Shepard read the poem again, dwelling on the final two lines, which had acquired a new meaning for her after her final days on Palaven. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. She'd never had cause to doubt either of those assertions until very recently, and it was wonderful to be able to reaffirm her liberty to choose, unhindered by the Reapers' indoctrination device or the prejudices of two contending cultures. She was free to love whom she pleased and to continue with her mission, one that would determine more than just her own fate, but also that of humans, turians and all the other sentient species in the galaxy.

"Invictus" – according to the note at the bottom of the page, it meant "unconquered" in Latin. It was a good name for the poem and even better one for the colony that had led the charge to mobilize the Hierarchy Fleet for the fight against the Reapers. Before leaving Palaven, she'd sent a translated copy to the Primarch of Invictus to express her thanks and as a show of support. The original she planned to keep and bring with her to Ash's memorial site when she finally had the chance to visit Amaterasu.

She tucked the poem the back into her desk drawer and strapped on her black stilettos, adjusting her balance to compensate for the slender three-inch heels. It wasn't often that she had occasion to gussy herself up and she felt nervous about the impression she'd make in her dress, the same clingy little black number that Kasumi had talked her into wearing for the gala at Donovan Hock's mansion. She'd tried on practically every other outfit in her wardrobe, but this was the only one that felt special enough for the evening she had planned.

Walking into the bathroom, she checked her make-up in the mirror again, applying another swipe of lip-gloss. She wasn't sure what Garrus thought of human beauty routines or high heels – perhaps he'd dismiss it as artifice, vanity or just sheer silliness - but fussing over these things gave her a peculiar sense of satisfaction and control, as if she could influence the outcome of the night through her choice of eyeshadow or the way she styled her hair. She was pleased with how the kohl accentuated the shape of her eyes, making them appear large and liquid. Hell, even if Garrus didn't like the change, he'd be sure to have a bit of a surprise when he saw her.

Shepard collected her credit chit and ventured out the door, teetering on the stilettos as she sealed the room behind her. She generally wore a clunky pair of combat boots and she was grateful not to have to fight in these impractical but very stylish shoes. She didn't know how Miranda managed it. Perhaps they'd engineered a special gene for walking in heels? Putting a sway in her step, Shepard finally managed to find the particular combination of momentum and self-assurance necessary for balancing in fashionable footwear. By the time she reached the elevator, she felt confident and even glamorous, a word she wouldn't have usually associated with herself or her life on the Normandy.

Stepping off the elevator at the command deck, she was surprised to see Kelly still busy at work.

"Kelly, what are you still doing here? You have the night off. Go have some fun. You're young and we're on the Citadel. It's not as if you don't have plenty of options..."

Kelly gaped at her, her blue eyes round with incredulity. "What? Wow. You look gorgeous. And the shoes are to die for! I don't think I've ever seen you in a dress before, Commander. Is this a special occasion? It can't be anyone's birthday. I never miss crew birthdays..."

Shepard grinned, her cheeks getting warm with embarrassment. She wasn't fond of sharing her personal life, especially with the ship's most prolific gossip, and decided it would be best to segue into another topic. "No, you didn't miss anyone's birthday. But I would be interested in discovering why you're still here. I appreciate duty, Kelly, but you've gotta enjoy shore leave while you've got it. There aren't going to be too many more opportunities for this kind of thing."

"Oh, don't worry about me. I'm just finishing up a few chores. Besides, I'm staying in tonight anyway. You may not think it to look at me, but I'm really kind of a homebody. Joker, Tali, Miranda and I are going to make popcorn and watch some vids. You're a bit overdressed, but you're invited too, if you want to join us..."

Shepard was surprised to hear that Miranda would condescend to such plebeian pursuits as Normandy movie nights, but Operative Lawson recently had been making progress in chipping away at her ice-queen persona. At the latest crew meeting, she'd chatted up Mordin about his STG glory days and she hadn't resorted to her usual cutting remarks when Jacob and Kasumi had started openly dating. Even her interactions with Jack were noticeably more civil and Bing no longer growled every time the former Cerberus officer was in the room. Considering Miranda's persistence and compulsion to overachieve, it wasn't surprising that she'd show the same drive in her newfound quest for popularity, although Shepard still found it weird to see her playing nice with others.

"Thanks for the offer, Kelly. Movie night sounds fun, but I've got some plans lined up. Hence, the dress and the war-paint."

Kelly gave an approving nod, flipping her hair like a high-school girl."It's a whole new side of you. I'm sure Garrus will love it."

The flush in Shepard's cheeks deepened, the heat tingling under her skin and spreading up to her forehead. "Guess I'll find out," she murmured. "Have a good night, Kelly."

"You have a great night, Commander..." the yeoman sang out.

Shepard strode up to the cockpit, amused at the unfamiliar click of her heels against the deck grates. If Joker was getting up to something that he wasn't supposed to, he'd have ample warning of her approach. She'd practically kicked Garrus out of their shared room in her eagerness to surprise him, informing him that they'd meet over at the airlock at 1800 hours.

It wasn't until she was halfway down the hall that she saw Joker wasn't alone and by then it was too late to head back in the opposite direction. It wouldn't have done much good anyway. Kaidan had already spotted her. He paused in the middle of his conversation with the pilot to glance at her, his smile waning at her approach.

Joker noticed the change in Alenko's expression and spun around in his padded leather chair. "Hey lady, you're not supposed to be here. This is a military vessel. Normandy crew only."

"Always the smart-ass," she said, planting her hands on her hips. "You just can't help it, can you?"

Joker screwed up his lips and furrowed his brow, as if trying to place her. An idea struck him and he snapped his fingers, pointing at her with an unsteady hand. "Wait...maybe...Commander Shepard? Is that you? I'm going to have to do an ID scan just to check. That could be anyone wearing your skin..." He turned to the console, fumbling around as if looking for his omni-tool.

"Cut the gags, Joker. I don't look that different."

"Uh, yeah, you do. Geez, Shepard, I'm starting to think that crazy indoctrination device might have turned you into a girl. If you start accessorizing, I'm going to be really, really scared."

