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Wreckage and Recovery

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The colony is not the most awful thing Shepard has seen.  Not since the Reapers came, and left behind their multitude of horrors to be cleaned up, the remains of cities, nations, whole words left to burn to ash and dust in sadistic ruination.  Camps full of starved, half-dead elderly and adults and children, communities driven mad, by Indoctrination, by fear, butchering one another in droves and abandoning their own families to turn on dragon’s teeth, partly-processed corpses left unfinished by the Reaper’s harvest, rotting in the millions.  But that doesn’t do anything to diminish the horror of the place.  It never does.

 

The world they’re on is a small one, likely to have been overlooked by the Reapers but for its strategic importance to several key communication hubs.  It’s rocky and not overtly green, home only to one large colony, supporting around half a million salarians.  The Reapers had torn through them in a hurry, not bothering to either process or repurpose them; only killing them to get them out of the way.  The colony’s defense tower and its larger buildings are all reduced to rubble.  A huge, blackened scorch mark traces the path of a Reaper laser, littered with the hollow remains of everything it ripped through.  Fires burn unchecked here and there, still slowly eating through fuel stations and the framework of smaller buildings.  Otherwise, the place is completely silent, and Shepard feels with sinking dread that they will not find anything but the outline of more misery here.  The STG had requested they stop and search for survivors, just in case; the Normandy had been passing through the system, and Captain Kirrahe had called in one of the half dozen favours Shepard owed him for siding against the dalatrass during the war.  Not that he considered her indebted.  That was her own conclusion.

 

She shares a look with Garrus, and knows he’s thinking the same thing she is.

 

Everything here is dead.

 

But there’s always hope, however slim and small, and they are there to pursue it.  The Normandy broadcasts a message, explaining the end of the Reaper threat and their offer of aid.  No one answers, but that could be disbelief and suspicion at work.  They pick through the ruins, past the grim lines of bodies left abandoned in the streets, the houses disquietingly empty but for bloodstains and ghosts.  Shepard tries to turn off the feeling part of her brain.  She can’t help seeing a connection to Mordin in most salarians she meets, in their people as an idea, and as they pick through the rubble, she wonders how many here were dragged screaming to their deaths.  Terrified, with no hope of survival or rescue, and no idea what they were facing.  With a sidelong glance at Garrus, she can see him trying to disconnect as well.  It’s gotten easier to manage, over time, and that’s a horror all of its own.

 

It’s just the two of them, now, except for the part where it’s a whole united galaxy.  Liara’s gone off to help on Thessia, Tali’s gone off to help on Rannoch.  Javik had decided that his peace time would first be spent helping repair the Citadel from the Crucible’s surge.  James and Ash stayed on Earth.  Most of the crew’s still around, and EDI, of course, but with surviving forces spread thin, Shepard doesn’t have an XO.  She’s split the job between EDI and Garrus, and she leaves EDI in command in her absence.  Once, a new armoury officer assigned to the crew had objected.  Shepard told him that the last person who got away with insulting their friendly neighbourhood AI was a Prothean, and since most maintenance training didn’t come with the history of a dead civilization and a hundred years of attrition to help them win an impossible war against impossible odds, he could suck it up or get the hell off her ship.

 

He had opted to suck it up, and Shepard then realized that her tolerance for bullshit had reached record lows, and might never properly recover again.

 

They’re all scarred.  The Reapers are gone, but the horror they’ve left behind lingers on an unimaginable scale.  Shepard looks into the remains of a school building.  Tiny chairs, covered in ash, centered around computer consoles and a long, raised teacher’s desk.  Most of them are knocked over.  The doors are torn off of their hinges, and, as everywhere, there is blood.  She finds the bodies piled up at the end of a corridor.  A few teachers, but most of them are painfully small.  The power flickers, and she gives the nearest console a scan.  The building’s running on reserves.  Soon, all the lights will go out, and the computer systems will go down.  Shepard has EDI backup what she can to the Normandy’s records.  Even if it’s too late to save anyone, they can at least do what they can to remember them.

 

“Nothing in here,” Garrus tells her, a hard glint in his eye.

 

“Okay,” she agrees.  “Let’s move on.”

 

They don’t search every building.  Just the ones that are relatively unscathed.  The ones most suitable for someone to hide in, or survive in.  They call out whenever they come onto a new street, but only the wind answers.  The buildings creak and groan around them, and every once in a while a piece of rubble gives way, filling the air with the bangs and thuds of distant crashes.  EDI and Joker scan from orbit, though it’s hard to get details amidst all the echoes of the Reaper’s slaughter.  There are some signs of life, but those could be anything; animals, husks, even the trace signals from damaged medical equipment.  Sometimes Reaper tech gives off waves that make it seem like it’s alive.

 

They’re two hours in when Shepard gets a blip on her radar.  Heat.  Pretty substantial heat, as a matter of fact, though there aren’t any fires still burning nearby.  She tracks it up to what looks like a medical facility, and frowns.  The building’s half burnt-out, caught in the pathway of an attack.  Most of it’s rubble, but one wing managed to stay standing.  That wing seems to have been triple backed-up on redundant systems to keep it heated.  Only one of those systems survived, and like everything else in the colony, it’s running low.  Unlike everything else, however, this hasn’t gone into any kind of power conservation mode.  She guesses it’ll burn out in a day, maybe two.  Something about it nags at her, so while Garrus clears the less-scathed community center next door, she makes her way in.  The wreckage groans uncomfortably around her.  There’s no easy way up from the ground level, all of it blocked by mangled pillars and melted walls, so she climbs instead. 

 

These days, almost every world looks like Tuchanka; except for Tuchanka, which looks better every time she sees it.

 

Her boots crunch over the glass from blown-out windows, and ash litters every surface, clinging to the gloves of her suit and lingering in her filters, though that last is only her imagination.  She passes mangled medical equipment, and the half-burnt corpses of medical staff who were caught up in the blast.  A doctor stares up at her with sightless eyes, his remains cut off by a line that ends in scorch marks, and a sharp drop to the ruined foundations.  Shepard reaches out and pulls his eyelids shut over his wide, blank stare.  Too often, it’s the only thing she can do.  So she makes sure she does it.

 

Garrus crackles over their channel.

 

“Shepard, where are you?” he asks.

 

“Hospital,” she replies, grunting a little as she vaults a particularly large crack in the floor.  The building groans around her again, and she can almost hear Garrus frowning over the connection.

 

“That place isn’t stable,” he points out.

 

“It’s not coming down yet,” she argues.  “There’s something running heat signatures all over the place up here.  I don’t know, I have a feeling it’s important.”

 

There’s a pause.

 

“I’ll come find you,” Garrus says, before the connection goes quiet again.

 

There’s a gulf between the rest of the building and the comparatively untouched wing.  She bridges it with the remains of a support strut and a few connecting floorboards, and waits for Garrus, listening to the wind whistle through the gaps below.  She wonders what they’ll find on the other side.  Maybe just medical equipment, running specialized systems for patients long dead, bleeding out heat like an open wound inside the empty building.

 

“Shepard?”

 

“Here.”

 

He climbs over the mountains of ruined floor, strewn and broken pieces, and comes to a halt beside her.  They cross over into the next wing one at a time.  Shepard first, then Garrus.  Both of them keep an arm extended towards one another as they move out over the drop.  Towards the extremes of either side, they’re too far away to do any good in the event of disaster.  But they reach anyway, just in case, a new, unspoken shift in the dynamics of their world.  They’ve come through (mostly) everything alive.  They should feel immortal; instead, like everyone else, they feel undeserving, and as if the last bright things might be snatched up along with all the other losses.  The universe has proven its predisposition towards misery and brutality.  In the wake the survivors huddle together, unified and wary of the darkness between the stars.

 

Shepard catches Garrus by the hand for the last leg of his crossing, and grips it for a moment before she turns to the wall ahead of them.  The double-doors leading into it are darkened with grit and ash, and blown half open.  But it’s still on its hinges, which is more than can be said for most.  They push their way inside.  The lights set into the ceiling glow dimly, disappearing into the grey, muddied sunlight pouring in from the windows.  Ahead of them are three aisles of square, softly humming boxes.  Shepard’s first thought is more agricultural than medical.  There are temperature readers on the sides of the boxes.  Most of them are empty.  Only six are not, and these are filled with eggs roughly two fists in size, covered by smooth, slightly mottled shells.  It takes her a moment to put the obvious together.  Her knowledge of salarian reproduction begins and ends with one short conversation a lifetime ago.

 

Her mouth suddenly dry – with horror or hope, it’s hard to say – she steps forward, and begins checking the nearest machine. The readouts are difficult for her to parse.  She doesn’t know what she’s looking at, or looking for, so she patches the system through to EDI as quickly as she can.

 

“EDI.  Garrus and I have found a… ward, in the hospital, filled with what look to be salarian eggs.  The systems are still running.  What can you tell me?”

 

There’s a pause while EDI assesses.  Shepard looks over to Garrus, but he’s still standing there, uncertain in a way she’s not used to seeing him.  She shoots him a questioning glance, but he doesn’t meet it.  Eventually the moment passes, and he moves forward, too, heading for the station opposite hers.

 

“The system has been overtaxed for some time, but is still functioning at acceptable levels.  It would appear to be a special ward for at-risk cases.  Two of the eggs have died from internal complications which were left untreated.  Of the remaining four, all appear to be relatively healthy.  The eldest is eight weeks old.  The youngest is seven.  According to the databases I have access to, this puts them past the most unstable stage of their development, and anywhere from one to two weeks of hatching.  It would be safe to relocate them to the Normandy and transfer them to less intensive care systems.  I doubt they were meant to remain in their current incubation units for so long.”

 

It’s the work of a few minutes for Shepard to separate out the two dead eggs from the four live ones.  They look sad and small behind the glass, somehow emptier than the others.  She thinks of Okeer’s tanks, all the mad and broken brothers which had not been born Grunt, and looks away to call a shuttle in.  Garrus’ expression is difficult to read as they search the room, and find transportation boxes for the eggs.  They’re white and bulky, a little hard for her to hold with wide handles not built for a human’s grip.  She slides the eggs inside a carefully as she can, feeling the warm shells beneath her palm, a trill of fear running down her spine as she thinks – for one horrified instant – what if I drop one?  It seems strange, too, to tuck them into the cushioned boxes with nothing, knowing what they are.  As if she should have a blanket or something soft to place with them.

 

Cortez brings the shuttle down, and helps them carefully move the boxes out of the mangled hospital facilities.  When they’re loaded up, it feels strange to turn back, as well.  But they still have the rest of the colony to search.  So she tell EDI to alert her if there’s any complications with their rescue, and then she and Garrus pick through the rest of the colony in a fractured, agitated silence.  Not quite the grim acceptance of before.  More complicated.

 

“What are you thinking, Garrus?” she asks him, while they sweep through a main road, past the decimated foundations of the central government building.

 

“I’m thinking… that I don’t know if that was a miracle or not,” he tells her, his voice echoing and a little strained through the filters on his helmet.  “It seems like one.  But then again, with the fact that all of this even happened, in so many places, to so many people…”

 

“Yeah.  I know,” she agrees.  “Maybe we should just say ‘we’ll take what we can get’, at this point.”

 

“Better than nothing?” he suggests.

 

“Always.”

 

They clear the rest of the colony with no more victories, and the shuttle comes down again to retrieve them from the shattered dregs of the residential district, the skeletons of empty houses where some of those eggs’ relatives might have lived.  Decontamination lasts a small lifetime, until they can finally stumble up to their quarters.  And it is ‘theirs’ now, the extra drawers which Shepard’s military sensibilities never let her use filled with Garrus’ own Spartan belongings, the table appropriated for his workspace, his datapads strewn next to hers across the desk.  Without much comment, she tugs him into the shower along with her.  Lets the hot water run over two sets of tired muscles, leaning against him in the small space, not particularly concerned with levo/dextro contamination for the time being.  It’s not a steamy shower in the most exciting sense.  Neither of them are up for that, not after a long day of scouring over the impromptu graves of an entire community.  There was ground they could not cover, of course.  No chance for a single pair of searchers to look over a colony built to house half a million.  But they’ve done what they can, helped what they can, and if there is anything more to be found there, it won’t be by them.

 

This isn’t their warm and sunny beach.  It isn’t the rest they’ve earned.  No one gets that, not in this time, but they can still steal pieces of it in one another.  Remind each other what good it is to be alive, through touch and presence, skin against plates, mouth against mouth.  They run their fingers over scars; the marks on his face, the still-mottled rips along her arms, and chest, and stomach, where she ran full-tilt into Harbinger’s best shot and came limping out of the other side.  Pathetically grateful to be alive, to be found when Garrus and Tali and EDI, Javik and Liara, and Ash and James all stormed the cracked-open Citadel, pulling her away from Anderson’s cold form while she cried out in sheer delirium. 

 

She’d woken up to find Garrus beside her.

 

“Good to see you can follow orders sometimes,” he had told her, looking like he’d aged ten years in as many days.

 

“You mean this isn’t the bar?” she had replied, her voice scraping and stuttering on the way up.

 

When the shower has done as much as it can, they run towels over one another, and stumble to the bed.  Shepard asks EDI to forward their findings to the salarians and ask for instructions on what to do with the four eggs now cluttering Dr. Chakwas’ medical bay.  Then call her when they’ve got an answer, and let her know if anything goes to hell in the meanwhile.  That done, she climbs into bed next to Garrus; he props himself up against her pillows, reclining back to sleep, his hand coming to rest across the side of her head.  She curls around him, one arm thrown over his hip, her lips pressing briefly against the smooth plates on his chest. 

 

“What do you think will happen to the eggs?” she asks him, bone-deep exhaustion bleeding into her voice.

 

“I guess that depends on the salarians,” he tells her.  “But I’m sure they’ll find homes.  Children are just too valuable to get abandoned these days.”

 

“I hope so,” Shepard replies.  His fingers move across her scalp, and she breathes in the scent of him, alien but familiar, comforting as she closes her eyes and gives in to sleep.

 

In her dreams, the mass relays explode.

 

It’s one of many dreams she has had since the war began, and the only one to worsen since the Reapers’ defeat.  In truth, the seed of it goes even further back, to Dr. Amanda Kenson, and the winking out of three hundred thousand lives.  Sometimes, the relays burn in a fiery ball of death, and she hears Legion’s voice asking her if his people have souls.  Sometimes, she reaches for them and breaks them apart herself, slipping away into a cold, detached state while Thane whispers about the dangers of disconnecting the mind from the body.  Sometimes they bleed out into the universe of their own volition, a cacophony of noise and sound and light that swallows her whole, and Mordin’s voice speaks solemnly of regret, and the mistakes of forcing change.  Always, she watches Saren and the Illusive Man pull the trigger on themselves, sees her own hand shoot Anderson, remembers the phantom pains and blinding light of Harbinger’s beam.

 

When she opens her eyes again a few hours later, Garrus is already awake and using his computer terminal.  The room is warm and still, and real.  She takes a long, deep breath, and wonders if it’s ever going to end.  If it’s even possible to pick up the pieces and move on from something like this, no matter how hard you try.

 

“I was going to go check on those salarian eggs,” Garrus says.  “Want to come with me?  There’s an old saying, ‘new life is good for the spirit’.  Might be worth seeing if it’s true.”

 

“Sure.  Why not?” Shepard agrees, fighting back the blanket of sleep and old fear still crawling across her thoughts.  She pulls on her clothes and checks her mail before they go, scanning through the subject lines for anything important.  They’re still tallying survivors and deaths all over the place.  Even on the Citadel, which didn’t take to being used as part of a weapon very well.  Javik has a list of people.  He’s promised to let her know if any of them are found, one way or another.  So far, he’s discovered the fates of Captain Bailey and Kolyat.  Neither alive.  Shepard had forwarded the news to Bailey’s ex-wife and kids, who did make it, remarkably.  And when she was alone, she had gone through a list of drell prayers on the extranet, and recited them for Thane’s son.  They tasted bitter in her mouth, but there was no one else left to speak for them; the priests were gone, too.

 

There’s nothing pressing for her to deal with right now.  A message from Liara, but that’s probably just another report on how everything’s going.  A message from Miranda, part of a stilted but appreciated attempt to maintain their friendship through correspondence.  A message from Grunt, subject line unintelligible.  A message from Tali, with pictures attached to it.  It’s a good haul.  The kind that reminds her that they’ve won, even if it still doesn’t feel like it.

 

“Did Tali send you more pictures of her house?” Garrus asks as they make their way into the elevator.

 

“I haven’t opened them, but I think so,” Shepard agrees.  “I hope it’s more than just snapshots of the foundation this time.”  Heartening as it is to see something being built rather than merely salvaged, as it turns out Tali is a terrifying perfectionist when it comes to architecture.  Shepard has an image file that’s full of more pictures of Rannoch’s soil and Rannoch’s rocks than she cares to contemplate.  The upside to it is that geth primes apparently like to photo-bomb, because in more than half the frames there’s a distinctive flashlight head peeking in somewhere.

 

“Don’t worry.  Now she’s got the framework in.  Apparently, there’s a room for us,” Garrus replies.

 

“What, really?” Shepard asks, inexplicably taken aback.

 

“Yeah.”

 

It shouldn’t be surprising.  Tali’s been making noises about them visiting her house since before she left to go build it; it figures she would go and square out a section for them, just as added incentive.  But the thought is still a little surreal.  A room.  In a house.  On a planet.  Not a bunk in a facility, not a corner on her ship.

 

“Guess we won’t have any excuses not to visit when she’s done, then,” Shepard decides.

 

Slowly, Garrus nods.

 

“It could be nice to take a break.”

 

She glances towards him, checking him, the minute slump of his shoulders, the weary edge to his voice.  Looking for cracks, she thinks of it as these days.  There are a few.  But it doesn’t look too bad, and his steps are steady and sure as the elevator lets out, and they make their way past the mess hall.  Inside the med bay, Dr. Chakwas has got the eggs resting on top of tiny heating units, and out in the open air.  She looks up when they come in.

 

“Commander.  I’ve forwarded their medical files to our salarian contacts, along with EDI’s report.”

 

“Any complications?” Shepard asks, while Garrus hesitates, again, and then moves to stand closer to the eggs.  He looks down at them with interest.

 

“Not particularly,” Dr. Chakwas replies.  “Nothing to put them at risk at the moment, anyway.  Three of them seem to be in perfectly fine shape, all things considered.  But the fourth – the most mature – is much smaller than it should be.  I’ve run some tests, but I’m not a salarian incubation expert.  My best guess is that the egg sack failed to produce all of the necessary nutrition for some reason, and it’s stunted his growth.”

 

Shepard follows the doctor’s gaze to the egg at the far right.  It looks the same size as the others, though its shell is paler.  She remembers how warm it felt when she held it, and her fingers twitch, like she wants to reach out and touch it again.  But she fights the impulse.  It’s probably not good for the eggs to be handled so much.  They look fragile, easily breakable.

 

“Go ahead,” Dr. Chakwas encourages.  “Touch is actually quite good for them, from what I’ve been able to find.  As is sound, apparently, so long as it’s not too loud.”

 

Shepard takes a step forward, and gives in to temptation.  She places her hand on the closest of the eggs.  It’s stronger than it looks, the shell dry and smooth underneath her palm.  After a second she puts her other hand on the next one over, comparing the textures.  She’s never really held a lot of eggs in her life, alien or otherwise.  She wonders if they always feel this alive.  A moment later she moves on to the next eggs in the line, peering at the odd little speckles the spread down from the top of them.  They’re a little bit reflective, like the plates on a krogan, or the inside of a seashell.  But they don’t feel any different from the rest of the shell.

