A/N - All mistakes are my own, let me know if you spot something awful so I can fix it :) I love love LOVE reviews, especially from all you wonderful people who've followed, favorited and stuck with this story for so long. It's nearing the home stretch now, and feedback is always welcome.

"Shepard, we're just about done up here."

Garrus' voice broke over the radio, interrupting what had been a fascinating hour touring the quarian Liveship Rayya. Shepard had never been on any quarian ship before today, and the Liveships were something special. She was actually a little surprised they'd let her stick around once the farce that was Tali's trial had wound to its abrupt end. But the Rayya's procurement team had requested permission to trade with the Normandy and she'd been more than happy to agree. Captain Kar'Danna had even graciously allowed her to do a little curious poking about the ship without benefit of a marine escort.

Apparently, pitching a fit at the Admiralty Board in the middle of their public plaza had earned her some respect.

Shepard touched the radio by her ear lightly. "Thanks for taking care of it, Garrus. How did it go?"

Passing through a converted cargo bay, the Commander peered in amazement at the brightly colored material hangings that had been used to separate the cavernous space into countless individual sleeping areas. Some were marked with the same elegant calligraphic glyphs she'd seen in other parts of the ship. It would never have occurred to her that a ship crammed with hundreds of thousands of people could have been beautiful. Conditions were as cramped and close as Shepard knew they had to be, but the quarians had infused their space with a completely unexpected elegance, and a pervading sense of community.

"We're stocked up on spares and a few extras I think you'll like. I'm glad I had Tali with me. Their traders drive a hard bargain."

It made her smile, as she sidestepped a pair of quarians and began heading for the nearest corridor. "Better you than me, big guy. The only way I can get a discount is to endorse everyone I come across, and somehow I don't think the quarians give a damn that I'm the first human Spectre."

His low, flanging laugh echoed in her ear. "Well, we've got Donnelly and Daniels sorting out the supplies we promised. In a few hours, we'll be on our way."

On their way, and heading straight for that damn Reaper.

Shepard left the bright, cheerful cargo bay behind her, and began to make her way back to the docking bay where her team were waiting. It had been a rough couple of hours, and she wasn't looking forward to riding straight into hell once they hit the Hawking Eta sector. She was even more worried about the quarian in her team who'd already been through hell once today.

"How's Tali holding up?" she asked.

There was a pause, and when Vakarian answered, his voice was low and careful. "Her father just died, and her people tried to declare her a traitor and have her exiled. It hasn't been a great day for her. But... she's tough. She'll be okay, Shepard."

Sighing, Shepard nodded regretfully. They'd somehow saved Tali from being exiled, but nothing could have saved her father. There wasn't much they could do for her, and it wasn't like Shepard could give her any time off to get over it. They were ultimately heading for what was probably a suicide mission and she needed all hands on deck, but the thought of sending Tali into combat right now made her feel pretty crappy.

"Yeah, she's tough," Shepard agreed softly. "Keep an eye on her. I'll be there soon."

The radio clicked off in her ear, and Shepard pulled up the map program Tali had downloaded to her suit. The Rayya was a complicated maze of corridors and passageways, vastly altered from its original structure. Tali had admitted that even natives still relied on the map to get around unfamiliar sectors of the ship. Shepard plotted what seemed like the quickest path back to the docking bay holding the Normandy and her team.

She was passing through a relatively quiet corridor when she spotted a familiar figure heading in her direction. It was always difficult to tell unfamiliar quarians apart; you had to go on body language and suit design until they spoke. But even without rank insignia, there was no mistaking Admiral Shala'Raan vas Tonbay. Watching the Admiral slow to speak to her, Shepard found herself questioning the likelihood that their crossing paths like this was a coincidence.

Somehow, she doubted it.

"Captain Shepard," the quarian greeted pleasantly.

It was still a little strange hearing her name linked to a rank she would never attain. "Admiral," Shepard answered, pulling out a polite smile.

After today, she didn't exactly have fond feelings for the quarian Admiralty Board, and her misgivings about this particular Admiral were quite strong. Raan might have been Tali's "aunt" but she had also deliberately withheld vital information. Tali chose to belief Raan acted in her best interests; Shepard remained a little more skeptical.