Shepard sighed, raising her eyes to the ceiling as if looking to the heavens for intercession. Usually Joker's cracks didn't bother her, but he did have a way of hitting people's sensitive spots. Three sentences out of him and she was feeling about as sexy as a krogan transvestite.

Joker noticed her frown. "Shit. Sorry. I don't mean it like that. I just meant that you, uh - you clean up good, Commander."

"Are you leaving the ship?" Kaidan inquired.

"Just for a bit. Miranda will be running things while I'm out."

"I see," he said, eyeing her cautiously. He looked over the Normandy's navigation console, suddenly fascinated by instruments he'd seen a thousand times before. "Well, I hope you – have a good time. You look...very nice, Jill."

She was taken aback by this sudden generosity, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized that she shouldn't have been surprised. Kaidan was a good man and he'd never been inclined to hold a grudge. She'd offered him the opportunity to leave the Normandy and return to the Alliance, but he'd insisted on staying the course. He'd even started to build some new friendships on the Normandy, particularly with Jacob, whose mellow, understated style seemed to match his own.

Shepard sensed Garrus walking up behind her before even he said a word. Despite his soft tread, his tall frame cast a long shadow, blocking the light as he loomed over her. She reeled around, relieved at his timely arrival. He looked dashing in his favourite suit, which also happened to be his only suit. There was little need for formal wear on the Normandy and he'd had even less reason to dress up during his escapades on Omega. The clothes were the same ones he'd worn when they'd first "blown off steam" and the sight of him in them brought a smile to her face. It was easy to remember just how nervous he'd been, bounding around her room with that wine bottle in hand, trying to be suave and coming off as anything but.

When Garrus caught a glimpse of her, he gave a sudden start and a funny sound escaped his mouth, part gasp and part hiccup. She had trouble discerning whether this was a good response or a very unfortunate one, but she supposed that she'd find out later, when they didn't have an audience.

"Just the guy I was searching for," she said. "You're looking stylish as ever. Ready to go?"

"Yeah," he nodded, still catching his breath. "Definitely."

"Bring her back by curfew," Joker said.

Garrus gave a nervous chuckle. "Sure thing, Moreau."

The pilot pulled his ball-cap down over his eyebrows, his pert face taking on a bulldog stubbornness. "I'm serious. It's a week night."

With that oddly paternal benediction from their pilot, they escaped out the airlock and entered decontamination. The blue light of the scanners flickered over their faces.

"I should probably have mentioned this before, but you look very beautiful tonight," Garrus murmured, his hand touching her waist.

Shepard looked down, her lips pressed together in a smile, suddenly feeling a bit shy. "Thanks. I'm glad you like it."

"That, uh, dress? It really shows off your hips. And I've never seen you with a painted face before. What do the colours mean?"

She paused, trying to think up a decent explanation for what any human suitor would have understood immediately, instinctively, as signs of desire. "They just mean that I was excited to be with you. That I wanted everything to be special."

His gaze met hers, his eyes appearing otherworldly, almost crystalline, in the faint light of decontamination. She found him difficult to fathom, something of a cipher even now that they shared a room and a bed, but that mystery was half the appeal. "I don't think you need to worry about that, Jill. It's special just as it is."

The doors slid open and they walked out into the docking outside Zakera Ward. They'd approached the security gates when a voice piped up from the group of people waiting to enter the wards. "Commander Shepard! Commander!"

Shepard turned to her left, spotting a smartly dressed woman holding a microphone, a small vid cam hovering behind her. With her grey blazer and shellacked, helmet-like coif, the lady couldn't have looked any more like a reporter if she'd tried. The assembled crowd turned to gawk at the famous Saviour of the Citadel and the turian who was rumoured to be her lover.

"Crap," Garrus muttered, shrinking away from the onlookers. "Damn journalists keeping popping up like pyjaks."

The reporter either missed this comment or pretended not to hear it. "I'm Ayelet Zimmer, reporting for Bluestar Newscorp," she stated by way of introduction, before pouncing on Shepard with her first question. "Commander Shepard, what you do have to say to rumours that you have turned your allegiance over to the Turian Hierarchy?"

The vid cam cast a cold white light over Shepard's face and she knew that she was penned in, with no means of escape unless she pushed through the crowd. She gazed into the cam's round black lens the way she might stare down the barrel of a pistol. From her peripheral vision, she saw Garrus turning away, trying to make his presence less obtrusive - as if it were possible for a seven-foot-tall turian to avoid notice.

"I'm a human and a veteran of the Systems Alliance so, of course, the well-being and continued development of humanity is extremely important to me," Shepard replied. "As a Spectre, it's my job to ensure the galaxy is a safe place for all species. My recent trip to Palaven was a diplomatic mission and I was there to look out for galactic defence. That's in everyone's best interests, whether you're human, turian or hanar."

The reporter tapped at her omni-tool, directing the camera to pan slightly to the right. It was evident that she intended to capture Garrus on camera, whether he liked it or not. "I notice you're accompanied by Officer Vakarian this evening. There have been allegations that the two of you are romantically involved. Would you like to offer a response?"

A single answer presented itself in Shepard's mind. Actually, scratch that – there were two possibilities, but the second one was to acquaint this wide-eyed cub reporter with her right fist, a mistake that she'd sworn she wouldn't repeat. Ruling that out, only one solution remained.

"Sorry, but I don't kiss-and-tell," Shepard said, shooting the camera an enigmatic smile. She reached back and clasped Garrus' hand in full-view of the crowd. His eyes met hers, his mouth opening slightly as if to speak, but no words came out. Instead, he simply nodded, stroking his thumb over her fingers as they strolled towards the security gates, the crowd clearing a path before them, perhaps out of politeness or maybe just to avoid the cut of the turian's broad shoulders.

