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Smog, smoke, and ash curled across a dead end road in Kima District. Corpses littered the avenue from sidewalk to street. As another merc fell over the body of the buddy he’d been trying to evac, the ex-commander once known as Archangel flushed his sink.

It was a hell of a day to die.

His bones ached as he dragged his rifle into position, breathed and fired. A block away, an enemy combatant’s faceplate shattered and splattered the concrete.

"How are your thermal clips?" 

He ejected his sink, tracked its fall into the debris. Tried to keep his subtones casual when he answered, but his mouth was too dry and his larynx too tense.

"You know how it is. Could always use a couple more."

Heavy ordnance had pounded the avenue earlier, gouged out the terrain till he’d forced the mechs to retreat for repairs. Bullets hammered the guardrail now, grinding it down, slicing overhead and smacking the ceiling. Plaster sifted down, dust on the dust of the fallen at his back.

He didn't look. A look invited memory, and memory was a mistake. He might be a poor excuse for a soldier, but as long as they stayed locked in the vault, the objective stayed clear. And he’d report for duty until he was out of commission for good.

He squeezed the trigger. Another one down.

The approach was a warzone. Enemy combatants kept mustering, kept deploying. It was an incontestable waste of men and resources, a victory assured by superior numbers and deferred by weak leadership. 

This was the intermission. For now, they were disorderly, dispersed on the field, and soon to be dead. 

He fired. A hostile fell. He fired some more. More hostiles fell.

He dropped into cover and shunted sinks mechanically into the breech.

Rearm. Regroup, he thought to the mercs. Stop jumping that breastwork for half a minute.

A half-minute—that was all. Time to patch new wounds, flex stiffening fingers, drink his dwindling supply of water. Thoughts of survival had dematerialized hours ago, killed by pragmatism and something more deep-seated, a basic truth: the CO went down with his men. 

He set up again. Forced down the fatigue, pushed back against sleeplessness. Dad was present, a shield against the admission of weakness, a reminder of what he must do and who he ought to have been. No quarter, no retreat. Discipline and service, honor and virtue. He was a soldier, a citizen of the Hierarchy, and the son of Castis Vakarian. He had a mandate to finish what he started and no, he damn well couldn’t lie down.

He squeezed the trigger, pulled the bolt, and squeezed again, muscle memory taking hold where attention faltered. 

He’d always expected he’d remember life before C-Sec at the end. Solana, Mom, Dad. Before everything had gone to hell. But even now and two years dead, the commander was here too. The quiet days between missions, tinkering with the Mako on the SR1. The MSV Fedele, Saleon down the barrel of a gun and Shepard, talking him down. Ilos.

She'd been like Dad, in a way. Principled. Unflinching. Rejecting the possibility of a no-win scenario. He pulled the trigger and felt a bullet lacerate his arm, ripping a track through flesh. 

—Shields were down. His fucking shields were down, and what was he, fresh out of damn basic?

He ducked and cranked the bolt. Another spent clip rolled free, fetched up against the boot of the tech specialist who’d been Monteague.

"And so he dies anyway. What was the point of that?"

"You can't predict how people react, Garrus. But you can control how you respond."

He knew he was here because of her. He'd left C-Sec to join her. Returned because she pushed him, hitting home when his father never had. He'd watched when the flag was draped over her empty coffin. Watched when the Council turned tail, dismissed the Reaper menace. He'd watched till the one disillusioned day he could watch no more, and then he'd watched himself quit, turning his back on the ones who'd turned their backs on her.

His father spoke again. It was only right that he'd be on the comm. There at the beginning, there at the end. Willing him accountable for all his damn mistakes. "No matter how bad things are falling apart around you, as long as you have at least one bullet left, you can still get the job done. Understand?"

"Understood, sir." He shifted his shoulders back to readiness and straightened his finger along the trigger.

Another platoon of mercs was scrambling over the breastwork. Outsourced labor. No company colors. Freelancers, contracted and deployed for no other reason than to soak up fire and waste his clips. 

It rankled that the strategy would work. He hoped like hell that the company leaders would try the avenue. Tarak, Jaroth, Garm. Something was owed before it was all over.  

The enemy were advancing, scattershot, no tactical positioning whatsoever.  

One less. And two. And three. Sinks hit the floor. 

Dad's voice was a constant in his ear, bracing by the fact of its presence.

"How many targets are there on the field?"

"Not many. Not yet."

"Then reload."

To obey was instinct. He checked his ordnance pack. 

Touched seams.

He froze. Breathed, and reached for his ammo belt. 

His bandolier. 

The box at his feet, the other box at his feet, every box at his feet. Scoured to the corners and empty. 

He returned to the guardrail automatically. Couched the stock against his shoulder, molded his palm to the grip. Grimed with dirt. Tacky with blood. Rounds were drumming the concrete around him, the scent of smashed cordite spiking the air. Hostiles were shouting below, words without form or meaning. 

A thought penetrated the glacial stillness in his mind.

End of the line.

He knew without counting that there were seven clips in the breech. Seven clips—seven shots. Seven kills, then he could sign off for good.

It was more difficult than it should’ve been, to say it. He flexed his mandibles and spoke, cutting over the channel. "Can't. This is it."

He looked down the scope. Figures were scurrying around the laser dot, magnifications in miniature. "Thanks, Dad. For everything." He fired through the sudden silence over the comm.

Scratch one. Six clips.

"Listen, son." His father’s subtones were steady, pitched midrange, controlled—the same they'd been every day of Garrus's life. "You finish up what you have to do there, and then you come on home to Palaven. We have a lot to sort out."

A final lesson. He nodded once, tersely, against the lens. "I have to go now, sir. Don't worry about me—I'll make it home when I can. The." His throat was tight. It shouldn’t have been tight. This was the damn job and he’d done it to himself. "The odds just got a lot better."

Last wave. He realized that Dad was still on the line, waiting with him—a fleeting remark by the sliver of his brain exempt from numbers, the numbers he ran to deal death and the number of clips counting down to his. 

They clambered over the breastwork singly, in pairs, in teams. It didn’t matter. They were all marks and ignominious ones. Amateurs. Moving towards the wrong cover, looking in the wrong directions, stepping in the wrong places.

He should have saved a grenade. Formulated a plan to go out in a way befitting a marine and a Vakarian. Typical.

He squeezed the trigger. Five clips. The enemy scattered around the body, ran for cover. Bought themselves and him a little more time.

Three enemy combatants vaulting the breastwork. Humans, kitted out in military grade ceramic with firearms to match. The female on point was already signaling her team. 

She was using Alliance hand-and-arm signs: double time, radio silence, hold fire. Advancing at a practiced clip, rifle to her shoulder, her squad keeping pace and formation on her flank. Her muzzle swept the field with intention, clocked freelancers’ positions and his own as she closed the distance between them.

Command material. If she rallied other men to her, he’d have even more of a situation on his hands. The threat assessment was clear. He disregarded the freelancers as they milled and turned his sights on her. 

He wondered briefly why she hadn’t ordered her team into cover—she was clearly ex-military, would know full well that driving dead ahead down a field this long was suicide—and killed the thought. He’d take what he could get.

Garrus settled into the scope. Vertical angle, 62.2 degrees. Ambient air density, 0.068 grams per liter. Spin drift, 43 millimeters.

She slowed fractionally, free and clear in his sights, and her team slowed with her. From this vantage she was a faceless target in a helm.

He exhaled. The world narrowed to the stillness of her body, the symmetry of the crosshairs, the steadiness of his finger on the trigger.

Then she looked up, and eyes he hadn’t seen for two years swept through his scope as she signed ‘allied forces,’ and he saw the N7 designation on her cuirass. 

His rifle jerked and slipped off the ledge. His shoulders slammed against the guardrail, yanking him into cover.

“Garrus, eyes forward. I don’t hear you shooting. Unless you’re absent a rifle and your life, you keep pulling the trigger.”

The CO glanced over the platform. Saren sprawled on the grass below, blood seeping from the hole in his head. No vitals. No movement.

He was breathing too hard, too fast. "I thought I just saw—"

Her face was hidden by her helmet, her voice expressionless when she turned away.

"Make sure he's dead."

Shepard.

Dad's voice cut through memory and delusion. "Focus up, son. There are hostiles on the field. Your work’s not over."

—It couldn’t be. It wasn’t. 

He steadied his rate of breath. Returned to his post. Combat stress reaction. He'd seen her because he'd been thinking of her. Because he hadn’t slept, eaten, or left this perch in 48 hours and never would. That was all. 

One of the freelancers had turned bold, traversing the open ground forward of his base. He fired. Ticked down the length of his life to four clips. The others had bunkered down, absent a leader to goad them out and absent the nerve to try his aim.

His reticle returned to her—threat, question, and problem. She was directing her people to cover at the freelancers’ rear. Positioning indicated intent to order them forward, keep him occupied while she and her team broke for the entrance. 

It was the smart tactical decision on her end. And it was the right call on his to stop letting her maneuver on his field. She wasn’t the commander. Wasn’t Shepard.

He locked on, straightened his finger along the trigger. This was the sound choice. It was. No one came back from the dead. No allies to be found here. 

Except she moved like a veteran, and she’d seen him mow down multiple combatants, and she was still standing in the open, brazenly putting her helm in his sights and her life in his hands.

Maybe he hadn’t hallucinated that hand-and-arm sign along with his dead CO’s face. 

Test of intention. If they were friendlies, they wouldn’t return fire when attacked. If they were hostiles, they would. 

He swapped in a concussive round. Set instinct against the logic that no reinforcements were incoming because no one was alive to know he needed them; need for certainty against the training that told him not to waste specialized ammo.

He squeezed the trigger. Her shields flared and sparked out as it hit.

She glanced up at his position. Signed ‘allied forces’ again and ‘hold fire,’ slower, following Alliance cues with Hierarchy ones this time.

Shepard's eyes. 

She looked down the avenue again and picked up her pace. "Shields're down," he heard her report. "On my mark, proceed as discussed." 

Shepard's voice. 

He took cover. Flushed his clip, relief at odds with disbelief. An assist was an assist. But the circumstances were unexpected. The Shepard he’d known would never have taken a contract to execute a man. Even as a Spectre she'd toed the line, requiring her people to do the same. 

—He needed to compartmentalize. Focus up. He had allies on the field, somehow, a gun in his hands. The commander would choose her moment, and until then, he just had to stay the hell alive.

He set sights on a freelancer just forward of Shepard’s position. Recommitted to the numbers, the reticle. He breathed; his finger straightened. 

A shotgun cracked and his mark’s head burst. 

His eyes snapped to Shepard. She was charging through her team’s support fire, shooting left-right, the mercs in panic as she closed. They swarmed forward in full rout, driven towards his base, towards—ah. 

Her tech flung an EMP, detonating the ill-concealed charges his demolitions specialist had set around the entrance before she’d fallen. The explosion rocked the building. Mercs were screaming, burning alive.

Garrus flicked his mandible. It was the first grin he’d cracked in days. “Dad, I think I have to call you later,” he said. “I have allied forces incoming after all.” 

The sincerity carried. There was a shift in Castis’s subtones to match when he answered. "Make it out alive, son." 

“Yes, sir.”

The line went dead.

Reserves were deploying, climbing over the breastwork. If Shepard’s team aimed to rally here with him, mission objectives had been redrawn. They’d cover his six and he’d hold the rear. 

He fumbled open his assault rifle with fingers gone stiff. Rehomed clips to his Mantis, and repeated the drill with his sidearm. They’d been the last resort against capture, the final bullet reserved for him. But unless Shepard was far less competent than he remembered, he could dispense with the contingencies. 

Methodically he fired, flushed sinks, and fired again, eyes on his targets, ears on the battle slowly encroaching on his position. Shepard wouldn't let the enemy roll him up. That was a certainty like not much else in the damn galaxy. But when her tech penetrated the lock and the soldering failed and the door cycled open, he still snatched a visual, verified intent on reflex. The siege had shot his nerves to hell, dusted whatever trust he had in a good thing. 

He settled back into his scope, willing himself to steadiness. There was one more mark on the avenue, posted up in cover but restless. Agitated. About to rabbit. 

“Archangel?” Shepard asked.

Garrus held up a finger. 

The freelancer’s helm breached cover, snapped back as he pulled the trigger. His body thudded down. And for a second, two seconds, three, his ears rang with the impossible silence, a vacuum absent gunfire or ordnance or the boots of enemy combatants racing down the road. 

—Clear. Fucking clear. No targets on the field; allies delivered from beyond the grave by airdrop, divine intervention, or both. 

He toggled the safety and unfolded. Levered himself up on his rifle, knees and back in full protest against their first real change in position in days. Gave up halfway across the room, and settled onto the munitions crates he’d emptied hours ago before he could embarrass himself by falling over. 

He didn’t know how she was here. Didn’t know who’d sent her or why or what the hell she was doing on Omega. But she was back among the living, and that was goddamn enough.

“Shepard.” He unsealed his helm and set it aside. “I thought you were dead.”

Chapter Text

“I’m fit for duty whenever you need me, Shepard. I’ll settle in and see what I can do with the forward batteries.”

“All right, Vakarian. Dismissed. Be by to check up on you later.”

The door cycled shut. Shepard braced her hands on the comm table and bowed her head, blowing out a breath.

Too damn close.

Salvage from Archangel's safehouse sat half processed in Decon, arrayed on the countertop for autoclaving but as yet uncleaned. His rifle lay fully assembled beside the transport pack they'd pulled from one of the bunks.

Gun was worse for wear. Lenses smeared and probably misaligned, rings and turrets caked with grime. The trigger pull was crusted with dried blue blood.

Shepard couched the stock against her shoulder, appraising heft and feel. Bolt action, bottom-heavy, lightly modded. Custom scope with IR torch attachment. Not compact or lightweight by any stretch of the imagination. A guaranteed pain in the ass if an enemy combatant ever closed.

He'd always been a long range specialist. Seemed that hadn't changed. Guy profiled sniper in every way—emotionally withdrawn, technical, intelligent. Respectful, or at a minimum quiet, regardless of personal opinions held.

She lowered the barrel. She should run the numbers. But unless sight and touch were leading her wrong, Vakarian would do very well with a duplicate of the new toy she’d been issued.

-

"Job for you, Armory Officer. This a good time?” 

Jacob looked up. The CO was on the threshold.

He saluted, standing to attention. "What do you need, ma’am?" 

Archangel’s rifle was in her hand, muzzle cocked towards the ceiling and stock braced against her forearm. Index straight along the trigger pull; safety engaged and breech probably empty. All SOP, all by the book. He still couldn't stop himself from thinking about those Cerberus cells she’d scrubbed off the map two years back, to say nothing of the damn Akuze Project. Commander Shepard didn’t have a record of letting a thing go, but she was pragmatic. Had shown that by signing on without much fuss, history or no. Any chance that she’d put the Collector threat on hold to chase a personal vendetta against Cerberus was remote. On the other hand, he’d have been happier to receive his first orders from her minus the gun.

She stepped inside. "Get your techs assembling another M-98 Widow.”

They’d issued Shepard the M-98 about seven cycles ago. Commander was hard on her gear, but no way she’d wrecked her anti-material rifle that fast. Which meant she wanted one for her long lost buddy from the SR-1. 

"For Vakarian?" he asked.

"Gunnery Officer Vakarian. He’ll be taking charge of the forward batteries between missions." 

He noted the correction and the implied decision. Wondered if Miranda knew they’d just gained a commissioned officer, and if not, who’d be the one to have to write that report. 

“Ah. Got it,” he said. “I didn’t get the requisition form.”

“Decision just got made. Figured you could push the papers. Got the title to suggest it.”

“...Right.” 

He’d been retrofitting M-96 DMRs when she came in, modifying them for heatsinks. He found his hand on one of the replacement receivers, turning it over while he turned over how to tell the captain that, as the Cerberus rulebook was written, she’d technically have to get an officer appointment approved by her own XO before it could go live.

Didn’t see that going well. The policy probably wasn’t going to survive this cycle, if Shepard pushed this.

He knew he’d stalled for too long when she raised her eyebrows. "I’m not seeing a flurry of activity, Taylor. Problem?"

Multiple problems, all of them above his pay grade to disclose. And no background report needed to know that when Commander Shepard gave an order, she expected it to be followed. Immediately. 

Jacob cleared his throat. Budget had always been a hassle in the Alliance—deadlocking initiatives, killing them completely. Maybe that’d fly. "Assembling another Widow will put a considerable dent in our resources, Commander."

"As part of the fire team, the gunnery officer’s gonna need the best. And I’ve got some laid by from the Alliance if it’s over budget. ‘Less I’m not understanding the M-98’s price point or what your boss is willing to shell out to keep me happy, should more than cover it." 

She looked him over, transferring the SR to her other hand. It figured that she seemed just as easy with a firearm in her left as in her right. LC Shepard: N7, Spectre, Savior of the Citadel, and ambidextrous. Why not. 

"Look like you’ve still got something to say, Taylor,” she said after a moment. “You want permission to speak freely, you’ve got it."

Didn’t see how that was going to go well. But Shepard was a different kind of officer than his captain in the Corsairs, or Miranda, for all she was a civilian. Reports had indicated she was hands-on, and it looked like they were right. If he gave ground, she was just going to advance.

He braced for impact instead. "Yeah, I have some thoughts. With all due respect, Commander…"

She planted the M-92 on the deck, interlacing her fingers over the muzzle. Her tone was conversational. "You know, I had an NCO who told me whenever someone says 'with all due respect,' they really mean 'kiss my ass.' You think she was right?" 

Bad start. 

"With all due respect, Commander," he repeated, "Vakarian has been through severe physical and emotional trauma. He's also an unknown. Until we met him face to face on Omega, we had no indication of his real identity. I recommend that we wait to register him as an officer and crewman until we've assembled a complete psychological profile and the Illusive Man confirms he's really fit for duty."

“I see." Her expression didn’t give away much, but Jacob had been in the Alliance a long time before going private. He knew when someone was about to get chewed out, and time was almost up.

"Try to see it my way, ma’am," he went on. "I know he was part of your team on the SR-1, so you're close. I get that. But he could be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or any number of physical problems from those injuries he picked up on Omega. He’s still healing, and he could be damaged goods. I just don't want him failing you in the line of fire."

The lights buzzed overhead, filling the silence that followed. Outside, Chambers was chatting up another crewman. Lawson passed the open door, eyes fixed on a datapad in her hand. 

He wished like hell someone would walk in or that she’d talk already. Cut the tension.

Shepard cracked her neck. Propped the rifle against the weapons locker. 

"All right,” she said. “I get it. We’re newly acquainted, and all you’ve got to go on is the Illusive Man's intel. I’m gonna guess what his little dossier says about me, and then I’m gonna tell you why Vakarian gets this rifle and this commission over your objections and anybody else’s.” 

She hooked her thumbs into her pockets. "Here’s the psych eval: my formative years with gangs made me slow to trust new blood, and predisposed to favor those with a history of service to me. Well, I’ve been grilled front, back, and sideways on my background every time the brass had a mind to promote me. Fact that I kept rising must’ve meant it didn’t appreciably impact my judgment.” 

“No, ma’am,” he said, and she nodded. 

“Vakarian’s competency speaks for itself in his military service record in the Hierarchy, work with Citadel Security, and leadership as Archangel. In matters of mental health and physical fitness…” She shrugged. “I trust in our medical team’s ability to monitor him for signs of PTSD or complications with his wounds a little more than I trust a tech mogul with a fake name and no known credentials besides a lotta fucking nerve and even more financial assets. The chief medical officer tells me she’s got no reservations about clearing him for active duty in a couple days. And that’s that ‘less I hear otherwise from her.”

She held up a hand when he changed position and opened his mouth. "As for any partiality you’re detecting, lemme put it to you this way. I think it’s a pretty hard thing that your boss is vetting all potentials for this mission but is telling me to take his people’s character on faith. See, that feels like favoritism to me, and there are no favorites on my ship. So I gotta look at data. I look at Vakarian, I see a guy who served well and faithfully on the SR-1, who made it his job and his mission to protect civilians and try to right a few wrongs. I look at you and Lawson? I see two people who enlisted with Cerberus voluntarily. And I’m not unacquainted with the long list of terrorist activities attributed to this organization, with the human supremacist flag it flies like xenophobia’s something to be proud of or its rampant and open disregard for the value of sentient life. I won’t forget Akuze. I won’t forget Kahoku, or the experiments done on live rachni and human civilians. All things considered, I think it’s more than reasonable to feel confident in Vakarian’s appointment and a little apprehensive about yours 'til I see the proof of your personal integrity.”

She braced herself on the tabletop. Her fingers drummed once, twice. “I’m gonna be honest, Armory Officer. I’m doing everything I can to keep an open mind about you and Lawson. I have to, ‘cause we need to pull together if we want even half a chance of surviving this mission. But you’re gonna need to bear with me while I get there, and try giving me a little trust in return.”

She met his eyes. “Sound good?”

She knew what she was doing, he’d give her that. Shepard wasn’t a career soldier, but she might as well have been, the way she could steer a conversation. 

"Sounds good, Commander,” he said aloud.

She nodded again. "Vakarian to be appointed Gunnery Officer and to retain that commission ‘til I see fit to dismiss him. Have the M-98 delivered to my quarters upon assembly. At the speed you assembled mine, I trust a few hours will suffice."

She resettled the Mantis into the crook of her arm and walked out. 

CIC was unoccupied excepting Chambers and a pair of operators at navigation. Shepard headed for the elevator without engaging and hit the call button.

Of fucking course the first nonhuman recruit needed to be profiled again, but she had a job to do and couldn’t dwell on that. The Cerberus operatives and their new crewman would have to get on, and she’d have to cooperate in good faith with a jingoist human supremacist group, no matter how strong her misgivings or how much it all deserved to be summarily dismantled and burned down. 

Shipboard culture was going to warrant some careful management.

"EDI," she said, stepping in. 

“Yes, Shepard.”

"Dispatch Donnelly and Daniels to remove Gunnery Officer Vakarian's belongings to the main battery and get ‘im settled. And tell Mess Sergeant Gardner to make sure he's stocked on dextro rations. No nutrient paste, understood? He gets solid food like the rest of us."

"Sending message now."

She settled against the handrail as the door cycled shut. Vakarian wasn't sentimental, and neither was she. The M-98? Just a gun with 'Glad you’re here, let's never do that again' in the subtext.

-

Garrus stepped into the battery and looked around. Poorly lit. Private. A hell of a lot better than the barracks.

He set down the shipping container he'd hauled from the cargo hold. It hit the deck at a velocity and volume that indicated he might possibly have let go more than set it down. 

Well, he couldn’t be expected to be moving furniture with grace on his first day out of Medical. At least he'd have a place to store his effects. …And a place to park his turian ass. Right now. 

Yeah, he was definitely still in recovery.

He sat and let the vertigo subside, muscles protesting the work they’d just done. His effects were somewhere else—Decon, if he had to guess, or boxed up in the hold he’d just left. Time enough to track them down in a bit. For now he just wanted to take stock.

So Cerberus had their claws in Shepard. It'd been a surprise to wake up to, and not exactly a welcome one. They were behind enemy lines, now. And if the SR-1 had been an uncomfortable environment for nonhumans two years ago, the SR-2 was downright unsafe given the politics of the group bankrolling the mission.

Against that he set Shepard. The commander was a serially upstanding officer—had been morally unimpeachable in the eyes of law enforcement, press, and military in multiple systems before she’d died. From what he could take from their talk in the comm room, that hadn't changed. Probably never would. If her crew subscribed to any really extremist bullshit, she'd keep them in line or die trying. 

He’d have to keep his eyes open, all the same. Shepard was a professional, but that would only take her so far if Cerberus got up to its old crap. The wounds from a thing like Akuze never really healed. 

Next up: he was alive. How in hell, he didn’t know, but the proof was in the pain and the scars. He'd been ready to die back there—by the end, had looked forward to the close. It had been a sentence fully warranted, justice meted out for an officer’s fatal misjudgment. But here he was on the way to full physical recovery, while ten good people lay in unmarked graves, deeds unacknowledged and deaths undisclosed. 

He'd square that away, somehow. He had a commission and a CO back from the dead, and it wasn’t an option to go brood in a corner when she needed him on her six, guarding her against Reapers and merc bands and the terrorist assholes she'd been roped into working for. She'd died once, and now she was back. As far as he was concerned, it was his job to keep it that way.

Especially since he sure as hell wasn't going through the five stages of mourning again, or whatever Williams had called it. Some ways, he'd never gotten out of denial. Never really believed she'd died until she showed up on Omega to pull his ass out of the fire, and he realized what it'd been like to have her gone.

He looked up as the door opened and pushed to his feet. Human female, brunette.

"Gunnery Officer Vakarian?" she asked.

"Guilty. What can I do for you?"

She held out a hand. "I'm Engineer Gabriella Daniels, in charge of the propulsion systems."

He grasped it. Firm squeeze, two seconds, release. No test of strength or recoil from his alien physiology. "Nice to meet you, Daniels.”

"My colleague's off getting your stuff. I wanted to sync your suit with the rest of the ground team, if you’ve got the time."

Interesting. If this was Cerberus’s onboarding protocol, it was informal as hell.

"Go right ahead,” he said. “I'd appreciate it."

"This should only take a minute." She booted up her omnitool and tapped in a few keys. "So you're Archangel, huh?" she asked, glancing up at him. "I saw when the commander and the XO brought you to Medbay. You didn't look too good."

"I guess I still don't," he said. "But I'm not bleeding anymore, and that’s enough for now."

Daniels nodded. "How's your suit? Do we need to send someone to repair or replace it?"

He shook his head, linking his fingers behind his back. "It's functional. Just a little banged up."

"Okay." She checked her screen again. "You're all set. Have Shepard deploy some medigel on you or something the first time she brings you groundside. If there's any kinks, me or one of the techs can figure it out."

"I appreciate it," he repeated. "I'll—"

The door cycled open to admit another crewman. Male, very red hair, box of effects. 

"Ah, Gabby. Already here.”

"Kenneth. What took you so long?"

"Had to find something to put this in. Whoever ran the sterilization protocol just left everything lying about." He shifted the box to his hip and stuck out a hand, looking at him. "Gunnery Officer Vakarian, I assume. I'm Engineer Kenneth Donnelly."

"Good to meet you, Donnelly," he answered, taking his hand. "Thanks for picking that up for me. I appreciate the assist."

"Pleasure's all mine." He grinned. "So I hear you're the modern-day Batman?"

"Sorry—Batman?"

Daniels rolled her eyes. "Ignore him. Believe it or not, he's trying to compliment you."

"Well, it's not any man who can hold off three merc bands by himself for over a day," Donnelly retorted. "Where do you want 'er, sir?"

"There's fine." Garrus pointed. "I'll go through it, get the container back to you later."

"Good enough." He set down the box with a grunt and dusted off his hands. "We should get back to Engineering. You need anything else, Gunnery Officer, just shout."

"I will. Thanks again."

Donnelly strolled out. Daniels paused as she drew even with him.

"Hey." She saluted. "Welcome to the Normandy."

Fine. Maybe they weren’t all assholes.

Or maybe Daniels and Donnelly were the welcome wagon, the friendly face Cerberus put on a corrupt operation to lull new additions into a sense of complacency. Who could say, really.

He'd barely sat down when the door cycled open again. Another crewman, male and older, fatigues smudged with stains.

"Gunnery Officer Vakarian?"

"What can I do for you?” He got to his feet.

He saluted. "Mess Sergeant Gardner. I'm here to get your order for the next batch of rations. Any requests or food allergies?"

He shook his head. "No food allergies, Mess Sergeant. I'm not that picky either. Just no, uh, nutrient paste."

"Cheap date, huh?" Gardner shook his head, keying something in. "Well, thanks for making my job easy. Not like some of these others. Tiramisu? Pancetta? This isn't a luxury liner, damn it."

The hell was pancetta?

"I understand," he said aloud. "I'll try not to cause any problems while I'm here."

"Smart fella. No sense annoying the guy who cooks your food." He closed his omnitool. "I have what I need. Welcome to the Normandy, Gunnery Officer."

"Thanks for stopping by, Mess Sergeant."

Garrus settled onto his crate. Three visitors in a row wasn’t a coincidence. He could feel Shepard's influence in her crew's spirit, and her hand in the way they'd helped him settle in. It’d been the same on the SR-1.

Still, even the commander couldn't make complete bastards into saints. That was the red flag in itself—the civility, the friendliness. 

It was too disorienting to reconcile that with the Cerberus mission statement, with the cells he, Williams, and the CO had wiped out two years ago. And if it was part of some ruse, he wasn’t going to get to the bottom of it today. 

He dragged over the box Donnelly had brought, not getting up. He'd been unconscious and in critical condition when they cleared his base, so he’d had no say in what parts of his life were worth salvaging.

Helm, C-Sec cuffs, Williams’s dogeared extra copy of Whitman. He'd given up holos and physical correspondence to protect his family after leaving Citadel space, but someone had even grabbed the paperweight he and Sol sculpted when his sister went through an artistic phase ten years ago. 

He dug deeper. Grip tape, gun oil, civvies. Melenis's emergency flask of booze…telling insight into what they thought of him, or what they valued, or both…a couple of personal effects belonging to various members of his squad, and the HMWSR X he'd used on the SR-1. The commander had just handed it to him one day in the hangar bay. Reading up on the specs later, he’d learned that it put her back about a million credits. The introduction of thermal clips in weapons tech had forced her retirement from active duty months ago; but it was an honorable discharge, and he’d never quite been able to let her go. 

He flipped the casing in his hands and flicked a mandible, remembering how Ash had chewed him out for trying to take it apart.

"What the hell are you doing?" she’d said, and he’d managed something accurate but fundamentally unsatisfactory, along the lines of ‘I just want to see what's inside.’ She’d rocked back on her heels, incredulous. "That's an HMW line rifle! Spectre Master Gear? That gun's a prototype, Vakarian! If you take it apart, you might not be able to put it together again."

He sat back. Shepard’s people had been thorough. Only thing missing was his M-92 Mantis, Archangel’s last rifle and nearly his, too. She'd been a damn good gun and it gave him a pang to think of her in the mercs’ hands back on Omega; but it was a loss he was willing to bear if the choice had been between his piece and his life, or those of his family. It’d been a mistake to disclose his identity to his XO, one whose repercussions could ripple out to his sister, mother, father, and everyone he’d ever known.  

Someone rapped on the door.

"Unlocked," he called.

The door stayed closed. Garrus pushed to his feet and keyed the switch.

A rifle case lay on the deck. He looked down the hall, then knelt and opened it. Inside was his M-92, cleaned and repaired.

A sheet of paper had been tucked along the barrel. He worked it out and unfolded it.

Borrowed your rifle for diagnostics and repair. Needed a little TLC, but she’s fit for action.

Shepard

Chapter Text

The door hissed and light from the passageway spilled in. It fell across his datapad, washing out the text. Garrus looked up.

"Commander."

She nodded, setting down the rifle case she’d brought. "Vakarian. Settling in?"

"Working out how to use this console, mostly.” He marked his place in the manual. “What's up?"

"We’re heading back to Omega for a potential recruit. Doctor Mordin Solus. Heard of him?"

"Yeah, he's got a clinic out in the slums. That’s, uh. That’s not specific enough, all things considered. Gozu District." He looked for a place to put down the pad, settled for laying it atop the console’s haptic interface. He hadn’t requested a desk for his quarters and probably wouldn’t due to space constraints. "Why?"

"Gonna need a couple of people on my six for this assignment." She raised an eyebrow. "You up for it, or you wanna play house a little longer?"

He linked his fingers behind his back. "Commander, I'm always up for another foray into Blue Suns turf."

She cracked a grin. "I figured you'd say that." Her eyes flicked over him. "Confirming techs synced you up and inspected your kit? Cuirass looks a little beat."

"Everything's working," he assured her. "Cosmetic damage only. It'll stop a bullet just fine."

"Well, we can't do anything about the scorch marks. But we gotta hide that thing, Vakarian." She pointed to the angel blazon on his rerebrace. "Cerberus has to pay your med bill twice, XO’s gonna shoot me."

"Shepard, with all due respect, these guys needed a heat-seeking missile to hit me properly. They won't notice a personal sigil."

"Yeah, I'm not taking the Archangel into Blue Suns territory ‘cause he thinks mercs can't use their eyes."

"It's not their eyes that're the problem, it's their brains," he retorted. "I promise they won't make the connection."

Her mouth twitched. "Cover it, buddy, or I'm taking Massani instead."

“Aye aye, ma’am. If that’s what it takes to get off this ship.” He knelt to dig through his shipping container. "So what do you suggest I use, here? Underwear? Electrical tape? My one and only pair of civvies?" He twisted to look up at her.

"Tape'll work,” she said, straight-faced. “Good thinking.”

He pulled out the tape and began winding adhesive around his arm. "I always enjoy when I'm being sarcastic and you pretend you can't tell.”

"Welcome. Oh, wait. How about you try on this thing instead?" She held out an ordnance pack.

He took it, standing. "Very funny."

"Hey, go with field repair if you like it better."

He thrust his arm through the straps and settled it over the blazon. "Just for that, I'm stealing a couple of your kills today." He cinched it tightly. Rotated his arm, checking the placement. "I don’t know why I’m looking. I can't tell without a mirror."

She circled him. "It's good. You trade up your ceramic since ‘83? Thought you wore lighter gear on the SR-1."

"Yeah, I did." He shrugged. "Most of us in the force were lightly armored—budget constraints. When I left the force, I decided to sacrifice a little mobility for protection."

"Glad you did. Doc was telling me your armor probably saved your life. Not a chance that standard-issue Aldrin would’ve—" She stopped mid-sentence, putting two fingers to her comm. 

"Shepard. ...Yep. ...This isn't a field trip, Joker. ...All right." 

She looked back at him, sticking her hands in her pockets. "I gotta suit up. Grab an assault rifle from the armory and meet me on the bridge."

"Mantis?" he asked.

“Negative. Had techs assemble a sniper rifle for you after reading up on the M-92." She nudged the case she'd brought with a toe. "Lemme know what you think."

"Sure thing. See you there, Shepard."

She nodded. "Debark in twenty mikes."

-

"That’s a battle rifle you’re looking at. The M-96 Mattock. Commander favors that one too.” Taylor joined him at the table.

Garrus raised the rifle to his shoulder. Good heft. Solid build. A far cry from the Vindicator’s compact silhouette—a weapon specced to utility, not elegance. "This carries like an older model."

"Yeah, you noticed that. Lot of human colonist militias use these for defense and hunting. We had 'em modified for thermal clips, but end of the day, it's the same gun down to handling and RPM."

He examined the casing. No automatic or burst-fire settings. “Semi-aut?"

"That's right. She's a DMR—makes up for the lower clip capacity and slow rate of fire with straight-up stopping power."

He nodded, collapsing it. "This is the one."

"Sounds good. Let me log that." He activated his omnitool and scanned the gun's serial number. "All right, she's yours to keep unless you want to trade in. Good hunting."

"Thanks, Taylor. Appreciate the help."

He holstered the DMR and turned away. 

"Gunnery Officer Vakarian?"

He’d reached the door. "I’m listening."

"Take care of that SR we assembled." There was an expression he couldn't read on Taylor’s face. "Commander's made a real investment in you. I hope it pans out."

Well. That was probably xenophobia. Or maybe it wasn’t.

No, it was. He wasn’t giving an agent from a group with a known human supremacist agenda the benefit of the doubt.

Back on the SR-1, he'd taken the hostility without comment, except for the times when he hadn’t, and the bigots had eventually run out of stamina or ideas or motive. Once or twice, they’d stopped when Shepard happened to catch wind and reamed them out. 

Now, it felt like he was a little too old to be taking the high road. On the other hand, he had places to be and a gun to unbox. 

"No need to worry, Armory Officer," he answered. "I'll put her to good use."

Back in the battery, he hoisted the rifle case onto his shipping container. If this was Shepard’s so-called investment, he was headed at full tilt for another HMWSR X moment.

He unlatched the case and flipped it open.

Bolt-action, scope attachment, cross-hatched sling stud with bipod assembly. Large caliber, from the diameter of the barrel. Not just an SR—an AMR.

…He knew this silhouette. 

His eyes fell on the designation stenciled on the casing.

Yeah. M-98 Widow.

Garrus hummed, impressed in spite of himself. Every long range specialist knew the M-98, the anti-materiel rifle that top of the line militaries deployed against armored vehicles and krogan shock troops. Capped out at a low thirteen sinks, but the argument was that you’d never need more. In every live-fire simulation and documented field report, the Widow had shredded kinetic barriers and dropped regenerating organics with a single round.

No wonder the Armory Officer’d had a stick up his ass about this.

He settled the stock against his shoulder, getting the feel of her. She had to weigh a hundred pounds.

And had probably cost about ten thousand times that, in a recession, on sale.

He lowered the gun. "Holy shit, Shepard," he said under his breath. He couldn't remember where he'd picked that up, or any of the human swears that had infiltrated his lexicon, for that matter. Williams, maybe. They’d become pretty cathartic over the years, from frequent use and even more frequent exposure. He wondered if it was a bad thing that human obscenity had become second nature to him at some point, practically as expressive as turian swears in a moment of need.

He checked the hour and stood, slamming the case shut. He’d have to wet his suit later about the fortune in gunmetal he’d been issued. Past time to get moving. 

-

He was the last of the ground team to reach the flightdeck. The XO was observing the approach from Shepard’s customary position at the helmsman’s eight o’clock as Joker steered them into Omega Station. The commander was in one of the empty operator’s chairs in full armor, arms crossed and helm bowed, asleep.

Weirdly comforting that some things hadn’t changed. Two years back, Commander had napped on the transport to nearly every mission. It didn’t seem possible let alone probable, but he’d been told that most Alliance marines picked up the skill in basic. If it could be called that, rather than a maladaptive response to who the hell knew what.

Garrus straightened the Mako and let go of the wheel. The vehicle drifted sideways, mowing down a small tree.

Yeah. Bastard was definitely pulling left.

He shook his head and turned it back onto the route.

“Mako’s out of alignment again.”

Williams snorted from the gunner’s seat. “What a surprise.”

“I can reset it to factory defaults, but I’ve been thinking. Tweaking the caster angle should improve directional stability long-term. With your permission, Commander.”

Silence.

“Commander?”

He checked the rear view. “Oh. Uh.”

Ash glanced over her shoulder. “What? Slack time is rack time, Vakarian.”

He processed that. “In the field?”

“Better than in combat. You want a tired marine covering your ass when you take point?”

He leaned against the wall, considering. On the one hand, he now owned one of the most expensive guns on the market thanks to her. On the other hand, the only thing Shepard handled worse than the M-35 Mako was thanks. Civilian, Alliance, Council—didn't matter. Each and every damn time someone had attempted to express gratitude, she'd cut it short with a change of subject, a just-doing-my-job, or a swift exit. Military impatience, maybe. Or personal discomfort. Case in point: when the Councilors had thanked her for taking down Sovereign, Shepard had told them the Reapers were still coming and left, leaving Anderson to wrap up the conversation. Later at the ceremony acknowledging humanity's new Council status, Anderson had ended up accepting the commemorative plaque intended for her, because she hadn't shown up. "Busy with repairs to the Normandy," she'd told an irate Udina.

"Proceeding to open dock, Commander," Joker said aloud. Garrus straightened, one eye on Lawson. Body language read irritated, and he could guess the reason why.

He considered warning her off whatever she was about to do, then dismissed the thought. They'd all had to figure it out on the SR-1. And his sense was that Lawson wouldn't listen to him, anyway. She probably wouldn't fall in for anyone except the Illusive Man or Shepard, and Shepard only under duress.

"Commander," she said, walking over. "we're preparing to disembark."

No response. Her brows twitched together. "Commander," she repeated, "can you hear me?"

"I heard the man, XO," Shepard answered, not opening her eyes. "I also haven't heard the airlock open yet."

Garrus coughed a laugh and looked away when Lawson’s eyes swiveled to him.

"Yeah, XO, didn't you research this or something?" Joker asked, turning in his seat. "Commander wakes up when it's time to go, not before and not after. Leave her alone, she gets cranky if you interrupt her naptime."

"Watch it, Flight Lieutenant," Shepard said.

"Yeah, yeah. See what I mean? Cranky." He swiveled around to face front. 

Lawson stood unmoving for a moment, then returned to her spot. Shepard didn't move, eyes still closed, but he saw the corner of her mouth twitch upward.

Yeah. He'd forgotten the little things. The ever-raised eyebrow, shading everything with irony. The deliberate professionalism, building rapport and sidestepping fraternization. The unfailing ability to sleep everywhere.

A hiss as airlock seals disengaged. Shepard opened her eyes and pushed upright. "All right, people, move out."

He knew what was going to happen, but felt obligated to try anyway. "Shepard. Th—"

She didn't slow, clapping him on the shoulder as she passed. "Vakarian."

Garrus grinned and followed her into the airlock.

Chapter Text

A dust-up was audible in the plaza forward of them, a torrent of automatic fire perforated by heavy pistols. A unit of Suns had bunkered down, unloading rounds at the Blood Pack horning in on their territory.

Fucking gang wars. No matter what he’d done on Omega, the bullshit had never ended. 

Shepard’s rifle thumped his rerebrace. He looked: she stabbed her muzzle towards the stair to the upper level.

He nodded and split from them, keeping low. Halfway up the rhythm of fire faltered, slipped. Curses broke through the volley; garbled orders went out. The enemy had engaged. 

“Contact," Shepard reported, activating comms. "Confirm destination and state position."

He'd reached the balcony. Garrus crouched and unholstered his SR. Stifled a cough before answering. "On your two, ma’am, confirmed."

"Fire at will with priority to Blood Pack. We’ll handle Suns."

“Understood.” He keyed up tungsten-carbide. Set up on the guardrail, and scouted a target.

A lull. Enemy combatants were reorienting to their presence on the field, dividing forces and attention. Shepard was maintaining radio silence. No surprise there. She hadn’t shut down non-mission critical chatter in ‘83, would participate in a dialogue if prompted; but she never took the initiative. Almost certainly a professionally motivated decision, given Alliance anti-fraternization regs. 

On any given day back then, he’d understood about fifty percent of what came up. Once, mid-firefight on Noveria, she and Ash had bulled for about ten mikes about Chinese food because the Chief brought up something called dim sum. Sounded delicious and strangely turian in format, whatever it was. 

"Shepard." He adjusted his turret, checked distances to the hostiles he’d been assigned. His visor was tracing trajectories and reeling off data, some of it relevant, most of it not.

The report of her Mattock punched through the barrage. "One down. Yeah?"

No one had made him, but no sightlines were free. He settled into his scope. "Blood Pack, my eleven." Stilling his breaths, slowing his heart, he waited, checked visuals and scanner as his target edged into view. "Who exactly is Batman?"

"Vakarian, we are actively in combat,” Lawson interjected. “This is in no way the right time to start a conversation about superheroes." 

"Overruled," Shepard said. "We're not doing anything difficult. EMP on my mark, front and center. —Now." The sputter of failing shields; two shots. "All Suns terminated. Batman's a comic book hero from the forties or fifties, if I’m remembering right, last century. Masked vigilante on the side of the law."

The merc peered out of cover.

"Headshot," he drawled, flushing his sink.

"Nice. Moving up to your twelve o’clock. Take cover ‘til I’m in."

"Aye aye." He relocated to another position along the balcony. "Targeting. Firestorm, ten-thirty. What's his, uh, backstory?"

"Switch up and relocate, XO. Column my ten."

"Moving," Lawson said curtly.

"Sees Mom and Dad gunned down,” she went on. “Inherits a fuckton of money, uses it to create the Batman. Ladies' man extreme sports enthusiast before breakfast. Antihero crime fighter after dark. Hand-to-h—” Growling, the whip-crack of gunmetal on flesh, a yelp. Shepard’s voice, out of breath. “Sorry. Hand to hand combat specialist. Citizens of Gotham, his hometown, call him the Dark Knight."

He squeezed the trigger, nailing his mark cleanly between the eyes. "Another one down. Be advised, scanner's picked up heat sigs incoming right."

"I hear ya. Switching in tungsten. Targeting." Two shots, a triple tap from Lawson’s pistol.

"Enemy down!" she called.

"Loner," Shepard continued. "Chemist, gearhead. Makes his own shit. White knight—“

He dropped into cover, shuttled sinks into the breech. “Thought he was the dark knight?” 

A pause; her DMR rang out. “All right, white knight in a dark spandex suit who won't kill a guy to save his life. Gotta be honest, I’m running outta trivia about Batman. Brooder. Nice car. Kinda sexy.”

“Batman? The car? Both?” He set up again, checked enemy positions.

“Sure.”

“Shepard, that doesn’t—“

“Wears a cape too."

"Huh." He scanned the field. "I...guess that makes sense."

"It does?"

"I’m not sure. Targeting. Bastard with the cybernetic eyes, dead ahead. Donnelly called me the modern day Batman."

Shepard chuckled. "Sure. Drop the money, the no-kill mantra, and the car...wait."

He adjusted his magnification. "Again, this was Donnelly's idea, not mine."

"Gimme an EMP on that Firestorm, XO. You kinda brood, you know."

"Do not."

The heavy's fuel tank exploded. "Good aim. So when Daniels found you sitting alone in the dark in the battery—?"

"...Uh." He adjusted his position, tracking his mark in IR as he moved behind cover. "Fine, brooding."

"Thought so. Dog." Her rifle cracked. "Down. So you've got the brooding, got the cape—"

"When and where did I get a cape?"

"Comes with the territory. You a ladies' man too?"

"Peoples’ man, Shepard, and obviously." He breathed and fired. "Head shot. Tell me that wasn't a turn-on."

"Lawson, throw out a warp field, my two." Two shots. "Target down. You've never turned on a person in your life, have you."

"Tell you a story one day, Commander." 

"Oho. Archangel’s got a conquest. Singular or possibly imaginary. I bet—shit. Krogan on the field!"

He looked, junking his sink. Armored, unshielded, driving straight down the field. "Took him long enough."

"Lock on and weapons hold, Vakarian. On my order."

"You’ve got it." He adjusted for speed of travel, spin drift; trained his reticle along the anticipated route, leading his mark. “Ready.”

Five rounds smacked the krogan’s faceplate, riddled it with cracks. "Lawson, kill the helm."

Air bent around the merc’s head and shoulders then snapped back. Ceramic boiled away and crumbled. He roared, lowered his head, and hurtled for Shepard's position.

"Fire."

The stock punched his shoulder. His target buckled and crashed into the table where Shepard had taken cover. 

"I’ve decided. I love this rifle," he said.

"Better. Cost me an arm and a leg, but any long range specialist of mine’s gotta have the best." A beat. "Looks clear. I gotta poach some sinks from these guys. You set?"

"No, I need to re-up too. On my way." Garrus unfolded, cocked his Widow towards the ceiling. Headed for the stairs.

Halfway down he picked out footsteps pounding pavement under the fans. Multiples approaching, rapid clip. He looked at the commander. She was in the open, turning a merc on their side.

"Shepard—" he began, and then life signs populated the short-range radar. 

Lawson pivoted back into cover, drawing her Tempest. “Contact!”

Shepard surged to her feet, rifle snapping to her shoulder. He turned and sprinted the steps three at a time, trying to make the balcony.

“My mistake,” she said in his ear. “I’ll cover ya.”

"Good, because—"

"Suppressing fire!" she barked. 

Too late. Garrus dropped flat and assembled his bipod as Shepard sprang to meet the charge. Her rifle cracked out over the spit of Lawson’s SMG. Rounds smacked the pavement, stippled her shields as they burned down.

Nine hostiles, lone varren pulling ahead. It skidded across the concrete when he squeezed the trigger. A merc slipped the crossfire, crumpled as he punched a bullet through their spine.

His sink hit pavement. His visor was flinging data across his field of view. Five sinks, five standing, CO’s shields forty percent. Combatants were losing formation, bunching up against her advance.

“Fuck—” she swore. “Heavy weapons—take ‘em out now!” 

He looked, loaded a concussive round. Two mercs charging up Firestorms.

"Got one," Lawson said briskly. Blue flared, punctuated by a gout of flame.

He took aim, and Shepard's assault rifle skidded across concrete. She’d pulled her shotgun. “Closing,” she snapped, and hurled herself forward.

The Firestorm was swiveling to follow her. He adjusted, fired. His mark tumbled into a planter. A hostile wheeled, scanning—

Crap.

His shields sizzled against a hail of rounds, burned them to forty percent in 2.1 seconds.

He cranked the bolt, come on Commander get in there I am not dying on fucking Omega— then she’d rammed their line and he was scrambling over the rail, rolling into cover.

He fetched up against the barricade and put eyes on the field, scanning for a target. Two still up and Shepard had engaged both. She smashed one across the jaw with her rifle butt—her shields stuttered, failed—fired point-blank into the other’s chest. A body fell. She sidestepped a punch from the surviving combatant, slammed her muzzle under their chin, and pulled the trigger. Blood sprayed high.

The skirmish was over in under a minute. Shepard flicked her gun, knocked out the spent clip. Scanned the field, panning right-left-right. Her body was tensed, waiting another wave. 

He ran the numbers without thinking. Nine Blood Pack, one varren. Five scrubbed in the first push, one by a warp field, two by Shepard seconds ago. All hostiles accounted for.

—Wait.

The M-98 snapped to his shoulder. "Shepard, move!"

She went low and bolted as the final hostile staggered upright in the planter. Collapsed into it, a bullet in his chest. 

"Hold." Shepard raised a fist, checking her omnitool. "All right, fucking confirmed. That's the last of 'em. Lesson learned, next time we’re waiting for the full scan."

Garrus picked up her discarded rifle and crossed the plaza. 

She nodded, holstering her shotgun. "Thanks for the assist, Vakarian."

"No problem.” He handed her the Mattock grip first. “Just for the record, Shepard, that wasn’t representative on the stairs. I'm a top-ranked hand to hand specialist. Can take care of myself in a tight spot."

She raised an eyebrow. "So your ass wasn't hanging out on the landing, and I didn't need to take all that fire to save it."

"No, it's fine you did. I'm just not feeling well today. Something about a plague that kills turians."

"You had every opportunity to sit this one out. And I gotta say, I’m not too convinced you can take care of yourself at close quarters." She checked the sights on her DMR. "See, I remember the time you got floored by a robot two years ago, even if you don't."

"That was a geth prime, Shepard. ‘Robot’ implies ‘under twelve feet tall.’" He crouched to rummage through a merc’s gear.

"That some kind of valid excuse in your book?" She took the sinks he handed up to her, thumbing them into her rifle.

“Well. In mine and the rest of the sane population’s.” He eyed her. Up close she was a bloody mess. "Any of that yours?"

“Some.” She rapped the side of her thigh. "Asshole grazed me right at the end. I’ve gelled it." She shook her head. "Shields we’ve got right now can’t hold up to fuck-all. Gotta be careful 'til we get some upgrades installed."

"Shame. I know how Commander Shepard loves her shotguns."

"Yeah." She jerked a thumb at the sniper rifle on her back, and he realized it was an M-98. "Guess she'll have to give you a run for your money, in the meantime."

He flicked a mandible, grinning. "We'll see about that."

Lawson joined them, pistol in hand. "That was close, Commander. I'll monitor the scanner, make sure we don't encounter any more surprises during the mission. Ready to move out?"

She nodded. "Let's go."

They set off down the hall, Shepard on point. 

He shuttled clips into the M-98’s breech, thinking. Unnecessary comm chatter annoyed Lawson. He knew it; Shepard knew it. They'd talked through the engagement anyway.

No holds barred, then.

"Hey, Commander?"

"Yeah?"

"Explain pancetta for me? The mess sergeant was going on about it."

Chapter Text

Lawson strode out of decon without a glance. Garrus followed, then stopped as Shepard’s hand closed on his rerebrace.

He looked down, surprised. "What's up?"

"You were baiting her, Vakarian." Her tone was serious. "You coulda looked that shit up on the extranet. Instead you started a conversation about it during an assignment."

"I—" He stopped, examining her expression. Shepard hadn't reprimanded him on the station, and she didn't pull her punches. But he knew that voice, or thought he did. It was the one she rolled out when someone crossed a line.

He cleared his throat. "Sorry, Commander. Won't happen again."

"See that it does."

“Ma’am.”

She left the airlock.

Garrus massaged his aching mandible through the bandage. Seemed like two years was long enough that he had some remembering to do. It’d been awhile since he’d had to take cues instead of give them. 

Hang on.

He caught up as she left the bridge. "See that it does?"

Shepard didn't slow. "You heard me." They passed through the armory and stopped outside the comm room. She turned and faced him, arms crossed. "All right," she said. Her voice dropped below human hearing threshold. "Lawson's got a good head on her shoulders, but she's controlling and spends a lot of time forgetting who oughta set protocols. You wanna help me remind her, fine. Just nothing endangering, understood?"

…Huh. He tried to decide if the Shepard he'd known two years ago would’ve told him to hassle another officer, and landed on ‘probably not.’

Well. He’d never been one to break ranks if the orders were sound.

"Understood, Shepard. Easiest order I’ve ever received."

“I figured.” She nodded. "I gotta debrief the professor. You want to wait, I can give you the tour after."

"Sure." He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes as the door cycled shut behind her.

Wounds and the plague were taking their toll. He was tired, more than he knew he ought to be. Hungry, too. He'd had a double ration before the mission, and it still felt like he hadn't eaten in days.

Mordin was rattling off hypotheses for the seeker swarms. "You don't have to sit there and guess," Shepard cut in.

He activated his omnitool and opened a message at random, trying to tune them out. Ever since leaving Palaven he'd become a chronic eavesdropper. It wasn't intentional, just incidental. Human architecture didn’t account for turian audible frequency range, and humans weren't used to keeping their conversations private from a species that could hear across a deck. Two years ago, he'd known when Ash voiced concerns about him and Wrex to Shepard. That had been awkward for all kinds of reasons: the commander had brought him and Williams on nearly every groundside mission, for one. For another, the chief had decided to confront him herself a few cycles later, presumably believing Shepard wouldn’t find out. Which she had. Separately, he'd learned that Ash had three sisters, a human poetry obsession, and a stick up her ass about the siege of Shanxi without engaging her on any of those subjects once. Here he'd discovered against his will that the mess sergeant cleaned the toilets, Shepard hated oatmeal, and Hadley's hair product cost almost two hundred credits a bottle.

Every scrap of intel was worthless, of course. Just a bunch of damn junk cluttering up his head that threatened to pop out whenever he opened his mouth.

"Gunnery Officer Vakarian! How's it going?"

"Uh—" 

Better than it is for you, I guess. I heard your wife left you for your marriage counselor. Is he really quarian?

"Gunnery Officer Vakarian! Want to join us for a game of Skyllian Five?"

"Uh—" 

Engineer Donnelly's deck is stacked, you know.

"Gunnery Officer Vakarian! Want to join us for lunch?"

"Uh—" 

The Yeoman wants to feel you out. I'll just get in the way.

And the crew wondered why he kept to himself.

"Follow me, Professor."

He straightened as Taylor and Solus filed out. The armory officer nodded. The doctor slowed, seeing him.

"Turian squadmate from Omega. Sniper. Former Citadel Security."

He linked his fingers behind his back. "And how'd you figure that, Professor?"

The salarian sniffed. "Armor blue and black, subconscious allegiance to C-Sec uniform colors. Conversation on Omega suggests conflict resolution training. Demeanor calm, authoritative under stress. Accustomed to working with civilians. Sniper personality profile aligns with C-Sec service history. Also, issued an M-98 Widow. Very expensive rifle. Only used by specialists. Currently suffering fatigue from wounds, exposure to plague. Should eat and rest." Mordin glanced at Shepard as she emerged from the room. "Quite committed of you to wait through meeting, considering state. Partners?"

Garrus stared.

"Nope," Shepard answered for him after a moment. "The gunnery officer served on the SR-1."

"Hmph. Rarely incorrect.” He turned abruptly to the right. “Lab this way?" 

"Make sure he's squared away, Taylor," she ordered.

"Aye aye, Commander."

Shepard set off towards the armory. "With me, Vakarian."

He trailed her to the elevator, where she punched the call button and stuck her hands in her pockets.

"We gotta work on your poker face," she murmured, looking up at the floor indicator.

"He went from profiler to medical professional to psychologist in under a minute," Garrus muttered back. "Was I supposed to pretend that was normal?"

Her mouth twitched. “Ideally, I think, yeah.”

The elevator opened and they stepped through. 

"All right,” she said, closing the door. “Your place or mine?"

"’Your place or mine?’ For what?"

"Ship's not going anywhere. You heard 'im, you need to sit and eat."

"I'm fine. Come on, Shepard. You can't tell me you believe the guy after that."

She shrugged. "Doctor's orders. I'm your commanding officer—you pass out during a mission, it's my ass."

"Well. Technically, I'm just a volunteer. Which makes you more of a club president."

“Laugh it up. I guess we could stand in the elevator for an hour. Begs the question, though."

"Yeah?"

Shepard raised an eyebrow. "What were we doing the whole time?"

He crossed his arms. “Waiting for you to relent, I think.”

“Sounds good. Let you know when that happens.” She settled against the handrail and activated her omnitool. 

"Shepard, are you really going to—?” He inspected her, the deliberate nonchalance. “Damn it, right, of course you are. Fine. Your place. Let’s go. Thanks for looking out, Mom.”

“Any time.” She hit a button. “Think of it as part one of the tour, Vakarian. Captain’s quarters cover a full deck. Came stocked with beer in the fridge, too. Welcome to one if you want."

"Beer? Fridge? What is this ship, a commercial liner?”

“No idea, but I’ll take the free booze.”

“Interesting. Didn’t know you drank.”

“Been known to. Maybe not around crewmen. Alliance regs. But…you know. Not really an Alliance command, is it.”

"Huh. I have to wrap my head around this. Lieutenant Commander Shepard, a person who uses substances. Something’s not adding up.” 

It was only half a joke. Two years ago, Shepard had refused rewards and explained her orders and cited regs for turning down advances he was pretty sure had been unwanted anyway. Two years ago, she'd nearly disbarred Wrex for executing a petty crime boss she'd promised to let free. 

It was typical that she'd only chewed him out after securing Tali's safety and presenting her evidence to the Council. Business before pleasure. Also typically, she'd done it in the elevator, where none of them could escape.

"With all due respect, Fist was scum, Commander. Dead, there's no way for him to hurt anyone again."

"Stay out of this, Vakarian. —A soldier who disobeys orders endangers his entire squad. You ever pull a stunt like that again, Urdnot, I'm not gonna stop at kicking you off the Normandy. We clear?"

"I was hired by the Shadow Broker to take Fist down. I was honor bound—"

"Answer the goddamn question. You gonna fall in line, or you gonna empty your locker and get the hell off my ship?"

"—I’ll follow orders. Won’t happen again, Shepard...unless you really deserve it."

“Noted. We keep that in mind, Urdnot, we’ll get along just fine.”

And then Virmire. Good thing she was eloquent under stress.

"Sounds like you don't have my measure, Vakarian," she said as the elevator opened.

"Correction.” He stepped out. "You hate oatmeal and have since childhood."

"Jesus. Love to know where the hell you were lurking when that conversation went down." She waved her omnitool at the door to her quarters. The lock cycled from red to green. "Try not to wreck the place. Back soon."

"Get me the weirdest thing," he said. She waved in acknowledgment as the elevator closed.

He turned to the door. It was one thing to enter Shepard's quarters knowing she was inside. That was fine. Expected, even, on the SR-1—she'd kept an open door policy with all her crew. He contemplated the facts.

One: there was probably a bed in there. And alcohol, apparently. Two: he was up for lunch, not a debrief. Three: Shepard was his CO. It was harmless—they both knew that—but Cerberus didn't and neither did this crew. 

He glanced at the ceiling, clocked a security cam, and stayed where he was until Shepard came back.

She shook her head when she saw him. "C'mon."

Inside, he looked around. The captain's quarters were massive compared to their SR-1 counterpart. Nicer, too. Better furnished; more expensive pieces. Nightstands flanked either side of a full sized bed placed at right angles to a desk. An empty holoframe sat in the corner. Couches framed a coffee table on two sides; a lofted office overlooked the sleeping and seating area. Nearly a full wall was occupied by— 

"Is that a fishtank?” 

"Yep." Shepard was stacking pre-portioned trays on the table. "And I'm not putting any fish in the damn thing, I'll tell you that now."

He joined her. "But it would add so much to the decor. How about a sun fish? A sawbone fish? A skald fish?"

“Are you inventing fish right now?”

“Two of those were real, actually. Couldn’t tell you which, to be fair.” He looked at the tank again. “Wow. It, uh. It sure is big.”

“Big, bright, and a fucking pain in the ass. I can’t sleep. No way to disable the lights that I’ve found so far." She slapped a fork into his palm and sat, pulling a tray toward herself. "Red tags’re levo. Yellow's dextro. Gotta warn you, the pickings were a little slim in mess hall."

He chose a tray without reading the label. "I find it hard to believe you can’t sleep. You sleep everywhere."

"No, I sleep in the shuttle where it's dark. I sleep in the cockpit where it's dark and quiet. Hell, I could probably sleep in the battery with you muttering code all day, 'cause—"

"—it's dark," he finished, flicking a mandible. "Got it."

He surveyed his food: the mess sergeant's take on a burger and fries. The other dextro-tagged tray read 'sweet and sour stir fry,' what Ash had called 'white man's Asian' and Shepard 'crap Chinese'--steamed grain topped with oversauced nuggets of meat and mixed vegetables.

He popped a fry in his mouth, chewed. "Huh. You know, I'd forgotten the taste of human garrison rations."

“To be fair, this isn’t what I’d exactly call up to par, even by Alliance standards.” She reached for a salt packet. 

“It’s fine, Shepard. After squatting on Omega for a year plus, I’m pretty happy with anything that doesn’t taste or smell like burnt pyjak.”

"Appetizing. I'll pretend that's possible, let you have your joke."

"I owe you," he drawled.

She shook the salt into her fries. "I accept credit transfers and booze."

"No favors?" He bit into his burger.

She raised an eyebrow. “Favors?”

"Yeah, like..." He stopped and reexamined her expression. "Jesus, Shepard, not like that. Get your mind out of the gutter."

"You're the one who put it there."

"You're the one who enjoys the smell, damn it."

Shepard flipped open her burger and started laying fries on the patty. "Feel like you've really ramped up the human obscenity since '83.”

"I bet Dad's royally pissed." He rotated the burger in his talons, choosing another point of entry. "He was always going on about how the younger generations were sacrificing their regional identities on the altar of intergalactic something and whatever."

She shook her head, using a stray fry to prod the others into place. "Fuck that. Your blood's still blue."

"So's yours before someone shoots you," he pointed out.

"All right, smartass."

Silence fell. Shepard was bent over her tray, crosshatching fries on her meat. Garrus watched as she replaced the bun, folding the last piece of his burger into his mouth. "Why are…does it taste better that way?"

"Dunno, but my guess?" She took a bite. "Tastes like a burger and fries.”

"No, really."

"I know." She finished chewing and swallowed. "Potato and a cow go in, potato and a cow gotta come out."

Garrus tugged a napkin from under a box. "Sounds like one of your laws of physics, when you put it that way. What's his name. Uh, Newman.”

“Newman’s a catch-all food manufacturer on the homeworld. Makes cookies, pizza, wine. Pet food. Kind of everything. Talking about Newton’s Third?”

“That’s the one. I don’t know which number. Also, the idea of buying cookies from the same corp that makes your pet’s kibble is repulsive."

“I hear ya.” Shepard had peeled off the tops of both trays. She dunked her burger into the stir fry, mopping up sauce. "The Third is equal and opposite reactions. Rifle recoil. Fire a bullet, gun kicks back."

He wiped his talons, reached for the second tray. “Speaking of kickback. That M-98 packs a hell of a punch. Can’t believe you can fire that thing without breaking an arm.”

“Guess you haven’t heard. I’m packing a full array of cybernetics and synthetic parts thanks to Cerberus. Not half as breakable as I was before.”

“Huh. Lucky you.”

“Something like that.” 

“Well, if it makes you feel better, the rebuild hasn’t affected your tactical signature except maybe to augment it.” He peeled off the lid. "Returning from a two year stint away, I think I can safely say that.”

Shepard angled a look at him and swallowed her mouthful. "Feel like I’m waiting for a punchline, here."

“Not sure if it’s a punchline so much as the truth.” He shrugged. "It’s necessarily not a bad thing, Commander, but your MO is aggressive as hell. Take today. Get caught in the open, first thing you do is charge."

She shook her head. “That’s less to do with personal tactics and more to do with human military philosophy. Alliance doesn't endorse wars of attrition. SOP is if you see a point of entry, you close it, and if you get into a clusterfuck, you get yourself back out by hammering the weak point 'til it breaks."

"I still say you’re ninety percent more likely to field tactics with a high personal risk than the average Alliance soldier.”

"Sometimes there’s no other way.” She reached under the table. "Pretty sure today's alternative was letting those mercs get a bead on you."

"Is that the free beer?" he asked as she straightened, bottle in hand.

"Yeah." She glanced at the label. "Bottom shelf, now that I'm looking at it. BAC says it'll get the job done, though."

"Anything for an amino-dextro life form? I seem to remember being bribed up here with promises of alcohol."

She reached under again. Bottles clinked as she rifled through. "Looks like nothing dextro. Sorry."

"False pretenses, Commander. I'm disappointed in you."

"All right, buddy, lay it on thick. Sorry the levo captain’s fridge wasn’t stocked with dextro booze by the house help. I’ll put in an order with Gardner today."

"Just a joke, Shepard. I don't want anything."

Shepard shook her head. "Damage's done, Vakarian. You wanna get drunk on my tab, you're getting drunk on my tab." She activated her omnitool. "Pick your poison. Wine? Beer? Motor oil?"

"Uh." He hesitated. "Scotch. Or any fruit-based liqueur off of Palaven, if you can find it."

"We'll get it." She closed her screen. "I gotta ask. How'd you get hooked on after-dinner cordials and whiskey?"

He sank his fork into his rice, redistributing the sauce. "One I got from an uncle. The other one came from C-Sec buddies and Ash."

"Fair enough." She levered the cap off her beer and dropped in her tray. "So where were we?"

"Clusterfucks, I think."

"Right." She sipped, grimaced, and swallowed. "I'm holding my line. Retreating's a waste of time and resources when you're short on both. You learn otherwise with the vigilante thing?"

"Ten major criminal players in a year and a half, Shepard, I think that's more than just a 'vigilante thing.' And yeah. For the better part of a year and a half, my tactics on Omega worked just as well as yours during the war with Sovereign."

"Hang on. You including Garm and those fuckers in that tally?"

"Obviously. Why?"

"Can't count 'em unless you took the kill shot. And I'm pretty sure my team did for at least a few."

"Oh, really." He sat forward. "Well, then, with all due respect, you didn't defeat Sovereign. Joker spearheaded the attack; you just watched the show from Citadel Tower."

"Ouch. That backtalk I’m hearing?”

“Not at all, Commander. It’s not insolence if you tag on ‘with all due respect.’ Someone on the SR-1 told me that.”

“Funny. Someone on the SR-1 told me the opposite.” 

“Oh. Maybe I’m misremembering. In that case, yes.”

She glanced up; her lips twitched. “You got mouthy as hell when I died, Vakarian. Fine, take the W."

“Thanks. I will, even if I don’t know what the hell that means. Sure it’ll come in useful for something.”

“Word of advice: verify all single letter acronyms. Think you’re gonna want to know at least a few before you go accepting them wholesale.”

“Noted. Looking forward to being completely confused when I try to research this later.”

She draped an arm over the back of the couch. "So what would you have done in that skirmish today?"

"Hm." He stabbed a vegetable with his fork. "I’d’ve leaned on the M-100. Popped off a grenade, watched them scatter." He chewed for a moment before continuing. "Gotten back to cover and picked them off from a defensible position."

“Makes sense for a long range specialist.” She shrugged. "Launcher takes about three seconds to assemble. I coulda been taken out trying to use it under fire, so I closed."

"Well. I’ll just say you’re lucky I'm good enough not to hit you by accident when you go haring off.”

“Uh huh. Grateful every day you enable my bad habits. Try to remember to send you a card.”

“Is that why you always brought me and Williams along? We were the only ones you could trust not to shoot you while you were punching people in the face."

"More or less." Shepard raised an eyebrow. "But I don’t wanna pressure you, if that’s too much responsibility to handle."

"Oh, please. I just want you to appreciate my gifts, Shepard."

“Understood. I'll make a note in my next vid-call to your dad. Tell him GareBear's all grown up."

"GareBear?"

She picked up her burger again. "Pretty soon, he'll even know how to use the gun when people are shooting back."

"I had the actual plague.”

“"Lotta excuses coming from that side of the couch. Wonder if that side of the couch isn’t quite as competent as it pretends to be.”

“Whatever. More importantly, can we circle back to Garebear and what the hell that is?”

“Tell ya what. How about you circle back when you figure out what it means?”

-

HOURS LATER

 

To: CO Shepard

From: GY OFF Vakarian

Subject: Untitled

If I'm a CareBear, you're Twilight Sparkle the unicorn pony.

Friendship is magic.

G

Chapter Text

Shepard ducked into the cabin, smacked the partition with her fist. “Good to go, Lao,” she called.

The Kodiak lurched underfoot and took off. The drum of rainfall dulled as the hatch swung shut, swallowed by the engine’s drone.

She dropped into the seat opposite him and unsealed her helmet. Her hair was disheveled, damp with perspiration: they’d been fighting Eclipse through a prefab office while a thunderstorm rolled in, and accumulated moisture had nowhere to go. It still didn’t. Rainwater sluiced off their ceramic, pooling at their feet and beading on the benches. She shoved stray strands away from her face and set a hand to her comm with a glance at Lawson, who was looking out the window. The XO ordinarily would have radioed with a status report at this point, but Shepard had evidently opted to take the burden from her this once. 

It was the tactful choice, given what had happened.

"Shepard to Normandy, come in," she said. “We’re RTB. Operative's a no go, but package is secure. I uploaded a copy to Alliance Command. Guess we'll see what shakes out." She listened, and her eyes flicked to Lawson again. "I have every confidence. Just needs to take a beat."

Garrus opened his omnitool and quietly patched himself in. Joker was on the other end. 

"All right, be honest, Commander. Was it SUSFU, FUBAR, or TARFU today?"

Shepard snorted. She sat back. Checked, then shifted forward and unholstered her Eviscerator. "None of 'em? SNAFU without the AFU, I guess."

"That bad, huh?"

"Check your acronyms, Flight Lieutenant." She stowed the gun under her seat. "SN is Situation Normal."

"Hey, give a guy a break. I'm learning this stuff from a subscription service."

"...The army brat raised on Arcturus and surrounded by lifers since birth needs a subscription service to learn Alliance slang?"

"Well, lifers, yeah. Lifers who talk like this, no."

She slung her M-98 under the bench. "Hate to break it to you, Joker, but that's 'cause most marines don't use those anymore."

"Aw, really?"

"Yep." Her DMR went on the seat beside her helm. "Might hear 'em from FNGs trying to overcompensate."

"Spill. What’s an FNG?"

She unclipped the M-100, glancing around. "One sec, Joker."

"Sure, all right."

Garrus sat forward and beckoned. Shepard nodded and passed it across. "Stuck that in for you. FNG's a Fuckin' New Guy—marine right outta basic."

"Nice. Thanks, Commander."

"Anything to keep the helmsman from doing his job."

"Come on, you know I could do this in my sleep. Speaking of which, I'm cutting into your fourteen hours a day. Have a nice nap. You want Gardner to warm up some milk? Or should I just fluff the pillows?"

"Laugh it up. Over and out."

She crossed her arms and settled back again, closing her eyes.

They were on the shuttle back from Lorek. The Illusive Man had asked Shepard to check the last known coordinates of a Cerberus operative who'd gone dark, retrieve any intel he'd recovered. She'd agreed, to his private surprise. 

Given half a minute, he probably could have anticipated that when they found the OSD, Shepard would upload its contents to Alliance Command. The comms transcript was awkward as hell, on review. Also, Shepard’s name was still misspelled, which felt insulting for all the usual reasons: ship’s captain and commanding officer. Handpicked and resurrected by the head of the company now getting it wrong. LC fucking Shepard, celebrity soldier, Spectre, and known by name throughout Citadel space if not beyond.

Shepard probably didn’t read the transcripts. Shepard probably didn’t care. That didn’t shield him, though.

[LAWSON] Commander, what are you doing? That intel belongs to Cerberus.

[SHEPHERD] Interesting. Guess it belongs to the Alliance now, too.

[LAWSON] Shepherd, you can’t

[SHEPHERD] It’s done, Lawson. Let it go.

Garrus glanced at the XO, queuing up a playlist on his visor. Whatever she was doing, he was willing to bet it didn’t involve letting something go.

Some days, he could sympathize. Arguing with Shepard was like trying to fast-track a warrant through C-Sec—completely pointless. Kaidan had told Ash the same thing when she'd communicated her concerns about the aliens on board back in ‘83.

"It's an exercise in futility, Chief. With all due respect, the commander doesn't change her mind. She doesn't give a damn if you disapprove or if her decisions inconvenience you."

"But, sir—"

"Full stop, Williams. Want my advice? Be flexible and try to have a little faith. She usually makes the right call."

At which point Williams had started needling the LT about “ulterior motives” for trusting the CO, and Garrus had retreated back to the hangar, putting down lunch as a lost cause.

The music spun up. Nothing obtrusive, just some quarian stuff he'd copped from Tali back on the SR-1. Lots of fluty noises and weird croons and words that weren't in Galactic. Oddly soothing.

He sat forward and kicked the commander's foot lightly. "SUSFU?"

Shepard smirked without opening her eyes. "You gotta stop eavesdropping, Vakarian."

"You know I can't help it."

"So your device booted up, found the signal, and patched itself in. Without any help from you."

"Yeah." He shook his head. "Technology these days."

"You really going with PFM out of all the bullshit at your disposal?"

"PF what?"

"Pure Fucking Magic. Guess I should’ve told Joker that one too."

"Humans have too many acronyms."

"Nah, Alliance has too many acronyms. Helmsmen especially. Dunno why he's looking for more."

"Overcompensating," he suggested.

She opened her eyes, nailing him with a look. "No making fun of the lifelong genetic disorders, Vakarian."

“Mm-hm. We’d better change the subject before I’m tempted. So, SUSFU?"

"Situation Unchanged, Still Fucked Up."

"FUBAR?"

"Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition."

"Huh. TARFU?"

"Totally And Royally Fucked Up."

"And...SNAFU?"

"Situation Normal, All Fucked Up."

"So...what you're saying is, they all mean the same thing."

Her mouth twitched. "Pretty much, yeah."

"Thanks, Shepard," he said. "I really feel like I've learned something about your species today."

"Happy to help." Her eyes closed again. "Know the feeling, too."

A group of quarians was harmonizing in his ear. Garrus hummed a snatch of the refrain under his breath as he scrolled through the squad's telemetry. Standard fare, for the most part. Highest kill count: Shepard. Lowest bullet expenditure: Vakarian. Highest shield stress: Shepard. Highest hit to kill: Vakarian.

Without Williams to even the odds, most of the categories were getting to be one man competitions.

He opened his browser and keyed in "Alliance aviator slang."

 

 

TEN MINUTES LATER

 

To: FLT Moreau

From: GY OFF Vakarian

Subject: what the fuck

Attachments: systemsalliance-how-to-talk-like-a-fighter-pilot

Cherubs. Boresight. Bingo to Mom. In a fur ball?

This guy is just making crap up, right?

A few messages had come in during the mission. He flagged the important ones to read later. Closed his screen and nudged her again with a toe. "Wait. What do you mean, you 'know the feeling'?"

"Vakarian, give it a rest. I'm trying to sleep here."

"You're always trying to sleep. If I didn't interrupt you now and then, we'd never have a conversation."

"There's the double standard I've been looking for."

"I don't hold you to a double standard. You want to talk, come by the battery any time."

"Uh huh. I came by the battery three days ago, and I quote: ‘Can it wait for a bit? I'm in the middle of some calibrations.’"

…He might have forgotten about that.

"The calibrations are important," he drawled. "If the guns don't shoot straight, we're cooked in a skirmish with the Collectors."

"I'm Commander Shepard, and I'm important. If I'm KIA 'cause I'm too sleep-deprived to react, the whole galaxy goes to hell in a handbasket."

Lawson stood abruptly and went into the driver's compartment, closing the door behind her.

"XO just leave?"

"Affirmative."

"You're salting the wound, Vakarian. Dial it back."

"She's fine. Shepard, the average human only needs six hours a day. Put all your naps together, you're hitting eight to ten at least."

"You calling me average?"

"I'm calling you human?"

"Bullshit. I'm a marine. I need more calories and more shuteye than a civilian. And since the rebuild, my metabolism runs about double what it did before."

"Well. That explains why you eat so much."

"Hey, fuck yourself, buddy."

"Later. Double the metabolic rate doesn't mean double the sleep debt, you know."

Shepard opened her eyes to scowl at him. "Here's a question. Do you actually give a shit, or are you just trying to annoy the XO and keep the CO awake for lack of a better thing to do?"

"A little of both, maybe. I’m a complicated man. Come on, Shepard, indulge me. What did you mean, you ‘know the feeling’?"

She didn't answer for a moment. Then she shook her head. "I meant even though we served together two years ago, I never knew how hard a turian could book it before today."

"It's true. We’re natural predators, you know." He crossed his arms. "Although I’d like to log that we aren't set up to book it while rucking a hundred pounds of sniper rifle."

Shepard settled her shoulders against the wall. "Eighty-five pounds, Vakarian. Not a round hundred. Feels a little like you’re talking about a specific event."

"Just speaking in hypotheticals. The kind where I'm told to get up and draw the sniper's fire so someone else can take the kill shot."

"You were fine."

"I was exceptional, under the circumstances," he retorted. "This does nothing to change the fact that no person, human or turian or otherwise, should have to haul that much weight at full tilt for twenty yards."

"That the sound of a turian bellyaching I hear?"

"Turians never bellyache, Shepard. We—" His omnitool flashed. He glanced: new email. "Hang on a minute."

"Wake me up 'cause what you need can't wait, and then stop mid-act to check social media? Kind of a dick move."

"Classy as always, Commander."

"Thanks."

 

To: GY OFF Vakarian

From: FLT Moreau

CC: ENS Lao

Re: what the fuck

This is CAG Moreau from the blue room. George is flying the bird, repeat, George flying the bird, no one on the mouse in the pointy end. Rocket One still checking for light leaks? Give me the gouge.

Lao, disregard above. Pinging on but you’re not painted yet. Mother requests your Charlie and state to splash. Stay perky for air pockets exiting atmo and RTB abaft—pattern is full. Be advised that hangar decon’s bent for multiples. Snuggle up and punch em out at the flightdeck.

Let me know if that helped, Garrus. Alpha Mike Foxtrot. 

"You good?"

He looked up. "Uh...yeah. Fine."

Shepard lifted an eyebrow.

He cleared his throat and closed his device, filing away what he'd just seen to research later. "We were talking about a certain order you issued during the mission."

"No, you were derailing the conversation with a smartass quip about turians."

"Right.” He paused, thought. "Damn. I've forgotten it."

She rolled her eyes. "It had to be done, Vakarian."

"Like that, though? Really?"

She shrugged one-sidedly. "Best solution under the circumstances, so yeah." She sat forward, interlacing her fingers. "Lemme get something straight, by the way. I bring you to the clinic, and you complain about the turian-killing plague. I bring you to Lorek, and you complain about playing sniper bait." Shepard raised her eyebrows. "Put those together, Gunnery Officer, it kinda sounds like you're bitching about getting pulled for every mission."

Garrus opened his mouth, then closed it. "I just forgot what it was like to take orders from you in combat," he grumbled. "You're a damned occupational hazard."

“Good. Not easy to keep things this interesting, you know.”

"Interesting or terrifying though it may be, that doesn't mean I'm not going to complain. Or point out when I'm right."

She scoffed, leaning back. "You weren't right about jack shit this time, buddy. You thought you were gonna die, you didn't. You thought Canada was in the EU, it's definitely not."

"I was right about Shepard’s Law of Infantry Training," he said. "We got fenced in and you chose the exit strategy with the highest risk. Again."

Shepard narrowed her eyes at him, drumming her fingers on her elbow. "That sniper was entrenched. I couldn't flush her with a grenade, so I gave her a target. Lawson was pinned down, all right? It had to be you."

