"I can't believe you didn't trust me." Mara Shepard let out the breath she'd been holding, her hands laying with forced casualness on the railing, her pale blue eyes staring out over the calm water of the Presidium pools.

She could almost feel Anderson shaking his head. "It wasn't you I didn't trust." He joined her in sighing. "Besides, by the time I saw you, Alenko was already in the field and I didn't want to compromise his position."

Mara leamed back slightly, her hands still curled around the cool metal railing, glancing over at Anderson out of the corner of her eye. A part of her almost kept her mouth shut; it wasn't entirely out of character. Anderson had been her commanding officer and Kaidan her subordinate. There were regs after all; Alenko himself had reminded her often enough. Of course, officially retired or not, Shepard was hardly Alliance military anymore, and Captain...Councilor Anderson was hardly her CO.

Besides, Kaidan outranked her now. It meant he got to be on top. Mara resisted the urge to smile inappropriately.

"I wasn't asking out of a sense of professional curiosity, David," she said. She dropped her head for a moment, flexing her hands and pulling herself forward. When she looked back up her eyes and expression were carefully blank.

"I know Shepard," he replied, sounding somewhat defeated. "But damn it. You didn't see him after the Normandy went down." He frowned, his dark eyes staring out at nothing. It was a thousand yard stare if there had ever been one. "And I knew what it would do to him to see you with Cerberus. Blame me if you want, but its my job to protect my officers." He gave a mirthless chuckle. "Even if I'm not in any official capacity anymore."

"Yeah," Mara conceded, knowing he had a point. Especially about his own place in the world. As far as Kaidan mourning? She pushed that aside for the moment. "Sorry about that; I know politics isn't really your thing. But we needed you...just like I need Cerberus now. Necessary evil."

He turned to look at her. His always stoic expression faltered a little. "I saw him after Horizon. As if the Collectors dragging off half the damn colony hadn't been enough...poor bastard looked like he'd seen a ghost." Anderson shook his head. "If its any consolation, he was more pissed off at me than you for not telling him the rumors were true."

Mara smirked for a heartbeat. It was a bit of a consolation at that.

"Did you get his message?" he asked. "I told the hard-headed idiot to stop being right and actually write the thing. Took half a bottle of asari booze."

"I got it," Mara pursed her lips. "Didn't think sending it to the Normandy was the best idea. Bad enough the Collectors seem to know...last thing I want is for Cerberus to figure out the whole truth and use him as a bargaining chip."

She never said it outright. Not here, not to anyone, except that one awkward conversation with Chambers. And Kelly was good at extracting intel, all innocent like. Ought to make her an interrogator. As for Anderson? They spoke like marines. Didn't need to say anything outright. Probably why it had been so hard for her and Alenko to get over themselves. So busy talking around things, nothing ever got said.

And hell, that message? She knew Alenko was prone to second guessing himself, but damn it, he was still dancing around his sure thing.

Do you even remember that night before Ilos? That night meant everything to me... maybe it meant as much to you.

Did she remember? Fuck. Was he kidding? Ilos was only the beginning. Maybe it had only been a month between Ilos and the Normandy going down. Maybe it had been two years - two years she'd spent no better than a damn cabbage in some Cerberus lab to Shepard it felt like yesterday. It felt like it had been less than a deployment since they'd been holed up in her cabin on the Normandy, trying to forget they were in the middle of a war with the Geth for a few hours.

Mara looked back up. Anderson was staring at her like he thought she might break, which would have been hysterical if he hadn't been quite so close to the mark. For hells sake, she was an N7 and an L3 biotic; she was the first human Spectre. She stopped Saren and Sovereign, she saved the Council and the whole goddamn Citadel. But here she was, getting all twitchy just because Alenko had a great ass.

She was lying to herself about that; she wouldn't be losing her mind if this was just about sex. But marines, you know.

"What do you need me to do Shepard?" Anderson asked. Marine bullshit aside, they were still people. Besides, if anyone knew how precious chances were, it was people who put their asses on the line all the time. Anderson knew as well as Shepard did that her mission was a long shot at best.

"Find me a pad that off the net," she said. "Because damned if I'm going to give those Cerberus fucks any more ammunition. And then the next time Staff Commander Alenko requisitions some new underwear, just tuck this on in there, will you?" Mara grinned. "I have learned that the fastest way to a marine's heart is through his skivvies."

Anderson chuckled. "I think that can be arranged." He marched back to desk - he always gave the impression of being in formation. He tossed her a pad from a drawer. "Always have few private ones laying around."

"For all your girlfriends, eh?" she asked, followed by a shit eating grin. "Or boyfriends. Or Hanar. Or whatever the hell these days, right?"

"I'll admit to being incredibly predictable and preferring my company exclusively female and either human or blue," he replied, deadpan. Shepard raised an eyebrow at him.

"I'd give you crap, but if it wasn't for Kaidan," she admitted. "Hell, even with him, I sincerely considered a Turian..." She laughed, taking the pad from him, and very intentionally not taking that particular thought any further. She had enough goddamned problems without making new ones for herself. "At least I can still laugh, right?"

