Created for the 2012 Mass Effect Big Bang

Illustrations by the marvelous picchar (pic-charDOTdeviantartDOTcom)

(There's a version of this story with the images embedded over on AO3, should you so choose. Unfortunately fanfiction doesn't allow image embedding.)

Shepard was gone.

"What do you mean, gone?" Garrus growled. "We're in the middle of nowhere. Where the hell is there for her to go?"

In that calm voice he found mildly irritating even on the best of days—and this was not the best of days—EDI replied, "That information is classified, Officer Vakarian."

He grimaced at the glowing ball. "Don't you Officer Vakarian me. Tell me where she went, EDI."

"That information is—"

"Yeah. Classified. So you've said. But when was the last time Shepard went out on a mission without me at her six?"

The AI was silent for a moment. "Although previous decisions indicate Shepard's reliance on you, Officer Vakarian, the current situation remains unchanged. She is not aboard the Normandy. All information regarding her current whereabouts and the nature of her mission are classified."

"By whose order?"


Inhaling sharply, he turned away from EDI's interface. Logically, he knew it didn't matter, that turning his back on her was only a symbol since she wasn't actually contained in or constrained by the bobble of light behind him, and she wasn't going to care about his posture anyway, but it still felt petty.

"Logging you—"

"Wait," he said. "Wait, if she's off the ship, who'd she leave in charge? Lawson?"

"Negative, Officer Vakarian."

He waited for her to offer more information. She didn't.

It was probably a good thing EDI didn't possess a neck to wring. Because it would have taken every ounce of self-control he had to stop himself from doing it. "Who, then? It's not like there's a working chain of command here that makes any kind of damned sense."

"I have the ship, Officer Vakarian."

Garrus blinked and stiffened, betraying his complete and utter surprise. Then he forced himself to return to a neutral stance, even though he was alone—except for EDI—in the battery and no one could see him. And she could probably calculate the level of his distress by taking stock of his vitals. "You've got to be kidding me. You can't have the ship. You are the ship."

He knew it should have been impossible for an AI—even an unshackled AI—to sound affronted, and yet it was the word that came to mind when EDI spoke. "I do not believe Shepard anticipates being away from the Normandy for any length of time. However, should she fail to return, she has left a very specific set of orders to see carried out."

"Orders like keeping things classified?"

"That is one parameter."


He muttered the word to himself, half under his breath, but EDI replied, "Given the sensitivity of the mission, I believe she was making the most rational decision available to her. I have proven my loyalty, Officer Vakarian. Had I wished to steal the Normandy or bring harm to her crew—"

"I'm not questioning your loyalty, EDI. Shepard's sanity, maybe."

"While the commander was understandably absorbed by last-minute preparations, at no point did I detect appreciable abnormalities in either her physical or psychological state."

Garrus closed his eyes briefly and sighed. "For someone who spends so much time with Joker, you could probably stand to take a crash course on recognizing humor, EDI."

"I will take that under advisement, Officer Vakarian." She paused. "Though perhaps Jeff is not the optimal role model. I am told he is not as funny as he thinks he is."

Garrus snorted, caught off-guard by EDI's admission. "Shepard?"

"It appears to be a universally held opinion amongst the crew."

He'd have laughed if he'd been any less irritated. And worried. "Okay, maybe the humor thing's not entirely beyond you."

"Shepard says it is good to have ambitions. Mine is to tell a joke that does not require further elucidation." She paused. He thought it was… strange, strange was a good word, that he could tell when she was pausing and not just silent. "That was a joke."

"You'd better keep working on it."

"Yes," she replied. "Your response was unsatisfactory."

"Not really in a laughing mood." Garrus paced from one side of the battery to the other. Instead of helping relieve the tension coiled in his gut, the too-narrow room only made him feel more constrained, trapped. "So that's it?" he said. "That's all you can give me? She left the ship and you don't know when she'll be back?"

He knew he was probably imagining it, but he thought he detected a faint undercurrent of admonishment in EDI's tone when she explained, "Shepard is highly trained, Officer Vakarian. Her service record was exemplary even before she assembled the crew of the first Normandy. She would not involve herself in a mission she felt incapable of completing. I can forward all pertinent, unclassified information to your personal account if you wish."

