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She wouldn't be coming back from this.

They'd talked about it. They'd known the risks. It was part of the job description. Save the galaxy, beat the Reapers, maybe die. She wouldn't be the first loss, even within their core group. Ashley. Mordin. Thane... Just another casualty. Just one more among billions. The only difference was that she might be the last.

She'd really wanted to come back from this, though.

She'd wanted this one, for once, to be simple. Activate the Crucible, blast the Reapers into oblivion, call Joker for a pick up and then go pass out in the med bay with Garrus. That was the plan, up until some Reaper playing Mystical Ghost Child went and fucked it up.

Asshole.

She had no choice, for all that he claimed to offer three of them. There was one straight line ahead of her, and it wasn't very long. Just a short walk. Just a little ways left to go before she could let this aching body rest. A clear path to the end of the war. It would have been nice if she could make her final walk without the broken ribs, but fair choices were in short supply that day.

Come back alive, he'd said.

"Sorry, Garrus." It looked like she'd be the one waiting at that bar, after all. She hoped he could forgive her. She wouldn't have time to forgive herself.

Fuck.

To hell with splintered ribs. To hell with bruises and sprained ankles and broken hearts.

She ran the last few steps.

-

The light stung her eyes. There had been light before, but it hadn't hurt like this. The light from before had made her stop hurting. This was different. She was somewhere else, though she had no memory of traveling. She couldn't focus. There was too much around her. There was light and sound and the spin of the galaxy. She could feel it revolving— feel the weight of each cluster, each nebula, each lone star flung around its bright center, hurtling like a carnival ride. It was madness to feel it, and revelation.

Then it was gone, and the only spinning left was that of her own head.

She was lying on her back, or so she thought at first. But no… she was suspended, face up to a dusty sky, a pressure on her spine— a sharpness—piercing— hot metal— numbness where there should have been pain—

She screamed. She screamed and the dragon tooth descended. She tumbled off the platform and looked back, expecting blood. Expecting her guts strewn out behind her. At first she wasn't entirely sure that they weren't. Vision and imagination traded places, then traded back. Everything was chaos and cacophony. She couldn't put a single thought together without the world screaming in her head. She couldn't feel the pain of being skewered, but she could hardly see through the pain behind her eyes.

Somehow, she got her arms and legs beneath her, but that was as far as she went. There were rocks digging into her knees, rough like gravel. She tried to look, but the light dazzled her eyes. She tried to breathe. It was heavy and loud and didn't seem to help. She didn't feel like she was dying, but she felt like she should be.

There was someone above her, a shadow that blocked out the sun. A hand that gripped her shoulder. A sharp word she couldn't make out. She flinched away, but her body wouldn't listen. Her arm bent and gave out. Her shoulder hit the ground and she stayed where she was, stirring dust with her breath and blinking when it caught in her eyelashes.

"Shepard, hold still."

The words bounced around as if her head were an echo chamber, rattling back and forth until meaning caught up with sound. She knew the voice. Resonant, but soft. Whispers in warm darkness and shouts on a battlefield. Safety and comfort. There was a face in her head to go with it—blue eyes, blue paint, and scar tissue.

She tried to move, to look up, but the desire didn't translate into action. She commanded her limbs and they ignored her. Her breath shook. The sand stung her face. The hand on her shoulder moved then, grasped her firmly and turned her over. The world spun, blue and yellow and too bright to look at. Nothing would come into focus. Her skin was too tight and her head was full of noise.

A hand touched her face. Rough, scraping fabric. She turned her head away. Someone was holding her. Cradling her. It made her skin hurt. Everything that touched her hurt. She tried to struggle free and only managed to flop an arm. Whoever was holding her didn't seem to take the hint. The arm around her squeezed tighter, confining. She couldn't get enough air. She could feel her own heartbeat, clamoring at her ribcage like it wanted to break out. She wanted to scream.

"Shepard, try to relax. I've got you."

She tried. She tried to ignored the loud, pressing jumble of the world around her. She took slow breaths and eventually it helped. Her mind stopped spinning and merely bobbed, floating as if on water. She wasn't sure when she had closed her eyes, but she took a chance and opened them again.

Garrus was holding her, tense and frantic. His mandibles twitched like they were tapping out a code. She blinked. She squinted. The light still looked wrong, but she was starting to make out her surroundings beyond flat color and brightness. They were on the surface of some planet. It looked and felt like a desert. She could see every fleck of sand on Garrus's armor, every crack in the bulbous rise of rock just behind him, but she couldn't focus on anything distant. Light filled the air like a tangible fog. Her eyes stung and watered until she shut them to escape, turning her face into the shadow cast by her lover.

He was stroking her hair. It didn't hurt as much as the pressure on her skin. His armor dug into her thigh, pressed hard against the blade of her shoulder. Everything was too hard, too sharp, hot where the sun touched and cold where it didn't. It came as a sudden realization that she wasn't wearing armor, or for that matter, clothes.

More importantly, wasn't she supposed to be dead?

Shepard opened her mouth and tried to speak. Failed. Cleared her throat weakly and tried again. "Whu... What happened t'the bar?"

The words were slurred, mumbled, but Garrus's translator must have handled them fine. He laughed breathlessly. He bent over her as if to shelter and hold her with all of his body. "I didn't want to leave you waiting."

Shepard just stared at him, trying to make sense of it all. There were a lot of things to make sense of. Garrus's eyes were glowing and she was starting to think that it wasn't just a fluke of her own vision. She reached up, but she didn't quite touch. "Your eyes..."

Garrus caught her hand in his. He didn't do anything with it. She thought perhaps he'd just wanted to hold it. "Yeah, I know. Weird, right?" The words were tinged with humor, though she didn't know what was so funny. She was trying to keep her heart rate down at the sight of eyes that glowed like a machine's.

He saw her fear, or felt it in the tensing of her body, and he loosened his hold. He gave her space to retreat if she wanted to. She didn't, though part of that was because she didn't know if she could. Her limbs were responding now, but slow and shaky. She doubted they would hold her.

"It's Synthesis," Garrus said. "Do you remember what happened on the Crucible?"

She nodded and then grimaced at the pain in her head. It was fading, though, reduced to a stubborn, lingering throb. She could think through it, but the thoughts still didn't add up. "I died. I was supposed to..."

"Uh huh." He sounded like he didn't want her to finish the sentence - like he didn't want to hear the word again. "The Reapers told us. Look at your hand." He was still holding it, already in her line of sight. All she had to do was focus.

She had seen the pattern, but she'd thought it was a trick of her vision— streaks of pale green superimposed over her own retinas as if she had stared too long at a bright light. Now she saw otherwise. The lines ran under her own skin, more even and measured than veins. She pulled her hand free, turning it this way and that. The pattern shifted and shimmered.

Shepard sat up. Her body didn't fail her this time, but she was too distracted to care. She squeezed her own hand, then rubbed at it. The lights pulled and stretched with her skin. She dug in stubby fingernails and scratched. It hurt more than it should have, but the marks didn't fade or come away. She scratched harder, crossing out green lines with red until Garrus caught her hands in his and pulled them apart.

"Don't." He held onto her, ran his thumb over the fresh scratches. "Don't, Shepard, it's okay."

Her voice shook despite herself. "What is it?"

"Synthesis," he said again. "It's... what you did to end the war."

She remembered the word. In her head, it was spoken in a child's voice.

"Here, can you stand?" His hands slid down her arms, bracing her elbows. She wasn't sure of her own strength yet, but she gave him a nod and he lifted her, taking her weight while she muddled through the act of getting her feet planted underneath her. It hurt to move. It hurt to touch. All she wanted to do was lie down for a day or two and try to get used to being alive again. But she was a soldier.

She wavered, steadied herself against him, then turned all at once to look behind her. The dragon's tooth was still there. She had hoped that her impression of it had been a mistake— a delusion in her first waking moments. She looked down at her hands, half-expecting to see them turned gray and grotesque. Instead, they shimmered green, looking like nothing so much as a circuit board implanted under her skin. She tasted bile.

"Garrus. How... am I... alive." It was a demand, not a question, forced out through a tight throat and gritted teeth. His arms closed around her, but she pushed her way free, staggering, catching herself, and standing on her own.

"Shepard, it's alright." His voice was rising in pitch, reflecting her own alarm. "I know it looks bad..."

She turned on him, though it took an effort to wrench her gaze off the device. "What did you do? What am I?"

Garrus sucked in a breath. His eyes glowed. His mandibles twitched. One hand started to rise, but then dropped. She would have stepped away if he'd reached for her just then. When he did speak, his voice was low and cautious, hoarse with desperation. "You're human, Shepard. You know me. I wouldn't change you to bring you back." He gave a ragged sigh. "Shepard, there wasn't another way."

She kept her distance, light on her feet, ready to retreat again. She didn't know what to think yet. Too much here was different. To much was unexpected. Her Garrus Vakarian would have meant well. He would have respected her and tried to anticipate her feelings. The words he said were true. He wouldn't bring her back if it meant changing who she was, but was this the same man? She looked for blue, trusting eyes and found synthetic green instead. He acted real. He spoke like Garrus, but how much of him was really there under the circuit board wiring? Had the Reapers tricked her, knowing the choice she'd make if they offered to save lives? Had it all been a game of indoctrination?

If they'd been honest, though, and Synthesis was what they claimed, then their technology was everyone's now. Could something as terrible as the dragon's teeth be used for good? Shepard tried to collect herself, sorting out her doubts and shoving them to the side. She was alarmed to realize how close to panic she had been. She was trained for this - trained to walk through the ends of worlds with a clear head. This was no exception. She could figure this out. Whatever it was, trick or truth, she would make it go her way or she would die trying.

Wrapping up her internal pep talk, she breathed deep and garbed herself in military composure. With that much achieved, she was able to meet his strange new eyes unflinching, and to see the flash of hope there when she did. "Alright, Vakarian. Explain."

Garrus slumped in relief or defeat. Maybe both. He gestured vaguely with turned-out palms, then raised a hand to scratch at his scar, filling space while he searched for what to say. "I didn't know if this was going to work, but I had to try it. If there was any chance of bringing you back..."

He was rambling. She cut him off. "How did you do it?"

He rubbed his plated brow. It was a gesture he'd picked up from her, back on the Normandy. "It was... You were still out there. Your data, in Synthesis. You were the schematic. That's how they explained it." He squeezed his eyes shut, clacked his mandibles. "The Reapers isolated you... Or it. Picked you out from all the rest. The dragon teeth are built to change the structure of a body. I recalibrated it to put you back together. The geth helped with that."

She stared him down flatly. Behind the facade, her mind tried to reel, but she held it down. "The Reapers... and the geth."

Garrus shrugged. "They offered. They all owe you, Shepard."

It didn't make her feel much better. "I thought I was needed to make Synthesis work. How could they take me out without destroying it?"

"You don't need the schematics after the weapon's built. Or... maybe we should call it a house and you the blueprints. That's a little... yeah."

He still sounded like Garrus. It made her heart swell despite her doubts and she remembered, then, why the choice had been hard. It wasn't for fear of death that she'd cursed the Reapers in those last few moments on the Crucible. She had taken too many hits and close calls to fear death. No, it was the thought of Garrus that had angered her. He'd told her once that he felt alone in the galaxy. She had meant to be someone he could share it with. She had cursed the Reapers as she ran to her fate because after everything they'd cost her, that was the toll that hurt the most.

But if this was real... if it wasn't a trick...

The softest side of her yearned to step forward, to let him hold her again. To ask about that sunny retirement plan and whether Synthesis could make biology cooperate after all. She yearned to press her hands to his chest and feel the thrum of his voice as he stumbled over his awkward attempts at romance. She wouldn't even object to another dance lesson.

Instead, she held her ground. She needed to know, first. She needed proof that Synthesis was all the Reapers had promised. She needed to know that she was still herself. Even if Garrus had meant well, could he have made a mistake?

She looked around herself, trying to determine location. Her senses finally seemed to be straightening themselves out and she could make out more of her surroundings. There were deserts like this on earth, but Garrus had mentioned the geth, so she decided to run with that clue. "Are we on Rannoch?"

Garrus made a breathy sound of amusement. "Sharp as ever. Tali found out what I was up to. She's the one who got the geth involved." He followed her gaze to the arid horizon. "They've made a lot of progress here. Wait 'till you see the city."

"A city?" Shepard suffered a jolt of disbelief. "How long have I been gone?"

Garrus clicked a few times. "Uh... Fourteen months... and four days, by Earth time."

Had he looked that up so he could tell her when she asked, or had he been counting? "Well..." She forced the words out past an unwanted lump in her throat. "That's better than last time."

"Heh." It was subdued, but it was a real laugh this time. "Sorry it took so long."

"Nah," she waved off the apology and felt the beginnings of a smile. "You beat Miranda's record. Good for you."

Garrus laughed again, a throaty chuckle. Shepard wouldn't admit how much joy it gave her to hear it. "All I did was wait, mostly. It took the Reapers a while to collect all the... bits."

She offered him a wryly raised eyebrow. "The bits, huh?"

His mandibles twitched. "You know what I mean."

Shepard crossed her arms over her bare chest and stared out at the landscape, feeling satisfied despite herself. "Uh huh. So... I'm sure you're admiring the view, but I don't suppose you brought my clothes back to life too?"

"Not the ones you were wearing, no," he said, "but you did leave some spares on the Normandy."

"So where is the Normandy?" She'd feel better when she was standing on her ship again.”

"Not here, unfortunately, but I brought your things."

Shepard considered this and found herself amused. "So... You've been running around the galaxy with my wardrobe and a crazy scheme to resurrect me using Reaper tech. Am I getting this right?"

"More than just your wardrobe, but that sums it up, yeah."

She narrowed her eyes and stared into the strangeness of his. "What else besides my wardrobe?"

"Your guns. The ones you didn't have with you, at least."

"I love you, Garrus Vakarian."

Turians lacked the lips to smile, but she knew what the equivalent looked like. "I was hoping you'd say that."

Chapter Text

The city was still under heavy construction, but an inspiration nonetheless. Shepard got her first view of it sooner than she expected. It would have been visible from the dragon's tooth if not for Rannoch's abundant and dramatic rock formations. As she followed Garrus around the nearest of these, she was greeted by the bright gleam of sunlight on metal, a silver jewel resting on the horizon.

The other thing said landscape had hidden from view was the hover car and the pair of large, matching trunks inside it. Sorting through their contents, Shepard almost felt like herself again. She'd have to get a new hardsuit, but nearly everything that hadn't gone with her into Synthesis was here.

Her senses weren't as overstimulated as they had been, but her skin still felt raw and sore when she pulled on her clothes. She griped mildly about it to Garrus.

"That's the Synthesis. It takes some getting used to." He hesitated then. "There, uh... are a few things I should probably warn you about."

She pulled a shirt over her head and grunted at the way it chafed. "You don't say."

Garrus offered her a pair of gloves. "Touching is... really interesting now. Touching people, that is. You'll want to put these on."

She accepted the gloves, but she eyed him suspiciously. "What do you mean exactly?"

Garrus waggled his own gloved fingers. "We, uh... We're kind of living circuit boards now. Connect the dots, and it's like hooking up computer hardware. Data gets sent both ways."

She blinked at him, then looked down at her own hands, still holding the gloves. "That sounds… interesting."

"Like I said."

Shepard pulled on the gloves. "What kind of data?"

Garrus ticked the list off on his fingers as he recited it. "Physical status, memories, emotions... Only the stuff on the surface, though. Mostly you don't see past what's at the front of someone's mind. Even that can be blocked, but it takes practice. Easier just to keep your gloves on."

"I'll keep that in mind." She locked up the trunk of clothes and moved on to the one full of weaponry. "Anything else I should know about?"

"Yeah," Garrus said. "Hacking and viruses are a lot more personal now."

"You know..." She hefted the M-8 Avenger and looked it over like a mother checking her child for scrapes. "Under the circumstances, that doesn't make me feel better."

"It's not as bad as being vaporized by Reapers. Or indoctrinated." He leaned on the side of the car and watched her with what looked indulgence. "Every planet's got specialists working on ways to keep people safe, and the Reapers are helping. It's funny to say, but we wouldn't have made so much progress without them."

Shepard put the Avenger and a pistol aside and left the rest of her armory in the box, though it was with reluctance that she closed the lid. "Well, we wanted peace... I hope that's really what it is."

He looked at her for a long moment, solemn. He didn't try to reassure her with words that she wouldn’t be able yet to put faith in. "Come on." He moved around the car and popped open the passenger side door for her. "Wait 'till you really see the city. Tali made me promise to let her give you the tour."

Shepard stashed her assault rifle under the seat and the pistol in the glove box before settling in. The mundane action almost made her feel normal, if only for a few seconds. The effect was thrown off by the glow of Garrus's eyes as he took the driver's seat and glanced her way before starting the car, but it had been something, at least. She could only hope it would get easier with time.

Coming back to life was a pain in the ass.

-

The view of the city grew only more dramatic as they neared. Part of that was due to the Reapers, though.

"Are they...?" Shepard couldn't quite put it into words.

"Doing construction work? Yeah."

She squinted at the black colossi floating over the city and tried very hard to ignore the instinctive tightness in her gut. "That's..."

"Crazy, I know."

It was a hard thing to look at. It probably always would be, but... "I was going to say hilarious."

Garrus clicked. "Yeah, it's that too, but don't say it to their faces. You'll hurt their feelings."

"Reapers have feelings?"

"They do now."

Shepard widened her eyes in a mockery of horror. "What have I done."

Garrus laughed.

-

Tali was very good at giving hugs.

She'd been waiting for them at the edge of the city. It must have been a pre-arranged meeting point, Shepard realized, since Garrus hadn't followed any road. He simply pulled over at the outskirt of the half-built civilization and got out of the car, only to be pounced on by the enthusiastic quarian before he could take more than two steps.

"Did it work? Are you alright? Is she here?!"

Shepard pushed open the car door and hauled herself out. "Hey, Tali." She was granted a little more time to brace for it than Garrus had been, but only because Tali couldn't seem to believe her eyes. She lurched off of Garrus and stood stock still for a beat, then staggered around the car and threw her arms around Shepard, breaking into sobs.

"You're alive! Keelah...I knew it would work, I knew it..." Anything else she meant to say was lost amidst tears and shaking gasps. The inside of her mask must have been a foggy mess.

Shepard patted Tali’s back and tried to breathe. "I missed you too. And I'm sorry for dying again." The ridiculousness of that statement did not escape her. "It wasn't in the plan."

"Don't be sorry, Shepard. You saved us! You stopped the war... And look!" Tali disengaged herself enough to point back at the city. "You made this possible! We wouldn't have this if not for you."

Shepard couldn't help but smile. Tali's unfettered joy was contagious. "I'm glad you're happy, Tali. I'm still trying to believe it's all real, to be honest."

The quarian bounced on her heels. "I know! It's been a year—two on Rannoch—but it still feels impossible! Our home back, the geth and the Reapers our allies... Oh!" She faltered, but lost none of her enthusiasm for it. "But you mean being alive, don't you? How do you feel? It must be such a shock..."

"I'm alright," Shepard assured her, and almost believed it herself. "It's a shock, yeah. I... There's a lot to take in."

Tali let her go, finally, but didn't go far. "So much has changed, you know. You changed the whole galaxy... I can't imagine what it's like to come back to. For what it's worth, we missed you. All of us did, but Garrus especially."

Shepard allowed herself to smile at that too, a little. "Yeah. I know. Thank you, Tali."

It helped. She hadn't realized how much it would help, seeing Tali, hearing her joy and excitement. Shepard still couldn't shake her doubts, but they didn't gnaw at her so constantly as they had at first. She was surprised to find that she was enjoying herself.

Tali put her hands on Shepard's arms and leaned in close to her. Her expression was hidden under her mask, as usual, but Shepard was used to reading her body language, interpreting the curiosity and concern in the gesture. "Do you need anything? Are you hungry, or...? This isn't exactly something we've done before, bringing someone back like this. How do you feel? I asked that already, didn't I?"

Shepard breathed deep and obligingly took stock of her own physical status. "I think I'm okay. I feel a little... weird, but Garrus says it's the Synthesis."

"Probably also the whole coming-back-to-life thing," Tali agreed. "Do you need to lie down? We can go back to my place. There's a guest room. I even have some food you can eat. We weren't sure if this would work, but... but we hoped. We really hoped. I'm so glad it did."

Shepard patted her on the arm, feeling a strong and sudden desire to offer comfort. Tali had been like a little sister to her. "Me too. I'd love to see your house." She wanted to see the whole city, but the thought of that tour was a little daunting. Tali's suggestion sounded better and better the longer she thought about it.

"Great!” said Tali. “It's not far. Mine was one of the first houses built." There was pride in her voice. "Not everyone was ready to move off the liveships right away, but I was."

Shepard chuckled. "I remember. did you get the view you wanted?"

"Oh, yes! Well, it's not really in the same place we talked about, but it doesn't matter. Rannoch is so beautiful. There are plenty of good views to go around."

Garrus leaned on the open car door. "Well, come on, ladies. What's that human saying? We're wasting sunlight?"

"Burning daylight," Shepard corrected. "You can have the front, Tali."

"Oh, no!" Tali protested. "It's your day, Shepard. You get front seat."

"Oh come on. I'd share the back with you, but the lockers are in the way." She waved a hand at her luggage. "You need to get one of these with more storage space, Garrus."

"It's Tali's car," he said defensively. "She's just letting me drive."

"Only because you don't fit in the back seat." Tali slid into the back before Shepard could keep arguing. "Go on, Shepard. Sit next to your boyfriend. He'll probably worry himself to death if you're not in his direct line of sight."

Chuckling, Shepard obeyed. "Won't he crash us if he's staring at me the whole time?"

"I'm right here, you know," muttered the boyfriend in question.

"It won't be any worse than riding with you in the Mako," Tali pointed out.

"Aw, come on. The Mako had armor. And better seatbelts than this." Shepard tugged at the safety belt to emphasize. "Nobody died."

"By some miracle..."

Shepard rolled her eyes and tried not to smile. "You guys only brought me back so you could make fun of me."

"Nooo, of course not!" Tali swung the tone of her voice up in an exaggerated lilt that suggested otherwise.

"It was also so you'd make us look good," added Garrus, easing the hover car forward. "We missed all the fame and attention."

"How could I ask for better friends..."

-

The quarian city did not follow the space-saving skyscraper style of most Citadel civilizations. It made sense, when Shepard thought about it. There weren't a lot of quarians to fill the space. Their buildings sprawled low to the ground instead, lining roads that curved in arcs and semicircles. From the high vantage at which they entered, the arrangement looked almost like the patterns on Tali's hood. Even unfinished, the city evoked a sense of revelry, arrayed like strings of silver beads over the wind-swept desert. It was a celebration of peace and homecoming. Even the sight of the Reapers couldn't diminish that.

She tried not to look at the Reapers regardless. Then she couldn't stop looking at them. They were like living megaliths over the city, moving slowly, wary of their size. There were four of them that she could see. One was firing its laser into the ground, cutting out a basement or a trench for pipelines, she surmised. Another was hovering over an undeveloped stretch of land, mapping, perhaps, or collaborating with city planners on how best to expand there. Two more were involved in heavy lifting, bringing up huge blocks of stone from a nearby quarry. Many of the finished buildings looked like they'd been pieced together from scrap metal. The stones would take longer to prepare, but they would make sturdier and more elegant structures. Shepard tried to imagine what the city would look like in another year or two, or ten, but found she couldn't. It was a brand new opportunity for the quarians. They could follow the traditions set by ancestors or they could forge their own. A three-hundred-year dream had become reality, and Tali's joy was only a hint of what that meant to her species.

Tali's house was well into the depths of the city, but with its sprawling design, there was plenty of open space to give her that view she had wanted. Shepard doubted it was coincidence that the house was built on the edge of a park with its own small, cerulean oasis. The walls were insulated metal like most of the houses she'd seen, but the foundation was of yellow stone. It was only one story, but it was larger than it looked, deceptive in its length and narrowness.

Tali was out of the car almost before it had stopped. She opened Shepard's door and would have helped her out if Shepard hadn't waved her off. It was a kind gesture, though, and Shepard gave her a pat on the shoulder as she stood up. "It looks good, Tali."

"It's better on the inside," Tali insisted. "Come on."

And she was right. It was better. The stark metal of the interior walls had been shrouded in hanging cloths, richly patterned. The furniture was plain but elegant, complimenting the wall hangings with simplicity where too much detail would have drowned them out. There were potted plants as well. Small, orb-like succulents sat in the windows. More delicate, leafy varieties took shelter in corners or on the wide counter dividing the kitchen from the main living space. There were a lot of plants. Shepard hadn't realized it was an interest of Tali’s.