Behind them, the reporter babbled into her microphone, thrilled at the prospect of having scooped the major players at Citadel NewsNet and the Westerlund News. "You saw it here first: Commander Jillian Shepard spotted walking hand-in-talon with turian crew member, Garrus Vakarian on what appeared to be a date! Is this just another instance of Spectres playing by their own rules or does this mean that interspecies relationships are becoming a part of the mainstream in our diverse galactic community? The xenosexual rights groups have already made major in-roads here on the Citadel and the movement has started to appear in major cities on Earth. Here at Bluestar, we want to know what you think. Do you support relationships between humans and aliens? Would you consider dating a sentient being of another species? Talk back in our comments section!"

Once they were clear of the security gates and the intrusive audience, Garrus finally regained his voice. "So, uh, that caused a bit of stir."

"Does it bother you?"

"Nah. I'm not too fond of getting attacked by cameras, but it could be worse. They could be using gunships. I was more concerned about you. I don't want to get you into hot water with the Alliance."

"I'm proud to be with you, Garrus. I'm not going to hide it. I don't think I could pull it off, even if I tried. Besides, you and I can't always play by other people's rules. Especially the stupid ones."

He squeezed her hand, shortening his stride to match her own. "Good point. That settles it then. Everything out in the open, rules be damned." She could tell that he savoured the opportunity to say that, one of the few occasions when he could get away with it under her command. They walked through the wards, attracting looks from a few passersby, although their obvious romantic attachment didn't cause nearly as much commotion as one might've expected. For the most part, the citizens of the Citadel were difficult to shock, cosmopolitans who adopted a seen-it-all weariness in response to the barrage of cultures and languages they were confronted with each day. As they went by Synthetic Solutions, Shepard couldn't help but notice the way Garrus puffed out his chest, staring down a human male who dared to ogle her, as if issuing a challenge. The man looked away, fidgeting with his credit chit, and the turian chuckled to himself, vindicated.

"Was that really necessary?" she whispered, her mind flashing back to Garrus' interrogation of Harkin. His turian military training had certainly informed him of the best ways to menace and pulverize human men, including a sharp knee to the groin that had made even Shepard cringe in sympathy – and she loathed Harkin.

"Probably not," Garrus admitted. "Can't say I blame the poor bastard for looking. Doesn't mean I have to like it though."

As they rounded a corner, they stepped too close to the advertisement screens and on cue, the glass cylinders lit up with colourful images. "Officer Vakarian, you have a reputation as a man of action," a sloe-eyed turian woman cooed from one of the screens. She held up a jar of blue goop, caressing it with her talons. "So when it's time to impress your mate, why don't you showcase your natural endowments with Fringe Benefits, the only serum proven to enhance the size and texture of your fringe? With daily use, even lacklustre or thinning fringe can become vibrant and healthy, just as the spirits intended! Buy today and the lovely Commander Shepard is sure to promote you to a higher her affections. Fringe Benefits - it's what you deserve."

A solemn-looking asari appeared on the screen beside Shepard, her gaunt cheeks and the thin lines that bracketed her mouth placing her firmly in the matron stage. "I don't have to tell you that it's a dangerous galaxy out there. Accidents can happen when you least expect it. Commander Shepard, the first time you died, your loved ones were left to face the difficult burden of funeral costs and other expenses. Next time, why not leave them with happy memories instead of unpaid debts? You may not have a thousand-year life span, but you can plan ahead today to ensure that your family and friends are protected. Ilium Springs is here for you. We've been the galaxy's leading provider of life insurance for over two millennia. Trust Ilium Springs and you can embrace eternity knowing that your legacy is secure."

Shepard laughed, trying to dismiss her misgivings. The new ad tech was downright eerie, especially since it had the tendency to chatter on about her death, as if it was as ordinary and routine as doing the laundry. "What do you think? Should I get life insurance? Sounds like the responsible thing to do."

"I doubt they'd take you on. Too much risk. I don't even want to think about the premiums." Garrus shook his head ruefully, as if contemplating the credits that would be squandered, money that'd no doubt be better spent on weapons systems."Besides, keeping you alive and kicking is my top priority. Well, along with maintaining my glorious fringe. After all, I've got plans for you."

She arched an eyebrow, waiting for him to elaborate but he didn't say anything more. "Plans? What sort of plans? Don't keep me in suspense."

"Why not? I think it might be fun."

"I could order you to tell me," she teased. "I am still your superior officer, you know."

He darted a glance over his shoulder. For a second, she thought it was just a ploy to change the subject but then she heard something shuffling along behind them.

Garrus' voice came as a low rumble, a guttural sound. "Someone following us. Human female. Just ducked back around the corner."

"Let's keep going and see if we can catch her in the act," Shepard whispered.

They walked on, listening for the sound of footsteps behind them. Sure enough, Shepard heard something tap against the cement. She spun around and saw a woman wearing tinted glasses and a green beret that didn't quite manage to obscure her dark hair. The woman tried to run but Shepard was faster, lunging forward and slamming her against a nearby advertising screen. A commercial started up in the background showing a hanar standing in front of a pulpit. "Have you ever felt lost, adrift in a sea of meaninglessness and chaos? Have the trials of this difficult life left you bruised and battered, bereft of hope? If so, Ms. Al-Jilani, you are not alone. This one wishes to tell you of the redemptive love of the Enkindlers..."

Shepard pulled the hat off the reporter's head, knocking the glasses from the bridge of her nose in the process. A pair of close-set brown eyes glared at her, going almost cross-eyed with spite.

"Khalisa Ben Sima Al-Jilani of the Westerlund News," Shepard said, indulging in a mocking grin. "I was wondering when we'd meet again."

"Let me go. I have as much a right to be here as you do, Shepard."

"Maybe so, but I think you owe us an explanation." Garrus pulled a holo-cam from the woman's hands and turned it over, examining it. "It's pretty inconsiderate to go invading other people's privacy. Taking pictures without permission and posting them on the extranet - that's a violation of our rights, don't you think?"

"The people have a right to know the truth about the first human Spectre!" Al-Jilani said. Her words were bold, dripping with indignant, but she cowered against the wall, her small eyes narrowing to slits as if anticipating Shepard's fist to collide with her face at any moment.