Garrus grimaced. "I am familiar with Shepard's record, EDI. I was C-Sec."

"I fail to perceive the relevance of your previous employment."

"Cop, EDI. Detective. She was hunting Saren, which was good enough for me, but only an idiot walks into a situation blind if he doesn't have to. If it's public knowledge, I read it. If it was… not so public knowledge but available to Citadel Security? I read that too. I just don't like this. She works with a team. She's worked with a team as long as I've known her. It seems… out of character."

"On the contrary, her background as an infiltrator is ideal for solitary missions. Given your familiarity with her dossier—"

He interrupted her before she could regale him with the details of every one of Shepard's successful solo missions pre-SR-1. "Yes, yes. Message received. Shepard knows what she's doing and I should be a good turian and let her get on with it without daring to voice my concern. I don't suppose you'd tell me where this mission originated?"

"That information is—"

"Classified. "

"Yes, Officer Vakarian. Though… perhaps it is not classified to mention the message was sent over a Systems Alliance channel."

"Of course," he muttered. "Let me guess. Hackett? No, no, you don't have to compromise your orders by telling me, EDI. All the life-threatening Alliance missions Shepard's sent on come from him." He tried not to remember the last one. Alchera hadn't been life-threatening, but it had been the last time Shepard went planetside without backup. Without him. She'd come back with a handful of dog-tags, her old helmet, and ghosts in her eyes that no amount of talk or time had exorcised.

"I will neither confirm nor deny your conjecture, Officer Va—"

"EDI," he said. "All this Officer Vakarian business has me thinking I'll turn and find my dad glaring at me. Garrus'll do just fine."

"Garrus," EDI repeated. "The commander did not request I keep her return confidential. I will inform you when she is aboard."

This did make him chuckle. "Thanks, EDI," he said. "I appreciate the loophole. I guess that's all for now."

"Logging you out, Garrus."

He took his pacing to the hallways and told himself the extra space helped, when really, all it did was remind him of all the places she wasn't.


Message sent: 21 APR 86

I'm giving you twenty-four hours, Shepard. Then I'm going to hack EDI or die trying. You're not the only one who can stage daring rescues, you know. If you go three full days without contacting the Normandy, I'm going to assume you need one. G.

Undeliverable message returned to sender.

Message sent: 21 APR 86

Dammit, Shepard, where the hell are you?

Undeliverable message returned to sender.


On the second day of her disappearance—her radio silence—he was forced to quit his restless pacing after a frazzled Joker verbally kicked him out of the cockpit and even usually-calm Krios emerged from Life Support to snap, "Stalking the hallways does not help matters, Vakarian. We are all concerned."

Leaving the crew deck and the troubled faces he didn't know how to soothe behind him, Garrus retreated to the elevator and hit the button for Shepard's loft. He told himself it was just a precaution to keep her pets from dying—she was inordinately fond of the rodent—but he feared the reality was more maudlin than he'd ever have admitted. To anyone. Ever. It had been a long time since two days had passed without seeing Shepard, and in the lull after the Omega-4 Relay, he'd grown a bit complacent in the strange sort of happiness they'd found in each other.

He wasn't entirely sure what to make of that, either. He didn't want to question, didn't want to push, but… he'd blown off steam before. It was usually hot and fast and never quite as satisfying as he thought it would be. If he'd hesitated when Shepard first laid down the offer, it was because he didn't want that kind of experience to somehow change or shift the most important relationship in his life. But it had… to say exceeded expectations wasn't strong enough. And in the end, it wasn't very much like his previous experiences of working off stress at all.

He'd almost expected her to turn him away when he'd opened his mouth and "I want something to go right. Just once. Just…" came out of his mouth. It was too much. The words—the words were bad enough, and then his damned voice had to take it that one step further, much to his chagrin. Hell, he'd almost walked out to save himself the mortification.

But then, she wasn't turian. Human voices didn't have subharmonics. They communicated with silent gestures and twitches of their eyebrows. It was entirely possible she didn't have the faintest idea what the subtle tones of his voice were saying.

