17 – Sunshine

Garrus

"Check."

He frowned and took a deep breath, staring down at the board with grim determination, like a general taking stock of his forces after an exceedingly bloody engagement. His army had been decimated – all but three pieces had been captured by the enemy, and those remaining unhappy few were backed into a corner by a vastly superior force. The ivory queen loomed two spaces away, flanked by two knights. Another rook lurked in the distance with a clear path through to his pitiful base of operations, thus no less dangerous for its position on the far side of the board.

"Your move, slowpoke," said Gabby.

"I know it's my move," Garrus snapped, irritated with himself. Had he been too aggressive? This whole mess started when I lost my first rook. I overextended myself and then compounded the problem by overreacting to my mistake…

Gabriella laughed. "Well, staring at the board isn't going to help. You can't will your queen back to life."

The turian stared at her, mandibles twitching with irritation. She crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair, looking as smug and self-satisfied as Shepard's pet hamster with a hunk of cheese.

Garrus had discovered the game of chess during his time at C-Sec, and he'd found it to be somewhat similar to stones, a board game often played by military officers and trainees on Palaven. It wasn't a perfect comparison – in chess, many of the pieces were different and had different rules governing their movement, and victory was achieved by capturing one special piece instead of trapping the majority of your opponent's pieces, or "side". Plus, the board was a lot smaller, making the engagement much more limited in scope. He'd initially assumed that this would favor his own aggressive style of play, and it had against Rolston, Donnelly, and Patel, but Gabby Daniels had proven very adept at using his own tendencies against him.

I shouldn't have let her take my queen. I didn't get enough in return to make it a worthwhile trade, not to mention I had to spend my next five turns setting up a defense for her counterattack…

The game of stones was a prominent part of military culture on Palaven, as it was supposed to serve as an accurate measure of an individual's tactical mastery. He was a very good player, himself, but whenever he and Tali had played, he'd never been able to win even a single game, and most of them hadn't been close. The quarian had been even worse than Gabriella with her gloating.

"You can't say my hips are distracting you," the quarian taunted. "You can't even see them from where you're sitting."

Garrus scoffed. "Yeah, well, that's not why you win, anyway. I just have more important things to do than stare at engines all day or read books about board games."

He suppressed a grin at the memory, redoubling his focus on the task at hand. His knight was dead; no use "sugarcoating" that one. Her queen was poised to attack, and ideally he needed to make it cost-prohibitive for her to come too close. "As a commander, sometimes you won't be able to stop the bloodshed, no matter what you do, but if your enemies are determined to attack, you can always, always make them pay for it." So said General Adrien Victus, at a lecture Garrus had attended during his military days. It was good advice… but with only a doomed knight, a functionally useless bishop on the far side of the board, and a very vulnerable king, there wasn't much Garrus could do to dissuade his opponent from swarming his territory. Where had all his pieces gone? Three small islands of black in a veritable sea of white...

It was hopeless.

"All over but the crying, Garrus," said Ken Donnelly in a tone of commiseration.

"It's not over," he replied tersely, internally retracing his steps. She was baiting me, he mused, nodding to himself. She knew I would overextend my lines, and she spent the first half of the game preparing for it. I walked right into her trap.

It was over, though. Nothing for it, really. He had only one possible move – his king was directly threatened, and the only way to save it was to block her advance with his knight. But that would only save the king for all of about three seconds. All Gabriella had to do was take the knight with her queen, and…

"Checkmate," she declared.

He sighed with resignation. He and Gabriella had faced off three times thus far, and this was his worst defeat yet.

"Chin up, Garrus," Gabby smiled. "You're loads better than Ken."

"Says you," said Ken sullenly. The two engineers rose together and walked toward the counter.

Garrus looked up from the board. The rest of the mess hall was slowly beginning to fill, and that meant it was almost time for him to grab his food and make a run for it before Gardner started working on Mordin's lunch. The humans didn't seem to mind it, but to Garrus, salarian food smelled like ten-day-old death. Or a landfill full of dead fish. How could something that smelled so terrible to him possibly be palatable to another species? He'd once asked Mordin Solus this very question, and the salarian's response had been to grin enthusiastically, spread his arms out wide and proclaim, "Science!"

