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Flint and Steel

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2172

The sky over Oma Ker was the greyest Jane Shepard had ever seen the day she began her first military assignment outside of bootcamp. The looming threat of rain hung overhead, the chill air causing her skin to break out in goosebumps with each gust of wind that rolled over her. She had seen colder days, certainly, but they were few and far between and if she was shivering against the breeze, she knew the turians stood in a row on either side of her were absolutely freezing. It was a small bit of solace: one area where her biology won out over the apex predators that surrounded her.

Big fucking deal, Jane; you can handle a little cold .

It sure as hell wouldn’t guarantee her success in this unit. She had worked her ass off in boot camp to get this placement and now she stood lined up with nine turians in front of her commanding officer with her heart in her throat, struggling to hide any sign of emotion that would betray her anxiety and apprehension.

Muscles tense and fists clenched so tightly her nails dug into the flesh of her palm, she stood taut at attention while the commander observed them with hawkish eyes. His mandibles were pinched tightly against the sides of his face, hands behind his back, pacing along the line of them wordlessly.

Commander Aetius was as stern a turian as Shepard had ever seen; the way he held himself and the sharp concise manner in which he spoke demonstrated that his rank had been well-earned. Thus far, his only words had been tersely given commands: exit the shuttle, leave your effects, line up at the center of the barracks.

Shepard would have preferred barking orders over the tense silence that reigned now. The turians beside her were as still as stone, and indeed they could have passed for statues to a human less familiar with their kind. She avoided turning her head to observe the other recruits, lest the commander catch the movement, but mingling with her anxiety was a desperate desire to glance to the end of the line.

Aetius had ordered an alphabetical line-up, which left several turians between Shepard and her only companion in this great unknown: Garrus Vakarian.

There was no doubt in her mind that Garrus wasn’t nearly as nervous as she was. Even if he hadn’t always been a cocksure idealistic idiot, he was exceedingly talented for someone his age, and biology wasn’t standing in his way. It wasn’t that he hadn’t earned his place in this unit, but the amount of effort he’d had to put in was considerably lower than what Shepard had done. Still, despite the fact that he would never fully understand her unique struggles, he could always placate her sense of self-doubt - if only a little - with a few reassuring words.

After several seconds of pacing in front of them, commander Aetius came to a halt and finally spoke.

“You’re all standing here because your commanding officers in bootcamp believed you were the best of the best. You’ve all demonstrated physical and tactical prowess in your simulations: prowess that suggests you’re well suited to ground combat in a variety of hostile environments.” He paused and Shepard was certain his eyes lingered on her longer than anyone else as he scanned the group again. “Let me make this perfectly clear: you are not in bootcamp any longer. You may have been the best Oma Ker had to offer amongst a hundred other cowl-clinging recruits, but here you’re on an even playing field. Every single one of you will have to put in real effort to succeed here. Resting on your laurels will see you discharged or dead. That is a fact.”

He fell silent again, giving a moment to let his words sink in. Shepard knew plenty of turians who got by on luck and connections and she had no doubt some of them were standing in line with her that day. If she was confident about only one thing, it was that she deserved to be there: it was written in the hard edges of her body, in the defined muscles flexed with held tension, in the myriad scars denoting every negative encounter she’d ever had with a turian.

Fuck the commander if he thought otherwise. Fuck anyone if they thought otherwise.

Defensiveness may have not been the best strategy to take day one into training, but it had been a necessary survival tactic living amongst massive aliens designed to hunt and kill and it had served her well for most of her life.

A roll of thunder sounded overhead. Commander Aetius glanced up before returning his gaze to the group.

“Starting tomorrow you will begin an intensive ten-week training regimen. It will proceed as follows: every morning you will be awake and at the center of the barracks at 0400 sharp. There will be a five mile run into the surrounding mountains, through the valley, and back to the barracks. You will be alloted fifteen minutes shower time and twenty minutes for breakfast. Daily training sessions following breakfast will vary from day to day but will typically involve hand to hand combat, arms training, engineering lessons, and combat simulations. There will be one thirty minute break for lunch during these training sessions, followed by an obstacle course which is altered daily. You will be alloted seven hours for sleep and begin the same routine the next day. Is that clear?”

“Sir,” they all replied in unison, bowing their heads in deferment.

“Following the conclusion of this ten-week training regimen,” Aetius continued, “you will immediately begin ground missions. I will stress very clearly that these are real missions with real consequences. You will be expected to take lives, you may have to sacrifice innocent civilians to get the job done, you will be putting your life at risk. This is a concept some recruits fresh out of boot camp have a difficult time grasping. Do you understand me?”

“Sir.”

“You will speak when spoken to. You will ask questions only when given permission. If you question orders you will be reprimanded. Questioning a direct order on the field is an excellent way to wind up dead. Obedience on the field breeds cohesion.”

Shepard didn’t have a problem taking orders, but she considered the stubborn streak Garrus had presented their entire lives: the constant confrontations and arguments with his father, the reprimands he had received time and time again from their superiors in bootcamp. It was a true testament to his skill that, despite all that, he had still been recommended for this unit. He would have to rein in his obstinance if he wanted to get by.

“Training occurs regardless of weather and complaints will earn you extra work,” the commander explained. “You will be alloted the rest of today to settle into your bunks, get to know each other, and explore the barracks. You are all expected to be here in front of me tomorrow at 0400. Now,” he looked them over once more, “are there any questions?”

A hand shot up immediately, three turians up the line to Shepard’s left. She risked a glance; he was a lithe, wiry thing who held himself with a haughty air. His colony markings were the familiar red streaks of Oma Ker.

“State your name, recruit.”

“Nilkus Dentillion, sir.”

“State your question, Private Dentillion.”

“Sir, I’d like to know what a human is doing in this unit.” He said the word ‘human’ like it left a foul taste in his mouth, allowing himself a disgusted glance at Shepard before returning his attention to the commander.

She had been expecting as much and tried not to let the words sting too much. She’d heard the same tired questions laced with the same sheen of disgust her entire life. The entire shuttle ride from the pickup point to the barracks had been spent in a stony silence while eight pairs of eyes trained on her with a look of curiosity and revulsion. Only Garrus was pleased to have her in the shuttle.

The commander’s eyes flitted to Shepard and then back to Nilkus. “Private Shepard was recommended by all ten of her superiors in bootcamp in Sarlik. It’s my understanding that she is the only member of the Sarlik twenty to receive recommendations for an elite unit. I take the recommendations of commanding officers very seriously when considering our pool of recruits.”

“Is she even allowed to be here? I mean, it’s not like she’s a part of the Hierarchy.” Another turian spoke up: a woman at the front of the line, also bearing the colony markings of Oma Ker, her frame bulky and well-toned.

“State your name, private,” the commander barked.

“Renia Anulis, sir.”

“Private Anulis, I will not spend the day fielding questions about Private Shepard,” the commander snapped. “This is not a session for gossip and accusations. Under Hierarchy law, Private Shepard has completed bootcamp and is now a formal citizen of the Hierarchy. You all have extranet access on your omni-tools if you’d prefer concrete evidence. If you have a problem with the presence of a human, I suggest you keep it to yourself because I will consider any further statements or questions about Private Shepard to be complaints, which will earn you extra training duties. Now . Are there any other questions?”

His refusal to delve into the subject of her presence amongst the turians should have been a relief, but there was simply no winning in this situation. If he had agreed with the recruits, it would have made her life hell knowing her own commanding officer didn’t want her there. Rebuffing their complaints was no better, though, because they would undoubtedly think she was going to receive special treatment for being less biologically inclined to success than the rest of them. And of course, there was always the possibility that Aetius didn’t think she belonged either, but was answering in an appropriately diplomatic manner as any turian in his position would.

At least she knew Garrus didn’t hate her.

No more hands went up for questioning. Another clap of thunder rumbled across the barracks as they stood waiting for dismissal.

“You’ll find your effects in the sleeping quarters. You have the rest of the day for personal time. Dinner will be served at seven PM promptly. I’ll see you all tomorrow at 0400. On the dot. Dismissed!”

They all saluted and bowed their heads, then the commander left them, crossing the barracks to a small cabin that housed his office and sleeping quarters.

As soon as he was gone, the tidy line of turians dispersed, making for the cabin housing their sleeping quarters on the opposite end of the barracks. As Nilkus passed Shepard, he slammed into her with his side, nearly knocking her to the ground.

“Oh, sorry, human .”

A few of the others laughed and pushed past her as well.

Phenomenal fucking start. Still, nothing she hadn’t dealt with time and time again during school and then bootcamp.

Garrus was quick to her side when he saw what Nilkus had done, but she shooed him away before he could begin fussing over her as he always did when she was hurt. He knew she could defend herself and she knew he only acted out of a sense of genuine concern, but the last thing she needed with eight turians doubting her worth was for all of them to think Garrus was carrying her weight.

“You have to lay off on the concern, okay?” She whispered.

“Excuse me for caring.” A roll of the eyes as he crossed his arms tight against his chest. “That guy is a real piece of work. They’ll all learn when they see you in action. Tell me if they give you trouble.”

“And what? You’ll beat them up for me? And then everyone will know I need Garrus Vakarian to fight my battles for me?”

“You know, it’s okay to need help sometimes.”

“Maybe it’s okay for you. I’m not allowed. One slip-up, one sign of weakness and they’ll devour me whole, Garrus. This is bootcamp on steroids, all right? It was fine with Balia and Tensen because they couldn’t pull their own weight and I could kick their asses blindfolded. But we’re in a new league here. I might be able to take that asshole in a fair fight, but only if he was alone and only if it was a fair fight.”

Garrus flicked his mandibles and flared his nostrils. “I’m sorry. I know it’s harder for you.” He let out a soft sigh and squeezed her shoulder before she shrugged his hand away. “Just don’t push yourself so hard that you break. And if it comes down to a fight, you know I’ve got your back.”

“I know.” Her face softened, the corners of her mouth twitching into a smile. “You’ve always got my six.”

“Always.” He agreed.

“I’m just going to do my best and hope it’s enough. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t just as good as them. It probably scares them.”

“Probably.”

They lagged behind the rest of the group in the march toward the sleeping quarters. It was a small barracks for a supposedly elite unite: sleeping quarters, a mess hall, the commander’s cabin, and a rec hall for indoor training. The rest of the surrounding area was mountains to one side, and boggy valleys dense with overgrowth on the remaining sides. It was further north on Oma Ker than Shepard had ever been, and she guessed that the chill in the air might never thaw; it was certainly not the temperate climate of Sarlik.

“This place is freezing,” Garrus commented; not the first time he had voiced exactly what Shepard was thinking in their long and storied friendship.

“It could be worse.”

He pressed a finger against her arm. “You can lie, but your skin is prickling.”

“Yeah, well I can’t control that. Doesn’t mean I think it’s unbearable.”

“I hope it’s at least warm in the cabin.”

It was, in fact, not warm in the cabin. It was a poorly insulated prefab unit identical to most of the other buildings in the barracks, which only meant the rest of their time indoors would be spent in equally drafty ice boxes. The bedding inspired little hope: a single coarse woolen blanket tucked tidily into the corners of a stiff mattress with one limp downy pillow was all the quarters provided to them.

There were ten beds stacked amongst five bunks and by the time Garrus and Shepard entered the cabin, all of the bottom bunks had been taken, leaving two top bunks on opposite ends of the room, not that the tight quarters would have allowed for any after-hours chatting regardless of proximity; it was still disheartening to Shepard to be forced away from the only comfort she had at the moment.

On the bright side, the rude woman who’d spoken up early was not the occupant of the bottom bunk in the bed Shepard was forced to take. Instead, she found a bright-eyed woman with the white colony markings of Cipritine seated on the bed below hers. The woman even had the decency to flick her mandibles into a smile at Shepard’s approach, which should have calmed her nerves, but only made her more apprehensive. As a general rule, she refused to trust anyone until they had demonstrated fully and entirely that they deserved her trust.

“I’m Licinia,” the woman offered a hand. “Looks like we’re bunkmates.” Another brief, if not nervous, smile.

“Shepard.” Her reply was terse as she pulled her effects from the floor and dropped them on top of her bed.

“Do you always go by your surname?” Licinia cocked her head.

“Yes.”

Turian custom was to address strangers by surname, unless that stranger was your equal in age or rank, or you were in the company of friends or family: a social formality. But Shepard prefered to be addressed by her surname. She could count on one hand the number of people who regularly referred to her as Jane: primarily, her mother, her father, and Garrus’ father. Occasionally, usually in the presence of their parents, Garrus’ sister would refer to her by her first name. Garrus reserved the name for when he was particularly irritated with her.

It had begun as a sign of offense. It was polite when addressing elders and superiors to call them by their surname, but it was rude and even disrespectful to do so when talking to someone who should, by social norms, be addressed by their first name. It was a refusal to acknowledge equality or friendship; most of the turians her age had referred to her as Shepard her entire life for this reason.

She refused to let it insult her and instead had urged her friends to do the same; in that way, she made its effect powerless from those who would use it in an attempt to make her feel unwelcome and unwanted. Garrus had been hesitant at first, but it now came so easily that ‘Jane’ sounded almost foreign in his voice.

None of this was worth explaining to Licinia, who seemed nice enough.

“It’s unusual, considering our customs and…” Licinia began to explain.

“I grew up in Sarlik. I’m aware of customs. I’d prefer if you called me Shepard, if it’s just the same. Nothing against you, Licinia. It’s a personal preference.”

“Sure. To each her own.” Licinia shrugged.

For a moment both women were silent while they unpacked their belongings into small grey foot lockers at the base of the bed.

Typically, the Hierarchy provided armor for every new recruit, but those who could afford more than the standard-issue protection typically bought custom-fitted hardsuits that could be upgraded through wear and tear. Shepard’s father had purchased her hardsuit for her before bootcamp and taught her how to patch and repair it. The standard issue armor, being fitted for a turian, didn’t come anywhere close to fitting Shepard’s comparably smaller frame, so she took that much extra care with the suit that had been gifted to her. While some of the new recruits around her tossed their armor carelessly into their foot lockers, Shepard placed each piece gingerly within, making sure all were accounted for before piling her tightly rolled clothing and under armor next to it.

“It might not mean much, but...I don’t mind you being here.” Licinia broke the silence. “I’ve heard about the Sarlik twenty. I mean, who hasn’t? If you’re here it’s because you deserve to be. That’s what I think.”

Shepard’s immediate reaction was to clam up and not respond. She approached compliments with skepticism: half of the praise she’d received throughout her life had been laced with sarcasm and the other half had been genuine commendations from superiors that had subsequently been met with vitriol by her peers.

She managed a quiet, “Thanks.” It was probably more abrupt than she meant it to sound.

“People like Nilkus and Renia, they come from old-fashioned families with old-fashioned thinking,” Licinia explained. “They forget the stories from our ancestors of how the asari treated us when we first joined galactic society.”

Shepard thought, perhaps too bitterly, that there were plenty of supposedly ‘forward-thinking’ turians who treated her poorly. Turians who would have had a civil conversation with a human in any other situation found her presence as part of the Hierarchy offensive; co-existing with humans was one thing, but competing with them as a social equal was something else entirely.

Again, it wasn’t worth explaining as much to Licinia. It was rare enough for a turian to be so kind to her up front, she wouldn’t squander that with lectures on the complexities of her role in turian society.

“It’s nice to meet someone who doesn’t hate me on principle,” Shepard said. After a moment’s pause, she added, “I’m sorry in advance if I’m a little...defensive. It’s just a coping mechanism.”

Licinia’s mandibles flicked into a smile, less hesitant this time, “It’s okay. I like to think I’m a pretty patient person.”

Shepard had the decency to feel at least a little bit bad that she was hoping the conversation would end there. Nice was preferable to confrontational, but she also wasn’t sure what to do with ‘nice’. She could count her close friends on one hand and she had known all of them for more than ten years. Most new encounters were cordial at best and she felt uncomfortable and uncertain trying to carry on an amiable conversation.

Garrus would have chided her for being so awkward and defensive.

Mercifully though, Licinia seemed to pick up on her discomfort, because she quietly went about unpacking the rest of her belongings next to Shepard. It was the first time she had experienced a comfortable silence with someone besides Garrus in a very long time and she hoped Licinia recognized it for as much as well.

Spirits knew she could use friends when the shit inevitably hit the fan.

Chapter Text

2157

Hannah Shepard had spent enough time stationed on various colony worlds with the Alliance navy to know that most worlds in the habitable zone of a star looked remarkably similar; it was a type of familiarity that was unsettling in its foreignness. After all, grass still looked as green, earth still felt as solid whether it was actual Earth or another rotating rock millions of lightyears away. She quickly found the same was true of the turian colony world of Oma Ker.

When the turians descended upon Alliance vessels first teeming through the Charon Relay, it had been every worst imagining of first contact with a sentient alien race brought to life. After thousands of years of wondering, ‘are we alone in the universe?’, humans had been answered not with a cordial brokering of peace, but with guns and warships. Hannah had listened to the news from her post on Shanxi, then she had lived it when the turians brought the fight to them.

Somehow, it had ended nearly as quickly as it started, and while humanity was already slapping the moniker of ‘war’ onto the incident, even Hannah had to admit it was simply a few months of tense standoff, a few unnecessary deaths, and nothing more. The turians would have let it drag on far longer, but intervention had come in the form of other sapient races.

Humans were not alone. In fact, it seemed they were the last to the party. A dozen other races already coexisted semi-peacefully, with diplomats and political councils and a capital in the form of a space station unlike anything humanity had ever laid eyes on. It was jarring and difficult to come to terms with the fact that most of these aliens had coexisted for longer than humanity had been exploring the skies.

It would have been enough if the galactic council had reined in the turians, had them pay their reparations, and left the whole matter settled. Reparations were what humanity deserved for turians responding to the galactic equivalent of a speeding fine with guns blazing. Innocent civilians had lost their lives on Shanxi because of the bull-headed, monstrous aliens and even still they were fighting the charges leveled on them by the council.

The “terms of peace”, as the council referred to them, would be brokered by the heads of both the human and turian militaries as a means of placating both races, as though humans were in the wrong for breaking a law they were completely ignorant of. A lot of the political ramifications flew over Hannah’s head, but she knew unfair when she saw it. She may not have been privy to all of the details, but she’d heard enough from higher ups to be concerned.

Now, standing on such foreign yet familiar ground in a sunny field on Oma Ker, she knew for certain her concern had been well placed.

They had chosen her because of Jane, regardless of what they might have said. She was the only officer stationed on Shanxi with a young child and, regardless of the elaborate wording of the peace terms, what they had agreed to was a science experiment.

The leaders of both militaries, and the council as well, claimed it was a gesture of goodwill: a way to improve diplomatic relations between two species who’d had a tumultuous start to political affairs. The agreement they came to was both simple and stunningly cruel: twenty human families would be positioned to live amongst turians while twenty turian families were sent to Earth to live amongst humans. The council would provide necessary provisions; it was a point Hannah had noted on Shanxi that the turians couldn’t eat the same food as humans, so the same must have held true in the opposite.

It was, of course, no coincidence that all chosen families had children under the age of five. Hannah failed to see the political benefit of stationing twenty military families amongst a group of aliens whose public sentiment toward humans was likely as hateful as that of humans toward the turians. The admirals who had been put in charge of choosing families claimed it would allowed the turians to see that there were more similarities between the two races than differences. Privately, Hannah thought it was a means of assessing nature versus nurture like never before, and in a position that would never be available again.

She was hardly given a choice in the matter. She was expected to go where she was stationed and she had just signed another ten year contract with the Alliance. Still, she didn’t go quietly: she let her superiors know just what she thought of the entire plan. The turians were ruthless, she had seen as much from them on Shanxi. And though she had not been directly involved with negotiations, and had mostly seen the ghastly creatures from afar, she had every reason to be concerned for her safety - and the safety of her daughter - living amongst them.

 In the end, protests didn’t matter. Twenty turian families were shipped off to Earth and twenty human families were shipped off to Oma Ker. The turian homeworld of Palaven - Hannah had been told - had a weak magnetic field that left it bombarded with high levels of radiation. The turians were adapted to this, but humans were almost guaranteed to develop cancer from long term exposure: Oma Ker was chosen as a suitable alternative.

Some of the other families had cried on the journey from Earth: children just old enough to have friends they would sorely miss, fathers and mothers leaving behind everything they knew for their military spouses. Hannah, however, had no one but Jane and Jane in turn was too young to fully understand what was happening. So Hannah had remained stoic through the journey that mass relays had shortened by centuries, had boarded the shuttle that would take them planetside with an emotionless face while Jane clung tightly to her neck, and had watched as the planet that so resembled Earth - and yet whose continents were too foreign to fit that familiarity - came closer and closer into view.

The families stood huddled together as a pleasant breeze swept through the plain, blowing the grass in willowy ripples. The nearby city of Sarlik loomed behind them, where the families would be placed in homes, where they would carry on for at least the next ten years, living amongst aliens who looked every bit the part of apex predators.

In front of the families, an Alliance admiral by the name of Conklin stood waiting for the turians to arrive. One of the families, whose name Hannah had forgotten as soon as she had learned it, had whispered repeatedly throughout the trip regarding their concern that the turians would ambush and kill them upon their arrival.

The aliens were brutal, certainly, but they were also intelligent tacticians. The likelihood of the turians wasting time, money, and energy brokering peace agreements with the humans and the galactic council only to ruin that peace with unjustified murder seemed highly unlikely to Hannah, but she couldn’t speak for what a civilian turian might do. Plenty of humans saw fit to take the law into their own hands, would turians be different?

As they waited, Jane’s head rested heavy on Hannah’s shoulder. Her daughter had slept poorly on the ship and thrown a tantrum shortly before boarding the shuttle; now she was fighting a losing battle against sleep. Hannah preferred that Jane sleep through most of the introductions anyway: if she was sleeping, there was no risk for accidental insult or typical childhood outbursts that she had no control over.

The air was hot and thick standing in the field waiting for the turians to arrive. Admiral Conklin squinted against the sun, his hands held together behind his back, eyes flitting across the horizon for any sign of the turian escort. Hannah shifted Jane on her hip, but she didn’t stir.

Thankfully, they didn’t have long to wait. Only ten minutes had passed, give or take, when a hovering bus came into view at the edge of the field, drawing closer at an incredible speed. Flying vehicles were in their infancy on Earth: something only the rich elite could afford, but it had quickly become evident that they were the standard for the rest of the galaxy; the turians were no exception.

Whispers erupted amongst the families as the bus came to a halt several yards away and lowered itself down to the ground. A door on the side of the vehicle slid open and Hannah sucked her breath in without realizing. She had seen the turians from afar on Shanxi, but never closer than several hundred yards; this was the closest she had ever been to one.

The first turian that stepped out wore a billowing blue silk dress that, like the ground they stood on, was at once familiar and foreign, fitting against sharp peaks and angles unlike anything on the human body. Hannah and the other families had been given brief lessons on the turians, as a means of telling them apart and she recalled that, in general, the women had shorter plating covering their scalps (‘fringes’, that was what they were called), while the men had a sharp crest of horns extending from theirs. The turian in the gown lacked this crest of horns, and her cream-colored facial plates were painted with elaborate silver markings that striped her chin and mandibles.

Hannah’s immediate thought was that the woman was beautiful, but not a soft beauty. Hers was the same beauty as a lioness: powerful, awe-inspiring, not to be taken lightly. She was both terrifying and captivating.

Having only seen the turians in armor, it was startling to see one in such comparably casual attire. There was, of course, no denying the predator disguised beneath the gown. Sharp talons were visible on her exposed hands; on her toes, laced with gladiator sandals; and there was a row of sharp teeth visible on the side of her mouth. She turned to Admiral Conklin - towering nearly a foot taller than the man - and they exchanged words too quiet for Hannah to make out. Admiral Conklin offered his hand and the turian observed it for a moment before shaking it uncertainly. Then she said something else and bowed her head and Admiral Conklin did the same.

Before introductions could begin, a second turian stepped off the bus. This one was male, with rich black facial plates and white painted markings framing his face and streaked across his crest of horns. His attire was less elaborate than the turian woman: a simple navy blue suit with gold stripes down the sides. He spoke to the woman, then to Admiral Conklin, observing the admiral’s offered handshake with the same uncertainty as his fellow turian.

Hannah clutched Jane more tightly, brushing her fingers through her daughter’s vibrant red hair, stuttering across the tiny scar at the base of her skull where her neural implant had been placed. They were universal translators, or so the galactic council claimed, but it was quite a leap of faith to accept a brain implant from a great unknown like these aliens.

“How’s everyone holding up?” Admiral Conklin turned to face the families. They stared back with muted expressions; no one spoke. The Admiral cleared his throat and continued speaking, “I know there will be a lot of questions, but let’s just start with introductions. I’d like you all to meet Zaela Cannesus.” He gestured to the elegant turian woman. “She’s the mayor of Sarlik and has promised full cooperation with the integration process.”

“It’s a pleasure to welcome you all to Oma Ker.” The woman bowed her head. Her voice had a deep, rich, resonating timbre to it, vibrating as if on two separate notes from separate vocal chords, with an accent Hannah’s brain tried desperately to catalog under human accents she’d heard before; of course, it couldn’t because she’d never heard a turian speak with a translator in.

“Here next to Mayor Cannesus is General Septimus Oraka.” Admiral Conklin nodded toward the male turian. “He’s the turian military liaison in charge of the entire integration process. He’ll be able to answer most of your questions and his team will be arranging all the paperwork to make sure your children have access to the same education and training as the turian children.”

General Oraka bowed his head, the mandibles on the sides of his face twitching. Hannah had no clue what to make of the movement of turian mandibles and facial plates; their expressions were so alien that even with a translator she was sure it would take her years to piece apart their body language. For ‘skull-faces’, as the troops had called them on Shanxi, they were surprisingly expressive.

“I hope to answer any and all questions you might have for me,” Oraka said, his voice resonating as the mayor’s had. “I understand these last few months have not been easy on humanity, and the Hierarchy has much to consider in our actions in the Relay 314 incident. I hope that your presence here on Oma Ker can ease concerns for my people and yours, and I would like to do everything possible to make this process as seamless as possible.”

It wasn’t that Hannah doubted the words of the turians as much as she didn’t trust one man to protect twenty families from the misplaced ire of a militaristic society of brutish predators. She trusted the turians roughly as far as she could throw them, and the same could be said for the other aliens she’d seen portrayed in vids as the peace negotiations played out. Humans were new in the galaxy and there was no evidence to suggest the aliens wanted to welcome them with open arms and guide them through the process and culture shock of such a major integration. It went beyond Oma Ker, of course, but Hannah thought she and the other families might have had it worst of all.

“I’ll be traveling with you all to Sarlik City Hall and from there, General Oraka will see each family into their new placements,” Admiral Conklin explained.

With that, they began the process of filing onto the bus one by one. Hannah took the rear, watching the rest of the families eye the turians with suspicion as they boarded.

It was a sizeable vehicle, fitting all twenty families, the admiral, and the turians comfortably. The seats were clearly designed for turians: wider than a typical seat, with a curvature to the top of the seatback likely meant to accommodate the unusual cowls encircling the turians’ necks. Hannah sat down, shifting Jane to her lap, keeping an eye on the turians where they sat at the front of the bus with Admiral Conklin.

As the bus headed toward Sarlik, the admiral and the mayor broke into conversation while General Oraka sat to the side of them, one leg draped over the other in an oddly familiar display. After seeing the aliens’ uncertainty surrounding the human gesture of a handshake, it was almost bizarre to Hannah that an alien built so differently from a human would take the same stance when trying to get comfortable. For some reason, it assuaged some of her anxiety, if just barely.

She hardly realized she was staring at the general until she glanced away from his legs and found his hawkish eyes trained on her. His mandibles flicked briefly away from his face - a gesture for which she had no meaning - before she quickly turned to look out the window instead, mentally chiding herself as warmth crept into her cheeks.

Instead of rudely staring at the aliens, she kept her gaze on the landscape as it passed by below them, turning quickly from grassy plains to paved pedestrian walkways and sleek, futuristic buildings. The city was incredible, Hannah had to admit that much. With its towering spires and bustling skyways, it was a marvel of architecture and innovation, unlike anything back on Earth. If she had to call this place her home, at least it was a stunning view.

“Mama. I’m hungry.” Jane tugged on her shirt.

“I’m not sure when we’ll be able to eat, Bug. As soon as we can, mama will get you something.”

Visibly tired, Jane nodded and rested her head against Hannah’s chest, closing her eyes and letting fatigue win out over hunger. Hannah absently stroked her hair while the bus traveled deeper into the city, until the density of the buildings and people all but blocked out the view of the countryside.

Eventually, the bus came to a halt outside of city hall and the group disembarked. The admiral and the mayor parted ways with them in the lobby, which left General Oraka in charge of twenty human families comprised of more than sixty people. Some of the turians that worked in the building passed by with backwards glances, while others stopped to stare and whisper. Being surrounded by so many turians, the humans huddled together apprehensively, which must have helped Oraka in herding them into the elevators to take them up to the fourth floor where his offices were located.

From his offices, the families were assigned one by one to Oraka’s underlings, who would process their paperwork, see them off to their new homes, and make sure they had all the necessary accommodations. Hannah watched as each family was taken away to a separate office, her heart rate increasing as she waited for her own assignment.

It was real now. This was really it. They were being processed by aliens to live amongst them, effectively prisoners of both the turian and human militaries. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right. So what if she had no one else to miss her? Earth was her home. The Alliance was her family. How could they force her to do this? Why? What would become of Jane forced to live and grow in a society so foreign to the one Hannah had been raised in?

The thoughts raced through her mind and she was so deeply entrenched in them that she barely heard General Oraka until he spoke a second time.

“Lieutenant Shepard?”

Her head snapped up to meet the gaze of the general towering over her, now so close to her that she could see the smooth scales dotting the dusky purple skin of his neck. He held a datapad in his hands and watched her with his head cocked slightly to one side.

“I’m sorry, what?” Hannah asked.

“If you’ll follow me, it looks like I’m your charge.”

She did as he asked, following him through the hallways to a small office with a view of the city outside. The desk Oraka sat behind was much larger and taller than the desks Hannah was used to, certainly built for a turian, with a sleek computer terminal on top of it and little else adorning it. Oraka gestured to the chair in front of his desk and Hannah sat, clutching Jane tightly against her body.

“Why was I assigned to you?” She asked immediately, trying and failing to temper her tone.

“I suppose it was just luck.” Oraka was reading over his datapad and didn’t even glance up as he answered.

“You don’t have subordinates to handle these things?”

“Well, my subordinates are helping the other families. This is my responsibility, it would be foolish and arrogant of me not to be directly involved.” He finally looked up at her, his mandibles twitching. “I realize you’re probably uncomfortable and apprehensive. I’d like to do everything I can to help ease your concerns. What questions do you have for me?”

“Why is a military general overseeing the placement of families? Is this your full time job?”

“No. Until recently I was responsible for coordinating strike teams against Batarian pirates at the edge of the Terminus.” Few of those words meant anything to Hannah, but she could gather the meaning of the statement without knowing what a ‘batarian’ was. “I was just stationed on Oma Ker to train military units at a training camp just outside of Sarlik. I and several other military officials provide education and training prior to deployment. Is that a suitable answer for you, lieutenant?”

Hannah relaxed a little. “Yes.”

“Excellent. I’ve had a look at your file. I understand you were stationed on Shanxi when our military invaded.”

“Yes.”

“What was your role on Shanxi?”

Hannah shrugged. “You have my file, don’t you?”

“Yes, and yet I find you typically learn more from listening to someone’s direct experiences than reading documentation about it,” The general replied, mandibles flicking away from his face in the same gesture he’d made on the bus.

She couldn’t deny he was right, and defensive though she may be, she wasn’t going to be willfully obstinate. She shifted Jane on her lap and launched into detail.

“Initially my unit was stationed on Shanxi to protect civilians. The Alliance had established a colony on the planet and not all of the colonists were military officials; there were families and children. So they stationed my unit as a protective force in the event that local fauna was hostile or…” She tapered off.

“Or in the event that you encountered a hostile alien race.” Oraka finished for her.

“Yes. When the turians - when your people arrived - some of the officers fought on the frontlines, but I was assigned to continued protective duties. I was largely involved with herding families into safe shelters and ensuring food stores were guarded. I didn’t see any direct action with the turians.”

“I see.” Oraka nodded. “And your daughter was with you on this colony?”

“Yes. I worked aboard ships mostly before her. Once she was born they transferred me to colony postings. The Alliance has policies against children on active war vessels.”

“As they should. Well, lieutenant, I have to say your record is impressive. There are several commendations on file from superior officers. The Hierarchy and the Alliance had some ideas in mind in terms of cooperative roles your kind could play here in Sarlik. Considering your record, I can think of several roles you’d be suited to. But we’ll go over those at a later date. Both militaries have agreed the families need time to settle.”

“Where will we be living then?” Hannah asked.

“We’ve set up housing for the families across the city. The house chosen for you is in a small, respectable neighborhood directly across from Stavius Park. I know several families in the area, I believe some of them will be amenable to assisting your integration.”

“Will any of the other families live near me?”

“No. In general, the housing has been spread out to allow maximum exposure of the population to your kind. We do have monthly meetings planned for the families, and the city’s public transit is excellent should you want to visit anyone.”

“What about schooling? How old are turian children when they enter the school system? Are there daycares in place when I start working? What about-”

“Lieutenant Shepard,” Oraka interrupted, “I promise I will answer all of your questions, but I’m afraid it will take more than one day. This is meant to be a process. Each family’s charge will check in on them, first on a daily basis, then weekly, then only at the monthly meetings. During that time, I’ll explain all aspects of our society to you to aid in your integration. And in the meantime, if you have questions or concerns, I’m available via comm link should the need arise. For now, we’ll start by getting you into your new home. How does that sound?”

Hannah took a deep breath. “Yes. Okay. I’m sorry, I’m just-”

“Overwhelmed. It’s understandable.” Oraka pocketed his datapad and rose to his feet.

Hannah wondered if she would ever get over the sensation of feeling dwarfed by these aliens. Standing just over six feet tall, she was used to being the tallest person in the room on most occasions, but most of the turians she’d seen were at least seven feet tall, if not taller. She found herself staring at the general for the second time that day, until his voice disrupted her thoughts and she followed him out the door and back to the elevator.

Oraka led them to a parking garage full of government-issue skycars, one of which they took across the city to what would become Hannah’s new home for at least the next decade. She knew, realistically of course, that by the time her contract was up and she was free to leave Oma Ker, Jane would be a teenager and it would be the only home she’d ever known; it would be quite a task to pull her daughter away from that. The reality was, Hannah may never live anywhere else again.

If she and Jane even survived that long amongst these aliens.

General Oraka said little as the skycar drove itself along the skyway. Hannah kept her gaze focused out the window, watching the bustling city pass by below. Jane slept soundly against her shoulder; she had always slept well in cars.

“What’s her name?” Oraka broke the silence suddenly.

Hannah jerked her head away from the window, “What?”

“Your daughter. What’s her name?”

“Jane.”

“How old is she?”

“Three.”

Oraka cocked his head as he observed the child. “She’s so tiny.”

Hannah wondered how large a turian of the same age might look, considering their size disparity. She stroked Jane’s hair.

“Tiny, but fierce.” She assured the general.

“Undoubtedly. And her father?”

Hannah shook her head. “Not in the picture.”

The turian made a strange, buzzing sound from what she only assumed was his second windpipe, and though she couldn’t be sure of it’s meaning, she thought she understood.

“I do fine on my own,” she said. After moment’s silence, she thought to ask, “Do you have any children?”

“No. I’m afraid I’m bonded to my work. My sister has two young ones, though. I like children, it’s just...never been a priority.”

Children had not been a priority for Hannah either. Her aspirations had been career-driven her entire life. Jane had been an accident, but one she would never have undone now that she had her. An accident, yes, but not a mistake.

“There’s a family two doors down from your new home with a son close to Jane’s age,” Oraka explained. “The Vakarians. They have a daughter that’s a bit older and their son will be three in five or six months. A good family. Of all the people in your new neighborhood, they may be most receptive to you. I believe Castis has been in the process of interviewing humans for positions at C-sec.”

Hannah tried to imagine Jane playing with a young turian, but the thought of their sharp claws and teeth set her on edge.

“What is C-sec?” She asked, feeling frustrated with how little she knew of the galaxy outside of humanity.

“Citadel security; the police force for the Citadel. Castis Vakarian divides his time between Oma Ker and the Citadel. He’s a commander on the force, handles a lot of hiring. He was vocal during the peace negotiations that humans be given an opportunity to serve. I think the Council opted to allow it.” Oraka shrugged. “Far removed from us here on Oma Ker, but still. If he’s willing to let humans into C-Sec, he’ll be friendlier than most at having one living amongst us.”

Hardly reassuring. There might be one family that didn’t want to see Hannah and Jane booted from the colony as soon as possible.

The skycar touched down on a quiet street facing a sprawling, gated park. The homes that lined the street were all similar in design: narrow two-story buildings that reminded Hannah of brownstones back home, but with sleek silver facades in place of brick.

Oraka led them up to the door, which had a touchscreen interface more advanced than anything back on Earth. The general placed his hand on the interface and punched in some numbers, then the door spoke.

“Input new user data.”

Taking a step back, Oraka beckoned Hannah forward. “Place your hand on the interface so it can read your prints. Then choose a passcode. This will be how you get in and out. The door will automatically lock when closed.”

She did as she was asked, marveling at the technology. When she had finished entering her code, the door chirped affirmatively and slid open, revealing the tidy home within.

With high ceilings and wide hallways, the house had clearly been built with turians in mind, but appliances and furniture appeared fitted to human standards. The smell of fresh wood indicated recent renovations to accommodate Hannah and her daughter. It was suitably large, without being too much space; far nicer than any of the military accommodations she’d been afforded during her career.

“The cooling unit and pantry contain levo-based foods. The Council will send regular shipments, so if there’s anything in particular you’d like to request, just fill out an order on your terminal and we’ll make sure you get it,” Oraka explained. “If you have any maintenance issues, there’s a comm line for that, they’ll get it taken care of promptly. We’ve also provided toys for Jane. Your effects should all arrive by this evening. Any questions?”

Hannah suddenly felt immensely tired. She forced a smile and shook her head.

“I think I need some time to process all of this.”

“Understandable. I’ll leave you to get settled and check in on you tomorrow.” The general surprised her when he clapped his hand against her shoulder and squeezed lightly, the rough pad of his finger brushing against her skin. “If you need anything, you can reach me on the comm link.”

With that, he left them and Hannah put Jane down to nap in her new room, suitably decorated for a child. Then she sat at the top of the stairs, put her head in her hands, and let out a long, deep sigh.

This was the first day of the rest of her life.

Chapter Text

2172

It had rained every day for the last two weeks: a torrential and unceasing downpour the likes of which Shepard had hardly ever seen in Sarlik. There was rarely a moment where she and the other recruits weren’t soaked to the bone, the cold burrowing into their skin and nesting there. None of the pre-fab structures that made up their tiny little compound did anything to ease the suffering; the only reprieve was the warmth of the showers for fifteen minutes each day.

Outstripping a turian in a run was hard enough on flat, solid ground; with the rain turning all the land around the camp into mud and muck, it was that much harder for Shepard to keep pace with her fellow recruits on morning runs. The cold combined with overexertion in an effort to remain competitive left her muscles aching each day, and all she could do was grit her teeth and fight through the pain because she knew that even one complaint would not be tolerated.

Still, despite her effort, she had been the last back to camp every morning. She had to beat at least one of them, if only once, to prove she could, to prove that she wasn’t just as good as any turian, she was better. Struggling uphill, with less than a mile to go until she reached the barracks, she could just make out the slowest of the bunch through the wind and the rain nearly blinding her. If she could just get ahead of him…

Baltair was bulky, and that was what slowed him down. In hand-to-hand combat he was an absolute powerhouse, nothing but pure muscle and thick plating, but on runs he was always second to last. The others derided him mercilessly for being ‘almost as slow as Shepard’ only to have their asses handed to them during sparring matches. He was indifferent to Shepard, neither insulting nor complimenting her when they faced off against each other; she had held her own against him despite his formidable size. She liked him for his indifference, it was preferable to the vitriol she faced from Nilkus and Renia each day.

She would beat him to the barracks if it killed her and he would tolerate the teasing from their fellow recruits. And if she could do it once, she would do it again. It might not win any respect from the turians who wanted her gone, but it would be a point of personal pride: she could outrun a turian with legs a foot long than hers.

The unceasing rain had plastered her under armor to her body and her hair clung against her face, sweeping into her eyes and further blurring her vision, yet still she ran. Running in less clothing might have been preferable to remove the added weight of soaking-wet fabric, but it was simply too cold to consider. So she soldiered on, pushing herself despite the burning in her lungs and the aching weakness in her legs, drawing closer to Baltair with each push.

He must have heard her heavy breathing when she drew close enough, because he tilted his head backward to glance at her and his mandibles flared in surprise before pinching against his face as he picked up his pace.

Fuck him if he thinks he’s going to win.

Even though she was sure she couldn’t possibly urge her body to go any faster, Shepard somehow managed to push herself harder until she was neck and neck with him, pumping her legs and arms so fast she thought for sure she was going to collapse. Her whole chest burned, the cold rain stung as it pelted against her skin, her legs felt almost numb. Baltair’s breath came heavy as he struggled to keep pace with her.

“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” he gasped.

She didn’t have the lung capacity to respond. The barracks were in view now, the rest of the squad already stretching in the center of the compound. She couldn’t tell anyone apart from so far away, but one of them noticed how close she and Baltair were and pointed, leading the rest of the group to watch.

Good, let them see me win this.

The entire time she ran, she could see Baltair in her periphery, so close than one misstep would mean defeat. Morning runs weren’t a race, but everything was competitive amongst new recruits fresh out of bootcamp, and for Shepard, her entire life had been a proving grounds.

Everything was cold and numb and wet. There was no possible way she could will herself to go any faster. As the barracks drew closer and closer and the other turians came into view, she saw Garrus, mandibles pinched against his face, fists clenched, tilting his head to urge her onward - it was just the final boost she needed. With the last of her energy, she burst forward, past Baltair, running straight into the group gathered at the center of the barracks beforing collapsing in the mud, gasping and straining for breath.

A few feet back, Baltair fell to his knees with a growl. Garrus, Licinia, and two of the other recruits rushed to Shepard’s side while the rest took to berating Baltair for letting her win.

Garrus was the first face Shepard saw, leaning over her and blocking the rain, his mandibles flared into a grin.

“That was amazing, Shepard.”

She was still gasping too hard to speak.

Garrus knelt down next to her. “You want me to carry you to the showers?”

She shook her head weakly. “Just...need...a minute…”

“I can’t believe you beat Baltair!” Licinia spoke excitedly from her other side. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I know you’re really strong, I mean I’ve seen you during training, but...biologically speaking I just didn’t think a human could outrun a turian.”

From above her, she heard another voice. “Pretty impressive, Shepard.”

She craned her neck to see Tarquin Victus standing behind her, watching her with an inscrutable look, arms folded against his chest. Tarquin, while not as friendly and chipper as Licinia, had at least been pleasant; the only other turian at camp besides Garrus and Licinia who behaved in a remotely kind manner toward her. She knew little about him: he was from off-planet, with creamy tan plating and white colony markings, and his father was some important military official. A general, maybe? Shepard had never been the type to memorize high-ranking officers.

Outside of “good job”, after sparring, it was the most Tarquin had ever said to her. She managed a very weak ‘thank you’ before Tarquin and his friend Lapis left toward the showers.

“You’re sure you don’t need help, Shepard?” Garrus asked again.

Struggling, Shepard rolled onto her side and pushed herself up on shaking arms. She was absolutely covered in mud, but it didn’t matter. She had beat Baltair in the morning run: a victory so sweet she was sure even the levo-gruel they served her in the mess hall would taste better because of it.

After a few seconds of kneeling in the mud, she begrudgingly let Garrus and Licinia help her to her feet, hobbling along beside them to the showers. Inside, they all stripped out of their under armor and found an open stall, not wanting to waste the little precious time they were allowed in the only warm place in the barracks.

It was a struggle for Shepard to get out of her under armor, sopping wet and clinging to every curve on her body. She forced it off, tossing it into a pile with the other soiled laundry, where it landed with a wet plop.

Nudity was not a point of shame or embarrassment amongst turians, though Shepard knew - through her mother - that it was more taboo in human culture. Recruits were expected to shower together and therefore be naked together, in co-ed showers, without incident. Shepard thought nothing of it, though there had been a good deal of staring both in bootcamp and her first few days at her new assignment because her body was so foreign to the turians. The only humans living on Oma Ker were the other members of the Sarlik twenty: most of her fellow recruits had never seen a naked human in their life. The staring had subsided after the first week, thankfully.

Unfortunately for Shepard, the only available shower stall was directly between Nilkus and Renia, something she suspected was no accident. Head held high, she stepped into the stall and started the water, refusing to flinch even as it scalded her freezing skin.

“I’ll bet you think you’re really something for beating Baltair during the run this morning, don’t you?” Renia asked, leaning against the top of the divider between their stalls and flaring her mandibles to expose her teeth.

“I was just running,” Shepard tempered her tone. “If Baltair can’t keep up, that’s his problem.”

“Beating the biggest and slowest of us doesn’t prove shit,” Nilkus said. “And when it’s my turn to spar with you, you’re going to wish you were dead.”

“Just listening to you makes me wish I were dead,” Shepard replied coolly.

Renia snorted and Nilkus shot her an icy glare. “You better watch yourself, Shepard. I come from an esteemed military family. Even if you do well in this program, I can make your life a living hell.”

Shepard scrubbed the mud from her skin and said nothing. Nilkus was a snot-nosed brat who clearly came from wealth and influence. He wasn’t lacking in skill, but she was certain his family’s standing in the military was a huge part of his placement in their unit. He lacked the brute strength many of their fellow recruits possessed; without Renia, Shepard could have handed him his ass on a platter, but she didn’t trust that he would ever try to fight her without Renia to back him up.

Nilkus and Renia exchanged a glance that didn’t escape Shepard’s notice. As the other recruits began to towel off, dress, and file out, they kept looking toward one another. There was no way in hell Shepard was giving them the chance to get her alone. She shut off her water abruptly, toweled off, and pulled her clothes on in a hurry, just in time to meet Garrus at the door, satisfied with the look of clear disappointment in Nilkus’ eyes as she stepped out back into the unrelenting rain.

It was a quick escape, but she knew if she didn’t remain diligent, Nilkus and Renia would find a way to get her alone and she wouldn’t stand a chance against both of them at once.


 

2159

Jane Shepard never realized she wasn’t welcome in turian society until, at the age of five, she entered the Hierarchy educational system. She had spent her first two years on Oma Ker blissfully unaware of the sidelong looks cast her way when her mother took her shopping, of the parents ushering their children away as she and Garrus chased each other through the park near their homes. Her mother had done an excellent job of creating a safe, isolated bubble in which Jane thought that all turians were like the Vakarians and that all children her age would be as eager to play as Garrus and Solana were. It never occurred to her child’s mind to consider that Garrus and Solana were some of the only turians she ever played with, that if they weren’t dining with the Vakarians or Septimus, she and her mother almost always ate alone.

She hadn’t understood the anxiety in her mother’s eyes as she and Garrus left together for their first day of school, though she had sensed something was amiss. Septimus had come that day too, and had walked Jane and Garrus to school with their mothers. They had all watched as she and Garrus left them to join the rest of the children filing in. Jane had seen the same worry in Septimus’ eyes that she’d seen in her mother’s.

It only took thirty minutes for her to discover just how unwelcome she was. It had begun with angry stares and whispers, chirps and grumbles from subvocals they thought she couldn’t understand, but of course she could because she’d spent two years surrounded by turians and absorbing every aspect of their communication. Beside her, Garrus bristled and his subvocals buzzed but she still didn’t fully understand what was happening. Children who had learned their prejudice from parents, some of whom had fought in the Relay 314 incident, turned vitriol they didn’t comprehend onto a child who had come to expect kindness and warmth from turians.

But it wasn’t only the children who were unhappy to see a human child roaming the halls of a turian learning establishment; the teachers and staff had whispered too, though most of them were mature enough not to take it further than that.

After passing through the halls and finding their classroom, the whispers continuing as Jane took her seat, she finally realized what was happening. As the teacher called out names and explained the presence of “the human” to the class, several of her peers burst into complaint all at once, hurling insults at her as their subvocals buzzed, while Garrus snarled right back.

It came to head during training drills, when three turians a year older than Jane and Garrus cornered them, kicking and punching, using their talons to claw and scratch at Jane’s soft skin. No one came to help. At best, others watched passively, and at worst they cheered on the attackers. It took the intervention of two teachers to pry the children apart.

Jane had always been an assertive child, but that day was the first time she’d ever felt frightened and timid. She’d run from the training yard in tears, barricading herself in the bathroom for what felt like hours, her face and arms covered in shallow, but painful cuts. She stayed there until one of the few teachers not completely disgusted by her presence came to coax her out.

That was the day she realized she wasn’t welcome in the only society she’d ever known. She’d hardly ever given much thought to how different she and her mother looked from the turians. She knew they were human - her mother had taught her many important lessons long before she ever went to school - but she had never considered herself as “other”. Garrus may have towered over her despite being six months younger, and he may have had sharp talons and the beginnings of a jagged crest of horns, but she was still able to summarily beat him in most of their many romps together. She didn’t care if she was human by birth, that she looked different and lacked the fierce predatorial features of her friend, turian culture was all she knew.

She was sent home from school that first day and when she stepped outside to make the walk home, tears trickling down her cheeks, she found Septimus waiting for her, and she ran to him and cried while he held her gently against his shoulder.

“Why do they hate me? What did I do?”

“Shh, shh, Jane,” he said. “They just don’t understand you. It’s okay. It will get harder, but then it’ll get easier, I promise.”

And he had been right. It did get harder. There were more schoolyard brawls; her and Garrus against ten kids twice their size, fights that left scratches and lasting scars, teachers that turned blind eyes and displayed blatant favoritism toward anyone but her. But Hannah hadn’t raised a fool: Jane caught on quickly and hardened herself and then it became a little easier - never easy , but always improving. She learned how to fight back, and then she started winning, and little by little she clawed her way out of the pit they tried desperately to bury her in until at least some of her peers and superiors were forced to recognize her abilities.

Oma Ker was her home, she belonged in the Hierarchy, and no one would ever keep her from claiming her rightful place.

Chapter Text

2157

Hannah had hoped than when she awoke her second morning on Oma Ker, she would have found herself back in her bed on Earth, or maybe even Shanxi, and it would have all been a dream. She was subsequently dismayed when she opened her eyes to an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar home on an unfamiliar planet.

And yet, as she had felt the disconcerting foreign familiarity of the green fields they’d landed in the day before, there was a similar familiarity in going about a morning routine she’d done day in and day out since Jane was born in a new home on an alien planet. But taking comfort in the familiar was a small, necessary solace, so - after several minutes of lying in bed staring at the ceiling thinking, ‘Is this really happening?’ - she forced herself up and into the shower to begin her day.

The routine did help calm her nerves: a hot shower, clothes that still smelled like home, military-grade coffee that tasted like piss; it all helped normalize an otherwise completely unreal situation. There were, of course, noticable differences that highlighted just where she was: some of the toys provided to Jane were human make, but many more were turian, including several turian dolls; and while the house had been outfitted with human-sized appliances, everything seemed just a little larger than it ought to be.

Still, it was a roof and four walls, which was enough to be thankful for. Hannah had Jane and they had their health, to ask or hope for more was too much at the moment.

Jane, for her part, was adjusting remarkably well. She had asked questions about the aliens, first when they’d arrived on Shanxi, and then when Hannah explained to her that they would be moving to live amongst them. Her innocent child’s mind had concluded that they weren’t scary, and they had ‘pretty horns’, and that had been that. Hannah hoped and wished that the turian children would approach her as innocently, but she wasn’t naive enough to believe it would be so easy.

While Jane sat eating her food at the kitchen table, Hannah leaned against the counter with her terrible coffee in one hand and a barely palatable manufactured bagel in the other. It tasted horrible, but she was grateful they’d given her such luxury provisions as coffee creamer and cream cheese. Ten years of military service had taught her not to complain about anything.

“What do you think of your new room, Bug?” She asked through a mouthful of bagel.

Jane nibbled her food and tilted her head back and forth thoughtfully. “It’s nice and big.”

“It is, ” Hannah agreed.

The entire home was bigger than anything they’d lived in before, practically a mansion in comparison to some of the quarters Hannah had seen during her service. It put her at ease to know, if nothing else, her daughter had plenty of space to play, including the large park across the street. Jane was smart and curious and needed room for stimulation.

“And do you like your toys?”

Jane nodded. “There’s some alien dolls.”

“Turians, Bug. Call them turians.”

“Turr-ee-ans.”

“Good job!”

“Do you like it, mama?”

Hannah forced a smile. “Mama likes wherever Bug is.”

At this Jane smiled and went back to stabbing her eggs aggressively with her tiny plastic fork.

When breakfast was finished, the routine was over, and reality felt a little more fractured. Hannah let Jane play with her toys in the living room while she sat on the couch scrolling through her datapad of information on turian culture. There was so much to learn and take in, and so many areas in which she would always be behind. They communicated with ‘subvocals’ and mandible movements, with organs and appendages she didn’t have and couldn’t replicate. Still, as unhappy as she was about her placement on Oma Ker, she had committed herself to learning their language, and to ensuring that Jane grew up knowing and understanding it. There was no saying how reliable these translator chips in their heads were: they needed to be prepared for emergencies. But it was challenging enough to try and learn galactic common language on top of whatever it was these turians spoke.

As Hannah scrolled through the datapad, trying to take in the vast amount of information she had to learn, the sounds of Jane creating elaborate fantasy worlds with her toys in the background, she noticed another sound coming from outside. There was a gentle, rhythmic scraping against the outer wall. At first, she thought it might be a local animal, or wind blowing the trees against the facade, but it continued too reliably to write off so easily.

Heart pounding, suddenly concerned she was dealing with her first angry turians, Hannah stood up and moved to a safe in the hallway closet where she stored a private pistol she owned.

“Janey-bug, you stay here and keep playing okay?”

“‘Kay, mama.” Her daughter was completely unperturbed.

Holding the pistol close to her chest, Hannah moved slowly toward the front door. She knew a bullet could pierce the thick plating covering the turians faces - and presumably covering other parts of their bodies - but she wasn’t keen on starting an incident by shooting an alien on her first day. All the same, if someone was trying to damage her home or break in, she wasn’t going to let them get away with it.

She opened the door, ready to fire, but keeping the gun close to her chest and pivoted once out on the front stoop only to find a group of turians, one of them using some sort of laser tool to slowly remove bright red paint from the southern-facing outer wall of her home. She holstered her gun and observed the turians, who had yet to notice her.