And it was entirely possible she did.

Because she didn't send him away. Not even close. And no bout of testing reach and flexibility in his past had ever entailed someone sleeping wrapped in his arms afterward. Or smiling at him in a way that made him feel like the luckiest damned turian in the galaxy, possible xenophile deviancy be damned. After the third time in as many days she called him up to her quarters she got a strange look on her face and said, "You… don't have to, you know. Come up here. If you don't want."

He blinked at her—a bit stupidly, if he was honest, because was there anyone who'd turn down the opportunity to have Shepard's undivided attention?—ducked his head, rubbing the back of his neck, and admitted, "It's the best part of my day."

She smirked, but it wasn't enough to completely steal the shadows from her eyes or to break down that careful wall he knew she kept built high around her. Her smile remained a little guarded. "Oh, come on. Better than calibrating the Thanix?"

He let her have the deflection. "Fine. Second best."

"That's more like it," she replied, but then she kissed him with her nimble human lips and ran her even more nimble human fingers along the curve of his waist with just enough pressure to send every nerve in his body screaming for more.

That time, afterward, with Shepard curled against him, her head resting on his shoulder and her arm flung heavily across him, she said, "You're… you don't have to wait for me to… I like seeing you. You, uh… you're welcome. Here, I mean. Whenever you want. You know. To use the shower. Or… visit the fish. Not just for… this."

And that time, as with so many times, he didn't know what to say. Some words he was good with. Cocky words. Smug words. Wisecracks and quips. Those he could do. But with her as vulnerable as he'd ever seen her, he found himself rendered mute by the terror of saying the wrong thing, the stupid thing. So he turned his head and touched his forehead to hers as tenderly as he knew how and the next evening he came to her quarters without waiting to be asked up.

That had been more than a week ago. Almost two weeks since their suicide mission where miraculously (or not—Shepard was involved) no suicides occurred.

He should have known. He should have been expecting it. In all the time he'd known her, Shepard had never gone two weeks without trouble finding her somehow. He'd let his guard down, let himself believe they'd bought themselves some time when they'd taken the Collectors out. He'd been so pleased with the outcome of the little picture he'd forgotten the big one entirely. Somewhere his dad was shaking his head in mute disappointment. Garrus could hardly blame him. Some lessons were hammered home again and again for a reason and keep your enemy in your sights at all times was a pretty significant one to have temporarily forgotten.

He had to tell himself—assure himself—Shepard would never have gone off fighting Reapers on her own. No matter who sent her classified intel over Alliance channels.

Standing outside the doors to her quarters, he heard music blaring within, and for a moment he let himself imagine it was all some misunderstanding. A horrible practical joke that would culminate in EDI saying, "Now you see I do have a sense of humor, Officer Vakarian," and Shepard laughing at him.

But when the door slid open, of course the room was empty. He knew she left the music on all the time—he never asked the reason and she never offered one, but he suspected she found the noise soothing on some level. Perhaps the level that had experienced death in the silence of space, though he certainly wasn't going to be the one to raise that topic of conversation. He just didn't remember the Shepard of before being so averse to quiet. He'd often come upon her sitting alone in the belly of the Mako, as silent a spot as could be found on the smaller, busier Alliance Normandy. But… but a lot of things had been different then. Maybe she had kept strange, pulsating dance music blasting in her littler quarters on the old Normandy, too. He'd certainly never been in them to know.

He left the music on. For when she came back.

It was too late to save one of the sunfish, but the rest of Shepard's brood swarmed to the top of the tank, ravenous, when he pressed the feeder panel. Knowing Shepard, she'd probably forgotten to feed them before she left… to go wherever she'd gone. He ran the blunted tips of his talons lightly over the surface, trying and failing to banish the image of Shepard pressed between him and the glass, his hands holding hers above her head. She didn't look particularly concerned. Instead, with lips parted and cheeks flushed in that human way he'd come to find so captivating, she murmured, "Got you right where I want you, Vakarian," hooked a leg over his hip, tugged him close, and proved the truth of her words.