 

It’s a shame Mordin’s not here, she thinks.  He would have known all the right things to do.

 

She wonders if singing is good for salarian eggs, like it’s supposed to be for unborn human babies.  She looks over to ask Garrus what he thinks, only to find that he’s staring straight at her.  There’s an expression on his face that she doesn’t know how to read.  Like it’s almost surprise, but not quite, and a little bit of something else, too.  Not that turian expression are always easy to read.  Not even his. 

 

Shepard blinks at him.

 

“Something wrong, Garrus?” she asks in concern, uncertainly withdrawing her hands.

 

“No!” he blurts.

 

An awkward second slips in between them.  Dr. Chakwas looks as though she’s trying not to laugh, for some reason, putting her hand over her mouth before she turns away and becomes suspiciously interested in some scans.

 

“Sorry,” Garrus coughs.  “I just, uh, remembered that I should probably get to my station soon.  I promised Adams I’d send him another status report this morning.  So.  I should get to that.”

 

Shepard raises an eyebrow at him.

 

“What, no breakfast?” she asks.

 

“…Oh.  Right.  Yeah, I guess we should do that first,” he agrees, flustered.

 

Mental note: eggs make Garrus weird, she decides, before diplomatically opting to let it go.  She drags him to the mess, watching him eat out of his little blue dextro packages in uncharacteristic silence.  She tries to guess what he’s thinking, but only comes up with a few loose theories about stress and instincts, and figures he probably hasn’t had much experience around ‘babies’ of any species.  His own included.  Hell, she’s acting a little weird, too.  Humans are notorious for touching absolutely everything, and Shepard has never been an exception to that rule, but her compulsion to put her hands all over those eggs is a little strange.

 

There’s something fascinating, she has to admit, about looking at them and thinking that there are teeny tiny people in there.

 

It quickly becomes apparent that neither of them are alone in their interest.  The salarian councillor himself sends them a rather shocked sounding thank you and a special request to immediately proceed to Sur’Kesh and an emergency medical facility there.  In the meanwhile, the only thing the crew seems able to discuss are the eggs.  She catches Ken and Gabby visiting the infirmary often, and of course, Dr. Chakwas can’t seem to talk about anything else.  EDI doesn’t take her ‘mobile platform’ down to see them very often, but it seems like she’s always finding an excuse to hold a conversation with the doctor to provide background noise, or piping in music, or announcing that she’s found some new tidbit of information on the early stages of salarian development.  Even Joker gets in on it, developing a special interest in what he dubs ‘the runty little guy’ and taking bets that he’ll be the one tearing up the STG in a couple of decades.

 

And, of course, Shepard and Garrus go in to see them often enough on their downtime.  They don’t really talk about it, but she catches Garrus giving her that odd look more than a few times while she runs her hands over the eggs, and awkwardly recites Alliance regs and some stories from her training days, knowing she should talk but not knowing what to say.  She compliments the eggs on their unique markings, which earns her another look, and promises to get them safely to Sur’Kesh, which does it again.  Part of her can’t help but feel that she’s doing something wrong, but she’s not sure what.

 

Oddly, it’s a conversation with EDI that flicks on the mental lights.

 

It’s after Garrus has excused himself in a fit of apparent discomfort, while Shepard reads one of Tali’s e-mails to the eggs and Dr. Chakwas takes a much-deserved break from the proceedings.  They’re about half a day out from their rendezvous point with a salarian escort, and despite her boyfriend’s odd behaviour, Shepard finds herself fairly close to content.  She’s getting used to the smell around the eggs, which is a little waxy and odd, and there’s got to be some kind of therapeutic property to putting hands on them, because it’s been mellowing her out like nobody’s business.  She’s trying to ignore the temptation to just sort of settle one into her lap when EDI makes her presence known.

 

“Commander,” she says, chiming in through the medical com system.  Assuming that something’s come up, Shepard puts down the datapad she was reading from and frowns.

 

“What’s up, EDI?”

 

“Nothing particularly pressing,” the AI assures her.  “I only had a few questions I wished to ask.”

 

Shepard blinks, and relaxes a little.

 

“Oh.  Alright.  Fire away,” she encourages, unaccountably grateful that she doesn’t have to leave the room just yet.  It’s looking more and more like there’s some truth to Garrus’ old saying.

 

“Thank you, Shepard,” EDI replies.  “Recently, I have begun to discuss the matter of procreation with Jeff.  Since my body is strictly synthetic, and organics possess a biological imperative to pass along their genes, I have been concerned that he will become dissatisfied with this aspect of our relationship.  But I am also aware that his condition is hereditary.  Jeff has expressed distaste with the idea of potentially passing it on to further generations.  Additionally, while the particulars of our situation are… unique, this dilemma is not unprecedented.  Many couples are incapable of producing offspring with one another for a variety of reasons.  Yet, this does not inhibit unit cohesion.  You yourself are in such a relationship.  My research suggests that most couples eventually pursue alternative means to acquire offspring in these situations, and are fully capable of forming strong familial bonds even towards beings who share no genetic connection to them.  This is in keeping with my own data and experiences on the subject of close interaction.  Do you think I would make a good mother?”

 

For lack of a glowing blue orb or silvery face to focus her gaze on, Shepard directs a sort of stunned stare towards the ceiling instead.  There is an equation coming together in her mind.  A fairly obvious one, in fact, but outside of one desperate pre-end-of-everything conversation, not one she’s given a lot of thought to.  That it comes on the heels of what’s normally a pretty heavy question from one of her best, strangest friends doesn’t make things easier.

 

“Uh,” she eloquently replies.

 

“I do not have any maternal instincts,” EDI continues.  “Because I do not have any instincts.  However, it would be possible for me to incorporate new behavioural subroutines in an attempt to mimic such.”

 

Shepard clears her throat, and carefully lifts the hand that she’s had pressed to the nearest egg, flexing her fingers a little.

 

“Did you ask Joker about this?” she wonders.

 

“He was evasive again,” EDI confirms.  “I do not believe he is entirely ready for the concept of parenthood.  However, I remain… curious.”

 

Oh, damn.

 

“I think you’d make a great mom, EDI,” Shepard says out loud, hearing her own voice as if from very far away.  She can’t stop looking at the eggs, now.  “You already take care of all of us.  I can’t imagine you’d be bad at taking care of a child.  But it’s a pretty big commitment.”

 

There’s a pause, during which Shepard feels her heart hammering a little harder in her chest, the heat rushing up to her face.  She and Garrus, they haven’t really talked about this side of things, she realizes.  The conversations about turian-hybrid babies and adopted krogans went the way of sunny beaches and promises of retirement, all of it bundled together and shunted to the side in the continuing demands of duty and necessity.  But maybe it shouldn’t have been, she thinks.  The plan she had for her life before the Reapers came along went up in smoke as soon as the Council made her a Spectre, and her Alliance military career froze in its tracks.  The plans she had after were always relegated to the distance of a few weeks, or a few months, because the end of the world was coming and ‘tomorrow’ was mostly an optimistic dream.

 

They’ve got tomorrow, now. She wonders why she never bothered to question what they, personally, were going to do with it.

 

“Thank you, Shepard,” EDI says, the tone of her voice unusually emotive, touched.  “I am aware of the practical difficulties of such an endeavour.  For the moment it remains a strictly a matter of contemplation.”

 

“Well in that case… frankly, I’d be more worried about Joker warping the kid,” she teases, swallowing back the lump that’s crawled up her throat.

 

“That is my primary concern at this point as well,” EDI agrees, in the dry, blunt way that she’s taken to telling her jokes.  The synthetic straight-man to their wacky pilot.  Then she signs off again, as much as she ever does aboard the Normandy, and Shepard finds herself alone with four alien eggs and nothing but strange thoughts.

 

After a minute, she puts her hand onto the nearest one, and stares at it while she thinks.  And thinks.  And thinks.  She’s… she can’t really say it seems like a good idea.  Kids need stable environments and safe places.  Though, as Garrus once noted, the illusion of those things has been shattered these days.  She doesn’t really know how to live a life that’s different from this one.  But as she so carefully thinks of it, she realizes that she doesn’t really want to keep living this life forever, either.  It never lets up, never gives way.  Sometimes that’s good.  But sometimes she looks around, and finds herself thinking, can I stop now?  Like she’s been diving and diving down into a pool that has no bottom.  Save the colonies from the Collectors?  Great, now the Reapers get to kill them instead.  Rescue the Council from Sovereign?  Great, rescue them from Cerberus, now, too.  Also, more Reapers.  Spend years warning people about the impending doom that they’ve ignored?  Perfect, now that it’s here, you can try convincing them just how serious it is.  Congratulations, you’re a hero!  Now everyone will constantly bring their most difficult or bizarre requests straight to your doorstep, and don’t you dare turn them down, because there are always dragons that need slaying, and if you look away for one minute, they’ll swallow entire planets whole.  Sometimes they’ll even do it while you’re watching, too.

 

…I think I just accidentally broke myself, she decides, carefully pulling her hand away.  She takes in a deep breath, filtered med bay air and salarian egg-smell, and backs away, and somehow, a few minutes later, she finds herself in the main power battery, Garrus pressing a datapad into the small of her back, his armour digging into her chest as she grips him tightly.  Her face is buried beside his neck.  He’s saying her name, worried and confused.

 

“I think I need to stop,” she tells him, the words tearing from her like the confession of a great crime.

 

A pause.  His arms around her tighten.  It’s not very comfortable like this, but she doesn’t care.

 

“Stop what?” he asks.

 

“…Fighting,” she admits, and for a moment, she’s absolutely terrified.  The only life they’ve ever known together has been one full of fighting.  He signed on with her to fight Saren, she found him again fighting mercenaries, and then again, fighting Reapers.  The woman he fell in love with has been a fighter since the day they met, and even she has no idea what she is without that.  If she’s even worth anything to anyone without it, because as far as the universe is concerned, that’s what she is.  She remembers the odd spike of resentment and envy she’d felt when they’d run into Jacob again, with his Cerberus science team, and with Brynn. 

 

“I want a life.  I want a family.”

 

Sure, I get that.”

 

“No, Shepard.  The Normandy’s your real love.”

 

Like she’s incapable of ever being anything else.  And who knows?  Maybe that’s true.

 

“…Yeah,” Garrus says, his voice suddenly rough.  “Me too.”

 

His answer brings her up short, puts all the brakes on her thought processes, and she has to pull back a little bit to look at him.  Past the scars and the familiar, glowing outline of his scanner, she can see how tired he is.  She’s been able to see it for a long while now.  Since Omega, really, and even though it rises and falls, breaking off into moments of exhilaration and excitement, the thrill of a good fight, it’s never really gone away. 

 

The same way it hasn’t left her, either.

 

“I don’t know how,” he admits then, the very mirror of her thoughts.

 

Sometimes, in all the differences, it’s easy to forget how much they really have in common. 

 

“Neither do I,” she replies.

 

“Well.  Guess we know we’re starting from the bottom up, then,” he decides.

 

She laughs, and unclenches some of her death grip on him, suddenly flooded with affection and a humbling, powerful gratitude that she still has him.  Still has this.  Jacob’s phantom words vanish from her mind, given no more weight or power.  She does love the Normandy.  But it’s not her only love, and it’s certainly not her greatest, and if he couldn’t see that, it’s not her problem.

 

“Sorry I just sort of grabbed you there, Garrus,” she says, feeling collected enough to indulge in some embarrassment now.

 

“Don’t be,” he tells her.  “Work was getting boring anyway.  I was just thinking to myself that it needed more armfuls of emotionally distraught human.”

 

She grins – probably stupidly – at him, but hell, she loves him.  That entitles her to a little stupid grinning every now and again, doesn’t it?

 

“Have I ever told you how glad I am that you left C-Sec to come and save galactic civilization with me?” she asks.

 

“It may have come up a few times, but I wouldn’t say no to hearing about it again.”

 

“So glad,” she insists.  “Best thing that ever happened to me.”  Her teasing tone breaks a little bit, the words tripping sideways out of her mouth and coming out sincere.

 

“Well you are pretty lucky I came along when I did.  Otherwise this crew would be damn short on eye-candy, and then what would happen to morale?” Garrus quietly replies.  He reaches forward and rests one hand against the side of her face; a mimicry of her habitual gesture of affection towards him, running the gloved tip of his thumb over the fading scar underneath her right eye.  And just like that, it clicks into place.  Maybe not perfectly.  Certainly not well enough to chase away their demons, which are both persistent and long-lived.  But enough to do the job.

 

Of course, that’s right when Ken walks in, hauling what looks like a modified part for the main gun and whistling cheerfully under his breath.

 

“I’ve got the – oh, baby Jesus in a turbine!  I mean, sorry, um, Commander, Garrus, I’ll just go – loiter outside with this bloody heavy vent filter for a while, shall I?”  He declares, blushing to his neck as he nearly trips back out the door behind him.  Garrus takes an awkward step back from her, mandibles wavering in amusement.  A year ago, it would have been pure mortification instead.

 

“That’s alright, Ken,” Shepard assures the engineer, weaving around him and offering an apologetic pat on the shoulder.  “Mood’s ruined anyway.”

 

“I’m just going to pretend that you didn’t imply that you and Garrus regularly engage in trysts in the main power battery, for all our sakes,” Ken replies, mostly good-humoured, and Garrus says something she doesn’t catch about Gabby and the cargo hold as the door whooshes shut, and she makes her way back up to the command center.  She goes through several requests from a rainbow of sources – seems like every government in the galaxy has a job or nine for the Normandy these days – and makes small talk with Traynor while she mulls over her responses, and tries to slip into Planning Mode.  There’s going to have to be a more serious logistical conversation with Garrus, issues of the Normandy, what they’re going to do with themselves, where they’re going to do it… a sliver of unease trails down her spine, the kind that always closes in when she’s dealing with complete unknowns.

 

After twenty solid minutes of just staring at her station, Shepard gives up and goes back to the med bay.  She can not-answer her messages from there just as easily as here.

 

By the time they get to Sur’Kesh, a part of her sort of wants to just keep going.  Say ‘forget it, sorry, they’re my eggs now’ and set a course for Rannoch instead, go impose horrifically on Tali’s hospitality and never look back.  Which is ridiculous.  Then she considers pretending there was some kind of numerical error and just stealing one of them, which is starting to get into outright creepy territory, so she reminds herself that these eggs might, possibly, have living relatives out there somewhere.   People who would give anything to get back some small piece of what they’ve lost.  And that kidnapping is very bad, no matter how soothing you find the presence of your intended victims. 

 

It helps even more when the salarian medical team boards the Normandy, because they’re all just so amazed that these eggs survived.  After everything.  That someone found them in time, and they’re so careful with them when they take them away, full of thanks and praise for the good job the crew did as caretakers.

 

“What about this little guy?” Shepard asks, nodding at the one with developmental issues.  “Is he going to be alright?”

 

The lead doctor gives her a reassuring smile.

 

“Enough supplements before and after hatching, and he’ll be catching up to the others in no time,” he says.

 

When the eggs are gone, Shepard goes back to her quarters, and stares at her messages some more.  The Council wants her to investigate some odd activity reported near the Omega 4 Relay.  So does Aria, which means that something must really be going on.  The Alliance wants her to swing by Ilos and clean up a hold-out Cerberus facility there.  They’d also like her to try and figure out where the rachni have disappeared off to again, if at all possible.  The Quarian Admiralty Board and the Geth Consensus would both appreciate it if she could help recover some pirated medical supplies from Illium, since the asari government is being particularly tetchy these days about who they let near major repair sites, and none of their ships are on the approved guest list.  Speaking of asari, apparently the Matriarchy would appreciate it if the Normandy could escort some of their ambassadors to Tuchanka – ostensibly as an added security bonus, but more likely to try and create the appearance of tacit approval on Shepard’s part for whichever diplomat they want to send to talk with Wrex and Bakara.  The Batarian Hegemony, of all things, is asking her to forward a request to her superiors for additional ships to patrol the trade routes out of the Terminus systems, to reduce the hindrance of piracy on their recovery efforts.  They also wouldn’t mind it at all if she could blow up some pirates.  And on and on it goes, with the other requests breaking down into smaller, less pressing issues, regular correspondence, and miscellany.  There’s one letter from a woman asking Shepard if she knows what happened to her son – he was a good boy, he just fell in with the wrong people, and Cerberus didn’t always have a bad agenda, and he wouldn’t have sided with them at the end, she knows it.  There’s another from an unknown sender, and when she opens it, she realizes it’s Samara’s daughter, asking if she’s heard from her mother recently.

 

Samara dropped off the radar sometime during the fight on Earth.  Privately, grievingly, Shepard thinks she’s amidst the dust of a Reaper particle beam blast, or buried under some of the tons of rubble that no one has been able to shift.  There’s no other reason for her long, silent absence.  But she can’t say what happened for certain, so in the end she has to give them both the same answer: no, and I’m sorry.

 

She turns down the request to escort the asari to Tuchanka, even though a chance to visit with Wrex and Grunt would be welcome at this point.  The request regarding the rachni, she puts aside.  If they want to go back to hiding and not causing problems for people, she thinks, that’s their prerogative.  Forwarding the hegemony’s request is easy enough.  That just leaves Illium, Ilos, and Omega.  She’s still mulling over the information on all three missions when Garrus comes in, the familiar swoosh of the elevator door heralding his arrival.  He’d shut himself up to obsessively calibrate while the salarian doctors came and retrieved the eggs.  She gets the distinct impression that he liked their presence as much as she did, strange though it might be for a turian and a human to feel that way about young in a developmental stage that neither of their species even has.

 

Garrus makes his way over to the drawers where his belongings are, and starts peeling off his hard suit.  She watches him out of the corner of her eye, listening to the soft hiss of seals releasing, the click of latches opening as he strips down to his under-suit, and then takes that off, too, pulling the tight fabric from his plates, and replacing it with the softer clothes he only ever seems to wear when he’s shut into their quarters with her.  When he’s done, he glances towards her, and then pauses for a moment when he catches her line of sight.

 

“Need something?” he asks.

 

“Nah.  Just enjoying the view,” she replies, earning herself a chuckle.  He slides onto the couch and opens up the console on the table there.  She’s gotten used to the slower tapping sound that his talons make when he types, the longer spaces between keystrokes required by three digits instead of five.  It used to drive her nuts sometimes; not through any fault of his own, but because the rhythm was so strange that it invariably distracted her.  Then she’d start watching his hands.  Then she’d start thinking about how those hands felt between her palms, or pressed up against her flesh, and hey, there’s a great frame of mind to write mission reports in.  But unfortunately, right now, she must just really want to be distracted, because she finds herself falling back into old habits and staring at him while he works.

 

After a minute, she gives up and goes to sit with him, grabbing a datapad on the reports from Ilos before sliding next to him on the couch.  He glances at her, twitching a smile as she presses her leg against his, and slipping an arm around her waist.

 

“The Hierarchy wants me to head a new task force to help with planetside Reaper clean-up,” he says.

 

“Oh,” she replies.

 

“I said no.”

 

He leans against her a little bit, resting his weight on her side.  She tosses the datapad and the flimsy pretense of her divided attention onto the table, and curls a hand over his hip.