"Dinner is served!" Gardner declared, for all the galaxy as if he had discovered the true meaning of life. Garrus had to hand it to the Normandy's quartermaster – he had to prepare meals for an asari, krogan, turian, salarian, and even a drell, and by all accounts, none of them were half bad. Gardner seemed to find it a nice challenge – or a pain in the ass, depending on his mood when you asked him.

The human crew of the Normandy had thus far confounded Garrus' expectations. Truth be told, he would've expected a little more wariness or even resentment for non-humans from them, being members of Cerberus and all. Gabby and Kenneth had accepted him warmly from the beginning, but he'd initially thought the two engineers to be anomalies. Their motivations were very similar to Shepard's, and both were recent recruits of Cerberus. Neither of them had encountered any of the more disturbing byproducts of Cerberus' research projects, as Garrus had. But for the most part, they were a friendly bunch. Patel and Rolston were both very personable, and then there was Kelly Chambers, who if Garrus didn't know any better actually seemed sexually attracted to him. The ship's yeoman currently sat at the far corner of the table, across from Mordin. Whatever they were talking about, their voices were pitched too low for Garrus to hear over the muted din of the cafeteria.

Jacob, Hadley, and Zaeed sat at the table directly across from him. He didn't understand why Zaeed always pestered Jacob; maybe the old merc just enjoyed getting under the younger man's skin.

"From what I hear, there were a lot of salarians with the Eclipse on Illium," Hadley was saying through a mouthful of food. "Seems a little odd. I thought the Eclipse sisters on Nos Astra were a pretty tight-knit bunch."

"You know what they say," said Zaeed. "Can't spell 'salarian' without 'asari'."

"That's stupid as fuck," said Jacob.

"It's true."

"That doesn't make it any less stupid. You can't spell 'Massani' without 'ass,' either."

"You can if y'know what's good for you, fancy pants."

"Where did that expression come from?" Hadley wondered aloud, perhaps in part to diffuse the suddenly-mounting tension at their table. "…uh, the first one, I mean. Did you just make that up?"

"Politics," Zaeed growled, still matching glares with Jacob. The old merc was wearing a promotional t-shirt for Vaenia – it was an image of two bare-chested asari, their bodies pressed together to form a rough 'V'. Asshole or no, Garrus had to admire the man's taste.

"Some turian diplomat or other came up with it after the First Contact War," Zaeed continued, finally turning back to his lunch. "I guess they were annoyed with the salarian Councilor for backing the reparations for the Alliance after the war."

"How do you even know that?" Jacob asked, clearly skeptical.

Zaeed shrugged. "I dunno. Heard it somewhere. You get to be my age, you hear lots of things."

The hall was almost full, now. Almost everyone was relaxed, relatively speaking, but Garrus could still detect a palpable sense of unease simmering just below the surface. By now everyone knew that they were headed into geth space, and that rightly made everyone nervous. It made him nervous, too, come to think of it. He'd fought plenty of geth in the past, but never on the synthetics' home turf. What could Tali possibly be doing beyond the veil, anyway? Recon? Surely not. Shepard hadn't known much; Garrus wished he'd been with the Normandy's crew for the Freedom's Progress mission so he could've asked her himself. The more he thought about it, the less he liked the sound of it.

Are you concerned, Garrus?

... That is actually a distinct possibility.

He smiled to himself. He did miss Tali'Zorah. Not that he would ever admit it, least of all to the quarian herself. He knew Shepard did, too. Part of the reason his friend had avoided Haestrom before now was his uncertainty over whether to even approach Tali about this mission. Garrus could understand wanting to keep a friend out of danger, but could the Omega-4 relay really be that much more dangerous than whatever crazy thing the flotilla's Admiralty Board had her doing in geth space?

Besides, it just wouldn't be the same without her, with that stupid combat drone flying around blocking my shots.

She would want to come. Plus, at least on the Normandy she'd have Garrus Vakarian and his faithful sidekick Julian Shepard to watch her back. Garrus had always enjoyed doing that – even in that bulky envirosuit, her back was still very watchable. So to speak.

The door to the med bay suddenly snapped open to admit Joker, hobbling along and obviously in a bad mood.

"Do you have to follow me around everywhere?" the helmsman complained.

Who is he talking to? Garrus wondered.

"I am uncertain if you truly desire an answer to that question," EDI's voice replied in a monotone over the loudspeaker.

Ah. Should have known.

