

The buzz of drones grew closer, steadier. Rose in pitch.

The comm link hummed emptily. Miranda glanced at Shepard, a crease between her eyebrows.

Shepard shelved her Viper, and unhooked the new, untested arc rifle. It flipped into life with a faint whine.

"Miranda. Tech grenades on my mark. Garrus, covering fire. Both of you, reroute everything you can spare to your shields. Stay alert, and stay behind me. No matter what."

Her tech armor bloomed in the shade.

"We're getting through this."

—-

Foot soldiers. Pyros. Not-Destroyers. Primes. The arc rifle didn't discriminate. She kept her focus. Called out maneuvers. Counted shots. Carved the way forward from shelter to shelter, shadow to shadow, slowly, methodically, with grinding patience.

"Moving."

"Affirmative."

Metallic shrapnel crunched beneath her boots. Her shields hissed and flickered in the dying sunlight.

More quarian corpses. More voice logs. Needless agony.

They found a radio. Tali's voice, in real-time, frayed, anxious. Still alive.

Shepard signed off, turned, and marched on towards the next guard station.

All of this could have been prevented.

If only she'd been faster. If only she hadn't let her fear rule her.

Instead of screwing around in dust-shrouded bars, instead of stacking lies on top of bullshit, instead of wasting her time trying to build something with someone who would never accept or understand her, she could have been here, on Haestrom, making an actual difference. Shooting bad guys. Saving lives. Her sworn duty. Her sole purpose.

If only she'd just accepted what the universe kept trying to tell her, over and over again: that she was always going to be alone—

Scraping. Stuttering. A severed geth torso dragged itself towards her, hand over hand. Shepard lurched backwards, disoriented. Reached for her pistol.

Garrus shot out its eyelight before she could draw.

His head tilted to one side. "Everything all right, Shepard?"

"Fine," she said, and turned away.

Fine. No more distractions. No more wallowing in self-recrimination.

She was a cobbled-together mess of corpseflesh and circuitry. Snarled threads of spacetime ran through her cybernetic veins. Dead universes probably crumbled to ash with every step she took. Fine.

Colonists were still dying every minute. Miranda still wanted to convert her. EDI watched her every breath. And Garrus—

Fine. She couldn't do a thing about any of that. What she could do was her fucking job. To the best of her abilities, however compromised.

If she died, then she died. If they died...

Then she went with them. To hell with Garrus and his bullshit turian honor. She had a galaxy to save.

And if she didn't manage to get Tali this time around... Well.

She'd burn that bridge when she came to it.

—-

A man's voice over the radio briefed her on the situation, in the clipped military argot that spanned galactic culture. A motherfucking Colossus. Seriously? Shepard slapped in a fresh clip, gestured to Miranda and Garrus, then stalked out into the geth-infested atrium.

Shock troopers swarmed the gangplanks. A laser trembled on her visor. She leaned to one side, and kept shooting. The sniper's bullet buried itself in the ancient concrete.

The voice on the radio belonged to a marine, red-suited like his captain, laid up with a gut wound. He told her Tali was still alive. Tali was still okay. Shepard squeezed his arm. "Reegar. Stay here and keep your head down."

"I can draw attention from—"

"It wasn't a request."

"Yes, ma'am."

She hefted her arc rifle and nodded to Garrus, and they took up their well-worn rhythm. She wreaked mass havoc in front; he picked them off cool and clean from the back. They mowed down waves of geth platforms. Exchanged grenades and heatsinks without a word. Advanced smoothly from cover to cover, ducking the baleful stare of the Colossus.

Miranda slotted in perfectly between them, shredding shields, crippling drones, setting up shots with fluid mastery. Like she'd been there from the very beginning. Like a faster, meaner, more self-assured version of Kaidan.

They trashed the Colossus in about forty seconds.

Shepard marched on.

—-

Smoke clung to the ceiling of the alcove. Bullet marks scored the walls. The massive bunker doors were barricaded at the base by a tangle of geth and quarian bodies.