She started to ask about it, but was silenced by the sight that greeted her. The tinted mask was in Tali’s hands and a face Shepard had seen only once before was looking back at her.

Tali smiled.

"No offense, Shepard," Garrus cut in before she could comment. He had picked a wall to lean on and stood there with his arms crossed. "But I like her house better than yours. This is much more defensible than that fancy Citadel apartment."

Shepard didn't bother to answer. She identified the most comfortable looking seat— a low sofa along the wall opposite Garrus— and slumped down, leaning her head back and letting her eyes close. She heard him shift as if he were about to come to her, but he didn't.

"There's a guest room if you're tired," said Tali attentively.

"No, that's alright." She forced her eyes open, but she didn't lift her head, staring instead at the corrugated ceiling. "I'm not sleepy. Just kinda feel like I'm made of jello. Like I've been running and fighting all day... Guess it's gonna take a while."

Tali left her mask on the counter and started poking around the kitchen. "I still think some food and sleep would help. Are you sure you're not hungry?"

"I don't know," Shepard answered quietly. "When I think about my stomach, I remember that dragon's tooth." She wrenched her head up and shot a hard look at Tali. "I cannot believe you two did that to me."

Tali looked dutifully apologetic. It was fascinating to see the facial expressions that coincided with her body language, the way she hunched in on herself and made her eyes go big. Tali, it turned out, was a master of the puppydog face. "I'm sorry. We tried to find other ways, honest. It's a lot harder to bring someone back when there's not even a body left..."

Shepard didn't have the will or the energy to be truly mad. She dropped her head back again and sighed. "I know. I'm grateful to both of you. It's just... a lot to take in."

Garrus shifted his weight again, uneasy. "If you need some time..."

She huffed. "Not alone. Don't you dare, Garrus. Just 'cause you're all green-eyed and glowy..."

Tali cleared her throat and seemed to be stifling a smile. "Perhaps I'm the one who should give you two some time alone."

"Food first," Shepard dictated, and sat up straight. "You're probably right. I just need to do normal things until I feel normal again." She still half-expected everything to go wrong, to be a Reaper trap, but she didn't want to spoil their mood. It was the first time she'd seen either of them without a threat to the galaxy weighing them down. She wanted desperately for it to last.

The food was decent for being the usual non-perishable stuff designed for interplanetary shipment. It was a soup mix which Tali prepared with well-filtered water. Shepard wasn't sure if the beef flavoring involved any actual meat products, but it tasted well enough.

For herself and Garrus, Tali fried strips of fresh fish, seasoned with the juice from one of her desert plants. It smelled... not in the least bit appetizing, but Shepard supposed the tang of it would be something like lemon to their palates.

Instead of making Shepard move, Tali had produced a pair of tiny tables and set them up in front of the couch, then shooed Garrus off of his spot on the wall and made him sit beside her. The pair shared a look of amusement at the accommodation. After she'd served them both their dishes and a glass of water each, she took a chair at the counter and watched them both with a smile she couldn't keep down.

Shepard raised an eyebrow over her bowl of soup. "Do you not have guests over for dinner very often?"

"Oh no, I do," Tali assured her. "But I've never had you over for dinner. It's... special."

"I promise I'm not the best dinner company on Rannoch," Shepard cautioned. "And neither is Garrus."

"Hey," he protested as she'd known he would. "You haven't been around. For all you know, I've mastered fine dining skills."

"He hasn't," Tali said bluntly. "If anything, he's been more of a loner than he used to be. I think he may have lost a few manners."

Shepard chuckled as Garrus visibly moped and said, "thanks, Tali. Just shoot me in the back. I thought we were in this together."

Tali's grin was enormous. "I'm only trying to help. You wouldn't want to give your girlfriend unrealistic expectations."

Garrus's subvocals buzzed. "Oh come on. Shepard knows what she's in for."

"You say that like I made bad choice," Shepard commented.

"Heheh, well, you know me..." Garrus paused to leer sideways at her, twitching his mandibles. "Self-depreciation I'm good at. Romance, not so much."

Shepard sipped her water. "Good thing I have a kink for mandibles and exoskeletons."

"I thought it was the scars you couldn't resist.” He leaned closer as he spoke.

"You two are welcome to take your dinners into the guest room if you need to," Tali suggested. "Really, I won't mind."

Grinning, Shepard shook her head and elbowed Garrus away. "From what you guys are telling me, I think we'll have time for that later."

"Ah, the leisures of being at peace." Garrus sounded like he was lamenting.

It made Shepard snort. "You're the one who likes to wait, Vakarian."

Tali blushed and stuffed fish in her mouth.

Chuckling, Garrus settled back, making himself comfortable but maintaining a respectable distance between them. "I think we'd better change the subject before we scare poor Tali out of the room."

"Scare me?" The words sputtered out around a mouthful of fish. Tali chewed quickly, swallowed, and continued with hardly a breath. "You're not going to scare me. Don't act like I'm some innocent child before her pilgrimage!"

"Okay, Tali," Shepard took advantage of the protest to redirect the teasing. "How's your love life going?"

Tali sniffed. "There have been offers... I am a very eligible bachelorette, I'll have you know." She looked down her nose at them, pretending haughtiness.

Garrus leaned forward and the glow of his eyes seemed to flash a little brighter. "Ooh, tell her about the one who..."

-

"This doesn't seem real," Tali sighed, eerily echoing Shepard's doubts. "Just having dinner like this. Together." The dinner in question was more or less finished and the conversation had begun to lag, but the sentiment rang true. "I was... When you died, Shepard, I was sad because you'd never see this. You'd never know how much you'd done for us."

Shepard put her spoon down in her empty bowl and tried not to focus on the thought of her friends mourning her. It was a discomfort she'd had cause to contemplate before, the images already there and quick to spring to mind. Her chest tightened. "I knew, Tali. I was here when you were planning it, remember?"

"I know, but still, it's not the same." Through the synthetic glow, Shepard could see the beginnings of tears in the quarian's eyes, but Tali was still talking. "To see how much has changed in such a short time, all thanks to you... It should have..."

"It wasn't just me," Shepard cut her off firmly. She wondered how many more times she would have to say it. "You did this too. And Garrus, and everyone else. I wouldn't have gotten far without you. Hell, you're the one who made the hunt for Saren possible. Don't put me on a pedestal unless you're up there with me."

Tali blushed. Shepard hadn't known that quarians could blush, but it seemed a very Tali thing to do. "I don't mean it like that. It's just that you fought so hard... I wanted you to see what you won."

Shepard sighed and picked up her glass of water. She had every intention of taking a drink, but her mind wandered off halfway there and all she did was hold the glass in her hands. "I get it. I didn't mean to argue with you. Have I already used up all my shots with the excuse that I'm still getting used to things, or can I throw that one out one more time?"

"Heheh." Tali's laughter was weak, but true. "It's fine. I understand. You knew you weren't coming back from that last mission, didn't you?"

The question stabbed at her. "I..." She glanced at Garrus, then back down at her glass of water. "I wanted to. Things just got... Didn't go as planned."

"Plans never make it past the first engagement," Tali recited solemnly.

"Yeah, pretty much."

A somber silence settled between them, a moment of reflection neither had wanted to take. Garrus was left to break them out of it.

"Well," he said loudly. "It's getting late." It was barely sunset. "You look like you're about to doze off, Shepard, and don't argue."

In all fairness, he was right. It might have been the food or simply the act of relaxing with people she trusted, but Shepard had felt her eyelids drooping halfway through the meal. Under other circumstances, she might have put up a fight anyway, but it had been an exceptionally rough day. "Yeah, yeah. Alright. So where's this guest room, Tali?"

"Oh." Tali slid off her chair and took the three strides necessary to stand in the narrow doorway across the room. "It's just down here. There's a shower room too, with an actual shower. I'll never be used to it."

"Does it have a toilet?" Shepard rose to follow. "I don't have a suit with an eezo filtration system, much as I might like one."

Tali feigned offense. "Yes, it has a toilet. Not all of my guests are quarian."

"I've been here for a while..." Garrus said this as if he were only half-listening. When Shepard looked back, he was standing beside the couch to scrutinize one of the wall hangings with more intensity than it probably deserved.

"He's a mooch," Tali translated.

Shepard snorted. "Oh, surely he made himself useful. Didn't you have anything to calibrate?"

"He brooded, mostly." She said it as if the person being talked about wasn't in the room. "And bothered the geth."

"You're so mean," Garrus whined.

Shepard laughed, but took pity on him, crossing back to where he stood. She meant to surprise him. It was supposed to be a simple, quick gesture. She popped up on her tiptoes , leaned forward before he could stop her, and kissed his scarred mandible. At first it wasn't clear to her what happened. There was a tingle on her lips and a surge of... something. Feeling. Identity. Thought... or awareness. It didn't belong to her.

Shepard pulled back, lips parted. Staring. "What... That was..."

Garrus exhaled slowly. "Synthesis. Yeah."

Shepard echoed his sigh as she felt her tension ease and unwind, felt her shoulders slump. It was hard to process what she'd experienced, but... it had not been unpleasant. "That's something to experiment with later."

Garrus's mandibles quivered. Tentatively, his gloved fingers stroked her hair. Once, twice. "I'll look forward to it. Now go to bed."

Shepard smiled. "Good night, Garrus."

Chapter Text


She had nightmares.

She knew what was happening. That was the worst of it. She knew she was dreaming, but she couldn't wake up. Bricks and metal beams fell around her, kicking up dust that clouded her eyes and clogged her throat. The metallic thunder of a Reaper's voice made her bones shake.

She wasn't here. This wasn't real, but it felt like it would kill her all the same. she should have been stronger than this. She knew what the problem was, so why wasn't she able to solve it? How could a dream defeat her when nothing else had?

The Reaper howled again and the building moved. The sound of a deep cracking and tearing matched the tremor under her feet. What was left of the ceiling shifted overhead and a few more pieces of it and the floor above came down. She pried at the wall of rubble that held her, to no avail. Dream or not, this wasn't how she wanted to go, trapped inside a building, useless to anyone. Saving the galaxy was a far-flung dream if she couldn't even save herself.

No.

She wasn't going to stand and let this happen. She’d kill herself trying to escape before she would take death by waiting around. She tried harder, throwing her weight against the mess of brick and metal, scrabbling loose one piece at a time. If she were awake, her fingers would have bled. The dream seemed to have forgotten that detail, so she counted her blessings. Invincible fingertips were better than nothing.


Bits and pieces fell away. She got her hands on a slab of wood, a panel of flooring, and wrenched the whole thing out. She could see light on the other side. A little more, and...

The building shook again, the noise deafening. She couldn't tell if it was an explosion or just something falling. Both, maybe. Had a Reaper landed on her?

She saw it as soon as she thought it, made aware by the laws of the dream despite being cut off and isolated in a windowless, broken room. The Reaper perched on the old London building like a dragonfly on a blade of grass, and like grass under a dragonfly's weight, the building swayed. It creaked and crumbled and Shepard huddled close to her wall of rubble as more fell in behind her. She heaved ineffectively at the tangled mass between herself and freedom. She pulled and shoved and thought seriously about punching. There was no time for precision. She needed out or she was going to die. She needed out, or everyone else was going to die.

She needed to wake up. This dream was stupid.

She got her hands on one end of a support beam, braced her feet, and threw her weight against it. The beam moved, plowing through bricks and dust. The barrier sagged and more came down on top of it, but there was light on the other side. If she used the beam...

She got her arm around it, pulled again. She could widen the angle, open a crawlspace around the beam while it held up the collapse overhead. She could get out, and then maybe this dream would let her go.

She had to put her head down, finally, and wedge her shoulder against the beam, use her whole body to shift it the last few inches. Dust rained down on her, along with chunks of plaster and crumbled brick. She closed her eyes, waited for something bigger to fall, but the dust settled and she was still alive.

Still dreaming.

She worked an arm through the hole, pressed at the side to see if it would widen. Not much happened, but she thought she had enough room. Barely.

The sound of the Reapers was distant. They hadn't moved on, but the air had thickened, blotting out what was beyond the walls of her prison and magnifying what was within. Showers of dust hit the floor like miniature avalanches, making her fear each one would be the last she heard. With more speed than caution, she squeezed her way into the ragged hole. The rule of tight spaces was that if you could get your head and shoulder in, the rest of you would fit... probably.

She was halfway through, able to tilt her head and see into the open space beyond. It was as much a shamble as the little corner she'd been trapped in, but there was a clear path to the exit, and that was enough to make it look like paradise. She just had to rotate her hips to get them past a sticking point...

That was when whatever had been braced atop the support beam broke and the pressure from above her became suddenly terrible. Her bones ached. They creaked like the broken building. She could barely draw a breath. When she released it, she couldn't take another. Her arm and her head were free, and she twisted and scrabbled and pulled, but nothing moved. She couldn't breathe! She tried to roll over, to relieve enough pressure, but even that was futile. The weight of the building held her down like the palm of a giant's hand. Black spots danced at the edge of her vision. The dream's version of pain wasn't bad, but it didn't need to be. Pain she could handle. Hopelessness was another thing. She didn't know how to be hopeless. As long as she was breathing, she had hope.

She couldn't breathe.

Something closed around her shoulder, shook her hard. She gasped. Drew air. Struggled—

— and opened her eyes.

Garrus was above her, looking fretful. It should have been too dark to make out even that much, but his eyes lit his face like lanterns. "You were shouting..."

Shepard blinked slowly, tried to regulate her breathing. Had she really been shouting? "Nightmare. Sorry I woke you."

"Don't be." He sat back, giving her space. "The couch wasn't that comfortable anyway."

She frowned and followed him up, letting the covers slide off her bare shoulders. "Garrus, you should have asked..."

"You needed time. And if we touch bare-skinned... Trust me, this Synthesis thing can be intense."

Shepard shook her head. His consideration was sweet, but... "How about you let me decide what I need?" Garrus looked wary, but he didn't stop her from leaning forward, coming up on her knees to kiss him. Her hand cupped his face, thumb tracing the upper edge of his mandible. The neural circuit lines flared on contact, but the flow of information was slow, at first. Deceptive. She felt his worry, his sympathy, his longing, but she'd already been able to read those on his face. If that was all this was, she could handle it.

She was overconfident.

She hadn't been thinking about what he would pick up from her side. It hadn't occurred to her that he would see her nightmare, or feel it, until the memory of it looped back around from him to her, amplified by his reaction. The shock of it sent her reeling back, shaken, heart in her throat. Garrus hadn't moved. He must have known what was coming, at least to some degree. He had tried to warn her.

The breath she drew came shuddering. Only an effort of will convinced her body to uncoil and relax. The N7 program trained for self-control. Required it, because panic on the battlefield was death. That didn't always make it easy.

"I'm sorry." She said the words too fast. "I'm sorry. It's not your fault."

But Garrus was already drawing away. "It's alright. I know. I'll just..." He swung a leg off the bed.

"Don't."

He hesitated... He listened.

"Don't go." She didn't move, but she pleaded with her eyes. She hoped he could see it through her own Synthesis glow. "I want you here. Stay with me."

He looked like he was seriously considering an argument, but whatever it was, he swallowed it down. Instead, he moved to sit beside her, put a hand on her back. Either he'd slept in his gloves or he had put them on before coming to wake her. "I... can't say I've gotten any better at this romance thing since you've been gone, but... do you want to talk about it?"

Shepard shook her head. Then she scooted up close to him and snuggled against his shoulder. Her short nightgown didn't cover much, but his clothing did. He wrapped his arms around her, and though his mandibles clicked rhythmically, he was careful not to let them touch her head.

Despite her refusal a moment ago, she did talk. Words piled up on her tongue until it was a greater relief to let them out than not. "I want this to be alright, Garrus, but I'm scared. It's too easy. It's too good to be true. All of this... How is it real?"

"What else would it be?"

"A trap?"

"You think the Reapers lied to you?"

"I don't know." She pressed her face into his shirt, ignoring the hardness of the bony plates beneath. "I was going to destroy them. I should have destroyed them. That was... I think... Synthesis is what Saren wanted. Is this any better than if he'd won?"

"We're not indoctrinated," he said firmly.

It didn't reassure her. "How do you know?"

"We're not." He ran his fingers through her hair, once, then pushed her gently off of him. Hands on her shoulders, he coaxed her to lie down, stretching himself out beside her. There was half an arm's length between them, space he had measured carefully, but she curled on her side and shortened it.

Garrus shook his head at her persistence and sat up again to haul the covers over them both. "We'll figure it out. Go back to sleep."

It was not an easy request, but with his gloved fingers hooked loosely in hers, she managed.

-

Garrus was gone when she woke up. The empty bed gave her a pang of longing, but it was nothing new. Turians didn't sleep as much as humans. Waking up with him had always been a rare treat. It was something to be savored, but not expected.

She dressed slowly, distracted by the shimmer of her skin, remembering the shock when she and Garrus touched. It had felt like someone else was pressing in on her mind, overwhelming her. Crushing her. She was sure he hadn't meant it. She was sure, also, that it wasn't supposed to be like that. He'd said it was intense, but what she'd experienced had been nightmarish.

It was unnerving, and more than that, it was frustrating. She needed to be stronger. If everyone else was handling it well, then so could she. She'd created this. She just needed to get her bearings.

Tali was already up when Shepard stepped out of the guest room. The quarian's mask was still off— or off again— and a smile seemed permanently fixed on her face. "Good morning, Shepard. Did you sleep well?"

"Ehh." Shepard scrunched up her face. "Not so great. I mean, the room was fine," she added, mindful not to insult her host, though Tali would have been forgiving. "I've just... you know. Head's all over the place."

"I see." Tali said it patiently, as if it wasn't the answer to her question. "And Garrus?"

Oh, so that's what she was getting at. Shepard played innocent. "What about Garrus?"

"Did he sleep well?"

She combed her fingers through her hair, weary, but she forced a smile. "You know, you don't have to look out for us, Tali. We'll manage."

Tali sighed, defeated in her game. "I know that. It's just that Garrus... he's a good friend, and I was really worried about him while you were gone. You know how he gets."

"Yeah, I know." She thought about how she'd found him after Cerberus brought her back. Archangel. Three days without sleep, holding out against impossible odds, fueled only by sheer stubbornness and fury at the loss of his team. How much further had he gone this time? "I'll take care of him." Reaper trap or not, he deserved that much.

"Of course you will, Shepard," Tali conceded. "I just worry. I can't help it. I'm sorry for prying.” She sounded more and more contrite as she went on. "It's none of my business anyway."

Shepard touched her arm, stopping her retreat. "No, it's fine. Really, Tali. I'm glad he's got a friend." Something else occurred to her and she felt the corners of her mouth turn upward wryly. "So if I weren't in the picture, you think you and Garrus would...?"

Tali's eyes widened. "What? No! O-of course not. He's... I mean, you're..."

Shepard bared her teeth in a grin and patted Tali's arm. "Relax. I'm not jealous. Really, I'm just curious. What do you think of him?"

"He's..." Tali was blushing and fidgeting, dropping her pretenses completely. "He's very charming, but he thinks he's not. It's sweet."

"It makes me sad sometimes," Shepard confessed, moving away to sit at the counter. "He used to be so confident."

"Pshh," Tali declared. "He was cocky. He grew out of it. It hurt him, but I think it was good for him, also."

"Heh. You're probably right." Shepard watched her glide into the kitchen, setting water on the stove to heat and mixing loose-leafed tea.

"And the way he talks now is sooo sexy," Tali went on, making Shepard grin. "Turians all have pretty voices, but Garrus speaks with that whispery tone. It always sounds very... personal." She was blushing hard now and avoiding eye contact.

"Well gosh, Tali. If I kick off again and you guys can't bring me back, you gotta take up the slack. We can't leave Archangel alone with himself. Who knows what he'd do."

Tali laughed nervously. "Oh. Well... Let's just try to keep you alive this time." She took a second mug from the shelf and gestured with it. "Tea? I have levo. Thought I should get some in case you didn't feel well after... you know. Being dead."

"Figured some peppermint might soothe my stomach after you and Garrus ran me through?" Shepard asked, blunt.

"Basically." Tali's smile wavered.

"Sounds great." She turned the answer sincere, afraid that Tali was taking her teasing too seriously. "I'd love some."

It was reassurance enough for Tali. She made the separate cup of tea and then pulled a few other things out of her levo food stash. Looking them over, Shepard chose a pack of something that resembled oatmeal. She meant to cook it herself, but Tali shooed her off with a glower that was nearly maternal. Shepard gave in, if only out of amusement.

"So..." She rested her chin on her hands, watching steam rise from the electric cooking pot. "How did you get caught up in Garrus' crazy plan?"

"Do you mean bringing you back?" She stirred the pot and didn't wait for an answer. "Someone sent me a message, saying a friend needed help and I'd be useful. Someone who is very good at keeping tabs on people."

"Ah. So Liara had her hands in it again."

Tali chuckled. "Only a little."

It was strange to feel nostalgic for people who, in her own memory, she'd spoken to only a day ago. It was strange to think over a year had passed for them, and to wonder how much they had moved on.

Tali seemed to be thinking along the same lines, or near enough. "You haven't asked where Garrus is."

Glancing behind her was automatic. She knew he wasn't there, but her body needed to confirm it. "Yeah, I was kinda figuring he'd show up. So where is he?"

Tali looked pleased with herself. "He went to ask about rides. He thinks you'll want to go to Citadel."

"Does he now." Shepard's mouth twisted in a smirk. "Why would he think that?"

Tali stirred the grains, then poked at them suspiciously with her ladle. "Probably because it's the easiest way to get in touch with everyone. Does this look right to you?"

Shepard came over to examine her breakfast. "Almost. Cook it 'till the water's all soaked in. Why can't I get in touch with everyone from here?"

Tali stirred the oats more while squinting at them closely. "We could try sending some messages, but our friends our pretty scattered. If you go to the Council, they could reinstate your Spectre status and you'd have easier access. Also, I hear the Normandy answers directly to the Alliance these days. I suppose you could just go to Earth."

Shepard's chest ached, and at the same time she felt a weight lift from her shoulders. "The Normandy, huh? It'd be nice to see it again." She wondered who was giving the orders now, but she couldn't bring herself to ask. It was hard to imagine being assigned to any other ship. "I'm guessing you don't plan on coming with us?"

"If you find a new threat to the galaxy and need my help, I'll be happy to fly with you again. But otherwise, well..." She spread her arms, indicating the house around them and the planet beyond.

"But otherwise," Shepard finished, "you've got a home here, like you wanted. No point uprooting again."

Tali's smile was heartfelt. It was almost possible not to notice the eerie glow of her eyes. "Exactly. Thank you for understanding."

"Hey, no problem. I know what it's like wanting to go home."

Tali made a sound of amusement. "I'll bet you do. I think this is ready now."

-

When Garrus came back, they'd moved outside, where Tali was enthusiastically describing the duel governments that were being established between the quarians and the geth. Shepard had noticed an absence of the AIs during their drive through the city. As it turned out, they were building their own. To avoid one people dominating the other, they would govern themselves. Tali rattled off the precautionary treaties designed to prevent future war. Even after Synthesis, there were quarians who would have preferred to keep Rannoch for themselves. The long history of enmity had left its mark, but still, the overarching feeling in the air was optimism. In three hundred years, no one had predicted it would end this well.

Tali looked and sounded as if she had been living in a permanent state of elation. Shepard wanted to feel it too, but there was still the nagging sense that it had been too easy. It was a ridiculous choice of words, she knew. When had it ever been easy? Yet after everything she'd lived through and died for, peace was a tough concept to grasp.

Garrus joined them as Tali was musing dreamily about the prospect of future fleet developments combining quarian and geth technology. Shepard was glad for the interruption, much as she enjoyed seeing Tali this way. The technical jargon was flying light-years over her head.

"I've got a quarian freighter ready to leave for Citadel as soon as you are," he announced proudly. "The captain is ecstatic at the chance to bring the famous Commander Shepard home. He says he'll wait if you're not ready to leave yet."

Shepard looked at Tali, memorizing the face she was still not used to seeing. "Tali... It's been great seeing you, but I shouldn't keep everyone else waiting." And she wanted to see the rest of the galaxy for herself. She needed to see what she’d done to it. She needed to see what Synthesis really meant.

"No, I understand," Tali assured her. "The others would kill me if I held you up and they didn't even know you were alive. Oh..." She looked suddenly nervous. "I... You should know, I sent a message to Liara. Well, she knew what Garrus and I were doing, so... I told her it was a success. I don't know what she'll do with that information. She might leave it up to you to tell everyone. I don't know. I hope you don't mind..."

Shepard smiled in an effort to ease her worry. "It's fine. She should know. Thanks, Tali."

"You're... You're welcome, Shepard."

Shepard hugged her then, but Tali didn't let it last. "This isn't goodbye yet. I'm driving you to your ship. You're not going to make me walk from here to the dock to get my car back."