"Me."

"Yep."

"Your favorite turian."

"—Sure."

"The best sniper on your team."

"Dunno about that."

"You're kidding."

"Vakarian, I might like shotguns better but I can snipe with the best of 'em."

Garrus scoffed. "You were slow on the take."

"Like hell I was, and you were empty anyway."

"Like hell you weren't. You couldn't've loaned me a clip?"

"You were about ten yards behind me, in cover. Was I s'posed to chuck it over the containers?"

"Would've been nice."

"It was combat, Garrus. Not baseball."

"What's baseball?"

"Human sport. Two teams, one ball. Batters hit the ball and try to tag four bases before the other team gets the ball back to home base."

"Sounds...interesting."

"Hey, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. I used to pitch for my league."

The driver's compartment door opened and Lawson leaned out. "Five minutes to dock, Shepard. We’re going in through the flightdeck. Some issue with the decontamination system in the hangar bay."

Shepard nodded. "Thanks, XO. And sorry about Vakarian." She jerked a thumb at him. "Rocket to the face must've broken his mute."

"Commander." She retreated back into the compartment, mouth twitching up at the corner.

"There's nothing like being fodder for Commander Shepard's team building exercises," he said peaceably. She saluted with two fingers. "Pitch?"

"Pitching's throwing. Pitcher's the one who throws the ball." She reached under the seat and began clipping her weapons back into place.

He offered the M-100. "So, you were a pitcher."

"Yeah." She waved it off.

"You threw crap around," he prodded, holstering the weapon on his back. "That was your job."

"Yep." She got to her feet, settling her helm under one arm, and grabbed the overhead rail.

"You were a pitcher who threw crap around, and you couldn't throw me a heat sink ten yards away."

"Ah, god."

"Just Garrus, Commander. No need for titles."

"Yeah, the day I call you god's the day you dance balls out bare ass naked on the mess table to the Beach Boys."

"Done."

"—What?"

He cocked his head to the side. "Done."

"Guess I'm not talking to the guy whose visor's glued to his—"

"It was the turian national anthem, though," he continued, getting to his feet. "Not the, uh. Beach Boys."

She shook her head as Lawson rejoined them. "Course it was."

Normandy's airlock was opening.

"So were you drunk, high, or on a dare?" She put on her helmet and activated pressure seals.

"I was on my dad's ship," he retorted, following suit. "I was five."

"That's what they all say. All right, team. Proceed by order of rank."

The shuttle door swung up. The ambient noise of the engine, the rustle of shifting armor and shifting weight cut off abruptly, swallowed by the vacuum. Shepard gripped either side of the frame, braced, and pushed off. She floated into the SR-2’s mass effect field. Landed on her feet with a thump they couldn't hear, and signed to follow. 

Garrus waited for Lawson to touch down, then shoved off the Kodiak's lip. A few disorienting seconds as he drifted across the gap, weightless; he passed through Normandy’s shields; gravity kicked in. He hit the deck unceremoniously and hard, swallowing a curse.

Shepard looked down at him, then raised a hand and waved Lao through. The Kodiak's door swung shut and it sped towards the shuttle bay as the airlock sealed them in.

"STAND BY, GROUND TEAM," ordered the decon VI. At some point—Garrus wasn’t clear when, to say nothing of why—Joker had nicknamed it 'Mr. Bubbles.' "DECONTAMINATION IN PROGRESS."

Shepard hauled him upright as mist jetted from the vents. “Word of advice, Vakarian. Try not to land on your face.”

"Ah, yes. A classic helpful tip from Commander Shepard. Always appreciated.” 

“Here to serve.” She hooked her hands into her ammo belt. “Been awhile?”

"Not since the Hierarchy. Deep space drops aren't exactly routine in the force." He straightened his pauldrons.

She snorted. "Considering I was out on a slab for two years, that’s not much of an excuse in my book."

“Right. Good point. Well, that’s a strong reminder of how I don’t measure up. Thanks, Shepard.”

“No problem.”

“Any other shortcomings you’d like to point out, or have we hit the quota for today?”

She shrugged. “Gimme a minute.”

“Very funny.” The exterior temperature was rising, fogging his faceplate. "So, any idea what’s wrong with decon in the shuttle bay?"

"Nope. Sure I’ll get the bill later, though." She slapped him on the back. “I’ve got something.”

“You have something?”

“Yep. Items two through ten in the shortcomings of Garrus Vakarian. You wanna hear ‘em?”

“Shut up. Uh, ma’am.”

“Yeah, better pipe down over here. Don’t wanna interrupt those calibrations or anything.”

"DECONTAMINATION COMPLETE," the VI informed them. "LOGGED: THE COMMANDING OFFICER IS ABOARD. ARMORY OFFICER TAYLOR STANDS RELIEVED. UNSEALING AIRLOCK. STAND BY."

They entered the bridge. Joker waved without turning from the controls. 

"You're never going to let that go, are you,” he said.

"Not after today, Vakarian. Wake me up and face the consequences."

"It's impressive how long you two can converse about absolutely nothing," Lawson told them as they reached CIC.

"Practice and conditioning." Shepard pulled off her helm, wiping her forehead on her arm. "You oughta join in, XO. Take it from me, works better than trying to tune it out."

Lawson coughed into her fist. "Another time."

"Good." The commander hit the call button. "Going down?"

"Not yet. I have to report to the Illusive Man."

"All right, Lawson, listen." Shepard pointed at her. "Tell ‘im it’s my fault, got it? Can’t be held responsible for my oppo-defiant decision making.”

The XO hesitated, then shook her head. "I always do, Commander."

Shepard saluted with two fingers. "That's the spirit."

They stepped into the elevator as Miranda went towards the comm room.

"You just built rapport with a Cerberus operative," he said after the door closed, concealing surprise.

She shook her head. "I just built rapport with my XO. One’s gotta preclude the other."

She went to the console and punched the button for Crew Deck and Captain’s Quarters. 

He wondered what she was thinking. Principles aside, Shepard had a history with Cerberus, and he knew better than most how that had marked her. Despite Spectre impunity and dozens of opportunities to use it during the war against Sovereign, she’d only ever killed a person in cold blood one time: a scientist from the Akuze project. The look on her face when she’d squeezed the trigger…her corporal, putting a bullet in his brain right after…

In her place, he couldn't have let it go. Cerberus's experiments had been sick, but they hadn't been personal. Not for him. 

But maybe that was why she was N7, why she'd made Spectre. Why she'd survived Akuze to begin with. The Systems Alliance and Council had known Shepard was a better leader than anyone else could hope to be. The Illusive Man had just seen it too, and he'd turned it to his advantage.

Bastard.

She looked over her shoulder, raising her eyebrows. "Got real quiet in here all of a sudden. Nothing to say? No comment to add?"

He shrugged. "You really are a unicorn pony. That's all."

She snorted as the door opened. "Get the fuck out of my elevator. And Garrus," she added as he stepped onto the deck.

He turned. "Yeah?"

"You owe me an hour of racktime, asshole."

Chapter Text

The battery door whizzed open. Garrus looked over his shoulder, startled.

"Shepard?"

The commander nodded, scanning the room, then strode to the rail and reached behind it.

"What—" he began, then, "Ah," as she straightened, a tiny device in her hand.

"Find the rest of 'em," she ordered. "EDI, page Lawson. I need to see her in the battery, now."

"Yes, Shepard."

Garrus ran his hands along the seam of ceiling and wall. "What are you going to do?"

"Stop it," she said tersely. She dropped into a crouch, worked her fingers under one of the floorplates. 

His talon dipped into a break in the surface. “Think I...yeah,” he said, twisting it free of the cabling. “Looks like an extranet protocol cam.”

“Damn it.” Something was off about her voice, too clipped and taut. “I got complacent, Vakarian. And Cerberus—“ Metal screeched as the tile ripped free.

Footsteps. Someone was walking down the hall. 

"Incoming," he said. Shepard nodded, angling her omnitool light into the hole she’d just made. 

The steps slowed, stopped just outside. Miranda's voice drifted in. 

"Shepard, what are you doing?"

She stood and straightened her jacket. "Give me that."

He tossed it across. She strode out, door cycling closed behind her.

Not that he couldn't hear the whole thing, anyway.

"Professor Solus found surveillance bugs in his lab," she said. "I just checked the battery and found more. I want an explanation, Lawson, and it'd better be a damn good one."

A pause.

"The Illusive Man invested heavily in the Lazarus Project, Commander. He has a right to monitor our progress."

"Twice daily reports not cutting it?"

"Shepard—"

"Listen to me, Lawson. You want me to trust Cerberus, but every time I look I'm seeing another reason not to. You want me to trust Cerberus, but trust's gotta go both ways. I've got EDI copiloting the ship, an XO I didn't appoint, and the Illusive Man playing gatekeeper for every dossier and crap piece of intel that comes my way. That's enough. Bugging the rooms where my crew sleeps and works is where I draw the line. Understood?"

"I—"

"Understood?"

"...Yes, ma'am."

"I want all of these removed and deactivated, today. EDI's surveillance functions included. Vid-feed's fine in common areas. No audio anywhere."

"It's—your decision, of course, Commander. It would be a courtesy to speak with the Illusive Man about your concerns personally. You can settle on a course of action together."

"I'll pay him the courtesy of not chucking these out an airlock," Shepard said. "I know they must've cost something." A rustle. "Take 'em. And when you report, think about this. As commanding officer of the Normandy, it should’ve been my prerogative from launch to decide the rights my crew has and the liberties they're allowed. Your boss can be my backer or a headliner on Galaxy's Most Powerful or God in his own damn mind—I don’t need his permission to run this ship the way I see fit. And if he's got a problem with that he can bring it to me. I'll gladly shove it up his ass."

Shepard walked back in, hands empty, and Lawson's steps moved off a moment later.

"We clean?" she asked curtly. 

"Yeah." He nodded to the hardware sitting on his crate. "Found two more. They've been decommissioned."

"Appreciate it." She hooked her thumbs into her pockets and looked around, eyes lingering in the corners. "EDI?"

"Gunnery Officer Vakarian has located all secondary surveillance devices in the battery. Per your request, I have also disabled my closed circuit feeds in this room."

“Not a request.” She bent to examine the aperture where he'd found the last device. "Tell Lawson I want a report on my desk once she's pulled the bugs. Full disclosure, got it? Where your cameras are, what's considered a public area, and who has access to the feeds."

"Sending message now."

"And EDI." She straightened. "I don't need to explain that if Cerberus pulls a stunt like this again, I walk."

"Understood, Commander. Sending addendum to your message and logging you out."

The intercom shut off, but Shepard didn't move. Her shoulders were crisp against the gray of the battery, the air around her brittle and too tense.

It’d been the same two years ago, returning from Citadel Tower after the Normandy had been grounded. She hadn’t spoken in the elevator, striding from the Presidium to the docks to the SR-1, and neither he nor Williams had had the nerve or inclination to disrupt the field of thought and feeling that sparked off her. They’d accompanied her to the comm room, watched her brace herself on the handrail. Exchanged looks as nothing had happened, and nothing again, until at last she’d thumbed the control and spoken the words that killed their mission dead. Noveria, Virmire, all of it, for nothing.

The news had been a blow to all of them, and it had hit Shepard the hardest. Her ship; her mission; her responsibility; her failure. Every one of them knew she saw it that way. But Anderson had made contact a few hours in, and the problem had solved itself.

They wouldn’t be so lucky this time around. Cerberus was the one thing she couldn't walk away from, and everyone she knew was tangled in it. Chakwas and Joker had enlisted. He and Shepard had woken up in Cerberus facilities, precluded from even making a choice.

Frankly, he could live with that. Looking at the commander’s biometrics, he wasn’t sure she could. 

His armor scraped as he settled against his console to wait. She turned abruptly to face him.

"Sorry about that, Vakarian."

"It's all right." He chose his words, watching her for cues. Hard lines had etched deep around her mouth, and her tone was deliberately casual. "Anything the Illusive Man saw, everyone already knew. I code all day. Occasionally, I sleep."

"C'mon." A muscle jumped in her jaw when she smiled. "You telling me you don't have a couple porn subscriptions or dates with a phone sex goddess now and then?"

"Sure. But the porn downloads directly to my visor, and I only cyber in text chat. To a surveillance cam, it just looks like I'm doing my job."

Her laugh was clipped. "Sounds like you're experienced at dodging culpability."

"Work in law enforcement long enough, you pick up a few things," he said, watching as she lifted a miniature transmitter from his crate. "Bad eating habits. Banned erotic vids 'misfiled' by Evidence. The occasional criminal."

Shepard shook her head. "Glad my taxes paid your salary." She fell silent, weighing it in the palm of her hand.

"You planning on pawning that?" he inquired, when it was clear she wasn't going to speak.

"Dunno. What's the going rate?"

"For the voltage and make, I'd say about seven hundred credits. Not a bad return, if you're willing to find a buyer."

"That return'll buy me about one percent of a decent rifle mod."

"Well, when you put it like that."

She shoved it in her pocket. Pulled it out again. "You ever get interference?"

"Not that I noticed. Then again, I didn't know we were under surveillance. Why, you?"

"Nope." She rolled the wire between her fingers, eyes fixed on something he couldn't see. Her expression was unreadable. 

"—Wanna see some magic?" she asked.

He didn't comment on the change of subject. "Only if it’s real. I detect a mass effect field anywhere, I'm filing a complaint with your booking company."

"It’s real. Manner of speaking." She transferred the bug from right to left hand then held up the left, turning it front to back with fingers spread. The device was nowhere in sight. "Couldn't do that with biotics even if I had an implant."

His mandibles twitched in amusement. "Sorry, Shepard, but I think that was a sleight."

"Parlor trick." She passed her hand over her open palm. It reappeared. "Only people I can fool're usually drunk off their asses."

"I'm not drunk yet, and you're better than some I've seen. There was a salarian illusionist on the Citadel a few years back who got laughed out of Zakera Theater."

"That's just physiology. Can't do coin tricks with three digits." She took the transmitter between her thumb and forefinger, rolled it, and turned her hand palm up. It was gone.

"All right, I don't see how you did that," he admitted. "But then I'm not a closet magician like you."

"Warlock. Higher base attack bonus."

"I don't know where you get this crap from, Shepard."

She shrugged. "Copy of the D&D 13.5 Handbook in the head."

"No, I mean I don't—" he stopped. This talk was making less sense than usual, and Shepard was too distracted to throw him a line the way she normally did when he didn't follow. Back in the force, he'd been given a manual on human conversation patterns. That knowledge had helped him comprehend human colleagues in the early days, when he'd still expected things to compute. 

It's relevant, Vakarian. You just can't see how. 

"What's D&D?"

"Classic RPG back on Earth. Think it was invented about a century ago."

It took a second for the acronym to register. When he remembered what it meant, it didn't help. "Wait. There's a handbook on obsolete rocket-propelled grenades in the women's bathroom?"

"Rocket-propelled...the fuck? No?"

They stared at each other.

"What are you talking about, Shepard?" he demanded.

"What are you talking about?"

"...I think I'm losing my mind. The D&D 13.5. The RPG. What does that have to do with magicians?"

"They're some kind of playable class. I dunno what the hell—nope. Got it. RPG like roleplaying game, Vakarian. Not RPG like rocket launcher."

"It stands for both?"

"Yeah."

"Too many acronyms," he informed her. "If we ever find a magician, I'm telling him to vanish them from the human lexicon."

"We ever find a magician, I get to use him first. I'd pay a lot of money for a guy to vanish Cerberus." There was an edge in her voice half-hidden by the joke.

"Sorry." He cocked his head to the side. "Should've kept me in the dark about your lack of magical aptitude. Now you're just a con artist."

She snorted as the device reappeared in her palm. "Something wrong with 'marine who knows coin tricks'?"

"Come on, Shepard. You can't fit that on a business card."

"I don't have a business card."

"Yeah, because your captions are terrible. What's your CV banner say? 'Alliance officer, likes guns?'"

"Actually it says 'humanity's last hope and good at just about everything.' Why, what's yours say? 'Garrus Vakarian, master of the universe, closet stripper'?"

"I'll have you know there's some who'd pay a lot of money to see me strip."

"Yeah, that's 'cause they're planning to blackmail you with the footage." She vanished the transmitter again. "Bet you're a good con artist, yourself. You've got misdirection down."

"Meaning?" he drawled.

"For about half a sec I thought you were capable of feeling, 'stead of a walking talking robot. Glad I was wrong."

He chuckled. "Just keeping you on your toes."

"My toes have nothing to do with it." She raised her eyebrows. "Final act, Vakarian. You ready?"

"I'm ready. Make it good."

She showed him both sides of her hand, then closed her fingers over her palm. "Magic word?"

"’Scammer,’" he said.

"Sure. Scammer it is." Shepard shook her head and reopened her fingers, revealing the transmitter.

"Impressive. Thanks for the show."

"I know, real theatrical."

She stuffed the hardware into her pocket and settled onto his shipping container. Her thumb tapped against her knee.

Garrus watched her hand. Restless fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, iterative motions like coin tricks under a pretense of exaggerated normalcy. Back in C-Sec, he'd have flagged her for suspicious behavior.

"So, sleight of hand." He crossed his arms.

Shepard glanced up. "Yeah."

"Where'd a respectable woman like you learn something like that?"

She scoffed. "And by 'respectable' you mean what? I load my gun with my pinky finger out?"

"Something like that. You know, alerting me before you queer my shot. Offering terms when you know your opponent won't surrender."

Her mouth twitched. "Gotta observe the common courtesies, Vakarian."

"Oh, naturally. It's all that separates us from them."

"Them?"

"Cerberus. Reapers. The assholes we're about to put in the ground."

"Right." She interlaced her fingers and sat forward, knee bouncing.

He went to the hole she'd made in his floor and crouched, picking up the displaced tile. "So, coin tricks. Where was it, Commander? Baseball? Alliance?"

"Reds." Her heel drummed against the floor. "Baseball happened in the Alliance, actually. Pitched for the Fifth Fleet."

He fitted the plate back into place. "Tell me about it. The, uh. Origin story of your so-called mystical powers."

Tap-tap-tap. "The Reds did a lot of petty theft and vandalism when I still ran for 'em. MO was a two team play. One to do the job, one to run interference. Keep cops and civilians looking the wrong way."

"By doing what?"

"Tripping an alarm. Breaking a window. Loitering really fucking obviously outside the storefront." She stopped, her mind clearly elsewhere. "I was always distraction, not point."

Garrus sat back on his heels and checked his work. Seams were flush. "And what did that mean?" he prompted, twisting to see her.

She looked over at him, thumbs tapping together. "Meant I took the blame if I didn't bug out fast enough. That, and I had a lot of time to learn stupid shit."

"There's always time to learn stupid shit," he commented. "Take your helmsman. He's subscribed to about fifty different vid-series, and he still manages to fly the ship."

“Yeah, well, Jeff 'Joker' Moreau is God’s gift to mankind and surpasses most humans in natural ability. Just ask him yourself.”

He stood, dusting off his hands. "So you had time to kill, once. I guess the Alliance changed that."

"Alliance changed a lot of things. ICT most of all." She stared at the wall, a line between her brows. "New family. New rules."

"New baggage?"

"That too." She looked at him over the steeple of her fingers, then shook her head. "Cops. You profile me yet, Vakarian?"

"Awhile ago, yeah."

"Join the club."

"Just a habit, Shepard. You know I don't mean anything by it."

Her eyes were fixed on the far wall. "And what's your habit telling you?"

Garrus considered. "Under duress."

The commander nodded and fell silent. He waited, counting heartbeats. One, fifteen, twenty-one. Her fingertips tapped slowly against each other, keeping their own time.

"Think I may've been too hard on Lawson," she said at last.

He thought about that. Political blowback had been a constant threat in C-Sec, whose prominence in the public eye and mandate to keep the peace spawned hundreds of civilian complaints per day. It was one of the reasons he'd been content to stand back and let Shepard take point two years ago. As a liaison without commission on the Normandy, he hadn't been responsible for mitigating fallout when they did crap like detonate a nuke on a habitable world or liberate a rachni queen.

"I've heard worse," he said mildly. "As commanding officers go, your hand's pretty light. Besides…" he shrugged. "It's your ship, Shepard. Cerberus needs to know they can't jerk you around."

"You're saying to find a balance," she said flatly. "I feel like I'm walking through a goddamn minefield, chucking grenades all over the place."

"A small minefield, maybe. But it's possible that it’s simpler than you're allowing it to be." He leaned against his console. "Lawson's not an idiot, and she's not made of glass. You censured the Illusive Man, not her. She followed his orders, and now that you've made your position clear, she'll follow yours." He crossed his arms. "I wouldn't ask her for anything beyond the call of duty, but she'll respect your authority without undermining it. Besides, my read is that she’s fair. Pragmatic. She’ll like you if you get the job done, Shepard. And you always do."

"...All right." She pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger, closing her eyes.

Garrus studied her. In the entirety of his time on the SR-1, Shepard had never voiced uncertainty. Then again, things had been a lot more black and white then. Alliance was good. Reapers were bad. Politicians were assholes but understandably so.

"You did the right thing," he pointed out. "This is a new crew. You needed to set the expectations and follow through with them. If you hadn’t laid down the law, you’d have caught some issue later."

"I know." She glanced up at him, and her mouth jerked up at the corner. "I was just thinking 'shove it up his ass' was probably overkill."

"Oh, definitely," he agreed. "It was still a nice touch."

She rolled her eyes. "Course you'd think so."

"And what does that mean?" he drawled.

"Look, Garrus, you're kind of a dick."

He shrugged. "Sometimes."

"All the time."

"When it counts. Anyway, you like it."

"That so."

"I'm always first in on a mission. I know a favorite when I see one."

Shepard raised her eyebrows, but she was smiling slightly. "You ever think I bring you along for your good eye?"

"It's crossed my mind," he admitted. "But I prefer to believe you don't just use men for their bodies, Commander."

"Actually, if I haven't used a guy for his body by breakfast, I'm not doing my job right."

"Is that so. Who was the lucky victim today? Or—" he checked the time on his visor. "Zero eight hundred. Had breakfast yet, Shepard? Or is there, uh, something you wanted to ask me?"

She snorted. "We all have our delusions."

"So that's what you humans call them. I wondered."

"The hell do turians call 'em?"

"On a good day, propositions. On a bad day…" He shrugged. "I've never had one."

She shook her head, pushing to her feet. "All right, I'm gonna head out. Find something to do."

"Anyone need saving?" he inquired. "You know I'm always up for some target practice."

"Nah. More like empty my inbox. Clean my gun. Chuck shit into the fishtank, see if it floats. Thanks for the help, Vakarian."

He checked her vitals again. "Any time."

"Talk to you later." She walked out, hands in her pockets.

Trust Cerberus to screw with Shepard's head when she needed it clear for the mission. Garrus turned to his console and opened his inbox.

One thing he knew was that kicking around the ship would make things worse. For a woman who slept everywhere and who, he admitted privately, was rock steady with a sniper rifle when she wanted to be, Shepard was restless. Combat had always been the best antidote to that, but upgrading her team’s kit was a close second. Guns, mods, and gear were the only things he’d ever seen her drop credits on, the way species-targeted ads were forever telling humans to splurge on faceted gemstones. Whatever they were called. The hard ones made out of pressurized superheated dead crap.

Garrus scanned for an address, still groping for the name of those fucking rocks. Turians didn’t give a damn about gems, so it’d been yet another thing he’d had to research upon leaving Palaven. One of his first cases had involved recovering a stolen one.

Carbon. Covalent bonds. Crystal lattice. 2800 B Umi Street, Kenzo District.

"Diamonds," he muttered. He shut down his equipment and strode out of the battery. "Shepard," he said, opening a channel. "You there?"

"Didn’t I just see you?" Her voice went live over his communicator, doubled in real time across the crew deck. He looked for the source, walking down the hall.

"Where are you?"

"Waiting for the elevator, where the fuck else," she said as he rounded the corner, and looked over her shoulder. "Hey."

"Hey. You ever find those FBA couplings the engineers wanted?"

Shepard shook her head. "I poked around the lower markets on Omega, but I didn't see 'em."

"Maybe you weren't looking in the right place."

"Maybe," she admitted. "I didn't spend the last two years squatting in that shithole. Unlike you."

"Well. Since you asked nicely," he drawled, stepping into the elevator with her. "We're in the system anyway, Commander. Let's have another look."

She glanced sidelong at him, lifting an eyebrow. "You trying to take care of me, Vakarian?"

"No. If the suicide sprints are going to be a regular addition to my day, I want better kinetic barriers covering my ass." He reached around her and hit the button for the CIC. "I'm just bringing you along for the ride."

Chapter Text

Care warning: combat stress response/flashback.

Omega's air was hot, close, and dusty. Half the lights had shorted out in the docking bay, and those remaining flickered as their power ran low. No one was coming to repair them. That would’ve entailed the existence of infrastructure, maintenance crews, and a single sentient being with the resources and wherewithal to give a damn.

It was all too familiar. Garrus checked the corners out of habit as they left the airlock. The walls were grimed with decades of accumulated filth, the floor gritty underfoot.

"Place’s a shithole," Shepard muttered.

"You've said that before," he commented, starting down the hall.

"Yeah, well, it deserves another mention." She fell in beside him. Even helmed and armored, he could hear the tension in her terseness, and read the watchfulness in her body language.

They passed an augur, batarian, flinging prophecies from a makeshift pulpit. 

"Expecting trouble?" he asked casually. 

"You not? This was probably the worst idea ever. Only been a couple weeks since we shot the place up. Omega's too hot for us to be walking around like this."

"Look, I promise we’re good." He stopped and faced her. "Even if there's trouble, Aria won't want you killed on her station."

Shepard snorted. "Look around, Vakarian. I'm pretty sure Aria doesn't give a shit."

He shook his head. "Trust me. You’ve proven yourself an asset, and she won’t lose an asset if she can help it."

They started walking again. “So I’m good ’til something else ‘slips the net.’ ‘Cause that’s never happened before."

"Moreau was right,” he observed, turning down a corridor. "You really are a downer."

"You ever hear 'a pessimist is what an optimist calls a realist'?"

"Ash, I think. Wasn’t she advising you not to let aliens have run of the ship?”

Shepard grunted. "Nope, she was only worried about you and Wrex. Guess Tali and Liara were too ingenuous or female-presenting to pose a security risk.”

The passageway was crowded with loiterers. He stepped around a vorcha who’d set up a panhandling station squarely in the narrow aisle. 

“Well, also, the two of them didn’t exactly sell criminal mastermind.”

“And you did?”

“Shepard,” he drawled, “Do you know how much your people talked? I knew everything happening on that ship. I could’ve blackmailed each individual crewman and lived off the proceeds for the rest of my life.”

“Uh-huh. So the visor—“

“That’s right. I have vid-proof that you drink double strength coffee and keep a spare deodorant in your locker. Not standard issue, I might add. How much do you think that’s worth to the Shadow Broker?”

Shepard snorted. “Yeah, criminal mastermind, seeing it now. You learn anything I actually give a damn about?”

“There was mention of kissing turians at some point. I’m still waiting for that one to bear fruit.”

“Help if you had lips.”

“I don’t need lips to rock your world, Commander.”

The corridor was widening again. They’d reached the markets. 

“So you keep saying, Vakarian, but I’ve never seen a turian female. I’m pretty sure you fuckers have no sex drive and reproduce by mitosis.”

“One day I’m taking you to Palaven, ma’am. When I’m surrounded by adoring men, women, and people on every damn side, you’ll see what you let get away.”

"Wonder where Williams is now.” She slowed to check a kiosk. "You ever hear from her?"

"No." He stopped, waiting. "I haven't been in touch with any of the old team since...uh."

"Since I died and you went AWOL," she supplied.

"Something like that, yeah."

She turned away from the stall and caught up to him. "So where we going?"

"For the couplings, this hole in the wall. Literally, more or less. Storeowner's a nice kid. Quarian. For the upgrades...I've got a contact in one of the residential districts who was holding some things for Archangel. Unless she's moved everything somehow, she'll be looking to unload."

Shepard glanced at him. "This contact of yours gonna recognize you?"

He shrugged. "I doubt it. One of my team always handled the transactions with her."

"What if she does?" 

"She won't."

"And if she does—"

He clapped her shoulder. "Then you get to say ‘I told you so.’"

-

FIFTY-SEVEN MINUTES AND FOUR SECONDS LATER

Shepard threw herself back into cover and banged the clip from her rifle. "I goddamn told you so," she snapped. A rocket smacked the wreck of their cab, spewing frag. Burning hydrogen splashed down. One of the seats caught fire, and smoke spurled out.   

Garrus looked over, thrusting sinks into his Widow. They’d both ditched their helms for the tactical advantage of peripheral vision and targeting visors—the game was up, anyway, and one way or another he’d been made. Shepard was sweat-drenched, pupils dilated and pulse pounding. Alert, scanning for tactical opportunities to starboard and enemy vulnerabilities to port. Whatever tension she’d been carrying about the XO and her shitty boss, it’d been subsumed by the exigency of this clusterfuck.

“You’re enjoying yourself a little too much for someone so very angry,” he drawled. 

Her teeth flashed white, her scars orange when she grinned. “Last time I’m ever letting you drive.”

“It was their guided missile launcher versus our civilian vehicle, CO.” He risked a visual to check cover; bullets sparked off the hood. The casings rattled down. “How exactly was I supposed to dodge it?”

She started to answer; a grenade bounced into the passenger’s seat and detonated. The cab rocked. What remained of the safety glass blew out. She didn’t flinch, shuttling clips into her DMR. Her hands were steady. "Evasive fucking maneuvers, buddy. Heard of 'em?"

"You can't outmaneuver a missile at close range!" 

"Well, you can't. Rocket to the face, rocket to the cab. You have a magnet in your ass or something?"

From the grenade’s trajectory, some asshole was trying to flank. There. "It's called a magnetic ass, Shepard. Be precise." He cocked his Widow. "Found the M-100. Cover me?"

"Got your back." She set up, punching out rounds. "Shields eighty. Forty. Twent—"

He squeezed the trigger.

They dropped back into cover. "Always liked that you don't waste bullets during suppressing fire," he said conversationally, flushing his sink. 

"N7s don't waste ammo." Her rifle rapped three, four times. Two marks blinked out on the scanner. Another missile flensed her shields, slicing them back down to twenty percent. "Rule Number Two."

"What's Rule Number One?"

She snorted, swapping in her SR. "N7s don't make mistakes." 

He fired again. Bullets rattled around him, scoured paint off the hood. "I'm pretty sure that's been disproven about a thousand times." 

"No shit. I let you drag me down here, remember?" 

"Well. It seemed like a good idea. A simple trip to the store, anyway." He opened his omnitool. It was past time for an exit strategy.

"What is it now?" she asked, sardonic. She exhaled; the report boomed. 

"Probably the worst idea ever," he admitted, pulling up a map of the area. “Sorry, Commander.”

"Well, at least we got some shield schematics and couplings out of it." She peered around the cab and shook the clip from her gun, muttering something unparsible in English. "All right, Vakarian. Ranks are thinned and we gotta move—think they’re getting tired of us picking ‘em off. What’ve we got for exits?"

“Way ahead of you, Shepard.” He studied the holo. "Entrance to the sewers down that passageway to port. Public carport about a half mile away if we retreat down the block and hang a left. Take your pick."

She raised her eyebrows. "Something wrong with their X3M?"

"Theirs?"

"Mercs had to get here somehow." Shepard jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Hell of a lot closer than a half mile, hell of a lot faster than navigating a maze on foot."

"It's still behind— forget it. You’re not seriously suggesting a frontal assault."

She shrugged. "We gotta break cover. Might as well go forward.”

"Commander, it’s too—”

The world blazed white, seared red, and splintered as a missile breached the cab.

Heat. Light. Fire swallowed him, pressed him down and plates shattered sinew melting skin flayed blood boiling Vakarian do you read god fucking damn it I don’t know where the hell you are but this is your CO this is Commander Shepard and I’m telling you I need you to lock it all down and report for duty gunship Archangel bullets hammering missiles breaking listen to me soldier your name is Garrus Vakarian you’re gunnery officer on the Normandy SR-2 a Cerberus knockoff of a Systems Alliance ship called the SSV Normandy two years ago you served with me during the hunt for Saren Arterius left C-Sec to do it Monteague broken Butler mangled Erash incinerated you’re a sniper a tech a tacticial specialist coulda been a Spectre not a couple weeks ago you were company commander of a merc squad here on Omega went by Archangel Sidonis and now we’re back here all the fuck over again and it’s time to clock the hell in. You’re not gonna die here, got it, ‘cause I’m not gonna die here. Been there, done that, all right? Not all it’s cracked up to be. Wherever you are, buddy, it’s not fucking real. But that gunfire you hear, it’s real. That fire you hear, it’s real. My voice, that’s real. Pavement, real, rifle, real, hand, real, 

and he looked towards the sound of her, concussed, fighting through the tunnel vision. The words dimmed, sharpened into harsh lines. Shepard knelt over him, soot-streaked. She was firing her assault rifle one-handed, fingers crushing his. "..smell of blood, real, smell of piss and shit, unfortunately fucking real too.” She ducked, rammed her gun against the cab to knock out the sink. Looked down, freed her hand, and smacked the side of his head. “There we go. Are you the fuck back? Go shellshocked on me and I’m leaving your ass for the mercs!”

He worked his larynx, tried to glue his focus to the present. Shepard: adding incentive by the swear since 2183. Or. No, before that. 

The blast zone sprayed out beneath him. Detonation had blackened the cab, boiled away another piece of his armor. Had he seriously been hit by another missile?

Her hand clamped on his cuirass and yanked him up. She slammed her brow into his, locked eyes. “God damn it, you son of a bitch, I didn’t survive a Reaper and you didn’t survive Omega to get killed by a squad of wet-behind-the-ears mercs, do you read?” she snarled.

—Concentrate. Prioritize. Report for duty. 

His head was spinning and his shoulder hurt like hell, but he had audio and—he flexed his fingers—full motor control, or close enough to it. Combat fatigue and a flesh wound. That was all, or that was all he would allow. There was a damn job to do. 

"Read, Commander,” he croaked. 

She let him go, nodded. “Eyes forward, soldier. You can do this. Prepare to fire.”

He forced down the dizziness, rolled onto his stomach with a grunt. Blinked hard and assembled his bipod, muscle memory taking over. 

"All there?" She glanced down. "'Cause in about ten fucking seconds—"

"I'm fine." He donned his helm. Squeezed his eyes shut then opened them, steadying his breaths. "Orders."

"Two ML-77s on your ten by the planter. Batarian’s mine." She readied her rifle. "One shot. They get another missile off, we're done."

"Understood. Break cover in three," he said tightly, closing his faceplate.

One.

Two. 

He exhaled.

Three.

"Kills confirmed. I'm empty," he told her as they shifted back into cover. "Can you spare any clips?"

She slid her M-6 across the floor. "Reload from that. Poach sinks from your assault. I'm going in."

He flipped open the pistol's chamber, ignoring the throbbing in his shoulder, the residual ringing in his ears. "You try to break their line, Shepard, you have to cross fifty yards of ground with no cover."

She reached into the cab and pulled out her helm, scorched but functional. "Look," she said, activating pressure seals. "I don't wanna wade through other people's shit for an hour trying to get back to the surface. I also don't wanna go to the carport, 'cause there might be civilians around. So we’re taking theirs and getting the hell out, got it?"

He checked the scanner. Twelve, maybe thirteen enemy combatants. Doable, if they got out before reinforcements arrived. "...Fine. But I'm not in any state to do the runner this time."

"I need you at range 'til I've softened 'em up. And you’re not getting anywhere near a hostile ‘til you’ve seen the doc." She unholstered the M-100, slapped it on the ground beside him. "Leave this with you. I need this door."

He swung it up from the cab's body, leaned back as she assembled a silicon-carbide blade from her omnitool. "Give me the rundown."

“You’re on midrange weapons. I close with close range specialists and draw fire. No EMP, understood? You fry my shields, I’m going back to Normandy in a bodybag.”

“Use common sense. Got it.”

“Sharp guy. Glad I poached you from C-Sec.” She sliced through the hinges, metal glowing red-hot where it melted away from the blade. “Identify officers and fight from cover. Switch up when you go mobile.”

“What about the door?”

Her hands were bending supports salvaged from the cab’s carriage into bell curves. "Ballistics shield’s gotta have handles. Status report."

"Two scouts moving up. Remainder in cover. Conferring. Or radioing for reinforcements, in which case we’re screwed."

"Your optimism’s inspiring, Garrus." She set the first piece and soldered the ends to the door.

“Optimism is your job, CO. Mine is realism.” He doused the supports with his water bottle, sending up a plume of steam. “Though now that I think about it, we’ve been in worse situations. Slightly.”

“There you go.” She hefted the door onto her left arm with a grunt, hoisting her rifle in her right. "Give 'em a grenade then switch to SR. Don't let 'em flank me."

He set his Widow in reach and picked up the M-100. "You know I won't."

Shepard nodded. "Engage in ten."

Movement on his scanner overlay. "More hostiles advancing," he said, glancing around the cab. "Seven across now. Leaves five to seven still in cover." Shepard nodded, not looking at him. Her body was tensed to move.

Seven. Eight. Nine

"Firing left of center."

The grenade detonated on impact as the line crumbled around it. Shepard was gone, six yards forward and firing.

"Three casualties, tech retreating,” she said curtly. “Targeting two o’clock.”

He pulled the trigger as her Mattock cracked. "Tech down."

"Shotgun down. Shields ninety. Concentrate fire left."

"Acknowledged. Targeting assault, nine thirty." His reticle panned over a woman as she fired over the wall, swung back as she hand-signed another merc. "Alpha in sight. Human female, eleven."

"Take ‘er out."

"Copy." He scoped his original target, nailing him between the shoulderblades as he tried to vault into cover. "Scratch one—"

"Two. CO?"

He junked his clip. "Sorry."

"Damn it. Advance party terminated, all hostiles in cover. Shields seventy. Garrus—"

"I’m here."

"She’s gonna sic ‘em on me. Have to drop the door."

"Understood. Remain forward of the barricade. Hold to starboard."

Ten yards. The remaining mercs had bunkered down, waiting a signal to attack. Smarter than they looked. Shepard slowed, holstering her DMR and drawing her shotgun. Garrus straightened a finger along the trigger, watching the scanner.

"Movement right. Three, cancel, four combatants converging on your position."

"Got it. Nine yards.” A split-second pause. “EMP, disengage."

“Your call.” He activated his omnitool. "Charge’s hot." The commander shook out her shield arm; he took a breath—

They all broke cover at once. Three muzzles flashing, four bodies charging, cab door clanging down, shields sparking against the barrage. Garrus released the pulse and fired without confirming a hit. The alpha’s head snapped back, painted the concrete.

His spent clip hit the floor. CO’s shields one fifth capacity. Assault ejecting, scoped, dropped.

He ducked into cover, cranked the bolt, checked the scanner. Three standing.

"Shields down," she snapped.

Garrus holstered the Widow, grabbing his DMR. "Coming."

Forty-five yards, thirty, concussive round in the chamber, twenty, line of sight flashing Shepard-Sun-Shepard too fast to aim.

"Taking heavy fire!" The words tore off in a spray of blood.

He dropped to one knee. "Get out of there, Shepard!"

No response—a merc staggered sideways and collapsed—her body rolled away from the press. "Clear!"

The round landed just shy, blowing them off their feet. One, two shots. The last of the Suns flickered out on the scanner.

"...Clear," he echoed.

Shepard pushed to one knee, growling with the effort. "You do video games, Garrus?"

He knelt beside her, pulling out a medpac and the rag he used to clean his rifle. "No?"

"Well, I'm tired of taking all the agro."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." He folded the rag into a thick pad and unscrewed his canteen. "You want me to fix that, ma’am, I'm going to need a look."

Her hand was clamped over her left knee. She lifted her palm away carefully and swore as blood dripped down. "Fucking shit. All right, make it quick."

He rinsed away the worst of the blood and pressed the cloth to the broken skin beneath. "Well, they didn't hit a major artery."

"Halle-fucking-lujah."

"Might've shattered the patella, though, which is—"

“Worse, yeah. Got it.”

He tore open the packet. "You're telling me Cerberus doesn't have trauma modules installed to our hardsuits?"

"It look like I had a fucking trauma module back there? 'Best technology money could buy,' my ass," Shepard gritted as he smeared medigel on the wound.

He stood, checking the scanner again. "Well, something for you and the Illusive Man to talk about."

"Chock full of helpful commentary," Shepard muttered. "Look, Vakarian, I'm gonna need a boost."

He flicked a mandible and hauled her to her feet. "Cranky after taking fire. Just like old times."

"Something happen when I died?" she demanded, following him to the cab. "’Cause for some reason I don't remember you being an insubordinate fuckhole on the SR-1."

He climbed into the driver's seat. "I always thought these things about you, Commander. So did the rest of us. We just didn't let you know."

"Great." She strapped herself in. "I take that crew into hell, and now you tell me it was for the pay."

"That's not true. The medical benefits were pretty good too."

They sped towards the nearest airway.

"Thought you were never letting me drive again," he said, merging into traffic.

"Yeah. That was before I took a bullet riding shotgun with Omega's most wanted." She unsealed her helmet with a grimace. "This does permanent damage, you owe me a kneecap."

"Something tells me our physiologies aren’t compatible, Shepard. Also, it seems to me I owe you a hell of a lot since joining this crew."

"Yep." She counted off on her fingers. "Rifle, racktime, body part, your sorry fucking life—"

"Seeing as I've just saved your sorry fucking life, I think that one should be struck from the ledger."

"...All right." She crossed her arms and settled back, closing her eyes. "See if it can be done."

He chuckled and checked his rear view. "I appreciate it."

Chapter Text

Dust and discarded packaging skittered across the lot as Garrus maneuvered them onto the landing pad. A family of pyjaks whisked around a parked vehicle, balked of whatever meal he’d disrupted. Their orb-like eyes reflected Afterlife’s pulsing marquee through the smog. 

“Commander.” He powered down the engine. “We’re here.”

She stirred, uncrossed her arms. “All right.” She donned her helm and activated pressure seals. “Time is it?”

“Seventeen twenty two Normandy.” He ducked out of the vehicle and circled the hood. Swung up the passenger door. Shepard was retracting her seatbelt.

“The hell you do, stop for coffee and donuts?” She gripped her mangled leg, hauled it out of the seat. 

“Lap dance, actually. And there was traffic leaving Kenzo District.” He scanned their perimeter. “How’s the knee?”

“The one full of bone splinters and shotgun pellets?” Her voice was sardonic.

“Fair enough. We need to get you to Chakwas.” He heaved her upright. “Come on, Commander. Up and out.”

A mixed group of humans and batarians was leaving Afterlife. Haze blanketed the plaza, a dusty miasma that blurred detail and made the bad visibility worse. He squinted through the bloodshot nimbus of the fluorescents.

Suns, armed and armored.

He thumped her shoulder and pointed.

Shepard nodded. She stepped down, and hissed when her knee took the weight. “Damn it. Fucking endorphins’ve worn off.”

“It figures.” He dragged his eyes from the mercs. The commander was bracing herself on the hood. “Do I radio the Normandy? I don’t have anything to splint you with.”

“Depends.” She reached down to massage her thigh. “Concerned about those mercs?”

Garrus examined them over her head. They were loitering outside the club, apparently at their ease. “They’re Suns,” he said, slowly. “I can see their armor. Off-duty, so they might not know about Kenzo yet. It’s a big company. Disorganized. And we didn’t leave anyone alive back there.”

“...But?” she prodded when he didn’t continue.

“But this is Omega. People see easy pickings, they’re going to take them.”

“Noted.” She fell silent. Nodded. “Don’t raise ‘em—it’ll just draw attention.” She looked over at the docking bay door. “I’ll make it if we take it slow.”

“Across the lot, through that door, and down the hall. Pretty far for someone without a kneecap,” he warned.

“Dose of stims’ll get me moving. Gimme a sec.” Orange washed her faceplate as she keyed her omnitool. Swore, helmet slamming against the cab.

“I thought those things contained analgesics,” he drawled. “As in painkillers.”

“Tell you what. Lemme inject you locally with twenty-five mil of this shit, see how you feel right after. Just—all right.” Her eyes closed behind her faceplate, and her breathing slowed. “All right.”

Garrus crossed his arms. “’All right’ as in it’s working, or ‘all right’ as in you’ve gotten tired of waiting for it to work?”

She snorted, unmoving. “Calling my bluff?”

“Your heartrate’s about fifteen percent above resting.”

“Maybe I’m just randy. I mean, look at this place.” Her wave took in the carport. “Music, mood lighting, a little danger? Buy me a beer and I’m good to go, Vakarian.”

He eyed her. “I doubt it. And you’re dodging the question.”

She grunted. “‘All right’ as in if we wait for ‘em to kick in properly, Suns’ll catch us with our flies down.”

“Our what?”

“Nothing.” She flicked her wrist, closed her omnitool. “Let’s move.”

“With all due respect, you’ll have to get off that cab first. I’m not pushing it down the hall for you to lean on.”

“Don’t see why not.” She straightened, creasing the cab’s hood as her hand clenched. “Fuck damn. C’mon.”

He stuck close as she limped across the lot, staying between her and the mercs.

“So,” she said after a few seconds, vocals tight. “Just like old times?”

“Not exactly,” he answered, straining to hear the Suns’ chatter over the PA. “Back then, you were always the one hauling our crippled asses out. Not the other way around. And...”

“...orcha. A blight on the station, or a boon for Omega’s depressed labor market? A new study on vorcha’s adaptive capabilities—“

“—District. Her last transmission said she was taking a team to investigate a tip about Archangel.”

“You’re shitting me. I thought we killed that son of a bitch.”

His helm-to-helm transmitter clicked. “Look tense. Hear anything worth telling me about?”

“Well, we need to pick up the pace,” he muttered.

“Why?”

“Hang on.” He turned his head, trying to hear.

“...in! Aria’s expecting m—”

“—issing. Could be a couple of lowlifes, or the suspects could have taken it. Boss just sent the tracking number.”

“Crap. Bastards know someone took out a unit and stole their vehicle.” He seized her elbow. “They’re about to check the GPS.”

“You didn’t disable it?”

“Shepard, I’m not an amateur. Tracker’s disabled, but that unit has a line of sight to the vehicle. I can’t change the custom paint job.”

“Damn it,” she gritted as he hustled her towards the hallway. “Every time I’m ashore inside ten miles of you, shit goes to hell.”

“I said sewers or carport,” he retorted, looking over his shoulder. Suns were moving towards the lot. “Shepard’s Law of Infantry Training cum grenade launcher was your damn idea.”

“I’m saying—it can’t be coincidence,” she said, panting as they cleared the corner. “I go to the clinic to follow up a lead, find you escalating a blackmail attempt into a hostage situation. I go to Omega to recruit a tactical specialist, find you playing Custer’s Last Stand with every merc on the station. I go goddamn house-calling, get my ass shot, ‘cause for some reason, your friends don’t actually like you.”

“I’m not the only common denominator in this equation, Shepard.” He toggled his visor to IR. “For all I know, it could be you inflicting the bad luck on me.” He checked the lot for heat sigs. “Looks like they found the car. Think they’ll take it and go, like nice criminals?”

She laughed breathlessly. “Doubt it. Nothing’s been easy so far.”

“Well, let’s hope they don’t think to check the docking bay,” he muttered. “Car still warm, wounded soldiers with military-grade equipment around the corner. Even the Blue Suns can put those pieces together.”

They were a quarter-way down the hall when his radio crackled. “Ground team, this is XO Lawson.”

“Needs to wait,” he said curtly. “The commander—”

“Go ahead,” Shepard cut in.

If Lawson heard him, she didn’t show it. “Shepard. I have a status report on the surveillance bugs. We should talk before you debrief the crew.”

“’Kay.” Shepard drew a breath. “En route, but, uh. Took some fire. Nothing serious. Meet you in your office.”

“Hope you’re ready for a long wait,” he quipped, and checked the lot again. “...Oh, crap. Th—” His foot caught on the broken floor. Shepard yelped, stumbling with him.

“Watch it, Garrus! I go down, I’m not getting back up.”

“Shepard, I thought it wasn’t serious! What happened out there?” Miranda sounded alarmed.

“It’s fine, Lawson. Just—“

“No, not fine, they’re headed this way now,” he interrupted urgently. “Come on!”

“Shepard—“

“Not helping,” she snapped. “I’m working with half a leg here.”

He bent, yanking her arm around his neck. “Commander, if I die on Omega after surviving a gunship plus the plague because you can’t walk without a cane—“

“Laugh it up,” she growled. “Enjoy your next run-in with Omega’s finest, ‘cause I’m not gonna be there to haul your ass out.”

“Commander, report!”

“...I gotta go, Lawson. Situation’s under control. Out.”

“Postponing the debrief I approve. But I think we differ on what constitutes ‘under control.’”

“Tell you what, buddy. You focus on the pros for a change, and I’ll buy the next round.”

“Thought you put in the order already.”

“Not too late to cancel if you don’t shut the hell up.”

Two steps. Back was starting to ache from the added weight. Shoulder was killing him.

“…Remind me what those pros are, at least.”

“We’re not dead yet, you’re the big damn hero, and you’ve got my arm around you. Everything you always fucking wanted.”

“Not exactly the scenario I envisioned,” he grunted, resettling her arm. “What was the point of those damned painkillers if they weren’t going to kill the pain?”

“I dunno, Vakarian,” she snapped. “I didn’t ask to get rebuilt with a krogan’s metabolism.”

Three steps. Audible voices. Suns were closing. Shepard was mobile but four yards was eight steps for a healthy human female and given the bullet’s point of entry and blood loss and—

Yeah. No way around it.

“Fuck your metabolism, Shepard,” Garrus said. Crouching, he slung the commander headfirst over his shoulder and hauled ass into Normandy’s airlock.

He staggered inside, punched the door control. Didn’t set her down so much as he let go. Heard the hatch close through roaring ears and pitched forward, just managing to brace himself on his knees.

Tearing pain. Graying vision. Dizziness. Nausea.

Could be worse.

“STAND BY, SHORE PARTY. DECONTAMINATION IN PROGRESS.”

A screech of ceramic on metal. Shepard was dragging herself up against the wall. “You okay?”

His head spun. Giving up, he collapsed beside her. “That was my bad shoulder.” He closed his eyes behind his faceplate. “Also, you’re a lot heavier than you look.”

She snorted. “Sixty percent water plus a bunch of cybernetics. Keep complimenting me, Garrus, you’re gonna make me blush.”

“Good. Could do with more pigment up there.”

“Not my fault you used all the makeup.”

“They’re tattoos, Shepard. They’re a mode of cultural expression.”

“Get that from an info pamphlet?”

“No, my dad.” He probed his shoulder with his talons, not opening his eyes. “Parting gift, along with the stick up my ass.”

She coughed a laugh. “Learning new things about you all the time, Vakarian.”

“What do you…damn it. Not that kind of stick, Commander. And if it is that kind of stick, well, that’s between me, my ass, and my dad.”

“With you right up to the dad part.”

His investigation wasn’t turning up anything good. Missile had ablated the pauldron, burned through his suit and plates. The open wound felt slick, raw, and runny, nerves exposed and throbbing from the weight he’d just dragged over it.

“How’s the burn?”

“Uh. Second-degree, maybe.”

“Gonna check it.” A hand pressed the edge of the wound. “Feel anything?”

“Everything. Do it again, Shepard. Just to make sure.”

The pressure withdrew. “Dumbass. Shoulda sealed this two hours ago.”

“Yeah. After seeing the good it did you, I’m keeping all the gel for myself next time.”

“Probably a good call.” He heard her shift away. “Maybe upgrade our suits with MFCs that carry a decent number of emergency doses and don’t fry when they’re hit. You know, while we’re at it.”

“I notice you didn’t say ‘let’s avoid life-threatening situations’ or ‘let’s stop visiting Omega.’”

“Well, I’m a realist.”

“And here I thought you were the optimist.”

She groaned. “Optimism was ten kills ago and had an intact kneecap.”

“Very pragmatic. So, who’s Custer?”

“Union Army Captain. American Civil War. Got routed with his whole unit trying to resettle natives.”

“Sounds like an asshole.”

“Nothing but.”

“Thanks. I’ll keep this in mind next time you need a character reference.”

The fog misted over them. The deck juddered as the loading bridge disengaged and the SR-2 pulled away from the gate. 

He wondered idly if they would die here. Maybe they already had.

“Looking forward to the talk with Chakwas,” Shepard murmured.

“Hey. If the doctor wants to put you out the airlock, she’ll have to line up behind Lawson.”

“Point.” Ceramic, squeaking. “Still, Lawson’s got the Illusive Man holding her leash. What’s gonna stop Karin?”

“Couple shots of brandy, maybe.”

“One day we’re gonna drink, you smug son of a bitch. And if you can’t hold your booze, I’m giving you shit ‘til the end of fucking time.”

“Given the fact that Cerberus will just pump the toxins out of you and leave me to die, I think I’ll pass.”

“Hey. Just ‘cause I’m Cerberus’s billion dollar mutant baby doesn’t mean I get any special treatment.”

“Fifty credits says you’ll get medicated before I do if this damned airlock ever opens.”

“Fine. I was just wondering how I’d handle the co-pay on my volunteer’s stipend.”

Pressure seals hissed.

“LOGGED: THE COMMANDING OFFICER IS ABOARD. XO LAWSON STANDS RELIEVED.”

Rapid footfalls, slowing.

"Shepard, are you all right? You weren't responding to my hail and—oh my god. What the hell happened?"

Chapter Text

“This is XO Lawson paging Doctor Chakwas. Headed to Medbay with two patients.”

Karin set down her book. “Thank you. I’ll scrub in now.” She went to the prep station. “Their names?”  

 “Lieutenant Commander Shepard. And Gunnery Officer Vakarian.” 

 “I’m hardly surprised,” Chakwas said as the door cycled open.

“Doc.” Shepard saluted with twin fingers. Winced as the stretcher transferred her onto the first cot. “Got shot. His fault.”

“That’s debatable.” Garrus’s wheelchair stopped at the second bed. He pushed himself gingerly upright, one-handed. “As I remember it, my plan was to evade, not engage.”

“Yeah? Remember why we were on Omega in the first place?“

Something was wrong with his vision. He thought better of releasing the armrest and hung on, grounding himself. “Sorry, Commander. Things got a little hazy after that second guided missile.”

Chakwas was pulling on gloves. “Soldiers never change. Promote them, transfer them, change their uniforms; wounded, they’ll avoid treatment as long as possible, protest loudly when ordered to see the medic, and deflect diagnostic questions with smart-mouthed comments.”

“You forgot ‘shoot the breeze through the entire procedure,’” Shepard said.

“Indeed. Well, I’m glad to see that a two year hiatus from the living hasn’t dampened your spirits.” She fitted a mask over her nose and mouth. “XO, what am I working with?”

Miranda was scrubbing in. “One severe burn and one comminuted open fracture. Almost certainly infected.”

“I, uh, sealed the wound with medigel,” Garrus said. Shit, he was dizzy. “Hers. Not mine.”

“After removing excess blood with a gun rag,” Lawson rapped out. She turned from the prep counter and went to the commander, peeling her suit back above the elbow. “After the area of entry was dragged over piss-soaked Omega pavement.”

“That or a bodybag, Lawson,” Shepard snapped. She flexed her arm as the tourniquet went on. “Look—“

“Field medicine is messy,” Chakwas cut in, moving to his side with an IV kit. “Soldiers make do with what they have. And the bullets don’t stop flying when someone gets hurt.”

“You owe me fifty cred, Commander,” he said as Lawson hooked up a drip to Shepard’s arm.

She grinned at him across the aisle. “Buy yourself something nice, Vakarian. Maybe a side of corn to go with that crow.”

The doctor braced him with both hands and nodded at him. “Thanks,” he said. He eased onto the bed. “Maybe I’ll buy myself a dictionary, bring my net understanding of human dialogue to about fifty percent.”

“Not gonna help. Your problem isn’t definitions.”

Chakwas was unfastening cowl and pauldron plates from his suit, setting them aside. The burn didn’t look better for being exposed. Figured. “What is it, then?”

“Non-literal shit. Idiom. Metaphor. Allusion.”

“Thought you were the illusionist.”

“Add homophones. You know—”

“I could never interrupt,” said Chakwas, “but I’m seeing a severe burn that has been retraumatized by abrasion. Would you care to explain what happened?”

He flicked a mandible. “Oh, the usual. Guided missile, valiant recovery, daring rescue.”

“Hm.” Her eyebrows rose above her mask as she inspected the wound. “Did this daring rescue involve physical evacuation of civilians, heavy furniture, or perhaps a large dead animal?”

“Shepard, actually,” he replied, trying not to black out as she cut a strip of suit away from his shoulder.

“All I’ve been through, Lawson, you think I’d rate a title,” Shepard said as the XO began unclasping greave plates from her hardsuit. Miranda shook her head.

“Sorry.” The lights were too bright. He closed his eyes. “What’s your official rank again? Class rep?”

“Dunno, but yours is about to change.”

“...Yeah? What to?”

“How about ‘Sanitation Officer’? Think Gardner could use some help cleaning the urinals.”

“That’s quite enough of that. XO Lawson, please get him on an infusion. Garrus, there are some threads embedded in your wound. I’m afraid this will hurt.” A rattle and a soft metallic sound, like a knife drawn over a plate. Then the tweezers dug in, and this time he did black out. When he came to, someone was baring his good arm. He felt the swipe of a cold swab, then a pinch.

“EDI, page Doctor Solus. We could use another pair of hands.”

“No need, already here.” Mordin’s voice was too loud, clanging off the walls. “Heard VI announce Shepard’s return; saw Lawson enter lift. Decided to investigate. Good I did. Shepard and Vakarian admitted, commanding officer incapacitated, XO preparing to operate—”

Something cold and also hot flooded his shoulder, and Garrus lost track of the conversation again.

Shepard’s voice filtered through the ringing in his ears. “...ll right there, Vakarian?”

“...Uh.” He flexed his mandibles. “Uh. Fine?”

“Sure you are.”

“Feels like...li...”

“He’s going into shock,” someone said. 

“Unsurprising.” Another voice. “Took heavy fire. Field supplies insufficient to seal wound. Ought to—”

He never learned what they ought to do.

-

When he woke, Medbay was dark and the windows were set to blackout, the mess hall blocked from view. An array of monitors beeped into the silence, holographic displays washing the countertops in orange.

He flexed his talons experimentally. Touched his shoulder. Bandaged from neck to cowl to ribs, with who the hell knew what underneath. Skin grafts. Or mutilated flesh. Same difference. No pain for now, but that wouldn’t last.

He turned his head. The reflection of the door switch bloomed on the tiles, cabinets tinted pale green. Shepard lay motionless on the cot to his left. Her leg was splinted from thigh to ankle, her arm thrown over her eyes. Her breaths were deep and even.

“Shepard. Commander.”

No response. 

There was a stylus lying on the tray beside his bed. He lobbed it across the aisle at her face. “Hey.”

“Jesus!” She flailed upright, fell back as the cast checked her, and ripped the headphones he hadn’t seen from her ears by the cord. “Vakarian, are you fucking kidding me?”

“So that’s why you didn’t answer,” he said. 

A light went on in Chakwas’s office. “Commander?” she called. 

“Sorry, Doc,” Shepard said. “Nothing wrong. Vakarian being a jackass.”

Karin’s figure appeared in the doorway. “Please remember, you two, that you need sleep after your operations, and that staying awake will only delay your recovery. Or, if you prefer, consider that I need rest in order to provide you with quality care, rather than a lethal dose of an untraceable toxin that slips into your saline drip tomorrow afternoon when I simply haven’t been able to restore my diminishing supply of empathy with a good night’s rest.” 

“Loud and clear, Doc,” Shepard said, scowling at him. 

“Understood.” He saluted. “Bedside voices only.”

“No voices preferable, Gunnery Officer.” She gave him a significant look and vanished back into her office, the light going out a moment later.

“All right,” said Shepard very quietly. “Headphones. Going in now. I haven’t been chewed out by an officer since ICT, you twat.”

“I find that hard to believe, given your service record.”

“Rest up while you can, Vakarian. Soon as I’m out of this bed, I’m kicking your sorry ass all over the ship.” 

“Looking forward to it. Hey, Shepard?”

One earpiece was already in. She paused, the other in hand. “Yeah?”

“How about that drink we keep talking about? Once we’re discharged. I don’t know about you, but it just feels like we’ve been jumping from one life-or-death scenario to the next. I think it’s time we blow off some steam.”

Shepard raised an eyebrow. “You know, last time I tried blowing off steam your way, I ended up in Medbay without a kneecap.”

“Sounds like a bad situation. You probably need a drink.”

“Not as much as I need to know what the joke is, wiseass.”

“No joke. I’m just thirsty. And I figured you’d want to find out if I really do strip when I’m wasted. Come on,” he added when she narrowed her eyes at him. “My treat. Wait, no, yours.”

“Hang on a sec. So you’re offering to let me buy you a drink. That what’s fucking happening.”

“You did offer that one time. Always thought you were the type of person who kept their promises, Commander.”

She snorted and lay back, fitting the earpiece in. “You’re on, cheapskate.”

Chapter Text

It was another morning in Medbay, cycle number ten and 226.72 hours since their third return from Omega Station in one piece, minus the CO’s patella and a portion or three of her gunnery officer’s face; and as Garrus swiped through the next page of Shepard’s copy of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, and tried to bring his attention to bear on the sobering ramifications of speaking truth to power and resultant ethical quagmire when legality and virtue ran at cross-purposes over the seventy-third swish-thunk of his bunkmate’s recreational activity of choice, he reflected that he probably ought to save this read for another time. Call it radical acceptance of his present circumstances. Joker had brought by a care package for the commander earlier, in a gesture that was probably meant to be thoughtful, and Shepard had found a baseball[1] in said package, which she’d promptly deemed a more worthwhile source of entertainment than books, shuteye, crossword puzzles, or any other silent activity that would have preserved ten percent of his sanity. 

The ball whirled off her fingers and thunked into her palm. Garrus was going to kill the FLT. Or himself. Hell, maybe the baseball, if he could devise a way. That was misdirected blame. Bedrest was boring as hell, but at least he had company this time. It was the definition of poor resource management if he didn’t avail himself of the opportunity to converse with another sentient being while all parties were conscious and the risk of mass beheading by the chief medical officer and/or reprimand by the commanding officer was low. The book could keep. It’d probably be a more immersive experience at zero dark thirty, anyway.

He closed his screen and looked across the aisle. “Shepard?”

“Speaking.” She yawned and flicked the ball upwards.

“You’ve been offworld for awhile now. Do you ever miss Earth?”

“Huh.” She caught it. “Yeah, I miss the food? There was a place with fucking phenomenal xiao long bao near the base. Hole in the wall back home that did arepas…Ethiopian place around the corner for doro tibs, misir wat, and anything else you could pick up with a piece of injera. Cuban. Korean. Fuck, Himalayan-Sichuan fusion. I could go on. Out here…” 

Up.

Down.

Thunk.

“I dunno,” she said eventually. “Could be we’re all so dispersed in space that it’s hard to find the human colonies, neighborhoods, whatever, where those mom and pop joints would be. Could be assimilation into the galactic community meant we lost something. Erasure of racial, ethnic, and national identities, ‘cause we’re just humans to other races, like some cultural monolith. Or…”

She cocked her wrist and sent the ball spinning up again.

“Or?” he prompted, as it thudded into her palm. How she hadn’t jammed her fingers yet, he’d never know. 

She wedged one hand beneath her head. “Forget it. Real downer of a train of thought.”

“Hit me.”

A pause. 

“Yeah, you hear the part where it’s probably not fit for dextro or levo consumption?” 

“Commander, what else are we going to do laid up in here for days on end? I love depressing theories, and I consider myself cautioned. If I spiral into despair, well, I should have heeded the advisory on the label.”

The ball rose. Fell. She cocked her wrist again; relaxed and let the ball settle on her diaphragm. “...All right. Speculation incoming.” 

“Ready and willing to receive it.”

Her fingers drummed against the ball’s surface. “So if the infrastructure to support small businesses offworld isn’t there, let’s say the real problem’s divestment by the stakeholders who call the shots and pour in the credits. And if it’s racial and ethnic minorities who’re suffering, that means there’s a ninety percent chance that a majority of stakeholders don’t share in those particular identities. ‘Cause I dunno about turians, but humans can be selfish as fuck, and if they had half an an ounce of self-interest in making sure minorities got their due, I’m pretty sure things would look a lot different.”

“Dark, but that wouldn’t surprise me. Sure.”

She glanced across the aisle. “You think about it, civilians with money or education or connections leave Earth all the time, no problem. But people in poverty, in developing countries, racial and ethnic minorities who don’t wanna enlist or don’t have a hookup in tech or defense or diplomacy? I bet they stay stuck. I hadn’t enlisted, I’d’ve been. And whatever incentive programs exist to balance the scales, get underserved people offworld…evidence of my eyes says they’re shit and the funding’s contingent on all kinds of even more shit. I mean, look at ExoGeni Corp.”

“I try not to.”

She shook her head. “Every one of these colonists in the Traverse that’re being taken now…they got up here on the promise of a new beginning, right before being tossed a prefab container to live in and getting shuttled to the ass-end of space where nothing and nobody was gonna hear them scream if something broke bad. And the Council fucking knew that, and the Systems Alliance knew that too, but they were so desperate to get boots on the ground out here that they took whatever the Council would give them. So we’ve got the same classist lines we had on Earth being redrawn up here ‘cause of the expansionist equivalent of tracking, and nothing’s fucking changed. There’s no opportunity to do any different or be any different unless you’re ready to put your life on the line or were born with the all access pass called money.” She stopped. “I can’t tell you numbers. I guess I’ll look them up in the infinite time I’ve got. But I’ve had a lot of time to read in this fucking bed, a lotta time to think, and it sure seems like once I took half a sec to look around, the human landscape in places like the Citadel was affluent as shit and everyone else was dirt poor plus some kind of vulnerable identity or several.”

He considered. “That wouldn’t surprise me. The interstellar economy is based on capitalism, so…I mean. Who else is going to benefit or be harmed?”

“Yep. Humans, right?” Her fingers were rolling the ball along her abdomen. “We’ve got FTL, cybernetics, renewable energy, and we can’t get our own house in order.”

“Shepard, it’s not the house,” he drawled. “It’s the building regulations. Not to, uh. Up your ante, if that’s the phrase.”

“That’s the one. Raise away.”

“Now, from my global and cosmopolitan perspective…”

“Uh huh. Got a man of the world up in here. Real ex-resident of the Citadel if I ever saw one with the self-esteem to boot.”

“Correct. Here it is: the original Council races appointed themselves to dictate who does or doesn’t get resources, and if you don’t buy in, you’re public enemy number one. My people were invited to join them for deploying a bioweapon against a sentient species, which in any other context would’ve been called genocide, and for decades the krogan have just had to accept that this is the galaxy we live in and that they’ll never get justice, let alone reparations. Zoom in. C-Sec still issues firearms to its officers despite literal centuries of evidence from dozens of species demonstrating that law enforcement groups who bear arms cause violence rather than prevent it, despite the numbers demonstrating that we disproportionately discharge our weapons against non-Council races and people in poverty. By which I mean to say, it’s all bad, Shepard. It’s all of us and everything that’s culpable for perpetuating inequity. And I have no idea how to stop any of it, except maybe one bullet at a time, but that might not work either.” 

“Point.” She snorted. “Makes you wonder what it’s all for, right?”

“What, this mission? Stopping the Collectors? Saving the galaxy?” 

“Yeah.” 

He shrugged and regretted it. Noted: his broke-ass carapace wasn’t up to nonessential movement just yet. “A little, ma’am. I’m honestly just in it to make sure you don’t run face first into a bullet, because if you die again no one else will visit me at work.”

“Nah, Tali’d keep you covered if you’d fucking call.” She flicked the ball up.

“My relationship with Tali was like my relationship with my sister. Whenever we used to talk, she wouldn’t put up with my running commentary. You did. And do.” He reached down the side of the cot and keyed the switch, reorienting to forty-five degrees.

Shepard’s eyes cut to him; the ball ceased its flight pattern of ascent and descent. “Back it up. You have a sister?”

“Solana. She’s three years younger.” He stopped, ran the numbers. “No, damn it, four. I’m a shitty brother.”

Her gaze returned to the ceiling. “No kidding. We ever meet, I’m telling her I didn’t know she existed until year four of our relationship.”

“Hang on just a second. You can’t count the time you were dead. How was I supposed to contact you, by seance?”

Her mouth twitched. “Coulda tried. Also, pretty sure you spent literal months on the SR-1 with me.”

“Well, I had a job to do. I was busy recalibrating the Mako after every time you got behind the wheel.”

“Classic, Vakarian. Call the woman a bad driver. Good to see the patriarchy’s got a foothold here like everywhere else.” She pushed up on an elbow, set her baseball on the cart between them. 

“Is that seriously a human stereotype? I thought it was just a personal character deficiency.”

She lay back. “First thing is. My only ‘personal character deficiency’ is a habit of letting trusted associates say whatever the hell they want to me with no fucking consequences.” 

He flicked a mandible at her. “Thanks for that, Commander.”

“No problem.” Shepard keyed something into the control panel set into the bed frame. “All right, enough of the ball games.” She raised herself to ninety degrees. “Thinking of a number between one and seven thousand.”

“Seven thousand? Shepard, come on.”

She lifted an eyebrow, looking across the aisle. “What, can’t handle the odds?”

“How dare you. I just lack incentive.”

“Incentive, huh?” She smirked.

“Yeah, incentive. You don’t get to use this mind for free when I’m off shift. What do I get if I guess?”

“Fair question.” She crossed her arms. Settled her head against the pillow, closing her eyes. “What’re you gunning for, Gunny?”

“What’s on the table?” he drawled.

Her fingers drummed on her elbow. “How about…all right, pick one. Firstborn child?”

“Pass.”

“Your loss.” She shrugged. “Space hamster?”

“Why?”

“All right, all right. How about one sincere answer to one question.”

“This isn’t even a competition. Last one, obviously.”

“Go figure. I’d’ve picked hamster.”

“Wait, seriously?”

“Of the two of us, Garebear,[2] I’m not the one with a case of chronic emotional constipation. ”

“That’s a good point. Wait, no it’s not. When’s the last time we had a heart to heart? Have we ever had a heart to heart? Damn, do our conversations consist solely of superficial commentary? What’s the basis of our relationship, here, not to mention the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?”

“See you enjoyed that Douglas Adams you lifted from my e-library.” 

“It’s deeply embittered satire about how nothing has a point unless the point is unknowable and absurd. Of course I liked it. Fine, whatever, I’ll take the hamster.”

She yawned. “Nope. Already called it.”

“You’re a tease, ma’am.”

“I’m really not, considering there’s no way you’re guessing this number.”

“Try me.” he said. “How many questions?”

“I dunno. Twenty?”

“Works for me. Strap in.”

FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER

“Sixty three?” he inquired.

The tattoo of fingers ceased, and Shepard blinked at him across the aisle. “—Yeah. Vakarian, how the hell—?”

He flicked a mandible. “You know skepticism only fuels me, Commander. Anyway, sniper. Detective. Pretty smart. And most of my job is numbers.”

She shook her head. “Well, fuck me. Message received: never play a numbers game with a nerd. Guess I owe you an answer.”

“You know what? Hold onto it. I’m saving this for something special.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? Gonna extract a confession of my unrequited love? Finally learn my favorite Pop-Tart flavor?”

“Not a bad idea. Though I think your unrequited love for me is pretty obvious without a confession.”

Her mouth twitched. “Cocky attitude, given that I was talking about my one-sided crush on EDI.”

“Careful, you could make me jealous. You don’t know what a man like me would do to get your attention.”

She shifted, dangling her working leg over the side of the bed. “Lemme guess. Make out with a guided missile.”

“Rude. Don’t worry, Commander. I’ll use it wisely.”

“Great. That isn’t gonna keep me up at night or anything.” Her heel thudded against the frame. Medbay was going to need new equipment if Chakwas kept her in for much longer. 

“Uh. I mean, the obvious response is, ‘I’ll keep you up at night.’ I blame this on your influence, by the way.”

“Disqualified forever, buddy. Headphones going in.” She pulled them out by the cord. 

“No, wait, I take it back. Shepard, damn it, don’t make me entertain myself alone in this hospital bed.” He stopped. Reexamined it. “…That also sounded bad. I’m sorry, ma’am. I’ll do anything. Calibrations on top of the other calibrations. Do you want your omnitool overclocked or your fishtank set to strobe lighting? Do you enjoy porn? I’ll hack C-Sec and get you all the banned erotic vids they didn’t actually destroy. How about I space every packet of oatmeal[3] so you never have to eat it again, Gardner be damned?”

Karin emerged from her office, surveying them over the rims of her glasses. “Why is one of my patients sending rations out the airlock? Commander, what have you done to this man?”

Shepard pulled out an earpiece. “Not a damn thing, Doc,” she said. “Or, the usual. Just browsing what’s on offer at G-Mart. As you do.”

“You’re a cruel person, Shepard,” he said as the doctor began changing his dressings. “And after saving your life, too.”

She snorted. “Let me be clear, Vakarian. If I’d known the price of my life was nonstop conversation hour with a dumbass, I’d’ve told you to leave me on Omega.”

“As if the XO would’ve let me back on board without you. I’d have gotten to the airlock and found the Normandy already detached from the loading bridge and gone.”

“Nah, Cerberus wouldn’t leave without me.” She crossed her arms, resettling her shoulders against the pillows. “I’m a sunk cost. Worth way too much money to just abandon somewhere.”

“Fine, but Cerberus also would leave me without you, and that’s a fact.”

“So I guess what we’re looking at is whether they value me more than they devalue you,” she said. “Got any thoughts, Doc? Insights you picked up out on the deck?”

Chakwas was reapplying ointment to his shoulder. “Several, Commander. I don’t believe I’ll disclose them at this time, but I do appreciate your efforts to include me in the conversation. You’ve never failed to do admirable work on crew cohesion.”

Shepard grinned one-sidedly. “Always clocked in, Major. You know how it is.” She looked back at him. “Sorry, Vakarian. I interrupt anything? Got a smart quip you’ve been sitting on and waiting to let fly?”

“Obviously,” he said. “As to calculating the net amount that Cerberus gives a crap about you compared to their net indifference towards me, I’ve already run the numbers.”

“And how’s that?”

“Simple. Square footage of assigned quarters and count of furniture pieces. Now, I believe you have an entire deck, not one but two desks, and a sectional couch. Me? I have standing room next to the cannons and a shipping container I stole from Port Cargo.[4]

“You ever try the simple expedient of asking for some furniture, Gunnery Officer? Maybe your real problem’s not a lack of resources but a lack of vision. I know if a request for some chairs in the forward battery ever crosses my desk, I’m signing that forthwith for the sake of every crewman in Ops who gets trained by you. Hell, I’m kinda surprised I haven’t gotten a petition from the department yet.” 

“Don’t take the bandages when you go, Doctor,” Garrus said. “I need them to stanch the bleeding from my wounded heart.”

“I’d advise using new gauze at the very least. You might avoid an infection on top of the heartache.” Chakwas gathered up the used dressings. “I need to update your charts. Please don’t let me interrupt your charming banter.” She went back to her office. 

“That woman deserves a medal,” he said as the door closed.

“Seconded. I’ll push it through.” Shepard rummaged in the package Joker had dropped off and pulled out a deck of cards. “Skyllian Five? Or do you wanna keep pretending like you don’t get off on asceticism and self-denial?”

“All set here. Looking forward to kicking your ass by counting cards.”

“I invite you to try, Vakarian. You might have math on your side, but I’m inscrutable as hell.”

“We’ll see, ma’am.” He reached and tugged the cart to a more central position between them. “Go on. Lay them out.”

Chapter Text

The mess hall was busy at this hour, but Karin had remained undisturbed throughout her meal. Once an isolating experience in the junior years of her career, she’d come to enjoy this perk of being a medical officer. Very few crewmen, she'd found, wanted to dine with the doctor unless they were prepared to be interrogated as to their eating and sleeping habits. She had just started the next chapter of her novel when someone took the bench opposite. She looked up. 

“Hello, XO.”

“How are your charges, Doctor?” Miranda asked.  

Chakwas checked her patients through the window, marking her place with a finger. Shepard was reading something on her omnitool, flicking lazily through frames. Garrus appeared to be asleep. 

“Bored, which is to be expected. But compliant enough. It helps that I’ve patched them up dozens of times before.” She looked back at Lawson. “I expect the gunnery officer will be leaving me in the next cycle or so. Commander Shepard I’ll keep in Medbay for as long as I can manage. She needs the supervision.”

“To avoid exacerbation of her injury?”

“In part, yes.” She sipped her tea, considering her words. “But also to monitor her for developing symptoms of stress response syndrome.” She examined Lawson’s expression of surprise, then shook her head. “Come, XO. Did you think you could resurrect her after a violent end, remove her from the stability of the Alliance—a stability that supplanted formative gang experiences—and force her to work for the organization responsible for the single most traumatic event of her military career, without psychological repercussions?” She snoozed her reader and folded her hands on the table. “Shepard is exceptionally resilient, but still human. I should think Cerberus would take better care of her as an investment, if nothing else.”

A lengthy pause. Then Lawson sat forward. “Go on. I’m listening.”

Chakwas frowned at her. “Good,” she replied. “I won’t ask you to forgive my bluntness. As the commander’s doctor it’s my responsibility to advocate for her wellbeing.”

“I understand.” The other woman propped her chin in her hand. “So Shepard’s disposition has changed. She’s not as she was before?”

“Yes and no. She masks her symptoms well, which is typical both for military personnel and humans socialized female as children. But she’s served with Gunnery Officer Vakarian, and so she’s let things slip during their frequent conversations.” She took another sip. “You’re aware why they went back to Omega?” 

 “Vakarian had a lead on Ablative VI shield upgrades. Though I suspect the timing had to do with a conversation Shepard and I had had earlier that day.”

“Yes, when Shepard ordered you to deactivate unauthorized surveillance devices on the ship.” She lifted her eyebrows when Lawson didn’t answer. “Bored soldiers talk a great deal, XO. And you’re correct. I’ve gathered that Garrus took the commander groundside because he felt she had been emotionally compromised. The Commander Shepard of two years ago would not have agreed—would have deemed it an unsafe course of action. This inhibited risk perception is only one marker of adjustment disorder among a number I’ve observed.” 

“I need to take this down. One moment.” Lawson opened her omnitool and keyed something in. “Go on, Doctor. What else?”

“Shepard is exhibiting signs of acute anxiety and fatalism. I wouldn’t say she’s descended into hopelessness just yet, but she is preoccupied with the pervasiveness of oppressive systems, and makes jokes about the futility of saving the galaxy when little good will come of its survival.” She opened her hands in acknowledgment. “Perhaps it’s merely a byproduct of experience. Still, this line of thinking is unusually jaded for her, and to process pessimism with Garrus is atypical. He’s shown himself the more cynical of the two, and in the past she’s been conscientious about moderating that inclination. And I need not point out that her closeness with the gunnery officer may stem in part from feelings of alienation from Cerberus, to say nothing of alienation from her own sense of identity and principles.”  

Lawson nodded, still typing. “What would you suggest as a solution?”

“Hm. Adjustment disorder often resolves on its own within six months, provided the triggering circumstances do not persist. It can be treated with therapy, but I’m doubtful Shepard will feel comfortable processing these feelings with Ms. Chambers on Cerberus’s payroll. We must also consider that for Commander Shepard to work for Cerberus, on a Cerberus owned vessel, is both inherently retraumatizing given her service history and unavoidable given the consequences of resigning her position.” She sipped again. “Since we cannot implement the ideal solution, namely, to let her exit this environment, I can only recommend stopgaps. Minimize the impact of your organization on her daily operation. Give her transparency, a support network of people she can trust, and a familiar chain of command to lean on. If Shepard is Alliance, then the Normandy should be an Alliance vessel; and on an Alliance vessel, the XO answers to the captain, not a civilian investor. While we cannot have the reality, at the very least we can have the semblance.” She rose, gathering her tray and book. “I have to return to Medbay, XO. I do hope you’ll consider what I’ve said.”

“I will, carefully.” Lawson closed her omnitool. “Thank you for your professional opinion, Doctor.”