She gazed down at their faceless suits. Stepped over a three-fingered hand with its palm turned to the ceiling. Tugged the limbs aside.

A muted exclamation. The holographic lock crackled into static. The bunker doors shuddered, and scraped open.

"Shepard!" Tali cried as she turned from her console, and flung herself into Shepard's arms.

Shepard, startled, caught her.

"I can't believe you're really here. Keelah, I—" Tali was shaking. "They... You saw what happened."

"We did," Shepard said quietly. "Are you hurt? Any suit breaches?"

"No. I'm— I'm fine. I was sealed up in here the whole time. The geth found us three cycles ago. It's been constant ever since. They don't sleep, they don't... we..." Tali trailed off. Her glowing eyes fluttered closed.

Shepard began to pull back, concerned, but Tali grabbed onto her hands and held them tight. "My team. I-I don't think anyone else is even left. Lomah said— She said it was because I'm the best with the equipment, but I know that was a lie, I know it's because I'm Rael's daughter, but she—" Tali made a hiccuping noise. "She made me hide in here. To protect me. And then I... I listened on the radio as they... The uplink to the Neema was jammed. I couldn't even call in for reinforcements. I couldn't do anything at all. They were screaming. And I just... sat here, with the data, like a—" Her voice broke. "Like an i-idiot, waiting to die—"

"Tali, I—" Shepard's throat tightened. "I'm so sorry."

A sob crackled through Tali's helmet speaker. Her shoulders shook.

Shepard held on, mute.

Omega all over again. Horizon all over again. How many fucking times was she going to be too late to protect them?

Her whole body felt hot. Itchy. Her eyes flicked down to her pistol.

Could she?

Maybe two, maybe three of Tali's people, if she started over from the beginning. If she moved like lightning. If she did everything right.

But it'd been hours. And the cost. Miranda. Garrus. Tali herself.

"I'm sorry. I wish..." Shepard swallowed. "I wish I could have saved them all for you. I wish I'd gotten here earlier."

Tali sniffed. "Y-You got here. That's what matters."

Shepard just squeezed her hand in response.

Tali's visor lifted. "Oh! Shepard, what happened to your face? Are you hurt—"

"Nice to see you, too, Tali," Garrus drawled behind her, at exactly the right moment.

"Garrus!" Tali whirled and threw herself into his outstretched arms. Her bracers clacked against his hardsuit. "Oh keelah, not you, too. Look at this! Did you get yourself all beat up to match Shepard?"

"No, this time I was the trendsetter," he said, setting her back down. "Feeling left out? We could stencil some cracks on your faceplate."

"Mmmmaybe later." Tali turned around. Her back stiffened. "Oh. And you. I remember you."

"Miranda Lawson. We met on Freedom's Progress." Miranda stepped forward, hand extended, a professionally pleasant mask on her face. "I serve as the XO on this mission. I look forward to working together, Ms. Zorah. Your skills came very highly recommended to us."

Tali's eyes narrowed into glowing slits. "'Us' meaning Cerberus."

"Yes."

Tali turned her stare on Shepard.

Shepard met her gaze.

No excuses. No rationalizations. There was nothing left for her to say.

Silence.

Tali's shoulders rose, then fell. "...I need some time to perform the funeral rites."

It took all of Shepard's remaining willpower not to sag with relief. "Of course."

Tali turned and tapped the console keyboard. A chip spat out into her waiting palm. Her fingers folded around it.

"I need to salvage the rest of the data from the other stations," she said. Her voice was hoarse. "I need to let Captain Nael know what happened here. And then I need to get off this ancestors-forsaken rock, and never, ever look back."

"I can help with that," Shepard said.

—-

Reegar, limping, met them halfway to the shuttle. Tali let out a muffled shriek and darted over to his side. She patted his good arm, fussed over his suit punctures.

Reegar accepted both the fussing and the data chip with stoic grace. "Seems like you'll be in good hands, Ma'am."