 

“The Alliance wants me to clear out a Cerberus cell on Ilos, the Quarians and the Geth are asking for help getting back some stolen supplies that wound up on Illium, and the Council wants me to poke around the Omega 4 Relay and see if any more horrors coming pouring out of it,” she tells him.  Then the ‘new message’ alert beeps at her from the desk behind them, and she presses a hand to a forehead.  “And I don’t know what that just was, but it’s probably very urgent and important too.”

 

“Are you going to say no?” he wonders.  There’s a careful, neutral tone to his voice – they both know the question’s got weight, neither of them have forgotten what happened in the forward power battery, but he’s not pressing her either way.  She tightens her grip on him a little, feeling the fabric of his tunic shift over hard plates and muscle.  Thinks about how it had felt, sitting in the presence of those eggs.  The brief promise of life instead of the constant threat of death.

 

“I could say we’ll just handle these last few things, and then stop,” she says.  “But there’s always going to be something important that they need me to do, isn’t there?”

 

“Probably,” Garrus agrees.

 

“Right.  So I might as well get it over with here and now,” she decides.  “I’ll call Hackett, and talk to EDI and Joker to let them know.  I don’t have the first clue what we’re going to do, but… maybe Tali will let us hammer in a few floorboards.”

 

“Wrex told me there’s a radioactive beach on Tuchanka with your name on it.  You just have to say the world,” Garrus tells her.

 

“Liara’s been making noise about getting us to Thessia, too.”  She peers over at his face, though she gets mostly scouter from this angle.  “What do you want to do?”

 

He’s quiet for a moment.  When he speaks again, it’s in the low, serious register of his voice.  The one he’d used when he told her, once upon a time, just how badly he needed something to go right for once.

 

“I’ve been thinking about that,” he says.  “Part of me just wants to go anywhere and do nothing for a while.  We’ve been in this fight longer than anyone, I think we’ve earned a rest.  But.  It’s not about what anyone’s earned at this point, is it?”  He moves, then, surprising her a little as he slides off of the couch and bumps the table back, positioning himself on his knees in front of her.  He keeps his hands on her waist, and she lets hers rest inside the curve of his cowl, warm by the base of his neck.  One of her thumbs idly traces the edge of his scarred mandible.  “Innocent people, good people, bad people, families and soldiers, they’re all dead in the billions now.  Fight’s over and there’s still a hell of a lot to do.  I don’t want to go someplace where we can’t help, and I don’t think we can afford to, either.  We just need to find a different kind of helping to do.”

 

“You got a plan, Garrus?” she asks, smiling at his resolve.

 

“Not… well, more like an idea.   The request from the hierarchy isn’t the only one I’ve gotten.  As it turns out, Citadel Security didn’t survive the Cerberus attacks and Reaper occupation too well.  There aren’t a lot of people with the experience and know-how to handle the job of running things left around these days,” he explains.  An edge of uncertainty creeps into his tone; just a trill of doubt.

 

“You hated working at C-Sec,” she feels compelled to remind him, shifting her hands to rub small, soothing circles at the back of his neck.

 

Hate is a little strong – alright, fine, yes, I hated it.  But that was back before everything happened.  It would be different now.  Mostly because I’d be in charge this time around.”

 

“Hmm.  And what would I be doing while you ran around making recruits piss themselves?”

 

He chuckles, suddenly relieved.  “I think that’s up to you, Shepard.  But it’s not like the Citadel’s lacking for projects.  You could even come work for me if you want,” he jokingly offers.

 

“Funny, Garrus.  Bet you’d like being able to boss me around,” she teases, working her fingers up to the base of his fringe, the soft seam where skin meets plate.

 

“Might be a nice change of pace,” he purrs.  His grip on her shifts a little, his thumbs looping under her shirt to play at the band of her pants.  She grins and leans in for a kiss, working her way forward until she can feel the heat of his waist through the fabric of her pants.  He presses his mouth to her lips as she reaches for the zipper on his tunic.  The conversation drops off considerably while she undresses him again, and he returns the favour, letting her unhook her ‘damn chest harness’ herself and redirect him towards the bed.

 

One of his hands finds its way to her breast while he nuzzles her neck, the firm muscle and smooth plate of his leg sliding in between her own.  She runs her fingers down the soft seam of flesh where the joint of his hips meets the narrow line of his waist, pressing hard enough to make him groan.  His tongue darts across her jawline, his nose dipping into the hair behind her ear as he inhales deeply.  To her, his scent is difficult to describe; ‘turian’, not really comparable to anything from Earth.  It’s got enough of a metallic quality to it to make her think of blood, a little, and there’s the lingering quality of hard suit material permanently affixed to him.  But mostly, she likes it.  It’s Garrus.  Even if she’d hated it, she probably would have gotten to liking it through dint of association sooner or later.

 

The edge of his scouter pokes into her temple, and with a half-hearted sigh of exasperation, she reaches up and unhooks it from him.  He takes advantage of her distraction to slide lower down her body, his tongue running across the dip in her collarbone over the curve of her breast, one thumb tracing the skin around her bellybutton.  She arches into him, working a hand back to his fringe as he explores a little.  They both have sexual habits that seem a little odd to one another, of course.  She kisses and focuses on his face a lot by turian standards.  He fixates on her waist and the tops of her hips a lot by human ones.  But they’ve mostly adapted to it now, and the strange part is, when he lets out a warm breath over the dip of her hip, she shudders like she once never would have.  When she pulls him back up to press her lips against his mouth, she can feel his erection start to press against her stomach.

 

Amazing what positive reinforcement can do.

 

“So,” she says, when she shifts from lips to the foreheads-pressed-together ‘kiss’ more common to turians.  “What would you like me to do?”

 

“Huh?” Garrus intelligently replies, carefully massaging one of her breasts in his right hand.  She grins.

 

“You wanted to boss me around a bit.  So go ahead – anything you want me to do, I’ll do it.”

 

His cock slips completely out of the protective armour of his body at that, hot and wet against her skin, and he gapes at her a bit.

 

“Um.”

 

“Come on, Garrus.  I’m sure you can think of something,” she teases, trailing a hand down his side.  She moves in, down towards the pliant plates across the top of his crotch.

 

“Wait,” he says, catching her by the wrist.  She waits.  “Just – let me.”

 

“I can do that,” she tells him, and after a second, she lifts her hands pointedly up above her head.

 

He leans back a little and looks at her, then.  For a couple seconds he just traces the outline of her body, the undoubtedly human curves, the scars, reinforced skin and muscle strong enough to recover from a particle beam blast.  His cock twitches, and he gives a little thrust against her hip before he stops himself.  With careful intent, he leans back in, and nuzzles his face against the underside of her jaw.  Then the scarred skin between her breasts.  The bottom of her ribs.  The top of her stomach.  His plates feel a little rough as he trails his way down, darting a tongue out here and there, an odd mimicry of how a human lover might kiss a path across her body.  When he dips his tongue into her bellybutton, she squirms a little.  He does it again, and then trails the blunted edge of a talon over her thigh, and carefully up towards the soft flesh between her legs.  Slowly, he works a finger inside her, building up the knot of heat that’s burning its way through her.  When he leans over and adds his tongue into the equation, she clenches a fist into the sheets and curses.

 

“Garrus!  Goddamn – fluids,” she vaguely protests.

 

“I’ll wash my mouth,” he assures her, his words rumbling over her flesh, nowhere near erotic in and of themselves but, well, sometimes positioning is everything.  “Besides, I’m in charge right now.  Remember?”

 

“I – ah! – I reserve the right to relieve you of command if you poison yourself,” she tells him, though it’s difficult to sound resolute when there are sparks behind her eyes.

 

“I guess that’s fair,” he agrees with a chuckle, and, oh god, the things that chuckle does to her are a little bit insane.  But it isn’t long before things start getting a bit more urgent, and he works his way back up her, gripping her hips and dragging her down the bed a little, until she can feel him against the inside of her thigh.  “I want…” he growls.  “I want in you.”

 

She understands, and moves her arms at last, reaching over to the little bedside table and fumbling a condom out of it.  She snaps it out of the wrapper, with one stray thought wondering what it would be like if they didn’t have to bother.  They’re lucky, mostly, in that they don’t set one another off with the worst kinds of reactions.  Definitely not lethal ones, either.  But there’s still a high risk for all kinds of unpleasant things happening if they overdo it, so she slides the condom onto him, wrapping her hand around him to make him groan and lean into her.  His chest plates press uncomfortably against her breasts, and they have to shift around a little.

 

“Should I turn around?” she asks.

 

“No,” he says.  “I want to look at you.”

 

So instead she hooks her legs carefully over his thighs, ignoring some of the roughness that runs the worst risk of chafing, and he leans over her as he thrusts in.

 

There’s a certain amount of discomfort to this part of the proceedings for her; the edges of the plates on the tops of his legs and the place where they split to let out his cock are not fun to get pressing against the wrong places.  She has to angle herself higher than usual to help the issue, arching her back, which, in this position, runs the risk of scraping her breasts against his chest plates or the sharp jut of his bottom ribs.  It’s worth it, though, when he presses his head against hers, when she feels him fill her up, rocking back and then into her again, and again, his breath turning more ragged with each passing moment.  She kisses the soft underside of his neck before she scrapes her teeth across his skin, and he groans something unintelligible at her.

 

She comes first, clenching around him, and he follows not too long after, going rigid and still as he rides out his own pleasure.  His eyes squeezed shut.  Then he slumps, and slides out, all but flopping over onto the bed next to her.  He lays on his stomach while she stays on her back, blissed out and loose with contentment.

 

When she can be bothered to move again, she grabs a towel from the bathroom and cleans them both off, and gives serious contemplation to getting dressed again.  Instead she lets Garrus drag her back down beside him.  Or, well, if half-heartedly flopping an arm in her direction could be considered ‘dragging’.  She curls onto her side, and he turns his face towards her.

 

“You’re serious about giving C-Sec another try?” she asks.

 

He lets out a heavy breath, then pushes himself up enough to get himself onto his side, too.  Sex always leaves him a little more exhausted than it does her.  She’s not sure if it’s a turian thing or a super-human Cerberus zombie thing, to be honest.

 

“If you don’t think it’s a good idea, then I won’t lose any sleep over it,” he replies.  “But… yeah.  Things have changed a lot in the past few years.”

 

She can’t help but snort at that.

 

“Oh, maybe just a little.”  Her hand reaches out, apparently of its own volition, and lands gently against the side of his face.  He stares at her for a few unreadable moments.  She thinks, not for the first time, that he has the most beautiful eyes she’s ever seen.  If she had a more poetic spirit she might even get all ‘windows to the soul’ about it.

 

“Marry me,” he blurts out at her.

 

Shepard blinks.  A gear in her brain flips over, while Garrus’ expression performs a gradual shift from peaceful to mortified.

 

“Okay,” she says.

 

“I’m sorry, Shepard, I didn’t – wait.”

 

She runs a thumb over the rough marks of his scars, the lines of his markings.

 

“You said okay,” he notes.

 

“I did.”

 

“You meant it.”

 

“I did.”

 

 “That wasn’t really appropriate for a human ‘proposal’, though.  Was it?”

 

“Doesn’t matter,” she assures him.  “I was never really big on that kind of thing anyway.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Garrus stares at her for a moment longer.  Then he rolls over, off the bed and into a slightly awkward landing on the floor, and staggers across the room towards his drawers.  For one confused moment Shepard thinks he’s planning to get dressed.  He opens the middle shelf and shuffles through it, reaching to the far back, and then pulling something out.  He tosses it to her as he makes his way back onto the mattress, and she catches it reflexively, feeling her fingers close around the hard edges of a small, black box.  She raises an eyebrow as he props himself up against her pillows and gives her an expectant look.

 

She opens the box.

 

A simple gold band winks up at her from a black leather setting.  In the center of it is a small, unassuming diamond, deep-set and glittering with the reflected shades from the metal.  Her jaw drops a little.

 

“You got me a ring,” she says, surprised at how touched it makes her feel.  She wasn’t lying when she said she’d never been big on these kinds of things.

 

“It’s the custom, isn’t it?  I was going to give it you the next time we went someplace nice,” Garrus explains sheepishly.  “Most of the vids seemed to imply that timing and location are really important for this kind of thing.  I didn’t get the wrong kind, did I?  Kasumi said it would be alright, but… I wouldn’t put it past her to screw around with me a little.”

 

“Kasumi’s a born romantic,” Shepard finds herself automatically replying.  There’s a lump in her throat, and it only gets to seem tighter as she reaches into the box and pulls the ring out.  After a half a second’s hesitation, she slides it onto her finger.  It fits.  Perfectly.  She wouldn’t put it past their friendly neighbourhood thief to ask Miranda for her ring size or something.  “How long have you been hanging onto this?” she wonders.

 

“Can I not answer that?” Garrus asks.  “Only because I feel like I’ve embarrassed myself enough for today.”

 

Shepard smiles.

 

“Maybe you can tell me tomorrow, then,” she suggests, before she leans over and presses their foreheads together.  He puts his own hand to the back of her head.  She mirrors the gesture, the both of them holding one another in place for a moment, quiet and still.

 

“Thank you,” she whispers.

 

Garrus clears his throat.

 

“That’s my line,” he tells her.  “But if you want it, then I guess I’ll just have to go with ‘I love you’ instead.”  The words slip out of him in an awkward, hurried jumble, drowning in self-consciousness, but they do their intended job all the same.  She couldn’t stop herself from kissing him then even if she tried.  If she’d ever been the type of woman to sit and imagine her boyfriend proposing, this isn’t what she would have pictured.  Especially not before she died.  But it’s perfect.  There’s nothing about this one contained moment that’s not perfect.

 

“Take the offer,” she tells him.

 

“You’re sure?”

 

“Yeah.  I’m sure.”

 

-

 

Joker takes the news about as well as could be expected.  Which is to say that he first assumes it’s a gag (ha ha, Commander, like Garrus would go back to C-Sec again – didn’t he already try that twice or something?) and then gets increasingly annoyed as he realizes it’s not (no, seriously, he’s done the C-Sec thing twice, so what, did you guys go over the numbers and decide third time must be the charm?) and then turns resentful (well what the hell’s going to happen if you leave the Normandy?  EDI and I can’t deal with some new idiot captain assigned over from Alliance reserves!) and then just flat out angry (you know what?  Fine.  Fine.  Go to the Citadel.  You’ll both be back in under a week, tops.  You don’t know this ‘cause the only times you’ve settled down before have been when you were dead or incarcerated, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be) and finally, accepting (…sorry, Commander.  I guess I just wasn’t expecting to have this sprung on me, you know?  If this is what you want, then… I’m happy for you.  Both of you.  But don’t go spreading that around).

 

EDI’s a little bit more gracious about the whole thing, though she also seems pretty nervous about Shepard’s potential replacement.

 

“A new commander may be more inclined to… mistrust a synthetic life form,” she points out.

 

“Don’t worry,” Shepard reassures her.  “I have a feeling I know who Hackett’s going to assign, and if I’m right, everything will be fine.”

 

EDI nods, and then, to Shepard’s surprise, reaches over and winds her arms around her shoulders.  She’s firm and unexpectedly warm.  “We will maintain our friendship through correspondence,” she insists.  “There are still questions I am certain I will need to ask you.”

 

After a second, Shepard reaches a hand up and pats her lightly on the back.

 

“I’d like that,” she agrees.  The worst part about being in lockdown before the attack had been the loneliness.  And she can admit, even if it’s just to herself, that she’s not sure how many of her friends and allies really just come as a package deal to her lifestyle.

 

The first stop they make after that is on the Citadel.  When the Crucible fired it had pretty much run interference on the cognitive processes of every AI, VI, and Reaper in the galaxy.  The geth ships had gone dark, targeting VI’s had died, EDI had ‘blacked out’, and even her fishtank’s auto-feeder had gone haywire.  But so had the Reapers.  Not just the ships, but their ground forces, too, dropped shields and losing focus, suddenly unable to defend themselves.  For eight days it had heralded an endless wave of slaughter across the galaxy, as pilots manually targeted weak points – starting with the largest classes of ship and moving down, since they had no idea how long the effect would last.  Of course, the damage had been pretty costly on their end, too.  VI systems on space stations and the Citadel went down.  The crew had been forced to scramble aboard the Normandy to pick up the slack they were used to letting EDI handle, though they’d risen admirably to the task.  A few geth ships had crashed into Earth before the quarians had been able to get boarding parties onto them and secure their controls.  Medical VI’s, environmental VI’s, targeting VI’s, and maintenance VI’s all went black, leaving people to fall back on more primitive systems if they could, or cross their fingers and pray if they couldn’t.  And for all those days – days Shepard spent out of the fight and unconscious – no one had been sure how permanent that damage would be.

 

By the eighth day, only a few of the smaller Reaper ships remained, fighting a losing battle in Kite’s Nest.  The Crucible sent one last pulse through the mass relays, then came apart like the hastily constructed super-weapon it had been.  Bits of debris had crashed into the Citadel arms, adding thousands more to the death toll as the weapon’s core threatened to explode.  Most of the Alliance fleet was gone, having followed the rest of the armada to take out the remaining Reaper forces in other systems as quickly as possible.  But an asari cruiser, left behind to perform necessary weapons repairs, had been able to get close enough to drag it out past Saturn before it went off like a bomb.  The ship and her crew didn’t survive.  They were the only reason there was a Citadel or much of an Earth left after the fight.

 

When the Crucible went out, the geth, EDI, and the galaxy’s VI’s had ‘woken up’ again.  Eventually, a few teams had been able to move the Citadel out towards Pluto and the relay there, but hadn’t been able to figure out how to get it to perform a jump.  Right now it isn’t as much of a priority as finishing the structural repairs and larger problems of the galaxy anyway, though already Shepard’s been hearing grumblings from certain political corners about humanity stalling the Citadel’s extraction and wanting to keep it in the Sol system.  Which, she’s pretty sure, is actually the opposite of what’s going on; Earth’s newly close proximity to the station has seen a huge increase in traffic in the system, which is currently making Alliance security a nightmare.  Between the diplomatic escorts, repair teams, the back-and-forth of private transport and refugees, and the leftover debris fields from the battle, Earth’s rehabilitation has met with a large number of setbacks.

 

It’s no one’s fault, though, except for the Reapers, and they’re all dead.  Disposal teams have been towing Reaper corpses through the relays to a remote and classified system called Andromache, an isolated segment of the galaxy with a star that’s even more forgone than Haestrom’s.  No team can make more than three trips in a row, to minimize the risks of even long-distance exposure to the remains, and the Reaper anti-salvage laws are some of the strictest the galaxy has ever seen.  As Shepard understands it, the plan is to take absolutely everything there, blow the system’s mass relay, and pray to whatever gods or spirits might be listening that it incinerates everything.  Hackett calls it a ‘Shepard-style initiative’.  She smiles at the joke when he does, and pretends that the parallels to what happened in the Bahak system don’t hurt her as much as they do. 

 

It’s decidedly surreal to see stars from the Citadel in place of the usual purple nebula clouds.  Weirder still to see Pluto.  It’s also weird to watch Garrus pack up his things from the Normandy, the weapons he owns and his clothes, barely enough to fit into one bag.  Shepard watches him do it, reminds herself that he’s not leaving – or at least, she’ll be following him soon enough.  C-Sec wants him yesterday, and it’s a sound enough plan – let him get settled in, find a place for them while she wraps up things with the Alliance and runs a few last missions.  Anderson’s apartment had gone up with most of the Silver Sun strip during the collisions with Crucible debris, so it isn’t an option anymore.