She was no amateur when it came to hand-to-hand either, after all.

He turned away from the fish tank, and the memories, and the pressing, gnawing seed of anxiety that wouldn't leave him in peace. No matter how many times he told himself she was fine, she'd be fine, she was Shepard and she'd glare and probably punch him if she knew how much he was worrying—"Don't tell me you're going to pull this protective bullshit now, Vakarian."—he couldn't shake the uneasiness. It was like an itch he couldn't scratch or a whispering voice whose words he couldn't make out, no matter how closely he listened.

He opened his mouth to beg EDI for more information, but stopped himself, shook his head, and turned toward the desk and its fuzzy resident.

The damned hamster, usually so terrified and timid, leapt from the cage in a squeaking fury when he attempted to give it some of the pellets he'd seen Shepard feed it with before. Garrus muttered a curse as he saw the tiny ball of fur dart under the desk. When he dropped to search, however, it was nowhere to be found. Pushing the chair aside, he edged deeper, his fringe bumping the underside of the desk.

Running his hands along the floor, searching out crevices or crannies he couldn't see, Garrus kept up a steady stream of turian invective in as soothing a voice as he could manage, trying to coax the little bastard from whatever devious hiding spot it had found. The hamster didn't reappear. It didn't so much as peep.

The door behind him whooshed open and in his haste to back out, he smacked the top of his head into the unyielding desk hard enough to see stars.

When the stars cleared, he saw Shepard.

Shock, relief, pain all combined in a heady rush of emotion, and he blurted, "Where the hell have you been?" before thinking better of the accusatory tone. "Thanks for the heads up, EDI."

"Shepard requested—"

"It's fine, EDI," Shepard interrupted. "I'll deal with it. You want to log yourself out for a bit? I'd… appreciate the privacy."

"Of course, Shepard."

Garrus put a hand to his head. The pain was ebbing, a dull counterpoint that did nothing to hide what he saw now that he was actually looking. The scent of smoke and sweat still clung to her, fresh, telling tales of battles he wasn't present for. Not dog-tags and a memorial on a silent, empty planet this time, then. Her hair had pulled loose from the tail she usually wore, and it hung in lank tendrils around a face more ragged and worn and pale than he'd seen in… than he'd ever seen. Which was saying something. Something bad. More troubling than all that, though, was the heaviness in her posture, the faint hunch of her shoulders and the bend in her neck, as though she couldn't quite manage to keep her head upright.

Her eyes were bloodshot but still sharp, and they were looking at him in a way he'd never seen before: like she was expecting him to turn on her.

He definitely regretted his tone then.

"You're pissed," she said without preamble, "I get that. I'd be pissed too. But I just made a call that sent three hundred thousand batarians to their deaths, Garrus, so if it's all the same to you, I think I'd like to take a raincheck on this argument."

He blinked at her, hearing the words but not understanding them. Shepard only shook her head, flinging her helmet onto the bed. It bounced twice before crashing off the side and onto the floor. She didn't go pick it up. Instead, she began the familiar routine of unclasping her armor's seals. With none of her usual care, she dumped piece after piece on the little table near her couch. The clang and clatter was enough to return his voice to him. "What are you talking about, Shepard?"

Without facing him, she gestured toward the broad expanse of windows over her bed. He didn't have to see her face to know she was scowling. She didn't like the windows. When she didn't sleep on the couch, she slept on her stomach with a pillow over her head. "Really? View like this and you're the one who missed the show? I just sent an asteroid into the Alpha Relay."

Her words were cool, controlled, harboring just a touch of self-deprecating vitriol. The line of her back told a different story. He could see the strain of holding herself together hiding beneath the military bearing she still wore like armor even though her hardsuit was in pieces at her feet.


"You know what happens when you blow up a relay, Garrus? You pretty much snuff out the whole system. The whole goddamned system. And it was the only damned thing I could do. You know that proverbial spot between rock and hard place?" He didn't, but her meaning wasn't hard to take. The tone of her voice told him what his translator could not. "Yeah. There. That's where he sent me. Some rescue mission." Still she kept her back to him, but her hands clenched into fists at her sides—clenched, unclenched, clenched again. "You know, after Mindoir, after Elysium? There's exactly no love lost between the batarians and me, but I still didn't want to—shit. Shit. Three hundred thousand people. Three hundred thousand."