Tali turned back to look at Shepard. Sunlight flashed off the curve of her mask. "The very best."

Shepard had a number of thoughts about that.

"I'll keep her safe," was what she said.

—-

Kozlowski dropped them off, then peeled away to reunite Reegar with the Neema.

Introductions with Jacob did not go well.

"Cerberus!" Tali stalked back and forth in front of the drive core, steel toes clacking against the deck. "Not that I'm not grateful for the rescue, or what they did for you, Shepard, but—" She threw up her hands. "Weren't there any other options?"

"No," Shepard said. "There weren't."

Tali stopped pacing. Looked at her.

"I'm sorry." Shepard rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Jacob should have been more respectful. I should have just kept him clear of you altogether. What happened on Haestrom was... a horrible loss of life."

Tali's eyes closed. "Yes. It was."

Silence.

"I'm sorry I didn't save them."

"Thank you," Tali said, more quietly. "But it's not your fault. The Admiralty Board were the ones who sent us there." Her voice lowered. "It had better be worth it."

"I hope it is."

"I'm going to be writing casualty notification letters for... a while." Tali shifted. Wrapped her arms around herself. "I don't know what to say. Where do you even start? How can you tell someone something like that, in a way that doesn't—?"

"You can't." Shepard spread her palms. "There's nothing you can say to make it any easier. So don't try. Just be honest, straightforward, and respectful. That's all there is."

"Don't I have to say something good about them? I barely even got to know any of them before..." Tali looked down. "Before."

"Were they good at their jobs?"

Her head snapped up. Her voice was fierce. "Very."

"Then you can say that."

Tali stayed quiet, her glowing gaze on Shepard's face.

"...It really is you in there, isn't it?"

Shepard let out a low, tired chuckle. "Seems that way."

Tali reached out and took her hand. "Thank you for coming back for me."

Too slow. Too late. "I'm just glad you're safe," Shepard said.

"I was so shocked when I saw you that first time. Alive, and working with Cerberus, of all the— It didn't make any sense." Tali traced a gloved fingertip down Shepard's scarred palm. "Now, I wish I'd joined you on the spot. But back then... I was so angry that you were with them, after everything they'd done, after everything we'd been through together. And what they did to our people, to the Idenna—"

Tali's speaker sounded a long, drawn-out sigh.

"I'm sorry," Shepard said again, quietly. "That was awful."

"Thank you. I'm sorry, too, Shepard. I didn't think even once about what it must have been like for you. All alone on a Cerberus ship, with Cerberus officers, and Cerberus crew. No one you could really trust."

Shepard squeezed her fingers. "I— No, Tali, don't apologize for that. I wasn't thinking either. Of course you would have been upset and suspicious. I didn't explain myself well at all."

Tali's glowing eyes crinkled in amusement. "True. You sounded like a crazy person."

"I was one." Shepard made a face. "Still am, depending on who you ask."

"Well, I'm here now," Tali said decisively. "And Garrus, too. We'll keep Cerberus off your back, Shepard. That should help with some of the crazy."

Shepard tried to contain a grimace. Garrus was a subject she'd rather leave for another day, or never, and EDI was probably feeding the Illusive Man every word they spoke. "Tali. Jacob wasn't kidding about the AI on this ship. You have to be careful. There are cameras and listening devices all around—"

"Oh, you mean the cameras and listening devices I remotely disabled ten minutes ago?" Tali's voice rose to a lilt. "Those listening devices?"

Shepard stared down at her. "I don't know what I ever did to deserve you."

Tali patted her arm. "You saved my life. Twice. Remember?"

Shepard could have saved a hell of a lot more than that, if she'd been trying.

She rubbed her eyes. "I— Um. Thank you. This— It really means a lot to me. To have you here."

Tali's head tilted. "Shepard?"

"I have to go— check on some people. But— Thank you. I'll catch up with you later?"

"Okay." Tali waved, a little hesitantly. "See you later."