The largest alien was male by virtue of the impressive, sharp crest of horns extending from his head. He held the laser tool: slowly and methodically removing the paint, which had been used to make some sort of symbol on the wall the likes of which Hannah couldn’t decipher. The turian’s plating was a smooth, stone grey with criss-crossing sky blue markings across his face. Behind him, a female stood with her arms folded across her chest, mandibles turned slightly downward and brows furrowed. Her markings were a darker shade of blue, and spread across her nose and under her eyes. At her side was what Hannah assumed was a child, a girl dressed in an unusually shaped, but otherwise remarkably human-looking dainty little purple frock. On the woman’s hip was another child that also appeared to be a girl wearing a jumpsuit that matched her mother’s markings. Hannah noticed immediately that children lacked any visible painted markings on their faces.

“Excuse me, but what are you doing to my home?” She asked, convinced they were at least not there to harm her, particularly if they seemed to be removing what someone else had used to vandalize.

The four turians looked up, startled, mandibles flaring from their faces. The woman made a strange clicking sound and sighed.

“I’m so sorry, this is a terrible way for us to meet.”

The man ceased his work with the laser tool and stood up. “Someone vandalized your home during the night. Probably teenagers. I can hazard a few guesses.” His mandibles pinched tightly against his face and his second wind-pipe - his subvocals - buzzed.

“What did it say?” Hannah observed the half removed symbol.

“Something rude and racist.” The man shook his head. His voice was gruff, and while all turians seemed stern and emotionless in comparison to a human, this one seemed particularly severe.

“Well, while I appreciate your help in removing this, it would have been nice if you’d come and introduced yourselves before you started taking a laser to my home.” Hannah crossed her arms, trying not to be too abrasive or defensive.

“My apologies.” He bowed his head as she had seen the other turians do the day before. “My name is Castis Vakarian. We live just down the street.”

“General Oraka mentioned you,” Hannah recalled.

“Yes, Oraka and I have been friends for a long time, though you’ll probably find few less similar people.” Castis cleared his throat. “Forgive my manners. This is my wife, Nierala.”

Nierala surprised Hannah by offering her hand. “Niera’s just fine. It’s so lovely to meet you,” she said, subvocals chirping. Hannah took her hand after a moment’s pause. “I watched some videos of human customs. I thought...well I saw the handshakes. I’ve never met a human before. Your skin is very soft.” She spoke quickly, and slightly awkwardly, which Hannah immediately found endearing.

Hannah laughed. “Your handshake was perfect. I guess General Oraka may have already told you, but my name is Hannah.”

Castis nodded. “A lieutenant, he said.”

“That’s right. And these are your children?” She nodded to the girl clutching Niera’s side and the one on her hip.

Niera’s eyes beamed in an unmistakable smile as her mandibles flicked gently away from her face and Hannah was finally sure of the meaning of the gesture.

“This is our daughter, Solana.” She rubbed her hand on top of the larger child’s head. “Say hello, Sol.”

“Hullo.” The girl replied, not meeting Hannah’s gaze.

“And this is our son, Garrus.” Niera shifted Garrus higher onto her hip and he attempted to crawl up her shoulder around her neck to rest in the crook of the cowl that extended from her back. With a sigh, she yanked him away and held him forward. “You’re too big for that now, Garrus.”

Hannah was surprised, at first, to learn that Garrus was their son, but as Niera wrestled with the wriggling child, she noticed the faintest, round spurs growing from the edge of the boy’s facial plating. She supposed it only made sense that turian horns took time to grow in: there were plenty of similar human traits. It was bizarre, yet comforting to note a similarity between the species.

“Your children are adorable,” Hannah offered.

And they were, though she could not have imagined describing a turian as adorable even a day earlier. The children had large, round eyes, and hadn’t quite grown into their gangly limbs and massive hands and feet.

“Oh, thank you! They’re a handful. Septimus mentioned you had a daughter Garrus’ age?”

“Yes. Actually, why don’t you come in and meet her? We can worry about the graffiti later. It might be rude, but it hasn’t hurt anyone, so if that’s the worst abuse I’ll get, I’ll count my blessings.”

Content that these turians were friendly - likeable , even - she ushered them into her home to meet her daughter. Castis commented that she looked ‘strong and healthy, but very small’ and in comparison to Garrus, who Hannah learned was six months younger than Jane, she did seem quite small; he stood half a foot taller than her. Niera cooed and hummed over Jane and stroked her hair in wonder, after asking permission first.

Hannah knew that the turians ate different food, but after a bit of asking, found they could eat or drink human food safely, it just didn’t provide them any sustenance. So, she put on a kettle and made tea and found herself spending her first day on Oma Ker in the company of aliens who were so remarkably unique and personable that for a moment, she forget all the fears she’d had upon arriving.

On Shanxi, the aliens had seemed terrifying and unreal. It was humanity’s first encounter with intelligent life and they were faced with brutal raptors with painted skull masks and talons that could rip through human skin like a hot knife through butter. It was hard to think of them as people in such a situation. Now, seated in her living room sipping tea while Garrus and Jane chattered happily and played with her toys, Solana watching from a safe spot at her mother’s feet, Hannah realized how very human the turians seemed. She never imagined she’d be carrying on a civil and enjoyable conversation with the same species that had descended upon Shanxi, yet here she was.

And suddenly there was a comfort in the unfamiliar: a few turians who didn’t want her gone, who were friendly and curious and listened to the story of her placement on Oma Ker with interest. And, perhaps most comforting to Hannah, it seemed Jane had made her first friend.

Chapter Text

2172

There were few places Shepard could find refuge in the barracks, but she had learned during her time in bootcamp that it was easy enough to sneak out into the training rooms while her peers slept. Turians were diligent and hard-working, but most of them wouldn’t forgo necessary sleep to train on their own. Shepard, by virtue of being human, needed to train more than her fellow officers if she wanted to stay on equal footing with them; she had learned this lesson early and trained herself to deal with less sleep in order to remain competitive.

Thus, her nightly rounds in the gym had become a moment of peace: a time when she could be alone with her thoughts and focus on the strength flowing through her veins, the power of her muscles as she pushed herself to her limits. The extra training had played a part in her placement in this unit, and four times now she had managed to beat Baltair back to the barracks on morning runs because of the extra effort (though Commander Aetius had reminded the group - with a pointed look at Shepard - that morning runs were a warm up and not a race).

Garrus had been the one to teach her how to break into the buildings. He was incredibly gifted with an omni-tool and, for as long as she could remember, he had been tinkering with tech to improve it, as well as learning little tricks for hacking electronics. It was his knowledge that helped her hack the medium-security lock on the rec hall, so she shouldn’t have been surprised when, while attacking a punching bag like it had killed her family, she heard Garrus’ voice sound behind her.

“Still up to these midnight training sessions, Shepard?”

After recovering from the momentary scare of an unexpected voice, she fell against the punching bag, hugging the sides of it and panting.

“Why aren’t you sleeping, bonehead?”

“I wasn’t sleeping well. I heard you leave and figured you’d be here.” He leaned against the opposite side of the punching bag and rested his face against it. “I know you want to prove yourself, but humans need even more sleep than turians. This isn’t exactly sustainable.”

“Thanks for your concern, but I’m up against Nilkus in sparring next week and I want to be able to kick his ass.”

Garrus reached his arm out and squeezed her bicep. “You could already kick his ass. Probably in your sleep. The guy’s an idiot. Renia’s his muscle anyway and you held your own against her last week.”

“Yeah, she still ended up pinning me.”

“Well, considering no one else has been able to, I’d still count it a win.”

Shepard sighed and stepped away from the punching bag. “I wish you could know how hard it is for me, Garrus.”

“I do know. I’ve known you practically my whole life, Shepard. Nobody else knows how hard you’ve had it like I do. But you’re doing fine. You’re holding your own. You can’t be so hard on yourself all the time.”

“Fine isn’t good enough!” She huffed, crossing the room to a holotrack and starting it up.

Garrus snorted. “That’s my dad talking.”

“At least one of us listens to his advice.” She hopped on the holotrack and started running.

Garrus stood in front of the track and watched her with shrewd eyes, arms folded moodily across his chest. His father was a source of constant contention. Castis was stern, authoritative, and disciplined; he believed in law and order, that rules were made to be followed, orders never to be disobeyed. By all accounts, he was an exemplary turian for that reason. Garrus, on the other hand, had been bull-headed his entire life. His relationship with his father was strained, at best; he had always been a mama’s boy.

“My dad likes you better than me. You’re a better turian than I am.” Garrus leaned on the base of the holotrack while Shepard ran.

“I’m not a turian. I’ve spent enough of my life having that drilled into me.”

“You’re a member of the Hierarchy, private. You’re more turian than human. How many humans do you even know?”

Outside of the Sarlik 20, most of whom Shepard had no great love for, she could count on one hand the number of humans she’d met on Oma Ker, and even then they were brief encounters. The only human she liked was her own mother.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not allowed to wear colony markings, I don’t look like you, I don’t have subvocals, I can’t communicate with mandibles because I don’t have any. I’m like a turian that lost all her senses.”

“You’ve only ever been turian to me,” he offered.

She laughed and rolled her eyes. “You’re my best friend, you have to say stuff like that.”

“No I don’t! Ask anyone in my family, they all think of you as one of us.”

“Doesn’t change biology, unfortunately.”

She upped the speed on the holotrack until her legs ached from the effort, but still she pushed herself harder. Garrus watched her, mandibles twitching in a gesture of irritation, subharmonics buzzing. The conversation was one they’d had before at every important juncture in her life.

The hardest had been after Castis and Septimus sat her down to explain why she couldn’t wear colony markings like the other turians; she had been stoic in front of the men she respected and looked up to, but when she was alone with Garrus she had cried and he had held her and offered to paint her face with markings like his. But she didn’t deserve markings because she hadn’t been born on a turian world, and Garrus’ markings didn’t belong to Oma Ker anyway.

Garrus was always there for her, even when she was cycling through the same complaints and frustrations. The realization that one day they would inevitably end up in different military units, that she wouldn’t always have him by her side, terrified her. Who was she without Garrus?

She stuttered to a halt suddenly as Garrus slammed his fingers on the holotrack controls to stop them.

“You need to get some rest, Shepard,” he growled.

“I’ll rest when I’m dead.”

“You’re not going to kick anybody’s ass if you’re falling asleep during training.”

He pulled her off of the holotrack and she resigned herself to being finished with training for the night, going a bit limp as he dragged her over to the wall and slumped down on the floor next to her. She rested her head against his shoulder with a sigh.

“I wish it wasn’t so hard.”

“Sometimes you’re your own worst enemy, you know.”

“I know.”

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and rubbed his hand up and down her arm in a soothing gesture. “You should try a few nights of rest once in a while.”

As appealing as an uninterrupted night of sleep was, she simply couldn’t bring herself to cut down on her training. The extra training gave her an edge; she hadn’t gotten so many commendations from her commanding officers in bootcamp for slacking off or putting in the base level of effort. She had to prove to commander Aetius, to her fellow officers, that she deserved to be there.

But most of all she had to prove it to herself.


2162

“It’s too heavy! Dad, my arms are going numb.”

Garrus’ arms were visibly shaking as he held up a sniper rifle that was roughly the size of his entire scrawny little body. Jane stood next to him holding a smaller rifle designed for human specifications, but still meant for adult hands and not those of an eight year-old.

Castis’ mandibles turned downward and flicked into a frown as his brow plates furrowed. “You can’t give up just because it’s difficult, Garrus. This is a lesson in endurance and obedience. Now fire again.”

He had brought them to a field away from town to teach them how to wield a gun; it was - he told them - something his mother had done for him when he was young, to prepare him for military service. Not every turian family taught their children these lessons, it was important to give them an edge, according to Castis.

Castis was gone often and for long periods of time because of his position as a commander with Citadel security, and when he returned it seemed his sole focus was training his children. Solana was older and obstinate, more interested in following in her mother’s footsteps as a scientist. She trained less frequently, somehow the only person in the world who could talk Castis Vakarian out of an idea once his mind was set on it.

Jane had been eager to train though, and her mother knew it was important for her to have every advantage available to her, so Castis had taken her under his wing and brought her along, even gifting her a rifle brought back from the Citadel. She enjoyed their sessions, reveled in the effort it took to steady the rifle and fire with accuracy and precision. Garrus couldn’t stand his father’s orders on most occasions, but as far as Jane was concerned, Castis had hung the moon.

Struggling, Garrus lifted his rifle and peered through the scope, attempting to train his focus on a series of bottles lined up several hundred yards away. He fired off a shot, missed, fired off another, missed, fired off a third and nicked the edge of a bottle without breaking it or knocking it down.

“This is stupid!” He spat, tossing his rifle into the dirt. “It’s too hard!”

Castis grabbed him by the arm and held his chin, forcing him to meet his gaze. “You don’t toss weapons around like they’re garbage, Garrus. They’re dangerous killing tools and furthermore they’re expensive.” He let go of his son and reached down for the rifle, shoving it back into Garrus’ hands. “Hold that and point it at the bottles until I tell you to stop.”

“I hate you .” Garrus muttered.

“Don’t use words unless you truly mean them, Garrus. And if you do truly mean them then speak up and don’t mutter under your breath. Jane, pick up your gun.”

Jane frowned at Garrus whose arms were positively shaking under the weight of his rifle. She could hear the faintest keening coming from his subvocals, his mandibles pinched tight against his face in an effort to keep from crying. As much as Jane looked forward to the training, Garrus loathed it. He was skilled with a gun and would likely do well as a soldier, but he was more interested in tech and calibration. He wanted to be an engineer, but his father wanted at least one of his children to serve a strong presence in the military and Solana was already a lost cause.

Tearing her gaze away from an increasingly frustrated Garrus, Jane lifted her rifle and looked through the scope at the bottles in the distance. The rifle was heavy, but Jane liked to practice holding and lifting it outside of her training with Castis, so her arms didn’t protest or buckle as readily as Garrus’ did.

She fired off a shot and nicked one of the bottles. Shifting her grip on the gun, she took a deep breath to steady herself, and adjusted her aim. She fired off another shot and managed to hit one of the bottles, shattering it into a thousand pieces and letting out a yelp of excitement.

“Very good, Jane. You must be calm and steady to wield a sniper rifle effectively.”

Garrus nearly dropped his rifle as his strength finally gave out and he lowered his arms, falling to his knees in the dirt, dejected. Castis began to lecture him again, using a turn of phrase he often pulled out during their sessions: “Do something right, or don’t do it at all.” Beneath his gaze, Garrus’ mandibles quivered as he softly keened.

Jane learned two things from training with Castis that she wouldn’t fully realize until she was much older. The first was that he was harder on Garrus because, as his son, he expected more from him and held him to a higher standard than anyone else in the galaxy. The second was that Garrus was jealous of the praise Castis seemed to lavish upon Jane for doing well, while subsequently berating Garrus for all of his mistakes. It was part of a larger divide between Garrus and his father, a relationship with aspects Jane was too young to understand as a child, but which explained a great deal about Garrus as they grew older.

“Now pick up your rifle and start again.”

Chapter Text

2157

General Oraka, true to his word, had been by every day to assist Hannah in integrating into life amongst the turians. For a decorated general, he was surprisingly soft-spoken, and approached Jane with such warmth and tenderness that she could, for a moment, forget everything about him that screamed for her to run from this large and terrifying predator.

In fact, Oraka - no, he had asked that she call him Septimus - was exceedingly fond of Jane. On his fourth visit, he had brought her a toy model of a turian cruiser, and on his tenth visit, he’d brought her turian cookies. The cookies had led to a tea party in the living room and Hannah had never seen anything quite so remarkable as a fully-grown turian with rows of sharp teeth and large, taloned hands, seated in a chair two sizes too small with a talon hooked into the handle of a child’s tea cup pretending to sip the imaginary liquid and politely taking each cookie that Jane forced into his hand. Hannah had snapped a picture of the whole event and informed Septimus that if he ever wronged her, she would release it to all of his superior officers.

“Well, I suppose it could be worse,” he shrugged. “She could have asked me to put on a bonnet.”

“I really can’t believe you don’t have children. You’re so good with her.”

“I don’t think there’s any biological switch that turns on when you have children,” Septimus laughed. “I’ve always liked children, but I only have my nieces and nephews to dote on and they live on Palaven. Besides, turian children aren’t nearly so cute and fuzzy.” He ruffled Jane’s hair and she she giggled and ran circles around him.

“I really have to thank you, Septimus. This transition hasn’t been the easiest for me, but you’ve helped so much.”

“Have the neighbors been giving you any more trouble?”

She had informed him about the vandalism and he had been more than a little dismayed, but had spoken at length with the Vakarians, who had been nothing but welcoming and protective of Hannah and Jane since their first encounter. The same could not be said of her other neighbors who, at best ignored her, and at worst hurled insults and threats at her, some of which her translator couldn’t seem to parse.

“It’s nothing I can’t handle,” Hannah assured him.

“I don’t doubt your fortitude as a soldier, Hannah, but you’re still human. Alone in the dark you wouldn’t stand a chance against a well-armed turian, it’s just a fact. It’s my job to make sure you’re safe and that the public adjusts to your presence without violence.”

Jane rocketed into Septimus’ leg and wrapped her arms around his calf. He patted her head, but kept his gaze trained on Hannah.

The more time Hannah spent around the turians, the more she came to appreciate how stunning their features were beneath the initial terrifying predatory appearance. There was such a diverse range of rich, beautiful colors in turian skin and plating. And while she had, upon first glance, seen their eyes as sharp and hawkish, she had come to see the emotion and intelligence behind them in just two short weeks on Oma Ker. She had arrived sure that the turians were brutes who would hate her and quickly found they were complex individuals with an enormous capacity for kindness the likes of which she never could have imagined.

There was a warmth in Septimus’ concern. Hannah, who had never wanted or asked for protection from anyone, who had learned throughout her military training how to protect herself because no one would do it for her, felt safer knowing Septimus was watching over her. Since Jane was born, Hannah had become more defensive and protective of herself, not realizing the relief that could come from having someone to help shoulder that burden.

That it was an alien was certainly not something she would have envisioned in her wildest dreams.

“There are a few neighbors who clearly don’t like me,” Hannah ceded. “When I take Jane to the park they whisper or fling insults. Just words. The worst action I’ve seen so far was the graffiti and I have a feeling Castis dealt with whoever did that. And I’m not in the habit of wandering around after dark alone, so you don’t need to worry too much.”

“I’m glad the Vakarians have been helpful. I saw them the other day and I thought Niera would never stop talking about how lovely you and Jane are,” Septimus laughed. “She said Jane and Garrus have been getting on well.”

“Garrus! Garrus!” Jane jumped up and down excitedly and turned to Hannah. “Mama can I play with Garrus?”

“Later, Bug. We’ll go and visit them tonight.”

“Well, I’ve probably overstayed my welcome anyway. I should get back to my office.” Septimus patted Jane’s head again and pried her from his leg. “I’m serious, though, Hannah. Don’t hesitate to call me if you’re concerned for your safety. Some of the other families have been dealing with a bit of abuse too, we want to quash it, make sure people know it’s not going to be tolerated. There’s no reason turians and humans can’t coexist.”

“I know, I know. I promise I’ll let you know if anything happens. Oh and thanks for the Cipritini language vids. It’s...challenging, but I think I’m learning. Jane’s been picking it up better than I have, but I’ve been turning her translator off when she plays with Garrus.”

“You’ll learn. I’ve been listening to some...English? An interesting language, but the grammar is confusing to me.”

Hannah laughed and echoed his words. “You’ll learn.”

He flicked his mandibles into a smile before kneeling down to say goodbye to Jane, who climbed onto his legs and kissed his cheek without prompting, and clearly much to his surprise. His mandibles flared and his eyes lit up and Hannah recognized clearly the look of a man who would have handed her child the world if only she asked.

“She likes you a lot,” she smiled. “I haven’t seen her do that with too many people.”

“I’m not trying to butter you up, but she is possibly the most precious creature I’ve ever met. I don’t know how your neighbors can dislike you when you’re toting this child around.”

“Well, you might have to fight Niera over this. She’s pretty fond of Jane too. The last time I went over, she let Jane sit in her cowl and carried her around the house.”

Septimus chuckled, “Yes, that’s how we carry our young, but they’re usually too large by the time they’re toddlers. Humans are so small, though.” He wiggled Jane’s finger with a grin; her entire hand was barely the size of half of his massive finger. With a resigned sigh, he set Jane down on the floor and stood up. “Next month we’ll talk about getting you into your job placement. There’s an admiral that I work under training the troops in Parien Fields outside of the city who expressed interest in having human input on the training grounds. We already have an asari and a salarian who provide input and advice based on their cultural backgrounds. I think it would be a good fit for you.”

Hannah liked the idea of working with troops, even if they weren’t the types of troops she was used to. “I’m eager to get back to work.”

They walked together to the door, Jane trailing behind them with her toy cruiser in hand. Before he left, Septimus turned to Hannah and squeezed her arm softly, the first time he had touched her since her first day on Oma Ker. She was surprised at how her skin jumped at the warm touch of his rough skin.

“It will get easier every day. Take care of yourself, Hannah.”

“Thank you, Septimus.”

And for the first time, she reached out and touched him, squeezing his shoulder in a return of his gesture. He bowed his head and turned out the door, his mandibles flicking into a smile as he left.

Chapter Text

2172

“Pivot. Watch your footwork, Private Victus, you’re leaving yourself open to attack on your right side. Keep your knees bent, Private Dessius. That’s better.” Commander Aetius circled the rec hall shouting criticisms with his hands held behind his back, brow plates furrowed in a perpetual state of disappointment.

Shepard had been both dreading and looking forward to this day all week: she was up against Nilkus for their sparring exercise, and, after several weeks of constant verbal and near physical abuse from him and Renia, she was ready to put him in his place.

It wasn’t like she hadn’t dealt with people like Nilkus and Renia her whole life. All through her school career she had been bullied by children who learned their prejudice from their parents, and she had quickly sharpened her mind against their words and hardened her skin against their fists. Garrus had taught her to fight and fought alongside her as long as she could remember. But in a military unit where cohesion was necessary, the only truly acceptable outlet for her anger was sparring. If she tried to attack Nilkus when they were alone, at best she would be reprimanded and at worst she might be reassigned; it wasn’t worth the risk.

She’d already sparred with Renia and had summarily had her ass handed to her. Renia was a bulky and muscular woman, nearly as wide as Baltair, but all lithe, sinewy muscle. She was the only turian in the camp who had successfully pinned Shepard so far, a feat that anywhere else would have deserved praise on Shepard’s part, but she had only been berated by commander Aetius for letting Renia pin her.

Nilkus was smaller and weaker than his muscular friend, though, and Shepard was sure he would prove less challenging, though there was no denying his agility. His mother’s military rank had earned him his place in this program, not his own prowess, which gave Shepard the upper hand.

He was, however, more work than she had anticipated as they twisted and turned around each other, barely landing hits one way or the other, ducking and dodging past punches and tackles. He moved too quickly, as difficult as grasping water. She had socked him once on the underside of his jaw and he had returned the favor with a smack against her scalp that dazed her, but that was all the damage either had done thus far. Perhaps his plan was to wear down her stamina; if so, he was doing a good job.

“Where’s all that power, Shepard ? You had no problem pinning Baltair. I’m not so easy, am I?” Nilkus jeered. “Doesn’t seem like it would end well for you if you came up against me and Renia alone, does it?”

“You wanna try it?” She threw a punch that just grazed the edge of his mandible before he ducked backward. “Don’t forget I’ve got Garrus and Licinia on my side.”

“Kovian’s a joke,” he snorted. “So is Vakarian.”

That was a bald-faced empty lie if Shepard had ever heard one. Garrus was the top-rated hand-to-hand specialist in their unit; even Renia hadn’t been able to pin him. It was the reason Nilkus and Renia only ever tried to get to Shepard when she was alone: they couldn’t have taken her on with Garrus at her side, and Garrus would have let them claw him apart before he let them get to her.

“You and Vakarian,” Nilkus flicked his mandibles into a smirk, “he’s fucking you isn’t he?”

Shepard almost laughed in response, but she was too irritated with Nilkus to allow herself such an expression in front of him. Garrus was her best friend and had been practically since they met so many years ago, but she had never given much thought to him romantically. They had kissed once, when they were barely teenagers, to see what it was like, only to find the experience awkward. Garrus had avoided talking about it once it happened, preferring to pretend it hadn’t, she supposed.

In fact, Shepard had barely any sexual experience, period. She was, quite frankly, not interested in humans - and there were so few on Oma Ker that it was better off that way - and turians who were interested in her typically fell into one of two categories. There were those who found her attractive because she was strong and incredibly capable and strength was a turn-on for turians. But these turians would never admit they were attracted to a human , so often they would berate and humiliate her in public only to turn around and try to get her clothes off when no one could see them showing interest in a human. The only other type of turian she’d run into were fetishists, who didn’t see her as a person at all, but liked the idea of a thrill with an ‘alien’. She wasn’t particularly interested in letting either type of turian see her naked and so, while most turians had sex for the first time when they entered bootcamp at fifteen, the sum of Shepard’s sexual experience at eighteen was an awkward kiss with her best friend, and a peck on the cheek from a girl they went to school with.

Of course, she wouldn’t tell Nilkus any of that.

“Not that it’s your business,” Shepard huffed as she hefted another punch toward the slippery turian, “but no. Garrus and I are just friends.”

As close as they were, Garrus told Shepard everything, which was how she knew that, actually, he and Licinia were both very interested in each other. Finding time alone to see those feelings through in their small camp with their strictly regimented schedules was another story entirely.

“A likely story,” Nilkus laughed, darting around to her side and nearly knocking her off her feet.

“If we’re going to point fingers, it’s obvious Renia’s pinning you down every night.”

“Renia’s interested in people with slightly shorter fringes.”

As he said the word ‘fringe’ he lunged forward and grabbed a fistful of Shepard’s hair, yanking so hard she thought for sure he was going to rip it from her scalp. The sudden, unexpected pain that shot through her made her lose her footing and she fell to her knees. Not one other turian had thought to use her hair as a fighting point; it was too foreign to them.

Before she could recover, she found herself pinned beneath Nilkus, but he had to hold her down for at least fifteen seconds for it to count, and she struggled to get him off, his weight practically crushing her, her physiology putting her at a disadvantage once again. Although she couldn’t see him, she knew commander Aetius was nearby with a timer.

Shepard bucked her hips, reached her arms up to strike Nilkus only for him to pin them against her chest with one hand while the other circled her neck. He looked down at her with a fire in her eyes and she felt a shiver run down her spine as he lowered his face closer to hers and whispered,

“I bet you’ve got a tight little cunt, don’t you Shepard? I’ve heard humans do. So tiny compared to us. Maybe one day I’ll find out.”

And then she could see in him every turian that had tormented her during school, that had hounded her, beat her senseless in the bathrooms, left scars on her arms during schoolyard fights, only to find a way to get her alone, push her into a corner, and tell her how sexy she was, how strong she was, how much they wanted to touch her.

With a strength that was not her own, she forced her upper body forward until her skull collided with Nilkus’, dazing them both, but buying her the time she needed to get out from underneath him. As quickly as her pounding head would let her, she clambered on top of Nilkus, gripping the back of his fringe and yanking until he let out a yelp, digging one knee into his neck while they other held her weight against his torso.

Then Aetius blew his whistle, signaling her victory, and she rolled off of him, putting as much distance as she could between the two of them.

She felt ill, a sudden insidiousness to Nilkus’ relentless interest in her. Turians, as a rule, valued consent in all matters; even some of her worst tormentors had been begging, not demanding, when they discussed her sexual appeal. But the way Nilkus had said ‘maybe one day I’ll find out’ left a sour feeling in the pit of her stomach. It was even more important than ever that she not let him get her alone.

Her skin jumped when she felt a hand clap against her shoulder, her heart leaping into her throat, but it was only Garrus come to congratulate her for her victory against Nilkus. Regardless, he was keenly attuned to her moods; his mandibles pinched to his face as soon as he saw the look in her eyes.

“What’s wrong? You did great. He almost pinned you and then you came back, that was amazing!”

She shook her head. “I’ll tell you in private.”

And she would, because she told Garrus everything, but she didn’t want to discuss it further with so many prying eyes and ears nearby.

Licinia was next to greet and congratulate her, and she allowed herself to shake away some of the discomfort and anger Nilkus had created, though the mood still lingered just beneath the surface.

As the day wore on and they continued with their training, Shepard did her best to push thoughts of Nilkus’ vague threat to the back of her mind. She would continue her extra training at night: if she could pin Nilkus once, she could do it again. There was a small comfort in knowing that Renia would likely not involve herself if Nilkus planned on following through on his threat. Beating her to a pulp was one thing, but she doubted Nilkus would admit his interest aloud to Renia, and even if he did, she doubted Renia would be interested in aiding in anything so heinous: even most bullies had standards.

True to her word, she told Garrus what had happened later, when they found a moment alone outside the mess hall after dinner. Huddled together in a corner away from view of their peers or the security cameras, she told him the story in as much detail as she could muster. He listened without interrupting, though his mandibles flicked with agitation, and his fists clenched and unclenched repeatedly.

“Don’t mention it to anyone else, not even Licinia.”

“I won’t,” he promised. “But you should be careful. You’re always sneaking out at night to train in the rec hall. What if Nilkus notices and catches you alone?”

“I’ll be extra careful.”

“Shepard, I’m serious.” He put his hand on her knee. “You should wake me up if you’re going to go. I’ll go with you. I hate the idea of you being caught alone with him. He should be locked up...that kind of sick threat…”

She rubbed his hand. “I appreciate the concern, Garrus, but I’ll be okay. It just set me a little on edge is all.”

“You know I’ve always got your back, right?” He looked at her with such sincerity that it was impossible to doubt him. “Don’t feel like it’s too much to ask me for help. I’ll drop everything for you, Shepard.”

Her cheeks tinged pink and she looked away from him. “I know, Garrus. But you won’t always be around. We lucked out with this placement, but it doesn’t mean I’m always going to have you by my side. I have to be able to take care of myself too. It means a lot that you’re always willing to fight for me. Tell you what, if you notice me slip out to fight and you see anybody leaving the cabin, just ping me on my omni-tool with a heads up. How about that?”

He nodded. “Okay, I guess. I usually do wake up when you sneak out.”

“You’re too light a sleeper.” She bumped her shoulder against his.

“Maybe you’re too loud.”

“Oh yeah, why don’t I wake anyone else up?”

He pressed his finger against his tongue, the turian equivalent of sticking a tongue out, and equally childish in nature. Shepard did the same and the two of them devolved into a fit of giggles, the weight of the day’s events lifting from her shoulders. Garrus had a way of always making her feel better, of knowing just what to say or do to wash away the stress she let compound so easily. It scared her to think of a placement without him, though she knew the day would come sooner or later. He’d been there to protect her practically her entire life; what would she do without him?

“I know you could have been using this little break to suck Licinia’s tongue out of her face or whatever, so I appreciate that you made time for me,” Shepard said, when they had recovered from their fit of laughter.

“I’ll find time for Licinia later. You know, if someone I knew didn’t spend every night in the rec hall, maybe I could meet her there.”

“Hm, maybe someone you know could take a break on Tuesday nights to recover.”

Garrus, for as awkward and gangly as Shepard thought he was, did well with girls their age. He had a way of fumbling over his words one minute only to smooth talk the next, and if they hadn’t been friends for so long, she would have found it as charming as other women seemed to. He hadn’t quite grown into himself yet, though, and for as much training as Castis had forced upon them as kids, his muscles were still developing. But every once in a while, when he flicked his mandibles into a grin, she thought maybe she understood what Licinia saw in him.

“I really don’t expect you to change your schedule for me,” Garrus insisted.

“I can handle one day if it’ll make you guys happy. But only if you promise me you’ll use protection.”

His mandibles flared and he stared at his feet. “We haven’t, er…”

“Oh, don’t get bashful now, you dork.” She nudged him. “I know you’re gonna.”

“Well, um,” he cleared his throat. “Anyway, I’ll let her know.”

Feeling far more content than she had since her sparring session, she rose to her feet, and she and Garrus made their way for the sleeping quarters, bumping into each other as they walked, all the way back to the cabin.


2167

Shepard had never kissed anyone, but she’d heard a lot about it from her friends. It seemed that every party she was allowed to go to, Garrus managed to kiss someone new, but no one wanted to kiss a human, and she was usually only invited to the parties because of her friendship with Garrus anyway.

Still, she had watched vids on the subject, had even asked her mother for advice, only for her mother to tell her, ‘Turians and humans don’t always kiss in the same way because their lips are different. You’ll know what to do when you meet the right person.’

Unfortunately, vids of turians and humans kissing were not exactly common, and her mother had placed strict restrictions on her extranet access. So she went to the only person she trusted to discuss such matters: Garrus.

Shepard was over at the Vakarian’s home so often that she never knocked anymore, had been given the passcode for entry long ago, and was never greeted with surprise when she entered. When she arrived to discuss important and secretive kissing questions with Garrus, she found Niera and Solana in the living room. Niera hadn’t been well lately, subject to frequent falling spells, and Castis was gone more and more often.

“Garrus is up in his room,” Solana said by way of greeting, before turning her attention to her back to her mother.

Solana was three years older and she seemed so mature and wise in Shepard’s eyes. Part of her looked up to Solana, viewed her as a sister even, but Solana also frequently chided Garrus and Shepard and treated them as if she were there mother, which they both resented - though Garrus resented it far more.

Shepard said a quick hello and thank you before darting up the stairs to find Garrus. When she stepped into his room, she shut the door behind her and looked around wildly, as though someone might be listening in on their top secret important conversation.

Garrus sat playing a game on his omni-tool, but closed it when he saw Shepard enter.

“What’s going on? Why are you acting so weird?”

“My mom blocked my access on the extranet, so I thought you could help me.” She climbed onto the bed next to him.

His subharmonics vibrated as he giggled, brow plate shifting. “What were you trying to look at that was blocked?”

Her face warmed. “Nothing...extreme. I just wanted to see…” Her cheeks grew warmer still. “My mom said turians and humans don’t necessarily kiss the same way and I...I wanted to know if a turian could kiss a human. But the vids I tried to watch were blocked.”

“Oh,” Garrus said simply.

“Don’t laugh at me or anything,” Shepard growled. “It’s not my fault I’ve never been kissed. If I was a turian…”

“I’m not laughing!” He promised.

“Well fine.” She crossed her arms. “So...do you think turians and humans can kiss? I mean I know humans...well I mean I don’t know from experience, but we use our lips. But I’ve heard humans can use their tongues too, so I figured they must be able to kiss like turians then.”

“Yeah but your tongue is kind of small.” Garrus observed her uncertainly. “I bet we could find a video of it. I saw some humans in Fornax.”

“Does your mom know you downloaded Fornax?” Shepard asked, face flushing pink at the suggestion. “My mom would kill me.”

“Of course she doesn’t know,” Garrus growled, clicking through his omni-tool to find a video of turians and humans. “I was just curious what aliens look like naked. You know, asari and humans look a lot alike from the neck down.”

Shepard wrinkled her nose. “Just find a video.”

His mandibles flared as he scrolled through the options. “A lot of these are...uh...not just kissing.”

“Well I don’t want to see that!”

Garrus sighed and powered down his omni-tool. For a moment, the two of them sat in silence, Shepard tugging and twirling her hair anxiously.

“We could just...try it,” Garrus suggested.

“What? The two of us? Kissing!?”

“Well you don’t have to sound so grossed out,” he grumbled. “I just thought I’d offer.”

Affection amongst turians was common and casual, but friendly kisses were typically done by flicking mandibles against each other; Shepard had always just rubbed her cheek against the mandible of whatever turian was greeting her with a friendly kiss, unable to reciprocate without mandibles of her own. Sexual or romantic kissing was a different protocol; something friends still tried, but Shepard felt strange about it.

“I guess we could just try it,” she conceded.

“Not if you don’t want to.”

“No!” She puffed her chest out. “Let’s just do it!”

So, shifting awkwardly next to each other, she approached his face with hers. Her palms were sweating and she felt her heartbeat pounding in her ears, unsure of what to do even as his mouth came closer and closer, slightly open, his blue tongue visible within. She tried to imagine how someone would kiss with their tongue, then she imagined accidentally choking on Garrus’ tongue; her chest tightened with anxiety.

But suddenly, their mouths were together, her lips meeting the rough, flexible plating of his own; his tongue slipping clumsily against hers. Even though his lips couldn’t move in quite the same way as hers, they still bent against hers in an approximation of a kiss. The entire thing lasted maybe ten seconds, and she felt nothing except nervousness until their lips parted.

“That was weird,” she said immediately.

Garrus’ mandibles flared with embarrassment and he looked away from her without saying anything.

“Was it weird for you too?” She asked.

It took him a moment to respond. “Uh, yeah. Weird.”

They never spoke of it again.

Chapter Text

2157

Septimus arrived to pick Hannah up for her first day of work almost two months to the day since she arrived on Oma Ker. She had left Jane with the Vakarians, who had a nanny to watch their children while they were at work; they trusted the nanny and Hannah trusted them, so it seemed a better option than a public daycare where turian children might bully or otherwise try to hurt Jane. Still, it was immensely difficult to leave her in the sole care of turians, but she couldn’t stand another day alone in her home: she needed to get back to work.

As the hover car drove them through the city, past the city limits and out into the endless green countryside where Hannah had first arrived, she noticed Septimus watching her from the corner of her eye.

“Yes?”

He looked away from her, his mandibles flaring away from his face. “Are you nervous?”

“I’m more nervous about leaving Jane alone than starting this job.”

“Jane will be just fine. She’s in good hands. I know the Vakarians’ nanny, and besides it’s impossible not to love that child of yours.”

At this, Hannah laughed, “Unfortunately, not everyone sees her like you do.”

He huffed. “Foolishness.”

For a moment they fell back into a comfortable silence while Hannah continued to worry about her daughter despite Septimus’ reassurances.

“I should warn you,” Septimus was the first to speak again. “The troops may not be...welcoming.”

“I’m not worried about that. I’m used to not being liked. I worked with a lot of old-fashioned, narrow-minded men in the military. They didn’t like a woman having authority over them. But I’m a lieutenant and plenty of them are still privates, so I don’t let it bother me.”

Septimus cocked his head. “They...disliked women?”

She shrugged. “Well, you know how it is. A lot of men are just like that. I’ve learned how to shrug it off.”

“I don’t understand. ‘Like’ what? Do humans treat women differently?”

Hannah nearly laughed out loud at the genuine note of confusion in Septimus’ voice. What would have seemed like a sarcastic question from any human she knew was completely sincere coming from him.

“You’re telling me turians don’t have any sort of sexism?”

Septimus only stared blankly at her. “Why should we treat women differently? They give birth to our young, that’s no easy task, they fight, they demonstrate skill and prowess in all sectors of society. What about them makes them inferior?”

The idea of a society without sexism was so foreign to Hannah that she simply couldn’t grasp it. “Well, humans have come a long way,” she offered. “But there’s still some men who think women are weak, or beneath them. We were relegated to housewives and sex objects for a long time.”

“Horrifying. And yet there are humans on the Citadel shouting that we’re the savages.” Septimus snorted unhappily. “Well I can guarantee that if the troops are reluctant to listen to you, it has nothing to do with you being a woman and everything to do with you being a human. There’s already some degree of rebellion toward the asari officers. The asari military is...structured differently than the hierarchy. There are still those who believe turians have nothing to learn from galactic society, that we’ve already perfected things ourselves. That kind of mentality leads to stagnation, of course. We’ll get them used to you eventually, I promise that much.”

“I appreciate the effort and the concern,” Hannah said.

She wasn’t worried about what the troops might think of her; she could handle abuse from anyone. If nothing else, it would help harden her, to protect and insulate Jane from the same abuse. It wouldn’t do to dwell on all the things that could go wrong, though, so instead she tried to focus on the positives. Starting back to work would help her find her new normal on this strange and alien planet, and from the sounds of it, she would get to meet other alien races through the position. She had only seen vids of the other aliens since the first contact occurred, it would be nice to see them face-to-face. Would they be as stern and severe as the turians had seemed at first? A few months among the turians had already taught her how uniquely individual each alien was as a person; perhaps she would approach these new aliens with a more open mind than she had the turians.

She wasn’t sure what to expect of the military complex outside of Sarlik; Septimus had described it as “modest”, but it was hard to say what turians considered modest in comparison to humans. A moderately sized military complex on an Alliance colony world equated to ten or twelve prefab units interconnected via skywalks and tunnels across a few hundred yards of space.

The Parien Fields military complex came into view slowly but surely, first a pinprick on the horizon, but growing in size and scope as the hover car drew closer. To say that the complex was considerably larger than what Hannah had envisioned would have been an understatement; it was a sprawling network of buildings, the tallest and largest of which stood ten stories high at the center of the complex like a beacon guiding them in. Docking ports on either end of the campus provided room for inbound ships, while hover cars lined a tidy lot encircling the center structure. The buildings weren’t pre-fab at all, but instead a brutalist concrete design.

Hannah must have hid her astonishment poorly, because Septimus chuckled when he turned to look at her.

“Different than you expected?” he asked.

She responded without tearing her gaze away from the buildings. “If this is ‘moderately sized’ I’d love to see what your large campuses look like.”

“This is nothing compared to some of the complexes on Palaven, but it certainly serves its purpose. Oma Ker has more training sites than nearly any other turian colony planet; this is just one of many. Elite units train in the northern wilds in small barracks, but otherwise our training facilities mostly look like this.”

The hover car made its descent toward the parking lot and Hannah noticed, mingled amongst the turians making their way to and fro across the campus, other races of aliens.

Most prominent and numerous amongst the other aliens were the asari. Hannah had read enough during her time off work after the relocation - and heard enough second-hand from Septimus and Castis - to know that asari had been exploring the galaxy the longest. Next to a turian, the asari seemed strikingly human, but ridged crests extending from their scalps were reminiscent of turian physiology.

Keep your head on straight, don’t stare, be polite . Hannah reminded herself of her etiquette as the hover car came to rest and the doors slid open. Septimus gathered a briefcase from the back seat and Hannah gathered up her scuffed brown satchel and slung it over her shoulder. What seemed like eons ago, she had bought the satchel with her first paycheck from the Alliance; it had served her well on five separate ships and three colony worlds and now here on Oma Ker.

More than once as she followed Septimus through the lot and across the campus, Hannah had to remind herself again not to stare as foreign new aliens passed her by, though most of them stared so pointedly that she shouldn’t have worried herself over it. There were plenty of other aliens, but she was the only human.

What about the other Sarlik Twenty? She’d heard at the last meeting that most of the other Alliance marines were being trained for military-liaison positions similar to Hannah’s, and she was sure some of them had even been assigned to Parien Fields, but whether or not she would have any interaction with them was beyond her. If they had said during their last meeting, Hannah had already forgotten.

“We’ll be stationed in building fourteen,” Septimus explained as they walked. “We’ll start with introductions.” His brow plates furrowed and he glanced at his watch. “Troops will be running morning drills before breakfast. We’ll have time to get you acquainted with the others before they show up for their galactic military class.”

“What kind of troops are they?” Hannah thought to ask.

“There are four units stationed here between deployments as well as two bootcamp units, so there’s some amount of diversity. The bootcamp units are a bunch of fledgling teenagers barely out of the cowl, but don’t expect them to be the most averse to you. The older troops in the espionage units are going to be your biggest problem, if I had to bet on it. Espionage units are still under Hierarchy authority, but they’re as close as you can get to a Spectre without working for the council. They don’t like being taught by outsiders. But they’ll follow orders or they’ll face reprimands.”

Hannah had a thousand questions running through her mind including ‘what the hell is a Spectre?’, but she held her tongue and catalogued the questions for later.

It seemed to take ages to get to building fourteen, winding through the sprawling campus, passing through buildings, down hallways and corridors where more curious faces stared on as Hannah and Septimus passed. Eventually, though, they made it to the office Hannah was to share with the other alien military liaisons.

It was a small, square room with four desks crammed inside, three of which were cluttered with papers and framed pictures of aliens. Two of the aliens in question had already arrived and were seated behind their desks.

An asari with brilliant purple skin, pink freckles dotting her forehead and scalp ridges, sat with her chair leaned back as far as it would go, her feet propped up on the desk in front of her and her arms folded tightly across her chest. She wore a simple tanktop and decidedly non-military issue pants, with a pair of scuffed combat boots. Next to her, in full military uniform, looking on at the asari with his lips pressed into a tight line, was what Hannah knew to be a salarian. Tall and thin with orb-like eyes; the salarian looked nearly exactly like Hannah had always imagined aliens might look.

“Keran, Jora,” Septimus addressed the salarian and the asari respectively, “this is lieutenant Hannah Shepard, our new military liaison. Hannah, this is Commander Keran Dorle and Jora T’sevi.”

Jora eyed Hannah up and down. “Taller than I expected. More muscular too. All the humans I’ve seen so far have been these waifish little things.” She sighed and shrugged. “I guess she’ll do.”

“Pleasure to meet you, lieutenant,” Keran said, offering his hand as he cast a sidelong glare at Jora. His voice was far higher in pitch than Hannah had anticipated. “Septimus sent me your file so I could read up on you. I hope you don’t mind. You have a fascinating service record. I’m sure you’ll be able to bring a unique perspective to our lessons.”

Hannah thought she was prepared for meeting new aliens, that once she got over the shock of first contact, each subsequent encounter with a new species would be a breeze. The experience of meeting two entirely new species of sapient creatures, however, was more startling than she’d prepared herself for. Yet again, she had to remind herself not to stare. After a moment, she realized she was still grasping Keran’s hand, but he had been too polite to say anything - she promptly dropped it and corrected her posture.

“This week Hannah will be observing the two of you teach while she comes up with her own lesson plans.” Septimus offered Hannah the empty desk and took a seat at the desk next to hers.

“How old are you?” Jora asked. Her voice was gruff and her cadence abrupt.

“I...why?” Hannah balked.

“I want to know how much experience I’m working with. Dorle over here’s barely twenty, so I may as well be working with a child .”

Hannah observed the salarian. He looked far older than twenty, but she knew aliens had different lifespans than humans, not that she could remember how long-lived salarians were. Asari had stuck out in her readings for their incredible longevity, rivaled only by another species known as krogan.

“I’m twenty-eight,” Hannah offered.

“Pfft.” Jora rolled her eyes. “Children, the lot of you.”

“Ms. T’sevi is four-hundred and eighty,” Septimus explained. “She reminds us of this fact constantly.”

Hannah simply couldn’t fathom living for that amount of time.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why aren’t you wearing a uniform?” Hannah asked the abrasive asari.

Jora curled her lip. “Why would I? You want to be part of the galaxy, kiddo? You need to educate yourself about other cultures. Don’t expect me to explain everything to you. I’m certainly not speaking on behalf of my entire race.”

Hannah couldn’t help but feel a little annoyed at the asari’s response. She’d had two months to learn as much as she possibly could about dozens of galactic civilizations while simultaneously adjusting to life on an alien planet, trying to make friends with aliens who had been shooting at her two months prior, and raising a toddler. She thought it was only fair that the aliens cut her a little slack on her ignorance. She supposed not everyone would be as patient and willing to help as Septimus had been.

“I guess I’ll look it up myself then,” she replied quietly.

“Good.”

“The asari military has no official uniform,” Keran explained. This earned him a sneer and an eyeroll from Jora. “Their military is made up of individual units hailing from cities and colonies. Miss T’Sevi served with the Serrice Guard as a huntress before being assigned to her post here on Oma Ker.”

“Tell her my whole fucking life story, why don’t you?” Jora hissed.

“Do the asari not have command positions?”

Keran opened his mouth to answer, but it seemed Jora’s desire to explain her own culture over a salarian’s explanation outweighed her reticence to give Hannah any details.

“There’s a hierarchical structure. Nothing like these tightwad turians. No official titles or anything, but people know who they answer to.” She glanced at Septimus before returning her gaze to Hannah. “You know they say a turian can shove a piece of coal up their ass and it’ll turn into a diamond?”

Hannah failed to stifle the laughter this statement elicited and was surprised when the corners of Jora’s mouth twitched into a smile.

“A brilliant example of wit,” Septimus drawled. “I’ve never heard that one before.”

“Case in point.” Jora shrugged.

“I’d be happy to tell you about the salarian military, if you’re interested,” Keran piped in.

“Oh goddess, tell him you aren’t. Once he gets talking about this shit he never stops. Fucking salarians, I swear…”

Keran narrowed his eyes at Jora and she pressed her finger against her nose, turning it up in a surprisingly familiar display of childishness. Hannah wondered if some social cues weren’t universal.

“No, it’s okay. I’d love to hear about it,” she told Keran. Jora groaned loudly.

“Ehem. The salarian military stands out in the galactic community in that we’ve never been taken by surprise in an attack. We utilize intelligence to inform all of our military maneuvers and-“

“What did I tell you?” Jora interrupted.

This earned her another sour look from Keran. “I was working with the Special Task Group for the last three years, but I was recommended for this post by my commanding officer. It’s been an interesting and informative experience teaching turians. We have a similar program with our military, but the asari that taught my class was...more eloquent. To say the least.”

“Fuck you too,” Jora spat.

“As I said.”

“They’re such a joy to work alongside,” Septimus chuckled. “We also have an elcor on the team and, it took some negotiating, but I was able to convince the higher-ups to instate a quarian in our naval training classes. They share an office down the hall.”

The names of the aliens sounded familiar to Hannah, but she couldn’t quite keep them straight from the many images she’d seen in her handbooks, so she just nodded and made a mental note to read up more on their cultures.

“It’s an easy job,” Jora said. “You could bullshit half of it and these welps wouldn’t know the difference.” At the stern look Septimus fixed her with, she added, “ Not that I do that.”

“Miss T’sevi is being typically flippant. The position is an honor. You should be proud to be one of the first humans serving such a role,” Keran told her.

“I think I’ll enjoy the position. It’s just going to be nice to get back to work. After two months at home spending every waking moment with my toddler-“

“Oh you have a child? How old is she? I myself have a daughter.”

Keran offered forth a frame from his desk. Hannah was surprised to see him standing with an asari, the two of them holding a tiny blue baby between them.

Septimus observed the picture as well. “I’ll explain asari mating to you after work,” he whispered.

“You’re telling me that’s his actual child?” Hannah had naturally assumed the baby was adopted.

Septimus flicked his mandibles into a grin and said nothing more. Hannah returned the photo to Keran.

“Your daughter is beautiful. Mine is a bit older than that. She’s three, and I’m happy to say she’s been adjusting to this new life far better than I have.”

“Children are very adaptable. And highly intelligent, curious little things. I’m sure she’ll learn to fit in just fine.”

Hannah was less sure about the latter statement. Jane got along well with the Vakarian children, but Hannah knew not every turian would be so welcoming to her child.

“What about you, Jora? Do you have any children?”

Jora shrugged. “Maybe. Who knows.”

This only made Hannah more eager to hear Septimus’ explanation of asari mating.

“Keran’s lesson plan today will focus on salarian use of biological warfare. There’s a bit of galactic history involved, which will be good for you to learn about,” Septimus explained. “Then I believe Jora is going to discuss huntress espionage tactics. You’ll be able to see how their lessons are structured and learn a bit about other cultures in the process. I think it will be a good easing in.”

The truth was, now that Hannah had met these other aliens, she was more acutely aware than ever of how nascent humanity was compared to the rest of galactic society, and how little she truly knew. There was so much to learn that it seemed, if not impossible, then at the very least daunting. What would these other aliens think of her? She had to consider that for many of them, she was representing her entire race - that thought frightened her more than anything.

Taking a deep, calming breath, she steeled herself. She’d been scared when, at eighteen, she’d made the decision to join the Alliance on a whim; she’d been scared again when they’d promoted her to lead a unit, and again when she found out she was pregnant with Jane, yet all of those events had made her who she was.

She would learn from this experience, she would show her strength, and she would prove her worth in this new society.

Failure was not an option.

Chapter Text

2172

It was the first day of combat simulations and it was absolutely freezing outside. The air was colder than it had been since Shepard’s arrival to the barracks, so cold that the relentless downpour of rain had turned to ice that pelted against her skin as she took her place in the marsh surrounding the barracks.

Combat simulations were run using old mechs shaped like aliens: mostly krogan and batarians, with a handful of vorcha and asari thrown in; these were the races they would most likely encounter running raids against pirating operations and merc groups. The mechs were sophisticated when they were designed, roughly twenty years prior, but now they malfunctioned frequently and looked clunky and awkward. They would upgrade to fellow officers with concussive rounds once they had passed the first simulations, and then it would be time to see real action. Shepard longed for that day.

For now, though, she was stuck waist-deep in swamp water, holding her sniper rifle with steady arms - just like Castis taught her. She was hidden by the brush - odd frilled plants jutting high out of the water and providing a perfect spot for cover. Commander Aetius had given them instructions as though it were a real raid on a pirate squad: a group of batarians operating a slaving ring had been spotted in the wilds. Their task was to fan out across the marsh and push the batarians from their cover, taking down as many as they could without killing the ‘civilians’ they had captured (a group of asari mechs with the hands and legs bound).

Nilkus and Renia, acting with far more confidence than they ought to have, took the lead charging toward the batarian encampment with seven of the others, including Licinia, and the powerhouse that was Baltair. They specialized in close-combat: shotguns, assault rifles, and hand-to-hand. Shepard and Garrus, by virtue of being specialized in sniper rifles, had taken positions farther out with the goal of shooting oncoming batarians as the pursuing squad drove them out. Somewhere in the brush, Tarquin was hiding as well: he and Garrus had a secondary role of overloading the batarian weapons systems if they drew too close for sniper fire.

The only thing keeping Shepard from freezing to death, submerged in water with ice pelting against her helmet, was the thermal regulation undersuit she wore. Garrus had one too, she knew, though she could almost hear him still complaining about how cold it was. Turians weren’t suited for the cold in any capacity, but Garrus was an especially big baby about. She used to tease him by pressing her cold hands against his back, which positively infuriated him, but always made her laugh - he was so damn trusting that he would fall for it every time.

The thought made her smile, despite the horrendous conditions she found herself in. It was quiet, save for the sound of the sleet falling heavy in the marsh. Nilkus and his crew were long since out of range, though the thought had crossed Shepard’s mind that she could snag him in her crosshairs and hit him with a powerful concussive shot to the face before he got out of range.

Save it, Jane, he’s not worth the punishment you’d face for that.

“Batarians are in sight,” Licinia’s voice crackled over the comm link in Shepard’s helmet. “Circling the camp now to draw them out.”

“How many are we expecting?” Garrus asked.

“There’s at least twenty.” Baltair was the one to respond. “Hopefully less coming your way when we flush them out.”

“Moving in on my count,” Nilkus said.

Of course he was playing the leader. Nepotism may have gotten him this far, but it was rare in turian society to receive a promotion or title in the military purely on family name. Shepard simply couldn’t imagine any unit in which Nilkus ever made it higher than a lieutenant at best - certainly he would never be a commander - he was too self-serving to ever do anything that would make him worthy of a higher title.

Let him play pretend. You’re here on your own merits.