Shepard smirked. "I'm not planning to hit you. I just think you may want to practice more ethical journalism in the future. I figured I'd give you an opportunity to retract some of your statements."

"Not happening," Al-Jilani said. "I stand by everything I've broadcast or published."

"As I recall, you made some incorrect statements about the commander. Stuff that was really out-of-line," Garrus answered. "Plus, you misspelled my name. I hate that." As he paced before her, he juggled the holo-cam from hand to hand, occasionally catching it a second late, sometimes feigning as if he might suddenly lose his co-ordination and drop it.

"For future reference, it's written G-a-double r-u-s V-a-k-a-r-i-a-n," Shepard noted.

Garrus shot her a conspiratorial glance, twirling the holo-cam in one hand. His talons scraped over the plastic frame, a sound almost as obnoxious as fingernails down a chalkboard. "What do you think we should do with this camera?"

"Give it back," Al-Jilani answered. "It's property of the Westerlund News. You touch it and..."

"And what?" Shepard cut in. "Are you going to write another article full of your snide insinuations? Go and denounce me to the Terra Firma Party because I'm not a good enough human?"

"Tell the alien to give me back the camera."

"Ask nice," Garrus said.

Al-Jilani scowled. "I'm not talking to you, turian."

"I don't think you're getting that camera back. Not unless you change your attitude. Why don't you ask Garrus for the camera...and this time, be sure to say 'please'."

The woman glared at Shepard, not deigning to even look at Garrus. "Not a chance," she hissed.

Garrus' hand opened and the camera fell to the ground. He lifted his foot, allowing it to hover over the machine for one tantalizing second, and then his boot came down on top of it. The glass lens shattered and the plastic frame gave a satisfying crunch. "Unfortunate. I'll bet you had some stellar photo-journalism on there. Or maybe just some lame self-portraits for your extranet page."

"You bitch!" Al-Jilani shrieked. She seemed determined to ignore Garrus, making Shepard the object of her fury. "You're not human. Not anymore. You're just a turian's whore!"

"You shut your damn mouth," Garrus snarled.

Shepard had shifted her weight to the side, her arm drawing back as her hand balled into a tight fist. The muscles in her shoulder were tensed and her hips had turned, as if of their own accord, ready to swing into the strike. Gazing down at her fist, she contemplated the white knobs of her knuckles and a forked vein that showed greenish-blue through her pale skin. Her hand trembled there a minute and then she lowered her arm and let go of Al-Jilani. "It's not worth it. I'd just get my hands dirty."

Al-Jilani scuttled back, an impertinent sneer working its way across her face, although her hands were still raised to defend herself.

"You're lucky the commander is in a forgiving mood," Garrus told her.

Shepard turned her back on the reporter and was about to walk away when she heard the woman mutter something her breath. Some of the words were indistinct, but she caught enough of it to be appalled and it took a hell of a lot to offend her. Spinning around, she stared at Al-Jilani. "What did you just say?"

"Nothing," the reporter mumbled, already trying to shirk responsibility. She clearly regretted her slip of the tongue, but as always, the woman just couldn't resist an extra twist of the dagger, a final passive aggressive jab when she thought her enemies were on the retreat.

"No, I definitely heard something," Shepard said.

"I did too," Garrus added. "Something really crude. Not lady-like at all."

Al-Jilani backed away but Shepard caught hold of her arm, nearly wrenching from the socket. "Repeat what you said. For the record."

"Nothing! I didn't say anything." Al-Jilani writhed in Shepard's grasp, clawing at her dress as she struggled to free herself.

Shepard kicked her in the shin with one of her stiletto heels and the woman screeched in pain. "Say it," she demanded. "Say it, you sad little worm."

Having no more illusions of a quick escape, Al-Jilani straightened her spine and decided to take her medicine. This sudden reckless courage might've impressed Shepard if it wasn't wrapped in such a poisonous little package. Al-Jilani's dark, snaky eyes glinted with malice and every word out of her tightly-drawn lips seemed to drip venom. "For the record, I said: 'Go get fucked by that scarred-up monster. I hope those nasty scales rip you up and you die choking on his load.' That's everything. Happy, you bitch?"

"No, not yet," Shepard said. Her fist shot forward and bashed into the reporter's nose, cartilage cracking under her knuckles. Al-Jilani groaned, stumbling back, her hands clutching at her face, trying to stop the blood spurting from her nostrils.

"You-you-you broke my nose!" Al-Jilani sputtered.

Shepard smiled, assessing her handiwork. It was true. The reporter's nose, which had been long and straight as a ruler, had been flattened to look more like a dented shovel and had taken a sharp curve to the right. "Yup. I sure did."

"This is assault! It's a crime! I'll tell C-Sec," the reporter cried, tripping as she scurried away. She quickly recovered herself and continued running, still snivelling as blood dribbled from her bashed-in schnoz, then dodged around a corner and disappeared from sight.

"Ohhh, C-Sec won't like all that paperwork," Garrus said. "Especially since they can't charge you with a damn thing. Must be nice to be a Spectre."

Shepard chuckled. "Well, you know, Garrus, the Reapers are coming and the Council can be a real pain in the ass, but sometimes there are perks to this job."

Garrus draped an arm around her shoulders, his hand reaching up to stroke the side of her head. It was nice to feel his talons raking gently through her hair. He feigned a put-upon sigh. "You know, I'm glad you hit her, but after this, I feel like we've gotta draw a line. From now on, no more beating on journalists. Let's try kicking the shit out of some other profession. Like politicians. Or better yet, defence lawyers."

"Alright, maybe you've got a point. Although, there's nothing quite like hitting one of those nosey tabloid loudmouths," she said. "You should try it sometime. It's remarkably satisfying. Especially when they get all huffy about it after. You can't tell me you didn't enjoy that."

"I won't lie. It was amusing. Kind of sexy, too. Especially since you did it in a dress," he admitted. "But seriously, Jill, what do you have against the media? They're an annoying but essential part of our political system."

"I've got nothing against the freedom of the press," she protested. "But every once in a while, it sure is nice to exercise my personal freedom to punch a reporter in the face."