"I apologise for interrupting. I was hoping that we might speak privately before you return to the Normandy?"

I'm pretty sure I said everything I needed to at that damned trial of yours.

The polite smile slipped a little, hardening around the edges. "I'm free now."

Raan's hands twitched faintly at her side, in an echo of Tali's nervous habit. "I appreciate that, Captain. Will you walk with me?"

Shepard didn't know how much privacy you could get on a quarian ship, but she gave an amiable nod and fell into step beside the Admiral. What she did know was that if Raan had deliberately sought her out, she probably wasn't going to like the reason behind it. "What's this about, Admiral?"

Quarian Admiral's were the ultimate authority on their ships, and Shepard's bluntness was a deliberate slap in the face of that authority. When Raan didn't react at all, the Commander knew that this was about more than a trial or a trade meet.

Raan gazed down the length of the corridor. "In your testimony at Tali's trial today, you spoke of an enemy that your Citadel Council has denied. You call them Reapers."

To be honest, Shepard had been so angry at the Admiralty Board, she barely remembered the livid rant she'd directed at them. Tali had called it 'inspiring' and, of course, Garrus had gotten in another dig about her pep talks.

She eyed the quarian sideways as they walked along a surprisingly uncrowded corridor. "Tali can verify their existence."

"I have heard the story of Tali's Pilgrimage," Shala'Raan answered, keeping her voice pitched low despite the emptiness of the corridor. "After she returned to us, the Admiralty Board concluded that they did not recognise the existence of these Reapers."

Shepard snorted. Sounds familiar.

Raan glanced over at her. "But I do. I believe Tali'Zorah... and I believe you, Captain. That is why I have come to speak with you. You have seen the state of our government, and its priorities."

From what Tali had said, her people had been as uninterested in the truth about Sovereign as the Citadel Council had been. Raan's admission was unexpected, and an unhappy suspicion seized the Commander as she made the obvious leap of logic. "Your Admiralty Board is going to vote for war on the geth, aren't they?"

Shadows played heavily across Raan's face plate as she bowed her head. "I believe they will do so. Yes."

Shepard felt her stomach twist uneasily. The Migrant Fleet was easily the largest collection of ships in the galaxy. They needed to keep the Fleet intact and ready for when the Reapers came. She knew in her bones that it was only a matter of when, not if.

"It's a mistake. You have to stop them," she warned.

They passed into another corridor; this one apparently curled alongside the edge of the Rayya for every few steps there was a long viewing window, marked with the now-familiar glyphs. Raan said nothing for a time, but her hands curled and uncurled at her sides.

"We have been in space for too long, Captain. There are too many voices now agitating for war, and those who dissent are divided on the alternatives. They argue that we should stay in space, seek another world, or even make peace with the geth. And every day... Every day the faction pushing us to retake Rannoch grows louder and stronger." Raan shook her head. "I fear this war is inevitable."

"Dammit." Any way she looked at it, this was bad. The geth were a known ally to their enemy, but even if they could be destroyed or rendered useless to the Reapers, it would come at too great a cost. "Admiral, if you throw yourselves into a war with the geth, you might win. You might even reclaim Rannoch. But when the Reapers get here, you won't be strong enough to turn them back. I need the Flotilla to be ready."

The Admiral at her side paused mid-step, and turned to face her. Belatedly, Shepard pulled up as well; even through the shadows clouding the face plate, it was apparent that Raan was studying her intently.

"I was the one who released Tali to join your crew for this mission, but she would not tell me its nature. Only that it was of vital importance to the galaxy." Those bright, strange quarian eyes shone from the shadows. "It is the Reapers that you hunt?"

It was the moment where she balanced caution against the chance to win an ally to her cause, and the decision rested on whether she was willing to trust this woman. A woman who had simultaneously supported them in Tali's trial, and also hidden the details of the Alarei's attack from them to maximise their advantage. Shepard hesitated for only a moment. Whatever else Raan was or wasn't, she was as much a political creature as the rest of the Admiralty. If someone like that could buy into the Reaper threat, they might have a chance on bringing the quarians into the fight when the time came.

"I'm hunting their agents," she admitted quietly. "The Reapers are coming, and they don't care if your Fleet is ready or not. You saw what one of them - one - did to the Citadel."

