Long the dark way, that scare the passage shews,

The Guide and I to the bright world of light

'Gan our return; nor car'd we for repose.

He first, I second, scal'd the lessening height,

'Till the fair forms, that Heaven refulgent bears,

Burst, through the rounded opening, on my sight:

And thence we issued forth to see the stars.

- The Inferno, Dante

When the door chimed, Shepard cursed quietly and scrubbed her hand across her eyes, hoping she could use her recent shower as an excuse for the redness and her general soppiness. For a brief moment she considered stashing the photo under the couch, but the thought of doing so made her feel even more like a pathetic girl than she already did. Self-conscious and painfully clumsy, she unfolded herself from her self-pitying wallow and set Kaidan carefully on the desk by her bed, flinching when the door chimed again.

"Yeah," she called out, running her hand too roughly through her damp hair. "Come in."

There was a pause, then a familiar hiss and whoosh as the door slid open. She looked at Garrus through the glass display of model ships (something she'd seen in captains' offices on countless ships and stations since she was a little kid, but to have it in her own quarters still seemed pretentious), forcing her expression into a friendly smirk.

She was incredibly glad to have even a fraction of her old crew with her on this damnable cage of a ship. Cerberus had bugs and mics and all manner of surveillance tech planted everywhere, and Shepard knew that no matter how much loyalty she might be able to inspire in the Cerberus hires, even if it was truly enough to make them her crew someday, the Illusive Man had his finger on the button. One exceptionally wrong move, like telling him to shove his fucking operation up his shadowy ass and trying to commandeer the ship, and Shepard had no doubt that EDI would take over. No moves like their fieldtrip to Ilos this time. A damnable, gilded cage.

Shepard had lowered the lights before her shower in an attempt to lessen the pinging of her headache, and because the dimness made her sulking feel more private and less embarrassing on a ship where nothing actually was private. The blue glow of the fish tanks made Garrus look softer, more like how she remembered him from before. From that weird doesn't-seem-like-very-long-but-shit-it-was-two-years-ago time. No, not softer, just… less hard.

Biting back a sigh, Shepard padded slowly around the corner. "Hey," she said almost warily, noting that Garrus was holding himself in that tense, formal way from when he'd still been fresh out of C-Sec. "What brings you up to the loft?"

His mandibles twitched, and there was noticeably more movement on the right side than there'd been even a week before. The scars were healing well, but Shepard had seen him right after the explosion, all ugly pulp and too-white bone and just not enough head where there should have been. She understood that the man who stood before her right now, all fidgety and hesitant, was a minor miracle. Of course, she'd been extra pulpy, and yet there she was too.

"Commander—" Garrus rubbed his neck, seemingly more interested in her scarcely populated fish tanks than in actually meeting her gaze. "Still have that open-door policy? I want to talk to you about something— unless this is inappropriate, or an inconvenient time, or—"

"It's fine, Garrus." Jerking her head in invitation, she retreated back towards the couch, too brittle to try and keep herself professional and cool. This was Garrus, her very dear friend, and she wasn't about to try and be Commander Shepard just for him. She was relieved when he followed her down— her shoulder ached, and she wanted to sit comfortably. That huge beetle-meets-hanar thing the Collectors had sent down to finish them off on Horizon had a nasty laser canon, and she'd been tired and stupid enough to let it flank her as she reloaded her pistol. The burn was healed already, thanks to Dr. Chakwas, but the joint was still stiff. But more than that, her spirit ached.

Sweet merciful crap, what a girl she was.

He sat, closer than she figured he would, and even though his mandibles fluttered again with a bit of nervousness, his voice was clear and firm. "I just wanted to make sure you were all right, after today. And if, well, if you wanted to talk about anything… You, you're my friend, and that looked really hard to deal with."

She noticed then that he was pointedly not looking over at the photo of Kaidan sitting so nearby, and she was mortified when her eyes started to grow hot and gritty again. She blinked, hard.

"I—" Swallowing against the way her voice cracked, Shepard took a deep breath. "I know why Kaidan's so angry, and I know why he's hurt. I mean, when I woke up in that lab, it was like I'd just seen him on the Normandy. I don't feel like I've lost two years, but then I look around, and I see it in you and Joker and everybody else I knew, and I can see the weight of that time." Curling one leg up beside herself, Shepard stared at her model ships. One of them was the Normandy, as she had been. As she should be now, better tech and roomier everything be damned. There shouldn't be a galley in Kaidan's workstation.