“Five,” Nilkus began the countdown, “four, three, two...GO”

Gunfire crackled over the line as the strike team rushed into the batarian encampment. Shepard held her rifle ready, peering through the scope and watching the line of trees to the west. After a few seconds of heavy fire, the mechs came running from the encampment. Well, running was a strong word - they jittered forward at full speed, which wasn’t slow by any means, but not nearly as graceful as an actual living creature.

Shepard fired off a shot at one of the oncoming mechs at the same time as Garrus and it fell in a heap on the ground.

“I got that one!” Shepard said.

“Like hell you did. I got it.”

“Vakarian, you might as well put your rifle down and let me show you how it’s done.”

“Oh, big head for such a little human.”

They had always had a good banter during target practice, which made it more fun, and took away some of the stress and pressure of lining up a shot.

“Spirits, get a room,” one of their squadmates said.

“This isn’t a game, privates.” The commander’s voice broke through over the line, silencing all of them.

In the span of a few seconds, Garrus and Shepard picked off three more batarians, while some fell from gunfire to the rear. The mechs were moving faster than Shepard realized, though, because they were gaining on them quickly. She picked off two more in time with Garrus, then reloaded her thermal clip. Her gun was efficient and powerful, but it required constant replacement of thermal clips to handle the power it put out - years of training meant she could replace the clip quickly, but it still drew time away from her fire.

Bap bap bap. Three more fell as more mechs rushed forward.

“Victus, on your right.” Shepard called. “Past my line of fire. If I shoot now I could hit you.”

Tarquin didn’t respond for a few seconds. “Shit. My omni-tool is jammed. Hold on, I’m trying to fix it.”

Shepard tried to line up the shot, but she knew that just beyond it, Tarquin was hidden in the brush.

“Vakarian?”

“Busy.” Another crack of gunfire.

Victus you need to disarm it NOW.

“I can’t!”

Fuck.

Without thinking, Shepard holstered her gun and launched herself from her hiding spot, quickly reaching to her back for her assault rifle. She wasn’t as steady with an assault rifle, for any number of reasons, but it would do the job in close-range fire. Castis was the one who had imparted the wisdom of never leaving a teammate behind if you could avoid it - if she could take care of the mech closing in on Tarquin’s location, she could take cover with him and resume sniper fire.

Running as fast as her legs would carry her, which was significantly faster after four weeks of morning runs trying to outstrip Baltair, she fired off her assault rifle on the batarian approaching Tarquin’s hideout. The force of the gunfire slowed her movement somewhat, recoiling into her chest, but mercifully dampened by her hardsuit. She found her mark quickly and, after a few rounds of fire, the mech short-circuited and fell face-first into the marsh water.

Shepard continued running as a volley of gunfire from two mechs several yards away buffeted off of her shields. She holstered her gun and leaped into cover approximately where she knew Tarquin was hiding.

All at once, she found herself sprawled out on top of a bewildered Tarquin. For a moment, they stared at each other, and she felt a knot settle in her stomach - unfamiliar and uncertain - then she rolled off of him, grabbed her sniper rifle, and resumed firing as though nothing had happened.

“What just happened, Shepard?” Garrus called over the comm link.

“Neutralized a threat. Victus is here. You fixed your omni-tool yet?”

“It’s jammed, I don’t know what’s wrong with it. All I’ve got is my pistol.”

“Pistol’s better than nothing. Pull it out and start shooting.”

She lined up a mech in her sights and heard Tarquin shuffle and begin firing his own weapon.

The strike team wasn’t exactly pulling their weight, in Shepard’s opinion. They should have been facing down far fewer batarians with the strike team at the rear of the fleeing ‘pirates’. She almost vocalized as much over the comm when an answer came of its own accord.

“Dentillion accidentally shot one of the hostages,” Licinia said.

“I was making a sacrifice to take down the largest mech and-“ Nilkus protested.

“We need to focus on taking down the fleeing pirates. The prisoners will be fine in the meantime!”

“I think we should-“

“Need I remind you that this is an active combat situation?” Commander Aetius broke over the line. “You were given orders. This isn’t bootcamp anymore, your actions in training ultimately have consequences on your placement when we deploy. Work cohesively or you risk the whole team. You might all take a lesson from private Shepard - your squad comes first or else you’ll find yourself alone and outnumbered.”

Shepard could hardly believe her ears. The commander had gone out of his way to avoid complimenting her in every other victory she’d seen since they began training. For him to commend her in front of the whole team during an active battle simulation was entirely unexpected. She could only imagine how infuriated Nilkus was.

Tarquin fired another shot, taking down the closest approaching mech while Shepard reloaded her thermal clip. From his spot to the east, Garrus was doing a good job of picking off the mechs as well. Shepard would never have vocalized it out loud, but she thought the three of them were carrying the team.

Of course, there was no room for glory on a turian battlefield. It wasn’t something you could claim, only something society could bestow upon you after the fact. Glory was earned, not taken - a lesson Nilkus had clearly never learned. Despite societal standards surrounding duty, honor, and service for the greater good, families with strong roots in the military and centuries upon centuries of high-ranking officers often bred bad apples. Complacency and a life amongst the Hierarchy’s most elite soldiers created lazy, self-entitled brats; Nilkus wasn’t the only turian from a powerful family to behave the way he did, though he was certainly the most heinous example Shepard could think of.

Let him keep trying to show off and one-up his team members - maybe it would get him kicked off of the squad. Shepard didn’t see eye to eye with the commander on everything, but she agreed that cohesiveness and obedience in battle were the only way to stay alive and limit casualties. Bullheaded glory-hounds were the types that got entire squads slaughtered.

“How many still standing?” Garrus asked.

“From our vantage point? Maybe eight or nine. Kovian, how many are you counting from your position?”

Licinica’s voice crackled over the line, whispering as she counted, “Seven...eight...nine here.”

“We can handle nine. My suggestion is to send back two members of the strike squad to free the captives, send the rest forward to take the batarians from behind. Vakarian, Victus, and I will continue to pick them off from the front, so try to stay out of our sights, or at least call out if you’re coming in hot.”

Between her mother, Castis, and Septimus, Shepard had learned her fair share of military tactical strategies, to say nothing of the lessons her surly aunt Jora had taught her. It was one of the few benefits of being an alien - her exposure to multiple societies from a young age brought a unique view to the battlefield. She wasn’t trying to pretend she was the commander of this unit, but the plan was sound, and the strike team needed to start pulling their weight.

“Who died and made you commander, Shepard?” Renia hissed.

“I’m not commanding anyone,” Shepard retorted. “But our initial tactical plan went cowl over crest and we need to neutralize this threat. I’m just making a suggestion.”

“I’m with Shepard,” Tarquin said. “The sooner we can take care of these batarians and free the captives, the better.”

“It’s a good plan,” this time Baltair spoke. “It’s stupid to ignore it just because you don’t like Shepard because she’s a human.”

“If we let the captives go, they could run into fire,” Nilkus stuttered a fairly pathetic excuse.

“Not if you herd them in the other direction,” Garrus said. “Look, we don’t have time to sit here and argue. We’re not moving from our positions, so you need to make an executive decision, strike team!”

“Fine. Laranis, Anulis, head back and start freeing the captives,” Nilkus barked, clearly eager to appear commanding after being shown up by a human of all things.

“What? I don’t want to go back for them. I should be on the front line with my shotgun,” Renia complained.

“I’ll go back,” Licinia offered. “We just need to get moving.”

There was some prolonged arguing about following orders in which Renia complained that Nilkus wasn’t the team’s commander either - at least she was equal opportunity in shooting down any delusions of grandeur amongst the squad. The squabbling continued for several minutes - with Tarquin and Garrus attempting to stop it twice before giving up and continuing their focus on the oncoming mechs - before commander Aetius broke over the line again.

“Enough! You’re soldiers, not bootcamp trainees. Stop acting like fledglings and make a decision. I’m starting to wonder how any of you got appointed to this squad.”

That ended the argument with finality. Licinia and their squadmate, Druten, took off to free the captives while the rest of the strike team came in from behind to mow down the rest of the batarians. What should have been over in fifteen minutes, barring resistance or an ambush from hidden mechs, took nearly forty. When the last mech fell, Shepard holstered her gun and fell back into the mud, sweat dripping down her neck now despite the chill in the air.

“What a clusterfuck,” Tarquin said, muting his squad-wide comm line.

“No kidding.”

It didn’t feel like a victory at all. Shepard felt exhausted and irritated by the utter display of incompetence. Nilkus was the clear weak point in this squad, though he would undoubtedly find a way to blame his indecision on her. Sure, some of the others were likely there because of their parents’ military standing, but they had at least shown some semblance of ability on the field. Nilkus’ desire to look good rather than do what he was supposed to could have cost them all their lives in a real battle.

“I want all of you to report back to the barracks immediately,” the commander said. “We need to have a discussion about this simulation and your inability to work as a cohesive unit.”

Tarquin struggled to his feet, the muddy marsh making a nasty squelching sound as he pulled his legs free. He offered a hand to Shepard and pulled her up and they both pulled their helmets off despite the icy rain, heat rising off of their scalps in visible lines.

And then she felt it again, as they locked eyes for a moment: a heavy knot in her stomach, a warmth in her cheeks unrelated to the exertion of battle. It wasn’t that she had never felt it before, but she had grown so accustomed to ignoring it throughout her life that she wasn’t sure what to do with it now. She’d had crushes before, but there was the unspoken knowledge that an attractive turian from a family with good standing in the Hierarchy would never be interested in a human - and when they were, it was never the kind of interest Shepard appreciated.

She hadn’t thought much of Tarquin, except that he was one of the few squad members who didn’t mind her presence. He was attractive - compared to the other men on the squad, he had grown into his long limbs, and his muscles were already well defined.

It was normal, even encouraged, to blow off steam with fellow squadmates. It often bred more cohesive battles, and it kept recruits from getting distracted in the field. That was why Garrus and Licinia were fooling around, after all. They were all friends, certainly, but Shepard knew as well as they both did that there was little romance involved in whatever Garrus and Licinia were doing. It was normal for two young, attractive turians to explore their sexuality together. Shepard felt a little pang of sadness, wondering if she would ever experience that herself.

She realized she’d been staring at Tarquin, then, and quickly snapped her attention away from him. It wasn’t worth dwelling on. At best, he would politely refuse her if she broached the subject, and at worst he would tell the entire squad about it: ‘What a big joke, Shepard the human thinks a turian would ever want her without being embarrassed about it.’

Tarquin’s mandibles flicked into a grin and she felt her cheeks flush further.

“Ready to head back and get our hides chewed out?” He asked.

“Can’t wait,” she laughed.

They met Garrus a few dozen yards to the east. His face was set in a grimace as he greeted them.

“That was a disaster. If you hadn’t thrown out your tactical suggestion, the strike team would have been running around like pyjaks for another hour. Now we’re all going to get berated for what boils down to Nilkus’ mistake.”

Shepard squeezed Garrus’ arm. “We did our best. That’s all we can do.”

His face softened somewhat at that and his mandibles flicked into a smile. “The commander thought you did a good job. You should be proud of that.”

“You should,” Tarquin agreed, to the surprise of both Shepard and Garrus. They both looked at him and he shrugged. “The commander’s always ragging on you for stuff he’d commend someone else for. I mean, I think you’ve more than proven your worth in the last four weeks. You earned your spot on this team, and you’ve clearly got leadership skills, you deserve to be noticed for that.”

Shepard’s face grew so warm that she was thankful she was already flushed from battle, and from the surrounding cold of the marsh. She could barely acknowledge the compliment with more than a muted ‘thanks’.

She noticed Garrus’ eyes flitting back and forth between the two of them, and heard his subvocals buzz, almost imperceptibly, with a questioning note. She wished she could respond in kind, but it was enough to meet his gaze with an unspoken ‘I’ll tell you later’.

It was a good three miles back to camp, and by the time the whole squad had arrived, they were cold, wet, and utterly exhausted. The strike team brought with them the freed asari mech captives, which they powered down in a heap in the center of the barracks for retrieval from the tech team stationed to the south in the nearest city.

Without being told, the troops lined up in alphabetical order, hands behind their backs, awaiting the commander’s beratement. He paced before them, examining them all with his beady, hawkish eyes, mandibles set tight against his face, brow plates furrowed.

“Today’s simulation was a complete and utter display of incompetence,” he said, after several tense minutes of pacing. “I’ve seen my share of poorly coordinated attacks in my time in the military, but this,” he sighed and shook his head, “this was a complete failure. We have six more weeks to be ready for a ground assault. After today’s display, I have absolutely no confidence in our ability to carry out the mission assigned to us. This is an elite squad. You beat out thousands of other recruits to be here. What you showed today was that only four of you actually deserve to be here.”

For a moment, silence reigned. Shepard desperately wished she could see the other recruits, but she feared moving even an inch from her alert stance facing the commander.

“Privates Dessius, Kovian, Shepard, and Vakarian.” The commander said their names, and Shepard immediately tensed up, so used to the commander chastising her for any and every mistake. “The four of you showed level-headedness, a willingness to bend to suggestions and orders for the sake of the mission and, based on the readouts from your weapons, you took down the most batarian mechs during the assault.”

Shepard’s chest swelled with sudden and unexpected pride. Of course her superiors had commended her before - it was what earned her this position - but it felt especially meaningful coming from a commander who seemed to dislike her at every turn.

“Don’t let this go to your heads,” commander Aetius added, though it did nothing to dampen Shepard’s suddenly lifted spirits. “On this team, I am the only commander, but out on the field, if one of your squadmates makes a meaningful suggestion that could improve the odds of winning... you follow that suggestion. Unless a member of your team is willfully leading you to harm for their own selfish gain,” at this, he paused and his gaze flitted in Nilkus’ direction, “you should listen to your teammates. Obedience and cohesiveness are key, but so is the ability to improvise in a sticky situation.”

Another long, uncomfortable silence. Icy rain continued to pelt down against the recruits as they stood in a line, freezing and sore, waiting for the commander to continue his tirade.

“Tomorrow, we’ll assemble at 0300 instead of 0400. You’ll begin your morning run an hour early and then we’ll have an hour in the rec hall to practice trust exercises. Failure to turn up or take this practice seriously will result in expulsion from the program, period.

“Yes, sir!” They all spoke in unison, saluting and bowing their heads.

“Now get out of my sight, and be ready to prove your worth tomorrow. I’m not training a bunch of feathery fledglings.”

The commander took his leave, stalking across the barracks to his cabin. Almost as soon as he was out of sight, Nilkus stomped across the line to Shepard. Nearly as quickly as Nilkus had moved, Garrus and Licinia were suddenly at Shepard’s side.

“You think you’re such hot shit,” Nilkus jabbed his finger against Shepard’s chest. “I’ll end you, Shepard. You don’t belong in this unit.”

“Sounds like you’re projecting, Dentillion,” Tarquin spoke from beside Garrus.

Nilkus looked stricken by the use of his surname outside of the field. His mandibles flared and he turned his ire on Tarquin. “What did you just say?”

“You’re mad that Shepard can hold her own. She isn’t the only one the commander applauded today, so why single her out?”

“I think we know the answer to that,” Garrus folded his arms tightly across his chest.

“Just leave it, Nilkus. Shepard can’t hold her own without her friends to help her. We’ll prove that eventually,” Renia grabbed Nilkus’ shoulder and urged him away from the group toward the showers.

Some of the others milled away as well, if only to avoid a confrontation, which would only anger the commander further if he found out about it. Licinia squeezed Shepard’s arm, her mandibles twitching as she turned to her.

“You did great and Nilkus knows it. I think he’s a little scared now that he’s realized he’ll actually have to hold his own to earn his place here.”

“Thanks, Lis.”

Eventually, they all moved to the showers, though they mercifully missed Nilkus and Renia, as they were finishing up just as Shepard and her friends entered. The hot water nearly scalded Shepard’s skin as she stepped beneath it, but she stood there until the warmth leached into her bones, displacing the cold that had settled there during the assault against the mechs.

Garrus and Licinia took advantage of the free time allotted them post-simulation, and disappeared to the rec hall almost as soon as they were done showering. When Shepard had dressed, she rushed to the relative safety of the mess hall to enjoy a hot meal and avoid Nilkus and Renia at all costs.

The mess hall was empty save for mess officer Greniel, an ancient turian who said little, but was nice enough about providing Shepard with her levo nutrients - as bland and tasteless as they were. Once or twice over the past four weeks, he had slipped her dextro seasonings to add to the unflavored rations, and when she thanked him, he only shrugged and moved on to serving the rest of the squad.

As Shepard sat down to eat her gruel, the door to the hall opened, and she froze, hoping it wasn’t Nilkus and Renia come to find her alone. To her relief, it was Tarquin who walked in, grabbing himself a plate and settling down across from her.

“I should thank you for saving my ass,” he said by way of greeting. “That mech would have been on me and I’d be sporting some bruises from concussive rounds if you hadn’t made the decision to jump out of hiding.”

Shepard shrugged, and tried desperately to control the warmth blossoming in her cheeks. “I was just doing what I thought was right.”

“Half of our squad wouldn’t have done that. You know, this might make me sound crazy, but I wonder if my omni-tool jammed because it was sabotaged. Nilkus was so big about leading the strike team. If I’d been able to jam the batarians’ weapons, it would have earned you and Garrus even more shots.”

“I wouldn’t put it past him.”

Tarquin bobbed his head, displaying, for a moment, his impressive fringe before lifting his gaze back to meet Shepard’s. If Garrus had done the same in front of Licinia, Shepard wouldn’t have taken it to mean anything other than what it clearly meant: a flirting display as old as time itself. Presented it with it now, alone with Tarquin except for officer Greniel, whose back was turned to them anyway, Shepard did mental somersaults to find any other explanation for Tarquin’s behavior.

Somewhat stupidly, she shoved more of her tasteless levo gruel into her mouth and said nothing.

“Jane,” Tarquin said.

That certainly got her attention. She blinked at him, mouth slightly ajar. “You shouldn’t call me that.”

“I get it,” he shrugged. “The whole defensiveness. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for you. But it feels strange to call you Shepard off the field. It’s just the two of us.” He bobbed his head again - the gesture was unmistakable. “You’re really impressive, Jane. This might sound crazy, but sometimes when I watch you during training...you almost look turian. The way you move…”

“You...watch me during training?”

His mandibles flared. “Sometimes.”

Did Tarquin... like her? It was a childish thought, but also so unbelievable that she refused to acknowledge the very solid evidence before her. He was displaying his fringe to her, calling her by her first name, telling her that he noticed her. But he was the son of a general, and handsome to boot - he could have anyone he went after. Why her?

Buried deep in her brain was the ever-present, lingering fear: he’s too good for me. I’m only a human.

His hand reached across the table, his talons brushing gingerly across the top of her hand. He wrapped his fingers around hers with some hesitance.

“If I’m being too forward...I understand. I don’t know a lot about human customs, but-”

Shepard laughed suddenly, surprising herself. “Neither do I.”

The two of them grinned, like the stupid, hormonal recruits that they were.

“I thought maybe...if you wanted to, er, blow off some steam tonight…”

The implication took the heat creeping up Shepard’s neck and directed it down into her belly, and further still to her groin. She was embarrassed to admit to him that she had absolutely no experience. He must have read the hesitation in her face, because he let go of her hand as his mandibles pinched against his face.

“Oh. I’m sorry. You don’t…”

“No. No!” Shepard grabbed his hand before he could withdraw it completely. “I do. I...I’m just...most turians are embarrassed to admit they’re interested in me, so I haven’t... spirits, this is so embarrassing. I’ve never…”

Tarquin laughed. “Well, I’ve never done it with a human before, so we can just take it slow and see what happens, yeah? Step by step. We can learn together.”

“Really?” She was sure she was dreaming.

“Really.”

If not now, then when? She liked Tarquin, and he had never shied away from treating her with respect, even in front of the squad. Didn’t she deserve to have fun and experiment? She’d missed out in bootcamp, but now the opportunity was presenting itself, she ought to pursue it.

“Okay. Meet me tonight in the rec hall at 1100.”

Tarquin’s mandibles flicked into a grin. He nodded, and the two of them continued to eat their food in a comfortable silence, their fingers still entwined at the center of the table.

Chapter Text

2157

The first week of observations for Hannah’s new position as military liaison at Parien Fields went roughly exactly as she thought it might. Keran’s presentations on salarian military structure and tactics were voluminous slide-sets with vids and pictures, containing such a wealth of information that half of the troops in each class gave up trying to copy it all down halfway through in favor of highlighting key passages with their omni-tools. In contrast, Jora’s presentations were spartan, and mostly consisted of her pacing in front of the projector screen while she barked out personal anecdotes from her time as an asari commando, the troops staring on in awe - and with just a tiny bit of fear in their eyes.

During the first week, Hannah was also able to observe the other alien species in their training. There were the elcor: massive quadrupedal creatures unable to express emotion through cadence, who announced their inflection with words before each sentence, the hanar: floating jellyfish-like creatures suspended in mass effect fields who referred to themselves always in the third-person as ‘this one’, and the quarians: trapped within enviro-suits thanks to their weakened immune system, isolated to a flotilla for centuries after their homeworld was overrun by the very artificial intelligence systems they had created to help them. They each brought their own unique input and experience, but it didn’t take long for Hannah to realize that each also fit into a different tier within galactic society.

The turians, asari, and salarians clearly occupied the highest rungs of the societal ladder. They were the only species that sat on the galactic Council, which oversaw law across the galaxy, and as such they were treated with more respect by the troops that passed through each classroom. The elcor were looked down-upon by many for their inability to express emotion through body-language, the hanar were considered religious zealots, and the quarians were called suit-rats by haughty troops when they thought they were outside of earshot. Hannah could only imagine how they talked about humans, but she wouldn’t let it get to her.

She took comfort in getting to know the other social outcasts. Perhaps her favorite of her new coworkers was the quarian: Rosa’Seera vas Yaara, but just Rosa for short. There was no making out what she might look like behind the red and pink enviro-suit she wore, with the pink-tinted mask obscuring her face, but she was incredibly friendly, and perhaps the most welcoming of all Hannah’s new colleagues. She admitted a particular fear of Jora, who was abrasive, but would just as quickly crack jokes so long as the recipient dished back whatever she served. When Hannah informed Rosa as much, she began paying visits to the office Jora, Keran, and Hannah shared - and while at first Jora had been downright rude to the quarian - with each subsequent visit she had let up a little, until eventually the four of them spent afternoons and breaks between classes exchanging jokes and teaching each other idioms and crude phrases from their respective cultures.

As Septimus had promised, it was the older troops, including the intelligence units, who seemed to have the most trouble with Hannah when she finally began teaching on her own. The younger troops, fresh out of bootcamp, were intensely curious about humanity for the most part, and asked a multitude of questions unrelated to the Alliance military. After the first week of this, Hannah learned to curb their questions with the promise that each class she would teach them something new about human culture before she began her military lessons.

The intelligence groups, mostly filled with career military turians, were far less welcoming. They questioned her presence repeatedly, spoke over her, and addressed Septimus with questions instead of speaking to her directly.

But she wouldn’t let it last long. She had dealt with far worse from chauvinists in the Alliance and she wouldn’t let a bunch of haughty turians who knew nothing about humanity get the upper hand on her. At the end of her first week of teaching, one of the older turians had asked,

“What makes you qualified to teach us when the humans couldn’t even keep us off their colony after they opened Relay 314?”

“I will note, Harron, that the humans were besting us on Shanxi, and would have summarily handed us our asses if the Council had not intervened,” Septimus said.

“Can the human not answer her own questions? Is she so incompetent that she needs a superior to babysit her?” Harron laughed.

“That’s quite enough,” Hannah shouted, loud enough that all twenty sets of eyes in the classroom trained on her. “I am here because the Hierarchy asked me to be here, just as they asked Jora T’sevi, just as they asked Commander Dorle. They brought me here because I have unique experience as a lieutenant with the Alliance navy. If any of you think I have nothing to teach you, because you simply know all you need to know about the human military, then please feel free to leave. I can’t and won’t stop you. But have fun explaining to your superiors why you felt the need to leave my classroom, and enjoy trying to outsmart your opponents when you have to run simulations based on human military tactics. I don’t give a flying fuck what you think of me, but I’m going to continue to show up every day and I’m going to continue to teach you.” She folded her arms across her chest. “Would anyone like to leave? Hm? Harron?”

The older turian’s mandibles twitched, but he said nothing.

“That’s what I thought. Now today we’ll be discussing the tactics used by the humans on Shanxi…”

After that, the turians kept their griping to themselves. Hannah wasn’t naive enough to think they didn’t still complain about her behind her back, but so long as they kept their mouths shut and paid attention in class, she didn’t much care.

At the end of her first month in the position, the Vakarians invited her over to celebrate with dinner - an invitation was extended to Septimus as well. The Vakarians and Septimus had been the only turians to truly and completely make her feel welcome on Oma Ker; people who, after one short month, she would gladly call her friends. She had never envisioned such a time when they’d first shipped her off to Sarlik, but she found more comfort in an afternoon chat with Niera than her forced meetings with the other members of the Sarlik Twenty.

Jane had become fast friends with Garrus and Solana, particularly since she spent her days with them under the supervision of the Vakarian’s nanny. Any time they made their way down the street to pay the Vakarians a visit, Jane would sprint ahead as fast as her chubby little toddler’s legs would carry her, often stumbling once or twice before excitedly knocking on the door.

Only Septimus rivaled Garrus for a place in Jane’s heart. Although his visits were meant to become less frequent as Hannah’s time on Oma Ker progressed, he often found some excuse to come by and see her daughter. Jane absolutely adored him - he would let her climb all over him, poking and prodding at his crest of horns, yanking at his mandibles. Whenever Hannah gave her a sharp warning, Septimus would only chuckle and say, ‘She’s far too tiny to do any damage, Hannah.’

The evening of the dinner celebration, Septimus came home from work with Hannah, and he toted Jane down the street in his cowl: something she begged him to do nearly every time he came by. Still, when they drew close to the Vakarians’ home, she squirmed and asked to be let down so she could run to knock on the door.

Castis answered the door, some of the sternness in his face melting away at the sight of Jane standing so small and stout in front of him. She rocketed into his legs, hugging him briefly,

“Hi Cassis,” she said, before toddling off to find Garrus.

Hannah offered forth a bottle of dextro wine that Septimus had helped her pick out, and greeted Castis with the turian approximation of a friendly kiss. She had learned the custom quickly over the past month, primarily thanks to Niera: it was a gentle brush of the mandibles against the side of the face. Lacking mandibles of her own, she had learned to simply rub her cheek against the mandibles of whoever was greeting her. Septimus greeted Castis in a similar fashion and they both stepped inside.

In the living room, Solana was helping Niera unfold a large foam mat onto the floor, while Garrus and Jane chased each other in circles around the nest-like couch at the edge of the room.

“Oh!” Niera dropped the mat and stood up straight. She greeted them both with a friendly kiss. “I was just setting up the sparring mat. Dinner’s in the oven. Should be done in about half an hour.”

“Sparring mat?” Hannah cocked her head and observed Solana, so small next to her mother, trying and failing to lay the rest of the mat out flat.

“Oh, humans,” Niera laughed. “Everything’s new to you. Sometimes I forget. Haven’t had you over for dinner yet, have we?” She shook her head.

Niera spoke quickly, and often somewhat disjointedly, which Hannah was just finally getting used to. Castis would often remark, upon the look of slight disorientation on Hannah’s face, “That’s why she’s a scientist. Thoughts get all jumbled when they come out, but get her in a lab and it all makes sense.”

“Sparring is as turian as gierdo stew,” Septimus said. Then, quickly realizing the comparison was lost on Hannah, added, “It’s a common tradition to spar before a meal. It helps relieve stress and works up an appetite.”

“I thought sparring was just for military troops.”

“No, no. Though they do spar more frequently to stay in shape and keep from killing each other in close quarters. This is a bit more relaxed than that, though. Castis, shall we go a few rounds?”

Castis had just returned from setting the wine in the kitchen. He flexed his neck this way, then that. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt. Been a while since I went a few rounds on the mat.”

“We can show you how, Hannah,” Niera offered. “Or...well you don’t have to if you’re not comfortable. I mean the last thing we’d want to do is make you uncomfortable, so if you don’t want to you can just watch, or-”

“Niera, darling,” Castis stopped her from spiraling down a hole with her thoughts.

“Oh, of course. Here.” She took Hannah’s hand and led her over to the couch where they both sat while Castis and Septimus took up a spot on either end of the sparring mat.

To Hannah’s surprise, both turians began to remove their shirts, unbuckling the clasps and setting them aside on the end table by the couch. It was then that Hannah realized she’d never seen a turian body outside of diagrams on her datapads. She couldn’t help but stare at the two men, their bodies so entirely foreign to anything she had seen before.

Septimus’ chest was covered with the same black plating as his face, but it didn’t cover every inch of him. His cowl extended down his back, meeting in a point at the center of his spine, the rest of his back devoid of plating, save for sporadic freckle-like scales similar to those dotting his neck. As he turned to stretch, she could see how the plating extended across his chest, interspersed between thick muscles rippling beneath his dusky purple skin. The plating at the center of his chest met in a peak over his keel bone, extending up to the edge of his cowl. His shoulders and arms too, were marked with plating, though his biceps were exposed: lithe and taut - it was no surprise turians were apex predators on their planet.

“Hannah,” Niera whispered. “You’re staring at Septimus.”

Hannah quickly tore her gaze away. “I’m sorry, I just...I’ve never seen a turian without clothes on. It’s very different from a human.”

Niera laughed. “You don’t have to take your shirt off when we spar. I’ve read about humans, you know. All coy and unusual about nudity. It’s all right, it’s just easier to avoid snagging fabric this way and- oh I’m rambling again, aren’t I?”

“It’s okay,” Hannah assured her.

“On my count,” Castis held his hands forward. “One, two, three.

The men approached each other hard and fast, slamming into each other with a thwack before backing up. Castis brought a fist up to hit against the soft flesh of Septimus’ throat, and Septimus just as quickly blocked him, dragging his talons - roundly filed though they were - across the unplated portion of Castis’ forearm. The only betrayal of injury on Castis’ part was an agitated flick of the mandibles as he disengaged and began circling the mat, eyes locked with Septimus’.

Off to the side, Jane and Garrus had stopped chasing each other to observe the sparring match. The two children leaned against each other as they watched, Garrus rubbing his mandibles back and forth across the top of Jane’s head. For a moment, Hannah found herself watching the children rather than the match.

Niera followed her gaze, her mandibles flicking into a smile. “Our Garrus is so enamored with Jane’s hair. He’d rub against if for hours if we didn’t stop him, but it’s all right because she likes playing with his mandibles. They don’t seem to bother each other.”

Children were truly free of prejudice until they learned it from their parents - that much was evident in the way Jane and Garrus had bonded so quickly. They didn’t see each other as alien - only slightly different. It made Hannah’s heart happy to know that, if nothing else, Jane had one friend she would be able to turn to as she grew older and things got harder for her.

With a smile, she turned her attention back to the match. Castis and Septimus were still circling the mat, legs held apart, ready to leap to action at any second. Septimus was the first to move, ducking down and slamming into Castis’ abdomen, bringing both of them down onto the mat where they rolled around, clawing and kicking, fighting for dominance. A series of surprisingly primal sounds issued from their subvocals: low growls, so deep that Hannah just barely recognized them for what they were.

“That sound they’re making…?”

“I suppose it’s hard to read translations for subvocals,” Niera said. “It’s just from the effort of exertion. Happens when you’re fighting, or doing heavy lifting, anything like that. Plus they’re both getting older. Why, Castis, dear, I remember a time when your subvocals wouldn’t make a sound during a match like this.”

Castis let out an irritated grunt as he struggled to get out from under Septimus’ weight. Niera chuckled, looking pleased with herself for the jab.

In the end, Castis was unable to best Septimus. Though Hannah knew little about the inner workings of Citadel Security, it didn’t exactly surprise her that an active military general was able to beat a commander for a police force. After ten seconds of pinning him down, Castis forfeited and Septimus rolled off of him with what Hannah took to be a self-satisfied chuff from his subvocals. She was learning, slowly but surely.

“That was...quite a show,” Hannah said as the two men stood and began pulling their shirts back on.

“We are getting older,” Castis complained. “Used to be able to pin you half the time. I’m losing my edge running command duties - less time out in the field.”

Septimus laughed. “Whatever you need to tell yourself, Castis. I seem to still have what it takes.”

Castis snorted, then, to Hannah’s complete and utter bewilderment, unfurled a long blue tongue from his mouth and pressed his finger against it. She thought she could be forgiven for staring at the sheer length of the tongue - ending in a neat point - which she never would have imagined could be hiding inside the comparably smaller mouth.

Septimus laughed at the gesture and rolled his eyes. “Awfully childish for a C-Sec commander.”

Castis returned his tongue to his mouth and shrugged. “Occasionally, I can have a sense of humor.”

“Only occasionally,” Septimus agreed.

“Do you want to spar, Hannah?” Niera asked.

Hannah wasn’t so certain about going head to head with an alien that was a foot taller and likely a hundred or more pounds heavier than she was. There was no doubting that with weapons and armor removed from the equation, a turian could best a human any day.

“I don’t know...I think I need a bit more time to prepare for something like that. I’m sorry, I…”

“Don’t apologize at all!” Niera shook her head. “I understand completely. Do humans do anything like this? It must seem strange if not. I know you’re still getting used to all our customs.”

“Well, I mean we’ll play football or frisbee or something like that - usually before holiday dinners. Sparring is more restricted to military training, though I can see how it would be good for relieving pent up tension.”

“We’ll give it a go some other time.” A bell chimed in the kitchen and Niera promptly stood up. “Good timing anyway: dinner’s ready.”

Hannah helped Niera gather the children at the table in the dining room while Castis and Septimus brought the food out. She had anticipated that the food would all be dextro, and she would need to eat a protein bar after the meal to ensure she had enough nutrients for the day, so it came a surprise when - beside a platter of chunks of some foreign meat - Castis brought out a plate of what looked remarkably like chicken wings, doused in an unfamiliar smelling green sauce.

“We tried to make some levo food for you,” Niera explained. “I can’t promise it’s any good, but I figured all meat can be cooked over a stove, can’t it? The sauce is dextro, but I think you’ll like it.”

“It was incredibly thoughtful of you, Niera, thank you.”

The chicken was overcooked, but Hannah preferred that to a risk of salmonella, and the sauce was delicious enough to mask the dessication: a spicy, pungent sauce that reminded her at once of cilantro and hot peppers. She tried a bit of the dextro meat as well and found it to her liking, which was a shame since it provided absolutely no nutritional value at all. Jane happily picked at the pieces of chicken Hannah pulled apart for her and they sat enjoying their food and the company as Castis regaled them with a story from his most recent trip to the Citadel.

After dinner, they all sat around the living room drinking the wine Hannah had brought while Garrus and Jane and Solana played hide and seek - a game that was apparently universal, though the turian rules varied somewhat from human ones.

In the quiet calm of their after dinner drinks, Castis and Niera curled against each other on one couch while Septimus and Hannah shared the other, Hannah reflected that it was the first time since she arrived on Oma Ker that she felt truly and completely happy. She had friends, few though they were, and Jane did as well; she was making a place for herself in this foreign land.

Her skin jumped when she felt Septimus’ hand squeeze lightly against her arm.

“I’m happy you and Jane are here, Hannah,” he said softly.

She smiled at him, “Me too.”

Chapter Text

2172

Shepard’s heart was pounding in her chest as she paced the rec room awaiting Tarquin’s arrival. She had seldom felt this nervous in her entire life, a thousand thoughts racing through her mind - what if she fucked it up somehow? What if he changed his mind? What if he was just playing a prank? What if he had been put up to it by Nilkus and Renia and they were going to show up and ambush her?

She was too paranoid for her own good, but a lifetime of experience with turians like Nilkus and Renia had told her it was far more likely than the reality that Tarquin genuinely liked her. She had at least had the wherewithal to tell Garrus what was happening before she snuck off to the rec hall that night. He hadn’t expressed surprise at the confession that Shepard was interested in Tarquin, nor vice versa, though she couldn’t help but think she’d heard an irritated undertone in his subvocals.

‘I saw how you guys looked at each other after the simulation.’

Still, he had promised to buzz her with a warning if it was someone else who snuck out of the sleeping quarters toward the rec hall that night. Thus far, she had heard nothing from him.

Her heart nearly leaped out of her chest when she heard the doors to the rec hall open, and there he was, Tarquin Victus, crossing the room to meet her, mandibles flicked into a grin. She was so nervous that suddenly her primary concern was that she might accidentally vomit while she was kissing him.

You’ll be fine, you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine. How hard can it be?

She wished, for a moment, that she and Garrus had considered the opportunity of practicing with each other more seriously - but it had been too awkward when they were kids.

“I’m glad you came,” she managed to say, though she blurted it perhaps louder than she meant to.

Tarquin laughed and placed a hand on her shoulder. “You seem a little nervous.”

“Do I?” The words left her throat in a squeak.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to. If you changed your mind or…”

“No,” she said, more firmly. She lifted her hand to brush against his mandible and he leaned into her touch. “I want to do this. I’m just a little nervous because I never have.”

“Well, why don’t we just start by kissing a little?”

She nodded, but she still wasn’t totally confident in her ability to kiss. She wished she could consult her mother on it, but she was too old for that, and it was too awkward to discuss with her mother anyway.

There was no time to dwell on it any further, because Tarquin’s open mouth was rapidly approaching hers, his tongue darting out to meet hers in the middle. She opened her mouth just in time and then...they were kissing, tongues entangled as his hands moved to grip her waist. Her lips, far softer and more pliable than his own, instinctively moved against the hard lines of his mouth, but he didn’t seem to mind. He flexed his own lips to meet hers as their tongues continued to writhe against each other.

It wasn’t half bad, this kissing. In fact, she found she liked it, once the initial nervousness subsided. Her face quickly grew warm as Tarquin’s hands slid around to her back, and down to rest against her butt.

They broke apart, her head spinning slightly, whether from lack of air or from the rush of excitement, she wasn’t certain.

“That was...nice,” she said, immediately feeling stupid for saying it.

“It was.”

“Should we...er...should we take off our clothes, or…?”

Kissing was one thing, but whatever came next was something else entirely. It wasn’t that she was naive about it. She had watched plenty of vids once she learned how to hack past her mother’s parental settings on the extranet. She also highly doubted that the vids on Fornax’s website were accurate depictions of turian-human sexual encounters, but she understood the general idea. Knowing about sex, watching it on a vid screen, it was still different than actually experiencing it herself. She had no clue what it might feel like - she’d never had experience with someone else, and the most that had been inside of her were her own fingers in the privacy of her room back home.

“Yeah, maybe that’ll help some of the nervousness.” Tarquin’s hands moved to undo the clasps on his shirt.

Shaking slightly, Shepard pulled her shirt over her head and stepped out of her pants while Tarquin undressed. It wasn’t as though they hadn’t seen each other naked every day in the showers, but this was an entirely different situation. She pulled her sports bra off and stepped out of her underwear, feeling remarkably vulnerable standing before him.

For a moment, they just stared at each other. Yet again, she felt a momentary insecurity. Tarquin’s body was hard and muscular: an absolute stunning example of a healthy, handsome turian. Her body seemed so soft in comparison; why would he want her?

“Can I?” He asked, holding a hand out.

She nodded and stepped closer to him.

He traced his fingers across her collarbone, remarking that it looked like the front of a cowl, which made her laugh, and eased a bit of the tension. Trailing downward, his fingers moved across her breasts as he stared at them with uncertainty - his thumb glided over her nipple and it stood erect at the touch.

“Does it always do that?” He asked, tracing his thumb over the sensitive tissue again and eliciting a small, but noticeable gasp from Shepard.

“Er...yeah.”

Her eyes were scanning his body while he explored hers. He was still in his sheath, and she wondered how much coaxing it would require to get him out of it. In the vids, all it took was a kiss, or a finger across the sheath to get the turian men hard and ready, but she imagined they were taking all kinds of pills for that sort of sensitivity. She’d never actually seen a penis in real life, except once when she accidentally walked in on Garrus while he was peeing, but that didn’t count.

She was jarred from her thoughts when Tarquin’s mouth met her neck, his tongue moving across her skin while his hand inched further down her body, circling her belly-button and further down still. She gripped his shoulder, surprised at how good it felt to have her neck kissed, and surprised even further when his fingers slid between her legs.

OH!” She nearly shouted.

Immediately, he let go of her. “Are you okay?”

Her cheeks flushed. “Yeah, I’m sorry. It just surprised me. Spirits, I’m ruining this aren’t I?”

“No, no. This is new for both of us. Here,” he grabbed her hand. “Let’s lay down on the mat and try kissing a little more.”

She let him lead her across the room to the sparring mats, where they lay down next to each other and resumed their gentle, experimental kissing. She decided to try kissing his neck, applying suction to the soft, unplated skin in a way his own lips could never mimic. If his buzzing subvocals were any indication, he enjoyed the sensation. His talons dimpled into her waist as he craned his neck to expose more of it to her, so she continued, hoping maybe it would help get him out of his sheath.

“Spirits, Jane, that feels amazing.”

It was still odd to hear her first name, but she wouldn’t correct him on it in that moment - it felt too intimate to be called by her surname; this was an entirely different social setting than anything she had experienced before.

Their mouths came together again and she found she was no longer solely focused on her anxiety over the moment. Her entire body was warm now, her heartbeat throbbing between her legs the longer they kissed. She was ready for more.

As though he could read her mind, Tarquin’s hands slid down her stomach between her legs again. She was so inexperienced that the short amount of time kissing and touching had been enough to warm her up sufficiently that his finger slid inside her easily. Turian digits were far larger than human ones, and the size of his single finger took her by surprise. He stroked against the inside of her a few times and she realized he was looking for something that wasn’t there.

“Tarquin,” she breathed heavily against his neck.

“Hm? Does it not feel good?” He withdrew his hand from between her legs.

“It’s not that, it’s just…humans...it’s a little different down there.”

She grabbed his hand, leading it back between her legs, guiding his finger to the tender bundle of nerves she and she alone was so well acquainted with.

“It’s on the outside?” He seemed skeptical even as she helped him feel his way around it. “That makes no sense. Humans are so strange.”

She laughed, “I’ll file a complaint with evolution.”

They kissed again while his finger moved in slow circles between her legs, alternative between rubbing against those sensitive nerves and dipping back inside of her until it was all she could focus on, the pleasure mounting slowly. She gripped his shoulder and leaned her head back, grinding down on his finger as he moved.

“Oh...Tarquin…”

He nuzzled into her neck, nipping softly at her exposed skin. “I’m glad we’re doing this.”

Spirits, so was she. Her nails dug into the plating on his shoulder as her other hand gripped at the back of his neck.

“Yes...spirits, yes…” She gasped. “Tarquin…”

His finger moved faster, her moans escalating until the orgasm hit with a blinding intensity. Whatever words or sounds left her mouth then, she was deaf to them, the pleasure overriding all her other senses. Her muscles spasmed as his finger dipped inside of her again, her breath leaving her chest in stuttering gasps.

She fell back against the mat, limp and euphoric. Tarquin removed his hand from between her legs and watched her while her eyelids fluttered lazily.

“Still nervous?” He asked.

“Less so now,” she laughed.

A glance down between his legs revealed his erection, freed from its sheath: glistening and blue. She stared at it for far too long, until Tarquin’s subvocals vibrated self-consciously. When she met his gaze, he wore a sheepish expression.

“I’ve never seen one in real life,” she blurted out.

“Oh. So...nothing to compare it to,” he chuckled nervously.

It was certainly not as large as the ones in the vids, but still far larger than she knew a human might look, and large enough to make her nervous. What if they didn’t fit together? What if he was too big...or she was too small?

It was nonsense of course, plenty of other turians and humans had bumped uglies before.

“Can I...uh...can I touch it?” Shepard asked, which elicited a laugh from Tarquin.

“I’d like that, yeah.”

Hesitantly, she brought her hand around his erection, gripping it as tightly as she dared and running her hand up the ridges running down the back of it. When her thumb met the head of his cock, his legs shuddered and he let out a soft moan. It was warmer and softer than she had anticipated - stickier too. After a few experimental pumps with her hand, she let go of him and sat up.

“How should we do this?”

Turians favored what was known in the galactic community as ‘standard position’ and known to humans as ‘doggy-style’. Nearly every species outside of humans, and perhaps asari, defaulted to this position. The human standard position was awkward for the likes of turians and krogan with their thick plating and pointy joints, not that Shepard knew much about human sexual customs outside of what little her mother had taught her on the off chance that the girl who grew up around turians would take interest in humans instead.

She imagined it would be painful to lie on her back with Tarquin on top of her for a number of reasons, not least of all because the plating on his thighs and hips would chafe against her legs.

“What would be...um...most comfortable for you?” Tarquin asked.

Shepard took the initiative of rolling onto her hands and knees. “Let’s just try standard. I think that will be easiest.”

“Oh,” Tarquin let out a sigh of relief. “Thank the spirits. I thought you were going to suggest some weird position I didn’t know. I’m not sure how humans do it, I guess…”

“Me either,” she laughed.

“You’re sure you’re ready?” He asked, taking up a position behind her and grabbing her hip with one hand.

“As ready as I’m gonna be.”

Would it hurt? Would it feel good? Would she be any good at it? What did she need to do to be good at it? Some of the nervousness seeped back into her as she waited for Tarquin to start.

He brushed his fingers between her legs once more, spreading her lower lips apart and guiding himself inside of her. He moved slowly, sliding a little bit in and then back out, a little more each time until he had buried himself inside of her.

There was no denying their size difference. When he finally plunged the length of his erection into her, she let out a gasp and held herself still for a moment.

“Are you okay?” he asked, not for the first time that evening.

“Yeah.” She moved her hips experimentally. “Just...kind of a new sensation.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “You’re um...smaller than a turian.”

“It doesn’t hurt you does it?”

“No, no. It feels good.”

She wondered if every sexual encounter was this awkward or if it was just the first time. Maybe two turians were just as awkward having their first sexual experience as she and Tarquin were. It didn’t hurt at least, which was a good start, but there was no denying the nervous tension in the room - they were both in uncharted territory.

Slowly, Tarquin began to move, thrusting against her while he held her hips steady, in and out, his pelvis rocking against her ass. After the initial shock, she found it felt somewhat good. She certainly wasn’t getting any of the direct stimulation that would lead to an orgasm, but he had at least made sure she had one that evening, and in the moment it felt less about pure pleasure than about sharing this experience with someone.

Tarquin’s subvocals buzzed as he continued to pump in and out of her, his primary vocal cords moaning in unison with the buzzing of his second windpipe. He leaned more fully over her, holding his weight up with one hand against the mat, his fingers brushing over the top of her hand as he thrust, harder and faster. He grunted softly into her ear, his legs shaking with each subsequent movement.

“Jane...uhn...can I…” His mandibles fluttered against her neck. “Inside?”

“Yes...yes,” She moaned as hips slammed against her.

He came with a groan, subvocals humming, his grip tightening on her hip and his fingers intertwining with hers where his other hand lay on the mat. She felt the rush of heat inside of her, between them, dripping down the inside of her legs.

For a while, he lay on top of her, both of them panting, Shepard covered in a thin sheen of sweat, which Tarquin licked from her neck and shoulders affectionately. It was a stereotype that turian men in particular grew extremely affectionate after sex, but Shepard didn’t mind. She felt awash in ecstasy. Finally she had found someone who wasn’t ashamed to be attracted to her, who she also found attractive, even liked. She had long feared she would never experience sex with a turian, that she might be forced to mingle with other humans, who she simply didn’t find attractive in any capacity. Tarquin had finally allayed those fears.

When they finally pulled themselves apart, they set about cleaning up, and ridding the sparring mat of any evidence of their little tryst. Standing at the doorway to the rec hall, knowing full well they needed to be awake in three hours for their early morning run, they stalled for a moment, hugging one another and exchanging a friendly kiss.

“We should do this again,” Tarquin said softly. “I like you, Jane.”

She blushed, despite the fact that he had been inside of her only minutes earlier. “Tarquin?”

“Hm?”

“...promise you won’t be different in the morning. Promise you’ll still be kind. I just...I couldn’t take it if…” She had never been so open with her insecurities in front of any of her squadmates besides Garrus.

Tarquin brushed his hand against her cheek. “I don’t know what kinds of turians you know, but I would never be so dishonorable. My parents taught me better than that.”

She blinked tears away from her eyes.

Don’t get emotionally attached just because he’s nice to you, Shepard.

“You go back first,” she suggested. “Better if no one knows what we were up to.”

“Well if we’re as conspicuous as Garrus and Licinia, I’m sure they’ll figure it out,” he laughed. “But okay. I’ll head back first.” He flicked his mandible against her cheek and squeezed her hand, then saw himself out of the rec hall.

As she watched him cross the barracks back to the sleeping quarters, she reminded herself again not to invest her emotions too deeply in this relationship. Troops fooled around all the time, and that’s all this was.

But troops also met and fell in love all the time. Castis and Niera had met on their first assignment after bootcamp, after all. She shook the thought from her head.

It was just sex. That was all.


The following morning, the extra-early 0300 morning run was made all the worse by how little sleep Shepard had gotten the night before. She didn’t even attempt to outstrip Baltair that day, but Garrus and Licinia hung back with her so they could discuss the previous night’s events.

Garrus seemed irritable, but she chalked it up to the hour, and the cold. Their breath billowed in front of them in white clouds as they ran, and even at their comparably leisurely pace, the chill in the air made Shepard’s lungs burn - it only made sense the turians would be suffering even more than she was, and all of them were annoyed that their failure the day before had earned them this early run to make time for trust exercises.

“So,” Licinia prodded. “Did you and Tarquin have sex?”

“Yeah,” Her chest warmed at the thought of it. “It was kind of awkward, but then it was good. I don’t know...I...it was my first time, so…”

“Your first time!” Licinia gasped. “Seriously?”

“Well, humans aren’t exactly turning down suitors left and right. I’m not really anyone’s ideal mate.”

Garrus groaned. “I hate when you say that. You’re always putting yourself down. Just because the idiots we went to school with were too thick-fringed to see past our narrow little lives back in Sarlik doesn’t mean the entire Hierarchy will be that way.” He softened up a bit at the look Shepard and Licinia gave him. “I mean, obviously. Tarquin is interested you, so that proves my point.”

“Anyway, I’m glad it happened.” Shepard shrugged. “It makes me feel more normal. I mean, I know it’s just sex, but it makes me feel like less of an outsider than I already am. Tarquin made me feel...he made me feel wanted. I’ve never felt like that before.”

“That’s really nice,” Licinia said. “Are you going to meet up with him again?”

“Yeah, I hope so. I’m not sure when, though, between my nightly training sessions and this lack of sleep.” As if to remind herself of how tired she was, Shepard let out a long yawn. “I’m so exhausted, and now we have to do this stupid trust training.”

She hadn’t talked to Tarquin since the night before, though they had passed each other getting ready for the morning run and exchanged a smile before they headed out. Already she was allowing her imagination to run too wild with what their future might hold.

It’s just sex. It’s just sex. It’s just sex.

“Surprised you aren’t running with Tarquin this morning,” Garrus said, a sour note to his voice.

“Do you have some sort of problem with him, Garrus?”

He looked affronted. “ No. I was just saying.” His mandibles fluttered and he sighed. “I’m just cold and tired.”

“Tarquin’s too fast to keep up with. Besides, I wanted to talk to you guys about what happened.” She reached out and squeezed Garrus’ arm. “You’re my best friend, Garrus. We tell each other everything.”

“I know,” he said, his voice softening. “It’s like I said. I’m just tired. I’m really glad you had a good time with Tarquin. I know how long you’ve worried about...ever finding someone.”

“Speaking of blowing off steam, you think Nilkus and Renia are-?” Licinia started.

Shepard shook her head. “Nilkus made it sound like Renia is only interested in women. They’re just horrible nasty friends, is all.”

“Have you ever thought about ambushing them before they get one up on you?” Licinia asked.

“No way. Too big of a risk - I’d probably end up getting kicked off the squad if I did something like that. Let it be self-defense. That’s harder to pin on me.”

They continued their run, Licinia and Shepard chatting mostly while Garrus remained stony faced next to them. Shepard knew Garrus too well to believe it was only the cold and lack of sleep that was bothering him, but she also knew him well enough not to press the issue until he wasn’t so irritable. She didn’t understand why he would have a problem with Tarquin, but that seemed to be the issue. Maybe he was just being protective like he always was when someone new came into their lives.

Back at camp, after showering, they all met in the rec hall to begin their ‘trust exercises’. This amounted largely to puzzles meant to be solved as a team. They were timed on each puzzle and, as expected, the first few went incredibly poorly. Nilkus seemed not to have learned anything from the day before, trying harder than ever to lead the group in the direction he saw fit to find a solution to the puzzles. When others piped in with their suggestions, he wasted time complaining that their methods were inefficient.

There were plenty of times Shepard didn’t feel like an adult, despite having legal standing as one in the Hierarchy, but next to Nilkus’ childish and self-absorbed antics, she felt incredibly mature. Only several minutes of beratement from commander Aetius finally got Nilkus to even consider deferring to the others.

By the end of the hour, they had successfully completed two of the puzzles without arguing, offering suggestions and working cohesively to figure out a solution, but when it came time to move on to breakfast, commander Aetius asked Nilkus to stay behind for a discussion.

Shepard desperately hoped he was being written up, with a documented threat to be removed from the squad, but she knew she would never get so lucky. And whatever happened in commander Aetius’ office, Nilkus would somehow find a way to blame Shepard for his own shortcomings.

It came as no surprise when, crossing the barracks to the mess hall, Renia hip checked Shepard and whispered,

“You better sleep with one eye open, human.”

Chapter Text

2157

Six months had passed since Hannah’s first day on Oma Ker, and while she had the occasional moment of frustration and anger and hopelessness at her situation, they were fewer and farther between with each passing day.

The truth was, as much as she’d loathed being assigned to her post on Sarlik, Hannah had grown to like her life there. There were certainly still turians who treated her differently for what she was, but she had friends, and a job she enjoyed more and more as she grew comfortable in the role. She’d even started a weekly happy hour with her fellow alien military liaisons, which always proved to be enjoyable.

She had hardly anticipated ever being happy on Oma Ker, but she was - possibly even happier than she had been on Shanxi, where she felt somewhat isolated by her rank; colonists didn’t often trust Alliance soldiers. In Sarlik, and at Parien Fields especially, she found comfort amongst others who felt like outcasts - it was too soon to call them a makeshift family, but it didn’t seem so far-fetched either.

By this point, Septimus’ official visits were meant to be monthly, but they had standing weekly dinner plans with the Vakarians, and Septimus spent three days of the week in the same offices as Hannah at Parien fields - the rest of his week was spent in his office at City Hall working with the mayor and overseeing the continued integration of the human families - so they saw each other far more frequently than Hannah ever imagined they would. She didn’t mind, though; Septimus had become a good friend, possibly the one person she trusted most on Oma Ker.

