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The observation room was empty, which was what Shepard had hoped for. She chose a chair near the window, reclined it back to a comfortable position, and deftly popped the cap off the bottle of beer she had brought up from her quarters. Technically, she should have kept it down there … but she liked the view of the stars better from up here.

It was an imported beer, from Earth, the kind her father used to drink. As she took her first sip, the bitterness struck her, but it left a citrusy tang of lime on her tongue after she swallowed. It was a beer that rewarded savoring, which was what she intended to do.

Swinging her feet up, she stretched out, leaning her head back and watching the stars go by while she took another measured swallow. She wasn't sure which she looked forward to more—taking her boots off, or taking her hair down from the tight twist she wore it in, the lump of it keeping her from relaxing all the way into the chair. Occasionally she thought about cutting it … but some secret part of her heart felt the long hair was the only feminine thing she had left about her, and she didn't want to lose it.

Lost in her reverie, she didn't hear the feet approaching until the quiet cough from the doorway let her know she was no longer alone. Shepard turned her head, nodding to acknowledge the newcomer.

"I apologize, Commander. I didn't know you were in here." Kaidan Alenko stepped into the room, but hesitantly, as though he was waiting to be ordered out again.

"It's a communal space, Lieutenant. Come in." She watched the careful way he was moving. "Just up from med bay?"

"Yes. Sorry."

"No need to apologize. I understand migraines are an improvement from some of the other side effects biotics suffer."

"That they are. Still doesn't make them a treat." He took another seat, leaning back with a sigh. "The stars are comforting."

"Yeah. I felt the same way."

They sat there in companionable silence for a long while. Shepard liked that about several of her companions—they knew how to be quiet, and when. Others needed to talk, and she didn't blame them for that. Often she liked it, but it did make them less restful to be around in off hours. Kaidan was the easiest, though; he seemed to understand what was the right thing to do in the moment.

"Commander," he said at last, softly.

Shepard blinked at the stars, taking another sip of her beer, and then she put on her leadership like an invisible cloak again. "Lieutenant?"

"I wondered if you had some time to talk."

"I always make time for my officers," she said. Had she truly wanted to be alone, she'd be in her own quarters. This was the best compromise—the quiet of the observation room but the accessibility, too.

"Off the record, I have some concerns."

"Don't we all." She turned her head to look at him. "What are they?"

"Saren is looking for records on some kind of galactic extinction, but we can't get backup from the Council? Sorry, Commander," he said, ducking his head, knowing he was overstepping, "but there's writing on the wall here …"

Shepard held up a hand. "Remember that Saren was a Spectre. The Council doesn't want to believe he's capable of these things. We have to give them time to come around. I'd call it human nature, but …" She shrugged. "I suppose it's everyone's nature. We want to believe the best about others."

"It just seems like a group that's been around as long as the Council should have seen this coming." He shook his head. "It's funny. We dream of this for so long, the Final Frontier, but when we finally get out here … it's already settled. And the residents don't even seem impressed by the view."

Shepard smiled. "It was that way in all the history of Earth, if I remember my teachers' lectures right." Looking at him with curiosity, she said, "But you—you're a romantic. Who would have guessed? Signed on for the dream, to secure man's future in space?"

Kaidan actually blushed, dropping his gaze. "Yeah, all right, I read a lot of those books when I was a kid. The ones where the hero goes to space to prove himself worthy of a woman he loves—" He coughed slightly. "Or, you know, for justice." He lifted his head. "Maybe I was a romantic in the beginning, but I thought about it after Brain Camp—"

"What's that?"

"Uh, sorry. Biotic Acclimation and Temperance Training. We called it Brain Camp. Look, Shepard, I'm not looking for a dream, not anymore. I just want to … do some good, see what's out here." He caught himself, smiling a little. "Sorry if I got too informal. Protocol wasn't my big focus back in BATT."

Shepard realized she was sitting up in her chair, leaning toward him, she'd been so interested in what he was saying. And that she didn't want him to stop. "Tell me about Brain Camp," she invited.

He grinned at her use of the slang term. "Yeah, the formal title didn't last much past the airlock. None of the kids they hauled in were too thrilled with the concept."

"Hauled in?" Shepard asked. "I thought it was a voluntary program."

"Oh, it was. We were 'encouraged to commit to an evaluation of our abilities so an understanding of biotics could be compiled'."

"That from the manual?"

"Directly. Of course, there are a lot of worse results of accidental exposure to element zero in the womb," Kaidan admitted. "Beats the brain tumors some kids grew up with."

"Is there some question about how you were exposed?" Shepard had known a number of biotics in her career, but never had the chance to talk to any of them about their lives. Rumors and conspiracy theories were rife; she wondered what the truth really was.

Kaidan shook his head. "My mother was downwind of a transport crash. Before there were any human biotics. Where it gets iffy is around '63, when Conatix was running out of first-gen subjects. Until then they'd relied on accidentals. Afterwards …" He shrugged. "Bunch of guys in suits show up at your door after school, and next thing you know you're out on Jump Zero. No one really knows anything for sure, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Back then, no one knew the potential, so there wasn't a lot of regulation. And anything Conatix did was gold."

"Are you saying—"

"That they intentionally detonated drives over our outposts? No. But in retrospect … they were damn quick on the scene afterward."

"What's Jump Zero like?"

"Outer edge of the Solar System. A sterile research platform, or at least it was when I was there. Hell of a place to grow up."

"But there were other kids in the same boat, right? At least you weren't alone out there." She remembered being alone, hiding in a gardening shed, underneath piles of sacks of manure imported to help the soil. The smell … The screams of the other colonists … Shepard shook herself. It never helped to dwell on those memories.

Kaidan almost seemed to understand what she was thinking, even though he didn't know the details of her escape. No one did; she didn't talk about it, and when asked directly, answered as minimally as she could, focusing on her rescue, on the Marines who had come to the village when it was all over and found her and a few others who had hidden especially well.

"We did have a little circle that would get together every night before lights out," Kaidan agreed. His voice had gained enthusiasm, either because he had sensed Shepard's dark thoughts or because he preferred this topic to the question of whether Conatix had created biotics on purpose. "We didn't have much to do, though," he added. "It was a research platform then. And Conatix kept Jump Zero off the Extranet, to prevent leaks."

"You were all teenagers, right? I'm sure you found ways to occupy the time." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Shepard wished she could call them back.

Kaidan looked her full in the face, not blinking. "I'm not the sort who does that kind of thing, Commander. Not lightly, anyway."

There was something in the dark depths of his eyes … they hadn't flirted, or said anything that anyone couldn't hear, but suddenly Shepard felt he was sending a message, just for her. She cleared her throat, shifting in her seat, getting ready to get up and leave, like a good Commander should … even though she found she really didn't want to go.

But Kaidan was continuing, looking out at the stars, his eyes filled with memories. "There was a girl, though, who I spent a lot time with. Rahna. She was from Turkey, from a very rich family, and she was smart. And charming as hell. Beautiful, but not stuck up about it." He swung his head around, catching Shepard's eyes, and said, "Like you. I guess. Ma'am." His eyes faltered and dropped.

"Me?" Her hand automatically went to the knot of her hair, touching it to make sure nothing had escaped. She wasn't supposed to be beautiful; she was supposed to be strong, and efficient, and capable.

"Yeah."

Shepard cleared her throat, needing to move past this moment where suddenly she was less a commander and more a woman and not sure where the balance lay. "Sounds like she was special to you."

"She was. And maybe she felt the same. But … things never fell together. Training, you know." Kaidan stood up suddenly, clearing his throat. "Sorry. You were in here alone and then I came in and you ended up in the middle of a bull session about stuff that happened years ago."

Standing up, too, Shepard found herself face to face with him, noticing—not for the first time—that he was quite a handsome man. "I'm … glad to have gotten to know you a little better. Thanks for the talk, Kaidan."

"You're welcome, ma'am. Commander. Um … Shepard." He frowned. "I don't know your first name."

"No," she said evenly. She didn't volunteer the name. Like her hair, like the singed quilt she had taken off her parents' bed that she kept wrapped in an old sheet in her closet, her name was something she kept close to herself. Even her official documentation was under her initials. The world knew her only as J.R. Shepard. To the best of her knowledge, no one actually knew that J.R. stood for Juniper Rosemary, a fitting name for the daughter of two horticulturalists, who missed their home planet and its particular flora.

Kaidan quite clearly got the message that she didn't intend to share the information, but they were still standing very close together, and he was curious, she could see that. "You, uh, make a habit of getting this … personal with everyone?"

Shepard shook her head. "Not a habit, no. Only when someone is particularly interesting."

"Am I?"

She nodded. "We should talk again." It wasn't Commanderly of her … but a person couldn't be the Commander all the time, she told herself. You had to stop and remember who you were occasionally, and Kaidan was the first person she'd met in a long time who made her feel like Juniper.

"I'll … uh … I'll need some time to process that, Commander," Kaidan said, and for a moment she worried that she had overstepped and made him uncomfortable. Then he tipped his head to the side and smiled, looking suddenly younger and more open than she'd ever seen him. "But … yeah. I think I'd like that."

"Good." Shepard put the Commander on again, like shrugging into the tailored coat of her dress uniform. "Lieutenant."

"Commander."

She left him there, realizing only as she left the room that she was still holding the beer in her left hand; she had forgotten all about it in their conversation. Lifting it to her lips as the elevator carried her down to the bridge, she swallowed the rest in one long gulp, thinking about why she drank it; why she never cut her hair; why she kept that quilt but hid it out of sight. They were her past … the Normandy and her career were her present. Did she want her future to continue to be that demarcated? Or did she want as she moved forward to begin to be a person who drank a beer, and cherished homey touches like a quilt, and sometimes let her hair down?

It was something to think about, she thought. In her quarters, she left the empty bottle prominently on a shelf, so she could look at it and remember there was more to her than the Commander. It wasn't much, but it was a start.

Chapter Text

“The two of you stay back, let me talk to her alone.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Kaidan watched as Shepard moved toward the pile of crates. Behind it crouched a woman with a gun, a woman who had been kidnapped by batarian slavers in the same attack on Mindoir that had killed Shepard’s parents.

Everyone knew the story; at least, the bare bones of it. The slaver attack, the colonists killed or dragged off, a young Shepard among the very few survivors. Until today, however, Kaidan had never considered Shepard as a child, cowering in hiding, listening to the screams of the people she’d called friends and family.

He did now, though. It had been in the careful blankness of her expression when the young lieutenant had mentioned Mindoir over the comm link; in the sudden dilation of her hazel eyes; in the whitening of her already pale skin that she couldn’t quite hide. There had never been any question of whether she would drop everything to come back up to the docking bay and help—she had done so immediately.

She was inching toward the pile of packing crates now, closing the space between herself and her fellow survivor very slowly. There was no indication that the survivor was a danger to anyone but herself, but … well, how could Shepard approach this situation without at least partially seeing herself in the other woman?

Next to Kaidan, Garrus was equally silent, unusual for the voluble turian. They both watched Shepard take a step, then stop to talk to the girl, then take another step. At last they saw the other woman take the sedative Shepard held out to her and swallow it, and after a few moments slump forward into Shepard’s waiting arms.

“I don’t think they need us here,” Garrus said quietly.

“Agreed.” The two of them got in the elevator and made themselves scarce, knowing Shepard could call them on the comm link in their suits if she needed them. Garrus went to go check in with some old friends from C-Sec. He invited Kaidan along, but Kaidan wasn’t interested in feeling like an outsider. He did that too often as it was.

He took a walk, instead, enjoying the beauty and peace of the Citadel, trying to squash the worry he felt for Shepard, faced so unexpectedly with her past, and trying equally hard to squash the decidedly not subordinate-for-commander feelings he was having for her. That she had made it evident she had similar feelings in return was no help. The regs were clear, regardless, and of course, everyone knew what usually happened when people threw the regs to the wind. Arguments, tears, outright brawls … a bad break-up could make a whole ship miserable. But somehow when he was with Shepard, when they were talking together, the regs seemed to make a lot less sense.

He paused for a moment on his way around the lake, seeing a woman wearing a familiar uniform leaning on the railing and staring down at the water. Should he leave her alone? Should he speak to her? Kaidan was caught in an agony of indecision until Shepard lifted her head and saw him standing there.

“I … wasn’t sure if you wanted company.”

“I wasn’t either, but since you’re here … Come grab some railing.”

“All right.” He leaned on the rail several careful inches away. “How is she?”

“Broken,” Shepard said bluntly, looking as though she had swallowed something particularly unpleasant. “They trained her to think she was an animal; she could barely remember her own name. Thirteen years like that, while I flew around in the stars and thought I had it bad. Can you imagine?”

“You did have it bad. You can’t condemn yourself because you didn’t have it even worse.”

“I didn’t try to hide anyone else, you know. Just cowered there in the shed.”

“Could you have?” he asked with frank curiosity.

Shepard frowned, her eyes far away as she thought about it. “I don’t think so. I was alone when they came, and I hid immediately.”

“Then you couldn’t have helped her.” Before she could speak, he added, “And imagining what the Shepard you are today could have done then won’t help, either. You weren’t this person then.”

“No,” she agreed. “No, I sure wasn’t.” A spasm of pain crossed her face. “But she was so much younger, only six.”

“Did you know her?”

“Not that I remember. It wasn’t that big a colony, but big enough, and I wouldn’t have been spending my time with six-year-olds. I spent it watching the sky, dreaming of flying among the stars. If I’d only known what it would take to get me there,” Shepard said bitterly. “She asked me, you know. Why I wasn’t like her. And I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was because I was a coward.”

“Hey!” Kaidan said, louder than he’d intended, turning to face her. “You hid to live. You knew what they’d do to you. That was a brave act.”

Shepard stared at him, her eyes very blue. “I … You’re right. At least, that’s what I’ve told myself all these years, to live with it. I had the Alliance, the work, and I told myself at least that made it worth while, that I lived, that I escaped.”

“And you were right.”

“You think that’s what you would have done?”

“I … probably not. I probably would have done something stupid and gotten someone else hurt,” Kaidan said, his own bitterness rising up in him along with an image of Rahna.

Shepard’s eyes searched his face. “Tell me about it, what you’re thinking of.”

“It’s a long time ago.”

“So was Mindoir. Do these things ever really leave us?”

“Maybe you’re right.” He sighed, looking out over the lake. “Where do I even start? It was back in Brain Camp. Remember, this was long before they understood how to train biotics, so of course, they had to look to our allies for teachers.”

“Asari?”

He shook his head. “Bringing in asari would have made Earth look weak—asking for help wasn’t something they were ready to do, not openly. No, they went for turians. Mercenaries. But they couldn’t admit that, afraid of what the people back home would think.”

“I take it that didn’t go well.”

“No. The guy they brought in to teach us was ex-military. Commander Vyrnnus. He used to say charming things like ‘I was at the helm of the dreadnought that killed your father.’”

“Quite the classroom manner.”

Kaidan shook his head, trying not to see the greyish face and the cold eyes in his memory. “He … didn’t like me much.”

“Because you wouldn’t back down.”

“Exactly. And at the time, I had a smart mouth. This was long before the military had trained me to keep a lid on it.”

Shepard smiled.

Kaidan ducked his head, flushing. “Still something I have to work on.”

“No issues, Lieutenant. Not with me.”

“Good.”

“So what happened with Vyrnnus?” She studied him with that forthright, direct look she had, the one that said she could really see into him. “I don’t see you snapping that easily. What finally did it?”

“I was a lot younger then, a lot less controlled. I was working on it, even then, and I might have made it through without an incident, but he …” He could still see it all so clearly. “He hurt Rahna. Broke her arm.”

“I see.”

“He overreacted when she reached for a glass of water instead of pulling it biotically. Just wanted a drink without getting a nosebleed, you know? And then, I stood up, got between them. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but he wasn’t going to hurt her again.” Kaidan could feel his fists clenching, and he forced himself to uncurl them, to take a breath and get himself under control again. “I pushed, and Vyrnnus lost it. He started beating the crap out of me. He went so far as to pull a knife on me, a military-issue talon. Right in my face. And I—cut loose. Full biotic kick, right in the teeth. Almost as strong as I can manage now.”

“You were how old?”

“Seventeen. Hopped up on hormones and biotic power and dealing with migraines so painful I could barely move during them.”

“No wonder you weren’t as controlled as you might have wanted to be.”

He snorted. “Tell me about it.”

“You tried to help someone you cared for. That was a noble thing.”

“Maybe. Maybe my intentions were good. But I lost control.” He met her eyes squarely. “I killed him, Shepard.”

She nodded. “I figured as much.”

“Caused a real stir when they shipped him home. Brain Camp was shut down.”

“And Rahna?”

Kaidan swallowed. He could still remember the look on Rahna’s face, the fear in her wide dark eyes. “Never spoke to me again. She … had such a gentle heart. She loved everyone. She couldn’t handle watching me kill a man.”

“Kaidan.” Shepard put a hand on his shoulder. “We do what we do to make the galaxy safe for people with gentle hearts.”

“Yeah. Yeah, maybe. We all protected her, you know? Everyone who … everyone who loved her.”

“That explains a lot.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you agonize over doing the right thing. You never let yourself lose control. Because of Rahna.”

He didn’t want to admit it, but … that had changed him. The fear in those beautiful eyes had changed him. “Maybe,” he said unwillingly. “But you don’t have to worry about me. I’m 32, Shepard. You don’t serve as long as I have without coming to terms with yourself.” He hesitated, then added, “You also learn if someone is special to you, you help them.”

Something brightened in her face, a warmth lit her eyes. “Special?”

Kaidan could barely breathe. They were standing so close together, her hand still on his shoulder, but she was still his superior officer. “If I’m out of line, just say the word.”

Shepard shook her head. “You’re not.”

It struck him that maybe she thought he did this kind of thing all the time. “I’m aware of the regs; just so you know, I don’t make a habit of complicating the chain of command.”

“I know that,” she said, and he could have kicked himself. Of course she’d read his file. She would have known. “Neither do I.”

“I … don’t want to distract you too much. Maybe I don’t want to distract me too much. The deeper we get into this mess, with Saren and everything, the bigger it seems. But … I’m glad you’ll be here when it’s over, Shepard.” He couldn’t help a smile, or the leap his heart did at her answering smile. “I’m, uh … I’m looking forward to some shore leave.”

“So am I.”

Chapter Text

Shepard glanced at the mileage on the running machine. Almost to her goal for the day. She didn’t enjoy running, not the way Ashley and Tali both seemed to, but carrying all that equipment and wearing that heavy armor planet-side meant maintaining strength and endurance, and cooped up here on the ship, that meant the machine. There were a number of programs you could use that simulated running in various terrains, with vidclips of the appropriate surroundings to give you something to look at, but Shepard preferred to remain in the here and now. She found that keeping her mind open while running often helped her work through a thorny problem, and that she gained insight into her people while watching them at their own exercise.

Tonight was reasonably quiet. Ashley was at the weights, as usual—the Chief was justifiably proud of her strength, speed, and stamina, and she worked hard to maintain them. She spent as much time in the exercise room as she could spare. Liara was leading some of the younger cadets in an asari discipline that seemed a lot like yoga. Shepard was intrigued by it, but had been reluctant to join Liara’s class … since she had turned down Liara’s more personal advances, she felt somewhat shy around the asari, guilty that she couldn’t return her friend’s deeper feelings. She couldn’t deny that she had been tempted. There was a peace in Liara’s presence, a softness, that made Shepard feel more open than she had since her mother had died. But … while Liara was peace, she wasn’t pulse-quickening. If Kaidan hadn’t been on the Normandy, Shepard imagined she might have come to have feelings that matched Liara’s—but he was, and unfamiliar as she was with paying attention to her own emotions, Shepard didn’t have the capacity for more overwhelming emotions than she already felt in Kaidan’s presence.

He was on the free weights; she could hear them clanking behind her as he dropped them after each set. Shepard punched up the speed on her machine, finishing at a sprint, as much to keep from turning to watch the way his muscles flexed as to push her endurance. She had come to terms with the idea that she and Kaidan were both adults, both able to make this decision despite the regs, but that didn’t mean she had any business letting it show in front of others. She was still the Commander of this ship, and that meant maintaining her professionalism.

As she was sprinting, Liara’s class finished. She smiled at Shepard on her way out—whatever discomfort Shepard felt, and Liara felt in her turn, Liara had made an effort to keep their relationship the same, and for that Shepard was grateful. Over and above anything else, she liked Liara a great deal and would have missed their treasured conversations over tea in Liara’s quarters.

Shepard hit the button for the cooldown program, letting the machine gradually slow its speed. She was at a fast walk when Ashley finished up for the night. She paused in front of Shepard’s machine. “Good form, Commander. You’ve relaxed your shoulders a lot. That feel better?”

“Yes, it does. Thanks to you.”

“How’s the weight training going?” Shepard had consulted Ashley’s expertise several times, and was definitely seeing improvement as a result.

She said as much to Ashley, who smiled. “My pleasure, skipper. Anything to keep from having to carry your gear.”

“Watch it, Chief.”

Ashley chuckled, wiping her face with her towel as she left the room.

Shepard’s program was winding down, but her pulse was speeding up as she realized she and Kaidan were alone in the room. As she stepped off the machine, reaching for her water bottle, she saw him coming toward her, a smile on his handsome face. “You’re coming along, Commander. Your endurance is improving.”

“Thanks. It’s still not my favorite activity.”

“I know; you’d rather be behind the wheel of the Mako.”

Shepard grinned. Her driving skills, or lack thereof, were a constant topic of conversation, and complaint, amongst her companions. “You have to admit it’s easier. And more fun.”

“I’ll give you the first one … as long as you’re buckled in tightly.” He hesitated. “We’re so close now, don’t you feel it? When we deliver everything, the Council will have to mobilize around us.”
“I hesitate to imagine the Council having to do anything they don’t want to do. Let’s not count our chickens,” Shepard cautioned.

“But if we could get the Council on our side, this could become a great opportunity for the Alliance.”

“It’s been a struggle, but I think we’re starting to earn their respect now,” she agreed.

“And you’ve been at the forefront, even back in the Blitz,” Kaidan pointed out. “You’ll probably get another Star of Terra out of this.”

“I’m not in this for the medals, Kaidan.”

“I know that.” His voice dropping and his dark eyes softening, he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman like you.”

Shepard’s breath caught, her heart thudding against her chest. “Same here,” she said softly. “You haven’t had the easiest life … but I like the man it’s made of you.”

Kaidan took a step toward her, close enough that she could smell the faint spicy scent of soap that lingered underneath the smell of his sweat. It was a heady combination. “Please, Commander,” he said, his eyes warming with humor. “You’ll make me blush.”

They looked at each other for a long moment, close enough to touch but neither making a move to do so.

Then Kaidan cleared his throat. Earnestly, he said, “No bull, Shepard. I want to follow through with this—you and me.”

She nodded. “So do I.”

“It’s tough keeping it separated from duty, but … I think it’s worth it. Or it will be.”

“Yes. And when the mission’s complete—“

“It’ll be different,” he finished. “I know.”

Shepard wasn’t that certain—she didn’t know all the rules for Spectres, but she was pretty sure the Ambassador would find something else to keep his first human Spectre occupied, even if the Council didn’t. But hopefully there would be time for a break between assignments, and that was as far ahead as she wanted to look, at least for now.

“So you feel the same?” Kaidan asked softly. There was a vulnerability in his face that touched Shepard. He had kept himself separate from entanglements in his rise in the Alliance, as she had, so this was a first for both of them. Uncharted territory.

“Careful,” she said, smiling at him. “That sounds so nice you might distract me from saving the galaxy.”

Kaidan smiled back. “I’m sure it’ll take care of itself one of these days … or nights,” he said. His hand rose, reaching out to touch her face, and Shepard held her breath, knowing she should move away, or he should, and not wanting to. He didn’t quite touch her, although she could feel the heat of his skin so close to hers, and at last he pulled his hand back, reluctantly. “Shepard,” he breathed, “you are a hard woman to step away from.”

“I wish you didn’t have to,” she admitted.

“So do I.” He cleared his throat and managed to take that step back, with obvious reluctance. “We’ll get this done, Commander. The sooner the better.”

“Agreed, Lieutenant. Very much agreed.”

Chapter Text

Shepard knelt in front of her locker, fumbling with the combination. Her shaking fingers couldn’t seem to remember what it was, or to hit the buttons properly at all. Udina’s betrayal had been sudden and thorough—and all the more devastating because she hadn’t actually trusted him and yet she still hadn’t seen it coming. She was so angry she could barely see straight. What did he think he was doing, keeping her here when the Reaper threat was still out there, when she had proven herself the only person able to stand up against Saren and give him anything like an even fight?

Her mind was racing, trying to come up with a plan, but she couldn’t think properly. She kept thinking of Ashley, of the bravery and the willingness to die doing what she believed in that had been in her voice in that last transmission; of Kaidan and the way he had looked at her when she admitted she had gone back for him because she had feelings for him. He had blamed himself for Ashley’s death, had blamed Shepard and their attraction to each other, and had barely spoken to her since.

And he wasn’t wrong. Shepard despised herself for making the decision as much as, or more than, he possibly could. She had allowed her emotions to rule at a time when a good commander thought tactically … but then, Kaidan had been the right tactical choice, too. Who knew how long it would have taken to fight their way through the geth to get to Ashley, and if they would all have been caught in the blast of the nuke if she had tried? Then they would all have died—and Ashley had known it as well as she had.

Regardless of the decision-making involved, Ashley had gone willingly to her death because she was a soldier, and because she believed she was losing her life in an important cause. Shepard could only imagine the way the Chief would have cursed if she had known the Alliance, her own people, would turn around so quickly and throw away their best chance at actually stopping the threat that was menacing the galaxy … and for what? A little bit of political gain?

Kneeling there, Shepard put her hands over her eyes. She could feel tears close to the surface—tears of grief and rage and frustration—and she didn’t want anyone to see her like this. She hoped that if she just stayed here, pretending to be opening her locker, no one would notice her, and she could take some time getting herself together.

But behind her she heard soft footfalls on the industrial carpeting, coming toward her. She turned and looked up and saw Kaidan standing there. Part of her tensed, worried that he was here to express his disappointment in her for the decision she had made … but part of her relaxed. Of everyone on the ship, Kaidan was the one she had most wanted to see, just to spend a few minutes with him and maybe let go of some of this, put her head on his shoulder and be … Juniper, letting Commander Shepard go for a few minutes. But of course, Kaidan didn’t know Juniper existed, not really. He was so focused on maintaining their professionalism, on not letting their feelings for one another cloud their ability to do the work … and increasingly Shepard didn’t care. More than that, increasingly she wondered if maybe she would be stronger and better able to do the work if occasionally she could be something other than a soldier.

She sank down against the locker, leaning her head back and looking up at Kaidan, waiting to see if he was here to chastise or comfort.

His face softened as he looked down at her. “Commander, are you all right? I mean … of course you’re not.”

“How could I be? Grounded, as though I did something wrong, kept from being able to do what needs to be done, knowing there’s a threat out there I can stop but some stupid politician won’t let me? I’m pretty damned far from all right.” She clenched her teeth, knowing that if she kept going she would start to cry and not wanting to put that burden on Kaidan. If she started, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to stop. She didn’t think he was ready for that … and she was fairly certain she wasn’t.

“I’m sure there must be a way to appeal. We’re under Alliance authority, after all.”

“Yes, but the Alliance has to answer to Udina,” she said wearily. “And Udina was the one who grounded us. Besides which, I tried already. Official channels are closed. Officially. They were quite clear about that.”

“Closed?” he echoed. “And we’re supposed to accept that?”

“They expect us to.”

He scowled. “So where do you think the best view will be when the Reapers roll through? If we have to sit it out, may as well get a good seat.”