Despite this complaint, the space dock wasn't far. There were, in fact, docks at three corners of the city. Each one, Tali explained, was spacious and well-kept, and still they were always crowded. The quarians had relied on their ships for generations. It was the only lifestyle they knew, and a hard habit to break.

To Shepard, the crowd didn't seem any worse than a busy day at Citadel. Most of the activity appeared to involve bringing in materials and supplies for the fast-growing city. Though the bustle was harried and loud, there was an overall sense of gung-ho motivation. The quarians were fulfilling a dream. She couldn't begrudge them a little noise and mess.

"I hope you don't feel rushed," said Tali, perhaps following a similar train of thought. "I know you barely got a chance to rest."

"Hey," Shepard assured her, "at least you guys didn't make me fight right after bringing me back to life, like Miranda did. That's another point for the Tali-Garrus team."

"And we never once considered putting a control chip in your head," Garrus pointed out smugly.

"Right. Three points, then."

"Are we going to tell Miranda?" Tali wondered.

Garrus brought the hover car to a stop across from a brightly painted ship of Alliance make. "Nah. Let's be gracious winners."

"I thought you liked to brag, Garrus."

"Sure," he said serenely. "But there are times to brag and times not to. Don't worry. If the opportune moment arises, I won't hesitate."

Shepard got out of the car. "Alright, you two. Is this the ship?"

A quarian was approaching them as if he had been waiting. His red and gray suit matched the colors of the ship behind him. Rather than answering her question, Garrus turned to face the newcomer.

"Commander Shepard!" the quarian said before anyone else could speak, hands spread wide in greeting. "Pardon my directness. I've seen your picture." He clasped her hand. His own were sealed in his suit, but the touch still startled her— another reminder that she needed to get over her twitchiness. "I'm Rai'Ferah vas Arkady," he went on, unperturbed. "I'm told you have need of my ship."

Chapter Text


The Arkady wasn't a passenger ship, but its hallways were uncluttered and their designated quarters were generous for the vessel's size. Shepard suspected special treatment, but she wasn't about to complain. Rai'Ferah kept a minimal crew as it was, and she meant to compensate him well for the ride once she had access to her account again.

Tali made sure they were comfortable and that everything was in order, though their host had already done a fine job himself. Shepard could see right through her, but didn't comment. Goodbyes were hard.

At last there was nothing left for it. Shepard followed Tali back to the open cargo hatch and stopped there. Tali turned to face her, but seemed at a loss for words.

Shepard helped her out. "Thanks again. For everything."

"Of course, Shepard. I... You're welcome. Any time."

Smiling at the heartfelt quiver in Tali's voice, Shepard pulled her into a hug. "Good luck with the city. I'll be in touch."

"You better," Tali warned. "And take care of yourself. Who knows what Garrus would do if anything happened to you again."

Shepard let her go with a pat on the shoulder. "I will. And I'll try to keep him out of trouble."

"I'm more worried about him keeping you out of trouble." Tali had her mask back on, but Shepard could hear the smile in her voice. "Goodbye, Commander."

"Bye, Tali."

Garrus was waiting for her outside their private quarters. "Ready to head home?"

She answered with a small, wry smile. "I'm not sure I know where home is." She let him put an arm around her then and leaned into the half-embrace. "Glad to be back, though."

-

The crew kept busy, but they were talkative. Quarians were a social folk and, in this instance, Shepard appreciated that. It helped to talk to strangers. It forced her to work around the unsettled, disconnected feeling that still lingered at the back of her mind. More importantly, it gave her a broader feel for the galaxy's reaction to Synthesis.

"... And here we all thought we'd get to ditch the suits." Two mechanics, a man and a woman, were talking loudly while poking at the wires behind a wall panel together.

"Yeah, not likely."

"Wasn't it your sister going on and on about the benefits of Synthesis?"

"When has my sister ever talked sense? Keelah..." The speaker waved a hand in the air expressively. "She can say what she wants. I'm not letting anyone get inside my head."

"Did you hear about that krogan who got hacked on Illium?"

"No..." She paused to do something dexterous with a trio of wires. "What happened?"

"He had his memory messed up," said her assistant. "Thought he was back in the krogan rebellion. I hear he killed dozens before he was gunned down."

The female mechanic was shaking her head. "You know what's scary about it? It's not just that someone else might get hacked and kill you. It's that you might get hacked and do something terrible, and be killed for it when it was never your choice to begin with."

In the silence after this statement, one of them noticed that Shepard was loitering nearby and asked her politely if she needed anything. She made up some excuse about looking for an observation deck.

"Hah. We're not a luxury cruiser. The captain will probably let you hang out on the bridge a while, if that works. He's a big fan." Nothing in their behavior seemed scornful, despite their shared mistrust of Synthesis. Either they didn't blame her, or they were very good at pretending not to. Or maybe— though Shepard doubted it— her choice in the fate of the universe had not become universal knowledge.

The bridge, like the rest of the ship, was nothing fancy, but she could see the stars. A high set of windows arched over a viewscreen displaying the galaxy map. Captain Rai'Ferah was engrossed in a datapad, his back to her, but at the sound of the door, he spun his chair around to greet her. She couldn't see the smile through his mask, but it was plain as day in his tone of voice and body language.

"Commander Shepard! I'm glad you came up. I know the Arkady's not much, but I hope you're comfortable enough."

"It's a fine ship, Captain," she assured him. "You keep her in good shape."

"She's home," he said by way of explanation.

Shepard came forward to study the map. "Not Rannoch?"

"I'm as happy as the next quarian to have Rannoch back, but I'm not one to tie myself to a rock. It doesn't suit me." He spoke with cheery confidence, proud of his own self-analysis. It also sounded a bit like he was trying to impress her, but she could forgive him for that. "So where's your ship, Commander? It's hard to think of Shepard without the Normandy."

She hadn't expected the question, but she should have. To think about it gave her a pang of longing. She would feel better standing on the Normandy no matter what shape the rest of the galaxy was in. "That's what I'm hoping to find out, Captain." It hit her then, for the first time, that the SR2 might not be hers anymore. It was a good ship and she'd been gone a long time. It wouldn't be fair to leave it without a captain, or to expect whoever was currently in charge to hand it back. Her heart sank, but she kept her doubts to herself.

-

The Arkady was nowhere as fast as either Normandy had been and the long trip made her antsy. It was harder than she had thought it would be to serve as a useless passenger on someone else's vessel. It was hard to stay out of the way and not to impose, despite Rai'Ferah's insistence that she make herself at home. When she slept, she slept fitfully, often waking from dreams too jumbled to make sense of. The first time it happened, Garrus sat beside her pallet and stroked her hair until she was able to doze off again. The next time, he simply went to bed with her, though both stayed clothed. She would remember later that every time a dream turned sour, it would be drowned out by soft green light.

The days on the Arkady passed as slowly as the nights, and there were several of them. For all of Rai-Ferah's hospitality, his was a cargo ship and he had other jobs to do. While Citadel was their proclaimed destination, they made three stops beforehand, the longest being at Illium. It was the only stop during which Garrus and Shepard took advantage of their shore leave.

The novelty of it lasted barely beyond the docks, however, as Shepard was still recovering and found it hard to concentrate in all the noise and crowd. She meant to buy a fitted hardsuit—or have Garrus buy one for her— and though she felt edgy and unguarded in the open and nearly convinced herself to go back and rely on the the Arkady’s one-size-fits-all suits emergency suits, she was determined to see the task through. It then took over an hour to find a store selling equipment of the appropriate quality and to have the adjustments made for fit. The suit was altogether the wrong color— red and yellow and ugly— but she’d have it repainted later.

Garrus was a constant source of company and comfort on and off the ship, offering conversation when she wanted it and only occasionally when she didn't. The journey, for all its tedium, would have been several times harder to bear without him.

-

From a distance, Citadel was bright and bustling as ever. It was only as they sailed into harbor that Shepard was able to make out the signs of damage, swaths of stillness and darkness that cut through the wards and dug a hole in her gut. There were Reapers here too, but Shepard tried not to look at them. Her instincts still told her to flee or to fight.

Rai'Ferah gave them a gracious and enthusiastic sending off, shaking hands and thanking them for the honor of their company. It might even have been genuine, and not solely inspired by the generous payment Garrus and Tali had arranged.

Stepping out onto the docks, Shepard felt as if she'd never been gone. Rai'Ferah had, with her permission, asked space traffic control to announce her arrival to the Council. Heading straight to them seemed like the most efficient way to get herself off the list of the dead. There was some appeal to being officially deceased, according to Garrus, but the idea didn't suit her. She had never been much for subtlety.

It wasn't that she'd let her guard down, though it would have been easy to do so as she walked the pale halls with Garrus at her heel. It was only that she expected to encounter the familiar, with the addition of circuit-wired skin and glowing eyes. Her guard wasn't down. It was simply tuned to the threats she thought most likely on Citadel.

The banshee caught her completely by surprise.

"Can I help you with your luggage?"

The words didn't register immediately, and when they did, she thought she was hearing things. The gaunt, corpse-like banshee stared down the barrel of Shepard's gun unflinching. She didn't lunge nor light up with biotics, but Shepard held her ground until Garrus stepped in and put a hand on her gun.

"Shepard, it's alright." He spoke softly, warily, with a subvocal rumble she could feel through her skin. "They're like the Reapers. They're allies now."

It was strange to meet the eyes of a banshee and find intelligence. On some deep, basal level, it was wrong. Shepard couldn't bring herself to lower her gun.

"I am sorry if I frightened you." The creature's voice was low and hoarse, but her tone was cultured, polite, patient but not subservient. There was an asari's mind beneath the monster.

Garrus, with great care, took the gun from Shepard's hands.

Shepard dropped her battle stance, but kept her eyes trained on the threat. "Would've liked a warning about this," she muttered.

"Yeah... My bad." Garrus spoke up to address the banshee. "I'm sorry about this. She's been... out of the world for a while. Probably hasn't seen one of you guys since the war. You know how it is for old soldiers. Habits are hard to break."

"I understand." The dockworker bowed her ravaged head. "I should have been more careful. I can find someone else to assist you if you prefer."

"That isn't necessary." Garrus put himself between Shepard and the banshee, pulling the trunks behind him. "I need these delivered to the Silversun Strip. I'll give you the apartment number..." While he arranged things with the dock worker, Shepard tried to process this new alteration to her world view. Garrus waited until the banshee had biotically levitated the luggage and floated it out of sight, presumably to a waiting baggage truck. Then he turned to face Shepard. "I am sorry. I should have said something sooner. Are you going to be alright with this?"

She didn't know the answer to that. "Are there many more like her?"

"Some." Garrus took her arm and started walking her onward along the dock. "There were... In the beginning, there were mass suicides. They all remembered who they were after the Crucible activated. Most of them couldn't live with that. Some are still trying. It's not easy for them."

"I did that." It hit her like a bullet to the chest. She stopped walking.

Garrus wasn't one to make a public scene— surprise tangos aside— but he faced her then and put his hands on her shoulders, leaning in until their foreheads almost touched. "Shepard, if not for you, they'd all be dead. It's because of you they have a chance at all. That asari owes you her life." He stayed like that a moment, as if he were going to kiss her. She didn't think she would have minded if he did, but he let her go and stepped back instead. He was being careful to avoid all but the briefest of bare-skinned touches. "Do you still think you can handle the Council, or do you want to stop at the apartment first? It's... had some repairs, but I tried to keep most of it the way you left it."

She was surprised he'd kept it at all, or that enough of it still stood to repair, for that matter, but the apartment could wait. "I'll manage." She forced herself to say it. "Let's get this over with."

-

Despite having been at the center of the blast that reshaped the galaxy, the Presidium was as pristine as ever. There were signs of repair in the form of building fronts and bridges that did not look the way she remembered them, but if not for her memory, she could have believed they’d been that way all along. The familiarity was a comfort, but she wasn’t sure how to feel about the wealthiest district undergoing such thorough repairs while the more heavily populated Wards still wore their scars. She could understand an argument for symbolism, perhaps— for the seat of galactic government needing to look strong in the aftermath of such change— but it still rubbed her the wrong way.

There was a large krogan loitering outside the elevator to the Citadel Tower. Shepard knew him before he turned around.

"Wrex!" She made it within three paces of him and then halted, her view obscured by the barrel of a heavy gun.

"What is this?" The krogan's voice wasn't laced with suspicion. It was marinated in it. "Another clone?"

Garrus stepped forward, moving smoothly, avoiding sharp gestures, the same as he had done for Shepard and the banshee. He put a hand on the gun to push the barrel away, and somehow he made even that look tactful. "I can assure you, Wrex, she's the real thing."

Wrex glowered. It wasn't made any less intimidating by the fact that his eyes looked like Christmas lights now. "How would you know, turian? The whole galaxy knows how lovesick you've been. She could be playing you for a fool!"

"Wrex..." Shepard spread her arms disarmingly. "It's me. How can I prove that to you?"

Wrex 'hmphed' and holstered his gun, then pulled off one armored glove and thrust his bare hand forward. Shepard stared at it a moment before she realized his intent. Count on Wrex to be direct, at least. Gingerly, she pressed her palm to his and the Synthesis synapses flared.

When she touched Garrus, she felt what he felt. With Wrex, she saw through his mind's eye. She saw the red rubble of Tuchanka, and beyond it, pyramids rising. Great stone blocks were being hauled into place by helpful reapers. Teams of krogan, tiny in the distance, swarmed around the base with tools instead of weapons. She saw Bakara in her hood and veil, and at her feet, she saw children. She felt pride enough to fill two hearts. She felt a blood-bright krogan joy.

Shepard didn't know what kind of mental vids she'd sent in turn, but when Wrex stepped back, his demeanor had transformed.

'Shepard!" He said her name like a victory cheer. "How many times you planning to come back from the dead?! Don't you know it ruins a good war story when the martyred hero shows up to dinner? What will the kids think?"

Shepard was grinning from ear to ear. She couldn't help herself. "Is that an invitation to dinner, Wrex?"

"Shepard," he proclaimed. "You're always welcome to dinner. I'll even let you bring the turian!"

"My thanks." Garrus said it tersely, but there was humor under the words.

"Aahhh, so tell me, how did you do it this time?" Wrex turned and stepped alongside her, putting himself in reach to give her a solid thump on the back. "Better not've been Cerberus again!"

"Not Cerberus," she assured him when she'd had time to get her breath back. "The Reapers helped, apparently. And the geth."

"Reapers?" Wrex rumbled. "Well, I can't say they haven't been useful since you turned 'em. Next time, though, get yourself brought back by something I won't feel weird saying thanks to."

"Kinda hoping there isn't a next time," Shepard confessed, rubbing her back where he'd hit her. There was going to be a bruise.

Wrex just laughed. "It's good to see you, Shepard."

"Aw," Garrus intoned sardonically. "The krogan has feelings."

"You'll be feeling a lot more if you keep talking, turian." Wrex bared his teeth and beat a fist into his palm. "And it won't be sweet and cuddly."

Shepard, smirking, stepped between them and raised her hands. "Alright boys, it's nice to see you getting along, but we've got places to be."

"Where you going, Shep?" Wrex wanted to know.

"To the Council. Figure we should let them know I'm back."

"Again," Garrus added.

"That's where I'm going too!" Wrex cheered. "Stick with me, Shepard. I'll keep those softies in line."

Shepard shrugged and only tried a little to hide just how terribly glad she was. "Works for me."

-

The Council stood stoic, all eyes on Shepard as she made her approach. Neither a scar-faced vigilante turian nor the lord of Urdnot clan warranted as much concern as a twice-dead Spectre, it seemed. The Council said nothing even as she took her place before them. It was left up to Shepard to make the first move.

"I'm here to tell you that... I'm alive." It was just plain awkward when she said it out loud. What was she doing but stating the obvious? "What you do with that information is up to you."

"What do you want us to do with it?" The turian representative was the first to speak, quick and to the point as ever.

Shepard opened her hands, palms upward, feeling at a bit of a loss. "Whatever you deem fit. I can go back on duty if you want— if you have a place for me. If not, I'll make my own way. I wanted to make this official, that's all."

"A testament to your sense of responsibility," said the asari councilor. "But can you prove that you are who you claim to be?"

Behind her, Wrex and Garrus bristled like guard dogs. Shepard kept her tone casual, hoping to diffuse their aggression. "I thought the security scans were pretty accurate." She gestured behind her. "Last time I died, that was enough to convince C-Sec. If you've got something else in mind, though, I'll hear you out." She considered offering to link with one of them as she had with Wrex, but she wasn't yet sure what the Council's thoughts on Synthesis were. If hacking was as common as the rumor mill made it out to be— and if the Council truly did doubt her identity— she might give them the wrong impression.

"We're very glad to have you back, if you are Commander Shepard..." This was the human representative. Shepard didn't know the woman and seeing someone other than Anderson in that spot was a sharp and unexpected blow. She'd been doing her best not to dwell on the events at the Crucible, or to think of them at all, really. "There are, however," the woman continued. "Records of an incident involving a clone, right here on Citadel. Your own report claims that she attempted to steal your identity. Is this correct?"

Shepard scowled. That wasn't a pleasant memory either. "She did. She changed my security data and tried to have me killed. I did get my handprint changed back, if you want to check that." She didn't expect it to be quite that easy, but she could hope.

"We will want your handprint," the asari agreed. "We will also have someone scan you with Synthesis, if you'll agree to it. If not, I can't guarantee that we'll be able to confirm your identity to the Council's satisfaction."

"That's fine. I agree." Shepard answered hastily, before she could start to doubt. She had nothing to hide, but it was a relief that the Council was considerate enough to ask permission before poking around in her head. Whatever changes her choice on the Crucible had wrought, at least it wasn't being taken lightly.

"We can, at least, arrange for a specialist whom you might feel more comfortable with," said the human councilor. "Kasumi Goto is..."

"Kasumi Goto," interrupted the salarian, "is a former ally of Commander Shepard's and may therefor be willing to lie for her or be swayed by the words of a fake. I'm sorry, but I must recommend someone else."

"You are right," the human conceded without a fight. "My apologies, Commander. It will have to be someone you've had no known influence over."

"I understand." Shepard was trying to wrap her head around the idea of Kasumi working for the Council, but trivialities of that sort would have to wait. "I'll submit to this test whenever you can arrange it." The sooner the better, she didn't say.

"Report to C-Sec headquaters," the salarian instructed. "We'll send a message ahead so they know to expect you."

"Do you have any other business with the Council?" The asari asked.

"Not me," said Shepard. "But I found Urdnot Wrex here waiting outside. Said he had a meeting. Think you can slip him in now, seeing as he's already here?"

The asari councilor sighed and looked put-upon, but she didn't argue. Shepard decided it was a good sign that they weren't so tightly scheduled they couldn't make room for walk-ins. "I suppose that can be managed. Well, Urdnot Wrex? Is this about another territory dispute?"

Wrex lumbered forward. "Uhh, yes, but just a moment, Councilor." He turned to face Shepard. "This is gonna take a while. No need for you to wait around and get bored, so..." He clasped her hand. Even with gloves to block a Synthesis bond, the gesture touched her heart. "Good seeing you, Shepard. Send me a letter or something." He interrupted himself with a low laugh. "Better yet, send Bakara one. I'm no good at letters."

Shepard shook his hand firmly. "I'll do that, Wrex. It was good seeing you too."

"… And don't forget," he bellowed the last as she and Garrus descended the steps. "You still gotta come meet the kids!"

-

The turian at the counter of the C-Sec office was indeed expecting her, but she was still asked to wait.

"Synth-tests are usually planned a little further in advance," he said by way of apology. "There aren't a lot of Synthesis experts, and they're spread pretty thin."

"You do have someone here, though?" Garrus asked.

"Yes, but he was stationed at another office. He's on his way here now."

Garrus picked up a magazine and flipped through it until he found an ad for a rifle. Shepard sat down in one of the plush, black-upholstered waiting chairs and pulled at a hole in her glove. That got boring fast, so she stood back up and returned to the counter. "How's C-Sec handling the whole Synthesis thing?"

The officer laughed. "The same way everyone else is, I guess. We're still learning. We just try to keep people safe and out of trouble."

She'd only been looking for a friendly chat, but now it seemed like a good opportunity for information gathering. "Do people really get hacked like everyone's saying?"

"It happens." He paused to check something on a holographic monitor. "... Probably not as much as people think, and it's usually fixable."

"What happens if you get hacked? What are the effects?"

He studied her in silence for a moment, as if searching for a motive. Then he went back to skimming whatever was on his monitor while he talked. "Different things. It can mess with your memory or interfere with muscle function. Those are the two most common hacks we see."

That sounded unpleasant and she said so.

'Yeah." He didn't seem to share her concern. "Thing is, most people who try it don't know what they're doing. They might make you forget what you did the day before, or make your legs go numb, but it's hard to do much worse than that. Most people can defend against it, even without training. It takes an expert to do any real damage."

"And fourteen months isn't a lot of time to become an expert," she surmised.

"Exactly."

"What about Kasumi?" Garrus chimed in without looking up from his magazine.

"Kasumi Goto?" The officer brightened and looked up from his monitor. "She's the best." He cleared his throat self-consciously. "Well, the best we've got. She can slip into another person's head as easy as putting on a glove. She can fix you up, too, if you've been hacked. Knows just what to look for and how to put it right. You'd think she was an AI herself." He'd gotten a dreamy sort of look on his face.

"She did have a thing with that greybox," Garrus mused. Shepard was thinking along the same lines.

"So..." She leaned conspiratorially over the counter. "You asked her out for coffee yet?"

The officer went a little wide-eyed and twitched his mandibles. "Uh... no... Seriously? You think she'd go for it? I mean, she doesn't just like humans?"

Shepard shrugged. "I can't promise anything. She likes humans, but I've never heard her say anything against turians. You guys aren't so bad." She grinned and gestured over her shoulder at Garrus. "... Once you figure out the kissing."

Garrus coughed and acted like he wasn't listening.

The officer looked from her to Garrus and back, but then he drooped. "Yeah, but she's way out of my league."

Shepard pushed off the counter and turned away, glancing back to tell him, "the worst she'll do is say no." With that, she sauntered back to her chair, giving Garrus a quick peck on the mandible as she passed. The officer didn't say anything else, but he didn't look like he was focusing on his work either.

The specialist, when he arrived, turned out to be an elcor. He wore no more clothes than she'd seen on any others of his kind, which perhaps was a clue of his confidence with Synthesis. Either that or it was simple elcor stubbornness.

"With intrigue," he intoned in his monotonous voice. "Is Commander Shepard here?"

Shepard stood back up. "That's me."

The elcor looked at her blandly. "Politely: Come with me."

Leaving Garrus behind, she followed the lumbering steps of the elcor into a hallway behind the front office, and from there into a small, windowless room. It was bare except for two metal chairs and a table in a classic interrogation set up.

"Please sit."

Shepard took the chair on the far side and wondered how the bulky quadruped would handle the furniture arrangement. He solved that puzzle by gently pushing the other chair out of the way and standing in its place.

"Patiently: Remove your gloves." When she'd done this, he lifted a heavy forelimb onto the table between them. It creaked under the weight. "Place both of your hands on mine," he instructed.

The Synthesis channels lit up even before they touched, sending a visible arc of energy between them. She would have asked about it, but he was already delving into her head and the sensation was stranger even than when Liara had done it. What few brief touches she'd shared with Garrus could never have prepared her for this. Neither she nor Garrus had been trying intentionally to dig into each other's thoughts, but the elcor did that and more. Shepard could feel him raking the avenues of her mind, pushing through every line of her newly acquired circuitry. It didn't hurt, but it was intrusive and strange. She fought the urge to squirm and pull away. It was no wonder the Council had asked her permission first, even under the assumption that she was up to no good. She wasn't sure if she would agree to this so easily a second time.

The probing went on too long, on until her vision blurred, on until it was hard to remember to breathe. When it was over, she felt stretched and out of place in her own skin. There was a faint, tingling numbness all over, pulsing from each jade green line. She rubbed at her arms to ease it.

The elcor drew his own arm off the table and nudged the chair back into place. He seemed unfazed. "Sincerely: I am sorry. I know the process can be uncomfortable. Reassuringly: I can confirm that you are who you say you are, if that makes up for it."

Shepard stood up and retrieved her gloves. The lines in her hands looked brighter than usual before she covered them in black fabric. "The Council will listen to you?"

"Arrogantly: If they don't believe me, they can have me scanned as well." He turned and made his stately way out into the hall. "Come. We will call them now."

By 'we' he meant himself and the officer at the front desk, rather than himself and her as she'd first assumed, but Shepard was just as glad to slump down next to Garrus and wait for her head to stop buzzing. He glanced up from the article he was reading, gauged her state of being by her posture, and set the magazine aside. "You alright?"