Hannah still had a great deal to learn about galactic social customs, and though Septimus and the Vakarians had continuously helped her by teaching her idioms, and the meaning of various subvocalizations and mandible movements, there were a dozen other cultures to make sense of, and nuances to cross-species interactions and politics that might take her a lifetime to figure out. Not that she wasn’t trying - her coworkers helped out where they could, though Jora’s input was usually teaching her crude slang and idioms for sex acts. Keran, as with the rest of his life, was more methodical in his education, providing Hannah with pamphlets and teaching her phrases so esoteric she was sure she would never need them.

There were times, however, when she grew tired of Jora’s boisterousness and Keran’s analytical mind, and those were times when she was grateful for Rosa’s visits. Rosa was soft-spoken, but strong-willed, and provided a nice middle-ground between Keran and Jora.

One afternoon, after classes had finished, Hannah sat with the three of her coworkers chatting while they made a poor attempt at finishing up lesson plans for the next week. Rosa had taken up her usual position in the extra desk reserved for Septimus, Keran had his nose in a book, and Jora was beginning to explain - in vivid detail - a past sexual encounter with an elcor.

Interspecies sex was a topic that had, thus far, only really come up through Jora, though Hannah had to admit she was somewhat curious about it. Septimus had explained asari mating to her months ago, and she’d learned quickly that nearly every race found the asari attractive in one way another. She knew little about other alien races and whether or not they also intermingled, though. Keran’s partner was an asari, and she knew of a handful of turians on Oma Ker who were (as they called it) ‘bonded’ to asari, but she’d never heard of any turians married to a salarian, or a quarian married to an elcor. Did these things happen? It was never discussed, and she almost wondered if it was taboo. Besides that she had been so busy learning other social customs that it hardly seemed like the most pressing matter.

“So I’m sitting, my bare ass on this counter at Citadel customs, and this elcor’s coming at me, you know, and I thought I was prepared for it, but have you ever seen the kind of weapon an elcor’s packing between the legs, because-”

“Sorry to interrupt what I’m sure is a stimulating intellectual conversation.” Almost mercifully, Septimus stepped into the office with a stack of datapads in his arms.

Jora sneered and folded her arms. “I was getting to the best part, but thanks for ruining it, Oraka.”

“What a shame that we were spared from hearing about yet another one of your lewd sexual escapades.” Keran rolled his eyes.

“Hannah, would you mind helping me sort these on the shelf?” Septimus ignored both of them and crossed the room to where the rest of the datapads were stored.

Hannah hopped up without a second thought, joining him across the room. She took half the stack and began sorting them, crossing over Septimus’ arms as he sorted his half. Six months working in close proximity, with weekly dinners, and frequent check-ins had built an easy rapport between the two of them - they worked well together in any situation.

With the datapads sorted, Septimus thanked Hannah before turning to the others.

“I’ll let you get back to your...conversation. I have to meet with General Elnis about the incoming troops.”

He excused himself and Hannah returned to her desk. As soon as Septimus was out of the room, Rosa let out a sigh and said,

“I don’t know how that man is still single. I’d risk an infection for him.”

Hannah felt an unwelcome prick of annoyance in the pit of her stomach that she couldn’t quite explain. She turned to Rosa with genuine surprise,

“You think Septimus is handsome?”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Rosa said.

Sensing an opportunity to ask the question she’d been wondering about, Hannah probed further. “Is that...uh...common?” She felt her face flush, feeling suddenly awkward about the topic. “Do aliens, er I mean...other races...do you…”

“Goddess, Shepard, I know you’ve been fucked before, unless your kid is like some test-tube freak,” Jora barked. “Quit acting like such a prude. I was just talking about fucking a damn elcor, does that not answer your question?”

“Well I know everyone seems interested in asari. I just wasn’t sure if other species also…”

“Oh, sure. Not as common as staying within the species, but you put a bunch of consenting adults in a room together and eventually some of them are gonna start fucking.” Jora shrugged. “ Everybody loves turians. And quarians are popular ‘cause it’s rare to see what’s under those suits of theirs. Salarians barely fuck, so they don’t exactly get around.” At this, Keran made a disgruntled noise and tapped more aggressively on his datapad. “You deviate much from the Council races and it’s less common, just because there’s fewer of ‘em on the Citadel and such. I was once in an orgy with two turians, a volus, and a-”

“Don’t you think Septimus is attractive, Hannah?” Rosa interrupted.

Hannah had never once considered the ‘attractiveness’ of the aliens. She could understand the appeal of the asari, who she thought seemed remarkably human - even loud-mouthed, rough-edged Jora had a body Hannah could appreciate - but the other aliens were just so very...well, alien. She had certainly come to see them as people and appreciate their company, but hadn’t given a single thought to their sexual appeal.

In fact, until recently, Hannah hadn’t thought about sex much at all. When she had been told she was being shipped off to Oma Ker, it had briefly crossed her mind that, amidst nineteen other families who were all coupled off, there wouldn’t be a single human romantic prospect during her time on the colony, but the concern had been vastly overshadowed by her greater worries of living amongst aliens, of learning about galactic society, and of raising her daughter in this strange new world. As she adapted to life on Oma Ker, however, her own biological urges came bubbling back to the surface. There were the rare nights when Jane would sleep over at the Vakarians house and Hannah would have some time alone, but the sum of her romantic prospects - at least in her mind - was the vibrator in her nightstand or her high-powered shower head. Unless she could manage a trip off planet for a one-night stand (which she had almost zero interest in), she might never have sex again. The thought that the aliens might be an option seemed too foreign a notion to even entertain.

“I don’t...I’ve never considered a turian…” Hannah shook her head. “It’s too strange and foreign to me.”

“Oh please, are you serious? The way you and Septimus go back and forth with your little jokes every damn day?” Jora laughed. “You’re seriously telling me you haven’t even thought about it?”

“I didn’t even know they could...I mean, they look sort of like dinosaurs, don’t they? Oh never mind, you don’t know what I’m talking about,” Hannah sighed. “I haven’t thought about it. Do turians even have-” Hannah gestured vaguely to her groin.

“Oh, they most certainly do, sweetheart.”

“Sometimes I forget how new humans are to all this,” Rosa said. “It’s just so standard to us. One of my friends from my first ship-posting is bonded to a turian. And I know a batarian that’s dating a salarian, which is really something.”

“How do quarians even…?” Hannah let herself trail off, worried perhaps it was crossing a line, despite the nature of their conversation.

Rosa only laughed. “Oh, you’re like a teenager learning all of this new.”

“Well you don’t have to mock me,” Hannah huffed.

Rosa patted her arm affectionately. “No, no, it’s okay. How could you know? Quarians link suits to adjust to each other’s immune systems. After enough time linked, you can take your suit off in quarantined space to have sex, but it still carries such a risk for infection that most people only do it to get pregnant. The rest of the time we use these excellent little vibration packs most of us have built into our suits. It gets the job done, but it’s less fun than doing it the real way.”

“You got experience with that, Rosa?” Jora asked.

Rosa shrugged. “I’ll just say it was worth being sick for a month afterward.” She turned back to Hannah. “You should...enlighten yourself, Hannah.” She brought up her omni-tool and tapped on it. “I’m sending you some vids. Watch them when you have some...alone time.”

“Oh, if we’re doing that, I’ve got some good ones.” Jora tapped on her omni-tool as well.

All at once, the omni-tool on Hannah’s wrist pinged repeatedly with incoming messages.

“Are you guys sending me...porn!?” Hannah exclaimed.

“Yeah, it’s educational. There’s some on there of humans with different races.”

“Already?”

“Don’t be naive, Shepard,” Jora snorted. “I guarantee as soon as humans stepped foot on the Citadel some of them were looking for somewhere to put their dicks. And they’re the new foreign alien so I guarantee the vid makers snatched them right up. Hell, I saw a human-asari vid like the week after the first human ship docked.”

“You should watch the vids.” Rosa nodded. “See if you still think turians are ‘too alien’.”

Keran finally looked up from his datapad. “I sincerely doubt those vids are an accurate portrayal of interspecies relationships. The reality of an interspecies romance is complex, beautiful and-”

“Ah, shove it up your cloaca, Dorle,” Jora growled. “Sometimes it’s just about banging two sticky bits together until you’re both covered in bodily fluids and you can’t feel your legs.”

“Charming imagery, Miss T’sevi, really.”

Hannah wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the abundance of vids now sitting in her e-mail inbox, but curiosity nagged at the back of her mind. Didn’t she wonder what the aliens all looked like stripped down? Hadn’t it fascinated her the first time she’d watched the turians spar with one another - how foreign and unique their bodies had seemed? Curiosity - genuine interest - didn’t equate to sexual attraction; it still seemed too odd to say she would ever be attracted to an alien.

Still, when Septimus took her home that evening, she found herself staring at him longer than she probably should have. Even on day one on Oma Ker she had noted that the mayor seemed beautiful, if in a fierce and predatorial way. Certainly, after six months amongst them, she had come to appreciate the turians’ appearance as stunning in the same way she might remark that a mountain range inspired awe.

But perhaps there was something more rugged about the turians too. They were humanoid in general appearance, after all, and their broad shoulders and narrow waists were reminiscent of traits Hannah had always appreciated in humans. There was something about their faces too - what had initially looked like a skull seemed now more like a mask, chiseled into the likeness of a face, unique to each and every turian.

She observed the lines of Septimus’ colony markings and wondered how often he had to paint them, considered how deft he was with his talons despite their large size, and how gentle he could be as well, cradling Jane in his arms after dinners at the Vakarians’ house.

“Hannah?” His voice shook her from her reverie.

“Hm?”

“Is something wrong? You were looking at me strangely.” Septimus cocked his head at her.

“Just zoning out, sorry.” Hannah promptly looked away.

“I do enjoy that phrase,” Septimus laughed.

The turians simply called it ‘losing focus’, which was just as succinct, but - according to Septimus - less fun to say than the human phrase. Just one of many things Hannah had learned from him in the last six months.

Long after Septimus dropped her off at home, Hannah found herself dwelling on the moment. Was it possible that there was an attraction between them? Septimus was friendly in general, and turian culture didn’t shy away from affectionate touching between friends, besides that until that moment Hannah had never tried to read into their interactions together.

What was she thinking? An alien, really?

But he wasn’t ‘an alien’, he was her friend, and someone who had been there through every difficulty she’d faced over the last six months. She settled on the fact that she felt something for Septimus, but whether those feelings extended to anything sexual was difficult to grasp - the concept was still too foreign.

That night, after dinner had been made and Jane had been put to bed, Hannah lay in the dark still considering the afternoon. How had one simple comment from Rosa spiraled into this inescapable circular thought?

Almost begrudgingly, and ensuring the volume on her omni-tool was as low as she could set it without muting it entirely, Hannah brought up the e-mails Rosa and Jora had sent her. The first one, from Rosa, was a link to a website called ‘Fornax’, to a vid entitled:

TURIAN/HUMAN RELAY 314 REPARATIONS.

She felt like a teenager again, sneaking onto the extranet after her parents had gone to sleep. Her face felt flushed before she ever clicked the vid, and her heart was pounding. It felt like she was doing something far dirtier than watching two consenting adults have sex. She’d never seen an alien naked, let alone engaging in sex acts.

There was simply no denying how intensely curious she was about what a turian penis looked like, though, if they even had one (Jora’s claims could only be taken so seriously).

Hands shaking, she clicked the vid to open it.

It was almost comforting to watch the bad acting that followed - some things were a universal constant and it seemed porn, and in turn bad acting within it, was the same regardless of where it came from.

The turian was a male, larger and more muscular than any men she’d met on Oma Ker, though she supposed that was another constant in porn. The human, a woman, was not exactly what Hannah would have expected - in lieu of a stereotypical large-breasted blonde, she was a petite red-head with small breasts and large hips. Except for her small stature, the woman actually reminded Hannah of herself, which she promptly tried to ignore.

There was some typical banter - the general ‘plot’ of the vid was that the turian was there to apologize for the first contact incident. When he asked how he could best apologize, the woman began to undress while saying, ‘I can think of a few ways’. Then they kissed.

Hannah wasn’t sure what to expect from turians. She’d never seen them kiss in a romantic fashion, only ever the friendly greeting of a mandible-flick against the cheek. She knew, of course, just from watching them talk that the plating around their mouths was flexible and cartilaginous, but it still hardly seemed capable of bending to the shape of a human’s mouth. The vid proved her wrong, however - when the human and turian came together, the turian flexed his ‘lips’ in an approximation of a kiss, pressing against the eager lips of the human as their tongues came together as well.

She hadn’t really anticipated finding the video titillating, but she found she couldn’t take her eyes away from the passionate exchange between the alien and the human.

After a while, the human helped the turian undress and Hannah held her breath as his pants came down to reveal...nothing. Well, not nothing. There was a small slit between his legs, slightly pink at the center, reminiscent of a vulva but less complex. She stared at it in complete and utter confusion, watching as the woman in the vid bent down and planted kisses around the slit, dragged her tongue up the center of it, nipped at the little freckle-like scales dotting his hips and then...

Hannah let out a gasp as a fully-erect penis slid from the slit, unnaturally blue and coated in some sort of fluid. The erection was decidedly alien - tapered to a narrow point, with ridges running down the back and sides and a bulbous knot at the base of it. She could scarcely believe what she was looking at.

Almost unaware of her actions, she paused the vid to stare at the alien erection sticking out from between the turian’s legs. For the faintest flicker of a moment, the thought of Septimus crossed her mind, but she just as quickly pushed it out. Dare she keep watching this vid? Would she even be able to look a turian in the eye for the next week after this?

But of course she kept watching, her curiosity winning out over her concern. Nearly as quickly as the turian had freed himself from his strange sheath, the woman had her hands around his erection, her mouth soon joining while heady moans and strange buzzing notes issued from the turian’s subvocals.

Then the woman lay back on the bed and spread her legs and the turian’s long, blue tongue unfurled from his mouth and Hannah had another moment of complete shock as he stuck his tongue between the woman’s legs, sliding it inside of her, moving it with as much precision as a digit.

Hannah was no longer thinking about any of the implications behind interspecies relationships, or how alien the aliens were, or any other thought that had been racing through her mind prior to watching the vids. Now she was solely fixated on the turian’s head between this woman’s legs, eliciting moans that sounded too genuine for a porn vid. The woman’s face contorted, her hands gripped at the sheets around her as she arched her back and gasped, sweat dripping down her forehead, and Hannah felt a familiar prick of arousal between her legs as she watched.

Almost as soon as the woman had finished her entirely convincing orgasm, the turian stood up and plunged into her, drawing forth more moans as he thrust, faster and faster, deeper and deeper. Hannah stared at the screen, unable to look away for the next several minutes as they moaned against each other, the bed beneath them shaking from the effort. The turian came with an expression that seemed universal to all men, his subvocals vibrating as a moan left his throat, then he fell on top of the woman, holding his weight off of her and licking affectionately at her throat.

Hannah was almost ashamed at how aroused she felt from watching it, and how the thought of Septimus kept flickering in her mind. Sex with an alien seemed like something only a thrill-seeker would do, or a porn star, she thought.

But he’s not an alien after all. He’s your friend.

And she gave up putting any further effort into torturing herself over the meaning of it all in favor of grabbing her vibrator and thrusting it between her legs.

And when she came, willing it or not, she thought of Septimus.

Chapter Text

2172

Despite Renia’s threat, she and Nilkus had yet to make a move on Shepard, though Shepard hardly took the warning lightly. She slept worse than ever, and had Garrus keep a lookout every time she left to train in the rec hall. She wasn’t about to sacrifice her training to her fear - that would be letting them win - but she knew she still had to be vigilant if she didn’t want to have her ass beat.

On nights when Garrus and Licinia would meet up in the rec hall, Shepard had taken to sneaking out to the woods to the north of the barracks to meet up with Tarquin, and thus they developed a regular habit of meeting in a secluded area to have sex, which became less awkward with each subsequent meeting as they became more comfortable trying new things together. She enjoyed the time with him, both physically and emotionally. Regardless of her own advice, she was quickly developing feelings for the attractive young turian.

Bathed in moonlight, in the post-coital glow, Tarquin always became affectionate, nuzzling against her, licking the sweat from her collarbone, tracing his hands along her body. It was almost unavoidable that she would feel something for him. They often talked when they had finished, and she came to look forward to their conversations nearly as much as the sex.

“Do you think we’re going to completely botch our first real mission?” Tarquin asked one night, during their seventh week of training.

They had run two more simulations since the first one, which had admittedly gone better, but they still weren’t where Shepard thought they needed to be, nor where Aetius wanted them to be - as he told them repeatedly.

“Honestly? Probably. Nilkus is the problem. If they could just get rid of him,” Shepard sighed. “I mean it’s one thing if he gets himself killed, but his big head is going to get others taken down with him. That’s all we need, go in on a simple strike and get the whole squad blown up or taken hostage because Nilkus wanted to play hero.”

“He is a real ass-licker, huh?”

Shepard laughed. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“I don’t really trust him,” Tarquin said, “He’s got such a weird hang-up on you.”

Only Garrus knew the full extent up of that hang-up: the sick threat he had made during sparring. Since then, Shepard had done everything in her power to avoid being alone with him, because she knew he might make good on the threat. She considered telling Tarquin about it, but held her tongue.

“I don’t trust him either,” she said instead. “I wish we could just ignore him, but it’s not that easy when you’re supposed to be working in a cohesive unit.”

“What do you think it will take for the commander to kick him out?”

“I’m hoping if he’s not up to snuff during our last assessment then that might do the trick.” She turned and kissed the front of Tarquin’s cowl. “Let’s not talk about Nilkus. Anything else.”

“Sure. How about Garrus?”

“Garrus?” Shepard snorted. “Why?”

“Well since I started sitting with you guys during our meal breaks, he’s seemed kind of standoffish. Does he not like me? Did I do something to piss him off, because-”

“No, no, that’s not it,” Shepard interrupted. “He’s just...we’ve been friends for a long time and he’s the only one who knows how hard it’s been for me. He’s protective, is all. He’s worried you’ll hurt me.”

Tarquin’s subvocals vibrated skeptically. “I don’t know if that’s it.”

“Trust me, I know him better than anyone. Once we get onto the ground running missions, it’ll be fine. Just give it a few more weeks. As soon as he realizes he can fully trust you, he’ll stop being so abrasive.”

“If you say so. You know, I kind of thought maybe it was because I was stepping on his toes...I don’t know if you two used to have something or not, I-”

“Oh, definitely not. No, we’re just friends. He and Licinia are-”

“Well he and Licinia are obviously just fooling around,” Tarquin said.

Shepard knew as much, because she and Garrus would always find a time to privately convene at least once a week to discuss the rest of the squad. Garrus had admitted that as much as he liked Licinia as a friend, and enjoyed their little romps in the rec room, he didn’t really feel anything for her. In fact, he was worried that she was developing feelings for him that he simply couldn’t reciprocate. This only made Shepard worry that her budding feelings for Tarquin were similarly misplaced. Her advice to Garrus had been to tell Licinia the truth, to be straightforward before things got more serious. There would be no lost love between friends if he told her now, but if he waited too long, it could affect the dynamic of their friendship.

She really ought to take her own damn advice.

Glancing at the clock on her omni-tool, Shepard sighed and peeled herself off of Tarquin. “We should start getting dressed and head back. We have to sleep some time tonight.”

Tarquin stretched, and she took a moment to appreciate his body bathed in moonlight.

Just suck it up and say something, you idiot.

“Hey, uh...Tarquin?”

He turned his head toward her. “Hm?”

They’d been fooling around for three weeks, with no word from either of them that things would end any time soon - she had better establish where they both were at now or spend the rest of her time on that squad fucking him and pretending she didn’t have feelings for him.

“I, uh…” She’d never had this conversation with anyone before. “Look, I want to be completely honest with you. This has been great, I really like having sex with you-”

He flicked his mandibles into a grin, “I like it too.”

“But,” she continued.

His face fell. “But?”

She tucked some of her hair behind her ear and leaned over him. “This isn’t just fooling around for me. I like you Tarquin...I really like you. I like spending time with you, I...I like our conversations. It’s okay if you don’t feel the same, but I guess if you don’t then maybe we should just end it here so nobody’s feelings get hurt.”

Tarquin sat up and brushed his fingers gently against the side of her cheek. “I guess I thought it was obvious that I liked you too, Jane. I’ve never given much thought to humans before, but the more I’ve seen you in action the less human you seem to me. I know you’ve got some insecurities over it, but...I don’t. I like you. For you.” He pressed his forehead against hers. “So I don’t want to end it unless you do.”

She felt incredibly foolish when tears sprang to her eyes. She blinked them away and kissed his nose with a laugh.

“I’m so relieved to hear you say that.”

For a moment they sat there, holding one another, and she felt a sense of complete contentment. Then they pulled apart, dressed, and headed back to the barracks, both of them basking in the glow of their newly confessed feelings.


2168

Shepard and Garrus were due for another round of training with Castis, but they were both having such terrible days, that they’d collectively decided to skip it altogether. Garrus was always suggesting they ditch rifle practice, but Shepard was typically the voice of reason in that situation - there was only a little over a year left until bootcamp, and the only way to be ready was to train.

That day, though, she made an exception.

Shepard’s day had started out fine, apart from the typical harassment from insecure cowl-clinging idiots, but that was par for the course, and something she had long ago learned to shake off thanks to her mother’s wisdom. As much as she admired Castis and Septimus, there was no one in the universe she looked up to like her mother, and her mother had taught her better than anyone how to ignore hatred in favor of self-improvement. But that day, she didn’t need her mother’s advice, she needed her best friend.

It had been after lunch, finishing up in the restroom, when one of their classmates cornered her. He was a relentless bully out in the open - one of her most vocal opponents, who made his distaste for her presence in the hierarchy known daily. And there he was, trapping her against the wall, intimidating her with his size, ghosting his hand over her hip as he whispered,

‘Look, I know I’m a lot of hot air in front of my friends, but I watched this vid the other night of a human and a turian...and I can’t get you off my mind, Shepard…”

Sweet-talking whispers had followed, a brush of his talon against her arm. In return, she had twisted his arm until it nearly broke, unconcerned about whether or not he would tell anyone what she had done - she knew he wouldn’t because his friends would never let him live it down if he told them a human had beaten him up.

It still left her rattled. It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened, but it had been a while. She desperately wanted to know what it was like to be desired, but she also knew that true interest, true passion...it didn’t look like that. Whatever that attention was, all it did was inspire bile to rise in her throat.

Garrus’ day had gone south far earlier. That morning, his mother had collapsed trying to walk from the living room to the kitchen, and in the process she’d hit her head on the counter. She’d been ill for a while now, but in the last few months her condition had deteriorated substantially.

Niera had been rushed to the hospital, where she was still being held for observation. Garrus was furious that his father still wanted to train while his mother lay sick and injured a hospital bed. Solana had been allowed to leave her scientific apprentice post in Sarlik to be with Niera, but Garrus had been sent to school with the promise that they would visit the hospital after training.

So, both of them lamenting their situations, Shepard and Garrus headed through Stavius park on their way home, found a secluded spot near a stream, and sat leaning against each other venting their frustrations.

“Sometimes I think my dad doesn’t even love my mom,” Garrus complained. “Why else would he force me to practice when she’s in such bad shape?”

Shepard couldn’t answer that, she was too young to understand the complex reasoning behind Castis’ behavior. Much later, when they were both adults, she would come to realize that Castis was struggling with his own grief, and the only way he knew how to deal with it was to put all of his focus into maintaining his routines. Training Garrus was an outlet to avoid thinking about the fact that his mate was dying a slow and agonizing death.

At the time, though, all Shepard could say was, “I’m sure he loves your mom, Garrus. He’s just-”

“Don’t make excuses for him,” Garrus growled. “Don’t.” His mandibles quivered and Shepard could hear a keening note in his subvocals as he turned to her, his voice falling to a trembling whisper, “What if she dies?”

Hot tears sprang to the corners of Shepard’s eyes at the thought of it. Niera and Castis were like family; she couldn’t imagine her life without either of them. But it had become increasingly evident over the past year that Niera’s condition couldn’t be treated - the adults never said as much in front of the children, but Shepard overheard her mother talking to Septimus about it, crying as they discussed Niera’s future.

She couldn’t imagine how hard it must be for Garrus to grapple with the thought of losing his mother.

There were no words to help make it right for Garrus - it would have been a lie to say she’d get better and they both knew it - so Shepard simply pulled him close and let him keen against her shoulder.

They spent hours in that park, until the sun had set and their omni-tools had chimed again and again with missed calls from their concerned parents. It felt like too much to go home, to return to their lives after the day they’d both had. Garrus wanted to see his mother, but he was also afraid to see her, and they both knew Castis would be angry at them for missing practice.

Eventually, though, their parents came looking for them, and found them huddled together by the stream, Castis wearing a stern look, Hannah just looking relieved.

“What were you two thinking?” Castis barked. “You think you can just shirk your responsibilities? You’re going to be recruits soon and you won’t get anywhere by goofing around when you should be focused on your-”

“Shut up!” Garrus rose to his feet. “I get that you hate me! And you hate that I’m not you! And you hate mom!”

Immediately, the stern expression on Castis’ face was replaced with one of pure shock. His mandibles flared away from his face as realization dawned on him.

“Garrus,” he rarely spoke so softly, “is that truly what you think?”

Garrus sniffled, and for a moment he looked far younger than his fourteen years - a little boy again, crying as his father made him lift his rifle for the thousandth time to take a shot he would inevitably miss.

“I don’t…” Castis shook his head and embraced Garrus, pulling him tight against his chest. “I could never hate you, Garrus. And don’t you ever say that I hate your mother. I love you both so very much.”

“Then why couldn’t I go to the hospital to see her after school?” Garrus asked.

“It’s...complicated, son. You’ll understand when you’re older. Come, now. Let’s go home. We’ll visit your mother in the morning.”

Castis carted Garrus off, leaving Shepard alone with her mother.

“It’s not like you to run off like this, Jane,” she chided, even as she slung her arm around Shepard’s shoulder and led her home.

“We both had bad days,” Shepard muttered. “We just needed a break.”

“You know you can always talk to me about how you’re feeling. I’m always here to listen. I know a lot’s going on in your life right now and I can’t pretend to understand all of it, but I’ll always try.”

Shepard stared at her hands. “Mom?”

“What, Bug?”

“Is Niera going to die?”

Her mother let out a long, shaky sigh. “She’s probably not going to get better. I don’t know a lot about the condition, but Castis said it’s incurable.”

“How long?”

“Months? Years if we’re lucky. I know it’s hard, Bug, and I know Garrus is having a rough time. It may not be obvious, but Castis is doing his best. It’s not easy for any of us.”

When they arrived home, Shepard waited until her mother had gone to bed to sneak out, climbed the siding of the Vakarians’ home, and slipped in through the window Garrus almost always left unlocked. He was keening against his pillow when she arrived, so she lay down next to him and they cried together until they were too exhausted to cry anymore, and then they slept.


2172

Unfortunately for Shepard, the knowledge that Tarquin had feelings for her did nothing to change the fact that Nilkus and Renia wanted to destroy her at the first chance they got. The rest of the squad had slowly come around to her, not to say they were on friendly terms by any means, but they had seen she could hold her own, and that was enough for them to at least work cooperatively with her during training.

The best she could do was ignore them and focus on improving herself, just as her mother had always taught her. She at least didn’t have to worry about sparring against either of them again - that day she was up against Garrus.

She had sparred with Garrus plenty of times before; their entire lives had consisted of matches before weekly dinners, and as a way to solve their frequent disputes. Still, they hadn’t sparred with each other since bootcamp, and she was only marginally confident that she might be able to pin him - he was a better hand-to-hand fighter than she was, she could readily admit that.

Standing in the rec hall, they faced each other with their arms held out in a defensive stance.

“You know I’m not going to go easy on you just because you’re my best friend,” Garrus said.

“When have you ever?”

“Fair enough.”

“Pretty bold of you to assume I need you to go easy on me anyway,” She jeered.

“Sounds like you want me to kick your ass, Shepard.”

The commander blew his whistle and Shepard lunged as fast as she could, narrowly ducking as Garrus’ arms came swinging toward her, rolling between his legs and hopping behind him to deal a swift kick to his back. The kick sent him staggering forward, but he was too steady to lose his balance that easily. He pivoted around and directed his fist toward Shepard’s jaw, but she blocked him just as quickly with her forearms. They both reached simultaneously for a headlock and stumbled around the mat, neither of them willing to disengage.

“You talked to Lis about your feelings yet?” Shepard asked, grunting through her efforts.

“Yeah, we talked about it last night. She thinks it’s better if we end things.” Garrus tried to twist to force Shepard to disengage, but she knew that trick, and shifted her weight quickly to compensate, keeping them in a stalemate.

“Was she upset?”

“No, I think there’s no hard feelings. She said she was glad I was honest with her.”

“I told Tarquin how I felt last night too,” Shepard admitted.

“And?”

Her face warmed at the thought of it, independent of the exertion of sparring. “He said he feels the same. So I guess we’re...I don’t know. It’s more than just fooling around.”

Garrus’ grip faltered, and Shepard wondered if it was related to the news she’d just delivered, or simply an error on his part. Either way, he corrected before she could take advantage of the momentary weakness. She opened her mouth to ask him about it, but was interrupted by the commander.

“A headlock stalemate isn’t an efficient sparring technique, Vakarian, Shepard.”

She pushed off immediately, distancing herself from Garrus and allowing them both a moment to flex their necks and reconsider their strategy. Shepard lunged yet again, aiming for Garrus’ shins, but he caught her at the last second, gripping her legs and flipping her under him in a lightning-fast move. She saw it coming at the last second, but by then it was too late, she’d already committed to her attack-plan, and the next thing she knew she was lying on her back with Garrus pinning her against the mat.

“Spirits, sometimes I hate you,” she huffed. “Just once I’d like to be able to pin you.”

His mandibles flicked into a grin. “Expending too much energy pinning Tarquin, hm?”

“You ass.”

“All I’m saying is maybe that night off each week is starting to show.”

“Oh, I’m still getting my exercise in, trust me.”

He snorted and rolled his eyes, keeping his weight on her until the commander blew his whistle signaling Garrus’ victory. At that, he rolled over and hopped to his feet, offering his hand to help Shepard up as well. She used the opportunity - perhaps childishly - to yank him down onto the mat, flat on his back, then she stood up with a smirk.

“Doesn’t change the fact that I won the sparring match,” Garrus laughed from the ground.

“No, but it makes me feel better.”

After a moment of standing over him, she helped him up and the two of them headed out of the rec hall toward the showers, where some of the other squad mates were headed after finishing their own sparring routines.

“I talked to my dad last night,” Garrus said.

“What, willingly?” Shepard laughed.

“Yeah, crazy, I know. I haven’t talked to him since our first week and he’d left a few messages on my omni-tool...I dunno. I’ve never exactly sought out his advice, he always just kind of gives it to me anyway, but I felt anxious about talking to Licinia. He basically said what you said, that I should be honest with her.”

“It’s almost like your dad has good advice sometimes.” Shepard nudged him with her shoulder.

“Well, let’s not get carried away. Just because you think he’s the greatest thing to walk on solid ground.”

“I don’t!” She protested.

“Oh, please. You’re basically obsessed with my dad.”

“I just think he’s a brilliant tactician and he taught me a lot growing up.”

“Well anyway, he asked when our first shore leave is. He wants to visit the memorial gardens with me and Sol…”

They stopped outside of the showers, Garrus staring at his feet, mandibles turned downward in a frown. Shepard sighed and reached out to grab his hand, squeezing it softly.

“Next month makes it three years, huh?”

“Yeah. I can’t believe it’s been that long.” He shook his head. “Sol just took a job on Palaven, but dad’s going to buy her a flight home for that week. I told him I wasn’t sure if I’d be there or not. Our strike is supposed to be on a station outside the system, but if we’re done in time we might get a few days…”

“If we do, I want to come with you,” Shepard said. “And my mom and dad will come too, I know they will. We missed it last year because of bootcamp. I don’t want to miss it this year.”

“You know...spirits, this is going to sound dumb…”

“No, just say it.”

“Sometimes I feel like she’s with me. Does that sound stupid? I don’t know if I really believe in the spirits or all that, but there are times when I just...I feel like I know she’s at peace and she’s proud of me.”

“It’s not stupid,” Shepard pressed her palm against his chest. “My mom always says that when someone loves you, there’s always a piece of them that lives on in your heart. I know it’s more of a human line of thinking, but it’s what she told me after Nier- after your mom…” She shrugged. “It helped me anyway.”

Garrus nodded. “It does help.”

Some of their squadmates filed past them, including Licinia. She and Garrus exchanged a quick glance, and he offered a smile, somewhat muted by the conversation he and Shepard had been having. She returned the smile in kind and brushed past them.

“I wish it could have gone differently,” he said once she was out of earshot. “I like Licinia a lot. She’s a great friend, but…”

“But you can’t force feelings that aren’t there. I understand.” Shepard squeezed his arm.

He met her gaze and there was something in his expression she couldn’t read. He let out a soft sigh and nodded. “Yeah, exactly. Anyway, I’ll let you know about next month and if we get shore leave we can go. We should...hit the showers. Get ready for lunch.”

With that, he moved into the showers, and Shepard followed him, trying to piece apart the meaning of some of his recent behavior, but unable to place her finger on what exactly it was.

Chapter Text

2157

When Septimus arrived to pick Hannah up the day after her “research” she had a difficult time pushing what she’d seen in the vids from her minds. It wasn’t necessarily that she saw him in a new light, but seeing the exchange between a turian and a human - that it was not only possible, but quite passionate - had allowed her to reconsider just what she felt for Septimus.

She didn’t find the idea of sleeping with an alien necessarily exotic or exciting, though certainly foreign - it was more that she no longer found it so frightening or taboo. She found her gaze straying to Septimus during the ride to Parien Fields, observing the scales dotting his neck, the curve of his mandibles, the way his rough lips moved as he spoke and she wondered: what did his skin and plating feel like? What would it feel like to kiss him?

She tried not to dwell on it. She had a job to do, and Septimus was her friend. Better not to be distracted by her libido. That’s what it was after all, wasn’t it? She’d never felt a strong need for a romantic connection, especially since Jane had been born. Her longest relationship had lasted three months and that was before she ever joined the Alliance. The problem was twofold: she’d discovered something new and exciting, and she hadn’t had sex in years. These weren’t feelings she should act upon.

Still, she felt a jolt of electricity when Septimus’ hand brushed hers as he offered her the rucksack she’d thrown into the back seat, and again when he placed a hand on the small of her back as he led her into the building. He did this every morning, but it carried more weight that day.

When she arrived at her desk, Jora and Keran were already there, and Jora greeted her with a smirk.

“Learn anything interesting last night, Shepard?”

A warmth crept up Hannah’s neck. “Yes, actually.”

Jora’s eyes darted to Septimus where he stood by the edge of the desk tapping on his omni-tool.

“Did Miss T’Sevi give you instructional materials?” He asked, without looking up from his omni-tool. “I wouldn’t take her to be willfully helpful without a paycheck attached.”

“I was just feeling giving yesterday, what can I say?” Jora leaned back and propped her feet up on the table. “You learn something useful, Shepard? Did you see the, uh... turian anatomy guidebook in the files I sent?”

Hannah’s face was burning, the heat moving into her ears. “All of the material you sent was helpful, thank you, Jora.”

“Oh, so you watched the vids on asari?” Jora asked.

“Er...no.”

Jora winked. “Well, I could give you a personal demonstration if you’d prefer.”

“I think I’ll pass, if it’s just the same.”

“Tch, suit yourself. It’s your loss.”

Hannah was sure she would one day watch more of the vids Jora and Rosa had sent her, if only out of curiosity about what the other aliens looked like, but the turians had been the most intriguing for obvious reasons.

She jumped when Septimus clamped his hand down on her shoulder.

“Did I scare you, Hannah?” he asked.

She shook her head, even as her heart pounded in her chest. “It’s fine.”

Across the desk, Jora snickered.

“I was asked to attend a meeting on the Citadel regarding updates on interspecies affairs now that the humans are setting up an embassy. I think it would be a good opportunity to show how successfully you’ve integrated into our military education program. Besides that you ought to see the Citadel in person. Do you think the Vakarians would be able to watch Jane for a week so that you could come with me?”

Hannah balked. “You want me to come with you to a meeting on the Citadel?”

“Yes, if you’re up for it. They’ll have the new human ambassador there, and I’m sure my human counterpart on earth will attend to discuss the progress of the London Twenty. I think it would be nice if you could speak for yourself. Far be it from me to say the integration is going well without actual input from the humans involved. I’m going to reach out to all the families to gauge their opinions, but they’re mostly acting in support roles, whereas you have several months of direct experience working with our troops,” Septimus explained.

Hannah had to admit the idea of seeing the Citadel in person after months of seeing it in vids was enticing - the station seemed like an incredible feat of engineering, and so many races co-existed peacefully there. A part of her screamed that it was a terrible idea to spend a week alone with Septimus when she’d just told herself not to act on whatever it was she was feeling, but a greater part of her was too excited at the prospect to see more of the galaxy and spend some time alone with her friend. She’d never really had alone time with Septimus outside of their rides to and from work. Besides that, she could probably stand a short break from late nights with a crying, runny-nosed toddler who woke her up regularly in the middle of the night and still occasionally wet the bed.

“I’ll, uh, ask Niera if they don’t mind watching her. When is the meeting?”

“Two weeks from now. We would leave two days before the meeting to account for the trip, then I’d like to show you a bit of the Citadel, though we can’t possibly cover it all in a few days. We’ll probably make a visit to the embassies as well. The human ambassador will undoubtedly want to meet you.”

“Who is the human ambassador?” Hannah asked.

Septimus tapped on his omni-tool. “Her name is Anita Goyle.” He enunciated each syllable, ending the statement with an uptick suggesting he wasn’t entirely sure he was pronouncing the name correctly.

“I’ve heard of her. Part of the UN council. She’s a good choice.”

“What, are we not invited, Oraka?” Jora asked.

Septimus looked up. “No, but don’t worry, my superior officer will make sure you don’t completely destroy the building while I’m gone.”

“You’re no fucking fun, you know that?”

“I think I can keep Miss T’sevi in check,” Keran offered.

“You wish, sweetheart.”

“I left a job in the STG for this position…” Keran muttered under his breath.

“At any rate ,” Septimus continued. “I think somehow the office will survive without our presence for a week or so.” He rubbed his hand against Hannah’s shoulder as he let go of her. “It will be an excellent opportunity for you.”


That evening, after Septimus dropped her off at home, Hannah picked Jane up from the Vakarians and sat for a moment in the kitchen with Niera. She could almost never escape a cup of tea with Niera before she took Jane home, not that she minded. She had grown to care for Niera almost as much as Septimus. Perhaps she even loved them both. It was hard not to love Niera - she was so welcoming, so chipper, and so eccentric.

“So Septimus wants you to go to the Citadel with him. How fun!” Niera flicked her mandibles into a smile.

At their feet, Jane had tackled Garrus and the two of them were grunting and rolling around the floor, giggling periodically as one of them managed to gain the upper hand on the other.

“I think it’s a good opportunity,” Hannah said, sipping her tea as she watched the children playing. “I’ve only seen vids of the Citadel. I can imagine it’s like the grand canyon - pictures just don’t do it justice.”

“Is that a place on earth?” Niera asked.

Despite six months living amongst the turians immersed in their culture, learning their idioms, struggling to learn their language as well, there were times when Hannah forgot that a place or phrase she was referencing was uniquely human. She brought up a picture to show Niera.

“It’s not far from where I’m from,” Hannah explained.

“Oh, how beautiful! It reminds me of the Yawning Expanse on Palaven. I’d love to see Earth some day. Maybe when the kids are older we can all take a trip. You can show us where you’re from. And then we can show you Palaven!” Niera flicked her mandibles excitedly, though her expression quickly turned to a frown. “I suppose you’d have to wear a radiation suit though. Less fun.”

Hannah laughed. “We’ll have to do it anyway. It would be nice to see your home too.”

Niera reached across the table and squeezed Hannah’s hand. “I’m so glad you came into our lives, Hannah. You know, I can’t believe you ever worried over asking us to watch Jane. We love her to pieces. She feels like part of the family already. So do you. I know it hasn’t been easy. Our friends and neighbors aren’t all so welcoming, but...well you’ll always have us. I promise that much.”

“That means a lot, Niera.”

For a moment they sipped their tea in silence. Hannah had confided many things in Niera, but something they had never discussed in much detail were romantic matters. Niera had told her once how she and Castis met, but that was the extent of the discussion. Hannah decided it was time to cross that line in their friendship, or at least test the waters.

“So some of my coworkers sent me some...informative vids of interspecies romance.” She lowered her voice, but the children were not paying them any mind, and had started chasing each other through the house.

Niera raised her brow plates and leaned forward. “ Hannah ,” She sounded scandalized, and for a moment Hannah worried she had crossed a line. “What kind of interspecies romance?”

Hannah blushed. “A turian and...a human. Well, they sent me a lot of different things actually, but that was the one I watched.”

Niera grinned. “And what did you think of that? I’ve never watched one like that. I like the ones with asari,” she giggled. “Sometimes Castis and I will watch them together. He’s always so wound up when he gets home from trips to the Citadel.”

Immediately, Hannah felt relieved that she had a friend she could have a mature discussion about her sex life with. It had been years since she’d had someone like that, and now that the thought was back on her mind, she needed a friend to confide in. It seemed Niera was also eager to have someone to discuss it with.

“It was...different than anything I’ve seen. Can I...can I tell you something?”

“Anything,” Niera assured her.

“I haven’t had sex since Jane was born.”

Niera’s mandibles flared away from her face in shock. “What? Jane is three years old, Hannah!”

“I know. It’s just...I didn’t exactly have the support on my postings to just leave her with someone and have a one-night stand, even if I’d wanted to. And for the first year after she was born, I wasn’t even thinking about it. I mean it’s not like I haven’t....you know. I take care of myself. Now I’m here and I figured it was just a lost cause. I hadn’t considered turians as...well I wasn’t even sure if humans and turians could , not that I’d thought about it.”

“Well, you can’t spend the next ten years here and not have sex if you want it, Hannah. That’s absurd. I can’t even fathom it.” Niera took a long drink of her tea. “Castis and I have a very healthy sex life. I can’t imagine going so long without-”

“Trust me, I don’t want to spend the next six years of my life celibate, but…”

“Well surely Septimus would have sex with you if you asked him.”

Hannah felt like she’d been slapped in the face. She gaped at Niera, opening and closing her mouth a few times, but no words came out.

“Are you surprised?” Niera asked. “He clearly cares for you, and I know for a fact Septimus has no problem with alien relations . He used to date an asari, but that was...oh ages ago. She broke his heart too, poor thing. Anyway, it wouldn’t have to be serious if you didn’t want it to be. Why not test the waters?”

“Well...we work together. And we’re friends. That would be...it could…”

“Why does that matter?” Niera seemed genuinely perplexed.

Hannah knew that Castis and Niera had met during their mandatory military service, but she didn’t know much about how relationships and sex worked in turian society. Until recently she hadn’t given it any thought.

“I’m just...er...I’m used to the Alliance. Fraternization is prohibited. I mean, it still happens, but it’s risky. People can lose their jobs, get demoted, or…”

What? ” Niera cocked her head. “I don’t understand humans. It’s encouraged in our society. If you just get it over with, you’re not distracted by it on the job. And why wouldn’t you want to sleep with your friend? If there’s an attraction there, that’s the best person to do it with. All you do is talk about what both of you are feeling and if you aren’t on the same page, you stop before you ruin the friendship.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

“Well it’s not exactly eezo science. Though speaking as an eezo scientist, I don’t think it’s as complicated as people make it seem.” Niera chuckled to herself. “Do humans not have sex with their friends? It’s fairly normal for turians. Not that it always works out, but you just communicate to keep the friendship healthy.”

“Humans aren’t exactly good at communicating. A lot of us are pretty passive-aggressive in that respect. Well, certainly Americans are anyway,” Hannah laughed. Not that Niera knew what she was talking about.

“Septimus will know how to handle it. You should think about it. I was sure there was a spark between you, but maybe I misread…”

“No.” Hannah shook her head. “I...I think I’m the one who’s been misreading it.”

“You’re going to be alone with him for a week.” Niera shrugged. “Seems like the perfect time to try things out. Your human options on Oma Ker are non-existent, but there are plenty of eligible turians. Even the ones that seem like they don’t like you are probably curious about it.” She looked Hannah up and down. “But better to do it with someone who does like you. If it doesn’t work out, then you know. And if it does, even better!”

“I guess I’ll think about it.”

Niera made it sound like it was the simplest thing in the world, just propositioning a friend for sex. Perhaps it was for turians, but Hannah couldn’t imagine it and didn’t even know how to go about it. Jane’s father had been a stranger, and had only happened thanks to a healthy dose of liquid courage. When it came to addressing troops and facing off against sexist superiors, Hannah had no problem sharing her thoughts, but romance was a far trickier prospect.

“I better have a juicy story when you get back from the Citadel,” Niera said. “I can send you some instructional vids if you want to know what positions are good.” She plucked at Hannah’s arm. “Your skin is so soft, you want to avoid any position with too much plating rubbing against it. Standard is probably easiest, but you could try-”

“Thanks, Niera, but I think I’ll figure it out if the time comes.”

With Niera’s promise to look after Jane while Hannah was gone, she messaged Septimus to tell him she would go with him to the Citadel. That night again, once Jane was down for the night, she clicked through the numerous videos Jora and Rosa had sent her until she found another with a turian and a human. Even as she watched it and felt more and more aroused, she felt like she was studying the turian at the same time.

There was nothing to be done, she would just have to see how a week with Septimus went. If it was as simple as Niera made it sound, then there could be no harm from just broaching the subject with Septimus. If any awkwardness ensued, it would be purely on her part, and she would get over it.

A great part of her still felt it was foolish to act on what was likely just her sex drive kicking into gear. She would just wait. Wait, and see what happened next.

Chapter Text

2172

In the creeping early hours of the morning, before the sun had even risen, Commander Aetius led his elite squad through the wilds surrounding the camp, through freezing marsh water, across mud turned stiff from frost, miles and miles deep into the wilderness.

The rain had given way to snow the day before and it had begun accumulating in a thin layer atop the ground, partially muffling the noise of the world, and yet amplifying the sounds of their movement as their boots crunched against it. Shepard had seen snow once in her lifetime, when her and Garrus’ families had taken a vacation to earth and visited mountains peaked with the stuff; Sarlik was too far south to ever get more than rain. It was evident some of her squadmates had never seen it in their lives, clear in the way they let their focus stray ever so slightly to watch the flakes fall slowly to the ground.

This was their last simulation before they deployed for their first assignment. Training was over in a week and this was effectively their final exam. They were up against a group of trained soldiers, mostly centurions and lieutenants that volunteered for these types of simulations as a form of shore leave. In lieu of actual, deadly rounds, they had been given concussive ammo - any hits that would prove lethal with real ammo meant the opposing forces were down for the count and vice versa, with a sensor in their armor to let them know they’d been eliminated. Less grievous injuries could risk shutting down that portion of their armor: a shot in the arm might result in limited mobility, while a shot to the foot would result in a sharp electric shock any time that foot hit the ground once it had been hit.

Failure was, of course, not an option. While the squad as a unit had been improving in the last week or so, there were still issues they had been unable to work out, and if they couldn’t prove they could work cohesively against actual soldiers, they all risked losing their spots to the next round of recruits and being shipped off to new units. Shepard wouldn’t stand for that and she suspected even Nilkus, as power-hungry and attention-seeking as he had been thus far, might try to subdue himself if it meant succeeding at this final simulation and actually seeing ground combat.

It felt like ages that they walked, stiff-limbed and freezing through the cold and the ever-worsening snow flurry, until the marsh gave way to forests and hills, and the overgrowth became so dense that what little light the moon provided was blotted out completely. If not for the night-vision built into their helmets, they would have been blind and stumbling in the dark.

About a mile into the forest, the commander brought them to a halt and addressed them as he kept his eyes ahead.

“Remember your prompt,” he said, his voice crackling over the comm link in barely more than a whisper. “We’re up against a group of Blue Suns mercenaries. Their primary interest here is to take hold of a cache of weapons the turian military has stockpiled in a bunker. We know based on intercepted comm signals that the Blue Suns are approaching the bunker at 0400.” Aetius glanced at his omni-tool. “We have approximately thirty minutes to get in position and prepare to ambush the mercenaries. Who wants to remind the group of our plan of action?”

“Dessius, Kovian, Laranis, and I will take point with you, sir,” unsurprisingly Nilkus was the first to speak up. “Anulis, Maectus, and Xernius will fan out around the outer perimeter and provide defensive backup. Victus will flank Dessius and create a barrier while he remotely prevents access to the bunker.” Almost reluctantly, he added, “Vakarian and Shepard will find high ground and shoot from above.”

“Correct,” the commander said. “Any deviation from this plan will only happen if I give the word. Failure to adhere to my commands could almost certainly result in death and will result in your termination from this squad. This is your final test - anyone that can’t be trusted in a simulation has no place in a real battle. Am I understood?”

“Yes, sir!” The squad said in unison.

With one last glance at his omni-tool, Aetius tapped the side of his helmet and motioned for the group taking point to follow him. Tarquin squeezed Shepard’s shoulder as he slid past her, hugging Baltair’s side and allowing the other turian’s bulky frame to hide him from any possible oncoming fire. Those on the ground team fanning out for defense took off in several directions until only Shepard and Garrus were left.

“No time to waste,” Garrus said.

He smacked Shepard’s shoulder with the flat of his palm and took off running in the opposite direction to find a perch on the eastern side of the bunker. Shepard began to jog toward the west, glancing to the upper right corner of her visor every few seconds to assess the virtual map floating before her eyes. Small though it was, she could make out little pinpoints that indicated her squadmates’ positions.

It took her nearly twenty minutes to wind around to the western side of the attack site, and once she was in the general vicinity of where she needed to be, it was up to her to find a suitably stable tree or outcropping where she could both perch and adequately hide herself. She found the solution in a massive, partially hollowed out redheart tree. She could easily shimmy up the side and slide into an opening roughly halfway up the tree, which would likely provide her with the vantage point needed to pick off mercs at the attack site.

Unfortunately, as her eyes strayed down to the base of the tree, she noticed two turians decked out in the blue and white armor of the Blue Suns mercenary group. Their backs were turned to her for the moment, but there was no way for her to get up into the tree without being seen or heard.

Thinking quickly, she ducked into the cover of some thick foliage to her left and watched the mercs closely as she spoke into the comm line.

“Commander,” her heart was pounding in her ears, “I’m at the western side of the bunker with eyes on a sniper’s nest, but there are two mercs scouting the area a few yards northeast of my point. How should I proceed, sir?”

Several agonizing seconds passed before the commander’s voice sounded over the line.

“What would you do if I was out of comm range, Shepard? What’s your most logical approach here? Walk me through it.”

“I can take them out with my assault rifle, sir, but if I do that and there are any other scouts out of my vantage point, I risk being ambushed. If I try to take them out with my sniper rifle, I’ll only be able to bring one down before the other one sounds the alarm. There’s no way to access the sniper’s nest without removing the threat.”

“Good,” the commander said. “Excellent thoughts, Shepard. You could risk the whole team if you fire now.” There was a pause, then Aetius issued orders to the team taking point with him. Shepard watched as the tiny dots on the map in her visor moved in accordance with his orders. “Are you in safe cover, Shepard?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Stay in cover. When we start the assault at our position, the gunfire should draw the scouts away from your point. As soon as they move, get to your position and proceed as planned.”

“And if the scouts stay, sir?”

“Open fire as you see fit, private.”

Shepard slid her sniper rifle from its holster on her back and held it steady between the branches of the foliage that provided her cover. Peering through the scope, she caught one of the scouts in her sights and tracked him, ever mindful of the dots moving on the screen of her visor, and of the sounds issuing around her. She kept track of the crunching of feet against snow as the scouts milled around looking out for any trouble that might be headed their way, but she was sure they were unaware of her presence.

“Vakarian, are you at your position?” Commander Aetius asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Can you bring up a long-range scanner on your omni-tool?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell me what you see.”

Another long pause while Garrus worked his magic, then he answered. “Movement from the northwest. I’m picking up a large heat cluster from that direction and scattered smaller clusters to the west and east.”

“What about our flank?”

“Uh…” Shepard heard a sudden nervous note in the sigh that left Garrus’ mouth.

“Vakarian?”

“I can’t say for sure, but it looks like two mechs incoming from the south, sir. No heat signatures, but definite movement. I couldn’t say what size to expect based on the readings.”

“Change of plans!” Aetius barked. “Victus, no matter what, you keep those mercs from accessing the cache, understood?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Anulis, you’ve had some training in engineering, correct?”

“A bit,” Renia answered. “I’m not as proficient as Victus or Vakarian, but I know how to jam weapons.”

“Round back from your position and find cover to the south. I want you to disable those mechs before they can make it to us.”

“Sir!”

All the while, as Shepard listened in on the conversation, on the evolving attack plan, she kept the scout trained in her sights, her finger ready to pull the trigger as soon as she needed to. Watching the scout move - an actual living, breathing person on the other end of her sights - it suddenly felt all too real. Until now they had been training against outdated mechs and it had felt like a simulation. Even though she knew she was only packing concussive rounds, it felt like the scout’s life was in her hands. In another week, she would be on her first deployment, and eventually her military career would mean she would have to kill someone: place a bullet between their eyes and snuff out their life with the pull of a trigger.

She took a deep breath to steady herself and remembered Castis’ training. Every other turian had served mandatory military service before her and they had all likely had this very same moment of realization. This moment was just another moment to prove her worth amongst her peers.

All at once, a cacophony of sound erupted over the comm links. The team that had taken point began to move erratically on the map as they let off gunfire; to the south, Shepard heard a more staccato hail of bullets from whatever mechs were approaching, followed by Renia cursing over the line, followed by a small but audible explosion.

The scout in Shepard’s sights turned to his companion and exchanged words before the two of them began running, his companion moved toward the bunker while he turned and headed south directly toward Shepard, likely to investigate the explosion.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Shepard lined up the shot and fired. She found her mark, the concussive round slamming between the scout’s eyes and visibly dazing him. With a sigh, he fell to the ground and feigned death.

As soon as he was down, Shepard holstered her gun and leaped from her hiding place, sprinting past the ‘dead’ merc and scrambling up the redheart tree. All of her weeks of extra training had certainly helped prepare her for this moment, using all her strength to pull herself up the sides of the tree, balancing from branch to branch and swinging her body around into the hollow midway up.

She just barely fit, and if she had truly been turian she wouldn’t have. Crammed into the tight space, she struggled to pull her sniper rifle free, steadying it against a branch growing just below the opening and adjusting the scope until she had a clear, unobstructed view of the attack sight to the north.