—-

She rested her head against the elevator doors. Machinery hummed as it progressed along its glacial path.

Her new chief engineer needed about fourteen hours of sleep and a solid year of trauma counseling before anything else happened. Shepard hadn't even warned her about any of the important stuff yet. Not about the Illusive Man. Not about Operative Lawson's regular reports.

Not about the touchy biotic criminal holed up a half-flight of stairs below, either. Not about the uninspired dextro rations in the mess cabinets. Not about Donnelly's godawful jokes.

And not a word, not a breath, about her schism with Garrus. He'd get to inform Tali of that development all by himself.

She wondered what he'd say.

"EDI, where's—"

"Officer Vakarian is currently in the mess hall talking with Crewman Gardner."

Fuck! She slapped the STOP button on the control panel. "Thanks. You're a mind-reader."

"That is not technically correct, but I do have a number of predictive behavioral algorithms."

Shepard glanced up at the cameras. "I'm sorry Tali doesn't like you. I hope she'll come around eventually."

"That seems unlikely," said EDI. "Distrust and enmity for synthetic lifeforms is woven into the framework of the last three hundred years of quarian culture. But I appreciate the sentiment."

Shepard looked down. Her hand still hovered over the control panel. "Hey, can your algorithm tell me what I'm going to do next? I could use a hint."

EDI's voice was smooth and soft. "You appear somewhat distressed, Shepard. I believe you will probably opt to distract yourself with physical exercise."

Run it off. Brilliant. "You're a genius, EDI. Thanks." Shepard hit the button for the shuttle bay.

—-

By the look of things, Jack had beaten her to the idea about half an hour ago. She was half-naked, drenched in sweat, and scowling like a demon as she threw blue-fringed strikes at the punching bag. Tufts of stuffing and sand lay scattered around her feet.

As Shepard approached, Jack reared back, flaring, and screamed. A shockwave ripped from her fist and tore through the shuttle bay. Crates slammed against the walls. The treadmill toppled; free weights flew off their racks and rolled in all directions. The punching bag dropped off its chain and burst open.

A 20kg plate bounced off the door frame, leaving a dent, and slowly rattled to a stop.

"Impressive," Shepard said.

Jack whirled, whipping grains of sand across the deck. Shepard raised her palms. "Sorry! Didn't mean to sneak up on you. Can you, uh... teach me how to do that?"

"Ask the asari." Jack glared at her. Wiped sweat off her forehead. "I'm not a teacher."

Shepard sank back on one hip. "I'm asking you. I've never seen Samara do anything like that."

"...Fine. Whatever. Get over here."

Forty minutes later, what was left of Shepard's nerves had been stripped raw. Sweat dripped from her nose. Her amp socket burned; her skull throbbed. And the treadmill had scooted maybe an inch or two to the left.

"Well, you might be able to tickle some feet." Jack picked something out of her teeth, inspected it, and flicked it aside. "With practice."

Shepard grimaced. "Thanks for the morale boost, but I was hoping for something a little more combat-applicable."

Jack shrugged and turned away.

Shepard watched her for a moment, then suppressed a sigh, and wriggled back into her uniform top.

"Look," Jack bit out.

Shepard, halfway to the door, glanced back in surprise.

Jack scowled and crossed her skinny arms. "You just don't have the juice for it, Shepard. Most people don't. But I've watched how you work." Jack leaned forward. "You crunch your energy down into a little ball, and fling it like a bullet. That's good. Single-targeting makes the most out of the power you do have, so, like— don't mess with what isn't broken. If anything, you should be crunching it down even harder."

"Huh." Shepard looked down at her hands. "That actually makes a lot of sense."

"The cheerleader's the same way. But don't tell her." Jack gave her a bloodthirsty smile. "Let her go on thinking she's perfect."

Shepard shot her a look. "Noted."

Jack turned and gathered up her sweaty tank top. "I'm out. Tell Cerberus to drop the creds on a better punching bag next time. Oh, and Shepard," she called back, as she headed into the elevator.