After walking another block or two, they finally reached Karma, a vegan restaurant run by Buddhist monks and one of the few places in the Wards that was licensed to serve both humans and turians.

Shepard halted a few steps away from the restaurant's ornate wooden door, her heart hammering in her chest. She wasn't sure why she was so agitated. After all, she'd been looking forward to this visit for a long time. It'd been almost five years since they'd seen each other in the flesh, five years of holo up-links and extranet messages sent from outposts across the galaxy. They'd both been busy, both serving the Alliance, but there wasn't any excuse for a gap of that length. In a job where every mission poses a risk, people had to be good at meaningful goodbyes and at making every opportunity to get together count for something. Shepard had known that from the beginning, but her own demise and the suicide mission had really driven it home.

Garrus leaned back against the stone wall, his keen eyes fixed on her face. He didn't speak, but then, he didn't have to say anything. His presence was enough. He already knew what she was going through.

"I'm going to be glad to see her," Shepard said.

"No doubt. I'm guessing she'll be happy to see you too. Now let's just hope she doesn't want to shot me on sight."

"Actually, she's been surprisingly sane about the whole situation," she replied. "She's going to like you. How could she not? You like big guns and she likes big guns. Just don't say anything bad about the Cowboys and you'll come out alright."

"The Cow..boys? What are those?"

"A team from Dallas. In Texas. They play football."


His mandibles opened, his craggy face taking on a bewildered look, and she worked to stifle a giggle at his confusion. He'd probably had just as much amusement at her expense while they were trucking around on Palaven, although he'd been better at hiding it. "It's a sport. Like clawball. But with, uh, less claws."

"Ohhh. Okay," he said, nodding. "Well, then, the Cowboys are now my favourite football team. And also the only one I've ever heard of."

Shepard laughed, grateful to him for lightening the mood. They'd get through this together, just as they always did. If anything, the discomfort would provide good fodder for the inevitable ribbing that would take place afterward. "Don't worry. I don't think she's going to be giving you a quiz. At least not while I'm in the picture." Sucking in a deep breath that did little to settle her nerves, she grasped the door handle and tugged it open. "I guess now's as good a time as any..."

Upon entering they were approached by a human man with a shaven head, dressed in a simple blue robe. He greeted them with a beatific smile. "Salutations, friends! We are honoured to have you. We've been quite busy here this evening. Do you have a reservation?"

Shepard was about to explain that they were meeting someone here and that the reservation would be under the name 'H. Shepard' when she heard a cry. Someone uttered a loud gasp, choking out a sob that could have expressed either joy or agony, but seemed to convey both the grief of loss and the amazement of an unexpected recovery in a single breath.

"Jill! Honey!"

Shepard saw Hannah Shepard rushing towards her and then two brawny, freckled arms closed around her, rocking her from side to side as if they were being swayed by the sea. She embraced the older woman, inhaling the perfume that she always wore when she was off-duty, a warm, spicy smell that reminded her of her childhood and the various bases they'd called home. Her mom had grower a bit plumper and it suited her, making her appear less raw-boned than the last time she'd seen her. It also made her even nicer to hug. It'd been too damn long since she'd enjoyed one of Hannah Shepard's signature hugs, fiercely tight and comforting. "Mom..."

"Mercy, I know I'm making a scene, but I don't care. You're just going to have to get over it, sweetie, because I plan on sticking to you like molasses."

Shepard laughed, sniffing back her tears. "I missed you, too, Mom."

Hannah eased back, her blue eyes crinkling at the corners as she regarded her daughter's face with evident affection. Shepard grinned, her gaze travelling down to jade floor tiles, the waiters' sandals and the scruffy restaurant carpeting. It was hard not to feel bashful and childish when her mother raised a fuss over her.

"Now don't you look fine!" Hannah declared. "I haven't seen you in a dog's age and you're just the picture of good health. It's hard to believe you came back from the edge of... well, I don't even want to contemplate it." She turned to Garrus, grasping his talon and pumping it up and down in a hearty handshake. "And you must be Garrus. Well, Jill just goes on about you like you're the bee's knees. It's wonderful to finally meet you."

If Garrus was taken aback at her friendly reception and this incursion into his closely-guarded personal space, he hid it well. He stooped forward slightly when he spoke to her, in an effort to efface the drastic difference in height between them. Hannah was not a little wilting flower of a lady and she sauntered around as if she was of Amazonian stature, but in fact, she barely scraped 5'2" on a good day. "Thanks. It's a real honour, Captain Shepard."

"Such manners," Hannah murmured, leading them over to the table. "I hope that politeness has rubbed off on Jill. She's always had such a mouth on her."

Garrus chuckled. "Jill's vocabulary is...impressive. And she isn't afraid to make use of it." He proceeded to pull out Shepard's chair for her and then did the same for Hannah. Shepard settled into the high-backed chair, her lips shaping into a sardonic smile. She leaned her elbows on the table, careless of the fact that she was bunching up the thick white table cloth. Who realized that Garrus could be such a shameless kiss-ass? He was larding on the charm pretty thick. It occurred to her that he might've actually done some research on human etiquette this time around. He must've used an older source, the writings of a European courtier or a finicky old British valet, because he was performing the kinds of social niceties that struck most human men as archaic. Luckily, these tactics were also specially calculated to melt the heart of even the most ice-cold mother-in-law.

Hannah touched her daughter's arm and Shepard was surprised at how aged her mom's hand appeared, the skin slack and crepe-y, mottled with tawny brown spots. It was jarring to realize that her mother would be 67 in three months. The advance of age was mostly disguised by her vivacity and the youthful glint in her eyes, her raucous laughter accompanied by a charming Texas drawl that she'd retained in spite of many years away from Earth. Yet, in spite of this, there was now a slight stoop to her once-perfect military carriage and her teeth look different, more even and pearly – had they been replaced with false ones? Shepard didn't know why these alterations disturbed her so much. She'd been aware of her parents' mortality for a long time, although she'd once tended to mythologize her mother as many children did, taking pride in her rank of captain and the reputation that she'd acquired for loyal service in the Alliance. Maybe it was because the transformation felt so abrupt, the difference of five years passing in whirl of missions, planets and battlefields. Damn, but it'd been a long time.