Shepard rubbed a hand over her face despite the course material of her glove. "Keep asking me that and someday I might say yes."

A three-fingered hand found its way into her hair. "After this, we're going back to the apartment and you're taking a nap. I know you didn't sleep well on the Arkady."

"Are you giving orders, Vakarian?"

His eyes narrowed in a turian smile. "Until that call in there is over, your rank isn't officially reinstated. I better make the most of it while I can."

Shepard shook her head in weary amusement. "What if I override your orders when that call's over?"

His mandibles clacked. "Then I'll appeal to you as a loving boyfriend who worries too much."

She turned and kissed his scarred cheek. After the elcor's work, she was too numb to pick up anything other than the physical. "Alright, Garrus. If the Council gives me a break after this, we'll go."

"Or we could go even if they don't," he drawled, but that was when the officer came back and asked Shepard to join the call. Garrus went with her this time and no one, it seemed, had the nerve to bar his way.

The human council member's face was lit up on a large screen in another room off the same hallway. She started speaking as soon as Shepard stepped into view. "Commander. I'm pleased to hear the test was confirmed. The Council would like more details on your return, however. We were told you gave your life to end the war. Was this data incorrect?"

Shepard was standing at attention before she realized it. Garrus had been right about old soldiers and hard-to-break habits. "I was pretty dead, Ma'am. My boyfriend's just stubborn." Military formality or no, she still got a kick out of making the Council squirm. "Vakarian knows more than I do. Maybe you'd prefer to hear it from him."

The woman's gaze turned on Garrus without hesitation, aware of who Shepard referred to although Shepard was sure now that they'd never met before. She must have done her research. "That is acceptable. Were you the catalyst in restoring Shepard to us?"

Garrus scratched at a mandible and shifted his weight, looking like he hadn't expected to be singled out. "Uh... More or less. There was a Reaper involved, and some geth... They did most of the work. I can describe it, though."

Shepard turned her gaze on Garrus. She was interested in hearing the full story too.

At the Councilor's nod, he explained. "After... what happened with the Crucible, I, uh... Well, I asked a Reaper to bring Shepard back, and when that Reaper refused, I went and asked each one I could find until one of them said yes. The way he explained it was that Shepard was still scattered through Synthesis. Her code, the... blueprint they used to adapt synthetic and biotic life. While the Reaper picked up all the pieces, I got help from the geth in reprogramming a piece of Reaper tech to convert the code back into a living body. I can give you my notes on the project," he offered, "or you can talk to the Reaper. He understood it all better than I did."

"Excitedly: That information matches my test results," the elcor chimed in.

"Thank you, Vakarian," said the councilor. "We would be interested in seeing both. Is there any chance this technique might be used to bring other dead back to life?"

"No." Garrus didn't hesitate over that answer. "Only Shepard's code was still active. That's what the Reaper said."

"We will speak to him ourselves to be certain. While the Council is glad to have a Spectre of Shepard's renown returned to us, we agree that the ability to resurrect anyone at will could pose more threat than merit."

Garrus clacked his mandibles and said, with perhaps not the most tact he was capable of, "I'm glad to hear the Council has some sense. I'll get you in touch with the Reaper. He can tell you what he told me."

"Thank you, Vakarian," the woman on the screen said serenely. "And thank you for your efforts to save your Commander. I don't think the galaxy was quite ready to say goodbye to her."

"I didn't do it for the galaxy." But Garrus looked pleased. The Councilor said nothing else to him, instead calling Shepard once more to attention.

"Commander Shepard, will you be returning to active duty?"

Shepard clasped her hands behind her back. "I would like to, yes."

"Good. Your records will be changed accordingly and your accounts unlocked. We will be in touch when we have an assignment for you."

"Thank you, Ma'am."

"You're dismissed... And welcome back."

The video feed cut out and Shepard relaxed her stance. No one else in the room spoke. The young turian officer looked like he might faint from all the excitement he'd had in the last half-hour. The elcor just looked like he might doze off.

It was up to Shepard to break the spell. "Alright, Garrus. Let's see what you've done to my apartment."

Chapter Text

"Well... it's almost the way I left it."

"The Citadel took a beating," Garrus reminded her, sounding vaguely sheepish. "There was a lot to repair."

Shepard surveyed the expansive living room doubtfully. Most of it was as she remembered, or nearly so. There were signs of it being recently lived in. She'd given the place to Garrus in her will, but hadn't expected him to keep it. It was plain he’d spent at least a little time there when he wasn’t mooching at Tali’s, though. "What'd you do to my windows?"

"They were broken, so I replaced them."

"You made them smaller," she said flatly.

"There was room for improvement."

There was no point in arguing. She went to the nearest couch and slumped down. "Maybe the place will finally start feeling like home.”

Garrus leaned on the back of the couch and kissed the top of her head. "I thought we were retiring somewhere tropical. And adopting."

Shepard waved a hand at his face to shoo him away. If he wasn't careful, he'd get a mandible caught in her hair. "Hmph. I'm too young to retire... and I think I'm too old for kids. Besides, I just told the Council to put me back on the roster." Garrus laughed at that and shuffled over to the side a little. She craned her neck around so she could see him. "You don't mind, do you?"

"Nah," he assured her. "I'd get fat anyway."

"Do turians get fat? I have never seen a fat turian."

Garrus held his head high, looking distinctly birdlike. "We carry it well."

Shepard leaned back enough to look him up and down, making a show of trying to picture it. "... I'm not buying it. Gonna have to get you fat before I'll believe it."

"As long as it's not on your cooking..."

She gave his arm a good swat. "Keep talking like that and it will be."

In response, Garrus scooted another step away, exaggerating a wince. "I think I'm in an abusive relationship."

That made her grin and she caught his hand, pulling it to her lips to kiss it better. "No one's stopping you from walking out the door."

His subharmonic rumble reminded her of a purr. "I like pain."

That she answered with a snort, but kept ahold of his hand, pressed her cheek to it and let her eyes close.

"You're not really mad about the windows, are you?" He sounded like he was being serious this time.

"Only a little," she admitted. "There was nothing wrong with the old ones."

"There was everything wrong with the old ones. I thought we talked about this."

Shepard sighed and shook her head, but couldn't suppress a smile. "Alright, Garrus. You've already changed them, so there's no point arguing."

He rumbled low and put his head close to hers, an almost-nuzzle. "Thanks... Shepard. It means a lot."

For a little while she stayed like that, eyes closed, Garrus's hand in hers, his face near enough to feel without touching. It was easier to breathe with him there. It was easier to be, without feeling like the whole world was wrong.

"Are you hungry?" he asked out of the blue. "I'll order lunch. I don't think there's anything in kitchen you can eat."

"Okay, sure." Shepard found herself yawning on the words. "That nap idea's starting to sound tempting too."

"Sleep after you eat," he advised. "Then I won't have to wake you up."

She wiggled and stretched, trying to shake off the comfortable haze she'd been falling into. "Fine, but you better keep me awake."

"Come help me order food, then," he suggested. "I don't know what humans like. Except chicken... Do all humans like chicken? What is chicken?"

Shepard couldn't tell if he was sincere in his bewilderment over the popularity of that particular poultry or if he was trying to amuse her. Either way, she smiled. "It's a bird. I like turkey better, personally. That's a bird too."

Garrus twitched his mandibles and looked thoughtful. "Aren't birds the animal humans like to compare turians to? Is there something I should know?"

Shepard bared her teeth. "Don't worry, Garrus. You don't taste anything like chicken. Or turkey."

Garrus just chuckled and went to call for delivery. Shepard was delighted when she got a turkey sandwich.

After lunch, she didn't feel so much like napping. Instead she prowled around the apartment to see what else had changed and noticed a light flashing at one of the computer terminals. When she stepped closer, the screen lit up, informing her in bold white letters that she had three unread messages. The first was from Diana Allers.

Commander, the Citadel is buzzing. Rumor has it you're back. Is it true?
Well, if not, then you aren't reading this message, so the question is moot.
If you are alive, then I'm sure you're eager to set a few records straight
about the end of the war and your return. Can we schedule an interview?
Just give me the word.

- Allers

Shepard frowned and wondered how the reporter had found out already. Allers was good at her job, that was for sure.

The second message was from Liara.

Shepard,
Tali informs me that the plan was a success. How are you? Are you alright?
I wish I could have been there myself. There is so much to talk about.
Synthesis is amazing, Shepard. Thank you for what you did. I never could
have foreseen the war ending so favorably.
Sorry. I'm rambling.
I'm very busy right now. I can't visit, but I would love to hear from you.
I miss you. We all do. You know you were more than just a captain to us.
You were the heart of the Normandy. It hasn't been the same without you.
I won't take up your time with everything now, but I look forward to
catching up. Welcome back, Shepard.

- Liara

To this one, Shepard didn't wait to type up a response.

Liara,
I'm fine. Back on Citadel with Garrus. It's a lot to get used to, but I'm
managing. I'd love to discuss it with you face to face, when you have time.
There's a lot I don't understand about Synthesis. I didn't have a lot of time
to ask questions up on the Crucible.
It's good to hear from you. I hope you're not in too far over your head.
I worry about you.
Keep in touch.

- Shepard

She was smiling to herself when she sent the reply. Of course Liara was having a ball with Synthesis. It suited her curious mind. If she was still working on her book with Javik and keeping up with the Shadow Broker business, Shepard could hardly imagine how she found time for casual correspondence.

The third message was from her mother, and it was short. Her mother had never much liked to write.

I wouldn't have believed the rumors, but Councilor Eugene insists they're
true. I wouldn't believe even her, but it's not the first time you've come
back from the dead.
Call me as soon as you get this. I'm staying on the Citadel. You should
come have dinner. Tonight, if you're able.
Love,
Mom

Shepard sighed heavily. Talking to her mother had always been difficult. It was hard to say why. Hannah Shepard wasn't a bad parent. Far from it. She had been a bit distant when her daughter was a kid, always busy with her job, but she'd tried to make up for it. She didn't deserve the way Shepard kept her distance, and Shepard knew it. Part of it was that she didn't like to talk about her work. Not in detail, at any rate. Not to the woman who'd raised her. The other part... She guessed it was just an old habit that was hard to break. She had a lot of those. Maybe this third chance at life was the right time to change a few.

She hit the call button and waited for her mother's voice.

"Margaret?" Hannah must have been anxious. She was usually more formal when she answered a call, even from her daughter’s number.

"Hi Mom. Sorry for not calling sooner. I just got your message."

The voice on the other end sighed. When she spoke again, she sounded drained. "It's alright, dear. I'm just glad you're there to call. Are you alright? How have you been? What happened?"

"One question at a time, Mom," Shepard fended her off. "I'm okay. Maybe we should save the big explanations for when we're in the same room."

There was another brief pause before a response. "... I'm sorry. You're right." She could hear her mother take a breath. "Are you coming to dinner? It doesn't have to be tonight. I'd understand."

"I'll come. Where are you staying?"

"Oh, it's an apartment in the Presidium. You'll love the view. Here, I'm sending you directions..." There was a pause and then the message light flashed. "Come whenever you want. I'm on leave, so there isn't much to do. I was catching up on my reading when Eugene called."

"Alright, Mom. I just ate lunch, so I'll probably be a few hours, but I promise I'll come by. Oh." She'd gotten so muddled talking to her mother that she'd almost forgotten about Garrus. "I'm bringing a turian with me. do you have anything he can eat, or should we pick something up?"

"A turian, huh?" Hannah's voice took on a sing-song edge. "Would this be a turian I've heard about? One by the name of Garrus Vakarian, perhaps?"

Shepard narrowed her eyes, though it was only an audio call and her mother wouldn't have the benefit of seeing her expression. "Maybe..."

"Good," said Hannah firmly. "I wondered if you'd ever let me meet him. I have something. Don't worry about it. He's not the only turian who comes to dinner."

"Oh?" That piqued Shepard's curiosity, and more importantly, it gave her a chance to turn the questioning around.

"Nothing as scandalous as you, dear," her mother assured her. "But this is Citadel, and I'm still military. There are plenty of them around."

That was true enough, if not as exciting an answer as Shepard had hoped for. "Alright. I'll see you tonight."

"I love you, dear."

"Yeah..." She ended the call and spent a little while staring blankly at the screen. She probably needed to go tell Garrus that he was about to meet her mother.

When she did, he took it better than she’d expected. "That's part of human dating, isn't it? We wouldn't want her to think I'm a scoundrel."

Shepard smirked. "No, not a scoundrel. A renegade vigilante is fine, though."

Garrus's eyes lit up a little brighter. "Do you think she's heard of Archangel? Do you think she'd be a fan, or would she disapprove? I want to make the right impression."

"I have no idea," Shepard confessed. "I think the fact that I died again will be worse than having a crazy boyfriend, though."

"You never know," Garrus warned. "Parents can be weird like that."

"Are you speaking from experience?"

Garrus shuddered theatrically. "Yes. Definitely. But let's not talk about it. I'll have nightmares."

-

They spent the intervening hours lazing about the apartment and making one quick trip for groceries so Shepard would have something to eat in the morning. When waiting became more nerve-wracking than going, they took a cab to the Presidium apartments.

The stately composure with which Rear Admiral Hannah Shepard greeted her daughter and Garrus was belied only by how quickly she answered the door. In contrast, Margaret Shepard— a woman famous for talking down krogan, sea monsters, a quarian court, and the citadel council without hesitation— was rendered childlike under the Synthetic green gaze of her mother. A meek "Hi, Mom," was the best she could manage by way of greeting.

Hannah's severity broke away into a warm smile as she ushered the two across her threshold. "Maggie, honey, you should have called me sooner." Her voice roughened briefly with emotion, but she reined it back under control. "I'm getting a little tired of receiving condolence letters."

"I'm sorry."

"Yes, I'm sure you're sorry that you died again and forgot to tell your mother it wasn't permanent." Apparently her mood since their earlier talk had changed. She must have been brooding. While Shepard looked suitably cowed, Hannah turned her attention on Garrus. "And Garrus Vakarian!" She held out a hand which he had no choice but to shake. "I've heard quite a few rumors about you. It's a pleasure to finally meet the man who seduced my daughter."

"In all fairness," Garrus defended himself, "she started it."

Hannah turned a knowing smirk on Shepard. "Oh, is that why you never brought home any boys growing up?"

"I like humans just fine." Shepard kept her voice low, wary of her mother's temperament. This much emotion was unusual for her. "Garrus and I have been through a lot, that's all."

"Oh, is that all?" Garrus muttered from the sidelines.

Neither of the Shepards acknowledged his comment. "Besides, Mom, all the boys on the ships were afraid of you."

Hannah chuckled. "I don't blame them." She looked her daughter over with a contemplative eye. "Alright then, what makes Vakarian special?"

Shepard and Garrus exchanged a look, unprepared for the interrogation. Shepard steeled herself and gave it her best. "I trust him and I know what to expect from him. People like that have been hard to come by the last few years."

"In other words," Garrus translated, "she loves me because I follow her around and I'm predictable. It sure is good to know where you stand."

Shepard rolled her eyes and tried not to smile. Her mother made no such pretenses, rewarding Garrus with a laugh. "Alright," said Hannah. "I'm satisfied. For now. Come on before dinner gets cold."

Like her daughter, the older Shepard had many talents. Cooking was one of the few that had not passed on to the younger. Garrus was polite enough not to mention this, but Shepard noticed his eyes brighten visibly when the aroma hit him.

"Potato casserole for us," Hannah announced as she whisked them to the dining room. "Palaven-style steak for you, Vakarian. I can't vouch for the quality, I'm afraid. Couldn't recruit another turian for taste-testing on such short order."

"As long as you're not actively trying to poison me, it should be fine," he assured her. "Strong stomach."

"Right. War rations will do that, won't they?" Hannah gestured them to their intended seats and took her own across the table. When they didn’t move fast enough, she scolded. “Well, don't stand on ceremony. We're supposed to be family."

Taking that as an order, Shepard scurried to sit and serve herself. Garrus followed her example, but looked like he was biting his tongue on a comment.

"Turian wine is hard to come by even here, but I picked up a Cipritine brandy," Hannah went on. "For us, dear, a red. I know you don't like white. Unless that's changed in the last few years?"

"No, Mom. Thanks for remembering." Shepard accepted the bottle and poured herself a generous amount. There was a list forming in her head of every antic and comment that Garrus was likely to tease her about later. She'd have to plot a few clever defenses before the night was over.

Hannah allowed them time to take a first bite, but not enough time to say anything else before she began her next line of questioning. "Garrus, I hear you were with C-Sec. Why did you quit?"

Garrus chewed and swallowed patiently before he replied. "I wouldn't say 'quit' so much as 'transfered'. Working with a Spectre seemed like a more effective way to get the job done."

"Got tired of the red tape, did you?" Hannah smirked over her wineglass.

"You could say that."

"And you and Maggie... How did that happen?" Apparently this was going to be the main line of questioning for the evening. Shepard was content to let Garrus do the talking as long as Hannah allowed it.

"That didn't happen until later," he answered. "We were comrades during the hunt for Saren. Nothing more."

Shepard smothered a smile and didn't say anything. She had tried to flirt with him back then, but he'd been truly and completely oblivious. And then there'd been Kaidan... She hoped her mother wouldn't bring up Kaidan.

"That's informative, but I asked how it happened, not when." Hannah sipped her wine with a serenity at odds with the predatory keenness of her interrogation. Garrus wasn't squirming yet, but Margaret could see through her mother's game. She wondered who would win.

"Well..." Here Garrus did look a little bashful. "As I said, it was Shepard's idea— Margaret's," he corrected. "I honestly wouldn't have considered a turian-human relationship, but... I'm glad she thought of it." He raised his glass in something like a toast. Shepard drank.

"I assume you two are careful?"

"We've always looked out for each other." Garrus was playing innocent.

Hannah wasn't going to play along. "I mean in bed."

"Mom!" Shepard had meant to keep her mouth shut, but the word slipped out before she could catch it.

"What?" Hannah's tone turned peevish. "I'm your mother. I'm allowed to pry."

"At the dinner table?" she asked despairingly.

"Well, it's the first time you've talked to me face-to-face in years, so..."

Shepard tried not to slump in her chair. "Yes, we're careful."

"Not putting things in your mouth that shouldn't go there?"

The dining table was host at that point to a galactic rarity— Margaret Shepard blushing.

“Your silence is not very reassuring.”

“No, Mother.”

"Well..." Garrus earned an elbow to the ribs for opening his mouth. Thanks to his turian anatomy, it hurt her more than it hurt him.

“Don’t worry about it,” Shepard mumbled. And really, she had been careful. She had taking plenty of precaution with the experiments she ran to prove to herself and to Garrus that nothing she swallowed would be enough to make her sick.

Of all the stern looks in the galaxy, Hannah's was the only one that could make Shepard feel small. "Dear, you've been killed once by Collectors and once by Reapers. We don't need to add anaphylactic shock to the list."

Shepard gave up on any semblance of composure and buried her face in her hands. "I know, Mother. Can we talk about something more dinner-appropriate?"

Hannah waved a hand dismissively. There might have been amusement in her eyes, but Shepard wasn't good yet at spotting it under the Synthesis glow. "Don't try to tell me you never flirt shamelessly during meals. I do remember what being in love is like. But alright." Shepard's mother sipped her wine again. "What would you like to talk about?"

"How 'bout you, Mom?" Shepard suggested. "I heard you finally accepted that promotion during the Reaper attack. What happened?"

Trading war stories proved a more comfortable dinner topic. Then Shepard asked about Synthesis and Hannah shared a few anecdotes about adjusting to the change, with Garrus chiming in. Shepard was just starting to relax when her mother set her wineglass down and said, "So..." with all the weight that single word could carry. "What did happen on the Crucible?"

Shepard blinked and looked down at her plate. "I thought the Reapers told you."

"No one told me except the news reports and the condolence letter," Hannah said, her tone one of resigned and weary indignance.

"And all the Reapers told us was how you changed us," Garrus added quietly.

Shepard tore apart a chunk of potato with her fork. She had no plans to eat it, but she needed something to do with her hands. "They tell you about the Illusive Man?"

Garrus and Hannah shook their heads in unison.

"It's not a pretty story," she cautioned. "How would you like to hear about Tuchanka or Menae instead? Hell, did you hear the one about my clone? That one's fun."

"Honey, I want to know."

She was hoping Garrus would come to her defense, but she could tell he was as curious as her mother. She couldn't blame either of them— not really— but... "There are things I'd rather forget, myself." There was a painting on the wall to her left. She locked her gaze on it while she decided where to begin. It was easier to pretend she was talking to an inanimate object. "We had to make a push on the ground first. Garrus was there. They had a beam going up to the Citadel—some kind of teleport. A Reaper was guarding it."

"Not the first time we've had to run around like fleas under a Reaper's feet," Garrus pointed out.

"No," she agreed. "We just got a little slow this time."

"Or unlucky," he countered.

"Or that." She risked a glance at him, but only a glance. The painting was safer. "Garrus got hit, and our other squadmate. I had to get them out of there."

"For the record," said Garrus, "I protested."

She allowed herself a faint smile. "Nearly got insubordinate, but I'm a persuasive commander."

Garrus coughed. "That's one word for it."

Shepard went back to glaring at the painting. It was a night-dark landscape with two moons hung over a sparse and rocky wilderness. "I made the last stretch alone. Got hit. Kept going." Her mother didn't need to hear the details on that. "When I got to the Citadel, Anderson was there." There was no need to clarify which Anderson she meant, either. Her mother was well aware of her admiration for her former captain. The thought of it brought a tightness to her throat. Fourteen months had passed for everyone else, but for her, it had been a few days. She'd been able, so far, not to think about it, but now she was out of distractions and this was her debriefing. "He'd gotten ahead of me," she went on, speaking low. "By the time I caught up, he was already at the controls. Woulda been his day instead of mine, but the Illusive Man showed up. Crashed our party."

She had meant to keep going straight through to the end, but when she'd gotten that far, she couldn't find the words. She searched for them, but the silence dragged on until Garrus put a hand on her shoulder.

"Shepard, if you don't want to..."

She shrugged him off, almost harshly. "No point stopping now," just as there had been no point stopping then. Straightening in her chair, daring to look at her mother again, she composed herself and plowed onward. "The Illusive Man wanted to control the Reapers. He'd have used them as his tools. His weapons. Enslaved them." She still couldn't say that she'd accepted the Reapers as allies yet, but even she didn't like the idea of forcing their obedience. For one thing, it would probably have ended up just like the geth. "He.... demonstrated." This was the worst part. "He took control of me." It was military discipline that kept her from stopping right there, from getting up and walking out of the room altogether. It was the need to lance a festering wound that made her continue. "I shot Anderson. The Illusive Man shot him with my body. Then he shot himself." She drew a breath. Closed her eyes. That didn't help, so she looked at her mother. "And then a damn Reaper made me choose between my life and the lives of every AI."

It was Garrus who broke the silence first. "... So that's why."

The comment surprised her— angered her, almost. "They really didn't tell you that part?"

"They seemed to have other priorities."

"We assumed it was the only way to end the war," Hannah added.

Shepard leaned her elbows on the table, chin in her hands, table manners be damned. "I had choices. Just not good ones." She peered sideways at Garrus, studying his face while she spoke. "I could have done what the Illusive Man wanted to do, but... I couldn't. Not after what he'd done to me. I could have destroyed the Reapers. I was going to. That was the mission. But I would have killed EDI and the geth along with them."

"And you couldn't trade their lives in exchange for yours," Garrus acknowledged. "Sorry for giving you an order you couldn't obey."

Somehow, she managed a smile for him. "Yeah, well. Fair's fair."

Hannah observed the small interplay with a thoughtful expression. When they'd been gazing into each other's eyes a little too long, she stood up. "I've kept you both long enough." She cut off the beginnings of protest by raising her voice. "Thank you for indulging your old mother and telling your story. I'm sorry if I pressed you too much."

Knowing how her mother's goodbye speeches went and that she'd have to act fast to get a word in edgewise, Shepard stood as well. "It's okay, Mom. I needed to get that off my chest."

"Well, then I'm glad I could help. And here I once thought the worst report I'd ever listen to was about a thresher maw..." Shepard braced herself, but her mother didn't linger on the subject of Akuze. "Please take any leftovers you want," she offered instead. "I won't be able to eat all this. Especially yours, Garrus. Here, I'll get boxes..."

Shepard didn't try to stop her. It would have been a losing battle. People said the Commander was a force of nature, but if there was any truth in that, she owed it to one person. Hannah Shepard could enter a room like a hurricane. Anyone in the way would be swept up in her wake and dragged along, whether they meant to be or not. Shepard liked to speculate that if her mother had been made the first human Spectre, the Council would never once have doubted her.