Roughly fifteen mercs had swarmed the site and were exchanging fire with Aetius’ ground squad. A volley of fire knocked down three of the mercs from the east where Lapis had fired off her heavy pistol. Tarquin was shielded behind his barrier, tapping away at his omni-tool while Baltair flanked him and stayed within the protective perimeter of the barrier. Close to Aetius’ side, Nilkus had his shotgun in hand, unloading rounds into oncoming mercs. Apart from clinging too tightly to the commander’s flank, nearly bumping him and almost blocking his shots several times, Nilkus seemed to be obeying orders. Shepard had been right - even he was too invested in the outcome of this simulation to waste time trying to lead in the commander’s stead. She only worried that once they passed this test and were out in the field, he would be right back to his life-endangering antics.

After assessing the site, Shepard focused on picking off mercs on the fringes of the group, many of whom were attempting to circle around and flank the ground team. She was successful in at least injuring most of them, taking down two with a direct headshot. Although she couldn’t see Garrus in his sniper’s nest on the eastern side of the camp, she saw his victims fall easily enough - they were often of the same mind and for every two mercs she caught in her sights, one would crumple before she could pull the trigger, the victim of Garrus’ gunfire.

There were more mercs than perhaps any of them had bargained for, obviously part of the commander’s plan to ensure they were ready for the relentlessness of a real battle. Shepard discarded an empty thermal clip, reloaded her rifle and scanned the edge of the site for another merc to pick off when the map in the corner of her visor began to flash red as one of the dots representing her teammates flickered off of the screen.

Using her scope to track over to the main group, she sucked in sharply at the sight of Commander Aetius lying ‘dead’ on the ground. With a bit of quick thinking, Licinia had propped his body up to deflect oncoming fire from the approaching mercs, but the ground squad was struggling considerably against the onslaught. Shepard didn’t believe for a moment that Aetius had died accidentally - this was part of the test, to see how they could operate without their leadership.

“Commander Aetius is down,” Garrus said. “Ground squad what’s your status?”

“Taking heavy fire,” Baltair gasped. “We need one of you down here to help from the ground.”

“I agree with Dessius,” Licinia said. “The bigger threat are the mercs in close combat. One of you can continue picking off those on the fringes, but we need more people down here with us.”

“Is there some contingency plan where Dessius and Kovian become our new leaders when the commander falls?” Nilkus huffed. “They’re more use to us controlling the crowd from above.”

Shepard recalled both from her training with Castis, as well as all the training that had led her to this point, that when command falls and rank is equal amongst the team, each individual should make the decision that best benefits the team. In a firefight, there isn’t time to talk it out and reach a consensus. She had to make a decision.

“I’m almost out of rounds for my Hammer. I’ll come down,” Shepard said. “Approaching from the west, I should be able to come in from behind and take some down without being seen.”

Nilkus hissed into his comm link, but said nothing. Starting an argument wasn’t worth potentially being kicked from the team, though she could tell he desperately wanted to tell her off.

“I’m going in with my assault rifle,” he said. “I can take more out that way.”

“You’re also putting yourself at greater risk of being hit,” Licinia noted.

“As long as most of the team gets out of here and those weapons remain untouched, it doesn’t matter.”

Shepard couldn’t help but roll her eyes as she descended from her sniper’s nest back to the forest floor. Nilkus, even when he was making his best effort to play by the rules, still wanted to be the big hero. It was so decidedly un-turian. His line of thinking wasn’t wrong: sacrifice one for the good of many may as well have been the turian motto, but she highly doubted the sincerity of his statement. She could just imagine him puffing out his chest and casting a glance back at their commander playing dead on the ground, hoping he noticed his bravado.

Maybe doing the right things for the wrong reason still made them right, but it rubbed Shepard the wrong way and she was sure the commander would see right through it.

Grabbing her assault rifle from its position by her hip, she began a brisk jog toward the sounds of gunfire to the east. As she ran, she tried to round slightly north, to come in behind the oncoming mercs, but there were stragglers still in the forest waiting for their comrades to weaken the ground squad’s defenses. As Shepard ran, she stumbled into a small clearing where two armored mercs were standing watch and, thinking quickly, she fired on one who had her back turned to her, ducking behind a tree as the one facing her returned fire.

By this point, her heart was hammering against her chest, her pulse pounding in her ears. She waited until she heard the merc’s footsteps approaching her, jumped out from her hiding spot, and fired off a volley of shots into the merc’s abdomen. He fell to the ground and Shepard took off, not waiting to see if he was dead.

“We’re thinning them out,” Garrus called from above. “I count twelve remaining from my location.”

“There’s more in the trees,” Shepard replied. “I just took out two a mile out from the main site. There’s likely more scouting the edges of the site.”

“Confirmed,” Lapis sounded over the comm link. “I just took down three. I’m hit, though.”

“How bad?”

“Just my arm. I’ll be okay. I can’t use it though, my armor’s locked up. Shepard, what should I do?”

Shepard felt like she’d been hit with a brick. When she’d first arrived for training on this team, none of her squadmates - excluding Garrus - trusted her or deferred to her for anything. Lapis had never been outright cruel, but Shepard certainly never envisioned the turian effectively asking her for orders.

But there was no time to dwell on it.

“What can you do with your free arm?” Shepard asked.

“I have some flash grenades. I could throw them into the crowd of mercs…”

“Save them. If we need to make a retreat, then we should use those, but they could cause chaos on both sides if you use them now. What else?” Shepard continued jogging toward the ground squad as Lapis mulled over her options.

“Just lay down and play dead,” Nilkus suggested. “You aren’t much use if you can’t hold your gun steady.”

“If I can make it back to the attack site, I could put up a shield with my omni-tool!” Lapis exclaimed, ignoring Nilkus’ remark.

“Perfect. We could use extra fortification, I’m sure. Victus, how’s your shield holding?” Shepard asked.

“It’ll last. Dessius is keeping the fire off of me for the most part. But there’s a merc somewhere trying to bypass my hack. If someone could pick them off…”

Shepard’s mind was running a mile a minute, but she had spent her entire life learning how to act under pressure and be quick on her feet. If there was an engineer on the enemy team, they were likely operating to the south, in the direction the mechs had come from.

“Anulis, round south and sweep the area for an engineer. There may be more than one, but we need to check.”

“So you’re just giving orders now?” Renia growled.

“Do it or don’t,” Shepard barked. “I’m not the commander. But if we want to keep the mercs from accessing this weapons cache, we need to keep them from bypassing Tarquin’s tech. Call your own shots, Anulis, I’m just making a suggestion.”

A few more minutes of jogging led Shepard to the battle site. She exchanged fire with a few mercs on the edge of the clearing and watched as another fell before her after a concussive round struck them in the head.

“Watch yourself, Vakarian, you could have hit me.”

“Insulting to suggest my aim is that poor,” Garrus chuckled. “I don’t accidentally hit anything.”

“Don’t get too cocky up there. You might wind up being the last man standing.”

Shepard allowed herself to fire off a few rounds into the backs of the unsuspecting mercs who were exchanging fire with her squad, distracting them long enough to turn around and divide their attention, then she fired off a flash grenade and ran for cover with her squad.

“Great work, Shepard,” Licinia greeted her.

“You guys are the ones holding them back,” she shrugged. “I’m just trying to help.”

“If Renia gets taken out, it’s your fault,” Nilkus barked. “She could be running into an ambush.”

Shepard didn’t dignify the comment with a response. If Renia got hit, it was her own fault - they’d all received stealth training and Shepard hadn’t commanded her to do anything. They were working as a team and everyone needed to pull their own weight.

Working closely with Licinia, Shepard took turns ducking out from behind their cover to fire on the mercs. The process was slow-going, but they were definitely making headway. She wondered if they would reach a point where the mercs would retreat, or if it would be up to them to take them all down. Loyalty amongst sellswords was non-existent, but she knew from her history classes, and from hours of listening to her father drawl on about it, that mercs were a different breed than sellswords. The Blue Suns in particular were known for their cohesiveness and over-all loyalty to their leaders. They would likely die before they gave up this fight - assuming the hired soldiers were going for historical accuracy in this simulation.

After what might have been several minutes or several hours - time had lost all meaning to Shepard in the heat of battle - Renia’s voice sounded over the comm link.

“I’ve got the engineer in my sights. He’s flanked by two LOKI mechs. If I had a sniper rifle I could take him out from afar, but…” She paused for a moment in thought. “I can try to overload the mechs. It would stun him and give me the time I needed to move in.”

“Do it!” Licinia yelled.

“I agree with Kovian,” Shepard said. “It sounds like a good plan.”

“They’re thinning out,” Garrus called. “Fewer and fewer trickling in from the edges, and the crowd pressing in on the ground squad is considerably smaller than it was when Shepard arrived. I think we can hold them off for a final push if we take out the engineer.”

“Anyone besides Maectus injured?” Shepard asked.

“I got hit in the foot,” Baltair said. “But it’s fine.”

Shepard glanced to her left and saw Baltair holding his weight to one side, wincing whenever he had to place his foot down to pivot, but otherwise betraying no sign of injury. Behind him, Tarquin’s head was bobbing as he tapped away at his omni-tool. Baltair was too useful at full height - his size made him an excellent target, and with Tarquin’s shield he remained mostly unharmed while still drawing plenty of attention away from the rest of the squad. If he knelt to fire and take the pressure off of his foot, they would lose that advantage and he knew it.

Another unfathomable amount of time passed before Renia reported in that she had taken out the engineer. Garrus reported in again that there were only seven remaining mercs in sight, and they were pressing down hard on the squad.

“This is taking forever,” Nilkus complained. “We should just rush in and finish the rest off.”

“We risk losing people if we do that,” Licinia argued.

“Kovian is right. We should wait it out. We’ve come this far, we can pick off seven more mercs and finish this the right way.”

“Well, you said yourself you can’t command us to do anything, can you Shepard?” Nilkus stood up and, before Shepard could say otherwise, he leaped over the shield Lapis had provided and barrelled headfirst in the small crowd of remaining mercs.

Going after him was a fool’s errand that risked two lives instead of just one. And now that he was in the fray, he could easily get caught in the crossfire, which made it more difficult for the squad to fire on the mercs. There were two solutions: let him die for his stupidity, or for the entire squad to move from cover and attack at once.

“What do we do now!?” Licinia growled. “He’s as good as dead if we don’t move in, but…”

“Maectus, can you keep your shield up if we push forward?” Shepard asked.

“I...I think so.” Lapis nodded.

“I think we should push. It will distract the mercs. It’s our highest likelihood of success without losing any more of our squad,” Shepard said.

“I’m with Shepard,” Baltair spoke to her left.

“Me too,” Licinia agreed.

The rest of the squad who weren’t sweeping the perimeter echoed their agreement. Never in her life had Shepard heard so many turians agree with her at once, never had she ever imagined hearing a turian, besides Garrus, say ‘I’m with Shepard’.

So they moved from cover, Lapis extending her shield as far as the limits of her omni-tool would allow. Letting out a wild battle cry, the squad descended upon the remaining mercs, alarming and confusing them long enough to keep Nilkus from falling to their fire. Close combat necessitated the switch from gunfire to an omni-blade, so Shepard dropped her rifle and launched herself on the nearest merc, ripping across the throat of her enemy and taken by surprise when the cut deflected off of the armor. For a moment, she had been so wrapped up in the heat of the moment that she’d forgotten they were in a simulation. The merc still fell ‘dead’, but there was not even a scuff on his armor to suggest Shepard had attacked him.

When the dust settled and all of the mercs had been dealt with, Shepard did a quick scan of the site and found all squadmates present and accounted for except for those on the perimeter and Garrus, still up in his sniper’s nest. Shepard was sweating profusely beneath her armor, and she could taste blood in her mouth, but the adrenaline and endorphins pumping through her system overpowered any pain she felt. They had succeeded in their final simulation, and had lost no one - save the commander, who she was still sure had ‘died’ intentionally.

“We did it.” Licinia stood panting a few feet away.

Shepard was taken by surprise when, from behind her, Baltair swept her off her feet and lifted her onto his shoulder, despite his injured foot.

“I don’t know about you guys, but I think Shepard deserves a little turian battle cheer. She called a lot of good shots in this fight,” he said.

Shepard removed her helmet, her hair wet and matted, steam rising from her head in the cold winter air. “Come on, put me down, Baltair. We all worked hard.”

“You really are a turian, Shepard,” he said. “Can’t take a compliment to save your life.”

Her heart swelled at those words. ‘You really are a turian’. She had never felt fully human, nor fully turian. It took her completely by surprise that her teammates were now standing before her, ready to respect her as an equal for the first time in her life - she knew it wouldn’t last, that future assignments would bring the same problems, that there would always be superior officers who felt she didn’t belong - but for once in her life, she allowed herself to bask in the moment.

“You should listen to Shepard,” Nilkus pushed forward. “She’s not a commander and she doesn’t deserve any praise. We all fought and won this. And if I hadn’t rushed the mercs in the end, we’d still be shooting at them from behind barriers.”

“Fuck off, Nilkus, you’re just mad that Shepard isn’t incompetent like you thought she was.” Tarquin was suddenly standing beside Baltair.

“Easy for you to defend her. She’s letting you fuck her every night, I bet you-”

He didn’t get to finish his statement, because the commander stood up then, and cleared his throat to demand their attention. Reveling in their victory, they all had forgotten the commander was still very alive and could hear every word they said.

“You can all squabble amongst yourselves back at the barracks.” He stood and observed them in silence for several seconds. “You did an acceptable job at this task. You have all passed and are ready for ground combat.” There was a half-hearted murmur of excitement that the commander quickly quashed. “ That being said , there are still issues this squad needs to work through. A good soldier thinks quickly and suggests action to their squad in the absence of leadership.” For a fleeting moment, his eyes locked with Shepard’s, and she felt that familiar swell of pride in her chest. “Impulsiveness can lead the best squads to disaster.” At this, his eyes flicked to Nilkus, who had the decency to look at least a little ashamed of himself. “Return to the barracks and wash up. We have one more week of light training before we ship out for our first assignment.”

Shepard let her squadmates surround and congratulate her, ushering her after the commander toward the barracks. As they moved, she hazarded one glance back at Nilkus, who fixed her with such a furious glare, that she had no doubt of the thoughts running through his mind. Despite her victory, she felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach - it was more imperative than ever that she avoided finding herself alone with him.

But she wouldn’t let him ruin this moment. She let Baltair carry her on his shoulders halfway back to camp, surrounded by teammates that suddenly saw her as close to an equal as turian peers ever had. It was a moment she had longed for since she was young, and she would savor it for as long as she possibly could, ignoring the looming threat on the horizon.

Chapter Text

2157

If Hannah had felt overwhelmed arriving on Oma Ker months earlier, it was nothing compared to how she felt as the Citadel - the massive space station that served as the center of galactic civilization - came into view through the starboard windows of the turian cruiser that had transported them across lightyears in less than two days. She had seen pictures and video of the Citadel on the news, but seeing it in person was something else entirely. It floated, silent and stunning, five enormous arms jutting out from a center ring, with a straight structure extending from the center of the ring.

“The arms are what we call the wards.”

Hannah jumped as Septimus spoke from behind her. She hadn’t heard him enter the room. She had spent their entire time on the ship mulling over Niera’s suggestion and never working up the nerve to actually say anything about it to Septimus. But in close quarters, discussing the meetings that would occur during their visit, she’d had plenty of time to assess Septimus’ physical features and attempt to work out her feelings toward him.

Was she sexually attracted to him? Her brain still hadn’t decided, but her body reacted readily enough to his presence: butterflies fluttering in her stomach and her heart rate increasing noticeably. She felt like a foolish schoolgirl with a crush.

Septimus drew so close she could feel the heat of his body against her back as she continued staring out the window.

“The...wards?” Hannah recalled reading the term in one of her many manuals on galactic civilization.

“Slums is perhaps a more appropriate term. It would take too long to explain all of the sociopolitical complexity of life in the wards, but the majority of the population lives there. The ring at the center?” he reached past her to point out the window and his arm brushed her shoulder. She sucked in her breath and had to remind herself to exhale. “That’s the Presidium. And that tower extending from the center is where the galactic Council holds their offices. The embassies are located on the Presidium, though. We’ll have a shuttle take us to the turian embassy first. The new human ambassador will be meeting us there. I believe she’s sharing an office with the hanar ambassador until they finish building the new wing that will house the human embassies.”

With that, Septimus backed away from her and crossed the room the gather up a small suitcase containing his belongings.

“Don’t hesitate to ask questions,” he said without looking up. “The Citadel can be overwhelming on your first visit. And there won’t be very many humans.”

“Well, I’m used to that by now,” Hannah laughed.

“I suppose you are. Asari make up the majority of the population, especially on the Presidium, but it’s a very diverse station. I don’t suppose you’ve met any drell on Oma Ker, but you’ll likely meet some here.”

“Drell?” Hannah tried to remember if she had read about them before.

“Their political status is...complicated. The hanar ambassador speaks for both hanar and drell. Another story that would take too long to tell completely, but not all drell remain under hanar authority. You’ll want to be careful touching them, though. Their skin secretes a fluid that has...hallucinogenic properties.”

Hannah blinked stupidly at Septimus. “Excuse me?”

“A handshake won’t hurt, but should you get the urge to kiss one,” he chuckled to himself. “Drell are apparently very popular with human women, I’ve heard.”

“What do they look like?”

“You’ll see.”

The ship came to dock on one of the arms of the Citadel - the wards, as Septimus had called them. From there, a shuttle was waiting for them, on the docks. While Septimus led them toward the car, Hannah’s head swiveled this way and that, taking in the sight of the skyscrapers covering the ward, millions and millions of glittering lights extending in either direction. It was stunningly beautiful, and she could have stood for a thousand years staring at it, but they had places to be.

Inside the shuttle, Hannah found herself seated close to Septimus in the cramped back seat. There was no driver, but the front seat was built to prevent manual access to the controls. Septimus tapped at his omni-tool, oblivious to the red hue creeping up Hannah’s neck at their close proximity - their legs brushed as the shuttle barreled along a busy skyway toward the central ring of the station.

“We have a bit of free time after our meeting with the ambassador,” Septimus said. “I thought we might grab something to eat. There’s a wonderful restaurant in the Citadel Tower that serves both dextro and levo food. They have a kashmeela that’s to die for.”

“Kashmeela…?” Hannah could not tear her gaze away from Septimus’ leg grazing her own.

“A quarian dish. You’ll have to try some of mine. I don’t think they can make a levo version, but it really is delicious. You can’t find it on a colony world like Oma Ker, but there are a few places in Cipritine that sell it.” He patted her knee and her skin jumped. “All right, Hannah?”

She nodded and stared out the window. “A little overwhelmed.”

“Understandably so. Unfortunately, I’ve had to pack our schedule fairly tight. It’s a shame we don’t have longer to stay. I thought after lunch we could go to the galactic history museum. It makes learning about other cultures far more interesting than reading from those stuffy manuals I gave you.” He tapped a few times on his omni-tool. “We’ll need to check into our hotel room, but it’s not available until 1600. Oh, and Castis is here this week for work, so I told him we’d meet him for dinner tonight. The rest of the week will be dinners with some politicians, so I figured we should squeeze him in. And…” He glanced at Hannah and trailed off. “I’m sorry, we can just take each thing as it comes, I don’t need to bore you or overwhelm you with the minute details of our schedule.”

“It sounds like we’ll have a good week,” Hannah said. “For the hotel, are we-”

He cut her off before she could finish. “The turian ambassador booked the room for me. We’ll be sharing a room, but it’s quite large, with two beds. I’m not sure about all human customs, so if that’s not all right I can always-”

Hannah shook her head. “No. No, that sounds fine.”

Should she bring it up when they reached the hotel? Should she wait until the end of the trip in case it was awkward? Was she really going to follow Niera’s suggestion? It seemed too bizarre. ‘Hey Septimus, I haven’t had sex in over three years, could you help me out?’ She couldn’t fathom asking a human the question, but Niera made it seem like it was just something turians did with their friends.

And that was another question. Was Septimus more than a friend?

She had hardly envisioned this situation being her most pressing issue when she first came to Oma Ker, but half of her was so preoccupied with it that she couldn’t even take in the wonder of this stunning new place Septimus had brought her to.

For the moment, she pushed it from her mind. The shuttle burst forth from the tunnel-like skyway of the wards into the Presidium. It took Hannah by complete surprise to find a lush green landscape, lit beneath an artificial sun, spanning out ahead of them and curving along the ring of the structure. A tranquil stream flowed into a lake from both sides of the ring and below them, people of all races moved to and fro across bridges and skywalks toward destinations unknown.

“It’s beautiful here,” Hannah remarked.

“It is,” Septimus agreed. “I often come to the lake to sit and watch the birds between meetings. You see all sorts of people when you just stop to observe the world.”

“People watching,” Hannah offered him the term. “I do it too.”

“Another charming phrase.” He flicked his mandibles into a smile and her cheeks grew hot.

The shuttle let them off at the embassies, a structure built into the walls of the Presidium housing hundreds of office suites, with a central lobby and desk behind which several attendants sat directing complaining citizens to take a ticket, or else guiding them down halls to meet with their representatives. Every race imaginable seemed represented: three turians stood arguing with each other in line, a hanar was preaching loudly in the corner, a salarian was trying to placate an angry asari at the desk, and - to Hannah’s surprise - a short, stout creature in an enviro-suit similar to a quarian’s brushed past them, its suit emitting a whirring sound every few seconds.

“A volus,” Septimus explained at the look of bewilderment on Hannah’s face. “Trade merchants. Not very fond of humans, so I’ve heard.” He grabbed her hand and led her along through the lobby, flashing a badge at the desk attendants and continuing down a long, narrow hallway lined with doors.

“This place is incredible,” Hannah remarked. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Who built it?”

“The Protheans, as far as we know. The asari discovered it many millennia ago. The keepers have maintained it all this time. I’m sure we’ll see one around here soon. Ah, here’s one now.”

A door to the right slid open and a plump, bug-like creature scuttled past on four legs, a strange electronic device strapped to its back. It pushed past them as though they weren’t even there, continuing on down the hallway on some unknown task.

“They don’t speak, and if you try to redirect them, they explode.”

“How unusual.” Hannah stared at the keeper until it disappeared.

“You’ll see plenty more of them, don’t worry.” Septimus urged her onward.

They walked for what felt like a lifetime, twisting and turning down hallways until they arrived at an office marked: Turian Embassy. Septimus tapped a code into a box at the door and it slid open, allowing them entry into a large, spartan office. A few desks contained computer terminals, with turians busily typing behind them, centered around a central desk where a turian woman in regal gold clothing spoke into a comm link on her arm.

“Shara, would you please send Councilor Reltin yet another reminder that I am not interested in meeting him for dinner this weekend, or any weekend? And make sure you file that paperwork for the space station construction in council space or we’ll be tied up in bureaucratic bullshit for the next year- Oh.” She looked up at their arrival. “My guests are here. Redirect all calls to Balus.” She disconnected the call and stood up, crossing the room in a few swift steps and greeting Septimus with a friendly flutter of her mandibles against his. When she reached Hannah, she offered her hand, a gesture most turians she’d met on Oma Ker were unfamiliar with.

“You’re hardly the first human I’ve met, dear.” The ambassador said, shaking her hand with a firm grip. “I’ve gotten quite used to your unusual gestures. But where are my manners? My name is Ambassador Senna Aurelion. You can just call me Senna, of course. You must be Lieutenant Shepard?”

“You can just call me Hannah.”

Senna cupped Hannah’s cheek and flicked her mandibles into a smile before turning her attention to Septimus. “A cute little thing, isn’t she? Amazing that such small fleshy people managed to fight back so proficiently during the Relay 314 incident. I already like you better than the half the humans I’ve met here on the Citadel,” she directed the last statement at Hannah.

“Well, I’m not a politician,” Hannah offered.

At this, Senna burst out laughing. “Good point! I don’t mind your ambassador so much, but some of her underlings, spirits. And the politicians they’ve sent to broker agreements on behalf of earth are unbearable. Thankfully, the Council deals with most of that.”

“How is your bondmate?” Septimus asked.

“Oh, she’s fine.” Senna waved her hand dismissively. “Always elbows deep in some new formula. She spends half of her life in that lab they gave her at the university. Anyone new in your life, Septimus? Lanith was asking after you last time she came in.”

Septimus flicked his mandibles, and Hannah wasn’t sure what to make of the gesture. “I remain bonded to my work, as always.” He shrugged. “Lanith is too young to be asking after me.”

“She’s sixty, Septimus.”

“Well, for an asari…”

“Anyway, we should head down to the hanar embassy. Anita will be waiting for us. I don’t know how she stays sane sharing an office with Corranden. They’re simply unbearable to be around for more than five minutes at a time.” Senna swept past them toward the door. Septimus and Hannah exchanged a pointed look and followed after her.

“Amabssador Corranden has always been exceedingly polite when I’ve met with them,” Septimus said.

“That’s their problem. Don’t you think it all feels a bit forced? Hanar politeness?” She shook her head. “It feels like they’re just trying to get me to like them so they can turn me on to their weird little Prothean worship.”

“I’ve never been probed by Corranden at any length about the Protheans. They’ve never brought it up. Some of the hanar on the Presidium, however…”

“Well, anyway, I’d hardly want to share an office with them. It will be good when Anita gets her own office and the humans have an official embassy. They’ve been very pushy about all this, you know. It took the volus twenty years to get an embassy on the Citadel after they joined galactic society. Humans have barely been around for six months.”

“We’re an aggressive bunch,” Hannah laughed.

“Clearly.”

It took several minutes to wind through more hallways and down a floor to the hanar embassy. Inside, the office was considerably smaller than the turian embassy offices: two hanar hovered behind modest desks, while in the corner two desks had been shoved into a space that barely fit them, where two humans sat typing away at terminals.

One of the humans, a stern-faced blonde with sharp eyebrows and hair pulled tightly back into a neat ponytail, rose to her feet when they entered, allowing Senna to greet her with a flick of the mandibles against her cheek before shaking Hannah’s hands and bowing her head to Septimus.

“You must be General Oraka and Lieutenant Shepard,” the woman said. “I’m Ambassador Goyle. Anita, if you like.” She spoke with an American accent, but beyond that Hannah couldn’t place it.

“Nice to meet you, ambassador.”

“You as well. I wish I could say I felt this summit was anything but a waste of time. It’s just going to be a lot of politicians patting themselves on the back for the outstanding job they did in mitigating any further losses from the First Contact war.” Anita glanced at the turians. “Relay 314 incident, whatever you’d like to call it. If things are going well on Earth and Oma Ker, I’m happy to hear it, but there are better ways we could be spending our time.”

“I don’t disagree,” Senna said. “But such is the life of an ambassador, dear. Plenty of boring, pointless, self-congratulatory meetings. Still, there will be some downtime. There’s going to be an open bar at the dinner tomorrow. That’ll liven things up.”

“I doubt I’ll be drinking at a work function.”

“We certainly need to get you to lighten up,” Senna brushed her hand against Anita’s shoulder and the human stared at her uncertainly.

“At any rate, I’m afraid most of your visit will be spent in conference rooms listening to bland lectures about the implementation of this program thus far,” she said. “No offense, general Oraka. I know you’re meant to speak at one of these meetings.”

“I’ll try to keep from putting anyone to sleep,” Septimus laughed. Anita didn’t smile.

“How do you find Oma Ker, lieutenant? Is the Council holding up their end of the bargain? Have you had any issues with food deliveries? Any problems with the locals?” She asked.

“Nothing major.” Hannah shrugged. “A little light vandalism and some nasty comments from some neighbors, but nothing violent. And I haven’t had any issues with food supplies. I’ve been integrating into my job placement well too, under Septimus’ supervision.”

“Good.” Anita glanced down at her omni-tool and sighed. “The plan is to meet here each morning and head to the meetings together. I’m sure Senna will help you find my office if you get lost. Unfortunately, I have to attend a meeting with the head of the Alliance and a few world leaders visiting from Earth. Donnel!” She barked at the human still seated at the desk behind her: a gangly young man who was probably in his early twenties.

“Yes, ambassador?”

“Call for a shuttle. You’ll have to take incoming calls while I’m gone.”

“Yes, ambassador.”

“Well, have fun dear,” Senna waved and turned to Septimus and Hannah. “I’m afraid I have some business to attend to as well, but I’m so glad we got these introductions out of the way. I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow at 0500. Shall we meet at my office or here at Anita’s?”

“We can meet you at the turian embassy,” Septimus said.

“Do you have plans for the rest of the day? I can recommend an adorable posh little bakery in the trading district or-”

“We’ll be just fine, thank you, Senna.”

With that, they parted ways with the ambassadors, and Hannah let Septimus lead her down even more hallways to an elevator. By this point, she was so thoroughly turned around that she could not have found her way back to the embassy lobby if she’d tried, so she was thankful Septimus still knew where he was going.

Time on the Citadel seemed to pass at a different rate than back home. Everything seemed faster there: everyone was in a hurry, skycars were constantly zooming past overhead, no one seemed to take a moment to just stop and enjoy the incredible sights surrounding them. She supposed the aliens were used to it by now - even the most stunning vistas could be rendered mundane when they were an everyday backdrop. Hannah took it all in as much as she could, and was thankful that Septimus seemed to enjoy just observing the world around them as much as she did - stopping occasionally to observe the lake on the Presidium and watch people pass them by.

The hotel room that Senna had booked for them was, like everything else on the station, luxurious and immense. It was more of a suite than a single room, with two beds, a bathroom that was easily as large as Hannah’s entire room back on Oma Ker, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Presidium, and a cozy fireplace glowing against the wall. The floors and countertops were a sort of foreign, but beautiful, gleaming marble, and the bed was one of the most comfortable Hannah had ever laid eyes on.

She found that she was easily able to put her confused feelings for Septimus on hold once they arrived; every moment of every day was packed with activity, so that by the time they returned to the hotel at night she was so exhausted that her only thought was of sleep. The meetings they attended, as Senna had promised, were largely boring and self-congratulatory, but she enjoyed Septimus’ presentation on the integration of the Sarlik twenty, and even spoke herself at some length about how smoothly the process had gone thus far and how helpful Septimus had been in the transition.

It wasn’t until their final night on the Citadel, their meetings concluded and left with an entire day of free time before their flight home the next morning, that Hannah began to think once again about Septimus and her uncertain desire to pursue more with him. She still didn’t know how to broach the subject, too afraid to speak as bluntly as Niera had suggested, and worried he would simply laugh at the idea of being with a human at all.

But she had so enjoyed their time together over the last week. They had spent so much time alone, at meals and talking at length at night on the way back to their hotel. She knew without a doubt that of all the people in her life on Oma Ker, she trusted him the most, and if she was going to sleep with someone at this point in her life, it was almost necessary that it be someone she trusted. But it still felt too scary, too foreign, too overwhelming.

Still, she couldn’t push the thought from her mind all through breakfast, stealing glances to observe his chiseled face and the metered movement of his mandibles as he spoke. It was hard to look at him and imagine kissing him - she didn’t know what he felt like at all, apart from the warm roughness of his hands; she was intensely curious about it.

They returned to their hotel after breakfast to drop off some leftovers and it was while Septimus was bent over the mini fridge, storing their takeaway boxes, that the words left Hannah’s mouth completely of their own accord - some strange courage seizing her and forcing her thoughts out before she could stop it.

“What do your plates feel like?” She blurted.

Septimus stood up and looked at her, cocking his head to the side. “I’m sorry?”

Her face grew intensely warm and she wished she could walk back what she had said, but now that the words were out there, she wanted to follow through. It was hardly an acceptable come-on, ‘what do your plates feel like?’ why couldn’t she just flirt with him as though he were a human?

Well, she’d never been that good at it with human men, if she was being honest with herself.

“I just, um…” She scratched her head. “I’ve spent so much time around turians and I mean, I guess I’ve felt your plates a little bit when we greet each other with a kiss, but…I don’t know. I was just curious I guess. I’m sorry if it’s a rude question.”

He laughed and walked slowly across the room to meet her. “It’s not rude. You ought to spar with us some time when we go to the Vakarians’ for dinner, then you’d see.” She felt immediately dejected. Her foolish attempt at broaching a delicate subject with him and ended before it even began. ‘Try sparring’, next topic.

But he didn’t change the topic. In fact, she was surprised when he grabbed her hand and slowly brought it against his forehead, allowing her to trace her fingers delicately over the plating and truly feel it beneath her touch.

“Don’t worry, I won’t break if you touch me.” His mandibles flicked into a grin.

Now that her hand was against his face, she didn’t want to let go. It was incredible how much heat radiated from the smooth plating. And it wasn’t as hard or unforgiving as she had imagined it to be. From afar, turians seemed to be made of stone, but beneath her touch, his plating felt more like hard cartilage, giving, but not impenetrable.

She traced her fingers over the tiny gaps in the plating, across his brow plates and around to his cheek. His eyes fluttered shut and he bowed his head slightly to allow her to reach him more easily. She was hardly aware of how completely she had lost herself in this moment. It was no longer just the curiosity of how different he must feel compared to a human - she wanted to touch him.

Her heart rate increased as her fingers glided down his cheek and across his mandible. It fluttered it against her hand as she traced the edges of it, following the white line of his colony markings to the very tip.

She lifted her hand and brought her fingers delicately against the white stripe marking his chin, up to the very edge of his mouth plating, feeling his ‘lips’ bend slightly against her finger, daring to move her hands to his upper lip, along the hard line of his mouth, his eyes still closed as she moved.

Her eyes darted down to his neck, to the black scales freckling the dusky purple skin and her hands quickly followed. Septimus said nothing, his breath measured, a peaceful look on his face as her fingers traced around the scales and across the leathery skin of his neck until they met the collar of his shirt.

Here, his eyes snapped open and he held her gaze with such intensity that she wanted to look away, but she couldn’t bear it. They stared at each other, her heart pounding in her chest, warmth creeping through her veins, and then she let her fingers stray to the latches on his shirt, holding steady against them as she looked to him for an answer.

His head bobbed lightly in a nod and suddenly her fingers were frantic, unlatching and pulling apart the fabric, pressing the flat of her palm against his heavily-plated chest and pushing the fabric along with her, moving across his shoulders as he shrugged the shirt off completely. Her hands moved back to his chest, exploring the protrusion of his keel bone, up to the front of his cowl and sliding around the back of it to his neck. She inched her fingers up layered plating, somewhat sturdier than the plating that covered his chest and face, up further and further until the plating gave way suddenly to a small, velvety patch of skin just below his crest of horns. When she rubbed her fingers against it, Septimus let out a low growl that vibrated through his whole body, his hands reaching forward suddenly to grip at her waist.

And that was it.

He crushed his lips against hers, his breath hot and heavy against her face, his tongue darting almost immediately to meet hers as she opened her mouth to him. His lips weren’t like the soft plump human lips she was used to, but they still flexed to meet hers, gripping greedily as their tongues entangled. It was both entirely new and incredibly familiar, but the one thing that was for certain was that she’d made up her mind about how she felt about Septimus. All the heat that had been mounting in her body shot straight for her groin, her heartbeat pulsing between her legs.

It felt like forever that they stood there kissing, his grip on her waist so tight that his talons had begun to dig into her. If it was painful, she wasn’t aware, too overcome by the passion they were sharing. She wanted him, completely.

She gripped the edge of his pants, fumbling with the unusual clasp where a button should be, and that was when he pulled away, letting out a ragged sigh and clasping her hands where they held his pants.

“Hannah,” he said softly.

She was suddenly bashful, letting go of his pants and taking a step back. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have...I…”

He shook his head and cupped her cheek in his hand. “Don’t apologize. I’ve grown so very fond of you over these last several months. What we just shared,” he traced his thumb against her face, “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it.”

“Then we both want this,” she said, suddenly emboldened.

“Yes.” He surprised her by leaning forward and pressing his forehead lightly against hers, moving the hand that cupped her cheek to stroke the back of her head. “But not like this. I don’t...I don’t want a moment of passion in a foreign place and then once we go home, this was just some...indiscretion. Hannah, I care for you. I don’t want to pursue something casual. If you do, I understand.” He let go of her and backed away. “I would want more. I’ve thought about it a few times over the past months and...well, I simply didn’t think you would ever be interested in turians, but…”

Hannah’s heart swelled. She grabbed Septimus’ hand and interlaced their fingers together, surprised at how well they fit despite the disparity in their digits.

“I trust you more than anyone in my life right now, Septimus. I didn’t know what I wanted until this moment. I thought something casual would just, I don’t know, get the thought out of my head because I was curious. But I think the truth is that I want more. And that scares me. I’ve never had a serious relationship with a human, let alone someone of an entirely different species! I...I want to do this if you do, but I don’t know what happens next.”

Septimus smiled and gripped the edge of her chin. “How about we start with a date? When we get back to Oma Ker.”

She smiled back, blinking unexpected tears from her eyes. “A date. Sounds perfect.”

Chapter Text

2172

The celebration of the squad’s victory during their final simulation was promptly quashed the next day when it was back to training as usual. The commander seemed stricter than ever, and especially focused on exercises to improve cohesiveness as a unit. Although he didn’t single out Nilkus specifically, it was obvious to everyone present that Nilkus was the weakest link in the chain - the turian most in need of learning how to fall in line and take suggestions from his teammates.

The snow lingered, falling in a thin layer across the barracks that grew thicker and denser with each passing hour. During a break after sparring, Shepard stopped to gather some of the snow up in her bare hands, forming it into a tight ball and tossing it with all her strength at Garrus. This led to a retaliation that missed Shepard entirely, flying over her head as she ducked and smacking Baltair straight between the eyes. In a manner of minutes, half of the troops were involved, the air filled with snowballs whirring past to smack against trees and - only sometimes - their intended targets.

All of them were red-faced and sweating by the time it was over. To their surprise the commander saw the spectacle and only flicked his mandibles into a smirk before rolling his eyes and crossing the barracks to his office. It seemed the successful completion of the simulation, and the prospect of their first deployment, had even the commander in higher spirits.

As the group began to disperse, brushing snow from their uniforms, Tarquin sidled up beside Shepard, tip-toeing his fingers up her spine and greeting her with a brief tap of his forehead against hers.

“Tarquin!” She gasped, looking around at their squadmates as they passed. “What are you doing? Everyone can see you.”

“So? Let them see.” He nuzzled his nose against hers and it felt like their were butterflies fluttering around in her stomach.

Never in her life had Shepard met another turian who was willing to show romantic interest in her in public, in front of their peers. It was embarrassing and shameful to find a human attractive, there had to be something wrong with someone who would resort to a human before one of their own kind. That Tarquin didn’t seem to care at all what the rest of the squad thought of their relationship fully reassured Shepard that he was being honest in his affection. She kissed his cheek softly and brushed some snow from his shoulder.

“I’ll meet you in the rec hall,” Garrus said loudly from behind them.

Shepard pulled slightly away from Tarquin to turn to Garrus with a bashful grin, “Sorry. I’ll be right there.”

He waved his hand dismissively and jogged toward the other side of the barracks.

“Hey, so I was thinking maybe tonight we could meet up in the rec hall,” Tarquin whispered once Garrus was far enough away.

“I guess it’s a little too cold for a romp out in the woods, huh?” Shepard said, kicking lightly at the snow on the ground.

“A little,” Tarquin agreed. He was trying to hide how he shivered. Turians simply weren’t built to withstand this cold. Shepard had to wonder if the barracks for such an elite squad had been built so far north precisely because of the adverse weather conditions that came with it. “We should celebrate the end of training. You were amazing yesterday.” He flicked his mandibles at her.

“Stop. We all did a good job.”

“You really can’t take a compliment, huh?” He prodded her side and she let out an unexpected giggle, which only made Tarquin grin. “Didn’t know you could make that noise.”

“Well, don’t get used to it!”

“Or what?” He purred.

“Maybe I’ll show you tonight.”

So they walked together to the mess hall and Shepard marveled at the foreignness of such an open romantic exchange with a peer. If only she could have gone back in time to tell her younger self that one day things would start to look up for her. It had been, without exaggeration, one of the best weeks of her life. She and her squad had successfully completed their first training for an actual tactical squad - they were no longer just recruits - not only that, but her squadmates were finally beginning to see her as an equal. And now she had a...well, they hadn’t used the term, but Tarquin was as close to a boyfriend as Shepard had ever experienced. It was a culmination of several dreams she had always hoped for, but never imagined would come true.

All that was left was to get through the week and ship out on their first assignment. After nearly ten grueling weeks of training, she felt confident she could handle a few more days.


Shepard’s routine for slipping out for training during the night had remained the same since bootcamp, and didn’t vary when she left to meet Tarquin. She would lay quietly in bed, listening as whispers tapered off into soft breathing, waiting until each one of her squadmates had fallen asleep, then she would wait ten minutes more, just to be sure. She always left before Tarquin whenever they met up, sneaking past his bunk and catching his eye as he lay waiting for his own escape.

As she passed him that evening, he flicked his mandibles into a grin and she had a hard time reminding herself to keep moving out of the sleeping quarters - she was too tempted to climb in bed with him and start kissing him right then and there. They’d had a lot of pent up energy since before the simulation, and hadn’t had a moment to get any of it out together, so the night felt a long time coming.

Still, she pressed on, slipping silently out of the sleeping quarters and padding across the barracks through the snow to hack open the rec hall doors, relieved by the warmth she found within.

She took a certain comfort in silence and solitude, which is why it had never been hard to motivate herself to train each night - it gave her some time to herself to be alone with her thoughts. She hadn’t trained since before the simulation either and, though it may have all be in her mind, she was sure her body was suffering for it.

Tarquin usually took his time arriving once she’d left - it was better to wait a few more minutes and ensure Shepard hadn’t woken anyone before he attempted his own escape. They were both overly paranoid about being caught, though there weren’t really any strict rules about wandering the barracks during hours meant to be dedicated to sleep. She was certain they would at least get in trouble for hacking through the locks on the rec hall doors.

Shepard killed time by stripping down to her underwear, and when Tarquin had still not arrived after this, she set about stretching to warm herself up. After a few times sleeping with Tarquin, they had learned that there were certain positions that prevented uncomfortable chafing as his rough plates rubbed against her skin, but some of them required a little dexterity on both of their parts, and it never hurt to limber up beforehand.

She heard the door slide open behind her and moved slowly out of her stretch, speaking as she turned to greet Tarquin.

“Took you long enough, you-” Her words fell short at the shock of Nilkus standing in the doorway where she had expected Tarquin.

Her heart plummeted into her stomach.

“Tarquin’s all tied up at the moment,” Nilkus said, his voice low and even. “I’m afraid it’s just you and me tonight, Shepard.”

How could she have been stupid enough to start undressing before Tarquin arrived? How had she not noticed that Nilkus was awake when she left? And what had he done with Tarquin? She could hazard a few guesses involving Renia’s assistance. Now she found herself with virtually no options for escape - Nilkus was blocking access to the only way out - in a situation she had been utterly desperate to avoid.

“We both know you can’t take me down on your own, Nilkus.” Shepard’s shaky voice betrayed her nerves. It was true she could hold her own against the wiry turian, but he wasn’t exactly easy to take down.

“No,” Nilkus took a step forward. “We both know that I’ve pinned you before and I can do it again.”

He moved forward slowly and purposefully, like a hunter stalking its prey, and with each step he took, Shepard stepped backward and over, trying to position herself in a way that she might be able to reach the door if she ran as fast as she could; it seemed to be her only option in her current predicament - the alternative was unacceptable.

“I have to admit I’m a little jealous of Tarquin. How long have you two been fucking each other anyway?” There was a spark of something truly evil in Nilkus’ eyes. The look he fixed her with made bile rise in her throat.

“We have a mission to see through,” Shepard said. “This isn’t how military teams operate.”

“No, we’re doing things my way right now.”

With almost no warning, he launched himself toward her and she took her chance, darting for the door as fast as her legs would carry her, her lungs quickly beginning to burn as she pushed toward her only chance at escape. It was futile. Nilkus was ten times faster than she was, aided by his height.

She let out a startled cry as his hands clasped her ankles and yanked her down. She landed hard against the floor of the rec hall, skinning open the underside of her jaw as she hit the ground, her skin squeaking against the wood as she struggled to continue moving forward, kicking and flailing wildly to shake Nilkus’ grip. He was too tenacious, digging his sharp talons into her flesh, his fingers climbing her legs until they sunk into her hips and he flipped her onto her back.

There was no way in hell she was going to let him win this. She would die before she stopped fighting for even a second. She let out a wail like a banshee, if nothing else hoping someone outside the rec hall might hear her, then reached out and gripped the edge of Nilkus’ crest of horns, yanking up with all the strength she could muster. There was a sickening crack as a piece of his crest snapped off, and a startled gasp left her throat, surprised at her own strength. Nilkus roared with pain, but held his weight on top of her, digging one hand into her shoulder until she felt the talons tear through her flesh and deeper still, swiping the other hand with immense force across her her face, narrowly missing her eye and leaving a bloody trail in its wake.

He pinned her arms down before she could reach for his crest again, but as he struggled to hold her down, she found leverage with her legs, rearing her knee up into his groin and making contact with the sensitive slit between his legs. It was enough to make him loosen his grip, and then she was up again, running for the door, blood dripping into her eyes and clouding her vision.

She managed to get mere feet away from the door before he slammed into her with his entire body, both of them rocketing into the wall, Shepard’s head smashing against the window and leaving her momentarily dazed as glass shattered and fell all around them. She was certain the back of her head was bleeding now, but it was hardly her most pressing concern now that Nilkus’ hand was closing around her throat.

For such a thin turian, he still had remarkable strength, holding her firmly against the wall with his chokehold while his free hand struggled to tear at the fabric of her underwear. She clawed desperately at his hand as each squeeze around her throat made it harder to breathe. She kicked her legs, but she didn’t have the necessary leverage to do any harm.

Tears sprang to her eyes and streamed down her cheeks as reality began to sink in. She was fighting as hard as she possibly could and it was having no effect, she could see no way to escape this chokehold, her thoughts becoming clouded as the air left her lungs. It had been years since she’d cried, but now it was all she could do.

He succeeded in removing her underwear, tossing it aside while he maintained his grip on her neck. Her attempts to claw him away had weakened - she felt dizzy, certain she was going to lose consciousness at any moment.

Her opening to retaliate came unexpectedly. He couldn’t free himself from his pants with only one hand - obnoxious buckles Shepard had cursed a thousand times when undressing Tarquin were suddenly a blessing from the spirits. He let go of her, throwing her callously to the floor, assuming, somewhat naively, that she was too weak to fight back any more.

The air came rushing back into her lungs and she gulped it in until it burned, struggling to her feet before she had even shaken off the dizziness from her lack of oxygen. Nilkus was now caught with his pants half down, unable to run after her effectively as he had before.

The rational part of her knew that she should just run for the commander’s cabin and seek help, disengage and retreat - it was a lesson she’d learned a million times since she’d entered bootcamp, and earlier still when Castis had drilled it into her; she was simply too filled with an untamed, burning rage to listen to the rational part of her brain.

Darting across the rec hall to where her clothes lay in a heap, she picked up her omni-tool and clamped it to her wrist, summoning forth her omni-blade and running at full speed toward a now thoroughly frightened Nilkus. He tried to back away from her and tripped over his pants, falling flat on his back.

She wasted no time in climbing on top of him, a fire burning in the pit of her stomach. Suddenly the evil, lecherous look in his eyes had been replaced with pure, unadulterated fear.

“P-please!” He cried. “Don’t kill me!”

She gripped his partially broken crest and he let out a shriek of pain. Then she brought the omni blade down and sliced it off fully, deeper still until she made contact with the very edge of his scalp, knicking it just enough to draw blood without fatally wounding him. The scream that left his throat should have felt like vindication, but she was so weak, with so much rage and adrenaline coursing through her, that she barely processed what she had done.

She tossed the remains of his bloody crest to the floor and ran, leaving him writhing on the floor, shrieking in pain. She didn’t go far before her body reminded her of what she had just endured, her legs faltered and a sharp pain wound up her foot from her heel whenever she made contact with the ground. It occurred to her that her foot was bleeding, but she had to get away from the rec hall in case Nilkus managed to get back on his feet.

Stumbling, half-blinded by blood and sweat and tears, blood trickling from her open wounds, she made her way to the sleeping quarters, leaving a path of bloody footsteps in her wake. She barely made it to the door, collapsing half in and half out as it slid open on her arrival.

The lights were on and everyone inside was awake. Renia lay unconscious on the floor, Baltair and Garrus standing over her. Leaning up against one of the bunks, Tarquin was scuffed and bloodied, but he had fared far better than Shepard.

At the sight and sound of her collapsing in the doorway, Garrus was the first to turn around and spot her. Instantly he was at her side, holding her up against him, his eyes darting all over her body to take in the extent of the damage.

“Shepard? Shepard what did he do to you?”

She clasped weakly at his arm. The adrenaline was leaving her system now and in its place, a wall of pain was mounting quickly.

“Shepard!” Garrus looked wildly around at their squadmates. “Someone get the commander! Help me get her to the med clinic!” He looked back down at her as the edges of her vision began to fade. “Hang in there, Shepard. Hang in there. You’re okay, you’ll be okay.” He squeezed her hand and the last thing she heard before she lost consciousness entirely was, “I’m here with you, Jane.”

Chapter Text

2157

The trip back to Oma Ker from the Citadel felt like it lasted ages, though Hannah knew it had only been two days. The cruiser that returned her and Septimus to Oma Ker was filled with a crew of military officials, all of whom seemed to want Septimus’ time and attention, so Hannah was largely left alone for most of the trip (though Septimus had stolen a kiss as they passed each other in an empty hallway during the night). Now that she knew what it felt like to kiss him - how it felt with his large hands gripping her waist as their bodies pressed together - there were no doubts in her mind about how she felt. How strange her life had been these past six months, to go from such abject fear and uncertainty toward the turians to being overcome with desire, both physical and emotional.

She had rarely felt nervous around men before, and never primped or preened before a date, but in the face of unknown customs, and giddy about her newfound dynamic with Septimus, she found her stomach in knots in the days leading up to their planned night out.

Niera’s first words upon Hannah’s return were, ‘So, did you have sex or not?’

After regaling Niera with the story of their stay on the Citadel, she had been so ecstatic about the progression of events that she immediately offered to watch Jane the night of the date, and then began offering a wealth of romantic advice.

Hannah had to admit she needed all the help she could get. She wasn’t really sure what turians found attractive, she wasn’t sure how dates worked in their culture, she hadn’t been on any date in years, let alone one in a different culture. Reading provided some help, and Niera filled in the rest of the gaps. She even offered to help Hannah find a dress that would show off all of the areas turians found most attractive. Hannah didn’t have clothes that humans or turians would find attractive - she hadn’t purchased anything fun or flirty since before Jane was born, and whatever she still had was either outdated or no longer fit.

She conceded to allowing Niera to help her pick an outfit. A shop in Sarlik sold asari-style clothing for the non-turians living on the colony world, and asari were similar enough in shape to humans that most of it fit just the same as clothes on Earth might. Hannah wouldn’t admit out loud, but she felt uncertain and uncomfortable trying on flashy outfits. Soldier though she was, she still had moments of self-consciousness surrounding the hard muscles of her body and the scars marring her skin. It must have been evident even to Niera, as she stepped out of the changing booth in a dress that accented her midriff - apparently a turian erogenous zone. She held her hands over her exposed stomach uncertainly.

Niera tutted. “Don’t cover up! The point of the dress is to accent your waist.”

Hannah rocked back and forth on her feet. “I don’t know, Niera...maybe this is a bad idea. I’m so used to my uniform...I mean I have some dresses I used to wear on shore leave, but...it’s been a long time and-”

“You’re making excuses.” Niera walked over to her and pulled her arms away from her stomach. “Look, it looks great!” She traced her fingers over the firm muscles rippling beneath Hannah’s skin and Hannah jumped at the unexpected touch. “First of all, Septimus is already interested in you, so you don’t need to worry about how you stack up to a turian. Septimus has dated plenty of aliens.”

“Somehow not helping, Niera.”

“Second of all,” Niera continued, “you look good! Septimus will think this looks sexy, but-” She paused and looked Hannah up and down. “If you aren’t comfortable then that will ruin the look. Are you nervous about showing off your body, Hannah? Castis told me humans are uncomfortable with most forms of nudity.”

“I guess that’s some of it.” Hannah shrugged. “I think more of it is just...I’m nervous about the date.” She slumped down into a chair just outside the fitting room and sighed. “I don’t know anything about turian dating. And I’m afraid that if we decide to...if we end up having sex...what if it hurts, or it’s awkward or...I don’t know! It’s been so long since I’ve been with anyone.”

“Oh, Hannah.” Niera cupped her cheek with her hand. “It might be awkward, but it always is with someone new. Especially someone you care about. Don’t let that ruin what it could be. I just think you and Septimus would make such a good pair, I really do. I haven’t seen him get along so well with anyone in a long time. Stop worrying about what might happen and just be yourself. That’s who Septimus cares for. It’s normal to be a little nervous, but you’ll be fine.”

“Thanks, Niera.” It had been just what Hannah needed to hear - a confidence boost to help her remember the point of this whole affair. “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you how grateful I am to have you in my life. You’re a good friend.”

Niera’s mandibles fluttered and Hannah wasn’t sure what to make of the gesture - she was almost certain she was being bashful at the sudden praise. “I’m happy to have you in my life too.” She hugged Hannah and smiled. “Now enough sappiness. I have two more dresses for you to try on!”

Eventually Hannah settled on a dress that covered her stomach, but had side cuts that revealed her waist. She wasn’t sure the plunging neckline would do her any favors with a turian, but it was hard to avoid with asari fashion. She supposed if Septimus had been with an asari before, he might be a little more interested in her breasts than the average turian, but she wasn’t entirely sure.

Niera had given her a few tips on turian dating customs. It was a common custom on a first date for the person who first suggested the date to present the other with something bright and colorful - it had been adapted from ancient nesting customs to something a bit more innocuous. History, particularly military history, was a huge part of turian culture as well, so museums were common first-date locales. There were all sorts of body language cues to signal different intents as dates progressed, and Hannah had tried to absorb some of them, but she found it difficult to remember - she already had trouble with the complex social cues provided by mandibles without factoring in sexual tone as one layer of meaning.

In the end, all Hannah could do was get ready, try to remember all of Niera’s advice, and wait for Septimus to arrive. He had been cagey about the details of the date, ensuring her they would have a good time without any further elaboration.

They had a day of work before their date, their first day back after the trip to the Citadel, and Jora in particular had pried Hannah for information as soon as she arrived.

“Did you two fuck on that trip or what? Something’s different between you two.”

“Leave her alone, honestly,” Keran complained. “How did you like the Citadel, Hannah? It’s quite a feat of architecture, isn’t it?”

“I had a great time. Nothing happened between me and Septimus.” Hannah gave Jora a pointed look as she explained herself.

So she was telling a little white lie: a quick passionate kiss hardly constituted anything worth mentioning, and Rosa was the only one besides Niera she would have felt comfortable confiding the information in anyway. She didn’t want whatever was blossoming between herself and Septimus to disrupt their work environment. Besides, she knew Jora would never let her hear the end of it.