"I do not engage in 'following' you in any literal sense –

"Yeah, yeah, eat shit, EDI," Joker interrupted.

As if on cue, a rancid smell began to waft from Gardner's kitchen, and Garrus' eyes twitched toward Mordin almost of their own volition to find the salarian already smiling at him. Garrus did not return the sentiment.

"Disregarding both the crudeness of that suggestion and the physical impossibility of my compliance, I maintain that it was not my intention to upset you, Mr. Moreau. I was simply curious as to the reason for your brooding –

"I'm not brooding," he snapped, hobbling toward the elevator.

"According to the extensive knowledge of human physiology and body language that I have at my disposal –

"Go fuck yourself!" Joker snarled, nearly apoplectic with rage. "You and your physical impossibility! I swear to Christ I'm going to flash the AI core..."

"... Logging you out, Mr. Moreau."

Garrus shook his head ruefully at the alarmed expression on Kelly Chambers' face.

"I didn't know you were religious, Joker," said Hadley.

Joker snorted. "I'm not."

He disappeared around the corner, the sounds of his uneven footfalls trailing off as the lift doors closed behind him. Garrus noticed Dr. Chakwas standing in the doorway, watching Joker go with a strange expression.

"Is everything all right?" Kelly asked worriedly.

"Jeff had to have a shot today. Several, in fact," said Chakwas. She looked almost… sad.

"I see," said Kelly.

"Pussy," Zaeed grunted.

Kelly faced him indignantly, hands on hips. "He has a debilitating condition, you know."

"So 'e's a crippled pussy," said Zaeed, wiping his mouth as he finished his lunch. "My mistake."

"Why don't you go bother Jack?" said Jacob, clearly annoyed.

Zaeed stood up and stretched. "Maybe I will, if I get in the notion to go get my head snapped right the fuck off. She's probably still busy, though."

"Doing what?" Jacob arched an eyebrow. "Trolling on the extranet?"

"Nah. She's tryin' to help our little krogan figure out if he's a biotic."

"WHAT?" Kelly shrieked.

"Unlikely," Mordin chimed in randomly, his attention focused primarily on the steaming pile of disgusting mess that he was actually going to eat. Spirits, but that stuff stank.

"No mention of element-zero nodules in Okeer's notes," Mordin continued. "No biotic amplifier implanted. Would require very invasive surgical procedure for krogan..." The salarian trailed off, looking up from his food to find everyone staring at him.

"Ah," he blinked. "Joke. Quite humorous, I'm sure."

"You were kidding," Kelly said, her voice a touch unsteady. It wasn't exactly a question.

Zaeed favored her with a blank, unreadable stare. "Was I indeed?"

"He was kidding," said Garrus. "I'd think that we'd hear something if they were destroying the ship."

"Those two should really be separated," said Kelly. She watched Zaeed as he walked to the lift, her brow furrowed with anxiety.

"Where's Shepard?" Garrus wondered aloud.

"He and Operative Lawson are having a… discussion," Kelly answered, hesitating for a moment over her phrasing.

"I don't think Miranda's too thrilled about our upcoming jaunt through the Perseus Veil," said Jacob, plopping down in the seat across from Garrus. He gave the chessboard a cursory examination before shaking his head. "She whipped you pretty good, huh?"

"This time," Garrus allowed. "But I'll get even."

"Uh huh."

He was still uncertain of Miranda Lawson, regardless of Shepard's obvious attraction to her (or perhaps because of it), but Jacob Taylor was another Cerberus operative that Garrus had grown to like. Not that he trusted any of them very far. But most of them did seem like fairly decent people.

Is this a fair representation of Cerberus as a whole, I wonder?

Doubtful. The crew of the Normandy SR-2 had been hand-picked by the Illusive Man himself, according to Joker. Bringing Shepard back to life had cost Cerberus millions upon millions of credits, and considering this tremendous investment, it was more than likely that the Illusive Man had selected a crew for the Normandy that he felt would make Shepard feel comfortable. All the mad scientists were probably operating in other cells, like Operation Thorian Creeper or the Brainwashed Rachni Initiative.

Mad scientists, ex-Alliance black ops, hit-men and skull-crackers, and crazy shitheads like that Dr. Wayne...