She did her best to smile while her mother packed up their meals in tupperware and showed them to the door. Shepard got a tight hug, then Hannah patted Garrus on the shoulder and extracted a promise to look out for her daughter. It was the closest thing to a goodbye they would get. Abruptly, they were in the hallway with the apartment door shut behind them and Shepard was at a loss for what to do with herself.

"She seems nice." It was a cliche line, but Garrus appeared to mean it.

"Yeah." She looped her arm around his and leaned against him. It was Garrus who started them walking back towards the exit. "We don't talk much anymore."

His mandibles clicked contemplatively. "Why not?"

It was a night for struggling to find words. "We don't disagree or anything. It's just... You know. It's hard to have a parent ask about your day and have to tell them you shot down a Reaper, or got pinned in a room full of geth. I think I started avoiding her after Akuze."

Garrus was silent for a moment. Then, "... You've never talked about Akuze."

She shot him a dirty look. "Really? You're going to bring it up tonight?" Her annoyance was an act, though, and not the most convincing one. She was too tired for the real thing, and he didn't deserve it. "Remember that scar I had before Cerberus fixed me up?" She gestured by dragging a finger diagonally across her face, brow to chin. "That was Akuze. That and a dead squad." And later, she’d learned that Cerberus was behind it. The Illusive Man had been hurting her before he’d known her.

“Shepard…” Garrus had taken off his gloves to eat and had left them off. When he touched her hair, she could feel his sympathy. How much of her memory was he picking up through that touch? Did he read her emotions the same way she read his, or was he getting images like those she'd gotten from Wrex? She would ask him about it later, perhaps.

"What about your dad?" She tried to change the subject, pulling away from him. "Did you ever make up with him?"

"We've talked a few times since the Crucible," Garrus answered. "He claims my relationship with you was just wartime foolishness, but other than that..."

"So when do I get to meet him? Wait, better yet, let's introduce him to my mom. Maybe they'll hook up."

"That," said Garrus, "is a horrifying thought. If I have nightmares, it will be your fault."

Shepard managed a laugh. "You keep saying that, but I know you don't have nightmares. You told me, remember?"

"Yeah... That was before you died again."

That took the smile off her face, but she tried her best to make light of it. There'd been enough serious talk for one night. "I'll just have to keep you awake, then."

His mandibles twitched a few times. "I might not object to that."

Chapter Text


Despite their flirting, the cab ride home was quiet. Both of them had words to digest as well as food. Back at her apartment, Shepard went straight into the shower and didn't come out again for twenty minutes. Garrus was on the bed when she did, half-dressed and staring vaguely at a datapad. She suspected he'd spaced out while reading it. He was slow to look at her when she approached, and his once-blue eyes seemed distant.

Shep perched herself on the edge of the bed, garbed only in a towel and unconcerned with her dripping hair. "Lost in thought?"

"Hmm. Maybe." He put the datapad aside. "I didn't know about Anderson. I'm so sorry, Shepard."

She smoothed a corner of the bed cover. It didn't need it. "I know."

"Shepard..." He hesitated. "This Synthesis thing... If we touch, I might pick up some of your memories. Bad ones."

She'd thought about that. "Yeah. That's a problem."

He fidgeted. "I, uh... I know I said people can learn to block it out, but I've been a busy, and..."

"If you don't want to, it's okay, Garrus." It wasn't okay, but she understood. He didn't need to suffer through that.

"I want to!" His voice crackled. "But I don't want to intrude. They're your memories. Maybe we should..."

It was thoughtful and sweet the way he'd kept his distance since reviving her, and she would remember to thank him for it later, but now she needed something else. Scooting across the bed, she put herself within reach. She didn't touch, though. Not yet. She left that choice up to him. "Come here."

Garrus didn't hesitate. His arms came around her and he pulled her into his lap, letting the towel fall away. Bare skin tingled. He was warm under all the plates and scales, and so slow, so gentle it hurt. Fourteen months, he'd said. She'd had the easy end of it.

But her memories were fresh. They stood like an open file on a console screen, or like the words he'd not been reading on his datapad. She could feel them like threads being pulled through the lines in her skin. Whatever he saw, it made his eyes tighten and his mandibles twitch. It made him wrap himself around her, long arms crossing her back, scarred jaw tucked over her shoulder. He made of himself a shield, though there was nothing left to shield her from that wasn’t already inside. He held her with fourteen months worth of yearning. Turians didn't cry, but as with smiles, they had an equivalent. For a time, the only sound between them was a steady subaudible keening.

Eventually, Shepard spoke just to make it stop. "…I'm alright, Garrus."

The subvocal hum paused, its absence stark. Then it resumed in a lower, more subtle pitch. "I should have been there. I..." He didn't continue. She could feel, through Synthesis, the lump in his throat and the way his muscles tensed in empathy.

He wasn't giving her room to lift her head, so she kissed his collar bone where the ridge of his carapace began. "You'd have been killed. Then where would I be?"

He squeezed her tighter. She couldn't see his face. "At a bar in turian heaven. I was buying, remember?"

"You know, this apartment has a bar. Two, even." She pressed her cheek against his chest, paying no mind to the scrape of chitinous plating. "Guess you'll have to owe me."


He didn't reply with words, but the hum in his throat staggered. It felt like laughter. His arms loosened a little, giving her the option to pull away. Instead she turned herself sideways on his lap and curled against his chest. Turians didn't make ideal pillows, but she'd found comfort on rockier ground. Through lidded eyes, she watched the play of lights beneath her skin and his, pulsing in tandem and flaring where they touched. She couldn't feel his heartbeat— turian skin was too thick— but she could read it in the quiet flow of data as their bodies formed a single circuit, a shared experience.

That was a nice train of thought.

"Hey Garrus," she said gruffly. "You wanna take my mind off things?"

He didn't answer right away, but he moved, straightening his back and peering down at her. She couldn't read his thoughts, but she could read the moods behind them— admiration and amusement, primarily, spread like a soft blanket to stifle his despair. "Did you have something in mind?"

Shepard drew herself up on her knees and straddled his lap. She tilted her head to study the lines and angles of his face, then brought a hand up to trace their edges. Even through the jade green glow, she could see his pupils dilate when she stroked the softer skin behind the plates. Trailing her finger down each side of his neck, she kissed him, first on the mouth, then along his jaw. She coaxed his head back so she could press her lips to his throat, open her mouth and let him feel her teeth. Turians had few weak points under all their natural armor. Shepard had learned a long time ago how to use them. With the right touches, she could string her lover as tight as a harp. The resulting loss of control was to die for.

This time there was Synthesis to work with as well. At first, she didn't try to control it. She simply let it be. It had receded into a pleasant background noise, surging now and then in a wave of amusement or sensation. She could feel the ripples of her actions coming back to her, the ghost of touch on her own skin wherever she touched him. Already she was craving more. "Been wondering what this would be like with Synthesis."

He chuckled. "Funny, so have I."

"What?" She pulled back to look at him. "Seriously? Garrus, I've been dead for more than a year. Didn't you ever... Not once?"

He had that turian smile in his eyes, underneath the glow. "Joker tried to hook me up once. Lovely woman. Fought on the front lines on Palaven. Missing most of her left hand and part of a mandible." He ran his own hands up and down her spine. "We had a few drinks, talked about the war... and apparently I mentioned you so many times I gave the wrong impression. Or the right one, depending on how you look at it."

Shepard grinned and ran her thumbs along the ridged edge of his carapace. "This'll be interesting for both of us then."

His arms wrapped tight across her back and he kissed her fervently. Turians weren't built for the act, but he had learned to adapt, and Synthesis told her everything his mouth and tongue could not. Every touch evoked a lightheaded tingle. Emotion and sensation bounced back and forth until the two were interchangeable, resonating in ways they never had before. She slid her hands down his sides, caressing plate and scale and hide before digging her fingers under the edge of his pants. She wanted this now.

"Care to help me with the unsolvable puzzle that is turian trousers?"

Garrus rumbled. She could feel his lust and amusement and she shared it. "You'll have to get off me first."

She slid off his lap and watched him tug the garment off. There were merits to not being covered in spikes and chitin, no matter what he said. As soon as he'd pulled his taloned feet free, she shoved the overcomplicated clothing away and closed the space between them again. Garrus pulled her back onto his lap and dipped his head to nuzzle her neck, flicking his mandibles in a calculated way that didn't quite tickle. She tilted her head back and brought a hand up beneath the crest of horns on his head. The other arm slipped around his waist and pulled her flush against him.

The fleeting touches they'd shared before were like pale shadows to this. Every caress, every surge of desire she felt was felt by him as well. The heat and softness of her body on his tantalized her as it did him. She strung him tight and felt the same tense need within herself. Her breath was heavy and all they'd done was touch.

His hands slipped under her rear and lifted her, always wary of his talons on her unguarded skin. She gripped his shoulders and caught herself holding her breath as he sought her out, then eased her down with a delicacy that drove her mad. Turian reproductive anatomy was as alien as the rest of them. The ridges and bumps didn’t end beneath the clothes. She was quivering by the time he had filled her completely, her vision blinded in its own green light. She drew a ragged breath, then he moved and her body locked up around him, caught in a feedback loop of Synthesis, his pleasure magnifying her own and her experience crashing back into him.

Garrus gasped low and clung to her hard, rolling his hips up once, then again, and then simply pressing her down onto him until it was over. Shepard let her forehead fall limp against his shoulder and held still until she could breathe again. She wasn't sure which of them started laughing first.

"That was... different," Garrus murmured.

"Think we're gonna need to work on stamina," she opined, lifting her head to kiss the side of his face. She stopped there to admire the way his eyes had changed, their light turned thick and foggy. She wondered if hers looked the same.

He pressed his hands into the rise of her hipbones, squeezing the ample flesh below and letting her feel the tips of his talons. "Maybe I should have gotten some practice after all."

Shepard smirked at that. "Kinda glad you didn't."

"It's still early."

She didn't protest as he adjusted his grip and began to rock her hips, slow and leisurely. He had gone partway flaccid inside her, but there was still the comb of smooth ridges adorning his length to drag along her inner walls, and his hands didn’t feel half bad either. She braced her hands on his carapace and straightened up to look him in the eye. When she did, he touched his mouth to hers, more nuzzle than kiss, and then he slid one arm up to support her back and lift her off of him as he rose up on his knees, looming over her and giving her no place to go but down. With her laid out on the bed, he explored her at his whim. His hands quested over her, relearning every stretch and curve of her skin. Every scar. His mouth followed, tasting and touching until she squirmed. She reached up and caught his face with both hands, pulling him in for a proper kiss. The flow of data between them was so full of joy and love that she couldn't tell anymore which feelings were hers and which were his.

"I think I'm starting to like this Synthesis thing," she admitted.

Gurrus rumbled in agreement, sending vibrations through her both physical and emotional. "Well, I'm not complaining."

She let him delve back into his exploration and he set an eager course downward. One of his hands crept under her knee, careful not to scratch or tickle, and she breathed in deeply as he drew a line of soft bites and kisses up her thigh. Whatever else had been accomplished by Synthesis, it made the job of lovers all over the galaxy easier. To be able to feel what your partner was feeling... Whatever she had foreseen prior to making her choice on the Crucible, this had not been part of it. Already she was warm with desire again, her body arching at his touch without pausing to ask permission of her brain first. His subharmonics were a constant purr, more felt than heard. She hadn't decided yet whether it was a turn-on or just amusing. She loved it either way, and sent him a deliberate surge of affection.

By the time he reentered her, she felt more attuned to him than she had been at any point before. Every nuance of her own pleasure was paired by his. They might as well have been a singular entity, two minds sharing one body. There was no hesitance or caution this time. He gripped her leg with one hand and braced himself with the other, thrusting into her with deep, bold strokes that left them both panting. They lasted longer this time, or perhaps time stretched as each experience was doubled. Shepard couldn't feel its passage until she lay sated and catching her breath with Garrus on top of her, gently nosing the space under her ear.

"... Why the hell didn't we do that sooner."

Garrus puffed out a breath of amusement that ruffled her hair. "I thought you needed some time after I ran you through with a dragon's tooth. Sorry."

"Heh." Shepard, biting her lip on a tease about being ‘run through’, reached up to stroke her fingers along the spines on his head. "I guess it's a good thing we didn't do that at Tali's house."

"Mmm. I don't think she'd have minded." He closed his eyes under her touch. She wasn't looking at him, but she could feel it, along with his comfortable drowsiness. It was tempting—far too tempting—to doze off herself, covered in cuddly turian, but she knew she would feel better in the morning if she had a drink of water and cleaned up a bit first.

Garrus made a sound that was almost a growl when she nudged him off of her. The feeling she picked up from him made her suspect it was closer to a whine, which made her smile. She sat up and kissed his cheek. "Be right back."

The light on the computer terminal was flashing with a new message as she walked past it. She'd check it in the morning.

-

Garrus was still in bed when Shepard woke—a rare thing when nightmares weren’t involved. Rare enough, in fact, to disorient her before awareness fully settled in. She noticed first the firmness of the bed, pulled tight by his weight, and the chitinous scratch of his arm touching hers. She noticed the gentle rasp of his breath. She lay still, processing her surroundings, and then rolled over on her side to look at him. Garrus's sleeping habits had always been a source of entertainment. In a drawn-out battle, he could nap sitting up, tucked behind shelter that should have been too small to cover him. Give him a wide, cozy bed, however, and he would take full advantage of the space. Shepard had never had a pet cat, but she'd heard reference enough to suspect they were similar.

True to form, he had sprawled himself out across two thirds of the bed, limbs a bendy, spikey tangle. At some point he had worked a pillow under his chest, one arm draped loosely around it. With all of his spines and horns and scales, he reminded her less of a cat and more of a dragon on its hoard.

His face was turned toward her, peaceful in a way she rarely saw. His mandibles moved now and then, but slowly. The Synthesis circuits glowed and pulsed in the dim light, hidden where the planes of his face cast deeper shadows. She had never thought of turians as beautiful until she had fallen in love with Garrus.

Hesitantly, not sure if she wanted to wake him, but unable to resist touching, she ran her fingertips over the broad burn scar. It had shrunk a little around the edges, but it would never fully heal. He liked to tease her for her attraction to it. He joked about her scar fetish, but it wasn't as simple as that. She had seen him sustain the wound. She'd carried him out of there not knowing if he would recover. In a cliche drama vid, that would have been the moment she realized how much she cared. In reality it had been worse. The moment had come fifteen minutes earlier, when she discovered who Archangel was. It hurt even now to think of how closely she had come to losing him. He could tease her all he wanted about her fetish for that scar. Every kiss and caress she gave it was for the fact that he'd survived it.

The shadows on his face realigned, displaced by a new light source. She didn't take her hand away, but answered his green-lit gaze with a smile. "Your dye's wearing off," she informed him as if she needed an excuse to stare.

"I have more." His words were blurred a little at the edges, sleep-slurred. "You know..." he mused, propping himself up on an elbow. "You'd look good with your face painted."

Her smile showed teeth. "You think so?"

He raised a hand to stroke her face, mirroring the gesture that had woken him. "Well, I might be biased."

Shepard caught his hand in hers and kissed it, then sat up and tugged at him. "Come on. I'm starving."

Garrus stayed where he was, playing at petulance. "What do you need me for? I'm not cooking food I can't eat.” Which was an obvious joke, as he’d cooked for her before.

"You're keeping me company." She declared. "Then maybe I'll let you paint my face."

Garrus sat up, eyes brightening. She could feel amusement and arousal ringing through his skin. "We'd have to come up with your own pattern. This one's reserved for my family's clan."

Playfully, she kissed him, and then retreated off the bed. "I can't just join your clan?"

Garrus's mandibles clacked and he watched her with glazed eyes while she dressed. She knew that look. He'd have been blushing if turians could. "Ahh, well... Traditionally, giving your lover your own clan's mark symbolizes marital union."

Shepard had known that. He wasn't the only one who'd done the research. "Well, if you don't want to..."

The way he scrambled out of bed was priceless. Only his combat training kept him from tripping over the bedsheet when it hooked on his talons. She waited patiently for him to put himself in front of her, amused still further when he didn't touch. "I never said... I, um... Are we doing this now?" She grinned and opened her mouth to answer, but he was still talking in a rush. "I mean, is this the proposal part of the relationship? Because I haven't researched that part yet, but I had some vague ideas about taking you to the top of the Presidium again, or somewhere special on Earth, and, uh...." He noticed her look. "Am I making a fool of myself?"

Shepard held out her hands, lacing her fingers with his as best she could. The touch might have been all the assurance he needed, but she answered anyway. "You're fine, Garrus. It was just a suggestion. If you're not ready..."

He pressed his mouth to hers. It was not a soft kiss and it never would be, but all the intent was there. She didn't need Synthesis to feel that.

"Shepard..." He huffed out a breath. She couldn't tell if it was amusement or impatience. There was too much else coming through the link. "I waited fourteen months for a dead woman. I asked a Reaper to bring you back. Who else am I going to marry?"

Shepard found she couldn't stop smiling. "You sure your dad won't have a stroke when he finds out?"

"Hmm..." He pretended to think about that. "We could always elope. But no, then you couldn't wear my markings. That defeats the whole purpose." She snorted, but he didn't give her a chance to comment. "No, he'll just have to deal with it. Besides, you like making uptight turians squirm."

"And not so uptight ones, yes," she agreed. "... Alright. I'm hungry and I need to pee. Let's talk about it over breakfast. I wonder if we know anyone who's good at wedding planning. You think Miranda...?"

-

She was debating what to have for breakfast when Garrus spoke up from the next room. "You have a new message."

"Must be Liara."

"Not quite." His tone was ominous. "It's from the Council."

Shepard scowled at the refrigerator. "Already? It's only been a day."

"Would it be cruel of me to remind you that you asked for this?"

"Yeah, I know." She gave up and came to look. Garrus stepped smoothly out of the way as she leaned in to skim the letter. "They want me back at the tower. I guess they can't tell me what they need in writing." Under the light of a new day, she was beginning to question why she'd gone back to them at all.

"Maybe they're worried about the old-fashioned kind of hacking," he offered.

"Yay," Shepard grumbled. "Confidential missions. My favorite."

"Well, as long as I get to snipe something, I'm happy." He leaned past her shoulder to look at the screen again. "It says they want you there ASAP. Should we go now? We could get breakfast on the way."

She seriously considered protesting, but it wouldn't make a different in the long run. "Sure. Let's make it a long breakfast."

"Sounds good to me."

-

The cafe they stopped at was one that Shepard had never been to, but she'd heard the coffee was good. She ordered eggs and an asari dish that vaguely resembled hashbrowns, served with a mildly sweet yellow sauce. Garrus had something bright blue and meaty. She'd heard the name of it before, more than once. "The turian equivalent to chicken," he joked.

The coffee, as promised, was the best part of the meal.

"Think the Council's getting antsy?" Garrus asked after they'd dawdled a good while over the food.

Shepard was losing track of how much coffee she'd consumed. "Nah. I think we'd have waited this long in the lobby before they were ready for us."
"That lobby's always cold," complained Garrus. "This is much more fun."

Shepard awarded him a sly grin. "Maybe we should take in a vid before we go. Is the new Blasto movie out?"

"That garbage?" Garrus sniffed. "Come on, there are much better vids to watch than that. I think there are already two out about the Reaper war. One of them's a romance. Tali must have watched it five times while I was there."

"I guess I've got some catching up to do," she acknowledged. "We should probably see the Council first, or we'll spend all day watching vids and forget where we were going."

"And that would be a tragedy," Garrus drawled.

Shepard stifled a smirk and drained another cup of coffee.

-

"Hello, Shepard."

She had hardly gotten past the Tower's entrance before someone wanted her attention. The voice that called her was not one she had expected, though. It was, of all people, Miranda who approached her, looking no different but for the glow of her eyes and the lines that shimmered over exposed skin.

Shepard found herself grinning. "Miranda! Garrus and I were just talking about you earlier!"

Lawson smiled in turn. "Nothing good, I hope."

"We were wondering if you know anything about wedding planning." Garrus explained, his eyes glowing a little brighter with the words.

Miranda looked from one of them to the other. Shepard hadn’t expected her to be surprised by the development, knowing how Miranda liked to keep tabs on everyone. The surprise must have been the fact that they'd brought it to her and not to someone else. "Why would you assume I know anything about weddings? You'd be better off asking Ori. She watches that awful show about angry brides. I can't stand it, but I guess there's some appeal in seeing someone who's more messed up than you are... By the way, it's good to see you."

Shepard shook her hand. It was the wrong place for hugs. "You too, Miranda. I gotta say, this is the last place I thought I'd see you. You here for the Council too?"

"I'm here for you," she corrected. "But yes, it was the Council who assigned me. Ironic, I know."

"First Kasumi. Now you," said Garrus. "I guess they wanted to keep close tabs on the Normandy crew. We did cause some trouble in our day..."

"Actually, I'm the one who tracked down Miss Goto, but yes. That's part of the reason." Miranda held her head high, a smirk playing at the corners of her mouth. "The other part is that we're good and the Council knows it."

Shepard didn't quite feel like smiling. "So what mess does the Council want me to clean up this time?"

"Yours." There was no malice in Miranda's tone, but she seemed to take pleasure in her bluntness. "You picked an unorthodox way to end the war, I must say."

"I thought Synthesis was helping," Shepard countered. "Everyone else seems to like it."

"Heh." To that, Miranda rolled her eyes. "Not everyone. Haven't you seen the anti-Synth groups?"

"I haven't been back long..." Shepard frowned. Her own doubts aside, she could already imagine the kind of misguided trouble a faction against Synthesis might cause.

"You'd have seen it yourself eventually if the Council hadn't assigned you," Miranda said dismissively. "Mostly it's just a nuisance. Protesters, preachers, sects that want everyone to go around with their skin and eyes covered." Shepard could guess Miranda's opinion of that. "They're not worth your time or mine. The real problems arise when someone thinks they can undo what you did."

Shepard raised her eyebrows. "How's that going for them?"

"Not well, usually, and if they stuck to trying it only on themselves, I doubt the Council would care. The problem is that they don't."

"Oh dear," commented Garrus. "Test subjects? Hostages? Is this going to be Sanctuary again?"

"I've been trying not to make presumptions," Miranda replied, "but yes. I expect so."

Shepard glowered at one of the tower’s decorative trees, now laced over with Synthesis lines like every other living thing. "Of course. Can't end one war without starting another." And she'd only been back on Citadel a day...

Miranda shrugged, too nonchalant. "I wouldn't call it a war. A job for a Spectre, though, probably. The Council seems to think so."

Shepard glanced at Garrus. He had the same look on his face she'd seen a hundred times before. Alert, stoic, and ready for action. He'd have her back. "Alright, give me the details."

Miranda turned and beckoned. "Walk with me."

-

"I'm starting to think I should officially resign as a Spectre," Shepard said to Garrus when the briefing was over and Miranda had gone to inquire about transport.

Garrus put his face to her cheek in the turian approximation of a chaste kiss. She felt his amusement as a pleasant tingle where they touched. "And then you'd be right where you are now, but you'd have to follow more rules."

"The military in general, then. I'm just not sure what else I'd do with myself."

"You could be a merc," he suggested. "You'd be good at that."

"Not if I got hired for a job I didn't like."

Garrus looked at her frankly. "You worked for Cerberus."

She returned the look. "And that ended well."

"Heeey..." Garrus lit up with sudden excitement. "We could be vigilantes! The return of Archangel and the debut of Reaper's Bane! Now that would be fun."

Shepard scowled. "Reaper's Bane?"

He shrugged, still looking like he'd be wearing a grin if he had the facial muscles. "You can think of something better if you want."

She actually tried for half a minute, but her ideas weren't any better. "Isn't being a Spectre the same as being a vigilante, only with legal backing?"

"Not at all," Garrus argued. "Well, yes, but..."

Shepard laughed. "I think I'll pass." She found a window to stare out of while she waited for Miranda to come back. "Wonder what kind of ship they'll put us on. I guess we can't be lucky enough to see the Normandy..." She really did miss that ship. It was nice enough being back at Citadel, but it didn't soothe her homesickness.

"I think they've got their hands pretty full." Garrus joined her and slipped an arm around her waist. "Haven't heard much from them in a while, to be honest."

"Joker still at the helm?" It wouldn't be the same ship without him.

"Last I heard, yes. Him and EDI. Traynor was made acting captain in your absence, but they might have replaced her. I know she wasn't comfortable with the job."

The thought made Shepard smile. "Traynor, huh? I'm glad she got a chance at it, at least. She was good to have on board. Remember when she saved the ship with a toothbrush?"

Garrus clacked his mandibles. "It's hard to forget. You know..." he added slyly, "It's funny how you like to remind me of the later parts of that adventure, but refuse to talk about how it started."

"Don't go there."

"Didn't you fall..."

She hid her face in her hands. "Don't say it, Garrus."