Shepard was torn between irritation at him and herself and the whole situation; pain at the idea that he might think this was her fault, that she hadn’t fought hard enough; her need for some kind of comfort or reassurance … and her automatic impulse to remind him that she was on top of things, because she was Commander Shepard, the first human Spectre, and she was always on top of things.

“We’re out of the game for now. But …” She hesitated. She desperately wanted a shoulder, a friend, reassurance, a moment to feel, before she had to go back to finding a way to solve everything. “I … need you to be there for me while I figure things out.”

“You know you can count on me, or any of the crew, Commander,” he assured her.

Shepard swallowed against her disappointment. She wanted Kaidan, not Lieutenant Alenko—couldn’t he understand that? “Come on, Kaidan,” she said. “I can get a salute from anyone on this ship. Sometimes I need a shoulder. Just like anyone else would.”

“Yeah …” He didn’t sound convinced, and Shepard wondered, not for the first time, how much of what he felt for her was hero worship. She wanted him to see in her what she saw in him, someone who could become a true partner, someone to talk to, someone to share the burden with and laugh with and look forward to being with, but she wasn’t sure if he could truly see beyond Commander Shepard to the woman inside her. “I always leave a way out, you know that,” he added, and she wondered if that was it, that he was simply afraid to commit to something he couldn’t get out of. Cooped up on a ship … well, they had all seen romances fizzle and go bad aboard ship and the anger and bitterness that came from not being able to get away from each other when you needed to. Kaidan looked down at her, earnestly trying to get her to understand his point. “I’m here for you, you know that, but we’re in a rough spot, and the last thing I want to do is muddy things.”

Shepard sighed. “Things are already muddy, Kaidan. Our own ambassador refuses to believe what we saw; he’d rather curry favor with the Council than take our side. And there’s nothing we can do about that. But you think somehow it helps to pretend we’re not creatures with feelings?”

“You’re right, it’s not really all that clear to start with. Are we the pride of the fleet or not? Are we valued agents or just peons?”

“I think Udina wants us to be a high-powered gun, one he can point where he wants it and pull the trigger on, and he finds instead we’re a guided missile locked onto a target.”

“Maybe he’ll come to his senses.”

Shepard laughed bitterly. That wasn’t something she was willing to hold her breath for, and she didn’t want to talk about Udina anyway. She looked up at Kaidan, shaking her head. “You really can’t just pull out a good old-fashioned ‘it’ll be all right’, can you?”

He smiled. “It’s that easy, huh?”

“No, apparently not. But … I think it could help, if you’d be willing to give it a try.”

“Okay, then, if that’s what you want.” He recited the words as if he had learned them from a book. “Everything’ll be fine, Shepard.” Then, sounding more like himself, he added, “You’ll figure it out.”

“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Shepard smiled back at him. “Thanks. I needed that.”

His eyes softened, warming, as he looked down at her. “I think I could get used to it. And … on the bright side, I guess we have some down time to … figure out what we are?”

Shepard nodded, her smile widening. “That’s the best idea I’ve heard yet.”

Kaidan reached a hand down for her, and she took it, letting him pull her to her feet. He pulled hard enough that she lost her balance and fell against him, his arms coming around her as naturally as if they did this all the time. He held her there, and Shepard leaned her forehead against his shoulder, soaking in the warmth of his body next to hers and the comfort of being here with him and having just a moment where she didn’t have to have all the answers.

“Shepard,” he whispered roughly. “What’s your name?”

She turned to look at him, hesitating. It had been so long since she had spoken it out loud, or heard someone else say it to her, that it felt odd to use it at all. “Juniper,” she said at last, the word feeling strange on her tongue.

“Juniper.” He looked at her, seeming really to see her and not his Commander for the first time. “Juniper. It suits you.”

His face was so close to hers that she could feel his breath along her cheek as he spoke. Her fingers tightened on his shoulders, her eyes closing as his mouth moved toward hers, his intention clear. She welcomed it. She had been kissed before, of course, but she had never wanted someone’s kiss the way she wanted his, and it had been a long time since she had wanted any kiss at all.

Then the radio crackled to life in Shepard’s suit and they jumped apart as Joker’s voice came through. “Sorry to interrupt, Commander. Got a message from Captain Anderson.”

Shepard glared up at the ceiling, as though Joker might actually be hovering there. “Are you spying on us, Joker?” She had no doubt that he was, and the barely concealed smirk in his voice as he responded didn’t allay her suspicions at all.

“Not at all, Commander. Just knew you were on the ship and figured I’d pass the message on.”

“I’ll bet,” she muttered under her breath, but she was smiling. It was hard to be mad at Joker for too long. “I’ll be right up,” she added more loudly.

“Yes, ma’am.” The radio went off.

Shepard reached for Kaidan’s hand, and it closed around hers, the touch comforting and energizing. “Later?” she asked.

“Definitely.”

Chapter Text

The Normandy was speeding through space, Joker nimbly avoiding anyone who might have an interest in chasing down the rogue ship. Shepard was still trying to wrap her mind around being a fugitive on a stolen ship, on the way to slip into forbidden space on a mission the Council, and her own Ambassador, thought was little better than a deluded fantasy … and she knew that if she was still struggling with it, the crew must be having an even harder time. They had all followed her out of personal loyalty and a belief that this was the right course, but the consequences would come down hard on each of them if they were caught, if she was wrong, or if the mission failed.

She had thought about it and worried about it and tried to plan until her head was spinning. Before she could think any further, she hit the comm button on her uniform, keying into Kaidan’s line.

“Commander?” Just his familiar voice, his imagined smile, helped.

“You have a minute?”

There was a pause. “I … suppose.”

“Report to my quarters?”

An even longer pause as he digested the possible implications of the order. “On my way, Commander.”

With Kaidan on his way up, she was, if anything, more nervous than before, more uncertain of her motives and plans. What she wanted was not in the regs … but neither was this whole chase after Saren. They were all in uncharted territory right now. What was a bit more skating on thin ice?

She sat down in front of her monitor, which was tied in to Joker’s screen, and she watched the blips on the radar that signified other ships. An asari was out there somewhere, and a human cargo freighter, but those would be left behind before too long, and there would be fewer and fewer ships as they came closer to their destination. It looked like Joker was in for a quiet night.

The door opened behind her, and she looked around as Kaidan came in. “Commander.”

Shepard stood up, sighing. “You probably shouldn’t call me that. I probably shouldn’t even be wearing this uniform."

“Yeah, hell of a thing,” he agreed. “We broke our oath to defend the Alliance … so we could keep it. What happens if this doesn’t work out, Shepard? We mutinied, stole a prototype warship—if you want to get technical, we could throw in kidnapping.” He shook his head. “We’re a hell of an example of humanity’s best and brightest.”

“I keep reminding myself we’re doing the right thing. If Udina had been willing to listen to reason, we’d be doing all this with his blessing … But I don’t really believe me yet.”

Kaidan reached for her hand. “If I didn’t think you were doing the right thing, I wouldn’t be here.” He looked down at their joined fingers and his tightened around hers … then he thought better of it and took his hand back. “It’ll really hit the fan when we get to Ilos. If … things don’t go well, I want you to know—well … I’ve enjoyed serving under you.”

She had the sense that he was just as unsure how to proceed here as she was, as torn between wanting to be a good soldier and focus on the mission and wanting—everything else. She was the Commander here. If one of them were going to take that step, it would have to be her. “Kaidan.”

“Commander.”

“You stopped being a subordinate a long time ago.”

He nodded. “You’re right … Juniper.”

Hearing her name fall so easily from his mouth made her shiver. It had been so long since anyone had used it, and no one ever in those rough, caressing tones of his. “In that case, perhaps I should point out that I haven’t yet had the pleasure of you serving under me, and this might be the time to rectify that.” She projected the confidence she had learned as a Commander, as a Spectre, but inside she was anything but, and it was a relief when her words and her play on his registered and he laughed.

“I walked right into that one, didn’t I?” His eyes searched her face for signs of her certainty. “You know we could get drummed out of the service for fraternization.”

“Would that be before or after the court martial for mutiny and grand theft and potentially treason?”

“You’re right, I suppose bringing that up at our firing squad would be redundant.”

“Now you’re thinking.” She smiled, pushing down her very real fear that her crew would suffer the consequences of her leadership. Hopefully Captain Anderson could keep them safe … or at least cushion the blow for them somehow, no matter what happened to her personally.

Kaidan took a long breath and let it out slowly. “You are right, Juniper. About everything. I’ve dragged my heels, wasted all this time, because of a rule that in the end doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference. I think about losing you, and I … I can’t stand it. To go into this fight not having … never having …”

“Kaidan.” She stepped toward him, so close she could feel the heat from his body, his breath on her cheek. Remembering what had happened the last time they stood this close to one another, she reached up and turned off her uniform radio. If Joker needed something, he knew where to find her.

Smiling, Kaidan did the same. His eyes were dark and intense, almost heated. “No matter what we do here tonight, the galaxy will just keep going. Everything will move on its normal course—civilizations rise and fall, the Reapers come around again—but you and I … We are important right now.”

Shepard found her hands pressed against his chest, his resting on her waist.

He continued, his voice rasping tenderly over the words. “This is what will never happen again, what we feel for each other right now. Us. Shepard—Juniper—you make me feel …” He shook his head, unable to find the right words. “Human,” he finished at last.

“I can make you feel much more than that.” She curved a hand around the back of his neck, urging his head down toward hers.

Their lips met, tentatively, softly, at first, but then their mouths opened and their tongues found each other and the passion they had tried for so long to deny for the sake of duty rose in them. When they broke apart to breathe, Shepard took his hand, tugging him toward the bed.

“Come here.”

“Is that an order, Commander?” There was both a smile and a caress in his voice.

Shepard smiled, too. “Shut up and get over here.”

“Careful, Shepard.” He chuckled, following her, sliding his arms around her waist. “I might think that you’re abusing your authority. Serious breach of protocol.”

“What can I say? I’m trouble. Or so people keep telling me.” She kissed him again, hungrily, and set to work on the top of his uniform. When it was on the floor, she pushed him back, pressing him against the wall, and set her lips to his ribcage, kissing her way up over his broad, muscular chest, her hands following the same path and then diverging to caress his back.

Kaidan kicked off his boots, losing a good inch of height in the process. Shepard smiled and did the same, restoring the more familiar height difference between them, and then went back into his waiting arms, kissing him again.

There seemed to be a tentativeness in his touch that bothered her, as if some part of him were still waiting for orders, or worrying about the breach in protocol, and Shepard leaned back to look him in the eye. “Kaidan.”

For answer he cupped her cheek with one hand, his thumb caressing her jaw, waiting for her to speak.

“I don’t want a pet, someone who snaps at my every command. That’s … that’s not what this is. You know that, right?”

He nodded. “I do. It’s just … I want this, you, more than anything I can remember, and … Well.” He smiled. “I do get used to following your orders.”

Shepard smiled, too. “Then what do you want?”

“I …” She could see him fighting his natural reticence, his ingrained sense of duty and protocol and his innate chivalry. “I want to see you. All of you. And … your hair down. Is that all right?”

“Yes. Yes, it is.” She stepped back, and Kaidan removed the rest of his clothes and lay down on her bed, watching her. Something about that dark gaze made her heart speed up. To the best of her knowledge, no one had ever watched her strip before, and this felt like … like taking Commander Shepard off entirely and becoming someone else. She liked the idea, but it was so new her hands were trembling as she unfastened her pants, sliding them off. Her underwear followed, and then her uniform top and the thin shirt she wore below it and her bra.

“Now the hair.” Kaidan’s voice was rough and it sent a shiver through her.

She could barely find the familiar pins that held up her hair, her fingers were shaking so badly. Finally she had the careful twist down, running her fingers through it to spread her dark hair out over her shoulders. Because she had put it up wet, it was twisted and bent, not smooth, but Kaidan’s swift intake of breath indicated he didn’t care about that. “Juniper.”

Shepard crawled across the bed to him, their mouths meeting in a heated kiss as he put his arms around her and rolled them both over, pressing her back into the pillows. His skin was smooth and warm against hers, the faint rasp of his body hair adding a friction that made it feel even better. The kisses went on and on, Shepard losing track of where one ended and the other began other than the quick breaths she took between them.

Kaidan’s hands were everywhere, knowing just where he wanted to touch her, so suddenly sure of himself in a sea of sensation. At last, he pressed her legs apart, his fingers finding her center, stroking lightly at first and then more firmly, and Shepard wasn’t sure she was going to last much longer. Her own hands had been exploring, and now she took him in both of them, nudging him closer to where she needed him. He came willingly, and they both moaned at that first contact.

As he pressed fully inside her, Shepard wrapped her legs around his hips, holding him there. “Kaidan.”

He nuzzled her neck. “Juniper.” And then he moved, slowly, making each stroke last. Shepard rose up to meet him each time, the delicious tension building inside her, until neither of them could hold back any further, their rhythm speeding up on its own.

He cried out first, pressing hard against her, and that last bit of friction sent Shepard spinning over the edge, calling his name.

As their breathing slowly returned to normal, they shifted so that Kaidan was lying on his back, Shepard half on top of him with her head resting on his chest. Her hair was spread out over his skin, and she looked at that for a moment, bemused. It hardly seemed like her, this naked woman in bed with her hair down.

Beneath her, Kaidan chuckled softly.

“What?”

“I was just thinking—I can’t decide if I’m kicking myself for wasting all this time when we could have been doing that, or glad that we didn’t do it sooner because I would never have wanted to do anything else.”

Shepard grinned. “Perfectly valid, either way you go.”

Kaidan’s warm hand traced her spine, up and down. Shepard shivered, drawing her leg up, the heat beginning to collect in her belly again and spread itself across her body. She could feel Kaidan stirring to life against her thigh. “Since you’re here,” she whispered, “seems like a shame not to take advantage of the time.”

He smiled. “That’s why they put you in charge; you always know what to do.” His voice was roughening again, the tone so quiet and intimate that Shepard could forget where they were and what they were doing—it was just the two of them here, and they could be anywhere, as long as it had a bed. She shifted so that she lay fully on top of him, kissing him, his arms wrapping around her and holding her against him as if he would never let go, and then they did it all again, but more slowly, exploring and teasing and tasting and caressing.

When they finally fell asleep, it was late into the night … or so Shepard assumed. Her internal clock rarely failed her.

Nor did it fail her when the morning came. No matter how tired she was, how little sleep she'd had, somehow she always woke up at the same time. She lay there for a few minutes, hearing the steady rise and fall of Kaidan’s breathing. She could get used to this, she thought.

But there was no time. She could tell by the feel of the ship beneath her that they were slowing; she would need to go up for a briefing in a little while.

Carefully, to avoid waking Kaidan, she slipped out of the bed. He sighed when she was gone, turning over into the warm place where her body had lain, and she left him sleeping there while she showered and dressed.

She twisted her hair back up with some reluctance, wondering when the next chance would be to take it down. But this was the way things were—this was the life she had chosen. If there were a future, she would have to learn to be both, to have both. Or, at least, she hoped she would.

Leaning against a table, she watched Kaidan sleep, admiring the strong lines of his nose and mouth, the well-defined muscles of his shoulders and chest.

He stirred, mumbling something, and rolled over. His eyes came open, searching for her immediately. Shepard was impressed that he seemed to go instantly from sleep to full alertness—one reason she woke up as early as she did was to make sure she kept her first-few-minutes grogginess to herself.

Kaidan sat up, his eyes on her. The smiles and jokes of the night before were gone—there was a seriousness in his face that said he, too, could tell they were nearing their destination.

“It’s been a long time since I met a woman who—“ he began, but was cut off by Joker from the bridge, his voice crackling out of the loudspeaker on Shepard’s desk.

“Bridge to Commander Shepard. We’re five minutes out from the Mu Relay.”

Shepard smiled. “Five minutes? Plenty of time to work out a little more stress.” The last thing she was ready for this morning was serious talk. Either they would make it through this in plenty of time, or they wouldn’t, in which case she wanted the last image of him in her mind to be naked in her bed, smiling.

Kaidan shook his head, a small smile touching just the corners of his mouth. “Joker’s waiting for you on the bridge.” The smile faded. “I swear, though, if anything happens to you … Take care of yourself, Shepard.”
“I’ll do my best.” She got up and crossed to the bed, touching his cheek with her fingertips. “You’re a sweetheart, Kaidan.”

He caught her hands, kissing her fingertips. “There are no words for all the things you are, Juniper.”

With a last look at him, she left the room. As the doors slid closed behind her, she was Commander Shepard again, with Juniper safely tucked away … but for the first time, that woman lived in someone else’s heart, too, and that made a lot more difference than Shepard had ever imagined it would.

Chapter Text

With much of the Citadel's infrastructure out of commission, and the remainder overwhelmed, Kaidan and Garrus had been brought back to the Normandy after the battle and put under Dr. Chakwas’s care. In truth, Kaidan’s broken ribs and injured arm weren’t the problem—after the application of some medi-gel, they were healing, more irritating than anything. But he could feel the onset of a whopper of a migraine. Lights were flashing in his vision, and he felt dizzy and sick, the vise closing in around his head. Not surprising, but it was a terrible time for it. Every pair of hands was going to be needed to clean up the debris and start to put the Citadel back together.

Dr. Chakwas took one look at him over Garrus’s burnt shoulder and without paying any attention to his protests had him hustled immediately off to the familiar confines of the isolation chamber, where blessed darkness and silence enclosed him. Eventually he dropped off to sleep despite his best efforts to fight off the symptoms and pretend he was fit for duty.

He woke refreshed, his head clear, his ribs sore but not painful. Dr. Chakwas looked him over, making certain he had fully recovered from the migraine, bound his arm in a sling, and cleared him to leave the med bay.

Once outside, he gathered his wits about him for the first time since he was taken into the med bay—it felt like the first time since they’d put their boots on the ground at Ilos, really—and looked around him. He was on the Normandy, but where was the Normandy? He had to assume it was still at the Citadel, and he didn’t feel it moving underneath him, so he imagined it must still be docked.

He took the stairs up to the bridge. Young Gerard was standing at attention at the door, looking older and more tired than the last time Kaidan had seen him. Probably they all did. He unbent enough to smile when Kaidan came through. “Lieutenant, it’s good to see you up and about.”

“Good to be up and about.”

Before Kaidan could voice the question uppermost in his mind, Gerard answered it. “The Commander will be relieved to see you on your feet. She hovered around med bay until Dr. Chakwas threatened to have her thrown off the ship.”

Kaidan grinned. Only Dr. Chakwas could get away with talking to Shepard that way. “Have you seen the Commander recently?”

“She’s been in the Citadel the last couple of days.”

“Days? How long was I out?”

Gerard frowned, counting. “Three days?”

“Oh.” After everything, Kaidan wasn’t all that surprised he had slept so long, especially given the migraine. He wondered how much Shepard had slept, if at all. Neither of them had done too much sleeping that last night before Ilos, but she had slept less than he had. There hadn’t been a chance to talk after that, either, so he wasn’t sure where they stood. Regs said they stood nowhere, but having thrown regs to the wind once, Kaidan thought he would be willing to toss them aside a few more times, maybe even permanently, if that was what Shepard wanted. “Gerard, any reason I can’t go ashore?”

“No, sir. Uh …” He hesitated as Kaidan paused, waiting for him to speak. “You can probably find the Commander wherever Captain Anderson is.”

“Thanks.” Kaidan moved toward the airlock, pausing in the cockpit where Joker lay stretched out on the ground working on something in the navigation console. “How’s she holding up?”

Joker shifted his shoulders out from under the console to look up at Kaidan. “The Normandy’s in fine shape. A lot better than the Citadel. Thanks to its capable pilot, that is.” He grinned.

“We’ve never doubted you,” Kaidan said, moving toward the airlock. He waited while the doors opened and then made his way out to the docking bay.

It looked a lot better out there than he would have thought. In the midst of the battle for the Citadel, the destruction had seemed endless, and the scars of battle were still evident in loose cords dangling from the walls and broken tiles at his feet and the scurrying of the Keepers who were usually so still and unobtrusive. But the docking bay was functional, and when he touched the panel the elevator doors opened. Kaidan hesitated before he stepped onto the elevator, remembering what had happened to the elevator during Sovereign’s attack. But there really was no other way down, so he got in and touched the button to close the door, and he waited. The elevator was slower than usual, and the music was broken up by static … but it was still the same song. He smiled, listening to it, the melody so familiar his mind could fill in the missing pieces. A galaxy’s worth of music, and the Citadel’s elevators played the same thing over and over again. He could only imagine they were going for a soothing familiarity … or that it was some kind of glitch and no one could ever remember to fix it. Either way, it was actually reassuring to hear even brief snatches of it now.

The doors opened far below in C-Sec, which seemed largely untouched by the destruction of the battle. The geth apparently hadn’t made it down this far. And no doubt the C-Sec officers had been out doing the fighting, defending the Citadel’s populace. Kaidan wondered how many had been lost in the process.

Things were bustling here, and as he watched everyone rushing around he realized he had absolutely no idea where to find Shepard, or what to do with himself other than look for her.

He grabbed the arm of a passing turian. “Excuse me, do you know where to find Commander Shepard?”

The turian had clearly been thinking of something else; he frowned blankly at Kaidan while the words filtered through his distraction. “Shepard? Oh, the human Spectre! Not sure, but you might want to check the embassy.” He didn’t wait for Kaidan’s response, going on about his business.

Kaidan made his way to the embassy area, continuing to be impressed by the rapidity with which the Keepers made repairs. Knowing now as he did that the race had been bred specifically to tend the Citadel, he found himself curious about them, watching the ones he saw to determine if he could tell what had been altered in them over the long centuries, what they might have been once upon a time.

As he climbed the steps to the human embassy, his heart was pounding. Since he hadn’t had a chance to talk to Shepard since their night together, this first sight of her now after the battle was something he couldn’t predict—would she be all business, would there be a sign for him, had she forgotten all about him in the greater urgency of the moment, had she decided it had all been a big mistake? Given Shepard, it could be any of the above.

At his tentative knock, Ambassador Udina’s impatient voice called, “Enter,” and the doors slid open for him.

“Well, soldier, what is it?” the Ambassador snapped.

Standing behind him, leaning over his shoulder looking at his computer screen, was Shepard. She stood up as Kaidan came in, and the blinding smile that flashed across her face, albeit briefly, told him everything he needed to know, filling him with peace and a welcome sense of warmth. “He’s with me, Ambassador. One moment, please.” And then she was all business, the formidable Commander Shepard famed across the galaxy. “Lieutenant?”

“Commander. Reporting for duty.”

She raised her eyebrows, coming around the desk toward him. She looked pointedly at the sling that held his arm. “Are you ready for duty, Lieutenant? Last time I saw you you were down for the count.”

“Yes, ma’am. Much better now. And you, no ill effects?”

“Nothing a little medi-gel and a good night’s sleep couldn’t fix, if I ever get a chance to remember what that is.” She smiled a little, her face relaxing. “Why don’t you come in here and we’ll catch you up on everything you missed during your recovery. And then later I’ll escort you back to the Normandy and check in on Joker’s progress with the repairs.”

There was something in her voice that told him any remaining questions he had would be answered satisfactorily then, and so Kaidan was able to put the personal aside and focus on the bigger issues at hand—the reconstruction of the Citadel, what the remaining Reapers on the other side of the Conduit would do, and whether the Council was finally going to add a human representative and if so, who it would be.

Chapter Text

As the elevator doors slid open, Shepard and Kaidan hastily stepped apart from one another. Not that they had been doing anything unseemly, or even touching, but they had been standing rather close together, taking comfort from one another’s nearness. Since the defeat of Sovereign, they hadn’t exactly kept their relationship a secret—coming so close to death left them both unimpressed with the regs—but they didn’t see the need to flaunt it, either.

They stepped off the elevator together. Kaidan turned toward Shepard. “I’m going to check in on the supplies we ordered for the refit. Joker’s chomping at the bit to get those new parts in and installed.”

“Good. I’ll go talk to the Ambassador about the meeting with the Council.”

Lowering his voice, Kaidan asked, “Have you decided which one you’ll recommend?”

She had narrowed the choice down to the Ambassador himself or Captain Anderson. Anderson was the right choice, she felt, but the Ambassador’s nose would be put thoroughly out of joint if she didn’t pick him, and he could make things very difficult for Anderson if he chose. Plus, he had a political savvy that Anderson lacked. Still, it was hard to stomach rewarding him with the highest honor humanity could gain in the greater universe after he had betrayed them so baldly before. Shepard shook her head at Kaidan, and he nodded, understanding that the answer was both no, she hadn’t decided and no, she didn’t want to talk about it.

“Then I’ll see you later.”

She smiled. “Absolutely.” As he walked off toward the requisitions office she watched him, enjoying the confidence in his walk and the strength in his muscular body, thinking about those muscles rippling underneath her hands the way they had last night in the throes of his pleasure.

“Pardon me, Commander.”

The soft voice threw her completely out of her intimate memories, and Shepard nearly stumbled as she turned around. Recognizing Emily Wong, the reporter she had helped out several times during previous visits to the Citadel, she smiled ruefully. “Sorry, you caught me woolgathering. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Really, I just wanted to ask you some questions, if you have a moment.”

“Of course. I was heading for the embassies—do you have time to walk with me?”

Emily nodded. Shepard kept her steps shorter and slower than usual in order to match Emily; the dainty reporter didn’t stride like a soldier … she didn’t need to, after all. And the Citadel was built more for strolling and enjoying the peaceful surroundings than for striding along in a hurry. Shepard had noticed that every time she was here. She attracted attention just through her walk.

Once they were in the elevator heading up from C-Sec, she turned to Emily. “What did you want to ask?”

“Well, I was hoping to get some statements from you on the record.”

“This is an interview? I thought you covered more hard-hitting news than I am.”

Emily smiled. “There is no hotter news story than you are right now, Commander, and I go where the public’s attention leads me.”

“I suppose I understand that. What do you want to know? About the fight, about Saren or Sovereign or the Reapers?”

“Actually …” Emily cleared her throat. “This is a bit more of a puff piece, if you will, Commander. I wanted to know about you and Lieutenant Alenko.”

Shepard blinked at her, not certain she had heard right. “What?”

“Now, now, Commander, even you must be aware that the two of you are the Citadel’s power couple.”

“Can’t say I was, no.” She frowned. “‘Power couple’?”

“Sure. The most famous pair, the ones at the top of the food chain.”

“This is news?”

Emily laughed. “Very much so.”

Shepard shook her head. She really didn’t understand civilians. Not at all. “I suppose I can answer a few questions. What do you want to know?” She wasn’t sure this was safe ground to talk about, but she trusted Emily from the times they had worked together before, and she could always refuse to answer if a question felt wrong.

“Well, for starters, did the two of you know each other before your assignment to the Normandy?”

“No. I was aware of the lieutenant’s qualifications, but we had never met.”

“So love blossomed amidst the strife of the conflict you became involved in?”

Shepard winced. “That’s a bit flowery, don’t you think?”

“Reporter-speak.”

“Hm.”

“I understand you are to remain in command of the Normandy—will the lieutenant remain on the ship as well?”

“Yes. At least, until he’s promoted and given a command of his own.”

“Are you concerned that if he’s promoted, it will look like favoritism?”

Shepard gave a small smile. “When he’s promoted, we’ll be half a galaxy apart from each other most of the time. Puts a bit of a damper on a relationship. If my personal feelings played a role, it would likely be in the other direction. But Kaidan is a highly qualified soldier and I would never stand in the way of his career.”

“So you feel a promotion is inevitable?”

“Of course. By any objective measure, his work has been exemplary. He has demonstrated leadership and quick thinking and courage under fire. I would not hesitate to send troops out under his command in any situation.” It was the truth, and Shepard felt a glow of pride as she said it.

Emily nodded, smiling. “That seems to be the consensus. So you don’t believe you’ll be sharing the same ship for long?”

“No, probably not.”