These people, the Normandy's crew, weren't like that. Maybe the Illusive Man had selected them for precisely that reason, but there was more to it than that. They weren't just Cerberus anymore – this was Shepard's crew, now. Sure, many of the names, faces, and personalities were different, but at its core, the atmosphere of this ship was very similar to that of the original Normandy. Shepard's leadership style fostered both order and camaraderie – who else could legitimately keep a criminal psychopath and an adolescent krogan in line with the goal of rescuing abducted colonists?

Maybe Jack isn't all that bad...

Yes, she is. Even Victus would have his hands full with this group.

It was a testament to Shepard's will and charisma more than anything else – Garrus really didn't know how else to explain it. Shepard wasn't loud or brash; he hardly ever shouted, and he led primarily by example. Yet somehow, all these people, this bizarre and disparate cast of characters from all races and walks of life, stood united behind one common goal. Sure, they bickered a little, but it was in good fun… well, mostly. Just like Garrus' own little team on Omega. "The Dirty Dozen," as Butler had been so fond of saying.

Maybe that was part of why he'd been so proud of them – a group even Commander Shepard could have been proud of.

Just as mismatched a group as any that Shepard ever put together. The "Dirty Dozen"… heh.

More like the Dead Dozen, now.

He sighed bleakly. That particular wound was no longer red and raw, at least, but it was still tender. Still, if nothing else, the coming Reaper invasion provided a great source of perspective. The Collectors were a very real and tangible threat, but if Shepard's theory was right, the galaxy had a whole hell of a lot more to worry about than a bunch of abductions. Compared to the Reapers, everything else was, as Gabby would say, "small potatoes."

Those men were his responsibility, and he'd failed them. But as long as he was alive, he would keep going. For Palaven, for Solana, for Shepard, for Tali'Zorah vas-whatever-ship-she-lived-on-now, for that crazy Verner character who had stalked Shepard on the Citadel… For Sidonis. For those too weak to fight for themselves. It wasn't perfect, but it was all he had.

Jacob grabbed a pawn of each color and shuffled them between his hands, offering a pair of closed fists. Garrus chose the left; Jacob opened his hand to reveal an ivory pawn.

Garrus nodded. "Maybe I'll have more luck with the white side."

Jacob smirked. "If you're relying on luck, you're gonna be in bad shape, friend."

"We'll see."

It was all right, really. He hadn't been able to save his own little band of freedom fighters, but they were with him, still – all of them. Many things could be said of Garrus Vakarian, more than a few unflattering, but there certainly wasn't any quit in him. Maybe he was hurtling toward certain death, be it at the hands of the Collectors, or the geth, or the giant army of Reaper ships waiting in dark space, but it would be nice to see the look on Tali's face when he pulled her ample ass out of the fire. Again.

He leaned forward in his seat, facing his adversary with rapt attention. He had to focus – two defeats in a row would be tough to live down. Surely the Reapers could wait for Jacob Taylor to receive his daily serving of humility.

Surely. But if not, well… There are worse places to die than among friends.


Shepard

She looked up from her desk as he entered the room, brushing a stray lock of dark hair from her face with her fingers, a fierce and challenging light reflected in her eyes. She'd managed to shed some of the instinctive wariness that she'd cloaked herself in during their first days working together, but he knew her well enough now to instantly recognize her displeasure when he saw it – the slightly narrowed eyes, the upturned chin, that disdainful little set to her lips. There was going to be an argument, her expression said, and he was probably going to lose.

Funny how often that seems to happen.

"Commander," she greeted him in a very neutral tone. "I'm glad you came by. I've been meaning to speak with you."

"About Haestrom?"

"Among other things, yes."

"I take it the Illusive Man doesn't approve."

"No, but he defers to your judgment," she replied. 'As if you care,' her tone implied. She seemed resigned on that point, at least. Thankfully.

"But you don't?"

She folded her arms beneath her breasts and met his eyes over the top of her desktop monitor. "I think that you should at least lend some consideration to the possibility that you're not acting in the best interest of the mission."

Her dark hair had a wispy quality to it today, not nearly as immaculate as usual. She must have recently blow-dried it. Hurriedly. So she'd been showering not so very long ago…

Um, focus.

Tali might be getting shot by the geth and you're thinking about sex.

At least the conversation was progressing in a direction that he'd anticipated.