"Yeah?"

"You look like shit. Go patch things up with your boyfriend already."

—-

She checked in on the rest of her people (minus one). Took a short, blisteringly hot shower. Sat at her desk, towel draped around her neck. Wisps of steam curled off her skin and vanished in the recycled air. She flipped on her terminal. Bullet-pointed mission notes flared to life.

She shut down the terminal. Squeezed her eyes shut. Breathed in, out.

Her fingers flexed. Her shoulders itched. She stood up. Paced the length of her lifeless cabin. She toggled the music player. Switched it off. Made and re-made her bed with unnecessary precision. Gave up, finally, and rested her head against the cool, slick surface of her fish tank. Strands of wet hair stuck to the glass.

Faint reddish light glowed back from her blurry reflection.

"Shepard," EDI's voice said quietly.

Shepard let out a puff of breath. "Another hint?"

"Officer Vakarian is requesting permission to come up to your cabin."

"What?" She straightened. A hand flew reflexively to her cracked cheek. "Now? He— Fuck. Okay. Fine. That's fine. Thanks, EDI."

Faint humming came from the elevator shaft. Garrus stepped out into her room. He still wore his battered hardsuit from the surface.

They stood there looking at each other.

"What do you need," she said, finally.

"No, it's not—" He shook his head. "Shepard, that's not why I came."

"Oh?"

"I just..." His mandible flexed. "Do you mind? It feels weird talking to you from up here."

"Oh. Sure." She gestured.

He came down the steps. Leaned his hip against the railing.

Silence.

"How are you holding up?"

She lifted her eyebrows. "Seriously?"

"I mean it. Tali's worried about you." He met her eyes. "I'm worried about you."

Shepard leaned back against her fish tank, folded her arms, and stared at him.

"That was a lot of dead bodies back on Haestrom, even by our standards. I thought you might have..." Garrus paused for a second, weighing his words. "I thought the what-ifs might have gotten to you pretty bad, down there. Thought you might be wondering if you could have done something to prevent what happened."

"Always," she said.

He hummed quietly. "Thought so."

"I'm not just wondering. I could have." If she'd let the Colossus nail her with one of those energy blasts, it might have put her back a fair distance. Not enough to make up for days of procrastination, but at least maybe she could have saved one of—

"Maybe," he said. "But that still doesn't make it your fault. You aren't the one who sent them there. You aren't the one who pulled the trigger."

She frowned at him, wondering why that phrasing sounded so—

—What the fuck. He was quoting her. What she'd said to him on Tuchanka, on the comedown from her ryncol coma. Alone together among the junk of the ancients, in that dusty, wind-swept stillness. Bathed in the glow of the rust-colored sun.

"...Get out."

His good mandible dropped open. "What?"

"I mean it, Vakarian. Don't fucking talk to me about not letting things get personal." She stepped forward. Pointed to her door. "I don't want to hear it from you."

"What?" he said again, his subvocals straining. "Shepard, I'm not— Wait." He held up a hand. "Please."

She sank back on one hip. Crossed her arms.

He exhaled. "I know you don't like how things went down with Sidonis."

"Yeah? What tipped you off?"

His jaw clicked. "Look. I told you it felt good to put it to bed, but— I still wonder about the what-ifs. I still close my eyes and see—"

Garrus cut himself off.

She said nothing. Watched him.

"I don't regret killing him. It's over for them now, and I'm glad." He stared out into the empty blue of her aquarium. "But it seems like it's still not over for me."

Shepard kept silent, taking in the slouched, uncertain line of his shoulders. The wrinkled skin under his eyes.

"That kind of thing changes you," she said. "It might never be over."

After a moment, he lifted his head, and looked at her.

She looked at him.

He sighed, and slid a hand down over his face. "...Do you have anything to drink?"

Shepard's arms tightened around herself.

"Funny you should ask," she replied, and went over to her desk.