"You also know that none of that is your fault." It wasn't a question, and when Shepard glanced over she could see that Garrus' expression had gone steely, which on a turian face looked quite formidable. "And whether its Reapers or Cerberus or some other monster banging on the hull, we're still out here trying to stop the Collectors— which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for the Alliance or the Council. I know you, Shepard, and I trust your judgement."

"I need this ship," she insisted, aware that she didn't need to explain herself to Garrus, but frustrated that Kaidan hadn't given her the chance. "I went to the Council— that's the first place I went— and they stonewalled me. A human problem. Fucking hell, I pulled their asses literally out of a fire, and they give me that bullshit and boot me out to the Terminus Systems. Like I'm some bad kid they sent to her room while the adults are talking." Garrus was silent, and Shepard felt her rant gaining steam.

"What was I supposed to do? Tell my one decent shot at saving the galaxy to go fuck himself just because my morals are acting up? I can handle a little thing like hating myself everyday, and if Kaidan's got to hate me too, then so be it. If I didn't take Cerberus up on this offer, I'd have no ship, no crew, and no damn dossiers. What then? Collectors just get a free pass to keep snatching humans? Shit, what would have happened to Archangel if I hadn't busted in when I did? You might have died in that miserable pisshole, Garrus."

"Oh, I would've. No doubt." Shepard was jolted out of her fury by one curved talon poking her gently in the knee. "And you've got quite the filthy mouth on you, now that you're undead."

She couldn't help her sudden burst of laughter, and she slapped her hand over said filthy mouth when it turned into a ridiculous snort. It should have riled her up even more that Garrus was teasing her, but all that venting had managed to drain her anger into a fizzled kind of disquiet. She smacked his hand away, almost playfully. "Yeah, well you're an asshole, Vakarian."

"Charming. Maybe you're just spending too much time with our resident psychopath." Leaning forward, he tilted his head and met her gaze with a kind of warmth she hadn't expected. "Honestly though, if I hadn't been a little preoccupied with staying alive, I'm not sure how I would have reacted to seeing you again. You're… you're a hard person to lose, Shepard."

A bolt of incredible sadness lanced through her chest, and she glared at her thigh, willing herself to just nut up and stop almost-crying. "Getting lost wasn't fun either, but I hear what you're saying. I don't know how much this'll mean, but I am sorry."

"Hey," he cut in, and the lower note of his voice was rumbling deeper than usual. "Since you went to all the trouble of coming back? No hard feelings."

I just wanted to make sure you were all right… None of that is your fault… I trust your judgement… No hard feelings…

She could have understood Kaidan if he'd said anything remotely like that and still decided to stay with the Alliance— maybe as her ears on the Citadel, or maybe not. She could have understood if he'd been as hostile and judgemental as he was, but agreed to come along because it's the mission that's important. He'd been with her through Eden Prime, through geth and Saren and Sovereign, through the visions and the nightmares, through Virmire, through commandeering an Alliance ship… but he wouldn't give her the benefit of the doubt when it came to Cerberus. Not even with so much at stake.

But Garrus was still here. Garrus trusted her judgement, but also questioned her. He never let her get off easy when it came to the complicated discussions, even if that meant just making some dry but insightful remark that woke her up. He never pulled punches, and he never talked around the issue, no matter how uncomfortable he was. He came to check on her, because he knew she was upset.

Her mouth quirked up in a small smile, and she stretched out her leg to poke Garrus' armoured knee with one toe. "I appreciate it, big guy. I really do."

The sight of Joker hanging out the side of the Normandy, looking all vid-hero with that assault rifle even though he couldn't hit the broad side of a dreadnought, made Shepard grin through the ache in her bones and the burn of her lungs. Almost there, with Collector fire whizzing by her ear, and of-fucking-course the platforms would get knocked down just as she cleared the ridge.

She'd just shot a Reaper-baby right in the face— what was one little jump across a yawning chasm? A final burst, every bit of energy she had left, and time slowed as her feet kicked off. The smack of her hardsuit against the hull wasn't nearly as loud as the beating of her own heart, but maybe that was because of the painful hollow feeling deep in her ears. It was almost funny, dangling like this, and just when she realised she was really starting to lose it, Garrus was yanking her up and inside the ship, and the dark blue blood leaking out of the crack his armour brought her head sharply back into the game.