Garrus managed to adapt well to their typical mother-daughter banter, serving as a voice of reason in the midst of their affectionate squabbling. They were opinionated women, both very much accustomed to setting their own rules, and they took immense pleasure in debate, as if their disputes added spice to the meal. Hannah often pulled out folksy, down-home sayings to charm visitors and Shepard liked to call her out on these affectations, noting that nobody back on Earth talked like that anymore. They also disputed the veracity of certain incidents from Shepard's childhood, which Hannah portrayed as a sunny period of innocence featuring a precocious, spoiled and wilful young girl and her devoted martyr of a mother. Shepard depicted these years in a more satirical vein, as a series of haphazard family relocations across human-occupied space, her mother gleefully hopscotching from one Alliance backwater to another.

Garrus was placed in the unusual position of mediator, trying to keep a straight face as Shepard lambasted her mother for her prim pronunciation of the word "whore" as "hoor" and Hannah scolded her daughter for having given up on her piano lessons. By the second course of the meal, it was clear that Hannah didn't consider Garrus as her daughter's scandalous turian lover so much as she thought of him as the only sentient being who would listen patiently to her vacation stories. Their shared appreciation for heavy weaponry and Mako engineering only reinforced this bond and Hannah was quick in issuing him a standing invitation to board the Orizaba and examine their new cannons. The only false note in an otherwise wonderful evening occurred when Shepard left to use the washrooms. When she returned to the table, Garrus and Hannah immediately clammed up in the midst of what had appeared to be a very animated conversation.

Hannah tapped her daughter on the arm. "Would you get me a rum-and-coke, sugar? You know how I like it."

Garrus then proceeded to give Shepard intricate instructions on how to order a turian drink he called "Last of the Legion", which sounded as if it'd require a chemistry set for the bartender to mix up. This wasn't like him at all - he usually just opted for cheap wine or at most, a plain scotch, when he was in a really decadent mood. If she hadn't realized it before, Shepard was now positive that something was up and she'd been banished from the table until they could finish their discussion. Under other circumstances, she might have suspected that her mother was giving the turian a serious talking-to, but it seemed unlikely now that Hannah had taken such a shine to him. Shepard dutifully walked to the bar and ordered up the drinks, along with a gin and tonic for herself to help ease the pain of exile. When she finally managed to get back to the table, the subject had changed to tales of her youthful indiscretions, a topic that she could readily participate in.

When the evening ended, she reached for the bill and was surprised when both Garrus and Hannah tried to pull it out of her hands.

"I've got it," Garrus said.

"No offense, handsome, but I pay your salary. And I'm bloody cheap," Shepard replied, tugging on the bill. "Let me get this one."

"Drop it," her mother said. "I've got seniority on both of you and it's my treat."

Garrus let go of the bill and Shepard thought he was going to yield, but he promptly stood up and marched over to the bar to pay. She shrugged her shoulders and relinquished the paper to her mother. "I guess he wins. I'd go after him, but he'd probably get me in a headlock or something. I love a good barfight as much as the next girl, but it just isn't the way to cap off a classy night out."

"Quite a charmer, that one," Hannah said. "I'll admit that, at first, I wondered what you were thinking with the turian thing, but now I understand much better. He's very sweet. And such a wonderful sense of humour. Does he treat you right?"

Shepard smiled, clasping her mom's hands across the table. It was great to have such a reasonable parent, especially after witnessing the mistrust and denial that went on in the Vakarian household. She and her mother weren't the perfect picture of familial bliss and in some ways, their relationship could be distinctly dysfunctional, but at the very least, they'd always been able to be honest with each other. That unconditional acceptance of each other's dreams, passions, mistakes and sometimes baffling idiosyncrasies meant a lot, much more than Shepard had ever realized.

"Garrus is the one who's always had my back, Mom. He's my best friend. We take good care of each other."

"You don't know how happy it makes me to hear that. I worry about you out there. Especially after that close call you had on the old Normandy."

"Oh, don't worry about me. I'm hard to kill. You just focus on keeping yourself out of trouble. I know that's tough for you."

"Dang, what can I say? I'm a mean old bird," Hannah said, chuckling as she flicked a hand through her frazzled honey-blonde hair.

Shepard grinned. She should've known better than to express concern for her mom. The woman was tough as boot leather and one of the best captains the Alliance had to offer. If anyone could survive a Reaper invasion with all her faculties intact, it was Hannah Shepard. "I love you, Mom. I'm glad we could arrange to see each other like this. I'm sorry that we don't get much time to spend together. We'll have to work on fixing that."

"I love you, too, Jilly. And I'm glad that you've found someone real nice for yourself. Doesn't matter to me what planet the man's from so long as you love him and he's good to you. That's what my best girl deserves."

Shepard had never felt so grateful to be her mother's daughter. Hannah had always been her hero for her exploits in the Alliance, but this was an altogether different sort of courage. It couldn't be easy to work with Alliance soldiers, many of them the children and grandchildren of those who'd served in the First Contact Wars, and own up to the fact that her daughter was in love with a turian. Yet her mom did it without a word of complaint, without even raising the issue of prejudice or the damage it might do to both of their careers. Scraping her chair back from the table, Shepard rose from her chair and leaned down to embrace her mom, kissing the soft, withered skin of her cheek. "Thanks, Ma. That means so much to me."