She twined her fingers together behind her tightly, pulling her shoulders back, lifting her chin. The dance music pounded incongruously in the background, and Garrus pretended not to notice the way her eyes were squeezed shut, or how her breath caught ever so slightly on the apex of every inhale. After a few moments, she exhaled sharply, releasing her hands and rolling her shoulders. "The Reapers are coming."

"Well, we knew—"

"No," she said, turning to face him at last. She scrubbed her fingers through her dirty hair before glancing down at her empty palms like she didn't know where they'd come from or what they were doing. He wanted to step closer, wanted to offer his hand or his shoulder or his arms, but her posture screamed distance. She could have put her hands on his chest and shoved and it wouldn't have said leave me alone more clearly. "They're coming soon. You don't understand. If I hadn't… they'd be here now."

Garrus took this in, considered it, wondered briefly just what the hell trouble Shepard had gotten herself into, and then said, "What do we do first? Please don't say 'appeal to the Council.'"

Whatever he was expecting—something along the lines of a rousing speech or a 'give 'em hell!' or even a laugh—it wasn't what he got. Shepard's face, usually so expressive—especially now that he'd had a chance to learn so much of the language her expressions spoke—closed. The peculiar set of pinched lines that only appeared when she was truly troubled or truly stressed furrowed her brow, and her blunt teeth pulled at her bottom lip. "I've got to give the Admiral a report—"

"Hackett," he half-muttered, half-growled.

Shepard almost looked like she was going to smile, but instead she just shrugged. "I don't think he had any idea what he was sending me into."

"Does he ever?"

She shrugged again, and he could tell just how damned worn out she was by the way she didn't either joke or defend. Usually it was one or the other, depending on her mood. Once or twice she'd muttered something about Hackett having it out for her, but even that had never been entirely serious. This was something altogether different. This time he did take a step closer, but he stopped when Shepard's shoulders stiffened. "Garrus, I—look, I've been thinking things over."

He forced his own hands to keep still at his sides, but he held his ground and didn't retreat. "Not sure I like the sound of that."

"I've been weighing my options since coming back through the Omega-4. To be fair, this mission just threw light on the whole thing. I don't know what kind of shitstorm I'm going to walk into after… all of this. Aratoht. Cerberus. Being… AWOL for two years—"

His mandibles flicked and tensed, but he managed to keep his voice relatively even as he interrupted, "Dead's a pretty good reason for being AWOL."

A third time she shrugged, and he found himself wanting to press his palms to her shoulders just to keep them still. Something about the indifference—no, the defeat—of the gesture bothered him deeply. It just… it wasn't Shepard. No more than taking off with no warning was Shepard, or tackling a mission solo was Shepard. Then again, Shepard did her damnedest to save lives. Every single one she could, even when it was inconvenient as hell. He had no doubt three hundred thousand lost batarians were more than she could shrug off as a simple cost of war.

Three hundred thousand lives on her conscience. On second thought, knowing her as he did, he supposed it was lucky she wasn't straight-up losing it. No matter how necessary or unavoidable the sacrifice. A sudden Reaper invasion would've cost a hell of a lot more. He didn't doubt Shepard knew it. He didn't doubt Shepard was beating herself up about the losses anyway.

"Maybe. If they believe me. No guarantee, and it sure as hell looks bad from the outside. You must see that. But I need to get the Alliance to listen, and if that means turning myself in—turning the Normandy over—standing in the HQ of Alliance Command and screaming at the top of my voice—"

"You think any of that'll work, Shepard? Sure as hell hasn't so far. Seems more likely they'll shut you up and shut you out and maybe just lock you up and throw away the key to keep you quiet."

"There are protocols. I'm still Alliance."

Trying and failing to keep the sharp bitterness from his tone he said, "Does the Alliance know that?"