The day seemed to pass at a snail’s pace. Hannah grew distracted frequently as she wondered what Septimus might have in store for their date, and it seemed that every time she checked the clock an hour had passed in her mind, but only a few minutes had actually gone by. When it was finally time to leave, she hurried out, missing whatever snide comment Jora yelled at her as she left.

Septimus dropped her off at home as he always did, kissing her lightly on the cheek and promising to pick her up later for their date. Almost as soon as he was gone, Niera was at the door with Garrus and Jane in tow, ready to help her get ready before taking the children back to her house.

While Hannah dressed and applied makeup for the first time in ages, Garrus and Jane chased each other through the halls and Niera chatted animatedly about her day at work before diverting back to the subject at hand.

“I really am so excited about you and Septimus. I know I’ve said it a thousand times, but really.”

“Well, don’t get your hopes up, Niera. Maybe the date won’t go well or-”

“Oh, don’t be so pessimistic! I’m sure things will go wonderfully. And not that I wouldn’t love it, but I’m hardly suggesting you’ll be bonded anytime soon. I just think you two suit each other and you’d make a handsome couple, that’s all. And also that you could probably use the…” She glanced toward the hall to make sure the children couldn’t hear. “You could probably use the sex, it’s been so long. I’ve heard Septimus is a very proficient lover.”

Hannah’s cheeks flushed. “You’ve talked about it with him?”

“Well, I was friendly with some of his exes.”

“I can’t think about that right now. I’ll be all nerves if I start thinking about all the possible ways this date might end. I’m just going to follow your advice and play it cool.” Hannah stepped out of her bathroom, slightly uncomfortable so dressed up, but suitably pleased with how she looked as she glanced in the mirror hanging on the back of the door.

“I think it’s safe to say Septimus will like the dress,” Niera offered. “You look stunning.”

“Thanks.” Hannah looked down at her feet somewhat sheepishly.

“Well, I better head out with the kids. Septimus will be here soon. I hope you have a good time. I assume you’ll tell me all about it when you come get Jane tomorrow morning.”

“I promise,” Hannah said. “Thanks again for watching her.”

“It’s always my pleasure. Garrus, Jane, come on!” Niera stepped out into the hall and caught the children as they tried to run past her. She swept Jane up onto her shoulder and let her crawl into her cowl as she hitched Garrus up on her hip. “Say goodbye to Hannah. We’ll see her tomorrow.”

“Bye-bye!” Garrus squeaked.

“Bye mommy!”

“Goodnight, Bug. Be good for Niera.”

Hannah watched as the three of them left, then she was alone with her thoughts, watching the clock tick away painstaking minutes as she waited for Septimus to arrive. Her mind kept wandering back to the vids she had watched, the imagery mingling with the lingering memory of Septimus’ smooth ebony plating, the warmth of his hands. It would have been a lie to say she didn’t want the date to progress to that endpoint, but every time she thought of it, her stomach filled with butterflies.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this way around a man.

A knock on the door startled her from her thoughts and she jumped up, swinging the door open perhaps too eagerly and beaming at the sight of Septimus standing in the doorway. He held in his hands a bundle of what very much looked like beetroots, which he offered forward for her as he greeted her with a kiss on the cheek.

“These are for you.”

“Oh...are they...um…?” She supposed he had chosen this as a bright, colorful item to give her, but they couldn’t have been native to Oma Ker, and they seemed as odd a choice as any.

Septimus flare his mandibles and cocked his head. “I had...well I read that humans often exchanged flowers. Maybe the translation was wrong. The website I bought these from called them flowering roots.”

Hannah couldn’t suppress the laugh this elicited. She set the beets on the counter and turned back to Septimus with a smile. “It’s lovely, thank you.”

“I thought it an odd sort of flower, but I don’t know human customs well and I certainly don’t know Earth plant life, but-”

“Don’t worry about it. They’re wonderful. I really appreciate the gesture, Septimus.”

His shoulders slumped, somewhat relieved. “Well, if you’ll follow me.” He offered his hand and she took it, still amazed at how small her hand seemed in his. He led her down the front steps to a waiting skycar and they climbed inside as it led them to some unknown destination.

As they rode in relative silence, his eyes scanned up and down her body, his mandibles flicking into a grin. A warmth crept into her cheeks and she looked at him with her head slightly tilted to one side.

“What?” She asked.

“You look beautiful.”

“You clean up pretty good yourself,” She offered. And he did. He’d worn an impressive turian approximation of a suit, brightly patterned with streams of silver and purple that accented the color of his plating.

“I hope you’ll forgive me if I seem nervous this evening,” he said. “I care very deeply about you, Hannah, so you could say I’m quite serious about this date. Maybe it’s too soon to say something like that, but I don’t think it is. You’re a good friend to me.” He reached out and curled his fingers around hers. “I’m so happy that we’re doing this.”

“Me too.” She squeezed his hand.

“I was a bit worried about doing anything too public, considering our careers and the general attitude of most turians toward humans. So I thought we could have a bit of a more private evening.” His mandibles flared suddenly and his eyes widened. “Not to suggest...I mean that is to say...I’m not embarrassed by you. I just...I think it might be easier for both of us to get to know this side of one another without being harrassed.”

Hannah laughed and patted his cheek. “I understood your meaning, Septimus. I’m glad you’re not embarrassed by me.”

“Some of my fellow turians are narrow-minded about these things.”

“Oh, I guarantee my fellow humans are even narrower-minded about it. You’re right. It’s better if we start this out without prying, judgmental eyes. So are you going to tell me where we’re going?”

At this, Septimus smiled and shook his head. “You’ll see when we get there.”

It took a good forty minutes to arrive at the location Septimus had chosen, and by that point they were well outside of Sarlik, out in the grassy green countryside, miles away from any homes or buildings, surrounded on all sides by nature. At the top of a grassy knoll, a tree sprouting and providing shade over it, sat a blanket and picnic basket, as well as a bottle of wine written in a stylized turian script that Hannah’s translator couldn’t decipher.

Septimus took her hand and led her up the hill and the two of them took a seat on the blanket. The vantage point allowed a stunning view of the horizon, where the sun was beginning its slow descent in the sky, illuminating the clouds in all different shades of orange and pink. It was by far the single most romantic moment Hannah could remember experiencing in her lifetime, and the thought behind it all nearly made her eyes well unexpectedly with tears.

“I hope this is all right. It’s not exactly fancy, but I read on a few sites that humans sometimes have picnics at sunset, and I think it’s a quaint idea. I’ve been out to this hill at dusk before, but I’d never considered the romantic appeal of the location, if I’m being honest,” Septimus said.

“It’s beautiful.” Hannah could hardly tear her eyes away from the view.

“Now, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t excel at cooking. I had someone else make the meal, so don’t be too quick to shower me with compliments,” he chuckled as he reached into the picnic basket and pulled forth several different neatly-wrapped packages.

The first package contained a Palaveni dish Castis had made them once that Hannah had liked so much she’d asked for the recipe (though she hadn’t yet mustered up the courage to try cooking it herself). This served as their appetizer, which they picked at happily while they sat chatting and watching the sunset.

When they had finished the appetizer, Septimus unwrapped the second package, which contained something that vaguely resembled a bologna sandwich, and a turian food she didn’t recognize. He offered her the sandwich and she examined it while he uncorked the wine and poured it into two stemless glasses.

“Is this...bologna?” Hannah asked.

“Do you not like that? I’d never heard of it and when I asked the asari that made it for me what it was, she wasn’t sure. But I read that it was a popular picnic meal.”

She couldn’t help but smile at how earnest Septimus was in his efforts. For as much as he had learned about human culture from shepherding the Sarlik twenty, there was still plenty he hadn’t learned, and it comforted Hannah to know she wasn’t alone in her culture confusion. She was happy to eat something as mundane and relatively unappetizing as a bologna sandwich with the knowledge that Septimus had meticulously researched human customs to choose it for her.

It wasn’t the most appetizing sandwich in the world - it lacked any condiments and was relatively dry, but she ate it contentedly at his side while he nibbled at his own finger food. They sipped their wine, which she found to her liking - it tasted almost like a cabernet, with a strange note of sweetness she couldn’t place. They finished their first glass as the sun disappeared fully along the horizon and the moonlight took its place.

“It’s been a few years since my last attempt at a relationship,” Septimus explained.

The two of them sat against the tree, starting on their second glass of wine, leaning comfortably against each other. Septimus draped his arm around Hannah’s shoulder and she was struck yet again by just how warm he was - it was an incredibly comforting warmth.

“Well, I’ve hardly even been in a relationship if I’m being honest,” Hannah said. “Military life makes it hard. I always felt like if I wanted to succeed in my career, I had to put it before everything else. When Jane came along, I realized I could put someone else first and still excel at my work, but then she was my full-time job outside of the military so I didn’t really have time for romance.”

“Forgive me if I’m overstepping my bounds, but was her father...ever in the picture?”

“No.” Hannah shook her head. The truth was, she barely even remembered Jane’s father. He had been a meaningless one-night stand on shore leave on some backwater colony. All she really remembered about him was that he had been attractive, but mostly talk - the night hadn’t been worth it, though she would never go back and undo it now that she had Jane. Whoever he had been, he’d given her an unexpected gift, even if he himself had been a drunken mistake. “He doesn’t even know about Jane. Just a drunken shore-leave indiscretion. If she ever asks about him, I’ll tell her the truth, but for now she seems content just having me.”

“You’re a remarkable woman, Hannah. I think it’s a fairly universal idea that being a single parent isn’t easy.” His fingers brushed lightly against her shoulder.

“I think coming to Oma Ker has made things easier,” she surprised herself by saying it. She hadn’t realized she felt that way until she voiced it. “Turians seem to be more understanding about the necessities required to raise a child. The Alliance has been more accommodating than I expected, but it was never easy to juggle caring for Jane and being active duty. The position I’m in now affords me a lot more time with my daughter. Ultimately, that’s what I want. I want her to know me and trust me and love me. If we had stayed on Shanxi, she would have probably been closer with her nanny than me.” She took another sip of wine and sighed contentedly. “Plus, I suppose it’s been nice getting to know you.”

Septimus chuckled. “You suppose, do you?” There was a notable purr to his subvocals, and Hannah was more than a little surprised at the shiver it sent running down her spine.

She shifted so she could look him in the eyes, taking in the full scope of his face, the way his plating glistened in the moonlight. His vibrant eyes were fixed on her with a longing she recognized - she had seen a glimmer of it back in the hotel on the Citadel, and she felt it too.

Overcome quite suddenly with the desire that had been quietly pulsing through her veins over the past few days, she traced her fingers delicately along the line of the colony markings decorating his mandible.

“Septimus?”

His eyelids and mandibles fluttered. “Yes?”

“I want you. All of you.”

The words were like spark igniting a powerful flame between them. He gripped her hips and pulled her against him, crushing his mouth against hers as their lips came together. Quickly, her mouth opened to his and their tongues writhed together, his talons dimpling into the exposed flesh of her waist as she pressed herself more firmly against him. He was so very large and so very warm and she desperately wanted to see more of him.

As she had done in the hotel, her hands moved eagerly to the claps of his shirt, struggling to pull them apart, shoving the fabric away from his shoulders. This time, when she had successfully removed the garment, his hand slid up to her shoulder to push at the strap of her dress, sliding it down her arm, his hand trailing across her chest as he pushed the fabric away from her breasts. His rough thumb brushed her bare nipple and she moaned into his mouth.

For a few minutes, they sat there, half naked, exchanging a series of heated kisses as they gripped desperately at each other. Hannah’s heartbeat had moved between her legs, and she was eager to move things forward now that they had begun.

She took the initiative by moving her kisses to Septimus’ neck, nipping experimentally at the scales that dotted his skin, pleased by the rough growl that issued from his subvocals as she did so. He gripped her bottom with one hand and her thigh with the other, pushing the hem of her dress up slowly but purposefully.

“Hannah.” Her name left his mouth in a breathy gasp.

She reached up the back of his neck to the velvety patch of skin just below his crest that she remembered from before. Stroking her fingers gently against the soft skin, he let out another heady growl and his fingers inched further up her leg until he had pushed the hem of the dress up over her bottom. He gripped at her underwear, but moved no further.

“Wait,” he breathed. “Hannah.”

Reluctantly, she removed her lips from his neck and sat back on his legs. “What’s wrong?”

“I just want to make sure we both want the same thing.”

“I want this.” She nodded enthusiastically. “I want you.”

He looked up and down her body and his mandibles twitched. “I want you too.”

At this, she decided to take the initiative by standing and shimmying the rest of the way out of her dress. The most adventurous place she’d ever had sex was the back of an old car when she was a teenager, and even though they were miles away from any prying eyes, she felt suddenly self-conscious standing before Septimus in nothing but her underwear. But she wanted whatever came next, and it overruled any other worries in her mind.

Following her lead, Septimus rose to his feet and slowly, painstakingly, undid the buckles on his pants, pulling them off one leg at a time, guiding the fabric around the impressive plated spurs growing from his calves. Hannah wasn’t sure whether or not he would be... out yet, but quickly had the question answered for her as he removed his pants.

The slit between his legs was the same dusky purple as the rest of his skin, slightly darker toward the center and glistening with some sort of fluid, but decidedly just that - a slit. Realizing that Septimus was now completely naked, she stepped somewhat clumsily out of her underwear, and for a moment the two of them stood there, taking in the sight of each other’s foreign anatomy.

She had no clue what to do next. Would kissing more free his erection from its sheath? She should have read up on the details of turian sex instead of just watching videos. Porn was never the same as reality. Why had she thought it would be enough to prepare her?

“I’m sorry,” she laughed nervously. “I...I don’t know what to do next.”

Septimus smiled warmly and sat back down against the tree. “Here,” he offered his hand and she let him pull her onto his lap.

One of his hands moved slowly up and down her back while the other gripped firmly at the flesh of her bottom. He bowed his head and breathed against her neck, darting out his tongue to taste her, brushing his rigid lips against her throat. The sensation made her skin prickle.

“Your skin,” he said, tracing his fingers slowly against her goosebumps. “What is this?”

“I don’t know how to explain,” she laughed. “Instinctive reaction to what you were doing.”

“Should I do it again?”

She brought her lips against his before pulling away again and leaning her head back to expose her throat. “Yes.”

His mouth latched against her skin as the hand gripping her bottom inched lower. He slid his fingers between her legs and she gasped at the sensation as he brushed tentatively between the folds of her lower lips. It had been so long since anyone had touched her like that that her body’s instinctive response was substantially heightened.

He slid a single digit inside of her and she let out a gasp and clutched at his shoulder, immediately grinding down against his palm as he moved his finger slowly inside of her.

“Septimus.” She buried her face against his shoulder.

“Does it feel good?” He asked, with a note of genuine concern.

She could barely muster more than a moan in response. Somewhat clumsily, she moved her fingers between his legs, feeling her way along the slit that hid his erection. She attempted to dip her fingers lightly within, but he gripped her wrist quickly and pulled her hand away.

“Oh…” She sat back. “Did I do something wrong?”

“It will uh...come out when I’m ready.” His mandibles flared with embarrassment. “It doesn’t feel particularly pleasant to have someone digging around in my sheath.”

“I’m sorry,” she felt incredibly foolish for having tried without asking him first. “I don’t really know what I’m doing and…”

“Hannah. It’s okay. We’re learning together.”

Their lips came together in a kiss and his finger resumed its movement between her legs. The faster he moved his finger and the harder she ground her pelvis against his palm, the more the pleasure mounted in her body. All she could think about was his warmth, the musky scent of him, the way he was making her feel in that moment. For the first time in a long time she felt like more than just a soldier or just a mother - she felt wanted.

She was right on the edge of an orgasm, her fingers stroking against the skin beneath his crest, when he pulled his hand back from between her legs abruptly and she felt something warm and wet slide up between them. When she looked down, she realized his erection had been freed from its sheath and even though she’d watched several different vids on the extranet, nothing could really prepare her for what it looked like in person.

To begin with, unlike the bright blue of the turians in the vids, Septimus was a vivid purple, wet and glistening in the moonlight. It was, by far, the largest she’d ever seen, though still mercifully much smaller than the turians in the vids. She reached out a cautious hand and gripped him at the base, watching his face to gauge whether or not she was doing the right thing.

His mandibles fluttered and he let out a soft, buzzing moan which she took to be a good sign, so she pumped her hand up and down the length of him a few times. The sticky fluid coating his erection wasn’t exactly pleasant to touch, but she imagined it would provide a much needed lubricant when they finally came together. His earlier ministrations had left her wanting more, and it was really all she could do to focus on him for a few moments. She had never wanted someone inside of her so desperately. There was an air of excitement in the unknown, but more than that, she wanted to share that intimacy with Septimus.

After a few seconds of moving her hand against him, he gently pried her wrist away.

“What would be most comfortable for you, Hannah?”

She wasn’t entirely sure. She could see the plating on his legs and stomach quickly chafing her comparably softer skin if they tried it in good old-fashioned missionary style, besides that his angular hips made that position seem uncomfortable. But she wanted to be able to look him in the eyes when they had sex for the first time, so the only solution seemed to continue in the position they were already in.

“Here.” She gripped his shoulder and held herself over him.

“Tell me if I’m hurting you.”

“I will,” She promised.

She slid down on top of him slowly, guiding him inside of her, though it wasn’t quite as difficult a task as she was anticipating, thanks in large part to the natural lubricant coating him. Still, he was easily the biggest she’d ever had, and once she’d settled on top of him, she inhaled sharply and held herself still for a moment before she began slowly rolling her hips against him.

In all the countless hours she had fantasized about the possibility of having sex with Septimus since she’d first recognized her crush for what it was, she had expected it to feel more... alien , more foreign and unusual. It was certainly a new experience - the ridges running along the underside of his erection and the sheer size of him were enough to remind her of that -  but when it came down to the basics of the act, it was startling how familiar it all felt.

They found a rhythm surprisingly quickly. He gripped her hips as she rolled against him, moving slowly but purposefully. She met his eyes and the intensity with which he held her gaze was almost mesmerizing. For a moment, it was just the two of them alone in the world, blending into one, coming together and exchanging a moment of much needed passion. But she felt something more there, something she had rarely felt with anyone. It felt good , definitely - the pleasure mounting between her legs was threatening to surge at any moment - but there was a tangible emotional connection as well. She hadn’t ever felt so vulnerable and yet so secure with anyone. How had it come to be this way with a turian? It was far too soon to say they were in love, but there was no doubt in her mind that love existed in some form between the two of them. They cared for each other with a frank intimacy that hadn’t been apparent until now.

When she came, his name left her mouth in throaty moans, her hands scratching down the back of his neck. He called out her name as well, the sound issuing from both of his larynxes as he spilled himself inside of her and then they were still, lying against one another, the sounds of nature mingling with their heaving breathing. He traced his fingers through her hair, his subvocals buzzing at a low, comforting frequency.

“I think maybe the spirits brought you here to me,” he whispered.

And though Hannah had never been a religious woman, lying in Septimus’ arms bathed in moonlight, feeling more content and euphoric than she had in years, she had to wonder if just maybe he was right.

Chapter Text

2172

Sound was distant and muted as Shepard returned to consciousness, as though she were listening from underwater. Her eyes felt glued shut and as she struggled to open them, she realized something thick and warm was blocking the vision in her left eye. It took a few seconds for the pain to catch up to her, but when it did, it hit her all at once. Her entire body ached, but her head, shoulder, and eye were especially throbbing. As her right eyelid fluttered open and her murky vision began to clear, Garrus was the first shape to come into view.

He lay with one hand draped against hers, fingers curled gently around her palm, his mouth slightly open as he slept. At the slightest stirring from Shepard, though, he jolted awake and looked toward her, blinking the sleep from his eyes.

“You’re awake!” The relief in his voice was audible. “Spirits, Shepard, I was so worried about you.”

“Where...am I?” She attempted to sit up, but found the strain on her shoulder too painful. Garrus leaned forward and helped her up and then she saw plainly that she was lying in a bed in the infirmary.

“Do you remember what happened?” He asked.

The memory had hit roughly concurrently with the pain, and was just as unpleasant. She nodded and looked down at the bandaging wrapped around her shoulder. Then she recalled that Tarquin had also been injured.

“What did Renia do to Tarquin?”

“She was meant to distract him while Nilkus attacked you,” Garrus explained. “I don’t think she knew the extent of what he had planned. She thought he was just going to rough you up. She’s...not that I forgive her for beating the shit out of Tarquin, but she’s punishing herself more than we ever could. When she found out what Nilkus did-”

“Where’s Tarquin?”

Garrus flicked his mandibles and his brow plates furrowed. “He’s in the next room over, also resting. They had to treat him for some fairly minor injuries.”

Shepard eased back against the headboard at this information. “What about Nilkus?”

“The commander put him in solitary confinement until he can be extracted. I don’t know much more than that, but it’s definitely the end of his military career. I didn’t see him myself, but Baltair said you uh...he said you sheared him.”

Shepard had been so overcome with rage that she hardly remembered what had actually happened during her escape. Her hands were coated in blue blood and she knew for certain that she had done considerable damage to Nilkus.

“I don’t know. Maybe I did. I thought he…” She was struck with unexpected emotion at the very recent and horrifying memory of being pinned against the wall and choked. Tears welled in her eyes and she looked away from Garrus. “I didn’t think I was going to get out of there.”

Garrus squeezed her hand. “It’s okay. You’re okay now. I’m here. I won’t leave your side.”

“Have you talked to the commander at all?” She asked.

“He came in to check on you maybe an hour ago? He’s been making all sorts of calls since this happened. He was furious when we woke him up, but when he saw what happened to you, his demeanor changed pretty quickly.”

Shepard wondered privately what would happen next. An event of this manner was uncommon and shocking amongst turians. Would they still ship out next week now that they were down one squad member? Nilkus had been the least productive, most antagonistic member of the squad, but it was still a different unit with one less soldier. Would they disband the squad entirely given the severity of the situation? Despite the fact that she knew it all boiled down to Nilkus’ actions, Shepard couldn’t help but blame herself if everything that happened ruined the squad’s chances. If she had been a turian, Nilkus never would have come after her.

As if he could read her thoughts, Garrus gently rubbed her uninjured shoulder. “It’s not your fault, Shepard.”

She sniffled and shook her head. “How do you always know what I’m thinking?”

“Come on,” he laughed. “I’ve known you since we were three. You have this very distinct face you make when you’re blaming yourself for something.”

“I just feel like a failure. I finally felt like I fit in here and then this happened. It’s just proof that I don’t belong, you know? It wouldn’t have happened to anyone else. I should have...I don’t know. I should have known. How could I have been stupid enough to let him get so close to me?”

Garrus bristled beside her. “Don’t ever say you’re stupid. You’re not weak for allowing yourself to be comfortable with your squadmates. That’s called unit cohesion, Shepard. You’re supposed to get along with your peers in the military. Nilkus was the one causing problems. This is his fault and his fault alone. You did everything you could to rise above his bullshit.”

She allowed herself a moment of vulnerability, tears trickling down her cheeks. Garrus wiped them away with his thumb, his subvocals vibrating at a comforting frequency as he cooed softly.

“I love you, Garrus. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“I’ll always be here for you.” He squeezed her arm softly.

She knew it wasn’t true, that he couldn’t always be there, that there would be a time when they would have separate assignments, but for now she took comfort in his presence, and she would enjoy his companionship as long as she could.

There was no saying how long they sat there together in silence. They probably should have alerted the medic that Shepard was awake, but she wanted some time with her best friend before they started pumping her full of medication and asking her a million questions about what had happened.

At some point, footsteps sounded in the hallway and the door opened to reveal commander Aetius. His eyelids were heavy from lack of sleep, and his clothes were disheveled; Shepard had never seen him so unkempt.

“Commander.” Garrus stood and saluted.

Shepard struggled to stand, but the commander shook his head and barked, “Sit down, Shepard. I don’t need you falling out of that bed and injuring yourself even further.” He turned to Garrus, exasperated, “At ease, Vakarian.”

The commander took Garrus’ spot in the chair by Shepard’s bedside, steepling his fingers together and letting out a long, low sigh. “We need to get a full report from you about the events that occurred in the rec hall.”

“I don’t think she’s up for that, commander-” Garrus started.

“Vakarian, return to your bunk immediately. You need to get some rest and I need to have a conversation with private Shepard.”

It was incredibly obvious how desperately Garrus wanted to ignore the commander’s orders, the internal struggle playing out plainly on his face, but ultimately, he saluted, promised he would check up on Shepard later, and marched out of the building.

“Garrus said you locked Nilkus up.”

“Private Dentillion will be extracted tomorrow evening and sent for trial at the military court in Cipritine. We have plenty of video evidence of what occurred in the rec hall and a strict no tolerance policy for this behavior in the hierarchy.”

“If you have video evidence then why do you need to talk to me?” Shepard asked.

“Regulations. They want official reports from the victim and all eye-witnesses. We’ll go over all of that when you’ve had a little more time to recuperate. We need to discuss future endeavors as well.”

“Future endeavors?” Shepard didn’t like the sound of that.

“Private,” the commander sighed. “The higher-ups would like to restructure the squad given the disastrous and frankly disruptive events that occurred last night.”

“Restructure how?” She asked, even as she knew the answer.

“My superior officer thinks it would be best if we moved you to a less...load-bearing squad. She thinks your presence is distracting to the other troops.”

Shepard nearly lost all sense of decorum at this. “So...what? She’s blaming me for what happened? Excuse my language, sir, but that’s fucking bullshit. You know I’m a good soldier. You’ve seen me in all of our simulations. You know I belong here.” She stopped short of saying anything more, afraid her shaking voice would betray her emotions.

“I will readily admit you far exceeded my expectations, private. And I will be providing a letter of commendation to your next superior officer, but I can’t overrule what the general has to say on this matter. As it is, we have to change our deployment schedule and our attack plan with two fewer soldiers. You may not believe me, private, but I fought to keep you here.” She did believe him. There was something frank about the way he spoke that she had not yet witnessed in her time under his command. “You’ll be out for at least a month on injury leave anyway. Reassignment was inevitable. Our mission can’t wait.”

“So what then, they’ll post me up as some babysitter for colony brats on Epyrus or something? Something ‘low intensity’ since I’m just a human.” She was so angry that she wanted to scream, but years training under Castis had taught her enough to temper that emotion. “I worked my entire life to get to where I am.”

“I still have some sway in that decision. I’m trying to work something out, make sure you still get a decent posting. I-”

The door opened and the commander stood to attention immediately, saluting and bowing his head. “General Oraka, sir.”

Shepard turned to follow Aetius’ gaze.

“Dad. What are you doing here?”

Her father stood in the doorway wearing a grave expression. His mandibles turned downward in a frown at the sight of her injuries. He cast a weary, sidelong glance at the commander and sighed.

“At ease, commander. I’m here to see my daughter.” He crossed the distance from the doorway to the bed and brought his hand gently against the unwrapped side of Shepard’s head. “No one told me the full extent of what happened...they just told me you’d been hurt and I just happened to be in Sarlik for work when they called.”

Shepard didn’t realize how much she’d wanted wanted her family there until that moment. She was hurting, physically and emotionally, and with the commander’s news that she would be reassigned, her pride was wounded as well. With her father’s hand pressed against her cheek she burst into tears unexpectedly, allowing them to flow freely as sudden sobs wracked her chest.

Her father sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled her against him, his subvocals humming at a gentle frequency - something he had done countless times for her as a child. It was remarkable how quickly it calmed her, the sobs tapering off as she gripped his shoulder. She felt broken and defenseless -  the only presence that would have helped her more would have been her mother.

“I trust something is being done about all of this?” Her father spoke to the commander.

“The recruit that did this to her is currently in solitary confinement awaiting extraction for trial, sir. As I was explaining to private Shepard, due to her recovery time and...decisions from higher-ranking officers, we will have to reassign her to a new posting.”

Shepard watched the emotion play out across her father’s face. As an experienced general, he probably saw a logical side to the decision, but a personal investment in her success, and in the injustice of the situation, gave him a biased view of the ruling.

“Is there no leeway for her to rejoin the squadron when she’s recovered?” He asked.

“Sir, these are direct orders from my superior officer, I-” Shepard had never seen the commander flustered before.

“I understand.” Her father shook his head and stood up. “Jane, why don’t you try to rest? I’d like to have a more detailed discussion with the commander and his superior officer.”

“Dad, I don’t want-” Shepard started.

“Just a conversation,” he assured her.

The two men left the room and Shepard fell back against her pillow, aching and exhausted. Everything had been too good to be true - she should have known it would end like this. The thought of leaving the squad hurt more than she could bear, but still, she had been adamant from her first day at bootcamp that she didn’t want to be someone who relied on her father’s status to earn her rank. She didn’t want to be like Nilkus .

Only a few minutes after her father had left with the commander, there was a quiet knock on the door. Expecting Garrus, Shepard closed her eyes and sighed,

“Come in.”

Garrus was indeed waiting behind the door, along with Tarquin, Baltair, Licinia, and Lapis. Tarquin’s crest was bandaged and his arm was in a sling, but he looked far better than Shepard had imagined he would. At once he was at her side, stroking her hair, his subvocals buzzing, while Garrus took a spot at her other side.

“Spirits, we were all so worried about you,” Tarquin said.

“I’m okay, really,” Shepard insisted, though she felt far from it. She let him continue to stroke her hair, and let her fingers intertwine with his free hand.

“Shepard, your dad is General Oraka?” Baltair interrupted the moment.

Shepard shot Garrus a glare and his mandibles pinned to the sides of his face sheepishly. “I figured they would find out. Everyone was wondering why he was here - they thought he was going to take Nilkus away.”

“If he knew half of what Nilkus did to me he’d snap his neck.” She turned her attention to Baltair. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was getting special treatment. It’s why I never took his last name when my mom married him.” She shrugged.

“We’re really glad you’re okay,” Licinia offered. “Everything happened so quickly and then it was hours before the commander would even tell us your status.” She sighed. “I guess they’ll delay our deployment until you’re recovered.”

Shepard bit her lip and looked away from her friends, something she never could have envisioned calling any of them besides Garrus. It felt as if her entire future was being swept out from under her. She would be shipped off to some new group where everyone would hate her again and she’d have to claw her way up - this time without help or support from Garrus.

“The commander said I’m being relocated,” she said in barely more than a whisper.

What !?” Garrus growled. The others echoed his sentiment, their mandibles flaring indignantly.

“He can’t do that!”

“That’s completely unfair, you’re a huge asset to the team!”

“I should ask my dad to intervene or-” Tarquin started.

“No,” Shepard said firmly. “It’s going to happen. I get it. This is an important squad with important tasks - you don’t have time to wait around for me to get better. And anyway, Aetius’ superiors think I’m a distraction.” She did her best to fight back the tears threatening to burst forth. “It is what it is.”

“This is Nilkus’ fault!” Baltair growled. “You shouldn’t be punished for what he did to you!”

“I know it’s not fair. But that’s how it is.” It was what Castis would have said, not what Shepard felt deep down in her heart, but if she didn’t try to apply a logical viewpoint to the situation, she would be lost in despair.

Still, her friends continued to argue over each other about the injustice of it all, Tarquin perhaps loudest of all the voices - as though his busy general father cared what happened to a fledgling recruit. Only Garrus was silent. He squeezed Shepard’s arm and they shared a glance that both understood at once: the immediate future was inevitable, but they would still find a way to be there for each other.

The noise was only disrupted when the commander stepped back into the room.

“What is the meaning of this!? Private Shepard needs time to rest. Out, out! All of you!”

Slowly, one by one, her friends cleared from the room. Tarquin gave her a friendly kiss with his mandibles before he left. Garrus hovered in the doorway as long as he could until the commander ushered him out as well.

“Your father is speaking with my superiors, but I don’t think the outcome will change, Shepard.”

She clenched her jaw and stared straight ahead. “I understand.”

“You’ll spend a few days recovering here and then we’ll have a transport come to ship you to the Citadel to stay with your family until you’ve fully recovered. You’ll receive further correspondence from the Hierarchy once you’re there.”

The commander turned to leave, but stopped in the doorway. “For what it’s worth, Shepard, I think you’re a damn fine soldier. Our unit will be worse off without you.”

But it didn’t lessen the sting of reality at all. In fact, it only made her feel worse.


Shepard’s time was up three days later. It was difficult to walk with the gash in her foot still healing where she’d stepped on shattered glass, so the commander had wheeled her out into the barracks to say goodbye to everyone. Her effects were already packed away in a trunk that had been loaded into the waiting transport shuttle.

She was surprised and humbled that each and every one of her teammates came to hug her goodbye, many of them even saying they would miss her. Baltair yet again railed against her unfair dismissal until the commander snapped at him to watch his tone.

Tarquin made her blush when he kissed her - a real, full kiss on the lips - in front of everyone. He’d been by to visit her often in the last three days and while she had been ready to call it off, not wanting to be a burden on him as the distance separated them, he had insisted that they try to make it work. It was far too early to throw around a word like ‘love’, but they cared for each other and that felt like enough to at least try to keep the relationship afloat.

Renia kept her distance, though she had been by two days earlier to apologize to Shepard. The apology rang hollow considering that she was half the reason Shepard had been removed from the squad, but it was obvious Renia was tormented by what she had helped Nilkus to do.

“I swear, I never knew he was going to...to-”

Maybe it was cruel and bitter of her, but Shepard hoped it tormented Renia for the rest of her life.

Garrus was the last to say goodbye, squatting down and kissing her forehead before he gripped her hand tightly. Until that point, Shepard had held it together - everyone else, even Tarquin, they were friends, they were more than they had been when she’d started out here, but they hadn’t been there for everything else. She’d never had to say goodbye to Garrus like this before, not knowing when she might see him in person again.

“We’ll do vid-calls as often as we can,” he said. “Promise. We’ll see each other as often as possible. And if we can’t, we’ll send e-mails.”

Shepard nodded, tears trickling down her cheeks. “You’ll be so sick of my messages that you’ll block me. I’m going to be bed-ridden for the next few weeks - all I’ll have to do is annoy you.”

He laughed at this, though she didn’t miss the keening note in his subvocals.

“We knew this day would come some day. Just not so soon.”

“I love you, Garrus.” She squeezed his fingers and sniffled. “This isn’t goodbye, just see you later.” She almost rolled her eyes - it was something her mom had said when she had left for her first day of bootcamp.

“Yeah,” Garrus agreed. “Just see you later.”

With that, he hugged her one last time and the commander wheeled her away to the transport shuttle. As the doors closed and the shuttle took off for the space port in Sarlik, she watched her squadmates - her friends - grow smaller and smaller, waving goodbye. She cast one last look at Garrus, her best friend in this entire universe, and then they were gone.

For the first time in her life, she was alone.

 

Chapter Text

2172

G_Vakarian[LOCATION CLASSIFIED][11:23 CST]: I’m going crazy on this ship. We passed through the relay and it’s four days of FTL until we get to [REDACTED]

 

J_Shepard[Ravani_Memorial_Hospital][11:50]: Sorry I was sleeping. Sorry it’s boring. If it makes you feel better this hospital isn’t any better. And dad won’t leave my side.

 

G_Vakarian[LOCATION CLASSIFIED][11:52]: Baltair says hi. I asked Aetius if I could calibrate our weapons and he shot me down. Feeling any better?

 

J_Shepard[Ravani_Memorial_Hospital][11:53]: I say hi back. I feel fine. My shoulder’s a little sore if I move it too much. I wish they’d let me leave. Wish I was with you.

 

G_Vakarian[LOCATION CLASSIFIED][11:53]: I already miss you. This is so unfair.

 

J_Shepard[Ravani_Memorial_Hospital][11:55]: ‘Life is rarely fair, Garrus’

 

G_Vakarian[LOCATION CLASSIFIED][11:56]: Ok DAD.

 

J_Shepard[Ravani_Memorial_Hospital][11:58]: Speaking of. He came by to see me. Gave me a big long speech about perseverance. For once in my life I really didn’t want to hear your dad lecture me.

 

G_Vakarian[LOCATION CLASSIFIED][12:00]: See what I mean? Can’t he just say something nice and supportive? Everything has to be some kind of lesson. He’s the reason people think turians have sticks up their asses.

 

J_Shepard[Ravani_Memorial_Hospital][12:01]: lol

 

J_Shepard[Ravani_Memorial_Hospital][12:02]: I’m telling him you said that

 

J_Shepard[Ravani_Memorial_Hospital][12:02]: Just kidding

 

J_Shepard[Ravani_Memorial_Hospital][12:02]: I should though

 

G_Vakarian[LOCATION CLASSIFIED][12:05]: Pretty sure I’ve said that to him before

 

G_Vakarian[LOCATION CLASSIFIED][12:15]: When will you hear about your next placement?

 

G_Vakarian[LOCATION CLASSIFIED][12:25]: Shepard?

 

G_Vakarian[LOCATION CLASSIFIED][12:30]: Did you fall asleep again?

 

J_Shepard[Ravani_Memorial_Hospital][12:42]: Don’t want to think about it. Don’t want to talk about it.

 

G_Vakarian[LOCATION CLASSIFIED][12:43]: Sorry

 

J_Shepard[Ravani_Memorial_Hospital][12:44]: It’s fine

 

G_Vakarian[LOCATION CLASSIFIED][12:46]: Hang in there

 

G_Vakarian[LOCATION CLASSIFIED][12:47]: I miss you

 

J_Shepard[Ravani_Memorial_Hospital][12:48]: You said that already

 

J_Shepard[Ravani_Memorial_Hospital][12:50]: Miss you too

Chapter Text

2179

In 2172, at the young age of eighteen, life seemed like it was ending for Jane Shepard. Forced into a position with barely a quarter of the prestige her initial posting held, separated from her only friends, the climb out of her miserable, self-loathing hole had taken time and perseverance, yet she had survived. In fact, not only had she survived, she had prospered. Once Shepard found her footing, she found that she could get by without Garrus Vakarian’s help all right - though she couldn’t help but think with every hardship she faced that it might have been a little easier with her favorite turian in tow.

The truth was, being away from everything she knew was probably what Shepard needed. It allowed her to develop outside of the confines of the relationships she was comfortable in, and in a way, it made those relationships stronger.

She and Garrus kept their promise to one another, and while sometimes months would pass before they could video chat, they sent e-mails almost daily keeping each other up to date on their current postings and the squads they had to deal with.

As with most young love, Tarquin and Shepard were never meant to last. They gave it a good run for a few months following her dismissal from commander Aetius’ elite squad, but in the end the distance, and outside affections, were too much for the two of them to conquer. Tarquin was handsome, and the son of a general, making him highly popular with turian women. Shepard was surprised enough that Tarquin had taken genuine interest in her that she never anticipated lightning might strike twice, but as the years progressed and her assignments varied, she found plenty of turians who were more open-minded than the nitwits in Sarlik. She still kept in touch with Tarquin from time to time - the occasional e-mail spaced out months or years - an amicable break.

Seven years had passed in what felt like the blink of an eye - seven years, three ship postings, a colony postings, and a handful of promotions. When Shepard returned to the Citadel to see her family, to see Garrus in person, for the first time in four years she was no longer a baby-faced private: she was Lieutenant-Commander Jane Shepard and she was about to take an historic posting alongside Garrus on a joint venture between the Hierarchy and the human Alliance.

Most of Shepard’s shore leaves over the past year had been spent on the Citadel. Her parents moved there not long after she left for bootcamp, and Castis had moved there not long after that - nothing was tying Shepard back to Oma Ker, the only home she had known for the first eighteen years of her life.

Unfortunately, these shore leaves never coincided with Garrus’ and they had missed each other at most junctions. Four years ago they’d met up for two days at the end of Shepard’s shore leave and the beginning of Garrus’, but since then the most she saw of Garrus was his floating head projecting out of her comm link. She was anxious to see him again, to hug him, and - more than anything - she was thrilled that they would be serving on the same ship for the foreseeable future.

By the time she arrived on the Citadel for her brief shore leave, Garrus had been home for a month and she had an inbox full of complaints about his father’s overbearing presence and the fact that Solana never got the same treatment. Shepard was excited to see Castis personally, even after Garrus’ repeated complaints about him.

Shepard’s mother and father awaited her at the Zakera ward docks, visible from the port-side windows of the mid-range commercial transport ship that brought Shepard from her posting on Invictus back to her home on the Citadel. She couldn’t quite get used to the sight of her father in civvies, which was particularly pronounced as he stood next to her mother, decked out fully in her Alliance uniform.

The airlock doors opened and Shepard shuffled out impatiently, stuck in a crowd of turians also disembarking. It took some effort to push past them, and then she had even more people to contend with in the center point where the dock exits converged, but once she made it past the crowds, she was able to pick up speed, rocketing into her parents and squeezing them into a hug.

Her father was the first to address her, tweaking the end of her nose and patting her head. “Should I salute?” He cocked his head at Shepard’s mother. “What do you think, Hannah?”

“She is a lieutenant-commander now.” Her mother beamed and kissed her cheek. “How’s my little Bug?”

Shepard’s cheeks flushed red. “Spirits, mom, I’m twenty-five. You don’t have to keep calling me that.”

“You’ll always be my Bug.”

“I hope you’re not too tired,” her father said, slinging an arm around her shoulder and leading her away from the docks toward the shuttle transfer area. “We’re headed to Castis’ apartment for dinner.”

Mass relay travel had a way of screwing with Shepard’s sense of time, but her stomach was rumbling and she was eager to see Garrus and the rest of his family, so she pushed back any fatigue she was feeling for the moment - she would ride her wave of excitement until she inevitably crashed later.

The shuttle ride from the docks seemed to last a lifetime. She stared out the windows as they passed through Zakera ward into the Presidium - for as many times as she had been to the Citadel now, she never got over how stunning it was in its size and beauty. Her parents prodded her with questions about her last posting, if there was anyone special in her life (a suggestion she promptly dismissed), if she was looking forward to her next posting. The truth was, she usually lived for shore leave, but she was a little disappointed her next posting didn’t begin for another three weeks. At least she would have Garrus to keep her company during that time.

When the shuttle finally slowed to a halt outside one of the many towering apartment buildings on the Presidium, Shepard leaped out before either of her parents could move, nearly forgetting her luggage in her rush inside.

“Someone’s excited,” her father laughed.

“Well, she hasn’t seen Garrus in a few years now. They have a lot to catch up on.”

Shepard left them behind, toting along the rucksack carrying her effects, though they caught up to her in the elevator. She bounced on her heels and stared at the doors as the elevator rose at an unbearable pace toward their destination.

As soon as the doors slid open, she rushed out into the hallway and then skidded to a halt in front of the door to Castis’ apartment, knocking and shifting impatiently from hip to hip.

To her delight, Garrus was the one to answer the door. She rocketed into him, wrapping her arms around him and nearly knocking him over in surprise. When he’d found his footing again, he chuckled and returned the embrace, rubbing his mandibles against her hair the same way he always did when they greeted each other, the way he had since they were children.

“Spirits, I missed you,” she murmured against his chest.

But when she finally peeled herself away from him and stood back to get a good look at him, she was immediately taken aback. This was not the gangly, awkward Garrus she had grown up with - in his place was someone else: someone who had grown into his long limbs, with a defined musculature and a sudden ruggedness to his features she had certainly not seen four years ago.

“Garrus,” she said.

He cocked his head. “What?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “You seem...different.”

He was about to say something in response when Castis and Solana joined them in the foyer and Shepard suddenly found herself sandwiched between them in a hug. Solana doted on her for a moment, stroking her hair and telling her how mature she looked before Castis butted in to congratulate her on her promotion and newest posting.

“Didn’t congratulate me half as loudly,” Garrus muttered.

“Don’t be foolish, Garrus,” Castis barked. “I’m proud of the both of you. Lieutenant-Commanders - that’s quite a feat at your age.”

“Why don’t we let the kids catch up,” Shepard’s father suggested.

“Well, they can set the table while they’re catching up if it’s all the same.” Castis shot a pointed look at Garrus, who despite his twenty-five years, stomped his feet childishly and skulked away into the kitchen to grab the table settings.

Shepard followed him with a quick glance back at their parents, the door swinging shut behind her.

“Your muscles got bigger,” Garrus commented, reaching into the cabinets and pulling down six plates, which he set down before turning to face her with his back against the counter.

She observed her arms uncertainly. “Maybe. I’m still doing nightly trainings when I can fit it in. You’re in tip-top shape yourself.”

“So, you heard who our commanding officer is on this assignment, right?” Garrus cocked his head.

“General Victus,” she nodded. “I already messaged Tarquin about it, but I haven’t heard back from him. Just as well. It might be better to go in blind.”

“I’ve heard he’s a real hard-ass.”

“I’ve heard he doesn’t play by the rules.”

“Well, you’ll be gone in a day then.” Garrus prodded her side and she let out an unexpected yelp which made Garrus grin. “You wouldn’t know how to break a rule if you tried.”

“That’s not true!” She protested. “I’ve gotten better.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“You gonna come train me with during the night shift? I’ve heard this new ship they built has an amazing rec room.”

“Well yeah, I’ve gotta watch your back for you.” He flicked his mandibles at her.

“Hey, I’ve gotten by on my own pretty well for the past seven years.”

He held his hands up. “Fine, if you don’t want me to-”

“No, no!” She grabbed his arm and tugged him closer to her. “I didn’t say that.”

A light note of laughter left his throat and for a moment they stood in front of one another just holding each other’s gaze. For a fleeting moment, Shepard felt as though a warm hand had taken hold of her heart and squeezed it, and it was such an intense feeling that she had to look away from him. Her skin jumped in surprise when his fingers reached up and delicately traced across the pale scars that trailed down either side of her left eye.

“Bet you get all the guys with those scars, Shepard.” He said, taking a step back and snapping the strange tension between them. Or maybe only Shepard had felt it?

She laughed and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, actually people do seem pretty interested in them. I usually lie about what they’re from though. I don’t like to think about the truth of it…”

“Yeah.” Garrus nodded.

“You know, I ran into Licinia on my last shore leave.” Shepard was eager to talk about anything else.

“Oh yeah? How’s she doing?”

“She’s bonded to some hotshot Commander now.”

“Really?” Garrus raised his brow plates. “Well, good for her. I always felt a little bit bad about how that played out.”

“Nah, you did the right thing,” she assured him. “You know, in all the postings I’ve had since that first one, I’ve never really hit it off with any squad as well. I mean, I’ve gotten along with my squadmates, but...I dunno. Sometimes I wonder how different things might be if I’d been able to stay.”

“I think about it a lot too,” Garrus admitted. He shook his head and his mandibles flicked into a grin. “Spirits, Shepard, I really missed you. It’s so nice to be talking face to face.”

“You’ll get sick of me soon enough. Months aboard a ship together.”

“Doubtful. I’ll bet the humans are going to expect you to fall in with them. I don’t think anyone’s expecting you probably. How many are there going to be again? Ten of them?”

“Ten total,” she corrected. “Just like our first placement. But this time it’s five of us and five humans.”

“Hm, might want to look in a mirror, Shepard.” He pinched her arm and she swatted his hand away.

“I’m more turian than human and we both know it.”

“You’re right,” he agreed. “I wish they’d send out a list of the squad makeup. I don’t know what to expect - all I know is it’s a ‘very prestigious’ posting.” He made air quotes with his fingers and laughed. “Also like our first placement. Surprised we’re not toiling away under Aetius again.”

“Actually, I think he had something to do with my placement in this squad,” Shepard said. “Dad said he heard Aetius had put in multiple recommendations for me in similar squads. Must still feel guilty about what happened.” She shrugged. “He shouldn’t. I’ve been doing fine.”

“I don’t know if I’d call a crappy colony posting on Invictus fine.” Garrus pointed out. “This new placement will actually make use of your talents.”

Shepard’s cheeks flushed. After all these years, she was still remarkably bad at taking a compliment.

Any further conversation was quashed when Solana barged into the kitchen. Although she stood a few inches shorter than her younger brother, she commanded a great deal more authority. She folded her arms and fixed Garrus with a stern glare.

“How long does it take to get some plates and utensils, Gare?”

“Buzz off, Sol, me and Shepard were talking.”

“You can’t multitask?” Solana’s eyes flitted to the plates stacked behind Garrus on the counter. “Dad says you’ve been a real pyjak since you’ve been staying with him.”

Garrus’ mandibles flared and his subvocals buzzed in irritation. “He treats me like I’m still in the cowl! I can’t get five seconds to myself, and even though he keeps saying he’s ‘so proud of me’, he keeps trying to rope me into applying to C-Sec. ‘Keep an open mind, Garrus, C-Sec can be as exciting as a military posting’. Please. I wish he’d just let me live my life.”

“Spirits, you sound like a teenager.” Solana yanked the edge of his crest and he let out an annoyed, over-exaggerated yelp and smacked her hand. This devolved into a fairly childish slap fight between the two of them before Solana ended things by flicking him between the eyes with her talon. “Grow up, Garrus.” She turned to Shepard and added, “Don’t know what you see in this idiot.” Then she grabbed the plates, carrying them off to the dining room.

“I see you two are as close as ever.”

Garrus was rubbing the bridge of his nose, his brow plates creased. “At least she’s only here for a few days before she goes back to Palaven.”

“Come on, you didn’t miss her at all?”

“Of course I did, but she always takes dad’s side, and dad always favors her. It’s bad enough having to live with my dad for the past month...and another three weeks after this, but when the two of them are under the same roof it’s almost unbearable.”

“You could come stay with me for part of our shore leave,” Shepard suggested. “My parents won’t care.”

“I’ll definitely be taking you up on that.”

She leaned back and observed him once more. He looked so adult , despite the childish display he and Solana had just engaged in. There wasn’t one particular thing Shepard could put her finger on - he was still Garrus . Maybe it was simply the years apart - never had they gone so long without seeing each other in person - but something felt different between them. Maybe it really was all in her head.

“Why are you staring at me like that?” Garrus asked.

Shepard shook herself from her thoughts. “It’s just really good to be with you again.” She squeezed his arm before turning quickly to grab the utensils from a drawer by his side. “Come on, let’s go set the rest of the table. Our parents are going to want to prod us with questions.”

She wasn’t wrong. Once everyone was seated for dinner, her father was the first to launch into questioning, asking Garrus about his last few missions and Solana about her work in a biomedical research lab on Palaven. Everyone nodded politely and tried their best to follow along as Solana began spouting off science terminology none of them quite understood.

As she babbled away, Shepard was reminded for a moment of Niera, who used to do the same - Solana had always watched on in wonder whenever her mother talked about science. For as close as she was with Castis, she took after her mother in so many ways. Garrus must have been thinking it too, because when she glanced sideways at him, she saw a misty look in his eyes that he rarely reserved for his sister. Shepard reached under the table and squeezed his hand gently and he smiled with a soft flick of his mandibles.

When Solana had finished, it was Shepard’s turn to talk about her last assignments. She wasn’t eager - Invictus had been hell: hot, arid, not really fit for any sapient life and yet turians, stubborn as always, had found a way to settle there. The presence of her squad on Invictus had been met with ire from the locals, and most of the last year had been spent breaking up scuffles between the military and the pirates that ran Invictus while trying to avoid becoming a target for any of the major leaders of the organized crime rings. She was eager for a ship assignment again.

There was something so remarkably comforting about being amongst family again. It took Shepard back to her childhood: weekly dinners spent seated around the Vakarians' table listening to Castis talk about an exciting C-Sec case, or hearing her father complain about fresh-out-of-the-cowl recruits at the training facility.

It would have been bittersweet to think there was only a few weeks of this before Shepard had to ship off again, but she felt content, knowing Garrus would be with her this time.

But she still didn’t know what to make of the strange tension she suddenly felt between them.

Chapter Text

Seeing Shepard again, face-to-face, for the first time in four years was worth the entire month Garrus had spent alone with his father in his small apartment on the Citadel. He knew he had missed her, but he hadn’t realized just how much, or how strongly her absence had been felt, until she squeezed him into a hug upon her arrival.

The two of them had managed for the last seven years, being apart more than they were together, messaging each other nearly daily - they did all right apart, but it was obvious as soon as they were together again how much better they could be by each other’s sides. Trading secrets and stories over the extranet didn’t quite have the same sense of closeness or camaraderie as lying next to each other in the Presidium gardens giggling about some stupid inside joke they’d had since they were twelve that neither of them could recall the origin of.

Life had been infinitely better since Shepard arrived on the Citadel. Although they had talked constantly in the four years since they’d last seen each other in person, they’d had little time to talk in the month since Garrus arrived on the Citadel, while Shepard was still finishing up her post on Invictus.

So, once she had recovered from the space-lag, they spent the day exploring the Presidium. They had breakfast at an asari restaurant, paid Hannah a visit at the human embassy (where she was now serving as chief liaison between the Alliance and the ambassador), got lunch at a Palaveni food cart, and spent the afternoon lazing around the sprawling gardens, lying beneath the shade of a tree and listening to the sounds of the nearby stream and birds chirping above.

“So,” Shepard said, “Been to any clubs or anything since you got here? Any escapades I should hear about?”

Garrus rolled his eyes. “Hardly.” He propped himself up on his elbows and glanced sideways at Shepard. “Though, my dad is trying to set me up with a C-Sec officer. He’s mentioned her about twenty times since I’ve been here. He even showed me her picture on the C-Sec extranet site.” He snorted. “I mean, I know I’m not first on the order of merit or anything, but I think I can get by without my dad picking dates for me.”

Shepard smacked his chest with the back of her hand. “C’mon, Garrus. You’re a catch. Especially now that you’ve grown into those long gangly legs.” She chuckled.

His chest warmed and he looked away from her.

“What about you? Have any fun on Invictus?”

She pressed her lips into a thin line. “Fun and Invictus are polar opposites.” Her face softened slightly. “I mean...I did almost have sex with an asari. But-”

What !?” Garrus stopped her. “You need to elaborate on that.”

“Well, I was off duty so I went to this bar...it’s like the only bar in Shastinastio where I knew I wasn’t going to get my ass beat for being part of the Hierarchy. Anyway there was this cute asari and I went back to her place and we were making out...half naked...and then her turian girlfriend walks in.”

Shepard ,” Garrus said, scandalized.

“I didn’t know she had a girlfriend!” Shepard protested. “Anyway I booked it before that turian could try anything. That is the sum total of my sexual experience on Invictus. My squad were a bunch of morons and the locals hated us so,” she shrugged, “I’m overdue.”

Her gaze was directed off to the side, where a group of schoolchildren were being shepherded through the gardens by an exasperated salarian. Garrus observed her while she wasn’t paying attention to him - she was still the same old Shepard, though she had matured in the past few years, and her muscles were more toned and pronounced than they had ever been. It was strange, but when he looked at her he at once saw a human and a turian. She didn’t quite fit either box in his brain. When he looked at other humans, he felt she didn’t fit with them - she wasn’t one of them.

She was simply Shepard.

“Those kids are giving that poor salarian hell,” She commented.

Garrus snapped his attention back to the children. “Seems like he’s got his hands full.”