 

That doesn’t mean she likes parting ways very much.

 

“Try and keep the death-defying stunts to a minimum without me,” Garrus says, as they stand in the docks and try to ignore the people who are staring at them.

 

“No promises,” Shepard replies, smiling reassurance at him nevertheless.  There’s a tense, unhappy set to his mandibles, a rigid line at his back that lets her know he’s not thrilled about splitting up.  Not being there to reach an arm towards her if she has to walk out across a long drop, temporarily breaking that unspoken pact between them – you go out there, I’ve got your back.  I go out there and you’ve got mine.  Doesn’t matter what’s out there, we aren’t facing it alone.

 

Giving in to temptation, she leans forward and rests her head against his.  “Keep out of trouble,” she tells him.

 

“No promises,” he parrots, before she reluctantly lets him go.  He runs the back of a knuckle down her cheek, pushing back a small piece of her hair, and then turns and heads off towards the security offices.

 

A turian customs agent is standing nearby.  She notices him once Garrus is gone; mostly because he’s giving her a look that she recognizes as absolute disgust.  She stares straight back at him for a few long seconds, until he shifts uncomfortably and goes back to doing his damn job.  Most of the other people milling around the docks and shooting her glances are more neutral.  She hears her name whispered a couple of times, but no one comes up to her or tries to say anything before she gets back to the ship, and for that, she’s grateful.

 

Great.  This might be even more complicated than I thought, she decides, wondering what it’s going to be like to actually live there full-time.  It makes her itch with apprehension, though she does her best to put it aside.

 

The next stop they make is Earth.  Shepard sees Admiral Hackett in person for the first time since the war’s end when he comes aboard to give the Normandy a full inspection.  The man looks like he’s been on a steady decline since the war started.  Which is fair, given that none of them are getting any younger, and even though they’ve survived, things haven’t exactly been easy in the aftermath.  There are more lines on his face, darker circles underneath his eyes.  Looking at him, Shepard suddenly feels like a heel for trying this.  They’ve all got to do what they can, and what she’s best at doing is still needed, even if it’s not pretty.

 

She salutes.

 

“At ease, Commander,” Hackett says, and nods at his team to spread out and conduct their assessment.  The Normandy hasn’t been inspected since her impromptu departure for Mars.  There have been more important things for everyone to do.

 

“Admiral,” she greets.  “Good to see you.”

 

“It would be better if I was here to give you that promotion you keep refusing,” Hackett tells her, though there’s no actual rebuke in his voice.  In another lifetime, another path of fate, the admiral on her ship would have been Anderson instead.  And Anderson probably could have talked her into changing her mind.  Anderson would have broken out the ‘we need you’ speeches, and meant them.  He would have told her that she still looked like someone dragged her through a meat grinder backwards, and told her frankly about how difficult things were on Earth.  The shaky supply lines.  The rescuers they still loose in the sea of broken cities that riddle the surface of the planet.  The troubled soldiers and civilians all doing their damn best to put a broken planet to rights.  But Hackett isn’t Anderson, and the respect between them is different.

 

So when the standard tour’s done, what he says to her is nothing like ‘keep going’.

 

“Maybe it’s for the best,” he decides.  “We need advocates almost as much now as we did during the war, and you’re the best one we have.  Putting you on the Citadel puts you where the politicians can see you.  Might help them remember what Earth’s done for them lately.”

 

“We shouldn’t forget what they’ve done for us, either,” Shepard says.

 

Hackett nods, like she just proved his point.  Then he folds his hands behind his back, and stares out over the war room.  Shepard follows his gaze, seeing the spots where Primarch Victus and Wrex stood, Legion and the quarian admirals.  They’ve had some time to clean the place up a bit, so that there are no longer cables running rampant and open across the flooring.  But the place feels empty and a little pointless without an impending battle to organize.  Under most circumstances, there’s not much reason for a stealth ship to have such vast networking systems for diplomatic contacts.

 

“I’m assigning Captain Williams to take over your command,” Hackett tells her, not at all to her surprise.  “Normandy seems to work well with Spectre authority backing it up, and Williams knows your people.  It should make the transition easier.”

 

“Ash is a good choice,” Shepard agrees.

 

“I still want you to handle the Ilos mission and finish up any lingering Council business you have first,” he says.  “Give Williams a chance to adjust before we put her at the helm.  You’re a tough act to follow, Commander.”

 

“I’ve had a hell of a lot of help, sir.”

 

She goes planetside to get Ash in person.  Vancouver looks better and worse than she expects.  Better, because it’s no longer a burning heap of utter wreckage.  Worse, because it’s still far from the gleaming metropolis she remembers.  Not a lot of buildings were left standing after all was said and done.  Many are obviously being rebuilt, and campsites are set up over the stable parts of the wreckage, quick, colony-style buildings erected for emergency shelter and operations.  They’re still sorting through the mangled remains of computer systems, trying to recover records that were all but mangled during the attack.  With a lot of com buoys still down, there are potentially ships still stranded out there and hiding, with no idea that the conflict is over and that coming up for air won’t get their heads blasted off.  A lot of their potential whereabouts and active missions at the time of the invasion are lost, however.  Just another situation on top of many.

 

Despite her promotion, Ashley has been heading up a team to clear out any husks or other horrifying Reaper leftovers on the surface, coordinating efforts and becoming something of the military face of North America’s recovery.  She looks good when Shepard sees her again.  A little dusty and dressed in a hard suit, her hair pulled out of her face and her mouth fixed into a scowl.  She’s standing in command central for her camp, near a bunker which has recovered and ready to dispose Reaper tech in it.  Plus about six rotating round-the-clock guards on the doors.

 

“Shepard,” she says.  “What the hell is this?  I outrank you now and I’m still supposed to drop everything to come and serve on your damn ship?”  She steps forward and takes her hand, though, and one corner of her mouth twitches up as she shakes it.

 

“Hackett didn’t tell you?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.

 

“He told me you had an ‘important assignment’ for me.  Just between the two of us, I think he likes jerking me around a little bit,” Ashley replies.  “So what’s so big that I should up and leave my post here, Shepard?  We’ve got our hands full as it is, you know.  I’ve even got your former Cerberus buddies lending a hand.”

 

“Hasn’t the Council been in contact?  You’ve still got Spectre status, last time I checked,” she wonders.  Before Ashley can answer, a flurry of activity breaks out on the northern side of the camp.  The comm system lights up as someone calls in a report; cannibals spotted in sub-level ruins inland, near Kelowna.  Targets not contained.  Requesting aerial back-up and further instruction.  Ash hits the console and shouts into it for a while, good instructions that show she’s got the situation well in hand, so Shepard stands back and looks up towards the ash-filled skyline.  Every day, over Earth, when it rains, it rains dirt and tiny bits of debris.  She wonders how long it’s going to last for.  There are probably some meteorological reports that could tell her.

 

“Dammit,” Ashley swears when she’s done, pushing back from the table and dragging Shepard’s attention to her again.  “You see what we’re dealing with here.  Don’t get me wrong, at this point I’m grateful that we’ve got a mess to clean up – and, you know, people who are actually alive to do the cleaning – but we’re so far from done here, it’s not even funny.”

 

“It’s like this almost everywhere,” Shepard reminds her, not unkindly.

 

“Yeah.  Funny.  That doesn’t really make me feel better,” Ashley replies, before letting out a heavy sigh.  “Anyway.  I don’t mean to take it out on you.  I’ve learned my lesson, Shepard – whatever you need me for, it’s probably important.  So what have you got?”

 

Another pang of guilt rushes through her, and she almost backs down.  Calls the whole thing off.  It would be easy to just go back to the Normandy and carry on like always.  Just go on with the rest of her life on that knife edge between living and being alive, pulling more corpses out of wreckage, fighting the fights that need to happen, and fights that don’t need to happen but do anyway.  Easy… and impossible, too. 

 

Besides, Garrus is waiting.

 

“There are a few things,” she says.  “The Alliance wants me to investigate a Cerberus cell on Ilos.  Council wants me to investigate some disturbances around the Omega 4 Relay.  And, I should probably make a stop on Illium for the good of Flotilla-Alliance relations.”

 

Ashley gives her a slightly perplexed look, and folds her arms.

 

“Okaaay,” she says.  “Sounds busy.  Where do I fit in?”

 

“You fit in because when those missions are done, I’m transferring command of the Normandy to you,” she explains, trying to make it quick now, like popping a dislocated shoulder back in.  It doesn’t hurt as much as she thought it would to say it out loud.  Transferring command of the Normandy.  Not even the SR1, which part of her mind had always thought of as belonging to Anderson.  Her Normandy.  The one that started out as Cerberus’ ‘cheap copy’ and then became so much more, the one that survived the Collector base and back, that survived the battle with the Reapers, fitted and re-fitted by the hands of people she knew and cared about.  If someone told her that that suicide mission would be one of the brightest spots of her life, she would have punched them in the face just on principal.  But with the gift of hindsight, the stress she lived in then now seems comparatively low, and she would give her right arm to have the galaxy back to the way it was during that mission; the worst danger to humanity being Collector attacks, good friends close at hand, and the galaxy whole and constant if frighteningly unprepared.  The Reapers still a distant – if looming – threat.

 

 

She’s still a little focused on the internal essence of the moment when Mount Ashley explodes.

 

“What?” Ashley demands.  “What?  Has Hackett lost his mind?  Why in the hell would he take command of the Normandy from you, Skipper?!  She’s your ship!  The whole damn galaxy knows it!”  She looks like she’s about to whirl around and try to get the admiral on the line so she can yell at him about it, so Shepard raises both her hands in a placating fashion.

 

“Ash.”

 

“What, are they going to put you on trial again or something?  They have to know why you did that now!”

 

“Ashley.”

 

“There probably wouldn’t even be an admiralty to get all bent out of shape if it wasn’t for you!”

 

“Captain Williams!”  Shepard snaps, finally giving up and grabbing her by the shoulders.  “Ash,” she repeats.  “Nobody’s taking the Normandy away from me, okay?  I’m giving it up.  On my own.”

 

Now Ashley’s looking at her like she just started speaking in Prothean.  Her eyes dart back and forth, searching for something in her face.

 

“What?” she asks.

 

“I’m leaving military service, Ashley,” she explains.  “Council service, too.”

 

The moment of silence that follows this assertion is long and drawn out.  For a minute, Ashley seems like she’s still looking for something.  Or maybe trying to piece together something instead, a puzzle or code, or some hidden part of the joke that she’s just not catching on to.  When it gets to the point where it looks like she can’t find it, she backs off.  The moment is unpleasantly reminiscent of Horizon.  It brings up the same awful storm of guilt, frustration, shame, failure, and she wonders, again, if this is the wrong thing to do.

 

“What the hell?” Ashley asks, an unhappy laugh escaping her mouth.  They’ve got something of an audience now, Shepard realizes.  Ash’s men watching their little drama unfold.

 

“Maybe we should talk about this somewhere else,” Shepard suggests.

 

For a minute she thinks that Ashley might try to argue the point.  But then she just jerks her head towards one of the camp’s smaller buildings, and after a second, turns on her heel and leads Shepard towards it.  Inside there’s a bunk, a duffle, a small cabinet, and a trio of fold-up chairs leaning up against a corner.  The door wheezes a bit as it slides shut behind her.  They stand.

 

“Tell me this is part of some weird, deep undercover infiltration mission that I don’t have all the facts for,” Ashley asks.

 

“I can’t,” Shepard tells her.

 

“So – what, then?” she wonders.  “What the hell kind of offer did you get from someone else that would make you leave your ship?”

 

Her first instinct is to reply that it’s not like that, that she didn’t get an offer, but she’s not sure how to explain all of it out loud.  She lifts her hand to rub at the back of her neck, and the band of her ring catches the light.

 

Ashley notices.

 

Quick as whip, she reaches out and grabs her wrist, and Shepard has to suppress the reflexive urge to retaliate by striking her.  Combat instincts go jangling for a second, and she tenses.

 

“Why are you wearing an engagement ring?” Ashley demands.

 

At that, Shepard can only give her a flat look.

 

“It’s a good thing you went out for the military instead of police work,” she can’t help but quip.  “You’d make a pretty terrible detective.”

 

“I thought you were – you know.  You and Garrus,” she insists.

 

Shepard opts to wait it out.  Later, she’ll swear she could see the exact moment when Ashley’s brain made the necessary shift to connect the dots.

 

“Wait.  No.  Garrus?  You’re leaving the Normandy – your life, your career, all of this – so you can go and marry Garrus?  That doesn’t even make sense!  He’s almost as bad as you!”

 

For a split second, Shepard sees red.  Her brow knits and she yanks her hand back, taking a step forward so that she and Ashley are staring one another down.

 

“What’s wrong with me marrying Garrus?” she demands.

 

“The whole thing with you two is pretty weird,” Ashley shoots back.  “But that’s not what I meant.  I mean, I don’t get you two, that’s fine, it’s none of my business, but why in the hell would you leave the Normandy for this?  I didn’t think turians fell into the whole ‘happy housewife’ scenario.  Even if they did, I wouldn’t expect you to go for it.”

 

“Dammit, Ash, do you even hear yourself talking right now?” Shepard snaps.  “I’m not leaving the Normandy because I’m marrying Garrus.  I’m leaving the Normandy because…”

 

She’s got a knack for words, sometimes, but she still can’t find the right way to say it.  Because I’m tired.  Because I’m sick of it.  Because I don’t want to do this forever.  Because I have the rest of my life, and I want to see if there’s something else I can do with it.  Because I close my eyes at night and all I see are the dead.  Because I saved four salarian eggs, and I realized how long it’s been since I felt like I’d actually saved anything.  Because a dying drell assassin once told his son that he was the only good thing he ever put into the world, and I’ve realized that those numbers still had him one ahead of me. 

 

Maybe the simplest answer is the best one.

 

“I’m tired, Ash,” she says.

 

“So take a damn break,” Ashley tells her, though her expression softens some.  “We’re all tired, Commander.  Everybody’s got sleepless nights.  But I know you.  You, and the Normandy, and what you do – it’s who you are.  Commander Shepard.  Hero.  I just… can’t imagine you being anything else.”

 

The walls around them feel tight and confining all of a sudden.  Shepard moves back a few steps as tension snaps through her body, fueled by the little voice in the back of her mind that says that Ashley is probably right.  Before this damn war started, she could admit that combat exhilarated her.  Even after, there were moments in a fight that were incomparable and amazing.  Nothing will ever really compare to watching Kalros take down a Reaper, or helping the quarian fleet on Rannoch to do the same.  The rushes of adrenaline, the triumph of taking down a tough enemy, the way her brain goes into quick-fire mode when things are going wrong, and suddenly it’s like time slows down, and she sees things and understands things like she does nowhere else.  But those are just the best times.  Not like the times when she has to stop and wonder how many of the mercenaries she’s killed would have done something better with their lives if they had half a chance.  The times where she hears a squadmate’s shields go down, or sees them take a hit, and can’t get to them.  The times where it’s just slaughter, just pointless carnage, and the only purpose she has is taking down as many targets as possible.

 

“I know all of that, Ashley,” she admits, looking at the dull, dusty window beside them.  “It’s not like I’m planning to just drop off the grid and go hide for a while.”

 

“Then what are you planning?” Ashley wonders.

 

“…I haven’t really gotten that far yet.”

 

She snorts.  “Oh, well that’s inspiring.”

 

Shepard turns and fixes her with a look that could peel paint.

 

“Believe it or not, Williams, I’m not here to inspire you,” she says.  “I’m here to get you for the damn missions, and then we’re going to do the damn missions, and then I’m going to hand the damn Normandy over to you, go to the damn Citadel, marry my damn turian boyfriend, and try to have a damn life.  If you don’t want to forgive me for that, fine.  We’ll pretend we never patched things up after Horizon, and you can go back to resenting me for not being a damn god.”  She turns and storms back out into the camp, then, walking so fast that she narrowly avoids smacking herself in the face with part of the door as it slides open.  She can feel herself cracking, eggshells under her own boots, and she forces herself to long breaths of gritty air, tries to wrangle herself back into her usual levels of self-control and confidence.

 

By the time she gets back to the shuttle, she’s managed to achieve a certain level of detachment from the whole thing – which is better than nothing.  The filtered air inside is a welcome change of pace.  Cortez takes a look at her, then promptly busies himself with the shuttle’s systems, and mercifully doesn’t say anything.

 

The minutes tick past, stretch out.  Eventually, right when Shepard’s about to go out and get her, Ashley turns up.  Duffle thrown over one shoulder, her expression solemn and professional.  She buckles herself in across from Shepard.  The flight up to the Normandy is tense and awkward and still.

 

Ken, Gabby, and Adams all come to her at different intervals to request the same new upgrade for engineering’s filtration systems, so Shepard has Joker set a course for Illium first.  She goes over crew reports and the results of the Normandy’s inspection, and has Ashley come up and take her usual post at navigation while she does.  It’s a strange moment.  Ashley shoots her glances every few minutes, and Shepard thinks, privately, that her promotion to captain was a little premature; a necessity, maybe, with so few soldiers left, and a reward for her extraordinary actions during the war, but not something she’s maybe ready for career-wise.  The woman who figured she’d top out at chief thanks to her family name.  But she does the job, and Shepard knows she’s got it in her to do the rest of it, too.

 

Illium goes pretty well.  Liara gets one of her surviving contacts to lend a hand, and they manage to track down a solid percentage of the lost goods.  It’s more walking and talking than shooting.  Some of it’s already been used up, some of it’s made its way to hospitals and care centers that aren’t readily willing to part with it; but Shepard makes them offers and reasons her way into getting a lot of it back.  They make arrangements with a volus trade ship to get it back to Rannoch, Ashley mostly quiet and observant next to Shepard, which is probably a good sign.  For the Normandy, anyway.  When they get back to the ship, Shepard stops and stares at the memorial wall on the crew deck.  She realizes that she’s not sure if it’ll be a regret or a relief not to walk past it every day.

 

That night, she gets a message from Garrus:

Miss you.

-G

 

The cabin is half-empty and strange without his things in it now.  Even though she doesn’t have much on her own, Shepard resolutely gets up, and starts packing her things away.

 

Thanix cannons keep giving me jealous looks.

-S

 

Seems fair.  You kept giving them jealous looks before the collector base.

-G

 

Smug bastard.

-S

 

CAPTAIN smug bastard.

-G

 

Found us a place to live yet, CAPTAIN?

-S

 

Still looking.  Need to find something with a big enough display case for all our medals.

-G

 

Well.  At least if they fail at this, she decides, they’ll be failing at it together.  She smiles at the messages, and something inside of her unclenches a little.

 

Ilos is a special slice of hell.  Again.

 

There are Indoctrinated Cerberus agents everywhere, but that’s not the really horrifying part.  Their facility is buried into the ruins that spread out like ripples from the base of the ancient Prothean site.  There are black scorch marks around the entryway, where someone had gone and burned the encroaching foliage to keep it from overgrowing the door.  On the plus side, there are no hostile geth actively trying to murder them on the way there, and they actually have the time to find a real landing site, so getting there is not nearly as bad as it once was.  Under different circumstances it might have even been pleasant, what with the clear air and a few beautiful, bright-winged bugs winging between the nearby clusters of vines.

 

“This brings back memories,” Ashley notes, while EDI scans the facility.  Shepard opted for the extra manpower and brought her along this time, leaving Joker in command; which, despite his protests, is not as bad as it could be.