-

FROM THE PRIVATE TERMINAL OF XO LAWSON

 

Subject: 0800 Report

To: Redacted

From: Miranda Lawson

Attachments: ASPCI-4_LADAR, ASPCI-4_HTM, ASPCI-4_AAMS

As you know, Commander Shepard recently took heavy fire on a supply run to Omega. Reconstructive surgery has been performed and she will make a full recovery. However, the collective opinion of the medical team is that even with Cerberus tech accelerating her convalescence, she will not be cleared for groundside combat for a full thirty cycles. Recruitment is on hold effective immediately. 

I take full responsibility for Shepard’s injury. She went groundside shortly after confronting me about the use of surveillance devices on the Normandy, issuing direct orders to deactivate all instances and observe Alliance protocols in setting ship policies. I had believed that, returned to active duty, Shepard would do as she has historically done, and overcome the odds no matter the context. It appears, however, that the commander’s achievements are at least partially dependent on conditions no longer being met since her resurrection. I have consulted with Doctor Chakwas, who believes Shepard is exhibiting symptoms of adjustment disorder or stress response syndrome.

While stress response syndrome is usually short-term, it can only resolve in the absence of what the doctor calls “triggering circumstances.” Since she proposes that these circumstances include Shepard’s involuntary discharge from the Alliance and her cognitive dissonance over contracting with the organization responsible for Akuze, I advise pivoting away from openly managing the Normandy as a Cerberus cell and surrendering policy decisions to Shepard in order to make her as comfortable as possible while she works with us. It may also be constructive to add more familiar faces to the crew if any candidates pass our security screening.

For now, I recommend focusing our energies on the acquisition of upgrades and mineral resources for future projects. To that end, I am submitting requisition forms on Commander Shepard’s behalf for immediate installation of LaDAR, Heed Industries’ Helios Thruster Module, and Ayndroid Group’s Argus AMS on the Normandy.

 

 

Re: 0800 Report

To: Miranda Lawson

From: Redacted

Granted in full. I will take your recommendation on recruitment under advisement. 

As to oversight, the success of the mission comes first. Proceed at your discretion. 

-

Doctor Chakwas was signing his discharge papers the next room over. Shepard shook her head, thumbing her cast. 

“Can’t believe you’re leaving me like this, Vakarian. And here I thought we were close.”

Garrus shrugged. “One of the benefits of annihilating my upper half instead of my lower, I guess.” He patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll visit. Bring you soup and the latest issue of Fornax.”

She snorted. “Thanks. Just the thing to get me through my day.”

“I always know what you need.”

“Sure do.” She glanced up at the latest x-rays pinned on the viewer, fingers drumming a rhythm on the bed rail. Garrus tried and failed not to feel guilty.

“Seriously, do you want anything, Commander? Movies, books, talent show staged in the mess so you can watch through the windows?” He leaned back against her bed and crossed his arms, looking sideways at her. “I know how you hate sitting still.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I’m actually pretty good at sitting still, you know, when a certain someone isn’t around to shake the bed or heckle my ass every time I close my eyes.”

“Yeah, but that shit is habit-forming, Shepard. You try to go a day without those interruptions after you’ve gotten accustomed, you’re going to go stir-crazy.”

“Think you’re gonna miss me, Vakarian.”

“Hey, wait. I’m telling you the opposite of that. Pay attention.”

“Nope. That statement goes both ways. I’m laid up here, you’re not gonna have anyone to bother with every shower thought that pops up, are ya?”

“What’s a shower thought?”

“Something you’d probably experience if you ever had one.”

“What, a shower or a thought?”

“Either. Both. Shower thought’s an idea that’s unrelated to whatever you’re doing when you get it.”

“Huh. I’ll have to try it out some time. Maybe stroll over to the head on my two good legs after I’m taken off bedrest in five minutes.”

“Low blow, Vakarian.”

“I know. Hard to resist stooping to it when the opening’s right there.”

“...Wow. Can’t wait for you to revisit the subtext of that one.”

Chakwas came to the door. “Garrus, you’ve been cleared for light duty.” She handed him a datapad. “Take it slow. Hydrate, keep the wound dry, and don’t even contemplate changing the bandages yourself, or you’ll find yourself demoted to Sick In Quarters.”

“Received. Water in body: good. Water on body: bad.”

She fixed him with a severe eye. “And until your orders change, I expect you back once every twelve hours. Think of it as an opportunity to check up on the commander, here.” Shepard saluted him ironically.

“Got it,” he said. “Thanks for everything, Doctor Chakwas.” 

“Thank me by taking due precautions to ensure our work isn’t undone.” She tapped him on the arm. “Up and out. I need to see to our captain.”

 “Yes, ma’am.” He straightened off Shepard’s bed. “I’ll be back later, Commander. Try not to miss me.”

“See ya, Garrus. Don’t break anything important.”

He saluted and went out.

The mess hall was deserted save a pair of crewmen whose names he hadn’t learned yet and Lawson, brewing a cup of coffee at the counter.  He went straight for the battery, nodding without making eye contact. 

Footfalls behind him. He knew that tread. Maybe she was headed to CIC. Unless—

“Gunnery Officer Vakarian.”

Damn it. 

He turned, saluting. “XO Lawson.”

“I heard you were being discharged today. How are your grafts holding up?”

“Just for light duty, ma’am. And I’m afraid I can’t say. I’m under strict orders not to change the bandages myself.”

“That’s for the best. But no pain?”

“Not at the moment, no.”

“Good. That’s good.” Her blue eyes were fixed on his, unreadable. The observant part of his brain volunteered that he’d never met a human who maintained eye contact so unblinkingly. Too bad he had no idea what that meant. 

“Uh.” He flexed his fingers behind his back where she couldn’t see him fidget. “With your permission, XO, I should really—”

“I was hoping you had a few minutes to discuss the last mission.”

Well, that didn’t sound good.

Chapter Text

Care warning: microaggressions and racism against non-humans.

-

“Have a seat,” Lawson said. 

Garrus lowered himself into the visitor’s chair. She leaned forward, interlacing her fingers, and studied him. 

“I have questions about Commander Shepard.”

He scanned her fleetingly. Her expression was impassive, her biometric readouts normal. His brain once again clocked how little she blinked. It probably meant nothing. But at some point, some millenia past, unbroken direct eye contact had signaled challenge, threat, or dominance in the collective turian id, and the circumstances weren’t exactly mitigating the impression. 

“I would guess that the CO is more equipped to answer those than I am, ma’am.”

“There’s no need to speak evasively, Vakarian. This conversation is off the record. Nothing will be reported back to the Illusive Man, or used against you or her. In fact, whatever you choose to say will probably help numerous parties. And EDI will confirm that no video or audio is being recorded or transmitted from this office.”

“Correct,” said EDI.

“There you have it.” Lawson crossed one leg over the other. “In short, Commander Shepard doesn’t trust me. This is understandable, and on some level unavoidable given her history of encounters with Cerberus. But it has now compromised our mission to a dangerous degree. Thanks to your run-in with the Blue Suns on Omega, Shepard will not be cleared for combat for weeks, and you, one of her chief officers and a member of her ground team, sustained severe injuries extracting her. Proceeding in this vein is unacceptable.” 

“I understand, ma’am.” It didn’t feel right, being seated while an officer wound up for a reaming, but Lawson was a civilian and an administrator, not a soldier. That probably altered the landscape. 

“Let me be plain,” she went on. “Neither you nor the commander is to blame for what happened. I am.”

What?

“Uh, sorry?” he said aloud.

“The Illusive Man made a mistake when he appointed me XO,” Lawson said briskly. “You were there when Shepard ordered the bugs removed, Vakarian. If she had been given the authority to name her Executive Officer and determine her crew’s rights to privacy from the moment she accepted captaincy of the Normandy, the chain of command would’ve prevented me from placing the lab under surveillance. By extension, Shepard wouldn’t have been compromised and cooling off on Omega when the Blue Suns came to call.” She flexed one hand over the other. “I have already spoken to the Illusive Man, and he concurs. If we are to survive this mission, the Normandy must operate on Shepard’s terms, not Cerberus’s. I am signing over all policy decisions to the commander as soon as she’s discharged, and I will need to make adjustments to my dynamic with her in order to build trust between us. I could use your help with the second piece.” 

She set her hands to her keyboard. Looked across the desk at him. Garrus met her eyes, aware he only had seconds before a nonresponse became pointed. He reviewed the data: what he knew of Cerberus, what he’d gathered from a half dozen assignments with her and shipboard observations. Lawson was nothing if not pragmatic, and this was the pragmatic call. Admit fault, course-correct, and meet Shepard where she was. There didn’t seem to be a catch. But this was Cerberus, and any intel in their possession was a potential weapon. 

“Permission to speak freely, XO?” he asked.

“Fine.” She waved her hand. 

“It’s the right idea. On any military vessel, System Alliances or otherwise, the captain would have been vested with the privileges you describe from launch. But with all due respect, your professional relationship with the CO isn’t a damaged piece of equipment or a matter of policy. You can’t expect to swap out a part and have it run smoothly.”

“Don’t be naive. Relationships are formulaic. You simply need the right variables.” 

“Hm,” he said, rather than communicate any particular disagreement. Definitely cut out for the corporate world, this one. It wasn’t that she was wrong conceptually—any officer knew there were adjustable components that comprised a strong working relationship, whether or not one had the skill to tune them without blowing something up—but there were ways you thought about your people, and then there ways you spoke about them.

“The commander trusts you, Vakarian,” Lawson continued. “I’m not asking you to jeopardize that. I’m not even asking you to keep this conversation secret from her—not that you ever would. I just want to know how you got there. How all of you got there on the SR-1.” She shrugged. “I believe anything you tell me will improve this team’s odds of survival, rather than hurt them. However, the choice is yours.”

He considered the field. Two routes: walk and lose a line in on a top Cerberus agent, or volunteer handpicked intelligence and hope like hell he didn’t expose any vulnerabilities. Both calculated risks. But Lawson finding fault with the Illusive Man moved her into Shepard’s center of gravity; and he’d seen what the commander could do with that kind of pull. 

“All right. Story time, XO.” He sat forward. “I assume you’ve read up on Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams?”

Garrus was reaching for the spanner when something thumped his foot. He slid out from under the Mako to see Williams standing over him. 

“Get up, Vakarian,” she said. “There’s something we need to talk about.”

He blinked up at her. “Uh, sure, Gunnery Chief. Right now?”

“Right now.” 

He wiped motor oil from his talons and clambered to his feet, wishing he had a better handle on human tone of voice and facial expressions. Yet another way Executor Pallin had grossly underprepared his detectives for Citadel work. “What’s up?”

Williams crossed her arms. “What’s up is that you’re getting a little too big for your boots, turian.”

Oh. This conversation. Pallin had prepared him for it after all, in a way. He watched her pulse accelerate on his visor. 

She went on. “Shepard might’ve brought you on, but this is a human mission, on a human vessel, led by human Alliance officers. You get it?” One of her blunt fingers stabbed him in the chest. “You’re a guest. And if you put a toe out of line, you’ll be discharged back to your little detective’s cubicle before you can say ‘Shanxi.’”

He waited a moment to ensure she was done, then said, “You’re right.” 

She blinked. “Huh?”

“You’re right,” he repeated. “You are in charge. You, Lieutenant Commander Shepard, and the Alliance brass.” 

Step one of deescalation protocol was to listen and let speak. Step two, validate concerns and avoid direct contradictions. Use simple language. Repeat often. Meet emotion with calm and aggressive posturing with relaxed and open body language.  

Figured that the steps hadn’t included an addendum for xenophobic assholes. Just shy of useful, as usual.

He kept his hands at his sides. “It sounds like you’re concerned about bringing in non-Alliance specialists. That makes sense. This is a high priority, high profile mission. You want people you can trust at your back.”

“That’s right. I don’t know anything about you, Vakarian. A turian just shows up one day on the commander’s heels, and I’m supposed to believe you won’t screw us over at the first chance?”

He nodded. “I understand your concerns, and I agree that you deserve to know who you’re working with. Would you like to review my service record and evaluations?” 

“I’ve already checked your background.” 

“My mistake. What do you want, Gunnery Chief? I’ll help if I can.”

“Plain and simple. I want to know where your loyalties lie, if things go sideways.”

“That’s a fair question,” he said, even though it wasn’t. “My loyalty is to the Alliance, because the Alliance is taking point on a mission of galactic importance.” He kept his tone reasonable, friendly. This was fine. Greater good, and all that bullshit.

“So you’ll follow orders. Even if it means you pull the trigger on another turian.”

“The commander’s, then XO Presley’s, then on down the chain of command,” he answered evenly. “I’m here to help in an unofficial capacity, rather than as a representative of C-Sec or the Hierarchy. And even if I had racial loyalties, Saren’s decisions have made him a disgrace to my people.”

She scoffed and turned towards her locker. “You’re a smooth talker, turian. Let’s hope treason doesn’t run in your blood.”

Fuck it.

“You’d be in trouble if it did, wouldn’t you, Williams?” he asked. “Wasn’t it your grandfather who surrendered at Shanxi?”  

Williams whirled. “You little piece of sh—”

“Williams! Vakarian!” Shepard was outlined in the hall to Engineering. They stood to attention as she strode towards them. 

“My quarters, Gunnery Chief.” Her voice was hard. 

“Commander, I—”

“Now!”

Williams left. He stared straight ahead as the commander looked him over. 

“At ease.”

He linked his talons behind his back and waited. Seconds passed. He had no idea why the yelling hadn’t started. 

At last she sighed. “All right, she deserved that, Garrus. But you’d be doing me a favor if you didn’t take the bait.” 

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am.”

“And, yeah, I heard enough to know you held out for awhile. So your effort is acknowledged.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Look at me, Vakarian.” 

He obeyed. She met his eyes. “I’ll handle her, understand? Best I can. I can't promise I won't make mistakes, and I'm never not gonna have blind spots, so I’m relying on you to tell me if I’m not looking out. But whatever xenophobia and microaggressions make it onto my radar won’t fly on my ship. You’ll get a full apology and she’ll be on her best behavior from here on out, or I’ll answer for it.”

She walked towards the elevator, sticking her hands in her pockets.

“You don’t need to do that, Commander,” he said.

“I do, or I’m part of the problem.” She punched the call button. “I can’t make you report if anyone’s giving you trouble, Garrus. But I’ve got your back if you come to me.”

“I see,” said Lawson, typing. 

“Yeah. Words and deeds matter to the commander, so don’t…you know. Don’t do the thing Cerberus has been doing or try to enact your own justice like Ash did. Ship culture and crew conduct reflect directly on Shepard’s character, so check your choices against her principles, not just yours.” 

He’d edited out the mistakes Shepard had made captaining her first interspecies crew; the fact that she’d done serious, grueling work to curb her own bias, or must have, to judge from where shipboard culture had begun and where it had ended. That wasn’t germane to the objective. Compared to Cerberus, Shepard’s ideological record was spotless, and damned if he was going to suggest she meet them halfway. 

“Communicate. Air grievances even if it feels like escalation or needless complaining, or she’ll find out anyway and want to know why you kept quiet,” he went on. “Take accountability when you make mistakes and she won’t hold them against you—she and Williams were fine after that talk, as far as I could tell. State if you don’t agree with or don’t understand your orders and she’ll explain the why even if she won’t change her mind.”

“Hm. And verbalize whatever question or comment comes to mind, at whatever time, in whatever context, even during battle or critical surgery? Or is that a particular of your relationship with her?” She pressed a key and looked back at him. 

Garrus blinked. Lawson, joking? Hell, maybe she really could put in the work.

“No, that’s, uh. That’s pretty true across the board. My sense is that Shepard’s informality is part of her command strategy. It puts the crew at ease. And you can trust her to draw the line if she needs to.”

“That’s consistent with what I’ve observed so far.” Lawson stood, shutting off her screen. “This has been surprisingly a helpful conversation, Gunnery Officer. I appreciate your input.”

He rose, recognizing a dismissal. “Ma’am.”

“I objected, you know, when the Illusive Man sent your dossier,” she said as he reached the door. “Vigilantes can be dangerous. Too independent. But it’s obvious you’re loyal to Shepard, and your insight speaks to your leadership experience. I’m glad you joined this team, if only so that if the commander and I both die, you can finish the job.”

“That’s a very turian outlook, XO,” he said, looking back. “Are you always this cheerful?”

Her mouth twitched. “Rarely. Dismissed.”   

Chapter Text

01:00 NORMANDY 

Garrus headed down the deserted hall, meal tray in hand. Inside, he sealed the door and sank cross-legged against his cot. Balancing dinner or possibly breakfast on his knees, he peeled off the lid and inspected it in the permanent twilight of the battery. 

‘Lasagna,’ Gardner’s label had read. Just as well he didn’t have a cultural frame of reference, because it probably wasn’t supposed to look like a soggy washcloth covered in taco meat.

He dug in his fork and opened a text channel to Shepard.

You awake? 01:03

A minute or two passed. Garrus tore open a packet of dextro crackers he’d scrounged from the mess in search of more edible prospects. Then:

01:05 Awake and reading a shitty book

01:05 Need something?

He put down the crackers and typed back. 

Forgiveness, maybe. 01:05

I got pulled in for a talk with Lawson a few hours ago. 01:05

01:06 Any trouble?

01:07 If it was about going to Kenzo undermanned, I’ll set the record straight

01:07 Clusterfuck. But not your fault

I thought it was going to be that too. The truth is much weirder. 01:07

01:07 The suspense is killing me.

Give me a second. Going to take a little to type this out. 01:08

[ . . . ]

She took responsibility for Kenzo herself. Said you’d only been out there because she followed the Illusive Man’s orders over yours. That this wouldn’t have happened if you’d been given actual command under Alliance SOP instead of the title with no authority. 01:09

[ . . . ]

01:09 I mean, correct

01:09 But also, the fuck?

I don’t know, but something turned her around. She said the Normandy needs to be yours, or we’re all screwed. She’d already cleared a formal transfer of authority with the Illusive Man effective upon your discharge. And she wanted my thoughts on how to start building trust with you. 01:10

An ellipsis appeared. Disappeared. Appeared again.

01:11 And?

I told her about the time you reamed out Williams for xenophobia. 01:11

I thought it’d be bad form to walk out on her. And it’s a decent example of your command style and your expectations for crew members. 01:12

I was hoping it’d give her the information she needs to work for you without handing over a weakness to exploit. Put the onus on her and not you to make it right. 01:12

Anyway, I’m sorry. She ambushed me and I had to make a call. Hope it was the right one. 01:13

The ellipsis popped up, vanished. Repeat. After four minutes he set aside his lasagna and typed again.

Shepard? 01:17

01:17 Sorry. You did good, Vakarian. No forgiveness needed.

Glad to hear it. 01:17

You went quiet there for a minute. 01:18

01:18 Was thinking about that talk with Williams

01:18 Might’ve been the most overt incident but it wasn’t the only one

01:18 Lot of mistakes. Lot of harm. Lot of dumbass questions that could’ve been looked up on the extranet

01:18 Not just Ash

01:18 Remember the time I told Wrex the genophage was just like the first contact war

01:18 Or fuck, the time I asked you why a turian would want to see Saren go down

  I mean, do you remember the time I was surprised all krogan weren’t thugs and then said so? To Wrex’s face? 01:18

We were all ethnocentric if not to say xenophobic assholes, one way or another. And not to say you ever get to punch out from the work, but that was early in the game. You and I are evidently fine. By Ilos Ash and I had a friendly kill count going and she was giving me copies of Whitman for light reading. Tali and Liara loved the hell out of you. And you managed to talk Wrex out of defecting and/or killing us on Virmire. 01:18

Which, while an act of self-interest, also stands as solid proof of the mutual respect you two had cultivated at that point. We got there, Shepard. Just took some work. 01:19

01:19 Growing pains?

Yeah, exactly. 01:19

01:19 I hear you, but

01:19 You know me, Vakarian. I just think we should’ve gotten it right the first time around 

Oh, I know. I have that too. 01:19

Speaking as someone who also measures himself against impossible standards, it’s not always the most helpful outlook. 01:19

01:20 You ever find a kill switch, let me know

01:20 Not your problem to hear. Just sorry you, Tali, Wrex, and Liara reaped a lot of bullshit from the fact that Alliance does zero cultural humility and/or anti-xenophobia training in basic or OCS

Honestly, I think we had a much bigger problem at the time. Speaking of reaping. 01:20

01:20 Cute. But you’ve been in command

01:21 Untreated cuts get infected

No, you’re right. It matters. You can’t ask someone to have your back in the field if you can’t be trusted with theirs in straightforward conversation. 01:21

I am cute, though. 01:21

01:21 Cute.

Heartbroken. 01:21

C-Sec had a solution, but it wasn’t a good one. They called it ICAT—Interspecies Cultural Awareness Training. 01:22

Hint: it wasn’t about acknowledging how little you can really know another species’ lived experience. 01:23

01:23 Profiling?

Profiling. 01:23

I’m not saying it never helped me on the job. But it’s like letting C-Sec bear arms. In retrospect, might have caused more problems than it solved. 01:23

01:24 Sounds about right. Glad we’re working so hard to save it all for posterity

Hey, we have to protect our right to fuck up the galaxy ourselves. 01:24

01:24 Something like that

01:25 Well

01:25 Looking forward to that drink even more now

Same. 01:25

Minutes passed. He was starting to wonder if she’d gone to sleep when a message came in.

01:28 Thanks for what you said to Lawson. That was a touchy situation she put you in. I appreciate how you handled it.

Come on, Shepard. You don’t need to thank me for that. 01:28

I’d never undermine your authority. 01:28

01:28 Except when you do

01:29 All the time

01:29 Every conversation we have in front of another crew member and also alone

All right, I’d never undermine you when it matters. Call it a holdover from my days of hero worship on the SR-1. 01:29 

01:29 Here we go

No, I’m serious. I was a full detective, I’d served with honors in the military, I’d been a Spectre candidate, and then I signed on with you and that all stopped mattering. 01:30 

This is going to sound wild, but I genuinely believed you knew better pretty much all the time. I watched how you handled the crew and took notes. I’d compare our perspectives when we talked and find a way to align mine with yours. 01:30

It’s a little embarrassing, but there it is. 01:31

Glad I went off to Omega and got that out of my system. 01:31

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t weird two years ago. At least, not for me. That was a textbook professional relationship. 01:32

01:32 You were a lot quieter then, now that I think of it

01:32 You’re telling me it’s because you were taking notes?

Yes? Fine, maybe it was weird. 01:33

01:33 I guess I’ll take it as a compliment

01:33 Instead of proof you’re a stalker who literally followed me beyond the grave

Well, thanks for not holding it against me. I’m probably going to keep feeling embarrassed about it. 01:33

[ . . . ]

01:34 Ask you something?

Of course. 01:34

The ellipsis flashed and kept flashing. Garrus watched, packing in another mouthful of lasagna. 

01:36 You okay with the fact that it’s changed? The dynamic

I can only assume you mean the textbook professional part of it. In case I wasn’t clear, I really, really don’t want to be competing with Conrad Verner anymore. 01:36

01:36 Yeah, not your fanboy tendencies

01:36 The lines

[ . . . ]

01:37 Sometimes I think I was so relieved to see a friendly face after waking up that I broke my own rule of command

Which one? 01:37

01:38 The big one. Open the door but don’t walk through

Interesting. I actually think you’ve held to that. 01:38

I mean, have you ever initiated non mission critical contact? Pretty sure that’s always me. 01:39

01:39 I brought you lunch in my quarters the day Mordin signed on

Yeah, but that was after receiving doctor’s orders to make me eat food and sit down. 01:39

01:39 I greenlit hazing of my own XO after Lorek

Because I asked you to clarify your orders. And a harmless reminder that the captain outranks the XO is the definition of mission critical, especially on this damn ship. 01:39

01:40 I ordered you one of the most expensive rifles on or off market when you joined Cerberus 

I joined you, not Cerberus, and I’m your Gunnery Officer. It’s your responsibility as captain to equip your team with the best. 01:40

01:40 Vakarian, you make it all sound by the book, but it’s different

01:40 I mean, look

[ . . . ]

01:42 I’m talking to you at 01:42 Normandy. This wouldn’t have happened two years ago. Two years ago I’d have addressed it the following day if something came to my terminal at zero dark thirty. For that matter, you’d have held off reporting until you were on duty.

The lasagna tray was empty. He set it aside, thought for a moment, then typed back. 

All right, it’s different. 01:43

But that doesn’t make it bad. 01:43

I’m okay being friends, Shepard. If you are. 01:43

My door’s open too. 01:44

[ . . . ]

01:46 If you’re sure. Just give the word and we can go back to textbook professional any time.

I’ll let you know if anything changes. 01:46

A pause.

01:47 So

01:47 Now that we’ve declared our undying love for one another

Let me guess. Friendship bracelets? 01:47

01:47 Friendship scars

01:47 You can shoot me in the face at close range

Tempting as I’m sure that will be after another mission or two, I’ll pass. 01:47

01:47 Your loss

01:48 I have to catch some shuteye, Garrus

01:48 There’ll be a homicide in medbay if Karin catches me awake on her next round

Sounds good. Talk later, Shepard. 01:48

Chapter Text

Care warning: ungenerous opinions about the foster/ward system from Ashley Williams.

-

Command Information Center

Shepard resettled her knee as it twinged a warning. Pressed a key. The static in her ear stayed constant. “All right, you son of a bitch. How about…” She panned ten degrees west. The signal peaked. “Gotcha. You’re up, Joker."

Silence.

"Joker!"

"Crap! Sorry, Commander, muted myself. I’m here. You find another one?"

"Yep." She reached for her coffee and grimaced, setting it down. Lukewarm and watery. 

"Marking the coordinates. Do your thing, EDI."

"Yes, Mr. Moreau. Probe away."

"All right, you're good, ma’am."

She huffed out a breath and kept scanning.

-

Main Battery/Gunnery Officer’s Quarters

Garrus shut his eyes, opened them, and reread the screen.

The message was still there.

INTERNAL COMPILER ERROR

He tapped in another command. More lines unfurled, trotting out details.

INTERNAL COMPILER ERROR: SEGMENTATION FAULT

$ gcc segfault.c -g -o segfault

$ ./segfault

Segmentation fault

Segfault. Really?

Another window popped up.

You have encountered a segmentation fault.

"You said that," Garrus muttered.

This may be due to incorrect input.

"I know, damn it."

Please contact Technical Support.

"I can't," he told the screen. "I’m stationed on a damned ship funded by terrorists and the program I’m writing is more classified than your GSCII ass thought was possible.”

Also, the shell he'd used was technically still in beta on Palaven.

He looked at the output again.

Damn it. Damn it. Of fucking course.

Garrus sighed, pulled up the code. Time to eat the shit.

-

XO’s Quarters

Miranda closed her console, rolled her head on her neck, and wondered what other people did when they crossed off the final item on their daily docket at 07:37 in the morning.

They were in orbit around Neith, catching some R&R before they hit Korlus in the neighboring system. Shepard had been cleared for light duty and had spent the last two cycles learning the newly installed Argus Scanner. “I’ve got no problem sitting this one out, but the shield upgrades take priority,” she'd told Jacob when he suggested a different ground team handle Okeer's extraction. “Too many close calls. Not one member of my team comes under fire again 'til they can maneuver out of cover.” 

After processing the last medical bill from Kenzo, it was a decision of which she thoroughly approved.

She flexed aching hands and woke her omnitool. Her clerical duties had seen a 93% decrease in frequency since the commander’s discharge. In acknowledgment of the pragmatism of keeping Cerberus apprised of their progress, Shepard had authorized a limited status report to the Illusive Man every seven cycles. The effect was significant, freeing up two to four hours a day in her schedule. 

It was also a recent enough development that she hadn’t managed to fill the gap with other recurring tasks, which left her here, well before lunch hour, slightly bored and looking for an action item to check off.

A message scrolled through her notification marquee: Jacob, soliciting her assistance with a funding request. Miranda stood and began gathering the materials she’d need. It was as good a use of her time as any.

-

Command Information Center

Shepard checked the strip again. Audio output normal. Visual read normal and hovering at ten percent. 

"Christ," she muttered.

"What?"

"I said, ‘Christ,’" she repeated, rotating the image by ten degrees and starting over. "You answer to that now, Moreau?"

"Uh, I have a god complex, Commander? Not a messiah one."

"I remember. According to your own resume, you're the best damn helmsman in the Alliance fleet."

"Nah, I updated that after Cerberus recruited me."

"That so?"

"Well, think about it. Illusive Man said they were recruiting the best in the galaxy for your team, and guess who they asked to pilot the ship."

"Dunno." She stifled a yawn and reached for her coffee again. "Heard our helmsman was an AI. Not really sure what you're doing here."

"Aw, cheap shot."

"Yeah, I know."

-

Main Battery/Gunnery Officer’s Quarters

Garrus couldn’t find the error.

It was probably some classic eyes-glazed-over fuckup, a mistyped pointer or an open parenthesis without its mate lurking in plain sight. Too bad the code was hundreds of pages long at this point. 

That was always the situation. It was never a nice, short program to proof by the time you hit segfault. You only ever realized once you’d been writing for six hours straight, churning out statements and dereferencing data in some sort of fugue between sleeping and waking, while the heat death of the universe set in and your cooked brain rolled right past Rule fucking One of coding, which was to compile every few steps and save yourself the personal hell of having to identify one rogue character in a literal wall of diacritics and numbers. 

Maybe he’d get lucky. Garrus scrolled to a random section three quarters in and skimmed through. 

No joy.

He sighed. He could learn from this experience, but he wouldn't. It was too easy to find a rhythm and keep it. 

Still, it was definitely unfair and someone else should have to deal with it. Shame Tali was off working for the Migrant Fleet.

"Fine," he told the screen. "You sit there and act like a child. When I get back you'd better be in uniform and ready for inspection."

He turned and left the battery. Next up: any task that wouldn’t leave afterimages on his retinas.

-

Command Information Center

"My feelings could have been seriously hurt if I had any. I think you owe them a little something for the scare."

“‘A little something’?” She panned west. “You talking to me or your porn collection?"

"Come on, Commander. You know I only watch that stuff when I've got a hand free."

"All right, Flight Lieutenant. Let's pretend to keep it professional now, 'kay?"

"Suit yourself. But now you really owe me."

"Yeah? How’s that?" She reached for her coffee again.

"You feel better now, don't deny it. Pulling rank always makes you feel better."

"...You know, I sorta do."

"Yeah, I know you too well."

-

Command Information Center

Miranda looked up from her datapad as the elevator opened.

Commander Shepard was at the CIC. In headphones, for some reason, jacked into an operator’s station at the array of consoles that ringed the galaxy map. Neith's mineral readouts and topographical data flashed across the screen.

She’d caught her unaware. A coffee mug sat on the console to her right, her dress jacket and the cane Chakwas had issued at discharge bundled beside it. She’d stretched out her legs, Oxfords propped on the workstation that would have been occupied by a neighbor to the left if the bridge weren’t deserted. 

Not for the first time, Miranda wondered if the Alliance attracted personnel with a predilection for aggressive manspreading, or created them. 

Shepard cupped the headphones in both hands and leaned forward, staring at something on-screen. "Do me a favor, you piece of shit, c’mon…” She manipulated the controls. “Found one, Joker." She listened, then snorted. "Not even close. I'm only twenty-five percent done here."

Miranda hesitated. Before Shepard’s injury, she’d have passed by without engaging. She'd come to analyze telemetry with Jacob, not converse with the ship’s captain. But with the commander in Medbay until recently, they hadn't spoken one on one since the incident in the battery weeks before. Better to do this now.

She stepped forward. "Commander Shepard?"

"Please." Shepard fiddled with the interface, and Neith’s image scan rotated a few degrees clockwise. "Your job looks just like this, ‘cept you’re stuck across the bridge. Me? Imagine if you were supposed to be kicking down doors and got chained to a fucking desk."

Miranda moved into her field of view. "Shepard."

She looked up. "Lawson. Back in a sec, Joker." She swung her feet down and swiveled away from the station, pushed the headphones off one ear. "Sorry about that. Hard to hear over the feedback."

“It’s not a problem, Commander. How is the Argus Scanner working out?"

"Lot better than our old setup." Shepard glanced over her shoulder at the readouts. “I can get away with ten, fifteen degree strips, so we're saving time. I appreciate you putting in the request."

"Any time, Commander." She fingered her datapad, wondering how to broach this topic, and was spared the initiative as Shepard sat back and surveyed her.

“Looks like you’ve got something on your mind, Miranda. I read that right?”

First name use, her mind noted automatically. OCS bread and butter. That didn't mean it wasn't effective, she supposed. 

“Yes, that’s right.” She squared her shoulders, linking her fingers behind her back. “Shepard, I wanted to—”

“Hang on,” Shepard interrupted, holding up a hand. “No wrong answers, but how long of a conversation are we looking at?”

“I’m not sure, Commander.” She reviewed all the ways this interaction could go. “Anywhere between five and twenty minutes, I would guess.”

“...Lemme get up.” She disentangled herself from the headphones and pushed out of her seat. 

“Shepard, you don’t need to—” she began.

“No, I do.” She settled against the console, stiffly. “One, Alliance conditioned me real well to feel uncomfortable sitting through a report. I never climbed high enough to be the guy behind the desk.” She braced her hands on the console behind her and leaned forward, flexing her healing knee. “Two, Doctor Chakwas wants me off the leg unless I can’t help it, and after two hours with Argus here, I really can’t.” She looked up. “All right, go ahead.” 

Miranda steeled herself. This was the right call. “I want to apologize for going over your head, Commander,” she said. “With reporting, officer appointments, rights to privacy—all of it. It’s your mission, Shepard, and it’s my job to make sure you succeed. I’ll try to be conscientious about what that means to someone with your history of service.”

A pause, while Shepard’s eyes scanned her face. Then she straightened, hooking her thumbs into her pockets. 

“Water under the bridge, Lawson. But I appreciate you saying it.” She shrugged. “To be fair, we were working from different ends. I came in treating this like an Alliance operation, but I knew it was Cerberus writing the checks. Wasn’t easy to sit with, still isn’t, but I knew.”

“Cerberus may fund us, but it’s whatever you need it to be from here on out, Commander,” Miranda returned. “Just let me know what you want, and I’ll make sure it happens.”

Shepard nodded. “Will do. Thanks, XO.”

They looked at one another for a moment. A little uncomfortable, but not nearly as tense. That was an improvement. She should take the opportunity to make conversation. 

“Are we approaching our quota for the shield upgrades?" she asked.

Her mouth quirked. "Safe estimate? We’re pretty damn far from it." The screen had dimmed to standby mode. She half-turned and tapped a few keys at random, waking the program. "Neith's a desert world. Lots of deposits, no tells. I've got no continents, bands, or storm centers to go on."

Miranda looked at the image scan. "You're right. There's not even an impact crater of proper size."

"Yep. But we need this, so I'll get it done." She shrugged, settling back against the console. "Can't promise it won't take me all day."

She nodded. "I'll leave you to it, Commander. My apologies for interrupting."

"Worked out, Lawson. I needed the break." She glanced around the empty bridge. Miranda wondered if she was also trying to make conversation or was simply bored. "What’s next for you?"

"Rifle telemetry." She offered the datapad she’d brought from her office. "Jacob thinks we can squeeze additional funding out of Cerberus HQ for upgrades if we can correlate performance drops with shield stress.” 

“Wouldn’t say no to that.” Shepard took it, scanning the charts. "Hope I don’t queer your numbers. I spend a lot of time getting my ass shot." She handed it back. "Do me a favor, Lawson, and spin that to our advantage, all right? Can’t seem to shake the habit.” She rapped her brace with her knuckles, smiling one-sidedly.

Another cornerstone of OCS. Find common ground; build rapport by making jokes at an officer’s expense. Still, this conversation could have gone much differently. It was a concession to the importance of this mission, a professional decision she respected. 

“Of course, Commander,” she answered. “Whatever you need. What do you think of, ‘Contrary to the rest of the known universe, Shepard’s numbers actually improve the more she recklessly endangers herself’?” 

“Got it in one. Sign off with ‘Now give us the money to let her get shot at with impunity.’” 

She stifled a smile. Shepard grinned. 

“How’d it feel, Lawson?”

“How did it feel?”

“Participating in the bullshit. Told you it was easier to lean in.”

“It’s one thing to know and another thing to execute, Commander,” she said. “If you think I have the ability to keep up with you and Vakarian when you start talking about…knitting patterns…or, or Victorian fashion trends, or the history of gambling in the middle of a firefight, you’re sorely mistaken.”

“I mean, feel free to turn the conversation to another topic. Surprising no one, the subject doesn’t really matter as long as someone can work in a smartass quip.”

“I’ll try to keep that in mind.” Miranda looked at her datapad, then back at Shepard. “Before I go, Commander, I wondered if I could ask you a question for my meeting with Jacob.”

“Shoot.”

“I noticed in my initial review that you never use your SMG. Why is that?” 

-

Mess Hall

The mess was deserted when he reached it, though the motion-activated lights hummed overhead, indicating a recent vacancy. He pulled open the fridge.

Stacks of sealed trays, rows of bottled water and energy drinks and the carbonated beverage Ash called soda and Doctor Chakwas pop. All tagged red for levo consumption.

There was something yellow in the back of the second shelf. He thrust an arm past and groped until his talons closed on a bottle.

Garrus drew it out, reading the text printed on the label. 

POMsel! The original pomegranate-flavored seltzer!! Friendly for dextros, fun for everyone!!!!!!

Well, if it was fun for everyone.

He set it on the counter and was going back in for a lunch tray when he saw the levo coffee dispenser. Someone had obviously tried to fill a mug and abandoned the attempt. Flecks of dried coffee stained the counter, and the LED was flashing red.

He opened the lid. The reservoir was empty. Filter and mugs were dirty, too.

Garrus looked at the dispenser, at the mess on the counter and the mugs in the sink.

It wasn’t code, and it wasn’t recreational. That was sufficient grounds to class it as a work duty. Right?

-

Command Information Center

“I noticed in my initial review that you never use your SMG. Why is that?” 

“The Tempest?” Shepard grimaced. "I mean, I know it’s your pick. But it's a full-aut featherlight rifle with a hair trigger and diminishing returns at range. Feels like spraying sand."

"That’s accurate, she admitted. She set her datapad on the console. "On the other hand, kinetic barrier technology just isn’t able to withstand its RPM, which makes it invaluable in the field."

"Fair point. Different strokes, I guess." Shepard bent forward again, flexing her knee. "I like a gun with high recoil and low climb. Semi-aut DMR or bolt action SR with a solid trigger pull’s right up my alley. Just punch through, ‘stead of whittling down."

"That’s clear from your loadout." Miranda settled against the console beside Shepard’s. "Your most-used pistol and shotgun are the M-22 and Eviscerator. Then there's the M-98 and Mattock you and Vakarian have registered. You run to similar tastes."

“Yes and no. For me it's about feel. Good gun needs weight. Kick.” Shepard crossed her arms. “For Vakarian, safe to say it’s about control. He's gotta be the one setting all the variables, and full aut's not gonna give him that."

Miranda thought back to their time groundside so far. "Yes, I can believe that explanation."

The commander examined her nails. Her healing scars glowed faintly in the light of the interface behind her. "Speaking of Vakarian, how d’you think he’s holding up?"

She stiffened, then tried to hide it. "What do you mean?"

"I mean I retained him as Gunnery Officer," Shepard said. "Against Taylor's recommendation. My read was that he was at peak or near it, no serious emotional or physical issues. But Mordin told me he was suffering fatigue after our first groundside mission, and he took a lot of fire on Kenzo, so maybe I made the wrong call. You're my XO, Miranda. I want to know what you think."

This was absolutely a test.

"I trust the Illusive Man, Commander," she said slowly. "If he sent us a dossier, it was because he thought Archangel would be a valuable asset to the team."

"I didn't ask what the Illusive Man thought about Archangel, Lawson. I asked what you thought about Garrus Vakarian."

The rebuke made her straighten off the console without thinking. "My apologies, Commander," she said.

"As you were. And none needed, long as you answer the question."

“Yes, ma’am.” She settled against the station again, slowly. "I...I believe Gunnery Officer Vakarian has proven himself useful. On the ground, he's good at controlling enemy movement. Good at assessing threats to the squad. He keeps us apprised of new developments, freeing up the fire team's attention for close range combat. I think he can be trusted, not as a member of Cerberus but as one of your people, and that he will competently assume our responsibilities if both of us are killed in action. As for outstanding physical or mental issues, I can tell you more after speaking with Jacob, and we should consult with both Doctor Chakwas and Doctor Solus for an expert opinion. At a glance, however, his telemetry doesn't suggest any decline in efficacy from beginning to end of a mission. He also got you off Omega without backup despite sustaining severe wounds. I agree with the Ill—with you, Commander. Vakarian is an asset to the team. I have no concerns or complaints to share."

Shepard raised an eyebrow. "And his running commentary? Any complaints about that?"

"That's a personal grievance, Commander. At any rate—"

"Yeah?”

“I have a suspicion I was being hazed,” she said. "And I suppose I deserved it."

-

Mess Hall

Garrus scraped the filter into the levo composter and turned back to the sink. The mugs were steam-drying in the load he’d started and would be out soon. 

He definitely wasn’t doing makework chores to avoid going back to that fucking console.

It was fine. Shepard had practically lived off this crap on the SR1, and she was testing the new scanner up in CIC. At some point she’d be down here looking for a boost. 

It was the end of a twelve hour shift, and he'd nearly finished installing the Mako's new ablative plating to replace the charred wreck that remained from its last face-first encounter with a Colossus.

Ordinarily the commander would have his ass for skimping on R&R, but she was nowhere in sight and Williams wasn't around to report him. Besides, there were only a couple pieces left.

Time for a refill.

He reached the mess to find Shepard posted up against the counter, sipping coffee as she listened to Doctor Chakwas. Seeing him, she straightened. "I have reports to file, Doc," she said. "We'll have to pick this up another time."

“Of course. Goodbye, Commander Shepard.” 

She left the mess, nodding to him as she passed. Chakwas’s eyes tracked her to her office, and her lips were pursed, which probably meant something.

He edged around her to reach the dextro dispenser and topped off his canteen. Turning to leave, he found himself boxed in by the doc. There was no way to escape, and it was now clear that Shepard had used him for her own exit strategy.

Crap.

"Garrus Vakarian, it'd be more healthy to take a daily dose of stims than to drink that rubbish at the regularity you do," Chakwas told him sternly. "You and the Commander both are going to run yourselves into the ground."

"I appreciate your concern, Doctor," he said cautiously. “I do try to be careful with my intake.” He hadn't had much face time with the ship's Medical Officer, but he knew how seriously she took the crew's physical and mental wellbeing.

"It’s all very well to know your limits, but it means nothing if you're ignoring them. Every organic needs rest.” She shook her head. “In drinking coffee at every hour of the day, you're just disrupting your sleep rhythms and building up your sleep debt. And I hope you know that if you carry on like this, eventually you won't be able to repay it. You'll grow increasingly tired, and a tired soldier makes mistakes."

"Doctor," he said, trying to appease her, "I'm almost at the end of my shift, anyway. I just need to finish a few things on the Mako, and then I'll get my racktime. I promise."

Chakwas's eyes narrowed. "Almost? By my calculation, Garrus, your shift should have ended ten minutes ago." The doctor plucked the canteen from his talons and seized his elbow, steering him towards Shepard's quarters. "I think a visit to the commander is in order."

And then, ever dutiful, Shepard had chewed him out and set Williams on him to make sure he went straight to his bunk and stayed there. He'd been too much a C-Sec grunt then, too much a turian, too uncertain of his position and rights on the SR-1 to say he was too old to have a bedtime and point out that the commander was drinking the same garbage that Chakwas had just confiscated from him.

They were in a better place now, he decided, wiping down the counter. Shepard drank coffee, he drank coffee, Chakwas shook her head but said nothing, and they were all closer for it.

The LED on the dishwasher had cycled from yellow to green. He opened the door and began unracking mugs.

-

Command Information Center

“I have a suspicion I was being hazed. And I suppose I deserved it."

Shepard scrutinized her, then nodded. Her expression was impossible to read. "All right." She shifted, reaching for the headphones. "Thanks for the input, Miranda. I should get back to it."

“Of course, Commander. I should get to work as well.” She moved towards the armory. Slowed, checked her omnitool, and turned back. 

“Shepard, it’s still early. I have the time in my shift to spell you, if you need a break before lunch hour.”

The commander drew her shoes off the console to which they'd already returned, looking over her shoulder. "You're kidding. I give you an out, Lawson, and you're coming back for more?"

"If you don't need—" Miranda began.

Shepard held up a hand, swiveling around. "No, I'm taking it. Just thought you'd bolt the hell out of here given the chance."

She returned to the operator’s station. "I'm not military, Shepard. Over half my job is administrative."

"Yeah, this is worse than reports, XO. Can’t wait to fob this off on the yeoman." She drew the headphones off her neck and handed them over.

Miranda turned them in her hands, trying to hide her skepticism. "The Argus Scanner’s programmed to work with your communicator, Shepard," she said tactfully. "If you want I can—" She looked up to see her grinning. "Is something funny?"

"Just ask, Lawson."

She shook her head. "Please explain the headphones, Commander."

-

Mess Hall

Garrus looked around. He was running out of things to do in the mess. Given that a failure to fabricate viable initiatives would lead him straight back to the battery, he wasn’t giving up without a fight. 

Two trays were out at the tables, contents picked over. He scooped them up to deposit in the dish chute, then changed his mind and rerouted to the sink. Washing them by hand would take longer.

He switched on the water and watched it sluice off the first tray, taking none of the dried food with it. Things must have been sitting out for a couple of hours at least.

Civilians, he thought, and picked up the scrub brush. Shepard wasn't particularly meticulous about her kit, but she racked what she took out and kept her gear in order. The same had been true of everyone on the SR1, from Williams to Presley to Tali. He'd been a little surprised by the last—she’d just been a kid, all things considered—but apparently the Migrant Fleet didn’t let things slide.

"Live on a ship long enough and you get used to having no space of your own," she’d told him when he asked. "It is everyone's job to keep the Fleet clean and in working order. If you do not take care of your own messes, then what's to say the next person will take care of theirs?"

That talk had precipitated one of his early attempts to understand non-turian mores and interests without Pallin or a docent breathing down his neck. Back then he’d done it by asking his shipmates instead of searching the answers online like a normal person. Possibly to some crewmen’s chagrin. Or maybe no one gave a damn. At any rate, it had turned out that in the Alliance, grounds for personal organization ranged from pragmatism to SOP to fear of God or man to politics.

"Comes of being a marine," Alenko had said. "The guy who misplaces his medigel pack is the guy who dies first on deployment."

"If you'd had Gunnery Chief Ellison as your training officer, you'd never leave your crap lying around either," Williams quipped as they cleaned rifles.

Presley he’d found at the CIC. "Nowadays," he’d begun, "Joining the Alliance means joining the crew of a frigate or cruiser. There just isn't enough space on a ship to let things get cluttered.”

Shepard had leaned against the Mako, coffee cup in hand.

"Turians enlist at fifteen," she pointed out. "That means you've all gone through basic and a space rotation, minimum, right? They don't teach you to stow your gear?"

"Not formally. Cleaning common spaces, keeping your bunk and locker squared away...that's just expected. It's not something that has to have a delineated protocol or an inspection schedule. No one checks to see if we’ve made our beds to rule or racked our guns identically."

"Got it." She sipped. "I’m guessing differences in governance might have something to do with it. Your Hierarchy covers the whole homeworld?"

"Palaven and its off-world colonies, yeah, since the Unification War."

Shepard shrugged. "Humans aren't unified under one jurisdiction or culture. Systems Alliance has a ton of regs 'cause its recruits come from dozens of sovereign nations. Even recruits from the same country start all over the board. Some're army brats. Some're bi-world colony kids already fluent in Galactic. Some are just kids from the 'burbs."

"What were you?" he said, before realizing it might be rude to ask. "Sorry, Commander. I—"

"Gang runner," Shepard cut across. "Back on the homeworld. City called Vancouver, in Canada. Fell outta foster at five. Got picked up by the roughnecks who patrolled that part of town pretty soon after that. Enlisted at eighteen and got the hell outta there. I think there's a couple bios on the extranet if you want to read more." She straightened, looking at something behind him. "Talk to you later, Garrus."

He watched the elevator doors close, then realized Ash was standing next to him.

"Chief?"

She cuffed him on the shoulder. "Nice. Next time do a little research before running your mouth off. Commander hates talking about her past."

"What's foster?" he asked as she went back to her guns.

Ash had picked up the Sokolov VII she'd been working on. "Foster's where you get parents for rent. Back on Earth there are assholes who pass kids around for the paycheck.” She checked the gun’s sights. “Shepard was an orphan."

"She is an orphan, you mean."

"No, she was. Now she's LC Shepard, and unless you want your ass handed to you, you don't ask her about what happened before the Alliance, G."

-

Command Information Center

“Please explain the headphones, Commander.”

"Borrowed ‘em from Moreau for the sound insulation. Communicator’s open-air. Hook it up, you hear every time a crewman walks by or the elevator shows up. Put those on," she nodded at the headphones in Miranda's hands, "Nothing but static. Like sitting in a rock tumbler."

"Lovely."

"Better'n having to check the same strip ten times 'cause people keep talking on the bridge. Though I guess everyone’s cleared out for now. I probably had something to do with that." She pushed to her feet, reaching for her cane. “Back in twenty. I appreciate the assist, Lawson. Don’t forget Joker’s on the line with you.”

Miranda took the vacated seat. “Not a problem, Commander. Take your time.”

-

Mess Hall

The dishes were done, the mess was squared away, and he’d officially run out of ways to avoid his self-created problems. All good things came to an end.

Garrus ladled an octuple helping of grounds into the clean filter and set it to brew. If the SR-2 crew didn’t like espresso strength coffee, well, that was what water was for. He picked up his carbonated drink, snagged a stack of energy bars from the cabinet, and reported back to the battery.

-

Mess Hall

Shepard stepped onto the crew deck, shrugging on her dress jacket. Her cane squeaked against the floor as she headed to the deserted kitchen. 

Gardner was working hard. Place was cleaner than she’d seen in weeks. 

A pot of fresh coffee was brewing in the levo dispenser. She dumped the dregs of her old mug and opened the fridge.

Rations must’ve come in recently. The shelves and doors were packed top to bottom and front to back with canned drinks, sealed meal trays, and packages of raw ingredients. She scanned the tags: all red. Levo stuff was squirreled away at the back. Probably not by design, but not something she wanted to see become habitual.

Shepard activated her omnitool and checked the clock.

Just a couple minutes in. She had time to address this.

She doffed the jacket she’d just put on and set aside her cane, crouching with due caution for her knee. Stiff, tender, didn’t love this amount of flexion, but fine. 

“EDI?” She took out a stack of trays, then another. 

“Yes, Shepard.”

The tower of foodstuffs on the floor grew. She began pulling raw ingredients. “New policy, take note.”

“Listening.”

“Top left shelf in the mess hall fridge to clearly labeled, color-coded yellow, and reserved for dextro-amino ingredients, food, and drink to ensure equitable access to rations and reduce risk of anaphylactic incidents arising from unintentional ingestion of biologically incompatible foodstuffs. One shelf apiece in the pantry and cabinets to be likewise marked. Remaining shelves in fridge, pantry, and cabinets to be clearly labeled, color-coded red, and reserved for levo-amino ingredients, food, and drink, for reasons above stated.” She sat back on her heels, surveyed the landscape, and began shifting dextro-tagged items to the top left shelf. “Repeat that back.”

EDI obeyed. 

“Confirmed and made effective immediately. Apprise Gardner of his responsibilities and notify the crew.”

“Mess hall protocols updated. Messages sent.”

“Thanks. That’ll be all.” She levered herself upright and closed the door.

“Logging you out, Shepard.”

 The coffee had finished brewing. She poured herself a mug and went back to the CIC. 

-

18:44 You responsible for that coffee I found in the mess earlier?

Guilty. How was it? 18:49

18:50 Disgusting as hell, highly effective

I try. 18:50

18:50 Figured

18:50 The only people on this ship who know how I brew are you, Karin, and Joker

18:50 Joker was working with me all day and the doc would never

 That’s true. 18:51

18:51 So why are you making levo coffee in the mess

18:51 Just your good deed for the day?

 I was avoiding something. To be fair, I also washed dishes and wiped down surfaces and swept up. 18:51

Also, maybe I thought you deserved something nice since you’ve been demoted to admin assistant since discharge. 18:51

  I read the memo on use of fridge and cabinet space, by the way. 18:51

18:52 Lot of time to push papers on light duty

18:52 Or maybe I thought you deserved something nice since you apparently took your demotion to Sanitation Officer seriously

Don’t worry. It’s strictly in situations where I benefit. 18:52

18:53 Good, because as much as I enjoy the countertops being clean for the first time ever, I’m probably going to need you in the field

 Remember the old days when we didn’t have to pick one or the other? 18:53

Good times. 18:53

[ . . . ]

 Had dinner yet? 18:54

18:54 Nope

18:54 You?

Not yet. 18:54

18:54 Want company?

18:54 Could meet you in the battery

  Sure thing, Shepard. See you soon. 18:54

Chapter Text

Garrus ducked into cover and ejected his sink. A cluster of marks had cropped up on the scanner due west of their position. “I’m out. Be advised, Shepard, looks like another squad’s mobilized.”

“Oh, hell yes,” she said. “Lawson, relocate to my two and gimme an EMP on contact.”

“Aye aye, Commander.” 

“Exactly how many Suns does this Jedore person have under her?” he demanded, sparing a glance at their telemetry. “Not a full company?”

She looked sidelong, loaded up an ammo mod. “Thought you’d be glad for the target practice, Vakarian, considering we’ve been stuck on board for days.”

“That was before I ran out of heatsinks. Now I’m just watching you and Lawson rack up kills.”

“That’s rough, buddy.”

“Yeah. I want to play with the mercs too.”

“Charge is hot, Commander,” Miranda interjected. “Additionally, this mission is starting to feel very much like taking two puppies on a trip to the dog park.”

“Thanks, Lawson. And fair. Been awhile since I got to stretch my legs.”

“I’m much better obedience trained than a puppy,” he drawled. “More useful, too. For example, I can tell you that those mercs are going to clear the door in about twenty seconds.”

“Still liable to piss on everything, though,” Shepard said. She set up, bracing herself on the pitted concrete. 

The Suns mustered downfield and charged right into Miranda’s pulse. The commander shot six times and dropped back into cover as the second wave returned fire. Her spent sink rolled against his foot. 

“Four down,” he reported. “Jesus, Shepard. Have some issues to work out?” 

“Lotta fuel to burn, Vakarian.” She flashed her teeth at him. “Don’t worry. Plenty left for you.”

“Still have to scrounge some clips first.”     

“Well, considering those guys didn’t get a shot off, you’re about to hit the motherlode.” 

He checked his distance to the nearest body and ducked as a missile sailed overhead. “Try to drop a few closer to our position. I can’t exactly army-crawl up there.”

“You got it. Next time.” She rotated her shoulder, checked the field. “Gonna move. Lawson, keep ‘em bunkered down.” 

She vaulted the barrier, hit the ground running, and slid into cover forward of them, redrawing their three point formation. “Any concussive rounds?” she yelled over the barrage.

He switched them to radio communications. “About twenty.”

“Letting ‘em close. Garrus, line ‘em up and knock ‘em down as near to the corner as you can get.”

“Yes ma’am. Another squad en route.”

“Got it. Lawson, hit ‘em with a charge three yards out from my position.” 

The unit ran in and split. Half went right, sheltering behind the ramparts shielding the bridge ahead. The others joined what remained of the first team. They advanced down the walkway, bunching up on his readouts. Bullets sailed overhead as he loaded the round.

“Releasing EMP,” Miranda said.

A sputter of failing shields, mingled shouts. He rose out of cover and fired. The slug clipped the Sun who’d taken point and detonated as she rounded the corner. 

They went down like a house of cards. An SMG went off. Bullets sprayed the ceiling. Someone screamed. Shepard leaned out and unloaded her Mattock into the scrum, then reached in and yanked. A merc slid out cursing in a screech of ceramic.

She grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, slammed his head into the rampart, and sent him staggering towards them. 

“Incoming, Vakarian!”

“Wh—”

Lawson pivoted as the Sun stumbled past her position and shot him in the back, throwing him onto the barricade. Garrus yanked him over and slammed the butt of the Widow into his face. 

He jerked his rifle from the ruin of the Sun’s helm. “The fuck?” he yelled up to her, forgetting they were on comms.

“Shit, cool it. Only got the two ears.”

“Sorry. Let me rephrase that. The actual fucking fuck?”

The commander was still shooting. “Sinks. Said you needed ‘em. Now you got ‘em.”

He flipped the merc over and unholstered his gun. “Next time, Shepard, I think I’d prefer my game killed and dressed before it gets to my door.”

She snorted. “Weren’t you just bellyaching about being stuck on the sidelines while Lawson and I cleaned up?”

He grinned at his rifle, popping the chamber. “I take it all back. Last time I ask you for anything, Commander.” 

“Yeah? Make a note of that, will ya, XO? Gunnery Officer’s next request to be summarily denied.” 

“Noted and forwarded to your terminal, Shepard.”

“I don’t believe you. You’re actively firing right now.” He checked the scanner, slid sinks into the Widow’s breech. The field was nearly clear—two still pinned down in cover.  

Her rifle rapped out. “Voice to text, am I right, Lawson?”

“That’s right, Shepard.” A burst of automatic fire. “Our hardsuits are programmed to transcribe all verbal communications. It’s the work of a second to transmit that data to you.”

“These are unfair odds, you know. I demand to bring Doctor Solus along for company next mission, now you two are in league.”

“Summarily denied, as stated.” 

“Can never have nice things,” he said, checking their radar again. “Our friends are going to make a run for it. They’re moving along the rampart toward the exit.”

“Received. Switching to SR. You good to fire?”

“Yeah. Two hostiles.”

“I’m on mark number two. Flush ‘em out, Lawson.”

“Understood.” Miranda keyed her omnitool and fired a pulse over the rail. 

They rabbited. Garrus fired, cranked the bolt, swung to the other target. Already down and flickering out on the radar.

“Clear and confirmed,” he reported, switching off comms. 

Shepard raised an eyebrow as she angled her muzzle upward. “Checking my work?”

“...You weren’t supposed to see that. Sorry, Commander."

“All good. Nothing wrong with an abundance of caution after that last mission.”

“My thoughts too. Clips?”

“Go ahead. I’ll stay here in case that all clear turns into something else.” She drew her assault and set up, training sights on the open door. 

He moved through the bodies with Lawson, restocking cartridges and stashing spares, then returned to her. “Brought you heatsinks. Lawson’s hacking a PDA we found on one of the mercs. Might contain some intel.” 

“Appreciated.”

He knelt, taking a guard position beside her. Shepard posted up with her back against the rampart and thumbed sinks into her rifle. 

“How’s the knee?” he asked. 

“Good as new, far as I can tell.” She closed the Mattock and started reloading her M-98. “Deconditioned some. Gotta build my wind back. Why, notice anything?”

“Maybe a little more use of cover, this mission. Though that could be due to any number of reasons, like the fact that a full third of these Suns are packing heavy weapons.”

“Yep. Had enough seeking missiles to last me a lifetime.” She knocked back a mouthful from her canteen and held it out. “Company must’ve learned something from their run-ins with Archangel.”

“Like what? The fact that he’s unkillable?” He took it and drank. 

“I was thinking the fact that he just about went to heaven twice ‘cause some guy had an ML-77.”

“I’m not concerned. The more battles we survive, the more it’s clear to me that heaven’s a revolving door. The day I die, I'm walking straight back out.” He returned her water, and she hooked it to her belt. 

“Don’t wanna lie around in a white smock all day singing songs about your boss?” 

“Something like that. I have a problem with authority.” 

Miranda had finished with the PDA. They formed up and advanced into the room ahead, where a flight of stairs switchbacked up to the next floor.

“What’s with heaven, anyway?” he asked as they started the climb. “Sounds boring. Rather be reconstituted in a new body or maybe go to hell.”

"The company'd probably be better," Shepard agreed.

"Yeah. Could get drinks with Sun Tzu, George Patton, Hannibal Barca…uh. I’m out of names.”

“Virginia Woolf,” Lawson volunteered. 

“Isn’t she some kind of literary powerhouse?” 

“That as well as an incredible racist. She once referred to Portuguese Jews as ‘repulsive objects.’”

“Oh. Yeah, sounds like a great drinking buddy. Thanks a lot, XO. Picking up life signs ahead, Commander.”

She nodded. “Weapons free and set up on that cut-through when we hit the landing. We’ll pick ‘em off together.”

Bullets ricocheted as the enemy made contact. 

“So lemme get this straight,” said Shepard as they hustled to cover. A round sparked off her shields. “One, the Garrus Vakarian version of hell is exclusively populated by humans. Two, it’s a seedy city with an active nightlife?” She swapped in her SR. 

“Sounds about right, yeah.” He switched them to comms. 

She fired, dropped into cover. A mark winked out on the scanner. “Christianity’s got a few non-human converts, you know. And hell’s famously full of fire, brimstone, and eternal torment, not bars.”

“Please. You wouldn’t know, saint.” He squeezed the trigger. “Bet you got fast-tracked to heaven as soon as you died.”

 “If I did I got blackout drunk, ‘cause I don’t remember a damn thing." She fired, shuttled the bolt, fired. Ducked. Frag slivered the air as a missile hit the cut-through where she’d been. 

“Show-off,” he told her. 

"Yeah, well. When you've got the talent." She flushed her sink. 

Kinetic barriers fizzled out as Lawson flung an EMP. He punched a round into the discharge. "So, nothing retained from two years in heaven? No golden light, no ethereal sounds, no uh, nice smells?"

She breathed into the comm; her rifle cracked. "Smells?”

“Yeah. No?” He locked onto another mark. “Shepard, I don’t know from heaven.” 

“Me neither. Need Williams for this conversation.”

He shifted, led the target. Fired. “Maybe. Every time I asked Ash about her faith I ended up more confused than I started.”

"Yeah, theology is like that."

They settled into the rhythm of combat, pushing deeper into the base. The skyline grew broader as they climbed. Pulse, fire, load, advance. The occasional order, the regular wisecrack. Pretty rote, and a damn sight better than playing with code in the battery all day. 

Okeer was a raving fanatic, Jedore his power-hungry dupe. They found her battling clones on the penultimate floor of the base, in what he assumed was a nursery. Birthing tanks lined the central aisle like teeth, some shattered and others sealed. Raised walkways ran the room’s length on either side.

The field was a tactical mess, with no chokepoints and multiple routes to their position. Cover was shitty and inconveniently situated, but at least it was there. Expel 10 spun up on his playlist as he ducked behind a tank, narrowly avoiding a missile. 

"She has a YMIR Mech," he said. "Of course she has a YMIR Mech. Why wouldn't she have a YMIR Mech?"

Shepard was firing point blank into a charging clone’s face at the first approach. She slammed her rifle butt between his eyes and he reeled down the steps away from them. “Lawson!”

The air bent, shredding armor and buckling limbs. The clone collapsed and didn’t rise. 

“Stay down and take out that mech, Vakarian!” she ordered. “Lawson, split time between shields and armor. I’ll keep the krogan off our side.” 

“You've got it, Commander,” he said.

Shepard was fifteen yards down the platform, racing to engage a clone on the far stair. He glanced at Miranda, activating his omnitool. “Help me out with an EMP?"

The pulses landed one after the other. The mech’s shields rippled, sparked, and failed as Lawson followed with a double burst from her Tempest, perforating its kinetic barrier system. 

She popped her sink and recoiled as another missile smacked down, washing over her shields. “Do you have this, Vakarian? I should—”

“Affirmative. Thanks.” 

Miranda nodded and broke cover. He flipped the safety on his Widow, set it down. Unholstered his assault and loaded a high impact round, visor registering her marker in a new position halfway between him and Shepard. 

The YMIR had swiveled away, tracing Lawson's path with a fusillade of bullets. Unfortunately for his odds of survival, he needed it facing him dead on. He leaned out of cover and loosed the round. 

The concussion rippled through its chassis and into the floor with a sound like a gong. Rivets popped from their moorings. A handful of plates crashed to the ground. The mech swayed, arrested its forward motion, and ratcheted back towards him, machine gun spinning up.

A flash of LEDs as its head swung around. He fired one-two-three-four-five-six -click one-two-three-four-five-six -click into the blitz, dead into its faceplate. The spent sinks bounced away. His shields spat, fizzled out. Bullets sparked off the platform as he hit the ground and grabbed his SR. 

The barrage stopped. A heartbeat, a click and whir. Mech was cycling to its rocket launcher. His shields were down, but it was now or never.

Garrus exhaled, checked the YMIR’s position on the scanner, and rolled out of cover. 

The red blur of its faceplate resolved into a starred and cracked constellation through the scope as he pulled the trigger.

It exploded. Burning parts flew as he scrambled back behind the tank, tumbled hissing down.

He flushed his sink, put eyes on the far end of the field. Clones were strewn unmoving up and down the room. Lawson had Jedore in a warp field. The Sun’s armor was in active melt, flaking away in pieces. Shepard was nowhere in sight. 

A flash on the periphery. Something ripped clean through Jedore’s skull into open air. She collapsed like a broken marionette as the report of an M-98 boomed over them.

Shepard stepped out. She cocked her rifle up, looking across the field towards him. “Status report, Gunnery Officer.”

Her fading battle grin was savage, her gaze focused and predatory. A frisson shivered his spine at the tone of command.

He blinked, checked the radar. “Uh. Yes, ma’am. All clear.”

She nodded and turned away, putting two fingers to her ear.

Garrus swung down to the center aisle and crouched beside the YMIR’s detached left arm to rehome cartridges. It was a chemical response, his brain supplied automatically. Hadn’t happened on a Normandy assignment before, but the sympathetic nervous system fired up in battle. Stress and arousal were identical states. That was why turians fought and fucked before and after high risk operations, like the time he and that recon scout, what’s-her-name—

“How about that drink we keep talking about? Once we’re discharged. I don’t know about you, but it just feels like we’ve been jumping from one life-or-death scenario to the next. I think it’s time we blow off some steam.”

“You know, last time I tried blowing off steam your way, I ended up in Medbay without a kneecap.”

“Sounds like a bad situation. You probably need a drink.”

Oh, shit. 

“Oh, shit,” Shepard said. “Bitch gassed the labs. We gotta evacuate Okeer. Let’s move, people!” 

She hurtled toward the stairs and he fell in, holding his Mattock at guard. 

He was going to need a cold shower.

Chapter Text

Care warning: alcohol as a coping tool.

-

The comm room door cycled open and Taylor came out. Shepard didn’t. 

Fucking Williams.

It was nearly a minute before she emerged. Garrus straightened off the wall. Lawson locked her hands behind her back. The commander stopped, gaze flicking over them. 

“XO. Gunnery Officer. Appreciate your help out there today. That was a pretty fraught assignment and you both went above and beyond the call.” 

She leaned against the frame and crossed her arms. 

“The Illusive Man’s looking for a way to get us through the Omega-4 Relay. In the meantime, we’ve got three more dossiers to chase. Closer to home, I know you know this, but this is a dangerous mission. I’m gonna do my best to get you both out safe, but there’s a chance that none of us will make it. Any personal business—debts to settle, air to clear, whatever’s keeping you up at night—I’m asking you to see to it now. Need shore leave, I’ll grant it. Need backup, I’ll give it. We're walking into hell and right now, nothing’s more critical to our survival than your peace of mind.”

“I’ll let you know if I think of anything, Commander,” he told her.

“Likewise,” said Miranda. “For now, I recommend that we rest. We can review those dossiers and decide next steps tomorrow, after we’ve all had an opportunity to unwind.” 

Shepard nodded. “Sounds good. Get some R&R, you two. I’m off to my quarters.”

She clapped him on the shoulder and left.

They looked at one another. 

“That was a very convincing performance,” Lawson commented. “And yet I don’t believe it.”

“Not for a second.” The shuttle ride back had been silent for the first time in weeks. The commander had closed her eyes, same as always, but he would bet money she hadn’t been asleep. “Wish it hadn’t been Williams. Or anyone from the old crew. Or from the Alliance, for that matter.”

“I wish that too. It felt like we were making progress.”

“We were. I think we will again.” He thought of the Collectors’ ship, vanishing into atmo with the humans they’d tried to save. Of Ash, tearing open the old wounds she knew because they’d served together, and walking back into the life Shepard hadn’t left by choice. “Just…not today.”

Lawson activated her omnitool and tapped a few keys. “I’ll apprise the doctor of what happened and send instructions to the crew to hold reports and questions for the commander until tomorrow. I don’t sense it would be productive for Shepard to have contact with anyone from Cerberus right now.”

“You’re not wrong, though I don’t know if anything would be productive.”

She shook her head. “I’m going to have a shower—try to wash the stink of this bloody mission off me. I suggest you do the same.”

“Yeah. I’ll do that. Maybe check up on the commander if she’ll let me.”

“Of course. Until tomorrow, Vakarian.”

“‘Til then, XO.”

He squared away his kit, cleaned up, refueled. Checked his omnitool for messages. After an hour of radio silence he went to Port Observation. 

The room looked deserted, though that generally didn’t mean much. He took a seat at the bar.

“Give me a hand, Goto,” he said. “I’m picking some poison for a friend.”

Kasumi decloaked behind the counter. “Is it you? Because it’s pretty sad to call yourself your own friend, Angel. And that’s speaking as someone who spends a lot of time alone.”

“It’s not me, though I’ll need a bottle of something for myself too. The stronger the better.”

She reached under the bar and set a bottle of dextro single malt on the counter. He inspected the label: Lagavulin D, 16 year, bottled 2169 CE in Scotland on Earth. 

“Haven’t tried it, but looks good to me.”

She rested her elbows on the countertop. “So how’s Shep?”

“Who says I'm asking for Shepard?”

“Come on, you were there. That Williams woman didn’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon. ‘Why didn’t you contact me even though you were dead?’ ‘You’ve turned your back on everything we stood for!’ ‘I’m an Alliance soldier and you’re working for the enemy.’ Blah, blah, blah. It had to hurt, having an old friend throw choices she didn’t make in her face like that.”

“I forgot what it’s like to have someone like me on board,” he muttered. “You read the comms transcript?”

She shrugged. “I have to entertain myself somehow while I wait around for this suicide mission. It might as well be by hacking Cerberus firewalls.”

“Fair enough. Well, if you know, I don’t have to rehash it.”

“Spoilsport.”

“That’s what they say.” He scanned the assortment of bottles behind her. “Any prior orders you have on file for the commander?”

“Not yet, but I know she likes whiskey. Try this one.” She opened the cabinet and drew down a bottle from the top shelf. She rotated the label towards him, revealing a long vertical stripe. “TM88 Peruvian, 12 year. Herbal, dry, spiced, and hot. A little citrusy on the finish. It’s the only alcoholic beverage endorsed by the Medical Board on Sur’kesh.”

“Sounds fine. How much will it run me?”

“You know what? Take both. My treat.” Kasumi pushed it across the counter with the Lagavulin. “We all go down without her, right? So thanks for looking out.”

His talons closed around the TM88. “Let me pay for mine at least. Can’t let you take that much of a loss.”

“That’s sweet.” A smile touched her mouth beneath her hood. “But I don’t need your vigilante’s salary. Thief, remember? I’ve got plenty stashed away.”

“I won’t dissuade you.” He stood, hooking both bottles by their necks. “Thanks, Goto. See you around the ship.”

“Take care of her, Angel. See you around.”

-

  Shepard, you available? 19:34

19:37 I’m here. What do you need?

  Kill a bottle with me after that damn mission. 19:37

  Picked up something for you. Goto’s recommendation. 19:37

  No pressure, but it’s in the battery if you want it. So am I. 19:37

[ . . . ]

19:38 Fuck it

19:38 On my way

 Bring glasses or something. 19:38

-

The battery door cycled open. Shepard had a pair of coffee cups dangling from her forefinger. 

“Classy,” he said.

“What I had in my quarters. Wasn’t stopping in the mess for anything.” She passed him one and sat, folding herself against his container of effects. 

“Sure you don’t want a stool? I’ve gotten some furniture since the last time we holed up in here to process trauma.” He waved his omnitool at the door, sealing it. 

“This is a rock bottom type of session. Elevation’s gotta match the mood.” She held out her mug for a pour. “What am I drinking?”

“TM88 Peruvian. High proof and medicinal.” He joined her on the floor. 

“Had me at ‘high proof.’ What’s the toast?”

He considered. “Fuck that?”

She tapped her mug against his. “Fuck that.”

They drank. 

“Your turn,” he said.

Shepard angled her cup, looking into it. “Fuck the Illusive Man, that underhanded piece of shit.”

“Absolutely fuck the Illusive Man,” he agreed. 

They drank.

“Fuck the Collectors, taking our colonies. Fuck the Council, letting it happen.” She drank again, long and deep. “Fuck Cerberus for the people we lost on Horizon, for the people I lost on Akuze, for every goddamn immoral project they had their fingers in two years ago.” She exhaled. Her breath was shaky, uneven. “Fuck the Alliance for letting ‘em take me. Fucking fuck Ash for thinking I’d ever have left by choice.”

“Fuck her. Fuck them all.” He drank and set his cup aside. “Look, Commander—everything Williams said, it’s just one more pack of lies in the absolute litany of shit she’s wrong about. You know that, right? You deserve to know that.”

“I know that. It just—fuck." She tipped her head back against the container, closing her eyes. The empty mug dangled from her fingers. “Just sucks, Vakarian. I dunno how to make it feel any different.”

“Yeah.” He reached over and unhooked her cup by the handle. “Top you off?”

“Sure.”

He poured another triple for both of them. “Maybe you don’t have to.”

“Don’t have to what?”

“Don’t have to make it feel differently. You got a raw deal, Shepard. Think it’s okay to call it what it is.”

He nudged her hand with the rim of her cup and she took it without opening her eyes.

“I guess,” she said. “Doesn’t feel like I get that choice.”

“What does it feel like?”

“Feels like a problem. And I’m not sure what I’m s’posed to do if not handle every fucking problem that lies down in front of me.”

“That’s fair. I hear that."  He thought about it. "Maybe it's the difference between walking into hell and owning that it's hot, and walking in trying to convince yourself it's a cool seventy. Either way you know the reality, but only one option’s going to let you get on with your day."

She looked over. “You’re philosophical as hell under the influence, Garrus.”

“Thanks.”

“The hell happen to you? Finally read a self-help book?”

He sipped. “If by ‘read a self-help book’ you mean ‘extensively catalog what I can and can’t control so as to focus ever more obsessively on what I can control,’ yeah. Nothing but.”

Shepard snorted. “All right.” She sat forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “Might give it a try sometime. Leaning in. Can’t promise it won’t be a massive buzzkill.”

“I think I’ll find a way to survive,” he drawled, “given that my buzz is starting to fire up whenever you issue a command or pop a clean shot in combat.”

Oops. Definitely drunk.

She lifted an eyebrow. “Didn’t know that. You telling me you’ve been fighting the enemy at half mast this whole time, Vakarian?”

“Recent development. Also, don’t tell me you aren’t. I’ve seen you after a kill.”

“Nothing like a good kill.” She drank. “Still, that’s usually a conversation between me, the showers, and my vibe. Real interesting of you to share.”

“Well, Fornax just released its turian x human fetish issue. I’ve probably got some wires crossed.” 

“That’d explain it.” She was smirking. 

“Whatever.” He took a long drink. “Think it’s your turn to share something embarrassing.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Come on, Shepard, even the odds. We’re both going to need dirt on each other after tonight, or it’s not going to be a healthy professional relationship.”   

She refilled their mugs. “You know, I find it a little insulting that physical attraction to me is something to be ashamed of. Think I’ve got some pretty winning qualities.” 

“I mean. It’s something to keep under wraps, at least, isn’t it?” He raised his cup in thanks and drank.

“Why’s that?”

Room was getting a little blurry. He focused on her. “I didn’t get the impression you got involved with subordinates, for one.”

She snorted. “Funny thing, Vakarian. According to the manual, you aren’t a subordinate anymore.”

“Am I not?”

“Nope. I stamped a watered down version of SysAll’s anti-fraternization policy when Lawson transferred command to me. But the amount of stuff I had to slash, number of tweaks I made to avoid mass disciplinary action against about eight crewmen on day one? It wasn’t gonna do jack shit to stop the slide.” She drank. “Case in point: about five minutes before you showed, I got notice from Chakwas that someone in Nav is fucking pregnant.”

“Too little too late?”

“Yep. Babies, feelings, love triangles, and STIs incubating all over the ship.”

“Kinky.”

“What, feelings?”

“Hah, hah.”

She knocked back another draught. “So I owe you a story to hold over my head.”

He copied her. “That’s right. Give me something to add to the file.”

“The one under your cot with the sock?”

“No. Other one. Actually, either would work.”

“Lemme think. Couple few could make the cut.”

“You have to pick between multiples? Who are you and what happened to Commander Shepard?”

“I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite store on the Citadel.”

“What?”

“That’s the exclusive endorsement I recorded for a discount at Saronis Applications.”

“...Am I too drunk to understand this story?”

“It’s also the exclusive endorsement I recorded for a discount at Sirta Foundation down the block.”

“—Oh, no.”

“Yep.”

“Commander, this is gold and also so sad. You ripped off a nonprofit to save a few credits?”

“To be fair, I just wanted market value. Prices are jacked the hell up on the Citadel.”

“Feel like it didn’t register the first time, so, again: Sirta. Nonprofit.”

“Good thing I narrowed that profit margin then. Coulda been all kinds of tax repercussions if they’d pocketed what they were asking.”

“Shepard! It’s a nonprofit!”

“Yeah, yeah. Way I look at it, our team’s part of the population Sirta was founded to help. Second, they’re gonna owe us all their future profits anyway. Without us standing in the way, the Citadel location and all its satellites get bombed out by the Reapers.” 

“—I need a refill. Have to process the death of my image of you as a person with principles.” He poured. It took more concentration than it should've and both hands.

Yeah, motor skills were officially impaired. 

“Better than having to process my actual death.” She moved to catch the stream as he overshot her mug. She was grinning. “Feeling some effects, Vakarian?”

“Drink faster. I can’t be the only one like this.”

“Getting there. Sorry. Fucking Cerberus mods.” She took the TM88 from his talons, examining the label. “Goto knows her booze. Might buy another one of these for my quarters.” She set it down. “How much do I owe ya?”

“Owe me? You don’t owe me.”

“Seem to recall being conned into paying for the first round.”

“Oh. That.” He drank. “Get the next one. This doesn’t count.”

“Why not?”

“Uh. I mean, for one, Goto comped me, so I’d be pocketing the funds. For another, today was bullshit. I ever have a day as crappy as today was for you, you can bet you’re paying.”

She snorted. “Understood. Thanks for noticing.”

“She hit you all the places it could hurt, Shepard. Of course I noticed."

"...Guess it was pretty hard to miss."

They drank. Somewhere below them the drive core hummed, a perpetual backdrop of sound. Beyond the rail, a double array of LEDs flashed as power to the cannons cycled on, staying hot for an attack that might or might not come. 

He really hoped it wouldn’t. He was in no position to operate weapons of any kind right now.

Shepard was thumbing the rim of her cup, her expression closed.

"I'm sorry about the last two years, Garrus. Sounds like it wasn’t easy for the people I left behind. Wish I could’ve spared you that.”

And there it was. That was the thing about guilt—it found your faultlines and seeped through. Didn’t matter whether you deserved it. It was going to get in.

He shifted position, turning toward her. “I’m going to say something, and…damn it, I’m pretty drunk, so there’s a non-zero chance it isn’t going to come out right. But after the attack, when that last pod landed and Joker came out and you didn’t? It didn’t feel real. Liara cried. Williams broke a finger punching the hatch. Tali wanted to go back for you, and Wrex was in full denial. Joker couldn’t cope. Kept saying it was his fault you went down with the ship. Chakwas could barely get him sedated so she could treat his wounds.” 

Her eyes were fixed on her mug. A muscle jumped in her law.