“Your dad ever pester you about kids?” She turned back to face him.

“No. I mean, not really. I think he does want grandkids one day...I think sometimes he’s lonely.” He leaned back with a sigh. “I don’t know. He doesn’t talk about his feelings or anything. I really don’t think there’s been anyone since mom. As much as he gets on my nerves, I think he likes having me back. And I think he’d like it if one day there were kids running around his apartment calling him grandpa maybe. But he doesn’t get on our cases about it. We’re still young.”

“My mom always tells me there’ll be plenty of time for that later. I know she loves me, you know...I never doubt it, but I do think she wishes she’d had more time to just...I don’t know. I was unexpected. She sacrificed a lot for me.”

For a moment they were silent. A pair of birds chirped loudly in the tree above them and in the distance they could hear the worn-down salarian yelling after one of the children, ‘DON’T GO IN THERE!’ followed by a loud splash of water and an audible groan.

“Do you ever wonder about your,” Garrus paused before finishing his thought. Real father sounded insensitive. Septimus was Shepard’s real father. After all, he had been there for her since she was only three years old. He rephrased the thought before speaking again. “Your biological dad?”

Shepard shrugged. “Mom told me about him once. Just some nobody on a colony world. I guess I don’t really care. Does that sound stupid?” She rolled onto her side to face him. “Septimus is my dad. He raised me with mom. He was there whenever I got hurt, whenever I had my heart broken. He was there for everything important. DNA doesn’t really matter. I wouldn’t know what to do with a human dad anyway.”

“It’s not stupid,” Garrus offered. “It would be weird to think of anyone else as your dad.”

There was another prolonged silence. Something Garrus appreciated about Shepard was that they could lay in silence for hours without it becoming awkward. There was no one else in his life he felt as comfortable with. They understood each other without words and were content just to exist in each others’ companies.

It felt like coming home to lie there with Shepard under the artificial Presidium sunlight. It had been so long since they’d had a peaceful moment, just the two of them.

He couldn’t say how much time passed before Shepard spoke again, but eventually she broke the silence, not meeting his gaze as she stared up at the sky.

“Sometimes I worry I’ll never find what my mom and dad have.” She let out a soft sigh. “Things have gotten better since I got off Oma Ker, but...I’m not someone’s final choice, you know? Not like that’s all I aspire to, but finding someone to love would be nice. But who would want to bond with me?”

Their entire lives, Shepard had always doubted her worth and it had always frustrated Garrus. His feelings toward his best friend had fluctuated wildly over the years, but he’d always thought there were plenty of redeeming qualities about her, both in her personality as well as physically. Surely other turians saw what he saw, didn’t they?

“You’ll find someone eventually,” Garrus offered. “We both will.”

She glanced sideways at him and for once he couldn’t quite read the look on her face. His chest felt warm again and he looked away from her. He hadn’t felt like this in a long time - feelings were resurfacing that he’d pushed out of his mind long ago, written off as hopeless. No...this wasn’t the same - he didn’t feel that way anymore. He had just missed her, that was all.

“We should go out tomorrow night,” she said suddenly.

“What?”

“Yeah there’s this club called Purgatory that’s supposed to be fun. Who knows when we’ll get to relax like this again? We’ll be on assignment for the foreseeable future. We should go out and get absolutely trashed. Spirits, I can’t remember the last time I got drunk. I wanted to so many times on Invictus.”

“It has been a long time since I’ve been out to a club,” Garrus admitted.

He and Shepard had really only been out to clubs together once or twice - their shore leaves rarely coincided since she was removed from their first posting - but Garrus had been out with some of his squadmates before. The worst time he could remember was one of the first times: Baltair had challenged him to a drinking contest. Baltair, who was built like a tank, was more than capable of knocking back drink after drink while Garrus tried to keep up. He had spent most of that night throwing up in a toilet while his squadmates poked fun at him.

It would be fun to blow off some steam with Shepard at a club. Spirits knew he needed to after a month with his father.

“Yeah,” he nodded. “Let’s do it.”


The following evening, Garrus slipped out of his father’s apartment (not before he prodded him with about a thousand questions, as though he were a teenager with a curfew) and met up with Shepard at a rapid transit station, where they took a shuttle to Purgatory.

Shepard wore a tight black two-piece outfit that exposed her midriff, with a low neck-line that showed off her collarbone. It accented her taut core muscles and showed off her muscular arms as well. It was an outfit meant to attract turians, though Garrus felt it might attract other eyes as well. He was both surprised and a little annoyed at the sudden prick of jealousy he felt when he thought about Shepard attracting other people.

Well, they were just going out to have fun, right? He was only annoyed that her attention might be diverted.

Anyway, it was a nice outfit.

“Hey, Gare, my eyes are up here,” Shepard laughed, disrupting him from his thoughts.

His eyes snapped to hers. “Huh?”

“You were staring at my stomach.”

“I wasn’t!” He protested. “I just lost focus for a minute.”

She laughed and prodded his side. “I was only joking.”

He laughed along with her unconvincingly.

When the shuttle dropped them off at Purgatory, there was a long line to get in. He really should have expected as much. Clubs in the wards were already busy and difficult to get into, but Presidium clubs were even more elite. They took up a spot in line, waiting as the elcor bouncer let people in at a slow trickle.

Directly in front of them were two asari and a salarian, and in front of them was a group of turians around Garrus and Shepard’s age - three men dressed in outfits that accented their arms and hips. One of them glanced back at Shepard and said something to his friend, then all three of them looked back. Shepard smiled and waggled her fingers at them and again Garrus felt an unwelcome jealousy burning in his gut.

“You’ve come a long way from being nervous around anyone who showed you attention,” he commented.

“I’ve had some time to hone my flirting technique over the last few years.” She shrugged. “The turians on the Citadel are way more open minded than on Oma Ker. Who knows, I mean they might go home afterward and brag to their buddies about hooking up with a human, like I’m just an experience, but if I get off with them I don’t really care. It’s still different than the assholes who would beat me up during lunch just to corner me in the bathroom at the end of the day. The turians here aren’t embarrassed to flirt with me in front of their friends.”

Garrus found himself glaring at the turians ahead of them, who continued to steal glances back at Shepard until the bouncer let them into the club. One of them in particular kept bowing his head to flash his crest at Shepard, but she only laughed.

“If you want to go to talk to him when we get inside…” Garrus started.

She rolled her eyes. “Them? No way. It’s fun to flirt, but I’m here to have fun with you. Besides, those guys are probably all hot air. I’ve seen their type before.”

This placated Garrus’ nerves somewhat.

“So, I’m sure you haven’t told me about every conquest of yours,” he said.

“Maybe not all of them, but most.” She glanced at him and laughed. “I’m not that prolific, Garrus. Just because I’m more comfortable in my skin and I learned how to flirt in the last four years doesn’t mean I’ve slept with every guy I flirted with.” She shoved him. “Have you told me about everyone you’ve been with?”

“Yes,” he said honestly. “Even the asari.”

The truth that he would absolutely never admit to Shepard was that the asari had come during a shore leave on the Citadel shortly after she’d been reassigned - that he’d thought about going home with a human that night, had watched several human women dancing for half of the night, curious about their bodies...but none of them had been what he really wanted, and asari were as close as you could get to human without actually being human. Though he had a strong inclination (and plenty of experience watching vids) to know the actual experience with a human was drastically different than asari and their mind-melding powers.

“Yeah,” she sounded annoyed. “I’m still mad I didn’t finish things with that asari. I’ve only been with turians.” She shrugged it off just as quickly. “I guess it’s all right. I wouldn’t know what to do with anyone else I think.”

“I’m sure you’d figure it out. Funnily enough, all species are pretty similar when it comes to that.”

She waggled her eyebrows at him and it lit a fire in his stomach. His subvocals groaned at what he hoped as an inaudible frequency. Then it was their turn to enter the club.

Inside, the bar and lounge areas were filled with the sounds of chattering voices as individuals of all species mingled and drank. The distant thrum of music from the dance floor on the upper level was muted down where they were, which helped regulate the volume of the club somewhat.

“First things first,” Shepard said, grabbing his hand and tugging him along with her. “Drinks!”

Garrus definitely felt he could use one.

At Shepard’s insistence, they took a round of shots before they purchased their first drinks. Shepard ordered something large and fruity and, hoping to keep up with her, Garrus ordered a similarly large drink. Then they wandered into the lounge and sat on the couch to watch the other clubgoers, waiting for their drinks to kick in before they ventured onto the dance floor.

“This is a really nice place,” Shepard commented. “Really clean. Lots of different species too. I hate when you go to a club and it’s all humans.”

“Do they hit on you a lot?”

“You know, Garrus, this may surprise you, but it turns out most human men aren’t big on muscles and scars.”

Garrus snorted. “I don’t understand human preferences.”

“Me either, buddy.”

He had seen the kind of women human men went after in most clubs: waifish things - it simply wasn’t for him. Turians valued strength and capability, and scars were especially attractive because it symbolized survival and perseverance.

“I mean I do get the occasional human guy,” Shepard continued. “But it’s usually an Alliance serviceman. Civilians don’t really go for this.” She gestured widely to herself. “Which is better for me since I’m not really into humans. Is that racist?”

Garrus shrugged. “Turians are what you know.” He took a large gulp of his drink, and when an asari waitress flitted by, he ordered another preemptively. Shepard ordered a pitcher of some dual-chirality monstrosity that he knew she would force him to drink. Dual chirality drinks almost never tasted good, but he was sure it would get them drunk quickly, if nothing else.

“Sometimes it’s fun just to watch people,” Shepard said. “Like look at that drell trying to pick up the turian woman over there.” She pointed across the room near the bar. The turian’s body language screamed for the drell to leave her alone, her mandibles pinched tightly against her face, her hips pivoted away from him, but Garrus was sure the drell either didn’t understand or didn’t care.

“Interspecies flirting seems like it can be complicated.”

“That’s why you get drunk. Makes it easier.”

An hour later, after two more drinks, another round of shots, and the entire pitcher of dual-chirality drink, Shepard and Garrus were well and truly drunk. At some point, though Garrus was a little iffy on when or how, they had migrated over to the dance floor where they now moved in some approximation of dancing. Garrus was mostly wiggling his hips, but Shepard was doing some kind of atrocious shuffle he had seen before. Where she had learned to dance, he couldn’t say, but it was certainly attracting some looks, and probably not the kind she was hoping for.

“You look ridiculous,” he yelled over the music.

She threw her hands in the air and laughed, “Whatever!”

He found it easy to agree with the sentiment. The room was spinning somewhat and he was so lost in the moment, enjoying his time with Shepard, his brain devoid of anything but drunken happiness, that he couldn’t be bothered about anything else.

The thought vaguely crossed his mind that he would really regret the amount of alcohol he’d consumed when he woke up hungover the next morning, but that was a problem for future Garrus.

Shepard stumbled slightly and leaned against him, her face changing instantly from a broad grin to a frown as she clutched at the front of his cowl.

“Shepard? Are you going to be sick?”

She shook her head, but she still leaned heavily against him. “Needa...needa sit down.” She slurred.

Struggling somewhat in his own inebriated state, he pulled her off of the dance floor only to find the lounge packed full of people, with not a seat in sight. He led her out of the club, not worried about forfeiting their place - Shepard was devolving quickly and in no state to keep drinking.

Out in the open balcony in front of the club it was much cooler and lighter out. He could see how flushed Shepard’s cheeks were. He helped her to sit down on the cool ground while he called for a shuttle, then he lifted her back up and she leaned against him, swaying occasionally before he righted her.

“Steady there, Shepard.”

“Iloveyou Garrus,” she belched. “Yer the best. The best.” A long, low groan left her throat and for a moment he was positive she would be sick, but just as quickly she righted herself and blinked rapidly a few times, as though this would sober her up.

“You should’ve...drank less.” He leaned back against the balcony railing, too drunk himself to fully deal with her, but sobering up somewhat in the cool exterior air.

“Shoulda. Coulda. Woulda.” She giggled. His translator couldn’t parse the meaning.

“What?”

She spoke in Cipritini then, and he could only tell because she made a strange sound with her tongue whenever she was trying to mimic certain subvocalizations. “S’too late for that. Already drunk.”

The shuttle arrived and he hoisted her into the back seat, climbing in after her and nearly falling back out at the sight of her sprawled across the seat with her legs spread wide open, her frilly pink underwear on full display. He quickly pulled her knees together and helped her to sit up and she immediately slumped her head against his shoulder with a sigh.

“This’us good,” she muttered. “Needed a night out. Gotta follow orders from nowon.”

“We’ve still got a few weeks,” he reminded her.

“Few more weeks.” She agreed, though he was sure she didn’t really know what she was saying.

“Let me know if you feel like you’re gonna be sick.” He curled his tongue a few times in an effort to enunciate, but now that he was seated and the shuttle was moving, he was aware of just how drunk he was as well.

She saluted and giggled. “Yes, sir .”

He flicked his mandibles at her, but it went unnoticed.

His eyelids felt heavy, and he closed them if only to stop the nausea building up as the shuttle, which was already moving quickly, seemed to spin around him. He was vaguely aware of Shepard drooling into his cowl, but he couldn’t be bothered to address it then.

“PLEASE EXIT THE VEHICLE HERE. PLEASE EXIT THE VEHICLE HERE. PLEASE EXI-”

Garrus was jarred awake suddenly by a shrill beeping issuing from the shuttle as it politely but firmly told them to step out. Shepard still lay against his shoulder, a glistening string of drool running from her open mouth to his shoulder. Shaking himself awake, Garrus slid out of the shuttle and gently shook Shepard awake. She looked as bewildered as he felt, but eventually the two of them managed to step away from the shuttle and stumbled into the apartment building where Hannah and Septimus lived.

Although he wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, half asleep and still very drunk, Garrus got them into the elevator and up to the apartment, helping Shepard press her hand against the scanner to allow them access. Once he had placed Shepard in her bed, he grabbed two glasses of water from the kitchen and brought one to her, waking her again to force her to drink it. She gulped it down in three swallows and let out a planet-shattering belch, followed by a drunken giggle.

“Sorry,” she said, slumping back down into the bed.

Garrus lay down next to her and she curled against him, gripping the edge of his cowl and planting a tender, affectionate, drunken kiss clumsily on his mandible before her head slumped against the crook of his neck. It lit a flare in his stomach that spread through his chest and up into his neck.

“G’night, Garrus. Loveyou.” She mumbled.

And with her breath gently puffing against his neck, her fingers trailing loosely against his keel bone, even in the state he was in, he knew.

The feelings had never really gone away, he’d just done a remarkable job of stamping down and ignoring them (a trademark Vakarian trait he’d picked up from his father, and that his sister also excelled at). He wasn’t just excited to see her again, though of course he was happy to be reunited, but this was something else entirely. It was how he had felt seven years ago, watching in vain frustration as she’d begun her tryst with Tarquin, and even early than that, years and years earlier when they’d shared a kiss in his bedroom that ignited some deep hidden flame within him.

He closed his eyes and shook the thought away.

It was a problem for future Garrus.

Chapter Text

Three weeks on the Citadel had passed in the blink of an eye. Toiling away on Invictus, those three weeks were all Shepard could think about towards the end, and now they were gone far too quickly. At least it had been fun - she and Garrus had spent nearly every waking moment together, doing all the things they couldn’t do while on assignment, trying foods from all over the galaxy, exploring every corner of the Presidium, venturing down into the wards despite Castis’ objections. But unlike past shore leaves, which had ended in a bittersweet sadness as the two of them were separated once more, this time she felt only joy. She was about to begin an assignment she was genuinely excited for, and she got to do it with her best friend.

Of course, she was sad to say goodbye to her mother and father and Castis, but it was dampened somewhat by the knowledge that she and Garrus would be spending the foreseeable future together.

She still felt a little tension between them, tension she couldn’t really explain. There wasn’t discomfort - being with Garrus was as it had always been - they could lay in silence for hours with each other without issue, and there was never a shortage of conversation when they wanted it. She wrote the tension off as all in her head. Garrus had matured and grown into his body. He had always been handsome, but gangly and awkward. Now that awkwardness had morphed into a rugged near-arrogance. She would never use that word to describe Garrus, but there was some new confidence in the way he held himself that she hadn’t seen before.

If anything, the tension she felt between them was due to how long it had been since they’d last seen each other, and her need to adjust to his new look. This is what she told herself every time she found her eyes straying to his waist, or observing the attractive curve of his crest.

Maybe it had just been so long since she had sex that anyone remotely attractive was pulling her gaze - this was her second excuse when she had trouble believing the first.

At any rate, it wasn’t worth allowing the thought to monopolize her mind. The time had come to ship off and so, after a goodbye in which Shepard’s mother became tearful and told her roughly fifty times to be safe, Shepard and Garrus made their way to Tayseri Ward, where the new ship they were assigned to was docked at a private dock awaiting her crew.

They both wore their battle armor - Shepard’s was the same her father had given her years ago, before bootcamp, with a few modifications added since then - and carried only a small rucksack containing their effects, their weapons strapped to their backs.

They had heard a great deal about their new ship assignment - it was apparently a technological marvel, capable of amazing speeds, with a stealth drive unlike any ship before it. The ship had been a joint venture between turians and humans - the first major effort for the groups to work together since the Sarlik Twenty and the London Twenty, which had been, overall a disaster. Most of both groups left for home as soon as their military contracts were up. Only Shepard’s mother and one other family had stayed in Sarlik, and only one turian family had stayed on Earth. Shepard hoped this new ship and its crew would be a more successful second attempt.

As they stepped off the elevator onto the dock, the ship immediately drew their eyes. It was a sleek, beautiful piece of machinery that clearly hadn’t seen much flight time. Bright white letters had been painted against its glistening black frame: “SSV Normandy”.

“It’s smaller than I expected,” Garrus remarked.

“What? That’s all you can say?” Shepard had stars in her eyes. She’d never seen a more beautiful ship in her life, and she’d been aboard quite a few military vessels during her career. “It’s stunning!”

“It’s pretty,” he agreed, and she knew he was intentionally winding her up.

“That’s not Shepard and Vakarian is it?”

Before Shepard could look away from the ship to find the source of the voice addressing her, she found herself yanked against a turian’s chest, squeezed into a hug so tight she felt sure her ribs were going to crack. When the assailant let go of her, she took a step back (and a deep breath) and found herself face to face with Baltair Dessius, the bulky turian she’d learned to outstrip during her morning runs on Commander Aetius’ squad - the same Baltair who had been her personal champion after their final simulation exercise, and who had argued vehemently to overturn her removal from the squad. It had been years since she’d spoken to him, but he was certainly a sight for sore eyes.

“Baltair!” Shepard blinked away tears forming in the corner of her eyes; no time for sentiment now that they were about to start their new assignment. “What are you doing here?”

“This is my new assignment!” He gestured behind him to the Normandy. “I didn’t know you two would be here!” He slung his arms around Shepard and Garrus’ shoulders. “Just like old times, huh? And I see you two are glued to the hip like always.”

Shepard laughed. “I can’t believe you were assigned here too!”

“Good luck, huh? The airlock is closed, so I’ve just been waiting for someone to show up and open it. I think the crew is on board though. I saw some movement in the windows. Probably getting everything ready for us.” Baltair shrugged. “Wonder if we know anyone else on the squad.”

“Doubtful,” Garrus said. “Two more turians and five humans. It’d be pretty unlikely.”

“Well, we kind of know the general, right?”

Shepard’s face flushed. “I’ve never met him.”

“You certainly know his son.” Baltair elbowed her in the side, nearly bowling her over. He didn’t know his own strength.

“Will there be any human officers?” Garrus asked, abruptly changing the subject.

“Who knows? I’d guess there might be since this is a joint venture. But they didn’t give very much info in the assignment letter.”

“Top secret,” Shepard said, tapping her finger to her nose with a knowing grin.

“What’s that mean?”

“Human thing,” Garrus said. “Her mom does it all the time.”

Before they could continue their conversation, the elevator doors slid open, revealing two more soldiers, this time human. One was a tall woman with a severe face, her chestnut hair pulled back tightly into a military regulation bun. Even though Shepard knew the bun was just how Alliance soldiers kept their long hair from causing problems, it immediately endeared the woman to her, because Shepard’s mother had always worn her long red hair in a similar fashion.

Next to the woman was a shorter man with tidy black hair and dark, intelligent eyes. Unlike the woman, who carried a multitude of weapons strapped to her back and hips, the man carried only a pistol, but Shepard could see the biotic amplifier extending from his ear.

Biotics didn’t serve alongside regular troops in the Hierarchy - they made up their own units called the cabals - but Shepard knew that in the Alliance, biotics fought alongside regular soldiers all the time. Shepard had always felt particularly lucky that she wasn’t a biotic, because turian society wasn’t exactly forward thinking toward them, so it had taken years to rid herself of the conditioning that biotics were meant to be pitied or feared.

The two human soldiers came to a halt in front of them and nodded curtly. “Ashley Williams, gunnery chief.” The woman offered her hand to Baltair, who was closest to her. He observed the hand uncertainly.

“You’re meant to shake it, Baltair,” Shepard said.

“Oh. Human thing.” He shook Ashley’s hand far too firmly with his strong grip, but the only evidence that it had caused her any pain was the faintest flicker of a grimace before she resumed her stoic pose.

Shepard stepped forward and shook her hand next. “Jane Shepard, lieutenant-commander with the Hierarchy. This is Baltair Dessius and Garrus Vakarian. Also with the Hierarchy...obviously.”

“You’re one of the kids from the First Contact negotiations, aren’t you?” The man next to Ashley asked. “I’ve heard about you.”

“That’s me,” Shepard said, a warmth creeping up her neck.

The man offered his hand next. “Kaidan Alenko, lieutenant-commander.” He shook Shepard’s hand and then the turians’ - Garrus was slightly more accustomed to hand-shaking than Baltair, seeing as his father worked with humans regularly and he had grown up learning a few human customs from Shepard and her mother. “You three know much about this assignment? The Alliance was a little cagey about how much info they would give us.”

“We probably know as much as you,” Shepard said. “The Hierarchy wasn’t exactly forthcoming.”

“I heard we’re serving under a turian general,” Ashley said. “Not sure how the other Alliance folks might take that.”

“Don’t you think there might be an Alliance admiral working alongside the general?” Kaidan asked.

“Couldn’t say. I’ve never worked with aliens before, I-” Ashley paused, the corners of her lips turning downward into a slight frown. “I’m sorry. I’ve never worked with turians before.”

Baltair rested his arm against Shepard’s shoulder. “I’d say we have a little experience, but Shepard here’s basically a bonafide turian.”

Shepard’s cheeks warmed. “My mother’s in the Alliance. I’m a little familiar with your protocols.” She explained.

“Have to respect an Alliance family,” Kaidan nodded. “How long has she been in the service?”

“Thirty-two years,” Shepard replied instantly. “Since she was old enough to enlist. She’s a general now. Works with the Ambassador and the Council...it’s a lot of regulatory stuff I don’t fully understand. But she seems to enjoy it.”

“Wait,” Ashley said, holding up a hand. “Your mother is General Hannah Shepard-Oraka?”

“Er...yeah.”

“Her father is General Septimus Oraka,” Garrus added.

This didn’t have quite the same effect as Garrus had probably intended. Ashley and Kaidan gave him a blank look. Septimus Oraka meant nothing to two humans who had grown up learning the names of important Alliance officers, but probably knew only as much about turians as they’d been taught in their training programs.

“He’s a well-respected turian general,” Garrus continued.

“Impressive pedigree,” Kaidan offered.

There was a moment of awkward silence in which Shepard and the two turians stood staring at the humans. She had a feeling there would be plenty more of these moments as the humans and turians learned to co-habitate on the ship. For as much as Shepard’s mother had taught her about human culture, she still felt out of place amongst humans, and had a harder time relating to them.

They were all grateful when the elevators opened again and a human stepped out with what Shepard assumed were the two remaining turians of their group. The two turian women towered over the baby-faced human man, who kept looking up at them apprehensively.

The turian women reached the group first, bowing their heads in greeting. Garrus, Baltair, and Shepard bowed their heads in return while the three humans looked on with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement.

“You must be the last two that belong to our group,” Baltair said.

“Lieutenant Hapaetia Crescent,” the taller of the two women said. She seemed slightly younger than the rest of them, and wore the complex white colony markings of Cipritine.

“Chief Engineer Aubrelae Tuscans,” the woman next to her spoke. Her mandibles were fluttering nervously, and she had a bookish air about her. Her colony markings were red stripes running across her eyes and straight down her lips; Shepard wasn’t familiar with them.

“Look out, Garrus, you’ve got some competition.” Shepard elbowed him in the side.

Aubrelae’s mandibles flared. “What? I didn’t mean to offend anyone, if I-”

Garrus chuckled. “I’m not an engineer. I just dabble in tech in my spare time. We could use an actual engineer. It’s nice to meet you both.”

“I’m, uh, Corporal Marshall Exeter.” The human next to the turian women flushed red as he spoke. He looked barely old enough to hold a gun, let alone serve amongst such a distinguished group.

They exchanged greetings and stood for a moment with a nervous tension between the group of them. Shepard had grown accustomed to explaining her role in the Hierarchy to new turians, so she launched into a short, rehearsed spiel that she was in fact representing the turians on this mission, etc, etc.

“I know who you are,” Hapaetia said. “Your father is General Oraka.”

“Er...yeah.” Could a single conversation pass without mention of her accomplished, decorated military parents?

“Oh!” Aubrelae’s brow plates lifted. “You’re one of the Sarlik Twenty.”

“Yup.”

“My cousin was part of the group that went to London,” she explained. “But they left after three years. Didn’t like the cold. He made a few human friends, though.”

“Hapaetia, do you have a brother? I worked alongside an Augustus Crescent,” Baltair asked. The humans stood close together watching the turian conversation and looking as awkward as Shepard felt. She was ready for the general to arrive and start issuing orders.

“You can just call me Happy,” Hapaetia corrected. “Augustus is my half brother. Hopefully he didn’t cause too much trouble.”

“Auggy? Nah, he was a blast. He was-”

“I’m here! I’m here! Don’t leave without me!”

Baltair was cut off by a high-pitched voice. A moment later a human woman came pattering into view, loaded down with a backpack roughly as large as she was. She seemed to be drowning in her armor, and the shotgun and assault rifle strapped to her sides seemed too big for her to carry. Like Kaidan, she wore a biotic amplifier around her ear. A pair of large goggles were strapped to her head, pushing her wiry black hair into a large poof behind them.

“No rush, soldier, we’re still waiting on the C.O.” Ashley said. She was the only one of the group who wasn’t staring at the small woman with their mouth slightly agape.

Before the flustered Alliance soldier could respond, another voice sounded.

“Yo, Brains, I told you to wait for me.”

A man who was the woman’s opposite in nearly every way came charging into the group. He was tall - taller even than Shepard, who stood at six feet - and seemingly solely composed of muscle. His dark hair was buzzed close to his head except for a thick strip that ran down the middle. Tattoos ran down his neck and pale scars marked his cheek and brow. Decked out in his Alliance armor, he was nearly as bulky as Baltair.

He stuttered to a halt in front of the group and saluted. “Guess everyone’s here.”

“She said the general hasn’t arrived yet,” the small woman poked her head above the edge of her massive armor.

“Good, then we’re not late.” The bulky man looked around at the group. “Lieutenant James Vega. And this is Brains.” He clamped his hand on the woman’s shoulder and she nearly toppled over.

“Lieutenant Claire Anagonye.” She corrected. “Vega just calls me that. It’s…anyway you can just call me Claire.”

More introductions were exchanged and Shepard was thankful that Vega and Claire were the last stragglers. She was growing tired of explaining her role over and over again. Awkward silence reigned yet again, but Vega didn’t seem to notice it or care. After a few seconds, he piped up in an attempt to carry conversation.

“So it’s a pretty experienced bunch here, huh? Where’s everyone from?”

“Are you very familiar with turian colony worlds?” Happy asked.

“Uh...no, not really.” Vega rubbed the back of his neck. “But, you know, I’m always open to learn.”

Happy flicked her mandibles into a smile. “Refreshing change of pace for a human. Most of the ones I’ve met don’t seem to care much about our culture.” She shrugged. “I’m from Cipritine. It’s the capital of Palaven.”

“See, I know Palaven,” Vega offered. “That’s the turian homeworld.”

Happy smiled again and exchanged a look with Aubrelae, who flicked her mandibles and shifted, slightly flustered. Shepard smirked. The turian women thought Vega was cute, but he couldn’t read their body language at all, and simply stared on with a broad grin.

“I’m from a little town on Rocam,” Aubrelae offered, her subvocals buzzing slightly. “Most turians haven’t even heard of it.”

“Taris,” Baltair spoke next. “It’s a city on Palaven. Not nearly as big as Cipritine.”

“Shepard and I are both from Oma Ker,” Garrus explained.

“Sarlik, right? The Sarlik Twenty.”

They nodded in response.

The humans rounded off next. Ashley was born on a colony world called Sirona, but had lived on Earth for most of her life, Kaidan was also from Earth - somewhere called Canada (Shepard was not as intimately familiar with Earth locations as most humans), Marshall was from a colony called Arvuna, and finally Claire and Vega were both from Earth as well - Nigeria and California respectively.

“Lot of Earthers,” Vega noted. “My last squad was a bunch of spacer brats. Kind of nice to meet people who grew up with the ground beneath their feet.”

Shepard wasn’t completely sure what she thought of the others just yet, but she liked Vega because, if nothing else, he had managed to get everyone talking to one another as though it were the easiest thing in the world.

“How long do you suppose we’ll have to wait for the general to arrive?” Claire asked.

“I’m guessing that’s him now,” Garrus nodded toward the elevator and everyone turned to follow his gaze.

The clear doors slid open and a dignified, well-decorated turian stepped out. There was no doubting the resemblance Tarquin bore to his father. They wore the same cream-colored colony markings, with the same rich tan plating, but Tarquin’s father was taller and broader of chest (perhaps an unfair comparison - Shepard hadn’t seen Tarquin in nearly seven years). General Victus wore a stern expression and approached the group with a stiff military gait.

At once, everyone stood at attention. The humans saluted, holding the salute, while the turians saluted before bowing their heads in deferment. General Victus observed them quietly. Close-up, he looked less stern. In fact, he looked exhausted. Shepard could only imagine the paperwork and bureaucracy he’d had to wade through for this posting.

He opened his mouth to speak, and a gruff woman’s voice interrupted him from seemingly nowhere.

“What a fuckin motley bunch. Goddess’ tits, Adrien, you think you can whip this crew into shape? I’m not so sure.”

A short, grizzled asari appeared from behind the general. Next to General Victus, dressed in a fine military suit with his stripes pinned to his chest, the asari looked like she’d stepped out of a bar. She wore baggy, oversized pants and a tanktop that clung tightly to her torso. A long pale pink scar ran down her purple face.

Shepard had to resist the urge to rush forward and hug the asari. This was her aunt Jora, and she hadn’t seen her in almost six years.

“Janey.” She stopped in front of Shepard, who could only smile and continue to hold her attentive pose for the general. With her eyebrows knitted, Jora turned back to General Victus. “Ah pull the stick out of your ass, Adrien. I want to hug my niece.”

“Miss T’sevi, this is a military assignment, not a family reunion,” Victus sighed.

“Her aunt is an...asari?” Marshall whisper to Claire, who only shrugged in response.

“Fine. We’ll talk inside.” Jora squeezed Shepard’s shoulder, then seemed to notice Garrus standing next to her. “Is that little baby Garry?” Garrus’ mandibles flared. Jora smacked him roughly on the shoulder. “Gonna be a fun assignment, huh, Adrien?”

“Why don’t you wait for me on the ship, Jora?” Victus suggested.

“Fine, fine.” She waved him off, smacked Garrus and Shepard once more, and disappeared into the airlock, which slid open as she approached.

Victus waited until she was inside before he addressed the group. “I know you probably have many questions. I promise they’ll be answered in due time. You’re all here because your superior officers felt you would be a good fit for an elite, diverse unit. This is the first time in history that the Alliance and the Hierarchy will be working together under one officer. I hope that you all understand that regardless of your affiliation, you will be answering to my commands. There will be an Alliance officer aboard working alongside me, but I have the final say.” He observed the Alliance soldiers for a moment. “If any issues arise, we will not hesitate to remove any one of you from this squad. Am I understood?”

“Yes, sir,” the turians replied.

“SIR, YES SIR.” The Alliance officers said in near unison.

If Shepard didn’t know better, she would have thought she saw Victus roll his eyes ever so slightly at this.

“At ease, soldiers.”

They relaxed their poses and stood awaiting orders.

“Follow me onto the ship. I’ll give you a tour and introduce you to the crew. You’ll each have your own quarters on the third deck with a shared communal bathroom at the center of the deck. The quarters are small, but should be more than sufficient for your effects. But we’ll get into the details when we reach that floor.”

He stepped forward and the group followed, lined up in rows of two. Garrus and Shepard stood next to each other toward the middle of the line.

“Did you know Jora was going to be here?” He asked.

“Of course not.”

“Do you think there’ll be other asari?”

“Guess we’ll find out.”

They stepped into the airlock and awaited a decontamination procedure before stepping onto the bridge. Directly to their left, the cockpit glowed orange with display screens. All they could see of the pilot was the back of his head, which was covered by a baseball cap with the Alliance logo displayed across the side. At the sound of their arrival, his chair spun around so he could face them.

“This is Flight Lieutenant Jeff Moreau,” Victus gestured to the pilot. “He comes highly recommended from the Alliance. There are a number of officers working under Mr. Moreau who will also be instrumental to ensuring our safety during stealth missions.” To their right, running along both sides of the bridge, the officers in question sat tapping away at display screens - humans, turians, asari, and even a quarian could be seen operating the screens.

“You can call me Joker. I’ve told him that probably a thousand times,” the pilot said. He looked them up and down and shook his head. “Now, regardless of whatever the general here tells you, this ship is now my baby. Treat her with respect.” He stroked the display board next to him.

“As I’ve told you, lieutenant, this ship is under my command.”

“Agree to disagree.” Joker shrugged and swiveled his chair back around.

Victus gave him an exasperated look and marched on through the bridge to the CIC. The commander’s roost overlooked a large, impressive 3D-display of a galaxy map, which made up the centerpiece of the room. All around the map, more turian and human officers stood tapping on display panels. They saluted the general as he passed.

“This is the command information center,” Victus explained. “Officers should not approach the commander’s roost without express permission from myself or- Ah, General Anderson.” He came to a halt in front of an Alliance officer and they shook hands.

The officer was tall, with dark skin and salt and pepper hair, well-decorated just as Victus was. He spoke with a deep, commanding voice,

“Glad to see you, General Victus. These must be the troops?” Anderson turned to assess the group in front of him.

“Just giving them a tour of the ship. This is General David Anderson,” Victus spoke directly to the group. “He’ll be working alongside me during our training and on ground missions. In the event that I’m unable to issue orders, General Anderson will take my place.”

“Go on with the tour, Adrien. I’ll catch up with you later. I want to have a word with Moreau.”

“Good luck,” Victus chuckled.

On through the main deck of the ship, they were introduced to a tech lab on the starboard side, in through to a communications room with a round table where debriefings would be held after missions, and on to the port side where the armory was located. Ashley seemed particularly interested in this area, and Victus made a brief comment that he would meet with her later to go over her duties as gunnery chief.

On the second deck they found the mess hall, the med bay, General Anderson’s cabin, as well as the massive crew quarters that housed all ship staff that weren’t C.O.s or ground squad. Shepard was in awe of how large and pristine the ship was - from the outside it hardly seemed capable of containing so many compartments and decks, and yet there was still more to see.

Down on the third deck, as Victus had promised, the squad quarters stretched out along a hallway, five rooms on each side, with a communal bathroom at the end. On the other end of the hallway, a double set of doorways led into the drive core room, where engineers flitted about running maintenance checks.

Finally, the fourth deck contained the cargo bay, as well as a fully stocked rec room for training exercises. Victus’ cabin was up above the main deck, and he cautioned that no one should venture up to the floor without his express permission.

He left them on the third deck. “You’ll have half an hour to store your effects and change out of your armor. Then I’d like you all the meet me in the comm room.” With a sigh, he added, “Miss Jora T’sevi will be joining us during our tenure aboard the Normandy to assist in biotic training. She has a wealth of experience as an asari huntress. If any of you should have...difficulties with her, please let me know.”

Once he was gone, the squad went about claiming quarters. The rooms were small, as Victus had promised - tiny eight by fours with a bed, a trunk, and a single small desk, presumably for report filing. The mattress on the bed was thin, but held up by mass effect fields. The spartan design was undoubtedly turian, but it still looked better than the last few beds Shepard had slept in on assignments.

Shepard claimed a room between Garrus and Baltair, and - through no planning on their parts, the squad ended up divided turians on the starboard side of the ship, humans across the hall on the port side. Locking her armor in her trunk, she turned around to meet up with Garrus in the hallway only to find aunt Jora standing in the doorway.

“Hey, squirt. Victus wouldn’t send me the squad list. Haven’t seen you in a while now.” She grabbed Shepard around the neck and gave her a noogie.

“Hey, aunt Jora,” Shepard smiled, taking a step back as soon as she was free and fixing her mussed hair. “How’d you land this position?”

“Oh, I’ve been all over the Hierarchy since I left the position with Septimus. Can’t complain too much. Women love a military woman, I’ve gotten so much tail since I started taking ship postings and-”

“Uh, I told Garrus I would meet up with him,” Shepard attempted to interrupt her. Her aunt had always tried to impart her with ‘sexual wisdom’ and she had always been embarrassed, not keen on hearing about aunt Jora’s sexual conquests.

“All right, all right, I get it. Don’t wanna hear your aunt talk about this kind of stuff. One day I’ll take you out to Chora’s Den and let those dancers show you how to be a real woman, Janey.” She smacked Shepard’s shoulder. “We’ll catch up later.”

As soon as she was out of sight, Garrus poked his head around the doorway.

“I heard her voice so I stayed in my room.”

“I know she’s a lot,” Shepard laughed. “But she just loves you, that’s all.”

“She’s very aggressive with her love.” Garrus rubbed his shoulder.

“So...this is it, huh?”

“This is it,” he agreed.

“You nervous?” She asked.

He flicked his mandibles into a grin and nudged her with his elbow. “Not with you here.”

And as they walked away to rejoin their new squad in the comm room, Shepard felt a familiar tug at her navel, swelling up into her chest. Something was different, but it wouldn’t do to dwell on it. She agreed with Garrus’ sentiment - she wasn’t afraid as long as he was with her.

Chapter Text

Garrus had been lucky enough to be on a number of elite squads during his military career, but none had been quite as diverse or...eclectic as the current group seated around him in the communications bay.

The humans were nothing like Shepard and watching them all seated across the table made Shepard seem more turian than ever. Even after his father moved to the Citadel full time, Garrus had very limited exposure to humans and their culture. What little he knew was from Shepard, who had learned most of it second-hand from her mother. They were different, but if they had been chosen for this squad, that had to count for something, didn’t it?

He didn’t have much time to ponder the humans and their ways, because General Victus arrived shortly with General Anderson close behind. The two men took a position at the two heads of the conference table, but neither sat. As soon as they entered, the humans were on their feet, saluting with rigid posture. The turians stood as well, but after a short salute, bowed their head in deferment. Garrus stared at his feet and tried to catch a glimpse of Shepard in his periphery, but Victus quickly commanded them to sit.

“I know you’ve all been waiting for some time for an explanation of your duties as members of this squad. Working in conjunction with the Council, we will spend the next several months dealing with illegal slaving rings in the traverse and on the edges of the terminus systems. Attempts to deal with this on a wide-scale level have been hampered by bureaucracy, but the Council, the Hierarchy, and the Alliance believe an elite team would be able to strike the blows necessary to weaken the entire system. We have a state-of-the-art stealth drive on this ship and top strategists from both militaries.” He paused and looked over each of them with a stern and calculating face.

“Of course, the key to any successful strike team is cohesiveness. Now, I don’t doubt your ability to be team players,” Garrus thought he noticed the slightest glance toward the humans as he said this, “but humans and turians have never worked together in an active duty posting like this. Therefore, we will be running a series of training drills on the human colony world of Proteus; its harsh climate will prepare you to operate under severe conditions. We will also run daily training exercises in the rec hall here aboard the Normandy. These training exercises will continue between missions to keep the squad in peak performance.”

Victus paused and held his hands behind his back, squaring his shoulders and observing all of them.

“Anything to add, General?”

“I know we have a rocky history with the turians,” Anderson said. “But it’s important to look around you and start viewing each other as comrades rather than enemies. We have a shot at making history here...and making a real difference where it matters. You all come highly recommended, so I know you’ll live up to your potential.”

Victus flicked his mandibles so subtly there was no way a human would have noticed it. He nodded when Anderson was finished.

“It will take a week to reach Proteus once we pass through the mass relay. Today, spend some time getting acquainted with the crew and your new teammates. Tomorrow we will begin training at 0500 hours. I expect you all to be present and accounted for in the rec hall. Until then, you’re dismissed.”

Everyone stood and saluted before trailing out of the room one by one. As soon as they were back in the hallway, Shepard was at Garrus’ side, checking her hip against his as they walked.

“You ready for some more late-night training in the rec hall?”

He laughed. “You’re not still doing that are you? You’re probably in better shape than half the turians you’ve been stationed with.”

“I can’t lose my edge. I don’t do it every night anymore, but when I’m restless it’s the best way to channel my energy. Why don’t we go do a few laps on the holotrack or something? We weren’t very good about following an exercise routine on shore leave.”

Garrus flexed his shoulders. “Yeah, you’re right, I could use it.”

“You two going down to the rec room?” Vega had crept up behind them suddenly. “Mind if I come with?” He rubbed his stomach. “I think all of that homemade food from abuela when I was on shore leave is catching up to me.”

He appeared, much like Baltair, to be made of pure muscle, but Garrus just shrugged. They were supposed to make nice with the human team members, and nothing brought teams together like training.

“You can come,” Shepard said, eyeing Vega sideways. “But I’ll bet you a hundred credits I can do more pushups than you.”

Vega laughed. “You’re on, Red.”

The three of them took the elevator down to the rec hall, which was filled with every state of the art exercise simulation machine Garrus had ever seen or heard of. It made the rec hall on every one of his last “elite” postings look like a playground in comparison. Despite all of this fine machinery, Shepard and Vega marched over to the foam mats next to the free weights and immediately dropped down into pushup position.

Shepard would win, Garrus had no doubt. Her lithe frame was deceiving - the result of a turian-style of training. A human wouldn’t expect someone so small to be able to outshine him and that would be his downfall.

“You don’t wanna get in on this action, Big Blue?” Vega asked.

“Me?” Garrus was both amused and a little befuddled by the nickname. “No, I think I’ll pass.” He took up a spot on a holotrack close to Shepard and Vega. “When you’re done with your crest-measuring contest maybe we can recruit some of the other team members and play some keris-ball.”

“I’m gonna be real with you, Blue. I caught maybe half of what you just said.”

Shepard laughed. “He thinks you’re trying to compensate for something.”

“Whoa, whoa. You challenged me to this contest. If anyone’s compensating for something, it’s you, Red.”

Garrus glanced at Shepard and saw a steely glint in her eyes at this. She had been compensating for not being a “real” turian her whole life, though of course there was no way way for Vega to know this. She clenched her jaw and stiffened her position and did another pushup. She was definitely going to win now.

Garrus set a steady pace on the holotrack and, even if he hadn’t been interested in the outcome of the contest, every few minutes Shepard and Vega would yell out their number to ensure he was aware of them.

After nearly twenty minutes had passed, the elevator doors opened and Kaidan walked in with Marshall, who looked even scrawnier outside of his armor than he already looked in it.

“Oh, looks like somebody beat us to the punch,” Kaidan noted.

“Plenty of space. These two are just trying to prove something to each other,” Garrus said.

“You wanna join?” Shepard yelled to Kaidan and Marshall, though at this point she was starting to show signs of fatigue, as was Vega.

“Uh…I’ll pass,” Marshall walked over to the holotrack next to Garrus and glanced up at him, staring with mouth agape. Garrus pretended not to notice at first, but when it continued for several seconds beyond what was probably socially acceptable, he turned his sharp gaze on the skinny human.

“Yes?”

Marshall’s mouth snapped shut and he looked forward. “Sorry. I’ve never actually uh…I’ve never seen turians up close until today. You’re even bigger than I realized. I mean…I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to be insulting, you’re just…”

Garrus let out a bark of laughter. “Being big isn’t an insult to a turian. You should go tell Baltair how big he is, he’ll love it.”

“He is really big,” Marshall agreed, letting the faintest hint of a smile play across his face. He started up his holotrack and began to run at a steady pace alongside Garrus.

Kaidan sat down on a weight bench on the other side of the foam mats and observed Shepard and Vega in their steady rhythmic movement.

“SIX HUNDRED!” Shepard yelled.

Vega’s shaky voice followed a second later, “SIX HUNDRED.”

“You guys look like you should take a break,” Kaidan suggested.

“I’ll rest when I’m dead,” Shepard huffed.

“I hate that phrase,” Garrus muttered under his breath.

To his left, Marshall increased the speed on his holotrack and was suddenly running faster than he thought a human possible of, and he had seen Shepard outstrip a turian. Now Garrus was gaping at him.

Marshall noticed and laughed. “Oh, yeah. I’m a runner. Not much for front line heavy fire situations, but I’m really good at sneaking and escaping.” He wasn’t even struggling to breathe as he ran at breakneck pace. “They typically send me in ahead of the main group to scope the place out, sometimes even through in a few flash grenades to startle the enemy, then the main squad sweeps in and takes them out. I’m not very brawny but I am fast.”

“Seems like everyone has an edge that got them on this squad.”

“Have you ever worked with humans before?” Marshall asked. “I mean, besides Shepard?”

“Shepard doesn’t count,” Garrus laughed.

“I don’t count,” Shepard said almost in unison.

“And no,” Garrus continued. “The only humans I even really know are Shepard and her mother. There aren’t a lot of humans on turian colonies…understandably I guess. Even fewer on Palaven where I was stationed for a while.”

“Because of the radiation?” Kaidan asked.

“Yeah. And most turians aren’t very fond of humans because of the whole Relay 314 incident.”

“The First Contact War,” Vega corrected.

“War is a strong word for it.”

Garrus and Shepard exchanged a quick look. He was about to continue, when Shepard interrupted him. The fatigue was evident in her voice as she spoke.

“Turians don’t like humans because they think the galaxy revolves around them. And they call a conflict that last a few months a war. But there are still plenty of turians who don’t mind humans. You just aren’t going to find them out on backwater colonies.”

“Like Invictus?” Garrus laughed.

“Exactly.”

“I worked with a turian once,” Kaidan said.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah in brain camp…er…biotic training.”

“They had a turian running biotic training?” Shepard balked. It was a surprise to Garrus as well. Surely an asari would have overseen training for human biotics. Not that there weren’t turian biotics, but they were relegated to specific troops, used for their powers, and otherwise disliked by most of turian society. Garrus didn’t agree with it, but that’s just how it was. Still, a turian from a cabal unit would possess the kind of strength and focus necessary to train others, he supposed.

“I know. That’s the general response I get.” Kaidan shrugged. “He was a real son of a bitch.”

“So you dislike turians.”

“I didn’t say that.” Kaidan shook his head. “No. He was the first…alien…I ever met. All I’d learned about them back on earth was how different they were, but then I got to brain camp and realized…aliens are just like humans. They can be cruel and awful, they can be wonderful and caring. Vyrnnus was definitely the former, but he at least taught me that judging all turians on the actions of one wasn’t any fairer than doing that to a human. Of course, a lot of humans don’t agree with me, but that’s how I feel about it.”

“An enlightened view,” Shepard said, followed by, “SIX FIFTY.”

“SIX FIFTY,” Vega chorused.

“Thought I might find you down here.” Baltair’s voice sounded from the elevators.

At this point, Garrus was feeling sufficiently warmed up from his run, and watching Marshall speeding alongside him was exhausting, so he powered down his holotrack and stepped off, just in time for Baltair to greet him with a hearty smack on the shoulder.

“Whoa, look at him go, huh?” He nodded to Marshall. “Shepard, this kid might be faster than you.”

“Busy,” Shepard groaned.

“Ah. Another contest. Shepard is good at those. We used to race each other on morning runs back in our first posting. Remember that Shepard? She was always outstripping me.”

“You’re fat and slow.”

“I’m husky,” Baltair growled. “Looks like I’ve been missing a party down here. I was just checking out the kitchens and then Happy pulled me into a little convo about her brother, Auggie. Man, that guy was wild. I saw Aubrelae headed to the engineering room, but where are the rest of your group?” He addressed Kaidan with this question.

“Ashley was headed to the armory with the generals. Not sure about Claire.”

“Brains is probably reading into the entire history of Proteus on the extranet. She’ll want to be totally prepared,” Vega said, his breath coming heavy as he struggled to do another pushup.

“You two know each other from another posting?” Baltair asked.

“Not a posting really. We were in basic training together. She’s a fucking powerhouse, man. She’s like the smartest chica I’ve ever met, she knows her way around any gun you hand her, she’s all compact muscle…like a loaded spring or something, and she’s a biotic. No question she belongs on this crew.”

“Sounds intense,” Kaidan said. Garrus privately agreed.

Vega lowered himself down for another pushup, let out an earth-shattering groan as he tried to push himself back up again, and then collapsed on the mat, sprawling his arms forward and sighing. Shepard kept going.

“You can stop now,” he said. “You won.”

“I’ll stop when I can’t go anymore.”

Vega rolled onto his back and laughed. “Damn. Maybe Red wasn’t the right nickname for you, huh?” He glanced sideways at Shepard and shook his head. “I think maybe Loca fits you better.”

“Wouldn’t be the first person to call me crazy.”

“Turians, one - Humans, zero.” Baltair chuckled.

“She should race Shortstop over there,” Vega suggested. “Then maybe the humans will score a point.”

“I’ll gladly race Marshall when we land on Proteus. It’s hot on the surface during the day and I just spent months on the hottest turian colony world, running raids in the desert.”

“You do see how fast he’s running, don’t you, Shepard?” Garrus asked.

“Yeah, and?”

“Like I said,” Vega laughed, “Loca.”

Shepard made it to nine hundred pushups before she finally gave up and then she lay sprawled out on the mat while Baltair attempted to explain the rules of keris ball to the humans.

“So it’s like hockey, but with a ball?”

“I don’t know what hockey is.”

“You hit a puck into a net with a stick.”

“Well, yeah, I guess if you wanna be reductive about it…”

Garrus took a seat next to Shepard on the mat and she smiled at him in greeting.

“I won.”

“I knew you would.”

“I wasn’t so sure when I challenged him,” she laughed. “His arms are like this big.” She gestured with her hands. “He’s almost as big as Baltair.”

“Almost,” Garrus agreed. “But he doesn’t have your determination.”

“This reminds me of how it was with the old squad,” she sighed. “I mean before Nilkus…” She ran a hand over the scars on her face. “After that last simulation. It felt so good.” She sat up and scooted back next to him against the wall. “The humans seem all right. I think it’ll be a good fit.”

“I think the generals knew what they were doing when they assembled the squad. But it’ll take time to find cohesiveness. They work differently than we do. But I agree, I think it’ll be easy to find a middle ground. Even easier than our first squad. Nilkus was always a stick in the mud.”

“Yeah, well, red flags and all that.”

“I’m excited to get through training and start our raids. Fighting slavers is more exciting than any posting I’ve had before. It feels like we’ll be doing something really tangible, you know? People’s lives could depend on us.”

Shepard nodded and directed her gaze ahead at an exasperated Baltair demonstrating the point system for keris ball to Vega and Kaidan, who looked incredibly bemused. Suddenly, her fingers curled around Garrus’ and his heart leaped into his throat.

“I have a really good feeling about this posting,” she said. “For the first time in my entire military career, this feels like where I deserve to be.”

What he wanted to say was how ardently he agreed. How, whenever he was with her, it felt more right than being anywhere else, that his heart felt settled and at ease with her at his side. That he loved her…maybe in ways he couldn’t even express.

Instead, he squeezed her hand and flicked his mandibles and said nothing.

Chapter Text

“Today we’re going to demonstrate the turian and human methods of sparring,” General Victus greeted the squad, assembled in the rec hall in the early hours of the morning, or at least what the ship clock called morning. In space, time was all relative.

The squad had all completed a warmup run, but some of the group were still looking less than alert as they stood before both General Victus and General Anderson.

“Sparring is an excellent way for troops to blow off steam. Days and weeks out in space can affect the psyche and cabin fever is a very real phenomenon. In turian society, sparring is used in a number of social settings, from casual after-dinner exercise, to a means of allowing troops to work out frustrations with one another in a healthy, active manner. I understand that sparring in human society is a bit different.”

“Light sparring can be encouraged to practice hand-to-hand combat,” General Anderson chimed in. “But anything more than light sparring is considered a scuffle and frowned upon. It’s important that each of you understands the difference. Sparring is an important part of turian culture. It may seem strange to the humans here, but General Victus believes learning their methods can help the cohesiveness of the unit.”

“Friendly competition is also encouraged,” Victus continued. “There are some military officials who may disagree with me, but my feelings on the matter are, as long as no one is getting hurt or causing a rift, competition keeps the squad active and involved with one another.” He paused for a moment and observed the squad. “Now, who would like to demonstrate turian sparring technique for the humans?”

All five of the turians raised their hands. Victus flicked his mandibles into the faintest hint of a smile.

“Perhaps lieutenant-commander Shepard would be a good choice, to demonstrate what human proportions look like against a turian. Lieutenant Crescent, why don’t you join her?”

Shepard hurried forward. She was eager to demonstrate her skills to the general. It was stupid, really. She knew she had been chosen for the squad for a reason, but a lifetime of feeling lesser than left her constantly trying to prove herself to anyone who would watch. Happy stepped forward in front of her on the training mat and Shepard was sure she would be able to take her down. Happy had the height advantage, of course, but Shepard had bested turians of a similar build time and time again.

She was grateful that Victus hadn’t chosen Garrus, partly because not once had she been able to pin Garrus in the entire time she had known him, and partly because - though Victus had failed to mention it to the humans - sparring could get very heated when there was tension between the two fighters. Shepard had been on plenty of squads where sparring turned into its own form of foreplay, and given the unbidden thoughts she’d been having about Garrus lately, she didn’t really want to push it.

Happy took up a position in front of Shepard and they both moved into a sparring stance.

“Pay close attention to how they hold themselves. Sparring is not just ‘fighting’,” Victus explained. “There is a certain ceremony to the process. You must stand before your partner and wait until both parties have demonstrated their readiness via this fighting stance.” He observed the two women and took a step back. “Please begin when you’re ready.”

Without a moment’s pause, Shepard launched forward, but Happy was quick on her toes and side-stepped the dive. They spun to face each other again, arms out. Happy leaped to the side and then lashed out with a taloned hand, but Shepard ducked and rolled, hopping back to her feet and meeting Happy’s arm with her own. For a few seconds it was a back and forth of blow, block, blow, block, neither of them landing a hit. Sweat beaded on Shepard’s forehead as she pushed back against Happy’s not inconsiderable strength.