 

“Yeah.  Makes me miss the mako,” Shepard replies.

 

“Ugh.  Not me,” Ash replies.  “No offense, Shepard, but I think your driving even made Wrex nervous.”

 

“Good times,” she insists, grinning, and then EDI gives them the all clear to open the door, and that’s the last relatively cheerful moment for a long, long while.

 

The Indoctrinated agents spout off the usual insane ramblings about evolution and the pinnacle of existence, and try locking down parts of the facility and flooding it with gas.  They seal off their suits – except for EDI, who just pulls off a rather impressive look of annoyance – and hack into the systems, blasting their way through one particularly stubborn set of doors.  The corridors stretch fairly far underground.  Shepard wonders how long this place has been here, because it definitely looks like it must have been built before the war.  The online security systems make for more than a few headaches.  Especially once they get down to the area labeled ‘Level Three’, and a mounted defense turret manages to take down her shields before she can scramble into cover.

 

“EDI!”

 

“They have successfully blocked my remote access to their systems, Shepard.  I will need a console in order to deactivate these security measures.”

 

In the end Shepard and Ashley play decoys for the turret while EDI makes her way across the room, and into the next.  It’s quiet long enough for Shepard to start worrying before the gun goes dark, and she lets out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.  She gives the seals on her hard suit a quick check as she gets out of cover, Ashley catching up to her from her own position behind a torn-up pillar.

 

“What do you think they were doing here?” Ash asks, as EDI unlocks the other doors leading from the room they’re in.  It looks like a central chamber, the branching off point for the bulk of the facility.

 

“Probably something horrific and stupid,” Shepard replies.

 

“You know… I still don’t see how you could stomach working for them,” Ash admits.  “I mean, I understand the situation, and I’m past it.  I guess I just don’t understand why you didn’t find another way.”

 

She sighs, not wanting to retread these waters again.

 

“I don’t know what I can tell you that I haven’t said already.  I didn’t have much choice,” she reiterates.

 

“That’s the part that confuses me,” Ashley says.  “When we were fighting Saren, that was his favourite line of bullshit to feed us.  ‘I don’t have a choice!  The Reapers are unstoppable!’  But you called him on it.  There’s always a choice.  That’s why you said, and I know you meant it.”

 

“Well, thanks for comparing me to Saren,” she mutters.

 

“I’m not comparing you to Saren.  I’m comparing you to you.  The you who fought Saren, the you who was with me the last time we came to Ilos.”

 

Maybe they really just fixed me. Or maybe I'm just a high-tech VI that thinks it's Commander Shepard .

 

“The ‘me’ who hadn’t died yet,” she says out loud, shaking away the one tiny, niggling little doubt that will probably chase her in some fashion for the rest of her life, even after all possible reassurance.  She’s ninety nine percent sure that she is who she seems to be.  But that one percent of doubt refuses to be erased.

 

“You did change,” Ashley insists, without any accusation in her tone.  Just a statement of fact.  One that it seems like she’s been wanting to make for a while.

 

“I died,” Shepard finally snaps.  “And now is not a good time to rehash all of this.”

 

“The commander is correct,” EDI asserts, giving Ashley what passed for a black look; which isn’t good, because the last thing she needs is for the two of them to be on bad terms with one another.  “I have disabled the majority of defensive systems for this area.  However, the facility is designed to compartmentalize during a breach.  Accessing other areas will have to be done locally.”

 

“Great.  Let’s get to it,” Shepard agrees, fixing a new heatsink into place and picking the nearest corridor to get started in.  A few Cerberus soldiers are waiting for them, but most of the people they come across at this point are wearing gloves and packing complex omnitools instead of hard suits and heavy weapons.  Scientists.  She mentally braces herself for what their presence is likely to mean, the flashes of Thorian creepers and husk test subjects, David Archer screaming from a prison of cables and implants.  Mechs going insane and tearing everyone around them apart.  Sometimes she thinks it’s amazing that Cerberus ever got as big as it did, considering that every single project of theirs seems to have backfired on them.  Herself and EDI included.

 

When they find the ‘test subjects’, though, is almost a whole new level of horror.

 

They’re packed into tanks, filling up three separate rooms, at various stages of development and modification.  There are both ATLAS and YMIR mechs in the first chamber they find, a storm of mass accelerated metal and canons aimed at their heads, reaching metal arms that manage to grab EDI and twist around her reinforced synthetic frame.  Shepard opens fire on the ATLAS’ cockpit while Ashley entertains the YMIR, seeing red while EDI tries to struggle her way free, and before she knows it she’s got the seals around the driver snapping open, tearing into him as the reinforced glass breaks and slices through his shields.  The mech’s arms toss EDI in one panicky moment, the Cerberus agent flailing, hitting the self-destruct and nearly turning the room into a scorch mark.  The YMIR goes down in a hail of shrapnel as Shepard’s shields die – again – and Ashley ducks behind the nearest piece of cover; an overturned desk that doesn’t afford her much protection.  Half of the tanks at the back of the room break open, spilling the foul, sickly yellow liquid across the floor, and sending bodies tumbling after.

 

Her first thought is Collectors.  Four eyes, elongated, triangular heads, bodies half-formed and filled with glowing cybernetics.  But their resemblance to Collectors isn’t as strong as their resemblance to something else.  They shriek horribly as they lie on the ground, twitching and flailing, and their minds shriek with them, vibrating through the floor as they die.  Shepard feels them poking at her skull – not the deep, swelling sea of asari mental touches, not the flash and pull of Javik’s.  More like the unadulterated confusion and chaos of the first Prothean beacon.  They stare sightlessly upwards as their own thrashing tears their delicate, incomplete bodies to ribbons, pain and confusion, brains that aren’t fully grown but are alive enough to know death.

 

She shoots all nine of them straight through the skull, one after the other.  Ends it as quickly as she can, until they go still, and quiet.

 

Her breaths come in huge, ragged gasps as she stands over the corpses.  Not Collectors.  Their skin is blue-grey instead of brown, and they have mouths, no wings, faces between the open stretches of stringy flesh and metal implants.

 

Protheans.

 

There had been walls upon walls of dead Protheans in the pods near the Conduit.  Cerberus had gone after Javik.  It makes a sick kind of sense that they would come here, too.  Maybe even first of all.

 

“EDI?” she asks, when she can talk again.  Her gaze remains fixed on four sightless, hollow eyes that stare up at her from a mangled skull.  Stained bone and bits of brain.  “Are you alright?”

 

“I am functional, but I will require some repairs,” EDI replies, and her movements are jerky and slow as she gets to her feet.

 

“What the hell was that?” Ashley demands.  She comes up beside her, and stares down at the results of this hold-out ‘project’.  “They’re… they’re Prothean, aren’t they?  It’s like they were screaming inside my head, but I wasn’t even touching them.”

 

Shepard can’t quite muster the will to look at her.  Or, more accurately, to look away from the mess of bodies on the floor.  She wonders if she looked like this when the Lazarus project was still running.  Like a husk and a monster, intrinsically wrong, pieces of meat and tubes packed into a sightless, gaping frame.  Her mind runs a background vid of the beacon’s warning, flesh melting, merging with synthetic implants, minds breaking and screaming into black ash as everyone, everything, dies or is unmade.  We escaped it, she reminds herself.  We’re still here.  But they didn’t all escape it, not for countless cycles, and Javik was right when he told her that accessing the beacon had changed her.  Ashley’s right when she says dying did, too.

 

“I guess we’re not going to find out what they were doing by standing around here,” Ashley decides, after a minute.  Her hand closes around Shepard’s forearm, pressing through the hard suit, and it sucks her back out of her head.

 

“Right,” she agrees.  Her voice sounds strained inside her own helmet.  She turns, and her first instinct upon seeing EDI – who is limping slightly to the side – is to hook an arm around her waist and help her walk.  EDI gives her a perplexed look when she does.

 

“I do not suffer from physical discomfort, Shepard,” she points out.  “There is no need to compromise your own mobility in order to assist me.”

 

“…Oh.  Yeah.”  Awkwardly, she lets her go again.

 

“I appreciate the sentiment, however.”

 

The next two rooms are much less heavily guarded, which leads Shepard to believe that they already threw the last of their defenses at them in an act of desperation.  The final scientist left standing screams at them about mastering the Reapers’ technology to build themselves slave armies from the dredges of ‘lesser, fallen’ civilizations, and raise humanity up to its rightful place at the pinnacle of galactic civilization.  For the glory of mankind, she says.  Until Ashley shoots her in the mouth.  Then she just bleeds a lot all over the control panel she was standing next to, pistol clattering when it slips from her grip and hits the ground.

 

“Thanks,” Shepard says.  “I hate listening to that garbage.”

 

Ashley nods.  “It’s sort of useful, though,” she notes.  “I mean, eighteen kinds of crazy, but at least we know what they were aiming for now.”

 

Shepard peers into one of the nearest tanks, remembering Okeer and his rejects.  The almost-Prothean inside is still and silent, eyes closed, most of its body invisible amidst a cloud of fluid.  Implants glow, outlining the body behind the glass.  EDI checks a nearby console while she looks at the readings on the tank itself.  Temperature.  Heart rate.  Brain activity.  She’s glad that Javik is on the Citadel instead of on her team right now.  As horrible as this is for her, it would be many magnitudes worse for him; and the last thing that man needs is more horror.

 

“There are a total of forty-five living subjects in the facility,” EDI notes.

 

“Is it like Lazarus?” Shepard wonders aloud.  “Were they trying to revive the dead Protheans from the bunker?”

 

EDI shakes her head.

 

“Given the data available, it would appear that the entombed remains were far too desiccated for such measures.  When the containment systems failed, their seals were also compromised.  Even with Reaper technology revival was not an option.  These are clones, made from a combination of recovered Prothean genetic material on Ilos, modified Collector genetic material, and sample acquired from Javik.”

 

“Javik?” Shepard tears her attention away from the tank in horror.  “How the hell did they get a genetic sample from Javik?”  She tries to remember the last time she spoke to him.  A few weeks ago, at least.

 

“That is unclear.  However, I do not believe there is reason to be alarmed.  The sample was not of considerable size.  I believe the likeliest explanation is that it was recovered from the site of a Cerberus altercation with the Normandy team.  They do not appear to have had access to a steady supply of fresh samples, as they would if he had been compromised.”

 

“Send him a priority message anyway, EDI,” she decides.  “Just to be safe.”

 

Ashley shakes her head.  “God,” she says.  “What are we going to do with them?  Do we just – turn off the tanks, or something?”

 

Shepard turns back to the tank.  She thinks about the way the others had screamed when they died, their confusion and pain.  She thinks about husks, and Collectors, and wonders if these are any better.  She thinks about Grunt.

 

“How much Reaper tech are we talking about here, EDI?” she asks.

 

Ashley comes up beside her, looking into the next tank over.  “Isn’t ‘any’ too much?” she wonders.

 

“Technically, both the Mass Relays and the Citadel are of Reaper construction,” EDI reminds her.  “Most technology is derivative of Reaper design in some way.  Collector technology is essentially a branch of the same tree, and that technology was employed extensively by Okeer in his pursuit of creating a genetically ‘pure’ krogan.  The geth also employ the use of Reaper code to allow for an elevation of complexity to individual programs.  There are degrees to such situations, though exploring them seems dangerous and highly inadvisable.”

 

“Highly inadvisable,” Shepard agrees.  “But since the damage has been done…”

 

“We might as well see if we can get anything good out of it,” Ashley finishes.  “I don’t see how it’s possible that these things are any better than husks, though.”

 

“Husks rely on Reaper nanites to control their motor functions,” EDI replies.  “They are essentially brain dead.  Signals transmitted by the nanites urge them into physical conflict, but they are not capable of higher thought processes or complex decision making.  When Cerberus found a way to disrupt the Reaper code, and replace it with their own commands, the husks obeyed those, instead.  But they remained… simplistic.  It is not unlike the results of Indoctrination; the more Indoctrinated a subject becomes, the less capable they are of functioning independent of direct commands.  The scientists here were not capable of maintaining systems with that complexity of control.  I believe their aim was to, essentially, ‘grow’ their own Prothean soldiers, and implant behavioral blocks and subroutines via control chips – not unlike the ones which Cerberus first used to constrain my own freedom – to ensure obedience.”

 

“So they’re not husks,” Shepard concludes.

 

“No,” EDI agrees.  “But their current level of consciousness is minimal.  The project is nowhere near its completed stage.  According to the data I have access to, the subjects cannot survive outside of their contained environments, and will not be able to sustain themselves within it.  They would require continued care and manipulation to develop further.”

 

“It’s illegal to clone organic beings like this anyway,” Ashley points out.

 

“It’s illegal to just terminate something like this, too,” Shepard replies.  The one in front of her doesn’t look much like Javik.  But maybe…

 

“Shepard,” Ashley says, dragging her attention back over to her.  “Maybe this isn’t our call to make.”

 

“…How long will the subjects survive with the current systems?” she asks EDI.

 

“Without care, I estimate they can last up to three weeks,” she replies.  “With care, the current systems would be capable of seeing the project through to its completion.  Though I cannot say what the end results would be.  Most projections involve the use of behavioral inhibitors.  Without those, the variables change significantly.”

 

“Okay,” Shepard replies, letting a long, heavy breath.  “Let me go over our options.  We should get this place cleaned out anyway.  Try and find out who these agents were, and if they’ve got any family left out there to send bad news to.  And you should get back up to the Normandy for those repairs, EDI.”

 

“They are not a pressing issue,” EDI assures her.  That doesn’t change the fact that she’s hitting all of the wrong instincts in Shepard with the way she’s limping around, her right leg twisted to an awful angle.  But, she reminds herself, Legion had gotten along perfectly fine with a gaping hole in his chest and a patch made out of her old armour.  Ashley looks like she wants to argue the point.  Mercifully, she doesn’t, and instead they end up dragging the bodies to the front chamber of the facility, and uploading the facility’s files.  There’s not a lot of information on the individual agents and operatives.  Towards the end, Cerberus largely stopped caring about the brainwashed grunts it employed.  Only the project leads and a few key members are properly accounted for.  Everyone else just has a number.

 

The Normandy drops off some units for containing the corpses, and Shepard finally gets EDI to go back up and have the engineers lend her a hand.  Normally they’d have a clean up crew come in and handle this.  There haven’t been many to spare since the war ended, however, and so she and Ashley wrap up the bodies in sealed capsules, Shepard’s augmented musculature allowing her to keep at it for longer.  All of them go into containers marked as special bio hazards, augmented Cerberus humans and devastated pseudo-Protheans alike.  She stares at the alien bodies, and some distant part of her brain compares them to the long, long list of horrific things she’s seen.  On balance, they’re high up there, but behind a lot of the monstrosities the Reapers pulled out of the woodworks.  Still.  It’s not like that’s ever been a good indicator for what will up and start haunting her.

 

“What are you thinking?” Ashley asks while she takes a breather, and watches Shepard carefully fit a pseudo-Prothean’s corpse into a container.  Her suit is covered in thick fluid and blood, and she’s glad she can’t smell it through her helmet’s filters.

 

“I’m thinking that I might never get my hard suit clean again,” Shepard replies.

 

Ashley lets out a breath.  “I mean it seriously, Shepard,” she rebukes.  “I’ve been trying to get a handle on what’s going on in your head, but as usual, I’m coming up blank here.”

 

After a minute, Shepard shrugs, moving on to the next body.

 

“I’m thinking that they’re alive, Ash,” she says.  “Even if they shouldn’t be.  I’m thinking that the Protheans got a rotten deal, even if I don’t like much of what Javik’s told me about them.  I’m thinking that we owe them a lot, considering that they did their damn best to warn us about what was coming.  I’m thinking that it might be nice if Javik didn’t have to be the last of his kind.  If that’s even possible.”  She sucks in a long breath, then, and after a second, admits a little more.  “I’m thinking that it’s never cut-and-dry with this kind of thing.  If Cerberus hadn’t crossed the lines it did, I wouldn’t be here.  If I’d never taken a chance on a tank full of someone’s illegal genetic experiments, I’d be short a good friend these days.  I don’t approve of this bullshit, not by a long shot, but these creatures they’ve made are here now anyway.”

 

Ashley shakes her head.

 

“You really think these things can have any kind of life?” she asks.  “Or that anyone’s going to want to see these experiments through to the end?”

 

“I don’t know,” Shepard admits.  “Do you really think we should just pull the plug on them and call it a day?”

 

Ashley hesitates.  Then she rubs a hand across her forehead, and slowly shakes her head.

 

“Jesus,” she says.  “It’s never simple, is it?”

 

Shepard smiles a little sadly at her.

 

“Remind me to tell you about the geth heretic station sometime,” she replies.

 

“So let’s just report it in to the Alliance,” Ashley suggests.  “Let them decide what to do with it.”

 

“Uh huh.  And when they say ‘you’re on the ground, Williams, what’s your call on this’?”

 

“…They wouldn’t do that.”

 

“The hell they wouldn’t.  Hackett once called me in the middle of a combat situation to ask me what he should do with his own damn fleet, remember?  And the Council’s even worse for that kind of thing.  If you’re lucky, they’ll give you a ‘recommendation’.”

 

Ashley narrows her eyes at her.  “You’re telling me that if you called Hackett right now and said ‘send some scientists over here to finish up Cerberus’ work’, he’d just say ‘sure thing’?”

 

“Oh.  No,” Shepard replies.  “He’d probably send some scientists to dismantle it instead.  If he thought I’d get particularly anxious about it, he’d make sure they were delayed until past the three week mark, blame a lack of resources, and then get them to recover any useful data before they purge the place.  But that’s still a choice I’m making, Ash.  I could go to the Council instead.”

 

“And the Council would do things differently?”

 

“The Council would let me use my own resources to handle it, if I thought it was worthwhile,” Shepard explains.  “I know some people from Cerberus who might be willing to take on something like this, if I asked them to.  Hackett would probably be relieved that it wasn’t his headache at this point, and the Council won’t lose any sleep over the laws a Spectre breaks.  Those are my options, Ash, along with ending it right now.  If I’ve learned one thing doing this,” she feels compelled to add.  “It’s that the people higher up on the chain don’t want to deal with this bullshit any more than you and I do.  If the Alliance took over a project like this, they’d have the other Council races breathing down their neck over the controversy.  If the Council legitimately approved of it, that would probably lead into a legal shitstorm that would make your head spin.  They get… tetchy when you put them in situations like this.  So instead they let people like you and me decide whether to, you know, drop acid on the rachni queen’s head.  If it goes well, they get to say that their agents are doing a fine job.  If it goes to hell, they get to shake their head at you and your reckless, reckless ways.”

 

“The rachni queen was a pretty big risk,” Ashley remembers.  “But ending a whole race… that’s pretty heavy, too.”

 

“Exactly,” Shepard agrees, glad they aren’t arguing anymore, at least.

 

“So what are you going to do?” Ashley wonders, looking more genuinely interested than anything else.

 

“Well, after I go through a lot of decontamination – I’m going to call Javik,” she admits.

 

Which is a conversation she’s not looking forward to.  But if there’s anyone who’s got a real stake in this – anyone with more cognitive functionality than a drugged up varren, at least – then it’s him.  Provided that he isn’t tied up in another facility somewhere.