It wasn't until later, after one more terrifying jump when they'd hauled ass out of the shit and she'd finally gotten around to telling the Illusive Man where he could stick his human supremacy bull, that Shepard let herself ratchet down into normal gear. Everybody was alive, and damn, wasn't that just something?

It had been a long few hours, getting everybody settled, repairs started, and making sure any lingering Cerberus hardware was disconnected, but then she was finally in her cabin, picking clumsily at the buckles and clasps that held her hardsuit closed. There was a temping siren's voice in her head that had her nearly convinced to just crawl under the covers as she was and worry about her body armour after a few hours of sleep, but she'd done that before. The cramps and the sweaty feelings afterwards weren't worth it.

She'd just managed to struggle out of her gauntlets and shoulder guards, and was laying half on the bed contemplating how much energy it would take to undo her damn chest plate, when the door chimed. Groaning something at EDI that might have been a plea to just open the door, or might have been a krogan insult, Shepard didn't make a move to get up. The door hissed and whooshed, and she groaned again, slinging one arm over her eyes.

"Uh, Shepard? You okay?" Garrus. She'd made sure he'd reported to the med bay before she'd even thought of calling the Illusive Man, and had only left him there once she'd been assured and reassured by Dr. Chakwas that the round that had punctured his armour hadn't hit anything major, and that Garrus was going to be completely fine. He'd been a little high on painkillers at the time, and she remembered the heat rushing to her cheeks when he'd grabbed her hand, completely oblivious to Chakwas standing less than a metre away, and nuzzled it with the good side of his face. The nuzzling, she'd learned very recently, was about as close as turians got to kissing with each other… around the same time Garrus had learned a few new things two people could do together when at least one of them had lips.

Her thoughts were giving way to other fresh memories, mostly focused on the bed she was currently sprawled across and the turian standing just inside her door, but she was just so tired. "Did Chakwas clear you, or did you escape custody like a bad little merc?"

For such a formidably sized guy, Garrus was pretty light on his feet. It might have been due mostly to the ringing in her ears, but she didn't realise he'd moved until she heard his voice, significantly closer than it'd been a moment before. "Can't it be a little of both?"

Beside her, the mattress sunk and she rolled with it, peering up at Garrus as she almost curled around his hip. She might have been too tired to consider the more athletic portions of her memories, but she couldn't forget how nervous Garrus had been, even afterwards. Even if she had absolutely no steam left to blow off, she wanted to make sure Garrus knew she wasn't blowing him off. In her mind, at least, that hadn't been a one-time thing.

He looked surprised that she'd move near him, but not displeased. When he twisted around a bit and carded his talons gently through her hair, she let her mouth flicker up into a smile and closed her eyes.

"You didn't answer my question," he murmured, scratching lightly across her scalp. "Are you okay?"

"That depends." Shifting a little closer, she tapped her fingers against the armour on his thigh. "You think Joker could take the long way back to the Citadel? Like, maybe nineteen or twenty hours? I think I've earned a nap."

"That's quite a nap." She heard the edginess in his voice, and forced her eyes to slide open. Carefully, she bent her head just enough to nuzzle against his palm, and was rewarded with a soft, happy rumble. "Maybe… Maybe I could…"

"You definitely deserve a nap too, Garrus," she interrupted smoothly, a little proud that her attempt at sultry tones hadn't gone all slurred. With renewed effort, she reached down and snapped her chest plate's side seals open. "If you feel like it, I mean."

It was difficult sometimes to read the physical cues of another species— at first, she'd found turians just as hard to get a bead on as any other unfamiliar alien. No eyebrows, no real lips, and their eyes always seemed so hard and predatory. Not long into her acquaintance with Garrus, however, she'd made a concerted effort to be observant. She made metal notes of what certain twitches of his mandibles meant, different ways he tilted his head, and subtle changes in the intensity of his gaze.

It hadn't occurred to her at the time, all tied up in plunging headfirst into fraternisation with Kaidan, that spending so much time and care studying a person might indicate a bit more interest than just crewmates. Much later, though still before she shuffled off, the realisation began to sink in that maybe her feelings about her very dear friend were more… serious than she'd planned.