They were walking along the shining paths of the Citadel now, the lake to their left. Shepard could smell the water, the faint scent of the greenery. It was so peaceful here … but it was nothing compared to sitting at the top of the Normandy and watching the stars go by. She looked forward to being back out in space again, far from politics and reporters.

Emily chuckled. “You really don’t like it here, do you?”

“How could I not like it? It’s beautiful. It’s just … not what I’m accustomed to, and not where I feel useful.”

“Commander Shepard?”

“Yes?”

Hesitantly, Emily asked, “Would you ever consider letting a reporter shadow you on an assignment?”

Shepard didn’t even have to think about the answer. “No. You’d be a liability, a danger to yourself and others.”

Emily sighed. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”

“Sorry.”

“No, I understand. But I had to ask. If you ever change your mind …”

“You’ll be the first.” They had reached the embassies now, and Shepard paused. “Any further questions?”

“Just one—have you given any thought to marriage?”

Shepard grinned. “Saved the big one for last, did you?”

“Of course. Reporting 101: Hit them with the bombshell when they least expect it.”

“Well, the answer is no. I haven’t thought about it at all.” In Shepard’s experience, marriage and the military didn’t mix. Too much time apart on separate assignments. Whatever this was with Kaidan, she didn’t want to drag it down with a lot of ties and pressure … she just wanted to let it be what it was.

Emily smiled, acknowledging that it had been a particularly difficult question. “Thank you, Commander. I appreciate your taking the time to speak with me.”

“Happy to, Emily. Next time, let’s make it an easier topic, shall we? Maybe intergalactic politics.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Chapter Text

Shepard lay back on the mattress, panting. That had been a particularly athletic bout; both she and Kaidan were strong and fit and not opposed to trying that strength out against, and with, each other, and to both of their ultimate mutual satisfaction. She was in command everywhere else, which meant she often allowed him to ‘win’ in these situations, let him take the lead. It was a break for her, and a nice change of pace for him … and he did it very well. For a man who claimed limited experience, he had remarkably good instincts.

Next to her, Kaidan sighed, a contented sound that made her chuckle.

“Did I wear you out, Alenko?”

“Not in the least. You want to go again?”

She pretended to think about it for a minute.

“Shepard?” There was alarm in his voice, and she chuckled.

“No, I’m good.”

“That’s a relief. Not that I couldn’t, mind you …”

“Understood.” She smiled up at the ceiling in the dark. He was a proud man, her Kaidan. Her Kaidan. That was new. No one had ever really belonged to her before. But he didn’t really belong to her now either … he still belonged to the Alliance Navy, in many ways, and she to the Council. While she had some freedom based on her position as a Spectre, and he had some freedom based on his current assignment to her ship, they still had responsibilities that reached higher than a single relationship, and neither of them could afford to forget that.

Kaidan turned his head on the pillow, his eyes searching her face. “What’s on your mind?”

“Just … thinking.”

“I could tell. About what?”

“About you. Me. Us.”

“I like the sound of that.” He captured her hand and brought her fingertips to his lips, kissing them.

“And the Alliance.”

Kaidan groaned. “That’s not what I was hoping to hear about just at the moment.”

“I know.” When Kaidan let go of her hand, Shepard rolled onto her side, propping her head up on her elbow. “But I had a talk with Emily Wong—“

“The reporter?”

“Yes. She’s doing a story about us.”

“I thought she was about more hard-hitting stuff than that.”

“That’s what I said. Apparently she goes wherever the story’s hottest, and today that’s us, or so she said. She called us a ‘power couple’.”

“Really? Can’t say I’ve ever seen myself as that powerful.”

“Then you’re looking from the wrong angle.” Shepard poked his muscular upper arm, teasing, but she meant it. Even before his assignment to the Normandy Kaidan’s star had been on the rise, and recent events had only served to improve his rep. She’d been surprised Alliance command hadn’t asked for him already, to get their hands on him before he left on this next mission with her.

Kaidan shook his head at her, rolling his eyes at her unspoken pun. As his eyes rested on her face, he chuckled suddenly. “What I would have given to be a fly on the wall for that interview. You must have loved it.”

“Well, better Emily than that other woman who ambushed me and made me look like an idiot.” Shepard growled at the memory; that interview was still a sore spot, although the Alliance command had apologized for allowing her to be ambushed, and had managed to spin the interview in follow-ups so she didn’t look as bad as she had been painted.

“Khalisah al-Jilani.”

“That’s the one. Fortunately, unlike her, Emily’s good people.”

“So what did you tell her?”

Shepard smiled. “As little as I could get away with. But just at the end she asked me something I can’t stop thinking about.”

“What’s that?”

“She asked what we were going to do when you’re promoted out of my command.”

“Ah.” Kaidan sighed again. He reached for her free hand and cradled it against his chest. “That’s not anytime soon, is it?”

“I wouldn’t bet on them waiting too long. You’re a hot commodity, Kaidan. Not just based on your service record, which is excellent, but my own fitness reports on you have been deservedly stellar based on the work you’ve done, and you were part of the team that saved the Citadel. They’ll want you in a high-profile command of your own before we know it.” She paused, then said softly, “This may well be our last mission together.”

Kaidan was silent for a long moment. “I was kind of hoping we’d have some time before this came up.”

“I know. Me, too. But that’s not the way the military—or politics—works.”

He rolled over abruptly, pushing her over onto her back, his head hovering just above hers. He brushed the still-damp hair back from her face. “I don’t want to lose you, Juniper. This, between us, this is the most real thing I’ve ever had in my life.”

Looking up at him here in the dark, she could be fearlessly honest, with him and with herself. “It’s the same for me.”

“But across the galaxy, only seeing each other in vid-chat? It doesn’t seem fair to ask you to do that.”

“I want to, Kaidan. There’s no one else I want to be with.”

“And if that changes?”

“What if it changes for you?”

“It won’t,” he said, his voice deep and intense.

“You say that, but you don’t know what lies ahead of us any more than I do.”

“No, you’re right. I don’t.” He dipped his head and kissed her softly on the lips. “What if we just take each day as it comes? For tonight, we’re here together, and tomorrow, and then we’ll be off on a mission together, just like we have been. Can we let that be enough, until we have to face something different?”

It was a charmingly innocent notion, and Shepard wasn’t sure either of them was actually capable of closing their eyes to the future that thoroughly, but she didn’t want to let him go, either, not now, not later in some shadowy future that was still only speculation. “Yes, please,” she whispered, pulling his head down for another kiss, and then another. There would be time enough to deal with the future when it got here. For now, she was going to enjoy what she had while she still had it.

Chapter Text

There was a formal party held in Ambassador Udina’s quarters to celebrate humanity finally achieving a place on the Council. The Ambassador’s smile as he greeted arriving guests had a bit of a sour tone, since he had fully expected to also be celebrating his own appointment to that Council seat, and the Council had instead gone with Shepard’s recommendation and chosen Captain Anderson. In Kaidan’s opinion, Anderson was a bit more military and less political than the Council representative should be … but like Shepard, he couldn’t forget the way Udina had turned on them and locked down the Normandy just when they had needed his support the most. He didn’t blame her for not being willing to recommend the Ambassador.

He accompanied her to the party as her second-in-command, and maintained a proper distance at all times. They still hadn’t determined how open to be about their relationship with one another, even though apparently it was already common knowledge. There was a difference between everyone knowing and flaunting it, though, and Shepard preferred to stay on the conservative side of that line in public. They had fully cemented their relationship, Kaidan felt, over the course of the past several nights together—the first of which had been spent just sleeping. Or, Shepard had slept, and Kaidan had lain there in the dark and watched her, the way her face changed as she relaxed into sleep and the softness that emerged in her. It was a whole new woman he had seen in the quiet depths of the night, and he knew that woman was hidden thoroughly away from everyone but him. He wondered if even Shepard herself got to see her the way he saw her.

When the schmoozing was done, Shepard gave him a nod and they made their exits—Kaidan’s unobtrusive, Shepard’s slowed down significantly by all the people who wanted to congratulate her, sell her something, enlist her help, or try to get her on their side in some dispute.

“The downside of being the savior of the Citadel. And the Council,” she said wryly as she finally joined him outside the Ambassador’s chamber.

“And the galaxy,” Kaidan added.

“That’s an exaggeration.” She frowned. “At least, as long as the rest of the Reapers remain on the other side of the relays.”

“You’ll figure something out.”

“Or, you know, maybe the rest of the galaxy could put their heads together and figure something out.” Shepard gave a small smile. “I can’t say that I enjoy that part of being the ‘savior of the galaxy’, if you insist, either, the part where everyone just assumes I’m going to keep on saving it.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Well, yes, but they don’t have to assume it.”

Kaiden grinned at her. “You know that doesn’t make any sense.”

“It makes a kind of sense,” she argued. “At the very least everyone could pretend that someone else was going to be willing to step up and get things done.”

They got in the elevator down to C-Sec. The elevator music had been mostly repaired, but the melody was still broken by static every once in a while. Kaidan and Shepard rode mostly in silence, exchanging a few remarks about the party guests but nothing substantive, and the same went for the trip back up the elevator to the docking bay.

Once they were back on board the Normandy, the atmosphere changed entirely. This was the private party, thrown at Shepard’s expense for the crew who had stood by her so loyally. There was food and drink for everyone, and Kaidan began to relax in the familiar comfort of the Normandy.

It appeared that Shepard’s next official mission, if one could consider a Spectre mission official, would be to hunt down geth cells, and most of the Normandy’s regular Alliance crew would be staying with the ship. That included Dr. Chakwas, who, true to form, corralled Kaidan to look at his eyes and determine if he was truly recovered from the migraine that had taken him after the battle, and Joker, who was feted by Shepard as the guest of honor after his incredible feat not only in stealing the Normandy and piloting her across the galaxy without getting caught, but also in bringing her back in time to save the Council and, indeed, the Citadel itself from Sovereign.

Shepard’s personal team were on board for this one last mission before they were to go their separate ways. Liara stood off by herself as though she were already on her way, cradling a drink, watching the proceedings quietly. Shepard spoke to her briefly, their heads together as they talked. Kaidan felt a stab of jealousy—Shepard had told him long ago that she felt a draw toward the asari, but that that was as far as it had ever gone, and he believed her, but seeing them together, bodies turning toward one another … and Liara would be at loose ends after the mission. With the exploration Shepard had made of Ilos, the discussion with the Prothean AI, the things they had learned, there wasn’t a lot left for Liara to do. More details to find, yes, but Kaidan got the impression that Liara had intended to be the one to crack the code and find the answers, and now that avenue was closed to her because Shepard already had the answers—and she couldn’t spend a lifetime studying what lay inside Shepard’s mind. Much as she might have wanted to.

Shepard walked away, leaving Liara looking glumly down into her drink. Whatever the upshot of their conversation, she wasn’t happy with it. After a few moments, she left the mess entirely, heading for her own quarters.

Tali and Garrus were playing a noisy game in the corner, and Shepard went over to watch them, cheering for Tali, who had an edge on Garrus already. Kaidan joined them, adding his voice to encourage Garrus. The turian didn’t have a chance against Tali, who was a master at any type of mechanics, including games, but he was holding his own better than most could.

The game ended with Tali the clear winner, chortling to herself as Garrus paid up, pretending to be disgruntled. He and Tali actually got along quite well.

Tali sighed, looking around the room. “I will miss this.”

“When do you leave to return to the fleet?” Shepard asked.

“I have leave until after this mission, but there is pressure for me to return and help analyze the data on the geth you gave me.”

“I hope it’s useful to you.”

“I hope so, too. If it can help regain our homeworld …” Even through the mask she wore Kaidan could see the bright dreaminess of Tali’s eyes as she thought of it. While he had thought she might stay on permanently, working on the Normandy and fighting at Shepard’s side, it was clear her first love was her people and always would be.

“You sticking around for a while, Garrus?” he asked.

The turian shrugged. “Hard to say. We’ll have to see what opportunities present themselves.”

“I hope you’ll stay. Your place is open as long as you want it,” Shepard told him.

“I know. And I appreciate it.” Garrus’s eyes warmed slightly. “But even your leadership may be too much restriction for me. I’m thinking maybe I’d like to be a merc.” He glanced across the room at Wrex. “Think he’d take me on?”

“Not a chance!” Wrex roared. He came toward them, leaving behind the group of crew members who had been hanging on another story of his adventures. Wrex was by far the most colorful character on the Normandy. “You think I’d get anywhere with a millstone like you around my neck?”

“Millstone?” Garrus retorted. “I’ll have you know I’m—“

“Yeah, yeah, the best shot in six galaxies. We’ve all heard it already.” Wrex grinned—or at least, Kaidan thought he did. Krogan anatomy made it hard to tell. “Anyway, after this I’m done being a merc.”

“What?” Shepard turned to him, her eyebrows flying up. “Are you—?”

“Yeah.” He almost looked sheepish now. “I’m thinkin’ maybe I’ll go home, take a stab at leading my people. And I do mean stab.”

“Sounds like they could use you.”

“Hope so. Meantime, let’s drink!” He raised his glass, clearly uncomfortable as the focus of conversation, and the rest of them followed suit.

Joker raised a glass from his seat at a table nearby. “We drinking to the Normandy, best ship in the firmament?”

“Something like that. Maybe to the best pilot, too,” Shepard said, smiling warmly at him. “Glad to have you at the controls, Joker.”

“Just try to pry me away.”

Kaidan was glad at least one member of the team was staying aboard more or less permanently—along with Dr. Chakwas and a number of the soldiers.

The party went on for several hours, people disappearing one or two at a time back to their quarters. Shepard looked the other way when some went off together, winking at Kaidan as she did so. He felt a warmth spreading through him, knowing what was to come tonight. He could hardly wait to get her alone. With that in mind, he kept his drinking to a minimum, wanting to be clear-headed and able to remember the night.
By the time the door of her quarters slid shut behind them, he was more than ready to touch her, hungering for the press of her body against his. He drew her into his arms immediately, kissing her fiercely.

“Kaidan,” she whispered, tilting her head back as his lips moved down the column of her neck.

“Juniper.” He was working at the top of her uniform now, impatient to see her bare in front of him. She helped him, both of them awkward in their haste. At last their clothes lay scattered around the room and they lay naked together in the bed, hands roaming freely. Shepard’s hair was down, spread around her face on the pillow, and Kaidan nuzzled the dark strands as his hand parted her legs, finding the heat between them, stroking and caressing.

Shepard’s hips rose off the bed, her hands clutching at his shoulders, her breath coming heavier and faster as his movements sped up. “Hurry.”

He was half-tempted to slow down, to tease her a little, but she pushed at him, rolling him onto his back, and once her strong, firm body was climbing atop his, he was no longer tempted to hold back. Instead he lifted his own hips, meeting her as she came down, the heat of her enveloping him. He groaned her name as she began to move, rising and falling in an increasingly erratic pace, too close to take it slowly.

Shepard cried out, throwing her head back, clenching her muscles around him, and that sent him over the edge, groaning at the suddenness of the pleasure that flooded him.

She slid off him, tucking her head against his shoulder, and he turned his head to kiss her temple. “Seems hard to believe we’re really here,” Shepard said after a long time.

Kaidan nodded. “And with a new adventure just over the horizon.”

She pushed herself up on an elbow, looking at him. “As long as we’re doing it together.”

He smiled. “We are.”

“Good.”

Chapter Text

Everything was confusion; people were screaming in pain and weeping, pieces of the Normandy still falling around them. Kaidan did his best for everyone, following Dr. Chakwas and aiding her in getting people out of the pods and their various injuries tended, doing his best not to worry about Juniper. She would come through this, he was sure of it, as she had come through everything else. She had to.

He remembered those brief moments at the end of the battle of the Citadel when he had thought she'd been crushed beneath falling pieces of Sovereign. Those had been the longest moments of his life. When she had appeared, climbing to the top of the debris, he had promised himself never to doubt her again. He wasn’t going to start today.

It didn’t even worry him that he couldn’t find her; she had gone back to the cockpit for Joker, and theirs would have been the last pod off the ship. No doubt they had landed somewhere removed from the rest of the pods, and she would be tending to Joker. The helmsman’s condition was well-known—a hasty removal from his seat, a dash for the escape pod, a crash landing, none of those would be good for his fragile bones.

He said as much to Dr. Chakwas, who nodded. “We need to find him quickly or Jeffrey’s recovery will be seriously compromised.”

The doctor was the only one who insisted on calling Joker by his first name, as she did Kaidan, and all the others. Except Shepard—the Commander was the only Normandy crew member Dr. Chakwas never attempted to mother. A firm and uncompromising mothering, to be sure, but mothering nonetheless.

Now the doctor stopped and looked at Kaidan. “Is your head all right?”

It wasn’t; he was seeing stars in the edge of his vision and he could feel the little tendrils of pain that signaled the onset of a migraine. But that didn’t matter now. In Shepard’s absence, and with Pressly dead, he was de facto in command, and he would have to push through whatever pain he might feel. As Shepard would, if she were here; as any good commander would. He waved off Dr. Chakwas’s concerns, and she nodded, understanding the situation precisely and recognizing the futility of argument.

“Over here!” came a shout, and he followed the voice, Dr. Chakwas right behind him, to a heavily damaged escape pod that had come down in the midst of a field. Garrus was struggling with the door, trying to get it open.

“Let me,” Kaidan said, shoving the turian aside with his shoulder.

From behind him came the familiar krogan growl. “No. I’ll do it.” Both he and Garrus fell back and let Wrex attack the door with all his considerable strength. At last, with a sharp squeal of metal, it came open.

They were all here now—Garrus and Kaidan, Wrex and Liara, Tali, Dr. Chakwas … everyone but Ashley, Kaidan thought with a pang of the guilt that had never truly left him. They all heard the shriek of pain as Wrex reached into the pod and tugged at Joker’s arm.

“You’re stuck,” Wrex told him. “Gotta get you out.”

Dr. Chakwas was leaning over the opening with the krogan, assessing the damage to Joker’s fragile bones.

“Maybe we should get Shepard first,” Kaidan said. He hadn’t heard her speak yet, from inside the pod. He needed to hear that calm, uncompromising voice—only then could he relax.

They both ignored him, working at the straps that imprisoned Joker in the hunk of metal. At last Wrex called to Kaidan to come help him lift the helmsman out of the pod. Joker had stopped screaming a few minutes ago; Kaidan assumed he must have passed out. As Kaidan reached down into the pod for Joker’s legs, he saw the inside of it, and for a moment he couldn’t believe the evidence of his eyes.

There was no one else there. Joker had been alone in the pod.

Maybe she had gotten out already, he thought desperately. Maybe she was over with the other survivors, getting things organized. Maybe she had taken another pod.

But he knew none of those things could be true. She couldn’t have gotten out of this pod before Joker, because they’d had to pry it open. This one had been the last one left on the ship, and he knew all the others had left while she was going for Joker. If she wasn’t here …

He pushed the thought aside, lifting Joker’s legs and carrying him, with Wrex at the pilot’s shoulders, to a broader area of grass where they could lay him out straight. Dr. Chakwas immediately knelt next to him and went to work, with Tali holding a light over her head so she could see.

When no one followed them, and no one moved to go back to the pod, Liara looked at Kaidan, startled, the truth beginning to dawn in her eyes. Garrus pushed past him and looked inside the pod.

It was Tali who finally voiced the question. “Where’s Shepard?”

She looked at Kaidan. They were all looking at him. And he shook his head, unable to find the words. He could feel his eyes filling with tears. When was the last time he had cried? He couldn’t remember.

Joker moaned, consciousness returning. Dr. Chakwas bent over him. “Don’t try to move, Jeffrey. This arm …”

“Shepard …” he said weakly. “Dragged me out of my seat …”

“Where is Shepard?” Liara asked him.

“Hit the button … closed off the pod … ejected.” Joker’s eyes closed, and they could all see that he was crying. If Joker, of all people was crying, then it had to be true. “Still … on the ship … when it blew.”

Kaidan wanted to give way. He wanted to sink to his knees and cry and wail and curse the stars. But none of that would bring Shepard back, and worse, it wouldn’t take care of her people. And she would want him to take care of her people, he thought numbly. Before he gave in to his grief, she would want this from him.

He cleared his throat and touched Dr. Chakwas on the shoulder. “Can we move him?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

“There were blankets in another pod,” Liara said. Her eyes were reddened, tears flowing freely down her cheeks. “I’ll go get him one.”

“If I rip off this door, we could maybe use it as a stretcher.” Wrex suited the action to the words, muttering under his breath, “Really want to rip something to pieces anyway.”

Dr. Chakwas looked up, her voice gentle even as her words were sharp. “Hold that light steady, Tali. I need to be able to see what I’m doing.”

“Yes, Doctor.” Tali’s shoulders were shaking, her voice more tremulous than usual.

Kaidan left them and returned to the knot of the other survivors, wondering how he was going to tell them. He had to hold himself together—only the knowledge that Shepard, cool and collected, would be here soon had kept them calm this far. He owed it to her to take on that role and be the leader she would have been, or as close as he could come.

At his shoulder he felt a presence, and he turned to see Garrus there. “Let me help.”

“Thanks.” Kaidan nodded, and together they approached the rest of the survivors of the Normandy with the news that the savior of the galaxy was lost forever, somewhere in the sky above them.

Chapter Text

Shepard had nodded off on the transport, but she was still tired. Yet she had no desire to sleep any longer. Not now. She had lost two years of her life in sleep already, if these people were to be believed—and she did believe them. She didn’t trust them yet, but she was certain they were telling her the truth about what had happened and how long it had taken. Her last memories were of fighting the suit to get air, of drifting through space, of the wreckage around her. She had been injured in the blast—at least, she remembered pain—and no doubt suffered when she went through the atmosphere of the planet, as well. It was truly miraculous that she was alive at all, much less alive and functionally the same as she had been before. That kind of miracle didn’t happen overnight. Truth be told, she couldn’t imagine how they had done it in two years.

As soon as possible once they reached the Cerberus station, she said her good-nights to Miranda and Jacob—her keepers, or her crew? It was hard to tell at this point—and found the little room she’d been allotted here on the station.

The first thing she did once the door slid closed behind her was step inside the equally small bathroom and shut that door as well. She could practically feel the surveillance on her, tracking her movements and probably her vital signs. It was reasonable to assume that Cerberus had cameras and other tracking devices in the bathroom, too, but she hoped at least there would be fewer here than in the bedroom. More than anything else, she longed for privacy, to be able to be certain she was entirely alone. Having lost two whole years of her life, having lost her command and her companions, and everything that ever mattered to her … it was a lot to deal with. Her training had gotten her through it so far, kept her from making a fool of herself, but she needed to take a moment to reorient herself in her new life, to mourn the lost years and everything gone with them. And she couldn’t give way to emotion if she thought someone was watching.

She covered her face with her hands. Everything felt the same—there was no sensation in her body that seemed alien, other than twinges of pain. However they had put her back together, they had done a good job. And she felt the same to herself: She was still J.R. Shepard on the outside, Juniper inside. And that was all she needed, wasn’t it? It was all she’d ever had, since Mindoir. Herself. She could make it as long as she knew who she was.

Taking her hands down, she leaned forward to study her face in the mirror. Without knowing exactly what condition she’d been in when they’d found her, she didn’t know how extensive the rebuilding process had been—but they’d done a good job there, as well. It was recognizably her face, perfect in every detail. There were breaks in the skin here and there, odd-looking cracks with something glowing inside them. Not scars, exactly, so she hoped maybe they would heal over time. And the skin itself was paler than usual, waxen. But the detail was perfect, down to the familiar freckles scattered here and there.

Miranda had said Shepard wasn’t “ready” when Wilson had attacked the lab facility; maybe these cracks in the skin were what she meant. Shepard had certainly jumped back into action straightaway, finding everything in her body so far working to her command, the familiar adrenaline of battle, the movements through the facility, the finger on the trigger, the focus in aiming. Maybe all that had been more than her still-recovering body was meant to take yet. But it felt good—some aches and pains here and there, but nothing alarming.

Stripping off her armor, she stepped into the shower, feeling the fine needles of the hot water run down her skin. How much of this was actually her skin? Probably very little. The skin would have been damaged extensively by the fire and the atmosphere. The real question was how much of it was skin at all. Was everything in her organic, or was she now some kind of machine/human hybrid? She had been tempted multiple times to ask Miranda exactly what had gone into her “recreation”, but she thought it unlikely that the other woman would tell her the truth at this point. They didn’t know each other well enough.

Leaning her forehead against the smooth tile of the shower wall, Juniper let her thoughts fly in the direction she had carefully kept closed off all this time: Kaidan. What must he have felt when she wasn’t in that escape pod, when he realized she was gone and wasn’t coming back? She could only imagine the hell he had gone through, the grief he must have felt. What would it be like for him to hear that she was alive? It would be a big adjustment.

He would need to know as soon as possible. The last thing Shepard wanted was for Kaidan to hear about her … revival from someone else, from some kind of rumor. She hastily shut off the shower and reached for her towel. She needed to try to contact him right now.

And after Kaidan—Joker. Had he survived? Was he all right? She knew he had broken his arm when she hauled him out of his seat, and probably a leg as he fell into the escape pod. Had he survived the landing? Had the others? Wrex. Had he ever gone home to his people? Garrus—had he returned to C-Sec, or struck out on his own? Her team, so painstakingly assembled, so much a part of her life. She couldn’t have defeated Saren without them. Had Tali gone home with her information about the geth, had she completed her pilgrimage? What had Liara done? Where was she? Shepard imagined her on Ilos, combing through the last of what the Protheans had left behind.

She was going to need them back now, if she had another task in front of her. She couldn’t imagine facing down whatever was to come without Kaidan at her side, Wrex and Liara and Garrus and Tali at her back.

What would Cerberus think? So far, she had only met humans working for them, and they were a human-focused group in general. She hoped they didn’t expect her to work with a human-only crew—that wasn’t the way J. R. Shepard got things done, and she hoped they had learned that in their research on her, which had apparently been extensive.

Pulling on the uniform she found laid out on a bureau, a difficult task tugging stretchy fabric over still-damp skin, she left the bathroom and searched the room for a vid station, feeling in her clothes for a comm link. Any means of communication with the outside world. She wasn’t particularly surprised when she found nothing.

Well, then. She left the room, refusing to be thwarted so easily. Almost immediately, a crew member, a pretty girl with red hair, wandered into sight. “Commander Shepard. So good to see you up and about. Can I help you find something?”

“I’m looking for a vid station.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, they’re all down for maintenance.”

A patently false statement and delivered badly. This girl couldn’t lie to save her life.

A smile pasted itself on the girl’s face. “I know they were looking for you in the command center—I can direct you there if you like?”

It wasn’t really a question, more an order couched in such a way that she could have imagined it was only a request if she had been another kind of person. “Sure. Thanks.”

“Oh, my pleasure,” the girl chirped brightly.

Shepard took her directions and followed them to the command center, entirely too aware of the limitations of her new life, and frustrated by them. If this team-up between herself and Cerberus was going to work, they were going to have to ease up on the controls, and she intended to tell them so.

Chapter Text

“All right, Commander, look at this.” Joker’s eyes were on Shepard’s face, though, watching for her reaction to his surprise. “They only told me about it yesterday.”

Over the course of her career she had trained herself to be impassive, to be certain of what she thought before those thoughts showed on her face, but this was important to Joker, whatever it was, and he was important to her—not just her friend, but right now also her only connection to all of the life that had gone before her reconstruction by Cerberus—so she tried to relax and let herself be wowed.

And it wasn’t hard. There on the other side of the glass was the Normandy. Rebuilt, renewed, with what appeared to be the same attention to detail that had gone into the rebuilding of Shepard herself. She laughed, the surprise as thorough and delightful as he had hoped it would be. “Joker, are you ecstatic? Tell me you’re ecstatic.”

He was grinning widely, an extreme reaction from a guy who usually stuck with a sardonic smirk. “Pretty damn happy, yeah.” Looking out at the ship, he put his palm on the window, almost as if he could touch the new Normandy through the glass. “Beautiful, isn’t she?”