—-

Shepard dimmed the lights, and they sat down on her couch, a careful distance apart. She put her feet up on the coffee table. Cupped her glass in her hands. Watched the precious, ancient liquid shimmer in the glow from her fish tank.

"On Pragia, you told Jack that walking away was an act of strength." He sat hunched, his elbows propped on his knees. "On Pragia, I agreed with you. But when it was me..." His mandible flexed. "I hated the idea that Sidonis could just— escape, when there was no escape for them. Walking away from that felt weak. Disgraceful. It felt like failing them all over again."

"They're dead, Garrus." She spoke quietly over the low burble of the water. "There's nothing more you can do for them. Vengeance, justice, mercy, whatever— it makes no difference. They won't feel it."

"Yeah." His voice was hollow. "I guess you would know."

Shepard glanced at him sharply, but he wasn't looking at her; he just stared at some empty spot beyond the bottom of his glass, tilting his wrist back and forth so the liquor rolled and slipped around the base, endlessly, over and over.

She pushed herself up and crossed over to her desk. "I've been holding onto something else for you."

Suspended between her palms, divorced from context, the floor panel from his base looked like some sort of ancient Prothean artifact.

"What is it?" He reached out. The wan light played over metallic ripples of violet and blue. He turned it over in his hands, slowly, carefully, to reveal the layer of burnt carbon black.

He tilted his head, puzzled. Then his whole body froze.

She counted six heartbeats before he resumed breathing again.

Garrus looked up at her. "Why?"

"I went back to look. Your base was just— open. Stripped bare. A single Suns guard. It didn't sit right with me. I thought..." She shrugged, uncomfortable. He was still staring at her. "You were the one who brought them together, Garrus. You gave them a place, and a purpose. I thought a part of them should to come back home to you."

He finally looked away. Cradled the panel between his gloved fingers. "You just told me the dead can't feel anything."

"They can't," she said. "But you can."

He was silent for a while.

"Do you think we could get this cut into smaller pieces?"

"Sure," she said, startled. "Jacob probably has something that would work."

"Butler had a wife," he said. He sounded tired. "I didn't have anything to send back to her."

She reached out, tentatively, and put her hand on his shoulder.

He tipped his head down to rest against it.

—-

She sat down a little closer this time.

"I wish you hadn't killed him," she said.

"I wish you hadn't lied to me," he answered.

Well, there it was.

Shepard contemplated her drink. Swirled the glass in her hand. Watched the glimmering fluid fold and curl into itself.

"I panicked," she said, quietly. "It took me a long time to wrap my head around what was really happening. By that point you were already calling me crazy. You were the last person I had left, Garrus. I was afraid you might leave me, too. And after what Miranda told me on Illium—"

Garrus made a flat noise. "You seriously thought I was going to throw you over for Cerberus?"

"No," she said. "I thought you were going to tell Miranda to send me back to the sludge pile. And to start again from scratch."

A pause.

"Shepard," he said, voice low.

She thunked her glass down onto the coffee table.

"Don't act so shocked, Vakarian. You told me to my face that I don't measure up to the original. You've been wondering this whole time whether I'm a fucking Reaper construct." Her voice frayed. "Is it really that much of a leap to imagine things might be better if I were gone?"

"I—" His good mandible snapped down with a click. "Shepard. I don't— I never wanted you to think that. I'm sorry."

"Yeah, well. Unlike me, turians never lie. So don't try to pretend you didn't mean any of it." Shepard slumped back into her seat. Reached out for her glass. Took a long, long drink.

Garrus let out a breath.

"You're so cruel," she said, around the ache in her throat. "You know that, right? You like hurting others. Saleon. Harkin. Sidonis. Me." She pressed her palms hard into her eyes.

"Yeah," he replied, after a short pause. "I know."

"And just like everything else you do, you're brilliant at it." She tapped the rim of her glass against her temple. Smiled her shark's smile. "Hey. You were right about one thing, at least. The original wouldn't have let you fuck her up like this."

He closed his eyes for a moment. A muscle in his throat jumped.