 

It’s a few hours before they manage to get any kind of response from the elusive Prothean.  Eventually, Shepard gets him on a secure channel in the War Room.  Not a face-to-face conversation, of course; he doesn’t have the equipment for that on his end.  It’s still good to hear his voice, even if most of the things he says are either incredibly rude or incredibly horrific.  There’s a certain tolerance level for Javik that gets built up after time.  Once it has, it’s much easier to notice the occasional bright spots where he actually behaves nicely over top of all the rest of it.  She’s not sure how he’s going to take their recent discovery.  On the one hand, he’s seen his people transformed into every manner of abomination under the sun, and fought against most of them.  On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it gets any easier.  Especially not when it’s supposed to be over.

 

“Get rid of them,” Javik says.  “They are not Prothean.  They are only more… echoes.”

 

“You’re sure?” Shepard asks.  “We don’t know what they’ll be if they finish developing.”

 

“Not Prothean.  I am more than my genetics, Commander.  The empire and all but one of its subjects is gone.” he insists.

 

She closes her eyes for a second.

 

“That’s true.  But you could still pass something along to them, if it-”

 

“Commander,” Javik firmly interrupts.  “They are not Prothean.”

 

“They’re something,” she argues, not even sure why she’s playing Devil’s Advocate at this point.

 

“…Maybe so.”

 

It’s all such a mess.  Always such a mess.  The simple choices never land in her lap.

 

“If they come out right, something like this could be your people’s second chance,” she feels the need to point out.  “And if they don’t, then they could attack someone, or die horribly, or live in some kind of miserable half existence.  That’s what it comes down to.”  Her grip tightens a little around the edge of the conference table while she waits for his response.

 

It’s a while in coming.

 

“What do you think I should do?”

 

One question she was really hoping he wouldn’t ask.  She stares at the bright ‘active’ light blinking on the communications line while she thinks it over.  Carefully.  The whole situation is tying knots in her stomach.  Sometimes, she can’t help but wonder what it would be like if her life’s story had turned out like Javik’s.  The last one left.  Go to sleep, and wake up to find that everyone’s dead, and the Reapers are still here.  To have never known peace, not even before they came, because for him, there was never a time before they came.  Just stories.

 

“I think,” she says.  “That if it were me, I’d feel like it was worth it to take a chance on putting more humans into the galaxy again.”

 

There’s a pause.

 

“They are not Prothean,” Javik insists, for the umpteenth time.  “But you are right, Commander.  They are something.  Perhaps even something close.  If this is what you would do, then this is what I will do.  I was not made to restore my people.  Only to avenge them, and I owe that success to you.  Help them.”

 

He cuts the connection.  Shepard sighs.

 

“I will,” she promises, without a lot of hope.

 

The next call she makes is to Miranda.

 

It goes on and on like that for the rest of the day.  She sends messages to Miranda, and Brynn, who’s taken to corresponding with her more often than Jacob does, for some reason.  She sends in a report to the Alliance, one which details the conflict at the base and explains that the findings have gone under Council jurisdiction.  Then she writes the Council to let them know that she’s taking matters up under Spectre authority.  She compiles Mordin’s data on Okeer’s project, and after some consideration, even fires off a message to Maelon.  His methods might have been reprehensible, and he isn’t exactly her biggest fan, but it could be worth a shot.  She thinks, again, about Mordin, and how he’d probably hum to himself while he gave her an amazingly in-depth projection of the project’s odds of success and necessary resources, before she tamps down on the thought and puts it away again.  She gets in contact with Liara, who knows probably every surviving Prothean expert in person by now, and definitely any who might specialize in genetics.

 

Liara replies first.  They go over the list of potentially useful people, and talk about Javik, and the potential ramifications of what’s going on here.

 

“You realize that even if this goes well, forty people is hardly enough to sustain a new population,” she points out.

 

“If it goes well, we might be able to work on repealing a few laws to bulk those numbers out,” Shepard suggests.  “Everybody’s population has taken a hit, and with people like Grunt proving that genetic engineering doesn’t mean you’re a monster, some attitudes might have to change.”

 

“Not everyone views an aggressive krogan mercenary through the same sentimental lens that you do – but I see your point,” Liara agrees.

 

“I am not sentimental about Grunt,” she argues, lying through her teeth.

 

“You still send him action figures.”

 

“Dammit, what have I told you about spying on me?” she demands with absolutely no heat.  She can hear Liara smiling a little bit through the connection; that tiny half-smile that seems like the only kind she can manage these days.  The galaxy burnt up, and Liara only realized how much she loved it all when it did.

 

“That I am entirely allowed to do it provided that I continue to give you dirt on everyone else,” the Shadow Broker calmly replies.

 

Her console beeps with a new message, then, and she lets Liara continue sorting through her contacts on her end while she answers it.  She’s expecting it to be a reply from someone else.  Instead, it’s another message from Garrus.

 

Trainees have no sense of self-preservation.

-G

 

She glances over at the monitor displaying Liara’s progress, and then leans over to answer.

 

I’m sure they do.  They probably just don’t know how to use it yet.

-S

 

That’s a possibility.  Some of them still haven’t figured out which side of their hard suits goes on the front.

-G

 

Fire a couple of concussive rounds into their shields.  That should get them moving.

-S

 

Ha ha.

-G

 

“You know, the fact that you’re talking to Garrus right now would be much more annoying if you were actively flirting.  Thank you for the restraint,” Liara says over her line.

 

“Who says we’re not flirting?” Shepard asks.  The comment earns her a gusty – if fond – sigh. 

 

How are things going on your end?

-G

 

If I never have to decide the fate of another species ever again, I will die a happy woman.

-S

 

How do you always find these situations?

-G

 

Cursed.

-S

 

“You aren’t cursed,” Liara insists.  “You’re just… more willing to entertain complex problems with creative solutions than most.”

 

“Stop reading my mail.”

 

“Oh, fine.”

 

What species?

-G

 

I’ll tell you when I get home to the place you haven’t found us yet.

-S

 

I could have found something by now.

-G

 

Did you?

-S

 

No.

-G

 

Still no display cases big enough.

-G

 

At which point Miranda responds to her message, and she has to cut him off to pay proper attention to everything again.

 

Miranda, who has made it her personal mission to get Horizon liveable again, needs some coaxing in order to warm up to the idea of leaving her current project in order to go spend several months on another one.  Especially one this questionable.  But she’s willing to entertain the idea, so Shepard forwards her data on a secure channel that she and Liara both agree is safe enough.  Fortunately, despite her new lease on life, Miranda’s concerns are less ethical and more practical.  She at least confirms that the current neurological scans look promising, and still at an early enough stage of development that they haven’t been tampered with.

 

They go over logistics for a few hours, Shepard pacing around the War Room while Liara patches in an old colleague of hers from one of the southern continents on Thessia, and a salarian genetic historian who occasionally seems to explode in fits of professional enthusiasm at the prospect of getting his hands on legitimate Prothean samples.  Apparently he’s been sending Javik requests for weeks, to no avail.  Eventually, fatigue starts to catch up with her, and by the time Maelon sends her a message she’s actually sitting on the war room floor, using her omnitool to remotely access the consoles and aiming her comments in the general vicinity of the table.  It doesn’t really matter.  No one can see her anyway.

 

Maelon is decidedly torn between his largely negative feelings towards her, his largely positive feelings towards the way that whole genophage cure thing turned out in the end, and his apparent fascination with the potential of Prothean clones.  Which keys in well to his interests in restoring civilizations to their former glory.  She puts him in contact with Miranda and asks her to sort out if she needs him for anything, since her knowledge of medical science is largely limited to ‘slap some medigel on there and walk it off’, which is great for in-the-field, but not so good for complex genetic engineering issues.  The ship’s internal clock ticks past the twenty-four hour mark by the time Brynn responds to her request, helpfully providing the names of several ex-Cerberus employees who have applicable skills.  This also gets forwarded to Miranda, who points out in exasperation that she hasn’t technically agreed to this insane scheme yet.

 

“Then turn them all down and tell me to stop bothering you,” Shepard suggests.  “Because this is a long shot either way, but I definitely can’t pull this off without you.”

 

“Dammit, Shepard,” Miranda says, which is her new favourite way of agreeing.  It’s suspiciously similar to Jack’s.  In the best interest of diplomacy, she decides not to mention that.

 

Eventually, they get several scientists on the line, as well as Maelon.  At which point the conversation slowly evolves into something way over her head.  Liara signs off to go and deal with something vague and Shadow Broker related (or just gets bored and makes her excuses, it’s hard to say) and Shepard finds herself sitting in the War Room, half awake, listening to scientists yell at one another about the complications of involving Collector genetic material and separating out the corrupted elements from true Prothean traits, the unknown factors in involving Reaper tech, some recent studies on the particulars of Indoctrination and the potential for corruption, and so on and so forth until Ashley breaks it all up by appearing at the door with a plate of a food.

 

She looks at the myriad of networked conversations erupting from the room’s consoles, and raises her eyebrows.

 

Shepard gets up off the floor.

 

“I need to step out for a minute, guys,” she says, probably reminding them that she exists in the process.  “Keep it civil.”

 

She leads Ashley back into the conference room, and lets her foist the plate of food off onto her.

 

“Thanks,” she says.

 

“Thought you might need it,” Ashley replies.  She nods her head towards the entrance to the War Room.  “What the hell’s going on in there?”

 

“We are debating the viability of repurposing our Prothean test subjects from Cerberus’ original intentions and growing them into actual people,” Shepard replies, shoveling a forkful of rations into her mouth.  Bland and nothing special, but then, she hasn’t eaten anything special since before the Alliance brass put her under lockdown.  “Or something like that.  To be honest, I started tuning them out an hour ago.”

 

Ashley leans back against the table, and watches her eat for a minute.  Ordinarily it’s the kind of situation that would make her a little self-conscious, but right now she’s just realized how hungry she is, and she’s tired, and Ashley already has an opinion of her that’s fixed to a rollercoaster, so she decides she doesn’t really care.  She pretty much clears the plate before the other woman starts talking again.

 

“I don’t know how you think I can do this job,” she says, suddenly somber.

 

Shepard blinks over at her.

 

“You’re a great soldier, Ash,” she replies, a little perplexed.  “You’re loyal to the Alliance, you know how to treat your subordinates, and you can get things done.  I don’t see why you couldn’t do this job.”

 

Ashley makes a frustrated sound and starts pacing around the conference table, gesturing vaguely towards the War Room with one arm.

 

“Because I don’t have the first clue how to do that, Shepard!” she objects.

 

Shepard glances back, following the motion.

 

“…I’ll show you how the systems work…?” she offers, perplexed.

 

“it’s not the damn systems,” Ashley snaps.  “Those are fine.  Pretty straight-forward, actually.  It’s the people, Shepard.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I’m not exactly the world’s most talented diplomat.  I’m a soldier.  I don’t know how to talk somebody down when they’re going crazy.  Hell, I didn’t even know how to deal with the situation with Udina!  You think I could have convinced Saren to shoot himself in the head?  Or the Illusive Man?”

 

Shepard lets out a breath, and drops her empty plate lightly onto the conference table.  For a few seconds, her mind flashes up the memory of Saren putting a pistol to his chin – the Illusive Man pressing the barrel to his own temple – Samara raising the gun in her hand, and she herself grabbing her arm, and yanking back, and what the hell are you doing.  Blue and red blood.  Relief and fear and adrenaline all spiking through her veins.  These days, there’s a lot of regret for the good some people chose not to do, or aren’t around to do anymore.  At least she’d stopped a friend’s bullet from firing.  Delayed that loss.

 

“Sure,” she says out loud, her voice carefully casual.  “Why not?”

 

“Why not?” Ashley demands.  “Okay, what the hell, Shepard?  Ever since you came and got me off of Earth, our interactions have just been one gigantic case of me shoving my foot into my mouth.  You’re telling me you don’t see a problem here?”  She gestures between the two of them, then, scowling fiercely.  “I can’t do what you do.  I can’t get a crew full of aliens to listen to me.”

 

She resists the urge to roll her eyes.

 

“Normandy’s an Alliance ship, Ash,” she replies instead.  “The only crew you need to have are Alliance.  Nobody’s saying you have to run this operation the same way I did.  I mean, unless you count EDI, there aren’t even any aliens on board right now.”  It’s a little odd to realize that, actually.

 

Ashley comes up short.

 

“But we wouldn’t have gotten half as far as we did without the aliens you did recruit,” she points out.

 

“Come on,” Shepard shakes her head.  “You were with me the first time our crew started diversifying.  It’s not like I sat down and said ‘now that I’m in charge, the first order of business is going to the store to get some aliens’.  Opportunities presented themselves.  People wanted to help go after Saren.  I just didn’t turn them away, that’s all.”

 

“I would have,” Ashley points out, seriously.

 

“Would you now?” she wonders.

 

“After everything that’s happened?  Hell no.  I still think I’d probably screen them to hell and back, but I’ve spent too much time fighting alongside krogan and asari, quarians and even turians to say that I don’t know better now.”

 

The corner of Shepard’s mouth curves upward.


“Even turians?” she asks.

 

Ashley gives her a vaguely exasperated look.

 

“Of course you think that’s funny,” she grumbles.  “You’re marrying a turian.  Should I be relieved that you never called my bluff and ordered me to kiss one?”

 

“Considering that Garrus was the only turian around at the time, I don’t think that was ever in danger of happening,” she replies, laughing a little at the look Ashley shoots her.

 

“You can’t tell me you had a thing for him even – no, wait, no, I don’t want to know.  Bad enough to find out your old commander’s a xenophile.  More details are not necessary.”

 

Shepard glares at her, mostly on principal.

 

“If you’re curious, Ash, I’ve got a whole bunch of informative videos I could lend you.”

 

Ashley turns a little green around the gills.  But her lips twitch, too.

 

“You are so evil,” she accuses.  “Torturing me when I’m drunk, threatening me with interspecies porn – if I didn’t know better I’d think you were trying to drive me crazy.”

 

“It’s not that weird when you break it down to the basics, really.”

 

“I am not listening to this so hard right now.”

 

“The biggest problem is cross-contamination of bodily fluids, what with the whole dextro-levo conflict-”

 

“You know what?  I just remembered that I have some really important things to do.  Somewhere else.  Right now.” 

 

Ashley begins backing up towards the exit.

 

“-but you can get around that if you remember not to ingest!” Shepard continues, until Ash has all but barreled out through the security scanner.  She leans forward and bumps her empty plate with her hip, reaching down a moment to make sure it doesn’t slide off of the table and go clattering to the floor.  With Ashley gone, the conference room falls quiet around her.  She remembers when this part of the ship had been a lab, instead, Mordin’s lab, back before Anderson had started refitting everything. 

 

I am the very model of a scientist salarian, I’ve studied species turian, asari, and batarian…

 

Mordin probably would have liked Ashley.  He’d have enjoyed ruffling her feathers.

 

After a few quiet seconds, she turns and heads back into the War Room.

 

Nine hours later, they’ve got the site on Ilos completely secured.  The dead Cerberus agents are aboard the Normandy, ready to be delivered for burial, and the dead pseudo-Protheans are stacked in their sealed coffins within the facility.  Miranda and six of her hand-picked experts are on their way to try and put all of the theories they’ve accumulated into practice, and Shepard wonders, for the millionth time, if pursuing this isn’t a horrible, horrible idea.  But what’s done is done, EDI finishes her repairs, Joker chews them both out for letting a mech grab her, Normandy does one last sweep of the area to make sure there aren’t any nasty surprises waiting in the wings, and they’re off again.  Maybe, she thinks, Omega will be simple.  Pirates, or some leftover Collector ship, or mercenaries getting back to the business of trying to kill one another.

 

Naturally, of course, it’s even worse than Ilos.

 

The only information Aria can give her is that ships keep going missing around the relay, a ‘get too close and you’re gone’ type situation.  Understandably, they’ve started avoiding it, but since Cerberus seized control of the station and was known to be pulling things out of the mangled ruins of the Collector base, they’re the chief suspects.  Scanners don’t detect anything unusual, and for a day the Normandy basically parks itself over the relay and waits to see if anything interesting happens.  That’s the easy part.

 

The hard part comes when nothing happens.

 

“I do not want to go through the Omega 4 Relay again,” Shepard tells EDI, sitting in the lounge with her not long after concluding that that’s probably what they’re going to have to do.  EDI’s body is capable of ingestion, as part of its subterfuge protocols, but she doesn’t taste anything and she basically has to vomit anything she eats back up again.  So the likeliest reason for her turning up is moral support, or a question, and in either case, it’s nice to have somebody to talk to.  Somebody other than Ashley, who keeps having what amount to tiny nuclear meltdowns over inheriting her command.  Today’s had been ‘I don’t have a network of contacts that I can use to make this job easier’, to which Shepard’s natural response had been ‘so build one – or here, borrow some of mine’.

 

“I am not looking forward to the experience either,” EDI admits.  “While our knowledge of the debris field is substantially greater than it was during our first attempt, our knowledge of the potential threat is limited.”

 

“Exactly,” Shepard agrees, emptying her glass.  “Also, it’s basically you, me, and Ash.  That’s not much of a squad.”

 

“We should avoid conflict if at all possible.  Information is required most at this point, not necessarily active engagement of the situation.”

 

“Get in, look around, get out?” Shepard suggests.

 

“Precisely,” EDI nods.  Then she reaches over and rights Shepard’s glass, which has somehow fallen over and is rolling towards the edge of the bar.  “I would also recommend waiting for the alcohol levels in your system to go down.”

 

“That won’t take long,” she reminds her.

 

“I am aware.”  A pause.  Then EDI reaches over and, rather stiltedly, pats her on the back.  “While I will reiterate that I fully intend to maintain contact with you, I would like you to know that I will miss your physical presence on the ship.  It will be… strange, to answer to someone else’s command.”

 

Shepard glances over at her.  She reaches her arm around behind EDI, and awkwardly returns the gesture.

 

“I’ll miss you too, EDI,” she says.  “And Joker.  And the crew.”

 

“Do you believe that Captain Williams will value my input?” EDI wonders.

 

“The way this is going, I’m pretty sure Ash is going to take all the help she can get,” Shepard replies.  “She’s smart enough to listen to people, even when she doesn’t like what they’re saying.  Uh, most of the time.”  Horizon being the exception to the rule.

 

EDI stares at her for a minute, in that way that says she’s considering the new information she’s just been given.  Then she nods decisively.

 

“I find that Captain Williams has many admirable traits as an individual.  However, based on her military service record and past actions, I must conclude that her style of command will be significantly different from yours.”  She pauses.  “I shall take this as an opportunity to experience new things, and compare the merits of the differing approaches to leadership.”

 

Shepard winces.

 

“Yeah, that’s – that’s a good attitude.  But, just do everyone a favour and don’t compare our styles of leadership out loud very often, alright?  Nobody wants to hear their crew constantly comparing them to their predecessor.”  A conflict she had had thankfully little experience with, given that the SR1’s crew had still been fairly new before Anderson was reassigned.

 

“Comparisons are inevitable,” EDI points out.

 

“I know.  That doesn’t mean you have to voice them.”

 

“If you think that would be best.”