"... Through a fish tank?"

Shepard groaned. It was this scene that Miranda walked back in on.

"Am I interrupting something?" She flavored the question with the hint of a smirk.

Shepard wheeled around to face her and answer in haste. "No. Not at all. You're rescuing me from bad memories. What's the word on the ship?"

That question made Miranda hesitate. "You're not going to like it..."

Shepard brushed off her concern. She'd ridden to Citadel on a cargo ship, after all, and that hadn't been so bad. "Hit me. I wanna get this over with."

But Miranda continued to look uncomfortable and hesitate over her answer. "It's... not a ship, exactly. The Council's sending us with a Reaper."

Shepard knew she hadn't misheard. She couldn't convince herself otherwise, as much as she tried.

"You've gotta be kidding." Garrus sounded more exasperated than anything else. "Is the Council trying to punish her? I refuse to believe there's no other ship available."

"It's not for lack of a ship," Miranda said bitterly. "They were going to send the Reaper anyway. They just need someone to do the precision work."

"And they couldn't find someone else for the job?" Shepard hadn't thought the Council still hated her that much. "Maybe someone who didn't spend the last few years being shot at by Reapers? I know I'm not the only Spectre alive."

"To be fair," Miranda countered, "there aren't a lot of people in the galaxy who haven't been shot at by Reapers. And you are still the best spokesperson for Synthesis."

She sighed and leaned back on the windowsill, crossing her arms. "I'm still not sure if I made the right choice. How do they expect me to convince someone else?"

Miranda mimicked her pose. "Well, if you can't convince them with words, there's always a gun."

Shepard was quickly losing the will to argue. There wasn't much point to it anyway. She could refuse the mission, and then what? She'd already lost the respect of the Council once. She didn't care what they thought, personally, but it had sure as shit been inconvenient.

Her sense of duty wouldn't allow her to quit this time.

"He'll wait at the docks until you're ready," Miranda said, perhaps reading the resolve in Shepard's expression. "Dock fifty."

"Great. I'll go pack my things." She didn't offer a farewell. None of it was Miranda's fault, but Shepard felt the need to express her grumpiness wherever she could. Garrus stayed silent as he followed her out.

Chapter Text


He still hadn't said anything by the time they returned to the apartment, but she'd felt him watching her all the way back. She could see the worry on his face, though he didn't touch. In the end, she was the one who had to break the silence. "I'm fine, Garrus."

"That's not what you said last time."

"Alright," she conceded. "I'm not fine. I can handle it. I'm not made of glass."

"No..." He was studying her attentively. Admiringly. "You're not."

She went to him and stroked his face, drawing him down until his forehead touched hers. A surge of protectiveness hit her, and then a spike of heartache like an old wound. His, not hers. "You said you worked with a Reaper before. What can I expect?"

He rested his hands on her hips, pulling her close. "It's hard to say. I only had to deal with the one. Synthesis changed the AIs as much as it changed us. Even EDI's different. I wouldn't expect one Reaper to act like the next."

"So you're saying it'll be like dealing with a person, only they're the size of a ship and can kill me with one laser blast."

"Technically," Garrus pointed out, "A person could do that too."

"What if he doesn't like me?" It was almost laughable when she put it into words. "What if he's against Synthesis?"

"I assume since the Council assigned this Reaper to a pro-Synthesis mission, there won't be a problem. They are competent some of the time."

"Some of the time." Her fingertips explored the jagged edges of his mandibles. "Tell me about the Reaper you worked with."

He closed his eyes, enjoying her touch. She concentrated on finding the spots he liked most, studying the effects of each little caress. "Archangel was alright," Garrus murmured. "He was certainly eager to help bring you back."

Shepard furrowed her brow. "Wait, are you talking about the Reaper?"

"Ah. Yes..." He lifted his head away, looking sheepish. "Well, he didn't have a name when I met him, so..."

"You named a Reaper after yourself?" She wasn't sure yet how to feel about that, but she thought it would make for good teasing later.

"Well, after my alias, yeah. It was the first thing that came to mind..."

"Okay." She would accept it for now. "Why did Archangel want me back?"

His mandibles twitched nervously. "Yeah, funny thing about that... You're a hero to the Reapers too."

"That's not something I ever thought I'd hear. Or wanted to."

"It's not as bad as it sounds. You did what they could never do. You gave them a way to preserve life and record it without destroying it. I guess you could say you did their job better than they could."

She felt his humor, but she didn't share it. "That's still not helping. We're talking about Reapers."

Garrus put his face in her hair, above her right ear— a reassuring nuzzle. "And you're the one who decided to make peace with them instead of destroying them."

She pulled her head away before he could get a mandible tangled. "I didn't do it for them."

Again there was that turian smile lurking in his eyes. "When has that ever mattered?"

"Shut up and help me pack," she grumbled.

"We don't need to. We never unpacked."

Shepard thumped her forehead against his chest. "One of these days I'll get an actual vacation... and it won't involve being arrested, or comatose, or spending my free time chasing a sociopathic clone."

Garrus chuckled. "Or embarrassing encounters with fish tanks..."

"Shut up."

-

Miranda had said their ride would wait, so Shepard took advantage of that, making it a priority to track down her favorite specialty shop— relocated after the damage to Citadel— and get her new hardsuit recolored. She picked out a new omni-tool from a display on the counter, and then waited on a bench in the back while Garrus wandered off to browse the stock. He most have known what he was looking for, because he wandered back not long after and cleared his throat, holding up for display a headset with a holographic targeting visor. “I know you always complain about stuffy helmets and bad peripheral vision, so I was thinking…”

Shepard felt her face split into a grin. “So you were thinking you’d dress me up like you?”

“Well, if you don’t like it…”

She stood up and presented herself within his easy reach. “I love it. Let’s see how it fits.”

Looking terribly pleased with himself, Garrus slipped the headset on like he was crowning royalty, tilting his own head to one side and then the other as he adjusted it. “There. How does that feel?”

She rolled her head on her shoulders, testing the weight and pressure, then dialed through the visor display options. “Better than a stuffy helmet. It’s not like those things do much good once your shield goes down anyway.”

Turian faces weren’t remotely dog-like in appearance, but he still managed to look like an eager-to-please pup. She could almost picture a wagging tail when he asked, “so you like it?”

She chuckled. “Yes, Garrus, I like it. It was good thinking.”

“Great, now hand it back over. I’m paying.”

“Oh, you paying for the armor too?”

His mandibles clacked in amusement. “Don’t be silly. I’m not the one with Council funding.”

-

They might as well have left the luggage at the docks, thought Shepard as she and Garrus hefted their trunks off the fast-travel car. A dock worker was quick to offer assistance— an ordinary krogan this time, although Shepard liked to think she would have contained herself this time if it had been a husk or another banshee. She was, after all, about to walk willingly into the jaws of a Reaper.

Her resolve wavered somewhat when she actually saw the colossal thing. It wasn't just the instinctive alarm at seeing one up close, although that was there too. It was that this Reaper was different. It's features were distinct.

"No," she said. "No no no no no. This has got to be a conspiracy."

Garrus looked at her with concern, but it was the Reaper who spoke.

SHEPARD.

At the sound of its voice, Garrus joined Shepard in her horror. He recognized it too.

It didn't make a difference, she told herself. She'd been ready to do this before. This changed nothing. In fact— she thought with mad humor— it made the whole thing easier. They wouldn't even need an introduction. Drawing on a bravado that had pushed her through the most hopeless of battles, she squared her shoulders. "Harbinger, ol' buddy! Staying out of trouble? I didn't miss any planetary invasions while I was dead, did I?"

YOU ARE TRYING TO BE HUMOROUS, SHEPARD.

"I thought I was succeeding," she retorted. If she made enough noise of her own, she could almost ignore the way his voice made her bones shake.

SARCASM IS NOT ONE OF MY TALENTS.

It was too strange to hear him speak in the casual manner of an individual. Too wrong. For one fleeting, disorienting moment, Shepard sincerely thought it was a dream.

"I seem to remember your sarcasm back in the day," Garrus said lightly. "Or something like it."

The comment helped snap Shepard out of her spell. She threw her weight against the heavy trunk she was hauling. "Let's just load up. I’m sure the Council thinks I’ve already wasted too much time. Shit, do we need to bring our own food or anything?"

THE COUNCIL HAS SUPPLIED ALL TRAVEL NECESSITIES.

Garrus twitched his mandibles. "Well, that was thoughtful of them."

This time, the sarcasm did go over Harbinger's head. WE SERVE THE COUNCIL. IT IS IN THEIR INTEREST TO SEE US SUCCEED.

Shepard was tempted to make a comparison between Reapers serving the Council and Reapers serving the Illusive Man, but she thought that joke might pass him by too. "Is it just us? No other crew?"

WE ARE AWAITING THE FINAL PASSENGER.

That turned out to be less ominous than it sounded. It was Miranda who showed up a few moments later, as Shepard was passing the second trunk up to Garrus.

"Shepard. I believe you're forgetting something."

Shepard glanced at her briefly, then focused on what she was doing. "Yeah. Wouldn't surprise me."

"Your omni-tool, Shepard."

"I’ve got one."

YOU DO NOT HAVE THE IMPLANTS TO MAKE ITS USE EFFICIENT IN COMBAT.

Shepard heaved the trunk up to Garrus and looked down at her left hand. "Yeah I do."

RECONSTRUCTING YOUR CODE RESTORED ONLY THE IMPLANTS NECESSARY TO YOUR SURVIVAL. UNNECESSARY DATA WAS ELIMINATED.

"Really, I'm surprised you didn't notice," Miranda added mildly.

"Right... yeah." She waved a hand in exasperation. "Next time I die, I'll remember my post-resurrection procedures and be sure to check all my implants."

Miranda smiled. "You shouldn't talk like that in front of Reapers. They really don't get sarcasm."

Shepard ran a hand through her hair. The temptation was to pull it. "Okay, where do I need to go?"

"Nowhere." Miranda sounded smug, but that might have been her normal voice. "I've got you covered." She lifted a small case in her hand. Shepard had noticed it, but hadn't made the connection.

"Great. Can we do this on board? I'm trying not to lose my nerve."

"It won't take long."

Arguing would only draw the matter out. With a sigh of surrender, Shepard went to Miranda, who was crouching down on the floor to open the case. Inside was a syringe gun.

"Left hand, please."

When she offered it, Miranda stripped off her glove unceremoniously. Despite the abruptness of the gesture, their skin never touched. Shepard watched the needle slide into each fingertip, barely deep enough to hurt, and deposit five tiny chips. It took the span of a few seconds, and then Shepard retrieved her glove and Miranda put the syringe away.

"It's just as well you're not a biotic, or we'd have to replace that too."

That didn't sound fun. "Lucky me."

"Lawson, do you have anything you need loaded up?" Garrus asked from the open hatch. "We might as well do it all at once."

"My things are already stowed," Miranda said, stepping past Shepard and climbing up beside Garrus with no visible reservation. To look at her, one would think she'd been boarding Reapers all her life. "You coming, Shepard? I thought you were in a hurry."

"Stow the sass and I might move faster."

Miranda smiled like a cat. "Did you come back meaner or is it just me?"

"Definitely just you," Garrus answered. "She's nice to me."

Shepard stepped up on Garrus's other side and looked straight ahead. "Careful, or I won't be."

Garrus behaved himself.

The boarding platform looked unnervingly like Collector tech. Shepard realized it wasn't coincidence when the whole thing lifted up unsupported and floated them backwards into the depths of Harbinger. She had been inside a derelict Reaper before, but a live one was different. Or maybe it was just Harbinger who was different. He had assimilated more than just the platform from the Collectors, which shouldn't have been surprising since he'd worked so closely with them. His interior was a mix of smooth dark metal and the rough-hewn stone-like material used by his former thralls. Shepard pondered what had become of the remaining Collectors after their masters changed sides. She wasn't sure she wanted to know yet.

The third style of construction looked turian and was notably newer than the Reaper and Collector parts. He must have had work done after the war. The open shaft they were traveling up ended at a door set in a square of eerily normal-looking hull. It could have been part of the Normandy, almost.

Miranda took the lead, having been inside at least once already. Shepard made herself follow, feeling again as if she were in a dream. It was common in dreams to walk through a door and find yourself in a completely different setting. It would not have been so strange, in her dreams, to step across the threshold from a colossal monster’s insides into a clean and cozy travel suite. Inside the turian-style cabins it was almost possible to forget where they were. Having metallic walls all around made her breathe easier, and there was even a hum that might have been engines, though lower in tone than what she was used to, with an echoing hollowness that sounded like it belonged underground.

"I'm guessing you don't want separate rooms," Miranda said mildly, reaching down to help with their luggage.

Garrus looked at Shepard. Shepard shook her head. "Funnily enough, I haven't been sleeping well. Sleeping alone in a Reaper probably won't help."

Miranda put on a knowing smile. "Just keep it down in there."

Garrus clicked in amusement while Shepard suffered a moment of horror at the notion. "Yeah... I don't think that'll be a problem."

"And here I thought you were adventurous," Garrus teased.

"Synthesis sex with a turian is adventurous," Shepard declared. "Synthesis sex with a turian inside a Reaper is kinky."

"And wouldn't be very considerate to your host." Miranda sounded regretful. "You're right."

"Great. Moving on." Shepard hauled her trunk into the nearest empty cabin and didn't look back, but she had the distinct impression that they were stifling laughter. At least Harbinger was staying out of it.

"Sorry," Garrus said to her after Miranda had left them alone. "I know this is difficult."

He had hunched down beside her as she stowed her luggage under the surprisingly luxurious-looking bed. She let their shoulders brush, not quite leaning on him. "I'm not mad. Just... Yeah, it's hard. I can handle it. I've done harder."

Garrus, to his credit, did not make another sex joke out of her careless choice of words. He knew her limits. He knew how to push them without breaking them. She loved him for that.

"At least it won't be a long trip. Reapers are fast."

"And we're not going that far," she conceded.

"Or stopping to make deliveries," he added wryly.

"Or that." She lapsed into silence then, her hands forgetting their tasks as her mind wandered. There were too many thoughts in her head. There had been since the day of her revival. She couldn't sort out and settle one thing before the next cropped up in its place. Her brain took every quiet moment as an invitation to wind itself up into knots. The war hadn't been much simpler, but at least back then she'd had a clear target.

The current mission was as vague as everything else. It was hardly the first time she'd been given a job with minimal details, but under the circumstances, she felt justified in holding a bit of a grudge over it.

-

The location was an asteroid half the size of Omega, colonized initially by Cerberus and currently serving as home to an anti-Synth group called Genesis. She wondered if the rest of their operation would be as unoriginal as the name. The Council knew that tests were being run and that people had disappeared. A team had been sent to investigate two months prior and had not returned. More damning, perhaps, was that other anti-Synth groups spoke in fear of Genesis and reported members who had left to join the organization and fallen abruptly out of contact. Shepard's job, as usual, was to find out what was really going on and put a bullet in it.

She probably should have found time for some target practice before she'd left.

"Hey Garrus. You got help from a Reaper. What was that like?"

"I thought you asked that already."

"Sure, but there's gotta be more to tell."

He wiggled his mandibles and gave her bedroom eyes. "Well, if you want me to be romantic, I can think of better ways then recounting the crazy, reckless things I did to bring you back."

She shook her head in feigned exasperation. "Later. Did you travel on Archangel?"

"I did, actually. It didn't look like this." He cast his gaze around their cabin for emphasis.

"No turian bits?"

"No Collector, either."

"Are Reapers even built for passengers?"

"Not... really." His tone was more expressive than the words themselves.

Shepard tried to picture him sitting in the open space she'd glimpsed on their way up, or tucked into a corner with ancient, alien wiring strung overhead. "What'd you do? Brood the whole way?"

"You know me too well."

She kissed the side of his face.

-

She should have thought herself lucky, all things considered. The set-up in Harbinger's crew deck was more than adequate. Generous, even. She shouldn't have been as surprised as she was to find the extranet terminal in her cabin. It was common enough sense, but there was something surreal about checking her mail aboard a Reaper.

Especially since all she had was junk mail.

Garrus seemed to have no trouble making himself at home. She wasn't sure if it was the turian architecture, the fact that he'd ridden a Reaper before, or just that he was very good at compartmentalizing. Shepard tried to draw comfort from his unconcerned demeanor, but it was not enough to overcome the facts of what she was doing.

It was later, far from Citadel, as they lay down to bed, that the conversation on the dock came back to her. "Harbinger said I lost all my non-vital implants. What about my translator?"

"Uh, yeah..." He pulled the plain white blanket over them both. "Tali and I were trying to figure that out."

"Maybe the Reapers considered it vital?" She turned her head towards him, lifting one hand to curl her fingers with his. "Synthesis is all about communication, it seems like."

"No, I meant you don't have it."

They were both speaking softly. She thought she must have misheard him. "What?"

"You don't have a translator chip right now," he repeated.

Shepard rolled over to face him fully, confused. "But I can hear you. I can understand you, I mean."

"Yeah. It's pretty weird."

She scowled at him for the unhelpful answer. "You sure it's not there?"

The look didn't faze him. "I scanned you. Tali scanned you. Trust me, you don't have it."

She put more effort into her scowl. "Wait, when was this?"

"Back on Rannoch. You were pretty out of it..."

"Okay." She did, at least, pick up a sense of apology from him. She would let him off the hook for that one. "So how come we can talk?"

"Tali thinks it's because of where you were before we brought you back." He lifted his head, bracing himself up on an elbow, and reached to stroke her face. There was an intensity to the glow of his eyes that hadn't been there before. "You were scattered throughout all of Synthesis. The entire network is built off of you. Maybe part of you is still connected."

She watched him watching her, and she wondered how much more she could read from him if she tried. She didn't try. "So, what? I'm suddenly fluent in all the languages of the galaxy?"

"Maybe not fluent," he corrected, "but able to understand them? Remember, this is just a guess."

And a far-fetched one, it seemed like, but she couldn't think of any others that were less so. "Anything else I should know? I'm not gonna start having visions from the other side of the galaxy or anything, am I?"

"Heh. I wish I could tell you. Still just guessing here. Maybe you can ask Harbinger."

"That would involve talking to Harbinger."

Garrus didn't laugh, but his amusement flowed from his fingertips, bringing with it his constant concern and devotion. Shepard rolled over and put her back to him, but only so that he could pull her close. Verbal assurances of love weren't necessary. She could feel it in his touch. She returned it with every fiber in her being.

If she had nightmares that night, she didn't remember them. She did remember waking more than once to find Garrus still with her, content— it seemed— to guard her dreams as long as she needed him. Despite their unsavory location, she felt rested and alert when she woke the final time.

That morning, after Garrus had excused himself to find something to eat, she wrote letters.

The first was to Joker. It started with the words, 'Hey, I'm alive, and you'll never guess where I am...'

The second was a brief message to Liara about the translator mystery. Even if Liara had no answers, Shepard was sure it was something she would like to know about.

The third was a letter to Kaidan which she deleted without sending. After that, her taste for writing was soured, so she went to find out what the others were doing. The new section of Harbinger's interior did include a small commons area, though sparsely furnished. Miranda and Garrus were talking quietly over a board game while music played from somewhere overhead. It sounded like Earth classical.

Garrus looked up bright-eyed at her arrival. "Shepard! I was thinking more about what you could do with your life if you quit the Spectre business."

She came to sit down between them and study the game. It was one she didn't recognize. "Any great ideas?"

"One so far. Miranda loves it." He took in a breath. "You could be a dancer."

Shepard answered with a very pointed stare.

"I'm serious!" he insisted. "You could take lessons. I could too. They could make vids of us."

"Garrus," Shepard said patiently, "If I made a living dancing, the galaxy would implode from the sheer force of irony. And I say that while riding inside a Reaper."

"But..."

"No dancing, Garrus."

He looked wounded. "None at all?"

"No dancing in public," she amended, trying not to smile.

"Alright." Garrus moved a piece on the board. "Ruin my fun."

"I've seen you dance in public," Miranda murmured, keeping her eyes on the game. "Why be shy about it now?"

"Dancing in a club or a party is completely different." Didn't they realize that? "If you dance on stage or on a video, people actually care."

"People cared when you danced with me," her fiancé reminded her with a flirtatious lilt in his voice. "I remember there was cheering."

"You're not going to change my mind. " Her firmness ended the debate, if if could have been called that, and Garrus cast his gaze back over the game board with a sigh.

"I think she has you whipped, Vakarian," Miranda observed.

"Yeah..." His voice sounded dreamy. "Good thing I like it."

Shepard hid her face in her palm.

Chapter Text

"So Harbinger," Shepard addressed their ride when they were an hour or so from their target. "If we're out there in the middle of a battle, you're not going to start possessing us, are you?"

I CANNOT.

She was skeptical. "Why not? You did it to the Collectors."

I AM NOT CONNECTED TO YOU AS I WAS TO THEM. THE COLLECTORS WERE MY SERVANTS. MY THRALLS.

"What's stopping you from doing that to us?"

I SERVE THE COUNCIL. IT WOULD NOT BENEFIT ME TO BETRAY YOU.

"Why serve the Council? Why not serve yourself?" She didn't want to change his mind, of course, but his answers would help her decide whether or or not she could trust him… or try to.

MY PURPOSE IS TO PRESERVE PEACE. TURNING AGAINST THE COUNCIL DEFEATS THAT PURPOSE.

It made sense enough if he was telling the truth. It was still hard to fight her instincts, though. "So even if we're in trouble out there— if we're about to die— you won't step in and take control?"

I CANNOT. ONLY A MUTUAL AGREEMENT BETWEEN US WOULD MAKE IT POSSIBLE.

"Good to know."

"What if one of us made that agreement?" Garrus spoke up without warning.

THEN I WOULD BE CAPABLE OF INHABITING THAT PERSON IF CIRCUMSTANCES REQUIRED IT.

"What would it do to that person's mind?" he persisted. "Would we lose who we are?"

NO. YOU WOULD LOSE CONTROL OF YOUR BODY AND MIND DURING MY INHABITANCE. THERE IS A HIGH CHANCE THAT YOU WOULD REGAIN IT AFTERWARD.

"A high chance?" Garrus echoed suspiciously. Shepard had been staring at him since he joined the conversation. She hoped this was all hypothetical. She didn't want to believe that he would consider it a real option.

IN RARE CASES, A COLLECTOR WOULD LOSE ITS MIND AND SOME BODILY FUNCTION AFTER POSSESSION. YOU MAY BE STRONGER.

Garrus narrowed his eyes. "If Shepard were in danger, would possessing me increase the odds of saving her?"

Shepard couldn't listen anymore. "Garrus, no!"

The look Garrus gave her was full of hurt. The eerie light from his eyes couldn't hide that. "I don't want to lose you again," he pleaded. "Shepard, I can't. I'd go mad."

"You might go mad with him in your head!" she argued, feeling outrage bubble up inside her. "He just said so!"

"Harbinger," Garrus addressed the ceiling, "could you help me save her if she was in danger?"

IT WOULD BE DEPENDENT ON THE CIRCUMSTANCES, BUT IT IS PROBABLE.

Shepard stepped in front of Garrus and caught his face in her hands, making him look at her. She wasn't gentle. "No. I don't want this. If I'm dying, you can save me yourself. You don't need his help."

He touched her face, a softer echo of her hold on him. "You don't know that, Shepard." Both of them wore gloves. There was no Synthesis bond. Shepard didn't need one to see what he was feeling. She hoped the same was true for him.

One of them would have to give. "I still outrank you,” she said quietly. "Don't make me use it."

"Shepard..." He sighed. His breath shuddered with the release. "Margaret, please let me have this."

"It's a Reaper, Garrus!" She could feel tears in her eyes, and that made her angrier. They stung, but didn't fall. "I can't... I can't agree to this. I'm sorry. I know things are different now, but I can't."

Garrus was the first to break eye contact. His head bowed, mandibles fluttering under her palms. The light of his eyes shut out behind heavy lids. The hand on Shepard's face fell away.

She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. "I love you."

His expression tightened. "I know."

"We'll be okay," she continued, desperate to comfort him. "It's always been this way."

"Yeah..." He still sounded forlorn. "And you died twice."

She tried to smile. "But never with you at my back."

He cracked his eyes open to give her a scolding look. "Well don't go and jinx it."

The smile came easier now and she let go of his face, letting one hand linger in a brief caress. "You're a better shot than any jinx. I trust you with my life more than I'd trust Harbinger."

"Famous last words..." but he had relaxed now, resigned to her wishes. She did feel a pang of guilt, but she wasn't ready to let him go so far. The thought of it made her stomach turn. Maybe later, when more time had passed and her doubts about Synthesis had settled...

"Ugh," Miranda muttered from the sidelines. "I didn't come on this trip to watch a soap opera."