Watching Sovereign hurtle towards them in pieces, and knowing with absolute surety that she was more concerned for Garrus than Kaidan— that was the clarity that came with facing immanent death.

She'd become much more familiar with the feeling than any healthy, sane person should.

She remembered another of those moments, the clawing terror when she realised her suit was depressurising, the excruciating feeling as her capillaries burst and her tissues bloated, the last few desperate gasps for air even as her vision blurred and darkened. Clarity. She hoped they'd all be okay without her. She was so angry with herself for letting this happen, for not being quicker and better. Her chest hurt.

"Hey, Shepard—" Garrus was concerned; she could tell, not just by the tone of his voice, but by the width of his mandibles and the dim glitter in his eyes. She realised belatedly that she'd let her morbid musings show on her face. "Please, tell me what's wrong?"

Shaking off the worst of the suffocating feelings, she sat up enough to pull the top half of her armour free and wriggle out of her combat jacket, taking a deep, sweet breath when the air touched her skin. It was hard to be evasive or private when the memory of never being able to tell anyone anything ever again was fore in her mind.

Feeling just slightly chilled, both from the dampness of her sweaty skin and the exhaustion in her bones, Shepard leaned heavily against Garrus' side, wrapping her arm around his elbow. He was still in his own unforgiving armour, but she didn't care.

"I just remembered what it was like to die," she said quietly, and felt him tense. "I'm fine now. Just… really tired. Of everything."

"Shepard—" Garrus' voice was very, very rough, and she knew he probably had something incredibly important to say, but she couldn't let that go on for one more second. Kaidan had called her Shepard the entire time, even during, and it had been fine then. It fit Kaidan, and she still loved him dammit, but Garrus was different. He needed to be.

"Don't," she growled, pressing her forehead almost painfully against his shoulder. "Unless you want me to call you Vakarian all the time. Please, Garrus."

There was a weighty silence, but then gentle talons were lifting her head away, soothing more than the discomfort she'd just inflicted. "Adelaide."

"That's better." Hauling herself to her feet, Shepard leaned down and brushed a kiss against Garrus' mouth. "Just one minute," she murmured, slipping away from the hands that had come up to rest lightly on her hips, and staggered off towards her comm terminal.

She braced her hands on the desk, unwilling to give in to the temptation of sitting down— if she sat, she'd just need to stand again. Jabbing a little too hard at the interface, she opened a line to the bridge. "Joker?"

"Here Commander. Hey, didn't you just leave to go get some shut-eye? EDI and I can handle a jump to the Citadel, promise." Her helmsman sounded defensive, which was hardly surprising. He was still letting the IFF incident eat at him, and Shepard couldn't risk reassuring him any more without straying into coddling territory— Joker would certainly not react well to that. He just needed some time, and thankfully it seemed like they might have bought themselves a little.

"About the Citadel. Debriefing with the Council is going to be hell, and depending on how things go, we might need to burn out of there pretty quick. Let's give the crew a little while to get their heads on straight before we fly them into another shit-storm." Refusing to get distracted by the turian oh-so efficiently shedding his armour just a couple of metres away, Shepard licked her lips and kept her eyes focused firmly on the glow of the terminal.

"Uh, yeah sure. You got a time estimate for all that head-straightening?"

Grinning just slightly, Shepard reached down to start unbuckling her greaves. "At least twelve hours; more if you can swing it without just drifting for a while. And get some rest yourself, Lieutenant— EDI, make sure Joker gets a couple hours sleep."

The AI's voice sounded somewhat indulgent when she spoke through the comm. "Of course, Shepard."

With no small amount of amusement, Shepard imagined the expression that accompanied Joker's derisive snort. He mumbled his next words, and she had to strain to make them out. "Shit, it's like having two disembodied Moms." Born and raised on space-faring vessels of all kinds, Shepard could feel the very minor shift in momentum as the Normandy slowed her speed. Joker raised his voice back into professional levels. "On route to the Citadel, ETA sixteen hours thirty-eight minutes, Commander. We good?"

A quick glance upwards confirmed that Garrus was down to undershirt and shorts, and Shepard was startled by the bolt of heat that shot through her gut. "Great, Joker. Shepard out."