 

Shepard manages to drink enough to keep herself lightly buzzed for a few hours, before she finally dares to sleep with the thought of passing through the relay come morning.  She’s fervently hoping that something will happen while she’s unconscious; having to scramble onto the command deck in the middle of the ‘night’ would be much better than potentially planting the Normandy face-first into a disaster, so she optimistically keeps her gear laid out for herself.  A quick check of her messages has news from Tali – the medical supplies made it back safe and sound, the admiralty board is grateful, her house has complete walls now – an update from Liara, a message from Jack asking if she can use her Spectre clearance to get one of her students out of jail (drunk and disorderly leading to assault charges in Purgatory; she forwards it to Garrus, because there’s no time like the present to start abusing future-spousal privileges) and a message from Grunt boasting about the newest members of his collected krogan strike force.  There’s also an update on the eggs from some of the salarian doctors who retrieved them, letting her know that they were taken in by an amenable family line and hatched, all four of them, with no complications.  The news lightens her mood considerably.  She gets a response from Garrus pretty quickly, and that helps a lot, too.

 

Good to see Jack isn’t passing along any bad habits.

-G

 

She smiles a little.

 

Don’t blame her.  I’m pretty sure she wants him out just so she can strangle him herself.

-S

 

Oh well I’ll just get right on that then.

-G

 

I know, brand new job and I’m already using you to pull favours.  Feel free to mock me.

-S

 

It’s no fun when you give me permission.

-G

 

Then I’ll make it up to you.

-S

 

I guess I can think of a few things you could do.

-G

 

Liara reads these, just so you know.

-S

 

So no sexting?

-G

 

How do you even know that term?

-S

 

I get around.

-G

 

Not like that, though.

-G

 

That came out wrong.

-G

 

I have to go, important C-Sec business.

-G

 

I’m going to be hearing that one a lot, aren’t I?

-S

 

Police work is unpredictable.

-G

 

Conveniently so.

-S

 

When she finally gets to sleep, she dreams about Samara standing in the Ardat-Yakshi monastery.  She raises the gun to her head.  Shepard moves to stop her, only this time she’s frozen in place.  She can’t take a step forward, can’t reach an arm out, like her hard suit has turned to stone and cement.  Her mouth won’t even open to speak, and Samara pulls the trigger, and crumples to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.  Falere screams.  The monastery turns to ruin in the red light of a Reaper’s blast, shards of remembered pain from Harbinger’s beam, and she wakes up with phantom aches across her body.

 

A shower takes the edge off of it.  When her muscles are still a little shaky underneath her gear, she bites the bullet and goes to the med bay.  Dr. Chakwas gives her a mild pain killer and makes her sit through a scan, which turns up everything that they both pretty much already knew; it’s technically a miracle that she recovered from her injuries at all, so the lingering issues are just going to have to ride themselves out.  She shakes off both professional and friendly concerns, and makes her way to the command center to get this mission out of the way.

 

Last mission.  It’s relief and apprehension all bound up into one confusing package.

 

“Hey, jumping through the Omega Four again,” Joker says.  “Just like riding a bicycle.  You do it once and you never forget, because you’re horribly scarred and haunted by it for the rest of your life… though I guess my experience with bikes might be slightly different from most people’s.”

 

“Just watch the debris,” Shepard replies, while she and Ashley take up position behind the pilot and co-pilot seats.

 

“How bad is it?” Ashley wonders.

 

“Be glad you skipped round one,” Joker advises.  “I’m just hoping there isn’t an angry Collector ship waiting for us on the other side of this thing.”

 

“Do not jinx us, Jeff,” EDI solemnly instructs.

 

“Sorry.”

 

They make the jump, the old Reaper IFF still doing its job, and the Normandy banks a hard left as soon as they’re through.  It’s a mostly unnecessary evasion; large chunks of the debris field have been moved out of the way already, clearing a path towards the larger, mangled remains of the Collector Base.

 

For a second the only reaction Shepard has is relief.  The drive core does its job and they run silent, carefully navigating around the relay while EDI starts making their initial scans.

 

“This isn’t so bad,” Ashley says.

 

“I am detecting a Reaper ship’s signature originating from the center of the Collector base debris,” EDI snaps.

 

“Dammit!  Why did you have to say it wasn’t so bad?” Joker demands.  “Did we not just talk about jinxing!?”

 

“Has it seen us?” Shepard asks, sharply.

 

“It is difficult to gauge activity levels past the Reaper’s kinetic barriers,” EDI replies.  “However, it is making no moves to evacuate its current location.  It is possible that it does not realize we are here.  I am also detecting significant damage to the Reaper’s primary particle beam.  Another possibility is that it does not wish to risk engagement at this time.”

 

“Took a bashing and jumped through the relay to lick its wounds,” Ashley concludes.  “I say we finish the job.”

 

“With no back-up?” Shepard asks, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Ships have been disappearing.  It’s probably been doing something to them.  If we leave now, maybe it’ll be able to repair itself enough to make another jump, and we’ll lose it,” she points out.  “Or it could be building up an army to try and take Omega with.”

 

Her stress level climbs steadily at the thought, but she can’t deny that Ashley has a point.  She also can’t deny that she’s supposed to be handing command over to her – and between dominating the Illium mission and the fiasco on Ilos, it might be a good idea to start doing that.

 

“Kinetic barriers are at full capacity?” she asks.

 

“They are functional,” EDI replies.  “Beyond that, it is difficult to say.”

 

“How close can we get and still bug out if we have to?”

 

Joker sighs.  “Well, the good news is that the debris field kind of works to our advantage, since we’re smaller,” he says.  “Plus we have me, so there’s that.  But we’ll definitely lose speed if we get into the thick of things, and if it decides to just start blasting through hunks of Collector base to get to us… we’re looking at a potential repeat of the SR1.  Not pretty.”  The last he delivers with uncommon solemnity, and a darted glance towards EDI, and then back towards Shepard before he returns his full attention to his task.

 

Shepard sucks in a long breath through her nose, and then slowly lets it out.

 

“Okay,” she says, folding her arms.  “It’s your call, Captain.”

 

Ashley starts, and then does a double-take.

 

“What?” she blurts.

 

“It’s your call,” Shepard repeats.  “You’ve got the information, and I know we’ve all been polite about this, but you outrank me and you’re replacing me.  So consider this our trial run.  What do you want us to do?”

 

Joker clears his throat.

 

“Hey, uh,” he says.  “Maybe we could try this on a mission that’s a little less… Reaper-y?” he suggests.

 

“No,” Shepard replies.

 

“Damn.  I was afraid you’d say that.”

 

Ashley shoots him an impressively quelling look, which is a promising sign, but then she hesitates.  She stares out through the cockpit windows at the visible expanse of space, the bright-hot glow of a nearby star.

 

“You’re serious?” she checks.

 

After a moment, Shepard concludes there’s nothing else for it.  She straightens her stance, and raises one hand towards her temple.  “Orders, Captain?” she asks, in her best military tones.

 

Ashley looks mortified.

 

“At ease!” she says, quickly.  “Alright.  Fine.”  She takes a deep breath, a mirror of Shepard’s earlier resolve, and then narrows her eyes in thought.  “We’re going in.”

 

“We’ll need someone on the main cannons, then,” Shepard reminds her.  “Our usual people have all either defected to C-Sec or gotten promoted.  Engineer Daniels has some experience with these things.  I’m also qualified.”

 

Ashley gives her a look like she’s swallowing bile, but nods.

 

“We’ll need all hands in engineering in case this goes belly-up,” she decides.  “You’re on it, Shepard.”

 

Shepard works up a grin.  “Good luck, Captain,” she says, before sprinting for the elevator.  Some of the crew give her nervous looks as she passes, but most remain admirably professional about the whole thing.  She makes her way through the crew deck and takes up the station.  Maintenance has been doing a good job of keeping their weapons up to scratch – though Garrus would probably disagree – but it feels decidedly odd to work the main power battery herself.  She checks the output, and, of course, the calibrations, and gets the thanix cannon warmed up.  It reminds her of how long it’s been since she just did a task on a ship, rather than coordinating everyone else’s tasks.  Adams calls up from engineering to let her know they’re heading for their target, and feeds her the relevant energy output reports.

 

She wonders what the energy’s like in the cockpit, without her there.  And then, quite suddenly, there’s no time for wondering at all, because they’re firing instead.  The main power battery roars, and the atmosphere of the entire section changes; transforms into a clamouring din of feed-me style demands as the cannon sucks up energy like a hungry dragon.  It’s a balance of giving it as much as possible without risking the engines.  Fortunately, EDI’s taking care of the aiming, so her job is fairly direct, if all-consuming.  In her early days in the Alliance, she’s been good at this kind of thing.  Before her superiors realized that she was wasted when she wasn’t on the ground, since a key eye for details worked wonders there, too, especially when it came with a voice that people tended to listen to.  She shouted, people responded.  But in the early days they’d let her play around with the big guns.  Well before there were guns as big as these, of course, but she knows the Normandy and her upgrades well enough to do the job.

 

Garrus probably could have made the cannons sing and dance a lot better, she can admit.  She spares a thought that maybe it wasn’t such a practical idea to drop him off on the Citadel first; that they maybe should have finished out these missions together, scheduling be damned, even though there was no way she could have known how complicated they’d be.  It’s not like she had much reason to assume they’d be simple, either.  She focuses on the numbers, hoping to high hell that they’re actually accomplishing something here and not just shooting pointlessly at impenetrable barriers until they run out of steam, and that’s when the room explodes.

 

Oh shit, Shepard thinks as something horrifying and bright red and familiar cuts through the systems in front of her, slicing like a screaming, razor-hot knife, the console in front of her exploding in complaint.  It’s a mere half-second’s prelude to the battery itself giving off a horrendous, terrifying screech, and she barely has the presence of mind to fling herself backwards before the explosion crashes into her, and makes the action completely redundant.  Her suit’s shields scream a warning at her, and then collapse in a shower of blue sparks.  The battery’s emergency seals kick in, and the door locks down as she smashes into it, the godawful sensation of her hard suit melting in places, an inferno against her skin, and she knows this feeling, she’s been here before and she never, ever wanted to be here again.  The Normandy’s hull splits like an opened can.  The room depressurizes, and her suit’s seals hiss where they’ve been broken, dragging her into another horrible memory.

 

She clutches the railing nearest to the door, literally for dear life, and watches helplessly as the laser slowly moves right.  Towards the AI Core.

 

EDI.

 

She wants to scream.  No, no, no, no, no.  But before she can manage it, the beam cuts out.  It’s almost surreal; one moment, it's tearing everything apart.  The next, it's silent.  There’s a burnt cylinder full of stars straight through the ship, a tear that eats up the space where the battery used to be, and alarms are blaring everywhere.  The damage goes down into engineering, and she has the ridiculous urge to call out and ask if everyone’s alright down there.  If the engine core went – maybe even if it didn’t – there’s a good chance Adams, Ken, and Gabby are all gone.

 

Instead she holds on while her suit seals hiss, and stares back at the door behind her.  She blinks.  It probably won’t be long before she suffocates – again – she detachedly realizes, and a huge part of the main battery’s console has welded itself to the door next to her.  That’s probably going to make it impossible to open, she realizes, even if they get the crew deck scrambling to do it.

 

Well, she thinks, as if through a long, dark tunnel.  I can’t just hang here and suffocate.  Garrus will never forgive me.

 

It’s difficult, reaching for her omnitool.  Her arms feel stiff and uncooperative, and her suit blares several warnings into her ear as she moves, freeing her iron grip on one corner of the railing long enough to turn on her magboots.  It feels like a small eternity before she gets them to work.  When she finally does, it’s twitchy; only half her suit systems seem to want to play nice, and so she’s forced to half-limp, half-float her way over to the gaping hole that leads down into engineering.  She peers through it.  The beam missed the drive core by a hair’s breadth, and it looks like someone managed to deactivate it in time to avoid any disastrous chain reactions.  That’s a promising sign.  There’s something buzzing in her ear – she thinks her comm implant might be malfunctioning.  It’s annoying, but she ignores it as she crawls through the breach and onto the roof of engineering.

 

No bodies.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.  The door to the drive core is sealed.  She hobbles her way along the roof, adding a strange sense of vertigo to her eerie, shocked detachment, and makes her way over towards it.  Her breaths become shallow and hard to get in as her suit spills it's oxygen out into a trail behind her.  She has to fight the urge to reach back and try to clamp down on her breached seals.  It didn’t do any good last time, she reminds herself, before she gets to the door to engineering.  It doesn’t look damaged, but it’s on emergency lockdown, too.  She tries to open it, but doesn’t actually override the lockdown – the attempt fails, and she doesn’t know if any of her crew is standing on the other side, waiting to get sucked into the void.  But EDI does.  And EDI will notice, provided that the AI Core actually managed to avoid getting incinerated, and she didn’t just imagine that.

 

One second bleeds into two.  She holds her breath, fights the jagged pain and chilling numbness that seems to seep into her limbs at alternating intervals.  Then the door sings open – one of the best sounds she’s heard in her life – and hands are yanking her through, Ken and Gabby and Adams (they’re alive, they’re not incinerated, she almost can’t believe it) all clad in emergency depressurization gear.  They pull her in and seal the door shut behind her again.  She hits the floor, fighting to get her helmet off so she can suck in the recycled air.  Someone undoes the latches for her.  She takes huge, greedy mouthfuls, tasting blood at the back of her throat.  Ken is shouting for a medical team.

 

“Reaper?” she asks, wondering if this is just a momentary reprieve before a second strike.

 

“Done with,” Adams tells her.  “We finished it off with the secondary weapons after it scored a retaliatory hit.  Or at least, that’s the word from the command center.”

 

“Casualties?”

 

“None,” he says, at which point, she whites out to the ringing in her own ears.

 

It’s an unnerving kind of unconsciousness that she sinks into.  The kind that always makes her skin crawl when she remembers it – and she doesn’t like to remember it often.  It’s the kind that reminds her of the blank, empty void which fills the span of her memories after dying in the Collector attack.  The kind that whispers, fearfully, this nothingness is all that waits in death.  No dreams.  No thoughts.  Not even any nightmares.  Just emptiness, until it’s like someone flicks on a switch, and she opens bleary eyes to the med bay’s lights overhead.  There’s a stiff blanket thrown over her.  The strong scent of medigel, wrapped under bandages that seem to constrict every available part of her torso and limbs.  A medicinal aftertaste lingers in her mouth.

 

On a scale of Prothean Beacon to Harbinger Beam, it rates just below Miranda Yelling at Wilson.

 

“Huh,” she says.

 

“Holy crap, Shepard,” someone who sounds suspiciously like Ashley says from beside her.  A few seconds later, someone who looks suspiciously like Ashley peers down at her in concern.  “You’re awake.”

 

Debatable, Shepard tries to reply.  It comes out more like ‘dmmmerg’.

 

The sounds of a patient attempting to speak inevitably summon Dr. Chakwas, of course, so she gets two familiar faces peering down at her as the good doctor runs several scans.

 

“I’d say you’re lucky to be alive, but it’s getting redundant at this point,” Dr. Chakwas tells her.  “You’ve suffered multiple burns and several internal injuries, Commander.  Your implants are restoring some of the damage, but you will require additional treatment that the ship isn’t currently equipped to provide you at the moment.  We’ve made arrangements with a medical facility on Omega.”  She lets out an unhappy sigh.  “Unfortunately, the damage to the ship means we can’t get anywhere else.”

 

For lack of a better response, Shepard manages to curl her fingers in to her palm, and gives a thumb’s up.  Dr. Chakwas snorts.

 

“We’ll be heading down within the hour.  In the meantime, I suggest you rest,” she instructs, before shooting a glance to Ashley, and then taking her leave.

 

There’s a moment of drawn-out silence.  Shepard attempts to count the black spots dancing around the corners of her periphery vision, but since they’re always blinking in and out, that’s easier said than done.  Still alive, she thinks, grateful for that.

 

“…I’m sorry,” Ashley says.

 

She’s not peering down at Shepard anymore, and it’s pretty much impossible to turn her head to look at her, so she just kind of rolls her eyes towards her general direction.

 

“My first time commanding the Normandy, and I get the ship shot to hell and nearly get you killed. I told you I wasn’t cut out for this.”

 

Oh goddammit, Shepard thinks.  Can’t we have this conversation when I can actually talk?

 

“Mmma whuh?” she says.

 

“What the hell were you thinking?  Why didn’t you tell me it was the wrong move?” Ashley demands, her voice coloured more by fear than anger.

 

Shepard lets out a breath, and reaches her right hand out far enough to flail vaguely in her direction.  After a second, she feels a warm grip close over it, stilling it in place.

 

“Wasn’t,” she manages to choke out, intelligibly for a change.  She gives Ashely’s fingers a squeeze.

 

More silence.  Then Ashley squeezes back.

 

“Get better, Skipper,” she says.  “I don’t want to have to tell the whole galaxy that Commander Shepard died on my watch.  My family doesn’t need the extra stigma.”  Carefully, she tucks her hand back onto the bed beside her, resting her own over top for a minute.  Slowly, Shepard starts to feel herself sinking into an easier kind of unconsciousness.

 

“Guess it’s pretty bad to be on this side of the hospital bed, too,” Ashley adds quietly, before she’s gone again.

 

She drifts in and out for a while, then, as they move her down to a hospital that looks slightly more reputable than Mordin’s clinic, even though she suspects it’s probably nowhere near as effective.  She has an entire conversation with one of her doctors, though she doesn’t remember it afterwards.  Later on EDI tells her that he was actually Mordin’s old assistant, Daniel, and that he’d thanked her profusely again for saving him from those batarians and bringing down Cerberus and fighting the Reapers.  Shepard had apparently replied that he seemed like a nice guy, and did he know Mordin saved all the krogan?  To which Daniel replied that he’d heard about something like that, and Shepard said that was good, and that Mordin would probably be proud to know that Daniel was doing so well for himself as a surgeon on Omega.  Which apparently made Daniel cry.  She’s kind of sorry her brain opted to delete those files.

 

Both she and the Normandy are still going through a multitude of repairs when Feron turns up out of the woodwork.

 

Feron is one of the rare few who actually looks better after the war than he did before it.  She wakes up to find him peering down at her with the typical wide, dark drell eyes, and she’s suddenly very glad for his decidedly rainbow-hued skin, because otherwise she might have mistaken him for someone else.  As it stands, she stares up at him until the blurry outline of his face properly resolves, and then sighs.

 

“How’d you get in?” she asks, the itch and fatigue of her body’s recovery process putting more annoyance than amusement into her tone.

 

“Fake access pass and some hiding in plain sight,” Feron replies, raising his omnitool demonstratively.  “I’m glad you’re not dead.  After what happened the last time, I’d hate to have to deliver bad news to Liara.”

 

“You were in the neighbourhood?” she guesses.

 

“Actually, yes,” Feron agrees.  “Though most of the galaxy has heard that the Normandy docked at Omega with a giant hole blown through it by now.”

 

“Shit.”

 

“Was that supposed to be a secret?” he wonders.

 

“No,” she replies, letting out a gusty breath.  “But I haven’t exactly been in any condition to answer my messages.  My… fiancée is going to kill me.”  It’s actually really odd to refer to Garrus that way, she notes.  Like the term implies that there’s a slot waiting for him to fill, but he’s already been in it for a while now, so it doesn’t really fit.

 

“Oh.  Congratulations, I guess,” Feron says.

 

“Thanks.  Tell Liara I’m fine, would you?”

 

He lets out a derisive little half-chuckle.

 

“I think I’ll tell her the truth and keep my job instead.”

 

“Maybe downplay the mortal peril,” she suggests.  “Just say there was a minor incident but everything’s good now and then distract her with something Prothean.  Works like a charm.”

 

“Rest and get better, Commander,” Feron replies, mostly ignoring her comment, though he smiles a little bit.  It makes her realize that that’s the first time she’s seen him do it.  “I’ll try and make sure no one more malicious than I am sneaks in while you’re unconscious.”