"Tali's worth three or four engineers, by herself," he began. He'd rehearsed this in his mind several times before making this visit. Her eyes narrowed further, possibly in disagreeable anticipation of the argument he planned to make. Definitely not in suspicion of the way he'd been staring at her without realizing what he was doing.

Surely not.

"The geth would've wiped out my whole team in addition to an entire colony on Feros if she hadn't been there," he continued. "I've seen her rebuild an engine with makeshift tools while under fire in extremely hostile weather conditions. We don't have anyone on the team with anything approaching her level of engineering expertise."

"She is also on a classified mission at the behest of the quarian flotilla's Admiralty Board, on a hostile world in the middle of geth space," Miranda countered.

He shrugged. "I don't see how Haestrom would be any different from taking on all three of the biggest mercenary bands on Omega or fighting through an army of Blue Suns and cloned krogan. Everything about this mission is dangerous. We have the only ship in the galaxy that can effectively hide its heat emissions, and we can be careful."

"Even with the Normandy's stealth systems, a venture into geth space could turn to disaster very quickly, Shepard. All of our intelligence on their numbers and deployment is spotty and unreliable. The only reliable thing about the geth is their ability to perpetually surprise us with alarming technology. I can hardly imagine a more dangerous place to fly a scout ship than beyond the Perseus Veil. I'd sooner go sniffing around Khar'Shan."

"All the more reason to go as soon as possible," he insisted. "The quarians don't have ships with stealth drives. They'll be sitting ducks if the geth find them, and we can get in and out without anyone or anything ever knowing we're there."

"Remember what's at stake here, Shepard," she replied, her voice growing a touch heated. "The Collectors have abducted thousands upon thousands of colonists, and all of those people are depending upon us

"Thanks," he snapped, "I hadn't realized that. Good of you to point it out."

Is she wrong? Really?

No. She wasn't. He could admit that much to himself, but if anything, that fact just increased his frustration. She wasn't wrong, but citing the dangers of geth space wasn't going to change his mind. As if he didn't know that already.

He was also annoyed that there was no chair across from her desk, so he was forced to stand before her like a supplicant to a queen. She certainly looked the part. And it wasn't even remotely fair that he still found her incredibly sexy even while he was annoyed with her.

"Well, then, given your expert grasp of the situation, Commander, you'll forgive me for being surprised at the need for us to have this conversation," Miranda replied testily.

"Given what you did for your sister, Executive Officer, I would expect you to understand," said Shepard. Miranda's blue eyes flashed at him in anger.

"It's my job to temper your insufferable personality against reckless action, Commander. This devil-may-care attitude with regard to passing through the Perseus Veil easily meets that criterion. For the life of me I'll never understand why you always have to... Oh, forget it."

She threw up her hands, clearly exasperated. "What's the point? You've made up your mind. Don't give me that look, Shepard, you know you have. I don't even know what he was thinking, forwarding you that dossier. Of course the mighty and indomitable Commander Shepard is more than a match for the geth. How foolish of me to question! Why don't we just fly the Normandy beyond the Veil to rescue a friend of yours who clearly hasn't asked for it, needlessly risking the lives of everyone on this ship just so you can be a bloody hero

"Would you stop flinging that in my face?" he shot back, angry in truth, now. "I never asked for this. You think I wanted all of this craziness thrust on me? How do you think you'd feel in my position? I'm doing everything in my power to stop the end of every goddamned thing at the hands of a race of omnipotent machines that almost no one else even believes in, and if people aren't questioning my every move, they're openly questioning my sanity! You know what…!"

He stopped himself and took a deep breath. He wasn't the sort of person to rail against things he couldn't change, and he wasn't about to start now. Besides… she was venting, too. They were both under a lot of stress.

Miranda didn't respond. She merely watched him, her brow furrowed with frustration and concern.

"You know what? You're right, Miranda. It is absurdly dangerous. It's a huge risk. But you know what else? I'm doing it anyway. And if I get killed, you're in charge. Jacob can be your XO."

"Don't talk like that, Shepard," she said quietly.

He met her eyes again. She looked... earnest. And worried. It was the most expression he'd seen from her since she'd met her sister face-to-face, and he fell silent, watching her as she got up and walked around her desk to stand across from him.

"I'm sorry," she said simply, resting a hand on her hip and looking away from him. "We shouldn't fight."

His eyebrows climbed, almost of their own volition. Now, this was unexpected.