“She always was,” Shepard agreed. But her initial enthusiasm was already fading. It wouldn’t be the same, not without the others. Not without Kaidan. The familiar halls—because she suspected the inside had been rebuilt with equal care—would remind her of him, the rooms … He would be everywhere in spirit.

“I didn’t hear what happened to him. Last I knew, he was on the Citadel,” Joker told her.

Shepard smiled. “Am I that transparent?”

“Only to someone whose life you saved.” He cleared his throat. “Uh … I never said thank you for that; thought I’d never get the chance. But … if you hadn’t hit the button to eject the pod …”

“I’d be out a good helmsman.” She nudged him, very gently, in the ribs. “Can’t have that.”

He nodded, then, in mock outrage, he said, “What do you mean good? The best.”

Chuckling, Shepard amended her words. “Sorry. I meant, ‘how could I have deprived the galaxy of its best helmsman?’”

“That’s more like it.”

She leaned her shoulder against the glass, more interested now in watching him than looking at the ship. “What did you do the last two years, Joker?”

“Healed up, trained up, got fed up with the Alliance’s red tape and stubbornness, joined up with Cerberus … and waited for you to get up.”

“When did you find out about me?”

“Cerberus tracked me down. They knew I’d about had it with the whitewashing—the Council and the Alliance don’t believe in Reapers, it turns out. Too big and too scary for them. So everything was Saren’s fault, now, and he’s the one who brought the geth in. They tried to erase anything that could remind people of you. The team was broken up, the records sealed … and I was grounded.”

Shepard put a hand to her forehead, closing her eyes. “Figures.”

“People don’t like to be scared of the big bad thing in the dark, Shepard. If they can forget it’s there, they will. And without their hero to stand between them and the scary thing, they didn’t see any hope against the Reapers. Easier to pretend they didn’t exist.”

“Even with pieces of Sovereign scattered across the Citadel? It’s got to be obvious that isn’t geth technology.”

Joker shrugged. “Couldn’t tell you how they justify it, Commander. I’m not in on the Council’s decision-making. I agree, any engineer worth his elbow grease ought to know he isn’t looking at typical tech, but no one listens to those guys anyway. And even if they did believe it, who were they going to send out, with you gone?”

Sighing, Shepard turned to look at the Normandy again. “You talk like I’m the only person in the universe who can get things done.”

“You see anyone else out there taking a stand, Commander? Because I don’t, and neither did anyone else. Is it any wonder that the Council and the Alliance chose the path of least resistance?”

“That’s a lot to put on one set of shoulders, Joker.”

“Yeah, but I figure yours can handle it. Look at you now—barely up off the bed you spent two years on, and you’re in charge of a new mission, getting ready to assemble a team and go after another shadowy bad guy of legend, and I bet you already have a plan to take care of the Reaper threat after that.”

“I wish.” But she had to smile at his confidence in her. “I’m glad to have you with me.”

“Had to, Commander. The Alliance took away everything that ever mattered to me. Cerberus promised to give it back.” His eyes narrowed under the brim of his ballcap as he studied her. “How’s it been so far, coming back?”

Shepard shook her head. “It’s been a lot to take in. Having a familiar face around, a trusted face—it makes a big difference.”

For a moment, Joker almost looked touched. Then his familiar cocky smirk was back. “Glad I can be of service, Commander. Now—how about we go look at that beautiful ship there from the inside?”

Shepard could feel that certain sense of adrenaline, the anticipation, the sharpness that came with being on a mission, having a job to do, beginning to build. Despite the pressure of everyone looking to her to save the world, she loved being out there, her ship hurtling through space, with important work before her. Yes, she was ready to be on the move, ready to go after the Collectors and after them the Reapers. “Lead the way, Joker.”

Chapter Text

“And you have to let me take you to the new batarian restaurant. It’s great if you like raw meat. Which I hope you do, or it’ll be a really long and uncomfortable meal.
Looking forward to seeing you again! – Natalia”

Kaidan smiled. Natalia was a doctor on the Citadel, a fun and interesting woman with intelligence—not unlike another woman he still couldn’t think of without a sense of deep and abiding loss. Although Natalia lacked both Shepard’s dignity and her air of command, sometimes that made her easier to deal with, a thought Kaidan tried to bury as well, feeling it vaguely disloyal.

But how could you be disloyal to a ghost? he thought, clicking Natalia’s email closed without replying to it and leaning back in his chair. He closed his eyes, trying to blank out the images of the Normandy on fire, the screams of the dying, the vivid pictures of Shepard spaced that filled his nightmares. How did you just get over losing someone that way? Especially the love of your life. He knew it was a romantic notion, but he couldn’t shake it. He had loved her more deeply than he had ever imagined was possible, despite the brief amount of time they’d had together. And he thought she had felt the same way. She was hard to read, but she’d been getting easier as they spent more time together, as he got to know her better, as she began to let him see more of the person she kept hidden behind her military bearing and the mask of the commander she wore so well.

And then in an instant, in an attack that still hadn’t been explained to Kaidan’s satisfaction, she was gone. And he had been left to try to pick up the pieces, even as the team she had built splintered.

Wrex had been the first; he had left for his homeworld almost immediately, seeing no reason to stay with the Council with Shepard gone. Tali had followed soon after, taking her information on the geth and returning to the flotilla.

Liara had been at loose ends for a little while, but eventually she disappeared, without a word. Kaidan hadn’t been able to find any trace of her. And he had lost track of all the others, despite his best intentions. It was too painful to keep in touch. Garrus did the best—he sent an email every couple of months. But they were cagey and vaguely written; whatever the turian was up to, he didn’t want it widely known.

Kaidan had seen a fair amount of Joker and Dr. Chakwas at first, but both of them had fallen off the grid in the past year. And he hadn’t had the time to keep up with them. Being a member of the team that had saved the Citadel came with a certain cachet, but as time passed and there was no Shepard to remind everyone of what had happened and who had been on the front lines, the stories of what had happened began to change. The Reapers were eventually dismissed as a fabrication of Saren’s, Shepard having fallen for the story in an attempt to believe there was more to the attack than a rogue Spectre, and Kaidan learned eventually, too late, that arguing for the existence of the Reapers was only going to damage his career.

It had kept him from a command of his own, that was for sure. He had ended up as a sort of detached operative for Councilor Anderson, who was one of the few who genuinely seemed to regret the tarnishing of Shepard’s memory and to half-believe what she had said about the Reapers. He had been a firm believer for a long time, but holding out against the rest of the Council hadn’t done him any favors as the newest member. The Council still had some reservations about the addition of humans in the first place, and the loss of the first human Spectre so soon after humanity’s accession to the Council had placed Anderson in a precarious enough position. He had found it expedient to follow the party line on the Reapers, and over time Kaidan could tell the Councilor had lost interest in whether the Reapers were real or not. The threat seemed past, and that was all that truly mattered.

But now there was a new threat, human colonies in the Terminus Systems utterly disappearing, every man, woman, and child simply gone, leaving all their belongings behind as though they had simply vaporized where they sat or stood. No clues as to their whereabouts or what had actually happened had been found. Anderson was thinking of sending him to one of them, to shore up their defenses. Kaidan hoped so; he was about ready to be done hanging around the Citadel waiting for something to do.

He left his quarters, heading for C-Sec, but was stopped by Emily Wong, the reporter Shepard had helped several times.

“Commander Alenko! Just the man I was looking for.”

“I don’t have clearance to talk to you, just so you know,” he warned her.

“I was more hoping for something off the record. She—I won’t say she was my friend, but I liked her.”

“Who, Shepard?” It was difficult saying the name out loud. “Why are you bringing her up now?”

Emily’s eyes widened. “Then you haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?” When she didn’t answer immediately, he stepped closer to her and raised his voice. “Heard what?”

She looked around, seeing no one within earshot, and softly said, “She’s been seen, Commander. On Omega, if my sources are correct.”

“Omega? That’s— Why would she— She’s dead, Emily! Your sources must be mistaken.”

“I … don’t think so. They’re very reliable.” She shrugged. “I’m a reporter—if my sources aren’t trustworthy, I could lose my job. Or worse. The thing is …”

“What?” He was shouting again, trying to tell himself this was ridiculous, impossible, a cruel joke, anything to quell the hope bubbling up in his chest.

“She was with people who are known to be members of Cerberus.”

“You’re crazy,” he said automatically. “Shepard knows—knew—what Cerberus is capable of.”

“Still … she was seen with them, and not— She’s Commander Shepard still, from what I’m told. In the lead, out in front. Not a prisoner.”

“That can’t be.” He reached out, groping for the wall next to him to hold himself up, his head swimming. “Shepard’s dead, Emily. Two years ago. No one survives being spaced. She has to be dead.”

“Well, I thought you ought to know what I’ve heard.” She shrugged a little. “I actually was hoping to get information from you, rather than give it to you. I’d have thought she would have contacted you.”

“Yeah … I’d have thought so, too.”

Kaidan barely noticed when Emily walked away, he was so flummoxed by this news. He wanted to believe it, but he didn’t want to believe it. How could Shepard still be alive and he not have known all this time? Never to have contacted him? She must have had her reasons … But she couldn’t be working with Cerberus. Not and still be the woman he’d known. The woman he’d loved.

Pushing himself off the wall, he made his way to Councilor Anderson’s office, walking in without knocking.

The Councilor looked up from his papers. “Commander? Are you all right?”

“I just … I just heard …” It didn’t even sound like his own voice, so hoarse and thick with emotion. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I heard that Shepard has been seen on Omega.”

“Oh? Really? That seems impossible.” But Anderson had waited a beat too long for his surprise to seem genuine.

“You’ve heard it, too! When were you going to tell me?”

“Anything I might or might not have heard is unsubstantiated, Commander.”

“Tell me what you know!”

“And classified,” Anderson added. He held Kaidan’s gaze until Kaidan looked away.

“Can you at least tell me if it’s true that she was seen with Cerberus operatives?”

“No.”

“She can’t have been, you know. Shepard knew what Cerberus was up to. She would never have joined them.”

“As you say, Commander,” Anderson said evenly. His face gave nothing away. “As it happens, it’s good you’re here. I’m putting together a dossier for you on the colony at Horizon; I want you to go out and build them some defense towers.”

“I’m a soldier, Councilor, not a contractor.”

“You’re dancing very close to insubordination, Commander.”

“Sorry.” Kaidan put a hand to his head. “I’m a little—this was the last thing I expected to hear, today or ever.”

“I understand.” There was sympathy in the Councilor’s voice for the first time.

His brain slowly beginning to clear, Kaidan remembered something he had heard a while ago. “Cerberus … didn’t I hear they were investigating the colony disappearances?”

“It’s a possibility.”

“So … if Shepard is alive, and if she’s working with Cerberus, and if Cerberus is investigating the colonies …”

Anderson’s eyes were shuttered again, the brief appearance of sympathy gone.

Kaidan had learned to tell when a commanding officer wasn’t going to give him any information. “Never mind.”

“You’ll find your orders in your quarters, Commander. Dismissed.” More softly, he added, “Good luck.”

Chapter Text

Shepard sat next to Garrus, watching her friend breathe. He was doing so more easily now than he had been the last time she’d come into med-bay, but his condition still worried her.

Dr. Chakwas approached from the back room, studying a clipboard, jumping when she looked up to see Shepard there. “You’re back again, are you?”

“Just checking up on our man here.”

It had been a relief to Shepard to see Dr. Chakwas in the Normandy’s med-bay. With Joker at the wheel and the doctor here to patch everyone up, she felt much better about the mission. And she admired Cerberus’s thoroughness—they had undoubtedly predicted she would react that way. She was only surprised they hadn’t packed the new ship with more of her former crewmembers. No doubt they’d imagined that as a commander, she wouldn’t have known all her subordinates, but surely their research had been more thorough than that. More likely, they’d probably had a hard time finding the others on the various Alliance ships they had no doubt been redistributed to, much less talking them all into joining Cerberus. She’d have bet a hefty amount of credits that they’d made the attempt with some of the others. Gerard, who used to man the door of the debriefing room, or Jenya, who had worked with Ashley as Assistant Gunnery Officer, or Butch, who had taken care of rebuilding the Mako every time Shepard had wrecked it planetside.

The current Normandy’s crew seemed competent, though, too, and Shepard intended to get to know them. She found Kelly Chambers, the chirpy redhead she had first met on the Cerberus station lying to her about the vid stations being down, the hardest to deal with so far. Chambers was never-endingly perky and seemed to feel it was her role to tell Shepard every time a new email came in … and was overly familiar in the bargain, no matter how often Shepard tried to squash her by keeping everything military and professional between them. While she admitted there was a good reason to have a trained psychologist aboard keeping an eye on people’s well-being, she certainly didn’t need to be psychoanalyzed.

With an effort, Shepard drew her thoughts away from Chambers and quelled her rising irritation by checking the screens above Garrus’s bed to reassure herself of his improving vital signs. Finding Garrus on Omega had been a rare moment when she’d felt as though maybe she could complete this mission successfully: When “Archangel” had taken off his helmet and she’d seen that familiar face, she’d come very close to hugging him. Only their armor and the approaching mercenaries trying to kill them had prevented her. At the end, when they had defeated the mercenaries only for Garrus to nearly die before they could get him on board the ship … Shepard had known that her former companions meant a lot to her, but she had never really realized just how important they had become until she felt the panic of thinking she hadn’t been fast enough to save him. The guilt of leaving Ashley on Virmire had faded, although it would never entirely disappear; she couldn’t lose another team member on her watch. Not if she had any choice in the matter.

Dr. Chakwas straightened up from her examination, laying a gentle hand briefly on Garrus’s shoulder.

“How is he, Doctor?”

“I’ve done what I can for him, Commander. It was a bad hit.” She looked down at him and shook her head. “Surgery was successful, so far as it goes, and he improves by the hour. I expect him to regain full functionality. But his face …”

“What about my face?” came the weak but unmistakable voice.

“Garrus!” Shepard exclaimed. “You’re alive!”

“So it seems. What about my face?”

“There will be some scarring. You should be glad it’s no worse than that,” Dr. Chakwas told him sternly, but there was a hint of a smile on her face as she bent over him again, shining a light into his uncovered eye and entering some notes on her datapad.

“Hell, Garrus, you were ugly before. What’s the difference?” Shepard asked him.

He chuckled, then winced. “Don’t make me laugh.”

“Who said I was joking? Slap some face paint on there and no one will even notice.”

“I see you’re in good hands here,” Dr. Chakwas said. “If there’s anything you need, I’ll be right over there.” She left them and sat down at her desk, her hands flying over the keyboard as she typed up a report.

“Some women find facial scars attractive,” Garrus mused. “Mind you, most of those women are krogan. Think you can find me a nice krogan, Shepard?”

“I think I’d have a better chance of finding you a unicorn, Garrus. Krogan don’t exactly do ‘nice’.”

“Good point.” He sighed, and coughed. “Tell me about yourself. You’re dead for two years, then you show up on Omega—“

“Saving your ass,” Shepard pointed out.

Garrus gave as much of a smile as he could with half his face still bandaged. “Saving my ass,” he agreed. “And working for Cerberus.”

“They put me back together and rebuilt the Normandy. They’re going after the Collectors. I figure I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, at least for the moment.”

“Fair enough.”

“Besides, now you’re here. If I’m going to walk into hell, at least I’ll have someone I trust at my side.”

“I was with you on the Citadel,” he reminded her. “Isn’t that enough hell for one lifetime?”

“I’d think someone calling himself ‘Archangel’ would be willing to tackle hell more than once.”

He chuckled and winced again. “Stop that.”

“Again, who said I was joking?”

“Just like old times.”

“Almost.” She thought of Kaidan, wishing … She hadn’t been able to find out anything about him, where he was, what he was doing, which meant she still hadn’t been able to contact him. They were heading for the Citadel next—hopefully she would find him there, or some clue as to his whereabouts. “Joker’s at the helm,” she told Garrus.

“Can’t break him and the Normandy up, eh? No surprise there.”

“What were you doing on Omega, Garrus?”

“Helping,” he said simply. “We took down slavers, pirates, gangs that went too far—wherever there was a need for some muscle to do the right thing.”

“You didn’t have any interest in going back to C-Sec?”

He nodded, hissing in pain as he did so. “I went back to C-Sec after … what happened to the Normandy. But with all the rebuilding at the Citadel, there was so much chaos. It was impossible to know where to do any good. Omega, on the other hand, was filled with criminals nobody else could touch, and there was no red tape to slow me down. Over time, as I proved I could get things done, I collected a few others who could get things done as well.” He stopped talking, closing his unbandaged eye. “And now they’re dead.”

“How did it happen?” Shepard asked softly.

“My own damn fault,” Garrus answered without opening his eye. “One of my people, a turian named Sidonis, betrayed me, drew me away just before the mercs attacked my squad. Then he disappeared. The others are dead because I didn’t see it coming.”

Shepard thought back to Virmire, to her own sorrow and sense of guilt and failure when Ashley died. “I’m sorry, Garrus,” she said, genuinely grieved for him.

“Thank you.” He opened his eye at last and looked at her. “I remember thinking, ‘Shepard would be so ashamed of me.’ When I could think of anything other than revenge, that is.”

“I’m not,” she told him. “I’m proud of what you accomplished.”

“That means a lot. I appreciate it.” He turned his head slightly, looking up at the ceiling. Even with half his face bandaged, Shepard recognized the look of determination on his face. She’d seen it before. “I lost my whole team thanks to Sidonis. One day I’ll find him, and make clear to him exactly how I deal with traitors.”

“I’ll help you,” Shepard promised.

“I hoped you would.” Garrus was still looking at the ceiling. “I’m glad to be back on your team, Shepard.”

“And I’m glad to have you.” It was clear to her that the conversation was taxing his strength, though, and she stood up, patting his hand. “I’ll let you rest.”

He nodded, and Shepard left the med bay, glad that at least one member of her previous team was back with her.

Chapter Text

Shepard stood at Joker’s shoulder and watched as he expertly piloted the Normandy into dock at the Citadel—as she had so many times before. But that had been on a different Normandy, with different crew, flying under a different organization … and for what it was worth, docking at a different Citadel. Even from the ship, she could see that there had been a lot of changes as the Citadel recovered from Sovereign’s attack.

She was nervous to set foot there as she had not been on approach to Omega. On Omega, Commander Shepard was nothing but a name—on the Citadel, she had been known by many, people who would have questions.

“You’re going to have to tell your story a good thousand times, I bet, Commander,” Joker said, reading her mind as he so often did.

“I could have it broadcast on the Citadel news network, if that would help,” EDI piped up.

Shepard shook her head. “I think that might make things worse, but thanks for the offer.”

The Normandy docked, the airlock sealed. There was nothing for it but to go and see what was there. She hoped Kaidan would be there, or that at least she could manage to contact him, to tell him what had happened. Not being able to find out where he was or communicate with him at all had been very frustrating.

There was a lot more security on the Citadel now, that was for sure. People were lined up waiting to be scanned before they were allowed through the doors. The turian at the scanner controls waved Shepard forward when it was her turn, and stiffened noticeably at what came up on his screen. He tapped his ear, muttering to someone on the other side of his comm link, and motioned for Shepard to approach him.

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience, ma’am. Our scanners are picking up false readings.” He lowered his voice. “They seem to think you’re, well, dead.”

Shepard grinned. “I get that a lot.” The turian didn’t seem reassured by her levity, so she gave him an explanation that would make him happy. “I was listed as missing in action a couple of years ago.”

“Oh. In that case, would you mind checking in with my captain? He can reinstate you in the system. I hope you understand—we can’t have dead people wandering around the Citadel. The computers would go haywire.”

“Of course. Happy to.”

“Great. Thanks. He’s down the hall, on your right.” The turian opened the doors and let Shepard and her crew through.

“This is going to get old fast,” Miranda commented.

“You should have thought of that before you let everyone think I was dead for two years.”

“Yes, because ‘in a medically induced coma being rebuilt’ is a more believable story.”

“More interesting, at least.” Shepard smiled. Somewhat reluctantly, Miranda smiled back.

There was a blond human sitting at the desk the turian indicated. He looked up as Shepard approached. “Commander Shepard?”

“You know who I am?”

“Of course. You won’t remember me, but we met once, just after the attack here. Armando Bailey.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry, I can’t say I do remember. I was pretty exhausted right about then.”

Bailey nodded. “I understand.” He tapped some keys and frowned at the screen. “Well, I see the problem, Commander. The system has you listed as dead. We can fix that.”

“You’re not worried I’m some imposter claiming to be me?”

“No, my system has the best scanners in the galaxy. They can sample DNA from skin flakes. Even if I didn’t recognize you myself, the system is sure you’re you.”

“Anything you can do? It’s going to be a long visit if I have to keep telling the system I’m not dead.”

His fingers were already pecking at the keys as he nodded. “Usually they’d make you go through Station Security Administration for this, then to Customs and Immigration to regain access to the Citadel—and probably a stop at the treasury.” He grinned. “’Spending a year dead’ is a popular tax dodge.”

“Some people will do anything for a few credits,” Miranda drawled.

“Exactly.” Bailey nodded at her. “But I’m sure your business on the Citadel would be better done without being bounced from office to office, so I’m going to press this button right here, and we’re going to call it done.”

“Thank you, Captain I appreciate it.”

He tapped the button and smiled up at her. “Welcome back to the world of the living, Commander Shepard. I hope you enjoy it.”

“I do, too,” she said under her breath as she left his desk.

She went straight to Anderson’s office, enduring a fair number of shocked looks and whispers on the way, although no one actually stopped her to ask questions, for which she was grateful. There was no sign of Kaidan, either, although she looked for him in the face of every broad-shouldered dark-haired man in Alliance uniform she saw.

Anderson was standing at the window of his office, looking out over the lake, as the door slid open. He turned, his eyes widening. “Shepard. I heard rumors, but I never thought …” He shook his head as if to clear it. “Welcome back to the ranks of the living. I sent you a message, just in case, but …”

“I got it. It’s one of the reasons I’m here.” She reached out and shook his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Captain. Or should I say Councilor?”

“As long as you’re really standing here in my office, you can call me anything you want.” He looked over her shoulder at her companions. “I’m sorry, we haven’t met.”

“Oh, of course. Miranda Lawson, who spearheaded the team behind my recovery after the attack on the Normandy, and Dr. Mordin Solus, formerly of Omega.”

“So you were there.”

“Yes. Collecting Dr. Solus, for one thing. He’s been a valuable addition to my team.”

“Too kind, Commander. Do what I can,” Mordin said, but it was clear he was pleased by the designation.

Anderson nodded at both of them, but quickly turned his attention back to Shepard. “I’m glad you came. I tried to get the Council to weigh in on what your survival might mean, but they were skeptical.”

“Can’t blame them for that.”

“Also, some … changes have been made. Perhaps you’ve heard?”

“The official denial of the existence of the Reapers? Yeah, I’ve heard.”

Anderson sighed. “You have to admit, you’re the only one who spoke to the VI on Ilos …”

“Along with Kaidan and Garrus.”

“Yes. Your word as a Spectre is worth more than theirs, and I’m afraid there’s a general conclusion that you were being influenced by Saren and fell victim to a hoax on his part, the creation of these ‘Reapers’ as a mythical bogeyman hiding out in dark space.”

Shepard held on to her temper, but barely. “And Sovereign? The wreckage should have made it clear that we were dealing with technology far beyond what Saren or the geth could have achieved.”

Anderson gestured her and the others to seats. “You left soon after the attack, Shepard. You weren’t here for the vast majority of the cleanup. Pieces of that ship were everywhere. Picked up by scavengers, sold for souvenirs, used in the rebuilding effort—I doubt you could put twenty percent of it back together from what we’ve collected.”

Glancing at Miranda, whose eyes said loud and clear that she’d told her so, Shepard started to speak, and then thought better of it. There was no point having this argument with Anderson. At least, not now. The Collectors were the immediate objective, and there would, hopefully, be time to deal with the Reapers and convince the Council of the threat after that.

“There’s something else,” Anderson said. He cleared his throat, looking uncomfortably at Miranda and Mordin. “There have been a lot of rumors … some of them, frankly, a little disturbing.”

Shepard braced herself. This was going to be about Cerberus. Well, she’d known it was coming.

“I take it from your silence that you’re not going to deny it.”

“No.” She took a deep breath, thinking about how best to explain the situation. “Among other things, Cerberus seems to be the only group actively looking for our missing colonists.”

“Look, Shepard, I feel for those colonists, but they went to the Terminus Systems to get away from the Alliance. And the Council’s got a lot on their plate without getting embroiled in a purely human problem. We simply can’t protect them.”

Miranda rolled her eyes, and Mordin looked as though he was about to start off one of his rapid-fire monologues, but Shepard raised a hand to keep them both silent as Anderson continued.

“But you can. I understand that. And I trust that if you’re with Cerberus, you have your reasons. I’ve worked with you for a long time, Shepard—you’ve earned the benefit of the doubt several times over. Also, I have the feeling something more is going on here.”

“You’ve heard of the Collectors?”

“Yes. Are you saying they’re behind these missing colonists?”

“They are—and the Reapers are behind them.” Before Anderson could object, Shepard said, “Whether you, or the rest of the Council. believe in them or not is beside the point, Councilor. The question is, can you help me against the Collectors and hopefully save more of our colonies from being attacked?”

He rubbed a hand over his head, thinking over the question. “What I can do is keep the Council and the Alliance off your back. It’ll help if you’re operating out in the Terminus Systems. And given that fact, I did manage to get the Council to reinstate your Spectre status, which should help.”

“That will help significantly,” Shepard agreed. “Thank you.”

Anderson nodded. “My pleasure.”

Shepard looked at her team. “Would you mind if I asked you both to give us some privacy? I’d like to catch up with the captain, talk over old times … I think you’d both be bored.”

Mordin jumped up with a “Certainly, certainly,” while Miranda got to her feet more slowly, emphasizing that she was doing Shepard a favor and not responding to a command. She took commands well in the field and under fire, Shepard had learned, which was the most important part—she hoped that as they got to be more comfortable with one another, Miranda would begin to take her commands in less life-or-death situations as well. But for now the attitude was tolerable—and understandable—so she’d live with it.

When they were gone, Anderson asked, “You’re all right, Shepard? Not … in any kind of trouble?”

“No. They seem to be on the up-and-up. I have a mostly free hand on this mission. And they saved my life. It’s hard to look down on them after that.”

“Good. As long as you know what you’re doing.”

“I do.” She looked at him carefully, noting the lines on his face and the gray in his hair that hadn’t been there the last time she’d seen him. “How are you doing?”

“Oh, mostly I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall a lot. But it isn’t all bad, and representing humanity on the Council—well, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, but it’s an important job, and one I’m glad to have. I never thanked you for that, Shepard.”

“Yes, you did.” Or if he hadn’t, it didn’t matter. It had been the right decision, and she didn’t need to be thanked for seeing the obvious.

“If you say so.”

Shepard hesitated. It was the question she most wanted the answer to, but was most afraid to ask, knowing how much of herself it would reveal. “What can you tell me about Staff Lieutenant Alenko? What happened to him after the attack on the Normandy?”

“He’s still with the Alliance, but he’s working on a special mission. It’s classified.” Anderson wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Does he know? About me?”

“Until five minutes ago, Shepard, I didn’t know about you. Not for certain. So, no.”

Reading between the lines, she was sure Kaidan must have heard rumors, and her heart sank. She had so wanted to get to him before he heard anything and had to wonder why she hadn’t been in touch. “Even to a Spectre, it’s classified?”

Anderson nodded. “It is to a Spectre working with Cerberus. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it has to be.”

“If you see him, or speak to him …?”

“I’ll tell him I saw you. Anything else should probably come from you.”

“It can’t come from me if I can’t find him,” Shepard pointed out. “Just … tell him that, will you? That I haven’t been able to reach him, that I tried?”