Garrus came back to the table with the triumphant swagger of a turian who'd managed to disobey a direct order and they said their goodbyes to her mother, before it was time to depart for their respective ships. The Orizaba was bound for an assignment in the Attican Traverse, while the Normandy would linger in Citadel space for several more days to file reports with the Alliance and the Council. In this time, Shepard was hoping that she'd be able to convince the Council to conduct another vote on the Reaper Threat, since Velarn and Hierarchy Fleet were now acting in support of the mission. With any luck, the other councillors' comparatively weak opposition to her plan would fold now that a die-hard like Velarn was no longer standing in her way. Having convinced the turians to join her cause, she felt confident that much of the galaxy would fall in step behind them. Of course, the batarians would remain adamantly apart and the krogan and the quarians would take some persuasion, but that was where her friendships with Wrex and Tali would come in handy. As things stood, she felt guardedly optimistic. There was a possibility, not a perfect one or even a very likely one, but a possibility, that she would be able to sit down to dinner with her mom again one day, when all this was over, in a galaxy free from the Reapers.

"I like your mother," Garrus said, as they departed the restaurant. "She's a smart lady and she's got so many amusing sayings. At first, I thought my translator was glitching out."

"Nah, that's just her being funny. Anyway, she definitely took a shine to you too."

Garrus nodded. "Yeah. That was a very nice surprise. Kind of a relief after the reaction we got from my father. I think I might be getting the hang of this socializing with humans thing."

"The whole chivalry angle worked wonders," Shepard admitted. "You had her eating right out of your hand."

He chuckled. Reaching for her, his hand found a comfortable nook at small of her back. "What can I say? Research. Believe it or not, this time I actually did my homework."

Upon their return to their shared room on the Normandy, Shepard plunked down on the leather sofa and removed her shoes, kneading the soles of her feet with her hands. She wasn't used to traipsing around the wards in high heels and she didn't plan on making a habit of it, even if the black stilettos did do a fantasize job of emphasizing the length and musculature of her legs. Still, if being a drop-dead bombshell meant mincing around in torturous shoes, then most days of the week, she was willing to settle for being merely a run-of-the-mill, attractive woman in dirty combat boots.

Garrus wandered over to her desk and came back with a bottle of wine and a couple of goblets that Shepard hadn't remembered stowing in there. He glanced at her to see if she was watching and then executed his favourite party trick: uncorking the bottle with just a talon.

She clapped her hands together. "Bravo, Vakarian. Take a bow."

"Your sarcasm is not appreciated," he said, pouring out two glasses. "Just for that, I'm giving you the smaller glass."

He handed her the goblet and she took a tentative sip. It was a velvety-tasting merlot, the kind of wine that reminded her of tilled earth and fruit ripening in the sun, a world quite different from the pristine expanse of the Citadel. Since she'd started seeing Garrus, Shepard had become something of a wine connoisseur - not because she had a particular affection for the stuff, but because it was one of the few beverages that they could share without having to worry about the nagging question of dextro or levo amino proteins. She'd never tried this particular brand before, but from its shiny gold label and the florid cursive lettering, it looked more expensive than their usual.

Shepard crossed her legs and relaxed back into the sofa cushions, tracing languid circles in the air with her foot as she admired the fresh coat of red polish on her toenails. She really had gone all out to impress tonight. "So, tell me now, what were you and my mom talking about that I wasn't allowed to hear?"

Garrus fumbled with his wine glass, spilling a few red drops on the table. He swiped his hand over the mess, managing to absorb some of the liquid and smear the rest. "Nothing that, uh, you need to worry about."

"That doesn't sound suspicious at all."

He darted a hand into his pocket, as if checking that something was there, and then his mandibles slackened with relief. Raising his goblet, he took a long draught of wine and then wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve. "Yeah? Is this an interrogation now?"

"If that's what's necessary," she answered. Setting her wine down on the table, she prowled towards him, intent on sussing out what he seemed so eager to conceal.

"C'mon, Jill, give me a break here...I'm nervous enough as it is."

"Nervous? Why? I didn't realize I still made you nervous." She leaned forward, kissing the tender flesh of his throat, her hand snaking into his pocket. Her fingers closed around something cool and metallic and then she slipped away with her prize.

Garrus caught her arm, his wine sloshing around the glass and threatening to spill over the side. "Hey! Don't do that! Crap, you're not supposed to..."

Opening her hand, she saw a silver ring studded with tiny blue stones.

Everything clicked into place, although she couldn't quite believe it. The impulse seemed so traditional coming from him, although there was nothing the least bit conventional about their relationship. Perhaps it was just a present. He probably wasn't aware of the symbolism humans attached to trinkets like these.

He sighed, gulping down the rest of his wine before placing the empty glass on the table. "Well, so much for a surprise. Now you know what I was talking to your mother about. I read that it's human custom to ask the parents for their approval first."

"You mean...?" Shepard had trouble picturing the scene, although she could imagine how much it must've amused her mother to see a deferential and overly-polite turian enacting a human ritual that hadn't been in force for over a century. "What did she say?"

"She said that whatever made you happy would make her happy. I took that to mean she didn't object on principle."

She returned the ring to him, suddenly chastened. "I'm sorry. I should've listened to you. I really thought that you were just kidding around. It never occurred to me that I...might be spoiling a surprise."

"Since you know now, would you mind telling me exactly how this ritual is done? Turians don't do this. I know that I'm supposed to be kneeling down..." Garrus eased down to both knees, the ring clenched in his fist, looking as if he were about to pray. Deciding that this was incorrect, he adjusted his posture so that he kneeled on one leg and the other was bent forward. He took her hand in his, gazing up at her as if to ascertain whether he was doing okay. She smiled at down him with the hope that he'd take this as encouragement. She could feel his fingers quaking and tried to still them with her own firm grip, when it suddenly occurred to her that she was trembling too.

Garrus gave a few low coughs, clearing his throat. This also seemed like a delay tactic as he struggled to cobble together a sentence or two. It was evident that she'd caught him off-guard, his preparations incomplete. "Back on Palaven, I realized that you're the person I want to spend the rest of my life with, Jill. I love you, we have fun together, and I feel like we make great partners. I mean, we're both soldiers and we've trained ourselves so that we're willing to die for a cause, but you're the cause that I want to live for. When I'm with you, the galaxy just...makes sense." He paused, giving a raspy chuckle as if overwhelmed by the solemnity of his previous statements. "Besides, we're already pretty much attached at the hip as it is and I don't like doing things half-way, so, hey, why don't we just make it official? And you know, if we get hitched, we'll realllly piss off the Terra Firma Party, which is one of your favourite things to do these days... I guess what I'm trying to say is: Commander Jillian Shepard, will you do me the honour of marrying me?"