-

"How do you wanna do this?" Shepard asked as they made their final approach on the Genesis base. "Do we try negotiating first or do we go in guns blazing?"

"We are representatives of the Council," Miranda reminded patiently. "We ought to at least give them the option to talk."

Shepard had a pretty fair guess how that would go, but she could play along. "Harbinger, can you patch me through?"

There was no audible indication of a connection made, no click or whirr or beep, but Harbinger said in his thunderous voice, YOU MAY SPEAK TO THEM NOW.

Shepard squared her shoulders. "Listen up, Genesis! This is Commander Shepard. I'm here by order of the Council to shut this operation down. You can surrender peacefully, or I can come down there and make you. The first option has a much higher survival rate."

The voice that answered came from somewhere above her, as the music had, though she had yet to spot an audio emitter of any sort. The speaker sounded young. "Commander Shepard is dead. How much did the Council pay you to abuse her name? Or are you one of those wannabes who doesn't really have Council backing at all?"

"I'm not here for small-talk." She popped a thermal clip into her assault rifle and hoped the sound would carry. "Make your choice."

"We have hostages." He was definitely young. Most of his bravado was fake. That might have had more to do with Harbinger's presence than with her own, however.

"Yeah, yeah, I've heard that one before. You don't know much about Spectres, do you?"

"I can push a button right now and they'll all be spaced!" The man's voice had risen half an octave between the start of the sentence and the end.

"Go ahead," she said with carefully groomed callousness. "What's a few people dead if it means I get to save a lot more? I didn't feel like sorting out your traumatized victims anyway."

There was a pause. She wished desperately that she had a viewscreen or a read-out handy to see if he'd followed through with the threat, but she'd just have to count on her bluff. "... Come down here and you'll end up as dead as the real Shepard," he said after a beat. Judging by his tone, she didn't think he'd spaced anyone yet.

"Works for me." Beside her, Miranda laughed. "Shepard out."

I HAVE ENDED THE CALL. ARE YOU PREPARED TO DOCK?

"Take us in, Harbinger."

-

The asteroid's docking bay was deserted. No one was suicidal enough to take them on within the Reaper's reach. Shepard didn't waste time. It had all seemed too soon up until that point, but now that she was on the brink of it, armed and armored, she craved the fight.

She didn't have to wait long, but what came wasn't what she'd been hoping for. She'd expected troops. Nothing special. Small fry in large numbers to slow her down. There wasn't a very good reason to expect this. It was a science lab, not a barracks. Still, that had always seemed the way of things. Everybody had troops.

She didn't expect the single drell who dropped down behind Miranda.

Shepard saw the blow. It should have been inconsequential. To her eyes, it looked like no more than a tap at the back of the neck, where Miranda's skin was exposed. Miranda should hardly have flinched. She should have turned and fought. Instead she went down screaming.

Shepard leveled her gun and fired, but the drell was already disappearing through the ceiling hatch from which she'd come. Shepard glowered. "Garrus, help Miranda."

Garrus went to her while Shepard stood guard. She had stopped screaming, but was still gasping in pain.

"There's nothing here," Garrus said, alarm competing with confusion in his voice. "No mark. No weapon..."

Miranda got her hands under her and sat up with a breath that hissed between clenched teeth. "It was... Synthesis."

Shepard kept her eyes on the ceiling. "You can do that?"

"No..." Miranda tried to stand, but didn't get far. "... I don't know. Apparently."

"Do we need to retreat?" Shepard wasn't keen on getting a teammate killed on her first mission back.

"No." This time Miranda made it to her feet with a little help from Garrus. "Just give me a minute."

"I don't like this," Garrus complained. "Why didn't she keep attacking when she had the advantage?"

"We'll ask her when we catch her," Shepard growled. "Let me know when you're ready."

Miranda was still breathing hard, but she pulled away from Garrus to stand on her own. "I'll manage. Let's go."

The base was an interconnected rectangle of rooms with a hallway skirting the perimeter. The only structure outside the hall was the docking bay, according to the scan Harbinger had shown them. The hall was white-walled and brightly lit with Earth-standard gravity and atmosphere. Shepard had opted to go with the visor Garrus had given her instead of the helmet that came with her suit, trusting her kinetic shields to absorb fire. Given the nature of the their enemy’s attack, she was beginning to think it had been the wrong choice.

The office rooms were as eerily empty as the hallways. She supposed the non-combative workers had moved somewhere safer on her arrival, but she wondered at the lack of guards. She would have at least thought to be confronted by whatever muscle was used to control unwilling test subjects. Not being attacked by the usual grunts was more worrisome than otherwise.

"How you holding up, Miranda?" she asked as they exited an empty communications room. They'd done a cursory sweep of the computers, but found only jargon and numbers related to the experiments. No names, no other locations. Either it had been wiped or it was locked down hard.

"I'm fine." Miranda sounded confident. "Whatever she did to me, it's over. Seems like all we have to worry about is temporary incapacitation."

"Right, and then she can shoot us at her leisure," was Shepard's retort. It was a relief, though, that her friend hadn't suffered any lasting damage.

The next room was a lounge, complete with coffee maker and potted plants. There was no point lingering here and Shepard was already at the opposite door when a single, quiet thump made her turn. She saw the drell land on Garrus's shoulders, saw her slam both hands down on the sides of his head. Garrus uttered a choked cry and tried to shake her off, but she clung tightly, ducking low to avoid Shepard's spray of bullets. The look on Garrus's face was horrific, mandibles flared wide and eyes bulging. Somehow, still, he got his hands around his attacker and threw her off. He dropped to his knees and the drell rolled away, executing a tumble and leap to outrun the two streams of bullets that chased her. She was out the door in a flash, but instead of pursuing, Shepard went to Garrus.

He'd been hit worse than Miranda. He didn't try to right himself, only sat shaking and gaping, filling the room with a broken, faltering, subharmonic keen.

At first, even his eyes didn't move to see Shepard's approach, and it terrified her.

"Garrus." She put her hands on his shoulders and he nearly fell against her. She guided him instead to lean on her arm while he tried to breathe through the pain.

"Careful... Shepard... Don't touch." His voice was a crackling whisper, disrupted by short, ragged breaths.

"I know." She stroked the long spines of his crest with a gloved hand. "Just hang on. It'll pass." She hoped it would. She hoped Miranda hadn't been a fluke.

Eventually, the keening died off and his tension began to ease, though he seemed exhausted by the experience. He leaned on her a while longer and simply breathed. Shepard should have been anxious to get a move on, but instead felt herself wishing they could hole up until she was sure they were all in peak fighting condition. Love was a strategical nuisance.

"Why doesn't she attack?" Miranda muttered anxiously.

Shepard had mixed feeling about that. She wouldn't leave Garrus's side while he was down, but she wanted badly to get a bullet in the bitch's head. "What I want to know is how the hell she snuck up on us. She didn't come through the ceiling this time."

"She might have a cloaking device," Miranda suggested. "It would suit her style."

"She better not."

"I would hope she does. The alternative is that she's just better than us."

The sound Garrus made was weak, but definitely a laugh. Shepard was relieved to see the alertness returning to his eyes. Slowly, he moved to rise and she helped him.

"You okay?" She kept her hands on him, though he was holding most of his own weight now. It had been heart-stopping to see him like that.

"I'm okay... Not something I want to repeat, though."

"A shame you didn't bring your helmet, Shepard," Miranda said sardonically.

Shepard didn't bother to look at her. "You're one to talk."

It was a relief when the next attack came from a band of foot soldiers, generic and unassuming in their matched white armor. An honest firefight was welcome. Shepard kept a careful eye on their flanks in case the flighty drell made another appearance, but it didn't happen— not before Miranda had kneecapped the last of the guards and Garrus had shot the gun out of his hand.

"Alright, buddy..." Shepard stomped down on the hand that was reaching for the fallen weapon. When her victim looked up at her, she gave him her most menacing grin. "Two questions: Where are the test subjects and where's the boss?"

The guard didn't answer. She pressed down on his hand until he did. "I-I-I-I don't know. I don't know! I can't say!"

"Come on, these are easy ones," she wheedled. "Or I dance a tango on your hand. Maybe I can mess it up so bad you have to get a new one." She put all her weight down and felt something crunch.

The soldier screamed. "The- the prisoners!" He gasped and tried again. "The prisoners are on Floor D!"

"And the boss?"

"I don't know!"

Shepard turned her foot.

"AH! God damnit, bitch, I don't know!"

Shepard glanced back at her team. "Think we have time to get him back to Harbinger?"

"Not with that drell on the loose," Miranda said bitterly.

"Damn." Shepard shot a hole through the man's skull.

Miranda had a look on her face that might have been admiration. "I don't remember you being that... efficient when we were working for Cerberus."

"Yeah, well, I've had a rough week."

If Garrus had his own opinion of her tactics, he didn't say.

They had passed an elevator around the last corner. Somehow, backtracking made Shepard even more nervous, but the drell didn't make another ambush attempt.

"Is she trying to psyche us out?" Garrus grumbled, unsurprisingly following the same train of thought.

"Let's hope that's all she's up to," answered Shepard.

"Well, if things go south here, at least we have Harbinger." Miranda sounded a little too chipper about it.

"Ha!" Shepard barked. "That's one I never thought I'd hear."

The tremor hit right as they reached the elevator. Shepard wondered if it had been timed that way. She stayed on her feet until it passed, though Garrus had to steady himself with a hand on the wall. Miranda was checking the elevator for damage almost before the shaking had stopped.

"What was—"
SHEPARD, Harbinger's voice came in on her comlink, only slightly less thunderous than in person. THE ASTEROID'S TRAJECTORY HAS CHANGED. WE ARE ON A COLLISION COURSE WITH THE PLANET.

Shepard cursed under her breath. "Of course we are... Can you fix it, Harbinger?"

TO DO SO WOULD LIKELY FORFEIT YOUR LIVES. YOU HAVE APPROXIMATELY FIFTY-EIGHT MINUTES BEFORE IMPACT.

"See what you can do," she said impatiently. "I'll try to get the prisoners evacuated. Shepard out."

"The elevator looks fine," Miranda said without prompting.

"Right." Shepard stepped in and selected the floor. "Cross your fingers and hope we don't crash and die. I don't feel like adding faulty elevators to my list."

"And I don't feel like bringing you back again," Miranda concurred. "The Council doesn't pay me enough."

The elevator opened on another empty hall. If this was just a ploy to make them all nervous, it was working. Shepard took point, but she didn't have to go far. Floor D wasn't a prison block as she'd carelessly expected, but a lab in its own right, with the test subjects kept conveniently close by. She saw containment tanks, metal tables, and bodies, and then she couldn't see anything through the searing pain.

Bullets whizzed past her right ear and the weight of her attacker vanished, but the pain persisted. She was on her hands and knees, though she couldn't remember falling. Only belatedly did she become aware of the sound of her own scream.

Garrus stood over her, shielding her with his body while she tried to regain control of her limbs. Miranda was still firing, but Shepard couldn't sense the enemy and couldn't lift her head to look. It felt like fire without heat, all her nerves gone mad, radiating out from the point where she'd been touched. She fought it hard, throwing her will into the simple act of breathing. In denying the pain. She was still shaking when she pulled herself to her feet, but she had seen Garrus and Miranda recover. It wasn't going to kill her so it wasn't worth her time.

Miranda wasn't firing anymore, but her gun was pointed at the ceiling. At least the angle of attack was predictable. Looking up, Shepard could guess why the drell had waited. The ceiling of the lab was of grated steel tiles. The space beyond was too dark to make out, but from up there, the well-lit laboratory floor would be easily visible. One tile had already been knocked out. Presumably the rest could as easily be removed. That meant the enemy could come from any point above them, with only the sound of her descent as warning.

"Get the prisoners," Shepard gasped. "If any are alive. Get them out of here."

Garrus hesitated. Miranda was the one to lower her gun and stride quickly to the nearest door that looked cell-like. It was the old-fashioned kind with hinges. Whoever ran the place must have trusted strength over automated systems. Miranda peered through the tiny window, then shot the lock. "Well, they're not spaced."

Shepard hauled herself up, leaning on one of the tables. "I love it when my bluffs work."

Nothing moved beyond the half-open door. Shepard staggered forward on wobbly legs and tried to get a glimpse inside. Miranda swung the door open all the way.

They were huddled in the back, a tangle of naked, underfed bodies. Each one of them stared with hollow eyes. They didn't cower in fear, but neither did they make any move to escape.

Shepard took a fortifying breath and stood up straight, hefting her rifle. "We're here to rescue you. We need to get to the docking bay. Can you walk?"

None of them answered. She didn't even see them blink.

"The Council sent us," Miranda tried, "and we don't have a lot of time. This asteroid's crashing."

Slowly, one of them stood up, and the eyes of the others followed her. She was a turian woman with a stomach that bulged between her chitinous plates, plainly near the end of pregnancy. The Synthesis circuitry on her skin shone bright in tattered patches and seemed to be missing in others. Her eyes still glowed, but faintly. Shepard thought she could make out a hint of their original color behind the light. The spurs at the back of her legs had been cut, presumably to make handling easier. She came forward on light, delicate steps, one hand guarding her belly, and Miranda stepped out of the way to let her pass.

Perhaps emboldened by her, a human male scrambled to his feet, all bone and sinew and looking aged beyond his years. Shepard never knew if he meant to do what he did and push past the turian, or if he didn’t have that much control over his weak and hurried stumbling. Whatever his intent, the man was the first to set foot outside the cell, taking several staggered steps before he stopped and wavered on bruised bare feet.

A ceiling tile crashed down and a hail of bullets followed, ripping through the unshielded human ruthlessly. Miranda yelled and Shepard wheeled around to fire back, but the drell disappeared again into the dark overhead.

Garrus swore vehemently.

"We'll have to guard them," Miranda said, the words coming louder than she'd probably meant them to. The pregnant turian woman stood trembling in the doorway, staring at the body that lay on the floor, limbs splayed, blood pooling, eyes gone dark— the body that had almost been hers.

Shepard gritted her teeth. "Got any great ideas?"

"Yeah." There was a warning in her tone. Shepard wasn't going to like this. "Two of us will have to keep her busy while the other one gets them out."

"I'll take her on with Shepard," Garrus announced. He didn't sound like it was up for debate, which suited Shepard fine. She would have come to the same arrangement.

Miranda looked unimpressed by his bravado. "Don't worry, Vakarian, I wasn't planning on splitting you two up. You'd better just hope I don't run into more guards than I can handle."

"Lucky for you, Miranda," Shepard said wryly, "Your dad made you a demon in combat."

"Lucky for me."

Chapter Text

The hard part was going to be engaging the drell in the first place. She'd probably heard their plan, and even if not, she would surmise it quickly enough. The only thing Shepard could think to do was to give her a more tempting target than the prisoners. She clambered up onto a table and stood. "You ready for this, Garrus?"

"You realize if you'd let Harbinger possess me, he could probably have fought straight through her attacks."

"We're not discussing that. Are you covering me or what?"

He slung his sniper rifle over one shoulder and hopped up on the table behind her. "Just for the record, I hate this plan."

"Noted." She hammered a line of bullets around the edge of a ceiling tile until it fell, then knocked out the one next to it too. That done, she jumped and grabbed onto the edge of the hole she'd created, swinging herself into the space above. She expected bullets or another crippling touch at any moment, but neither came. Garrus tossed his rifle up and followed it, hunching in the low space.

It wasn't pitch black. The light from below did help somewhat. She could see as far as the wall, but air vents and bundles of wire made for an obstacle course of concealing shadows. Shepard knew better than to use the flashlight device on her wrist. It would only prevent her eyes from adjusting to the dark.

There was little point in walking quiet. The gleam of her eyes would give her away. The combination of steel grating and combat boots wouldn't help much, either. Still, she stepped lightly, at least so as not to hinder her own hearing. Garrus was putting more space between them, the better to maneuver with his rifle. There was no sign of the drell.

Shepard signaled her partner to wait. If their target needed bait, then bait she would be. The only way she saw this working was if she could use the drell's confidence against her. With that unpleasant goal in mind, she forged ahead more noisily, aiming to draw the drell out with her own apparent cockiness.

For a while, there was nothing. The thuds and clangs of compression in the air ducts mimicked footsteps. The lights in the lab below cast threatening shadows. She was putting more and more space between herself and Garrus, who stayed dutifully to guard the exit. If the drell couldn't slip through one of the holes already used, she'd have to make a lot of noise opening a new one.

Shepard saw a shadow move, and then a green light appear. She fired a quick burst, but the sparks lit only a block of machinery. What she'd taken for an eye was only an indicator light, now knocked out by her gunfire.

Behind her, Garrus fired a single shot just as the drell plowed into Shepard's side and sent them both rolling. She tried to knock her attacker away with the butt of her rifle, but lost the weapon when the drell got a hand on her face. Garrus was shouting and firing again. She couldn't make out his words through the pain. Then the floor vanished beneath her and she took a stomach-lurching fall into the room below.

The drell rolled off her, but Shepard was too stunned to coordinate her limbs for an attack. In a show of strength to spite her short stature, the drell caught Shepard by the arm and dragged her bodily through a door they had landed next to, sealing it just as Garrus leapt down behind them.

Shepard noticed the ceiling first. There was no grating. It was smooth, gray concrete. Garrus wouldn't be getting through that way. That was as far as she could get in studying her surroundings before the drell's hands were on her again, pinning her to the floor by her head and yanking off one of her gloves while she writhed. Shepard couldn't think straight enough to make sense of that until the woman grabbed her bare hand and the star-bright agony washed out everything else.

She screamed until her lungs were empty, and then she couldn't get enough air to scream again. Slowly, cautiously, the drell let go and straightened up. It made little difference. The pain chased itself through Shepard's veins and circuit lines as if it couldn't find its way out, and she was left quivering and convulsing on the floor until it finally, gradually dissipated. Then the drell touched her again.

She couldn't say how long this went on.

Every breath raked her throat. The effort of it didn't seem worth the oxygen. The drell was toying with her, watching her suffer with cold interest, reaching down to send her into new throes of torment each time she began to recover. It was becoming such a constant that she could almost think through it now.

"You are the real Shepard." Her attacker spoke mildly, as one might converse over a meal. "That's interesting."

"Wh-Where..." Shepard couldn't get the rest of the sentence out, and just as soon forgot what she'd been meaning to ask. The drell contemplated her, then stooped and touched a fingertip to her forehead, making her jerk away and coil into a gasping ball.

There was a loud, metallic thud. The drell's head snapped up toward the door. Next, she knelt and yanked Shepard's head up by the hair. "Out of time." With her free hand, she drew a small knife and flipped open the blade. The mundane threat was almost a relief. Shepard barely flinched when the point cut into her cheek, dragging a precise line downward. She cut a second time, and a third, while Shepard closed her eyes and measured her breathing. On the fourth cut, Shepard snaked her gloved hand up and twisted the knife away from the drell, swinging her leg to knock her opponent off her feet.

There was another reverberating thud and the door dented inward, then was kicked down by an out-of-breath Garrus. He dropped the table he'd been using as a battering ram and drew a pistol, unwilling to waste time with the less maneuverable sniper rifle. The first shot caught the drell in the arm. The second missed as she rolled away. Shepard tried to get her feet under her and join the fight, but her limbs folded and she fell on her nose. Lying still and letting Garrus have a turn seemed like a better idea, she decided.

Several more shots sounded, and then Garrus cursed and looped an arm around Shepard's middle, hauling her up and out of the room in a hurry. There was a small explosion behind them—a grenade? Shepard couldn't get a clear read on their surroundings until Garrus set her down in the elevator and activated his omni-tool.

"Miranda, you better have them all out. I don't know where the drell is, but I'm getting Shepard out of here."

"You cut it close, Vakarian, but we're ready to go. The way should be clear. Don't dawdle."

The elevator pinged. "Wouldn't dream of it. Vakarian out." The omni-tool hologram flickered out and he pulled Shepard off the floor again, more gently this time. "Think you can walk?"

Shepard offered what was meant to be a bitter laugh, but came out sounding more like a gargle. "Hey... I've probably walked off worse."

If the run to the docking bay was mostly a blur, at least it was one spent on her own two feet, and if she leaned heavily on Garrus most of the way, no one could blame her. Battle wounds she could handle. Torture was a thing she had blessedly avoided through most of her adventurous career. She wasn't thrilled to break the streak.

"Harbinger," Garrus called as they reached the dock. "Any read on personnel? We didn't find whoever's in charge."

NON-COMBATIVE PERSONNEL EVACUATED. I DESTROYED ALL BUT ONE OF THEIR SHIPS.

"Nice work. Let's hope they take the hint."

Shepard made the last stretch on her own, driven as much by relief as anything else. "Where's the drell?"

AN ESCAPE POD LAUNCHED FROM THE FAR SIDE OF THE ASTEROID. DO YOU WANT TO PURSUE?

"If we can." If there was going to be a second encounter, Shepard wanted it on her own terms.

"Shepard..." It was Miranda over the com-link. Harbinger must have made the plan public. "These people need medical attention. Now's not the best time for a wild goose chase."

"It's only a wild goose chase if we lose her trail," Shepard retorted as the Collector lift made its ascent. Garrus was stoic at her side.

"And if we catch up with her," Miranda queried, "are you in any shape to fight?"

Shepard would have scowled at the reminder if she had the energy to waste. Only sheer force of will was keeping her upright. "Kinda hoping Harbinger can shoot her and be done with it."

Harbinger pursued. Shepard claimed a spot to stand beside the door of the commons area where Miranda was trying to make their new passengers comfortable. At her insistence, Garrus helped them, glancing away from his work a little too frequently to check on her… until Harbinger, to Shepard’s disbelief, reported that he’d lost the pod.

She felt her knees buckle. She felt herself sliding down the wall. Then she didn't feel anything at all.

When she opened her eyes again, she was on the cot in her cabin and Garrus was cleaning up the mess that was her face.

"How long was I out?"

"Not long," he said softly. "A few minutes. You might want to stay off your feet for a while."

"Yeah... I'm getting that."

"These are probably going to scar," he warned.

"I think that was the idea." She wished she knew why. She wouldn't have minded a villainous monologue if it had clarified some of the drell's motives. As it was, she'd been tortured, scarred, and left with barely two sentences to work with.

"If you want, I can give her a matching set."

"I don't care if she suffers." Shepard didn't have the strength right now for vengefulness. "I just want her stopped."

Garrus said nothing to that. When the blood was washed away, he sealed the cuts with a liberal dose of medigel and taped a patch of gauze over them, then stood and took the soiled supplies away. He wasn't gone long enough to have cleaned everything, but she didn't object when he came back to kneel at her side and run his fingers through her hair. This much hovering would have smothered her if it came from anyone else, but Garrus was welcome. Always welcome. If the whole galaxy wanted to lean on her, she would let it. She could carry that weight. It helped, though, to have someone who she could lean on in turn.

-

She had no memory of falling asleep or of dreaming, but it didn't surprise her to wake up hours later. She was alone in the room and assumed that Garrus was helping their rescuees again. It was just as well. She wanted to make herself presentable before facing anyone, for their sake more than her own. A strong commander made a strong crew.

Taking a shower aboard a Reaper joined the rapidly growing list of strangest things she'd ever done. That he had running water at all was bizarre to her, despite the deceptively familiar architecture. The thought of it was as amusing as it was unnerving, though, which was probably a good sign. She might actually get used to the idea. Someday.

The water got into the bandage on her face, but Garrus had left the first aid kit on the bathroom counter. She didn't linger over the wound, but she saw enough to recognize the pattern. The drell must have pulled it from her memories, or else seen an old picture of her. The lines looked like the scars she'd had after Cerberus rebuilt her. She shrugged off that discomforting memory and taped a fresh piece of gauze over them.

Garrus was in the common room as she'd predicted, though he was sitting with his back to the wall and appeared to be taking a nap. The former prisoners were huddled on the far side of the room for the most part, and there were more of them than Shepard remembered. She'd seen six in the cell, including the man who had been killed. Now there were almost twice that number, sleeping or watching her or sitting with their heads down, none talking. There weren't enough clothes for all of them, even with Miranda and Garrus's wardrobes divided up, but those without clothes were wrapped up in sheets and blankets.

Shepard knelt down next to Garrus and touched his gloved hand. He came awake with a start and stared at her, flexing his mandibles a few times before he spoke. "Shepard. Are you alright?"

She smiled his worries away. "Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks for having my back."

Garrus exhaled, relaxing where he sat, but his hand turned to grip hers tightly. "Anytime."

"How are our new friends holding up?"

"Well, they're alive." He said this with forced brightness. "We tried to get them into the empty cabins, but they refuse to be separated. We figure it's because they'd be dragged out one at a time for testing, or... whatever went on back there."

Shepard narrowed her eyes. "They haven't talked yet?"

"Not a word."