“If I see him,” Anderson said, but there wasn’t a lot of optimism in his voice, and to salvage her pride, Shepard changed the subject.

“The repairs to the Citadel seem to have gone well.”

“Yes, although they’re still ongoing. The main areas of commerce and the most populated wards are complete, but estimates for total restoration are sitting at around five more years. Sovereign really did a number on this place.” He smiled. “The keepers are always surprising us, though, coming along and fine-tuning and finishing the repairs we’ve begun. It’s a reminder that they’ve been here a lot longer than we have.” He glanced over at Shepard. “It’s good to have you back among the living again, even if it’s also complicated.”

“Someday, I hope to live a simple life.”

Anderson laughed. “You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.”

“Maybe not, but I’d like to try it.” They exchanged another hearty handshake. “Thank you, Captain. For everything.”

“Thank you, Shepard. If there’s anything useful I can pass along to you, I’ll do it.”

“I appreciate that.”

She left him there, looking out over the Citadel, and rejoined her team with a heavy heart. Was she ever going to see Kaidan again? No matter what happened, knowing he was out there and not being able to connect with him left a big hole in her recovery of her life—she wouldn’t feel quite right until she had talked to him.

Chapter Text

Horizon was empty. Deserted. Except that evidence of life was everywhere—half-eaten food, children’s homework lying on desks, projects in the labs still running without their originators there to collect the data. It was as though each and every soul in the colony had simply winked out of existence all at the same time.

But the Collector ship was still here, which meant the Collectors were still here, which meant there might be a chance to save the colonists. Also here, according to the dispatch Shepard had read, was Kaidan Alenko. She tried to put that out of her mind; she couldn’t do her job if she was worrying about him, after all, and chances were he was somewhere with the rest of the colony. Save them, she would save him. Or so she told herself.

Mordin had made some upgrades to their armor that should protect them from the Seeker swarms they had seen on the young quarian’s vids on the last colony; at least, he said they should. He said a lot of other things, too—he was hard to stop once he got on a roll—but Shepard tuned him out for the moment. Too much else to concentrate on. If Mordin thought the upgrades would work, at least in theory, she’d trust him.

Garrus had apparently been listening to the salarian more intently than she had. “In theory?” he drawled. “How reassuring.”

“No test, no certainty. Have to test them in person. Should be exciting.”

“Your definition of exciting and mine are not the same,” Garrus told him.

Mordin shrugged, no doubt more than used to that attitude.

The Collector ship was above them now. It was huge. How many of the Collectors were there? Shepard thought with a sinking heart. How many colonists were already aboard? Was Kaidan one of them?

In her ear, Joker’s urgent voice came to life, surging in and out of clearness. She couldn’t make out what he was saying, and eventually turned the volume down, the broken-up voice more a distraction than a comfort.

“Collector ship causing interference,” Mordin said.

“Yeah. We’re on our own for now,” Shepard agreed. It was less than optimal not to have Joker and EDI at her command, but she’d been in this situation before—she’d make do.

The first attack came shortly after that—armored bipeds with guns, mostly, but some husk-like things, too. Just like the geth had used.

“So, hypothesis correct. Collectors working with Reapers.” Mordin shook his head. “Very bad.”

Shepard agreed, wondering if the Council would believe in the existence of Reapers now. Probably not; probably they’d call it a coincidence and demand still greater proofs.

Well, she’d go get them, then, she thought grimly. “Let’s keep moving.”

Halfway up a set of stairs, they came on a pair of colonists, a man reaching down to help a woman up. Clearly these were living people, but they were held in stasis. Immovable, unreacting.

“Victim appears conscious, fully aware. Trapped in stasis,” Mordin said, walking around the pair and studying them intently. “Fascinating.”

“Let’s hope we can save them,” Shepard said. She reached down and patted the woman’s shoulder, hoping she could feel that someone was there to help. Thinking, much as she was trying not to, that somewhere on this colony maybe she would find Kaidan trapped in stasis, not already aboard that enormous ship that hovered above her head.

There were more colonists scattered about now, frozen in the act of running away. The Collectors hadn’t taken this group yet. Shepard was going to see to it that they didn’t get here at all.

But the Collectors had other ideas—a mass of them was suddenly ahead of her. She and Garrus and Mordin took heavy fire for a bit, under cover, poking their heads out only to take a shot, but at last they took out the Collectors.

Off to the side Shepard had noticed a closed door—the first closed door she’d seen so far on Horizon. She led the others to it, finding it locked. Garrus studied the locking mechanism, fiddled with it for a few seconds, and the door opened. It closed again behind them as soon as they were through, locking itself once again.

A man stepped out from behind some drum barrels. “You … you’re human!” he said to Shepard, after an apprehensive glance at her turian and salarian teammates. “What are you doing? You’ll lead them right to me!”

“They were coming after you already. It’s hard to hide from the Collectors.”

“Wait, the Collectors are real? I … I thought they were just rumors, you know, to keep us in Alliance space.” He shook his head, trembling. “They—they got Lilith. I saw her go down. They got damn near everybody!”

“Tell me what happened.”

“We lost comm signals a few hours ago, so I came down to check on the main grid. While I was in here, I heard screaming. I saw these swarms of … some kind of bugs. Everyone they touched just froze! So I closed the doors, and locked them.” He scowled. “It’s the Alliance’s fault! They sent that Commander Alenko here, built those defense towers. We’re only a target because of them!”

Shepard pretended her heart didn’t leap at confirmation that Kaidan was here, pretended that Commander Alenko was just another Alliance officer. “Defense towers?”

“Yeah. They're supposed to protect us against enemy ships—only we could never get the targeting system online. So the Alliance gave us a giant gun that can’t shoot straight. Typical. Stupid sons of bitches.”

“And the Alliance rep? He showed up to build the towers?”

“Most of the way through them gettin’ built, yeah. He was supposed to be helpin’ us … but he didn’t seem to know anything about the towers. I kinda got the feeling he was here for somethin’ else. Like maybe he was a spy.”

Kaidan a spy? Hard to believe. He was so open. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t more to his presence here than defense towers. “Can we use the towers against the Collector ship?”

“You’d have to fix the targeting controls, which means goin’ back out there.”

“Well, I have to do that anyway,” Shepard pointed out.

“Better you than me, lady. Head for the main transmitter on the other side of the colony—targeting controls are at the base. I’ll be locking these doors behind you.”

Shepard nodded, putting the frightened man out of her mind. He would be safe enough in here, and hopefully she could get to those controls in time to save the rest of the colony.

On the way, she and the others managed to get through more Collectors and husks than any three people should have been able to take out. And once they reached the base of the tower Garrus was able to hack the computer and reconnect with the Normandy.

“EDI, can you get the colony’s defense towers online?” Shepard asked.

The AI responded affirmatively, but warned that it would take time, and the Collectors would know what she was doing.

“Collectors will respond with force,” Mordin pointed out.

“You think?" Shepard snapped. "We got it, EDI—get started!”

The Collectors came in wave after wave, while EDI’s maddeningly calm voice kept giving the percentage of completion for the targeting system—percentages that weren’t climbing fast enough for Shepard.

“Hurry up, EDI,” she muttered under her breath, jamming a new clip into her gun.

At last, just when Shepard thought she and the others couldn’t hold out any longer, EDI managed to bring the guns online and start attacking the Collector ship. After a few moments of that treatment, it lifted off the ground and was gone … with a significant number of the colonists still on board.

Shepard felt sick. She had come here to save them, not to lose them to the Collectors. She had failed. She couldn’t even allow herself to think that one of those colonists might be Kaidan—what was her potential loss compared with those of the others here today, parents and siblings and children and friends? She had let them down. If it was the last thing she did, she would hunt down the Collectors and try to get these people back.

Chapter Text

Kaidan had been making his way across Horizon since the initial attack, in a desperate hope that if he could reach the towers' base, he could achieve what he had not managed to do the entire time he’d been on Horizon—get the targeting system online.

Why he, seemingly alone amongst the entire colony, was able to shake off the effects of the swarm, he didn’t know. He was paralyzed every time one touched him, but only for a few moments, and then it wore off. In the brief respites he had between swarm attacks and fighting whatever the things were that were taking the people away, he theorized that maybe it was his biotics. But it didn’t matter. He couldn’t stop the things from coming for the colonists, much as he had tried. The best thing he could do was try to attack the ship. He had to get to those towers.

Eventually it became clear that someone else was on the move through the colony, as well. He could hear gunfire in the distance, and fewer of the things were around, the people left standing there immobile but otherwise unharmed.

And whoever it was managed to get the targeting system online, the towers coming to life and attacking the ship until it took off. Kaidan couldn’t think about the people still on board the ship. He had to think about the ones who were here, the ones who had been saved. No one had been saved from any of the colonies before. He had to thank this mysterious benefactor.

The rumors he’d heard on the Citadel came together in his head with the impossibility of the task to offer him a pretty good guess as to the identity of this benefactor, and so he was not surprised when he came around the corner to find the colony’s lead mechanic, Delan, screaming at a woman Kaidan knew intimately. He stood in the shadows for a moment, unnoticed, remembering how to breathe, looking her over, and composing himself.

She was beautiful. Exactly as he remembered, if a bit more pale and with a few more scars. But she was Shepard, that was undoubtable, from the direct gaze to the sympathetic voice to the determined stance. His heart flipped wildly in his chest, thudding against his ribcage. Shepard. Truly alive. A dream come true. Unbelievable.

But where had she been all this time? Why had she let him believe she was dead? Surely he had deserved to know, after what they had been to each other. Had he been wrong about how she’d felt about him? Had her feelings changed while she was away, presumed dead? Two years was a long time. Kaidan could hear his heartbeat pounding furiously in his ears, demanding answers.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Shepard was saying to Delan now. She put a hand on his shoulder in an attempt to calm him. “I’m sorry.”

Always excitable, Delan was having none of it. He knocked her hand away. “Half the colony’s on that ship! You have to do something!”

“I didn’t want it to end this way. I did what I could.”

“More than most, Shepard.” Another familiar voice. Garrus. Him here, too? How was he here, when Kaidan hadn’t heard a single word from her since her supposed death?

“Shepard?” Delan asked. “That name sounds familiar.”

Kaidan had waited long enough; he had to speak to her now, had to know what the hell was going on. He emerged from the shadows, feeling her gaze settle on him like a touch, focusing on his breathing, trying to calm his heartrate enough to speak like a normal person. If she could spend two years letting him think she was dead, he could at least spend two minutes pretending he was all right with that. “Commander Shepard. The first human Spectre. Savior of the Citadel. Delan, you’re in the presence of a legend.” He looked her straight in the eye. “And a ghost.”

She blinked at that, looking away. Guilt? Or had she not expected to see him here? Or had she hoped not to?

Delan was scowling at him. “Figures. All the good people taken, and you get left behind? ‘Course.” He threw up his hands in disgust and stalked off, but Kaidan barely noticed.

He was still looking at Shepard. Beautiful Juniper, just as he remembered her. Definitely a few more scars on her face, but that only made her look more like what she was. “I thought you were dead, Shepard. We all did.” Without thinking he reached for her, and she came into his arms, and it was just as it had been before, her head resting against his shoulder. Disregarding Garrus and the salarian behind her, Kaidan closed his eyes and held her.

At last he had to let her go, or he wasn’t sure he’d be able to. He stepped back.

Shepard smiled at him. “It’s been too long, Kaidan. How have you been?”

She was too calm, and it set off something like fireworks in Kaidan’s chest. He could no longer hold in all his questions, his burning need to know the answers. “Is that all you have to say to me? You show up after two years—two years!—and just act like nothing happened?” He leaned toward her, the words tumbling out of his mouth, the words he had wanted to say since he heard the first rumor. “I thought we had something together, Shepard, something real. I— I loved you! Thinking you were dead tore me apart. How could you put me through that? Why didn’t you try to contact me? Why didn’t you let me know you were alive?”

Her mouth opened in surprise, her eyes, so open to him, showing he had hurt her. “Because I spent those two years in a coma! Do you think I chose to spend two years of my life lying on my back unconscious while Cerberus put me back together? Don’t you think the first thing I wanted to do when I woke up was contact you? I tried! The Alliance wouldn’t tell me where you were!”

The revelation of how she was here sent him staggering back in shock. Rebuilt by Cerberus? Working for them now? Shepard? He looked at her with suspicion, Shepard whom he had always trusted. Was she even herself anymore, or just some Cerberus construct? “Cerberus?” he whispered. He looked past her at the turian who had been his friend. “Garrus, you, too? I can’t believe the reports were right.”

“Reports?” Garrus asked. “You mean you already knew?”

“Anderson hinted that you might,” Shepard added.

Kaidan nodded. “Alliance intel thought Cerberus might be behind the missing human colonists. I was sent here after we were tipped that this colony might be next. Anderson stone-walled me … but there were rumors that you weren’t dead … and that you were working for the enemy. I—wanted to believe them, but I was afraid to.”

“Cerberus and I want the same thing right now—to find the Collectors and stop the attacks on the colonies, and beyond that to deal with the Reapers. It’s a partnership, for the moment; it doesn’t mean I answer to them.”

“Do you really believe that, or is that just what Cerberus wants you to think?”

“My mind is my own.”

“Then you knowingly turned your back on everything we believed in!” He had wanted this to go so much differently … but after all this time, after accepting her loss, beginning to start over, how could it have? He wanted her as much as ever, but he had learned to live without her once. He didn’t know if he could do it again, and he couldn’t afford to find out. And Cerberus … that was one step too far. Above all else, Kaidan was Alliance to the core, and Cerberus stood against that. They always had, they always would. If Shepard was with them now, she was against the Alliance. Against him. Simple as that.

“Kaidan, you know me!” she protested. “No one knows me better. You know I’d only do this for the right reasons.”

“I knew you,” he corrected. “Two years ago. I don’t know you now.”

She winced; he had hurt her with his words, and he felt like a heel, but he couldn’t take them back. He wasn't sure he wanted to.

“You saw it yourself,” Garrus pointed out. “The Collectors are targeting human colonies, and they’re working with the Reapers.”

“I want to believe you. Both of you. But I don’t trust Cerberus. They could be using the threat of a Reaper to manipulate you!”

“Like they claim Saren did? Oh, I heard the popular story back on the Citadel. But you were there on Ilos, you know what the Reapers can do. They’re getting ready to do it again, and they’re using the Collectors to start with humanity. And we can stop it, Kaidan! Or we can give it a hell of a good try.”

Kaidan shook his head. “You’ve changed, Shepard, but I still know where my loyalties lie. I’m an Alliance soldier. Always will be.” He hesitated, not wanting to leave it this way, but not knowing what other way there might be. “I’ve got to report back to the Citadel.”

“Come with me, Kaidan, please,” she said softly. “It’ll be just like old times.”

He closed his eyes, feeling the silk of her hair against his chest in his memory, practically tasting her kisses. Memories he’d pushed away for so long came flooding back, and he wanted to turn back, to apologize, to tell her he’d go with her—but he couldn’t. Not and know who and what he was. “No. It won’t. I can never work for Cerberus.” He stood looking at her. He had no need to memorize her face; he knew it already. But if this was the last time he ever saw her … “Good-bye, Shepard. And be careful.”

Chapter Text

Shepard closed the computer with a decisive snap and crossed the room to her bed. The covers were a tangle already from the last time she’d tried to sleep, but she didn’t want to bother untangling them, so she shoved them aside and lay down just on the sheet, closing her eyes and willing darkness and silence in her mind.

It didn’t work. She thought of Kaidan and the cold finality in his voice when he denied her, denied everything they had had together, because of Cerberus. She flopped over onto her back, fuming. How dare he assume she was a traitor? After what Cerberus had done for her? Wasn’t he even grateful she wasn’t dead? He hadn’t even wanted to hear her side; he’d just made his judgement and walked away.

She got up and went back to the computer, opening it and clicking open her email program.

“Kaidan – I can’t believe you intend to leave things like this! Do you have any idea how damaged my body was? Cerberus spent years rebuilding me, bringing me back to life and health, and you have the nerve to tell me that I’m a traitor because I feel enough gratitude to give their motivations the benefit of the doubt?”

Shepard stopped and looked at what she had written. What was the point, really? She had said something like it already on Horizon, and it hadn’t moved him. He hadn’t cared. His hatred of Cerberus was clearly greater than his love for her. Well, the hell with him, then. Like she needed him.

Reaching out, she knocked the picture of him she kept near the computer over so that she didn’t have to look at his face.

She got up again, closing the computer again, intending to go back to bed and try to sleep again.

But she was still angry, too angry to sleep, so she stopped for a moment watching the fish, hoping to find some peace in their placid swimming. It had surprised her that Cerberus had thought to include an aquarium in her quarters—she’d never had fish, or any kind of pet, before, and it had seemed like a waste, just another thing to take care of, another thing to think about when she already had so much on her mind. But on a whim, she’d bought a few fish at the Citadel, and she found she liked to watch them. So busy, swimming back and forth. What did they think of her? Was she an annoyance to them, or did they simply not know she existed?

In her darker moments, she wondered if that was what the Reapers thought about organic life in general, that their busy lives were just pointless circuits of the tank they were kept in.

Tonight, though, she watched the fish and was calmed by them, by the blue light from the aquarium, by the faint hushed sounds of the air filters in the tank. What would it be like if Kaidan were here, his body lit by those lights? Closing her eyes, she remembered his touch, his voice, low and tender. She missed him, she had to admit it to herself. And it hurt that however much he had missed her, it wasn’t enough to keep him from turning on her. All because of Cerberus.

Back in front of the computer again, she stared at the blinking cursor on the screen.

“Dear Kaidan – I’m sorry for how things went on Horizon. That wasn’t how I thought our first meeting would go. I tried to reach you. As soon as I was awake, I tried, but the Alliance wouldn’t tell me how to get in touch with you. The last thing I wanted was for you to hear about me by rumor.”

Argh! She pounded her fist on the desk in frustration. The written word had never been her strong point—she was a woman of action, most comfortable talking people around to her point of view, or when necessary letting her fists do her persuading for her. This only being able to reach him by email was maddening, because she wanted to say so many things and she didn’t know which should come first or how to make him understand how very much she missed him, how much she still loved him. Among so many other things she wished she could fix she regretted that they had never said those words to each other in their brief time together, that the first time she got to hear him say he loved her was when he was berating her for breaking his heart while she’d been in a coma.

It wasn’t that she didn’t understand his anger—she did. She would have been angry, too, in his place. But she liked to hope that she would at least have given him the benefit of the doubt, rather than refusing to listen at all, the way he had done. Did he really think she and Garrus both were such simpletons that they would be coerced into doing the wrong thing out of gratitude? He knew them better than that. She’d made it clear with Miranda and the Illusive Man from the beginning that she would walk without a backward glance if she thought Cerberus was working to the detriment of the galaxy, and she meant it. But had Kaidan given her the chance to tell him how things were? He most certainly had not!

Her anger was rising again, and it was abundantly clear that any chance she’d had of getting some sleep tonight was long past, if there had ever been any in the first place.

She snapped the computer closed once more, turned the picture back up with an apologetic pat on the top of the frame, knowing she would want to see him again in the morning, and got dressed. Surely somewhere on this ship she would find something useful to do. Anything had to be better than sitting here having conversations in her head with someone so lost to her he might as well be the ghost he had accused her of being.

Jacob would be asleep—he liked his full eight hours and then some. Mordin was likely as not working; he seemed to need very little sleep. But he disliked being disturbed in the small hours of the night. He said they were his most productive, but required privacy.

Miranda had probably just gone off to sleep. She liked to stay up late, and sleep late. In the hold, Jack would be pacing back and forth, brooding. Shepard wasn’t certain she ever slept. And Grunt would be relaxing in his tank, asleep but alert to the faintest sound. Disturbing him in his rest was not recommended.

She thought of waking Garrus, but he was too close to the situation, Kaidan’s friend as well as hers, and he had been rejected by Kaidan just as much as she had. The same went for Dr. Chakwas. She hadn’t been on Horizon with them, but Kaidan having turned his back on Shepard and Garrus for their involvement with Cerberus had been communicated to her. Shepard hadn’t had the heart to tell her in person; Dr. Chakwas had always had a soft spot for Kaidan because of his migraines—his rejection would hurt her, too.

In the end, Shepard headed for the cockpit. Joker swiveled around in his chair when he heard her coming. “Thought I’d see you up here tonight.” His blue eyes studied her, his face softer and more sympathetic than usual. “Crazy the people you end up running into around the galaxy, huh?”

“Crazy,” Shepard agreed.

“Seems like a bit of a set-up, but it must have been good to see Kaidan, right?”

“We talked.” She hesitated, then went for the lie. “It was nice … but things have changed.”

He frowned. “That’s good, because I was not looking forward to your mood if things went bad.”

“I can’t blame him for moving on; two years is a long time.”

“Right. A mutual thing. I got you.” Joker hesitated. “You know, if you ever want to talk sometime …” He quirked an eyebrow. “I hear Chambers is very good.”

Shepard glanced over her shoulder. Chambers was an enigma. Almost relentlessly happy, overly personal, intrusive … and what was her obsession with Shepard’s unread private email? Shepard was perfectly capable of determining when she had new emails. “Yeah. I’ll … give that one some thought.” She rolled her eyes at Joker. “You’re a real pal, you know that?”

“Hey, I’m here for you,” he protested.

“So I can tell.” She sighed, leaning her shoulder against the wall and looking out at the stars going by. “Just what I needed, another reminder of how I lost more than just two years of my life.”

“Give him time, Commander. It’s got to have been a lot to adjust to, on top of nearly having been abducted by the Collectors. Not to mention seeing the colonists taken and not able to stop it. He knew them, remember.”

“Good point. I suppose it had been a long day for both of us, to say the least.” Shepard pushed herself off the wall, nodding at him. “Thanks, Joker.”

“Anytime … I think.” He swiveled his chair back around, remarking as he did so, “There’s a reason I don’t date crew.”

Shepard raised her eyebrows. “Oh? And just who do you date?”

He jerked his head in the direction of EDI. “Please, Commander, not in front of the thing.”

EDI’s voice came from her console. “I am everywhere on the ship, Mr. Moreau.”

“Yeah, and apparently some people think that’s not creepy. Well, I’m not one of them,” he snapped.

Shepard chuckled. “I’ll leave you two to it. Try not to take the ship apart.”

“That is not part of my system parameters, Commander,” EDI informed her.

“Glad to hear it.” With a brief greeting to Chambers, who, much like Joker, seemed never to leave her post, Shepard flipped open her computer terminal and got down to business. There was still work to do—her personal life had waited this long, it could keep waiting indefinitely.

Chapter Text

A few days later as Shepard came through the main command center from Mordin’s lab, Chambers chirped brightly, “You have new private email on your server, Commander.”

Restraining herself from biting the girl’s head off with difficulty, Shepard went to her computer terminal. They all knew she’d been in a foul mood since the mission on Horizon, hard as she had tried to hide it. Lack of sleep, emotional turmoil, inability to put her feelings into words … She wished she could just forget Kaidan, but the memory of the way he had looked at her when she mentioned Cerberus wouldn’t go away, no matter how much she tried to banish it.

The rest of the crew had taken to approaching her with strict professionalism, but Chambers couldn’t seem to get that idea through her head. Shepard assumed that she must actually be some kind of robot, programmed to emit relentless cheeriness, because no human could be that bright-eyed and happy all the time. It simply wasn’t possible.

She logged into her email, scrolling down to the new messages. The name on the most recent one made her blanch and shut the computer with an audible snap. Kaidan Alenko.

Her heart was pounding, her cheeks warm. She imagined she must be red in the face. Clinging to the edge of the tabletop, Shepard worked to get herself under control. She couldn’t read that email here in front of everyone; she needed privacy. Was he still angry? Was he apologizing for his reaction? Did he still love her? Did he want to give what they’d had another chance? Was he declaring he never wanted to hear from her again?

She shook herself. Standing here and wondering wasn’t going to get her anywhere. She had to read it.

Turning, she started for the elevator, then thought of something, and turned back. “Chambers. Come with me.”

“Yes, Commander.” Dutifully, Chambers followed her to the elevator.

Once the doors slid closed, Shepard turned on her, careful to keep her distance. She tried hard to avoid any appearance of trying to physically intimidate any of her crew. In her experience, being frightened of a superior officer didn’t get the best out of any subordinate, and it was always Shepard’s goal to maintain an open and approachable attitude towards those under her command. If they didn’t trust her, she couldn’t trust them. She’d found it worked best if you kept the fist for others and the velvet glove for the subordinates … as long as they knew the fist was there, it was enough.

“Are you reading my email?”

Chambers’ eyes went wide, all innocent and just a little hurt. A good act. It might have been touching if Shepard had trusted the girl half as far as she could throw her. “Of course not, Commander.”

“Then how do you know when new ones come in?”

“I … monitor the server traffic, that’s all, Commander. You know my task is to keep an eye on the crew, to make certain everyone’s in good shape, physically and emotionally. Having an idea who they’re communicating with is part of that, for all of our safety, and helps me know who has a healthy social circle and who … doesn’t.” Her voice trailed off as if she had just remembered that Shepard was one of the latter category.

“You notify everyone else when they have an email?”

“Oh, no, only you!”

Shepard wanted to snap at the girl, but forced the question to come out soft and interested instead. “Why?”

Chambers shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “You’re very busy, Commander. I only want to make sure you don’t miss anything you might want to read, that’s all. You …” She cleared her throat. “Permission to speak freely, Commander?”

With a quick nod, Shepard said, “Granted.”

“You work too hard. And you don’t do anything but work. If you were anyone else on the ship, I would be bringing you to your attention.” She flushed at the awkward wording. “Sorry, but you know what I mean. I just want to make sure that you find time for your personal life. Friends and … all. Commander.”

“I see.” The elevator came to a stop at the top of the ship, outside the door to Shepard’s quarters, and she stuck her finger on the button to keep it open. “Well, if you feel that way, I suppose you’re to be congratulated on your restraint.”

The fact that Shepard wasn’t smiling meant that Chambers’ smile was hesitant, and vanished quickly—as much as her smile ever vanished, anyway. “Thank you, Commander.”

“But I think I’m going to have to ask you to consider my … personal life off-limits. There’s an entire ship full of people for you to keep an eye on that way, that should take up enough of your time. My mental state is my own business, and I’ll handle it as I see fit. Understood?”

“Yes, Commander.”

“Good.” Shepard took her hand off the button and stepped out of the elevator. It closed immediately and she could hear the mechanism whir as it took Chambers back down to the command level. She didn’t think there was a chance in hell Chambers would listen to her, but having said it at least made clear her expectations. What Cerberus’s orders were, and how far they superceded her own wishes, was another question altogether, and one she had little enough control over that it wasn’t worth worrying about.

As she keyed in her code to open the door of her quarters, her heart sped up again, her mind back on Kaidan’s email and what it might have to say. But she forced herself to move slowly, to feed the fish and spend a moment watching them leap for the food, before sitting down in her chair, running her fingers affectionately along the top of the picture frame with Kaidan’s picture in it, and opening her computer.

The email was titled “About Horizon…”, and immediately brought to mind his anger, his disappointment, his rejection of her. Shepard closed her eyes, feeling a ridiculous urge to cry. She hadn’t yet—hadn’t cried in years, actually. It was something she’d learned to suppress early on in her career, finding the disadvantages greatly outweighed the emotional relief. When she had fought the urge successfully, she opened her eyes again and read the email, scanning it once quickly, then rereading more slowly.

“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 can’t just 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”

Shepard had to smile, wondering what the Illusive Man thought of Kaidan’s anti-Cerberus remarks. She had no illusion as to whether her emails were transmitted without being read first—the Illusive Man wanted to keep tabs on her. So even if Chambers wasn’t reading them, it was a sure bet he was.