“So, yeah. It was hard. I won’t say it wasn’t.” He put his cup down. “Those next two years were probably the longest of my life. I got lost, I got angry, I got lost again. Threw myself into work and a cause. Guess I wasn’t the only one. But…here’s the thing, Shepard. All of that fallout isn’t your fault. Dying, the way your people coped with loss, hell, being picked up by Cerberus? Not your burdens to shoulder.” He reached over, slightly unsteadily, and gripped her forearm. “You didn’t abandon us, Commander. Didn’t desert the Alliance. Didn’t forsake your duty, didn’t leave by choice. I know that and any idiot would know that and Williams is apparently an idiot, and she can go to hell for putting that on you.” 

He let go. “That’s it. You deserved better than what you got from her. And for what it’s worth, I don’t need that apology, because I don't resent you. I won’t walk away, Shepard. You were my captain, still are. Those two years didn’t change that.” 

He stopped, examining her body language. Her hands were locked around her cup, the tendons in her neck cording out. Her pulse beat in her throat.

“Shepard? You…you okay?”

She made a noise, half laugh, half something else.

“No, Vakarian. Not really.”

Something was off about her vocals. Almost imperceptible in the low light, a trace of moisture painted the corner of her eye. 

…Shit.

He rallied. “Right, no, yeah. Humans leak saline solution under stress. It’s a chemical response of the endocrine system that releases endorphins and hormones and, uh, I don’t need to be saying this aloud. Right. C-Sec training. Okay. I’m, uh. I’m going to take that from you, Commander, all right? Easy.” 

He pried the mug from her fingers gently and set it aside. “Now I’m going to turn you, and then I’m going…going to hug you. You’re in control. You get to decide when it stops. If you tap out or tense, I let go.” 

He gripped her shoulders, rotated her towards him, and drew her head onto his shoulder. “It’s all right, ma’am. I’ve got you.” He hesitated, then set a hand on her back, following the protocol. 

“You’ve been through a hell of a lot, Shepard. More than most people could endure. This was a damned shitty day on top of a damned shitty couple of months, and what you’re experiencing right now is natural and normal.” He rubbed small circles, pushing away the surrealness of seeing Commander Shepard cry. “You don’t have to do anything right now. You don’t have to be anything right now. I promise that you’re safe, on your ship, behind sealed doors, with a person you can trust. It might not feel okay, but you’re going to be okay.” 

Shepard's hand locked on his rerebrace. The other was clenched, fisted against his cuirass in a strange push/pull that probably represented something about her relationship to vulnerability. He took his cues from her and stayed quiet. 

They half-knelt in the dark of the battery, leaning awkwardly together over their cups, until her grip loosened and her hand tapped twice. 

He let go and drew back. “Enough?”

“Yeah, enough.” She shifted back against the container, shoving the heels of her palms against her eyes. “Jesus fuck, enough.” Her vocals were strained. “Thanks, Garrus.”

“Hell of a day, Shepard, like I said.”

“Something like that.” She shook her head, smiling a little. “Ever think you’d be using your C-Sec training to help a senior officer fight down a crying jag?”

“Senior officer, no. A friend, though, yeah.” He reached behind his shipping container and handed her a bottled water. 

“Well…you’re a pretty good one. Hope I can return the favor.” She popped the top and drank.

“Hope you don’t have to. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate the gesture, but it doesn’t seem like much fun.”

She snorted, sounding more like herself. “Not much. I guess crying’s got its uses. Flushes cortisol from the body, activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Numbs you out, after. Good deal if you can get there.”

“I take it getting there isn’t always easy.”

“Yeah. Trauma response. More scar tissue you’ve got, harder it is.” She wiped her mouth on her sleeve, setting down the bottle. “I mean, you saw. Got maybe three guys outta there.”

“Makes sense. That’s hard.” 

She shook out her wrist, checked the time on her omnitool. The glow of the holo washed her face. The flush from the booze was already fading as her mods restored equilibrium.  

“How are you doing, Commander?” he asked. “Want to call it for the night?”

She closed her omnitool. “Sure. Could do with some shuteye after today.” 

She went silent for a moment, looking out into the battery, then met his eyes again. “On the other hand.”

“...On the other hand?” he drawled. 

“On the other hand, haven’t killed the bottles yet. Which was the pretense for getting me down here, if I remember right.”

“Point. I seem to recall something like that.”

“And, you know. Whiskey famously doesn’t keep overnight.”

“Yeah, that’s considerate. Would hate to waste Goto’s gift.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Your call, Gunnery Officer. Stay or go?”

He cocked his head, surveying her. 

“...Stay.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. What the hell, I could drink more. Maybe shouldn’t, but then again, when have I ever made a good decision?”

Shepard smirked. “That’s the spirit, Garrus. Let’s do this.”

Chapter Text

For the first time in recent memory, Garrus woke to the sound of his 05:00 alarm. 

He groaned, rolling onto his back. He’d set it months ago on his omnitool, a failsafe against the slim possibility that his body would ever let him sleep in. 

Apparently, housing a full bottle of whiskey in a single sitting would be the thing to break his streak.

He looked left. At some point Shepard had tidied up and gone back to her quarters. Possibly gotten him onto his bunk, given that last he remembered they’d been on the floor. Both bottles sat on his shipping container, alongside a full beaker of water and a tray. 

He sat up. His head pounded in protest against the change in elevation and orientation, against the impact of every footfall on the deck as he dragged himself across the battery.

Thermos, canned tomato juice, double dose of painkillers. A short stack of sealed containers. The one on top said ‘huevos rancheros.’ He unscrewed the thermos and steam curled out. Coffee, still hot.

Huh. Breakfast. Which either meant she’d slept on the deck and left this morning, or left last night and returned to drop off food without him so much as registering the presence of another person in his quarters.

He wasn’t really sure which of the two was less concerning.  

He paged her, taking a long swig from the beaker of water and a second from the tomato juice. His head cleared a little. 

She answered after four rings, sounding out of breath. “This is the CO.”

“Did you sleep on the deck?”

“Garrus?”

“Yeah. Morning. Did you sleep on the deck, ma’am?”

“No?”

“Oh. Good.” He drank a little more juice. “You brought me things.”

“Didn’t look like you were gonna be upright any time soon.”

“Thanks. Do I snore?”

“Not that I noticed. Can turians snore?”

“I don’t remember right now.” 

“Hydrate and refuel. Take those pills. You’ve got some time before we assemble.”

“Right,” he said automatically. “Will do.”

“I gotta finish this set, Vakarian. You good?”

“Yeah. See you in a bit.”

He hung up. 

Assemble for what?

-

An hour later he was in the comm room with the other officers, dossiers for a contract assassin, a justicar, and Tali’Zorah vas Neema thrown up on-screen. Shepard had killed the lights, which was a small mercy, and there were plenty of opinions in circulation, which made his relative silence less noticeable. Hopefully. 

“So we’re agreed. All three would be valuable assets,” Taylor was saying. “Who do we approach first?”

“Miss Zorah will likely agree to join us, but I’ll need time to stock Medbay with the necessary supplies for care of a quarian shipmate,” Chakwas informed them. “The SR-2 isn’t well equipped for nonhuman medical needs, particularly those of the immunocompromised.”

“Concur.” Mordin nodded. “Quarian-specific supplies available on most major worlds due to demand created by Pilgrimages, but not in significant quantities. May need to back-order. Assemble piecemeal.” 

“All right.” Shepard crossed her arms. “Further thoughts?”

“We already have a master of infiltration in Goto, a long range specialist in Vakarian, and a CQC expert in Shepard,” Lawson offered. 

“I’m good, but I can’t claim the moniker of ‘best assassin in the galaxy,’” he objected at the same time as Shepard said, “Think it’s one thing to be able to take down a combatant at close range and another to make it your calling card.” 

“What I mean is that Krios’s skillset is useful but not immediately necessary,” she replied. “In my opinion, Commander, our ground team would most benefit from the addition of another biotics expert. We have a number of teammates who utilize precision strikes against single targets, but lack multiple people with the training and biotic ability to perform large-scale crowd control.”

“Justicars work alone,” Taylor added. “It’d be a skill she’ll have honed to stay alive this long.”  

“Also consider operational discipline,” Mordin said. “Justicars a monastic order. Customarily trained to exercise patience, equanimity under pressure. Tendency towards lifelong missions requires sustained application to operations. Of the three, may hold up best to passage of time, delays, while other assignments are completed.”

“Samara’s last reported location is Illium.” Shepard looked at Chakwas. “Think you can get what you need there for Tali, Doc?”

Karin was checking her omnitool. “I believe so. Yes, it should be straightforward enough, Commander.” 

Shepard nodded. “So we’re going with Samara, then Tali, then Krios, with additional stops as needed to address personal affairs you bring to my attention.” She looked around the table. “Any objections?”

No one spoke. 

“Dismissed. EDI, notify Joker of our next destination.”

He slipped out as Taylor approached to request a private word with the commander.

Painkillers were wearing off. He could feel the beginnings of the migraine it’d been keeping at bay, the light and aural sensitivity that accompanied the throb.

Damn, he was getting old. Time was he’d have been up and running in a matter of hours after a night like that.

Shepard, on the other hand, appeared to be fully functional. Figured. 

He nodded as Chakwas and Lawson joined him in the elevator, hoping he seemed professional and laconic instead of like an asshole or the sack of shit he was pretty sure he’d turned into overnight. 

The elevator rocked into motion. The shuttling of the cables sounded like the firing of a commercial jet engine, and felt like a dozen knives being sharpened on his spinal cord. 

This was going to be a long shift. 

A hand touched his arm. He jumped and winced. Chakwas was peering at him over her glasses. “Garrus, you don’t look well. How are you feeling?”

Like crap, but no way in hell was he telling the chief medical officer that he was hungover. 

“I’m fine, Doctor,” he said. “Thanks for the concern. Just a little worn out from yesterday’s mission.”

“Hm. Your eyes are swollen, and you’re moving rather gingerly for a turian of your years. Are you experiencing any pain or fatigue?”

“It’s my fault,” Lawson said. “I requested that the Gunnery Officer check up on Shepard after his shift ended yesterday, due to the incident on Horizon I forwarded to you. I understand they were up late talking.”

“I see.” The doctor stepped back as the door cycled open. “Well, I appreciate your combined efforts to look after the commander. Garrus, please confine yourself to light duties today if you can. Shepard will want you cleared for groundside work when we reach Illium, and I will only sign off provided these symptoms have subsided.”

“Yes ma’am. Nothing strenuous today and an early turn-in, I promise.”

Chakwas went into Medbay. 

“Thanks, XO,” he said. “Some things the doc doesn’t need to hear.”

“Any time.” She eyed him. “Rest up, Vakarian. You really aren’t looking well.” 

“This is your fault, you know,” he pointed out. “Shepard could drink a krogan under the table thanks to those mods. Why don’t you want her intoxicated? Is this part of some grand scheme to kill me and install an imposter?”

Her mouth twitched. “It’s just a side effect of her accelerated metabolic processes, which positively impact her body’s ability to heal. I regret that it’s had an adverse effect on you, though.”

“Seriously, omit it in the next rebuild. I could have died last night. I still might.”

“I’d rather not reprise the Lazarus Project, but I’ll see about getting you a commendation for your bravery. Would that help?”

“It’s fine. All in the line of duty. Though I won’t say no to a sticker.”

Miranda went into her office shaking her head, and Garrus retreated to the battery and the blessed darkness that awaited. 

-

 Shepard, in case you’ve been worried, we’re fine 10:45

I mean. I’m not fine, physically. But we’re good. 10:45

Nothing about yesterday warned me off you, except maybe your ability to metabolize alcohol. 10:45

 Feel free to do feelings around me again at some point. No judgment. 10:46

[ . . . ]

10:47 That honestly better have been a one time thing

10:47 I’ve hit my quota on feelings for the fucking year and then some

 I’m sure. 10:47

10:47 Appreciate the check in though

10:47 Know where to go if another goddamn thing happens

Glad to hear it. Here for whatever you need. 10:47

10:48 If you say so

10:48 Wouldn’t blame you if that scene scared the hell out of you

I think you’ll find I’m pretty hard to spook. We turians don’t scare easily. 10:48

 Anyway, there’s never a time when you’re not a little terrifying, Commander. 10:48

 In a good way, of course. 10:48

 If it helps to assuage any concerns, seeing a glimpse of vulnerability only made you more intimidating. 10:48

10:48 Good

10:48 Reputation to uphold

10:50 You need anything? Fluids? More painkillers? Meal dropped off?

 Just to drink water and lie here for a few more hours, probably. 10:51

 I may or may not be coding horizontally right now. 10:51

10:51 Leave you to it then

10:51 Good luck, Vakarian

 Thanks. I’ll be operational by the time we hit Illium. 10:51

10:51 Sleep tight

Don’t tempt me, damn it. 10:51

Chapter Text

“I’m looking for an asari warrior named Samara,” Shepard said.

The officer swiveled at her desk. “Wait, why? Do you have a problem, or…did she kill somebody already?” She stood quickly and craned up at the news feeds playing overhead, scanning the marquees.

“Uh oh,” he commented. 

“Relax,” the commander replied, ignoring him. “I just need to speak with her.”

Garrus went to the railing, half monitoring the conversation at his back as he looked out at the cityscape. Night was falling, the sky blazoned red and violet through a haze of urban pollution. Points of light shone from Illium’s many-windowed skyscrapers. Vehicles zoomed along the airways, painting lucent pearl-and-crimson grids across the vista.

Lawson’s gear rustled as she joined him. “I never know if the view outweighs the sheer magnitude of corruption.”  She rested her hands on the balustrade, following his gaze out and up. 

“Yeah. This place has something that Omega didn’t. An allure.”

“It’s probably wealth you’re detecting,” she said dismissively. “Resources. Gentrification by oligarchs in tech, pharmaceuticals, and defense. When isn’t it?” 

“Romantic outlook. You forgot tourism, though.”

“Of course.”

He looked over his shoulder. Shepard and the officer were still talking. 

“I didn’t expect Liara T'soni to pop up out of nowhere and cover our docking fees. Did you know she’d set up shop here?”

”You mean am I sitting on intel from the Illusive Man? No, Vakarian, I’m not. Ever since Shepard assumed formal command, a lot less has been coming in from his terminal. I wasn’t informed that Horizon was a setup, for example.” She shrugged. “For the time being, at least, it seems I’ve been written off as one of the commander’s lackeys.”

“It’s all right. Happens to all of us eventually. Anyway, it’s not a bad position to hold. Pay’s a little wanting, but the commander takes care of her people.”

“So I’ve seen.” She gripped her shoulder and pulled, rolling her head on her neck. “My last report on T’soni dates from Shepard’s intake with the Illusive Man, and he shared it with her himself. She buys and sells information, either in connection with the Shadow Broker or in competition with him. Her administrative position on Illium is presumably a front for her other activities.”

“Or she openly practices her trade. Illium being what it is.”

“Yes. That’s also a possibility.” She glanced sidelong at him. “May I ask you a question, Vakarian? About Shepard?”

He turned away from the view and settled against the balustrade. “Sure. I reserve the right not to answer.”

“I found it unusual that she didn’t arrange to meet with T’soni once she learned of her presence here. I thought you could elaborate.”

“Huh. I don’t think it’s so unexpected, all things considered. After that run-in with Williams, it’s probably a safe bet that the commander’s feeling a little wary about her old connections.”

“I see.” She crossed her arms on the rail, watching a cab spiral up to join the flow. “Shepard must have been close to the SR1 crew.”

“As much as she was close to anyone back then. She was serious about Alliance regs. But it was obvious that she put in the work. Cared.” He shrugged. “She’ll see Liara eventually. That’s pretty inevitable. It’s probably just…you know. Resource management, for the time being. Avoiding overhead on our current objective in case the reunion doesn’t go well.”

Lawson nodded. “She clearly meant a great deal to a lot of people. If even half of them held her to expectations like Williams…that’s an inordinate amount of pressure to live up to.” 

“Yeah. I don’t think I really clocked the strain until recently. I guess that—” He stopped as Shepard turned out of the cubicle. Lawson looked over her shoulder and straightened.

“C’mon, you two,” the commander ordered, joining them. “Our justicar’s at the commercial spaceport. Gonna have to take a cab.”

They hailed a taxi and climbed into the first car that pulled up. 

“Any useful intel?” he asked as they sped off. 

She raised an eyebrow. “Coulda stayed and found out for yourself.” 

“It’s more fun to hear the editorialized version. Also, I got bored.”

Shepard looked at Lawson. “What about you, XO? Why’d you abandon ship?”

“Supervision, Commander. I thought you wouldn’t trust him near the railing, so I followed.”

“Hey. I’ve only fallen off a balcony once, and whether that should count against me is debatable. Feel like it’s an extenuating circumstance if you get pushed.”

Miranda raised her eyebrows, sitting back. “Who pushed you off a balcony, Vakarian?”

“Sol. Uh, my sister.” 

“Was there an extenuating circumstance to the extenuating circumstance that involved you being a bad brother?” Shepard asked.

“No. Well, maybe. I might have tricked her into trying fish food. Told her it was high protein granola.”

“It figures he was a dick as a kid, too. Were you supervised?”

“No, Mom was teaching. Dad was off-world on a case.”

“So if you had been, maybe none of this would’ve gone down.”

“I’m hearing that too, Commander,” Lawson said. “As you can see, my reasoning was sound.”

He crossed his arms, grinning. “I’m filing a harassment report against you two.” 

“Lemme know how that goes.” Shepard sat forward, propping her elbows on her knees. “Well, you didn’t miss much after you bailed. Samara’s got the law nervous. I’m told justicars punish corruption pretty harshly, and…”

“It’s Illium?” Miranda suggested.

“Yep. On top of that, they’re cleared for lethal force, insofar as anyone can clear ‘em. Not a governmental agency. No oversight. Dara has serious concerns about a diplomatic incident if Samara sees fit to put down a non-asari. Foreign embassies, other nations, and other justiciary systems might take a dim view of the order’s autonomy when word gets back to ‘em.” 

“Right. Yeah, I’d have hated to be working at C-Sec if a justicar ever came to the Citadel. Sounds like we’ll be doing everyone a favor taking her off-world.”

“My thoughts too. Be nice if this is an easy one, but I won’t get my hopes up.”

He looked out the window. They’d hit some kind of evening rush on the airway, crawling along a car-length at a time. Paid advertisements for pharmaceuticals, enhancements, and the latest in amp and omnitool tech spangled on at least half the vehicles in view. 

He read the nearest bulletin as it scrolled across the carriage of a powder-blue cab.

—HOT TAKE: Death is just a government excuse to take your assets public! Keep your hard-earned property secure when you go by vesting with Apexion. Remember: only by building on a foundation of success can you reach the apex of eternity.— 

The ad rippled and changed. 

—HOT TAKE: Dextro/levo incompatibility was overblown by the food industry to curb demand for foreign imports. With Comidia’s histamine-blocking technologies, you can finally enjoy that classic hamburger steak you’ve been eyeing for years. Comidia: the world is your comestible.— 

The text turned over again.

—HOT TAKE: Gender identity is a blended soup. Shouldn’t your gender expression be equally fluid? Ask your doctor today about Evanesciol, the only timed-release hormone therapy pill that adjusts its output based on existing levels in your bloodstream.—

The cab pulled away, swinging into another lane. He turned back to them. 

“Hey, your damned human idioms have infiltrated asari corporate marketing. What the hell is a hot take?”

They traded looks. 

“Think of—” Shepard began at the same time Lawson said, “It’s a—”

They stopped. The commander waved her on, grinning. “Go ahead. Answered dozens of these at this point and probably gonna be answering more in no time.”

“It’s an ostensibly never-before-heard interpretation of or unique opinion about a known piece of data. Often sensational in nature.”

“Common in advertising, I’d guess?”

“Ads,” Shepard said. “Pundits. Conspiracy theorists. Kids on the extranet who think their shower thoughts are innovative.”

“Huh. Let me see if I’m understanding this.”

“Shoot.”

“Vakarian, no. Can we not—”

“Hot take,” he said. “Biotics are just space wizards.”

“Yeah, like that.”

“Hot take: Omega is actually the hollowed-out body of an ancient gargantuan species, now extinct.” 

“Now you’re getting it.”

“Shepard, don’t encourage him.”

“Hot take: the Keepers were the Reapers all along.”

“Three for three, buddy.”

“Never mind.” Lawson shook her head. “I’ll just suffer, then.”

“Sorry, XO,” he said. “I’ll give it a rest. Next topic.”

-

There was red tape at the crime scene, literally and figuratively. 

“Just like old times,” he said. “Bureaucratic slowdown, murder mystery, and a shady suspect or two.”

Shepard turned from the police line. “Think the detective was right to detain Pitney For?”

“Oh, yeah. He’s guilty of something, anyway, in addition to being a prime suspect in this murder case.”

“Yeah, don’t love that line of reasoning.”

“And that’s why you’re the PR face of this operation and not me, Commander.”

“Scars could have something to do with it, too.”

The detective was taking a call when they entered. She made eye contact, pointed to her communicator, and held up three fingers. Shepard nodded and led them to the windows, clearing the lobby to allow foot traffic through. 

“I’ll have you know that I’m doing very well on dating apps right now,” he informed her.

“Uh huh. Just saying you look a little too close to death’s door to sign an autograph without making a child cry.”

“Careful with the shaming. Have to keep those principles spotless for the press.”

“Maybe I keep ‘em spotless so I can sleep at night, Vakarian.”

“First of all, sleep is overrated. Second of all, I sleep extremely soundly, tarnished principles and all.”

“Right, forgot.” She clapped him on the shoulder. “Didn’t even turn over when I dropped off chow that one time.” 

“Once again, extenuating circumstances.”

“Your story isn’t straight, Vakarian,” Lawson put in. “Either you sleep soundly by nature or you don’t.”

“My story doesn’t have to be straight. Take it from me, XO: at any given time, you just need to last ‘til the next turn in conversation.” The detective was looking at them over Shepard’s shoulder. He nodded towards her. “Or until something inevitably interrupts the flow and we all forget what we were talking about. Think she’s ready for us, Commander.”

There was only one chair for visitors at the detective’s desk. He and Lawson hung back as Shepard left. 

“Guess she doesn’t do group appointments,” he said.

“It’s just as well. I wanted to finish our conversation from earlier.” She settled against the window. “With the understanding that I have no interest in prying into Shepard’s affairs and merely wish to assess her wellbeing, how is she? Is she getting the support she needs? It was clear that Horizon was very difficult for her.”

Garrus looked at the back of Shepard’s head. The detective was laying out the advantages of cooperating with a member of the order. He wondered if he’d sounded anything like that, explaining to C-Sec buddies why he’d let a human Spectre candidate take point on his investigation into Saren. 

“She’s okay. I think Horizon was a one time thing. I mean…I know Tali’s on the docket, and Liara’s just cropped up again. But two years ago they either didn’t have convictions as inflexible as Ash’s, or they had a lot more tact about expressing them. They’re also not the sorts to misdirect anger or grief at her. And neither one of them was regularly one of the ground team. Shepard and Williams fought a lot of battles together, and they had a shared allegiance to the Alliance. She just always had the tools to cut deeper.”

Lawson nodded. “Thank you, Vakarian. I have every confidence that Shepard will be conscientious about seeing to the team’s needs. But between the two of us, I want to ensure that she’s also looked after as we prepare for the Relay.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on her. Let you know if I think anything could help.”

Across the floor, Shepard had objections to the detective’s orders. “Your superiors are sending you to certain death for no good reason,” she said. “You have a right to disobey.”

He looked at Lawson. “Commander just said we can disobey suicidal orders. Why wasn’t I told?”

Her lips twitched. “I wasn’t either. That’s about twice a day.”

“Twice a mission, at the very least. Remember when she told me to take out a YMIR mech by myself?” 

“Yes. I also remember when she made you run across the field to draw out an enemy sniper on Lorek, and the exceptionally long complaint you issued on the shuttle ride back.”

“Exactly. It wasn’t the right time to ask for backup on that one, because you were pretty upset about that OSD. But exactly. And you haven’t had it easy, either, prepping EMP after EMP and bending reality with your space magic while keeping the hostiles that get past Shepard from taking me out.”

“I admit when the commander assigned me to the ground team, I didn’t ever expect to be asked to act as a human shield.” 

“What about a turian shield?” he drawled. 

She eyed him. “One day, Vakarian, you’re going to realize you’re only twenty percent as funny as you think you are.”

“One day, XO. But not today.” 

Shepard was standing, leaning across the desk to grip the detective’s hand. 

“Hey, Commander,” he said as she reached them, “when were you going to disclose that we can refuse directives with a high personal risk?” 

She raised her eyebrows. “Most of the time I’m not being stupid about it. I can’t say the same for Detective Anaya’s superiors. C’mon.” 

They went out. She turned to face them on the docking bay, crossing her arms. 

“All right, here’s the sitrep. Streets aren’t secure beyond the police line, so we’re probably gonna be fighting Eclipse to get to the crime scene. Once there, objective’s clear: we do whatever we gotta do to get Samara off-world. What you overheard about suicidal orders? The detective’s been told to detain her, which is grounds under the Justicar Code for Samara to use lethal force resisting arrest. Guess members of the order are s’posed to be unimpeachable.” 

“I’m all for justice, but I think this Code needs some amendment,” he said.

“You and me both.” She drew her rifle. “Assemble weapons, you two. Let’s move out.”

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe you’re considering this,” he told her. “Shepard, don’t you think we have enough maniacs out to kill us without adding another candidate to the list?”

The commander didn’t answer, circling the breeding tank. Okeer’s legacy was suspended in his bath of amniotic fluid. Eyes were half-open, though EDI had assured them he wasn’t aware of his surroundings. 

That was for the best. He hadn’t exactly been placed in livable quarters by any stretch of the imagination. 

“How and why is he fully armored?” he asked. “Did Okeer just…take him out, dress him, and put him back in? Did he float a full suit in there during incubation and let the embryo grow into it?”

“Cork it, Vakarian. Any idea how dangerous this one is, EDI?”

“He is a krogan, Shepard.”

“What she said,” Garrus said. “EDI, are your pronouns she/her?”

“I do not have a pronoun determination in my programming, but she/her is both acceptable to me as well as the most common designation used by crewmen of the Normandy.”

“That’s gender expectations for you. Though I can’t really talk. I’ve been calling Junior a he/him for no reason beyond bio sex.”

“Feedback noted. Making adjustment. As for the test subject, if you are asking whether they are actively hostile, I don’t have the necessary data to answer. Okeer’s technology could impart information, but not methods of thinking. They may know of their creator’s views, but would not necessarily share them.”

“So, in summary, they’re a complete unknown. Could be a murdering sociopath. Could be a fanatic with delusions of grandeur. Damn, that’s the pessimism talking. Could be a docile, gentle soul who just wants to read philosophy and contemplate the mysteries of space. Only one way to find out, I guess.”

Shepard scowled at him. “You’ve got a lot of opinions for a guy who just happened to be walking by when I came down here, Vakarian. Don’t seem to recall asking for your help.”

“Right. And I was obviously going to keep walking once I got wind of what you were planning.” He crossed his arms. “What exactly do you think Lawson would’ve done to me if I’d gone that route, Commander? It’s all well and fine for you if you’re slaughtered by this guy. Person. That’s over and done with in seconds. Me, I’d have to explain to the XO why I didn’t body-check you and sacrifice myself in your stead.”

“Imputing a lot of ignorance to the XO, considering I apprised her of my intention to do this about fifteen minutes ago.”

“Interesting. That probably explains why I was paged to get down here and support you if any situation ‘happened to develop.’”

“Lawson sent you?” Shepard crossed her arms too. “Guess we’re gonna have a chat later about what constitutes an appropriate exercise of discretion.”

“Hey, be nice. At least she’s fighting your corner now.”

“Yeah? Maybe I was talking about you. How exactly is this an appropriate exercise of your discretion, buddy?”

“Oh, you know me. Liberties will be taken. To be fair, doesn’t sound like I’m supposed to do anything that countermands your objective.” He shrugged. “Caught in your own trap, Commander. If Alliance chain of command hadn’t been instated, I could’ve given Lawson the finger, fucked off to the battery, and let you expire graphically without an injunction to intervene. As it is, here I am under mostly-direct orders not to leave you alone.”

She snorted. “What I get for having officers who think for themselves.” 

“My condolences. I hate it when that happens.”

“All right.” She cracked her knuckles. “Stand by. I’m gonna open the tank and let ‘em out.”

“Cerberus is very clear regarding untested alien technology,” the AI warned them.

“Well, now she’s definitely going to do it,” he said. “Nice job, EDI.”

Shepard’s eyes narrowed. “Any other smart comments, Gunnery Officer, or do I have your permission to proceed?”

“All set, Commander. Thanks for asking.”

She looked back at the tank. “EDI, they’re either a powerful addition to the crew or a time bomb. I’d rather deal with the fallout now.”

“Very well, Shepard. The controls are online. The switch, and consequences, are yours.”

“Wait.” He held out a hand to intercept her as she stepped up to the control panel. “Give me a second to set up. I’ll take position behind the tank, take the shot if I need to. Crap. …Uh. I don’t have my SR.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Lawson know you were planning to come down here with only sixty percent of your loadout? What kind of help did she expect you to be if shit broke bad, exactly?”

“Look, Shepard, I wasn’t given details. Thought I’d be walking in on some kind of personal or interpersonal crisis. I’m sorry I didn’t bring my anti-materiel rifle to the party.”

Her mouth twitched. “Well, get it.”

“Not a chance. I know that look. You’ll go for the button as soon as the elevator door closes.” 

“Think you’re confusing the two of us. See, I’ve got a modicum of impulse control.”

“Yeah, you’ve also got a powerful strain of oppositional defiance when you’ve been thwarted. Look what happened after the Collectors killed you.” 

She crossed her arms. “All right, wiseass. So what’s your plan? Stand here together ‘til the tank rusts out?”

“Strong idea, but I’ve got another one. Hang on. Don’t even think about touching that control panel. I’m watching you.” 

“Vakarian, I’m not a kid in a candy store, but I’ve also got a limited supply of patience. You’ve got exactly two minutes before I go for that button and we find out whose hand-to-hand’s better.”

“Not that it’s not a tempting offer, but…” He raised a hand to his communicator. “Goto, do you copy? It’s me.”

“Who’s ‘me’? Is that you, Angel?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a favor to ask. Mind grabbing my M-98 from the battery and bringing it down to port cargo? It’s important.”

“Mysterious. Okay, I’ll come by in a second.”

“Thanks.”

Kasumi struggled down the steps a minute later, toting the Widow in its case. “I—hate—this gun,” she panted, and set it on the deck. “Next time, try paging a biotic,” she suggested. “Like Jack. Jack would’ve been the perfect person to ask for that favor.”

“Lady’s got a point,” the commander informed him.

“Sorry. I didn’t want any of the settings jarred. Less margin for error when it’s carried by hand, especially with…uh. I’ll keep that to myself. We’re pretty close to the engineering sub-deck. I appreciate the help, Goto.”

“You’re welcome. I was just rehoming some stock anyway. Had a buyer fall through.” She lifted her chin to inspect the tank. “So are you waking up Junior?”

“Hey, that’s my nickname for the tank baby. Get your own.”

“Can you ever really own a thing, Angel? What’s private property if the security can be breached?”

“Figured it was past time to handle this.” Shepard hopped off the fold-down workspace left of the tank. “XO saw fit to install a contingency in Vakarian. Thanks for helping ‘im do his job.”

“Never skip the contingency, Shep. Well, I’m clearing out. Much rather watch this one on the security cams if something goes wrong.”

“Now there’s a properly developed sense of self-preservation,” he said. “If only all three of the sentient and conscious life forms in this room had that.”

Shepard drew her sidearm and toggled to tungsten-carbide rounds. “Laugh it up, Garrus.” 

Kasumi chuckled and vanished upstairs as he flipped latches on his case and assembled the Widow. 

“So what’s the signal?” he asked.

She checked sights, pivoted out the cylinder, and spun it, confirming sink count by feel. “I’ll work in the word ‘green.’”

“Understood.” He shoved the case out of sight and knelt, setting his back against the tank. Discharging a sniper rifle at this range was a little ludicrous, but better safe than sorry against what both Okeer and their AI claimed was the perfect specimen of a krogan. “Ready when you are, Commander.”

Shepard nodded, reholstering her pistol. “EDI, seal the door to port cargo. No one goes in or out ‘til one of us gives the all clear.” 

A hiss. “Sealed, Commander.”

She stepped forward and keyed the control panel.

-

The problem with strategy was that it went to hell as soon as it crashed into reality. In this case, it had crashed into four hundred fifty pounds of disoriented soggy krogan, which had plowed straight into Shepard at full velocity.

Shit.

Her back slammed against the bulkhead at the far end of the hold. The impact shook the deck, vibrated through the soles of his boots as the krogan forced a forearm under her chin and across her windpipe. 

Sightline had gone FUBAR, if he’d ever had one to begin with. Any shot he fired could conceivably bore straight through the target’s head into hers. 

He stepped carefully sideways under cover of the collision, visor tracing that 240° krogan field of view, and braced himself on the counter she’d been perched on before. Checked his scope again, couching the stock against his shoulder. 

Better. Round would tunnel through the skull and into the wall, if it didn’t lodge in the browplate.

The commander was pinned, muscling the mark’s forearm off her throat with what he assumed was sheer will and some truly superior microfiber weave. He’d have to send Lawson his compliments later, if he wasn’t busy catching barbs, biotics, and bullets for failing to preempt this completely foreseeable outcome.

“Human,” they rumbled. “Female. Before you die, I need a name.”

Garrus cocked the safety, straightening his finger along the trigger.

Her fingers clenched on the krogan’s vambrace with an audible crack. Guess she had skeletal lattice somewhere in there, too. “I’m Commander Shepard, captain of this vessel, and I don’t take threats lightly,” she rapped out. “I suggest you relax.”

“Not your name. Mine.”

Her eyes flicked to him as the krogan went on. Her hand shifted along their forearm then opened briefly. 

Palm out and up, fingers together, forty-five degree angle. One half the Systems Alliance hand/arm sig for ‘remain in place.’

So it was dialogue, then. Time for a nice chat. Definitely not time to call the shot despite mortal peril. Dicey, but classic. 

It was fine. She had them talking, something about Okeer, about the meaning of a name and the purpose of life or lack of it; she evidently wasn’t breakable, and she had a contingency in him and in her sidearm. He could see her right hand shifting in IR, freeing the safety on her M-6.

He gave her the thumbs up without raising his eye from the lens, and settled in to wait.

-

“That’s…acceptable,” the krogan said. At some point he’d named himself Grunt and self-identified as male. “I’ll fight for you.”

“Glad you saw reason,” Shepard returned. She nodded to his position. 

“Huh?” 

Grunt twisted, saw him, and looked down as she uncocked the hammer on her M-6. She’d locked her pistol into the seam between plates on his left flank, point-blank against his primary, secondary, and tertiary livers. 

“Hah. Offer one hand but arm the other. Wise, Shepard.” He stepped back heavily as she holstered her firearm. 

She rolled her head on her neck and straightened her uniform. “Welcome aboard, Grunt. I’ll send someone to get you settled.”

“What about him?” Grunt nodded at Garrus as he unfolded and reached for his case. “Coward’s weapon, but that was a good ambush. And his scars tell a story.”

“That’s our Gunnery Officer, Garrus Vakarian. You still on duty, Vakarian?”

He disassembled his M-98, settling it into its bed. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Take him around. Make sure he’s comfortable, all right? Be sure to support him if, you know, any situation develops.”

Garrus looked up at her, closing his case. She was grinning.

“Aye aye, Commander. What should I do if he puts himself in imminent danger?” he drawled.

“The usual. Step in uninvited. Take the wheel from the driver. What you do best.”

Grunt was looking between them. “Something is going on besides what you’re saying to one another.”

“You’ll find the Gunnery Officer’s got a talent for toeing the line between obedience and insubordination, and a marked lack of contrition about the latter. He’ll answer for that after he’s finished up here.” 

“Oh, will I.”

“Sure will.” 

“That sounds like a thank you. I’ll pass it on to Lawson.”

“Not a chance. You’re both still gonna be dressed down.” She thrust her hands into her pockets. “I’m heading out. Need anything, Grunt, let me know. Vakarian, come see me before we hit Haestrom. Got something to discuss with you.”

“Aye aye.”

She climbed the steps and disappeared into engineering as EDI unsealed the door. 

“Was that an alien mating ritual?” Grunt asked. “The tank didn’t tell me what it means when a female threatens a male in front of other males.”

“All right.” Garrus picked up his case and slung an arm around Grunt’s shoulders. “Come on, kid. Let’s tour the ship. First rule: don’t talk about the commander like that. Second rule: don’t talk about females like that. Strap in for a lot of rules, and yes, there will be a test.” 

Chapter Text

Haestrom was broiling and the Migrant Fleet’s mission had gone straight to hell.

“We’re headed the right way,” Lawson reported. She was forward of them, scouting the drop ahead where the ruins met open air. “Whoever’s in command left two men to cover their retreat. I have a visual on their position.”

“All right. Let’s see if we can get in touch.” Shepard crouched and pried the radio from a fallen marine’s hand. 

“Short-range transmitter,” Garrus said, looking over. He knelt at their rear, scanning the way they’d come for stragglers or reinforcements sent to roll them up. “The geth must’ve taken out their comm tower.”

“Yep. Not ideal.”

A muddy hail was just audible through the crackle and spit of static. She spun the dial clockwise with a thumb, shook her head, and rolled it back the other way.

“OP-1, this is Squad Leader Kal’Reegar, do you copy? The geth sent a dropship towards OP-2. Tali’Zorah’s secure, but we need backup. We’re bunkered up here. Can you send support?”

She depressed the PTT button. “This is Commander Shepard of the Normandy. We’re in the location where OP-1 was stationed. Sorry to say your men didn’t make it. Can we provide assistance?” 

“Commander, I don’t know what you’re doing in the ass-end of geth space and I don’t care. Grateful as hell for the assist. Patch your radio into Channel 617-Theta and I’ll give you the sitrep.”

“Stand by. Get us in, Vakarian,” she ordered. She hooked the radio to her belt and killed the volume as he keyed up the request and coupled their output. 

Shepard raised a hand to her communicator and nodded when their channels synced. “Go ahead, Reegar.” She moved up to join Miranda, gazing down at the field. 

The account wasn't good. Reegar’s team had been on a recon mission when a geth patrol ship clocked their emissions and sent troops to clear them out. His position was secure but the situation was precarious. They were down to half strength from twelve marines, and of the scientists, only Tali was confirmed alive.

“They’ve got us pinned down now,” he finished. “Can’t get to our ship, can’t transmit data through the solar radiation. I left Tali’Zorah at a secure shelter then doubled back to hold the chokepoint. If you can extract her, we’ll keep them off you.”

“We can talk exit strategies once we get to you. Got a visual on two of your people ahead. Let ‘em know we’re coming—we’ll rendezvous, hit their back ranks, and join you at base camp.” She glanced over her shoulder, waved him up.

“All right, Shepard. We’ll hold position and—wait, watch your ass! You’ve got a dropship coming in!”

“Damn it. Move, move, move!” Shepard was over the side and gone, hurtling for the quarians’ position behind the k-rails they’d dragged across the gate. 

He jumped down and pounded after her as the ship roared into view. Rubble blasted across the plaza.

“Allied forces! Dropship incoming,” she yelled, waving the retreat. “Fall back to Reegar, get to—”

The quarians were rising, backing, running for the door at their rear. The turrets were swiveling. The ship dived low, angled across the gate. 

Crap.

Garrus put on an extra burst of speed and tackled her as the cannons fired. 

The blast obliterated the marines, blackened the embrasure they’d been holding. A massive pillar teetered and began to fall. He got an arm around her waist and half fell, half dragged her backwards as it toppled and crashed down. A cloud of gravel and dust swallowed them. The ground quaked, cracked, and stilled.

He struggled to one knee in cavernous silence. He’d been deafened from proximity to the explosion, the column’s collapse. 

Lawson reached them, bent low. She set one hand on his arm, the other on Shepard’s back, urging them up and left. Bullets sailed noiselessly around them, glanced off their shields as she steered them into cover.  

She unholstered her SMG and set a hand to her comm. Her mouth moved as she checked the far end of the field, scanning for something. 

Shepard nudged his arm with her Widow. He looked at her, assembling his SR. She tapped the back of her helm and flashed five, two fingers, then pointed with her rifle.

Straightforward enough. He nodded, keyed up tungsten-carbide rounds, and took aim. 

-

Reegar had been forced to retreat. The team’s base was littered with spent sinks, scattered personal effects, and the bodies of two more marines. Lawson woke her omnitool and knelt, scanning for vitals through their enviro-suits. She shook her head, looking up. “Dead, Commander.”

“Damn it,” Shepard said. “Unit’s down to two, by my count.”

Audio had returned as they scoured the ruins for demo charges to blast through the fallen pillar that had wiped out Reegar’s rear guard and blocked their route. Evidence of the Migrant Fleet’s mission objective was everywhere in the solar radiation equipment, the pyranometers and pyrheliometers and fragments of encrypted logs he and Lawson had managed to unscramble. Haestrom’s sun was dying, and neither the Migrant Fleet nor the scientists nor their tech had any idea why. 

If they got Tali out of this alive somehow, he was going to give her hell for the sloppy security. You didn’t just leave that kind of intel lying around for another hacker to pick up.

Speaking of. 

“Shepard, I’ve got something. Looks like another personal entry from a few days ago.”

She joined him at the desk. “Play it.”

He scrubbed through to the uncorrupted segment and Tali’s voice filled the room. 

“—ncestors walked these halls with uncovered heads. The sun must have been normal back then. So much space. Walls of stone—it’s amazing. I wish my friends could see it. I wish Shepard were here.”

He shut it off. “Aw. Told you she’d want to see you again. Not all of us are Williams.”

She shook her head. “Well, let’s get that door open and get moving. Not gonna have a chance to find out if she gets gunned down out there.”

“Yes ma’am.” He joined Lawson at the controls. She was typing one-handed, running a diagnostic. “Don’t tell me we need another demo charge.” 

“I’m not sure. The console is severely damaged on this side, and I think someone’s activated security protocols. Deadbolts are engaged and I’m having trouble bypassing them.”

“Let me take a look. If it’s Tali’s signature I might be able to—”

“Tali’Zorah to base camp. Come in, base camp. Hello? Is anyone there?” 

The comms station had woken. LEDs cycled and the holoscreen refreshed, populating with Tali’s image as the commander went to answer the hail. 

“Tali, it’s Shepard,” she said. She leaned in, bracing her hands on the machine. “I was in the neighborhood and thought you might need a hand. I’m sorry—everyone here is dead. Any survivors must have fallen back.”

“Damn it. We knew this mission was high risk, but…” She shook her head. “Thanks for coming, Shepard. It means a lot to hear your voice.”

“What’s the sitrep? Are you alone out there? We lost contact with Reegar after he pulled out of base camp.”

Garrus turned back to the door. 

“Any progress, XO?” he asked. 

Lawson shook her head. “Not yet. Here—I’ll share what I’ve found with you. Maybe you can find a way in.”

He scrolled through the program. “Damn, no emergency override built in, no voice activation setup. So much for a back door. There’s a short-range packet based protocol, though. Could be something.”

She flicked through statements, catching up with him. “I see. UHF radio waves. Main/follower architecture. So if we can break into the ad hoc network this console is linked to—”

“Right. Could dummy the main device, whatever it is, and order the deadbolts to retract.”

She closed her omnitool. “It would work. Frankly, it may also take time that we don’t have to write the necessary code. It’s not a simple hack.”

“Yeah. Well, two alternatives left. Let’s try the easy one first.”

He looked over his shoulder.

“Listen to me, Tali,” the commander was saying. “We’re gonna get you out, all right? Got Garrus and my XO with me, Normandy in orbit, and we don’t lie down easy.”

“I know you will, Shepard. Thanks.”

“Commander, sorry to interrupt,” he said. “The console’s damaged and someone’s sealed the door remotely. Ask if she can get it open on her end? If not, we’re going to need about twenty minutes to write a program. Barring that, maybe some more explosives.”

“Is that Garrus? Don’t go looking for charges. These buildings are centuries old. If you bring down heavy fire, this whole place could collapse on us.”

“In that case, we’re going to have a conversation later about your great plan to emulate Shepard a few days ago. Blowing a hole in the ground for a simple core sample? Really?”

“Hole in the…did you hack my work logs?”

“Yeah, and it was too easy. You got sloppy in the last couple of years, Zorah.”

“All right, you two, save it for later,” Shepard interrupted. “Can you get the door?”

“Let me see…yes, I can do it. Try again. Should be unlocked now.”

The door cycled open. The commander looked back at the screen. 

“Stay locked down, Tali. Be there as soon as we can.”

-

A colossus was stationed near the observatory at the far end of the field where Tali had holed up. A full platoon of geth milled around the entrance trying to break in. Also, they had the high ground.

“Definitely like old times,” he said to no one in particular. Geth rounds flicked overhead. A siege pulse landed yards from the k-rails where they’d bunkered down, shaking the concrete. Electrical discharge spiraled over the exposed rebar. 

Lawson shook her head as she assembled her Tempest. “I’m very glad not to have been a member of the SSV Normandy personnel,” she said dryly. “As risky as this work is, we’ve never spent a majority of our time engaging enemies built on a titanic scale.”

“Huh. I guess that was a feature of our missions two years ago, now that you mention it. Thorian, Sovereign, rachni queen. Colossus upon colossus. Really put your own dimensions into perspective.”

He risked a glance at the terrain while Shepard got the sitrep from Reegar. Another tactical disaster as usual. Colossus had a clear sightline down the center of the field with maybe two, three exceptions. The walkway at left had no guardrail and was exposed to hostile fire from the other approaches; the catwalk at right had ramps on either end, which meant vulnerability to flanking. He looked back at the commander, tuning into the report. 

“Standard procedure with armature class units is to sabotage the shields and whittle it down,” Reegar was saying. He was the last of the marines and fighting through a suit rupture, with an ML-77 on hand and not much else. “You know. Kill it with bug bites. But this thing has a repair protocol. Huddles up and fixes itself.”

“That’s new,” Lawson said.

“New and damned inconvenient,” Garrus amended. 

“Don’t need to tell me. I can’t get a clean shot when it’s down, so that blows SOP to hell. Whatever we do has to scrap that bastard fast. Probably means getting up close, past that cover.” 

“Got it.” Shepard keyed up an ammo mod. “We’ll handle the colossus. Repair protocol’s a novel development, but we’ve scrapped quite a few of ‘em in our day.”

“All due respect, ma’am, you’ll still have to get to it first. I can help with that. I’m not moving so well, but I can pull a trigger. I’ll keep the colossus busy while you advance, maybe even drop its shields. With luck, you’ll be able to finish it off.”

She shook her head. “Needless risk. There’s ample cover out there and we’ll be using it, not you, to stay outta harm’s way. Hold the rear, Reegar, understood? You’ve done enough.”

“Negative. My job is to protect Tali. If this is our best shot, we take it.” He popped the safety on his ML-77. 

Shepard's hand clamped on his firing arm.

“I said stand down, marine. Only one of us can call the shots here, and I’m telling you we don't have enough people on our side for you to take one for the team.”

He shook her off. “Wasn’t asking your permission. I’m not going to sit here while you run into enemy fire. They killed my whole squad!”

“And if you want to honor your squad and your mission, watch my back!” She shoved him against the rampart. “Look, this isn’t fucking sentiment, all right? I need you alive to extract Tali in case they scramble reinforcements. You think the geth are just gonna watch us march out with her? And if that’s not enough of a goddamn reason for you to fall in, you’re the only picket I’ve got. Can’t leave my long range specialist to hold the rear, ‘cause I’m gonna need him for the ACU.”

They stared at one another. Across the field, what passed for the colossus’ head was swiveling, scanning for a target. Geth were deploying along all three approaches. 

“—All right, Shepard. We’ll do it your way.” 

“Appreciate it. Won’t let you down.” She checked the field. He could see her scanning, clocking the routes as he had. “All right, people, here’s how we’re gonna handle this shitshow. Reegar, hold position and keep us apprised of troop movements—ECM’s jammed our scanner and you’re the only one of us who’ll have eyes on the entire field. If you’re able to get a shot off at anyone trying the observatory, safely, do it—gonna be hairy out there. Vakarian, you go right. I go left. Lawson, you’re headed dead center.” She unholstered their ML-77 and shoved it into his hands. “Maintain a reverse wedge. Fight smart and don’t pull ahead—nobody advances without the go-ahead from every squadmate or someone gets rolled up. Priority is cutting this platoon down to size. Colossus we’ll hit together when we rendezvous at the far end. Questions?”

“No, ma’am,” Lawson said.

“Understood, Commander,” he told her, and switched them to comms. “We’ll see you on the other side.”

She assembled her Mattock. “Rally point’s at the end of my route. On your mark, Reegar.”

He nodded. “Hit them for me. Keelah se’lai!”

They split. Rounds sparked off the guardrail as he sprinted up the ramp to his position. His visor was going haywire, flashing alerts he didn’t need as the sun lanced through his shields. Two hostiles had reached the landing dead ahead and were firing down at him. An EMP from Lawson flared, knocking out their kinetic barriers. He shot left-right into their photoreceptors and closed.   

He got a hand around the central power cable that emerged from the first unit’s back into its head and wrenched it free. Conductive fluid sprayed as it collapsed. The second stumbled over its mate’s chassis and into him. He turned, let its momentum carry it past, and rammed it from behind with his rifle. It careened over the drop. 

He ducked into cover. His shields were resetting, toggling back to generator mode. “In position. I miss anything?”

“This is Reegar. Your captain’s in position too. Lawson’s got a few converging and you’ve got a squadron setting up at the end of your route.”

“Received. Stay down, XO. Returning that package you sent.”

He keyed up an EMP and flung it into their ranks. Their shields fizzled out—Lawson added a second pulse—they powered down mid-stride. 

“Night night!” she called.

“Perfect. Love fighting synthetics.”

“Exceptionally simple to dispatch. My route is clear, Commander. Do we advance?”

“Ready,” he said.

“Confirmed,” Shepard said. “Twenty yards forward, now!”

He plunged over the barrier and down the catwalk, keeping pace with the commander on his periphery. 

Reegar radioed in. “Vakarian, get down! Colossus has a bead on you!”

He dropped as the pulse hit. The floor rattled beneath him. Sparks crawled and jumped across the scaffolding as he elbowed his way to cover.

“One piece still, Garrus?” Shepard asked.

He loaded a high impact round, checking enemy positions ahead. One unit was getting bold, advancing towards him. “Yeah, I’m fine. Think I’ll stay down here, though. View’s better, and the direct sunlight’s not doing anything for my complexion.” He aimed, fired. The blast detonated between its feet, blasting it over the rail. “Just sent you another one, Lawson, sorry.”

“Not a problem. They’re not surviving the fall in one piece.”

“Good to know. Might make it a habit then.” He swapped in his SR, assembled his bipod. 

“Great minds,” Shepard said. “Doing the same thing from my side.”

A flash as a trooper rose out of cover, exposing its photoreceptor. He squeezed the trigger. “What can I say. I model my tactics on the best.” 

“Dunno about that. Saves clips, though.” 

“Two Armature Class B units with heavy weapons incoming with the next squad, Commander,” Kal reported. “Think your Alliance brass calls ‘em destroyers.”

“Thanks, Reegar. All right, you two, prioritize those large units ‘less you’re in imminent danger. Fry their shields and I’ll clean up on SR.”

“Aye aye. So what’s that supposed to mean?” He set up against the rampart, programmed an EMP. 

“What’s what supposed to mean?”

“You said you don’t know if I model my tactics on the best. Are you burning me or are you burning yourself?”

“Just mean it’s not exactly finesse, chucking a guy overboard to get ‘im outta your way.”

“Definitely signature, though.” 

The first destroyer entered his FOV and hit Lawson’s pulse, then his. Its photoreceptor shattered as Shepard fired. 

“‘Scuse me? You saying I always storm through, running up property damage bills and knocking people left and right?”

“Shepard, come on.” He loaded another charge. “You once had me drive the Mako head on into a geth armature unit that looked a hell of a lot like this one, but more shiny. Actually, you had me do that more than once. To more than one type of lifeform, matter of fact. See, I remember because I was the one in charge of replacing the plating every time.” 

The second destroyer moved into his sightline. Pulse, pulse, headshot. He dropped back into cover and put eyes on his own route. Units were on the move, trying to close while his attention was occupied.

“Vehicular combat’s a completely different animal, Vakarian. Why the hell do you need finesse to decommission a maw or a colossus? How the fuck would finesse even come into play?” 

“Good question. The point is, we’ll never know.” He took aim and popped off another high impact round at an infantry unit that had strayed too close to the rail, throwing it over. “I will say, the signature style isn’t limited to vehicular skirmishes. Told you before, Commander. Your MO’s brilliant but it’s damned aggressive.”

“I can corroborate that,” Lawson put in. “Not two assignments ago you had me lift Vakarian onto a vantage point behind enemy lines that was completely isolated from backup.”

“I remember that. Good times. Almost couldn’t get down after.” He adjusted his turret and returned to his scope. “What about on Horizon, when you made Lawson hold an area barrier against three particle beams simultaneously so the Collectors would burn their remaining heavy weapons charges?”

“I had to requisition a new amp. To be fair, Shepard takes just as many risks with her own person. She did shatter her patella attacking a full unit of Suns to save your lives.”

He fired, ejected the sink. “Yeah, because she decided it was better to charge dead ahead instead of stealing one of the numerous unoccupied vehicles available at the aptly titled carport.”

“The hell’s going on here? You two staging a mutiny?”

“No mutiny here.” He squeezed the trigger. “Just putting some slips in the suggestions and feedback box.”

“You know Chambers goes through those and not me, right? Somebody wants to talk to the captain, they usually just walk right up or send an email.”

“Well, that explains why you haven’t responded to any of my propositions. Oh, that’s awkward. I should apologize to the yeoman.”

“Hold that upsetting fucking thought. Good to go?”

“Can do,” he said.

“Affirmative, Shepard.”

“No time like the present, Commander,” Reegar reported. “I’d get to the end of the field if you can. Whatever they’ve got calling the shots hasn’t scrambled another unit yet. You’re thinning their ranks and they’re losing smarts fast.”

“Got it. All right, people, gonna try for the rally point. Move!”

They broke cover and ran. 

“This field is too long or this SR is too heavy,” he informed her as they mustered. 

“You’re telling me. C’mon, backs to the wall. Still got a colossus to deal with.” 

They sidled up the ramp. 

“Shepard, looks like you’ve got about ten units still up there with the ACU,” Reegar said. “Watch yourself. More of the walkers you take out, the dumber that colossus gets.”

“That a good thing or a bad thing at this range?” she asked, swapping in her Mattock. 

“I had to guess, probably good. Might even lose access to that damn repair protocol if it’s a higher process. If not, just get close and keep up a constant barrage. Even the geth haven’t transcended limitations on kinetic barrier tech yet.”

“Understood. Stand by, Reegar.” She leaned out to survey the field, then looked back at them. “You heard the man. Stay down and clear out everything except the colossus. I’ll close with it once I’ve got a reasonable certainty I can dance around out there without getting my ass shot by an infantry unit.”

“Cautious approach,” he said. “Just trying it on for size?”

“Yeah, fucking hilarious. Go, go, go!”

Lawson and the commander left the safety of the corridor, staying low as they ran for cover. He stepped into Shepard’s former position and checked around the corner. 

Sightlines were solid. Three units were already in the open, advancing on Shepard’s location. 

Time to clean house.

They dispatched the infantry quickly, punching through photoreceptors and frying circuitry. At some point Lawson ended up on his ten o’clock, Shepard dead ahead on DMR. Shattered synthetic parts littered the concrete. Spilt conductive fluid puddled everywhere.

He locked sights on the final unit as it leaned out of cover and squeezed the trigger. It skidded into the wall, cracked, and went dark.  

“Field’s clear except for the big damn son of a bitch, Commander,” he reported, popping his sink. 

“Good work. Vakarian, gimme a high impact shot at the foreleg articulation point. XO, rapid fire with me. Take cover on my order.” 

“Aye aye.” He slotted in a concussive round. “Ready.”

“Commence fire.”

He loosed with them. The colossus wobbled as his round hit and ratcheted itself higher, elevating its photoreceptor above the salvo. Its twin machine guns spun up.

“—Down!” Shepard yelled.

They huddled into cover as it belted out rounds, hammering their positions. 

“Double EMP and whatever rockets we’ve got left when it starts reloading,” the commander ordered over the barrage. “After I close, coordinate continuous fire. Don’t let up, don’t drop my shields. Can probably last about thirty to sixty seconds out there if I have to. But I don’t really wanna test that, so shoot the fuck straight.” 

“Good luck, Shepard,” said Lawson. 

“Nice knowing you,” he drawled. “Dance fast.” 

“All right, wise guy. Do your job right and you won’t have to attend another funeral.” She swapped in her shotgun. “Let’s get our girl out.”

Chapter Text

Tali stepped out of the comm room. Garrus straightened, pausing his playlist. 

“How was it?”

She checked over her shoulder as the door cycled shut. Shepard was speaking to Taylor in a low voice. 

“Not here,” she said. “I don’t know who could be listening or what they will do with the information.”

“Well, you can count on me to be listening at any given time. Usually involuntarily. As for surveillance, we’re clean, but how we got there’s a tale unto itself. Has everything a good story should, Tal. Hard words, betrayal, firefight, and a narrow escape.” He draped an arm around her shoulders, steering her towards the bridge. “Come on, I’ll take you around. Commander will catch up later.”

“Are you in charge of registration and enlistment here?”

“Not exactly, but I thought you’d prefer me to some random. Anyway, this is an excuse to make myself scarce before Taylor comes out and I have to pretend I didn’t hear him getting reprimanded.”

“Reprimanded? Just now? What was she saying?”

“Oh, about what you’d expect. That it’s insulting to parade company assets in front of a person your organization went and screwed over. Morally bankrupt to disclaim responsibility for policy decisions if you signed on for ideological reasons. Not direct quotations, but you get the idea.”

She shook her head. “I cannot believe the Shadow Broker never courted you as an informant. It sounds like I have a meeting with Shepard later.”

“Yeah, she’ll want to look in. Probably take you to lunch. She did me.”

“...She invited you to lunch?”

They were approaching the cockpit. 

“We old guard from the SR1 have to stick together. On that subject, I think you might remember our helmsman.”

Moreau swiveled around. “Hey, Tal. Long time no see, right?”

“Joker!”

They embraced.

“If Shepard had told me you were here, I would have asked to come aboard and say hello back on Freedom’s Progress,” she said. “Why…why did you join Cerberus? Your entire family is Alliance.”

“Well, Alliance grounded me after the commander got KIA. When Cerberus made contact and said that they were not only going to bring her back but would put me at the rudder again, it didn’t really seem like a choice to opt out.” He shrugged. “I could do without the, you know, terrorism and xenophobia and stuff. But this project at least is all right. Commander’s got a handle on things.”

“If you say so,” she said, sounding skeptical. “Either way, it’s good to see you, Joker. I’ll have to join you here on the flightdeck so we can catch up one of these days.”

“Yeah, come right up. It’s just me and EDI here most of the time. I could not watch the next backlogged episode of NCIS: Star Force, or whatever.”

“EDI? The AI? Does she co-pilot the Normandy?”

“Hey, I’m still in charge and get all the credit. She just takes over when George¹ would be flying the bird. Oh, and she helps with FTL and a couple of other things. Think of her as a really good executive assistant.”

“Who the hell is George?” Garrus interrupted. “You never told me.”

“If I told you, big guy, it’d take the fun out of it. Geez, don’t you know how to use the extranet?”

“I don’t even know where to start with that email.”

“I see I have some catching up to do on the inside jokes,” Tali said.

“You’ll get into the swing of it in no time.” Joker waggled his eyebrows. “So, you want to meet EDI? I’ll tell her to put on a nice dress.”

“Yes, and gross, although…” She looked at him. “Do you mind, Garrus?”

“I’m in no hurry to get back to the battery. Come get me from CIC when you’re ready.”

He went down the bridge, hearing EDI behind him, and slid into an unoccupied operator’s station well away from the yeoman’s post. An unread message was blinking in his notification queue. 

13:57 You looking after our girl? Or should I send up Daniels and Donnelly?

I have you covered, Shepard. She’s over with Joker right now, meeting EDI. I’ll give her the tour. Get her kitted out at the armory, set up with Chakwas and Gardner, acquainted with Engineering. 14:10

 Unless you want to finish up? 14:10

14:10 Go ahead. Doing the transfer papers for her with Lawson, anyway

14:10 Thanks for stepping in. This thing where you onboard our people is working out nicely

 Well, I’m not going to do it for everyone, to be clear. Just old friends and our tank-bred son. 14:11

14:11 Think I’ll be the judge of that

14:11 Actually yeah

Yeah what? 14:11

Shepard, yeah what? 14:12

[ . . . ]

14:12 Congrats Gunnery Officer

Wait 14:12

14:12 You’re officially the welcome wagon

14:12 Duties in the forward battery to be adjusted as needed when a new crewman comes in

 Oh, no. Shepard, please, no. 14:12

I’m just a man who likes guns and bonding with fellow nonhumans about how weird your MREs are. I didn’t consent to this. 14:12

14:13 Relax, it’s just one more guy unless there’s a hidden squadmate hiding in the wings or something

14:13 And you didn’t have to consent, Vakarian

14:13 Fucked but true

14:13 You know how it is. Show you’re halfway proficient and the brass is gonna throw you more responsibilities

 Well, damn. I need to work on my weaponized incompetence. 14:13

14:14 Like to see you try

14:14 You couldn’t handle intentional underperformance

14:14 Got overachieving good boy written all over your face

 Again, those are the tattoos. Or maybe the scars. 14:14

14:14 Gotta get back to it over here. If you haven’t done lunch yet, bring the chief engineer up to my quarters around 16:00

Will do. Also, called it. 14:14

14:15 Called it?

I’ll explain later. See you in a bit. 14:15

He checked the bridge. EDI and Tali were still talking. Maybe he could proof some GSCII, defer the next inevitable segfault by a cycle or two. He sat back and pulled up the shellcode he’d been writing.

Or not. Footsteps were approaching on his right. Flat-soled, so not Solus or Grunt. Light tread, so not Massani or Jack. He could hope it was Lawson, maybe Goto, but with his luck—

“Hello, Garrus. Is this station in use?”

Well. That had been inevitable. What he got for sitting in a public place instead of lurking in unoccupied passageways like a sane person.

He looked over, closing his omnitool. 

“Not as far as I know, Yeoman,” he said. 

“May I join you? It’s not often you’re up on the bridge.”

Was he allowed to say no?

“Feel free.”

She rotated the chair towards him and settled in. “Whew. I thought I could use a little break. I’m usually glad to have a standing desk, but my feet don’t always thank me for it.”

On the SSV Normandy, he and Tali had pulled ten hour standing shifts. “Ah. Yes, that can happen.”

Chambers was looking at him expectantly, smiling. Apparently he hadn’t said enough. 

He filtered through options, wanting something mundane. Remembered the email they’d received from her this morning, addressed to YEO CHAMBERS and bcc’ed to SR2ALL. He’d skimmed it. The words ‘wellness’ and ‘mindful’ had been used several times. There had been vidlinks to guided body scans and a flier for group yoga.

“I, uh, read your memo about checking in with the body's needs when attempting self-care,” he said. “It looks like you’re making an effort to put your own suggestions in play.”

She nodded. “I do try. I think it’s so important to model best practices for your team. If you don’t buy in, they may never learn to trust the process. I know you understand that implicitly as an officer.”

It shouldn’t have, maybe, but something about the way she positioned them on the same side of crew management put him off. There were differences between them that felt important to maintain, lines he wanted redrawn. Civilian and soldier. Corporate and working class. Cerberus in all its reactionary bullshit, and not. 

“Not necessarily. In the military it’s less about trust and more about instant compliance, no questions asked.”

He tried for noncommittal instead of dismissive in the delivery. He wasn’t sure if he succeeded. 

She steamed right ahead. He didn’t register any microexpressions that might have pointed to offense taken, which was interesting in itself. “Taking orders again must be difficult for an independent thinker like you,” she said. “That is, for someone who commanded men himself as Archangel and in the Hierarchy.”

There was nothing to say to that which wouldn’t volunteer personal information or invite inquiry, so he just looked at her, slightly too long. It was an old C-Sec device. People got nervous if the gap between turns became protracted. Started talking to fill the silence.

He tried not to make it a hostile one. Shepard had done a lot of legwork to mitigate tensions on this ship, and he wasn’t here to make her job harder. But it wasn’t safe to talk. Chambers had HR training, LMHC credentials, and a Cerberus paycheck. She was too self-consciously palatable to be genuine, too amicable without established rapport. The Illusive Man might have lost digital surveillance but he still had people aboard the SR-2, and Chambers was at the top of his short list at least for ripe candidates. 

“For example,” she went on, “I have to imagine that you’re up in CIC because Shepard or Miss Lawson asked you to be. You’re in common areas so rarely, it couldn't be anything else.”

He wondered if this worked on other people—the positioning, the attribution of motive. The implicit invitation to confirm and elaborate or demur and clarify.

He answered the what and sidestepped the why. Let her fill in the blanks however she wanted.

“I’m helping the chief engineer to get settled. She’s in the cockpit right now meeting EDI.”

“That’s sweet of you.”

Weird fill.

He shrugged. “It’s not much of a chore. We’ve rewired a lot of tech together, as you can imagine.”

“That’s right, you served together on the SSV Normandy.” 

She smiled again. Garrus struggled with possibly unfounded suspicion. The yeoman had a right to talk with crewmen in common areas on her breaks. He’d just have to take steps in the future to ensure he wasn’t one of them. 

“It must be nice to have her aboard again,” she suggested. 

“It’s always nice to see a familiar face,” he said neutrally. Chambers knew that. For all he knew, she was the one who’d recommended that Cerberus bring in Joker and Chakwas.  

She nodded. “That’s absolutely true. There’s something about having a person around who, beyond being understanding, really understands what you’ve gone through. Now that I think of it, I wonder if that’s why the commander’s come to rely so implicitly on you.”

So she had been probing for something. But she was no Shepard, who built a bridge to rule before testing its load-bearing capacity, and she’d overextended her limits.

It was satisfying as hell to be right, even if he still had to be stuck in this conversation. Where the fuck was Tali?

“That might be,” he said. “What do you think, Yeoman?”

“I wish you’d call me Kelly, Garrus. Most of the crew does these days.”

Offer number two and counting. If he wasn’t careful she’d turn it into a bit, hold it up as false proof of unearned familiarity.

“I’m sorry. It’s just not a liberty I’m comfortable taking as a commissioned officer. But thank you again for the opportunity.”

“I respect your choice, and I admire your professionalism.” She folded her hands in her lap. “With the distance you keep, it must be very isolating being an officer, not to mention a nonhuman one in a majority-human crew.”

Now that he’d clocked the motive under the pretense, the conversation felt less like a workplace skit whose assigned part he’d forgotten to memorize and more like a clickthrough sim. That was better. A few volleys ago, he’d still had the faint capacity to feel guilty for fielding interrogation tactics against a crewman. Now he didn’t.

“It sounds like you’re concerned that I’m lonely.”

“Well, it goes back to what I said earlier, about the difference between someone who understands and someone who is understanding. As the sole turian on board, it’s probably so strange to have no one here who’s familiar with, oh, the books and vids you grew up with, or the foods you ate with your family. Essentially, with the lived experience of being a citizen of the Hierarchy from Palaven. I can imagine the absence of that would cause your shared history of service with members of the SSV Normandy crew to become all the more precious. Certainly that seems to be the case with the commander.”

Damn, that was a lot of microaggressions. Anyone proud to be handpicked by the Illusive Man, he supposed. 

Well. Might as well lean into it. See what he could get out of her.

“Huh. I think something’s getting lost in the interspecies communication barrier, here. What do you mean?”

“I just mean that you and Shepard seem to have a very special friendship.” Chambers leaned forward, her tone earnest. “You must see it too.”

Another opening. He didn’t take it. 

“I’m just a guy who can be trusted to follow orders, Yeoman.”

“Oh, please.” She touched the sigil on his rerebrace playfully as Tali turned into the CIC. “Piercing blue eyes, a secret identity as Archangel, and a voice to die for? You have plenty of qualities to recommend you beyond your service on the SSV Normandy.”

…All right, that had taken a weird turn. 

“It looks like Engineer Zorah’s finished up,” he told her, pushing out of his chair. “I should get on with showing her around.”

“Of course. We can catch up later. And I hope you’ll make me a stop in your tour. I’d love to meet our new shipmate.” 

“Docket’s pretty full, but I’ll do my best.”

He ushered Tali to the elevator. 

“Who and what was that?” she asked as soon as the door closed. 

“The who’s easy. That’s Chambers, Shepard’s yeoman. As to what, damned if I know.” He settled against the handrail. “Watch yourself around her. She has an unofficial job to observe the crew, and I’m starting to wonder what she does with the intel.” 

“Watch yourself. She was flirting with you, Garrus.”

“Not genuinely, I think. She was fishing for something on the commander. Also, hard pass.”

“Go back to what you said before.” She was frowning behind her faceplate. “Why would Shepard order her yeoman to surveil the crew?”

“She wouldn’t. Legacy appointment by the Illusive Man. Let’s face it, a VI could perform Chambers’ official duties. That’s what I mean—she has to be on the payroll for something else. But Shepard kept all the Illusive Man’s appointments when she took command.” He shrugged. “Didn’t want to upset things too much.”

Tali shook her head. “I’m going to need clarification on how exactly you all ended up here. Commander Shepard knows Cerberus too well to work comfortably with them. And I didn’t expect to hear you’d joined, either. Joker I can see not…not thinking about it that way…but you know what they are, Garrus.”

“I know. And Shepard hasn’t been comfortable in the least, if that makes you feel any better. I’m glad you’re here, Tal. Some of the fire team has turned out all right, but it’s been rough getting there.” 

“We should know who we can trust with more certainty. Let’s be sure to review personnel files and network use later. In detail. With our omnitools.”

“Definitely. I wasn’t able to break through on my own, but between the two of us, I don’t see how we couldn’t find a way in.”

“Just like old times?” she asked.

“Just like old times.”

They stepped onto the crew deck. 

“For now,” he said, “let’s set you up with Medbay and Mess Hall, then get you down to Engineering to meet your staff. Might have to get you kitted out and introduced to everyone later. We have a date with the CO at 16:00.”

She checked her omnitool. “It is only 14:23. How exactly will we not be done by then?”

“Well. For one, think you’re going to want to spend some time getting acquainted with the Chief Medical Officer. For another, I anticipate needing a solid hour before I’ll be able to drag you out of the engine room. I know you, Zorah. You might remember I was down in the hangar two years ago when you visited Engineering for the first time.” He sketched quotes. “‘Your ship’s amazing, Shepard! I’ve never seen a drive core like this before!’”

“I was much younger then,” she said loftily. “Much more easily impressed. And do not think I cannot pull out some equally embarrassing comments made by you over the course of the selfsame mission.” She imitated his voice. “‘Honored to be here, Commander.’ ‘I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you, Commander.’ ‘Yes ma’am, you can count on me, ma’am.’ ‘You’re unequivocally right as usual, ma’am.’ ‘Whatever you need me to do, ma’am, I’m here for you no matter what.’”

“Wait, are you hassling me for being a good soldier? You’re literally the daughter of an Admiral of the Migrant Fleet.”

“And yet you have not heard me talking to Shepard like that. Because I have a measure of self-respect.”

“Oh yeah? What about ‘It’s good to hear your voice, Shepard?’ ‘I wish Shepard were here’? ‘In a moment of total overkill, Shepard once used a mining laser to bypass a security system and why don’t I try the same thing on this random piece of terrain’? Let’s face it, Zorah. In the competition for who’s the bigger simp, neither of us is going to come out looking good.”

“You hacked my diary. That should not count against me!”

“Well, you shouldn’t have left it lying around for the taking. No telling what kinds of creeps and voyeurs might stumble upon the contents.”

She poked him in the mandible. “Watch out, Garrus. I know where you sleep and soon I will have your IP address, your emails, and your browsing history. I hope for your sake that you have never navigated to a page or written a message that you wouldn’t want either read aloud in the mess or projected in the next officers’ assembly.”

He held up his hands. “All right, I surrender. It’s all fun and games until she pulls out the threats.”

“And do not forget it.” She crossed her arms.  

He grinned. “Missed having you around, Tal. Ready to meet the doc?”

Chapter Text

Months into the job that Joker had dubbed Operation Suicide Squad: TPK, Garrus’s life between assignments had taken on a rhythm.

It went something like this.

At 03:30 sharp, his brain ordered him to look alive, rise and shine, because he’d gotten his racktime allotment and was he a civilian or just a shit-ass excuse for a soldier to think otherwise. It handed him the daily docket, overflow from yesterday slapped on top, and dragged him item by action item down the list at full bellow until he caved and got up at 04:00.

From 04:00 - 05:00, he completed HMC’s standard-procedure daily training regimen, classification: active combatant, subclass: scout sniper, modified for bodyweight exercises only, with creative incorporation of the guardrail, his bunk, and the multipurpose locker/container/table/chair that was his principal piece of furniture. He didn’t have the space, equipment, or any damn idea how to fold in the cardiovascular conditioning segment, which was brass speak for ‘long distance interval sprints, eight miles,’ but he ramped up the resistance training to compensate and told himself he got plenty of aerobic exercise rucking the M-98 all over the field whenever Shepard took him groundside. Which was often.

At 05:00, his alarm went off, unnecessary and punctual, telling him to do the thing he’d already done and get the hell up. He really ought to disable it. On the other hand, the day he canned his 05:00 wakeup call would be the day before the day he needed it. It was more apotropaic than anything at this point, and therefore the only thing standing between him and total collapse of his schedule and/or existence. So on second thought, no, he wouldn’t be deleting it.

From 05:00 - 05:03, he reset the levo and dextro coffee dispensers as needed in the mess and programmed both to brew. The filters were always dirty, the reservoirs only sometimes full. Yeah, maybe he was tacitly condoning someone’s bad habits, but Shepard took her coffee at 05:15 and he took his at 05:10 and his quarters were closer, and sometimes you enabled a few crewmen to ensure you and the Savior of the Citadel were operational by start of shift. 

05:03 - 05:10 had him in the starboard head. Commander had killed gender binary designations on the lavatories weeks ago, and he’d developed a preference for one of the showerheads that had previously been off-limits: the water pressure was slightly better. He lathered up, scrubbed down. Rinsed and spat. Shut off the flow between each step, because regardless of whatever premium remarks his mind doled out from 03:30 - 04:00, he was still a marine with shipboard water rationing drilled into him since age 15, not a motherfucking civilian who emptied the reserve tank so he could smell like a rosebush. Or whatever his training officer had let fly almost two decades ago the one damn time he’d exceeded permissible volume.  

05:10 - 05:11, he was back in the mess. He poured his first cup of coffee. Pulled a pre-portioned tray of leftover chow from the dextro portion of the fridge, with due appreciation to Gardner if the mess sergeant happened to be upright that early, and went back to the battery.

05:11 - 05:30, he drank coffee at his console while he checked what he’d titled the watchlist: the data mining program he’d written first thing upon joining this crew, targeting trigger words and correspondence with Eclipse, Blood Pack, and Blue Suns leadership on Omega; contacts with known disappearers, smugglers, and traffickers; and communications, search histories, packet downloads, and credit transfers originating from any one of the known IP addresses or accounts that had ever been associated with a member of Archangel’s team. The watchlist gathered live data all night, spooled out a report every morning, and never turned up a damn thing, however he tweaked the language. He read the record anyway. Odds were always low, but the watchlist wound tighter and finer with every revision, and there was a non-zero chance that one day it’d catch a fucking traitor in its net.

05:30 - 05:45, he finished his cup, made modifications to the watchlist, and set it to bake.

05:45 - 06:00, he purged promos from his personal email, dodged messages from old buddies and family, and read the news on five to seven different reporting sites sourced in different systems, distributed on different social media platforms, and operated by different corps of different political affiliations, ethno-xeno compositions, and other axes of identity, including gender, sexuality, class, and neurobiology, piecing together what the hell was going on out there in the galaxy like objective truth was a puzzle cube that could only be solved by examination from all dimensions simultaneously. Which, come to think of it, was exhausting, and every cycle he asked himself why everything had to be so damned complicated and why people had to be so damned shitty.

06:00 - 10:00, he clocked in, wrote code, and read and responded to work correspondence when the numbers started blurring.

10:00 - 11:00, he queued up everything in his code-auditing utility and left the battery to grab another cup of coffee and lunch, possibly solo but increasingly often these days with some combination of Grunt, Goto, Jack, or Joker. He'd have swapped Jack or Joker for that matter with Tali, but it’d been tough to wrangle a sitdown with her shift kicking off at 10:00, and they hadn’t managed to connect yet. Occasionally he met with Shepard and Lawson in the XO’s quarters, sometimes joined by another officer or two, and they all tried not to talk about the job but inevitably did at least once.

11:00 - 12:00 back in quarters, he dealt with errors picked up by his proofing software during lunch hour. Had resentful opinions about the fact that no matter how many times he reread a damn thing (many) or how damn good he was (very), some crap or other was going to slip his notice. He tracked down typos, locked up statements, and killed unnecessary language that had been left in by accident from previous edits, then set it all to bake.

12:00 - 14:00, he stopped playing with code to train and evaluate a rotating cast of crewmen from Ops in the maintenance and operation of the forward batteries. Participants in the mandatory fun included the armory officer, who assumed essential duties pertaining to the guns whenever Garrus was pulled for a groundside assignment. Taylor had been named fourth in the chain of command after him, and like grown men they had apparently determined never to talk about it. It was still awkward weeks in, though what percentage of the feeling originated in him versus Taylor was anyone’s guess.

14:00 - 15:00 in his finally-vacant quarters, he sealed the door against interruptions and took his break in total isolation, occasionally total silence, and sometimes total disengagement: no comms, no devices, no movement, no visuals. It was a necessary preventative against madness, a full system shutdown to recover essential functions and let the components cool after two hours’ facetime with voluble crewmen who had the faculty of speech and license to use it. 

15:00 - 18:00, he dealt with any work correspondence that had hit his inbox since 10:00. Banged out paperwork, phoned in the compulsory company culture exercises to which even a terrorist group apparently subscribed. Ran combat sims. Checked firing algorithms. Calibrated the cannons, again.

18:00 was punch out. He caught dinner with Shepard in her quarters or his. Cleaned up. Set the watchlist to run overnight. Read and listened to music; opened his omnitool to social media if he was chasing anxiety or chat threads with the CO or chief engineer if he wasn’t. Beat one out, and crashed the hell out.

Months into the operation, Garrus’s life between assignments had taken on a rhythm. He ate and slept. Worked and worked out. Ran the watchlist each night and checked it each morning. Like most routines, the search for Archangel’s XO had become a background process he no longer clocked, quietly drawing power but not attention unless it happened to glitch, bluescreening the system and shutting everything down.

Today, at 05:13, the background process glitched. 

For the first time since he’d written it, lying in Medbay at zero dark thirty with half his body bandaged, half his face blown away, the watchlist turned up a lead. Two hundred fatal credits, pulled from an account registered to a familiar alias on an insecure network, the signal bounced off a satellite in orbit around Widow. 

Lantar Sidonis was alive.

He pulled up his omnitool screen. 

  Zorah, want to do lunch today? 05:15

It was too early to hope for a response. He read the news. He read Chambers’s wellness memo, issue number who-the-hell-was-counting, and responded to Chakwas’s reminder to schedule a physical. He coded. He checked the hour. He coded some more. 

A message dropped into his notification queue.

09:02 yes! what time

09:02 also you may message me whenever but never expect me to answer before 0900

09:02 our shifts are staggered you know

  Sorry, sorry. Just excited to have a friend again. 09:02

 Meet me in Mess Hall at 14:00? My break, your lunch? 09:02

I’ll swap my mealtime so you won’t be eating alone. 09:02

09:02 see you there!!

09:02 also i am telling shepard you said you are not her friend

 Wait, don’t, you’ll break her heart. 09:02

What the CO and I have is special but it can’t compare to us, Tal. 09:03

09:03 screenshotted and sending

DON’T 09:03

-

Garrus reported to the mess at 14:00 as agreed, starving, as had been inevitable when he swapped break and lunch to accommodate a friend’s shift and arrange for the asking of a favor. He was crouched in front of the fridge and elbow deep in dextro-amino desserts when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He looked up into Tali’s faceplate. 