Anderson, however, knew Garrus and knew Shepard well enough to spot bravado hiding a sore spot, but he was also smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

"I've got some business. Use my office - more privacy than the Normandy," he offered.

"Thanks Captain...Councilor," Mara tripped over her mouth. "Whatever."

"Stick with Anderson," he smiled as he headed towards the door. He stopped just outside range of the sensors. "And Shepard?"

"Hm?"

"Don't be stupid."

She would have given him an innocent look if it wasn't for how serious she knew he was. It would be so easy to tear Kaidan apart on this pad - apologize all you want, how could you just walk away and leave me to do this by myself - but what would that accomplish? And what if this time she didn't make it? Hell, she didn't make it last time. It was the one thing that kept her fighting with Cerberus instead of against it. It certainly wasn't Miranda's sunny disposition or Jacob's friendly, trusting manner. She would have booted them both out the damn airlock if she didn't think the crew would mutiny.

Cerberus gave her a second chance at living, and she wasn't going to waste it.

She sat down in Anderson's chair, trying to ignore the discomfort of its unfamiliar softness. She set the pad and her elbows on the desk, staring at the blinking cursor. She'd turned off the voice interface. There were some things she just couldn't say out loud, even if she wasn't paranoid enough to know that the office was likely bugged.

Kaidan -

Shit. She didn't even know where to begin. She had the damn message from him burned into her head right next to the list of ships lost when she ordered the fleet to protect the Destiny Ascension.

Shepard,

I'm sorry for what I said back on Horizon. I spent two years pulling myself back together after you went down with the Normandy. It took me a long time to get over my guilt for surviving and move on. I'd finally let my friends talk me into going out for drinks with a doctor on the Citadel. Nothing serious, but trying to let myself have a life again, you know?

Then I saw you, and everything pulled hard to port. You were standing in front of me, but you were with Cerberus. I guess I really don't know who either of us is anymore. Do you even remember that night before Ilos? That night meant everything to me... maybe it meant as much to you. But a lot has changed in the last two years and I just can't put that aside.

But please be careful. I've watched too many people close to me die - on Eden Prime, on Virmire, on Horizon, on the Normandy. I couldn't bear it if I lost you again. If you're still the woman I remember, I know you'll find a way to stop these Collector attacks. But Cerberus is too dangerous to be trusted. Watch yourself.

When things have settled down a little... maybe... I don't know. Just take care.

- Kaidan

Well damn it. She'd composed a reply repeatedly. Usually with liberal use of the words "fuck" and "you" and sometimes with a bit more "get your ass back here and fuck me" thrown in. Neither was a good option, and neither addressed the damn problem.

One month together. Two years apart. How the hell did you get past that?

Kaidan -

Apology accepted. I can't blame you for being pissed off when I showed up out of nowhere with a Cerberus ship and a set of wicked scars. I can't say I totally understand how you feel, but I have a good idea how you felt. Lost my family on Mindoir when I was just a kid. I told you about that, didn't I?

Of course, I remember the night before Ilos. I also remember the month we had afterward, chasing after Geth ships and screwing like teenagers. That and finally having something in my life to give a shit about except my career and my gun. So yeah, it meant a lot to me too.

I do actually hope you meant some of what you said on Horizon. 'I loved you' was it? Maybe we can work on that once I turn the Collectors into dog food.

And Kaidan? I don't trust Cerberus either. I know what they've done. That's why I found Garrus and Tali. They'll have my back, just as well as you did. Well, maybe not quite as well, but I'll make do.

I doubt things will ever 'settle down' for us. Its a nice thought, but we're marines. Its in the blood and bone and there's nothing out there that can change that. That doesn't mean we shouldn't take what chances were given to carve out a little happiness for ourselves where we can.

This mission makes chasing Saren look like a cakewalk, but I'll do my damnedest to live through it. The Collectors killed me once; I won't let that happen again. So if...when I come back, once they're done pinning medals on me and slapping me on the back, I owe you a drink.

You won't lose me again. Promise.

- Mara

Shepard attached her anonymous, public net address. She didn't want Cerberus fucking around in her life any more than they already did but she really hoped for a reply. There were still things to do; a trip back to Illium to find that Asari justicar, cargo to find, other various and hopefully less than suicidal things before she had to go off after the IFF. She just hoped Miranda was telling the truth when she said the hardware they implanted in her wasn't to control her or spy on her thoughts. She did feel like her same old pissed off self, although lately she'd been horny enough she'd sincerely considered sleeping with Jack. Of course, she'd spent a lot of time thinking about Kaidan, so that might explain that last bit.

She considered waiting for Anderson to come back, but she didn't want to look him in the eyes when she handed him the pad. She was being the exact sort of stupid he'd warned her against. If she wasn't stupid, she would have admitted to Kaidan how she really felt, instead of being snarky about it. But she meant to keep that damn promise. If she had to kill every Collector in the damn galaxy single handed and take on a reaper or two?

She'd bring a shit storm they wouldn't soon forget. If it meant she'd get back to Kaidan Alenko again and this time not fuck it up?

Bring it on, you soulless bitches.