Raan exhaled, seeming to draw in on herself. "How long do we have?"

It was the one question that Shepard couldn't answer with any certainty. "I don't know. Right now their agents are focussing on the human colonies... maybe they plan to pick us off one species at a time." It was an unappealing scenario and one that had plagued her on more than one long sleepless night. "What I do know is that our only hope of stopping them is to start preparing now. Everyday they don't show is one more day we have to get ready for them."

She could hear the urgency in her own voice, and knew it was a delicate, familiar line she had to walk. Balancing on that razors edge between inspiring action and sounding like a crazy person. The Citadel Council, and the Admiralty Board itself, had apparently decided on the latter. Shepard watched carefully as Shala'Raan made the decision to risk the former.

"Then we have only one option left to us, Captain. If we are to avoid war with the geth, we will need a more passionate voice to argue against it."

The Commander blinked. "You have someone in mind?"

Something about Raan gave the suggestion that she was smiling. "The Admiralty Board used this trial as an excuse to argue their own causes, but in doing so they have brought Tali'Zorah to the attention of her people. Her father was an Admiral, and his position now stands vacant."

Shock rendered her silent as Shepard grasped Raan's meaning. Although she was hardly an expert on quarian culture, she knew enough to realize that their ranks weren't inherited. The election of a new Admiral would be a political dogfight, drawing from a surplus of experienced, renowned members of the Fleet. What Raan was suggesting was extreme and highly unusual...

And brilliant.

The audacity of it appealed to Shepard; she felt her mouth curving into a grin. "I can't see the other Admirals accepting someone so young."

"Age is not always an indication of experience," Raan answered easily. "Particularly not in the case of Tali'Zorah vas Normandy. Don't you agree, Captain?"

"I can't argue that."

"I have kept my distance from this conflict because I didn't see a path out. Now I do." Raan straightened, the uncertainty of a moment ago vanishing as if it had never been. "Tali is the closest thing our people have to an expert on the Reapers. I will force the Admiralty Board to accept her if I must, but she will gain the authority to guide us when the time comes."

For a moment, Shepard wondered if Tali would be pissed that she'd inadvertently gotten her nominated for an Admiralty. It didn't sound as if Raan intended to give her much of a choice in the matter. Tali was cold as ice in combat, but hated public speaking.

Still, it has to be a better option than exile, right?

"I hope they listen," Shepard answered eventually. There were some headstrong personalities within the Admiralty, judging from what she'd seen today, but what she said was true. If they would listen to Tali, it would mean a unified Fleet ready and willing to strike. It was the best possible outcome, but there was no denying it was a long shot.

"Thank you for your time, Captain... And for your willingness to accept Tali'Zorah vas Normandy under your command."

Shepard might not be an expert on quarian culture, but even she knew the importance of the ship name. Whether the Admiralty Board insisting that Tali retain the vas Normandy title was a deliberate insult or a compliment, she was less clear on. However the quarians might regard one of their own bound to an alien vessel, Commander Shepard only had one opinion on the matter.

"That was my honor, Admiral."

While the crew handled the transfer of goods with the Rayya, Shepard retreated to her cabin. In another hour or so, they'd be done here and the Normandy would be hunting a dead Reaper. A smart Commander would use the time to get some rest, but Shepard was still too tense, running a dozen scenarios for the upcoming retrieval mission.

Intersecting with Reapers, dead or alive, was always dangerously unpredictable, and this one came with a few too many Cerberus entanglements for her comfort.

Instead, she distracted herself by working on her armor. There'd been a firefight, some insignificant little scrap about a week or so ago, and she'd taken fire across her right shoulder. The nasty burn had long since healed on her own flesh, but the shot must have knocked something about on her armor, because she'd been having trouble with that shoulder joint ever since.

She'd been at it long enough for the tension to have eased away, relaxing under the careful focus of her task, when a sudden thump at the door intruded on the silence. Pausing, Shepard lowered the piece of ablative armor to the bench and crossed her cabin. It wasn't often she got visitors this late into the third shift.

And she almost never got such appealing visitors. Shepard regarded the turian hovering unsurely in the corridor with a welcoming smile.