 

“Stick around,” Shepard suggests.  “I’m awake and bored anyway.”

 

After a few seconds of hesitation, Feron falls into the chair next to her bed.  They talk a little – mostly about Liara, some about Feron and then a tiny bit about Garrus – and she spares a moment to wonder if that whole ‘the universe is endless cycles’ thing really does extend beyond the Reapers genocidal routine.  Garrus goes back to C-Sec, the Normandy gets attacked, she dies or nearly dies.  Talking to a drell in a hospital.  Liara looking for her, Ashley standing at her bedside after Shepard’s stood at hers.  Does it ever apply to cheerful things?  Or is happiness anomalous to inevitability?

 

Doesn’t matter, she decides after a while.

 

Eventually she falls asleep again, and Feron’s disappeared the next time she wakes.  As soon as she can move around without tearing anything open, Dr. Chakwas gets her back aboard the Normandy; and as soon as she can limp around on her own two feet, she limps over to a console and starts checking her messages.

 

The backlog is kind of staggering.

 

It quickly becomes apparent that, yes, most everyone heard about the attack on the Normandy, and that their first instinct was to send her a message.  And then send her more messages when she didn’t answer the first message.  And then keep sending messages.

 

“EDI,” she asks the room around her, staring at the ever-shrinking scroll bar under ‘unread messages’.  “Did you tell anyone I was alive?”

 

There is a brief, embarrassed silence.

 

“I have been preoccupied with repairing ship’s systems and reassuring Jeff that my processes were not damaged during the assault.  I may have neglected to assess the content of the transmissions we received,” she admits.

 

“Great,” Shepard sighs.

 

After one reluctantly daunting moment, she starts sorting through them.  At first she’s got a notification from Miranda, letting her know the other woman and her team have arrived safely on Ilos.  She’d gotten what essentially amounts to an ‘I owe you one for getting my idiot student out of prison’ from Jack, a standard update from Tali, and a joke about prison breaks from Garrus.  She can pinpoint the exact moment when the news started spreading by the way all holy hell floods her inbox.  Hackett wants to know her status, and she entertains the optimistic idea that Ashley might have clarified things for everyone – a quick call confirms that she updated the admiral and the Council, but has been running around trying to secure the parts they need and didn’t bother with anyone else.  Dammit.  The messages from Miranda turn worried instead of annoyed.  There are a few short inquiries from Liara, followed by an absence that implies she started using her contacts when she didn’t get a response.  Tali asks if she’s alright, then threatens to kill her if she’s died.  Wrex wants to hear back from her, even though he’s apparently confident that she’s alive.  Grunt tells her she better not be dead, and then, oddly, writes again to tell her about the awesome fight he got into with a thresher maw.  Jack also adopts the ‘threatening to kill Shepard if she’s gone and gotten her stupid ass killed again’ attitude.  Kasumi would like to know if she needs to console the widow Vakarian.  Zaeed sends her a single line – “not bloody dead, are you?” – and Brynn asks her to let them know if she’s alright, because they’ve heard some concerning things.  Jacob also writes, apparently to let her know how annoying it would be if she died now because then he would never talk Brynn out of naming their kid Shepard, and while that’s shaping up to be a pretty popular name, he really doesn’t want to spend any more of his life shouting it down hallways.

 

And Garrus writes.

 

Keeping busy?

-G

 

How’s Omega?  I know Cerberus didn’t exactly leave it better than they found it.  Which is almost impressive.

-G

 

I’ve heard some rumours about the Normandy taking damage.  Are you alright?

-G

 

You’re not alright. You’d have answered by now if you were.

-G

 

EDI’s not responding to my messages.  No one can tell me anything.

-G

 

Liara says you’re in a hospital on Omega.  How bad is it?

-G

 

I’m on my way.

-G

 

She scrambles to type in a response.

 

I’m alright.

-S

 

For several long minutes she waits for a response.  Just when she assumes that she’s missed him, or caught him at the wrong time, a reply flashes up.

 

Dammit, Shepard.  You just scared a couple decades off my life.

-G

 

She slumps a little over the console, then, and Traynor makes concerned faces at her.

 

“Perhaps you should go lie back down,” she suggests.

 

“Give me a minute,” Shepard replies, even as she sees the technical expert attempts to subtly call Dr. Chakwas.

 

I’m sorry.  We had to do a lot of repairs.  I didn’t even know word had gotten out until a little while ago.

-S

 

How bad is it?

-G

 

Main power battery’s gone.  Engineering took a hit, but the drive core’s salvageable.

-S

 

I was talking about you, not the damn ship.

-G

 

She looks down at herself.

 

I’ve got some new scars.

-S

 

When there’s no reply for a few seconds, she adds a question of her own.

 

Are you still on the Citadel?

-S

 

“Commander,” Traynor says insistently.  “You look like you’re about to fall over.”

 

“In a minute,” Shepard distractedly replies.

 

Booking passage is tricky these days, so yeah, I’m still here.

-G

 

Mission’s done now.  I’ll be there soon.

-S

 

Good.

-G

 

Ashley turns up, then, apparently summoned by the power of Traynor’s harried expression of ‘I’m not qualified to deal with this’, and drags her back to the elevator and down to the med bay.

 

“I have to let everyone know I’m alive,” Shepard objects.

 

“EDI can give me your list of contacts and I’ll do it,” Ashley replies.

 

“That won’t work.  If you do that then they’ll think I’m seriously injured.”  She leans a little more heavily against Ashley’s shoulder than she’d like to as the elevator lets back out onto the crew deck.  As soon as they come around turn, she can see the repair teams working at what her brain still insists is Garrus’ station.

 

“You are seriously injured,” Ashley points out.  “A huge chunk of the ship exploded in your face.”

 

“I’m alright now.  I just need to take it easy for a while,” she insists.

 

They make their way through the med bay doors as she says that, and Dr. Chakwas gives her a black look.  Admittedly, she’s too tired to put up much of an argument about it, her limbs loudly protesting every strain, and her skin still objecting to having her hard suit melted into it.  She slumps onto the closest bed, and lets the doctor scan her over.  This part, she thinks, can definitely go into the great big pile of Things She Absolutely Will Not Miss About Her Job, along with ‘the food’ and ‘all the dying’.  Ashley hovers, which is equal parts amusing, touching, and irritating.  Even Dr. Chakwas has gotten to the point where she just shakes her head and lets it go.  The normal rules for physical recovery do not apply to Commander Shepard – largely because they literally don’t, thanks to Cerberus.

 

“I’m sorry,” Ashley says, after Shepard’s received the usual half-hearted medical reprimands and been told to stay put.

 

Shepard sighs.

 

“You didn’t make the wrong call, Ash,” she says.  “I probably would have done the same thing.  The Reaper scored a lucky hit.  Nobody died, and the damage-”

 

“Yeah, I know,” Ashley interrupts her, shaking her head.  “I mean, I’m pissed that it went down the way it did, and I was angry at myself right after it happened.  When I thought… anyway, maybe we should have waited for back-up, but if it hadn’t hit us, it probably would have hit somebody else.  At least we managed to take it down, and, like you said, nobody died.”

 

She blinks.

 

“So what are you apologizing for?” she asks.

 

Ashley’s quiet for a few seconds.  She’s got her hair down, dressed in standard Alliance fatigues, and Shepard thinks – not for the first time – that she looks very different from the woman who survived the geth assault on Eden Prime.  Less like a typical Alliance soldier.  More like a Spectre, maybe.  The medical cot shifts a little bit as she sits down next to her, surprisingly.  They’ve never exactly had a ‘bestest girlfriends, sit together on beds’ kind of relationship.  Not that she’s going to object to the gesture.

 

“You were right,” Ashley tells her.  “When you said I was mad at you for not being a god.  I mean, obviously I always knew you weren’t.  I guess… part of me wanted to believe the Council was right when they said the Reapers were just Saren’s hoax.”  The words come tumbling out of her all in a rush.  She looks straight ahead, rather than at Shepard, folding her hands into her lap.  “After we took down Saren, I told myself that it didn’t matter if they were right or we were.  Worst case scenario, we do what we can to get ready for the invasion.  Best case scenario, we were still protecting people from the geth, and better safe than sorry, right?”  She laughs, bitterly.  “That was my worst case scenario back then; us actually having to get ready for a bunch of Sovereigns to come knocking on our door.  I figured if it was real, we’d find proof that people couldn’t ignore sooner or later.  And then you died.”

 

Shepard smiles a little ruefully.

 

“I hear that was really inconvenient for a lot of people,” she can’t help but quip.

 

Ashley shoots her a glare, and she bites down on any further interjections.

 

“It was a goddamn nightmare,” she says.  “Everyone scattered.  The Alliance reassigned me.  Suddenly the worst case scenario wasn’t just us having to find a way to deal with the Reapers on our own, it was nobody doing it.  I convinced myself that it wasn’t true, because the thought of anything else was driving me insane.  When Cerberus brought you back?”  She shakes her head.  “I told myself that I couldn’t know it was really you.  That they must have just made some Shepard-like clone or something.  I wanted to believe that Cerberus was behind the colony attacks, so I did.  It was the neat, tidy explanation for everything, even if it didn’t make any damn sense.  Bahak?  The Shepard I knew never would have killed thousands of batarian colonists.  The Collector base?  That could be a lie, for all we knew.  And then the Reapers came.”

 

She pauses for a minute.  Shepard waits, not sure what to think.

 

“The Reapers came, and it all went to hell,” Ashley declares, with a nod.  “Worse than any worst case scenario I imagined.  I’d spent so long telling myself that it might not really be you, I couldn’t stop.  I’d built up all these things about the ‘real’ Shepard to prove that you weren’t… you.  So then when I finally realized that you were… I don’t know.  Somewhere in all of that I forgot that you’re not just a symbol, Shepard.  You’re a person.  You’re my friend, and you deserve to choose your own life, the same as anyone else.”

 

On balance, Shepard decides after a minute, this is a good feeling.  It’s not quite approval and it’s not exactly forgiveness, but it might be something better.  She reaches over and clasps Ashley on the shoulder.

 

“Thank you,” she says.  “And you’re right, you know.  This whole thing might actually be a terrible idea.”

 

Ashley glances at her hand, and the space for the ring she hadn’t bothered wearing for a few days, because it kept getting caught under her gloves.

 

“Probably is,” she replies with a grin.  “But hey, I’m getting a ship out of it, so it’s not my problem.  You ever change your mind, let me know.  Maybe I’ll let you come back and be my second in command.”

 

“I knew getting promoted again would go to your head,” Shepard sighs, feeling strangely confident in her choice for the first time in a while.  She leans against Ashley’s shoulder, and decides that this moment is going into the big pile of Things She Absolutely Will Miss About Her Job.

 

-

 

By the time the Normandy gets enough repairs done to reach the Sol System again, Shepard feels like she’s written more messages to more people than ever before in her life.  She’s moving around – usually regretting it afterwards – and Miranda is sending her triple-encoded status reports every twelve hours, which is… odd.  A lot of them contain funding and resource estimates which are pretty staggering, but fortunately, Liara is keen on the whole thing, and Ashley’s agreed to help out where applicable.  So it’s not an insurmountable obstacle.  She reassures everyone that she’s still alive, and Wrex sends her pictures of Urdnot Mordin – who is a girl, a bright yellow and red baby girl krogan who couldn’t look less like her namesake if she tried – chewing on things.  Which is apparently what she does right now.

 

It’s, well.  She spends a lot longer than she should probably should just sort of staring at the pictures.  Who knew krogan babies would be so adorable?

 

She takes one last walk around the ship before she leaves.  It’s not really the quiet, empty, reflective experience that she was aiming for.  There are people arranging for better repairs, trying to figure out if the logistics are better for staying at the Citadel or making the hop over to Earth.  Engineering and the forward battery are still pretty much trashed.  Gabby comes to her with a list of materials they need before Shepard reminds her that she should probably take it to Ashley, instead, which seems to bring down the mood in engineering several notches.

 

“Won’t be the same being on the Normandy without you, Commander,” she says.

 

“Captain Williams plays a mean game of poker,” Shepard warns, which must translate well enough, because Gabby salutes her.

 

There isn’t a lot of time to stand at Tali’s usual post, and Jack’s old spot is filled with crew working on repairs.  Both cargo bays are packed as well.  She stops by to say her farewells to Dr. Chakwas, who produces a bottle of brandy from the woodworks.

 

“For the road,” she says.

 

She goes and stands in the AI Core, EDI’s systems humming softly around her. 

 

And he asked him, what is your name?  And he answered, saying: my name is Legion, for we are many.

 

“You and Legion changed… everything,” she finds herself confessing aloud.  “I hated the geth and all synthetic life.  Until the two of you came along, I never even realized I was prejudiced.  Judging an entire group by its worst examples.”

 

“You were basing your assessment on past experiences,” EDI replies.  “When new data presented itself, you adjusted your conclusions.  I have formulated the opinion that the measure of a person’s character is not in their mistakes, but in how they correct them.  I believe Legion shared this opinion.”

 

“Thanks, EDI.”

 

“You are more than welcome, Shepard.”

 

She leaves the AI Core, then.  Skips Liara’s office, formerly Miranda’s, currently Ashley’s and destined to be someone else’s, with only a glance towards the door.  She wonders who will make use of it next.  Then she stops in Life Support.  Darker, quieter, emptier than it had been when Thane made use of it.  She breathes in the dry, filtered air, and wonders if this isn’t maybe some form of self-torture instead of a goodbye.  But then she looks towards the desk, and remembers.  Long conversations. 

 

The measure of an individual can be difficult to discern by actions alone.

 

She turns, and heads for the lounge.  The observation deck.

 

I will fight and struggle all my life, that is my fate.

 

I’d trade in every weapon in my possession for just one more mission with that shitty old rifle.

 

Not often you find something good in a galaxy like this.

 

Have ruled out the possibility of an artificially intelligent virus.  Unless it's *very* intelligent.  And toying with me.

 

She smiles to herself, and when she gets to the cockpit, and Joker stands to see her off, she hugs him.  Carefully.

 

“Look after Ash,” she says, smiling broader at the way he freezes up in shock.  When she lets him go, he’s gaping at her.  After a few long, long seconds, he closes his mouth, and clears his throat.

 

“That was weird,” he tells her.

 

“I know.  Keep in touch and don’t get blown up.”

 

“Yeah, okay.  And if you and Garrus have any weird hybrid babies, I call dibs on godfather.  Wrex can’t have it, he won’t appreciate it anyway.”

 

“Joker, I promise, as soon as we break every last one of nature’s laws and defy all genetic probability, you’ll be the first to know,” she replies. 

 

He looks like he’s going to laugh for a second, but he swallows hard instead, and pulls down at the rim of his cap.

 

“I never thought we’d live long enough for you to retire,” he admits.  “It’s gonna suck now that EDI and I have the weirdest cross-species relationship onboard.”

 

“You and EDI always had the weirdest cross-species relationship onboard,” she insists.

 

“A dextro-amino acid based alien vigilante and an undead human cyborg.”

 

“A put-together, incredibly intelligent, deadly, beautiful woman, and you.”

 

He laughs.  It feels like the last thing she needs to onboard do is done now, somehow.

 

So she says goodbye, goes up and grabs her things, gives ‘the loft’ one last look around.  There’s a dead fish floating at the top of the tank.  She winces a bit as she slings her bag over her shoulder, and heads down to the docking bay and customs.

 

Garrus is waiting for her.

 

He’s dressed in C-Sec armour.  The heavier model that he started favouring sometime after she died, so he looks fairly distanced from the detective she recruited in Doctor Michelle’s clinic years ago.  But it’s still a little strange to see him in uniform again.  He looks good, fine, as healthy as can be expected and a sight for sore eyes, but it seems like she always feels that way whenever they’re reunited.  It’s easy to pick him out of the crowd.  His mandibles twitch apprehensively as he looks her over, and she tries to move normally as she walks towards him.  He meets her halfway.

 

“I thought we agreed you weren’t going to run into any more Reaper beams as long as I didn’t catch any more rockets with my face,” he says, the lightness of his tone betrayed by his expression.

 

“Sorry.  I figured one more round for old time’s sake wouldn’t hurt,” she says.  “I was wrong, by the way.  Hurt like hell.”

 

They close the distance between them, and he leans down and presses a kiss to the corner of her mouth.  She takes his hands in hers, fitting five digits against three, and lets out a long breath.  Her bag tumbles a little haphazardly to the ground by her feet.  For a solid minute they simply regard one another.  A trickle of unease runs down her spine as she realizes that this is it, and she’s still not really sure, in the grand scheme of things, how to proceed from here.  But it’s only a trickle.  She leans back down to pick her bag up again, and only voices a cursory objection when Garrus takes it from her.

 

“I’ll carry it.  I’m not the one who’s limping,” he says.

 

“I’m not really limping,” she replies.  “I’m just walking very carefully.”  She reaches over and loops her arm through his, and if she leans on him a little bit more than she ordinarily would, neither one of them feel compelled to point it out.  They make their way through customs, past blue clad C-Sec officers who are doing their damndest to stare without looking like they’re staring, and the bustle of repair teams and workers going about their business.

 

“So.  Did you find a place with a big enough display case?” she asks.

 

Garrus’ mandibles flex briefly in the turian approximation of a smile.

 

“I did.  It’s no luxury apartment, but I think we’ll be able to squeeze in.”

 

She looks over at him, the familiar lines of his profile, the familiar scent and weight of his arm, and at the bustle of the Citadel repairing itself for a second time around them, rebuilding again with a tenacity that almost beggars belief.  The place where they met.  She thinks it’s strange, how it’s been broken almost as many times as they have, invaded, seized, decimated, dragged across the galaxy, used as a weapon and a sanctuary and a symbol of ignorance and a symbol of hope.

 

Giving in to temptation, Shepard leans up and presses another kiss to Garrus’ scarred mandible.

 

“I’m sure it’s perfect,” she tells him.

 

He clears his throat.

 

“Well.  If it isn’t, we can always find someplace else,” he replies.

 

“If you’re there, Garrus, it’ll be perfect,” she insists.

 

“Trying to make me blush again?”

 

“One day it’ll work.”

 

“I guess you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try,” he tells her, ducking his head in a gesture she thinks is just as good as blushing anyway.

 

She smiles, and bit by bit her lingering doubts begin to trickle away, dusted off her shoulders by the sound of his voice, the warm weight of his arm.

 

“You sure about this?” Garrus asks, once she’s begrudgingly let him help her into a rental shuttle.  “The Normandy’s still in dock if you’ve changed your mind.”

 

“There’s a lot of stuff I’m not sure about, Garrus,” she admits, sinking against her seat, letting her doubt and exhaustion show in a way she never would around anyone else.  “But sticking with you is never going to be one of those things.”  Her hands shift, and she finds herself twisting the band around her ring finger, lost in memories of a frustrated turian arguing with his superior outside of the Council Chambers, her own heart hammering in her chest because her mind was still consumed with strange visions from a beacon, and the destruction of Eden Prime, and the possibility of becoming the first human Spectre.

 

“I can live with that,” Garrus tells her.

 

It’s not quite riding off into the sunset, after that.  There’s no sunset, for one thing, and the wrecked station around them promises them more hard work than happily ever after.

 

But as far as new chapters go, Shepard figures it’s about as promising a start as anyone in their screwed up, broken down, beautiful galaxy can ask for.