Her eyes brimmed with tears and she broke into a wide, toothy grin. "Hell yes. How could I not?"

His mandibles twitched and his light eyes gleamed with satisfaction, the thrill of a gamble taken and won, as they often did when he executed a perfect head-shot. "So this is when I put the ring on your finger, right?"

Shepard nodded, sniffling like a total sap as she presented her left ring finger and he gently slipped on the ring. The blue stones glimmered and she wiped her eyes with the back of her free hand. She'd never expected that she'd get engaged or married. With a career like hers, settling down with somebody had never been much of a priority. She would never have predicted that she'd find love at the same time that she struggled to prevent the destruction of the galaxy or that the man of her dreams might be tall, dark and handsome (perhaps unconventionally so, in the rugged, battle-hardened way that krogan females were prone to admire), but not human at all.

Garrus sprang to his feet, enfolding her in his lanky arms. "Thanks for saying 'yes'. I realize my proposal wasn't exactly the most stylish. If you'd like, we can consider this the practice proposal. I bet I manage better the second time around..."

"Are you kidding? No way," she said. "I loved it. There's nothing you can do to top that."

"Really? Not even if I proposed to you atop a pile of dead Reapers and calibrated the Thanix cannon to spell out your name in laser beams?"

She laughed, a ridiculous scene playing itself out in her head. She knew perfectly well that the Thanix cannon couldn't execute those sorts of pyrotechnics, no matter how much calibrating he'd been doing. "Okay, that would be pretty cool. But this is good. No, it's better than good. It's perfect. It's everything I could've asked for."

"So if you'd like, we could just head over to the Presidium tomorrow and get the ceremony done. That's how the Hierarchy tends to do things – no muss, no fuss, just sign the contract and you're mated, no questions asked."

Shepard smirked at this revealing suggestion. Sometimes, Garrus was capable of being so tactful, almost sensitive, and then, other times, he was still a ruthlessly efficient turian, seeing only his objective and the easiest way to reach it. "Oh, yes. How romantic. A shotgun wedding. Every little turian girl's dream come true."

"Hey, it's a pragmatic culture. I take it that human marriage rituals are bit more formal? Tell me what you were thinking of. I'm a proponent of compromise."

"I was thinking that we could delay the ceremony until the mission is over. That way, we'll have some time just to relax and have fun – maybe even take a vacation, you know? And I'd love it if we could have some guests. I just want to really be able to enjoy this, with no interruptions, no worries." She hesitated for a moment before she finished speaking her mind, worried that she might hurt him. "Have...have you checked to see if us getting married"

He nodded. "Yeah, I did the research. Some of the legal precedents were pretty insulting...and well, downright weird. Did you know that there are humans out there who've married pillows? And house pets and blow-up dolls and VIs. I thought we were crazy, but as it turns out, our mental health is comparatively sound. Turian-human marriages are pretty rare, but we wouldn't be the first. Two other couples have already gotten hitched in a Confucian ceremony, so, worst-case scenario, I guess we could always pretend to be religious."

"Why did you want to run out and do it so quickly?" she asked. "You're not worried about something, are you?"

He glanced down at her hands, touching the ring on her finger. "I was kind of hoping that we'd get it done now, just in case...something was to happen on the mission. We've already had a couple of close calls."

"Even if we got married tomorrow, it wouldn't mean we were safe, Garrus. There's always going to be a risk. We just have to look after each other," Shepard said. "If anything, it's going to give me some extra motivation to kick the crap out of the Reapers. I'm not going to let those synthetic bastards ruin my wedding day."

"Heh, yeah, I'd never thought of it like that. Harbinger had better watch his ass. I hear angry human brides are not to be messed with."

"Damn straight. Besides, ceremony or not, I'm yours, Vakarian. Nothing is gonna change that."

"Good to know," he said, hiding his anxiety behind a low chuckle. "And hey, with that ring, the next time you punch somebody, it's realllly going to hurt."

"True! Too bad we didn't get engaged a couple hours earlier. I would've liked to leave an impression of this thing in Al-Jilani's face. Where did you get it?"

"Oh, I just picked it up on Palaven while I was out getting the domus board. Kind of a whim, I guess. I hope you like it. I'm not exactly an expert on women's jewellery. I probably should've consulted Tali, but it was sort of a heat-of-the-moment decision."

"I love it. I absolutely do. You have wonderful instincts."

She wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him closer and his hands went to her waist, caressing the flat expanse of her stomach and the curve of her hips. Locked in this hushed embrace, their bodies swayed slightly, as if they were dancing to a song only they could hear, music timed to their heartbeats and the rise and fall of each breath. An outside observer might've assumed they were drunk, but Shepard knew they hadn't consumed nearly enough wine for that. If she was intoxicated, it was just her nearness to him working its magic. Even with the Reapers approaching and constant threats of death and destruction circling around them, they would face the encroaching darkness together, fighting for the survival of the galaxy and for each other, knowing that even if they were defeated, they couldn't be conquered. Despite all the turmoil in their past and the trying times that loomed ahead, they'd lucked into something special and she felt certain that, just this once, everything had gone absolutely, exactly right.

- fin -

A/N: And that's the least until the wonderful people at Bioware give us some ME3 epic deliciousness, hopefully with Garrus, Tali and all our favourite squaddies returning for some more Reaper-thwarting, Council-mocking fun. This story kind of functioned as my ideal ME3 romance wish-list (Tension with previous LI? Check. Family drama? Check. Political and emotional complications, another chance to deck a reporter and eventual happy ending? Check, check, check!) although, heck, anything that lets me kick Old Machine ass with my favourite snarky sniper turian & co. will be greeted with much fan-girl rejoicing. Thanks for following along with me and I hope that you enjoyed the story. It was lots of fun to write. As always, your comments and reviews are totally loved and appreciated.

All the best, F.D.