"Garrus. I wasn't expecting company." Her eyes flicked quickly over the lean lines exposed by his sleek undersuit, then back up to the ever-present visor.

Vakarian coughed. "Sorry to intrude, Shepard."

"Don't be ridiculous. Come on in." Stepping back, she watched in amusement as he edged carefully inside the cabin. His head twisted slightly, and she could see the sharp flash on his visor display; he was casing the room as if it were a battlefield.

Well, it's not like he spends a lot of time up here.

In fact, she realized in surprise, this was the first time they'd been alone in her cabin since they'd started this relationship. If that's what it was.

With amused affection, Shepard waited patiently for him to finish his brief reconnaissance. She hesitated when she saw his attention hover briefly over the desk, where the Illusive Man had left the gift of Kaidan's photo; his mandibles twitched to see it missing but he didn't comment. Not on that, anyway.

"You weren't at the celebration, thought I'd check in on you."

The flanging in his voice was low and subtle, but even without that distortion his words made no sense to her.

"Celebration?" the Commander asked, puzzled. As far as she knew, there was nothing to celebrate right now.

"Mmmm," Vakarian nodded, mandibles tilted into a faint grin. "Joker's idea. He wanted to welcome Tali to the ship properly, now that she's taken the Normandy's name. Turns out, quarians have something like this whenever they take a new shipname."

Well. There was that.

She found herself shaking her head in surprise. The pilot stuck to his chair, making sarcastic comments and vaguely off-color jokes and you forgot how damn much he noticed. It was easy to dismiss him as the wise-cracking cynic, and then he went and did something like this.

"Everyone's down there?" Shepard asked, and watched him nod. "Even Jack?" Another nod, this time matched with a definite gleam in those bright blue eyes.

"Don't worry, Shepard. I left Samara babysitting," Garrus assured her.

Shepard relaxed, feeling the corners of her mouth creep up in amusement. "At least they're bonding. Remind me to thank Joker. It looked like Tali could use something to cheer her up."

Garrus leaned back, his attention running briefly over the room again; he paused to gaze over the armor bench scattered with tools and pieces of ablative armor, then looked back to her. "I get the feeling she's not the only one. Still having problems with your armor?"

It didn't surprise her that Vakarian was aware of her growing restlessness, and her unease over their next mission. She suspected he shared it in full measure.

"You know me, big guy. It was either that or go annoy the hell out of Joker till we get to Mnemosyne."

"Maybe this will keep you distracted," Garrus remarked quietly, holding out a hand. It was only then she realized he had been holding something, kept deliberately out of view behind the line of his hip.

Shepard blinked at the brightly colored box he offered, heavily marked with quarian glyphs and asari calligraphy. Her gaze narrowed as she read the small human translation along the side.

Cassidy's Collectibles: Quarian freighter model. As seen in Fleet and Flotilla!

"What is -?" She took it from his hands, turning it over in confusion. Shepard peered up at him. A model starship? Hell, she hadn't seen one of these since she was a kid. "Where did you even find this?"

Garrus gave a diffident shrug. "On the Alarei. I figured it's previous owner wouldn't need it anymore and... I know you like them."

His restless gaze shifted again, veering towards her desk with the rack of assembled ship models set above it.

Her hands stilled around the box, feeling it's weight press heavily against them as Shepard suddenly understood why he'd come knocking at her door so late.

A gift. He got me a gift.

Something that wasn't armor or a new weapon mod; something that had nothing to do with war or combat or Reapers. Something completely disconnected from the barely-controlled chaos that was their lives.

Shepard regarded the turian trying his best to appear cool and unconcerned. Garrus was at his most adorable when he was feeling awkward. Surprise gave way to a surge of warm affection, and she reached out a hand to touch his forearm lightly. "Thanks, big guy." She curled her fingers around his arm, tugging forcefully enough that he couldn't miss the invitation. Garrus stepped in willingly, and those long turian arms surrounded her as she hugged him tightly. "I don't even mind that you stole it," she purred teasingly by his ear.

His low answering laugh filled the cabin as Shepard drew back. Lifting her chin, she regarded him hopefully.

"Can you stay for a while? I could use the company."

"I'm not interrupting?"

The Commander carefully lay his gift on her desk. "Definitely not," she assured her friend, stepping down into the conversation pit nestled beneath the display of model starships.