“That is my milkshake on your tray, Garrus Vakarian.”

He looked at the unreasonably generous spread he was assembling beside the fridge: a packet of freeze-dried fruit, an energy bar, the milkshake in question, and a sealed bowl scrawled with the phrase ‘bibimbap.’ It was a variety not to be found and a quantity disallowed by the budget and calorie quotas of every government-regulated vessel he knew, but routinely available in the beer-in-the-CO’s-fridge, you-mean-real-soldiers-have-to-ration-how-medieval, budget-what-budget mess hall of the Illusive Man’s pet project. 

“I disagree. It looks a little like it’s my milkshake on my lunch tray,” he said.

“You’re mistaken.” She plucked it out of reach. “You are the one who told Mess Sergeant Gardner that you would eat anything short of nutrient paste whenever you joined. I had the foresight to make actual requests, and I will therefore be the one to benefit.”

He pulled out something called ‘grasshopper pie,’ because he needed to know, and unfolded with a groan. “Come on, Tal, have a heart. How could I have guessed what was available on the menu?”

“You could have read the memo on rations that EDI sent and completed the attached order form, like any self-actualized adult. Although, you are a man. So maybe you could not have.”

“You’re so mean. It’s not my fault my brain is biologically inferior to yours.” He closed the fridge and caught a glimpse of Shepard leaving the XO’s office. “Commander,” he called, “Chief Engineer’s bullying me again.”

She raised her eyebrows, turning into the mess. “Two questions. First: was there provocation?”

“He stole my rations,” Tali said promptly.

“Strong motive. Second: any evidence that he enjoyed the reprisal?” She dragged a mug towards herself and reached for the coffee pot.

“Yes, he immediately engaged in banter."

“Sounds like an open and shut case. Facts before me say he asked for it and then he liked it." 

“This is victim blaming at the highest level,” he told the air. 

“Got a problem, file it with the XO. Sure she’ll give you a fair hearing.” Shepard rehomed the pot in its heating element. “Love to stay and watch the show, but I gotta get to the comm room. You two good to do this without a chaperone?”

“Thanks for the support, Commander,” said Tali. “I’ll take it from here.”

“Don’t leave me,” he said. “Do you see that look in her eye? Who knows what she’s capable of?”

Shepard snorted. “Continues to be a pleasure having you on board, Tali.”

“Likewise, Shepard. See you later.”

The commander saluted with her mug and left for the elevator. 

He looked at Tali. "Well, that was fun. So, uh. Any chance you want to come over to my place and hack something?"

Chapter Text

Tali stepped into the twilight of the forward battery.

“...These are your quarters?” 

“Bedroom, gym, and office,” Garrus amended. “Space is a little tight with the cannons stuffed in here. On the other hand, the commute can’t be beat.”

“I see why you did not invite me sooner. You did not want me to come away with a bad impression of the Normandy during my first days here.”

“Rude.”

She looked around in the gloom, at the shipping container in the corner, the bunk and standing console aft of the guns. “Where do I…sit?”

“You’re in luck. I appropriated these from the hangar bay just a few cycles ago.” He slid out his mechanic’s stools and unfolded them, setting one on either end of his crate. 

Tali arranged herself on the cushion. “Where did you eat or do things before stealing furniture from the garage? On the floor?”

“Excuse me. Don’t disparage the floor. It’s solid, dependable, and has served me time after time.” He sat.

She shook her head, unsealing her food induction port. “I stand by what I said before. Men are like children. So much more limited in their ability to enact measures for their own comfort and benefit.”

“Probably, although I think you were actually saying that we can’t be bothered to read or follow written directions.” He peeled the lid off his bibimbap. Mounds of dressed vegetables and thinly sliced meat on a substratum of steamed rice.  

Tali sipped her milkshake. “One does not preclude the other,” she said primly. “The incompetence is fairly far reaching.”

“Very funny.” He thrust his fork into the meat, mashing it deeper into the sauce. “You know, when Shepard comes to visit, she’s much nicer about the decor.”

“Shepard is the captain. She is professionally motivated to ensure all crewmen like her. I, on the other hand, am just your coworker and friend.”

The dressing was hot as hell, whatever it was. He packed in another mouthful, because the solution was obviously to chase spice with more spice. “Yeah, but—”

She removed the straw from her port. “Garrus, please. Talk or chew, never both at the same time. I am eating.”

He rolled his eyes and swallowed. “Oh, pardon my manners. Damn, Zorah, you went missish in the last two years.”

“Or, I realized that I do not have to endure a live feed of your mastication process if I wish to eat food near you. Two years ago, I did not understand that I could advocate for my own preference to never see the inside of your mouth. I have since learned the error of my ways.” 

“Much to my chagrin. At any rate, I was saying that Shepard agreed to be my friend too. I have the transcript and everything. And she takes the deck even when I offer her a real chair. What do you have to say about that, hm?”

“I would say that I would not go so far as to call these ‘real chairs.’ And Commander Shepard, while an incredible captain and a hero in every sense of the word, is hardly a paragon of etiquette and table manners. Perhaps this is the reason why you are now so close.”

“One moment.” He opened his omnitool. 

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing, nothing. Just telling her you said that.” 

A spoon bounced off his shoulder. “Garrus, don’t you dare!”

“Oops,” he said, shutting it off. “My finger might have slipped.” 

Tali was glowering. “I will get you back for this. Just wait. And if I hear one word of reprimand from Shepard about this conversation, I will hack your visor.”

“To do what?” He picked up his fork.

She pulled up a menu and scrolled, presumably in search of something suitably retaliatory. “To…to only play reruns of Justicar Heroes whenever you try to stream music.”

He shrugged, loading the tines with more vegetables. The dressing’s flavor had grown on him, and his heat sensitivity had clocked the hell out. Proof of grit’s merits if there ever was one. “Your mistake. I happen to enjoy sensationalized and hypersexualized accounts of Samara’s exploits more than pretty much anything else in the galaxy.”

“That was far too easy.” Tali stabbed a button. “See this? It is a recording of what you just said. Unsend your stupid email, or I transfer the soundbite directly to the justicar and let her deal with you.”

“Now, hang on a second. I value my life.” He put aside his bowl. “I’ll, uh. I’ll try. The CO and I work parallel shifts, you know. But it’s possible she’s not on her device.”

“You had better hope not,” she said. “I will murder you.”

“You won’t, though.”

“Do not test your theory.”

Their omnitools chimed in unison. They exchanged looks, then opened their devices. 

 

From: CO Shepard

To: GY OFF Vakarian

CC: CE Zorah

Re: shepard s hardly a paragonof etiqette and table mnners tali 

I assume this is some kind of direct quote minus spellcheck minus a baseline once-over? If so, proceed to the list item appropriate to context, which I don’t have:

  1. Shooting the breeze: carry on. It’s my honor and pleasure to serve as the butt of my officers’ jokes for the sake of team cohesion. 
  2. Intent to harm: strike one. Swing and a miss. No attachment to manners beyond the call of duty.

Shepard

 

Tali glared over her screen. “What is this bosh’tet? Is this your terrible idea of blackmail?” 

“That depends,” he drawled, and returned to his bibimbap. “Is the execution bad enough that you won’t follow through on your threat?”

“It is pathetic. It is not even worth it to punish you. It would be like kicking a varren for piddling on the floor.” 

He chewed. “Then I would call my move a resounding success, personally.”

“You are older than me and extremely embarrassing about it.” She pointed at him. “ Do you understand what a subject line is for? Do you need me to show you how to cap a soundbite or add an attachment?”

“Cut me some slack.” He grinned, flicking a mandible at her. “I was under the gun. Had to get it out before you intercepted me.”

She sipped. “You are the worst. I cannot believe I was looking forward to working with you again back on Haestrom.”

“Are you saying you missed me, Zorah? I don’t think I can handle the sentiment.” He reached for his energy bar. He hadn’t checked the flavor when he’d pulled it, and upon review, wished he had. 

“It was a purely professional consideration,” she said with dignity. “Sometimes, two hackers are better than one, even if one of them is an idiot.”

He chewed, swallowed. Suspicions confirmed. Anything titled ‘Coconut Sea’ belonged in the air freshener aisle and never should have been made edible. At any rate, this was probably the transition he’d been looking for, or as close to one as he’d get.

“Speaking of hackers. Have time to break through those firewalls with me?”

Tali stopped, straw halfway to her port. “...I did not realize that was a real suggestion the first time around in the mess hall.” 

“It was. And I could use some help.”

“Sure!” She put aside her milkshake and pulled up her screen. “Do you want to access another department in Cerberus HQ? I have been thinking that Accounting may turn up something interesting.”

“Not Cerberus. Not this time. I need a favor, actually. Need to penetrate C-Sec’s digital surveillance programs and to scan their facial recognition database. A couple of other tasks, and anything else you think might help. The short version is that I’m looking for an old friend and have reason to believe he’s reached the Citadel.”

Her fingers paused on the interface, and she blinked at him. “So you want my help violating civil liberties.”

“For a good cause, I promise. It’s…it’s pretty important. ”

She sat back, her brow furrowing. He waited, didn’t press her, but his mind was racing, already turning through alternatives. He hadn’t really considered the possibility that she’d refuse. But apparently some things crossed a line in concept, never mind execution. Maybe he could get Goto on board.

He focused on her as she spoke. 

“Garrus…I have been on the Normandy for several days now. We have chatted online regularly, but due to our schedules, we have not met for a meal yet. And that is not your fault, but when you messaged today, I thought…” She stopped, fidgeted, then went on. “I thought we were eating together like before, on the SR-1. Socially. For fun. In nonhuman solidarity, and…all of that. Was this favor your only reason for inviting me to lunch, for the first time since I joined the crew?”

Oh. 

Oh, god damn it. This wasn’t a moral issue. It was an interpersonal one. 

And the crappy thing was that the answer was ‘yes.’ He hadn’t been scanning for appearances or anticipating feelings. Had just assumed this would be fine, trusted that their history would support whatever weight he threw on it.

It figured. In every interaction and incident as Archangel or touching Archangel, he’d never seen beyond the range of his scope, never thought through a single fucking plan before throwing it into gear. And apparently he wasn’t done.

He went for honesty. 

“No,” he said. “Or. Yes and no. You know I like spending time with you, Tal…you have to know that at this point, after everything we put up with together two years ago. I just also happened to turn up something earlier today, and…well. You’re the best tech on the SR-2, if not in the damn Migrant Fleet. Not to mention someone I can trust.”

Another pause, lengthier. Tali fiddled with her straw, then looked back at him.

“I understand. I wish you had been more transparent about everything. But if it is important, I will help you. For old times’ sake.” 

She wrapped her hands around her cup and sipped again. She was studying something behind him, sitting a little stiffly.

Logged: don’t always pick honesty, Vakarian. Accountability preferred.

Logged: don’t invite a friend to your house for a social occasion then reveal that you actually brought them over to help with the plumbing.

Logged: don’t assume friendship requires no maintenance. 

The cannons spun up, their drone filling the space.

Shit. He didn’t want his mistakes to swallow another fucking thing in his life. If the process of locating Sidonis compromised his relationship with Tali, he was going to kill the guy twice. 

“I’m sorry,” he said. “This was an asshole way to go about asking for a hand. I’ve been wrapped up in trying to find him for so long that I…forget it. Excuses aren’t important. Let’s just say you weren’t wrong when you called me an idiot earlier.”

Her posture eased fractionally. “—Thank you. Maybe it should not matter, but—” 

“Don’t, Zorah. It does matter. Some things you should be able to trust, like old friends.” He cocked his head. “Invite you back some time soon, no ulterior motives? I’m a quick study, you know that. I won’t fuck it up twice.”

“...You certainly will.”

“I’ll certainly fuck it up? Or I had certainly better ask you back?”

“Yes.”

“All right, I deserved that.”

Tali smiled behind her faceplate. 

“...So, uh,” he said. “how’d I do, after I did badly, I mean? Are we good, Tal?”

“We are good. You are not subtle, but we are good.” 

“Well. I happen to believe that’s part of my charm, so thank you. And sorry again. Really.”

She sipped her milkshake. He opened the grasshopper pie, which was apparently a green and brown slurry on a foundation of crumbs, and tasted it. Minty. Chocolatey. No grasshoppers, unless his understanding of Earth entomology was even more cursory than he’d believed. 

Tali checked the time. “I did agree that I would help you, Garrus. We should get started or we will run over the hour. But I have certain stipulations.”   

Interesting. Maybe there had been ethical reservations too, eclipsed by the interpersonal ones. Frankly, he’d have expected limiting rules from Shepard, not Tali. At least on the basis of privacy rights. 

“Moral ones?” he asked. 

“No, material ones. First, I want your permission to fill out your old order form for Mess Sergeant Gardner with additional ration items that I want.”

“That’s…that’s weird, but, sure, fine?” He shrugged. “Personally, I enjoy not knowing what I’m about to eat. Makes meals more interesting.” He tapped the shell he was eating out of. “Case in point: I was expecting grasshoppers.”

She shook her head. “For someone so preoccupied with controlling every aspect of your environment in battle, you are extremely cavalier with your intake. I did not understand it on the first Normandy and still do not now.” 

“You and me both. But hey, all it meant on the SR-1 was that I’d eat the MREs you hated in the dextro variety packs. You’re welcome.” He set down his utensil. “What else does this shakedown entail?”

She bounced on her cushion. “I want to be brought up to speed on the scuttlebutt. All of it.” 

“All of it? Tal, that’s going to take forever. I don’t think you understand how much intel I have.”

“Fine. Everything that is good.” 

“...Help me out here. Define ‘good.’ Good for blackmail? Good for gift-giving? Good for small talk, hell if I know why you’d want that, but I do have it on file?”

“For example.” She sat forward. “Are Daniels and Donnelly considering dating? Have Lawson and Taylor ever dated each other? Why is there a bottle of levo-amino whiskey in your quarters, and who is it for?” 

“Not to be that guy, but both of those alleged relationships get a pass under SR-2 policies. Officers, specialists, and retainers are permitted to fraternize internally to their groupings. Within the bounds of reason, provided participants’ ability to perform duties remains uncompromised, et cetera. Shepard had to relax the SysAll boilerplate to…well. Accommodate some things that had already transpired before she took over the command from Lawson.”

“...You certainly enjoy rules, Garrus.”

“I enjoy knowing where things stand. And I’ll have you know that there are established ways to handle fraternization that don’t spiral into this ship-wide disaster. Ask the Hierarchy.”

She shook her head. “That may be the case, but we are definitely not on a Hierarchy ship. Everything is so messy.”

“You’re one to talk.”

“I have never fraternized with a subordinate in my life.”

“Does MFMC Squad Leader Kal’Reegar know that? More to the point, gathering intel on the crew so you can shit-stir and gossip with the rest of them is messy as hell.”

She crossed her arms. “Take it or leave it, Garrus.”

“...Well. Whatever it takes. You came to the right person, anyway—you wouldn’t believe what these people talk about when they think no one’s listening. Happy to trade you details for the assist.”

“Deal. Now, show me how far you have gotten.”

-

- 15:54 Normandy -

“Here you go,” Tali said. “This is everything I can find without staying another hour.”

He looked over her head at the paper trail she'd traced. The transcript of a thread between an anonymous forum user and a disappearer operating on the Citadel, code name Fade. A string of invoices, IP addresses, false IDs, cab fares, and an ill-advised drink on a transport registered to Eclipse by the only turian on the passenger manifest. The docking bay security cams, catching a glimpse of periwinkle colony markings as their bearer slipped into the crowd and away.

"That’s definitely him, and I don’t see how it couldn’t be enough for my purposes. Thanks, Zorah. I couldn't have done this without you."

"Of course you could not have. Was that ever in doubt?” She stepped back from the console. " I should return to Engineering or I will be late punching in. Good luck, Garrus. I hope you find your friend." 

The security footage was on loop. He watched Sidonis disembark over and over, snared in a digital heartbeat. Remembered the last time he’d seen him walk away, and the ten people who’d never gotten that chance. 

“Oh, I will,” he said. “I won’t rest until I do." 

Chapter Text

Care warning: death by bombing and in combat, suicide, and assisted suicide under threat of certain death.

-

Garrus was halfway through his coffee and the latest invoice from T’loak’s red sand operation when someone rapped on the open door.

“CO, are you in here somewhere?”

He set aside his mug. “I’m here, Sidonis. Need me for something?”

“Can you—never mind. I’m coming in.”

“Word of advice: watch the everything,” he said.

A crash, a string of expletives. A stack of datapads on a box fan slipped sideways and scattered across the floor, clearing his sightline to the entrance. His XO was picking out a route across their team’s office, or what passed for one under the circumstances: a motel room crammed with mismatched chairs, refurbished electronics, and nets of tangled cabling strung over the walls. 

“If I broke anything important, it’s your fault,” the other turian informed him. He tried to perch on a lopsided stool, narrowly avoided knocking over the monitor behind it, and propped himself against a file cabinet instead.

“I know. Somehow we just haven’t had money in the budget for that housekeeper.”

“Maybe this’ll get us there.” Sidonis tossed a datapad on the desk. “You know how Blood Pack’s been scouting Kenzo District? I might have figured out why. Got a tip that they’re trying to set up a gun running operation in the neighborhood.”

He unlocked the pad. “Good find. What’s your source?”

“Just a drinking buddy of mine in the district. Long term resident. I’ll hold onto the name so I can punch him one myself if he’s jerking us around.” 

Garrus nodded, scrolling. The intel looked solid, at a glance. Blood Pack’s financials in the last month had dipped into the red, ledgers showing massive, stockpile-level expenses incurred on munitions and firearms. Contacts between Blood Pack and business owners in Kenzo had increased; a handful of new leases had been signed by people with ties to the organization. It was more than sufficient to warrant investigation.

“So?” Sidonis asked. “Thought we could go verify it together. The meet’s supposed to happen today in about an hour.”

He examined his XO over the screen. Sidonis’s arm was still in a sling from the riot he’d been trapped in leaving Afterlife a few nights back. Standard fare, from the account. A few Suns had gotten a little too rowdy and hadn’t taken kindly to being shown the door. The right side of his face was badly scratched, his fringe swollen from the bottle he’d taken to the head. 

“You’re not exactly in fighting form, Lantar. You should sit this one out if you need. We have plenty of men.” 

Sidonis shrugged. “How dangerous can it be? It’s just a stakeout in a residential neighborhood, keeping an eye on a public meet. And I wouldn’t be alone.”

“Fair points, all.” He closed the datapad and slid it back. “We’ll take a cab. Suit up and kit out. Assemble on the ground floor in five.” 

Lantar saluted and walked out. Garrus went to his quarters. He was already in armor and equipped with a sidearm. He pulled his M-15, left heavy ordnance and SR racked. The last thing they needed was to be spotted packing too much heat and get shot full of holes by a trigger-happy mark.

Downstairs, the repurposed motel was quiet but full. Sensat and Monteague were logged out for the afternoon on personal errands. Ripper, Erash, Mierin, and Butler were posted up at the kitchen island playing cards. Grundan Krul and Melenis were still in quarters, probably in bed, probably on top of one another. Vortash was doing pull-ups on the squat rack crossbar. 

Mercenary life wasn’t much different than military life, at the end of the day. Just long stretches of boredom punctuated by gunfire.

He nodded to the group in the kitchen as Sidonis joined him. “Weaver step out?” 

“Across the street. He said he forgot to give Sean the car keys.” 

They stepped into the road. Weaver was leaning through the window of his family’s vehicle, talking with the driver. He saw them, pecked his husband on the cheek, and loped over as the car accelerated away. 

“Going back in, boss, sorry. You two leaving?”

“We’re headed to Kenzo to follow up on a lead,” Garrus said. “Expect us back in a couple of hours.”

His comms specialist’s eyes flicked to Sidonis, lingered on the bruises and sling. “Sure you don’t want a couple of men?”

“No need. It’s just a public stakeout.” He clapped him on the shoulder. “Keep an eye on the place for us.”

-

The square bustled with shoppers and diners. A band of street musicians picked at their instruments on the corner, largely ignored by pedestrian traffic but with a meager audience clustered around. A gaggle of children crouched in a circle, playing a game with old batteries and sparkplugs. Most storefronts were open at this point in the morning: retail shops had illuminated their signage and dining establishments had thrown open their windows, dragged tables and seating out front to spill into the walkways. The crowd was mixed but skewed turian, with a double handful of batarians and vorcha thrown in. No company colors or Blood Pack paraphernalia on the vorcha he’d clocked; no suspicious flags like comm use, hypervigilance, or hyperactivity paired to loitering.

“No targets acquired,” Garrus said. “I’m seeing a lot of things, but not what we came here for.”

“Me neither.” Sidonis swore. “I’m going to kill him. I’m sorry, CO.” He started to get up.

Garrus set a hand on his shoulder, pushed him back down. “Hang on. We’ll give it another hour. You know these setups aren’t always punctual.” 

Sidonis hesitated, scanning the crowd. “If you’re sure.” 

“I’m sure. Just relax.” He flagged down the waiter. “We’ll get something to eat, pass the time.”

The order went out and the food came in. It was a turian cafe, not on par with the fare of a homeworld taberna, but solid. They worked their way through nut-stuffed ficae, peppery and flaked with salt. Skewered mures and boiled coturnices and a decent merum cut with water. Honeyed placenta, which he’d learned on the SR-1 was homophonous with a human word for their afterbirth. He’d never quite been able to enjoy it the same way, since. 

They stripped off their gloves and ate barehanded, handling food with talons and fingers. It was a tactile experience he only engaged in with other turians when eating their people’s cuisine. Nonturians had expectations about dining etiquette, namely with regards to utensils. Debunking the common opinion that eating with your hands was barbaric was more trouble than it was worth. 

“All this is doing is making me miss Palaven,” Sidonis said. “No one ever gets the garum right offworld.”

“I know. Something’s always off about the fermentation. Maybe it’s not hot enough. Or maybe it’s not bullshit that the holding dolia need to be constructed from homeworld clay.”

“If the pseudo-scientists are right about that, CO, they’re right about a whole lot of other things I don’t want to admit.”

“Well, we can’t have that.”

Lantar poured another measure of merum into his water, added a spoonful of honey. “Are you going home for your mother’s name day? It’s coming up soon, isn’t it?” 

“No, I can’t leave the team. I think we’re getting close with the Eclipse operation, and now there’s this Blood Pack lead. At any rate, Mom’s name day is only coming up for us. It won’t make a difference to her whether we’re there or not.”

“It’s getting worse, then.”

“It’s always getting worse.”

They ate, looking out at intervals on the pedestrians filtering in and out of the square. No sightings, no interactions that sent up alarms as anything but innocuous. Situation normal.

At sixty mikes the time pulsed on his omnitool, flashing the alarm he’d set. “That’s an hour,” he said. “I think we should call it.” 

“All right.” Sidonis drained his glass and stood. “Fucking waste of time. I can’t wait to see that idiot again and give him a piece of my mind.”

“Well, you netted a meal on your CO out of it, so no need to complain too loudly.”

They headed for the curb. 

“Don’t beat yourself up,” Garrus told him, flagging down a cab. “The rate of return on stakeouts is low. Over half the ones I ever conducted ended up giving me nothing.”

“I’d never have been able to handle that. Good thing I didn’t have your dad pushing me into the force.”

“Yeah. I wouldn’t recommend my career choices.” He activated his comm. “Archangel to base. Heading home.”

No response. He repeated his hail and met static.

He looked across the cab at his XO. “I can’t raise Weaver.”

“That’s strange.” He raised a hand to his comm. “Sidonis to base, do you copy? Sidonis to base, come in.” He listened. Shook his head. “Me neither.”

A beat. 

“You don’t think—” Lantar began.

Garrus shook his head. “Don’t go there yet.” He glanced out the window as Kenzo flashed by. “It’s not a long ride. We’ll know soon.”

He kept his vocals even, controlled. But something was off. It had to be. 

-

The ground level had been blown apart. 

Professional hit, he thought clinically. Small charges positioned on the perimeter at natural vulnerabilities, detonated in concert at range. Shattered safety glass lay everywhere. Black smoke billowed from the windows, acrid and reeking of explosives. Flames were still licking the charred husk of the front door. 

“Someone could be alive. Let’s move.” He surged forward.

“CO, wait!” A hand clamped on his shoulder, dragged him to a halt.

The touch grounded him—a little, enough. He spun, slamming Sidonis back with his rifle. 

“Wait for what?” Garrus snarled into his face. “For them to finish the job?”

Sidonis faltered. Rallied, massaging his broken arm. “I know, all right? I have eyes to see. But Weaver’s husband and kid live across the street. If our comms got blown out, if…if no one’s….then Sean doesn’t know not to come back here. Someone needs to get in touch.”

He ground his teeth, then sagged, relenting. “You’re right.”

Sidonis looked at him for a moment. “I’ll go,” he said. “Contact Sean, try to get Sensat and Monteague back here to help with rescue. I know you need to see for yourself. And I’m not much use to you in a fight.”   

“Thanks.” He reached out, and they gripped forearms. “Stay sharp, Sidonis.”

“You too, Vakarian. Be careful. See you soon.”

He retreated down the block as Garrus turned to the door, flipped the safety on his M-15. 

Not everyone. Damn it, please, not everyone. 

He ducked under the collapsed frame and into the smoke. 

Weaver lay just inside the threshold. Limbs contorted, hardsuit blackened and ablated by the blast. His flesh had melted, exposing muscle and bone.

An anticipated casualty, but it still hit like a punch. Guy’d had a kid, a husband, and a goddamn house, but he hadn’t had a chance. They’d set up his comms post by the entrance so he or his relief could do double duty as sentry.

Garrus moved into the main room, keeping low. Dust hung thick in the air, filmed the shattered furniture. It coated his faceplate and muffled every footfall.

The kitchen island had been too close to the windows. Ripper, Mierin, and Erash slumped over the counter in death. The cabinets had blown inward, doors hanging from their hinges or torn clean off. He stepped over the wreckage, the emulsion of burst rations and torn playing cards and half-melted chips. Scraps of paper and flakes of ash eddied around his greaves, displaced.

He drew toward the stairs, circling every few steps to check his rear. Smeared bootprints intersected his path and ascended backwards, heavy on the heel. A bloody swath cut through the debris between them. 

Two survivors. One wounded. 

Smoke swirled as he climbed. The banister was intact, rimed in dust. The smell of crushed cordite burned his nostrils. Gravel turned underfoot with every step, rattling down too loudly, the microcosm of an avalanche.

Halfway up he heard the click of a safety. He dropped into cover, posted up against the banister. 

“Hold your fire,” he called. “It’s Archangel. Who’s alive up there?”

“Come up slow,” a familiar voice returned, hoarse. “Rifle first. I want a visual.”

“You’ve got it, Butler. Leaving cover. Moving.”

He reached the corner and shoved his M-15 onto the landing. “There’s my gun. Stepping out. Easy, now.”

He moved into the passageway. His small arms specialist was propped against the wall outside Melenis’s room, pistol trained on his chest. His free hand was clamped to his side, slicked with blood.

Abdominal wound. He was done for.

“Good enough?” Garrus asked. 

Butler jerked his chin. “Go ahead. Vakarian…what the fuck happened?” A bubble of blood burst at the corner of his mouth.

Garrus retrieved his rifle. “I don’t know.” He advanced down the hall. “Suns, Eclipse, Blood Pack—could’ve been any of them. There’ll be time to find out later, I promise you that. For now, what’s important is that you’re alive, and we have a chance to get you out.”

Butler shook his head. “Not me. I’m just—just the picket.” He eyed him. “You know that.”

“...I know that.” Garrus knelt and gripped his shoulder. “Give me the sitrep. Who’s left?”

Butler coughed. A fleck of blood dotted Garrus’s faceplate. “Melenis, GK. Vortash. Monteague came back just in time for the fucking explosion. Lucky her.” 

“Sensat?”

“Don’t know. Far the fuck away from here, I hope.” He reached with a grimace, banged heavily on Melenis’s door with his pistol butt. “It’s him. Let him through.”

Something grated and moved on the far side. The door swung open, and four soot-blackened helms turned towards him. 

“Sir,” Monteague said, “what do we do?”

He stepped in, did a swift visual check for injuries. Melenis, Monteague, and Grundan Krul were physically unharmed, the scuffs on their armor cosmetic. Vortash was smeared with what looked like Butler’s blood, but he had a sloppy bandage on his firing arm where the rerebrace and vambrace had boiled away. 

One tech, a heavy weapons specialist, two midrange specialists. It was what he had to work with, and he’d make it work. 

“We evac and regroup,” he answered. “Rest, recover, and return to take back the station. Eyes forward, team. We’re not through yet. Monteague, set us up with helm to helm transmitters to replace comms. Prep two extra for Sidonis and Sensat in case they show.” Garrus crouched and pulled up a holo of the area. “Next up: exit strategy.”

“We’re in a cul-de-sac,” Vortash said. Monteague handed out h2h dongles. 

“A cul-de-sac with parking garage access via service tunnels.” He pulsed the entrance on the map. “We get down there, we can slip out the back in our X3M.” He sat back on his feet. “I need two people to scout the tunnels. The rest of us will bunker down and cover our rear, keep us from getting rolled up if anyone tries the avenue.” 

Grundan Krul and Melenis exchanged looks. “We’ll go, boss.”  

“Bring the M-100,” he ordered. “Keep us apprised and stay out of trouble.”

They left. 

“Vortash, take the ML-77 and get eyes on the end of the street. Whoever did this is going to come check their work. Give me a flare when they roll in.”

He pumped his rifle. “I’m gone. Good luck, Vakarian.”

“Monteague, you’re with me,” he continued. “Relocate as many munitions as possible to the balcony. And…bring our people up, if you can. We should lay them out, at least.”

He went out. Butler was where he’d left him, conscious but breathing hard and clenched around his center. Someone had set up a footstool beside him. His pistol rested on it, cocked towards the stairs. His hand clutched the grip. His eyes tracked Garrus as he passed, but they didn’t speak.

He retrieved his SR from quarters. Removed to the balcony and shoved furniture to the center of the room, freeing up cover along the guardrail. His people were radioing in. Vortash was stationed at the intersection. Melenis and Grundan Krul had entered the tunnels. 

Monteague was rustling behind him, stacking crates and dragging bodies.

“It’s done, sir.”

He turned. Weaver, Mierin, Ripper, and Erash were laid out in a row behind the couch. Their wounds had leaked through the sheets she’d bundled them into, and she’d assembled small personal effects at their heads—the things none of them had been able to let go when they committed to the work. A charred drawing from Weaver’s kid, all rainbows and approximations of bipedal forms. A locket from Mierin’s grandmother, engraving long worn down. Ripper could have been sleeping, but Erash’s face was a frozen rictus of pain. 

Monteague sniffed. He put an arm around her, looking at the remains of their team. His feelings were distant, battened down where they couldn’t compromise him. 

“It won’t be for nothing,” he said. “Come on, kid. Time to set up.”

Monteague took position on a separate part of the balcony, trained sights on the street below. He checked sightlines at multiple points along the guardrail. Stocked each station with water, boxes of spare clips, and specialized ammunition; reviewed the field through his scope. Weaver had suggested the condemned motel near his place for a reason. The road switchbacked at the end of the avenue, giving them a partial line of sight to three streets from the second floor. They could hold out for hours if it came to a frontal assault. 

The transmitter crackled in his ear. 

“Melenis to Archangel, do you copy?”

“I copy,” he said. He knelt, assembling his Mantis. “Situation report.”

“Bad. This is Grundan Krul. Garage is crawling with Blood Pack and varren. Someone must’ve tipped them off about our back door.”

A thought was rearing its head, trying to worm its way out. He clamped it down. This wasn’t the time for speculation. “Give me numbers. Can you punch through? I can have the rest of the team to you in minutes.” 

“Negative. Don’t compromise your front. We can hear them talking—more on the way to you down the avenue.”

“Understood. Return to base, you two. We’ll bunker down here and make a break down the avenue when you arrive.”

“Copy that, boss. Heading back the way we came. There soon.”

“Proceed with caution. Out.” He toggled channels. Vortash was hailing him. “This is Archangel.”

“Sensat just hit our street. No visual on hostiles yet but looks like something’s chasing her.”

He checked his scope. Sensat’s face leaped at him through the sights. “Sidonis must’ve found her. Fall back on her six and reposition halfway to base. Don’t forget the flare.”

“Roger.” 

She skidded gasping into cover beside him less than a minute later. “You need to evac. Get to the fucking garage, now!” 

“No go. Blood Pack’s blocked the retreat.” He handed Sensat a bottle of water and a short range transmitter. “What’s coming to us?”

She slotted in the earpiece and gulped down the bottle too quickly, splashing her armor. “Everyone. Blood Pack, Suns, Eclipse–they formed a coalition to take us out, chief. I barely got through their perimeter. If we can’t reach the garage we’re dead meat.”

“Understood. We might make it if we break their line together. I’ll radio our scouts, tell them to stand by.” 

The flare bloomed overhead, painting a bloody rose on the smog-choked air. A tanker was pulling across the intersection. Troops in Blood Pack red and Suns blue were hauling down sandbags as biotics in Eclipse yellow flung k-rails, built up a breastwork. Distantly he heard the first shots fired as more enemy combatants rounded the block and locked on. He activated his transmitter.

“Avenue team, weapons free and engage at will. Priority to hostiles packing short and midrange weapons. Don’t waste a single damn sink or I’ll know it.” He flipped the safety on his M-92. “Sensat, where’s the XO?”

She’d set up on the rail, firing in short bursts. “Sidonis? How would I know?”

The report of Vortash’s M-8 rang out. Monteague was throwing an EMP over the balcony. He checked the field, squeezed the trigger. His first clip rebounded off the wall. “Last I saw he was headed your way. He went looking for Weaver’s family.”

A bullet cracked the concrete inches from her elbow. She didn’t flinch, kept shooting. “Sean and the kid? Their car got stopped right outside the perimeter. They’re fine.” She glanced at him as she flushed her sink. “Vakarian…if he was going where he said, why didn’t I see him on the route in?”

“I—I don’t know. Damn it, this isn’t the time. We need to evac. Garage team, this is Archangel. Hold position. We’re coming to—”

Melenis cut over him. “Boss, don’t. Situation’s changed. Varren sniffed us out and Blood Pack’s set up a firing squad at the opening. We leave this way, we get gunned down one at a time.”

His heart was pounding. He fired. “We’ve got the combined strength of three companies headed our way up top. We’re not making it out this way either.”

Silence. 

“Okay. Then we don’t make it out,” Sensat said. Her pupils were blown as she looked over at him, but her talons were steady. “Give us the play, chief.”

Garrus closed his eyes. Opened them, and locked it all up. This was the job. 

“Right. GK, Melenis, confirm that you still have the M-100.”

“We’ve got it.”

“I’m going to need you to collapse that tunnel to protect our rear. I’m sorry.”

“We understand, boss. It’s the right call.”

“Blood Pack wasn’t going to let us hide in here forever,” Grundan Krul added. “Was going to be our grenades or theirs eventually.” 

“You’re good men. Thank you.”

“Signing off,” Melenis said. 

The detonation rocked the building a moment later, rolling through their feet. 

He set his reticle on the field. Mowed down one hostile, then another. Rage was building behind his eyes, but he forced it back and down. He needed his head clear.

“I’m almost out of sinks,” Vortash said. “Going to need to retreat, or—”

“I’ll run some out to you,” Sensat interrupted. “I’ll be more useful at mid-range, anyway.” She looked to him for confirmation.

“Do it,” Garrus said. “Take what you need. I’ll lock the door behind you.”

“No one will make it to the stairs, chief. I promise you that.” She went to their munitions stockpile, keeping low, and began rehoming supplies in an empty kit bag. “I’ll set some charges on the way down and along the avenue too. Couple of surprises for after…you know.”

“Understood. Hey—Butler?”

She shook her head. “Dead by the time I got here.” She slung the pack over one shoulder. “Thanks for the ride, Vakarian. See you in the next life.”

“Save a seat for me. Be there when I can."

She hoisted her rifle and ran out. He sealed the door at her back. Soldered it shut, and put eyes back on the field. 

He shot, shuttled the bolt, shot again. The pile of spent sinks at his feet grew. Sensat stopped responding to hails. Vortash got pinned down, and then he ran out of clips. 

“Honor to serve, Vakarian,” he said as they breached his position. 

“Honor was mine. Go well.”

The mercs were endless. Monteague was faltering. Her hands trembled as she programmed another charge.

“You’re okay, kid,” he said, squeezing the trigger on another mark. “You’re going to be okay. Just one more and then another one after that, all right?”

“Yes, sir. One kill at a time.” 

His visor picked up movement on the periphery a heartbeat before the round shredded his shields, ripping a track through his pauldron. He dropped flat. Monteague was on the ground, fingers flying over her omnitool. 

“Someone’s shooting from Weaver’s house,” she said. “Attic window.”

He swore. “They must’ve slipped by. If they fortify that building…”

His shields had recharged. He gripped his rifle, shifted along the balcony to a new position, and tried to raise his head. A bullet smacked the rail, gouging a chunk from the concrete. 

“They’ve got a bead on me. Do you have a line of sight, Monteague? Can you take the shot if I lure them out?”

Monteague looked at her SMG. Holstered it and drew her pistol. Her hands were shaking worse than ever. “No, sir. …But you can.”

“Kid, don’t even think about it. Whether I die now by this asshole or later by another asshole makes no difference to me. Stay in cover, understood? I’m a quick draw—I’ll risk it.”

She loaded another charge on her omnitool. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather go first. I’m not cut out for a siege. And you never know. You might—might make it.” 

“So might you. Monteague—”

She looked across the room at him. “Sir. Please. It’s one of us now or both of us now. It’s not a choice.”

His heart was breaking. He nodded. “I’ll make it count. You’re brave, kid. Best of the best. Your family would’ve been proud.”

“Thank you, sir. Good luck.”

She shut her eyes, clutched her pistol to her chest. Her omnitool glowed against her breastplate, over her heart. Then she rose out of cover, flinging the EMP towards the attic. Her pistol discharged once, twice, and then he was squeezing the trigger, watching the sniper’s head snap back as his round punched through.

He dropped behind the rail and ejected his sink. Monteague was crumpled on the floor, still gripping her pistol. Blood pumped from the wound that had killed her, rolled slowly to meet him. 

He trained his reticle on another merc. Sensat, Butler. Monteague. They’d all died for the cause, for him. It was only right that he return the courtesy. Sidonis would live, and that was a small victory. Unless—

He shut it down. Walled it all off, and pulled the trigger again. He’d hold the line until he couldn’t, until the penultimate clip had been smoked and he’d exhausted the last putting a bullet in his brain. It was the only remuneration he could offer his team. 

But there was one more with whom he could make things right, before nothing could go wrong again. Garrus queued up the call, to a contact not accessed for years. Settled back into his scope as it rang once, twice, and someone picked up.

 “...Son?”

“Hey, Dad. I. I, uh.” He tracked his mark. Breathed, and fired. “Sir, I fucked up. I’m calling to say goodbye.”

Chapter Text

The battery door cycled open on the CO at 06:24, four hours and seventeen minutes after Garrus had jolted awake to the white-hot splash of burning hydrogen boiling away his suit, the scythe of frag shredding his carapace; four hours and five minutes after he’d grounded himself, pulled up his screen, grounded himself again, and flung a message into cyberspace. 

From: GY OFF Vakarian

To: CO Shepard

Subject:

Commander, if you’re able to come by the battery this cycle, I’d appreciate it. The sooner the better.

G

He hadn’t gone back down. He’d banged out HMC’s workout regimen in quarters. Had two and a half cups of coffee by 05:00, and only stopped when he’d noticed the tremor in his hands. Tried to code, tried to read. But digits and letters slid off the surface of his awareness like oil on water, and so he’d paced, treading the deck while his mind turned over the conversation to come, scouting objections and plotting a route through anticipated barriers. 

And now she was here, and all he needed to do was convince her to let him kill a man in cold blood.

“Got your message bright and fucking early. The hell are you doing sending emails at zero two hundred?“ She stepped in and pushed a mug at him, keeping one for herself. “Grabbed you a refill.”

“Shepard, I’m glad you came by,” he said, taking it. “I may need your help.”

“Sure. Got a problem needs solving, you know I’m your guy.” She sipped. “What’s the situation? Mail need delivering? Busload of orphans need adopting? Colony need solar radiation barriers re-upped by a jarhead with no technical skill whatsoever?”

“Something like that.” He sealed the door behind her. She checked over her shoulder, then turned back with raised eyebrows. “It’s not a conversation I want interrupted,” he said in response to her expression.  

“Well, no chance of that now.” She crossed the deck and settled onto his container. “Fill me in, Vakarian. You need something that’s in my power, you’ll get it.”

It was a nice sentiment. Not a true one, under the circumstances, but it was the thought that counted. Unless the thought blocked the prerogative to act, in which case it needed to be rectified now. 

He set down the mug without drinking. Crossed his arms and battled down the impulse to uncross them immediately, to pace or shift his weight in dereliction of months’ conditioning in HMC Sniper School. His heart was pounding. Too much coffee, too little shuteye. Too loose an end, and he needed to tie it off. 

He worked his larynx and spoke. Pitched his tones at what he remembered was standard for their conversations. Equanimity. The appearance if not the fact of rationality. If he messaged ambivalence in any way, he opened the door to a dynamic two years gone but not forgotten. 

“You remember my XO? The one who betrayed my team? Well, I found a lead on him. There’s a specialist on the Citadel—name’s Fade. Helps people disappear. Sidonis has been in contact with him as recently as a cycle ago.”

Shepard nodded. “I remember the name. Never told me what happened, there. You wanna fill me in?”

No, Shepard. Don’t ask questions; don’t try to understand. 

“It’s—a long story,” he said. “I promise I’ll share it some other time.”

“All right. I’ll hold you to that.” She set her mug aside and sat forward, interlacing her fingers. “What exactly are you planning to do when you find ‘im?”

He tensed at the question, for all he’d planned for this. For all he’d charted the right words, a pitch demonstrating the logic and necessity and the moral imperative. But he was too close to it, too tired and wired and on edge, and what came out was: 

“Oh, you know. The usual. Shake hands and affirm our undying fealty to one another. Come on, Shepard. You humans have a saying. An eye for an eye, a life for a life? He owes me ten lives, and I plan to collect.”

He opened his mouth to clarify, to roll it back, then forced himself silent. Let it sit between them. It wasn’t how he’d planned the approach, but the positioning was what it was.

Her eyes swept him, scanning for something he couldn’t clock. He met her gaze. Braced for the questions, the remonstrances against killing. Stepped mentally to meet it in refutation. She was hardheaded as hell. But this had been his command, his misjudgment and his responsibility to clean up, and if he could just get her to goddamn listen— 

She sat up and closed her eyes, rolling her shoulder in the socket. “You got it. I’ll have Joker set a course for Serpent Nebula.”

“—Just like that?” 

Shepard nodded. “Just like that.” 

She woke her omnitool and began typing, which left him to examine the instant distrust that her consent had evoked. The misgivings over any qualifiers or interrogation. They’d never had a straightforward conversation about discretionary application of force. Doctor Saleon, Doctor Michel. The need for policy and procedure in Citadel Security or lack of it. Every perspective he’d voiced when she circled by the hangar, every initiative he’d taken in her presence even before entering her command in ‘83: Shepard had always had opinions. Expectations. There was no damn way that this of all things was an exception, that they’d phased into an alternate reality where stated intention to assassinate a civilian wasn’t grounds for debate, cause for concern, and mandate to intervene. 

Something untraceable pricked him, threaded his spine. And it might have been anger, or it might have been bewilderment, or it might have been frustrated expectation or sleeplessness or over-caffeination or any number of damn things, but it drove him forward now. If they were going to have it out, they needed to have it the hell out now.

“That was…strangely easy,” he said. Probing. “I blocked out two hours for the debate. Sure you don’t want to fight me on this?”

She didn’t look up. “Wise guy, huh?” 

“Always.”

“Dunno what to tell you. I’ve got your back on this, Vakarian. Be a fucking asshole if I didn’t.” She closed her screen.

He didn’t voice his immediate thought, which was more or less, Do you, Shepard? Since when? “...Well. I’ll take it.”

“Good idea. One time thing.” She leaned down to retrieve her mug and drank. He went to copy her on instinct, then stopped himself. He didn't need another damn hit. He needed to understand why she wasn’t pushing. “Anything else?”

“That’s—that’s all. Thanks, Commander.” 

She nodded. “I should go. Got a backlog of paperwork as per fucking usual. Dinner at 18:00?”

“18:00. Right.” 

She rose, headed for the door. Routine sign-off. Neutral affect. Like this was nothing. 

But it’d never been nothing, and as she reached the threshold he said, “Shepard, wait.” 

She turned, sipping. “Forget something?”

“...Did you?” he asked.

“Not as far as I know. Coffee, check. Paperwork, check. Something still in the docket? I walk in here with anything else?”

He stared at her, then shook his head. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Something happening right now? Still on my first cup, buddy—haven’t been up since zero dark thirty like some people. You’re gonna have to be a little clearer with me.”

“Damn it.” He paced, involuntarily, two steps. Stopped and willed himself still. “Are you—are you being disingenuous right now?”

She stopped, mug halfway to her mouth, then lowered it. “You’re gonna have to loop me in on that conversation you seem to be having with someone, Vakarian. ‘Cause whoever you’re talking to, it’s not me.”

“Shepard. I called you down here to say I needed help assassinating a civilian target, and you just nodded along and signed off on it.”

A pause.  

“Lemme get clear on this. You’re upset because I approved the assignment you requested, with the parameters you set?”

“Yes?”

“Why and how?”

“Because I know this isn’t the last I’ve heard on this,” he said, too sharply. “Who died and made you amenable?”

Her eyebrows climbed. “I died. And if you wanted the assist and I agreed to give it, I’m not really seeing what the problem is.”

“The problem is that you’re not being transparent. And I can’t get to the bottom of why.”

Her expression flickered. “How exactly can I be more transparent? You want me to copy you on the paperwork? Take you blow by blow through the line items? I could unsend the request I just transmitted and have you watch over my shoulder while I write an identical one, but I’m feeling like that’ll be a waste of time much better spent trying to figure out what the fuck is going on right now.”

“I’m not in a joking mood, Shepard.”

“Yeah, clearly. Unfortunately, jokes are all I’ve got since you won’t tell me what you need for me to close out this interaction in a manner satisfactory to you.”

“Fine.” He stepped towards her. “I’ll spell it out, since you won’t.”

“Love to hear it. Hell, maybe I’ll learn something, ‘cause I’m pretty sure the word’s not in my lexicon.” She angled around him, returned to his crate, and sat. “Well?”

He watched her lean down, set her coffee on the deck. Took a breath, and said it. “I want to know the damned catch. I want to know if you’re consenting now so you can pull some intervention later. If I’m going to reach the Citadel, put this traitor in my reticle, and have you turn Sidonis into another Saleon and force me to let him walk.”

She stopped, fingers encircling the mug’s rim, and looked hard at him. He could see her mining the interaction for data. Reevaluating the terrain. “Wasn’t the plan,” she said evenly.

“How sure are you? You’ve never not tried to remediate me, Commander. And I’ve reconciled myself to that. Hell, I’ve welcomed it. But this is different, and I need to take preventative measures if this is something you’re not comfortable letting me handle my way.”

“To repeat it back,” she said, “you don’t think I trust you. And you’ve got the evidence of two years ago to prove it. That right?” 

He leaned against his console. Straightened. Turned away and braced himself on the guardrail. “Whatever this is, it isn’t you, Shepard,” he said to the guns. “You don’t have to agree with me, but I’d appreciate it if you came clean and said so. I’m not in the headspace to hear a lecture, but if I have to, let’s hear it the hell now. Not later, in the field, when I should be able to trust that you have my back.” 

Seconds ticked up on his readouts as he stared into the battery, picking out the designation on the cannons, their length and breadth. Reaching for a stillness he couldn’t find. He felt like a live wire, heart hammering, nerves alight. 

Ceramic clinked. Footsteps.

“Don’t need to be in the headspace.” She joined him on the rail, looking out at the cannons. “I’m an all-terrain vehicle, Gunnery Officer. It was plain as day you needed me to drop the sermons, so I dropped ‘em. I’m not gonna stand in your way. Not for something like this. Got my word on it.” She pushed off the bar. “Assignment’s approved, and I should get going. Need anything else, just shoot me a message.” 

The door cycled shut. 

Garrus closed his eyes. He would handle his XO. He would check this off, and then his docket would be clear. ‘Til then—’til then, everything was on hold. If Shepard was harboring reservations about his decision, was choosing not to disclose them despite opportunity and invitation, that was her prerogative. The important thing was that permission had been granted, objectives set; and short of her changing her mind, stepping into his sightline, and interposing her body between his reticle and his target, Lantar Sidonis was a dead man walking. 

But he replayed the conversation anyway as he wrote code, and erased it, and wrote it again, because he apparently couldn’t do anything right, from the damn job he was paid for to the damn responsibility he’d taken on as Archangel to the damn deference he owed his commanding officer.

He shouldn’t have second-guessed her, despite his misgivings. Not in that way. Shouldn’t have taken a hostile tone or accused her of deceit. Twice. Three times. Shit, four.  It was unacceptable conduct under any circumstance and unprofessional as hell.

His fault. He’d asked to speak to her as his CO then engaged her as a peer, collapsed what should’ve been two discrete conversations—crewman’s request for assistance, airing of personal opinions—into one. She’d held the line, and he hadn’t, and friendship that traversed ranks only worked when both people clocked in for duty. An apology was owed.

Time passed. 07:00 rolled around. Garrus scrubbed through the interaction, again, and logged the reversion to rank and title in her sign-off, and wondered what the hell was wrong with him. 

No. Scratch that. What the hell was wrong with her? Why the fuck hadn’t she tried to stop him? 

He deleted a line. She had to have been biding her time, waiting for an opportunity to reengage. The alternative didn’t make any damn sense. Didn’t adhere to the evidence of anything he had on file from two years back. 

She’d never let a thing slide, not when it ran against the grain of her principles.

His reasons had never passed muster, from his decision to join her crew to his intention to leave the force permanently. 

He ought to be grateful that this was apparently the exception to her rule, but it wasn’t goddamn lining up, and he couldn’t kill the uneasiness in him, the near certainty that the mission parameters were still in flux. If Sidonis escaped justice because she rescinded her orders…

He realized that his console had entered sleep mode from inactivity, nothing entered for full minutes. He woke it and reapplied himself to the job. Deferred doubt to later. The question of whether he’d have to choose between duty to his CO and his duty as CO was out of his hands. But he hoped like hell it wouldn’t come to that. 

08:00 arrived.

‘I’m not gonna stand in your way. Not for something like this. Got my word on it.’

She’d given her assurances. 

The commander shot straight. Too straight, sometimes, historically. It was why he’d been braced for an argument to begin with. When she had convictions, everyone knew them. She didn’t manipulate her people, didn’t maneuver them. Which left him asking what the hell had happened earlier today, and if there’d been a misunderstanding, and if so, who’d misunderstood whom.

He cursed under his breath, a blended run of turian and human swears. Queued up one program in his code-proofing utility for the thousandth damn time, and turned to another.

08:30.

‘I’ve got your back on this, Vakarian. Be a fucking asshole if I didn’t.’

‘I’m not gonna stand in your way. Not for something like this.’

‘On this.’ ‘Something like this.’ Specific. Pregnant with meaning, clearly. Allusive, but to fucking what? It was straight back to his days in the force, deconstructing every sentence issued from the mouth of a nonturian, chasing meaning with a flashlight and a manual written in someone else’s first language when what he needed was one damn person to drop the specialized discourse, bypass the intepretive exercise in orthography, and verbally explain what the fuck was going on.

What was special about this scenario? If this was the exception to the rule, to her rule, why and how and what the actual—? When had there ever been a single exception to her rule?

Oh. Oh, Christ. Oh, shit fucking fuck. 

Akuze.

Shepard knew. She knew better than anyone what the massacre of your entire command put you through, and what you’d do and who you’d become to make it right. She understood. She’d understood all along. She’d put a bullet in the heart of an unarmed scientist from the Akuze Project in incontestable proof of that understanding. Which meant she’d intended to render aid, without commentary and without reservation, for reasons opaque and incomprehensible to him at the time but crystal fucking clear now, and he’d been too much of an asshole, too in his head and too zoomed in on his own damned issues to take what was given with due gratitude. 

Fucking damn it. He didn’t owe an apology. He owed her his person in shackles and a top of the line rifle with which to shoot him. 

09:00.

The mug she’d brought him sat on the deck, untouched. The mug she’d brought herself sat beside his container, half empty. If they stayed there another cycle, or another, or another again, the coffee would evaporate and he’d be looking at stains and a reaming from Gardner for adding to his backlog. He had to clean up after himself. He wasn’t the brand of person to leave a damn mess for someone else, except when he was.

This was what happened when you cracked the seal on something you’d buried. No telling what would seep out, what damage it would deal to the people you cared about and the daily operation of your life. Every sense was so alert for danger, dissent, and disagreement that he’d apparently fabricate it himself just to cut the tension. 

He gave up on coding, gave priority to the reset. Breathed, and counted, and grounded, and pulled out every tool he’d been trained to reach for when mortar shells were pounding and your skull was screaming and you needed to lock it all down and get back to your unit before you all got blown away. When the hour hit 09:55, he picked up the mugs and walked out. 

A handful of crewmen were leaving the mess when he entered. Garrus dumped and refilled the coffee, then loaded a tray with rations for one dextro and one levo crewman. “EDI, do me a favor.”

“Listening, Gunnery Officer.”

“Check feeds and get me the CO’s location.”

“Commander Shepard entered her quarters at 09:03 following a meeting with XO Lawson. She is still there. Would you like me to inform her that you have something to discuss?”

“No, I’ll show up unannounced. Thanks.”

“Very well. Logging you out.”

He took the elevator to Deck 1. Shepard’s door was closed but unlocked, pulsing green. Clocked in for duty come hell or high water or her third officer metamorphosing into a selfish belligerent asshole.

He shifted the tray to one hand, reached for the switch. The door cycled open and Shepard strode out. 

“Shit—!” He twisted out of her path.

“Oh fuck the hell—” She grabbed his arm and skipped aside. The tray tilted. The mugs slid. He grabbed one and coffee splashed his glove, splattered the deck. 

Shepard’s hand had shot for the other. She hissed as boiling coffee slopped over her fingers. Kept hold, let go as he straightened the tray, and stepped back. Her eyes fixed on his as she flexed her hand and shook it out. 

“...Vakarian.”

“Shepard. I, uh. I brought lunch. And a refill.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“You mean you feel that. Do you…do you need Chakwas?”

“I’m good. Run some water over it, should be fine.” A beat. “Guessing you’ve got more to say. You wanna come in while I get this under the sink, we can pick up where we left off.” She turned back into her quarters. 

He stepped in. Shepard was unbuttoning her cufflinks, rolling up her sleeve. He set the tray on her desk and followed her to the door of the head. 

She sealed the drain, flicked on the tap, and slid her hand under the flow. “Go ahead.”

He leaned against the doorway. Water sluiced over her fingers, the blunt crescents that were the human equivalent of talons. Scars criss-crossed the back of her hand, welts and pockmarks laid down somewhere between the day she’d woken in a Cerberus facility with newly polished parts and the present.

Her fingers closed, opened. Her hand rotated palm up beneath the spray. 

“Gunnery Officer, what do you need?”

He looked up. Shepard was watching him. He thought about what he’d say if he weren’t compromised, if he weren’t fighting the undertow of Archangel, spinning down into dark thoughts and darker emotion every minute of every hour since the watchlist had turned up a lead. 

He could do this. He could be a damn person for five damn seconds for her.

“I need to apologize, Commander. I shouldn’t have gotten short with you. Asked hostile questions, blurred the lines, or any of it.” He paused. Went on. “I’m sorry. I’m here to accept my sentence, make restitution, and otherwise eat the shit.”

Shepard shook her head. “Apology accepted, noted, and filed. No sentencing necessary.” She checked her hand. Looked up again, sliding it back under the flow. “I don’t need details to see that this is your Akuze, Garrus. I’m sorry you’ve got a thing like that weighing you down, and I promise I’m not gonna stand in your way when the time comes. All right?”

He worked his larynx. Pushed back against tightness, gratitude, and shame. “All right.”

She nodded. “You’re gonna survive this, Vakarian. It feels like shit right now, but you’re gonna be okay.”

They looked at one another. The sound of the tap echoed through the head. And he didn’t know what else to say that wouldn’t make him sound like a rookie or a kid, afraid of his own thoughts and desperate for comfort, so he drawled, “About the sentencing.”

“What about it?”

“How about a little of it? I think I deserve some form of punishment for fully failing to clock that you’d understand the situation. And my turian ass seconds that for speaking out of turn to a superior officer.”

Her mouth twitched. “Guess my ceramic could use a buffing. You wanna take that off my docket, feel free.”

“You’ve got it, ma’am. Just wait. When I’m done, you’ll be able to use your cuirass as a mirror if the occasion calls for one.”

“And how exactly am I gonna do that when I’m wearing it?”

“Good point. Should I buff mine instead, or would you like help taking yours off?”

She raised an eyebrow. “I’m getting mixed signals here, buddy. Are we doing levity or are we doing a heart to heart about traumatic incidents in our respective service histories and social interactions?”

“Precedent shows we skip usually the heart to hearts, Commander. Maybe that’s why I’m so damn bad at them.”

“So what was that session after Horizon? Total fluke? Alcohol-induced sentiment?” She switched off the tap and submerged her hand in the basin. 

“More like a relatively recent development in the magical friendship of Commander Shepard and Gunnery Officer Vakarian. The possibilities haven’t really sunk in yet. And while it might not be evident from the level of innate talent I possess in most things, I tend to need a little practice before I can really say I’ve added a skill to my loadout.”

“Got it.” She shifted, resting her hip against the sink. “Well, all-terrain vehicle, like I said. You need to be cracking wise, we can do that. You need to dig up some skeletons, we can do that too.”  

He tilted his head. “What about what you need, Shepard?”

“Meaning?”

“You’ve excused me for being an asshole, and thank you for that, but that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily clear on your end. Is there anything you need to get off your chest?”

She scoffed. “Yeah, that’s not how this works. You of all people know that.”

“Doesn’t it? If I’m not mistaken, the standard pattern of conversation between two sentient beings is for one of them to share, and then for the other to take a turn. To be fair, I’ve traveled more than negligibly afield of reality in the last few hours. So maybe I’m getting this wrong.” 

“Chain of command, buddy.” She flexed her fingers. Ripples eddied out from her point of entry into the water, circling her wrist. “Emotional labor travels up, not down.”

He studied her. “Does the chain of command circumscribe that magical friendship we were talking about? And if it does, is it able to flex?”

Her hand stilled in the water, and her eyes flicked to him. 

“—That was a real question, to be clear,” he added. “I’m not being condescending, and I’m not pushing. Or it’s not my intention to, anyway. You’re the CO, Shepard. You call the shots.” 

He could see her thinking. Assessing risk, probably. Running it through regulations filters, not that those weren’t wide open on this ship. 

She nodded, slowly. “It can flex here if you want it to. I’m not gonna tell you this is a topic of discussion we need to open. It’s not mission-critical; it’s not gonna affect our working relationship, friendship, or anything in between for you to never engage on this.”

“Understood. And I want to hear it.”

“All right.” She stopped. Continued. “Then I’m gonna need you to take me through what happened this morning. ‘Cause I’ve got a theory, and I think I need to debunk something for you, but I don’t know yet. Got messy as hell in there.” 

“Sure.” He reviewed what he’d said. The hours spent forward planning before she’d walked in. “...I was anticipating a fight. I expected to have to demonstrate need, get clear of your principles in order to secure your help on this assignment. And when you didn’t ask, when you just assented, knowing the mission parameters…it felt too good to be true. I thought, she must be waiting for the right moment to reengage, to talk me around. It was only after you’d left that I remembered why you of all people would…well. Not raise objections. Not over this.”

“Got it. Lines up with what you said before. So you thought I was gonna be a holdout. Try to stop you from handling this as you see fit, regardless of promises made.”

“I’m not proud of the sentiment, even if I can explain the reasoning of it.” He shrugged, crossing his arms. “You have opinions, Commander. Principles. And I respect them, you know I do, but we haven’t always seen eye to eye.”

She nodded. “I hear you. Understand your concerns. Would’ve had ‘em in your position too, if my CO’d been the kind of person I was in ‘83.”

“Conscionable? Hands-on?”

She snorted, unsealing the drain. “Hands-on, sure. Try replacing ‘conscionable’ with ‘fucking officious’?”

He blinked at her. “I never meant to imply—”

“You didn’t. I’m saying it now.” She dried her hand on her trouser leg. “Back it up. Let’s eat that chow.” 

He stepped aside and let her through. She sat on the deck in her office, not bothering to remove to the seating area a few feet away. “Chair’s yours.”  

He took it and handed down her tray, the utensils in slightly damp packaging. 

She peeled off the lid and thrust in her chopsticks. “Sorry for whatever the fuck was wrong with me two years ago. Makes sense you’d be worried about operational autonomy with your XO after what happened with Saleon. Guy was your suspect in your case. What happened to him shoulda been your call.” 

He stopped, a forkful halfway to his mouth, and set it down again. “I was an officer on a leave of personal absence, Shepard. If I’d have killed Saleon, I could have been prosecuted for gross misconduct and violation of my oath. I might have been dishonorably discharged, and permanently.”

“Was still your mistake to make, not mine.” She chewed and swallowed. “I’m not proud of it,” she said after a moment, “but with all due disrespect, I was a self-righteous dumbshit before I got spaced. Sometimes I wonder if people believed me ‘cause I believed me, instead of considering if I had any fucking right to get involved. I sure the hell didn’t think about it. Short version?” She shrugged. “I don’t have the conviction or the moral prerogative to tell you what to do, Garrus, least of all to your own man. I probably never did.”

Garrus stared at the top of her head. Her tone was matter of fact. She was just sitting there, eating her damn lunch on the floor, rolling back every certainty she’d ever steered by. And he didn’t know why, but that was categorically more concerning if less aggravating than the alternative he’d anticipated at 06:24 this morning, where he’d have asked for an assist and then been compelled to engage in philosophical debate for one to two hours while she stood her ground and he tried to stand his, the foundation of his argument slowly eroding away. 

“All right. So you did a few things,” he said, cautiously. “Believed a few things. You’re still my CO, Shepard, one who’s earned my respect and the respect of your people time and again. I think that gives you a little license to counsel, whether or not I or anyone takes your feedback under advisement like an adult.”

She huffed out a breath, half laughing. “I’m not talking about the chain of command.”

“Then what are you—”

“I’m talking about the fact that ever since I woke up on Lawson’s operating table, I’ve got no idea what’s right, wrong, or in between.” 

She stopped. Ate another bite, and another. The silence that followed seemed more ellipsis than period, so he waited, working through his meal, watching her pulse on his readouts. 

“I’ve got my gut, the memory of what I used to think, and a certainty that I wanna put more good than harm into the world,” she said eventually. “But…I’m gonna be honest with you. My way through to that’s not clear anymore. So, hell if I’m gonna advise you on the ethics of bringing a murderer to justice. I dunno what balances the scales.” She set aside her plate, slid her chopsticks back into the sleeve. “You want my input, it’s to do as you see fit. You were a soldier and a detective, Vakarian, then a company commander, and now you’re my third officer and a damn good one. If you can’t be trusted to call it right, nobody can.” 

“...Thanks, Shepard.” He cleared his throat. “Means a lot. I’m not sure I believe you, but thanks.”

“Credit where due. Just telling the truth as I see it.”

He returned his empty plate to the tray. “I have to say. I think you think I’m a hell of a lot more self-actualized than I am, if you believe you can praise me that highly without activating the Hierarchy-owned part of my brain that craves validation from authority.”

“Uh oh.” 

“That’s right. Under this veneer of confidence, competence, and style is just a turian kid who wants a sticker. And speaking of which.” He reached for his coffee. “So, I’m great. Unparalleled, even. Endorsed by LC Shepard herself. How do we navigate the inevitable occasion on which I want to solicit your opinion? I value your judgment, Commander, whether or not you think it’s flawed.”

She unfolded, stood, and settled against the desk beside him, pushing her hands into her pockets. “...You ask for it?” 

“Impossible. Too simple. Definitely a trap.” He swiveled to face her, sipping.

She snorted. “I take it you’re done with the serious part of this conversation.”

“Keep up, Shepard. I’m asking genuine questions disguised as witticisms.”

“My bad.” 

“Yes, your bad. In no way an indication of any issues on my end.”

She cracked her neck. “So, just to get clear, are you asking me for advice about Sidonis right now? Thought that was a no-go.”

He considered, wrapping his hands around his mug. “Let’s call it asking for your thoughts. I don’t know if I plan to act on what you say. I, uh. I don’t know if I’m in the headspace to make adjustments or even can be. But I want to sate my curiosity. And I’ll think about it. I always do.”

She nodded. Reached for the remnants of her coffee. “Sure. Well, with the caveat that I don’t know the details of your situation and didn’t come back from the dead with an operational moral nav system…”

“Of course.”

Her gaze slipped off him. “Guess it’s like this when I look at it. There’s no justice in the criminal legal system. It’s rife with bias—classism, race supremacy, all of it. I see places like Omega and Illium, think about what I left behind back on Earth, and I dunno if there’s justice anywhere. If it even fucking exists or’s just a thing we fabricated to help us sit with the galaxy being unfair. If that’s what we’re working with, maybe if you want justice, you gotta define it for yourself, get it for yourself. So you kill him.” 

“Sure. I’ve had this thought too, evidently.”

“Same time—” She sipped. “Good’s gotta outweigh the harm? You can’t get justice for your team without hurting a whole lot of other people on the way, I don’t necessarily think you should get to have it. So maybe you don’t kill him if the conditions aren’t there.”

“Mm-hm. Consider collateral.” 

“Not just collateral in the sense of crossfire. I mean repercussions for other people—social, financial, legal.” She shrugged. “Does taking him out create more good or harm, and for who, and for how many? Does it wipe out the threat of future damage or deny the galaxy a little good it could’ve had otherwise?” 

He nodded. Waited for her to go on.

“Last thought.” She met his eyes. “I dunno, Vakarian. Maybe death isn’t always the worst punishment. Maybe it’s situational. It’s one thing if we track ‘im down and he’s living well, enjoying life. That’s the case, fuck that. Take it from him. But if you catch up with him, find out he’s a wreck? Terminally ill, forsaken by all his friends, I dunno, deep the fuck in debt or running from the law? You kill the lights on someone already spiraling down the drain, that’s not much of a sentence.”

“Hm. So, to summarize, kill him if I should. And don’t kill him if I shouldn’t. And the lines for ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ aren’t immutable.”

Her mouth twitched. “Yep. Told you I wasn’t worth jackshit for moral reasoning anymore.” She looked forward again, fixing on something that wasn’t there, and raised her cup to her lips. 

“That, uh. That doesn’t sound easy. I’m sorry.”

She shook her head, swallowing. “Sorry not to know. Wish I could help you work it out, believe me. Wish I thought there was an answer.”

Her tone was the same as always. But she looked—tired. Burnt, until she glanced down and saw him watching her. 

He let his gaze slide to the in-tray behind her. Gave her time to conceal it if she wanted. When he looked back, she was sipping, expression smoothed out. 

“It’s all right.” He sat forward, rested his elbows on his knees. “We have some time before we get to the Citadel. I’ll think about what you said. Think about what he did. Figure it out. Probably still land on ‘just kill him’ because I’m pretty sure the bastard is supposed to die.”

“Sound. Good reasoning.”

“Yeah.” He hesitated. “I should warn you, Shepard. I may or may not be not acting like it, but there’s no way in hell I’m not emotionally compromised for this one.”

“I know, buddy. Or I clocked that. No offense.”

“I’ll do my best. But I trust you to stop me if I step over a line.”

She nodded. “Done.”

He studied her. Her shoulders were down, fingers slack where they wrapped around her mug. “Can I ask you something personal? For my calibrations?”

“Shoot.”

“It’s, uh. It’s pretty damn personal.”

“Sure. Shoot.”

“What was your reasoning when you killed that scientist from the Akuze Project? Doctor Wayne?”  

Her fingers twitched, tensed on the ceramic. She saw him see it and slowly relaxed. 

“Wayne had already had his chance. I didn’t detect any contrition, even a shadow of accountability in his confession. And…I dunno. Maybe I could've seen him sentenced by an Alliance court, found a way to live with that. But I got extracted. Had a chance to get help and move on. I wasn’t held and tortured and experimented on like some kind of animal. You were there, Vakarian. Toombs—couldn’t let him walk. Needed him gone and badly.” 

“I remember.”

She fell silent. Her throat worked. “I guess I thought if I sacrificed Wayne, I could save one soldier.” She raised the cup to her lips, then set it on the desk without drinking and crossed her arms. Her fingers pressed in.

“You did save one, Shepard,” he said quietly.

“...You know how it is.” She looked over and smiled one-sidedly. “It wasn’t the right one.”

Chapter Text

The plaza outside Orbital Lounge bustled with the lunch rush. Cab after cab swung down into the arrivals/departures lane, disgorging prospective diners and swallowing locals toting leftovers, executive assistants freighted with bulk orders for whatever office they worked. Station personnel still in uniform snatched breaks on the modular benches abutting every planter on the terrace; sightseers leaned over the balustrades, snapping vidcaps of the floor below.

Crowded, public, and open, no corners to lurk in and no scaffolding, let alone a second story, to conceal a sniper. Just a vaulted ceiling outfitted with massive day-sim lights. It was a site chosen to put any client who feared for his life at ease. The nearest vantage point was nearly 1100 yards down the boulevard, an unused maintenance area collecting dust and outmoded cabs too defunct to retrofit. 

Sidonis was on the run from some other force. Believed his CO dead with the rest of them. He of all people had known that Archangel would find a perch or make one; and if he’d been taking due precautions, he’d have insisted that Fade’s contact meet him in a black box theater, a limo, or an unregistered bar with no windows in violation of multiple health codes. Not a place where the only deterrents to a long distance assassination were a crowded scope and unaccommodating architecture. 

Garrus disengaged latches and opened his case. He’d brought the M-92 Mantis, Archangel’s rifle. The Widow had no place in today’s assignment. He assembled the pieces, lock, stock, and barrel. Breathed, counted, and exhaled for the familiarity of the ritual; but his pulse didn’t settle, and his hands didn’t steady. They didn’t need to. 

It was as unsurprising as it wasn’t. Somewhere, some time between the present and the watchlist turning up a lead, between the present and tracking down his XO with Tali or clashing with Shepard over an issue of his own damn making, an unidentified part of him had decided to lock it all down without his knowledge or consent. Involuntary compartmentalization: every soldier’s specialized skill. Get onto the field, get behind the scope, and watch everything crystallize. If he had reservations, he couldn’t access them. If he was wired, he couldn’t detect it. The mission objectives were set, and he was here to do a job. That was all. 

Given a little luck, everything would stay that way. The problem, of course, was that if he hadn’t put himself in this headspace, he didn’t have full control over when he left it. 

It was an issue that couldn’t be resolved with forward planning. He filed it away and activated his comm. “Shepard, I’m in position. Do you read me?”

“Loud and clear.” A muffled sound; a notification tone as she swapped them from PTT to an open line. “Driver just dropped Tali at the transpo hub. Said to tell you she’ll monitor C-Sec channels, apprise us if there’s any police activity in our zone of operation. On my way down the boulevard now.”

“Good.” He closed his case. “We’re early, so just pick somewhere to post up when you arrive. It’s fine if you’re in plain sight.”

“Got it. Going dark. ETA five.” 

“Received.” He removed the lens cap and raised the scope to his eye, reacquainting himself with the rifle’s heft. He hadn’t discharged the Mantis since Shepard had evaced him from Omega, hauling out his body and effects in bloody pieces. Months though it’d been, his hands still remembered the contour of the grip, broader and flatter than the M-98’s. The slim silhouette, the grooves of the sling stud. His shoulder settled as it readjusted to a stock familiar and strange. 

He checked the breech for sinks: empty. Flipped the safety, and shuttled the bolt twice to loosen it before squeezing the trigger. By the end of a 48 hour siege, takeup had been significant as the springs lost tensile strength, overtravel marked enough to warrant compensation in the firing solution. But Shepard had replaced the trigger assembly herself while he’d been in Medbay or shortly after, and performance issues arising from wear and tear had been rectified. Smooth action. Zero creep. Odd to consider that the rifle no more consisted of its original parts than he was entirely Archangel after months off Omega. The form was there, and the potential; but the components had been changed, and not by his hands.  

Philosophical. Pointless. A product of hours’ if not cycles’ worth of perseveration after his talk with the CO. Shepard probably thought about this all the time, considering the circumstances of her return to the living, and now she had him doing it too. Garrus reengaged the safety and loaded a full brace of thermal clips. Only one needed, but overpreparation harmed no one.

“Here,” Shepard reported, unmuting. “Headed to a position right outside Orbital Lounge. Arrivals/departures on my six.”

He set up on the guardrail and panned across, locking on her profile. She’d taken one of the benches facing Orbital’s display windows. Body language was relaxed but alert. Her helm turned, tracking a group of pedestrians who crossed her FOV, then rotated forward again. People-watching without apparent intent.

“I see you,” he said.

“Yeah? How’s the view up there?”

“Not objectionable in the least. Quite the vista, actually. But I imagine it’ll look a lot rosier with a turian traitor bleeding out in the backdrop.” He screwed his silencer onto the M-92’s muzzle. 

“He’ll come.” She crossed her arms, settling back. “Don’t think your contact was in any condition to tip him off after you were done.” 

“I take it you feel I went too far.”

“What am I to you, Vakarian, a fucking Girl Scout? Guy was a misogynist piece of shit two years ago and still is.” She rolled her head on her neck. “You ask me, you shot him in the wrong body part.”

He chuckled and adjusted his magnification, using her as a reference point. “Sorry to assume. But glad to hear that we agree.”

“Bound to happen once in a while.” She draped an arm over the backrest. “All right, gimme the rundown.”

“Sure. It’s pretty straightforward. I’ll monitor the area for Sidonis and apprise you once I spot him. You’ll wave him over to wherever I position you, keep him talking while I run the numbers. At that point, I’ll give the signal, you’ll give the countersignal, and I’ll take the shot.”

“Clarifying question.” Her fingers tapped against the stitching. “Why am I calling any part of it? Not the one on scope.”

He toggled on his IR torch and checked sights. Too many bodies on the field. He switched it off. “Well. I don’t think Lawson would thank me if I took you out as collateral on the way to my mark. Depending on relative positioning, I may need you to move out of my sightline. This seemed like the way to secure that.”

He couldn’t see her raise her eyebrows, but her expression was clear from tone. “Alternate suggestion. How about you apprise me if and when it’s time to clear your reticle? Been awhile but I can take an order, you know.” 

“Works for me, ma’am. Just trying not to overstep.”

“Thought’s appreciated.” A pause. “Your mission, your command, Archangel. Like we talked about before. I won’t break ranks unless you recklessly endanger civilian lives or some shit, all right?”

“...All right. Thanks for the assist, Shepard.”

“No problem, CO.” She glanced up as a news drone flew overhead. “So where’re you at? Think you’re gonna pull the trigger?”

He tracked the drone, but it didn’t slow, en route to some other part of the station. He returned his reticle to her. “He deserted and sold our position to the enemy. I have a writ of arrest with prerogative to execute, or I would if our activities had been sanctioned by the Hierarchy. But I’ll need a minute or two to adjust for variables with all the foot traffic, so…who knows. Maybe he’ll force me to reconsider. I doubt it.”

“Got it. Well, ready to beat feet if it comes to that. Hope I’m still spry. My age, I never thought I’d be pulling out shit I learned as lookout for the Reds. ”

“Sorry, ma’am. I’m sure you’ll manage the getaway with aplomb.”

“You bet. Stretched and everything.”

“If it helps, the crowd will be focused on the body and not on a bystander. You should be able to slip away easily, spry or not.”

“Great.” She drew her sabatons out of the path of a maintenance trolley. “So brief me. I gotta keep ‘im talking. What the fuck do I talk about with him?”

He checked the wind factor—zero—twisted down the windage knob. No need for it. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever comes to mind. I’m not looking for a confession of guilt.”

“Yeah, little help here? I’m not trained in espionage, guy. Which, now I think of it, was strong motive to have pulled Lawson for this instead of me.” 

He settled back into the scope, refocusing on her. “I’d have trusted the XO’s operational expertise, Commander, but…well. I wanted you on my six for this. For all the usual reasons. Shared service history. Mutual trust. Uh. Friendship, and so forth.”

“Understood and happy to render the assist.” She parked her boots in the aisle again. “Just got some reservations about personal aptitude. Don’t wanna fuck anything up for you.”

“I hear your concern, and I promise you’re going to be fine. I wouldn’t have asked for this arrangement if I thought you couldn’t do it, ma’am.” 

“...Appreciate the vote of confidence, I guess.” Her heel drummed the floor. 

“Likewise.” He checked the field. Scanned for locations with relatively clear sightlines, adjacent to major walkways rather than in them. “Tell him that Fade sent you. That, uh, printing of false IDs has been delayed because of some issue in C-Sec. If he tries to nail down a firm date of completion, hedge. Wind him up by talking about the number of clients Fade serves, how he’s not a priority customer. If he tries to walk, remind him he has nowhere else to go and no one else who can do this work.” 

He panned back. Shepard was readjusting her vambrace. “Think your law enforcement label is showing, buddy.”

“Yeah. Maybe it can do some good for once.” 

He traversed the floor again. With a handful of exceptions, most pedestrians were passing quickly through, breaking and flowing around stationary objects like water. An asari consulted a directory, scrolling down indices with a finger while their volus companion tried not to obstruct foot traffic. A party of seven, mixed turian and quarian, was pushing together tables outside a restaurant. A human leaned against the guardrail on Shepard’s two o’clock, scanning the incoming cabs. They lifted a hand to their comm, craning, then abandoned the motion and hurried to embrace a new arrival before drawing them off down the boulevard.  

A turian in civvies had entered the plaza. His gait lacked the desultory energy of a shopper browsing storefronts, the purposefulness of an employee headed back to work. His crest swiveled as he looked around. 

Periwinkle colony markings. An all-too-familiar face. Lantar Sidonis, former XO and person of interest in the massacre of ten people in Kima District. 

Garrus’s fingers tensed involuntarily on the receiver. Somewhere beyond the barrier that had installed itself between him and the capacity to feel, a bullet smacked the glass.

He inhaled. Exhaled. Forced his hand to relax and his shoulders to drop. “Visual acquired on your five o’clock,” he said. “Turian, blue civilian attire, red accent panel. Pale purple tattoos. Get to the balustrade on your three and flag him down.”

Shepard pushed to her feet. Garrus tracked her in his sights as she went to the rail and caught the target’s eye. 

Sidonis joined her with quick steps, glancing at the foot traffic as it swirled past, at the CO’s hand draped casually over her sidearm. The sling was gone but he held his right arm close. Habit, or it’d never healed properly. Either way, he hadn’t falsified his injuries. Noted. 

“Let’s get this over with,” Lantar said, stopping in front of her. 

“Right. You Sidonis? Here for the IDs and papers?” Shepard stepped sideways, clearing the walkway, and Lantar pivoted to keep her in view. Garrus flicked a mandible, distantly amused. She’d maneuvered him against the rail, standing oblique to the target so sightlines were already clear. No espionage training, but evidently skills like tactical positioning transferred across areas of expertise. 

“Quieter, please, but yes,” he said. His subharmonics were strained and thin, from disuse or dehydration or both, and his plates were dull, an early indicator of malnutrition. Sleep deprived, by the swollen eyes and rapid blinks. Clothes were clean but threadbare, hanging loosely in odd places. Picked up secondhand, maybe, or washed repeatedly in hard water. 

“Got some bad news for you, then,” Shepard said. “There’s been a change of plans. Fade’s gonna need a little more time to get the IDs in order.”

Garrus readjusted magnification for the new distance. His visor was running the numbers, reeling out ambient air density, vertical angle, spin drift. At this range and under these gravity conditions, bullet drop was more than negligible. He’d need to target…there…to execute a headshot, provided that no one moved and this iteration of the Mantis handled the same. But Shepard’s signature would have imprinted on the trigger assembly, and he hadn’t thought to ask about modifications. Hadn’t had time to crack open the receiver and check before they were debarking on Citadel Station, chasing down Fade, and now here. Pressed, he could hazard that the commander had made the same tweaks she did to her own rifles, installing the trigger piece about twenty-five percent closer to the actuator than recommended and twenty-five percent further from it than he preferred. Pull weight would feel the same, but muzzle climb from kickback would be higher than standard for a gun he’d built himself. He incorporated it into his firing solution and hoped for the best.