Instead of another shrug, she lifted her chin. If the tone of the conversation had been any less serious, he might've smiled to see the hint of her usual defiance. "Doesn't matter. I know it. And it'll mean something if I hand over the Normandy, no strings attached."

"The Illusive Man'll love it."

Her eyes narrowed. "Yeah. I'm sure he will. We'll just call his inevitable reaction a bonus. His mistake for thinking he could buy me in the first place."

He waited a moment before giving voice to the question hanging silently between them. "But? There's a definite 'but' here."

"I'm Alliance. None of the rest of you are. This is between me and Alliance Command. I'm not dragging you into this."

"I definitely don't like the sound of this."

He saw the muscles tighten and release as she clenched her teeth, but when she spoke her voice remained admirably calm. "This crew was assembled for a specific mission. That mission's complete. If it were any other tour, it'd be time to disband. Move on. You know the way the military works. That's the way these things go."

The knot of anxiety he'd been carrying around since her abrupt disappearance shifted very suddenly sideways into rage. "Bullshit. Bullshit." She didn't so much as flinch. Garrus wished she would, if only to prove she was listening, that she was taking him seriously. "You've got to be kidding. No way I'm doing this again. I'm not getting some message from Anderson in few weeks telling me you've fallen off the grid, or that you've gotten yourself killed when I could've been at your back. Not after—no."

Eyes cool, too cool, she speared him with an even glare and said, "This is why the Alliance has regs."

Instead of dousing his rage, her chill only built it higher. "You think that's what this is about? Honestly, Shepard? Bull. Shit. You go ahead and kick every damned person off this ship if that's the way you want to play it, but I go where you go. Into hell, remember? I made that promise a long time before anything your regs might have frowned on happened. Don't you dare."

She tilted her head, giving him an inscrutable look. He thought maybe she was measuring him up. After a moment, she sank down onto the couch, leaning forward and propping her elbows on her knees. She gestured with her chin for him to sit next to her, and with the heavy dread of a prisoner awaiting sentencing, he reluctantly complied, the anger draining out of him as swiftly as it had risen, leaving him sad and tired. And a little too close to hopeless.

When she spoke, however, it wasn't to utter a verdict. She said, "Thanks for feeding my fish."

He stiffened slightly at the change of subject. Then, because she was Shepard and because she'd had to order the deaths of three hundred thousand batarians and because she looked too small hunched next to him on the couch out of her armor and out of her uniform, he gave her the reprieve. And followed it with an admission. "Yeah. Well. I… lost your hamster."

Shepard remained silent for a long minute, head bowed. She wasn't angry. Her tone was closer to resigned, and it troubled him the same way her defeated shrugs had troubled him. "Poor little guy. Thought he was too chicken to run. Always hiding in his little box and squeaking like he thought I was about to kill him. Maybe now he'll make it home like his namesake. Wherever home is, when you're a space hamster."

"His… namesake?"

She tilted a sad little smile in his direction. "Odysseus."

"That's a… hell of a name for a…"

"Rodent?" Shepard gave a breathy chuckle. "Yeah. Mostly I just call… called him Odie. I had a teacher who couldn't get enough of the old stories, and I guess it made more of an impression than I thought at the time. I liked the symbolism. You know it?"

Garrus shook his head. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but his grasp of human literature—human myths—was sketchy at best, and mostly confined to things Shepard had mentioned in the past. He didn't think Odysseus had been on that curriculum.

"Took him ten years to get home. Kept getting waylaid. Distracted. Nearly killed. But eventually he made it." She sighed. "Honestly, I always kind of wondered if he thought it was worth it. After all that time, after all those adventures, home probably seemed small. You can't really go back, can you?"

It wasn't the kind of question that needed an answer. Or wanted one, he thought.

"You can't come where I'm going," Shepard said softly, not looking at him, gazing instead at her open palms. He began to protest, but she spoke over him, a flinty edge to her words, the kind of tone that said arguing was pointless. It didn't matter. He wanted to argue anyway. "It's a different kind of hell, and I think it's the kind I've got to face on my own. And I want—" She stopped abruptly and shook her head. "No, that's not right. I'm not going to order you. Any of you. It's not my place. I don't want it to be." She shifted until her knee was touching his, and her torso was facing him. It was as close as she'd let herself get since she walked in the door, but instead of comforting, Garrus only found the contact distressing. It felt like a goodbye. He wanted to get up and walk away before she could say whatever she was about to say—before she said words she couldn't take back and he couldn't unhear.