The heavier tread of his boots on the deck plating told her he was following. Settling herself into a couch, Shepard smiled as he awkwardly did the same in the human-style chair. "I'd offer you something to drink, but Chambers finished up the bottle Cerberus stocked me with," she apologized.

"Probably just as well." He gave her that lazy grin she'd come to recognise quite well lately. "I promised myself I'd keep my hands to myself, and I don't have the best impulse control when I'm drunk."

It was so unexpected that Shepard nearly swallowed her tongue trying not to laugh. "Damn, Vakarian. I'll have to remember that." He was nervous. He always flirted more outrageously when he was nervous.

His eyes sparkled with amusement, the visor glinting as he watched her. "Make you a deal. I'll bring the wine next time, and you can make sure I don't do anything foolish."

She grinned. "You're on." Tilting her gaze up, Shepard regarded the model starships hanging above his head thoughtfully. "You know, I haven't put one of those things together since I was a kid. That lot came from Cerberus. The Illusive Man's little joke, probably."

Garrus shifted, perching at the edge of the couch so there was room for his leg spurs. "Sorry it wasn't anything fancier, but... Well, you know what they say about a vigilantes salary."

Particularly when most of it is being shipped home to cover medical bills, huh?

Now that she knew about his mothers condition, his frugalness made sense. She'd just figured it was a turian trait, although in retrospect, Shepard did remember him blowing most of his cash on rifle mods back on the original Normandy.

"I've been military so long, I don't think I'd know what to do with fancy," Shepard answered on a sigh. "If it doesn't come with a military barcode, it's probably beyond me."

His chuckle was low and familiar. "You signed up almost as young as I did."

She'd always wondered a bit about what a youthful Garrus Vakarian would have been like. Impetuous, probably, and a bit wild. He'd been reckless enough even after C-Sec had spent a few years rubbing the rough edges away.

"You've been civ longer than me."

Garrus made a dubious noise. "Not sure C-Sec really qualifies as civilian, Shepard. At least, not the way my section head used to run it."

"Did you ever consider staying in the Fleet?" She'd always been curious about his choices, because so many of them seemed to make no sense. Garrus was a soldier, but he struggled with the blind obedience that job demanded.

If the question surprised him, he didn't show it. Garrus shrugged slightly. "My people all enlist at fifteen, to get our citizenship. I did my tour and that was it. My father wanted me to join C-Sec, so I did." The gaze he leveled at her was wry and only a little regretful. "I've told you before, Shepard. I'm a lousy turian, but when I was younger... I did try."

She didn't bring up his father's anger at his leaving C-Sec. That was old territory, for both of them. But the question she really wanted to ask, the one about what would he do with his life after, didn't quite make it out. Instead, Shepard cleared her throat and glanced away.

"You were a good cop. You have the right instincts."

Vakarian snorted. "I made a better vigilante than cop, Shepard. We both know that. Omega is a hole, but at least I wasn't drowning in red tape there, trying to make a difference." He leaned back in the seat, finding a more comfortable position. "How about you? Ever consider leaving the Alliance?"

That startled her. "Hell, Garrus. Military life is all I know. Humans are different to your people... Turians are still in service no matter what you do. The line between military and civilian is much bigger with my people. It's huge." The Commander thought about it briefly, feeling laughter bubble up in her as she shook her head. Trying to imagine life as a civilian was beyond her.

"You'd make an excellent cop, Shepard. I could probably still put in a good word for you, if you wanted."

Shepard smirked at the thought. "Somehow I can't see the Council accepting me into Citadel Security... But thanks for the offer, big guy."

The humor faded from his expression; Garrus leaned forward, resting his hands between his legs. "If you hadn't joined up... If you'd had the choice... What would you have done instead?"

It wasn't unexpected, but it still made her pause. Buried in the innocence of that question was a whole world of associated history that she really didn't want to dig into.

"I don't know. I was just a kid when Mindoir was attacked. When the marines found me..." Shepard shrugged, remembering the flash of lights as the squad conducted it's search pattern. The batarians had been long gone by the time the Alliance arrived, and she'd been found while scrounging food from a neighbors kitchen. The squad's medic had needed to sedate her; she'd attacked the marine who grabbed her, thinking they were more batarians. "Ancient history, anyway. By the time they had me on a shuttle leaving planet, I'd already decided I was going to sign up."