She thought of the night before Ilos, letting Commander Shepard go and being Juniper again for the first time in a long time, feeling Kaidan’s desire for her, his tenderness, in the trembling of his body against hers, in the passion of his kisses. That had been a night she would remember fondly for the rest of her life, no matter what happened between herself and Kaidan going forward.

Reading it once more, she could almost hear his raspy voice, the softness in his tone, the openness he had used with her once they started getting to know one another. It was almost as if he was here in the room with her.

Rather than wait to respond until later, when her thoughts could tangle again, she hit the reply button and started typing, letting the words flow as if she was talking to him.

“Kaidan—

“I’m glad you reached out. I wanted to, but I didn’t know what to say. Seeing you—other than the mission, it was all I thought about from the moment I woke up in the facility. For me, it hasn’t been two years. Only a few months. I didn’t know what had happened—didn’t know anything at all—and then suddenly I opened my eyes in a lab and was all alone, with no one I knew, owing my life to a group I had learned to distrust. So, yes, I was willing to give the Illusive Man a hearing based on what he had done for me. They spared no expense—I’m myself in every way, completely rebuilt from the inside out, and they did the work thoughtfully and with generosity. And in exchange, they asked me to save the lives of thousands of human colonists, work I would be willing to do anyway. The next thing they ask may not be so in line with my own inclinations, and we will see then if I am free to say no. They say I am; I intend to act as if I am.”

She smiled to herself, imagining the Illusive Man’s reaction when he read that. Well, it was nothing she hadn’t said to his face … or his holographic image’s face, rather, already.

“I remember that night before Ilos—how could I not? In every detail. It meant, means, more to me than I can possibly tell you. As do all the nights after it. I regret that we never said to each other in those nights the word you used when we met on Horizon, I regret the first time that word came up between us it was in anger when you believed I’d betrayed you. Because I felt that way about you, too, and in many ways I still do and probably always will. But as you say, the world is different now, we’re different now, and we both have to decide who we are.

“If you ever need anything, you have it, no questions asked. And if, by some miracle, we ever find ourselves again in the same place with no one attacking us and nothing to fix, I hope you’ll let me buy you dinner. All other things aside, I miss talking to my friend.”

She hesitated before signing it, “Shepard.” The Illusive Man’s background check must have been thorough enough to discover her name, but she didn’t feel like giving it to him if he hadn’t already found it … and she wasn’t sure she was that person to Kaidan, not any longer. She would leave it at Shepard for now, and hope that someday there would be time to reconnect.

Clicking ‘send’, Shepard gently closed the computer, her hand resting on the flat top for a moment. It was done, at least for now, and he was gone. She glanced at the picture, thinking she should put it away … but she wasn’t done with her memories, yet. She thought she might need them in the days to come. So she would keep the picture up, and occasionally she would pretend this was still the old Normandy and Kaidan was going to come in any minute now, and for a brief moment she would be Juniper again. Just so she didn’t forget how.

Chapter Text

Shepard had just sat down in her quarters to start going over the day’s reports when a knock came at the door. “Who is it?” she called, hoping it wasn’t something she’d have to get up and go deal with. She just wanted to finish reading these over and go to bed.

“Dr. Chakwas.”

“Doctor?” Shepard got up and opened the door, frowning at her visitor. “Is everything all right?”

“Well … I never thanked you for procuring this bottle of Serrice Ice Brandy for me.”

“Oh. You’re very welcome.” She’d picked it up in the bar on Omega, but had forgotten about it after Garrus’s injuries, finally delivering it to the doctor’s office several days later while Dr. Chakwas’s attention was on her patient. “You didn’t need to come all the way up here to say that.”

“I didn’t. I was … just looking at this bottle and thinking of the one I lost aboard the original Normandy. I’d been saving that one for a special occasion—and then it was too late. I didn’t want this one to suffer the same fate, so I thought …” She lifted the bottle. “Share it with me now?”

It hadn’t been in her plans for the night, but Shepard liked the doctor—always dependable, putting the good of the crew before her own at all times, and with a dry sense of humor that peeked out every once in a while. Shepard imagined she must have some good stories. “That sounds good. Come on in.”

Dr. Chakwas smiled. “It reminds me of my time in medical school, and the girls in the dorm. I’ve lost track of them all long ago, more’s the pity.”

“Occupational hazard?”

“Indeed.” Dr. Chakwas held out the bottle and a corkscrew. “Care to do the honors?”

“I warn you, this isn’t something I find a reason to do very often.”

“I find you succeed at most things you attempt. I’ll trust you.” Dr. Chakwas took a seat on the bed, watching as Shepard carefully screwed in the corkscrew and pulled the cork free of the bottle triumphantly. “There, you see?”

“First try. I can’t believe I did that.” Shepard retrieved two glasses from her small cupboard and poured some of the brandy into it. “First toast: to the Normandy?”

“To the Normandy.”

They drank, the brandy smooth and cool on Shepard’s tongue, until it hit her stomach with a pleasantly fiery warmth. “Wow. Nice stuff.”

“Very. Hence the price,” said the doctor dryly.

Shepard took a seat, refilling the glasses. “What shall we drink to next?”

“Absent friends.”

She glanced at the doctor, wondering if there were hidden subtexts there—Dr. Chakwas had been very fond of Kaidan, always concerned about his migraines—but it seemed a sincere enough suggestion. “Absent friends,” she echoed, raising her glass.

“Do you remember Jenkins?” Dr. Chakwas asked abruptly, as the fire from the second shot had eased, leaving a warmth spreading through Shepard’s limbs.

“Of course I remember Jenkins,” she said. She tried to remember everyone who had served under her—and especially never forgot those who had lost their lives under her command. It was her duty to remember, and her responsibility to see that she was more careful next time with her most precious resource, her people. “Poor boy. He thought war was going to be fun.”

Dr. Chakwas nodded. “He did keep us on our toes, didn’t he? I remember he snuck up behind Lieutenant Alenko once and put a chunk of ice down the inside of his uniform, just at the end of lunch. The lieutenant didn’t pause a moment, just turned and hit Jenkins with the full force of his biotics. Jenkins was thrown halfway across the mess and came down on a table full of dirty plates. I thought Alenko’s biotic display might have broken Jenkins’ back, and I didn’t know which of them to scold first, but then Jenkins popped up, and, uniform dripping with oil and vinegar, said, ‘That was awesome! Do it again!’” She acted out the scene herself, managing a good impression of Jenkins’ enthusiasm and accent.

Shepard laughed. “I heard about that. Naturally, I had to discipline him, but it was hard to do when everyone in the room kept laughing about it. Even Kaidan.” Only when the name had left her lips did she wish to call it back.

The doctor ignored the mention, though, sinking back against the sofa cushion with a sigh. “Oh, Jenkins. Soldiers like him make the Alliance great.” Then her face lost its smile, her green eyes meeting Shepard’s with a hint of sadness. “Cerberus seems to lack the same enthusiasm.”

It was true—this was a fairly serious ship. Both Jacob and Miranda, who seemed to set the tone for the Cerberus personnel, were lacking in humor, at least as far as Shepard had seen. Additionally, it appeared that the crew were as new to each other as they were to the Normandy, which meant none of them were comfortable enough with each other yet to get into any trouble … or have any fun, for that matter. “It does, rather,” she agreed, sighing as she leaned back in her seat. “I wonder why that is. You’d think with all its rules and regulations, the Alliance would be the stuffier organization. Maybe because Cerberus hand-picks and the Alliance takes anyone willing to volunteer, you get a broader cross-section?”

“Perhaps.”

“With your service record, you could have gotten a tour of duty on any Alliance ship. But you left to come here. Why?”

“I told you. Life on Mars was boring.”

“You could have asked for a transfer.”

The doctor picked up the bottle and poured another round into the glasses. Studying the pale liquid, she sighed. “Maybe … it’s less about leaving and more about staying.”

“What does that mean?” Shepard asked.

“As a military doctor, I mostly treat people who are in bad shape. Often they’re too far gone for my treatment to work, and they die. Or, when I can help them, they move on. To another command, another ship. Either way, all too soon they’re gone. Like Jenkins. Or Williams.”

“What about friends? Family? Could you settle down near them?” It sounded too much like her own life to Shepard. Would this be her in another thirty years, alone on a ship, no one close to her, everyone always moving on?

Thoughtfully, the doctor answered, “No, it’s not that I’m lacking friendship—and it’s not that I want to settle down. I love life aboard a ship, watching the stars go by. They’re familiar old friends, if one needs such things, and I have people scattered about that I love to see when I can. It’s … stability, I suppose. Someone who will never stop needing me.”

Shepard understood. “Joker.”

“Exactly.” Dr. Chakwas nodded. “Jeffrey will always have Vrolik’s Syndrome. He would never admit it, but he needs my help. He always will. I … it isn’t that I enjoy it. I hate to see him in pain; I wish I could fix it permanently, but … there you have it.”

“Treating Joker gives you the stability you’re looking for along with the life on a starship you love.”

“Yes.” Dr. Chakwas sighed, swirling the brandy around in her glass. “Perhaps it’s this ship I love, as much as it is Jeffrey.” She gave Shepard a sidelong look. “I felt much the same about Kaidan.”

“I know.”

“As did you.”

Shepard shook her head. “Not the same.”

“No. Of course, not remotely the same. He loved you very much; you don’t doubt that, I hope?”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“But you’re angry with him for moving on when he thought you were dead?”

Shepard sat bolt upright. “No! Not because he moved on! I want him to be happy. I would never have asked or expected him to stay in mourning for me for two years. I just …” She picked up her own glass, but didn’t move to drink. “If he had walked away from me on Horizon because he cared for someone else, that would be easier to handle. But he walked away because of the name of the group who saved my life and built this ship and are funding our hunt for the Collectors, our attempt to save the colonists. It had nothing to do with me, or him, or me and him, and everything to do with his loyalty to the Alliance.”

“A loyalty he’s held for over a decade,” the doctor reminded her gently.

“I know that. And I wouldn’t have expected him to throw the Alliance over for me, but he wouldn’t even listen. He just walked away, without giving me a chance to explain.”

“It’s not easy to be confronted with a ghost, especially of someone you loved.”

Shepard nodded. “I know. And I understand—as best I can, I suppose. But …”

“You’re alone.”

“I’ve always been alone, but never felt it. Now, now that I know what it’s like …” She looked over at the doctor. “Is this how you felt after the Normandy was lost, as though you had someone to care for and look after and then that was taken away?”

“More or less.”

“But you got yours back.”

Dr. Chakwas looked at her with sympathetic eyes. “Perhaps you will, too.”

But Shepard shook her head. “I can’t count on that. Too … too distracting. Too torturous. Hope can be a painful thing.”

“That it can. But I wonder … I have the sense that those drawn into your orbit continue to come back to it.” The doctor smiled. “Shepard, our immovable center. A place for a person to stop and catch her breath.” She raised her glass and looked at the liquid inside. “Or maybe I’m just … happily drunk. It would be nice if things were simple like that for once.”

“Wouldn’t it?” Shepard picked up her own glass and clinked it with the doctor’s. “Here’s to simply being happily drunk.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

They drank deeply, both dwelling in thoughts of those they loved and those they had lost.

Chapter Text

Nassana Dantius. Shepard vividly remembered being sent on a wild goose chase by the asari, hunting her “kidnapped” sister, when in reality the sister had been involved with mercs and had tried to kill Shepard, which had not gone well for her. Nassana had been something less than broken up with grief when Shepard reported the results of the “rescue”.

Now here they were, facing off again, at the top of a penthouse Nassana had thought secure enough to keep her safe, waiting for the appearance of Thane Krios, the assassin Cerberus had sent Shepard to recruit. From what she’d seen on her way up the tower, he was quite skilled at his job.

Naturally, Nassana thought Shepard’s presence here was all about her; it was incomprehensible to her that someone should go to all this effort to get to her without wanting to come after her personally. Of course, what Nassana thought was very much a moot point: As she ranted at Shepard, a sound was heard from the ceiling above, one of Nassana’s commandos nervously pointing a gun up at it.

Then a figure dropped soundlessly through a hole where a ceiling tile had been just a moment ago. He broke the neck of one guard, punched another in the throat, caving in his windpipe, and shot two others, seamlessly, all before Nassana had a chance to move. He caught Nassana in his arms, holding her still, and then shot her in the stomach. Carefully, almost gently, he laid her back over the control panel as her life ebbed from her. Without making a move toward Shepard or her team, or even so much as looking at them, he folded his hands and studied Nassana carefully.

“This is our guy?” Grunt asked into the silence. “Good.” The krogan always liked an efficient killing machine.

Shepard wasn’t so sure. The assassin’s studied lack of acknowledgement of their presence worried her. “I was hoping to talk to you,” she said to him.

He spoke at last, without looking up at her, his voice deep and rough, but mellifluous at the same time. “I apologize. One moment, please: Prayers for the wicked must not be forsaken.”

She watched him as he finished his prayer, only now recognizing the intent focus for what it was. Shepard had never objected to religion amongst her subordinates as long as it didn’t cause them to hesitate on the battlefield, and it was clear that Thane Krios had no trouble with that. She’d seen few drell in her career, and knew very little about them or their culture. If the assassin had to pray after every kill, that must take some time on a battlefield, she thought. Or perhaps he waited till the end and prayed over them all at once, as he had here.

But Shepard had to admit it seemed like wasted effort. Nassana had been trouble; no hesitation in her, either. Killing her had been a mercy to all those she might have encountered in the future. So Shepard had to ask, “She certainly was wicked. But do you really think she deserves your prayers?”

Thane glanced up at her, his eyes pure, solid black, but somehow still expressive. “Not for her. For me.” Spreading out his hands, slender and long-fingered, he said, “The measure of an individual can be difficult to discern by actions alone.” He tilted his head to the side, studying Shepard unhurriedly. “Take you, for instance. All this destruction, this chaos. I was curious to see how far you would go to find me. Well … here I am.”

He seemed perfectly calm, not tense or concerned by the presence of a heavily armed human with a krogan and a salarian, equally heavily armed, as backup. Shepard wondered if he knew who she was and why she was there already. “Did you know I was coming?”

“I didn’t. Not until you marched in the front door and started shooting.” Something that might have been a smile played across his face. “You saw the strength of Nassana’s guard force—she had become paranoid, afraid one of her sisters would kill her. You were a valuable distraction.”

“Glad I could help.”

“I don’t imagine you came just for the entertainment of shooting your way through two towers full of mercenaries.”

“No. I didn’t. I came to ask you to join me on a mission.”

“Indeed?”

Shepard nodded. “You’ve heard of the Collectors?”

“By reputation.” His interest had been piqued by the name, she could see. “What about them?”

“They’re attacking human colonies—Freedom’s Progress was their handiwork, among others. I intend to stop them.”

He did smile at that. “I knew rumors of your death must have been exaggerated. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Commander Shepard.”

“You know who I am?”

“It is difficult to avoid your likeness. Also, who else would shoot their way up here in order to offer me employment?” The smile faded and he looked at her intently. “Attacking the Collectors will require passing through the Omega 4 relay. No ship has ever returned from doing so.”

Shepard shrugged. Time enough to worry about that when they saw what was on the other side preventing them from returning. “They told me it was impossible to get to Ilos, too.”

“A fair point. You have built a career on performing the impossible,” Thane acknowledged. “So you would like me to protect humans I’ve never met, from aliens no one knows anything about, by going to a place no one has ever returned from?”

“Succinctly put,” Mordin commented.

Shepard smiled. “That’s about the size of it, yes.”

Thane hesitated before continuing, “This was to be my last job. I’m dying. Low survival odds don’t concern me; the abduction of your colonists does.”

Well, didn’t that just take the cake, Cerberus sending her to recruit a dying man. Could she afford to bring him on her ship? Was it even worth recruiting him? “You’re dying? Are you contagious? How long do you have?”

“I am not contagious. If you are interested in further details, we can discuss it on your ship. I can promise the problem will not affect my work.”

“Is there anything we can do?” Shepard thought of Dr. Chakwas. Perhaps she or Mordin would be able to come up with a cure, or at least a palliative, for whatever Thane was ill with.

He shook his head in a contained but certain negative. “Just giving me this opportunity is enough.” Turning, he looked out the window where the sun was just coming up, orange light shining across his face. “The universe is a dark place. I am trying to make it brighter before I die.” Looking around him at the carnage, he added, “Many innocents died today because I wasn’t fast enough to prevent it. I must atone for that.” Thane held out his hand and Shepard shook it. His skin was smooth and cool to the touch, his handshake firm. “I will work for you, Shepard. No charge.”

“Welcome aboard.”

Chapter Text

So this was the famous Commander Shepard. Thane was bemused by the idea that his path had led him here, to working with a woman many thought of as the savior of the galaxy, accompanying her on what was almost certainly going to be a suicide mission. Amonkira, Lord of Hunters, must have been guiding him here—this woman certainly carried herself like a hunter.

But for all that, she was a woman like any other, flesh and blood. No doubt that would be a disappointment to many who held her on a pedestal. Thane found it made her more interesting—he was more willing to follow someone who had patience with fallibility, their own and that of others.

Accompanying them on Illium was Miranda, who was a Cerberus operative, and thought of herself as more or less Shepard’s superior while on the Normandy, as far as Thane could tell. Neither woman seemed to bother about the chain of command—when Shepard gave an order, she expected it to be followed, and when Miranda gave one, the weight of Cerberus was behind it, and they appeared to have developed a tolerance for the imbalances, depending on where they were.

He stopped to look out over the vista in front of them, the great expanse of Illium. Shepard waited for him, but when his thoughts went on too long for her, she joined him at the wall. “Something on your mind?”

“I spent the last two years here,” he told her. “I had a purpose, a goal, that kept me focused. But now that I’ve accomplished it, something occurs to me: In all that time, I never looked at the horizon.” He suited the action to the words, watching the streams of shuttles go by. “It is spectacular.”

Shepard looked at him with interest, then turned to look out over the view herself. “I suppose it is. It’s a little busy for my taste—I prefer fewer people.”

“Do you? And yet you surround yourself with them.”

“I choose my team. That’s different.”

“As you chose me, by dossier?”

“As I chose you, by watching the way you work and talking with you.” She nodded at him. “I trust my gut where people are concerned. Others might find my crew a bit odd, but no one’s ever failed me in a fight.”

“I believe it.”

“Do you mind if we keep going now?” she asked.

“Is that an order, couched politely?”

“Yes.”

“In that case, I do not mind in the least.”

Shepard smiled, and Thane found himself smiling back. He wouldn’t have expected to like the Commander Shepard of rumor and report, but he was already finding that she was both less and more than she was reputed to be.

In the course of the day, he had occasion to watch Shepard come into contact with any number of people who wished her to listen to—and solve—their problems, and she unfailingly did so with respect, no matter how ridiculous the request. Thane found that admirable, although he wondered how she didn’t exhaust herself.

One, an asari she had met before on a different planet, put a tentative hand on Shepard’s shoulder, made a hesitant offer of … something personal, and for the first time Thane saw Shepard at a loss. Was it because the overture came from an asari? Or because she was not open to overtures of any kind? He had lived without the company of others for a long time. It was what he deserved. But Shepard was a young woman, and strong, and that strength would be worn away if she didn’t share her burdens with someone.

In the same room, they came across something Thane had never seen before, which was saying something: a krogan spouting love poetry. “Blue rose of Illium, you have blossomed in a tower of glass and plastic …” it began. Which wasn’t bad, really, Thane thought.

The object of the poetry, an asari, seemed less moved by it. But apparently Shepard was intrigued, as well, because she stopped to talk to the asari, while the krogan went on declaiming his verse.

“On the rocky plains of Tuchanka, I will build you a garden from the bones of my ancestors!”

Thane had never been to Tuchanka, but what the krogan was describing didn’t sound like any garden he had ever seen.

“What do you want?” the asari snapped at Shepard. Almost immediately she apologized. “That damn krogan’s love poems are getting on my nerves.”

“He’s reading those poems to get your attention?” Miranda asked. She glanced over at the krogan. “They’re not terrible.”

“Especially for a krogan,” Thane agreed.

The asari looked at him, too, frowning. “His name is Charr. We’re kind of dating—but we’re on a break. He’s trying to show me how sensitive he is by, well, wooing me. It’s really bad … but kind of sweet.”

“Blue rose of Illium,” Charr intoned, ignoring all of them, his eyes only on the asari. “Leave eternity unembraced and grapple in the glorious struggle that is us, here and now.”

“’Grapple in the glorious struggle’?” Miranda echoed. “Only a krogan would find that romantic.”

Thane shrugged. “I suppose it depends on the mood.”

Both Shepard and Miranda looked at him at that, Miranda with open curiosity and Shepard with interest slightly more veiled.

She cleared her throat and looked back at the asari. “It doesn’t seem common for an asari to date a krogan. What brought you two together?”

“He’s a fun guy,” the asari said, “and really smart—especially for a krogan. And he’s got a good job as a transport technician.”

“But?”

“You know, it’s fun to join a mercenary guild or dance at bars for a few centuries, but eventually you hit the matron stage, you know? Then you get your back tattoo removed, you let your scalp go back to its natural blue, and you settle down with someone … dependable.”

“So then why are the two of you on a break?” Shepard asked.

“He’s been getting serious. Serious as in … talking about kids. I mean, Charr is a great guy to date, but for something permanent … Krogan live long lives, you know? I mean, it’s not like dating a human where you stick it out for a century till they die.” The asari seemed only then to remember who she was talking to. “Sorry. No offense meant.”

Shepard shrugged, and Thane smothered a smile. He had met other asari who had said similar things about drell companions. “So, he wants kids. You don’t?”

“Oh, no, I do. It’s just that … I couldn’t help but wonder if he really likes me or if he just wants kids. He couldn’t have them any other way, you know, because of the genophage.”

“Did you ask him that?”

The asari nodded. “I did. I don’t think he had realized until I mentioned it that our kids would always have been asari. Non-asari don’t always get that we’re not taking alien DNA, we’re just using it to randomize some of the genetic information. Anyway, Charr was quiet for a long time after that. At last he said that he would love our girls no matter what color they were.”

“An unusual attitude for a krogan,” Thane pointed out.

“Yeah. I suppose so.”

“You need to talk to your boyfriend,” Shepard told her. She smiled wryly. “He’s just going to keep spouting poetry until you do.”

The asari looked at the krogan, her face reflecting her indecision. “I know. But it’s tough! I like him a lot. Hell, I love him. But … I don’t know if he’s permanent bond-material.”

“Look at him,” Shepard said. “He’s obviously crazy about you.”

The asari frowned. She wanted to believe, that much was clear, but was unable to force herself to choose. “Is he? I mean, what if he just wants to have kids? Am I just his baby-making machine? He said I wasn’t, but—“ She was talking herself in circles.

Shepard raised a hand to cut her off. “If he said that, then you either trust him, so you have nothing to worry about, or you don’t, and you’ve already decided.”

“I … I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way. And I do trust him …” She looked at the krogan again, her eyes brightening as the doubt cleared. “I’m going to talk to him. Thank you.”

Soon she and the krogan were gone, and it appeared all was right in their world. Shepard looked at Miranda and Thane. “Shall we?”

Thane followed her, listening to Miranda rib her about her soft heart, and he wondered if there was anyone who she trusted as implicitly as she had counseled the asari to do the krogan.

Chapter Text

As they made their way back through the halls of Nos Astra toward Liara’s office, it was her former teammate Shepard was thinking about. The Liara she remembered had been gentle. Compassionate. Possibly a bit on the innocent side. This one was cold, and hard, and altogether too knowledgeable. Much as Kaidan had been. Much as Garrus was. Although Garrus had been harder than both of the others to start with—maybe that was why he didn’t seem as different.

Whatever Liara was up to, Shepard couldn’t shake the feeling that the asari was in over her head. But then, apparently she’d become a powerful information broker in the past two years. Was Shepard underestimating her old friend? She supposed it was possible.

As they exited the corridor from the market and began to pass the shipping office, Thane stopped and cleared his throat. “Shepard, would you mind if we paused for a moment? I would like to thank Seryna for her assistance.”

“Of course.” She followed him to the office while Miranda wandered over to a vid screen to watch the Galactic News.

Only one of the two asari she had met before was still in the office. The other desk was empty, clean even of dust, as though it had never been occupied.

“Pardon me,” Thane said, and the asari turned around.

“Can I help you?”

“Do you know where we can find Seryna?” Shepard asked.

The asari looked them both over. “Oh, yes, you’re the ones Seryna was helping. I see you found each other. That’s tidy.”

Thane and Shepard looked at one another and shrugged. Tidy enough, she supposed? Although she could have hoped for fewer mercenaries. No job was ever as easy as asking someone on board and them saying yes, it seemed. “It looks as though Seryna may have taken another job?” she asked.

“Yes; off-world, as it happens. Didn’t say where. Oh, she did give me something for you, though, in case you ever turned up again.” She turned and rummaged in the side drawer of her desk. “Looks like a message.” She handed it to Thane.

“Thank you.”

“Sure.”

“And there was nothing else?” Shepard asked. It seemed strange that a person would just give up their job and move to a different planet—apparently Seryna really hadn’t believe Thane and Shepard could take out Nassana … or she feared reprisals from Nassana’s associates.

The asari shook her head. “She just gave me that and left. Didn’t even say goodbye.” She looked both irritated and sad for a moment … then the irritation won. “And now I have to do all her work as well as my own. If there’s nothing else?”

Thane gave her a courtly bow. “Thank you for your time.”

Shepard noticed with amusement the way the asari blushed. There was something about Thane—the way he looked at a person as though he was really seeing them, actually paying attention, or perhaps that deep, soothing voice. Kaidan’s voice had been deep, too, but it hadn’t flowed over the ear in quite the same way.

She gave herself an internal shake. What was she doing thinking about Kaidan? That was over—he had made it perfectly clear that he was ready to move on, and even if he wasn’t, there was no future for them as long as she worked with Cerberus. Work had been enough for her for so much of her career; it would have to be enough again.

Thane had moved away from the shipping office and clicked the button to listen to the message. Shepard thought she ought to move away to give him some privacy, but he didn’t seem to care that she could hear.

Seryna’s voice came from the datapad. “Hey, good-looking. I was on my way to a new life when the news burst arrived: The bitch is dead. I assume that means you finished your job. Shame we couldn’t have celebrated together. If I ever see you again, drinks are on me.”

As the message ended, he looked up at Shepard with a small smile and a shrug.

She chuckled. “I see you made an impression. Occupational hazard?”

Thane nodded. “At times.” With a little shake of the head, he added, “Women are surprisingly interested in hired killers.” He appeared to be frowning, although his face didn’t move. Shepard wasn’t certain how he managed to be so expressive despite what appeared to be a lack of facial muscles. Perhaps it was those deep-set black eyes? Those were certainly eloquent on their own, although again, she wasn’t sure how since they never appeared to change either.

She realized that she was staring at him, and hastily averted her eyes. “Possibly it’s because an assassin has to study his target so carefully before he strikes? Women like the idea of someone focusing on them.”

“Do they? Hm. Perhaps so. I have never looked at it that way.” He tilted his head a little to the side, looking intently at Shepard, focusing on her. She found she liked it, but she was uncomfortable under that steady gaze, as well.

“Shall we rejoin Miranda? We still have a lot to do here on Illium,” she said, before he could ask any questions she didn’t want to answer.

“Of course.”

Chapter Text

Returning to the Normandy, Shepard and Garrus walked together, with Thane a bit ahead of them, his head turning this way and that in interest. Shepard had to wonder if he was looking for the best places to infiltrate the ship. Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea—having Thane go over the ship and make sure an assassin would have a hard time getting aboard might be something she needed to put on her list of things to do.

In the meantime, she was still deeply concerned about Liara, and she said as much to Garrus. “She was never this vengeful, not even after what Saren did to her mother.”

“Whoever this friend was that the Shadow Broker killed, they must have been very close.”

“I agree. But I hate to see her go down such a dark path.”