Instead, he stayed on the couch and he let her wrap one of her smaller hands with its too-many fingers around his. "I trust you," she said simply. Effortlessly. Like they weren't some of the most important words she'd ever spoken to him. "And you've been… here. The whole time. You know everything. You've seen everything. If I can't be out rallying the forces—"

"But you could be, Shepard," he interrupted. "No one's making you go back."

She shook her head. "What, take Jack's advice? Turn pirate? No one in the galaxy'll give me the time of day if I do that. And the galaxy has to start listening sometime. That's… I guess that's where you all come in. What the hell do I know about the Migrant Fleet or the Turian Hierarchy or the geth consensus? This crew's got connections to just about every major homeworld—and fleet—in the galaxy, and… look, someone's got to start getting the word out. You said it yourself: the Council doesn't want to listen. Spectre status or no Spectre status. So it's not going to be them doing the preparations. We both know that. But I have a chance with the Alliance; they're the angle I've got. They're the only card I've got left to play, and we both know the deck's been stacked against us from the beginning. I just have to do things their way."

She inhaled deeply and released the breath on a slow, even exhale. Her fingers tightened around his, knuckles whitening under the strain. He hardly felt it. Because he knew what she wouldn't ask, but what she was asking all the same. And he didn't have the first idea how to follow in her footsteps, how to do what she did. He'd tried it once, on Omega. It had ended with a lot of dead friends and a reprieve from crime so temporary it hardly registered at all in the scheme of things. Every time they went back to Omega the place was still swarming with Blue Suns and Eclipse and Blood Pack. Same as always. Trying to get the Turian Hierarchy to listen to rumors and hearsay and call it truth enough to rally the troops was going to be a million times harder than taking out a triumvirate of Omega gangs. Maybe Shepard didn't realize it, but he did.

Shepard continued, heedless of his inner war. "Whether he believes me or not, whether he agrees with the call I made or not, I'm pretty sure Hackett's hands are going to be tied here. They're going to want to bring me in. They're going to want some answers. If they don't believe me—if they think I went batshit crazy and blew up the Bahak system because of some old grudge, I'm screwed. But if they listen? Maybe we don't have to lose the entire galaxy in one fell swoop when the Reapers come. Maybe we'll be just a little bit prepared." She turned her head, eyes no longer cold. Their expression was still pushing him away, though. He knew that much. Even with her hand still wrapped around his. "And even if getting them to listen's a plan with a snowball's chance in hell? I gotta take it, Garrus. I have to."

"I understand," he said. Because he did. He didn't like it. It made him want to put a fist through a wall or a bullet into… something, but he understood.

"I know," she replied. "And I'm… look, for what it's worth, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have assumed—"

"Hey," he said, reaching for words and finding only the same old defense mechanisms. Some things never changed. "It's… it's not like this is forever. You know me. Always turning up when you least expect it. Stylishly and in time to save the day."

She sent him a weary smile, but at least it was a smile. "You're like a bad penny, Vakarian. But my favorite bad penny. And if they decide not to court-martial my ass six ways from Sunday, you better believe you're the first one I look up."

He chuckled, even though his heart wasn't in it. Her words sounded too much like an ending. "Well. I am the best."

"Right," she said, playing the game with a half-hearted attempt at dryness, bumping her shoulder lightly against his. "I'd be lost without you."

"Damn straight."

"Try not to be up to your neck in angry mercs this time."

Try not to die this time, he didn't say.

He had to get the doc to patch up his hand later, much later, when he'd left Shepard writing her report for Hackett—so many words left unspoken between them—and retreated to the main battery. The damned wall had it coming. Chakwas didn't even admonish him for the blatant stupidity inherent in his actions. For a change.

He always suspected the doc understood a lot more than she ever let on.