"I know you understand the risks involved with this," she continued, "and if I can't dissuade you... so be it. I trust you. I shouldn't have lashed out that way. It was unfair, and… I'm sorry."

He placed a hand on her shoulder. "It's all right. You're not wrong, anyway."

She looked up at him, favoring him with a slight smile. "That's a curious expression."

"You know what I mean."

"Yes," she nodded, tilting her head askance, her smile broadening with amusement. God, she was beautiful. "You mean, 'I agree with nearly all of your objections to my plan, but I'm doing it anyway.' Does that just about cover it, Commander?"

He smiled back at her. "Just about."

"What changed your mind, though?" she asked. "If I remember correctly, and I do, you were hesitant to involve Tali'Zorah in this at all."

So she was Tali'Zorah now, instead of "the quarian." That boded well, at least.

"I still am," he admitted with a sigh. "I'm just worried, I guess. She promised me she would contact me when she finished her work for the Admiralty Board, but it's been months... She's so casual about throwing herself into harm's way for the good of the fleet. I don't like not knowing what's going on. I want to make sure she's okay."

"Casual about putting herself in harm's way," Miranda repeated aloud. "Who does that remind me of, I wonder..."

"Grunt?"

She laughed softly. "Well, him, too." She sighed, crossing her arms and looking up at him with a bemused expression. "What am I going to do with you, Commander..?"

"I can think of a few things," he replied, reaching out to touch her cheek with his fingers.

Her eyes snapped shut as she started to turn away from him. "Shepard, I..."

Impulsively, he took her head in his hands and kissed her with a ferocity that almost surprised him. She was obviously surprised, for a moment, but she didn't resist. He felt her slim arms slide around his neck, her lithe fingers tangling in his hair as she opened her mouth to him, returning the kiss with enthusiasm to match his own. It was absolutely electric, like months' worth of anxiety poured out into a single glorious release… but as quickly as it began, she pulled away from him, both of them breathing heavily.

"What?" he asked, frowning at her in confusion. "Did EDI say something? I must've missed it."

"I'm sorry, I just..." she sighed, wringing her hands in frustration. "I don't know what to make of this... Whether it's just stress, or blowing off steam, or…"

"Why do you always have to quantify everything?" he mused, watching her with a wry smile. He thought he already knew the answer. The two of them were enough alike in this regard that he could guess.

"Because this is serious, Shepard!" she snapped in a strained voice, her brow furrowed with anxiety. "We've been behaving like a pair of adolescent children, and this is no time for emotional entanglements! You and I know more about the Collectors than anyone – we know how unlikely it is that we're coming back alive…"

He nodded – he understood. Shepard had spent most of his adult life keeping people at arm's length, slow to trust, keeping his problems to himself, but Miranda made him look like an open book in comparison. Running from her father into the arms of Cerberus, into a job where a single misstep could be lethal, working for a man whose motives she could never fully trust, she surrounded herself with a wall of steely resolve and icy self-possession buttressed by an unrelenting sense of professionalism. Had she ever let anyone through those defenses? Her old friend Niket, maybe… and he was dead.

She hid it so well, but beyond that wall of unflappable self-control, beyond the avatar of the deadly and ruthless femme fatale, Miranda was afraid. It was the same reason that he'd never really had friends, himself. With so many things depending on him, it was hard to see the value in getting close to anyone. Build up so many walls, and it's hard work tearing them down.

Miranda was painstakingly analytical in her thinking, and as such, it was fairly easy for him to mentally trace her line of reasoning: "I am Cerberus' second-in-command. A great deal depends on me. I maintain distance from others for good reason. The mission is too important."

Plus, it would be difficult to let someone through that wall. Painful. Awkward. And at any time, at any moment, a bullet could come hunting for his head. Then where would she be? No more or less alone than before. Alone and hurt, instead of merely alone.

It's still worth it, he thought, without a shred of hesitation. He had his own wall, after all. He certainly hadn't planned on developing an "emotional entanglement" with Cerberus' second-in-command in the midst of juggling two million different problems, the goddamned Reaper invasion among them, but Shepard had never done anything piecemeal, had never lived or loved by halves. He'd been fighting for almost his whole life, and if he was going to fall for someone, now was as good a time as any, Reapers be damned. They could get in line.

She's worth it.