"I thought you wanted to die, Shepard."

Her smile dropped.

"I saw what they'd done to you, on Omega." Garrus glanced at her. "The scars. The way you talked about yourself. The way your face went blank when you thought no one was watching. And afterwards, the way you sought me out, the way you kept touching me, like you didn't think I was really real. The way you just— hurled yourself into the crossfire, over and over again, and then you'd check to make sure we were okay—"

He lifted one shoulder, then let it fall. "I told you before that dying and coming back made you more human. But what I really meant was that it made you more like me."

Shepard stared at him.

"I knew you were lying to me." His voice was rough. "I struggled with it. It hurt. But you had plenty of reasons to be paranoid. I thought that if you started to feel safe enough— if I made you feel safe enough— that you'd come around, eventually. You'd loop me in, and we'd be a team again."

"Garrus—"

"The two of us against the galaxy." He lifted his glass to hers. "Just like old times."

Clink. "Yeah," she said, more quietly.

The drive core thrummed in the stillness around them.

He took a long sip.

"Remember that time on Tuchanka?" he murmured. "We ditched Grunt's party, and wandered out to the plateau. I told you about... what I did with the bodies. The fire. You told me that I had to accept my mistake. To look it in the eye, and carry the weight with me. To try to move on."

She looked down at her hands.

"You're every bit as cruel as I am, Shepard," he said softly. "And the worst part is, you aren't even trying."

There was nothing she could say to that.

He swirled his drink. Stared out into the vacant blue of her aquarium. The alien liquor shimmered in the irradiated, flickering light of the eezo envelope above them.

They sat side by side, unmoving, for a long time.

He let out a long, slow breath. "I knew it was you the instant you hopped over the barrier."

Shepard glanced up at him.

"When I saw you on that bridge, at the worst moment of the worst day in the worst year of my life, it felt like everything before had been a nightmare, and I was finally— finally— waking up."

"Garrus," she said quietly.

"Even though you'd changed, I'd changed, too. And I thought—" His subvocals rasped. "I thought maybe this time, things could be different. Maybe this time, I could be important to you, the way you always had been for me. Maybe I could sweep in and fix things for you. Keep an eye on Cerberus. Shoot bad guys. Make you laugh. Take some of the galaxy's weight off your shoulders."

"...Garrus," she said again.

"I thought, maybe if I tried hard enough, I could make it worth your while to stay alive."

Shepard swallowed.

"But I wasn't really important to you, was I? Not like I wanted to be." His good mandible tipped out slightly. He flicked a glance up to EDI's shadowed lenses nestled in the ceiling. "Just one of... many."

"Garrus," she whispered.

"And ever since you came clean, all I've done is take it out on you." His gaze landed on her split cheek. "So much for lifting the weight off."

She looked at him.

He looked back at her.

"I'm not who I thought I was, Shepard." His voice was low. "You're not who I thought you were, either. And now I don't really know what to do anymore."

Silence. She contemplated the planes and valleys of his face. The blue-painted blade of his silvery cheekbone. The scorched, chipped plating that disappeared into his bandage.

"That makes two of us," she said, finally.

"Well, then." Garrus tapped his glass against hers. "Cheers to that."

Shepard stared down into the swirling, twisting, incomprehensible fluid. Breathed in, then out. Drank.

He nudged her with his thigh.

She looked up at him.

His eyes were steady. "I'm sorry, Shepard. For everything."

There was so much more she couldn't say. So much more she couldn't ask.

That familiar, alien face. That searching gaze. That stiletto-sharp tongue. She still didn't remotely understand him.

Maybe the real mistake had been assuming that she ever had.

"...Yeah." Shepard bumped him with her knee. "I'm sorry, too."

—-

They sipped in silence, contemplating the empty hum of her fish tank.

After a while, she reached out and squeezed his hand.

He leaned in. Brushed her cracked cheek with his thumb.

She pulled off his glove, and tossed it aside.

That was all it took.