Garrus looked at her affectionately. “How many of us have you helped gain revenge now? And yet you still don’t approve.”

“Just you,” Shepard said.

“And Wrex—you hunted down the man who stole his armor and got it back. That’s revenge. And you’re taking me to the Citadel to find Sidonis and Jack back to her old cell to get revenge on the entire facility.”

Reluctantly, Shepard had to concede the point. “Okay, so revenge is sometimes necessary for peace. But … it’s just not Liara.”

“It’s not who she was. You have to accept that while you were dead, and unchanging, or at least so it seems to you, the rest of us were out here experiencing two years of life, on top of the loss of someone close to us and the break-up of what was our home. The destruction of the Normandy and your death changed us, Shepard—ironically, a lot more than it changed you.” He paused, then continued, “And you’re not exactly the same person, either. Oh, not that I think Cerberus got anything wrong in your rebuild,” he added hastily, “but coming back to a world that is different than the one you left has put its mark on you. I’m just saying … don’t judge Liara too harshly.”

“I’m not judging her! I just … want to help.”

“Be careful,” he said. “The motivations may be different, but the results can look awfully similar.”

Ahead, she saw Thane stop to wait for her.

“I’ve got to go get him settled.” She put a hand on Garrus’s arm. “But I’ll take what you’ve said under advisement, Garrus, thanks.” She meant it, too—he was right, the others had been through more in many ways than she had, and come out the other side more changed than she would have imagined. She would have to be easier on them—Garrus himself, Liara … and Kaidan.

Time enough to consider that later. For now, she hurried after Thane so she could introduce him to Jacob, since he had already met Miranda on Illium. Miranda approved, she could tell; so far, the addition of new crew had been remarkably smooth. Miranda and Jack were like oil and water, but they mostly avoided each other. No one went near Grunt other than Shepard, and they all thought she was crazy to have awakened him from the tank, but she remembered Wrex’s unswerving loyalty. Because of him, she would give Grunt the benefit of the doubt.

Jacob was approaching Thane with his hand out to shake, but Shepard sensed a hesitation. In many ways, Jacob had never shrugged off his early Alliance training. He was still something less than completely comfortable with the extreme nature of some of Shepard’s companions. Mordin he was okay with; he understood Mordin. And after years in the turian military and C-Sec, Garrus spoke Jacob’s language. Grunt was more like Jacob than the human knew, but he couldn’t see past the krogan to the person inside. Jack he clearly thought was just crazy. And apparently he was going to be uncomfortable with their new drell assassin associate, as well. Shepard hoped at some point the young human would learn to bend a little, or at least to see things in a new light.

“I’ve heard impressive stories, Krios. Sounds like you’ll be a real asset to the team,” Jacob said. He folded his arms across his chest, leaving no doubt as to his real feelings, even before he looked at Shepard and added, “That is, if you’re comfortable having an assassin watch your back.”

“Who better to know where an assassin might strike?”

The green plates above Thane’s eyes, where a human would have eyebrows, had risen at Jacob’s bluntness. Now they relaxed and he gave a courteous nod to Shepard. “A good point.” Turning to Jacob, he said, “I have accepted a contract. My arm is Shepard’s.”

“Uh-huh,” Jacob replied, unimpressed. “I don’t know about you, but I’m loyal to more than my next paycheck.”

“You seem very free with your assumptions. You don’t know me; how can you assume you know where my loyalties lie or how I arrive at them?”

“Jacob, you might want to check your facts before you speak. Thane is doing this mission gratis—clearly this is not about a paycheck for him, either.” Shepard leveled a look at her associate that spoke to her disappointment in his attitude—although if he was going to have an attitude, she preferred that he spoke bluntly rather than hid it behind smiles, the way Miranda and Jack dealt with one another.

Jacob’s expression didn’t change; nor did his body language. “I don’t like mercenaries. An assassin is just a precise mercenary.”

“Hardly. The amount of training alone makes a difference. And an assassin is comfortable working alone, where a mercenary always needs orders,” Shepard argued.

“You show an excellent understanding of the requirements for the task, for a soldier,” Thane remarked. “Have you ever considered taking up that line of work?”

She smiled. “Remember, I come through the front door while you drop in from the ceiling. That’s my way. Hardly subtle enough for an assassin.”

Thane didn’t smile in return, but there was humor in his eyes. “True enough.”

“You can’t seriously say you respect a guy who shoots people from the shadows, for money?” Jacob demanded.

“I am saying that.”

“An assassin is just another weapon,” Thane said. “A weapon does not choose to kill—the one who wields it does. In this case, the one who wields it is Shepard. My arm is hers.”

“And I appreciate it,” Shepard assured him.

“I trust you will use me wisely.” He gave that courteous nod again. Ignoring Jacob, who still stood with his arms folded across his chest, his expression hostile, Thane asked, “Where would you like me to put my things? If possible, I would prefer someplace dry.”

From her station in the middle of the central table, EDI spoke up. “The area near the life support bay on the crew deck tends to be slightly more arid than the rest of the ship.”

“Is it?” Shepard was surprised; she’d never noticed a change in humidity in different parts of the ship. EDI did have her uses, despite how much she irritated Joker.

“An AI?” Thane asked with interest. He gave the courtly nod to EDI’s representation on the table. “My thanks.” He glanced at Shepard. “You will find me there should you have any questions for me. Such as whether I intend to murder the entire crew one by one in their beds,” he added with a sidelong look at Jacob. Then he shouldered the canvas bag he had brought on board with him and left the briefing room.

Shepard smothered a smile in response to Thane’s comment. She didn’t want Jacob to think she was laughing at him. Jacob was still practically bristling, and she sighed. He was really going to have to learn to stop wearing his attitudes on his sleeve. “Look, we need all the help we can get. You know that, I know that, the Illusive Man knows that, which is why he gave me Thane’s dossier in the first place.”

“Yeah,” Jacob said reluctantly. “I guess.”

“He’s not what I expected in an assassin, to be honest; I think he may surprise you.”

“He might. Then again, he might not.”

“But you’ll work with him?”

Jacob nodded. “Yeah. I’ll work with him.”

“Very good. Dismissed!”

She breathed a sigh of relief as Jacob left the room. Sometimes assembling a team was a lot more tiring than it sounded.

Chapter Text

When Shepard finally had a chance to check her email, it was just after dinner. She was scrolling through reports from Miranda and Joker and Jacob and a couple of jokes Garrus had sent and a nice but stiff note from Liara when she saw an unfamiliar name. Jeirt? Who was Jeirt? It was titled “You changed my life.” How had she changed someone’s life today? She hoped it was for the better. She certainly seemed to have changed Liara’s, and that hadn’t been a benefit to her friend, it seemed.

Clicking on the email out of curiosity, she found it was from one of the salarian workers in Dantius Towers. Only it wasn’t meant for her—really, it was meant for Thane. The assassin had been the one to save the salarian from the Eclipse mercs; Jeirt’s description of the way Thane had attacked was surprisingly poetic: “He moved like a dancer, grace and power in constant motion.” Shepard could see that in her mind’s eye, see Thane’s movements. He did have a certain grace, a deliberateness and a fluidity of movement that were rare. She wondered if that was unique to him or if all drell moved in such a manner.

Jeirt went on to say that after watching Thane work, his own life as a custodian seemed empty. He wanted to find “something that lets me capture what I saw in him, that beauty, that aesthetic perfection.” Shepard had to smile at the description. Most people wouldn’t call an assassin at work beautiful—but she had seen it, too, when Thane attacked the Eclipse people in Nassana’s office. No movement wasted, perfect control. It had been quite impressive. Jeirt finished by asking her to pass on his thoughts to Thane, or as many of them as she thought appropriate, and since she hadn’t yet found a moment to welcome their newest crew member, this seemed like as good a reason as any.

She went down to the crew level and knocked at the door of the life support bay.

“Enter!” He nodded as she came in. “I thought it would be you.”

“Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

“Certainly. We haven’t had a chance since I joined. No doubt you have questions.”

“A few. I imagine you do, as well.”

“Possibly. Please.” He gestured at the table that had been set up. There was a small cot in a corner, but otherwise the room was bare.

“Do you have enough space in here?”

“I am an assassin; I am used to taking what corners are available. This is more comfortable than many places I have made my base of operations.”

“Well, let us know if there’s anything you need. And tell Rupert if you have any dietary requirements.” She smiled. “He’ll probably ignore them, but you might find the conversation amusing.”

“I’ll keep that in mind in case I require entertainment.” He had a cup of some type of liquid in front of him, and he pointed at it. “Would you like some refreshment?”

“No, I’m fine, thank you. I came to tell you I got an email from an admirer of yours.”

He raised the green plates above his eyes in surprise. “Of mine? That’s new.”

“One of the salarians you saved in your progress through Dantius Towers. He said you changed his life, as well as saved it. Very poetically, he said watching you work made him want to do more with his life than be a janitor.”

Thane looked down into his cup. At last he raised his gaze, his eyes soft. “Well. Then the day was a success, I suppose.”

“Any day you can inspire someone to be more than what they are is a good day.”

“You would know.”

“Oh. No. No, I’m not sure I do.” Shepard thought of Liara again, of Kaidan. Of Garrus. “I seem to have ruined everyone’s lives by dying.”

“Hardly your fault. It would seem that should be their burden.”

“It is. But if I had still been here—“

“It is difficult to know what could have been.”

“No, I suppose you’re right. I … Now that the topic has come up,” she began awkwardly, and then could have bitten her tongue off, but Thane smiled.

“I told you that I am dying.”

“Yes.”

He nodded. “I thought you would want to know more.”

“You said it isn’t contagious.”

“It isn’t. What I have is called Kepral’s Syndrome. It is a condition of the lungs.”

“Is it genetic?”

“No. You see, my people are native to an arid world, our bodies adapted to dryness. But most of us now live on Kahje, the hanar homeworld. It’s very humid—it rains every day. Our lungs can’t handle the moisture. Over time, the tissue loses its ability to absorb oxygen. It becomes harder to breathe; eventually, we suffocate.”

He described it so calmly. Shepard supposed if she lived with her own certain death, perhaps she, too, could be calm about it. In a way she did—going after Saren had carried with it a high probability of death, and certainly contemplating a trip through the Omega 4 relay promised the likelihood of death, and she just kept working and didn’t think about it. Perhaps Thane did as well.

“Is there nothing they can do to mitigate the effects?” she asked him.

“The hanar have funded a genetic engineering program—they should be able to adapt us eventually. But the project has only been running for a few years.” He shrugged. “I don’t believe my body will still draw breath by the time it bears fruit.”

“Could we do something here? The Normandy has a state-of-the-art medical facility.”

Thane smiled, gently, as if it were a foolish question. “It is being attended to. If the finest medical minds in the hanar Illuminated Primacy can’t solve the problem, I doubt your ship’s medic could.”

“If you say so,” Shepard said doubtfully. She’d get Dr. Chakwas on it, anyway, and Miranda, too. If they could bring her back from the dead, surely they could find a way to repair a set of drell lungs. “If there’s ever anything you need, or any way we can make you more comfortable—“

“Thank you. I appreciate your offer, and your concern.”

“So will you be all right to the end of the mission?” she asked. It felt like an intrusive question, but she had to know how long she could count on his assistance.

He nodded. “I should be. Estimates are that I ought to be fine for another eight to twelve months. The more time my body spends in humid environments, the faster it progresses.” Another smile, this one dryly amused, tugged at the corner of his full lips. “I think it is safe to say that by the time my body is incapacitated we will either be victorious or dead. Either way, I won’t be a burden to you, nor should this affect my performance.”

“I have to say, you don’t act like the popular conception of a dying man,” Shepard told him.

With a husky chuckle, Thane said, “Well, you have the advantage of me there, Shepard. You’ve already died. Perhaps later you could give me some suggestions. Although one could say you don’t act like the popular conception of a dead woman—or one risen from the dead.”

“You make a good point,” she conceded.

Thane got to his feet, moving to the window and looking out at the machinery, his hands clasped behind his back. “I can do nothing to alter my fate. That has become clear to me. What I can do is choose the course of my life up to its end.” Thoughtfully, he added, “One advantage of my training is that I’ve always to some degree considered myself dead.”

“Have you?”

He turned toward her. “It is difficult to kill people and be fully present in one’s body. It requires a certain … detachment. Don’t you find that, commanding people to go forward into the line of fire?”

“I do,” Shepard agreed, “but I don’t think it’s the same. If I thought of myself as dead, I would be more likely to think of my soldiers that way as well, which would lead me to use them less wisely. Lives are the most precious resource at my command—I have the responsibility to care for them as I do my own.”

“Yes. You have that reputation. Which is why people are willing to sign on with you. You also have the reputation of someone who gets things done, which is another reason.”

Shepard got to her feet. “I’m glad you decided to join us, then.”

With that courteous nod she was coming to know, he responded, “And I am glad you chose to offer me the spot. I will do my best to earn it.”

Chapter Text

As they sped across the galaxy to intercept the derelict Collector ship, everyone seemed keyed up. Grunt was tearing apart the cargo hold and putting it back; Daniels and Donnelly in the engineering room were flying around trading quips at lightning speed, and thoroughly annoying Jack, who said she could hear their chirpy voices echoing above her head while she worked out.

Jacob was also hitting the weights obsessively, spending hours in the exercise room. Shepard considered telling him not to wear himself out, but then she’d have had to give the same advice to Jack and Grunt, and she wasn’t about to tell either of them to calm down.

Mordin’s lab was so littered with the detritus of his research that you could barely walk into it, and he struck everyone who came in with such a stream of incomprehensibly fast speech they usually just stammered something apologetic and left.

Joker and EDI were wrangling constantly in the cockpit. The AI wasn’t supposed to be able to feel emotion, but Shepard noticed EDI was more sharp with Joker than usual. Not for the first time, she wondered about the AI and its abilities. It seemed very advanced.

Miranda was spending most of her time pacing her office and, though she wouldn’t admit it, chewing her fingernails while she read reports. And Garrus had taken his guns apart and reassembled them so many times Shepard wondered if they still worked.

The only oases of calm on the ship seemed to be Samara, who meditated in the starboard observation deck, and Thane, also meditating in the life support bay. Shepard wished she knew some meditation techniques. Her nerves had never been a problem, except that everyone else was now getting on them by not being able to relax.

At last, she took a cup of tea to the port observation deck, hoping at least to be alone. And she was—blissfully, peacefully alone, for probably an hour before the door slid open behind her. Twisting in her seat, she found to her surprise that it was Thane.

“I am sorry. I thought no one was in here; I just wanted a change of scenery.”

“I suppose the view of the life support systems does get a bit tedious.”

“Largely I ignore it and lose myself in memory, but occasionally even that gets tiresome.” He gave his courteous nod. “But I’m sure your moments of peace are hard-won—I will not disturb you.”

If he had been anyone else, Shepard probably would have sent him away. Even if Kaidan had been aboard the ship, she might have preferred to be alone—although Kaidan would have been exercising as furiously as Jacob was, she imagined. But Thane’s quiet thoughtfulness was nearly as restful as solitude, all things considered. “No, please, stay. I’d appreciate someone to talk to. I’ve worn out all my topics of conversation with myself.”

“Have you? I would have thought you’d have quite a bit to say to yourself.”

“Usually I do. But today it mostly revolves around what’s ahead, and I try not to have those conversations. Too hard to do the job if you’ve worried yourself sick about it.”

“I understand.” He took a seat farther down along the bench Shepard was sitting on.

“Should you be here?” she asked. “Or should I ask EDI to turn down the humidity?”

“No, no.” Thane lifted a hand as if to wave away her concerns. “I cannot remain locked away in a room in the mere hope of adding a few weeks to my time. I will be careful, but I intend to continue living my life.” He glanced at her with a small smile. “Not to mention that I would be of very limited use to you if I refused to leave the life support bay.”

“True enough. All right, then, I won’t worry about you.”

“I appreciate that. There are few things more irritating than having someone continually second-guess your decisions in the name of health. I can name a few hanar physicians who fall into that category. Don’t you find that so?”

Shepard gave that some thought. “Not really. I don’t think anyone’s ever hovered over me or really even expressed much concern.”

“For you are Shepard, the mighty and indomitable?”

She laughed. “Something like that.”

“How did you come to be a soldier? Is it simply that there was nothing else that would have suited you so well?”

“That was a long time ago.” It had been years since anyone had asked. “And I think you’re right, it’s where I’m best suited to be. But … well, I’m sure you’ve heard the official story, about the colony on Mindoir?”

“Something about it, yes.”

“It was attacked by slavers. Parents, friends, home … I was lucky to have survived and not been captured.”

“How did you?”

“Potting soil. I hid under it. My parents were botanists,” she explained. “The soil and fertilizer masked my smell, and the potting shed was dimly lit, so it was easy enough to hide. After that … I admired the soldiers who came to the colony to pick up the pieces, and I had nothing, nowhere to go, so training for the Alliance navy seemed like my best option. From there, I just … did what I do.”

“Get things done.”

“Yes.”

“Quite successfully, it appears.”

Shepard nodded. “But of course the problem with succeeding is that people just keep handing you more challenging tasks and expecting you to succeed at those.” That line of thought was getting her dangerously close to the Collector ship that lay ahead of them, so she turned the questions around. “And you? How did you come to be an assassin?”

“Like you, I was trained for it. The hanar selected me for the training when I was six years old.”

“Six?” Shepard asked in disbelief. “You’ve been killing since you were six?”

“Of course not! I didn’t make my first kill until I was twelve.”

She looked over at him to see if he was joking, but he appeared perfectly serious. “That’s still young.”

“I was ready. The hanar had put a great deal of time and effort into my training—I was an investment, not to be used and thrown away.”

“An investment?” she echoed. “You were a child.”

He seemed surprised. “It appears I’ve given you the wrong idea. Yes, they valued me as a resource, but they also developed me as a person. No part of my training or education was neglected. In fact, they regretted their need for me.”

“It seems strange to think of the hanar needing assassins. They’re so polite, and their religion seems to based in peace and light.”

Thane shook his head. “Every species needs assassins, Shepard. They all have enemies, within and without, who must be dealt with. The hanar are only unusual in that they need other species to do the killing for them. They have a strong grip and natural toxins, but have you ever seen one move quickly outside of water, or fire a gun?”

Shepard had never thought of it that way, but of course it was true. Off their homeworld, the hanar were often at a disadvantage, if not somewhat helpless. “Maybe it’s the hanar’s influence that makes you seem so different from the typical assassin.”

“The typical assassin?” he repeated, amused. “There is no such thing. And, if you’ll pardon my saying so, I believe you’ve spent too much time fighting thugs who think custom-painted armor makes them professionals.”

“That’s true enough—although from my end of the gun, I prefer them that way.” She smiled at him. “I’m glad I never had to go after you.”

Thane smiled back. “As am I.”

For a moment, as they looked at one another, the atmosphere in the room seemed to shift, as though something had passed between them without their knowing. Shepard looked away in confusion, searching for another question to get the conversation back on track. “Why did your parents agree to this training?”

“The agreement was made under the Compact. It was an honor for our family.”

“What’s the Compact?”

“You know very little about my people, I see.” When Shepard began to apologize, he raised his hand again. “You are not alone. There are so few of us, we’re a rather obscure topic of discussion. You see, the hanar rescued us from extinction. We owe them our lives. Thus, the Compact.”

“Why were your people going extinct?”

“Overpopulation. That must sound trite to you—humans developed the mass effect drive before the problem became acute. Our homeworld, Rakhana, had few resources. We hadn’t even developed fusion power when the soil began to fail from overuse and pollution. The hanar found us a century ago. They sent hundreds of ships, evacuated thousands of people.” He turned to gaze out across the galaxy. “Billions more had to be left behind.”

“What’s Rakhana like now? Have you ever been there?”

He shook his head. “No. It is dead.” Looking back at her, he asked, “Do you read your philosophers? Thomas Hobbes. ‘When all the world is overcharged with inhabitants, then the last remedy of all is war, which provideth for every man by victory, or death.’ As Rakhana died around them, my people slaughtered each other for mouthfuls of water, crumbs of food. The hanar saved those of us who remain from that. We are grateful.”

“Thus the Compact,” she said. Thane nodded. “What are the terms of the Compact?”

“There are many things the hanar can’t do, even with mechanical aid. They ask the drell to assist them.”

“Like they ‘asked’ you to become an assassin when you were six?”

Thane turned to her swiftly, half-rising from his seat, his black eyes sharp. “Don’t insult me, Shepard! We owe our existence to the hanar. We are proud to repay that debt! And they do ask, they do not insist. My parents agreed, knowing I would be well taken care of and given a future, a set of skills. Anyone can refuse to serve; few do.” He stood up all the way, some of the anger fading from his face. “You see the hanar as ineffectual blobs of light, but if you could see them in the Encompasssing, the oceans of Kahje, you would see them as they were truly meant to be.” Something changed in his face, as though he had retreated to somewhere behind his eyes, as though he was no longer present in the room with her. Whispers escaped him, and Shepard got up and walked toward him to hear him better. “A stream of silver in the dark. Looping, diving. So fast the eye can’t follow. Laughter like the squeals of a child vibrates the water. They fly over the back of the seabed like birds, plumed with the light of heaven.”

She could almost see it, the way he described it, and she closed her eyes, trying to form the picture in her mind.

When she opened them, he was watching her, with interest and something softer in his face. “Do you begin to understand what the hanar are, what we owe them?”

“I think so. I’m sorry if I offended you.”

“No, no. It is not atypical. It’s rare to find someone willing to listen to another point of view. Perhaps that’s what sets you apart, makes you the person you’ve become.”

Shepard shrugged, uncomfortable with the praise. “Maybe. I like to know what all the options are, maybe that’s taught me that there’s more than one side to every story.” Abruptly she realized how close she was standing to him, and she took a few steps away, closer to the window. “So if you were trained by the hanar, how did you end up freelance?”

Thane sighed. “I was asleep for a long time, yes. I paid no attention to what my body was asked to do, but then …” His face changed again, as it had when he was speaking of the hanar, and Shepard found herself moving closer again to understand what he was whispering. “Laser-dot trembles on the skull. One finger twitch; he dies. Then … the smell of spice on a spring wind. Sunset-colored eyes defiant in the scope. The laser dances away.”

There was silence, and Shepard realized she had closed her eyes again to see the vision, if that was what it was, more clearly. She opened them, finding him on the other side of the room, near the door. “Was that one of your assassinations?”

“Yes. My apologies—drell slip into memories so easily.” He cleared his throat. “Perhaps we can discuss it later … I’ve wasted too much of your time already.” And he was gone, leaving Shepard to wonder what had happened in that memory to upset him so, to hope that one day he would trust her enough to tell her … and not to look too closely into why she wanted to know.

Chapter Text

Thane leaned his head back against the side of the shuttle, closing his eyes, feeling the burst as Garrus, at the controls, floored the pedals to get away from the Collector ship as quickly as possible. He had only known the turian a short time, but he trusted that they were going to reach the Normandy safely—and he had absolute confidence in Joker, at the controls of the big ship, and in the AI, EDI, who would be assisting.

Odd to feel so certain of others, he who had spent so much of his life operating alone. Shepard was good at putting people together, though, and at getting the best from them. Take Jack, sitting across from him, tensely looking out the window. Jack was barely sane—she was the first to admit it. But there was no one like her in a fight. Ruthless and confident and fully in control of her power. He and she had fallen into an entertaining routine fighting the Collectors—she would freeze one and lift it into the air with her biotics, and he would shoot it and cause it to splinter into pieces. It had tickled his sense of whimsy, and apparently hers, as well.

Shepard had ignored their antics, her entire focus on what was ahead of her. Having seen her fight, he now no longer was surprised that she had died; rather, he was surprised that she didn’t make a habit of it. Rushing headlong into the fray, seeking cover only when her armor was smoking, her shields completely gone. She fought like someone who gave no thought to the future. Or possibly like someone who had an unpleasant job to do and wanted to wade in and get it done as quickly as possible, regardless of its effect on her.

But she kept an eye on him and Jack, as well, always taking the brunt of whatever danger was to be faced on herself. Which wasn’t difficult, since the Collectors appeared to be obsessed with her. In every cadre of Collectors they had faced, one had been taken control of by something calling itself “Harbinger”, and Harbinger had spent its time calling to Shepard, telling her that she couldn’t win, letting her know that the Collectors wanted her as … it seemed to be as a trophy. Thane had found it disturbing, and the words weren’t aimed at him. She had ignored it all, though. She had a tough hide, no doubt developed over years in the military. Possibly even before, although her brief description of her life on Mindoir had sounded rather pastoral and peaceful.

The shuttle docked, and almost before it had stopped moving, Shepard was out of it and sprinting for the cabin. Jack followed her. Thane and Garrus came behind more slowly. The turian’s eyes were on the door Shepard had disappeared through. “This must be like repeating the past for her,” he said. “It is a little for me, as well.”

“Because this is the same Collector ship that attacked the original Normandy?” EDI had discovered that information and passed it on to them while they were on the Collector vessel. Shepard had been angered by it, not liking the idea of being hounded by the same set of Collectors for two years. Thane couldn’t blame her.

Garrus nodded. “Yes. She was with Joker at the end then.” He glanced at Thane. “You know how she died?”

“She was spaced, I understand, after the original Normandy went to pieces?”

“She was spaced because Joker wouldn’t leave his post and she went after him and dragged him to a pod, but she didn’t have time to get in it herself. It’s why he doesn’t sleep. I mean, he never slept much—he prefers to fly—but now even less, because he relives it in his nightmares. You know about his condition?”

Thane shook his head.

“Vrolik’s Syndrome. His bones are brittle. He can barely walk on his own without breaking a leg. It’s not clear that he could have gotten to a pod on his own, even if he wasn’t so damned stubborn. He blames himself for Shepard’s death.” Looking down at his feet, the turian added softly, “There’s a lot of that going around.”

“You, too?”

“A little. Kaidan was the last one with her—she sent him to a pod and went after Joker, and he said, after, that he wished he had gone for Joker instead.”

“She wouldn’t have let him,” Thane said with certainty.

“You got that already? Yeah, she doesn’t let her people put themselves into danger if she can avoid it.” Garrus chuckled. “She’s got to be so pissed at the Illusive Man for letting her take you and Jack into a trap. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.”

As short a time as he had known Shepard, Thane agreed—she wouldn’t hold back her anger at anyone who caused her to put her people in unnecessary danger. Perhaps that was the key to her magnetism. Because she was magnetic. People were drawn to her. And it wasn’t her beauty; strictly speaking, Shepard wasn’t beautiful. Her skin was too pale, her features regular but too sharp for real beauty. She kept her hair scraped back so severely that it was clear she didn’t want her looks to be an issue. Thane suspected that, too, had been learned in the military.

She couldn’t hide her lovely eyes, though. Hazel, he believed the humans called them—brown at times, green or blue at others. Always direct and honest and uncompromising and expressive.

Walking with Garrus, Thane found himself lost in the memory of sitting in the observation deck with her, that brief moment in time when their eyes had met and something had passed between them. He had dwelt in that memory several times since it occurred, trying to parse the emotion he had felt. Not attraction, although there was that. Something more fundamental … a recognition of some kind, a sensation that it was meant to be that they two should be sitting together at just that moment. He had never experienced anything like it, and he found it at the same time both deeply unsettling and oddly comforting.

Beneath them, the ship accelerated swiftly. Garrus and Thane looked at one another with relief.

“He pulled it off this time,” Garrus said. “I thought he would. He was pissed that they took his ship from him before; he wasn’t about to lose a second Normandy.”

“I can’t blame him for that.”

Garrus looked around him with affection. “No. It’s quite a ship.”

“Which do you prefer?” Thane asked, hoping it wasn’t too intrusive a question. “The original, or …?”