He reached over to brush a wispy strand of raven-black hair from her eyes.

"Miranda… it's all right."

She scoffed at him. "It's not all right, it's a hopeless mess. What idiotic bunch of hormones thought that now was a great time for this to happen…"

She sniffed at him, her brow wrinkled with vexation. "You know, you've got a great deal of nerve, Commander. If you had any idea how much you've complicated my life over the last three years, you might at least have the decency to be ashamed of yourself."

He gave her his most innocent look, which earned him one of the little carefree giggles that he was slowly growing to treasure. Miranda didn't laugh often, but when she did let her guard down, in rare moments like these, when the dark clouds born of all the stress and danger of her life receded to let a little ray of sunshine in...

She's right, though. Of all the times for me to get this involved with someone…

He almost laughed at the thought. Commander Shepard, in a "relationship"? It was laughable; absurd. Who had time for relationships? Hell, he'd been sleeping alone since… what? One night on Noveria? And what chance did the two of them have, really? An Alliance marine and a Cerberus officer. Conflicting loyalties, conflicts of interest, abducted colonists, angry politicians… and the goddamn Reapers. Armageddon on a galactic scale, fireside myth come to life in a blaze of pure bat-shit insanity. When was the last time anything in his life had been easy?

"It is complicated," he agreed, reaching down to take her hands. "So let's un-complicate it."

"Oh, this should be good."

"We're here to deal with the Collectors, and that's what we're going to do," he continued. "That objective rightfully demands all of our focus. But along the way, I don't see why we can't…"

She squeezed his hands tightly. Her gaze shifted to the floor. "Can't what, Commander?"

"Debate interstellar politics. Have some more deep, philosophical discussions. Continue to get pissed off at one another on a daily basis. Make out on occasion. Have a picnic on the Presidium, I don't know. Everything we've been doing to this point, with a little less tension and a little more physical contact? Would that be so bad?"

"And the Collectors? The Reapers? Harbinger?"

"I can multitask."

"Not if you're dead," she said softly, without meeting his eyes.

"Miranda. Look at me."

She complied, slowly, still squeezing his hands tightly, her blue eyes bright and shining. Somehow, some way, he'd managed to wedge himself into a small crack in that wall of hers, and sharing this small moment of vulnerability with her filled his chest with an overpowering warmth.

"I died once already," he said gently. "Have a little faith."

"Faith has never been my strong suit."

He gave her a lopsided grin. "Then you'll just have to rely on your own ability to keep me alive."

"We've seen just how well that's gone so far," she replied, returning his grin in spite of herself.

"I'm still here, aren't I?"

"Not due to any effort of mine, you crazy ass. Your survival to this point has been bloody miraculous considering your wanton disregard for personal safety."

He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close. "Miraculous, huh? I thought faith wasn't your strong suit, Ms. Lawson."

Her arms draped loosely around his neck as she leaned in close to him. "Don't mince words with a biotic, Commander Shepard."

"That must be on a t-shirt somewhere."

"No doubt," she murmured.

He kissed her again, a long, slow kiss from which she made no attempt to escape. Lilacs, that was it. Her shampoo smelled like lilacs.

"About to hit the first relay, Commander," said Joker's voice. "ETA at Certain Death, approximately 11 hours."

She exhaled slowly as they parted, a sigh that spoke to him both of contentment and perhaps a touch of resignation. He almost laughed at her; 'I can't believe I'm doing this,' her expression said.

"Thanks for the update, Joker," Shepard called.

"Sure thing."

Miranda took a step back from him.

"I need to check in with Mordin," he told her. "We OK?"

"I suppose," she replied, unconsciously straightening her uniform. Probably still trying to wrap her head around what had just happened.

"Let's just rescue those colonists," said Shepard. "After that, well… One thing at a time."


Author's Notes: I struggled with this for a while, as I tend to be very tough on myself as an editor, but... I guess I like it. I tried to interlace some of the actual dialogue into the mix, just for perspective. Thoughts are welcome.

The game of "stones" that Garrus mentions is a reference to the game of the same name that many of the characters in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time books play. I'm a huge dork for WoT.

And I don't know if imagining Mordin in a bow tie as the salarian equivalent of Bill Nye the Science Guy is funny to anyone but me, but oh well. I laughed. I love Mordin.

Thanks for reading!