She felt grateful for the fight. Sparring was also a good way to get to know another turian, and she knew very little about Happy just yet. She fought with a disposition that matched her name: light and airy, but challenging just the same. Enjoying a session with a sparring partner was a good indication that you would get along well side by side in battle, and Shepard was thoroughly enjoying this match with Happy. She seemed to be enjoying it as well, because when Shepard ducked behind her and landed a blow to the back of her legs that sent her staggering and almost knocked her over, she let out a bark of laughter as she righted herself.

“Good move,” she complimented.

“Good recovery,” Shepard returned the favor.

“Excellent!” Victus encouraged them from the sidelines. “Note how they react to one another. Sparring is not just a physical activity, it’s an emotional reaction to your sparring partner. See how lieutenant Crescent moved in time with lieutenant-commander Shepard’s blows and vice versa. They’re engaging in a physical dialogue with one another.”

Shepard’s shirt was soaked through with sweat by this point, her hair damp and clinging to her head. Happy was a more formidable opponent than she had expected, but she was still confident she could win. They paused for a minute, circling one another as they both considered their next move. That’s when Shepard noticed how Happy favored her left side. It was almost imperceptible, but she shifted and moved her arm and Shepard took her chance.

Moving as quick as her body would let her, Shepard darted to the right, ducked under Happy’s incoming blow, whirled around, and landed a kick square in the center of Happy’s back that visibly knocked the wind out of her. Happy tripped forward and fell onto her chest, but quickly rolled onto her back, lifting her legs to try and block Shepard’s incoming attack, but Shepard had predicted she would do as much. She darted to the right again and launched herself onto Happy, pinning her arms down. Happy put up a good fight, and almost broke free once, but after several seconds, she resigned herself to defeat and stopped struggling.

“Shepard wins,” Happy sighed, flicking her mandibles into a smile. “I forfeit.”

“Excellent work, Shepard,” Victus commended her. “And a brilliant display of sparring technique from you both.”

“Uh, permission to speak, sir,” Claire piped up from the end of the line.

“During training, you needn’t ask for permission to speak,” Victus said. “We’re engaging in a dialogue here, lieutenant. Speak your mind.”

Claire looked with uncertainty to General Anderson, who nodded. Shepard helped Happy to her feet while Claire asked her question.

“It’s just such a foreign concept, sir, the idea of fighting like that…with that kind of power…as a means of healthy communication. If a fellow soldier came at me like that I would assume she wanted me dead.”

“I understand it’s very different than what you’re used to.” Victus’ voice had a chime of laughter to it as he spoke. “Yet another reason sparring is useful. Neither Shepard nor Crescent utilized a level of force that could seriously harm the other. Learning to channel your energy and control the level of strength you use will help you on the field as well. You may have enemies you need to incapacitate without killing, and in the case of slavers, you will most certainly encounter victims who have developed a psychological attachment to their captors.”

“Like Stockholm syndrome?” Vega asked.

“The phrase doesn’t parse,” Shepard and Happy said at the same time.

“It just means the same thing. It’s…never mind. It means the same thing,” Vega shrugged.

“At any rate, sparring technique can assist in a variety of ground combat situations,” Victus finished.

General Anderson stepped forward as Shepard and Happy took their places back in line.

“Which of you would like to demonstrate human sparring technique?”

“I would, sir,” Vega raised his hand.

“Very good. Who else?”

Ashley raised her hand next. “I’d like to try, sir.”

The two humans stepped forward and faced each other.

“As we said before, humans don’t engage in the same kind of sparring as turians. Begin when you’re ready Williams, Vega.”

They entered into a bizarre hopping dance. Shepard watched with interest - there didn’t seem to be any real strategy to their approach. They hopped on the balls of their feet, circling one another with arms raised into a blocking stance. Vega was the first to throw a punch, which Williams easily dodged. This continued for what felt like an eternity, dancing around each other, hopping on their feet, punching forward, never hitting one another. Finally, Williams landed a blow, smacking the side of Vega’s head with the flat of her palm, which momentarily dazed him, then they were back into their strange dance.

“You see, the objective is never really to down your opponent. If that happens, it’s usually the result of a scuffle, or a very serious fight, usually initiated through anger. It may take time for the human troops to grow accustomed to turian sparring techniques for this reason. Sparring with an intent to incapacitate is usually facilitated through unhealthy emotions in human squads.”

“Unfathomable,” Aubrelae muttered to Happy, who nodded in agreement.

It was unfathomable. Shepard had spent her whole life sparring. When she was too young to really engage in it, she had often watched her father spar with Castis, and her mother had even sparred with Niera once or twice after their family dinners. All through school, and in the afternoons with Garrus, sparring had been such a normalized part of her life, and the goal had always been to best her opponent, to knock them flat on their backs and keep them down. The only time she had ever let anger leech into her sparring was with Nilkus, and that had been an exceptional circumstance.

“Very good, you may return to the line now,” Anderson said to Williams and Vega.

“We will start with daily sparring exercises moving forward. Each turian will be paired with a human and we will rotate through pairings each day. This will help you to get to know one another in addition to improving technique,” Victus explained. “Until we reach Proteus, our training will consist of a morning run, followed by sparring exercises, an hour working on muscle-building exercises, and prolonged time in the virtual shooting range. Jora T’sevi will also spend two hours each day with our biotic squad members.”

Training lasted more than half of the day, broken up by a lunch break, and then the squad was allotted free time, with the expectation that they would read the dossiers provided to them on their upcoming assignments during part of that free time.

When training was over, the entire squad made their way to the shared showers on the third deck. It was, like much of the ship, a very turian design, with open stalls lacking doors or curtains. The turians all simply stripped down, Shepard included, and made their way into stalls. Shepard felt a little ashamed, and more than a little confused about how she was feeling, as she let her eyes linger on Garrus’ naked form as he stepped into a stall and started the water running. She tried not to linger too long, taking up a spot in a stall next to him and relishing the feeling of the hot water on her sore muscles.

Some of the humans had yet to undress. Marshall, in particular, was gaping at the turians - he had been doing a lot of that. Shepard couldn’t really blame him - they were alien, and seeing their bodies in full, unconcealed form was probably startling.

“Take a picture, Shortstop, it’ll last longer.”

Vega smacked Marshall on the shoulder and stepped past him, pulling his shirt over his head and stepping out of his pants. He was nothing but rippling muscle beneath his clothes. He really did look like Baltair.

Although Shepard was intimately familiar with her own body, it was odd to see other humans naked, and especially to see human men, their genitals just dangling openly between their legs for everyone to see. She looked away before she could be caught staring - not out of sexual interest, but out of pure bewilderment.

“So, if no one else is gonna ask, I gotta,” Vega announced to the entire bathroom. “Do turians even uh…have…you know?”

“Jesus, Vega,” Williams sighed.

“Do we even have what?” Baltair asked.

“You know…you guys look like ken dolls down there.”

“Doesn’t parse,” Several of the turians said at once.

“He’s trying to ask you if you have a penis,” Claire said. “I don’t know why he can’t just be an adult and say that word.”

“Thanks, Brains,” Vega muttered.

Baltair laughed loudly. “Of course I have one. Not my fault biology screwed you guys over and made yours all open for everyone to see…or hit. I’ll show you if you really want to see it.”

There was a prolonged silence. Happy and Aubrelae were giggling in their stalls and Shepard was also trying not to laugh. Garrus’ mandibles flicked into a smirk. After a while, Vega finally answered.

“Honestly, yeah I do want to see your alien dick, Hulk.”

“Doesn’t parse,” Baltair said.

“Hulk? You don’t know the Hulk? Big green guy.” Vega flexed his muscles in demonstration. “Never mind, I’ll show you later and you’ll get it.”

Baltair shut the water off in his stall and stepped out, in full view of the entire room. He flexed his pelvic muscles and his remarkably blue penis slid from its sheath for everyone to see. Shepard let her eyes linger just long enough to take it in, then she politely looked away. Nudity wasn’t frowned upon at all in turian society because genitals were closed away out of site - it was still considered a definite breach of protocol to let yourself loose in mixed company, but of course, Vega had asked for it.

“Holy shit,” Vega was staring, mouth agape.

Marshall had looked down at his feet, but kept glancing back up at Baltair; Claire had her head cocked, observing it like it was a specimen; and Ashley was staring in a manner similar to Vega. Only Kaidan had the decency to look away, his flushed cheeks visible even from afar.

“Spirits, Baltair, are you serious?” Garrus rolled his eyes.

“What? Vega asked to see it. Well here it is.” He wiggled his hips and the limp blue penis flopped around unattractively.

“How do you…you know? How does it come out?” At the look his fellow squamates gave him, Vega bristled. “What? Like you all weren’t curious too? I’ve never seen an alien naked, might as well ask what’s on my mind, right?”

“I mean, if I need to pee or something I just flex my pelvic muscles and it comes out. But it’ll come out on its own when, uh…” Baltair’s mandibles flared.

“Please, Baltair, you’ve never been bashful.” Shepard rolled her eyes. “It comes out on its own when it gets hard.”

“This is too much.” Ashley finally looked away.

“I find it quite interesting,” Claire said. “I’ve read up on alien anatomy of course, but seeing it in person is totally different. For one, I thought it would be smaller, but it’s quite proportional.”

“Uh…thanks?” Baltair said uncertainly.

“It’s an interesting mechanism. Certainly more biologically advantageous than human anatomy, but internal genitalia would absolutely fry human male gametes, so I suppose it worked out for us ultimately.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Put your dick away, Baltair,” Shepard barked.

He laughed and un-flexed, allowing it to return to its sheath. “Hope everyone enjoyed the show.”

With that, he made his way out of the bathroom. Aubrelae and Happy were giggling and whispering in their stalls. Shepard peaked her head over the stall, resting her elbows along the wall.

“Are you two giggling about Baltair?”

Aubrelae’s mandibles fluttered in embarrassment, but Happy just shrugged.

“I’ve met Baltair’s type before. It didn’t surprise me.”

“I don’t know. He’s kind of cute. But so is Vega,” Aubrelae whispered.

“Careful. My mom says humans have weird regs about sleeping with squadmates,” Shepard pointed out. “It’s not like with turians. ‘Fraternization rules’.”

“But what do they do if there’s tension to be dealt with?” Happy and Aubrelae looked aghast at this revelation.

Shepard shrugged and grabbed a towel from a rack next to the stalls. “Break the rules? Or deal with it themselves until the tension totally destroys missions. Seems dumb to me, but human customs all seem odd.”

After Baltair’s display in the showers, everyone went their separate ways for their free time. Garrus followed Aubrelae to the engine core, undoubtedly to talk shop about tech and calibrations. He probably had a lot in common with the chief engineer, and this thought caused another unwelcome prick of jealousy to flare in Shepard’s breast. It was entirely stupid - for one thing, Garrus had thus far given no indication that he had any interest in Aubrelae, nor she in him; for another, there was no reason, no right for Shepard to feel that way. What the hell was wrong with her lately?

She decided to get to work reading the dossiers to take her mind off things, so she found a comfortable spot in the communal space on the second deck, right next to the window where she had a view of space moving by in a blur around her, and there she sat uninterrupted reading about the intel that had been gathered about the slaving rings in the Terminus system.

Nearly an hour passed before the whirr of the hydraulic door mechanism alerted her to a new presence. Ashley stepped in holding a stack of data pads and some old-fashioned paper books.

“This seat taken?” She gestured to the chair next to Shepard.

“Go ahead.”

She settled in and began reading, and for a while they sat in a comfortable silence. Ashley was the first to speak again, setting down her data pad after about twenty minutes and leaning toward Shepard.

“Could I…ask you a question?”

Shepard looked up from her own reading. “Sure, I guess.”

“I don’t want to come off as offensive,” Ashley said. “I’m just so curious about your life growing up with turians. I mean, I grew up reading about the Sarlik Twenty…and in Alliance training we learned about how the majority of families ended up leaving and returning to their own cultures within a few years. You’re one of the only ones who not only stayed, but has a military ranking with the hierarchy. That’s pretty incredible.”

Shepard laughed without really meaning to. So many aspects of her military service had seemed far from incredible: shitty postings, awful treatment from superiors who made it very clear they felt she didn’t belong in the hierarchy, squamates who were openly hostile, Nilkus.

“Thanks…but I don’t have anything to compare it to, so I don’t know how much I can say. Other people look at me and see a human living amongst turians, but I don’t know how to be human. I’ve never lived with other humans except my mom. Your world is as foreign to me as mine is to you.”

Ashley sat back and nodded thoughtfully. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

Maybe it was that Ashley’s military-style bun and stern, yet kind face reminded her so much of her mother, or maybe it was just that Shepard felt like venting now that she was finally in a posting she felt she deserved, but for some reason, she said,

“It’s been hell actually. Nobody thought I could compete with my peers because of my biology. Every step of the way there’s been someone telling me I don’t deserve to be here. So I know it may seem weird to all of you to see a human on the turian side of this alliance, but I won’t ever pretend I didn’t claw my way to this position tooth and talon.” She looked out the window and shook her head. “I deserve to be here.”

There was a moment of silence, and Shepard couldn’t decide if it was tense or if that was just in her mind. Then Ashley said,

“I understand. I know you probably think I couldn’t possibly understand, but I’ve been fighting my whole life too. My grandfather was the general that surrendered to the turians. The first human to surrender to an alien race. Pretty much the entire human race hates him for that. My family has served in the Alliance for generations, but the Williams name is mud,” she sighed heavily. “I’ve got a whole string of shitty postings to show for what people think of me. Yet here I am.”

Shepard turned to look at her and saw a fierce determination in her eyes - the same determination she herself had felt climbing her way up from her lowest point all those years ago. She felt a sudden very deep connection to Ashley - to this virtual stranger.

“And here I am.”

“Here we are.” She smiled and looked down at her books, thumbing through them until she found the one she was looking for. She cleared her throat and read:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.


In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.


Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.


It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.”

 

Shepard was taken aback at the way the poetry set goosebumps up her arms.

“That’s beautiful.”

“I’m a bit of a poetry buff,” Ashley admitted, her cheeks flushing with a hint of embarrassment. “My dad had all these favorites he used to read me. That’s one I’ve always got earmarked. I remember he sent me that after one of my first postings…I was really miserable and thinking about giving up. I guess you could say it stuck with me.”

“What’s it called?”

“The poem? Invictus.”

Shepard smiled. The name was fitting.

“Have any other good ones?”

Ashley lit up, pulling forth an entire book of poetry and setting it between them. Shepard sat back and let her pore through the book, picking out her favorites and reading them aloud, and she couldn’t help but feel that maybe she and Ashley were meant to meet. She had never been big on the Spirits, and her mother wasn’t religious in any fashion, but there were certain superstitions surrounding the Spirits that any turian could believe in the right situation. Sometimes they brought people together for a reason, and she could feel it in her bones then.

And for a little while, she was so caught up in forging her newfound friendship, that she was able to push Garrus to the back of her mind, though a part of her knew the ignoring her feelings was just a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

Chapter Text

Proteus was, without a doubt, the most miserable planet on which Garrus had ever been stationed - he decided this roughly the moment he stepped foot onto dry (or as dry as it would ever be) land.

Making their descent, it had been immediately evident that the planet was mostly ocean, but as soon as the hangar door opened, the damp, salty air rushed in, filling Garrus’ mouth and nose with the taste and smell of it.

The entire squad stood ready to depart, and it was Baltair who gave voice to what they all were surely thinking.

“Um, General Victus? Do the humans know turians can’t swim?”

“They are aware, lieutenant Dessius. As I’ve mentioned several times this week, Proteus is an ideal training ground for its harsh environment and harsher weather. And there will be water exercises.” General Victus folded his arms and gazed out on the dull grey landscape spread out before them. “But you have plenty of military experience, lieutenant. Surely you know how to handle yourself around water?”

Baltair, who was as large and dense as a block of lead, stared out at the endless blue to their left where the ocean met the shore. His mandibles fluttered nervously. “Of course, sir.”

“Seems like a paradise compared to Invictus,” Shepard muttered to Garrus’ right. “I’ll take water over desert any day.”

“Speak for yourself. You can float in water.”

“Don’t worry yourselves over the water right now,” Victus said, marching ahead of the troops. “Carry your supplies due north three miles. We’ll be making camp there. The crew will make regular runs to bring us any necessities.”

They obeyed him, stepping down the long ramp from the cargo bay onto the soft, wet soil. Shepard toed the muddy ground with her foot and grimaced.

“Doesn’t seem like sturdy ground for camping, sir.”

“The interesting thing about slavers, Shepard, is they don’t choose idyllic tourist destinations to set up their camp,” the General replied with an edge to his voice.

He carried on ahead of the group and the eleven of them slowly made their way behind him. For some reason, Garrus never imagined humans could have such miserable colony worlds. For turians, it only made sense. They were nothing if not steadfast: when a turian made a decision, he stuck to it. It was why Invictus had managed to flourish as a colony despite being a worthless burning hunk of rock and sand. But humans were soft, and flighty, and loud - always demanding accommodations from what little he’d known of humans outside the Shepards. He envisioned all their colony worlds as lush green paradises.

“Why did the humans ever stake a claim here?” He mumbled.

“Got me.” Shepard shrugged.

Every break in conversation was filled with the squelching of their boots in the mud as they trudged along. A wind came in from the sea, bringing with it ominous grey storm clouds. It was all they needed for it to start raining and fill their cowls with water.

“Damn this place is humid,” Vega said, wiping some sweat from his brow with a sigh.

“Stop complaining,” Claire growled. “I’m sure the General can hear us.”

But General Victus had long since outstripped them, far ahead in the distance, never glancing back to see how his squad was making progress.

The entire week leading up to their arrival on Proteus, both Garrus and Shepard had been brimming with excitement at the prospect of an unknown world. Reading up on the colony had not deterred them, but not much deterred Shepard when she set her mind to something (a very turian trait of hers). In the late hours when the rest of the squad slept, after Shepard had finished her late-night training, she and Garrus had talked at length about their eagerness to begin training.

He didn’t feel much of that excitement now that they had landed. And all the little thrilling moments alone with Shepard where his heart raced and his stomach fluttered were far away from his mind as the unrelenting heat and humidity made it impossible to think of anything but how uncomfortable he was.

Eventually, they finally reached the campsite, which was a slightly elevated, marginally dryer plain sparsely populated with grass and shrubbery. Here the crew set to work pitching their tents and laying out supplies.

“Sir, how long will we be making camp here?” Baltair asked, to which the General only gave him a withering look and flicked his mandibles without a word.

“A week longer than we were originally going to stay now that you asked,” Happy chided Baltair.

Excuse me.”

Shepard pitched her tent between Garrus’ and the spot where Kaidan was setting up his tent. Of all the humans on the squad, Garrus had spent the most time with Kaidan over the last week. Their second day on the ship, he had wandered down to the drive core where Garrus and Aubrelae were assisting the engineers and, although somewhat bashful about it at first, eventually admitted he had secondary training in engineering from his time in military academy.

Garrus was still getting used to the idea of biotics working side-by-side with plain troops, but he liked Kaidan well enough after a week spent tinkering with equipment in the engineering bay. He was soft-spoken, but thoughtful, and not afraid to express his opinion if he disagreed with you on a point.

At the moment, though, he was struggling with his tent.

“Not like I haven’t done this a thousand times,” he grumbled.

“Yeah, I’ve pitched a tent in my day too,” Vega chuckled. This earned one embarrassed chuckle from Marshall, a stern unappreciative look from Ashley,  and an eyeroll from Claire. Kaidan pressed his lips into a thin line and said nothing.

“I don’t get it,” Garrus said to Shepard. She shrugged as well and finished driving the last stake into the ground to anchor her own tent. When she was done she turned to Kaidan.

“You want some help?”

“If you don’t mind,” he conceded.

Garrus bristled as he watched her set about helping Kaidan pitch his tent. She laughed at something he said and his cheeks flushed and it was simply too much - Garrus had to look away. The feeling was inexplicable and unwelcome. Shepard had no interest in humans, she had told him that a million times. ‘They’re too soft and doughy. What do you even do with that?’ And Garrus would never consider himself the jealous type either. When he’d been in relationships before, it never ever bothered him to watch his partner chat with other attractive turians. Why was it bothering him so much to watch Shepard laugh at Kaidan’s jokes?

Well, of course he knew the answer, but it didn’t stop him from feeling miserable about feeling jealous. If it were anyone but Shepard, he would have just asked her to spar and gotten it over with. But Shepard had always made it clear she didn’t feel that way about him and in turian society it was completely tactless to press the issue with someone who had already made their opinion of the matter known.

Hopeless and idiotic. He watched her lean down to secure one of the stakes and felt so overwhelmed with affection that it was almost nauseating. Her damp red hair hung in her face, and her skin was flushed bright red from the heat, sweat beading around her collarbone…so like a cowl. He could just imagine tracing his talon over the little divots, using his tongue to taste each freckle.

He shook the thought from his mind before he could take it any further. For several years he had managed to repress any such thought of her, but since they’d reunited it was all he could think about.

“Thanks for the help,” Kaidan said with a smile.

“Hey, teamwork right?” Shepard smiled back, then turned her back to him and crossed the campground to where Garrus stood by his tent. “Hey, big guy.” She smacked his shoulder and his heart leaped into his throat. She observed his tent and tutted. “Mine looks better than yours.”

He stepped back and observed the two nearly identical tents. “I think you have a biased opinion.”

“Let’s settle it with a competition, hm? Who can swim the most laps in five minutes.”

He clapped his mandibles against his face. “Not fair, Shepard.”

She giggled and nudged him with his shoulder. “So I win by default.”

“When you are all finished,” General Victus interrupted them, “we will begin our first set of drills. You all have maps uploaded to your omni-tools. Your goal today is simply to make it to the location marked on your map. You will have to separate at some point to achieve this goal, but you will also have to work together. You have three hours. General Anderson will be waiting for you at the rendezvous point.”

Garrus drew up the map on this omni-tool. Because most of the miserable planet they were on was ocean, and what little land there was was flat and muddy, the map was relatively featureless, at least as far as topography and landmarks went. The meeting point was northwest of the camp by several miles, with intervening tributaries, the size of which were difficult to determine even with scaling.

“Looks like this might entail swimming,” Shepard said.

Vega stepped forward. “Okay, so who wants to lead the way? I think we better stick together until we can’t anymore, yeah?”

“Maybe the highest ranking officers on both sides can lead us?” Claire suggested. “That’ll be LC on our side.” She nodded to Kaidan, who, despite his generally bashful nature, took the lead readily. He had obviously worked to earn his title.

“Garrus and Shepard are evenly matched,” Aubrelae noted.

“Shepard should lead,” Garrus said without a moment’s hesitation. Garrus could lead if the situation called for it, but Shepard? She was a natural born leader, forged from years of being spat upon and told she shouldn’t and couldn’t make it in the hierarchy.

There was no demure placating on her part. No ‘are you sure?’, not that Garrus would have accepted that from her. She stepped forward and nodded.

“All right. Let’s get moving.”

So Shepard and Kaidan led them along the muddy, barren landscape until the campground was  barely visible in the distance, neither of them saying much as they went. The going seemed fairly straightforward, in fact, which made Garrus more and more uneasy the longer they jogged through the mud. There had to be some twist - it wouldn’t be as simple as running a few miles to meet General Anderson.

“Who the fuck thought they should colonize this place?” Vega groaned. “It’s hot as hell.”

“It is unpleasant,” Claire agreed.

Even the turians, whose biology naturally lended itself to tolerating hot climates, were in agreement that the combined heat and humidity were making it miserable for everyone. The humans were positively drenched with sweat, and the heavy armor they all wore wasn’t helping anybody.

They had been moving, uninterrupted, for nearly an hour when the storm front that had been looming to the west finally arrived. First was the wind, picking up speed gradually, barely noticeable at first, but by the hour mark, so strong it was nearly a struggle to move against it. Then the clouds brought down the rain, a drizzle that turned quickly into a downpour - rain that was contradictorily freezing cold, pelting their backs like ice. The combination of wind and rain brought visibility down to a few yards.

“All here?” Shepard’s voice fell flat in the wind. Garrus, who stood beside her, only just heard her. A few yards to the east, he could just make out Kaidan and Ashley, but could no longer see the rest of the humans.

Shepard stuttered to a halt, wiping at her face with futility. Quite suddenly, she grabbed Garrus’ arm.

“Did you feel that?”

“Feel what?” He yelled over the wind howling in his ears.

To his left, Baltair had also come to a halt, eyes widening and mandibles flaring. “Is the ground shaking?” He asked.

“There’s something rumbling,” Shepard said at almost the exact same moment.

And then Garrus noticed it too. It was hard to recognize at first, his senses so overwhelmed by the storm, but as they stood still, he could feel the ground shaking, the vibration ringing up his legs all the way into his chest.

Shepard ran and grabbed Kaidan and Ashley’s arms, pulling them back at the same moment that the ground erupted in an explosion of soil and rock and water. Through the rain and mud, Garrus could see the clear outline of a massive worm, its body nearly eight feet wide in diameter. It rose up and up until it towered high above them, its head partially shrouded, but Garrus couldn’t miss the glowing fangs dripping with venom.

Shepard had fallen backward into the mud with Kaidan and Ashley and the three of them sat, stupefied at the massive creature that had just burst forth from the ground.

“Is that a fucking thresher maw?” Baltair balked, taking several steps backward and grabbing onto both Garrus and Aubrelae. Aubrelae followed suit, grabbing Happy’s arm and following them backwards.

“Where the hell are Vega and Marshall and Claire?” Ashley shouted, attempting to right herself with difficulty as the mud tried to pull her back down.

“You all find cover. I’ll go find them,” Shepard jumped to her feet.

“Don’t be stupid!” Kaidan barked. “Stay here and I’ll go find them.”

“We don’t need two idiots risking their lives,” Ashley pointed out.

“Okay. Okay.” Shepard wiped at her face again, smearing some mud along her cheek. Above them, the thresher maw howled and slammed its body against the ground, nearly knocking them over as the crash reverberated across the ground. For such wet, dense earth it seemed rock solid when the maw hit the ground.

“Whichever one of us goes, we need a plan,” Shepard continued. “If we can distract this thing, we can take it down.”

“Shouldn’t we retreat?” Baltair asked.

“Do you know how large a thresher maw’s nest is?” Shepard snapped at him. “Considering how little land this shitheap has, this one probably has a nest extending across the entire continent. And we’ve now intruded on her territory. If we run, she will chase after us. No, we stay here and we take this thing down.”

“How?” Ashley asked.

“I don’t know, but we have to think of something.”

The thresher maw slithered toward them suddenly, mouth wide open, and sent a jet of acid spraying from its enormous mouth. They all ducked out of the way, half of them to the left and half of them to the right. The spray caught Garrus’ legs, but thankfully his shields took most of the hit, though it did a sizable amount of damage. He could only take  one more hit like that before his shields were depleted.

“Shit,” Shepard hissed. “Okay. We have to distract it. If we can do that we can target its weak points. Look,” she pointed as the thresher maw stopped and turned back toward them. “There are gaps in its exoskeleton. Aim for the gaps. And the mouth. I’m going to find Vega and the others. We’ll distract it.”

“Shepard, no!” Garrus yelled.

Kaidan opened his mouth to protest as well, but Shepard took off running in the opposite direction, quickly vanishing in the storm. Garrus’ cowl was overflowing with water, which, while not harmful, was uncomfortable, and making it harder to move on already difficult terrain. The thresher maw doubled back to attack again and Kaidan took the lead.

“To the west, let’s move! Follow my lead.”

They ran as fast as they could against the wind and through the mud, dodging again as another spray of acid came their way. Happy’s foot stuck in the mud as they went and Garrus and Ashley had to double back to help pull her out.

This was one hell of an initiation.

The thresher maw moved in a circle for a moment before rearing up to its full height and slamming against the ground again. This time its body landed smack in front of the group where they ran, knocking them all onto their backs. Kaidan was first on his feet, aided by his biotics. He helped Ashley up and in turn she helped Garrus and so on until they were all upright and running again.

“Spirits, this makes the shit Aetius put us through seem like lounging in the cowl,” Baltair huffed. He had always been a slow runner and it was to his detriment now, though he was still outpacing Kaidan and Ashley.

“Stand back. I have an idea!” Kaidan shouted.

Skeptical of spreading out too far, the group moved behind him as he turned to face the thresher maw, which was rising to its full height once again.

A blue aura flared around Kaidan as he focused his gaze on the thresher maw, the sound of his biotics flaring muted against the raging storm. There was a strange static in the air all around where Kaidan stood, which made Garrus’ plates itch. He had experienced it on more than one occasion when Shepard’s aunt Jora’s biotics flared in anger.

With a power Garrus had seldom witnessed before, Kaidan sent a wave of biotic energy flying toward the thresher maw’s open mouth. He directed the energy in such a perfect, controlled manner that it seemed effortless.

The warp exploded in the thresher maw’s mouth and it let out an ear-rending screech, followed by another spray of acid. Kaidan didn’t pause, sending a line of biotic energy crashing down on the thresher maw.

However effortless the act appeared, one quick glance at Kaidan’s face told Garrus it was no easy task. His mouth was set in a grimace and dark red blood was trickling from his nose down his lip.

“LC…” Ashley took a step forward.

But Kaidan didn’t stop. Wave after wave of biotic energy hit the thresher maw and it began to show signs of struggle under the relentless battering, wavering and shaking as it hovered above them. Kaidan’s eyes squeezed shut, blood began to flow from his other nostril, smearing down his lips and across his chin.

“Lieutenant commander, you have to stop!” Ashley yelled. He seemed deaf to the noise around him. Finally, she grabbed his shoulder and shook him. “Kaidan! It’s too much! You’re pushing yourself too hard!”

All at once, the biotic flare surrounding him was gone. He stumbled backward, blinking as though dazed, then clutched a hand to his forehead.

“I had to try,” he said.

From that moment on, Garrus never questioned the placement of biotics on their team.

Although Kaidan had done a reasonable amount of damage, the thresher maw was still holding together. If anything, the attack had made it angrier, though it had also succeeded in slowing the creature somewhat. Ashley handed Kaidan a piece of something that looked remarkably like chocolate and he nibbled on it while they reassessed the situation.

“It’s rearing to strike again,” Garrus noted, pulling his sniper rifle from his back. “If someone can buy us some time, I might be able to get in a few hits, but even that’s a big ‘if’ with visibility this low.”

As if in answer to this, the thresher maw’s side seemed to erupt momentarily in flame. There was a whooping sound, barely audible against the wind, and when the group looked up, they saw Shepard, Vega, Claire, and Marshall rounding on the thresher maw at its base. Shepard let off another blast from her omni-tool and an explosion erupted against the thresher maw’s back. This was followed by a burst of gunfire from Vega, another round of blasts from Marshall’s omni-tool, and a wave of biotic warps directed to different weak spots along the thresher maw’s body from Claire.

“Looks like we got our distraction,” Kaidan laughed weakly.

Garrus took his chance, kneeling in the mud and peering through the scope of his rifle. Visibility was horrendously low, but his rifle had been a very expensive gift from his father just prior to starting this assignment and it could compensate for low visibility with a variety of features. He lined up a shot with a gap in the thresher maw’s plating and fired. A subsequent screech told him he’d found his mark.

Ashley and Happy moved closer to join in with Shepard’s crew, approaching with a shotgun and an assault rifle respectively. Aubrelae stayed back, kneeling next to Garrus and tapping wildly on her omni-tool. She fired up an assault drone and sent it whirring away, then she turned to Garrus while still tapping at her screen.

“Omni-tools aren’t really built to do this,” she said, “but I’ve tinkered with mine a bit.” Another drone followed the first, this time a medical drone. “It overpowers the system to run two drones at once…bigger risk, but bigger reward. They look like they could use the help.”

“Amazing.” Garrus watched with wonder.

Aubrelae laughed. “I’ve had more than one drone self-destruct in my face, but worth it to see it working on the field.”

To their right, Kaidan was kneeling in the mud as well, looking thoroughly exhausted. Some of the blood had been washed away by the rain, but some still trickled slowly from his nose.

“You okay?” Garrus asked. He was genuinely concerned about him. Was it normal for biotics to do this to a person?

“I’ll be fine,” Kaidan laughed weakly. He tapped on his omni-tool, wincing slightly as the light flared in his face. “It’s just part of being an L2. I’ve learned to deal with it. But I pushed myself too hard…it was a stupid rookie mistake. I haven’t been that reckless since military academy.” He fired off a blast from his omni-tool, directing it toward the thresher maw. The wind and rain diminished the power of the explosion somewhat, but it still made an impact.

Together the squad worked, distracting and attacking the thresher maw, which was growing increasingly agitated, but weakening substantially as well. It was almost incredible to watch the squad work together to confuse the creature, if Garrus hadn’t been so miserably cold and wet. How had he been so hot just an hour earlier? This planet was even worse than he’d imagined.

The thresher maw slammed down with weaker and weaker strength, unable to stand up to their relentless assault. Finally, it landed with a dull thwack in the mud and couldn’t get back up. Vega, in a brilliant display of bravado, clambered up the side of the thresher maw and drove his omni-blade into its back between its plating. It let out one last pitiful screech and then the glow in its fangs, which had already muted considerably, dimmed entirely as it fell dead.

Vega fell in the mud next to Marshall while Claire and Shepard ran to meet the rest of the squad. Garrus felt his heart swell at the sight of a muddy, soaking wet Shepard running toward him, blood mingling with mud to stain her face and her hair, but nevertheless beaming from ear to ear.

“Everyone all right?” She asked when she reached them. “All in one piece? You guys were brilliant. Kaidan, we saw you it hitting it with your biotics. Amazing. What does Jora think of that huh? She must be blown away!”

Kaidan shook his head and laughed. “I don’t get quite that crazy in our training sessions.”

Ashley glanced down at her omni-tool. “We only have another hour before we have to be at the rendezvous point. I hate to cut this celebration short, but we need to get going.”

“She’s right,” Happy agreed. “We don’t have time to waste.”

They rounded up Vega and Marshall and continued onward toward their destination. It was just the nature of the military that there would be assignments where there would be no time for rest or recovery, but it still felt a little anticlimactic to take down a thresher maw and immediately walk away to spirits-knew-what was waiting for them.

“That was a hell of a fight,” Shepard said as they walked. “I’m gonna be feeling that tomorrow.”

“Felt good,” Vega agreed. “Really living up to your nickname, Loca.”

“What is it with you and the nicknames, Vega?”

He shrugged. “I just like feeling my own personal connection to my team, sabes?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“So you have nicknames for everyone?” Happy asked.

“Almost,” Vega raised an eyebrow at her. “You kinda already had your own. Felt weird to give you a new one. Happy fits you.”

At this, her mandibles fluttered, but Vega took no notice. Garrus chuckled: the humans was totally clueless to turian body language.

The atmosphere had changed now that the squad had taken down a thresher maw together. A week of drills on the ship and poor attempts at teaching the humans turian sparring were hardly a substitute for a real firefight together. Whatever uncertainty had hung in the air as they made their way toward their destination, it had all but vanished in the aftermath of the thresher maw.

They walked another mile until they reached one of the tributaries marked on the map. The storm began to die down, the rain slowing to a trickle, but it had left in its wake a turbulent flow of water. The tributary was far wider than it looked on the map, at least three hundred yards, if Garrus had to guess.

Now that visibility had improved they could see a set of prefab units on the other side of the tributary. General Anderson stood in front of one, holding an umbrella. Beside him stood Jora, pointedly outside the range of the umbrella. They were speaking to each other as they watched the squad.

“We’ve got twenty minutes to cross this tributary,” Claire said.

“Water’s flowing pretty fast.” Vega stepped as close to the edge of the shore as he dared. “This would be hard for a human to swim across. What are the turians going to do?”

“Can you really not swim?” Ashley asked, incredulous.

“We can technically swim,” Happy explained. “But our bodies are denser than water, so it takes an enormous amount of power to stay afloat. Factor in water flooding our cowls and forget it. We’d drown if we tried to climb in there.”

“Well, shit.” Shepard stood next to Vega and observed the flowing water. “What now?”

There was a moment of prolonged silence while the entire squad stood next to each other watching the turbulent water rush past. Across the river, Jora cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled,

“What are you? A bunch of chicken-shit volus? Hurry up and get your ass over here! Clock’s tickin’!”

Classic Jora. Garrus wondered what Kaidan and Claire thought of their sessions with the asari.

“I have an idea,” Claire said, gazing out over the water. “It’s going to be hard, and if it fails we might all drown.”

“Damn, Brains, really selling it to us, huh?” Vega snorted.

“A biotic barrier can suspend you in air,” Claire ignored him. “Not very high. I mean, I couldn’t really lift myself up with one, but when I was a kid I used to slow my falls with a barrier, or run across shallow ponds. If Kaidan and I combined barriers, we could probably shepherd the group across safely.”

Kaidan was still suffering from his earlier efforts, though he had since cleaned his face of blood. He didn’t seem fazed, however, by Claire’s suggestion.

“It won’t be easy,” was all he said.

“Do you think you can do it? Your biotics are stronger than mine, but I think combined we can help each other carry the load.”

“I’ve held my share of opponents in the air for as long as it would take us to cross this river. I don’t see a better alternative right now.”

“This is crazy,” Baltair said. “If the barrier gives out we’ll all plummet into the water and die!”

“So what do you suggest we do? Sit over here and fail our very first drill?” Claire bristled.

“Well…no, but…” Baltair’s mandibles twitched as he trailed off.

“Fifteen minutes,” Ashley reminded them.

“Okay, let’s fucking do it then, fine!” Baltair threw his hands into the air.

Kaidan stepped forward. “All right, if we’re going to do this we need to be quick and efficient. Everyone huddle together tightly. The closer you are, the less range we need on the barrier, and the longer we can hold it. I’ll take point, Claire, you move behind me to extend the range to cover everyone. We’ll do one burst to test the range, then we move on my signal. Understood?”

There was a less than enthusiastic murmur of agreement. The group moved together, as close as they could while still allowing for mobility.

“Remember to keep a steady pace,” Claire said. “Too fast or too slow and you’ll fall right out.”

Marshall gulped loudly to Garrus’ right.

Packed together, Claire and Kaidan gave the promised test burst. The barrier just managed to cover the ten of them. The barrier flickered away and Kaidan craned his neck backward to address the group.

“Ready? One. Two. Three. Go!

Their biotics flared and the barrier shot around them all at once, enclosing them in a translucent blue bubble. Kaidan led the way, pacing them as they took the first step onto the water. Garrus felt as though his heart had plummeted into his stomach. Stepping across a turbulent river and watching the water rush by beneath him was an entirely unsettling feeling. His heartbeat pounded in his ears as he took one step, then another, watching the barrier carefully.

The seemed to move at an impossibly slow pace, inching along over the water. Kaidan’s nose began to bleed again and from his side, Ashley watched him nervously.

“All right back there, Claire?”

“Holding!”

“I hate this. I hate this. I hate this. I hate this.” Baltair repeated over and over again.

Garrus privately echoed his sentiments.

As if sensing his thoughts, Shepard reached out and gripped his hand. He locked eyes with her, only for a moment - he didn’t dare look away from his footsteps longer than that.

“I go down, I’m taking you with me, big guy.”

“Not if I take you first,” he replied, though his voice was shaky and uneven.

The barrier flickered, only for a moment, but it sent a ripple of gasps along the group. Kaidan’s hands squeezed into fist and the barrier resolved itself.

“Just a little further,” Marshall whispered. Garrus was fairly certain he was only trying to reassure himself.

Kaidan reached the shore and the group picked up pace, rushing forward as Kaidan stumbled and fell and the barrier gave out completely. Baltair was last, as usual, and he slipped along the muddy bank, falling into the water, which almost swept him away. If not for Vega, they might have lost Baltair to the current. He whipped around at the last minute and grabbed Baltair’s arms, not even wincing as Baltair dug his talons into his flesh to keep from being swept away. Then Shepard’s hands were on one of Baltair’s arms, and Ashley’s on the other, and the three of them heaved Baltair to safety with one concerted effort.

With everyone present and accounted for, the group collapsed at Anderson and Jora’s feet. Kaidan was barely conscious, blood covering his lips and chin once again, his eyes closed tight and one hand gripped to his forehead. Claire looked exhausted, but unscathed compared to Kaidan.

“Excellent work! Excellent work!” General Anderson commended them.

“Good thinking there with the barrier, kid,” Jora smacked Claire on the shoulder and she went rolling forward into the mud. “Whoops. Don’t know my own strength.”

“Lieutenant-Commander Alenko needs medical assistance,” Ashley spoke for him.

General Anderson nodded with a frown. “Victus will be docking points for that. I know the L2 implants are a different beast, but Alenko overextended himself.”

“I’m fine, really,” Alenko practically slurred, still unable to open his eyes.

“Miss T’Sevi, could you please see Lieutenant-Commander Alenko to the medical station?”

Even Jora looked sympathetic as she stared down at Kaidan. “Yeah, all right.” And then, as though it were no feat at all, she lifted him with her biotics and carried him off to one of the prefab units.

“You’ll find showers and clean fatigues in the unit behind me,” General Anderson said. “Clean up and change and then meet in the unit next door. General Victus will be here soon to discuss your completion of this assignment.”

He paused and looked at all of them. They must have been quite a sight, covered in blood and mud, soaking wet and freezing.

“You did good today. Carry that with you. We’ve got a lot ahead of us.”

Chapter Text

If Shepard thought Invictus was the most grueling posting she’d ever had, Proteus quickly changed that line of thinking. It was a place truly and totally not fit for sapient life. The days were long and hot, punctuated by nearly hourly storms of freezing rain and hail, with gale-force winds.

General Victus pushed them relentlessly. Though nothing quite compared to the first day when they single-handedly brought down a thresher maw, every day was physically demanding and every night, despite her exhaustion, Shepard found it difficult to sleep. By the looks of her squad mates, they were all having a similarly rough time.

But even through the struggle and exhaustion, she could see what Victus was doing. He was a brilliant tactician, directing them in fire-fights against the local fauna, assigning them to tasks that forced them to strategize together. Over the course of two weeks on the worst planet any of them had ever stepped foot on, they’d built a camaraderie that would see them through the missions to come.

They ate together, worked together, showered together, and only when they retired to their tents for the night were they allowed any semblance of privacy. Shepard appreciated Victus’ logic, but in two weeks she had no time alone with Garrus. She valued her night-time training and subsequent talks with her best friend - there was simply no time or privacy for that on Proteus.

So she settled for stolen glances, a familiar and supportive hand on her shoulder after a successful shot, a playful hip check when the both of them were getting rowdy. It wasn’t enough - she wanted more, even if it was only her subconscious that was willing to admit it.

“Damn, I’m sick of these MREs.” Vega grumbled loudly as they sat around a pitiful fire in the center of camp: their morning routine.

Shepard picked at her shapeless gruel and nodded in agreement. Military rations had never been pleasant. One point for Invictus: the local food was rich and flavorful, even if it was nutritionless dextro-fare. The turian rations didn’t look much more appealing. They weren’t allowed the comparably better food that had been served to them on the ship.

‘You won’t have access to anything but MREs on some of our missions. Better to get used to it.’

“Looks like another storm’s moving in,” Ashley noted.

“Brilliant.”

Shepard looked around the circle. Everyone looked worn and haggard. The humans had dark circles under their eyes and the turians’ mandibles drooped with fatigue. Garrus’ eyes kept falling closed and he would snap them open after a second, blinking the sleep from his eyes only to repeat the cycle.

“You’re all looking spritely this morning,” General Victus greeted them, taking a seat next to Kaidan and making himself a plate of MREs.

It was the sign of a great leader, in Shepard’s humble opinion, that Victus didn’t quarantine himself to more comfortable quarters of the pre-fab units several miles northwest of the campsite. He slept in a tent alongside his troops, ate his meals with them, and ran morning drills with them. Only his tactical direction was given from afar, but that was typically turian.

No one complained in front of the general anymore, because it meant ten more laps on the morning run, or a hundred push-ups in the mud while a storm raged. Victus encouraged productive conversation, not whining and complaints.

“Today will be our last on Proteus,” the general announced. “The drills here have served their purpose. We’ll do one more sweep of the area and then be on our way. You will all find our first assignment has been uploaded to your omni-tools. I suggest you read up on what to expect. It will take a week to reach our destination.”

There was a ripple of excited whispering around the circle. No end-date to their time on Proteus had been given when they arrived, and any question of when they might get to leave was met with additional drills from both generals.

“I know you’re all eager to leave this place,” Victus conceded, “but keep in mind that while the climate may be more tolerable on our assignments, the situations will be no less dangerous and deadly.” He glanced around the circle. Plenty of the squad members were attempting to furtively check their omni-tools for the new assignment information. He flicked his mandibles and shook his head. “I trust you will wait to read up on our assignment until we’re safely back on the ship?”

The glow of omni-tools immediately disappeared. If Shepard didn’t know better, she would have thought she heard Victus chuckle as he took another bite of his MREs.

That final day on Proteus was possibly the hardest, barring their first day taking down the thresher maw. The storms were even more relentless than usual, they had to cross several bodies of water to reach their destinations, Baltair almost drowned five different times, and the local wildlife seemed programmed to attack them. By the end of the day, Shepard had never seen a more beautiful sight than the Normandy, gleaming against the dull landscape, waiting to take them away from that miserable hunk of mud.

Once everyone had stripped out of their muddy armor, hosed it down, then showered, they met in the communal space on the second deck and began to review their first assignment, excitedly chatting as each of them caught up with the other reading through the dossier.

They were bound for a planet called Bekke, a batarian-controlled mining colony. No surprise, then, that there would be slaving rings. Batarians considered it a sort of god-given right to own slaves, which had caused extreme tension between Council Space and the entire hegemony. Shepard expected reports of slaves being used in the mines, but that wasn’t what she found in her dossier. Batarians were involved, that much intel had been gathered. The report detailed that a batarian ship had been linked to the removal of hundreds of people from a multi-species colony on the traverse. A base of sorts had been spotted on satellite imaging of Bekke, nowhere near the mines. Their job was to infiltrate the base, find out what was going on, and free anyone still alive.

“Sounds exciting,” Vega said when they had all reached the end.

“Sounds dangerous,” Claire corrected.

“I’m with Vega,” said Baltair, unsurprisingly. Baltair and Vega had become fast friends in the past two weeks, and had also gone to great lengths trying to outdo one another in feats of strength.

“I just hope some of them are still alive,” Ashley piped in. “It’s nice to think we might be able to help someone directly with our work.”

As they were chatting, the doors to the room slid open and Jora stepped in, arms folded across her chest.

“You didn’t think you got an evening off from training did you?” She barked in Kaidan and Claire’s direction. “Get your rears in gear, kids. Biotic training, come on let’s go.” She clapped her hands, igniting a biotic spark with each clap.

Claire had a murderous look on her face as she rose to her feet obediently. Even Kaidan, who was normally so sweet-tempered, was looking at Jora with a grimace. Shepard could hardly blame them. The day had been the longest and most exhausting in recent memory and now they had to go spend an hour training with Jora. She had never been more grateful to not have biotic abilities.

“Have fun!” Marshall called, completely misreading the room.

“I think I might go down to the rec room and do a few reps. You wanna go, Hulk?” Vega stood up as soon as the biotics had left.

Baltair seemed to mull it over before standing and joining him. “All right.”

“Maybe I’ll go down as well,” Happy said, exchanging a look with Aubrelae. The two women flicked their mandibles at each other and then Aubrelae was on her feet. “Me too!”

Shepard privately wondered how long it would be before one of them asked Vega to spar. The last two weeks had been a constant back and forth, particularly between Happy and Vega, but Vega was completely clueless to almost all of it. The humans understood little about turian body language, though they had learned a few things in such short time. Still, Vega had no idea when Happy was flirting with him, which, combined with Alliance fraternization rules, put up some substantial barriers to anything happening. Happy seemed undeterred, however.

The four of them left for the rec room and the rest of the group stayed for a while, chatting and enjoying a moment of peace in the comfort (and climate control) of the ship.

That night, Shepard slept better than she had in ages, and she awoke refreshed and ready for their morning drills. In fact, the entire squad seemed lighter on their feet. Ashley outpaced Baltair in the morning run, something no other human had done besides Shepard, which earned her a round of cheers from the rest of the group.

Victus and Anderson didn’t seem to join in their newfound energy. Both men looked tired and stressed, but gave no other outward indication of any problems. Shepard imagined they knew a bit more than the rest of the squad about what awaited them on their first assignment, or else were more concerned by the danger they might face than the squad themselves were.

She didn’t let herself dwell on it too much, though. It felt nice to run drills with the group without an ice storm pelting down on them, or having to wade through mud just to get anywhere.

The next night, Shepard resumed her nightly training. When she arrived in the rec room after the rest of the squad had gone to sleep, she was surprised to find Garrus already waiting for her, running at a light pace on one of the holotracks.

“Beat me to the punch, huh?” She greeted him.

He stepped off the holotrack and flicked his mandibles into a grin. “I know you too well. Figured you’d be right back at it once we were back on the ship.”

It was the first time in weeks that they’d had a moment together - they’d been far too exhausted the first night to do anything more than say a quick goodnight before going to bed. She didn’t realize how much she needed a moment alone with him.

While she ran a few warm-up laps on the holotrack, Garrus took a turn in the virtual shooting range. She watched him while she ran, admiring the steadiness of his hand as he fired off shot after shot. He had come a long way from the little boy whose arms shook as he tried to hold his rifle. Now his arms had a definition they never had before, not even during their first assignment - all lithe, sinewy muscle holding taut as he steadied the rifle in his hands.

Without realizing it, her eyes followed his arms, up to his shoulders and then down the curve of his back. He wore only his training pants, his upper body on full display and his hip spurs jutting out through gaps in the fabric of the pants. Next to someone like Vega or Baltair, Garrus seemed downright scrawny, but he was in fact well-muscled. She wondered if he had been doing his own private training in his time away from her. There was an immense power in his stance, in the unrelenting steadiness of his grip. For a fleeting moment, she imagined his hands gripping her hips and then-

“You done warming up yet, Shepard?”

She shook the thoughts from her head and stepped off the holotrack.

“Yeah, did you have something in mind?”

“I thought maybe we could spar?”

Oh, spirits, that seemed like a stupid idea she couldn’t possibly say no to. The one mercy of their daily sparring during drills was that turians always got paired with humans, so there was never a risk of being paired with him. She hadn’t sparred with him in years, certainly not since these unexpected feelings had developed. Part of her was afraid of what might happen if they sparred, but an even bigger part was afraid he wouldn’t feel the same tension she felt.

With no excuse to say no, she shrugged. “Sure. Maybe I’ll finally pin you.”

Garrus crackled his knuckles and laughed as he stepped over to the sparring mat. “It’s been a while, Shepard. Maybe you’ve forgotten how good I am?”

There was that new cockiness. She liked it, more than she was willing to admit.

“Okay, now you’re on, Vakarian.”

She joined him on the mat and they took their ready stance opposite one another. She raised her arms and he raised his as they met each other’s gaze. The look he fixed her with was so intense, so piercing she was taken aback. Her heart fluttered and her breath caught in her throat.

Then they began.

Garrus was muscular, but still as light on his feet as ever. She darted to the right to catch him in the side and he dodged just as quickly. But she could match him in speed, even if she couldn’t equal his strength. When he rounded his foot to kick the side of her leg, she jumped, causing him to lose his balance and nearly stumble forward, but he caught himself just in time. They moved and parried like that for some time, back and forth, back and forth, never making contact, working up a sweat until her heart was pounding in her ears, though she wasn’t entirely sure that was only due to the effort she was exerting.

With Garrus, it was always difficult to find a window for attack. He seemed to anticipate every move she made, though she could anticipate him almost as quickly. Maybe they knew each other too well to spar. Part of winning a sparring match was the element of surprise, and since the two of them could practically read each other’s thoughts, it made it difficult to ever truly get the upper hand. The only hope was to wear the other down.

Shepard saw a moment and went for it. Garrus jabbed out with his fist, she ducked under his arm, spun to the side, and kicked her foot directly into his side. He fell to his knees, even though the kick had not been as hard as it could have been. She supposed he had been more surprised that she made contact than anything else. When she lunged to knock him onto his back, he righted himself quickly, grabbed her as she leaped forward, and slammed her unexpectedly to the mat, climbing on top of her to keep her down and claim his victory.

Her breath came heavy and now that she was flat on her back, she found she didn’t have much motivation to fight back. Garrus had won, as he always did. Besides, she was far too focused on the weight of his body on top of hers, the warmth of his skin on hers as one hand held her arm and the other kept him propped up just above her. His face was so close to hers she could feel the heat of his breath against her cheek. She stared at him, heart pounding, covered in sweat, breathing so hard she thought her lungs might erupt from her chest, and he stared back with that intense gaze of his.

All she could think about was kissing him. She wanted to do what she had done with plenty of other turians she’d sparred with during previous assignments - tear his clothes off and take things to their natural progression right there on the mat. Finally snap the tautening tension between them. She felt a familiar pull at her belly-button, her heartbeat pulsing now between her legs, where Garrus’ pelvis was flush with hers.

Garrus’ eyes darted all over her face, his own breath was far heavier than she thought it ought to have been. Had his face come even closer? Her nose was almost brushing his now. If she just leaned up, even slightly, she could kiss him. What was the worst that could happen?

Utter humiliation, for starters.

The decision never came, though. Garrus rolled off of her abruptly and sat up.

“Good match, Shepard,” he said breathily.

She remained flat on her back. “Yeah. Pinned me again.”

“As usual.” He laughed.

Even if she had wanted to, she wouldn’t have gotten up from that mat. She stared at the ceiling and willed herself to stop considering Garrus in that way, but she couldn’t. Since they had reunited, it occupied her thoughts constantly. Why shouldn’t they try it? In turian society it was completely normal for friends to experiment in such ways. In fact, some people that knew the two of them were surprised they never had.

“That wore me out,” Garrus said. “I think I’m going to head for bed. Are you coming, or…?”

For a fleeting moment Shepard thought he was inviting her to his bedroom, but she quickly realized what he meant and was glad she hadn’t said anything before figuring it out.

“I’m gonna cool off for a minute. Go on without me.”

“All right. Good night, Shepard. See you in the morning.”

“Good night, Garrus.”

She remained on the mat, heart racing, for longer than she could say, thinking over how much she wished she had just kissed him in the moment. Had he been thinking it too? His face had been so close to hers. Surely…?

No. Surely she was just imagining it.

Get yourself together, Shepard. You’ve got a mission to see through.

She had better figure out how to push those feelings to the back of her mind. The last thing she needed on the field was to be distracted.

But it was still what she thought of as she climbed into bed. And that night, she dreamt of a different end to their match - the one she wished had actually played out. And when she woke, the thrill of her imagination managed to outweigh the shame she felt at such thoughts.

She was in deep shit now.