“...a cycle?” Sidonis was asking. “Three cycles? What’s the expected turnaround on this?” He crossed his arms, fingers curled around his elbows. Not combative; self-protective. Holding himself together.

“Look, buddy, I dunno. I don’t make the IDs, I just deliver ‘em, all right? Something got bogged down in C-Sec. Could be hours, could be days, hell, could be weeks. It’s fucking Citadel Security.”

The numbers were in, and his heart was starting to thud warningly. It was past time to close this out. Lantar’s death wouldn’t balance the books, and executing a man without reading his sentence was dishonorable as hell. But Sidonis had forfeited his right to honor through his actions, and Garrus had forfeited his right to scruples when he’d enlisted men to his cause. The CO had a duty to rectify the wrongs of his appointed officers. Was accountable for their mistakes. This was owed.

Garrus freed the safety and straightened his finger along the trigger. Let his eyes move past the reticle to his XO behind it, bringing it all home. Remembering, before he scrubbed the memory and the man out of existence.

Sidonis was cradling his arm to his chest, mirroring the stance he’d assumed the last time Archangel had seen him, standing before their bombed-out home and paying a price in blood for his own sorry life. Pints of blood, gallons, spilled for this traitor.

The blood of Mierin, estranged from the grandmother who’d raised them but still toting her locket. Drafts on drafts saved to their datapad. Planning every cycle to reach out and reconcile and right the wrongs between them. Garrus had quietly assumed the payments they’d made until the end, communicating in the quality of life assured by credits an apology that neither he nor Mierin had been able to speak.

The blood of Sensat, fallen off the grid and out of the Hierarchy on a matter of conscientious objection. Refusing to execute one more civilian in service to the hastatim, then turning her rifle on her unit when they’d stepped up to finish the job. The first to fall had been her brother, and she’d burned him out of existence to buy a city block’s worth of noncombatants ten minutes to flee.

Of Vortash, retired to Omega. Burdened by a career’s worth of the routine atrocities committed in his homeworld’s peacekeeping force; trading pension and substance-induced complacency for a chance at redemption, and now retired in perpetuity.  

Their lives and seven others, meted out on a scale that Lantar Sidonis had tipped without conscience or reservation.

His index sealed against the trigger. Four pounds of pressure to end a man’s life. He breathed, squeezed, and—  

“This isn’t for me,” Sidonis said. “If I don’t kill my old identity dead, others might suffer.”

Garrus froze mid-pull. 

“...What others?” he croaked, straightening his index. “Shepard, work out what the hell he’s talking about.”

“I don’t know who’s on Fade’s docket ahead of me,” Lantar went on, “but I can pay more. I can pay whatever’s necessary.” His tones were urgent, quiet. He topped Shepard by over a foot but was diminished by contrast, limbs drawn in and shoulders hunched.

“Jesus, that’s an offer,” Shepard said. “What the fuck did you do, guy? Who’s getting caught in the crossfire that’s worth that much?”

“I…I gave up intelligence to some dangerous people, all right? And I’m being punished for it. I wake up every night, sick. I see the faces of the ones I’ve…” He trailed off. “Food has no taste. Most days I can barely get out of bed. I don’t even have a chance without those IDs. But that’s not what’s important. Someone’s decided that I’m a loose end. If I don’t disappear and make out like I’ve been killed, people from my old life could face retaliation.”

Garrus’s heart was pounding. No. He’d taken every precaution, he’d closed every possible route tracing his team’s activities on Omega back to their private lives. Except for Weaver, but Weaver had consented, he’d wanted to manage his own affairs, and he’d—

Shepard shrugged. “I’ll pass that to the boss, but I told you, we’re working on ‘em as fast as we can. Why don’t you try a little mental health counseling? You ask me, I don’t think a new identity’s gonna solve the vast majority of those problems.”

He struggled to focus, to think past the doubt and possibility of a fatal mistake. She wasn’t wrong. Vivid nightmares and interrupted sleep, paralysis, dissociative flashbacks, loss of interest in activities of daily living? Classic symptoms of PTSD. Depression. Whatever had happened after Omega, whatever he’d been paid and promised or not, Sidonis hadn’t walked out a victor, never mind a beneficiary of his decision. Survivor’s guilt, Garrus had thought, moments ago. To learn his XO had acted to protect not just himself, but members of his household or community…that wasn’t a coward’s choice or a deserter’s one. That was self-interest alloyed with altruism, warped by a different interpretation of duty. 

If Lantar wasn’t lying, the companies had fucking IDed him. Forced him to make a call he never would’ve been presented with, if Archangel had done his damn job. But he was still responsible for the loss of ten men. He’d been their XO. And the simple route, Hierarchy-sanctioned, the one that skirted the ethical quandaries and speculations over what balanced what, was execution. Dead, the mercenary companies would have no reason to pursue any action against Lantar’s dependents or associates. Dead, he paid out the meager indemnity he could towards the people he’d betrayed.

Garrus flexed his hand on the receiver and waited out his pulse, letting it settle. Played back the register of Sidonis’s symptoms, and wondered if his XO wanted to die. Wondered if death for a person already feeling the weight of his choices would be due sentence for a crime committed, or reprieve from the guilt incurred. 

Shepard was probably just wondering why he hadn’t pulled the trigger yet, how much longer she’d have to stall. 

“If we’re not doing this today, I need to get out of the open,” Sidonis said. “Tell Fade to contact me if he can move up my order. Please—please tell him lives are at stake.” He turned away.

God damn it. 

“Shepard, stop him,” Garrus ordered, raising his eye from the scope. “Tell him if he moves, he dies.”

She stepped forward instantly. Her hand clamped on Lantar’s arm. 

“What the—get off me!” He yanked back, her fingers clenched; his fist lashed out and she knocked it aside. A pedestrian looked briefly before dropping their gaze and hurrying on. 

“Stand down and don’t try my fucking patience, she snapped, jerking him out of the aisle. “You leave when I tell you to and not a second sooner, got it?”

“What the hell gives you the ri—”

“The right? I’m doing you a fucking favor. I’m the only thing standing between you and a hole in the head, and the longer you lecture me, the less interested I get in keeping you alive.”

Lantar went still. 

“That’s better.” Her voice was quiet. “Wasn’t that easy? Now, I’m gonna let go. Stay the fuck still and don’t make a scene, ‘less you never wanna have to worry about those people of yours again. Can you do that?” 

He nodded, almost imperceptibly. His fists were clenched. 

“Good.” She released him, slowly, and drew back, clearing Garrus’s reticle.

His eyes were shuttling, searching for a shooter over her head. “Who hired you?” he asked, low. “Eclipse? Are you a bounty hunter? If so—if this is just a job to you, I can—”

The commander shrugged. “You know, I don’t think I’m interested in chatting. Why don’t you shut the hell up and let me check something?” Sidonis went quiet, and she pulled up her screen. 

A message scrolled across his marquee. Didn’t want to let on that you were on the line. 

Another message. Orders?

Garrus cleared his throat. “Sorry, Commander. Just a moment. New—new data.”

She nodded. Closed her tool and hooked her hands into her tactical belt. 

He flexed his hand on the receiver. He had to make the call. The call had already been made. But it had been made absent vital intelligence, had been made on the assumption of purely selfish action, which meant it warranted reevaluation. 

In the Hierarchy, a fugitive apprehended was tried by military tribunal. The defendant testified and was sentenced to render whatever service the panel deemed commensurate with their crime. Sometimes the service was death. Sometimes it was remuneration. Sentencing was discretionary but governed by the guiding principle that restitution must serve the greater good. 

This was Lantar’s tribunal, the only hearing the man would ever be called to for the deaths of ten people not only under Archangel’s command, but under his in his capacity as Executive Officer. And something in Garrus, perverse or turian or both, was pushing him to do this by the book. To do this right, the way he probably should have done all along, though nothing about this was sanctioned. If the Sidonis household’s safety had been compromised—if there were mitigating factors—a punishment slated had to fit the magnitude of one’s crimes. And it might transpire that nothing changed the ruling. But there was only one way to find out.

Blood pounded in his ears. “Shepard…Tell him Archangel sends his regards.”

She repeated it.

Sidonis’s eyes darted over the plaza. “You don’t work for—he’s…he’s here? He’s alive?” His mandibles were lifting, dropping, flickering in agitation. “...Shit. I—Vakarian, please, listen to—” 

“Tell him to give his testimony,” he ordered.

“Consider yourself on trial,” Shepard said. “You got anything to say in your defense, do it now.”

Lantar’s subharmonics were pleading. Resolute. Both. “There was nothing I could do. I don’t know how, but they got to me, all right? If I hadn’t talked they’d have killed me, and not just me. Erinyia, Astyanax…they had names. Photos. Addresses. I had to choose. And now Butler, Weaver, Sensat, Erash…all of them…I know they’re dead because of me. Do you think I’m proud? Do you think I’d have sold us out for anything less than—”

He’d been in bad shape to begin with, and his agitation was becoming visible, audible. Heads were starting to turn. “Shepard—” Garrus began, but the commander had already taken the initiative.

Her hand dropped to her sidearm; the other locked on his keel, drawing him down to eye level. “Get a hold of yourself,” she said softly. “After everything you’ve done, you want C-Sec running down here? Anyone plays the security cams back, they’re gonna hear you confessing to goddamn murder.”

He stopped, took a breath. His mandibles pressed tight to his jaw. “I’m sorry.”

“Much better.” Shepard stepped back, slotted her pistol back in. “Now you and I are gonna stand here for a bit, nice and quiet and friendly, and there are gonna be no sudden moves and no calls for help, or I can’t be held responsible for my actions regardless of what the CO wants. Got it?”

Lantar’s eyes flicked to her. He nodded, jerkily.

“Good man.”

A gaggle of tourists swept across Garrus’s FOV, brandishing pull-up omnitool maps and shopping bags. A person in an Orbital Lounge uniform passed the other way, deep in a vid call. 

Traffic was flowing again. No one had commented on the outburst; no one had intervened. Diffusion of responsibility was a powerful force. Whenever the burden of accountability could be passed, it summarily was, transferred hand to hand like a live grenade until it detonated and blew everyone away because no one’d had the strength of will or presence of mind to hurl it out of range or take one for the team. Lantar’s remonstrances; his self-justifications? No different. He’d shifted blame for his freewilled decision to Eclipse, Blood Pack, and the Blue Suns, disclaiming his own agency in the process. But everyone had a damn choice. Lantar’s had been unthinkable and un-fucking-forgivable; and 1100.31 yards away, braced on a guardrail in the shadows, Garrus was positioned as judge, jury, and executioner. 

He breathed, shakily, and didn’t fire. Breathed again, and still didn’t fire. Lantar had braced himself against the balustrade, rigid with nerves. Shepard’s arms were crossed. Her helm was turning slowly as she scanned the crowd, apparently content to wait without comment for as long as it took him to close out the assignment. 

He couldn’t just sit here. Couldn’t let his XO walk, because that would be dereliction of his duty as CO; couldn’t execute his XO, because that would disregard extenuating factors. The punishment had to be commensurate with the crime, and there was no punishment that fit. There was no middle ground, no point between the two extremes that ticked all the boxes, and the extremes weren’t fucking fixed in space either. In squeezing the trigger, he either absolved his XO of responsibility for his actions or held him accountable for them. In standing down, likewise, because there was no damn manual that quantified the moral value of every action, that would let him tally it up and write the sum and make an objective decision because numbers didn’t lie.

How did it add up, in the cosmic arithmetic of the galaxy, in the Hierarchy, in his own calculations? Could the loss of one life pay for ten? Did a permanent and dishonorable discharge from life deliver ignominy due or respite unearned? How much was a lifetime of suffering worth, of sleep-starved nights and numbed-out days and the insidious certainty that by all rights you should’ve died with the rest of them? 

At the end of the damn day, why were they dead? Coercion was mutually exclusive with agency. If the companies had gotten to Sidonis, penetrated the protections and failsafes that he, Garrus, had built to guard his people’s identities…then in killing his XO, he allotted Lantar the share of blame due Archangel, who’d failed his men by failing to forestall a critical breach in security. One that had jeopardized the families, friends, and associates he’d sworn to shield from retaliation when every one of them enlisted. 

Maybe Lantar Sidonis didn’t deserve execution. Maybe he did, himself. 

But that wasn’t correct either. Every officer shared in accountability and blame. If Archangel was culpable, his XO wasn’t exonerated by default.

“Tell him—” Sidonis began, then stopped. “I guess there’s nothing I can say to make it right.” He looked down the avenue, scanning for places that might conceal a sniper, a muzzle flash. His eyes swept over Garrus’s perch, locked briefly on his through the scope without recognition. 

“Just…end it, Vakarian,” he said. “If you’re out there, listening. I did what I thought I had to, and you should too. I accept the consequences of my actions.” 

He looked sick. Tired. Resigned. He’d decided what he deserved, and it was death. 

Death could be justice. Death could be vengeance. Death could also be absolution, or liberation from the burden of atonement. 

For Lantar Sidonis, who’d betrayed his unit to safeguard his household, deserted his command to defend others under his protection—who was fraying over a decision with no perfect answer—it would be impossible to atone. He’d been damned to deal in shitty choices from the moment he’d trusted his CO’s word. And that was Garrus’s burden to carry. 

But they were turian. They were turian, damn it, and unfairness wasn’t grounds for disobedience. The definition of civic duty was to sublimate private interest to public need. In the best of circumstances, obligations in the private and public sectors dovetailed: the discharge of one entailed fulfillment of the other. When that failed, the order of precedence was fixed: military and state down the chain of command, then household by sequence of birth in the paternal line. A conflict of interest wasn’t possible. Wasn’t permissible functionally, regardless of how it felt emotionally. In a bind, you consulted the manual, did your duty or didn’t, and accepted the consequences either route. By the commonest interpretation of the law, the sentence for choosing your family over your unit, of prioritizing the private over the public, was execution. Lantar knew that. It was why he wasn’t fighting anymore. Why he stood waiting, the fear stripped from him, facing the certainty of execution with the equanimity he had left.

The trigger pull lay under his finger. Means.

Ten names were scratched into his visor. Motive.

And yet. The essential question was whether Sidonis served the collective good in death or in life. 

Dead, his household was left to fend for themselves. Erinyia and Astyanax, but others too. 

Dead, no reparation beyond a blood price, never disclosed, could be rendered to the families of the team he’d consigned to slaughter. 

He thought of Monteague, who’d asked to die, unprepared to weather a siege. 

Of Melenis and Grundan Krul, who’d consented to die, not waiting for the enemy to flush them out.

Of Archangel, who’d wished for death by the end and had earned it; but the idea of rest had been so seductive, too. 

Of Shepard, back from the dead, defending a galaxy whose worth she could no longer see in service of principles she could no longer feel.

Death was service, but it wasn’t the only service. It was easy to die. It was hard as hell to live. 

His finger straightened. 

“Shepard,” he said, “put me through.”

She stirred, setting a hand to her comm. Sidonis looked at her. “Ten-hut,” she told him. “Call from the CO.” She toggled to speaker mode. “You’re on.” 

“This is Archangel,” he said, and Lantar tensed. “When you deserted your unit and betrayed them to the enemy, you forfeited your honor, not your responsibility to serve. I’ve heard your testimony, and the restitution you owe…it’s more than can be paid out by execution. Yes, I have a lock on you, and I’d like nothing better than to shoot you where you stand for treason. But you have dependents, and consideration is due to them. I won’t leave a household to fend for itself the way you forced others to fend for themselves when you gave up our people’s lives. Let me be clear, XO: this isn’t a reprieve. You made a degenerate choice for reasons both understandable and inexcusable, and you don’t have my goddamn permission to die until you’ve redressed your wrongs in full.”

He watched the words play out through his reticle. Watched Sidonis straighten on reflex, connecting to the heart-deep charge of service that no turian was ever really free of, no matter how far they ran or how low they’d fallen, because that was what they’d been made to be. Saw him become, momentarily, the man he’d been when they’d met years and a lifetime ago in the cellar of Afterlife, when things had seemed simple even when they fucking weren’t.

“...I promise, Vakarian.” He spoke haltingly. “Thank you, for—I’ll make it up to you, somehow.”

“It’s ‘CO’ to you, and you’re incapable of making it up to me, you son of a bitch,” Garrus said. “Make it up to the unit you let down when you decided that the value of your life and your family’s lives surpassed theirs. You were a soldier once, Sidonis, however substandard of an excuse for one you proved to be. Don’t you dare turn your back again. Don’t you dare forget what you owe. I’ll be watching. Archangel out.”

Shepard switched back to in-ear mode as Garrus exhaled. His hands were steady, conditioned to stillness, but his heart pumped too quickly, his lungs clawing for air.

“...That’s all,” he said. “Fuck, that’s all, god damn it, and I’m sorry it took so long. Cut him loose, Commander. I’ll meet you at the rendezvous point.”

“You got it. Over and out.”

The line clicked off.

He drew his M-92 from the guardrail. Unscrewed the silencer. Collapsed the bipod. Decoupled barrel, stock, receiver, and scope. Homed the parts in his case. He went slowly, grounding himself in the mundanity, the deliberate act of fitting every piece into its precisely molded bed.

It was over. He’d made the call. It might even have been the right one. But he didn’t get to know, and he’d never get to know, and the longer he managed to stay alive, the longer he looked at anything, the more he wondered. 

Maybe right was a lighthouse, a guiding point in the black never meant to be reached. 

Maybe right was ephemeral, evaporating like mist when the sun rose too high. 

Maybe Shepard was right, and right didn’t exist.

And that fucking possibility—as he closed his case, latched it shut, and reflected on every choice he’d made, every round he’d fired in service to an idea increasingly chimaeric, mutable, and malleable, more formless than fixed, an impression that took one shape at dawn and another at dusk and showed one face to him and another to someone else—it yawned like a chasm before him.

Chapter Text

Garrus squinted up into the Kodiak’s assemblage and ran his palm along the fuel line. Gas kept pooling in the scuttle dangerously close to the starboard thrusters, and there had to be a reason why.

Maybe he’d find it, he reflected, if he fumbled around in here long enough without a headlight or proper tools. Maybe when he did, he’d stop replaying the death of every person on his team against the memory of his XO in the crosshairs, breathing and reprieved. 

Hell, maybe anything was possible if he leaned hard enough into certainty. If it was good enough for self-titled benevolent dictators and cult leaders, there was no reason why it shouldn’t be enough for him too.  

Lantar Sidonis had walked away again. During a mission under his command, again. It was sound judgment or another fatal error, and if someone knew which, had run the numbers and was sitting on the answer, they weren’t being forthcoming with the intelligence. Something looked off through every lens he applied, and the only constant appeared to be that he, Garrus Vakarian, was a fuckup approaching terminal velocity and a sorry damn excuse for a soldier, son, and adult person. If he ever needed to draw up a service history for the Hierarchy, the 2183-2185 spread wasn’t going to be flattering.

2183: detective, Citadel Security Forces. Reenlisted following extended leave of absence (reason for leave: something else was more interesting). Resigned without notice due to one (1) warrant request taking too long. Permission to contact employer: withheld. 

2183-2185? Vigilante, self-appointed. Recruited security consultants, ex-law enforcement agents, and ex-military operatives for illegal activities under warped and narrow pretense of justice; suffered fatal lapse in character judgment resulting in team’s massacre. References not available upon request. As final encore, stayed writ of execution on deserter despite documented acts of treason, sentencing defendant to community service instead. 

And the present? Contractor, Cerberus, aka known Systems Alliance splinter group with record of terrorist activities and human supremacist agenda. Current mission: unsanctioned and classified. All details redacted, but don’t worry, good cause. Cf. company’s resume. Permission to contact employer? Definitely fucking not. 

He worked a gasket free, tossed it somewhere onto the deck, and went back in. 

He’d made the call himself. Let Sidonis walk. He’d thought he’d known why, right until the point of no return. Now, some-odd hours later, inhaling the rust and fuel stench of the Kodiak under the hangar lights, he was still spinning, still in his damn head and unable to plot a course out of it. He didn’t know if it’d been sentence or reprieve, punishment or pardon, restitution or leniency. And he couldn’t guess how to find out, and there probably wasn’t an answer, anyway, but he couldn’t get clear of the questions.

His fingers came away damp. He thrust his hand out under the garage lights to see what he’d touched. 

Brake fluid. Considering they’d mastered faster than light travel, it was beyond absurd that no one had determined how to contain the sheer number of substances that leaked out of a vehicle in motion.

He reached into the assemblage again. He’d had motive, a sightline, and operational autonomy, the go-ahead from his CO. Mapped every detail of Sidonis’s face through the scope. Lantar had looked hunted and haunted, shaken and shattered by the ramifications of his choice. He hadn’t sounded self-congratulatory or sure, self-justifying or any one of the untold adjectives that might’ve let Garrus just squeeze the trigger and end it; he hadn’t been wholly guilty any more than Archangel had been wholly innocent. He’d picked one duty over another albeit the wrong one, and the choosing had rendered him a shell, scoured out by trauma and tumbling in its undertow. Same as any soldier. Same as Shepard. Same as him. 

If death was too clean for Archangel, it would’ve been too clean for Archangel’s XO. Lantar had to serve. To suffer. To atone. To do that, he had to live. 

Right?

God damn it. Someone needed to tell him what to do. He couldn’t be trusted to make his own decisions if this was what the fallout looked like. He was halfway to putting a bullet in his brain just to make it stop running on overclock.

“Fucking damn it fuck me sideways,” he told the Kodiak. 

“Buy a girl a drink first,” someone said.

“—Shepard?” 

“Sure hope so.”

He slid out. The commander was on deck, hands in her pockets. He hadn’t heard her coming, which, on review of his headspace, wasn’t much of a surprise. “I, uh. I didn’t think you’d be looking for me down here.” 

She raised her eyebrows. “You hiding?”

“Not exactly.” He got to his feet. Pushed down the thoughts as he pushed himself up. “Still…it’s a big ship and I’m not in the battery. If you lack object permanence like I do, you forget other people keep existing outside their normal context.”

She settled against a worktable. “Not that big of a ship, and I happen to have the run of the place. So when my gunnery officer goes AWOL after a mission of personal import, it doesn’t take me too long to track him down.” 

“I admire your commitment to the followthrough.”

“Soul of professionalism.”

“Soul of baseball player,[1] more like,” he countered, and she saluted with two fingers.

“See you did another deep dive on sports terminology for no reason.”

“Every reason, actually, if you’re committed to understanding what your messmate is talking about at any given moment. ‘Strike one, swing and a miss,’[2] Shepard, honestly. You’ve been off the mound for, what, how many years?”

Her mouth twitched. “Sorry.”

“You should be. Here I am, just trying to take an interest in your life. Not for anyone would I research the difference between a splitter and a slider. I need to get this off me.” He looked around for a rag. 

She pulled a shop towel from the bin, twisted it into a rope, and knotted it. “Appreciate the effort, though I’m gonna contend that a lot of humans’ idiolects are chock full of sports metaphor, not just mine. You think about it that way, you’re improving your cultural literacy every time you open a tab ‘cause of me.” 

“Well, thanks ever so for being the vehicle for my self-improvement as usual.” He caught the rag as it arced down and unraveled it.   

“More’n welcome.” 

She’d posted up on one side of the worktable rather than square in the middle. An invitation to sit; a reminder that the door was open and office hours were in session. And he’d never been less equipped for a debrief, but he wiped his hands and pulled on his gloves anyway. 

The workbench creaked as he joined her. She glanced at him but didn’t speak. Letting him set the terms of engagement.

…Damn it. He didn’t know what was on the docket. Everything. Nothing. Both, probably.

He cleared his throat. “Uh. Sorry, Commander. I’ll report to the battery soon. Stop lurking in corners of the ship. I just need to…to reassemble this, first.” He looked at the mess he’d made, the piles of disemboweled parts. LPCs and HPCs had all been removed. The drive belt was coiled on the deck. So was the sump. 

“Not an official visit.” Shepard shrugged. “You have a burning need to dismantle our transpo, be my guest.” 

“In that case.” 

The mechanics had left out a handful of parts on the workspace. He touched one for something to do. Sifted through, separating nuts and bolts. He could feel her watching him. His thoughts were distant and crowded, speculative, contradictory, and self-doubting. Not fit to print in the least. 

The silence stretched.

A movement, as he tried to pull a coherent sentence from the flow. She’d turned forward again and was gazing across the hangar. “Wasn’t an easy decision you made back there.”

She’d taken back the rudder, taken initiative and the burden of the approach from him; and in that moment, burnt by the mission and more exhausted than he’d thought possible, even with the shit sleep and the nightmares and the incessant thoughts and recursive doubts, Garrus was wordlessly grateful. 

“Understatement,” he said. 

She drew her hands from her pockets and braced them on the table. Her fingers curled over the edge. “Wanna talk about it?”

A screw bounced off the table, rolling away. He tracked its movement, then forced himself to meet her eyes. “I don’t know. I’m not sure what to say.”

“I get that.” 

The lights buzzed overhead. His biofeedback module spooled out pulse readings. For once hers were averaging lower than his. He breathed. Held, and released, counting out. His heart rate slowed.   

“Should I—” she began.

“No, stay. Just…thinking.”

She nodded. 

A flash of movement. Samara and Lawson passed the windows overlooking the garage, deep in conversation. The floor indicator blinked on, climbed. Blinked off.

Garrus set a screw on its head, and wondered if Sidonis would kill himself. Experience a psychotic break. Die of self-neglect, unable to see to his own needs. 

Take a job in a free clinic. Work the soup kitchens on Omega. Submit to a life of service until the trauma closed over his head and took him.

Live, get help, and become whole, while ten good people lay in unmarked graves because of him.

Fucking damn it. 

“I want to know that I made the right call, Shepard,” he said abruptly, and she shifted, looking over. 

“I know.”

“At the same time, he genuinely could’ve lived or died, and I’d probably still be down here destroying the Kodiak, asking myself the same question. Running it through some kind of morality algorithm and coming up null.”

“I hear you.” Her fingernail found a scratch in the paint, dug out another chip. “I take it you didn’t let him walk on principle.”

“Not exactly. Not the principle I think you mean, of nonviolence. Of—of turning the other cheek.” He shook his head. “At least, that wasn’t my intention. No, the logic was a lot more turian. It had to do with—” and there wasn’t a word in Galactic Standard that could encompass the breadth of the concept, a principle that underpinned the words and deeds of nearly every turian he’d met, so he said it in dialect.

A pause. He imagined her translator firing up, spitting out some amalgam of adjacent but incomplete phrases, like civic engagement and filial duty, paternalism and patriotism, loyalty and piety, when it was all of those things and none of them. 

From the line between her eyes, the latest software update still hadn’t come close. “Feel up to defining that?” she asked eventually.

“If you’re up for a lesson.”

“Are you? I can take a minute and figure it out. Got access to the whole extranet.”

“It’s one of those things that will take you longer than a minute, ma’am. Even and especially with the extranet trying to be helpful.”

“...All right. Go ahead. Sorry to need the assist.”

He considered. “Maybe the translation is ‘service’? But with dimensions. It’s extending your protection and financial support as far as your reach allows, without reneging on preexisting or superseding obligations and without the expectation of reciprocity or acclaim. It’s sublimating your needs to your household’s, your household’s to your community’s, and your community’s to the state’s, in order to serve the greatest collective good. Shepard, what are you doing?”

She looked up from her omnitool. “Taking notes?”

“When I said ‘lesson,’ I didn’t mean there would be a test,” he drawled.

She shrugged, closing her screen. “Write it down now, never have to ask again.”

“Fair enough.”

“If I’m getting this…” she said, slowly, “your XO reneged on his obligation to your unit, ‘cause he thought had a preexisting obligation to his family.”

“The difficult thing is that he did have a preexisting obligation to his family, but obligation to your unit technically supersedes obligation to your household. All of which is probably why I’m down here now, questioning everything I’ve ever done and running up a repair bill for Lawson to process.” 

“Money’s no object. Whatever keeps my third officer operational gets pushed through.” Another fleck of paint spiraled down to the deck. “So you went for harm reduction.”

“I tried to.” He thought back to that bloody day on Omega. “If I lost my team that day, others lost family and financial support. Killing him would have forced more to lose the same.” He looked down at her. “...I want him dead, ma’am. But in order to even attempt to make amends, he needs to live. So he’ll live, and carry the weight of his shitty choices until they crush him.” He paused. Wondered if he should voice the next thought. But she was still looking at him, still neutral, so he went on. “A part of me hopes they do. And I’m not sure if I should apologize for that.”

“Not in my book.” She shrugged. “Easy to die, hard to live?”

“—Yeah. Yeah, exactly.” He crossed his arms. “You heard him, Shepard. He sees them sleeping and waking. That sort of thing doesn’t just go away. He’s trapped in the prison of his mistakes and deteriorating; his damn turian guilt is punishing him without anyone having to lift a finger. It’s more than I could have done with my own hands. It’s more than anyone could have done if I’d dragged him back to some nonexistent court under Aria’s jurisdiction.”

“Jesus.” She hopped up on the worktable. “That’s retribution all right, buddy. This the real reason you called yourself Archangel?”

“You know it. Dispensing justice in an unjust galaxy, and all that.”

She snorted. “Well, it’s a good sell. If I’d been listening to anything besides the sound of my own voice two years ago, maybe you’d’ve talked me into sparing Wayne.”

“Bruce Wayne? Famed philanthropist, Batman on the sly, and, according to an increasing number of crewmen, my alter ego?”[4]

“Hilarious. Doc Wayne. Scientist from the Akuze Project.”

He cocked his head. “Liar. If I may.”

Shepard shrugged. “Yeah and also no. It’s not the same, ‘cause the guy wasn’t exactly fucking penitent. But I still second-guessed myself after, you know? Caught myself wondering. Maybe if I’d held off, Toombs wouldn’t’ve eaten that bullet. Maybe putting Wayne on trial would’ve been the thing that brought down Cerberus. All the alternatives I’ll never see play out.” 

“Right. I guess the choices aren’t clear cut, absent a time and multiverse machine.”

“Never are.” She picked up a bolt and flicked the nut, sending it down the threads. “That what you mean? Craving some kind of certainty?”

“That’s what I mean. Sure, he’ll suffer—he already is. There’s no doubt about that. But I. Uh.” He stopped. It sounded maudlin as hell in his head. “I just hope they think it’s proper recompense for what he did.”

Her eyes flicked up to his. “Your team?”

“Yeah. Monteague, Sensat, Butler…all of them.”

He watched her hands as she vanished the bolt. He still couldn’t discern the steps involved.[3]

“Chances are…” she began, slowly. “...I dunno, Garrus. Chances are, on some level, they’d differ in their ideas of justice. It’s not all that common to find someone in lockstep with your values, even when you go outta your way to handpick them. I know that’s not what you wanna hear.”

“No, you’re right.” He pulled himself up beside her. “But…damn it, Shepard, I don’t know what to do with gray. The idea that there might not be a right way through? I don’t know how to process that. Never have, maybe never will.” 

She rocked towards him, nudging his shoulder. “Doing the best you can.”

“I’ll try to believe that.”

They sat. Shepard’s fingers drummed lightly on the tabletop as she looked out at the garage, at the plating scattered around the Kodiak. 

“...Know what I realized today?” he drawled.

“Nope. What’d you realize?”

“No one skips out on duty-driven guilt, not even a traitor.” He sat back, bracing his weight on his palms. “Just opens up a world of possibilities, doesn’t it. Hell, Sidonis and I should try group therapy. Turians only, of course, so we can do the really deep dives into our collective hangups.”

She snorted. “Somehow I don’t see that going well.” 

“You never know. Maybe we’ll hold hands and dance at the end.”

“First you come down here to play grease monkey, and now you’re going dancing? You feeling unfulfilled in your duties on the SR-2?” 

“Maybe. Are you planning to help me address that, ma’am?”

“Not on your life or mine.” She drew up her feet to sit cross-legged.

“Too bad. Well. Thanks for your help today, Shepard. And, uh. Thanks for that talk before we deployed, in case I didn’t say earlier. It always helps to have you checking my corners.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Serious? What part of that talk was helpful to you, Vakarian? You asked me what I thought you should do about your XO and I basically said morality didn’t exist.”

“No, you said that things were ambiguous. And as I said earlier, while I don’t really know what to do with ambiguity…well.” He shrugged. “It was useful to know I wasn’t missing some piece that you’ve had access to all along.”

She shook her head. “Heard it here first. Don’t forget this next time I start talking about all the ways the galaxy’s got no meaning.” 

“I would never.”

Silence fell, and the memories got louder. He thought about Melenis and Grundan Krul, trapped like rats in the tunnels. Of Vortash, sent forward to a position he had to have known wasn’t tenable. Sensat, signing off. Monteague, wishing him luck.  

“You think it ever gets easier, Shepard?” he asked. 

“What?” She was balancing screws on their heads, six to a row. Her knee was touching his cuisse, which he assumed meant the gesture was companionable or completely without meaning.

“Ordering your people to certain death.”

“Jesus fuck.” She swept the screws into a pile and sat back. “Outta left field much?”

“Not for me. Why, what have you been thinking about?”

“Honestly?” She shrugged. “Was trying to figure if we've got time to check that tip about Taylor’s dad before we go looking for Krios.”

“All work, no play. Anyone ever tell you you’re boring as hell for a person so interesting, Commander?”

“All the time. Part of the charm.”

“I guess I can’t really deny that.” He looked across the garage. “I, uh. I was thinking about Omega. I had to make some choices before you and your team showed. Sacrifice some men to save others. A few volunteered. But even if they hadn't, I'd have had to make the call eventually.”

"Right." A long pause; she huffed out a breath. "I dunno if it gets easier, Vakarian. Me? Feels like in the moment, the decision gets made 'cause it has to. When I get the bill in emotional damages later…” She shrugged. Her eyes were on the Kodiak. “It always kinda totals up the same."

“So, always easy, so to speak. And then always hard.”

“Yep. Might not be a universal response, but it’s mine.” She rolled a drill bit between her fingers.

A glimpse of movement at the crew deck windows. He looked up, but whoever had passed was already out of sight. “...Well. Maybe I’ll get there eventually.” 

“Different for you?”

“A little.” He stopped. Went on. “As strange as it sounds…I feel like I need permission to throw someone’s life away. Their permission. Or barring that, their forgiveness.”

“Sure.”

The lights droned overhead, filled the space between words as he pulled memories from the smoke of that day. Tried to tell it how it had been, the emotion stripped out. “Some of them never had a say. Sidonis lured me out for a false job, and by the time we got back, the base had been bombed. Four were dead and one was on his way out. The survivors had holed up on the second floor. My explosives expert, Sensat, had been off that day, but she broke through the perimeter to try to extract us. When it was clear we weren’t getting out, she was the one who called it. Told me to give the orders.”

Shepard nodded. She didn’t speak, and he was grateful for that too. Easier not to stop. To just push it all out. 

“I had two men scouting our back door via the garage. They got sighted trying to RTB, so I ordered them to collapse the service tunnel they were in. That was two more down. My midrange specialist I’d ordered forward of our base. The guy was a retired peacekeeper, and there was no way in hell he didn’t know what that position was. He knew when he left that he wouldn’t be coming back. You know what he said, right before he fell? ‘Honor to serve.’ But it wasn’t. At the end of the day, Shepard, they’re dead because of me. It was a damned breach in the damned security measures I put in place that let the companies ID Sidonis, make threats against his family. If I’d been more careful, they’d have had nothing on him when they captured him, and he’d have died before giving us up.” He stopped. But there was more, and so he didn’t. “Later, the last member of the team standing was my tech. Monteague. Brilliant kid. Could’ve given Tali a run for her money, probably. We were holed up in that room you found me in two days later. Enemy sniper had gotten into the house across the way and had a lock on me.”

She was just watching him, unreadable, fingers interlaced in her lap. And he didn’t want to see her expression change, because it would, so he looked up at the ceiling, past the overhead lights. Support struts spanned its length, black against the gray.

“I asked if she could take the shot. She only had a pistol and an SMG. She said she couldn’t, but that I could if she just drew his fire. And I argued. Practically made her beg me to sacrifice her.” His heart was starting to pound. He breathed, slowly. Went on. “I never should’ve put her in that position. I knew her loadout, knew her limits. Knew that sniper had to be taken out. I should’ve just made the call, but I was too damn weak.”

A rustle; pressure on his forearm. He looked down. Her hand was gripping his vambrace. He stared at it, the bruised knuckles and hairline scars mapping a network across her skin. 

“You didn’t want her to die, Garrus. That’s not wrong to want.” 

Her voice was quiet, less textured than he’d heard it, some of the lower resonances cut away. Absent context, it was impenetrable; but with her hand there, the force of her gaze when he glanced up, he saw that it must signal empathy. Something in him connected involuntarily to that through-line, slipped from the lockbox where he’d buried the loss of his team and the emotion underpinning it. 

“Come on, Shepard.” Something was off about his voice, too. Hoarse. “You don’t think that was selfish? That my fear of being the bad guy didn’t make a doomed kid beg her executioner for the firing squad?”

She shook her head. “I think it shows you valued her life. And I think she probably was glad to know someone cared in her last moments. I’d’ve been.”

He flexed his mandibles, fighting a tightness in his larynx. “I hope like hell you’re right, Commander.”

“I’m right.” She squeezed, a gesture he couldn't feel through his ceramic but understood. “Trust me.”

“...I’ll try. I want to.”

Their eyes met in the silence that followed. She wasn’t ordering him to square it all away—was apparently here to listen to whatever damn shit his mouth wanted to involuntarily disclose—but this was getting too heavy. Too much emotional labor to ask of anyone besides a trained professional, let alone your CO. 

He cleared his throat and looked away. Tried to pivot out. “Well. You’ve always made a good case. Never lacked for confidence.”

“Nope. And never had to.” She let go and shifted back, repositioned to sit facing him. “Throw me up in front of cams, a new crew, a couple of guys with guns? There’s a good chance I’m gonna come out on top, no matter how many assholes boot up smear campaigns and call me a crackpot.”

“Naturally.” He tilted his head. “You, uh. You do realize you’re performing the exact service I failed to offer my tech, though?” 

She raised her eyebrows. “Making the hard call?”

“Acquitting your people of guilt. Shouldering the burden of accountability, so no one lower down the chain has to carry it.” 

She shrugged, pulling a knee to her chest. “Seems to me you’re carrying a lot of freight for someone who allegedly never took a load off his team, Vakarian.”

“Well, I…no, I guess that’s true. But for all I know, that’s self-inflicted. You can’t take self-loathing from me, Commander. If I let that aspect of me go, hell, there’s not going to be much left to operate the cannons.”

Her mouth twitched. “All right, Atlas. Dropping it.”

“Atlas?”

The lace on her left Oxford was trailing. She unknotted and retied it. “According to this one ancient mythology, Earth’s held up by a guy called Atlas.”

“And?”

“And that’s the whole story. He just carries it on his back.” She switched shoes. “Doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t do anything. Just kneels there, apparently forever.”

"...Huh. I don't think I'd watch the vid." 

"Yeah, not the most interesting thing humanity's ever dreamed up."

The lights hummed. The deck settled. The elevator whined into motion, bearing someone from the crew deck to CIC. Shepard spun a drill bit between her fingers without speaking; and because they’d stopped talking, were sitting here absent a program to write or an engine to dismantle or any damn makework thing to block the access points, the thoughts kept pressing in, incessant and fucking inexorable.

"...I can’t help wondering if it would've been different," he said. "If I'd been there during the first hit."

Her eyes cut to him; she set down the bit. "Dangerous road to travel, Vakarian. Been there, done that. You got any control over the matter, I don’t recommend it."

"I know. I just—seeing Sidonis again, hell, just seeing his name cross my screen when Tali and I tracked him down…it brought everything back. All the variables that could’ve played out differently if he hadn’t managed to draw me out. Maybe I'd have caught the charges the companies set around the building. Maybe we'd have been planning on the second level when they blew out the first. Maybe I'd have been in the garage and known it'd been breached in time to form a different exit strategy."

"Or maybe you'd be dead.” Shepard shifted, draping an arm over her knee. “Maybe you being there wouldn’t’ve changed a fucking thing, except that you’d be buried with the rest of them right now. Listen to yourself for a sec, Garrus. You think giving those mercs a total victory would’ve made your squad feel any better?” 

She went on when he didn’t answer. “You know what’s muddying your waters, ‘cause you clocked it earlier. Survivor’s guilt. Add a side of victim blaming. And I can’t get you free from that with a speech, I know. But from where I’m sitting, I think there’s a couple things you’re not taking into account.”  

“All right. Tell me how it is, CO.”

She raised an eyebrow. “‘Less you don’t wanna hear it. You need to let this thing breathe, I’m not gonna push you.”

“What? No, I want it. I want out of my damn head and have for days. If you have a rudder to steer with, by all means.”

“Do my best. Now pipe down and take your pills.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“All right.” She counted off on her fingers. “One: strategize all you like, Vakarian, but you can’t prepare for every contingency. You gonna tell me it was Mordin’s fault he didn’t have a cure preemptively formulated for a lab-grown virus? My fault I didn’t plan for a pseudo-mythical species to come outta nowhere and hit the Normandy? You can’t’ve saved your men if there was no way to know they were gonna need saving. And that’s worth chewing on.”

She flicked another finger. “Two: unless you live in a world consisting of you and nobody else, you don’t get to decide what cards another person deals out. Your tech asked to die fighting for you, instead of waiting to be gunned down with you. Your explosives specialist came back to base knowing the risks, knowing she coulda stayed away. Other people make choices too. You take those as your burden, you deny their judgment, autonomy, and due merit.”

She tapped a third finger. “Three: equal and opposite reactions. You pushed for a better world on Omega, and the underworld pushed back. We beat back Sovereign and now the Reapers’re targeting our people more than ever. It sucks—it fucking blows. I’m never gonna say it doesn’t. But it’s the way of the universe, some kind of fucked up natural phenomenon that every move you make necessitates backlash. I dunno why it’s true, and it’d be a hell of a lot easier on our side if it wasn’t, but it is.” 

Her hand dropped to dangle over her knee. “Okay if you can’t hear this right now. Not gonna take offense if you disagree. But I’m telling you as a third party, as your friend, and as an officer who understands the burden of command that it’s not your fault. You did everything you could, and nothing you’re thinking you could’ve done instead would’ve changed the outcome. Believe me, I wish I could tell you otherwise.”

He looked across the garage, thinking. “...Yeah. I—yeah.” He ran his fingers across the threads of the screw in his hands. “It’s going to take awhile for all that to feel true. But I know you’re right, Shepard. And I might get there, one day.”

“Doesn’t have to be any time soon. Doesn’t have to be at all.”

He glanced sidelong. “Good. …Because step one of the acceptance process is examining your argument from all sides and reasoning a hole through it if I can.”

Her mouth twitched. “I’m not worried. That spiel was airtight.”

“It probably was, seeing as you’re Commander Shepard and all that hero crap."

She raised an eyebrow. “You know, one day I’m gonna colossally fuck up, and it’s gonna be a long-ass fall from that pedestal you put me on.”

“I’ll lay down some pillows. Anyway, as you already survived a fall into literal space, I’m pretty sure you’re indestructible.” He set aside the screw.

“Let’s hope we never have to find out.” 

“Agreed.” He pushed forward, sliding off the table. “Have some time? You could help me put this back together, since you’re here.”

She scoffed. “Yeah, right. Love to spend my finite R&R rebuilding an engine you took apart for no reason.” She took the hand he offered and jumped down. "Can’t you ping Tali for this? Daniels? Anyone but me?”

“And here I thought you’d relish the opportunity to spend some one on one time with the famous Archangel. Between your notoriety and mine, you know, we could make headlines.” He stripped off his gloves.

She shoved her hands into her pockets. "Thanks, but I think I've got all the notoriety I can handle over here."

"Come on, Shepard, live a little. I’d look great on your arm.” He laid his gloves on the worktable and went to the Kodiak.

She shrugged, pivoting to keep him in view. “Sure you would, but what do I get outta the deal?”

“Ouch.” He picked up the drill. “If you hear anything later, that’ll be me sobbing my heart out in the battery.”

“Buddy, I hear weird sounds of any variety coming from your quarters, I’m steering the fuck clear.” 

“Too bad. I said it once and I’ll say it again, Commander. You don’t know what you’re missing.”[5] He propped his forearms on the carriage, looking at her over the fuselage. “Whatever is it going to be? A relaxing night of deep cuts by your favorite prose author over a tumbler of scotch, or getting covered in engine grease while your gunnery officer guides you on a tour of every backlogged shower thought and hot take he’s formed over the last two to four cycles?”

Shepard snorted. “I mean, when you put it like that...”

“I know. I had to shoot my shot. This is going to be a pain in the ass. Talk later, ma’am. Thanks for checking in.”

Her eyebrows rose. “...When you put it like that, I cave,” she said, and he blinked at her, and she crouched in the zone of destruction he’d made. “All right, Vakarian. What the hell do I do here?”

Chapter Text

Garrus was halfway through morning messages at his console when his comm trilled the diapason for an incoming page. A in two octaves. He tapped to accept, still scrolling. “Morning, ma’am.”

“Gunnery Officer.”

“Before you ask, yeah, I slept well. At least until taking a call from my commanding officer at 02:30.” 

“Uh huh. Why am I ninety percent positive you’ve been conscious for hours?”

He swiped away a wellness memo from Chambers. “Maybe it’s the pitch I sent you on the Thanix MHDW forty-five minutes ago.” 

“That’d be it. When the fuck do you get your shuteye?”

“Fair question. Between the moments when I’m awake, dodging nightmares and other figments of my subconscious.” Taylor had sent a message about the cycle’s training session. He snoozed it to bounce back at 06:00. “You?”

“In the shuttle. Up against walls. Whenever I can manage, given the non-essential messages hitting my inbox at all hours.”

“I understand.” Lawson’s environmental conditions report on Aeia had come in. He flagged it as important. Snoozed.  “Well, the process of setting up Do Not Disturb on your device is so painfully simple that there might not be a training vid on the extranet. Would you like me to do it for you?”

She snorted. “Thanks for the reading material. You’ll get your damn cannons.”

“That was easy. Maybe I’ll make a habit of shooting you requests at zero dark thirty, if I’m liable to catch you in an impulse spending mood.”

“Never hurts to try.”

“And try I will. Tal and I have been eyeing some CBT upgrades for the Normandy.” He switched to his private email. 

“...I look forward to finding out whatever the fuck that means tomorrow between 02:30 and 03:30. Matter of curiosity, are you ramping up the acronyms in revenge here,[1] or is your speech just trending a little more human by dint of being surrounded by our fleshy asses 24/7?”

“Who can say. I can really see either being the case.” Message from Sol, and another from his father. Selected and snoozed to 18:00. “So may I ask the occasion? Do you need your omnitool fixed before punch-in? Or did you have a special request for your coffee today,[2] now that Gardner’s stocking two flavors instead of one?”

“That’s me. Treating my subordinates like on-call executive assistants whatever chance I get.”

“You mean to say I’m not the only one you page when your terminal glitches? I’m not sure how I’ll recover from this blow, Commander.”

“I mean, on that subject…”

“Oh, I see. That was the windup. Now we come to the ask.” He clicked over to the Social tab. Status updates he’d already seen. Missed messages in chat that he’d already responded to. 

“Sure do. Remember how I helped you reassemble the Kodiak after you broke it on a lark?”

Select all. “Excuse me. I broke it during an episode of intense angst and moral equivocation.” 

“Same difference. Well, I’m calling in the favor.”

Delete. “That exchange in the hangar bay was a favor? And here I thought it was an act of friendship or possibly the discharge of professional duties.” 

“Not a chance. You’re deep the fuck in debt now, mostly ‘cause I need your help with something.”

“Yeah? What with?” Promotions tab.

“Think I’m gonna spoil the surprise?”

“Well, if not, you’re going to have to make it a more tempting proposition. Not for just anything do I stop reading my promotional mail.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. This is happening.”

A pause.

“Waiting for you to fold, Garrus.”

“Likewise. Wow, I sure receive a lot of these. …Huh. When did I subscribe to Justicar Heroes, Tales to Amaze, and First Contact: Who Needs It? What even is First Contact: Who Needs It? Skimming. It looks like some kind of isolationist propaganda. Tales To Amaze …serialized pulp fiction, I’m getting. Not really my genre. What the hell? Is this some kind of coded message from our son?[3] Does he want me to start reading to him at night? Maybe my email got leaked, somehow. If so, that’s embarrassing. Thought I had a better lock on things, though it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve slipped up.[4] …Shutting down that train of thought immediately. Oh, wait, the chief engineer probably put me on a few mailing lists after I betrayed her that one time. The clue was in Justicar Heroes, ma’am. In case you were wondering. Long story short, I did something and then Tali did something and then I did something, which caused her to not do something.[5] Let’s see…what else is in here? Boring. Boring. Coupon for a thing I already own. Six month trial on a subscription I don’t need. Ah. Here’s one I think you’ll like.” He cleared his throat. “‘Shop the latest in groundbreaking medical equipment at Sirta Foundation. Sirta: the legendary Commander Shepard’s one stop shop and REAL favorite store on the Citadel.’ ‘Real’ in all caps, to be clear. That’s interesting. I wonder why they’re feeling so defensive about it.[6] Thoughts?”[9]

The battery door cycled open. He slapped off his screen, spun, and settled against his console. He’d definitely heard someone coming over the sound of his own damn voice. 

“Shepard.” He crossed his arms, deliberately casual. “I was just going through the mail and…uh.” He stopped, examined her outfit. “Wow. What are…” He cleared his throat. “Why are you wearing that?”

She raised an eyebrow. “That any way to talk to your commanding officer?”

“With all due respect, I think if my commanding officer comes strolling into my personal quarters before her shift kitted out like this, then yeah, it’s exactly the way.” He looked at her again. “…Is that what you humans call a hoodie? And sweatpants?”

“I like to call ‘em warmups or PTUs, personally, but sure.”

“Ah. Well. Adding another dimension to my conception of you as a person. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in anything besides dress blues, fatigues, or full armor.”

“Another dimension?” she repeated. “My wardrobe’s gonna affect what you think of me?”

“The clothes make the man, Commander. Or woman, or person.” 

“Gotcha. Well, you’ll have to repaint that rosy portrait you’ve got of me in your wallet later. Places to be.” She turned out of the battery, waving him up with two fingers. 

He followed her down the passageway. This early in the ship cycle, Medbay’s windows were still in blackout and Lawson’s door was sealed. The mess lights blinked on as they passed through. 

“Catch you before coffee?” she asked.

“Maybe a little before. Why, am I not my typical blithesome self at 02:30?”

She nodded at the gurgling dispensers. “Had to get everything going myself for the first time in weeks. Dereliction of duty, there. Never been more disappointed.”

“Sorry, ma’am. If you’ll let me sync an alarm to your tool’s biometrics, I can ensure I’m on deck before you no matter what unnatural hour you leave your bunk. I’ll wait outside your quarters with coffee, breakfast. A couple of hot towels and the morning paper and the like. In uniform, of course. Unlike some people.”

“Good. Gotten used to a certain lifestyle, you know.” 

“I'll add it to the docket.” They rounded the corner and stopped in front of the elevator. “So where are we going?”

She hit the call button. “Hangar bay.”

“Great. Why are we going?”

“Told you, need your help with something.”

The door whizzed open.

“Little early for an assist, isn’t it?” he inquired, stepping in behind her. “I haven’t had breakfast yet, let alone my first cup.”

She selected Deck 5. “Check the transcript, Vakarian. I haven’t used a guy for his body by breakfast, I’m not doing my job right.”[7]

“Oh. Yeah, I misplaced that somehow in the several intervening weeks between then and now. Also, I was pretty sure that was a joke when you said it. That’ll show me.”

She shrugged, hooking her thumbs into her pockets. “Never joke about sex. Officer to officer, that shit always comes to bite you in the ass eventually.”

“Maybe I like being bitten in the ass. You wouldn’t know because you keep rejecting my advances.”

Her mouth twitched. “My bad.”

“For rejecting my advances? There’s a limit to the bounds of duty, CO.” He settled against the rail. 

“My bad for making assumptions about your kinks,” she clarified. “Should never do it.”

He crossed his arms. “So we’re never supposed to joke about intercourse. Does that mean what I think it does?”

She yawned. “Depends entirely on the punchline.”

“You endorse the aberration known as pre-caffeinated sex.”

She scoffed. “Who doesn’t?” 

He looked at her, incredulous. “Anyone who needs half a minute to orient before they’re prepared for strenuous physical activity?” 

The door opened on the hangar bay. The lights sputtered on. 

“Sounds like I picked the wrong guy for this assignment.” Shepard stepped out. “You wanna go back to the battery, Vakarian? Have your tea and a biscuit before we get down to business here?”

“I would never touch an infusion of hot leaf, ma’am. And I’ll manage for you somehow. Always willing to report for duty of an undisclosed or covert nature.”

“Good attitude. We’ll make an officer of you yet.”

They crossed the deck, skirting the Kodiak. It’d been restored to the appearance of operational again and was passing diagnostic scans, at least, though the real proof would come when they deployed to Aeia in a cycle or two. Reassembly had eaten up several hours, partly because he’d gutted the engine, but also because the CO, extensive skillset notwithstanding, didn’t count instantaneous discernment between a flex socket and a flank work socket in her repertoire. Which had resulted in a great deal of ‘Hand me the X,’ on his end, and ‘The fuck is an X?’ on hers, followed by ‘It looks like…’ if he took the next turn or ‘Does it look like…?’ if she did, interspersed with wide-ranging commentary on the faulty descriptive faculties of the speaker on both ends. And Tali could have accelerated the process by a significant factor if efficiency had been an object; but he hadn’t paged her, and Shepard hadn’t suggested it again or deserted the operation. 

“Not to be precious about the setting, but I don’t see why we couldn’t have done this in your quarters,” he said. “Or mine, for that matter.” 

She snorted. “Yeah, I don’t think everything would’ve fit.”

“Oh, it’d fit, Shepard. You just need a little imagination and creative positioning. Seriously, what are we—?”

She led him around a bulkhead. He stopped, seeing a pair of barbells at three o’clock. A pile of olympic plates beside them, and the piecemeal framework of what was unmistakably a squat rack. A toolbox, lid closed but latches flipped, power drill and battery pack on top. A pallet still on the jack, stacked high with containers, all stamped with a familiar logo. Vim-X Systems: the fitness and strength equipment supplier that contracted with C-Sec. 

“Setting up the gym.” She cracked her knuckles. 

He looked around. “Holy shit, Commander. This is why we docked at the Citadel overnight?”

“This is why. Kinda can’t believe the delivery guys didn’t wake you up dropping everything off.”

“Huh. When did it come in?”

She checked her tool. “01:53.” 

“In that case, they did. I guess I assumed I’d jolted awake for trauma-related reasons. As happens. But, no, the timestamps line up.”

“Sorry.”

“I’m not complaining in the least.” He crossed the deck, picking out designations on the containers. Bench press. Kettlebells. Blocking sled. “Did Vim-X have a closing sale? How the hell is this in budget?” 

She shrugged, joining him. “Wasn’t for a while. Or so I was told the first four times despite my compelling and well-reasoned argument that the whole fire team should be fucking combat ready, regardless of who gets to go on the next field trip. But I’m guessing Lawson must’ve said something to someone or appended a secret special form to the actual form, ‘cause I sure didn’t do any different on round five, ‘sides maybe wax a little prolix on the importance of not only a good diet but exercise to one’s physical and mental health.” She looked up at the pallet, the containers topping her head by several feet. “Came down as soon as I got the notif.”

“And started unboxing things, and then thought to yourself, who else is probably awake at this ludicrous hour and lacks the basic ability to say no?” he finished. “Ah, yes. The dear old gunnery officer.”

“Something like that.” She leaned against the containers. “Want to get this thing up and running to specifications, stat. Dunno about you, but I’m dissatisfied as hell doing bodyweight exercises in my quarters.”

“Really? I never ran into you in the training area on the SR-1. I assumed they must be your method of choice.”

“Careful planning.” She hooked her thumbs into her pockets. “You didn’t have a commission then, Vakarian. I like to hit the gym when the only people capable of seeing me are officers. People who understand that undermining my authority is an act of mutually assured destruction.”

“Conscientious.”

“Just bowing to facts. I mean, look what happened this morning. If the sight of the CO out of uniform makes you uncomfortable as third officer, think what it woulda done to a random Alliance servicemember who just wanted to pump iron without questioning the foundation on which their reality’s built.”

“That’s quite a lot of power you’re attributing to the mere sight of you lifting weights, ma’am.”

Her mouth twitched. “First of all, I’ve got presence, Gunnery Officer, and for better or for worse, not a lot of people can stand up to it. Second, I dunno how it goes in the Hierarchy, but Alliance officers are like…like fucking teachers. Therapists. They’ve got a context, and whenever they step outside of it, things turn surreal. People get disoriented and fast.”

“Huh. Checking in with myself, I’m not uncomfortable. Or any more disoriented than is typical.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Just opinionated for no reason, then? Looking for a reason to mock this highly professional getup?”

“Basically.” He shrugged. “Maybe it’s the mandatory term warping my lens on this. Everyone of legal age on Palaven is contextualized in military service, and has probably led men at least once.”

“Right.” She shook her head. “So all this time, you thought I wanted to be logging hundreds of endurance reps instead of a couple end-all bulk sets? Do you fucking know me?”

He tilted his head. “I guess not, Commander. Although it’s crossed my mind that all this time, you’ve just been self-conscious about the weight you can or can’t pull.”

She snorted. “Oho. Somebody’s finally learned how to neg. On purpose and everything. Tali inducting you into the mysteries of the extranet?”

“That’s right. I’m a lurker in about ten different forums for people with unrequited crushes. Pulling out all the stops to get you to notice me over here.” 

“Uh huh.” She glanced in as he pried open the top of the nearest container. Free weights. “Think we’ve got pretty much everything we need for a tri- and pentadactyl setup, here. Lemme know if you see otherwise. XO’s given me cause to believe that the closer we get to the relay, the bigger the bill we can expect Cerberus to foot.”

“One of the few perks of throwing ourselves into certain death, I guess.”

“Seems so.” She raised her eyebrows. “Well, you know why I’ve brought you here now. What do you think?”

“Of manual labor, off-shift, in the wee hours of the morning?” he drawled. “What a tempting proposition, CO. Really.”

“I know. Brought breakfast to sweeten the deal, if it helps.” She crossed her arms. “Siren call of leftover tuna casserole doing anything for you?”

“Shepard, you know the way to my heart at this hour, and it’s the opposite of tuna casserole.”

“...What’s the opposite of tuna casserole?”

“Let me think. It’s highly caffeinated, tastes like shit, and makes my world go round.”

She pushed upright, circling the side of the pallet he hadn’t investigated. Returned with a pair of thermoses. “Always prepared, Vakarian. I knew you wouldn’t say no.”

“Wouldn’t, or couldn’t?” He took his. “Am I receiving a direct order, ma’am?”

“Depends. You need one to find your initiative?” She flipped the seal on hers and drank. 

“Hardly.” He copied her. “Just wondering if I should be logging overtime for this act of forced labor.”

She swallowed. “Always logistics with you. Ever think you should live a little? Not worry about who’s getting paid or how it all works?”

“Well, one of us has to stay grounded in reality. And I know the value of my services.” He sipped.  

She shook her head. “Volunteers only for this mission. Course, you gotta volunteer to get the meal portion of this bribe. Which I also brought.”

“And what’s stopping me from just getting breakfast from the mess on my way back to the battery? Did you empty the fridge of rations as part of your plan to trap me here?”

“Long elevator ride to find out when I’ve got a tray for you right here, buddy. And if I’m remembering my lessons, what’s stopping you is—” and she repeated the word he’d taught her in dialect, in a passable accent. “I get that right? Isn’t giving up your morning to this project the definition of sublimating your needs to your community’s?”

He drank. “I never should have taught you that word.”

“Only using it for the priority blackmail. Got my charisma to lean on for everything else.”

“Well, fuck me, I guess.” He set his thermos on the deck. “I’m in. Now, praise me effusively before I change my mind.”

She snorted. “You got it. You’re a good boy, Vakarian. Making your parents, your CO, and your ancestors proud.”

It turned out that building fitness equipment with a full array of tools and technical manuals to hand was a hell of a lot easier than reconstructing an engine by guesswork with a screwdriver and a drill with two bits. They interlocked tiles and bolted them down. Secured knotted ropes to the nearest bulkhead via industrial strength eye bolts; cleared an aisle for the power sled, which was molded from one piece and required no assembly. They raised weight racks and squat racks and half racks with benches; slotted free weights and kettlebells into housings, sorted plates by weight, and struggled briefly with the treadmill due to scale, not complexity. There was cursing, but when wasn’t there, and the coffee was bracing and the casserole contained nutrients and the conversation was engaging enough to compensate for the heinous hour, not that he'd ever volunteer that information.

At 04:30, Garrus consulted the invoice he’d found and scanned the room. Everything was unboxed, assembled, and squared away. Empty containers he'd stacked on the pallet for removal by Maintenance, stuffed with discarded packing material.

"How're we doing?" Shepard asked. She was crouched beside the second squat rack, drill in hand, punching a bolt into the deck.

“Not bad," he said. "On par with C-Sec’s weight training room, I’d guess. On a smaller scale, and minus the firing range around the corner."

She nodded. “Anything else need securing?”

“Not by power tool. Activate electromagnetic current on the racks and we should be good to go.”

She circled the floor, throwing switches. Free weights, barbells, and plates magnetized and settled firmly into their beds. He gripped one of the dumbbells and pulled hard. 

“Secured,” he reported. “These things won’t be falling out during the next Collector attack unless someone’s actively doing sets while we dodge particle beams. Which I assume is against regs.”

“It’s about to be.” She scrubbed her hands on her sweats. “Appreciate the assist, Vakarian.”

“No problem. Ended up being fun. And, hey, I got a meal out of it.”

She checked her tool. “Got some time, yet. Wanna help me test it all out? Quick safety check, stave off a workers’ compensation suit by putting ourselves in the line of fire first?”

“I’m, uh. I’m in full armor, Shepard.” He watched her trot to the bench. Prop one boot then the other on the seat, pulling out the laces.

“Don’t have to be. Lose the ceramic or swap in a PTU.” She straightened, hooking her shoes by the heels. “Or go for it as is, I guess? Resistance training’s a thing. Might get a little rough on the bench with that cuirass, but you do what you gotta do.”

He crossed his arms. “This is a blatant attempt to get me out of my hardsuit, Commander.”

“It is?” She went to the lockers, pulled open a door. 

“That’s right. You’re angling to strip me of my commission by calling a surprise inspection as soon as I capitulate. Or the Normandy will be attacked, with the luck I have.”

“Sorry, Vakarian. You’re not that fucking important.” Her shoes thudded against the rear of the locker.

“I’ve consulted my self-esteem, actually, and I’m more important than anyone else on the SR-2. Excepting yourself, of course.”

She unzipped her hoodie. “You know, I think I’m gonna tell Tali what you said.”

“Really, Commander? Sinking to our level? And here I thought you were supposed to be aloof from our antics.”[8]

Shepard ignored that. “As to the imminent Collector attack, schedule’s got someone from Ops on standby for the guns.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Got any other objections you need me to summarily dismantle, or do you wanna admit you’re too chickenshit to pull weight where I can see you do it?”

“The more you angle for this, you know, the more I begin to suspect you’re trying to get me out of my ceramic for some other motive.”

“‘Angle’’s an awful loaded word to use, buddy. Implies that effort needs expending to achieve the objective.” She shrugged out of her hoodie and slung it in after the shoes.

“Excuse me? You’re going to have to work to see this body stripped bare.”

“Not asking to see you naked, Vakarian. Wonder why you jumped to that conclusion?” She shimmied down her sweats, bundled them in after her other effects. “I just think you’ve got something to prove and a burning desire to prove it to me.”

She was adjusting the elastic of her binder or whatever humans called it, pulling her loose athletic shorts lower into the holster of her hips. Her back was to him, corded with muscle. It shifted beneath her skin as she rolled her head on her neck, pulled her shoulders back. She looked strong. Fit, for all she didn’t have protective plating or a spinal mount processor enhancing her combat efficacy. 

He coughed. “You couldn’t handle it, Commander.”

Shepard shrugged, walking to the clear space in front of the deadlift station. “Whatever you say. Guess we’ll never find out.”

She toppled forward, hit the deck, and started doing pushups.

“...Right. Well. I’ll get going, then.”

“See ya.” She locked a fist into the small of her back and kept going one-armed.

He took a step towards the elevator. And another. And turned back. “Fuck you, I’m changing, god damn it,” he said. “Don’t go anywhere.”

She flashed a grin at him, switching arms. “And that’s how you neg.”

Chapter Text

Somewhere in the area of 05:30 and half an hour before punch in, Garrus’s pre-shift routine was in full rout. It was an inconvenient but fitting consequence for his latest lapse in judgment, otherwise known as weightlifting with the CO. He’d spent the last hour being summarily dispossessed of any lingering belief that turians had a biological leg up on humans. At the very least, his ass was in no way equipped to stand up to the five-to-six-foot force of cybernetics and nature that was Commander fucking Shepard. Such was the price of hubris, or so he’d gathered from the Greek tragedies he’d lifted from her e-library.[1] If that was her damn regimen after months of deconditioning, then he, their adversaries, and the galaxy at large were well and truly fucked.

He turned the spigot, doused himself. Shut off the tap, and reached for the soap. He’d opted in, but that hadn’t meant he’d had any damn idea of what, exactly, he was opting into, and the bill was arriving. His back was clenched, muscles trembling from overexertion. His arms, core, and neck were in the same state; and if it’d been a leg day, the rest of him would damn well be shot too.

His ego, upon inspection and review, was intact. All quips aside, you didn’t serve not one but two tours under a woman like LC Shepard and survive with illusions as to how you measured up. If you staked your anything on the assumption that you were her superior or peer, well, you were in for a loss ninety percent of the time. It was the primary reason why the crew of the SR-1 had kept up a running commentary about her shoddy ATV handling.[2] You took what you could get; there was frequently nothing else. It figured that she’d managed to transform what was technically a weakness on her CV into a trademark character trait, noted with the same affection as her inveterate need for another fucking nap.[3]

He returned the soap to its tray. From the clatter and impact at his five o’clock, the CO was doing the same. “Never again, ma’am,” he said without turning.

Water drummed against the tile behind him. Ceased. “Heard that before.”

“Oh, really. When?” He crouched, lathering from toe to top.

“Every time you disagree with my tactical decisions?” Sandpapering; the susurration of a hard scrub.

“That’s a difference of opinion,” he told the tiles. “A cursory footnote to compliance. If you decide it’s the right call for me to cook a grenade and launch it clean at your position, then look lively. Incoming. Orders are orders, and I have a mandate to follow them by dint of my commission. Not to mention an inclination to obey reinforced by twenty-odd to thirty-something years of social conditioning and/or brainwashing, depending on whether we’re talking Earth or Palaven orbital cycles. This?” He straightened. “I voluntarily submitted to this, and I assure you, it’ll be the last time.”

Flicked-off foam slid past his feet. “Last time you shower? For the sake of me and everybody else in a ten foot radius, I sure fucking hope not.”

“Hah, hah.”

Unoiled fixtures squealed. Water smacked the tile a second time, echoing from the walls. He heard her blow and spit, spared a moment to log that she belonged to the camp of deviants who thrust their faces under the spray instead of splashing, and hit the tap again himself.

He rinsed down suds and turned the spigot. Shepard’s showerhead was already silent. Drops plinked, dripped down. Runoff sluiced toward the drain as he ran hands quickly over his limbs and torso, wicking off excess water.

Her feet squelched as she stepped over the lip of the shower area. “Towel?”

“Please.”

She tossed him one and turned aside, scrubbing the damp from her skin.

The head was quiet and slightly humid. Faint curls of steam drifted from the showers, dampened the tile underfoot; condensation pearled on the mirrors and drew finger tracks down. The silence was unmarked, a tacit observance of shared military mores. They were soldiers engaged in private activities in an anything-but-private space. Extended interaction between shipmates transpired in uniform, not in states of undress; any conversation that did arise was brief and sure as hell optional.

Garrus dried down, focusing on the task without looking up or around. Joining the crew of the SR-1, it’d been an unspoken relief to learn that communal bathing setups were SOP for Systems Alliance personnel. It had meant that every service member was trained to the impersonal gaze that looked without seeing, the casually oblique positioning and studied affectation of indifference that created safety and privacy by way of complicity in the performance.

It had also meant that any lingering looks in the head had no alibi whatsoever back in '83, and were always and irrevocably chalked up to xenocentrism, xenophilia, or xenophobia. You won a few and lost a hell of a lot of others. The SR-2 was a less known quantity, staffed by a mix of ex-military and civilian personnel. So far, he’d sidestepped most potential discomfort by the expedient of performing ablutions pre- rather than post-shift, when the facilities were typically empty.

He tossed his towel in the bin, slipped on his visor, and shrugged on his suit. Zipped up and reached for his ceramic. Cuirass, plackart latched to cuirass; codpiece, faulds latched to codpiece. Cuisses followed by greaves, poleyns, sabatons. Shepard had her undershirt half-tucked and was lacing her Oxfords.

“Shirttails,” he told her as she rose. She nodded, shoving the hem down the back of her dress trousers.

He clasped on his rerebraces and vambraces, left and right. A hand reached past him: Shepard, pulling her jacket off the hanger. “Sigil’s cocked,” she said.

“Cocked how?”

She looked. “Try a quarter turn clockwise.”

“Thanks.” He shifted it.

She buttoned up. “Time check?”

He looked, fastening his pauldrons. “05:34.” He popped an enzymatic lozenge.[4]

She tugged down her cuffs, doubled them back. Worked the cufflinks through, one after the other. “Not bad, considering we assembled an entire gym and used it some too.”

“Well. If your CO pulls you from your bunk at 02:30 for a pre-shift assignment, you’ll find it doesn’t throw off your schedule too drastically.” He scraped his tongue.

Shepard was brushing her teeth at the sink over. “Scanning my databanks,” she said around the handle. “Huh. Experiencing zero guilt.”

“Heartless.” He spat. Returned his scraper to his locker, and pulled on his gloves. “Not a shred of concern for my precious shuteye.”

“You’re one to talk, considering you were manifestly awake by the time I called you. Got the email to prove it.” She stowed her toothbrush, slammed her locker closed, and keyed open the door. “Hell, when I showed up you were already kitted the fuck out.”

“Has it occurred to you that maybe I wanted to enjoy a quiet hour or several in my quarters? Take a little time to be present in my surroundings?” He stepped out.

She fell in beside him. “In the seedy brothel facsimile otherwise known as the forward battery?”

“Don’t slut shame, Commander. There’s nothing wrong with sex work.”

They cut around the elevator and stopped in the mess. “Not knocking the game, just the play,” she said. “You know most cam stars film in strong light and throw the filter on after?”

“...No, but now I need to ask why you know that.”

She shrugged, settling against one of the tables. “Been around the block.”

“Shepard, have you—?”

“Don’t slut shame, Gunnery Officer. And nope. Would make a fucking killing, but nope. Read an article a couple days ago.”

“Well, now I’m intrigued. Inbox me.”

She opened her tool, tapped a few keys. “Done. You want a ten minute read on how to stage a striptease in quarters instead of or in addition to your duties, you got it.”

“Perfect. I knew I couldn’t have been born so beautiful for nothing.”

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “How the hell would you know you’re beautiful when it’s dark as shit in there 24/7? You’re aware you can change the lighting in there, right? Or do you like working in the shadows like the man of the night you’re apparently gearing up to be?”

“What the fuck is a man of the night?” He did a cursory scan of the human lit he’d consumed. “Vampire?”

“I mean, with your sleep habits trending the way they’ve been…but nope. Context clues, buddy. Figure it out.”

“Option two, then.” He crossed his arms. “I’d rather have it on record that you call me a courtesan than a bloodsucker, personally.”

“Bet you would. Get that workplace harassment charge queued up.”

“Not for punitive reasons. But it might keep you at bay the next time you’ve a mind to cut short my pre-shift existential dread by drafting me into menial labor.”

She snorted. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“It’s not as if I was enjoying the dread, ma’am. Just complaining for the hell of it.” He looked at the kitchen. “So have we technically had our breakfast ration already, or…?”

“Or do we get a round two?” She followed his gaze. “Think we’ve been working hard. Deserve another cup and another meal, compliments of our fuckface boss.”

“Perfect. He can take it as thanks for the unpaid labor.”

He went to the counter. Dextro coffee sat on keep-warm in the pot and the levo pot was, predictably, empty. Garrus pulled the filter and knocked out the clumped grounds. Shepard unracked a pair of mugs, set them on the counter, and stepped around him to open the fridge.

She crouched down, scanning the shelves. “...Got two choices,” she said after a moment. “Chili and cornbread or palak paneer?”

“Damn, no more casserole?” He activated the tap. Dregs of old coffee swirled down the drain.

“Sorry. Also, seriously? That’s the standout dish out of all the attempts on culture the sarge’s churned out? A one pot Depression-era bake on par with mac ‘n cheese?” She reached into the fridge. Trays rattled as she shifted and restacked.

“What can I say. It was charmingly textured. Piscine. Reminded me of a fermented fish sauce produced on Palaven. Stirred up all my nostalgia for a recent occasion when my CO pulled me from quarters at 02:30 for some quality time, a bite to eat, and a round of ritual humiliation.” He slotted the filter back in.

She angled a look up at him, a bundle of leafy greens in her hand. “All right, I feel it incumbent on me to inform you that real tuna casserole’s not traditionally comprised of fermented anything. So, you start feeling a little upset in the intestinal area, might wanna report to Medbay.”

“Why, Shepard. Concerned about me?” He pulled down the coffee tin and loaded grounds.

“More concerned about how long Gardner’s been keeping ingredients in the fridge, if I’m being honest.”

“Don’t worry, Commander. I developed a tolerance for human interpretations of dextro food years ago. Thank Systems Alliance MREs for that.” He considered, refilling the reservoir. “I’ll have the paneer. Something’s wrong with the mess sergeant’s take on cornbread, and that’s coming from a guy who’s never had the real thing.”

She pulled two trays. “What tipped you off? Gluey mouthfeel or the fact that it stays with you long after it should’ve left?” She kneed the door closed and left his periphery.

“...I’m a little worried about the latter for you, honestly. I had the opposite experience.” He replaced the reservoir. “Not that I’m dying to compare gastrointestinal responses before breakfast. Second breakfast.”

“Sure. Gotta draw the line somewhere.” The trays clicked against a table somewhere behind him.

He started the brewing process. Turned, checking the hour on his visor. “05:30. Do you need to be off? I can bring you your first cup of the shift.”

Shepard shrugged. “Just wanna check my personal email before clocking in. I can do that in the canteen. You heading out?” She slid onto the bench.

“Not necessarily. I have some news to read, though.” He joined her.

“Carry on.” She peeled the lid off her tray and picked up a fork, gaze turning to her screen.

They settled into their meals and devices. The paneer was more hard than springy after a night in the fridge, like chewing into an eraser. The sauce had thickened from loose paste into caulk. From the flicker of expression that crossed Shepard’s face as she swallowed her first bite and stoically went back for more, the flavor or texture of the levo version was off, too.

His newsfeed had blown up overnight, predictably. Something was always spiraling out of control, something always gone straight to hell. The present crisis had arisen when the Consort had been asked to propose the next Council species in an interview. She’d declined, generating a galaxy-wide surge in op-eds, political and academic analyses, laymen’s commentaries, and memes ranging in tone from derisive to disillusioned to panegyrical.

He flicked through lens after lens: the ethics of declining agency as a person in power, and diametrically opposed sentiments on whether or not someone ought to retain institutional authority conferred upon them by privilege. The line between centering disenfranchised or marginalized perspectives, and disclaiming responsibility for inequities perpetrated by members of your species in doing so. The ramifications of vesting policy decisions with extralegal and privately owned institutions in a capitalistic society. Encyclopedic coverage of Sha’ira’s prior engagement with matters of political import; her demonstrated or disproven history of ethno-xeno allyship. Retrospectives on the Asari Republics’ practice of diplomacy, appeasement, and/or paternalism. Impassioned screed on and dispassionate consideration of whether the e.g. volus were or were not suitable or unfit for elevation to Council status, on the basis of economic, military, scientific, and cultural contributions to the galactic community. A question whether the de facto parameters for judging a species’s eligibility for Council status were inherently classist, nepotistic, and ableist. Another question whether the discourse around the incident indicated a need for reform or revolution long deferred.

The dispenser was muttering, jetting coffee and steaming up the splashback. Shepard left to fill and fetch their mugs, and he glanced up reflexively; but she was already tipping a spoonful of honey into his cup and stirring it through. Right. One day he really ought to interrogate why he trusted the CO with his life, but still felt driven to micromanage the preparation of his coffee when it wasn’t as if she didn’t know his order or lacked the ability to execute it.

She set his cup at his elbow and sat, pulling up her screen again. “Anything fit to print?”

“Hm. The Consort turned down a chance to weigh in on the next Council race. The extranet has opinions.” He sipped. “Anything hit your inbox?”

Her heel drummed the floor. “Cerberus sent a funding opportunity. Asking us to recover some cargo from a smuggling depot. They’ll pay by the crate.”

“That came to your private email? Bad boundaries, Illusive Man.”

“Yeah, I might’ve switched accounts.”

“Bad boundaries, Commander.”

“I know.” She swiped something away. “Heading back to home improvement tips and the latest in cross-stitch patterns and lingerie fashion now.”

“What does human lingerie entail?”

“Lots of scratchy-ass diaphanous fabric and strings artfully arranged to frame the goods.” She typed something. “Turian lingerie?”

“Lots of treated leather pieces and straps, also placed to frame the goods.”

Shepard drank. “Our kink industry does a strong trade in leather and straps. It’s a whole thing.”

“Not your whole thing?” he inquired.

She shrugged. “That’s for me to know and you to never find out, Vakarian.”

“We’ll see, ma’am,” he said, and she lifted an eyebrow. “I’m told I’m pretty proficient at the art of investigation.”

“Said the guy who needs an assist every time an unfamiliar idiom, event, or cultural milestone in human history crops up.”

“Conservation of resources. Why look it up when I have two authorities to hand every mission?”

Her mouth twitched. “Some would say the ethical thing to do is write yourself a note and research the damn thing later. Bypass the possibility of causing offense or imposing undue burden.”

“CO, my two main consultants are forthright as hell. I’m pretty damn sure that if they wanted me to shut up, I’d be informed and in no uncertain terms. Possibly by the expedient of a gun in my face.”

“Point.”

He’d consumed about all he could handle on galactic events without risking compromise to his system. He closed his tool and gave the palak paneer his full attention.

Shepard was reading again, scrolling through what he assumed was a lengthy message. He watched her eyes shuttling, watched the line form between her eyes and deepen, then drawled, “Did you switch back to your work email?”

She didn’t look up. “Nope. Would never do that. Person of principle. Scrupulous honesty.”

“Based on the phrasing of that, let me amend my question for the person of principle and scrupulous honesty. Did you ever switch away from it?”

“...Not technically.”

“Shepard. In fifteen minutes we clock in and you can spend all the time you want catching up on do-nothing and yet also vitally important memos without risking decapitation or mauling by Doctor Chakwas. She’s probably watching us from the medbay windows right now, wondering why I haven’t reached across the table and bodily wrested the tool off your wrist.” He chewed and swallowed. “Take it from me, a turian, work-obsessed drone, and cog in the capitalistic military-industrial complex: the damned emails will keep.”

She scowled at him, closed her omnitool, and picked up her fork. “Happy?”

“Ecstatic.” He loaded his fork again.

She stabbed a piece of paneer. “Someone’s always on the CO’s case about self-care. Between you, Lawson, Chakwas, and Chambers, I’m living in some kind of panopticon.”

“And yet you still try to get away with things,” he returned mildly. “I think that’s a fascinating insight into your tendency towards attention-seeking behaviors.”