Kicking the last of her armour aside with far less care than it deserved, she padded back down to the waiting bed. Garrus was already flipping the covers down, and even with state-of-the-art moisture wicking fabric, her remaining combat uniform felt tacky and unpleasant. With only a little struggle lifting her arms over her head, Shepard peeled herself down to her skin, sparing Garrus a quick look as she crawled over the mattress and curled up under the cool blankets.

"Well, all right then," she heard him mumble, and a moment or two later he was sliding in against her back, all warm leathery skin and slightly rough carapace. His arm came around her with obvious care, the move reminding her of how soft and vulnerable she must seem to her bedmate, then she was being rolled back against his chest and into the hollow of his wide hips. It was difficult for a turian to lie flat on his side, but with just a little adjustment they'd found a comfortable compromise. It was embarrassing to admit, but Mordin's diagrams had helped immensely.

His hand was splayed across her stomach, and with a contented little sigh she slid her fingers down along his forearm. Then she started giggling.

"We did it," she gasped, fighting vainly against her bubbling laughter. "We really did it. We made it out alive."

She felt the rumble deep in Garrus' chest, and she shivered when he nuzzled the side of her throat. "Yeah, we did." She heard a definite smile in his voice, and had to bury her face in the pillow to try and stifle more silly giggles. "You know, you're cute when you're giddy."

Careful not to catch her skin on any of his sharper angles, Shepard made the monumental effort to turn herself over, bringing them front to front. Garrus was smiling, and she felt the silliness slowly recede. They made it out alive.

Aware that even after a few months of healing, Garrus still had some occasional pain on the scarred side of his face, Shepard gently stroked the back of her hand over his cheek. "Thanks for walking into hell with me," she whispered. "And thanks for pulling me out again."

The old Shepard— Alliance commander, career solider, Spectre— would have left a lot unsaid. The mission was still important, and it was unprofessional and dangerous to muddy things up, especially with a subordinate.

But Garrus wasn't her subordinate; he was her friend and crewmate. He wasn't Alliance, and neither was she really. Neither of them was in the military anymore, and she'd effectively severed their Cerberus leash. They were on their own, and she wasn't the old Shepard anymore. Kaidan had been right— she'd changed. Death has a way of doing that, she'd discovered, even more so than near-death.

New Shepard wasn't going to put off saying something today, because there was always the chance that this opportunity could be the last one. New Shepard was going to live every minute, and kick ass.

"I don't have a better friend than you, Garrus. I'm not sure one exists." Ignoring the mix of shock and pleased embarrassment that flitted across his face, Shepard stamped down her own ingrained hesitance and soldiered on. Ooh-rah. "And I love you— but it's nothing to panic about, so shut up. I'm just… not comfortable keeping stuff like that bottled up anymore."

He was blinking at her, and with his sharp, raptor-like eyes the term owlishly had never seemed so apropos. Feeling the dread bubble up in her throat, Shepard was about to try and talk her way out of a stupid, stupid impulse when suddenly his hand was cupping her face and his forehead was pressed gently against hers.

"Adelaide," he said quietly, and something so simple felt incredibly good to hear. She'd been Shepard for a long time, and sometimes it got a little heavy to bear. "I followed you to the ends of the galaxy, and I would again without question. Of course I love you. How could I not?"

It was true— he'd followed her so very far, and he was still by her side. Considering all that, it wasn't so terribly far for her to lean forward a few inches and claim his mouth with hers.

"—mander. Shepard, wake up. Incoming priority communication, Commander."

She was on the bad side of conscious, where too much exhaustion met just enough sleep to guarantee grogginess, but not enough to restart any sort of functionality. EDI's voice was insistent and too loud, and Shepard was a spit second away from hurling a pillow at that goddamn blue globe, when Garrus hugged her tighter to his chest.

"EDI, is this really important," he growled, sounding half-asleep himself. "Like, willing to risk modifications to your blue box important?"

"I am unaware of the precise nature of the communication, Mr. Vakarian." EDI's tone had gone a little brusque, but there was a distinct tenor of apology as well. "Except that it is a priority vid-call on an encrypted Alliance channel, and the signal originates from the Serpent Nebula. For more information I would need to hack the feed, and that would likely raise Cerberus infiltration flags. I did not believe that would be diplomatic."