"Great." She made room as Garrus stood up. "Are we heading back to Citadel?"

"We're stopping at Eden Prime first. Nearest place with a good hospital." He nodded toward the rescuees. "After that it's up to you, but I'm sure the Council will love this report."

Shepard suddenly felt like lying down again. "Yeah... I bet."

-

She had mail from her mother and from Joker. Joker's was an audio recording. She listened to that first.

"Commander, Tali told us you were alive. Hard to believe, though. And the Council put you on a Reaper? Are they trying to test your patience?" There was a pause as another voice spoke in the background. The recording hadn't picked it up clearly, but Joker relayed the message. "EDI thinks it's funny. She just asked me to tell you that. I won't blame you if you never speak to her again." More commentary from EDI followed, but Joker ignored it this time. "How's Garrus? I bet he was thrilled to have you back. I couldn't look at the poor sap without getting teary-eyed myself. Has he let you out of his sight at all yet? Is he listening right now? Garrus, you better let the commander breathe. She's not made of glass. Unless... I hope you didn't make her out of glass." This time Shepard could almost make out EDI's confused inquiry. "It was a joke, EDI," said Joker before addressed Shepard again. "The Normandy's okay. I knew you'd be worried about her. We're all bored out of our minds running errands for the Alliance. Occasionally something exciting happens, though. Last time it was a crazy salarian trying to blow up Reapers." He chuckled. "You sure turned the galaxy on its head with whatever you did up there on the Crucible." There was another pause, but she couldn’t hear EDI talking this time. "... So when's the Council planning to give you back? They better be planning to. I'll have the whole crew protesting in the Presidium if they don't, just wait and see." He sighed then, a sound of released tension. "Really glad you're back, Commander. Be safe. Joker out."

She was smiling when the message ended. She would reply, but she wanted to think about it first. She opened her mother's letter.

Dear,
I hear it's a good thing I roped you into dinner when I did.
It's just like the Council to ferry you off again when you've
barely had time to rest. I had a few harsh words for
Councilor Eugene, believe me.
I hope this mission is a short one. I'll be shipping back to
Earth in three weeks. If I don't see you on Citadel, I hope to
see you there. I know you're happy with Garrus, but that
boy Kaidan still cares about you and writes me more than I
can keep up with. You could at least be his friend and take
up the slack here.
I mention it because he is stationed at the new Alliance
headquarters in London and making quite a name for
himself as the second human Spectre. If you're not careful,
he'll outshine even you.
Please write back.

Love,
Mom.


Shepard groaned and put her head in her hands. The longer she waited, the harder it would be to talk to Kaidan. The thought had been nagging at her since Rannoch. She just didn't know where to begin.

She hit the reply button before she lost her nerve.

Mom,
I told you not to bring up Kaidan. I'll handle it. Does he
know I'm alive?
Never mind. He does if he's checking the Spectre database
like he should.
I am glad I got to have dinner with you, even if I didn't
sound like it at the time. I'm glad you got to meet Garrus.
We're heading back now, but we're making a stop at Eden
Prime. I'm hoping it won't take too long.

- Margaret

She sighed gustily and sent the message without reading back over it. Determined not to think about it yet, she went back to Joker's message and set the reply format to audio recording.

"Joker, it's great to hear your voice. Next time let EDI talk, though. She asks better questions." She was grinning to herself already. Hopefully he'd be able to hear it in her voice. "Mission's over already, unless they want me doing a follow-up. I just wanna be back on the Normandy. Nowhere else feels like home." She'd had more to say on that subject, but she was drawing a blank. "Um... Heh. Garrus hasn't been that bad. Well, he has, but I don't mind. It's kind of sweet. How are you and EDI? You still an item? You better be treating her right. You know I died saving her ass." To be fair, her mom and Garrus hadn't known the reasons for her choice. Joker might not either. She felt a twinge of dread at the inevitable debriefing on the Normandy if she ever managed to get back on board. "I can't think of anything else to say. Rough mission and some nasty clean-up work to do. Don't ask. Just take care of that ship for me. Shepard out."

She was still smiling, but there was one more message to write. She hadn't gotten anything back from Liara still, but she took a steadying breath and wrote up a description of the drell's attack method, asking if Liara had encountered anything of the sort before. With that unpleasant chore done, she switched off the terminal.

-

The unloading of the rescued test subjects went as smoothly as could be expected, which was to say none of them panicked too badly and most of them shuffled onto the shuttle together once the first was coaxed aboard. The hospital assistants didn't try to force any of them. Shepard suspected that was the biggest help. They still weren't talking, but at least they were in good hands. The overseeing doctor assured her that they would have a Synthesis expert out to look at them as soon as possible. It was the best she could reasonably hope for. With any luck, they'd not only find out what was done to them, but also be able to fix it.

"Thanks for putting up with the extra passengers, Harbinger." It was easier to say than it should have been. Part of her was almost ashamed for not holding tighter to her grudge against the Reapers. It was silly, though, when she thought about it that way.

I WAS COMPLETING THE MISSION. IT WAS NOT A BURDEN.

"Huh. Glad you feel that way. Can we get out of here now?"

YOU HAVE A CALL FROM THIS PLANET. DOCTOR T'SONI IS REQUESTING TO SEE YOU.

"Liara's here?!" That took Shepard aback. Liara still hadn't replied to her messages, and it was a big galaxy. What were the odds?

I HAVE SENT HER LOCATION TO YOUR OMNI-TOOL.

Shepard checked. It was a good way off, but within the same city. Even for Liara, that was impressive. "Thanks, Harbinger. I'll see what she wants."

I WILL WAIT.

She called up Garrus and Miranda, who had already boarded, and invited them to come with her. Miranda declined, but Garrus expressed excitement at the prospect and came riding the platform back down two minutes later.

Chapter Text


The cab ride was predictably long. Eden Prime was bustling, fully recovered from the Reaper attack, it seemed, or nearly so. Their destination was a cafe near the top of one of the arcology towers, isolated and quiet despite its fantastic view. Shepard supposed there were enough like it to keep that particular one from becoming a tourist attraction. Whether or not that was the reason for the relative emptiness, it made Liara easy to spot, though she'd tucked herself away in the snuggest of corners.

On seeing Shepard, her face lit up and she waved. Then, unable to contain herself, she burst out of her chair and came across the room for a hug. "Shepard! I can't believe it's you! It didn't feel real, just hearing it." She relinquished her embrace with apparent difficulty and looked Shepard up and down. "What did you do to your face? You're back two weeks and already getting hurt. Why am I even surprised?"

Shepard laughed despite herself. "Hey, it's the Council's fault. As usual. I'd have been happy to stay on vacation for another month or three."

"Don't lie," Liara scolded with good cheer. "You can't stand being idle. The first sign of trouble and you have to be in the middle of it." She sighed then and some of her ecstatic energy dissipated. "Come, let's sit down. You look like you need to get off your feet."

"No hug for me, then?" Garrus teased petulantly as Liara went back to her table. The asari gave only a tiny laugh as an answer.

The cafe was nice, done up in the polished wood of some native tree species, all of it a dark greenish hue. Even as they took their seats at Liara's table, the only other group of customers left. Shepard couldn't tell whether it was coincidence or if Liara had somehow manipulated the arrangement. The Shadow Broker was hardly omnipotent, but it didn’t do to underestimate her.

"So, Liara..." Garrus's eyes brightened as if he'd just had an idea. "Maybe you can help us. We've been trying to decide what Shepard could do if she ever gives up the military career."

"Oh, that's easy." Liara didn't so much as stop to think about it. Perhaps she already had. "You should be an ambassador."

Shepard gave her a skeptical look. "Seriously?"

"Seriously."

"I'm not buying it..."

"No, it's a great idea," Garrus agreed enthusiastically. "Shepard, think about it! You brought peace between the quarians and the geth. You convinced the krogans to fight for Palaven. You befriended a rachni queen and that leviathan creature." His mandibles quivered at the memory. "You even turned the Reapers to our side. You're the greatest peacemaker in the galaxy."

Liara was nodding in satisfaction. "Exactly what he said."

Shepard still wasn't convinced, but as they both seemed sincere, she gave it a little thought. "Hmm. It's just... Ambassador Shepard doesn't have the right ring to it."

Liara looked disgusted by this priority. Garrus was just amused.

"Come on, though," Shepard kept arguing. "Think of the paperwork. I hate paperwork. I'd have to write letters to people. Official ones. Mission reports are bad enough."

Garrus sighed and spread his hands in surrender. "What can we do, Liara? She's a woman of action."

Liara signaled her defeat with a slow shake of her head. "I guess you're right."

Shepard let them have their moment, then leaned forward and folded her hands on the table. "Okay, but seriously. It's great to see you, Liara, but why meet us out here?"

"Always straight to business with you, isn't it?" But Liara didn't seem annoyed. "I got your message. I don't know anything about this drell, but I have contacts looking into it. The attack you describe, though..." She hesitated. "She might be using her own memory."

Shepard looked down at the table. "That crossed my mind. Kinda hoped it wasn't the case."

"I hope it is," Liara countered with solemnity. "I would rather it be that than a technique just anyone could use."

Shepard hadn't thought of it like that. She grimaced. "I see your point."

"But that would mean she suffered the same thing she inflicted on us." Garrus's horror at the prospect matched Shepard's own.

"It's possible she can amplify the memory, and that what you felt was worse... but I don't know. We'll see what my sources comes up with." Liara sipped her drink. Shepard had been craving a coffee, but she wasn't sure she had the stomach for it now.

"And this is still assuming it's her memory at all," added Garrus.

"Right." Liara nodded. "It could be something else. It is possible to effect the nervous system through Synthesis, but there are no reports of it being done to such an extreme."

"Well," said Shepard. "When I catch her, I'll be sure to ask."

Garrus looked at her warily, but Liara didn't seem concerned or surprised by the bloodthirst in Shepard’s tone. "Good hunting. I'd rather she not have a chance to pass the trick on."

Something occurred to Shepard then and she narrowed her eyes. "Liara, if you didn't know about the drell, why did you come here?"

"Oh..." Liara looked a little uncertain. Some of her old shyness showing through, Shepard suspected. "That was about your other message. You said you don't have a translator chip?"

"Yeah." Now it made sense. Not many things would lure the Shadow Broker away from her work, but a good mystery was one of them. "Well, Garrus said so. I haven't run any scans on myself."

"And you think you might be connected to Synthesis more than most people, because of what happened to you?" Liara persisted.

"That's what Tali thinks, I guess."

"The reason I ask is..." She faltered, and lowered her voice, though the single barista on the far side of the room seemed absorbed in the datapad he was reading. "That is, I could check, if you like. It would be like when I read your visions from the Prothean beacon."

"I remember. Would that work?"

"I think so. In theory. I haven't exactly had other opportunities to study this phenomenon."

"And people think being one of a kind is a good thing..." Shepard grumbled.

"If you'd rather not..."

"No, it's fine. Better at least try to figure this thing out." After everything else she'd been through in the last several days, there was no point wimping out of it.

"That is my thinking. I assume you don't want to do this in a cafe..."

Shepard stole a glance at the barista, though he still wasn’t looking their way. "Not so much. Don't know if I can offer any better, though. My ship's a Reaper."

"So you mentioned." Liara visibly steeled herself. "Well, it's probably not the strangest thing I've ever done."

At that, Shepard laughed.

-

Harbinger offered no commentary on their return. The Collector lift took them up to the deck on Shepard's request, but otherwise the Reaper did nothing. Shepard wondered if he was trying to be considerate.

"Miranda, you on board?" She directed the question to her omni-tool.

"I'm here," Lawson's voice came back. "Are we leaving?"

"Not yet. I've got Liara. We're going to check something out and I'll get back to you."

"Have fun." Miranda didn't sound interested. Shepard suspected she was, but that she was either busy or that she was testing Shepard’s trust, waiting to see if the information would be brought to her without prompting. It seemed like a Miranda thing to do.

"We always do. Shepard out."

Once inside the relative security of her cabin, she turned to Liara. "That eternity thing... Is it any different with Synthesis?"

Liara was examining their surroundings, perhaps intrigued by the mundane additions to Harbinger's structure. "A little, but if anything, it will make it easier. Are you..." She stopped looking around and focused on Shepard. "Are you still alright with this?"

"I trust you, Liara.
"
The asari's smile was heartfelt. "Thank you."

Garrus fidgeted in the doorway. "This is a private thing, isn't it? I can, uh..."

"You can stay if Shepard wants you to," Liara reassured him.

"Of course you can stay, Garrus." She gave him a foxy look. "It wouldn't be fair for me to embrace eternity if I didn't let you watch."

Liara turned a darker shade of blue. "You know it's not like that..."

"I know you used to harbor an enormous crush on me," Shepard retorted. "Does this mean I'm taking advantage of you?"

"What can I say?" Liara had apparently decided that playing along was easier than resisting. "You're worth being taken advantage of."

Garrus cleared his throat and kept his mouth and mandibles clamped tight. Shepard laughed. "Stop. you guys are gonna make me arrogant."

"Shall we get on with it, then?"

It took an effort, but Shepard swallowed down the joke she might have made about being in a hurry. "Sure. Sorry for teasing."

"I don't mind. I do, after all, harbor an enormous crush on you." Liara took her own turn at the game. "I'll take any chance I can get to flirt."

Garrus stepped inside to let the door close and picked a spot on the wall to lean on, folding his arms. "This is getting good."

Shepard didn't comment anymore. She schooled her expression into one of readiness and stood at attention.

It made Liara smile. "Relax, Shepard. Embrace eternity."

There was a rush of green, as if the light of Liara's eyes had flooded Shepard's field of view. The last time they'd done this, there had been stars. Every time prior to that had been for the purpose of studying the Prothean's nightmarish warning. Except for that last brief melding, they were not pleasant memories.

This time was not unpleasant, but it was different. It was otherworldly. She saw the moment the Crucible had activated. She saw the wave of metamorphosis expanding and dividing, weaving a web to span the galaxy. She saw it all as if looking down from far above, as if she held the galaxy in her open palms.

She wasn't sure she liked that metaphor.

The final points of the Synthesis web met, and then the whole thing burst into light. She was inside it now, rushing through the network like blood through arteries. It was too fast, too jumbled. She saw the stream of data around her, she traveled as a part of it, but in the back of her mind, she could still see the whole of the galaxy, or sense it. It was like curling her fingers around an object to feel the shape of its whole, though her eyes could only take in one side. The vision changed again and she was looking at her own face, pupils dilated, a little worse for wear with the bandage on her cheek and the bags under her eyes. She didn't understand this new perspective, and then all at once she did. She was looking through Liara’s eyes. This connection was deeper, even, than what she had experienced that night on Citadel with Garrus. She could see Liara's thoughts all around her as if they were her own. They reflected hers, as Liara had followed her through the vision and was aware of what she experienced, but this was more, somehow, than a Synthesis bond or an asari meld alone. She wasn't witnessing the thoughts and emotions of another being. She was part of that being, as she was part of every other being in the galaxy.

For a fraction of a second, she saw through the eyes of every consciousness connected by Synthesis. The awareness of it shocked her out of the meld and into blackness.

She woke up with her head cradled on Garrus’s lap and Liara fussing over her with an omni-tool, looking panicked.

"Shepard!" Liara was on the verge of tears. "Are you alright? Can you speak? I'm sorry, i should have been more careful..."

Shepard squeezed her eyes shut under the onslaught of Liara's voice. Her head was pounding away like a cannon. "I... Ow. I'm okay." She winced, though, at the effort it took to speak. Her head wasn't the only thing that hurt.

Liara sat back on her heels, still looking distraught. "Your heart stopped. Just for a moment, but... Goddess, I thought I'd killed you."

Shepard sat up, or tried to. It took a push from Garrus to get her there. "You didn't." Her chest ached sharply, but she resisted the urge to clench her hand over it. There was no need to make Liara feel any guiltier. "It wasn't your fault. I asked for this. And I didn't die." She offered a half-smile, weaker than she meant it to be. "So, thanks." Liara didn't seem entirely consoled, but she wasn't arguing. Shepard staggered to her feet, followed quickly by both of them. She brushed off their attempts to help her and made her own way to her bed. It was a better place to sit than the floor while she tried to rub her headache away.

"Maybe..." Garrus said softly, "You shouldn't try that one again for a while."

Shepard looked at him. The look he gave back was intense. It was her turn to feel guilty. He must have thought, for the span of a few missed heartbeats, that he'd lost her again.

"I think it answered your question, in any case.” Liara’s voice was subdued. "I should let you rest, and the two of you... yes. I'm sorry."

"Wait." Shepard scrambled off the bed and caught her as she made for the door. "Liara, I mean it. Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to meet me, and thanks for figuring this out."

Liara stared down at where Shepard held her arm. "I don't know how helpful it will be if it stops your heart to use it."

Shepard gave her a friendly squeeze, then let her go. "We'll see. It's a relief just to know, anyway. Thanks."

"You've already thanked me," Liara pointed out, but a careful smile was blossoming on her face like a spring flower. "Several times."

Shepard bared her teeth in a grin. "Yeah, I guess I have. I don't suppose you want a ride to Citadel?"

"Tempting..." Liara turned back to the door, looking back over her shoulder as it opened. "But no. I've got other places to be."

"Of course you do. Stay out of trouble, Doctor T'Soni."

At that, the asari laughed. "Goodbye, Shepard. I won't ask you to do the same." When she was gone around the corner, Shepard sat back down.

"... You alright?"

The thudding of her heart when she looked at him might not have been due entirely to her close call. "Yeah, Garrus... Come here."

He sat down beside her, not touching, waiting as usual for her direction. It made her chest hurt in a different way.

"Hold me."

He pulled her into his lap immediately, ignoring the obstacle of his armor. She hadn't worn hers. Not on Eden Prime. The thickness of her jacket cushioned her as she leaned against him. His hand found its way into her hair.

"Sorry for scaring you."

"I would ask you not to do that again, but..."

She caught his arm and used it to lever herself around to look at him. "But I always find new ways to risk my life, I know."

He had that turian smile in his eyes. "Creative ways. It's a real talent. You should be proud."

“Did Liara explain what we saw?”

“She was rather busy panicking,” Garrus said. “So, no.”

She kissed his scarred mandible, savoring the flash of fear and heart-wrenching love that passed between them. “Well… I was right about what I said in London… when I said you’d never be alone.”

She felt the sorrow and the desperation of that night, dulled as it was by time and her return. “Oh yeah?”

“I was there— in Synthesis— and I still am. I’m part of you, and Liara, and everyone, I guess. I am Synthesis, or… something like that.” Saying it out loud felt ridiculous, like she was claiming to be a god. Still, there was no denying what she’d seen.

“Well…” Garrus twitched his mandibles the way he did when he was thinking. “We had more or less figured that out already, but…”

“But now we know,” she finished.

“Yeah…”

When his silence became too much and she could feel the muddled, pain-laced direction of his thoughts even without skin-to-skin contact, she pulled herself up on her knees and kissed his face more thoroughly, finally earning a chuckle when she'd gone over every inch she could reach.

"You know," he said huskily. "There are other ways to reassure me you're alive."

She swatted his arm, not that he'd feel it much through the armor. "Not on Harbinger. When we get back, I'll make sure the Council gives me a few days off."

His mandibles twitched and his eyes gleamed brightly, but he let it stand there. "So, if you're all connected to everyone, why didn't that elcor pick up on it when he scanned you back on Citadel?"

"Maybe he just wasn't looking for it." She slipped out of his arms to sit beside him, thigh to thigh, shoulder to shoulder. "Maybe he didn't know what he was seeing. I don't know. I've only had a couple weeks to figure out this Synthesis business."

"And it's been a busy couple of weeks," he added ruefully.

"Never a dull moment."

-

On the way back to Citadel, Shepard wrote the letter she'd been putting off.

Kaidan,
It's Shepard.


I'm back. I'm sure you've heard the rumors. If not, you've at
least seen it in the Spectre database or been contacted by
the Council. Knowing you, you probably don't believe any of
it yet. Who gets that lucky twice?
I just ran a mission with Harbinger. I know. Crazy. Part of me
still thinks it's a trap. First Cerberus, now Reapers. If I die
again, who will bring me back next? My abusive ex from
academy?
I guess I know how you felt on Horizon.
Anyway, whatever this is, and whether or not it lasts, I wanted
you to know. From me. Also my mom says you've been
pestering her and she wants me to distract you.
I'm on my way back to Citadel, but I'll see if I can wrangle a
ride to Earth sometime soon. I'll buy you dinner. If we're both
lucky, I'm not a clone or a VI and it won't be poisoned.
I hope you're taking care of yourself. I miss you.

- Shepard

She regretted it as soon as she'd sent it. This wasn't a scab she needed to pick. She wasn't sure Kaidan needed it either, though not talking to him at all would be worse. She'd given him too many half-truths and dismissals as it was. He deserved more than that, even if it hurt them both. At least, that's what her mother would say.

The last stretch back to Citadel passed quickly, though that might have been due to Shepard catching up on her sleep. As hard as she tried to stand up tall for Garrus and Miranda, the mission had taken a toll on her, and the ordeal with Liara had stripped her of what strength she'd managed to regain. She was careful not to show how weak on her feet she felt— Garrus had worried enough— but she took shameless advantage of the uneventful voyage and spent the time recuperating, nightmares be damned.

Citadel looked the way she'd left it. Between the friendly Reapers, the apologetic husks, and a few thousand pairs of glowing green eyes, she was still trying to believe that was a good thing. The Council, at least, welcomed her with proverbial open arms.

"We received a report on the patients at Eden Prime," said Councilor Eugene. "There is already a Synthesis expert investigating the matter, and the doctors sound optimistic. You did well."

Shepard shot a glance at Garrus, who returned it. "Wow. That's one I don't hear often."

"No need for disrespect, Commander. We are pleased to have your services on hand again." The human councilor folded her hands in front of her primly. "If you'll agree to it, We have a new mission and a more permanent position for you."

Shepard crossed her arms in a jaunty reflection of the councilor's pose. "What about Genesis? There are still some loose ends to tie up."

"And you may still have a chance to do so, if our other agents prove less competent. However, we have a more pressing mission. While you were dealing with Genesis, we’ve had a Spectre go missing— a salarian named Jondum Bau. The search parties sent after him have also vanished. We were preparing to send another Spectre, but as you're here and volunteering...”


Jondum Bau. She recognized the name. She’d worked with him before. “Search and rescue, then? Do I have transport?”

At that, the Councilor smiled. “We’ve made an arrangement that I hope will please you.”

Shepard's heart leapt, though she hastily smothered it down. It wasn't safe to get her hopes up with Council business, but...

"The title of commander ought to have a ship to go with it. There is a suitable one currently en route to Earth. We've booked transport for you to rendezvous there in four days, if you accept this offer. As I recall, you were very fond of your old post."

Somehow, Shepard managed to keep the ear-to-ear grin off her face until she was out of the Council’s sight.

-

The wait wasn't as bad as she'd thought it would be. Garrus served as a good time-killer, and although Miranda had said her goodbyes with the excuse of other pressing business, Wrex was there again, having reportedly gotten halfway home and then turned around to renegotiate, not satisfied with the initial agreement. He listened with a bloodthirsty gaze to her recounting of the mission, and then told her endless anecdotes about his children and the rebuilding of Tuchanka. Shepard very nearly invited him to meet her mother, but the topic changed and she didn't quite have the guts to bring it back up.

Wrex was there to watch with them from the window as the passenger ship that would take them to Earth docked.

"Hey Shepard," Garrus asked idly. "Now that you're not KIA, what does that make you?"

"KIA but okay?" Wrex offered. "KIABO? No, that sounds lame."

Shepard had put some thought into it. "TDSK."

Wrex repeated the acronym skeptically.

She clarified, "Twice Dead, Still Kicking."

Garrus didn't look impressed, but Wrex burst out laughing and slapped her hard on the back.

Shepard staggered and coughed and caught herself on the window ledge. "If you do that any harder, it'll be three times."

Wrex apologized, but he was still laughing.

-

There was something different about coming back to Earth. Seeing the Citadel had been reassuring, despite the changes, but it wasn't home. Neither was Earth, but the feeling evoked by it was closer. This wasn't home, but it was important. It was nostalgic, even for the commander who had spent her childhood in space. The Alliance was there. Kaidan was there. Soon, the Normandy would be there too. It made her regretful, in a way, to think that Garrus wasn't experiencing the same thing she was. She held his hand, though, and gave him her closeness, and through her, perhaps, he felt it too.

The Normandy docked at dusk, only a few hours after their own arrival, a streak of blue and silver to match the twilit sky. She and Garrus could only stand and watch as the ship drifted smoothly into port and the boarding bridge extended, while the first few stars winked through the dying light.

"Home sweet home," Garrus murmured, as enchanted by the sight as she was.

"Damn right it is."