She propped her elbows on the table and swallowed her mouthful. “I swear, Garrus, if you come anywhere near a suggestion that I burn incense and practice mindfulness and write in my gratitude journal, I will dropkick a scented soy candle up your actual ass.”

“I would never say any of that in my life. You know I only support you by putting a gun in your hands and pointing you at some poor unfortunate.”[5]

“Damn straight.”

He sipped. “And now we have a gym for when there’s no unfortunates around.”

“And now we have a gym.” She took another bite.

“Can I ask something? Why didn’t we have a training area out of dry dock? An Alliance military craft would have come stock with one. Hierarchy, too.”

She shrugged. “Why didn’t the fire team have better shield modules when I woke up on Lawson’s operating table? Why the fuck are we paying for anything outta pocket and crunching the numbers if our mission’s so fucking critical and the Illusive Man’s got unlimited creds rattling around? You’re asking questions like you want the answers to make sense, Vakarian. I got nothing.”

“That’s fair. Hazard of having a civilian for a boss, maybe. Those guys are unknowable.”

“Watch it. Got a number of the breed on board, you know.”

“Oh, I’m aware, ma’am. I’m not ever allowed to forget it.” He toggled on IR. Scanned the deck. “All clear. Permission to proceed?”

“Granted. Within limits.” She raised her mug to her lips. “Take it you miss serving with soldiers. Any jurisdiction, or Hierarchy specifically?”

“Both? Either?” He shrugged, shutting off infrared again. “You know me, Shepard. I like having the rules on file so I can follow them or object strenuously. I like the certainty that everyone else has them on file, too. Simplifies a hell of a lot of interactions. Makes a lot of processes run more smoothly. Yeah, the Hierarchy gave me that in the most thorough sense because I’m turian, but the Systems Alliance had a manual too. That’s all I need.”

“Think you’re painting with an awfully broad brush.” She set down her cup, covering the mouth with her palm. “The SR-1 was a disaster of integrated policies with rules that didn’t work, and we both know it.”

He shook his head. “You’re thinking top down. I mean the little things. Take today. You know what’s nice, Shepard, is being able to take a damn shower while someone else is in the head and trusting that everyone’s going to lock it up, lock it down, and leave extended conversation and eye contact at the door. The head is for hygiene. It’s not for social hour or chatting up potential mates.”

“Hoo-rah, and if something’s happened on board, I need you to tell me now.”

“No incidents, Commander. Nothing that can be helped.” He wrapped his hands around his mug, feeling the warmth seep through his gloves. “Civilians are just a friendlier, more loquacious bunch who exchange stories about their dogs while they’re scrubbing down, and I like my peace and quiet.”

“Selectively.”

“Right. When stripped. Which is perfectly normal, in my opinion.”

She toasted him and drank.

“It’s not all bad,” he added, copying her. “Some things I would miss, going back.”

“Yeah?”

“Definitely. No calorie quotas here, for one. Better equipment on a regular basis. And the absence of Alliance policy vis a vis fraternization[6] opens up a world of possibilities.”

Her eyebrows rose. “Got your eye on someone, Vakarian?”

“I just mean there’s a little more permission to socialize without worrying that you’re overstepping. I can talk tech with Goto off-shift even though she doesn’t hold a commission. Teach Grunt about the miracle of life when he asks how it all works instead of redirecting him to Solus or Chakwas. Catch dinner with you in quarters instead of eating alone in the dark in the battery as is my natural inclination.”

She nodded. “I hear you. Nice to have a little more community. Gets lonely at the top.” She checked her omnitool, pushed upright. “I’m off. Time to do whatever the fuck hits my intray first.”

“Spontaneous. Existentially horrifying. Enjoy, and leave the tray. I’ll bus.”

“Will do.” She thrust her hands into her pockets, rolling her head on her neck. “Bog-standard breach of Alliance fraternization regs at 18:00? Or do you need to circle back to those promos[7] you missed out on this morning?”

He reached for her plate, stacking it atop his. “I’ll be there. Rose on my lapel and a bottle of wine and the usual. Later, Shepard.”

Chapter Text

- Care warning: sexual and physical abuse survivors and implied history of sexual trauma; terminal neurodegenerative illness in a parent. -

Aeia was a comfortable 95℉ cut by a strong breeze rolling off the water. A marine tang, piscine and briny, flavored the air as the sea tumbled somewhere out of sight; winged things cried distantly above, wheeling on the currents as smaller winged things clicked and scuttled in the rioting greenery. The sun was strong and high, beating down on his crest, warming his ceramic, and throwing the wreck of the Hugo Gernsback and its crew into bleak light. 

Garrus scanned the survivors’ camp from his position at the south entrance, conscious not to make eye contact or to let his gaze linger on any one person. He kept his hands at his sides, fingers uncurled and palms out: messaging friendliness and safety to whatever instinct and intellect remained to the inhabitants. They were in a sorry state. Underfed, malnourished. Fatigues threadbare and smudged, hair matted and tangled. Cuts and bruises marking arms and faces and throats. The wrongness of that thrummed in him. Brought back every holo snapped in evidence as a detective, the bodies huddled in the gutters of Omega: the tells of domestic violence on women, children, and every other damn type of person who absorbed the anger of those who punched down because they couldn’t punch up. 

He hoped like hell that the neurodegeneration they’d suffered was reversible with time, treatment, and the reintroduction of non-toxic foodstuffs. Hoped that the selfish decisions of a single man hadn’t consigned dozens of people to…this. Vacant eyes, vacant minds. Struggling through limited speech and impaired recall, identities and personalities slipping away until all that remained was a child, or a pet, tractable and impetuous and wanting nothing more than warmth and food and kindness, while your loved ones lingered in a reality long gone where you’d been vibrant and vital and cleverer than imaginable.  

It was all hitting too close to home. His thoughts were turning to Mom, checked in to the ward and there to stay, and it wasn’t the fucking time, if it ever could be. 

He looked for Shepard among the milling bodies, noting again how they clustered like herd animals, moving or standing in small groups. She’d disarmed upon their return to the site, ordered Taylor to the north exit and him to the south, and entered unhelmed. Making herself as harmless as possible. Signaling safety in vulnerability, and keeping the armory officer well out of sight. Her sidearm and other weapons were propped against the cargo container he’d pulled across the path, against the possibility of any exiles trying the approach.

She was circling the winged structure dead center of the camp, an obelisk cobbled from salvaged parts. Stabilizers thrust like angled wings from either side; he counted two turbines, an aileron, and what was probably part of an escape pod’s fuselage comprising what he could see of its central column. On Citadel Station, hell, on Omega in some neighborhoods, it would have been a thought-provoking public installation, inviting the audience to speculate on the artist’s relationship to military service and interstellar flight. Their contextualization within the rigidity of regimented institutions, and what space if any remained for individuality in said environments. Here, it was nothing more or less than whatever the intersection of unchecked self-determination and a piece of shit leader could render whole. 

She reentered his field of view, completing her circuit. Set a hand on the twisted power cables that bound it together, and looked up at the stabilizer above, slightly too long. She’d been unusually laconic this mission, rapping out orders in a tone that brooked no argument or commentary, heart pounding on his visor’s biofeedback module whenever she was in range. Made sense. Any mission objective involving rescue upped the stakes and denied the possibility of failure; and the situation they’d uncovered here would try even a veteran. Confronting the catastrophic shortcomings of another officer…it was like holding up a mirror and seeing your own face, when you’d thought all along you had a portrait of someone else in your hands. 

His comm clicked. She pulled back from the idol as the hail came in: “Normandy to ground team. FLT speaking.”

“This is the CO. Go ahead, Joker.” Shepard looked across the camp. Started towards him, jerking her chin at the path. He turned out again, toggling IR to check for bogeys. 

All clear, he signed as she drew up on his three. She nodded. 

“—othing coming up within range of the beacon, but EDI and the XO located an Alliance cruiser in the Alpha Draconis System,” Joker was saying. “They put out a secondary distress call to boost the Hugo Gernsback’s signal, and we just got a pingback. Looks like the cruiser’s on its way.”

“Tell them good work for me. What’s the ETA?” She crouched, digging her gloved fingers into the sand. 

“From their location when they picked up the hail, I’d say about four hours. Are the survivors secure? Do I send the shuttle to pick you up?”

Garrus watched her consider. Twist to survey their charges, tipping the sand from her palm. Some slept, huddled in the shade. Some sat or stood in groups, listless and unspeaking. Others wandered without apparent intention, evidently well trained never to step beyond the camp’s bounds. They gave the north exit and Taylor a wide berth, and lowered their eyes as they passed him.

He turned outward again to spare them the anxiety of observation. Battled down disgust and pointless anger. It wouldn’t help the victims, but the armory officer had been right to leave his dad for dead. Open and shut.

“Negative.” Shepard stood, dusting off her hands. “Can’t leave ‘em here unsupervised. Acting captain exiled a bunch of his men and they’re still running loose with firearms. Could do damage if they make their way here.” She folded her arms and looked down. Her forefinger tapped against her elbow, once, twice. “Have Lao scramble some combination of Samara, Tali, Lawson…any member of the fire team or med team absent masc gender presentation. I could use at least two.” A pause. “Let ‘em know they’ll be keeping a watch on sexual abuse survivors who’ve suffered severe neurological degeneration. Volunteers only, understood? They get to decide what they can handle.”

“...Shit. I’ll pass it on. That everything?”

“Not yet.” She was scanning the path. A drop of sweat traced the indent of her temple. “Gonna need the professor to prep some kind of tranq round. Neutralize whatever exiles are still out there without killing anybody. EDI can approximate a headcount from the records we sent, and if he can come himself, could use his help in the field. I’m sending Taylor back ahead of us, and I’ll be down an officer.”

“All right, I’ll let Solus and Lao know.”

She thumbed away the sweat gathering at her hairline. “I’ll stay groundside in case any situation develops. Coordinate the teams as needed.” Shepard stopped and glanced at him. “—Stand by, Joker. Got to check something.”

“Sure, standing by.”

She muted herself. Looked away and out, tracking the movement of something as it skittered through the undergrowth. Her pulse had kicked up again, hammering on his readouts, and now that she’d ceased moving, ceased speaking, he could detect the tension in her posture. In the spine, too straight, in the shoulders too squared. 

He turned his gaze outward again as seconds ticked by. Grains of sand skated across the path, fronds whispering as the breeze struck through.

“Penny for your thoughts, Gunnery Officer,” she said eventually. “That dustup on Omega that put us in Medbay.[1] You judge it would’ve gone that way if I’d been in my right mind?”

He looked at her, startled. Her expression was closed, her tone slightly flat. 

“That’s—a complicated question, ma’am,” he answered slowly. “I, uh. Permission to speak freely?”

“Granted and welcome.”

“Then…on the basis of your standard safety considerations during planning and logistics two years prior, I judge you’d have raised more objections to the proposed assignment before approving it.” He hesitated. “I can’t verify whether your tactical decisions were up to par once we were grounded, CO. That was a bad situation we found ourselves in, and none of the exit strategies were ideal. We both survived, if not intact. That might have been all we were going to get.”

Shepard nodded. “Appreciate your honesty.” She raised a hand to her comm. “Still there, Joker?”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“I can stay on site as necessary. But the possibility exists that I’ve been compromised, and I oughta step back if we’ve got the manpower to allow it. I don’t want impaired judgment skewing the lens as we wrap this thing up.”

 “Got you, Commander. Don’t—wait, XO’s here. Patching her through.”

“Sure.” She glanced up at him, kneeling to retrieve her sidearm. “I’ll spell you on this end, Vakarian. Mind checking on Taylor?”

“You've got it.” He unholstered his weapons and cut quickly through the camp to the north exit. Skirted clustered survivors and avoided eye contact; filed away what she’d said for analysis later. It aligned with what he’d observed during the mission, with the tension and the terseness. But that begged the question as to what was hitting so hard. He hoped like hell it was the Alliance piece. The burden of command and the sobering prospect of the repercussions when you weren’t prepared to shoulder it. If not…

The armory officer was on watch a few yards out from the entrance, hand on his sidearm. They nodded to one another as Garrus joined him. Taylor looked out again, putting eyes on the path. Scanned for movement, left to right and back. Repeat.

“Some reunion, huh, Vakarian,” he said eventually.

“...Yeah.”

Birds wheeled and cried overhead, punctuating the roll of the tide. The sun blazed down, and Taylor didn’t speak again.

The directive had been to ‘check on’ the armory officer. A lone volley probably wasn’t what the CO’d had in mind, which meant a little legwork was in order. Garrus crossed his arms, considering what he knew of the man’s disposition from the joint trainings with Ops, the lunches in Lawson’s office. Good-humored. Impersonal. Taking and giving conversational cues without steering. The tone he’d set moments ago with his greeting, and the lack of follow-up now, which based on the evidence suggested that he, the gunnery officer, hadn’t extended a clear invitation to proceed. 

Damn, he was losing his touch. Or falling into SR-1 habits, not pulling his weight on the interpersonal piece of crew management despite holding an officer’s commission. On Omega, he’d have established a stronger rapport with Taylor already, mitigating the discomfort of a wellness check in the present. Considering the hail, though, maybe he had all he needed for the approach. 

“...About that reunion,” he ventured. “Uh. Not to make light of a bad situation, but all this time I’d thought that my father was the galaxy’s biggest asshole. Not sure how I feel about a competitor entering the running.”

It was the right call, or right enough. Taylor chuckled, wiping his face on the sleeve of his suit. “Yeah. Something messed about needing to wish your dad stayed dead.”

“I’m sorry. All things considered, I’d be concerned if you weren’t having those thoughts. A lot of collateral. It’s…not easy to examine.”

“Nope. You can say that again.” Taylor shook his head. “Can’t believe how many lives he destroyed, here.”

“Here’s hoping the damage isn’t permanent for those who made it this far.”

“Right.” His finger tapped against the receiver of his pistol. “No Alliance court could’ve balanced these scales. But it’d be nice to believe what we did deals out a piece of what he deserves. Don’t know if it’s true, but nice to think it is.”

“I would suggest that in the face of something like this, it’s less about justice and more about how you can live with the outcome as someone who’s reviewed the evidence. And if you couldn’t live with the idea of your dad doing time, safe in a cell under Alliance jurisdiction after everything he perpetrated…that makes sense.” He shrugged. “Either way, for what it’s worth, I agree with you. Sometimes vengeance is as close as you can come. You gave them what you could, Taylor, in lieu of being able to give back lost time or their minds or their bodily autonomy. At least your dad didn’t get the easy way out.”

“Guess he didn’t. Guess he shouldn’t have. Just wish…yeah, never mind.” Jacob shook his head. “Damn, I need some space from this hellhole.”

Shepard joined them, catching the end of his comment. She clapped him on the back. “You’ll get it, Taylor. Lao’s en route with a few more of the team. We’ll secure the survivors—took the liberty of sending you back ahead of us to keep an eye on the Normandy. Shouldn’t leave the ship in Moreau’s hands for long if we can help it.”

“Good idea. Thanks, Commander. Family resemblance probably isn’t doing these people any favors.”

She nodded. “That was the thought.” She glanced up at him, jerked her chin rearward. “Vakarian, post up at the south approach again for now. Gonna have a chat with the armory officer then conduct some preliminary screening of the survivors that the doc requested.”

“Aye aye, ma’am.” He cut through the camp again as, behind him, Shepard said, “All right, Taylor. Got some time before the XO arrives, so lay it on me. How’re you holding up?”

He knelt, setting up. Reflexively checked DMR, SR, and sidearm for non-lethal concussive rounds, despite having loaded them himself earlier. The container was warm under his elbow, radiating the sun’s heat as he braced himself on its surface and looked down the sights. 

Small wonder he'd been thinking of Mom today. To say nothing of the obvious parallel of neurological degeneration, in temperature, humidity, and topography, Aeia wasn't a far cry from the less populous regions of Palaven where he and Sol had been raised.

Their home had been located in a compound in view of the sea. His sister had spent significant tracts of her pre-service years, and his, hunting tidepools or scaling rocks or bringing him the vacated carapaces she'd discovered during her very professional archaeological digs with a shell for a shovel and a rock for a hammer, while he tried and failed to read or tinker with the language of whatever program he'd been writing in his free time. Between the mandatory social events and the tutors and the incessant goalposts set by their docents and parents or, in Mom's case, both, they'd still managed to squeeze in an hour or more on the shoreline just about every cycle. At least until he'd left for his term; and then the walls had grown up between them, because for all they'd shared a literal wall and, unbeknownst to them, a genetic predisposition for Corpalis Syndrome, they'd never really been the talking types unless they were united in complaint against their caregivers or the social commitments imposed by them. Plenty of hours logged together, engaged comfortably in separate activities and/or fierce competition for the distinction of best child, soldier, or student; significantly less spent unpacking feelings or describing their day to day. All of which went a long way towards explaining why the two of them were shit at keeping in touch, and had been even before Mom's diagnosis had made him never want to engage with an email from the family again.

He wondered how Sol was holding up, stuck at home. She'd been fresh out of her term of service. Bound for the Citadel and a career in intergalactic diplomacy, before the call that had changed everything fifteen months ago. He wondered if Dad was being halfway supportive or a pain in the ass, furnishing counsel without solutions, helpless when confronted by a case without a perp to bag and tag. The emails never said one way or the other. It was always just price points and medical reports. Need to know data. If anyone was fearful, they didn't say it. If anyone was mourning, they didn't show it. No one had space for grief or fear, least of all the grieving and afraid.

God damn it. Garrus released his rifle's receiver and keyed his omnitool, activating voice to text in a blank email. Settled back into position.

"Uh. Hey, Sol. Thanks for the latest status report." He swept the path for movement. Still nothing. "This is probably a breach in some kind of protocol with my employer, but any interest in jumping into real-time chat at some point? I don't think I can do vid, but it'd be nice to have a conversation. Maybe talk about anything that isn't...well. Not to say we can't also cover logistics. Or I can listen if you need to vent about Dad or the bills or the fact that your career's on hold while I'm off doing what I'm doing like an asshole. But I could use a break from reality, and I thought it might do you some good to come up for air, too. Uh. Let me know. I understand if you can't find the time, and I'll send you what I can regardless. Take care. Tell—tell Mom I love her. End voice to text."

He edited out the hedges. Hesitated over the button, and clicked send. It might have to bounce off a couple of comm relays first, considering they were in the ass-end of space, but it’d get there. For better or for worse. 

Garrus queued up a playlist of dance beats and turned up the volume. Drowned out the thoughts with synth and bass, and watched heat ripple off the sand until the XO paged with landing coordinates. She arrived shortly after with the secondary ground team she’d assembled: Specialists Samara and Goto, both doctors, and Tali. All were kitted out for search, rescue, and treatment. Garrus reengaged his safety and paused his music as they came up the path. Mordin and Samara stopped at the entrance; the professor was on comms and his tool simultaneously, speaking rapidly to someone on the Normandy while he flicked through screens. Chakwas and Lawson entered the camp without slowing. Goto offered a “Hey, Angel. Guess this is pretty bad, huh?” before moving through as well, cutting towards Taylor’s position.  

Tali circled to join him behind cover and knelt. “Aeia is…very hot,” she told him, pulling up her screen. 

“If you say so.” He cocked his rifle upward. “Personally, I’m pretty pleased with the ambient temperature. I haven’t been warm since Virmire.”

“Turian.” She shook her head, scanning the approach with her tool. “I will cover this entrance and send a drone to monitor the undergrowth. You should get your new orders from the Executive Officer.”

“Thanks, Tal. All quiet so far, but that’s liable to change as usual.” He went in. The XO was near the center of camp with Shepard. 

“...tever information you gathered during the preliminary screening,” Miranda was saying briskly as he joined them. “Goto and the chief engineer will monitor the perimeter; the doctor and I will look after the survivors assembled here. The professor is coordinating with EDI to locate, neutralize, and secure any service members with demonstrated aggression further afield. Jacob will head back to the Kodiak shortly, escorted by Samara in case they encounter any trouble.”

The CO had been crouched beside one of the survivors, hand on their back. She pushed to her feet with a groan. “Sounds good. Well-oiled machine. And where do I fit in all this?”

“You’re free to leave the perimeter, ma’am. I ask that you don’t go far, and that you transmit your coordinates as you move about.” Miranda opened her tool, began typing.

“Not hearing the magic words, XO.” Shepard hooked her hands into her ammo belt. “Don’t you wanna say ‘em, just to see how it feels? Power goes straight to your head.”

Lawson looked at her over her screen; her mouth twitched. “I relieve you of command, Shepard.”

Shepard saluted. “I stand relieved. Appreciate it, Lawson. Radio if you need anything and when it’s time to board.”

“Of course, Commander.” 

She left, and Miranda looked at him. 

“I assume you’re not letting her wander alone, despite letting her leave under that assumption?” he drawled.

“If you’re as good a soldier as you regularly claim to be, we have nothing to worry about. Where she goes, you go.”

“Aye aye. Heading out.” 

“Vakarian?” she called. “I’m not done with you.”

He came back. “She walks fast, you know, thanks to those upgrades you stuffed in her.” 

“I have every confidence in your ability to catch up.” Miranda hesitated. “How is she? How has her temperament been during this mission?”

Garrus considered. “Curt?”

Her eyebrows rose. “That’s…an alarming and telling assessment.”

He shrugged. “Succinct, too.”

Lawson studied him. Seemed to decide against continuing; shook her head and went on. “Handle with care, Vakarian. Fifty percent of human women experience sexual abuse at least once in their lifetimes. The circumstances you discovered here would be retraumatizing for many of them.”

“I—” Garrus stopped. There was nothing to say to that; it was simply the hard and shameful truth. He saluted and left to rearm.

Shepard was well down the path when he turned out. She slowed, looking towards her three; veered onto what turned out to be a track of tumbled rock when he reached it, and dropped out of sight. Her location data pinged his tool a moment later. 

He clambered down after her, picking his way over boulders and loose sand. She’d found a small cove, bounded by the declivity behind them, joined to the shoreline by a tenuous strip that would be underwater at some point this cycle. He caught up as she sat, the heels of her sabatons driving tracks into the sand. 

She shaded her eyes and squinted up at him. “...Vakarian. Lawson need something?”

He shook his head. “Not yet. Just with you on her orders, Commander. Mind if I join?”

She gestured to the sand. Propped her arms on her knees, interlacing her fingers. The breeze skimmed her hair, pushing strands across her visor. 

Garrus looked out, folding himself down at a respectful distance. The sea was impossibly blue under a cloudless sky. Waves rolled in and sidled out, sculpting and reshaping the shoreline. Fragments of shell and twisted seaweed dappled the sand in their wake. 

The tide was shattering on stone, hissing and frothing in the ebb; and as the silence settled between them, his mind turned inevitably back to Mom. He’d chosen the commander over her, without reservation and without hesitation. She’d have understood, but that wasn’t the damn point; and as far as anyone could tell, she was past understanding anything now, so apologies were useless, and amends impossible. And as for where Shepard was at…

He glanced over. She didn’t seem to notice. Her breaths were slow on his readouts, but her heart thudded, ratcheted up beyond resting. Using tools, or trying to. Microexpressions chased themselves across her face as she stared out.  

He took the cue and stayed quiet. It was a long time before she spoke. 

“—Favor to ask,” she said, minutes or hours later. A muscle worked in her jaw.

“It’s yours.”

Her eyes were fixed on the waves. “We ever get stranded in a place like this, put a bullet in my brain. Got it?”

“...Understood."

Her tone was impassive when she went on. Flat, humorless, and apparently frank. “I don’t care about the odds of extraction. I don’t care about the odds of rehabilitation. I wanna be down for the count. If guns aren’t working, then you goddamn find a knife, and if you can’t find a knife, consider this advance permission to resort to drowning or strangulation.” 

“I hear you. It’s a promise, Shepard.”

A crab scuttled over and across a spar of driftwood, disappearing into its shadow. Her eyes tracked the movement before turning out to sea. 

“Makes me sick, Vakarian. Give us years of civilization, tech, culture, and education…end of the day, it always fucking comes down to this. People are animals, and people are self-serving. Nothing’s ever gonna change enough or fast enough to stamp that out.”

Her heart rate was spiking. She picked a shell out of the sand, balanced it in her palm. Sidearmed it into the water. It hit an incoming wave and surfed briefly on the crest before capsizing, disappearing from view. 

“Take Taylor’s dad,” she went on. “Maybe another officer would’ve done different. Shit, be nice to believe that, right? Go easy on ourselves and walk the hell away. Escape collective accountability by pinning it on an individual; chalk it all up to one guy’s lack of preparedness or personal flaws.” She shrugged. “But maybe not. Out here, no oversight, no consequences, no imposition of shame ‘cause nobody’s watching? No fucking guarantee that some other person wouldn’t’ve done the exact same fucking thing.”

She lobbed another shell into the surf. 

“Take a man outta society, strip him down, and put him in jeopardy, you end up with whatever bias he picked up as a kid, watching shitty vids full of male wish fulfillment and hearing his dad stonewall or gaslight his mom into silence and compliance in the backdrop. And when a moment of crisis rolls around, that’s who ends up getting to make the calls—that kid, who doesn’t know fuck-all outside the fact that everywhere he looks in his narrow, shitty little world, every person who’s not a cishet man’s a hole to be filled and a tool to be used and an animal to be broken and brought to heel.” 

A shell snapped in her hand. She tossed the pieces away. 

“It’s not the officer, the college grad, the adult who’s lived or traveled or gained some miniscule approximation of self-awareness and principles and humility who makes decisions. It’s a child. A child whose brain is hardwired to favor people who look like him, who neurologically develops empathy in inverse proportion to privilege, who can’t help the way he turned out because everything around him was already irrevocably fucked before he was born.” 

She sat back, driving her palms into the sand. Granules spilled into the rifts delineated by her digits, burying them particle by gradual particle.

“You said you don’t know what to do with gray. Me, I’d rather take the goddamn moral ambiguity. What I can’t handle is fucking—evil. An unequivocally bad thing. A system or construct so insidious, engrained, and immense that you’re never gonna get everyone clear. Every goddamn thing you know’s built on it. And that makes all your progress, all your so-called advancement moot. Knock out one support, whole thing tumbles into the mire.”

Her chest rose, fell. Her eyes scanned the waves and their frothy peaks, the push and the pull out to sea. The tide was rising. The surf foamed around the edges of the beach as it closed in. 

“I’m angry, Garrus,” she said. “Tired. This shit with the Hugo Gernsback never should’ve happened, but it was always gonna happen. And I wanna fix everything that made it inevitable, make the world safe so it never happens to anyone again, but it’s all too fucking, fucking broken.”

Shepard went silent. A flock of birds spiraled across the skyline, white arcing against the blue. The ocean breathed beneath their cries, filling the wake of her words. 

She sat up and drew in her limbs. Her arms encircled her knees; her right hand clasped the vambrace of her left. She looked—not small; nothing made her look small, come bullets, tears, or this—she looked beat. 

He wondered what intersection of past and present events had conspired to make Commander Shepard look beat, and killed the wondering because it made no difference. He wondered if he was an asshole for not closing the distance, or if he was an asshole for thinking he should offer. 

He wondered what the lines were. He wondered how long it’d been since she stopped speaking. He wondered if any person in the galaxy would know how to navigate a dynamic like this, to center your superior officer-but-also-friend’s needs and establish consent without imposing undue labor, and gave up, and spoke. 

“...I know, Shepard. I don’t see any damn way you could rest easy, when you look at it with clear eyes.”

“Yep. Guess I’ll just—” She shook her head. “I dunno.”

“Me neither. I wish I did. But…uh. Here’s something, for the little it’s worth.” 

He hesitated as she looked over at him, then thought, fuck it, because he’d already voiced the intention and didn’t have anything else on file. Hell, probably no one did. He shifted, leaning into his left hand, and extended the other into the space between them. 

Her eyes flicked down then up to his; her mouth twitched. “...A literal helping hand?”

Garrus shrugged. “I’ll need a few days to solve the galaxy’s problems for you, ma’am. I’m working with what I have, here: guns you won’t let me lethally discharge for some reason, assorted limbs, and the fact that I’m tall enough to provide a source of shade if you sit close enough.”

“All right, but I’m sweaty as fuck, Gunnery Officer.” She relocated to sit beside him. 

“Oh, good. I’ve always wanted to be covered in your saline secretions.” He unholstered his sidearm and set it in the sand to his left. “Wait, I think that’s already happened.”[2]

Their pauldrons bumped as she settled in, stretching out her legs. “He loves to make the CO feel self-conscious. That was a terrible goddamn day and you can burn in hell for reminding me of it.”

“Too late. Not including Therum, I haven’t been this hot since Virmire.” 

“Yeah, no shit, you metal-plated motherfucker.” She wiped her forehead on her arm. “Not sure the shade is worth it if the umbrella absorbs heat.”

“My apologies.” He glanced down at her. “Would you like to sit in full sunlight again, or…?”

“Not fucking likely. Offered and accepted.” She crossed her ankles. Leaned back. “You renege on this, I don’t think you’re gonna find a way to recover your precious honor.”

“A fair point. Well, then.”

She looked out, tracking something on the water at her one o’clock. He followed the direction of her gaze. Several somethings were leaping, cresting the surface and plunging back down. 

Her booted toe tapped his. “...Thanks, Vakarian. Guess your class job’s expanded to include pulling the CO outta the deep end for king and country.”

He shook his head. “If you thank me for that, ma’am, I’ll have to thank you for talking me off a ledge after Sidonis. And I think we both know how much you hate dodging gratitude.”[3]

“Yeah, that’s true. Retracted.”

Garrus reached around and squeezed her shoulder, and she leaned into him briefly. “Sorry everything’s hellish and terrible, Commander.”

“Me too. …View’s something, though.” 

She sat forward then, and he leaned back, sinking his palms into the sand; and they watched the sea melt into the horizon, talking about nothing and everything until the tide lapped their boots and Lawson paged to call them home.

Chapter Text

Hey, readers! After over six months of weekly updates for Enough and a month of new guy Boredom and Bedrest, both fics will be on hiatus beginning today, 10/25/22, through the end of November, to recharge your author’s battery and free up processing power for the 1.7K/day of NaNoWriMo, which said author is ill-advisedly attempting. Your regularly scheduled programming will resume in December provided there’s still reader interest in these pieces. Please let me know in comments on this…letter (?), by reviewing a chapter or two, or by DMing on Tumblr @kesla.

That’s the tl;dr. Now I’m going to chuck an object into cyberspace and see if it flies back and smacks me in the head. Flee now to avoid vulnerability and brain-thoughts in essay form. 

I don’t speak for every creative, but I do speak with many creatives, and I have read the opinions of many creatives. And what I’ve learned is that I am not alone in experiencing the sharing of one’s work as a complex hash of feeling and sensation. The drive to bring what we imagine into the world. The conviction or, more often, hope, that it is meaningful, good enough to be disclosed or displayed or disseminated. The latent fear that no one is paying attention, let alone enjoying themselves. These phenomena often co-occur, all at once and together. It is exceptionally confusing.

There are plenty of testimonials about this on, e.g., Tumblr, but also in literature and in interviews—about the compersion loop of feedback, about the interactive and precarious nature of performance. And for me, serial publication is performance: throwing yourself into the work for the love of it, and the incentive to do your work well, or at all, because you have an expectant audience. It may be weird to compare posting a thing on the internet to giving a presentation or a live show; but I’ve done all three, and the similarity lies in how interpersonal and symbiotic they all feel. The energy and engagement of an audience helps performers of any sort to reach the finish line on a high, eager to go again instead of drained and dreading the next round. It keeps them practicing, preparing, and returning to the stage or the podium or the keyboard, willingly and joyously if also, always, a little afraid that this time the seats will be empty or the audience will hate it.

I’ve run the numbers, as our idiots in space would say, and since resuming this fic in 2022, I’ve had the honor and distinction of being read by hundreds of people nearly each week. I’m grateful to have a following, and am so pleased that this work has found a place in so many people’s hearts. I’m also going to confess something. Publishing a weekly chapter, a product of days’ drafting and polishing, to meet with relatively widespread silence from a majority of readers, can be disheartening as hell. To carry forward my analogy like a reluctant cat until it actively flails and squirms from my grasp, it’s like stepping on stage to a full house, having an amazing performance (or so you think), and then hearing just one to five people clap on your blackout line. Every seat filled, everyone looking at you, everyone fully aware that you’ve said the last thing you’re going to say; silence punctuated by a couple of snaps. And then doing that again the next week, and again, and again, with the same result. All but one to five people, watching and rising and leaving without offering that standard acknowledgment that you, the performer, are there and have done what they all came to see. Perplexing. Sometimes, hurtful. They don’t hate your work, you think; they keep buying tickets, they keep coming back. And yet. 

I hope I speak clearly, without anger or blame. I know that life gets busy; I know that it’s a catastrophically bad time in the world; I know I am merely a stranger on the internet. And I understand if you can’t drop a line—I truly do. There is a reason why this fic took an eight year pause; there is a reason why, coming back to it, I write trauma and burnout and mental health and injustice differently than I ever could or would have before. It’s not just because I’m older. But as life rears its hydra head and the days grow darker and the world gets worse by increments and bounds, the silence weighs a little more heavily on me when it comes from so many seats. And before I retreat to reset and speed-write slapdash prose for NaNoWriMo, I thought I would offer a bit of insight from the author’s side of the desk. 

If my words matter to you, your words matter even more to me. I gently and humbly request that, if you continue to read my work, you reach through cyberspace and tap me on the shoulder before you click away, once in a while. If you can, when you can. Any chapter, new or old; any shower thought or impression. A novel length review is delightful but not necessary. A couple of copied-and-pasted standouts, a sentence fragment, a keysmash, or a single emoji would be so invaluable. That’s all. Confirm that you see me, that you saw what I did, and that I didn’t imagine you in the audience or make these fools do foolish things for no one. And those of you who do this already, or have done in the past, or speak with me on other platforms, thank you, truly. On the days when I almost failed to publish, you were the ones I remembered as I sat Shepard and Garrus down and made them converse at metaphorical gunpoint.

In his special, Inside, Bo Burnham sings about the emotional impact of content creation on the creator. “Do I have your attention? / Yes or no? / I bet I’d guess the answer / But I don’t want to know.” I think about this verse often. I think about how it is true in all its contradictions, in its bravado and brittleness, and how it would still ring true if the last line were “But I still want to know.” 

I, for one, would love to know.

I hope I will see you in the audience in December. I hope you will see me too, behind the bullshit and the banter, and come speak to me. I promise I’ll write back. <3

Chapter Text

The shuttle ride back from Aeia was a crowded one with nearly the entire commissioned personnel and two specialists aboard. Lawson went into the driver’s compartment to free up a seat. Chakwas and Solus were talking medical journals, slinging terms he could’ve looked up but didn’t care to; Samara settled into meditation and Goto into her headphones. Shepard crossed her arms and leaned back, closing her eyes.

Tali took the space beside him and looked over inquiringly, tapping her omnitool. Garrus nodded and pulled up his screen.

 

Concerned we’ll be overheard? 14:03

14:03 i am never not concerned about privacy here Garrus

Fair, and likewise. Well, I trust you’ve taken the necessary precautions. What’s up? 14:03

 

She shook her head over her tool and kicked him. He took the adult route and abstained from retaliation.

 

14:03 this was an extremely terrible mission is what is up

Yeah. I’m not sorry we left Taylor’s dad there. I wish there’d been a way to wrap up without putting any of you in the line of the fire, but options were shitty and slim. Possibly retraumatize our people, or definitely retraumatize the Gernsback’s. 14:04

 

He hesitated, then went on. If anyone was safe, it was Tal.

 

The commander was…off. Nearly all assignment. I think she made the right call, stepping down when it became possible. 14:04

 

A pause. She typed. Stalled out, erased, and typed again.

 

14:05 is she doing better now?

 

He glanced at Shepard. He’d pinned her biometrics to his visor at some point while they were groundside and was probably going to leave them there after their conversation on the beach. Levels normal. Eyes still closed, breaths even.

 

I don’t know. She’s not an easy person to get a lock on. 14:05

Her levels are standard. If that helps. 14:05

14:05 not exactly no

I didn’t think so. 14:05

[ . . . ]

14:07 what is YOUR read garrus

14:07 not your visors

Concerned? 14:07

14:07 do not act like you are not

I’m not trying to. I am. This is my resting tone of voice on the extranet. 14:07

 

The shuttle swayed. Tali was frowning behind her faceplate. Shepard was, to all intents and purposes, still asleep.

The ellipsis popped up again.

 

14:07 i guess i never thought there would be a day where she would declare herself unfit for command??

14:07 and i know it is only one mission and it is VERY UNDERSTANDABLE but

14:07 do you think it would be inappropriate to do something for her?

[ . . . ]

I hear you. Me neither. 14:08

 

He looked at the question for a moment. Considered, and typed back.

 

Honestly? It would probably be fine, but I doubt she’s going to be receptive to anything remotely resembling an act of care or self-care. 14:08

Something about shoving a soy candle up my ass.[14] 14:08

14:08 you two have very…interesting conversations

Call it passing the time. Firefights can get a little repetitive. 14:08

Did you have something in mind? 14:08

14:08 not exactly but i will think of something

14:09 i am taking suggestions though

Avoid: mindfulness practices, gratitude journals, yoga, and anything ever written by Chambers in a wellness memo. 14:09

Consider: firearms, discharging firearms, and letting her discharge a firearm at you. 14:09

Barring that, letting her humiliate you in the training area.[15] 14:09

14:09 someone is still sore

Yes. Literally. 14:09

14:10 well this has been both very helpful and extremely unhelpful as usual

I live to serve. 14:10

And sorry. It’s not as if I have wide-ranging interests or hobbies, here. 14:10

I sleep, work, shoot things, which is also part of my work, and read the extranet. 14:10

And talk to you, occasionally. 14:10

14:10 i will figure it out and do an excellent job as usual and i expect you to be a willing accomplice

I wouldn’t dream of being otherwise. You still have that recording.[16] 14:10

14:11 and other things

14:11 i have been compiling evidence for future blackmail purposes

Evidence? What evidence? Also, what exactly do you need to blackmail me for? 14:11

What are you planning, Zorah? 14:11

14:11 what do you turians call it again

14:11 forward preparation

Advance planning? 14:11

14:11 that

For what mission, may I ask? 14:11

14:12 i am sorry garrus

14:12 you will be given intelligence on a need to know basis

I need to know. 14:12

14:12 that is for me to decide as commanding officer of this project

14:15 board games!!!

Did Aeia overheat your circuitry? What happened to the blackmail? 14:15

What are we talking about? 14:15

14:15 board games boshtet for shepard

…Your brilliant strategy is to give the commander another arena in which to kick our asses and conquer? 14:15

14:15 yes!!

Sounds perfect. Set it up. 14:15

14:15 i will check crew barracks and also with joker and maybe kasumi for options

14:15 do you think you could try to invite her tonight??

Funny. My recollection is that you were the CO of this operation. You tell me. 14:16

14:16 i order you to invite commander shepard to board games after dinner and if you fail to deliver her you will suffer Consequences

Bluffing. 14:16

14:16 Tali’Zorah has sent an attachment.

Received. 14:16

Do not show that to anyone. 14:16

-

Lawson addressed him as he was leaving Decon. “Gunnery Officer, I need a word with you.”

He stepped out of Samara’s way and turned back into the chamber. “Just the one?”

She glanced at him, sliding the breech mechanism back into her Tempest. “I see you haven’t tired of issuing jokes purely for your own entertainment.”

“You frequently appear entertained against your better judgment, XO, so you’re getting some beneficial fallout,” he pointed out. “On the whole, though, you’re right. I do love the sound of my own voice.” He looked at the parts on the countertop. “Happy to help with this, ma’am.”

She gestured at the table. “Please.”

He reached for the receiver of Shepard’s M-22. Lawson had ordered her to leave her gear and ‘Find something recreational to do, Commander, not paperwork or communications,’ with Chakwas seconding the directive. She was probably checking her emails out of spite this minute.

“Techs not handling reassembly today?” He screwed the front piston into the sight, slotted in the bolt carrier.

“I sent a message asking them to wait. Before they take over, I wanted to discuss the commander.”

“Again?”[17] He picked up the recoil spring. “I’m not sure why you think I’m an expert, here.”

“Don’t be disingenuous, Vakarian. Your friendship is evident and serves a valuable purpose. Anything that keeps her tethered to the mission and her own sense of identity is.” She snapped on the M-9’s retainer. “I wouldn’t expect you to disclose personal information. However, is there anything you can think of that would support the stated objective?”

Garrus considered, starting on the trigger assembly. “Keep her moving,” he said eventually. “Engaged. Even during R&R. I’m getting the sense that when she stops, the gears start grinding. You’d know better than I if that’s a healthy recommendation, but it’s what I can say has been successful on a case by case basis.”

“And her tendency to overwork?” She was bent over the Tempest, adjusting the barrel. “That’s to be avoided too. There needs to be balance.”

“Honestly?” He shrugged as he screwed on the trigger guard. “I’ll strenuously deny this if you ever attribute it to me, but she responds well to light nagging. You did it yourself, XO, taking over her kit and ordering her out a few minutes ago. I got her to stop reading her emails off-shift once in a similar way.”[1]

She shook her head, not looking up. “You’re suggesting that I tell Commander Shepard not to do her job. Point blank.”

“I’m suggesting that if you tell her you’ll handle a task and she trusts you to do it, she’ll let you take it from her provided you’re firm, persistent, or both.”

“I see.” Lawson straightened, checking the sights. “Well, Vakarian, you’ve been inadvertently helpful again. I appreciate your counsel.”

“I’m not sure why there’s this animosity between us, XO,” he drawled. “All I’ve ever done is answer your questions to the best of my extremely limited ability.”

Her mouth twitched as she looked down the counter. “Out, before I say something I regret or find additional duties to assign you.”

“Yes, ma’am. Feel free to shoot me an email if you have any other topics you’d like my opinion on. Always happy to serve up commentary.”

“I’ll consider whether I can stand to draw my own conclusions about human nature, flavors of dog food, or extranet memes. If not, I have your address.”

Garrus took the elevator up to Crew Deck. Pulled up a chat window with Shepard as he headed down the hall, and collided with her as she turned the corner. “God fucking damn it, again?”

She stepped back, grinning. She was still in ceramic, hadn’t made it up to quarters yet. “Eyes on the road, Vakarian. Guess I should count myself lucky you weren’t carrying anything this time.”[2]

He closed his screen. “If you say so. With all due respect, I think ‘covered in coffee, blood,[3] sweat,[4] and tears’[5] is a pretty good look for you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Sure you can see me at all under all that muck?”

“Good point. You should probably hit the head. Rinse it all down.”

She leaned against the wall, clearing the passageway. “Only if you’re coming with. Just ‘cause you don’t sweat doesn’t mean you don’t reek, buddy.”

“Is that an offer?” He joined her.

“Why? You want it to be?”

“Maybe. On the other hand, we already spend a hell of a lot of time together, Shepard. I’d think hard before giving up your last few minutes of privacy per cycle.”

Her mouth twitched. “Wasn’t aware you were joining me in the cabin on top of the head.”

“Oh, that’s a fair point. Well, that’s allayed my concerns about monopolizing you, considering the number of hours you log with your eyes closed.”

Shepard snorted, pushing off the wall. “I’m out, Gunnery Officer. Off to read poetry or learn to play the clarinet like I’ve always dreamed, since my extranet access got fucking childlocked and I’m under strict orders not to exert myself.”

“Gym’s off limits too? That’s harsh, Commander. How ever will you entertain yourself?” He crossed his arms, turning to keep her in sights as she went to the elevator and hit the call button.

“You not hear the aforementioned options? Think your brain might’ve gotten as cooked[6] as the rest of ours down there, carapace or no.”

“I can suggest an alternative. If you’re interested.”

She turned to face him, hooking her thumbs in her pockets. “Can’t promise interest before hearing the offer, Vakarian. Definition of poor consent practice.”

“No fun at all. Have you considered board games?”

The elevator arrived. She glanced left as the doors opened, but didn’t step in. “Not even once. Should I?”

“No idea. Tali’s putting together a table this evening. I’ve been coerced into attendance and refuse to go alone.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Why not ask your son[7] to chaperone you?”

“Our son, Shepard, and he’s already spoken for. He’s coming with one of his action figures.” He straightened. “I need a hit. Defer those sonnets and walk me to the mess?”

“Sure. Got nothing better to do.” She fell in beside him.

“So flattering. Glad to hear you only spend time with me by default or for lack of options.”

“Weren’t you just saying I spend too much time with you? Make up your goddamn mind.” She hopped up on the counter.

“Can’t. Blinded by your radiance.” Garrus pulled down a pair of cups.

“Uh huh. Heatstroke, like I said. Think that turian physiology isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

Coffee, milk. Coffee, honey. “I invite you to test it before writing it off.”

“No need. Tested it thoroughly in the gym[8] a couple cycles ago, and I gotta say, I wasn’t impressed.”

“Well, excuse me for not dying and coming back as the 2.0 version of myself.” He turned and handed over her mug.

She scoffed, taking it. “Yeah, even before the rebuild I was impressive as hell on the floor. Not that you ever had the pleasure.”

“True. Somehow in all my lurking I never managed to be in the right place at the right time.” He sipped. “So how about it, Shepard? Take us all down a peg in the arena of dice and meeples at 18:00?”

“What’re you laying out?”

He swallowed. “Not a damn clue. But I’m certain you’ll come out on top as always.”

“Is my MO,” she agreed. “Why the hell not. Send me the coordinates.”

02:17 HOURS PAST 18:00

Shepard stepped into the elevator with him. “Not a word, Vakarian,” she said, pressing the door control.

“Come on, Commander, let me have this. Who knew a person could be bad at a game designed for four and up?”

Her mouth twitched. “No strategy whatsoever. Win or loss, that shit was pure dumb luck.”

“Dumb luck which favored me or Tali. Repeatedly. Hell, even the kid squeezed in a couple of victories over you.” He crossed his arms, looking sidelong. “Should’ve played it closer to the vest, ma’am. If you hadn’t said what you did just now, I might’ve assumed you let us win to bolster morale.”

“Yet another lapse in judgment for the wall.” She settled against the handrail. “How about you let me roll it back? Pretend you didn’t hear that. Get it right this time.”

He flicked a mandible. “No second chances, ma’am. I’m going to relish this proof of my superiority in a narrow and completely useless field for all time.”

“You do that. Hope it brings you the joy your life otherwise lacks.”

“Agreed. Dark days in the battery, you know.”

She cracked her neck. “Next time, try paging me for a game of deception. Wipe the fucking floor with your ass.”

He shrugged. “With all due respect, you’d have to get it there first, ma’am.”

“Oho. That a challenge?”

“Not in the least. That would suggest…what was it you said last time? That would suggest effort needs expending to achieve the objective.”[9]

She raised an eyebrow. “Awfully self-aggrandizing aptitude assessment for a guy who tapped outta the gym after one joint session.”

“Weightlifting is one thing, CO. Sparring?” He settled on the rail opposite her. Set his shoulders against the wall. “Sparring requires reach. Flexibility.”

Her eyes flicked over him; her mouth twitched again. “And here’s the part where you tell me you’ve got both in spades and a gold star on your CQC eval.”

“Something like that. Ready to be regaled by just one of many stories of my inimitable physical prowess?”

“You know it.”

“Strap in, ma’am. During year thirteen in my term of service, I was ensign on a stealth frigate participating in a smuggling and slaving suppression campaign. Series of high risk operations. All planetside, all commando warfare, with no backup to speak of.” The elevator hit Crew Deck. He glanced at the indicator: no one hailing from another floor. He turned back. “We were slated to hit a pirate squad next cycle, and this recon scout and I had been at one another’s throats for days. Nerves, mostly, not that she wasn’t a damn pain around the clock. She suggested we settle it in the ring.”

Her eyebrows rose. “Kinda making this sound like a fight club, guy.”

He shrugged. “It was, in a manner of speaking. Hierarchy ships have more operational discipline but fewer personal restrictions than your Alliance ones. Our commanders run us tight, and they know we need to blow off steam. The ring? Tacitly condoned way to do that. Make a tidy sum, if you were the betting sort.”

She crossed her arms; a grin tugged at her lips. “Lemme guess. You took her down in the first ten seconds, to thunderous applause and a thousand pansexual swoons.”

“Ten thousand, and no. The match went nine rounds. Ended in a draw and a lot of unhappy bettors.”

She snorted a laugh. “You forget the part where you were supposed to come out looking good, Vakarian? How exactly does this serve as evidence for the claim that you’d stand a chance against your old CO?”

“If you’re old, I am too, you know.”

“Well, there you go.”

“Rude. My point, ma’am, is that I think you’ll find me more than a little difficult to take down. No matter how many cybernetics you’re packing or what rainbow stickers you got on your own evals.”

“Yeah, yeah. Got that reach and flexibility to contend with.” She hooked her thumbs in her pockets. “Well, you ever wanna actually earn your stripes, instead of recounting stalemates as dubious proof of having done so already, shoot me an email at 03:00 or whenever the hell you wake up. Be my personal pleasure to kick your ass and dispossess you of those illusions for good.”

“Carrying some tension, Shepard?” he drawled.

“Always. Also, been stalled out at your floor for about five minutes now. This your way of asking for a slumber party?”

“Next time.” He pushed off the rail. “My cute pajamas are still in need of a wash.”

“Mean to say you don’t sleep in that armor?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

Shepard rolled her eyes. “Your stop, Vakarian. Still your fucking stop.”

“Right.” He stepped out. “See you tomorrow, Commander.”

She saluted with two fingers as the door closed. “Thanks for the shade and the invite, Garrus. Night.”

He headed down the hall. Sealed the battery, racked his gear, and pulled down his bunk.

The cannons cycled on quietly as he pulled up his screen for his final task of the cycle.[10] No way in hell he could ever tell the second half of that story now, if a match was in the cards. Too bad. Punchline was a good one. He flicked through saved vids. Checked the thumbnails rather than the file names, because no matter how meticulous you were about your folder structures or how much importance you imputed to your ability to find a thing quickly, nobody in the damn galaxy gave descriptive titles to their downloaded porn. It was always strings of digits, placeholders for content that needed no explanation when it explained itself. There was a scene somewhere in here that would probably do the job tonight. Predictably, the premise involved a wrestling mat and a ring of onlookers.

His plates were loosening, drawing away from his sheath. Garrus set a hand to himself and lay back.

-

He opened his eyes six and a half hours later. Sat up.

The cold shower[11] hadn't worked.

He’d thought it had. He’d thought he was in the clear. What the fucking, fucking hell. He and the commander had braved mercs on Illium, geth on Haestrom, and assorted hostiles on a couple of non mission critical assignments to bring in additional funds. There had been substantial mortal peril. He’d been shot at. Shepard had shot things. He’d followed suicidal orders. Shepard had issued them. All the conditions for the event on Korlus had been reengineered and rerun, and not a blip of attraction, arousal, or whatever had pinged his radar. It had been weeks.

But he knew the cold shower hadn’t worked, because if it had, he wouldn’t have woken up at 03:27, not to the windup of the drill sergeant in his head reeling off the daily docket,[12] but to the distinct certainty that he’d just been getting his ass handed to him in more ways than one, and that Lieutenant Commander Shepard had been doing the handing.

He vividly remembered being slammed to the floor, and the razor edge of her smile.

Garrus relocated to the deck and started bicycle crunches. If his body had enough fuel and self-permission to construct a sexual fantasy about his fucking CO, it had enough damn fuel to bang out an extra half-hour of PT.

He wouldn’t be employing the facilities in the hangar today. Not with the two of them on parallel shifts. Not until everything was squared the hell away on his end. There had been an incident, and the incident needed to be thoroughly reviewed and rectified.

He flipped himself over and swapped in mountain climbers.

On the one hand, it was fine. Regardless of whatever the fuck his id was doing to him, he knew how to take a damn cue. He was confident in that. Socially and professionally, he could occupy whatever role Shepard needed him for, hit whatever target she ordered. She’d asked about lines,[13] the night of the day he’d been discharged from Medical while she’d stayed stuck, laid up with her leg in a splint and bored out of her skull. He’d offered friendship contingent on her approval, and she’d signed and sealed it. The terms of their dynamic had been delineated, and in no way encompassed acting on or communicating physical attraction.

It did entail fucking innuendo, though, and had for weeks. God damn it.

Garrus hit his count and transitioned to squat thrusts. This worked. This was a choice. He’d rather be doing reps in quarters behind a sealed door, would rather not be out in the open under ceiling lights and the scrutiny of anyone who passed the window down to Deck 4 and the training area. It was beneath his damned dignity. Turian, human, quarian: every marine corps had its pet fitness regimen, and, species-agnostic truth, all of the bodyweight exercises looked stupid and were named something even more stupid. Contorting your limbs into fucking geometrical shapes and jumping around like you were some kind of primordial who thought they had the power of flight? Repeatedly? Not for public consumption. Especially if you might run into your CO out there and need to explain what a squat thrust was or why the hell it was called something that frankly could have been devised by a teenaged idiot who thought the height of comedy was putting two words from a porno in lockstep.

He was going to have to delete that vid. Never talk about sparring again. Any damn reference to this would have to be scrubbed out, every access point sealed. As for Commander Shepard…

It was fine. If shooting the shit slid into suggestive waters due to him, her, or the intersection of them, then it swept just as effortlessly away, lost in the tide of allusion, Q&A, light persecution, and commentary both political and personal that comprised the flow of their regular talks. Proven fact. He could point to multiple interactions demonstrating that, which meant anything he might let slip would have an obvious alibi. Prior conversations? Ditto.

...Probably.

He switched to pushups. Tried to put it down; but his brain was still collating data, serially incapable of trusting its own logic. He excerpted memories, arrayed them side by side. Checked the transcripts. Scanned for damning or corroborating proof, for any hint of a pattern. Asked himself if he’d always been the one to insinuate some dumbfuck thing first, if Shepard had ever said anything that didn’t have an alibi. Shit, if this was a one time thing, or if he’d entered some kind of fucking sexual tailspin. Two instances in the register? Two too many.

He didn’t know. He couldn’t tell. And if she’d clocked it on him before he’d clocked it on himself, there was no counting the number of times he’d been a damned asshole, just blithely and obliviously stepping over boundaries. She should have put him out an airlock. He should have done it himself, but he hadn’t fucking known.

He’d lost count of his reps. Good. Due compensation for a gross breach of propriety. He started over. Maybe this had been screwing with his head for ages. Maybe his perimeter around routine banter had been widening inch by inch, broadening to encompass and condone statements he’d never have made days, weeks, or months ago. Maybe he’d been a piece of shit without realizing it.

He hopped up, ran in place. Pounded out steps until his heart rate hit target levels. Went to the guardrail, braced his palms against it, and started dips.

All right. Credit was owed where it was due. Shepard was forthright as hell. When she drew a line, she drew it in the sand: cross it and die. He trusted her. Trusted her enough to put himself in a hostile’s reticle or occupy a position that was untenable until she pulled some wild tactical maneuver that saved everyone’s ass and won the day. He could trust her to shut down a conversation that went out of bounds.

With that consideration, this wasn't likely to be a latent or preexisting problem, or at least not one that he’d already inflicted on her without his awareness or consent. On the other hand, his fucking male privilege meant he couldn’t trust his own lens on this. Of course he’d be inclined to think he’d done nothing wrong. Of course he’d push off the burden of boundary-setting on her, not hold himself to account or do his part. But he hoped not. He really fucking hoped not. He was better than that, or should be, and she deserved better than that.

He swung under the bar, reversed to overhand grip, and initiated his incline pullup sequence.

He couldn’t overstep in the future, even inadvertently. Would have to assume boundaries he had no ability to fully ascertain, because ascertaining them would require having a conversation with Shepard about this. Which he’d never force either of them to endure. Hard pass on a warranted sexual harassment charge, excruciating social discomfort, and deeply unprofessional and shitty behavior. Hell, asking your CO unprompted if she’d picked up any subliminal signals coming off you was grounds for a court-martial in the Hierarchy.

Perseveration did great things for his completion times. He ducked out from the guardrail, returned to his bunk, and sat. Let his pulse turn down, his rate of breathing slow.

So he’d address variables on his end of things as well as possible. Give forethought a try, instead of saying whatever damn thing came to mind when he was clearly compromised. But Shepard might notice overt silence or disengagement from conversation, and she was the kind of officer who followed up on aberrations from the norm when they involved her crew. If he dialed back intentionally or too hard, she could assume they were on the outs. And that would be its own kind of asshole move. She’d take the cue without question, steer back into the SR-1 dynamic, and let things stand there. Soul of fucking professionalism.

Garrus cursed under his breath. Maybe he just beat one out before leaving quarters? Put a limit on the amount of tension he brought groundside or onto the deck? He'd have to execute with all due speed. They were deploying to Illium to track down Krios, and he was still in quarters, categorically not doing his job while the number of hours he had to discharge shipboard duties before departure ticked down. It was a dubious plan, but as he didn’t have a host of candidates clamoring for attention, it might have to serve. At any rate, all this rumination had been essential to the operation. Vital to the upkeep of relations between the CO and gunnery officer, not that she knew that or ever, ever damn needed to know that.

Garrus checked the hour, then sent up a prayer and pulled up his screen. He’d never masturbated for the sake of a mission before, but he was a fucking turian. Anything for the cause.

Chapter Text

Care warning: PTSD flashback.

The bridge between buildings one and two of Dantius Towers was unfinished, exposed on both sides, and completely absent a guardrail. Construction lighting glared out at intervals along the route, too sparse to be adequate for night crews or criminally unhinged persons like them who planned to cross after sunset. At this elevation the wind howled down the bridge’s span, whetted to full strength on the knife’s edge of every highrise it passed. It made for lovely accompaniment to the percussion of the twin rocket drones that Eclipse had installed at the far end.

Garrus hit concrete as a missile arrowed towards them, smacking the space that the commander had occupied seconds before. Burning frag shattered overhead. Smoke whipped across and away. 

“Back it up,” Shepard ordered, rolling to her feet, “rally around the corner—” 

He reached and yanked her down as missile no. 2 crashed in. The inferno roared around them, a paroxysm of red-orange against the night, but their shields were still marginally up and her hand was clamping on his rerebrace, dragging him out and up and into retreat. She shoved him ahead of her and turned back for Lawson, but the XO was already ducking past unscathed. 

“Crane,” Shepard said, and they hunkered down into its violet shadow. The barrage ceased as the drones lost targets. The wind reasserted itself, snarling and prowling the perimeter, and Garrus turned down his external input by another two clicks. They’d been on comms since the moment they left Tower Two, in-ear transmitters the only way to reliably transmit orders over the gale. 

A ping from his visor, echoed by two others as first Lawson’s then his and Shepard’s shields climbed back to full. “Points to Nassana for character consistency as an asshole,” he said. “If she keeps acting out like this, ma’am, I’m uninviting her from my birthday party. I don’t care how she begs.”

“Shit diplomat, for sure,” Shepard agreed. “Not a thought for PR, from the look of the place.”

“Yeah. Probably why she went private and fucked off to Illium, where no one gives a damn.” A splinter had scoured his ceramic, left a long scratch on the paint. He showed them his vambrace. “I just buffed this. Doesn’t she know I just buffed this?”

Shepard rolled her eyes and pulled up a map on her tool. Lawson looked. “Cosmetic,” she said. “Try a solution of sodium bicarbonate. Polish for three to five minutes.”

“XO, I think it’s fair to say we’ve experienced reservations about one another for months. I’d like to lay any lingering hostilities aside and formally appoint you my friend. I appreciate you validating the acute hardship I’m experiencing, here. Unlike some people.”

Lawson eyed him. “Vakarian, I’m not an indulgent associate. Better to stick with Shepard.”

“It’s a risk, to be sure. But I’ve been feeling neglected in the last ten seconds.” A shred of packaging blew in from some other part of the site, swept against his boot by the incessant wind. He nudged it and it tumbled on. “And after consulting my wellness memos, I don’t think it’s the healthy choice to keep sticking around waiting for scraps of attention from the CO when you’re at hand, emotionally available and offering support in my time of need.” 

“I find it very concerning that you consider me more emotionally available than the commander. Or that you believe either of us is emotionally available in the least.”

“Calibrations definitely off somewhere in there. Lawson, I goddamn implore you,” Shepard said. She swiped something away. “You wanna free up some bandwidth for the CO, take a shift with this walking talking brat. Could use a minute of peace and quiet.”

“Not even for you, ma’am,” Miranda told her.

“Shepard, why do you want to hurt me?” he drawled. 

“Dead to me by your own doing. Throw me off just like that for the next person? I don’t forgive easy.” She closed her screen. “All right, team. This has got to be the most dangerous worksite I’ve ever seen. Not gonna be easy getting across. But I saw some likely positions for partial cover before the rockets hit, and odds are Krios is on the other side.”

“Idea,” he said. 

“Go ahead.”

“Why don’t we just wait for him to cross back over once the job’s done? Do we give a shit whether Dantius survives this encounter?”

She snorted. “Not particularly. But we’re here for an assassin, and the one place we’re guaranteed to find the guy is at the location of his target.”

Lawson was consulting her omnitool. “Commander, with the downdraught effect, I’m getting wind speeds in excess of fifty miles per hour. Crossing the bridge in these conditions is incredibly unsafe. I second Vakarian’s recommendation. If we retreat to the lower level, we can attempt to intercept Krios there.”

Shepard shook her head. “Objections noted and candor appreciated. But we gotta traverse this thing if we want him in the bag. Remember, we didn’t get a single visual the way up, and we’ve got no guarantee he won’t slip us again on the way down. Building’s too big, night’s too dark.” 

“All right, well, how badly do we need him?” he asked. “I’m famously decent at long range. And I haven’t had much cause to use it due to your penchant for punching people in the face, but my hand to hand is solid. The only thing I’m not good for is sneaking around.”

“Regret to inform you we need a guy who can sneak around.”

“Goto?”

She shrugged. “What if we need two guys?”

“Look, ma’am, I’ll learn how. I’ll do whatever it takes if it means we don’t cross this bridge.”

“Whatever it takes?” Lawson asked. 

“—Well, hang on. Let me hear what’s on the table, first.”

Shepard chuckled. “Watch your back, Gunnery Officer. Might not need you much longer for the entertainment value.”

“Watch your own back, Commander. I’m not next up in the chain of command.” He considered. “One more alternative. Definitely a real one. How about we track down Krios’s email address and send an evite to Cerberus instead?”

“Yep. Feel free. Lemme know how that goes.” She swapped in her DMR. Checked sights, and looked up at them. Somewhere ahead, an unsecured jib was groaning, rotating on the boom. Its cable rattled. 

“You’re making us cross this bridge, aren’t you?” Lawson asked.

“Sure am. Was just waiting for you two to reconcile yourselves to the hard truth.”

“God damn it,” he said. “You know I haven’t finished writing my will yet. Don’t you care at all about the bequeathing of my two worldly possessions?”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re gonna be fine. Matter of fact, you’re gonna be more fine than the two of us, ‘cause you’re staying at the rear.”

“Just keeping your favorite turian out of the line of fire, I see.” He played that back. Probably fine. 

“Nah, my favorite turian was Saren Arterius. Chased him halfway across the galaxy to get him to have a conversation with me, remember?” 

“I’ll admit I mostly remember you talking a bullet into his brain.”

“Yeah, well. Person scorned, and all that.” She cracked her neck. “You’re taking out the drones before you cross. Priority one.” 

“Got it. Also, again? Why am I always the one who plays with the thing that shoots missiles?”[1]

Shepard programmed an ammo mod. “I wanna see how long your luck can hold, you scarfaced son of a bitch.”

“Precedent,” Lawson added. “You’ve refined it into an art.”

“That too,” the commander agreed. “Doing everything I can to avoid depriving you of that class job. Know how important it is for you to feel special.”

“Thanks, ma’am. It’s true the occasions are few and far between.”

Shepard stepped into the wind, leading them back towards Tower One. “Rundown. Lawson and I handle any infantry Eclipse orders across. Permission, invitation, and encouragement to use the drop to our advantage. Whatever it takes to clear this field fast.”

“Oh, good,” he said. “I was just hoping we could Haestrom these motherfuckers.”[2]

“Haestrom away. Gunnery Officer, you’re going in first. Let those drones get a solid lock on so the XO and I can get to cover.”

“Great. I look forward to dodging heavy ordnance as usual.” He loaded up tungsten rounds. “In case I fail to deliver, the obvious indicator will be if you get hit by a missile.”

“Keep talking, buddy. Whatever you do, both of you, stay low and don’t let ‘em knock out your shields. Gotta be three, four hundred feet above ground here. You get caught in a biotic field and carried over the side, it’s lights out and I’m down an officer.”

“That’s an alarming number of addenda,” Lawson said. “If I didn’t know better, Commander, I’d say you were worried for our safety.” 

“Could have something to do with the treacherous field conditions,” he suggested. “Low nighttime visibility, high wind factor, rocket drones and biotically gifted enemy combatants…am I forgetting anything?”

“The sheer drop and lack of guardrails. I wish we’d come up with some alternative to the present plan that we could attempt instead. Too bad.”

Shepard was helmed, but her grin carried through in her tone. “Laugh it up, team. Get it all outta your system. Flush those pipes.”

They’d reached the corner. The wind sliced around it, scouring his faceplate as they posted up against the wall. Shepard peered around. Nodded. “Right,” she said. “Lawson, get to that cover on my eleven. I’ll make a run for the position forward of you at nine. Vakarian, you got plenty of options this end of the bridge, so exercise your discretion. Sending you out first, as discussed.”

“Aye aye, ma’am. Hazard of that class job.”

Her Mattock snapped to her shoulder. “Move!”

Garrus went low and hurled himself into the wind’s teeth, ramming his way toward cover. No hostiles on the field yet, strip lights forming a patchwork of visibility. Dark bulk of a half-loaded palette ahead, perfect, and the unmistakable sound of a missile slicing through air. He dropped—detonation—shields humming, absorbing the partial impact. Seventy percent. Slivered metal shot away down the bridge. He scrambled up and took a direct hit. Static prickled across his hardsuit, readouts glaring warnings. A third missile slammed the shipping containers as he skidded down behind them. Flames licked around him then blew out, leaving char. The wind resistance dropped abruptly as he moved deeper in and took an entrenched position with cover on three sides. “I’m in,” he informed them, programming an EMP.

“‘Bout time,” Shepard said. “Soak up some fire like I told you to. XO took a missile while you were getting cozy.” He checked the scanner: she and Lawson were in position. LOKI mechs and Eclipse were deploying rapidly down the bridge and firing. 

“You know, there was a time when I thought I was valuable to this team. An indispensable asset.” He raised his head, threw a pulse towards the starboard drone. Watched it fail to land and ducked back into cover as the rockets hit. “With every mission it becomes clearer that I was wrong. What am I to you, exactly, Commander?”

“Lemme think.” Her M-96 hammered. “Substitute tech? Damage buffer? Blunt instrument for the protection of the really important squadmates?”

He programmed another pulse with adjusted variables. “I think I need a new job.”

“Probably. In the meantime, though, better make nice and apologize to the XO for letting her take a hit.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry, Lawson. Let those damn instincts of self-preservation get the better of me, again.” 

The sizzle of her EMP, finding one mark or several. Why the hell were Lawson’s pulses landing? “Forgiven. It didn’t even drop my shields.”

“Wait, it didn’t? So solicitous, Shepard. Everything all right with you?” He flung the second pulse. Absorbed another missile double-checking distances when it failed to hit. Well in goddamn range. 

“Back at you. You forget your orders? Why the fuck are there still two drones on the field fucking up my life?”

“Electronic countermeasures. Just confirmed it. Bastards won’t let me lock on with my EMP, and the wind’s too high to hit them with an impact shot at this distance.” He assembled his M-98. 

“‘Kay, well—” Shepard broke off, and he risked a look. Punching incendiary rounds into a squadron of LOKI mechs. She disappeared briefly as they converged around her. A mech seized and exploded, followed by several others. Smoldering pieces scattered, snatched away by the wind. 

“—figure it the hell out?” he finished. He disengaged the safety. 

“Figure it the hell out.”

“You’ve got it.” Garrus fired. Ducked, and shuttled the bolt. Flaming liquid hydrogen splashed around him as more rockets hit. He set up again and immediately took a missile. 

“I hope you’re having fun out there,” he said, squeezing the trigger. “You two owe me a hundred credits for every rocket I absorb.” He flushed his sink.

“The fuck is this racket? How much on the bill so far?”

“Four hundred and counting for direct hits only.” He caught another one. “Scratch that. Five hundred.”

“Fine. But for every twenty seconds those drones stay in commission, I’m docking your pay by two fifty. So you’re not pulling much of a profit.”

The starboard drone went dark as his fourth round punched through. This was ludicrous. An absurd waste of sinks. “Disappointing. What do I get for a job well done?”

“Besides the shakedown money? How about my unending gratitude and that pat on the head you’ve been craving since childhood?”

“Hm. I think I’d rather have a medal of honor and a kiss to go with it.” He exhaled. Squeezed the trigger on the remaining drone. Logged that he was probably going to be kicking himself for that joke when he had half a brain cell to spare, but too late now.  

Shepard’s answer came readily through the comm. No pause, no tonal shift, because unlike the gunnery officer, the CO of the Normandy SR-2 was a goddamn professional shooting the shit, not an asshole nursing a schoolboy crush for teacher. “Why don’t you ask the yeoman to hook you up with that? Bet she can print out a certificate of completion, no problem.”

“And the kiss?” He fired again. Rocket number six splattered over his shields. 

“Dunno. Maybe.” A mech went flying, striking sparks from the pavement, and careened over the edge. “Gotta have led her on by planting a bunch of love letters in the suggestions box.[3] Think you should take a little responsibility for your actions.” 

Round three flared against the drone’s shields. They stuttered dangerously. One more should do it. “Do post-its with smiley faces drawn on really pass for love letters these days? Damn, the standards have fallen.”

“She’s young, Vakarian. Emojis stand for all kinds of fucking things unbeknownst to us.”

“True. Well, I didn’t mean to engender feelings. Only have eyes for you, Commander.” Normal response in line with the present dynamic. Probably. God damn it. He was going to need to avail himself of the height at this rate. Spare everyone his bullshit. 

“Guess that explains why that drone’s still shooting. Hey, can you hurry it the hell up? Love to fucking manuever out here without dropping my shields.”

“Sorry.” He fired again. “Decommissioned. Leave a body or two on the bridge for me. I need to re-up—down to four sinks in the Widow.”

“Come and get ‘em. Surrounded by parts up here.”

“Moving.” Garrus extracted himself from the crates and relocated to Lawson’s initial position. No salvage here to scrounge—they’d picked off hostiles too quickly for that, which was more than could have been said for him. He moved to Shepard’s former location a few yards up. Rehomed clips, checking the field. CO and XO were forward of him and two thirds of the way across, engaging a biotic supported by three LOKI mechs. He set up unnoticed, couching the stock against his shoulder. The wind clawed at his shoulders. The adjustments he was making for environmental conditions were fucking wild. “Stand clear of the organic, Shepard,” he said. “I’m on your six—I’ll take the shot.”

“Do it.” She huddled down. The air was bending over the crates as the target built a pull field. He breathed, squeezed the trigger. Reality snapped back into place. His mark’s body pitched over the side as Lawson tossed an EMP into the mechs.“That everyone?” Shepard asked as they overloaded. She cocked her muzzle up.

Garrus checked. “Everyone on our scanner at least,” he amended. “Nothing being picked up on the stairs or second level. But I couldn’t lock a pulse on the drones earlier, remember. Could be jamming us.”

“Got it.” She looked up at the facade of Tower Two: the concave rows of windows describing the penthouse, the struts sweeping up to the roof. The route to the staircase was dead ahead but out of sight behind a dividing barrier, built at right angles to the far end of the bridge and currently in partial shadow. Blind corner, open to the balustrade above. Ripe for an ambush. “I’ll take point,” she said, predictably. “Post up dead center, you two. Right there.” She indicated the position with her rifle. “Keep an eye on that balcony.”

“Will do, since I can’t keep an eye on the stairs.” Garrus set up beside the XO. They’d advanced out of the wind, so at least they’d be fighting for their lives without the extra math. “Any bets that this is about to break bad?”

“No,” Lawson said.

“Not even one,” Shepard said, unholstering her Eviscerator. “Going.” She advanced toward the junction, rifle to her shoulder. Passed into the deeper shadow of the framing walls. Five yards, four. Three. One. 

She breached the corner and helms rose over the balcony. Muzzles flashed. The barrage battered down and Lawson’s EMP flared. Garrus squeezed the trigger, yanked the bolt, squeezed again, checked Shepard—locked in combat, hidden hostile on the stair. Knocking aside a blow with her rifle, twisting. 

Shotgun barrel sliding under her guard. 

It slammed point blank against her cuirass. Light blazed, a triple flash-bang. Shields evaporated. Sparks spat. Electricity dissipated, spilled into the night. Air slanted, and snapped, and hurled her down the bridge on an intercept trajectory with—

Time shivered. Thought splintered. Garrus was moving. Gone. 

She smacked down. Ceramic shattered. Her body skidded, scouring long tracks. A stasis field bloomed and missed. She tumbled toward the precipice and open air and the fall. 

He was too far. Garrus slapped at his omnitool, crashed into a slide, and hurled himself over the edge after her. 

His right hand closed on her arm. His left clawed for traction, screeching against the concrete, then the omniblade assembled and bit and dug deep. He snarled in pain as they plunged to the limit of his reach, at the sudden arrest, shoulder wrenched from the socket under the commander’s weight.

Lawson was in his ear, frantic. “Vakarian, do you—answer me, god damn it—” The gunshots faded in as situational awareness returned. The patter of her SMG against the burst-fire of multiple automatic rifles, a hailstorm punched through the howl of the wind.

“I have her,” he grunted. “I’m dug into the concrete. Blade’s holding.” 

“I’m pinned down. I’ll be there when I can. Don’t drop her and don’t you dare fall.”

“Don’t—” he gritted his teeth as a draft shoved them, jarring his shoulder. “Don’t worry. Not going anywhere. Shepard—” He looked down and realized she was conscious, swinging beneath him, and not just conscious. Panicking. Gasping. Pupils blown, fingers clawed into his arm between the plates of his suit and clenching hard enough to bruise. Sweat stood out behind her faceplate; her eyes shuttled, staring at nothing and everything. Her heart hammered on his readouts, fast, too fucking fast, and she’d just nearly fallen to a permanent end, but something about this was worse, was more than fear, because this wasn’t the first time. 

Suspended between the battle he could hear above, the pavement hundreds of feet below and the wind scything around them, Garrus registered the impossibility that Commander Shepard was afraid. That her body had retained the data of a traumatic death, new-grown cells and cybernetics be damned; that she’d been thrown back to a moment two years past when she had asphyxiated, blasted into space while the Normandy blazed behind her. 

“Shepard what?” Lawson’s voice, peremptory, urgent. “Status report. ” 

“Damn it. Uh.” His shoulder was reasserting itself, demanding attention. He shoved it down. “Conscious. Experiencing a combat stress response or a flashback.”

“Ground her,” she said immediately. “Now, or moving her could go badly. You know the steps?”

“I know a version of them. Stand by.” 

The timing was shit, the irony acute. But the XO was right. They couldn’t get up and out until she was clear of this. Garrus exhaled. Ignored the pain, ignored the drop. Ordered his brain to lock it down and look on the bright side and free up processing power for solutions. Blade: holding. Arm: holding. Wind: bad but could be worse. They shouldn’t be hanging from a building, shouldn’t be in physical contact. But Shepard was a soldier, and soldiers obeyed orders. They were conditioned to do so with mortar shells pounding and fire blowing them to hell, against the instinct of self-preservation, over moral compunctions and in spite of personal dissent. It was what made them so valuable and so expendable. 

He’d take what he could get and it was going to have to be enough. There was no time to do the thing gently. She needed a CO. He switched on the officer’s voice, and she could kill him for it later if they didn’t die now. “Lieutenant Commander Shepard, can you hear me? This is Garrus Vakarian, your gunnery officer. I’m here with you on Illium. You had a fall, and I’ve taken command for the time being. Eyes forward. We’re in a dangerous situation, marine, and if you want us to make it out of this, I need you to report for duty.”

He briefly wondered if he should have textured the order with obscenity to stick the landing, but whether the name and rank or the imperative, something got through. Her gaze darted to him. Seized on, pupils dilated, but she was there. “Garrus?” she croaked. “Fucking shit—I—”

“Good. Stay with me, Shepard—I’m real. And don’t move. Your position is tenuous. You’re experiencing a traumatic flashback, LC, going in and out of the present. It’s 2185. You already survived the destruction of the Normandy, so to speak. You’re not in space; you’re in atmo, on Illium, hanging from the bridge of Dantius Towers. An enemy combatant threw you over and I’ve secured you. But I need to pull you up, and I’ll need you here with me to do it. I’m going to help you ground yourself and get back into your body. Confirm receipt of these words.”

She nodded once, tightly. Her pulse was pounding on his readouts. “Listening.”

“Trust the process. Don’t worry about anything else right now, and stay focused on me. Tell me five things you see.”

Her eyes scanned him. Her voice was low on the comm. “...Blue. Black. Gold. Archangel. Vakarian.”

“Four things you can touch.”

“Sidearm. Tactical belt. Ceramic. You.”

“Three sounds.”

“Wind. —Gunfire. Vehicular traffic.”

“Two smells.” 

“Sweat. Exhaust.”

“One taste.”

“Blood.” 

Her biometrics were still elevated but settling, and her eyes were locked on him, not traversing some unknown. All indicators of stabilization. 

“Do you see me, Shepard?” 

“I see you.” 

“Do you hear me, Shepard?”

“Loud and clear.”

“Then check surroundings and give me the sitrep.”

Her eyes roamed, purposeful now. Clocking the situation. “I went over the side like a dumbshit. You apparently went after me, also like a dumbshit. You’re hanging from the bridge and I’m hanging from your arm and we should probably get the fuck moving before something gives.”

“That sounds like a good idea, ma’am.” His shoulder was killing him. “Now, as you said, we should get out of this position if you’re up for it. With all due respect, you’re heavy as hell, and the XO’s holding off a unit alone up there.”

Lawson had kept quiet during the process. She spoke now, voice strained. “I’ve taken some fire, Commander. More than cosmetic but non-critical. If you’re able to extract yourself that would be convenient. Otherwise, I’ll try to reach you now.”

“Received and coming render aid, Lawson,” she said. “Stay down and stay safe.”

He looked at her. “Are you climbing up or am I throwing you?”

“I’ve got it. Hold tight, Vakarian.” She scrambled up, scaling him like a tree, and he hissed as the redistribution of her weight jarred his shoulder. “C’mon.” She hauled him onto solid ground and to his feet. Her helm was already swiveling, scanning the field. She maneuvered him into cover and dropped down beside him. “Taking your DMR. Lost mine somewhere.”

“All yours.” He leaned forward and winced, and Shepard unclipped his Mattock. 

“Check the arm. Doesn’t look like it’s seated right. We’ll handle this.” 

Garrus unlatched his pauldron one-handed as the commander fired and reloaded and coordinated tactics over comms. Tested his range of motion and regretted it. Dislocated, as expected. Likely sprained. He had to reset it. Had the know-how to do it. It was basic field medicine, even if it would suck krogan ass. He gripped his wrist and pulled, slowly, straight out. His shoulder resisted, shifted, then slid home.

Fucking hell fuck shit. Chakwas was going to kill him. He worked the shoulder gingerly. Concluded he could discharge a weapon if necessary, though probably not without exacerbating the injury. In a way it was a boon that he kept fucking up the right and not the left. Trigger pull weight was nothing compared to the heft of a receiver.

“Clear, Commander,” Lawson was saying. “Glad to hear you’re in one piece.”

“Glad to be in one, XO. Sorry to check out mid-encounter. Hold position and monitor those stairs. Be up momentarily.” 

“Yes, ma’am.”

Shepard ejected her sink and flipped the safety. Checked sights, and toggled the safety again, and looked back the way they’d come. Her gaze locked on the lip of the bridge, the place where she’d gone over and he’d gone after her. A deep gouge marred the concrete where his blade had lanced in.

He watched her for a moment, then toggled to a private channel. “Shepard?”

The wind gusted between them. The scaffolding creaked, and the seconds ticked up.  

“Thanks,” she said. She didn’t look at him.

He stopped massaging his shoulder. “Commander, you don’t owe me anything, including and especially a thank-you.”

“Yeah, well. Hell of a fucking goddamn time to skip out on reality.”