"Shit," she groaned, reluctantly wriggling free of the warm, muscular body that had been all but enveloping her. She had red creases on her skin from his ridges, but they were barely worse than what she used to get from the pillowcases in Basic. Garrus' skin, for being a metallic exoskeleton, was surprisingly supple. "Meant to send a message to Anderson when we got back, to tell him I'm still alive. Shit."

Her muscles felt rubbery, but she scrambled up anyway, cursing fiercely when her toe caught in the sheets and almost put her down in a pile.

"Fall and kill yourself now, and I'll make sure the monument is really stupid looking." She paused with gross, dirty undershirt in hand when she heard the tension in Garrus' voice. "Call sounds important. I should… go."

The Alliance brass dinging in her ears agreed, but too much loss and sacrifice had built up enough steel in her spine to drown that out. "No, you shouldn't." Dropping the shirt and disregarding the soft jingle of her comm terminal, Shepard crawled back across the mattress on all fours and straddled a surprised turian in one swift move. He was sitting up but still mostly covered by blankets, and with a very serious expression she placed her hands on his bare shoulders. "You should stay. I'm not ashamed of you, and anyway, I'm not even Alliance anymore. I'm not hiding you— hiding us, Garrus."

Leaning in, she pressed a lingering kiss against the rough scars on his cheek and smiled as the nervousness faded from his eyes. "All right," he murmured, hands resting lightly on her hips. "You can throw on my undershirt, if you want. It's big enough to cover you." There was a strange, masculine undercurrent of claiming in such an offer, and Shepard didn't mind at all. Kissing him again, this time playfully on the chin, she slid back off the bed, grabbed the crumpled black shirt he motioned to, and pulled it over her head. When the extra fabric for a collar ridge settled around her shoulders like a cowl, she couldn't help chuckling. Shepard imagined she looked as silly as a little kid playing dress-up, but Garrus was scrutinizing her intently and with definite heat.

"Down boy." Grinning, she tugged the hem down around her knees and strode up towards her comm, perhaps swaying her hips a bit more than necessary. Flopping down in the desk chair, Shepard took a moment to make sure her hurried clothing was appropriately modest and to run her hands through the rat's nest her hair had become, before tapping the interface and connecting the call.

The screen flickered, fading from bright blue to coalesce into a familiar visage. She managed to keep her shock from registering openly when a small, obviously stressed image of Kaidan peered up at her.

"Shepard—" She watched him sag with relief, even as Garrus jerked up into a rigid posture on the bed below. "God, Shepard, you made it. I didn't know— when the Normandy didn't arrive at the Citadel, I thought maybe— Oh God, you're alive!"

"Despite the Reapers' best efforts," she heard herself reply, quite neutrally. "We all made it back. Was the Alliance keeping tabs on me?"

"We have some minimal surveillance on the Omega 4 relay." Kaidan was clearly a little taken aback by her stiff manner, but he answered her questions with military efficiency even as he frowned and searched her face. "We knew you'd gone through, and we knew when the Normandy came out again. Then you disappeared in the Terminus Systems, but we assumed you'd be headed back to the Citadel."

"We're taking the long way, giving the crew a chance to recuperate before we dock. We've all just been through hell, Kaidan." Sitting back, she crossed her arms, aware she was being too defensive but unable to reign herself in. "It's not like the Alliance or the Council will give a shit what I have to say anyway. Seems they've all got selective hearing when it comes to crazy, brainwashed Shepard."

"I—" Kaidan pressed two fingers against his temple, and Shepard's gut stung with a pang of sour guilt. "I suppose I deserved that, didn't I? For what it's worth, I'm sorry."

She shook her head, both at Kaidan's apology and at Garrus, who'd started to get up when she started bitching. "No, no I'm just venting on you, and I shouldn't be." This was just one more reason she'd asked Joker to delay their arrival to the Citadel— when she was this fatigued, the valve controlling which of her thoughts were voiced and which she kept to herself went faulty.

"You look exhausted." Even as he said it, and as compassionate as it sounded, Kaidan immediately began to back-pedal. "I mean, I can't imagine how worn out you must be… Did I, did I wake you up?"

"It's all right." She didn't currently have the constitution to deal with this situation unless absolutely necessary— she definitely didn't want to draw it out. "We're on our way to the Citadel now. EDI, what's our ETA?"

She could see EDI light up behind her, reflected in the glass of her display wall. "Thirteen hours, twenty-two minutes, Commander."