She looked up and found Garrus studying her thoughtfully.

"You don't talk about it," he noted quietly. "Mindoir, I mean."

Shepard felt the familiar knot of old regret settle in her chest. It was like an old wound that had never quite healed properly. Most of the time she could ignore it, but an accidental knock always had it aching again. Holding back a sigh, she forced a smile for him. "There's not much to talk about. Like I said, ancient history."

Her face felt tight and hot, and the restless feeling intensified. She was about to stand, maybe put on some music to break the silence, when his hand settled gently over hers. Shepard stilled under his touch instantly; it was a phenomenon she couldn't understand but was becoming quite familiar with. Something about his touch soothed her. Settled her.

When she dared look upwards to meet his gaze, his expression was so open and... affectionate... that it took her breath away.

"I didn't ask about the batarians," Garrus replied softly, one finger moving lightly over the back of her hand. It raised shivers along her spine. "I want to know what life was like for you, on a human colony. Before."

Hell. It was exactly how she thought of it too. There had been life Before the batarians came, and then there was life After. After the year of intensive headshrinking to normalize her from the trauma, Shepard hadn't talked about Before very often. Nobody asked. Nobody except Garrus would.

It was second nature to refuse, and divert the conversation. But Garrus deserved more than that. He'd told her about his mother, after all.

So for the first time in years, Shepard tried to remember what it had been like - Before. It was hard to remember back beyond the burned-out shells of buildings, and the corpses littering the roadways. Thousands of inconsequential days and nights in her early life, and all she remembered clearly were the two weeks of hell between the attack and when the marines showed up.

"It was... peaceful. Quiet. We lived at the south edge of the colony, on a few hectares of land." That distance had given her time to hide, and helped her survive. Those in the colony centre had all died or been taken by the batarian slavers. Shepard sighed. "Horizon reminded me a lot of Mindoir, actually. It was new. Busy. There was always work to be done."

Garrus was still stroking her hand, lightly, rhythmically; it was the same deft, certain touch he used to clean his guns. There was too much metaphor in that comparison.

"Tell me about your parents?"

The familiar, flanging voice was gentle but not careful. He wasn't talking to her as if afraid the wrong word would set her off, like most people did if the topic came up. He was calm, supportive, but he looked at her with absolute certainty that she could do this. Talk about this.

The least she could do was try.

"Mom was an agri-farmer, a total ground pounder. She was the one who pushed for them to join a colony after they were married. My dad..." Shepard paused. "He was the adventurer. He was a freighter pilot before they moved to Mindoir. Actually..." She glanced up, smiling faintly. "My model ship collection started with the types of ships he'd flown."

The light reflected off Garrus' visor as he leaned in. "And he took you camping."

Remembering that night in the Kodiak on Tuchanka, she smiled. "Yeah. We would lie outside beside the camp fire for hours... There was this spot, it was far enough from the colony that the lights weren't that bright and we could see the stars. Dad taught me how to recognize the constellations by telling me about places he'd been. I'd pick a star and he'd tell me a story about something he'd seen in that sector."

Garrus' expression changed into something she couldn't quite interpret. When he stood and extended a hand to her, she was surprised. He waited, wearing a patient smile, until she accepted the silent invitation. Her hand curled around his and she let him pull her to her feet. When she realized he was leading her to the bed, she got even more confused.

"Changed your mind then?" she asked, trying for a teasing tone but hearing only uncertainty in her own voice.

Instead of the awkwardness she expected, Garrus just chuckled. He pushed lightly against her chest, and she let herself fall backwards onto the bed. Shepard had no idea what was going on, and usually that feeling pissed her off but right now she was more than willing to go with it. She watched in fascination as he crawled with inhuman grace onto the bed beside her.

"Lay back, Shepard," purred that low, familiar voice and she followed instructions in bemusement. She couldn't seem to look away from him, as he settled beside her, raised up on one arm. "Look up."

Never in her wildest imagining, had she expected to have a turian lying in her bed.