“It, uh. It seemed like a pretty reasonable time, if you ask me. All things considered.”

Another pause. “Guess I should apprise the doc that something’s up.”

“It couldn’t hurt.”

She didn’t speak. He hesitated, then went on. “Look, on the subject of losing touch with reality? Consider us even. Due return of services rendered on Omega a few months ago, twice,[4] actually. We can take turns saving one another’s asses and/or reactivating our trauma, you know. No shame in it.”

She shrugged, and reversed his M-22, and held it out. 

He shook his head. “Keep that, unless we find yours. Could need it.”

“I don’t. Plenty of spares in the armory.” 

“You could need it for the remainder of this assignment,” he clarified. “I’ll be fine. My Widow’s back where you positioned me earlier. Left it to hold the line while I knocked out a mission critical objective.” 

She didn’t move, so he pushed it back towards her and rotated the grip into her palm. He closed her oddly slack fingers over it, and held them there till they took hold. 

He let go. The gun stayed in her hand. “Shepard—”

Her eyes were on his rifle. They flicked up to him. 

“You’re not weak,” he said. “For being affected by everything that’s happened and that keeps happening. No one could be sucked into space[5] and not have that come back in full force because some asshole threw them off a highrise.”

“Stop.” She shifted, restless and sudden. Impatient. Angry. “Vakarian, I don’t have time to do trauma, understand? I have a fucking job. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for error. And if I can’t keep it locked the hell down? I—God fucking damn it. Fucking, fucking shit. Forget it.” 

She started to rise. He gripped her shoulder, holding her back. “I do understand. But for the times when trauma decides to do you? I’m here.”

“Shouldn’t have to be.” She shook him off. 

“Well, I am. So with all due respect, shut the hell up and take the assist.”

She stared at him, and he waited to be reamed out. Mentally clocked in for duty, because someone had to take the heat when the CO was scared shitless and pissed, excess adrenaline involuntarily transmuted to fight response. Better him than the XO, or Krios, or a random employee of Dantius’s. 

“I’ve got you, Commander,” he said, into the space between them. “It wasn’t your time, and it won’t be your time on my damn watch. You’re not spinning off into the black as long as I’m on your six.”

Shepard searched his faceplate. Locked eyes, not that she meant to; and he could sense the emotion still roiling in her. Looking for an outlet, seeking a target. When she spoke, her voice was rough. “Anyone ever tell you you’re a pain in the fucking ass, Gunnery Officer? An insubordinate shit due a hell of a reaming?”

“All the damn time. Good thing I made sure you lived to do it.”

“Never asked if I wanted a rescue back there. Got some hangups about helplessness.”

“I’m very sorry. I’ll be sure to send a request for countersignature first, next time.”

Silence. The wind howled, dust and debris sheeting off the pavement. 

Shepard shook her head and stood, thrusting down a hand for him. “All right, asshole. Thanks for the recovery and fuck you for the real talk. Let’s catch up with the XO.”

Chapter Text

“LOGGED: THE COMMANDING OFFICER IS ABOARD. ARMORY OFFICER TAYLOR STANDS RELIEVED.”

The decon chamber door rolled back. Shepard opened her eyes; Lawson closed her omnitool. Garrus stood, switching off his playlist. His arm was in a sling, probably functional but awaiting full eval by Doctor Chakwas. 

They hadn’t spoken on the shuttle ride back to the Normandy or in the cab to the transpo hub preceding it. On the one hand, mission success: Krios had been located and convinced to enlist. On the other, Shepard had been blasted off a highrise and he’d dislocated his shoulder jumping after her, and Lawson had taken fire holding the line against Eclipse after both her squadmates had gone over the edge, and then he’d performed emergency crisis intervention for his CO hanging from a building on live comms while the wind tried to tear them down, and it seemed they’d all tacitly agreed to take a beat. Let everything reset.

The commander was up and clipping her weapons back in place. They hadn’t managed to locate her M-96 or the Lieberschaft, and she still had his DMR. “All right, you two,” she said. “XO, Medbay, now. I’ll get the paperwork going. Krios, welcome to the Normandy. Be dropping in later once you’re settled. Vakarian, you know the drill. Remember to see the doc after.” 

Her tone was impersonal and officerial, the message clear: you do your job, I’ll do mine. Feelings deferred to later or never. Fair enough. If he and Lawson were emotionally hungover, Shepard had to be laid the hell up. 

“Yes, ma’am,” he returned. He filed it all for another time and turned his attention to their new crewman. 

Thane inclined his head as they left, then crossed Decon to join him. He moved with the economy of force signature to close range combat specialists: no superfluous energy expended, balanced rather than braced for action. 

“I’m afraid I didn’t catch your full name or rank,” Krios said after a moment, linking his hands behind his back. He stood with a stillness that Garrus recognized as conditioned from his own training in HMC Sniper School. Disposition wasn’t manifest, which was a typical challenge of interspecies communication at first blush. A diplomatic language couldn’t homogenize how speakers transferred tone from their native tongues. Add divergent cultural expectations for overlap, gapping, and length in turn taking; add microexpressions and how well they did or didn’t translate across species; add nonverbal communication channels not necessarily perceptible to other races, like hanar light frequencies and turian subharmonics, and things got messy fast.

A majority of it wasn’t intuitive, and he probably shouldn’t feel guilty or particularly incompetent for not instantly having a bead on what the hell was going on. Even if he’d been a detective. Even if ‘know the damn field’ was the one thing he was regularly paid, trusted, and expected to do.  

According to the yeoman’s latest wellness memo, that was negative self-talk. Value judgment, and actively harmful if left unchecked. Self-care was a damn bitch.

“Garrus Vakarian. Gunnery Officer,” he said. “Third in the chain of command. If I’m not groundside with the CO, I oversee the forward batteries for Ops and train crewmen in their use. ‘Vakarian’ or ‘Gunnery Officer’ will do.”

“Thane Krios. I believe my rank is to be, simply, Specialist. I am not certain where I fall in the chain of command, but hope our situation does not become so dire that we would ever need to know. An enumeration of my duties will, presumably, be forthcoming. ‘Thane,’ ‘Krios,’ or ‘Specialist’ will do.”

Syntactical mirroring. It could be a joke, and would have been if uttered by someone from any number of Council or Council-protected races. But it could also be politeness. He hadn’t dug deeply into drell discursive patterns before they’d hit Illium, due to a priority action item cropping up in the docket,[1] and he wasn’t confident in his ability to ask for clarification without sounding like an asshole. 

“Let’s hope we never get there,” he agreed instead. “Should we get going, Specialist?”

“After you.” Krios’s inner eyelids nictitated. Which was fine. Nictitation constituted an eyeblink, even if Garrus’s primordial never-seen-an-alien-before amygdala wasn’t coding it as such and instead volunteered that he might be in imminent danger from an apex predator. Sustained, unblinking direct eye contact did that to turians on a biological level, the way below-average pupil diameter apparently caused emotional discomfort to humans. It had happened with Lawson, too, at least until he’d grown accustomed to her low resting blink rate and had stopped giving a crap. 

All of which probably explained his slight reluctance to leave Decon first, expose his back. Well. Due another self-check for implicit bias, apparently. He told his amygdala to settle down and led the way.

Krios fell in at his three o’clock as they cleared the threshold to the hangar bay. His steps were nearly silent even in the Normandy's hollow underbelly, which meant they’d be inaudible to the vast majority of the SR-2 personnel. 

“This is Deck 5 on the lift controls. Uh. Hangar Bay,” Garrus said. Or clarified, unnecessarily, since the new recruit wasn't talking and someone had to and, owing to an ill-advised and never-to-be-repeated act of altruism,[2] the designated someone was him in the damn manual.[3] Fucking Commander Shepard. He pointed. “Full gym back there past the ATVs, outfitted for polydactyl and tridactyl service members. Open to use at all hours unless the Normandy’s actively under attack. I can take you through, if you like.”

“Thank you, no,” Krios returned. “My training regimen entails bodyweight exercise only, and I prefer to practice in solitude.”

“Trade secrets?” he inquired. 

“Yes. It would not do for others to form too close an understanding of my methods. Over the years I have formed a habit of denying the opportunity for study.”

“Understood. If the CO takes us both groundside, I’ll do my best not to look too closely."

Krios regarded him as the elevator sealed them in. “You may look. I trust you will be discreet.”

“Well, now that consent's been established,” he said, and then heard himself say it. 

Wrong audience. Too much time shooting the shit with the ground team. Too much damn tension from the last mission looking for an outlet. He was fucked for reinstatement with the Hierarchy or the force, if it ever came to that.

Krios hadn’t moved. As far as Garrus could tell, he hadn’t reacted at all. No detectable change of expression, no tensing of limbs, no minute redistribution of his weight. 

"Ah." Garrus coughed. “Apologies, Specialist. That was in bad taste. I’ll, uh. I can report myself to the XO after I’ve discharged my duties here. I can also page another officer to finish up, if you’d prefer someone else.” Tali could take over if needed. She'd give him shit about it, but she'd do it, and he could hold the line on whatever maintenance she was running down in Engineering for a couple hours. Probably.

“Unnecessary.” Krios's eyes were flooded black, absent tells. “I extended my permission. You may do with it what you will, Vakarian.” 

Oh. Good. Another interpretive exercise in What The Hell Could That Mean, a handbook on interspecies social encounters written by and for him.

They went to Deck 4. Connected with Massani, Grunt, Jack. None of them made an objectionable comment to eclipse his involuntary lapse in professional workplace conduct several minutes ago. It figured. He wasn’t sure what the point of visiting this level had been, if the three prime candidates for wildly inappropriate commentary weren’t going to deliver. 

Maybe he was kidding himself. Maybe there were four prime candidates for wildly inappropriate commentary on the SR-2, and he’d been at the top of the list all along.[4] He'd had ample time in the strained silence of the shuttle to read the mission transcript. Chock full of regrettable bullshit.[5] He was dreading the inevitable perusal of past logs in his future. He should've detached from the damn blade after Shepard was in the clear.[6]

They relocated to Engineering. Krios was proving to be a conversationalist who made more space than he took. It was a familiar tactic, one he employed himself when he was scanning for data. If Garrus had still trusted himself with basic sentence formation, he could have warned him about the pitfalls of fielding it against Tali. As it was, at some point while she described the drive core in too much detail, again, Garrus recalled that drell had eidetic memories. Perfect. Why not? Nothing preferable to having your mistakes on record forever.

They stepped back into the elevator. Garrus hit the button for Deck 3. Krios stood relaxed, poised, hands clasped loosely behind him. They didn’t speak.

The door cycled open. “This is Deck 3,” Garrus told him. “Usually called the crew deck. Personnel lavatory and barracks are that way. Starboard Observation over there. Port Observation on this side here includes a recreational area. That’s Life Support.” They turned the corner and stopped. “This is the mess, evidently. Steer clear of anything tagged yellow—those are dextro-amino rations. Forward battery and my quarters down that passageway past the cryo pods. XO’s office and quarters at left. Medbay at right.”

Krios nodded, surveying the deck. “I will need a moment with the doctor to discuss accommodations for my medical condition,” he said.

“No problem, Specialist. I’ll wait here.”

He took a table as Thane disappeared into Chakwas's lair, and hoped that the intake would forestall any confrontation about the shoulder if she happened to check the windows. Pulled up his browser, awkwardly shifting his arm in the sling to access the keyboard.

conversational mores drell

drell facial expressions microexpressions

drell body language tells

drell culture humor

drell vocal inflections pitch tone meaning

drell cultural awareness humility need to know

“Tour going well?” Shepard asked over his shoulder.

Garrus did not jump, though he did close his screen. Quickly. “God damn it, Commander, don’t do that," he said. "It’s more for your protection than mine. Who knows what I could’ve been looking at?”

—Damn, he’d killed basic civility on today’s assignment. There was no way in hell that flippancy was the appropriate response to a friend’s near death experience or her latent and recently reactivated trauma. He wasn’t even going to think about what he’d said to Krios.

No, he was. Probably in perpetuity.

Shepard raised her eyebrows, shoving her hands in her pockets. She’d changed into fatigues and cleaned up at some point, while he ushered Krios around and tried and failed not to act like an asshole.  The harsh odor of standard-issue soap drifted off her skin. “Sorry. Not used to this brave new world where you somehow don’t hear me coming from a mile away.”[7]

He gave her a fleeting once-over, vitals and body language both, then took the cue. Maybe he wasn’t the only one chasing levity right now. At any rate, SOP following a combat stress event was to connect a soldier in recovery with a member of their unit as quickly as possible. It kept them bonded to the team, invested in the objective. Motivated to return to the front instead of prioritizing personal long-term safety or spinning in their symptoms. It was sinister as hell, but he couldn’t argue with the results short-term. Commander Shepard of all people needed to be operational.   

“I was concentrating, ma'am," he drawled. "Not sure you've encountered the concept before."

“As opposed to every other time on board, when you were apparently just fucking around?”

“That’s right. I can’t be focused too much of the time, Shepard. The audio cuts out, and then we end up in a situation like this with me off-guard. Confused. Making socially unacceptable comments at all the wrong times. That’s just not the man you’ve come to expect and rely upon.”

She grinned one-sidedly, and he flicked a mandible at her. The question of what was right and what was too soon faded back. This was safe. They could do safe. 

“Shoulder all right?” she asked.

He nearly shrugged before remembering that he really shouldn't. “I’ll report to Chakwas as directed. But I imagine it just needs a little ice and a cycle or two off."

"Better. If I've gotta lay all my bullshit on the table in there and brave the disapproval, you sure as hell are going down with me."

"On second thought, maybe I'll try to tough it out. You know I hate disappointing my institutional authority figures."

"The fuck does that make me?"

"Told you, ma'am. Club president."[8] He repositioned his arm in the sling. "How did my rifle treat you?”

She shrugged, settling against the tabletop to his left. “Did the job, I guess. Alterations were kinda overkill.”

“If I had the capacity to be insulted by a person of underdeveloped tastes, I would be. I worked hard on it, you know. All of those modifications were both vital and gainful.”

“Vakarian, you full on mutated her.” She ticked off changes on her fingers. “Telescopic sight. Quick-deploy bipod. Barrel extension. I forgetting anything?”

“Spacer blocks. What can I say. I like a gun with versatility. And it must not have treated you that badly in the field. I can’t help but notice you didn’t give it back on the shuttle.”

“Maybe I just like the custom paint job.”

“That’s understandable.” He tilted his head. “Enjoy flying my colors, Commander?”

Her mouth twitched. “I don’t think you don’t have a monopoly on the color blue, buddy.”

“No, but that shade, the one you humans call ultramarine? It complements my eyes.” He shifted out from the bench and relocated to the tabletop beside her. “You know what? Keep it and reregister it to your ID. My gift to you. I’ve been wanting to build another M-22 from stock, anyway. This might be the only way Taylor lets me have the parts.”

She rolled her eyes. “So glad the loss of my gun serves you.”

“Correction. It’s serving you. It's a damn good rifle, Shepard, and you deserve a treat after today.” 

Perilous waters, but he kept the allusion a cursory one. She let it pass without comment, biometrics unaltered from standard levels. “What if I want my designated marksman rifle to handle like a DMR and not a midrange mini SR?”

“Well, then, keep it for looks and spare me the pain of telling me you never discharge it.” He rested his forearms on his elbows. “The armory officer will assemble you a new rifle if you want two assaults, Commander. That’s not an issue. Me, not so much.” 

Her eyebrows rose. “So this is a play to angle for some other gear you wanted all along. Hurt, Vakarian. Feeling used and underappreciated. Thought this gift had some special significance, and now I’m hearing it’s a fucking cast-off.”

“Look, I have to save my credits for your birthday present. I promise I’ll make it up to you. For now, though, yeah. Expect courtship gifts of spare ordnance and whatever I can cobble together at the yeoman’s makerspace.”

“Back it up. Courtship gifts?”

Oops. “Obviously,” he said. “You think I offload my custom rifles on any old friend? This is endgame category junkyard material, Shepard.”

“Uh huh. You know, I hope you’re aware the XO was right.[9] Not much of a nurturer, buddy. You go for me, you sure as shit better be going somewhere else for that hug you desperately need.”

“You won’t scare me off, ma’am. Anyway, what about all of this makes you believe I want to talk about feelings? Ever?”

“All right, point.”

“There you go. Now let’s discuss my burgeoning artistic tendencies some more. Would you like 2D or 3D creations? Color or monochromatic?”

“Either, or.” She cracked her neck. “Let that imagination take you, Vakarian. Plenty of room for your macaroni art on the mess fridge. Hell, might bring a little joy to the crew.”

“You mean to say it doesn’t rate a spot on the fishtank? Heartbroken.”

“Think ahead, guy. I put your experiment in Play-Doh and impressionism on display in the cabin, I’m setting a precedent. Next thing I know, my intray’s piled with every other crewman’s dubious line art and weird Christmas ornaments, and I’m gonna have no choice but to string it all up unless I want a diplomatic incident.”

“Funny you think we’re going to survive until Christmas. That ineffable optimism of yours must be reasserting itself.”

She snorted. “Thanks for the gun.”

“No problem. …So, uh. While I have you.” He checked the medbay windows. Chakwas and Krios were still talking. “Any chance you can take over from here, or…?”

Shepard’s eyebrows rose again. “Problem?” 

“Not exactly. I, uh. I just can’t get a read on the guy. And I’m worried that something I said might have caused offense.”

“Welcome to the world of me on the SR-1. Every goddamn conversation: total crapshoot punctuated by hours of research.” She clapped him on the shoulder. “Embrace the suck, Gunnery Officer. And take him to lunch.”

“Wait, alone? Thought you were joining me, per precedent[10] and the policy you wrongfully inflicted on my ingenuous ass.”[11]

“Sorry. Gotta deal with a message from the Illusive Man.”

“Damn it. What if we switch duties, Commander? Just for this assignment. I promise I’ll do a good job with the human supremacist overlord. Really lean into the appeasement behaviors.”

“Yeah, I’d never put you through that.”

“No, ma'am. I’ll put myself through it, though, and happily. It’s the preferable alternative.”

“Jesus. Really don’t wanna bond with this guy, do you?”

“It’s not that. I just…you know. Made a joke that turned out to be suggestive on second glance, and—”

“You? Nah. Impossible. What’d you say?”

“I’m not telling you that. You don’t need any more ammunition.”

“Killjoy.” She checked her tool. “Time’s upon us. Trust you’ll show up for duty and make Krios feel welcome to the best of your semi-competent ability.”

“You know I will. But I demand a debrief with you later for the trouble.”

“Sure. Usual time?”

“Perfect. Meet you in the battery at 18:00.”

Shepard went around the corner as Krios left Medbay. “I’m to be housed in your life support room,” he informed him. 

“Understood.” Garrus slid off the table and opened his tool. “I’ll have your effects sent up from Decon.”

“Thank you for your patience while I made the arrangements,” Thane said as he typed. 

“All part of the job, Krios.” Garrus transmitted the request. Made himself close his screen, and made himself look at their new crewman. He wasn’t being helpful. None of this was germane to a normal conversation. He could feel himself defaulting to the intelligence-gathering strategies that came most naturally to him—the silences, the responses calculated to elicit chatter. But those only worked on subjects predisposed to anxiety or appeasement behaviors, and from his apparent equanimity, Krios appeared not to be one of them.

Also, he wasn’t gathering intelligence. So he should probably stop being a fucking cop about this. Try focusing on what people said to one another when they weren’t calculating outcomes and pushing operational objectives. That meant making himself relatable. Trading. Sharing. He sifted through the short list of things they might have in common. Killing people. Killing people with guns. Killing people with guns at range. Worth a try.

“You know how it is,” he added. “Setting up. Waiting for your target. It could be minutes, but it’s usually hours.”

“True." Thane rolled his shoulders. "I’ve spent a significant portion of many jobs crouched unmoving in an air vent or positioned behind a marquee.”

“Good times. Yeah, I’ve done hours hiding behind signage. Can’t relate to the vents. I couldn’t possibly fit.”

Krios studied him. “No. No, you would not. We are built on significantly different scales.” A pause. “I hazard that you would be more than a little difficult to incapacitate, even for one such as myself.”

It occurred to Garrus that he wasn't the only one in excruciating social agony. It was a comforting but unhelpful thought, considering they were stuck with one another. “I appreciate the collegial sentiment, Specialist, but we both know that’s pure flattery.”

“Hardly.” Nictitation. “You carry the marks of violence upon you, and move as one who can enact it with his own hands. I would not relish meeting you on the field of battle. Our present association is, of course, welcome and desirable.”

Well. That comment engendered a host of potential responses, all of them categorically disallowed until he’d had an opportunity to research drell humor and run some kind of personality profile on Krios specifically. ‘How desirable?’ was innuendo. ‘Why wait for the field of battle? One of these days, we should settle this question in the ring’ was potential innuendo with a side of male toxicity. Any damn variety of ‘What I do is amateurish compared to what you do, and, again, we both know that’ would prolong the topic of conversation and create an interminable feedback loop in which they were both trapped forever. And ‘thank you’ was just egotistical, and would probably cement the warranted opinion that he was a self-aggrandizing asshole. 

So he settled on the stylish, and signature, “Uh. Right.” 

And with that, the conversation veered rapidly back into what-the-fuck-do-I-do-with-you territory.

“The CO stopped by while you were in Medical,” Garrus went on, doggedly. “She sends her regrets—had planned to join us for lunch, but pressing business came up. So, uh. I’m afraid it’ll just be the two of us. I hope you don't mind."

Read: I hope you don't think I'm a sexual predator.

"I do not. At any rate, this will afford you the view you mentioned wanting earlier."

"I, uh. I wasn't aware you would be initiating a murder spree for my personal entertainment." 

"Nor was I."

The deck thrummed and settled. The elevator cables were whirring, conveying some lucky bastard to another part of the ship; and Garrus's exhausted brain reached for any alternative meaning to the one it had immediately supplied, and came up empty.

"Hang on," he said. "Specialist, what are you…are you—?" 

He scrutinized him, and Krios looked steadily back. "You mentioned lunch?" he prompted.

"...Yeah. Right." Garrus pulled himself together. He was going to have to research this later. "Let’s grab something now and eat here or in Port Observation, if you prefer a—" He cursed mentally. "—a view. Afterward, we’ll finish up on this deck. Then I’ll take you through CIC—get you outfitted at the armory and acquainted with our xenobiologist, who supports the doctor meeting nonhuman medical needs.” 

“Very well.” Krios turned slightly, scanning the mess. “I believe I would prefer the view.” His tone was impenetrable. Deadpan. Garrus was going to die.

They pulled trays from the fridge. Garrus didn’t read the label on his beyond a cursory color check for health and safety purposes. He didn’t care. Nothing mattered anymore. As long as it wouldn’t send him into anaphylactic shock, he’d eat it. On the other hand, maybe a severe allergic reaction was just the thing he needed to be relieved of his duties as SR-2 tour guide.

In the lounge, Garrus sat at right angles to Thane. The couches were sized to human scale, which made them slightly too low for his legs. 

“Several times as you were ascending Dantius Towers, I had opportunity to witness you in active combat,” Krios said. “Your rifle is impressive. As is your skill wielding it.”

Garrus looked up from the act of folding himself into a smaller version of himself.

Right. Round two, three, or maybe ten. He could do this. He was goddamn Archangel, or something. He could get through one fucking conversation and one fucking meal with an inscrutable person. But he was sure as hell sending Shepard the bill in damages later. 

Chapter Text

At 17:45 and a quarter hour before punch out, Garrus turned his attention to the final action item in the docket: a message he'd received on the shuttle and snoozed to handle later. It had been a decision made before the incident with Krios[1] left him a shell of his former self, and he was regretting it now as his mind contemplated then flinched from the prospect of engaging with its contents after a hell of a day. But since ignoring it ran the risk of eliciting a follow-up message or, worse, a conversation, he braced himself and begrudgingly, inevitably, opened Yeoman Kelly Chambers's daily wellness memo. 

From: YEO Chambers

To: YEO Chambers

BCC: SR2ALL

Subject: Stockpiling Happiness 

Hello, Team Normandy! Today we’re working on one of my favorite skills, first pioneered all the way back in the early 21st century by our friend Marsha M. Linehan. 

 ‘21st’ had to be wrong. He clicked away from his email and searched the practitioner’s name. This was avoidant behavior. Unmindful, the opposite of ‘one thing at a time,’ and needful for the preservation of his sanity.    

Born in 1943. Trust the far right conservatives to be on the cutting edge of mental health theory. He should probably be surprised that the lag wasn’t longer. He reached for his coffee and tabbed back to his inbox. 

You might remember that, yesterday, we introduced the concept of “coping ahead”—really Imagining that horrible worst case scenario and Making everything GO wrOng ahead of time, so you can Deal effectively if it happens in real life (I’M GOOD). We’re going to embed this wonderful practice now in some more specifics, and keep chipping away at that pesky Emotion Mind, which loves to tell us that it should be in charge!

Take a deep breath, Team Normandy. In, and in, and out. You can do this. It's as easy as ABC PLEASE. :) 

“Chambers,” Garrus said, “are you shitting me right now? Are you doing this on purpose? Don’t answer that. You’re doing this on purpose.” A familiar tread was approaching the battery: swift, purposeful, heavy on the heel. He unlocked the door and read on. 

A: Accumulate positive emotions by doing things you enjoy now.

B: Build mastery by doing things that make you feel talented!

C: Cope ahead.

PLEASE: treat Physical iLlness, balance Eating, avoid mood-Altering substances, balance Sleep, and get Exercise.

The door cycled open. “Shepard, kill me now,” he said without turning. “You’re the only one I trust to make it clean.”

“High praise.” A scrape; the chink of ceramic. One meal tray set down, followed by another. “What’s got you bothered, Gunnery Officer?”

“At the moment? Another crappy acronym that never should have made it to publication. Five seconds from now? Who the hell knows. I haven’t finished the email yet.” He scrolled down.

“Right. ABC PLEASE. Words of wisdom, you know.” 

“Wisdom of the ancients.”

“Yeah, well. Not as if looking to the present or future is furnishing any great fucking life advice. Might as well lean on the old fallacy while we’re at it.” She joined him at the console, coffee in hand. Hair damp at the part and temples, traces of chalk dusting her wrists. The faint smell of sweat. Recently back from the gym. Garrus stepped aside to make room for her, under the alibi of putting his mug on the deck. 

He looked up at her, sitting back on his heels. “I’m just saying that if best practices in human psychology hearken back to an era pre-FTL travel, a whole hell of a lot of people in the field are doing something wrong.” 

“Probably.” She sipped. “We’ll see. Got a mandatory once-weekly with the doc and another one with a shrink. About to be inducted into all the mysteries of modern therapy, Time Number Two.”

Damn it. If it was Chambers, he’d have to disclose his recreational activities with Tali. Their investigations a few weeks ago hadn’t turned up any hard proof,[2] but there were hints enough in the data to give them pause. “The yeoman?” 

Her eyes were on his screen, skimming the message he’d abandoned. “Nah, some colleague of Karin’s in private practice. Guess somebody finally figured it’d be a bad idea to make the Akuze survivor work with Cerberus any more than necessary.”

“That’s something, at least. One less, uh. Straw. Camel. You know.”

Shepard shrugged. “What I get for having an episode and then telling on myself, anyway.” She looked around and saw him standing away from his workspace. “I crowding you?”

“Not at that height and shoulder span, you aren’t.” He pushed to his feet. “No, I was hoping if I hung back you’d do the inevitable homework assignment that’s at the bottom of that memo for me.”

“Admire the hustle. Don’t ask, don’t get.” 

“Words to live by, in my opinion.”

She set her mug beside his and propped herself against the rail left of the console. “Hop to, Vakarian. Cutting it close. Got about ten minutes before that thing goes in late and you sully your spotless academic record forever.”

“Damn it.” He returned to the console. “Group project? What if I ask nicely?”

“Nicely?” She opened her tool.

“Yeah. On my knees, like a perfect gentleman.”

She snorted and didn’t reply. 

The Illusive Man picked the best and brightest for this project, so I'm sure this is mostly self-explanatory! But you might be asking yourself, "what does she mean, 'accumulate positive emotions'?" Well. One of the most valuable life lessons I learned during my supervised practicum was that NO ONE has to earn happiness. That's right. Each and every one of us deserves joy, right here, right now—and if that feels wrong, or bad, then late stage capitalism is just trying to get one over on you again. 

“Late stage capitalism is trying to get one over on me again, ma’am,” he reported. “Please help.”

She typed something out. “Garrus, if you run long on this worksheet, you’re having a sad and alone dinner in your porn shoot boudoir,[3] understood? Leg day. Past time for a hit of protein.”

“Sorry, sorry.” He went back in. There was an attachment at the bottom of the email, because of course there was.

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for: your action item! Come up with a list of ten things that you can do, TODAY, to bring a little pleasure into your life. And don't just think it—do it!

“Well. That’s suggestive,” he said.

Shepard glanced up. “You’d fucking know. Which part? Pleasure in your life?”

“Of course you memorized it.”

“Not intentionally. Thing’s burned into my brain forever.”

As usual, submit your entries anonymously here before the end of your shift. Please note that this is a very important one! I will be featuring showstoppers on the bulletin board in the mess, so we can all benefit from your wonderful ideas. :) 

Keep flying, Team Normandy! I’m so proud of each and every one of you.

-----

Kelly Chambers, LMHC

Yeoman

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Joy. He opened the form. The cursor blinked at him. Read, he typed. Listen to music. Work out. Jerk off. Erase. He looked over. Shepard was still on her tool. “Commander, help a man out. What does the gunnery officer do for fun these days?”

“Read. Listen to music. Work out. Jerk off, I’m guessing.”

“Shockingly, I have those down already. I’m going to need a deeper cut than the classics, here.”

“All right, lemme think. Heckle the chief engineer. Hassle the CO. Shop the latest and greatest in mods and heavy ordnance." She stopped, scanning something. "Overclock your tool, overclock your console, overclock anything with a processor. Slap sparkle stickers on your kit and make your big gun a little bigger. Crouch in the dark unspeaking. Shitpost screeds on human figurative language for your two followers on social media. Macaroni art.[4] You got ten yet?”

“Let’s find out. Hang on.” Talk with friends. Shop for bargains. Optimize tech. Customize kit. Meditate. Write. Sketch. He counted up. “That’s ten. Thanks, Commander. And I didn’t even have to talk about my dick this time.”

“Probably for the best.” She closed her tool, bent to grab her cup from the deck. “Dinner?”

“Dinner.” Garrus clicked send and joined her at the table.

“So how’d it pan out?” Her mug clinked as she set it down. “You and Krios. Manage to avoid an incident despite coming onto him or whatever the fuck you definitely did?”

“Maybe. Probably. Damn it, I hope so.” Garrus sealed the door. 

“Not inspiring a whole lot of confidence. How about a nice easy yes, ma’am, nothing for you to clean up here? ” She extracted a set of utensils from her trouser pocket and slapped them on the container.

“Yes, ma’am. Nothing for you to clean up here.” He pulled out his mechanic’s stools and handed one across. Unfolded the other on his side of the crate. “Let’s just say the new guy is weird as hell.” 

“Yeah?” Shepard set it on its legs and planted a boot on the footrail, wedging it open. “What happened to 'perfect headshot with no collateral' and 'you certainly know how to make an entrance'? Got the sense he made quite the impression back on Illium.” 

“Oh, that got flushed. Almost immediately.” He sat and peeled the top off his tray (label: meatloaf dinner). 

She dropped into her seat. “Whatever you say. Honestly thought you were working up a crush. Wouldn’t blame you, knowing how a good display of martial prowess wreaks havoc on your systems.”[5]  Packaging crinkled as her chopsticks slid from the sleeve.

Garrus inspected the main course. It did certainly look like a loaf of meat, if the meat had been ground into a paste, mixed through with unidentifiable bits, and pressed into a mold before being sliced like bread. He cut in. “Do me a favor, ma’am. Go back in time and get blackout drunk on the night I told you that.” 

“Nah. Too good a thing to pull out whenever you turn smartass.” Steam billowed as she removed her lid. Ramen, with stuff in it.[6] “So. Not nursing a possibly-requited infatuation for the specialist. All those comments en route to the penthouse just the Garrus Vakarian brand of patter.” She hoisted the bowl in one hand and thrust in her chopsticks.

“Exactly.” He chewed. Textured. Reminiscent of hamburger, but less rubbery. “I had a perfectly healthy appreciation for his skills, one professional to another. Was his whole MO intriguing, maybe a little attractive? I mean, sure. I have eyes. Game is game is game.” He shaved off another portion of meatloaf with his fork. “But then I onboarded him, and it was possibly the most excruciating experience of my life.” Another bite. “Also, in case you’d forgotten, he prayed. He killed about four people in a span of fifteen seconds and he prayed. For his own soul, backlit by the setting sun. And made us wait while he did it. That's not normal."

Shepard was hunched over her bowl, housing noodles like she hadn't eaten for hours. Based on the timestamp for their last conversation, she probably hadn't—had skipped lunch by accident running interference on their shit boss. She swallowed a mouthful. “It was a novel experience, to say the least.”

“Novel experience? Come on, Shepard.” This meatloaf needed hydration, or he did. Garrus switched to his side of greens. “That required staging. That required a serious absence of consideration for or possibly perverse enjoyment of how weird your weird shit makes other people feel when they catch you in the act.”

She lifted a swirled pink and white disc from the broth. “To be fair, I bet this is exactly how Lawson feels whenever she's stuck groundside with us and you decide it’s high time to pull me in for a comparison of human and turian homeopathic remedies.” She chewed. 

“Hey, our thing is charming. You can tell she thinks so because she’s stopped making pointed comments.”

Her eyebrows rose. “Or you just wore her down.”

“No, she actively participates. That implies engagement. Investment.” He attempted a bite of greens and meatloaf in combination. “She’s really turned out to be quite the resource. I’d never have known about saging without her help.”

“Yeah, active participation is just a buffer against the slide into madness. I’d know.” She killed the last of the noodles. 

Garrus swallowed. “Well, I’ll ask her on the next assignment. See what she says.” 

“Great. So now I’m responsible for precipitating that awkward conversation.” She poked through the clear broth. Extracted a ragged bundle of greens.

“Actually,” he drawled, “you’re a little bit responsible for precipitating all those conversations.”

“‘Scuse me? How am I catching blame for the walking talking PR disaster that’s your life?” She gestured at him with her chopsticks.

“Seem to recall you giving the go-ahead to engage whenever I want.” He stabbed the final piece of meatloaf. “What was the mandate again? Helping you remind Lawson who’s in charge?"[7]

“All right, that was literal months ago. Think you can probably lay off at this point.” A sliced egg materialized and was gone in two bites.

“Sorry, Shepard. It’s part of my brand now.” He polished off the last of the greens. 

A pause; she vanished briefly behind the rim of her bowl, tipping broth into her mouth. “XO clocked you weeks ago, by the way,” she said, surfacing. “Told me herself.”[8]

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Not half as slick as you think you are.” She set her dish on the table. 

“Damn, I can’t believe she didn’t call me out back then or since. She really has gotten fond.” Garrus started on the mashed tubers. “—I derailed myself. I was talking about Krios.”

“Right.” She picked through the dregs of her meal. “You were describing how a nice wet dream turned into a carnival of horrors.”

“Shepard,” he drawled, “you don’t have the faintest clue about my wet dreams and you damn well never will.”

“Well, shit. Why not? You think this is any way to treat an old friend, cutting ‘em off from the quality entertainment?” She reached for the discarded chopsticks sleeve.

“You want me to describe my wet dreams? Honestly, I figured you for a porn consumer, not a theater of the mind type.”

She snorted, flattening it. “Yeah, I wasn’t planning to get off on them.”

“Oh. Well, whatever. Look, ma’am, it’s been a long day. You’re not getting me at peak wit.” He ate more potatoes, on the theory that if his mouth was full he’d say less.

“Don’t need to tell me.” She sheathed her chopsticks. “Where were we before this disastrous tangent?”

“Right. Uh. Krios.” He excavated another forkful. “Why’d he have to make it spiritual, Commander? We could’ve had a great friendship. Start from a common commitment to the expungement of assholes from the galaxy, progress to trading stories of our finest kills…maybe talk shop over a bottle of wine…"

"Sounds like paradise." She replaced the lid on her bowl and pushed upright. 

"Exactly." A final bite of tubers. 

"Also, could be wrong, but from my one talk with the guy so far, I’m pretty sure he’s sober."

"Well, I can dream." He covered his empty plate. "And I guess I'll have to. At least that way I can edit parts out."

"And in, apparently."

"Obviously." He reached for his coffee. “Leaving so soon? For shame, Commander. I was still in the windup, here.”

She shoved her hands in her pockets. “Long goddamn day, like you said. Nice warm bunk just waiting for me a floor up.”

He sipped, checking the time on his visor. “It’s 18:13. That's absurd even for you.[9] I put you off with the wet dreams, didn’t I.”

“Nah, wet dreams are fine. Siren call of real dreams, though? Seductive as hell.”

“Fair enough. I’ll let you go. Leave the tray.” 

The door cycled shut, and Garrus began stacking dishes. These days Shepard ordinarily stayed longer, but it'd been a hellish assignment. He'd be chasing shuteye too after taking a dive off a building, let alone after a sit-down with the ship's doctor. Never mind the insistence of his brain that her exit had something to do with his crap filter and the objectionable statements that kept getting through. Fucking wet dreams, really? But he'd had to say something, there was a damned precedent that he'd set, and if he stopped aiding and abetting his own bullshit, it would send up a flare.

He added their mugs to the overcrowded tray, jostling the flatware. Lifted it, carefully. Perseverating again. He'd had this conversation with himself before punch in.[10] On a normal day, she'd have told him point blank if he was being an ass, even if she should never have to. But this? This was Shepard compromised, a fucking gray space; and while it wasn't uncharted territory,[11] his ability to navigate the terrain was tenuous at best. 

The door cycled open. Garrus went down the hall. Maybe she hadn't had enough fuel in the tank to shut it down, and was taking a beat before circling back. Maybe the early departure was a clear cue in itself and would have been to him if he weren't so busy stewing in his own discomfort. Also, maybe the world of LC Shepard didn't revolve around the self-inflicted woes of her fucking gunnery officer.

Lights were on in the mess when he reached it, off-duty crewmen huddled and chattering at the tables. Shepard was posted up at the counter near the coffee station, new mug in hand. A service member with a familiar head of hair stood by, talking animatedly, and of course the CO had been stayed from an act of self-care by self-care's personal hype king. 

"—heard about what happened on Illium. I'm very glad you're safe, Commander."

"All thanks to a strong team, Yeoman." Shepard sipped. "Speaking of. Gunnery Officer, come see me in my office once you're done with that. Need to check those firearms you registered to our new specialist." 

The countersignature for Krios's kit had come through hours ago. "Aye aye, ma'am." He bussed their dishes, definitely not listening. 

"Ma'am, you're off-shift," Chambers said teasingly. "Are you going to make me page Karin?"

"Clocked out a quarter hour early. I'll set a timer and transition straight to R&R when it’s up.” She straightened as he joined them. “Vakarian?”

“Ready.” He nodded to Chambers. “Yeoman.”

“Nice timing.” Shepard slapped him on the back as the elevator sealed them in. “Hope you brought something to do.” 

“You know me. Always aiming for a dramatic entrance. And I have my tool, if nothing else.” He crossed his arms. “Boxed in by that magnetic personality of yours again?”

She snorted. “Something like that. Dunno why I thought a person could get a cup of joe around here minus the care check. How long’s it been since that was true?”

“Not since the shift changeover, at least.” The doors opened. “So what’s the plan, exactly? You go to bed, I stand in the hall for fifteen minutes?”

“Whatever does it for you. You wanna play with the motion sensor or have a heart-to-heart with EDI, be my guest. Free to come in, otherwise.” Shepard unlocked her door and disappeared inside.

Garrus equivocated for a moment, then remembered that the hall was on live vidfeed,[12] the data openly available to Normandy crewmen and Cerberus. He went in. Shepard’s mug was on the desk, the door to the head closed: the tap hissed briefly, followed by the sound of a toothbrush. He took one of the couches and opened his e-book app. 

It was as though Citadel Tower had engineered this sunset just for her. The clouds were drenched in scarlet reds and heady purples. The sun hung low and massive and molten gold, sinking below the lustrous horizon of the northern arm. Bellicus was draped on the railing, long-limbed and languid, staring into the sky’s tapestry; and Shalei knew she should be enjoying the view, too, but she couldn’t tear her eyes from the proud arch of his crest, the crisp jut of his mandibles and the cut of his suit. So handsome, and such a mystery, even now. Did he feel as she did? Surely, after all this time…but how could he? How could he, when he’d never even seen her face? 

He sensed her look, and turned, and his blue gaze pierced her through. “Shalei.” He held out a hand to her, and she slid her fingers into his palm without hesitation. She was finished being afraid. She knew what she wanted, whom she wanted, and it was him. Bellicus drew her into the circle of his arms. "You're trembling," he murmured. 

"I am not." 

His mandibles flicked in a smile, and he lowered his brow to hers, or where hers would be if not for the suit that would forever divide them. Shalei leaned up into the kiss, slipping one hand under his crest. Bell groaned. His arms tightened, and heat flooded her. Her every nerve was ablaze, his body like a brand at every point where it touched hers; and it wasn’t enough, she couldn't bear it any longer, and she tore herself back. 

“I want you to see behind this mask. I want you to see who I truly am.”

His subvocals were dark with emotion. With something she might dare to call love. “I already do. I don't need that from you."

"What about what I need?" she asked softly. She held his eyes with her own and slowly, deliberately, drew her hands down to the slender vee of his waist. His breath caught; he seized her wrists. 

“We can’t,” he said, hoarse, and the thrum of desire in his throat was intoxicating, a potent wine gone straight to her head. “It’s not safe. Please, Shalei, don’t tempt me, not when I

"What the hell am I consuming, here?" he asked his screen.

A click as the lavatory door opened. Shepard’s head appeared through the plexiglass. “You reading a trash romance novel on my couch?”

He closed his tool. "Honestly, I think I might be reading hardcore erotica on your couch. Also, how did you…?"

"Libraries still synced from that time in Medbay."[13] She went to the control console and flipped it open. “Got the notification a couple minutes ago. Gonna be frank, I thought Fleet and Flotilla: The Novel was a rom-dram. Thing has explicit sex in it?”

“Oh, so you didn’t know. You just assumed that my recreational literature of choice would be tawdry.”

She keyed something in. The lights dimmed out; the cabin turned ghostly blue in the fish tank’s pale glow. “Amount of suggestive commentary you crank out, I figured you were leaning on source material. Turns out you’ve just got an innate special little boy talent.”

“This is your damn fault. I was never like this on the SR-1.”

“Nah. Character growth, plain and simple. Take credit for those accomplishments. No need for false modesty among friends.” Shepard jogged down the short flight to the seating area. She'd swapped her fatigues for sweats and a plain tee. Her five-toed feet were bare. “So you’re reading porn why?”

"Tali wanted me to get through F&F so she could discuss it with someone offline. Apparently the fandom is toxic as hell."

"And she picked the guy whose collection prior to my intervention was ten percent political history and ninety percent how-to manuals.”[14] Leather creaked as she stretched out on the unoccupied couch. ”Feeling vaguely insulted." 

"Look, ma'am. I'll happily pass off this obligation if you want it. The phrase heat flooded her was recently used."

"Classic. Cornerstone of the genre. You know, maybe I'm good not taking this one for the team." She interlaced her hands behind her head. 

"I thought you'd come around." He inspected her. Eyes closed. "Should I get going?"

"You got something else in mind?"

"Hm. I could read to you from this terrible book, although I'm not sure it'll support the objective of crashing out so much as it’ll offend your literary sensibilities. I suppose I could make something up."

Her teeth flashed in the bioluminescent gloom. "All right, interest’s been piqued. Tell me more, Vakarian. What else you willing to do for my twisted entertainment?"

"That depends entirely on the rate and currency of compensation." He propped his boots on the table.

"You're compensated plenty on a bimonthly basis."

"Not right now, I'm not." He flexed his toes.

"Guess the favor of me listening to your ass 24/7 doesn't count for anything in this arena. Noted."

Garrus considered, stretching an arm along the back of the couch. "Trade me, ma'am. Answer for answer."

“Done. Shoot.”

"Hm. Any thoughts on the newest member of the team?"

She shifted. One of her feet hit the deck with a thud. "Plenty. Too bad I'm not the type to sling scuttlebutt all over the ship."

"Now, I’m not sure, but you may have already crossed that line when you told me someone got knocked up in Nav.[15] Weeks ago." 

“Temporary lapse in judgment under the influence." Her heel drummed the floor. "Still the captain of this leaky tub, you know. Rapidly eroding principles are just about all I’ve got left.”

Uptick in heart rate. Uptick in fidgeting. Horizon: still fresh. “New topic, then."

“Your call. This is office hours, Gunnery Officer. You wanna share your personal opinions of each and every crewman, be my guest. Happy to put ‘em in the vault with everything else.”

“Boring.” He eyed her, unobserved. Weighed the odds of detection against the gains of changing the subject, and took the risk. “Anyway, there are rules, Commander. We established them five seconds ago, or did you already forget?”

“Right.” A pause; her chest rose, and rose, and fell. Her pulse settled. “I dunno, Vakarian. Not good at this shit. What’s your favorite planet we’ve deployed to so far? Mine’s Illium.”

“Yeah? Why?” 

“I guess…" She stopped. "Guess something about the soundscape and the skyline reminds me of Vancouver.” She shrugged, pushing her shoulders deeper into the couch. Her eyes were still closed. “Didn’t have the time of my life there, but still feels like home.”

“That’s nice, Shepard.” He scratched one ankle with the other. “Glad you’ve got ties somewhere.” 

"Sort of. No one I can put a name to. No one I'd think to call. More about the place than any one person." The couch protested as she drew her leg back onto it.

"I get that.” He watched her heels indent the upholstery. “Turians are pretty agnostic as a rule these days, but we've got some roots in animism that have stuck around. There’s this idea of numen—that the, uh. Vibe of a place or community makes up its spirit. And you connect to a spirit by going there or interacting with that group.”

She turned her head to look at him. “So Illium’s spirit was the same as Vancouver’s. Or similar?”

“Similar. Every place and group has its own.”

“Got it. Thanks." Most of her features were in shadow with her head angled towards him. Garrus shifted his gaze to the tank, on the off chance that they’d locked eyes for too long. Still empty. Probably a structural weakness, too. “You’re up,” she prompted. “Favorite planet you've put boots on."

“Right." He ran through the list. "…Huh. Is it bad if I say Aeia?”

“Long as you’re talking about the spirit of the place and not the people.”

“Of course. With all due respect to the armory officer, the acting captain deserved what he got.” 

“Don’t need to tell me. Seem to remember that mission catalyzing a whole existential crisis over here.”[16]

“Entirely understandably.” 

A movement: she’d looked back at the ceiling. The suggestion of a profile reasserted itself.  “What about Aeia?”

“The weather, mostly. Felt a lot like Palaven, minus a few degrees.” 

“Born and raised there?" 

"Born and raised. Down by the sea, no less." He paused. Went on, carefully. The specter of Mom's illness was never absent from his recollections of home, not entirely, and Sol's silence in the wake of his email was absolute.[17]

"I, uh. Haven't been home recently. Not since before I joined C-Sec. It’s been a long time…years. You?”

“Not since ICT. Just never was the right time, you know?”

“...Yeah.”

Seconds passed. Shepard freed a hand from beneath her head and inspected her nails. The tank's engine hummed, circulating water and filtering out toxins for no one. 

“We’re both avoiding something on our homeworlds, aren’t we," he said.

“Yep.” She rolled upright and reached under the table. "Drink?"

"Definitely." 

She'd acquired a pair of graduated beakers at some point in recent history. From Solus's lab, probably, considering there was no other damn reason for her to have them. They squeaked against the tabletop when she set them down. 

“I’m not ready for a conversation about my thing,” he said as she resurfaced with a pair of bottles. “But I can hear yours if you want.”

Whiskey splashed into beaker no. 1, then 2. “Pass. Not how the game works, anyway. Answer for answer, remember?”

“We could not play the game,” he suggested.

“What if I wanna play the game?” Shepard cocked an eyebrow at him, passing his drink across.

“Well, then, I guess it’s my turn.” He turned the glass in his hands. Sat forward, studying her in the semi-darkness. “Let’s see. What do I want to know about Commander Shepard? Can’t be third-party gossip, no, she’s too principled for that. So it has to be personal.”

"Uh huh. Intimate, even?"

"You know it."

She drank. “Watch it, Garrus. You up the ante too fast, you’re setting yourself up for a world of trouble on the next round.”

“Oh, really.”

“Yep. Wouldn’t want that, would you?”

“That remains to be seen." He sipped. "How many rounds are there?”

“Many as you can handle.”

“What about you, Shepard? How many can you handle?”

She snorted and propped her elbows on her knees. Her beaker dangled from her fingers. “Keep dancing around and we’re never gonna find out.”

God damn it. Innuendo reaching critical levels. Fall back, log another misstep on his side of the register, and add twenty pushups to the regimen. He drank. "Ma’am, this is exactly the kind of crap we can't pull in front of Krios."

“Come on. Perfectly natural repartee. No fucking weird double entendres issuing from anybody here.” She swirled her drink. “You were mighty quiet on the cab ride back from Dantius Towers, Vakarian. You telling me this was why? Got me all concerned something was actually wrong."

“What do you think it would’ve looked like if I opened my mouth?” He sat back, resting an ankle on his knee. “Imagine the scene, if you will. There we are, the four of us, speeding along towards the docking bays. Lawson’s tuning us out. Good for her. I turn to you. Say, hey Commander, what the hell is a jackalope? You say, Vakarian, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you look this up on the extranet for a change? I say, come on, you know I can’t read. You say, you spend a lot of time on your omnitool for a guy who’s illiterate. I say, yeah, well, porn famously uses moving pictures instead of words now. I know you missed a lot during the two years you were dead. And so on. And Krios…what’s Krios doing during this exchange, Shepard? He’s sitting there, unblinking, unsmiling, not saying a damn thing but definitely weighing my moral rectitude and coming up short.”

“Why your moral rectitude? Why not both of ours?” Her fingernails tapped against the glass.

“Because you, unlike me, get a free pass on all actions taken and sentences uttered by dint of being Lieutenant Commander Shepard. Anyway, the point is that we have a good thing going and I definitely won’t be able to keep it up if you bring in the assassin-daddy-priest to join us on the regular. And that’s not what I meant, so stop laughing and let me quietly drown myself in this alcohol.”

She lay back again, propping her head on the armrest. “Ever hear of a Freudian slip? Maybe you just revealed something about yourself to yourself.” She braced her drink on her diaphragm with one hand. Wedged the other under her head again, keeping him in view.

“Look, Shepard. I’ve born witness to my post-combat sexual fantasy involving you,[18] and in it, I’m occupying all of your attention.” 

Her mouth twitched. “My mistake.” 

He checked his drink against the backlight of the tank. Still a substantial amount. No one but himself to blame for that slip. Perfect. “You know, you’re hearing an awful lot of double entendres today. I think we’re overlooking the distinct possibility that you’re just a pervert.”

“Sure. But how are you gonna test that theory?” 

“I’m just saying. I’d bet I could repeat these things unedited to another person on the Normandy and enjoy a perfectly innocent conversation with them.”

She snorted, rotating her drink. “I advise you not to find out.”

“You’re just trying to cover your tracks, Commander.”

“Welp. Looking forward to the sexual harassment charge I’ll be processing soon.” She drained her beaker. Angled her glass, looking into the dregs. 

“No, don’t worry. I’ll keep it between us. No intention of making anyone privy to what we get up to behind closed doors.”

Her eyes cut to him. “Vakarian. Are you fucking kidding me?”

“That one was intentional. You’re welcome.” Garrus returned to his drink. And that, he thought, was how you faked control over a thing spinning out of it.

Chapter Text

Read the full chapter here!

22:34 garrus

Yeah? 22:34

22:34 i dare you

I’m a grown man. I’m far too old to be taking dares from the likes of you or anyone. 22:34

Nevertheless. You dare me to do what? 22:34

22:34 Tali’Zorah has sent a link.

Zorah, I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m not opening anything you send me that doesn’t properly preview. 22:34

22:34 slkjflaksjdf 

Probably. Sorry, try that again in Galactic Standard? 22:35

You know, the diplomatic language we’re all required to learn if we hold citizenship in Citadel Space? 22:35

22:36 boshtet here is your stupid precious quote screenshotted

22:36 Tali'Zorah has shared an image.

You do indulge my whims. 22:36

[ . . . ]

Wait. You want me to write fanfiction? 22:37

22:37 correction i want you to write self insert friend fiction

22:37 where the fiction is about you and your friend

22:37 or your friends if you have more than one i am not sure

Hah, hah. And what exactly do I get out of this? 22:37

22:37 a firm handshake

Pass. 22:38

22:38 one of my dextro milkshakes

Still pass. 22:38

22:38 fine all of my milkshakes in the next resupply

You’re on. Word count? 22:38

[ . . . ]

22:39 i do not care but per the rules you must post your work on the extranet and i must personally see it before you take it down

Rude of you to assume I'd be so ashamed of my published works that I'd delete them. 22:39

22:39 w o r k s

22:39 more than one work???

We'll see. 22:39

22:39 so excited!!!!!

We'll see. 22:39


Rating: Teen And Up Audiences

Categories: Gen

Fandoms: N/A

Characters: Garrus Vakarian, Commander Shepard

Additional Tags: Buddy Cop, Team Bonding, Banter, Humor, Action/Adventure, Guns, Friendship is Magic,[1] Self Insert, Crackfic, Plot what Plot, Based on real events, Not Fanfiction Friend Fiction, AU , Pining, Space Opera, No Beta

Language: Galactic Standard

Stats: Published: 2185-05-03    Updated: 2185-05-03    Words: 1855    Chapters: 2/?    Comments: 6   Kudos: 10    Bookmarks: 6    Hits: 87


Anti-Heroes

agentcassiel

Summary:                                

A hotheaded detective and a Council Spectre team up in a race against time to save the galaxy. Will they find their target, and will the detective’s love ever be requited?

Read more here!


Chapter Text

08:47 garrus it has been your turn for five minutes

08:47 what are you doing over there

Sorry, sorry. Turn taken. 08:50 

And to answer your question, something highly important and also classified. 08:50

08:50 interesting

08:50 Tali’Zorah has sent an image.

God damn it. 08:50

Can’t a man browse the extranet in private? 08:50

08:51 that depends upon what he is trying to browse for and whether i am bored or wish to humiliate him

08:51 why are you reading scholarly articles on oneirology

I’m a man of many facets. 08:51

I want to see how many multisyllabic words I can interpret without cracking a dictionary app. 08:51

A notification pinged his Cerberus email. Garrus switched tabs. 

To: XO LAWSON

From: XO LAWSON

BCC: GY OFF VAKARIAN

Subject: Coverage today 11:00

Good morning.

Commander Shepard has requested your assistance on a personal affair. I have arranged for coverage of your shipboard duties beginning at 11:00, when you are ordered to the bridge for groundside deployment.

Thank you,

Miranda Lawson

Executive Officer

she/her/hers

Received. Will be there, he typed. Will you? Her response bounced back almost immediately.

To: GY OFF VAKARIAN

From: XO LAWSON

RE: RE: Coverage today 11:00

Not for this assignment. I trust you’ll handle matters appropriately in my stead. 

Weird. No promises, he answered, and switched back to his chat with Tali. 

08:51 you are a fool

08:51 garrus??

08:52 g a r r u s

08:53 G A R R U S

08:53 did you disappear again

08:53 well we will have to cut this game short i think

08:53 which is better for you anyway since you were about to l o s e

08:53 so you are welcome

08:53 i got a very mysterious email from the executive officer and i am going groundside!!

Garrus Vakarian has sent an image. 08:54

You too, huh? 08:54

08:54 a;lkdsjflksadfja

08:54 we are about to go on the same mission!!

Seems like it, anyway. 08:54

08:54 YES

08:54 this is an unprecedented event

08:54 also you are rude to not be more outwardly excited

08:54 i am putting it in my calendar to commemorate

You should call it Friendship is Magic.[1] Make it a recurring event and invite all three of us. 08:55

08:55 what does it m e a n

Wait. I forgot you weren’t here yet when that happened. 08:55

08:55 boshtet

08:55 i hope your self-referentiality eats you

Honestly, me too. 08:55 

It’s a lot of work to stay abreast of these jokes. 08:55

You have no idea. 08:56

08:56 no i do not and that is what makes you insufferable

Just that? 08:56 

08:56 goodbye garrus i have WORK to do since i am leaving the ship in two hours

08:56 unlike certain people

Damn, that sounds like a threat. Is that a threat? 08:56

Tal? 08:57 


At 10:00, Garrus holstered his guns, abandoned the morning’s work to his code-proofing utility, and brought lunch to the XO’s office. Lawson was on her feet, transferring meal items from her tray to the desk. 

“Just us today?” he inquired, taking one of the visitors’ chairs. 

“That is unfortunately the case.” 

"Excuse me. Unfortunately?"

"Obviously." She seated herself and unwrapped a nutritional bar briskly. “Shepard’s first telehealth session with her therapist began three minutes ago.”

“And she’s delighted, I’m sure.” Garrus slid his tray onto the table.

“If she’s not, we’ll hear about it very soon.”

The mess sergeant's offering today was a rice bowl topped by a porous yellow substance, slivered aliums sprinkled through. He pressed lightly with his fork. Springy. “What is this?”

She looked, snapping off a piece of her bar. “Oyakodon. Egg, meat, and onions simmered in a savory broth and poured over rice.”  

"Do you ever get tired of having all the answers, XO?" He sampled the egg. Interesting. Sweet. 

"I don't think one tires of being correct or informed, Vakarian." She peeled down the wrapper, exposing another segment.

"Maybe you don't. I myself find it fairly exhausting to be both right and justified in everything I think, say, and do." He swallowed. "This isn't your experience of the burden of infallibility?"

"Not really. I derive a certain pleasure from continuously exceeding expectations and thwarting the ambitions of lesser beings."

"Sadist."

"Yes. As you should have expected." Lawson eyed him, crunching. "Do you ever get tired of asking idiotic questions for the purpose of hearing yourself speak?"

"Never. I'm an eldest child. I have a mandate to grace people around me with the sound of my voice."

"That does explain a lot, I suppose." She leaned to dispose of her empty wrapper and reached for nutritional bar no. 2. 

"I like to think so. The worst possible thing would be having to hold myself accountable for the way I am." He chewed into a piece of meat. "XO, do you realize this is the first extended solo conversation we've had since the day you ambushed me leaving Medbay?"[2]

"Ambush isn't a fair descriptor." Lawson stripped the packaging off. "I happened to be in the mess when you happened to exit Medical. It's as simple as that."

"Right. No vidfeeds were consulted in the decision to get a refill at that exact moment in time."

"Of course they were.” Snap. “I don't have time to stand in line for the dispenser, Gunnery Officer. But the fact that you wandered by when the kitchen was empty was pure coincidence."

"Fine, fine. I'll let that excuse stand, since you're not ready to admit you missed me and wanted to see my face as soon as possible."

"Too kind." She broke off another piece. 

"What, no cracks about my looks?" he drawled. "Golden opportunity missed, Lawson."

A crumb fell onto her desk. She transferred it to the bin instantly. "Vakarian, I've never considered your looks long enough to form any opinion about them. Positive, negative, or neutral."

"Is that xenophobic bias I detect? For shame."

"Not xenophobia. Misandry. You're fairly universally repellent." Her tone was indifferent.

"Ouch. To each their own, XO. I have an appreciation for men, personally."

Lawson binned the second wrapper and removed the lid from her bowl. Fried and battered vegetables on rice. "So I gathered, from your deeply inappropriate comments about Specialist Krios during the last mission."

"What can I say. A display of talent and force does something for me. I hardly believe this isn't the case for you, too." He sliced another triangle of egg-sponge off the main body. 

“Of course it is. But my ability to experience attraction is still delimited by gender in a way yours evidently isn’t.” She drizzled a cup of thin brown sauce over the bowl. 

“Damn, I didn’t realize I’d disclosed my attraction to women around you. Or, uh. To non-men.”

“You didn’t.” She bit a fried something-or-other neatly in two. “Once your identity was confirmed, Cerberus prepared a new dossier. Past associations and relationships were included in the records.” 

“Wonderful. Anything else? The sum total of credits I spent on pornography per month? The frequency and consistency of my shit, maybe?”

Her chopsticks stilled, and she looked across the desk at him. “The Illusive Man needed to confirm you weren’t a danger to our operation,” she said.

“And you didn’t have a damn thing to do with it. You, his lieutenant.” He chewed and swallowed, aware that Lawson’s eyes were raking him and letting the words sit anyway.

A click: she’d rested her chopsticks on the rim. Her hands folded briskly on the desk. “I share in the accountability, Vakarian. I deemed the background check necessary at the time, myself.” A pause. “I regret that Cerberus violated your privacy. That I did.”

"Hm." He sipped coffee, meeting her gaze. "I'll be honest, XO. Hearing a tone of contrition from you is unnerving as hell. Some natural order's been violated, here. Down is up. The planetary bodies are out of alignment. Space flight has been undiscovered. One of my authority figures is fallible, and you know how I get about my authority figures. Look, I'm still processing that the terrorists are the good guys for once, all right? I don't think we should do this again."

Her lips twitched; she picked up her utensils again. "Easy enough. I promise never to hold myself accountable for anything and to never make another mistake." 

"Appreciated." He flicked a mandible at her. “I get it, to be clear. I was C-Sec, as you know, and intel was always in short supply. Given my way, I’d have bypassed every damn policy in the manual. On Omega, I just threw it out.”

“True.” Her chopsticks dipped in. “And given your apparent willingness to disclose every detail of your life to another member of the fire team, I ought to have just asked you about your past victories and humiliations.”

"That's right. Always happy to spin a tale of my prowess and/or debasement to a captive audience." He had another bite of sponge. Too bad a thing with such good flavor looked so damned unappetizing. "Speaking of captive audiences, interesting roster for today's ground team. What, did the Alliance call and request a cap of the SR-1 crew? Did you have to drag Williams to the site in chains and a stasis field?" 

"I can't comment on that.” She swallowed. “You'll have to wait until Shepard sees fit to brief you."

“Come on, XO. Just one hint.” 

Her brows lifted. “I believe during a previous and regrettably private conversation,[3] you advised me to respect the chain of command. Are you amending your suggestion?”

“Not at all. I’m just allowing two conflicting desires to coexist.”

Lawson eyed him. “Your mind operates in fascinating and delusional ways, Vakarian. I would welcome the opportunity to study it once you’re dead.”

“Now, are you effecting my murder, or are you imagining an unlikely scenario where you survive the relay and I don’t?”

“The latter.” She finished off her bowl and sat back. “You’re a long range specialist. Isolated from the remainder of the fire team by design. That doesn’t bode well on an uncharted planet with unknown threats.”

“I’m heartbroken by your lack of faith in my survivability,” he drawled, setting down his fork. “Really. You see this? This is an incipient tear. If I didn’t have places to be in ten minutes, unlike you, I’d run to the battery sobbing.”

“Too bad. I enjoy the sight of a man in emotional distress.” Lawson swiveled and woke her console. “Carry out my tray when you go.”

“Yes, XO. No problem, XO.” He stacked their dishes. “Anything else can I do to improve your quality of life, XO?” 

She was already typing. “Coffee. A quarter teaspoon of sugar and a tablespoon of whole milk. One of the thermal cups, not the ceramic ones. Thank you.”

“God damn it. That was a joke, you know.” Garrus stood. 

Lawson didn’t spare him a glance. “Advice, Vakarian. Don’t offer unless you’re prepared to give.”

“As the kids say, commit to the bit.”

“Yes. Be precise about the sugar and milk. I have expectations.” She opened another screen. 

“Wouldn’t dream of being otherwise. Hell, if you give me a bad performance review, I’ll be running drink orders full time.”

He bussed their dishes and delivered the coffee. Took the elevator to CIC, where Tali promptly dragged him for being late and he equally promptly reassigned blame to the XO. Shepard nodded, shoving upright, and punched the airlock controls.

“See ya, suckers,” Joker called.

The door hissed shut behind them. “LOGGED: THE COMMANDING OFFICER IS ASHORE. XO LAWSON HAS THE DECK.”

“So, Illium,” he said. The airlock was humming, calibrating to planetary atmo. “And here I thought we’d had our fill. We forget something down there, Shepard? Another building you wanted to take a leap off of, maybe?”

Shepard hooked her hands into her tactical belt. “You see what I put up with, Tali? Every second of every goddamn assignment. You’d think the guy would get tired of his own voice.”

“He is certainly very trying.” Tali patted her arm. “I do not know if it would help to have some blackmail? Because—”

“Now, hang on,” he said.

“Can’t say I see the harm. Better safe than sorry.” Shepard’s fingers drummed. “Got anything good on file?” 

“I have a folder of screenshots and bookmarks here.” Tali opened her tool. “What sort of leverage do you need?” 

“Hadn’t considered. More a precaution than anything else. Pin that. About to debark.” 

The loading bridge hatch slid back. “Time was, you know, that I was a valued member of this team,” he told them as they entered the docks. “I feel like something changed when you made peace with the XO,[4] and the chief engineer’s arrival hasn’t helped either.”

“The fuck you talking about? Never needed you more. You’re a world class heel.” Shepard shouldered through a gaggle of passengers boarding at the next bay over. 

“Is this what I am missing when you go groundside together?” Tali followed, somewhat more politely, muttering apologies as she jostled luggage and people. “Mockery of Garrus Vakarian?”

“Yeah.” He joined them on the other side, and they started through the commercial area, littered with marquees for tourist trap destination packages and kiosks full of souvenirs. “Unequivocally and nonstop.”

“More or less.” Shepard veered around a trio of volus at the e-book kiosk without slowing. The featured read was Tear-songs of the Plains: a poetic tour de force by Nockrick Taur. “Happy to start a shipboard group for the purpose, if you want in. I owe the guy for those defeats at the game table[5] a couple days back.”

“I’ll remind you that Zorah also beat your ass at Uno, not to mention Chutes and Ladders, and I won’t be held responsible for that.” 

Tali’s faceplate glinted when she looked over her shoulder at him. “I think what Shepard is saying is that she likes me more than you, and does not care about you even a little bit.”

Shepard’s thumb jabbed at her. “Hole in one. Why do you think I keep pinging him for groundside work? One of these days, some lucky merc will take him out, and I’m gonna shake their fucking hand for the favor.”

“This is genuinely disturbing. Lawson was talking posthumous dissection of my brain not an hour ago. My shipmates are trying to kill me. Also, where are we going? For shame, CO. This might be the latest you’ve ever left a brief.”

She pulled up at the stairwell to Admin. “Liara’s office. Thought you two might want a chance to say hey.”

“And you, Shepard? Do you not want to say hey?” 

“Comes with the territory, doesn’t it?” She flashed an OSD between her fingers. “Have some intel to deliver by hand.” 

She trotted up the steps. They trailed her. 

“Fucking wizard,” he told Tali. “Where the hell did that come from?” 

Shepard had caught that. “Hidden depths, Vakarian. Got more compartments on this suit than your bird brain can remotely conceive.”

Liara’s executive assistant had been briefed as to their arrival. A plaque on the desk read Nyxeris, they/them/theirs. “Hello, Commander Shepard,” they said. “Please, go in. Liara will be pleased to see you.” They tapped something into their terminal, and the lock cycled from red to green.

“Thanks.” Shepard turned to them. The OSD had vanished again. “Going in together or solo?”

“I would prefer to spend some time with Liara one on one, if that is an option,” Tali said. “Girl talk, you know. You are invited, Shepard, but Garrus definitely is not.”

“Rude,” he said. “I’m more of a girl and a gossip than the CO, as all three of us are acutely aware.”

“Guy has a point.” Shepard looked at him. “Vakarian?”

Vitals: standard. On the other hand, it was atypical to be given options rather than a determination, no objections brooked. On the other other hand, he couldn’t exactly ask why this assignment was multiple choice, though he could and would be speculating wildly. Garrus shrugged. “Could go either way, ma’am. Whatever you need.”

The commander nodded. “We’ll fly solo. Anyone gets bored and wants to wander, go ahead. Just keep the ground team and the Normandy apprised if you relocate.”

She went in. Liara’s aide got them some chairs, and they settled in to wait. The door was silent, no speech penetrating the barrier of whatever material from which it’d been constructed. Figured. An information broker probably dropped the big credits on soundproofing and noise cancellation tech. 

Nyxeris was taking a call, swiveling to pull something up on-screen. Garrus discreetly switched to in-helm comms. 

“How do you think it’ll go?” he asked. 

Tali blinked, looking up from her omnitool. “Are you concerned? It’s Liara.”

“Lot of things can change in two years, Tal. Look what happened to me.”

She shook her head. “Not her. I…cannot even imagine?” She sketched air quotes, one handed. “Hello, Commander, I’m sorry to bother you. I was just thinking about the Protheans, and I was wondering if you would allow me to try to induce a beacon flashback…? It will be perfectly safe, I promise. Or as safe as I can make it. I should be clear that I’ve never attempted this before, so ethically speaking I cannot guarantee the results. But I have read a number of studies from accredited institutions, and I believe that I can probably definitely do this without causing a seizure or coma.”

“Well, that was spot on.”

Her hand returned to her keyboard. “It was a direct quotation. I was there in the mess. Shepard was just trying to eat lunch and could not get a word in.”

“Hm. I hope you’re right about her. Seeing Williams on Horizon left me with a few apprehensions, to say the least.” Last thing Commander needs right now is another person on her case about what she was supposed to have done instead of getting spaced and conscripted by terrorists.”

“Ashley Williams was an ignorant person,” Tali said flatly. “I know that you and Shepard were fond of her, and I was too, but…I am not surprised that she proved to be disappointing.”

“Yeah. Guess you always hope that your relationship will shift the ideals, or count for something against them. But she signed off with some jab about how she wasn’t a fan of aliens after defeating a literal Reaper with us, so I stand corrected.” 

He queued up a playlist as she returned to her device. Songs were getting a little stale. He’d have to collect new recs soon. Tali probably had some leads, unless her tastes had significantly changed. Jack and Goto could be resources, too. He didn’t know about Shepard. It was possible she didn’t consume music during work or play, which was clinching proof of deviancy if anything was.

“Does the commander listen to music recreationally?” he asked.

She didn’t look up. “You would know that better than I, Garrus. I spent and spend the majority of my time in Engineering. When Shepard comes to visit, she is subjected to whatever’s already playing.”

“Huh. Yeah, I’m not sure either. Strange what you know and don’t know about a person. You’d think if I can guess which way she’ll jump when a missile flies in, I’d have some basic information on file like favorite color or musical taste.” No answer. Not even a glance. “What exactly are you doing on your tool, Tal? I know I’m boring and that you probably have some kind of screen addiction,[6] but this is excessive even for you.”

“Nothing!” She angled her arm away when he leaned to look. “ I just have an important message I’m trying to respond to, that is all.”

“KR, MFMC. Wait, is that Kal’Reegar? Of the Migrant Fleet Marines? Your escort on Haestrom?”

“No. Maybe. Stop reading over my shoulder!” 

“Hang on. Why is he sending you private correspondence? Wouldn’t your transfer to the Normandy be routed through Lawson?”

“Yes, Garrus, it would be and was.” She dimmed her screen and frowned at him. “Kal is just letting me know how he is recovering from his wounds. I was worried about him after that suit rupture.” 

“Sorry, ‘Kal’? Not ‘Reegar’?” He sat back. “Are you two friendly? Would you classify your relationship as more than professional?”

Her foot connected with his armored shin. Nyxeris looked up. He waved, hoping the gesture communicated that no intervention was needed, even though it was. “I am not an interrogation subject, Garrus Vakarian, and I do not owe you an answer to either of those questions!”

He flicked a mandible at her. “You don’t have to answer in words, Zorah. I just got what I needed from your reaction.”

She closed her tool. “Turians in glass houses should not throw grenades.”

“Is that a real human idiom? It sounds incomprehensible enough to be, but also, uh. Inhumanly specific to my race and personal interest in munitions. Unhumanly? That’s not a word. Sorry, why am I in a glass house detonating explosives?”

“Because you spend far too much time with our commander both physically and mentally to be teasing me about non mission critical emails to a member of my former security team. Daily dinners[7] and the gym[8] and this unrelated-to-anything conversation about music being only three examples of literal hundreds.” She crossed her arms. 

He stretched out his legs. “The gym is just friendly competition. Or was. I don’t know if we’ll reprise it. She prefers to exercise solo. Maybe some kind of legacy eschew-all-fraternization thing. Or, you know. Maybe she likes to be alone occasionally.” 

Her finger poked him in the keel. “That is exactly my point. Why do you know that? Why have you reasoned out possible explanations? If there were a Bechdel Test about Shepard you would fail it utterly.”

“Tal, I have this kind of data on everyone and all it means is that I’m a long range specialist. My whole job is to hang back, watch the field, and predict how people are going to move through it. I can’t help if that tendency bleeds into my personal life. Bechdel Test?”

“Look it up later. Daniels is trying to make Donnelly less of whatever he is and I get to hear a lot of it. More importantly, prove your claim.” She rotated her chair to face him. “Lawson is regularly your squadmate too. In theory, if Shepard is not particularly…interesting…to you, you will know just as much about the XO."

"You’re on. Well, she definitely listens to music if she can get something loaded before the bullets start flying or I ask her a question just to see if she’ll answer it. German, Japanese, English, and Spanish, I’ve noticed, so far? She reads a lot of books—poetry, classic literature across multiple species, magical realism and realistic dystopian. Not the operatic romance stuff you and the doc like. Oh, I have the name of her barber. And a few of her cosmetic brands."

“And do you habitually speculate about what else she likes or what she does in her free time? Do not answer that. I have not given you permission to speak, and also the answer is no. You fail the Bechdel Test I just invented for Shepard, and only for Shepard.”

“...I really need to look this thing up.”

The door cycled open. Liara was on the threshold. Sheath dress, more elegant and fashionable than any garment he’d seen her attired in two years ago. Darker makeup palette, heavy on the eye. She looked older, warier. Different. “—t me help,” Shepard was saying from behind her. “Come by your apartment?”

“Okay. Hopefully I’ll have a plan by then. Thank you.” Liara turned and saw them. “Garrus? Tali! It’s good to see you again.”

They embraced in the foyer. He looked at her over Liara’s head. “Change of plans, Commander?”

“Change of plans. Turns out Cerberus’s intel’s worth something to T’soni. Could help her get a friend out of a tight spot, and it’s a time-sensitive thing. Proper reunion’s gonna have to wait.” She adjusted her vambrace. “Permission to bring these two along for backup?”

She nodded, stepping back. “Yes, of course. Just like old times, Shepard. I’ll have Nyxeris forward you my address and see you all soon.” 

Shepard raised a hand in acknowledgment and turned into the empty office, activating comms. “Ground team to Normandy. Assignment’s come up. Gonna be a few hours before we can head home.” Liara murmured something to her assistant and left as Garrus examined his CO. Heart rate above average. Something subtly off about her tone, too. T’soni. A layer of formality that reminded him of the SR-1. 

“Told you,” he said to Tali. “She hasn’t been that buttoned up since we were running all over Citadel space, chasing rogue Spectres and shooting down geth.”

She shook her head. “Well, they have not seen one another for two years. Not everyone skips straight to banter. Also, I will point out that you have just proved my point once again.”

“With the Bechdel Test? You know it’s not a funny joke unless both people know what’s going on, right?”

Shepard rejoined them. “Why are you two talking about the Bechdel Test? Scratch that. Why do you two know about the Bechdel Test?”

“Daniels,” Tali said.

“Yeah, that tracks.” She took the stairs. “Carport, you two. Come on.”

“I don’t know anything about the Bechdel Test,” he clarified, following. “I’d like to know, to be honest, but someone whose name starts with Tali and ends with Zorah won’t explain.”

“Boshtet, you have the entire extranet,” Tali informed him. She trotted down on his three. “Look. It. Up.”

“I don’t want to look it up. Commander, help me out here.”

She swerved around a security guard. “Bechdel Test’s an ad hoc way to check if a vid’s got shitty patriarchal messaging. Criteria’s that it’s gotta have at least two female characters who talk with each other about something besides a man. Got codified in the late 20th century from I think a comic strip of all things. Not sure if it’s still sound, but that’s what it is.”

“Oh. Oh, I get it. Thanks, ma’am. You’re definitely getting a birthday present this year. Unlike some people.”

“You are enabling him, Shepard.” 

“Yeah, I know. Just can’t help it when I see the guy’s face. Band-aid the size of a menstrual pad is a hell of an accessory to have to wear this long.” 

Tali snickered. “See, that’s more like it,” he told her. “That’s the commander of today.”

Shepard slowed, letting a group of arrivals pass. “You analyzing my nonverbal communication again? Sure spend a lot of time checking me out.”

“This is also what I said!” Tali said triumphantly. 

They’d reached the transpo hub. Shepard clapped her on the back. “Get us a cab?”

“Sure.” Tali started towards departures, circumventing a team of salarian dock workers as they set up a maintenance perimeter. Caution marquees flickered to life, delineating a square in the middle of the floor. Shepard was rolling her head on her neck, silent. Her eyes were closed behind her faceplate, her pulse still elevated, but evidently it wasn’t talking time. His hand was halfway to his tool for a playlist when she spoke. 

“Well, that was a fucking reunion.”

He folded his arms, glancing over. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah and no.” She draped her hand over her pistol, watching Tali’s progress across the floor. “Turns out—” Her voice was rough. She stopped, cleared her throat. Went on. “Turns out a lot of fucking people wanted my dead body for some reason. Collectors. Shadow Broker. Cerberus. T’soni recovered my corpse from the Shadow Broker, who’d been planning to trade it to the Collectors. And then she surrendered me to Cerberus. Says she couldn’t let me go. And what I love about it, Vakarian? I didn’t have any fucking agency. Any fucking say. Couldn’t have. I was goddamn dead. But who in the fucking hell would’ve—Cerberus. After Ak— Cerberus?” Her hand clenched, unclenched. Her tone went flat. “Fuck it. Whatever, right? I understand the reasons. Have to be glad she took it into her own hands, don’t I. Wouldn’t even be here otherwise. But I’ve got some fucking feelings about it, and they’re not all constructive, and it wasn’t the right time to share them in her office. Hell, it might never be. So yeah. Guess I’ll just ruck this shit with all the rest of it. The fuck else am I gonna do.” 

Cars were honking on the far end of the dock. A security guard was breaking up a shouting match over a vacant taxi, a pair of dock employees levered a grate out of the ground, and Garrus wondered, as usual, what the hell he was supposed to say. He was categorically shit at this, had proven that more times than he cared to count.[9] But that didn’t matter because for some reason he kept being the person around when something broke bad. He would research how to emotionally support human friends. Later. Right now he needed to fucking say something. 

“I’m sorry to hear it, Shepard. You don’t need another damn thing in your life.” He paused. “Look. After we wrap this up, let’s go punch someone or each other. Just because you can’t tell T’soni what you’re feeling doesn’t mean you can’t vent on a couple of hapless mercs. Barring that, a willing volunteer.”

Her eyes cut to him; she resettled the heel of her palm on her sidearm. “Vakarian, are you offering up your ass to get beat?”

“I’m offering up my ass for you to try to beat.”

She snorted. “We’ll see.”

“I’m not worried.” He shrugged. “Every off-ship activity has a one in two chance of turning into a firefight, anyway, so I’m counting on the fact that you’ll exhaust yourself taking out enemy combatants shortly, both cheapening and assuring my victory.”

“Uh huh. All bases covered.” 

Tali was waving them over. “She’s good,” Garrus said, starting forward. “Thought we’d be waiting longer. Must’ve jumped the queue. Legally, of course.”

“Yep. Tech specialist. Why I sent her.” 

They cut around the repair crew. A drill was juddering somewhere underfoot. “Not me? I’m insulted. I can hack a ride app with the best of them, Commander.”

“Needed you for something else, I guess.” 

“What’s that?”

She glanced up; her eyebrow cocked. “An ear? Thing you just offered two seconds ago, apparently without fucking realizing?”

“Oh. Well, glad to help. I’m great at this friend thing. So good I don’t even need to think about it.”

“Sure are, guy. All right, enough wallowing. Let’s see how Liara furnishes her apartment.”