"Sounds good. Kaidan, I'll have to debrief with Anderson when I arrive, but if you want to talk afterwards—" She was just scratching her itchy scalp, silently regretting the lack of self-control that had lead to her and Garrus curling up together without showering first. It only dawned on her that the collar ridge cowl was not the only tailoring difference in turian clothing when she noticed Kaidan staring at her elbow with burgeoning anger.

"Why are— What are you wearing, Shepard?" Turian under-armour, designed to fit closer to the body in places than civvies, made certain allowances for the… bumpier aspects of their physiology. Shepard hadn't realised the shirt had small holes to accommodate Garrus' elbow spines until Kaidan was gaping at them. Only then did he seem to notice the folds of fabric around her shoulders, as well. "That's turian. What— What the hell?"

Resisting the childish urge to snap back with something waspish and mostly undeserved, Shepard took a deep, calming breath. "This is not something we should discuss over the comm, Kaidan." The click of bare talons across the deck made her look up, but her attention shot back to the terminal at the sound of Kaidan smashing his fist against whatever kind of table he was leaning on.

"I really messed this up," he said quietly, and she watched as his sudden fury withdrew inwards just as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by resignation and an air of utter misery. "Is Garrus there now?" She kept her eyes firmly on Kaidan, even as Garrus' form leaned against the stair rail, just out of sight of the terminal's camera.

What was she supposed to say? Despite the faint, lingering feelings of rejection she'd been nursing since Horizon, Shepard had no desire to hurt this man. She loved him, even if they didn't fit together like she'd wanted once upon a time. A lifetime ago, literally.

"What do you want from me, Kaidan?" she whispered, and it wasn't accusatory or cruel, or anything but honest in its inquiry. It was something she needed to know.

She felt her heart start to ache as he floundered, grasping for the right words, and was about to offer some gentle reassurance when he finally spoke. "I don't know. I thought— Well, it doesn't matter now." Even through the slightly grainy signal, she could tell that his knuckles were white with the strain of clenching his hands together. "He was there for you, wasn't he? When I wasn't— when I should have—"

"Kaidan, don't." It was a little amazing that her Commander Shepard voice still snapped him to attention so quickly. "Whatever Garrus and I have, it has nothing to do with you and me. I still care for you, deeply, but I'm not the same woman I was two years ago. I'm not that commander anymore, and not just because of the attack, or the rebuild. The universe changed around me while I slept, and I've fought hard to catch up."

"Yeah." Flinching like she'd slapped him, Kaidan's shoulders slumped visibly. "I think I'm starting to get that. I just… I still want to talk to you when you get here, if that's okay."

Wishing he were sitting in front of her so she could pry his poor, abused hands apart, Shepard settled for nodding and smiling softly. "Of course it's okay."

"Ah, good." The smile just seemed to make Kaidan more uncomfortable, and now he wouldn't even meet her eyes. "I'll let you get back to sleep."

She wanted to ask if he was all right, but this wasn't the time, especially not when he knew Garrus was in the room with her. "Thanks, Kaidan. I'll see you soon."

Without further acknowledgment, Kaidan cut the signal from his end. Staring at the blank terminal screen, Shepard felt numb. She didn't even glance up, but she knew Garrus was still standing there, watching. "Aren't you going to say anything?"

She heard him hum in consideration, then more clicking feet. "I'm surveying the field," he murmured, and she dropped her head into her hands when gentle talons brushed her hair back from her neck. "I'm not very good at protecting you when I don't know where the fire's coming from."

Even that small touch, his hand stroking against her skin, made everything a bit more solid again. She sighed, deep and long, then sat up and twined their fingers together. "Just watch my six, and we're good."

"Got it. And hey, the view's beautiful too."

AN: Dante and Virgil leaving Hell and seeing the stars seemed somehow appropriate for Garrus and Shep, says the author with a small shrug.

I know a lot of authors don't explicitly name their Sheps in fic (something I often find preferable), but I felt like I needed to here. For the record, Adelaide Shepard: Spacer, War Hero, Paragon-ish. Named after the ship she was born on, which is nautical tradition (Alliance cruisers are all named after Earth cities, and darn it, I love the name).

I'll probably continue this... but not immediately. I've got in-progress Dragon Age fics out the wazoo, but I would like to write the meeting with the Council, and Kaidan. We'll see.