Inhaling carefully, Shepard rolled her gaze upwards and found herself staring through the viewport in her cabin roof. The one that had earned this room the nickname "loft"; the one that opened up onto a view of the deep, dark void glittering sharply with bright white stars.

Her breath left her in a rush, her face went numb, cold and then burning hot as she realized what he was doing.

"When we were on Tuchanka, you promised we would go camping sometime." His voice was a soft, flanging purr in her ear. "There's no way of knowing what's on the other side of that relay so why wait?"

Shepard reached out blindly and caught his hand in her own. Judging from how quickly he curled his fingers around hers, how he let her clench them until surely she must be cutting off blood flow, he must understand what this meant to her.

He was Garrus Vakarian. Of course he understood.

It wasn't Mindoir. Mindoir was long gone, even the ashes of their colony scattered on the winds. She'd said her farewells to that life a long damn time ago, and made her peace with what she'd lost. But like Tali, their home was the Normandy now. Her family was lying right beside her; her family was celebrating the new addition two decks down.

Shepard glanced over just enough to meet his gaze. "What would I do without you, Garrus vas Normandy?"

Vakarian's mandibles tilted into a surprised smile at the name, and his hand curled more tightly around her own. "Probably get your head blown off. How you made it long enough to become the first human Spectre without someone watching your back, I'll never know."

The laughter eased out of her in a rush, grateful and relieved. She felt him nudge her lightly, and lay back again. His body was a long line of heat against her side, as they stared quietly at the slowly pinwheeling starscape visible above them.

"Pick one," Vakarian said softly.

Her heart thudded heavily in her chest as she looked over the constellations laid before them. The Normandy had her belly to the Flotilla to aid faster loading, so the loft looked out into an uninterrupted expanse of familiar stars.

Shepard raised her free hand and pointed. "There. That one."

"The Caleston Rift," Garrus identified it, and his low lazy drawl filled the room. "You remember about ten years back, the last time piracy was heating up in the Solveig system? I was still with the Fleet then, and we were refueling at Thrivaldi when some particularly ambitious pirates tried to take us on. Three of them, a pair of corvettes and a beat up old frigate. The GARDIAN turrets were lighting them up, but they had a hell of a pilot on that frigate. We couldn't pin it down, and the corvettes used it as cover to get in close enough to board."

She could so clearly picture that much-younger Garrus Vakarian, focused and intent in a crisis.

"How'd that play out?" Shepard asked.

"There were a half dozen of them, up against a fully crewed turian cruiser. It turned out as well as you'd think. The boarding party was taken captive. The frigate wasn't as fortunate." His voice assumed that 'modest' tone that meant he was trying not to sound smug. "I, ah, got a lucky shot with the Callies. Torpedo right through their eezo core."

Shepard's eyes widened. "Lucky shot, huh?" she teased gently. Garrus had the moves, no doubt about that. "I knew there was a reason I put you in charge of the guns."

The silence lay like a warm, familiar blanket over them for a moment. Then he nudged her again. "Your turn, Shepard vas Normandy."

She grinned up at the galaxy. She didn't know where her restlessness had gone, but the twisting unease over tomorrow's mission seemed to have vanished completely. In fact, she would have been hard pressed to remember the last time she'd felt this relaxed. One thing she'd learnt over the years was not to question the good times. You just enjoyed them, as long as they lasted.

"Alright, Vakarian." She stroked her thumb over his hand, and gazed over the slow-spinning starscape peacefully. "Pick one."

Chuckling, he obeyed; a long turian finger pointed deliberately at a cluster of stars.

"Ahhh, good choice. Artemis Tau..."

Shepard cast her memory back, mentally sorting through long-ago missions. Most of her history was classified and compartmentalised, but after a moment of thought, she had something. Garrus was watching her from the corner of his eye, the barest hint of a grin tugging at his uninjured mandible as he waited. All those missions, and how many times had she spent the hours beforehand, wound up and waiting?

Yeah, there were worse ways to spend the night before a big mission than enjoying a peaceful hour or two with her best friend. Whatever happened on that Reaper, they'd deal with it. That was tomorrow. She smiled and picked a memory from the Artemis Tau sector.

"Okay, Vakarian. Let me tell you about my final solo mission when I was training for my N-7 qualification..."