“That’s a difficult question.” Garrus pondered it for a moment. “The old one was carpeted, a bit warmer feeling … but it was an Alliance ship, and it never stopped being an Alliance ship. Being an alien aboard it always felt a bit—awkward. Cerberus, despite being a human-focused organization, seems more relaxed about aliens. Or maybe Shepard’s had more to do with the atmosphere aboard.”

“She seems remarkably open-minded.”

“Long as you do your job, Shepard doesn’t care what you look like, it’s true.”

Thane hesitated before asking the next question. “Is Shepard different now than she was before?”

“In most ways that you could see, no. Same drive, same sense of humor, same inability to get into cover in a fight until the last minute.”

“She’s always done that, has she?”

Garrus smiled. “Oh, yes. Used to drive Kaidan nuts.”

“Kaidan?” It was the second time the name had come up, and Thane sensed there was something there, maybe from something in Garrus’s voice.

“Kaidan Alenko. He and Shepard … well, I suppose it was common knowledge. He took it hard when she died, as you might imagine. Harder when she showed up not dead—and working for Cerberus.”

“Devoted to the Alliance?”

“You could say that.”

“Ah.” Thane had met a number of people who had negative opinions of Cerberus. He didn’t think he could give up someone he cared about over such a disagreement, but it took all kinds, after all. “That would explain the sadness,” he said, almost to himself. There was an air about Shepard, stoic as she was, that would be explained by a broken heart.

Garrus glanced at him in surprise. “You saw that, too?” He sighed. “It isn’t just Kaidan. Liara, too. You met Liara?” At Thane’s nod, he went on, “She used to be … sweet. Innocent. Lovely. Now she’s … not. If Joker blames himself for Shepard dying, Shepard blames herself for dying and what happened to the rest of us afterward. Even me, I think, as though I became a vigilante cleaning up the streets of Omega because of her.”

“Didn’t you?”

“Not entirely. I was fed up with C-Sec and regulations and answering to idiots long before I met Shepard. But that’s what she does—she takes on her people and takes them to heart and holds herself accountable for their well-being.” They had reached the elevator, and the turian hesitated. “I don’t suppose you play chess?”

“I’ve tried it once or twice.” In actuality, he was only a few points short of being a Master … but there was no point in revealing that fact before he’d had the enjoyment of the surprise at least once.

Garrus wasn’t entirely fooled. He studied Thane skeptically. “I’ll bet.” He tipped his head toward the elevator. “Come up and have a game.”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

Chapter Text

When the Normandy was safely away from the Collector ship, Shepard called her team together in the briefing room. She waited, leaning her hip against the table, her arms crossed, thinking about the Illusive Man and his betrayal. Had it been only herself, she wouldn’t have minded so much being used as a pawn. But to endanger her team, as well? Not just Thane and Jack on the Collector ship with her and Garrus at the helm of the shuttle, but the entire crew. And after the same Collector vessel had blown up the first Normandy to begin with! Anyone who understood her so little couldn’t be trusted to direct her movements, she thought.

The others were trickling in now. Mordin from his lab, still muttering to himself; Jacob from the weight room; Samara from her meditations; Miranda from her office, datapad in her hand, reading as she walked. Jack and Grunt came up from the basement together, arguing about who was the most powerful. Shepard hoped they’d decide to have the eventual contest on land instead of on the ship. She didn’t want to have to explain to Joker how she’d let her team get out of hand and scratch his baby.

Garrus and Thane came in together, rather to Shepard’s surprise. Garrus seemed disgruntled, Thane very pleased with himself.

Once everyone was seated around the table, she began. “I believe you all know why I called you in.”

“Cerberus screwed us over. As I said they would from the start,” Jack said.

Miranda glared at her. “That’s not quite the way I would have put it.”

“No shit, cheerleader.”

Shepard fixed Jack with a severe look, and the other woman subsided. “Jack’s colorful turn of phrase notwithstanding, the fact is that the Illusive Man had certain knowledge that he kept from us.”

Garrus shook his head, muttering something about C-Sec and the Alliance.

“He says he did it because he didn’t want me giving away our intentions to the Collectors, and because he trusted me—us—to get in and out in one piece. But it was mighty close.”

Joker’s voice crackled over the speaker. “Too damned close, Commander. It was like déjà vu … only it actually had happened before.”

“I know, Joker. And I was with you just like before, and like I will be again,” she told him. “That’s a promise.”

“Yeah, I know.” He clicked off, but she could hear his unhappiness even in the silence. That was one memory neither of them wanted to revisit, and knowing what had happened the last time made her promise less reassuring than she’d hoped it would be.

“So where does that leave us, Commander?” Jacob asked. “If we can’t trust Cerberus, and there’s sure as hell no one else we can trust …”

“I think that’s an exaggeration,” Miranda commented.

“It may be,” Shepard told her, with a warning glance at Jack that caused the biotic to snap her mouth shut with an audible click of teeth. “But it’s not entirely wrong, either. If the Illusive Man falsified information once, he’ll do it again. He as good as told me he would. On the other hand, we learned things aboard the Collector ship that we couldn’t have learned any other way. I would have preferred to do so with a bit more advance planning, but I have to be thankful I had Thane and Jack along. They saved my ass several times.” She smiled at both of them.

“You mean, every time you ran around a corner without looking and got into a firefight without waiting for us?” Jack asked. Her question was followed by a general chuckle, and Shepard looked at them all sheepishly.

“That’s not new,” Garrus told them, shooting her a mock glare.

“What? I take the hits so you all don’t have to.”

“You tell ‘em, Shepard.” Grunt raised a fist in solidarity. “You sure you aren’t part krogan?”

“She did get some breeding offers while she was on Tuchanka,” Miranda said.

“Wrex always was her favorite,” Garrus added.

Shepard raised a hand, shaking her head, although privately she was pleased to hear the conversation and see some camaraderie building among her team. “I think we’ve gotten a little off-track here, everyone.”

Jacob seemed to agree. He sat forward with his elbows on his knees, hands clasped earnestly beneath his chin. “The question is, where do we go from here?”

“Exactly.” Shepard nodded at him approvingly. “Apparently, EDI’s calculations put the Collectors’ homeworld in the midst of the galactic core.” Once the general disbelief had settled, she went on, “EDI suggests there might be some kind of protected area on the other side of the Omega 4 relay that ships can jump into, and perhaps a space station hidden within the core. I guess we’ll find out when we get there.” She looked around, wondering if any of them were having second thoughts, but no one seemed to be. They were either looking at her or lost in thought, trying to work through what she’d told them.

“So how do we guarantee we get through safely?” Thane asked. His black eyes were trained on her face, regarding her steadily. Somehow she felt the stronger for his silent support; she wasn’t sure she wanted to question why that might be.

“According to the Illusive Man, we need a particular device called an ‘IFF’; apparently it tells the Omega 4 that we’re friends and not foes. But we don’t know where to get one.”

“Are we sure we don’t know, or is that Cerberus just telling us we don’t know?” Jack asked.

“If Cerberus knew, we’d already be on our way to get it,” Jacob answered. “They want this done.”

“So do I.” Shepard looked around. Much as she liked her work, much as she liked these people she had gathered around her—for the most part, anyway—she had to admit to being a little tired. She thought of the colony on Mindoir briefly, and with a sense of nostalgia she rarely allowed herself. She had wanted off that colony so badly, pestered her mother to let her join the military or the mercs or anyone who would take her off that bucolic rock and somewhere that she could do something interesting. Well, she’d gotten what she wished for, hadn’t she? No bucolic rocks for her, not anytime soon, at least. “But there’s plenty to do while we wait for the wheels of Cerberus to turn. I still have another couple of dossiers, and I know several of you have places you want to get to and things you want to take care of before we go through the relay, and I’m not going to let any of you down, I promise.”

She saw Thane take a deep breath, as though he had just thought of something, and she wondered what it was, and if he would tell her or keep it to himself. He didn’t seem like the kind of man to ask for help … but then, everyone asked her for help.

“If that’s all?” Mordin practically jumped out of his seat. “Experiment in process. Research waits for no meeting. Must get back.”

“Be my guest, Mordin.”

He nodded quickly and hurried from the room. Samara followed more slowly. Jacob hovered near Shepard for a moment, and she said quietly to him, “I haven’t forgotten about your father’s ship. We’ll get there as soon as we can, I promise.”

“Thanks.” He still didn’t look convinced as he left, though, and Shepard sighed inwardly. He’d proven to be a hard one to get to know so far, still Alliance-trained, hard as he tried not to be, and uncertain how friendly he was allowed to be with his superior. She didn’t mind that, entirely, but it made it difficult to talk to him. Kaidan had been similar in outlook, but somehow had never been hard to talk to. She missed him and their easy talks, possibly even more than she missed what they had eventually become.

Miranda gave her a brief smile before returning to her datapad and leaving the room. Grunt and Jack were arm-wrestling in their seat, dangerously close to EDI’s pedestal on the table.

“You two!” Shepard called, and they both looked up at her, startled. Jack used Grunt’s distraction to slam his arm down.

“Hey!”

“Take it downstairs,” she said sternly, trying to hide her smile as Grunt glared at the smug human holding his arm down. “And if you hurt each other, it better be something Dr. Chakwas can fix,” she called as they left.

Thane and Garrus were involved in an intense conversation, and she went over to see what it was about.

“Trouble, gentlemen?”

“None at all, Shepard, except that you have a chess-sharp on board.” Garrus glared at Thane, who looked unrepentant.

“I said I had played.”

“You said you’d tried it once or twice,” Garrus snapped.

“And you fell for that, Garrus? Isn’t that what Wrex said about poker?”

“Maybe,” the turian admitted grudgingly.

“You should stick to games you know you can win.”

“I thought I was.”

“Do you play?” Thane asked her.

Shepard shook her head. “Too slow and fiddly for me.”

He smiled. “Of course it is.”

Winking at Garrus, Shepard said, “What I really like is a good driving simulator.”

The turian groaned. “Stick with the simulators.” To Thane, he added, “Never get in any wheeled vehicle with her. She’s got no respect for people’s bones.”

“Now, Garrus, no one ever got hurt. Much.” Shepard chuckled. A wave of weariness hit her, and she suddenly wanted a hot shower and a long sleep. “I’ll say good night to both of you, and leave you to your games.”

“Good-night,” they both said. She was conscious of them watching her as she left the room, and couldn’t decide if she found their concern sweet or irritating.

Chapter Text

Hours later, sleep continued to elude Shepard. The Collectors’ Harbinger calling her name, threatening her personally, had bothered her more than she wanted to admit. The Illusive Man setting a trap for her, endangering her team, made her angry, made her question everything she’d done since she was revived. Had Kaidan been right all along? Should she have turned her back on Cerberus? No one else was doing anything about the Collectors, but she couldn’t work with someone who lied to her or kept things from her, not and be able to do her job properly and keep the people who were counting on her safe.

Eventually she got up, trying to read, but the book was stupid, a fictionalized retelling of things she had actually lived through, getting many of the details very badly wrong. She tossed it aside and paced the cabin, trying to watch the fish but unable to find peace in them tonight.

The walls began to feel as though they were closing in on her. She needed space, and light, and the vast expanse of the stars spread out in front of her. Throwing on her uniform, she left her quarters and took the elevator down to the port observation deck.

Thane was there, sitting on a bench looking out at the galaxy with his arms looped casually around his knees. He turned around as the door opened and nodded to her. “I wondered if you might find your way down here.”

“Were you waiting for me?” There was something pleasing in the idea, something comforting in the the thought that he had been thinking of her, that he had predicted she might need company.

“Yes. Although not entirely altruistically, I have to admit.” He held up a hand apologetically.

For a moment, Shepard could nearly feel those lithe, strong fingers touching her, moving up her thigh, intimately, and she turned away, certain that she was blushing, not sure where the thought had come from.

“Shepard?”

“I’m sorry. I’m … unsettled.”

“I can imagine you must be.”

“My quarters seemed very small.”

“I can certainly see that, after what happened on the Collector ship. The life support bay seemed small as well.” He shifted on the seat to make room for her. Only once she was sitting with him, both of them looking out at the stars, did she realize how close they were to one another. It was … stirring, to be here with this alien, this unusual man, but it was also comfortable. She wanted to rest her head on his shoulder and listen to his voice rumble in his chest, but that was entirely out of line.

“I’m sorry. You said there was something you wanted to talk about and here I am focused on my own issues.”

“You have every right.” He looked at her intently. “You speak to everyone else about their troubles, solve them for them if you can. To whom do you speak about your own?”

“Oh. Well … I don’t usually have any.”

“Everyone has troubles occasionally.”

“Not Commander Shepard.” She smiled to take the bitterness out of the words. “I don’t really know where the Commander’s troubles end and mine begin, and hers are easier to deal with.”

“You see yourself as two separate people?”

“Sometimes.” She nudged his shoulder with her own. “Why do I get the feeling you’re asking me questions in order to avoid telling me what you wanted to talk to me about?”

Thane gave a rueful smile. “You are quite perceptive. Now that you’re here … it seems more difficult to discuss.”

“Well, I’m not going anywhere. Take it at your own pace.”

“Thank you.” He looked out at the stars, collecting himself. “I fear I have already taken things at my own pace for far too long, sadly. And now my mortality has me … dwelling on things. Do you find that, now that you’ve experienced it?”

Shepard shook her head. “As far as I can tell, my mortality has had a greater impact on everyone else than it had on me. I was just asleep for two years; everyone else had to live it. And don’t think I don’t notice the distraction.”

He smiled, but without humor, acknowledging that she had read him correctly. “I … had a family, once. I have a son, still. His name is Kolyat. I haven’t seen him for a very long time.”

That she had not expected. She wondered what it would be like to have a son, a child, someone specific depending on you rather than the shadowy faceless denizens of a galaxy. She thought it must be more rewarding. But not if you were estranged, she imagined. “Did something happen, that you haven’t seen him?” She wondered about his son’s mother. Had he loved her? He must have. What had she been like?

“Something, and nothing. I abandoned them.” He glanced at her sideways as he said it, as if to gauge her reaction, so she held it back, waiting for more detail. “Not all at once,” he continued. “Nothing dramatic like sneaking out at night, no final argument or slammed door. I just … did my job. I hunted and killed across the galaxy. ‘Away on business,’ my wife would tell people. I was always away on business.”

“She must have known who or what you were when you married her.”

“She did. I believe she thought when we were married, when our son was born, things would change.” He looked down at his feet, drawn up on the bench cushion. “They never did.”

“How long has it been since you saw him?”

“Ten years. He was … he was a child. He showed me some of his school work and asked if we could ‘dance crazy’. We did that when he was younger.” Still looking at his feet, he added morosely, “He is no longer a child.”

“Tell me about ‘dancing crazy’,” Shepard said gently. “I confess, I have a hard time imagining you doing that.”

“It was all too rare. It—“ His eyes changed, and she recognized the memory taking him over, leaning in to hear the whispered words. “I check my extranet contacts; I expect an update on my next target. The console plays music. Old. Unfashionable. Kolyat jumps into the room. ‘Father!’ He runs around in circles. I scoop him up, toss him into the air. He shrieks, laughs. ‘Spin me!’”

He paused and Shepard thought the memory had passed, but his eyes were still focused inward. They were green now, rather than the typical black, she noticed with surprise. Did they change color depending on the memory?

Thane continued, “The console beeps. I put him down, click the message. ‘Father,’ he pleads. Tugs my sleeve. ‘I need to read this,’ I say. I don’t look at him.” He put his head down on his knees, his shoulders quivering, and Shepard wondered if he was crying. She wanted to put her arm around him, but didn’t know if it was appropriate, or if it was safe to touch him in the middle of a memory, so she kept her hands to herself, looking out as the ship streaked through the endless night, until he had gained control over himself again.

“Do you want to go on?” she asked softly when he raised his head.

“Yes. I’m sorry for that.”

“You don’t need to be. This is something you feel deeply about, as you should. No apologies necessary.” Cautiously, Shepard asked, “Is there a reason why this is coming up now?”

He frowned, trying to find the thread of the narrative. “When my wife departed from her body I attended to that issue,” he said at last. “I left Kolyat in the care of his aunts and uncles. I have not seen him or talked to him since. But … my condition—I’ve been judging my life, measuring what I’ve added and what I’ve taken away. I—“ Thane paused abruptly.

She felt it was treading too close, but she couldn’t help asking. “Why didn’t you raise him yourself?”

Thane spread his hands out in front of him, looking them over. “My body is blessed with the skills to take life. The hanar honed them in me. I have few others.” He shook his head. “I wanted better for Kolyat, wanted him to find his own way in life. If he hated me for it, so be it—he would not have to share the path of sin.”

It hurt Shepard to have such an intelligent man sell himself short this way, but he knew himself and his situation best; it would not be appropriate for her to argue with him now. Besides, it was far too late.

He wasn’t paying attention to her anyway, his eyes on the stars. “Thinking of what lies ahead for me, I used my contacts to trace Kolyat. He has become disconnected; he does what his body wills.”

“Disconnected? That’s a new term for me.”

“The body is not our true self, the soul is,” he explained. “Body and soul work as one in the whole person. When the soul is weakened by despair or fear, when the body is ill or injured, the individual is disconnected. No longer whole.”

“Which is it in Kolyat’s case? His body, or his soul?”

“His soul. He has gone to the Citadel and taken a job as a hit man.” Thane turned to her, seeming to see her fully for the first time since she had come into the room. “I would like your help to stop him, Shepard. This is not a path he should walk.”

She nodded, thinking it through. This was a problem she could solve. Then she frowned. “Who would hire a raw rookie for a contract killing?”

“I fear someone may have seen that we share a name and assumed we share skills.” Thane shook his head, looking lost. “I don’t know why he would have accepted such a task, however.”

“As the only way he could be closer to you?” Shepard suggested softly.

He closed his eyes, the pain of the idea showing on his face. “That thought haunts me more than any other. Is that my legacy to my only son, truly?”

“So maybe hiring him because he shares your name was his idea?”

“Yes. That is possible. But … it doesn’t seem right. My name—he shouldn’t respect it. Not enough to use it in that manner.”

“Why the Citadel? Surely there were places closer to Kahje he could have started without leaping straight into the big time.”

“That, too, is my fault, I’m afraid. Years ago I prepared a package for him, a relic of my ill-spent life, and I had volus bankers store it for me, arranging for delivery when I died. Somehow he acquired it early.”

“How would he have known to look for it?”

Thane shrugged. “I did wet work on the Citadel around the time his mother died. He may have gone there because it was the last place he knew for certain I had been. Once there, he could have done some searching. It’s hard to say. My sister knew about the package, although not what it contained. It’s possible she told him.”

“I have to ask, Thane. You know where he is—you have more contacts on the Citadel than I do and you know I don’t have any tracking skills. Why do you need my help?”

He looked straight at her, his beautiful black eyes on hers. “I’m not asking because I need your help. I’m asking because I want it. Because I want … I am afraid of what will happen if I do this alone. I wish you to be there to help prevent … I don’t know what.”

“Of course. I’m happy to. Well, happy perhaps the wrong word, but …” She was stammering, but Thane was no longer listening, lost in another memory.

“The last time I saw my son,” he murmured. “They’ve wrapped her body in seaweed. Weighted it with stones. He tries to pull away from me, calls for her. The hanar lift her off the platform. They sing like bells: ‘The fire has gone to be kindled anew.’ He begs them not to take her away. They let her body slide into the water. He hits me. ‘Don’t let them! Stop them! Why weren’t you—‘” He took a deep breath. “It rains. It always rains on Kahje. Warm water pours down his face.”

Water was threatening to run down Shepard’s face, too, his grief and Kolyat’s all too real. Was that how Kaidan had felt when she died? “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to make you relive that.”

Blinking, Thane came back to himself. “Perfect memory,” he said slowly. “It is sometimes a burden.”

“I can see that.” Shepard wiped a tear away, feeling as though she had joined in an emotion that didn’t belong to her, intruded on something private. She got up, not wanting him to feel crowded. “I’ll … we’ll go to the Citadel,” she promised.

“Thank you, Shepard.”

As she left the room, he turned back to look at the stars once more.

Chapter Text

The entry hall to the Citadel passed by windows that were open to the C-Sec offices. Thane and Garrus both looked them over with a certain amount of amused contempt. Thane muttered, “You’d think Citadel security would be the best in the galaxy.”

Garrus snorted. “I know C-Sec far too well to think that.”

Thane studied the view. “I see no fewer than fourteen fatal flaws a skilled assassin could exploit. Eight of them existed when I was here ten years ago.”

“You mean they’re getting worse?” Shepard asked. The turian C-Sec officer manning the doors was watching them, and she jerked her head in his direction to get her team to keep moving.

“I can’t believe that’s a surprise to you, Shepard,” Garrus replied.

“It probably shouldn’t be,” she agreed, “but it seems like C-Sec should be fixing their problems, not adding to them.”

“You of all people should know that solving a problem all too often simply means adding another one,” Thane pointed out.

“True enough.”

They made it through the security checkpoint without a problem—surprising, given the collective amount of firepower they carried—and found the C-Sec entry office.

Captain Bailey looked up from his vid screen. “Back again, Commander?” He looked past her, his eyes widening. “Garrus Vakarian! The stories I’ve heard about you!”

“All good, I’m sure,” Garrus said dryly.

“Uh … yeah.” Bailey looked back at Shepard. “This a business trip, Commander?”

“Is there any other kind?” Shepard remembered those all-too-brief days of relative inaction on the Citadel with Kaidan after Sovereign’s attack, wondering if anything like them would ever come again. Wondering if Kaidan was on the Citadel, and if so, would she run into him.

“Anything I can help with?” Bailey asked.

“We’re looking for someone calling himself ‘Fade’.”

A pained expression crossed Bailey’s face. “Yeah, I know him.”

Garrus stepped closer to the desk. “You know where we can find him?”

“If I knew that, you’d be finding him in a cell. He’s too good at hiding to be caught. I think someone in C-Sec might be feeding him information.”

“Sadly, not surprising.” Garrus sighed.

Bailey looked around before nodding. “I wish it was outside the realm of possibility, but what are you going to do? Best place to start looking is a warehouse off the marketplace—a lot of Fade’s contacts work from there. Go ask them some questions.” He looked up at Shepard with a twinkle in his eye. “Gently, of course.”

“We’re always gentle,” Garrus said, chuckling.

“So I’ve heard. Anything else?” Bailey added with a curious look at Thane, who had been not only silent but completely removed from the conversation, so worried about his son that he was practically vibrating with it.

“My associate is trying to find his son. We think a local criminal may have hired him.”

Bailey glanced at Thane again. “That shouldn’t be too hard. We don’t see many drell here.” He tapped a few keys, watching the screen as the information scrolled past. “There we go. One of my men reported seeing a drell recently. Oh … he was talkin’ to Mouse,” he added, as if that somehow changed things.

“Mouse?” Thane asked abruptly. His face was shuttered—Shepard couldn’t read any of what he was thinking.

“Yeah, he’s a petty criminal, a former duct rat. Probably not the guy who hired your boy but a messenger. He runs errands for anyone who’ll pay.”

All three of the men seemed to understand the term Bailey had used, but Shepard’s time on the Citadel had mostly been spent in the Presidium, the embassies, and the markets. “What’s a duct rat?”

“Local slang for the poor kids who grow up on the station. When they’re small, they tend to play in the ventilation ducts where adults can’t get to them.”

“That doesn’t sound safe.”

“It isn’t.” Bailey sighed. “Every couple of months we pull a little body out of them: lacerated by fan blades, broken by a dead fall, suffocated by vaccuum exposure. And those are just the ones we know about; most of them probably end up spaced, or fall into the protein vats the keepers use. Mouse survived long enough that he can’t fit in the ducts anymore. He was one of the smarter ones. Or the luckier ones.”

Thane looked as though he were going to say something, then thought better of it.

Shepard glanced at him, waiting to see if he had more to say, but Bailey spoke up before either of them could say anything. “One of Mouse’s side jobs is selling illegal VI personalities. If you find him, you should ask him about them—he was selling one of you.”

“Me?” Shepard didn’t know whether to be flattered or annoyed.

“Yeah.” Bailey grinned. “When you erased a file it would say ‘I delete data like you on the way to real errors.’”

“That’s pretty extreme, Commander,” Garrus said. “You should take it easy on the poor data.”

Shepard shook her head. “Laugh it up, Vakarian.”

He chuckled. Bailey did, too, adding, “It was buggy, though. The error message was about how the galaxy was at stake and you should fix the problem yourself.”

Garrus gave a mock sigh. “There you go again, Commander, with an inflated sense of your own importance.”

“I think you missed your calling, Garrus. You should go into comedy.”

“And leave you without my talents at your side? Perish the thought.”

Rolling her eyes, Shepard turned back to Bailey. She hadn’t missed the fact that Thane had ignored the entire conversation; the mention of Mouse seemed to have him even more upset than he had already been. “Anything you can tell us about Mouse’s whereabouts?”

“You can usually find him outside the Dark Star. He works out of a public comm terminal.”

“Thank you.”

Bailey glanced Thane’s way with sympathy. “Sounds like your boy is running with the wrong crowd.”

“Yes. I agree,” Thane replied sorrowfully.

“Look, if Mouse can’t get you in touch with your son directly, he’ll know who can.” Bailey hesitated, then added, “I’ll give you whatever help I can, if you need it.”

“I appreciate the help a great deal, Captain, but you don’t know us.” Shepard regarded him with curiosity. “Why are you so willing to help?”

Bailey looked up at Thane, his face showing the strain of his work. “I’ve worked down here in Zakera for two years. Every day, I see kids who have turned to crime because it was the only way for them to survive; because their parents don’t care. You’re trying to save yours, and I want to help you with that.”

Thane gave him that courteous nod of his. “Thank you. He faces a dark path.”

“That he does. Let’s get him off it and back on a different road.”

“We will.” Shepard looked at Thane and repeated the words. “We will.”

“Yes.” But he didn’t sound convinced. As they left the office, he drew near to Shepard, saying softly, “I noticed that you didn’t tell him that Kolyat plans to assassinate someone.”

“Well, you didn’t mention that you kill people for a living, either,” Shepard pointed out. “Besides, we’re going to stop Kolyat before that happens, aren’t we?”

“Yes.” Thane nodded. “Thank you, Shepard.”

“Don’t thank me yet. Let’s get this done.”

Chapter Text

As Mouse wasn’t likely to set up shop until the Dark Star opened for business that night, they dealt with Garrus’s man first. Shepard had reservations about letting her teammate simply shoot his traitorous former associate in cold blood … but this was Garrus, and Garrus would be satisfied with nothing less. She couldn’t say she blamed him. If someone she had put trust in were responsible for killing her entire team, she wouldn’t be able to rest until he was brought to justice, either. So ultimately she let Garrus take the shot, knowing he knew what the consequences were and would deal with them himself … and that she’d be there to help him through them.

As night fell, they made their way up to the Dark Star, Garrus hanging back to keep an uninvolved eye on the situation. He was still shaken from killing Sidonis, Shepard could tell, even if he would never admit it.
It wasn’t too busy outside the club just yet, having only opened half an hour or so ago. Only a few people were milling around. Just as Shepard’s attention was arrested by a young man with a datapad, off to the side talking to someone on a comm link, Thane saw him, too.

He stiffened. “Mouse?”

“You know him?” Shepard asked, but too late. Thane was already moving toward him.

“Yeah, sure, I can get you two cases by the end of the day,” Mouse was saying into his comm link. Then he saw Thane, and his jaw dropped open. After a moment he managed to collect himself, disconnecting his call. “Shit, Krios, I thought you retired.” Behind Thane, he caught sight of Shepard, and his eyes practically bugged out of his head. “Commander Shepard? I thought you died. Damn, Krios, you’ve gone up in the world.”

“I wish I could say the same for you, Mouse.”

“Oh. So this isn’t a social call.” Mouse sighed. “What do you want with me, then?”

“How do you know Thane?” Shepard asked, unable to restrain her curiosity. Thane gave her an unreadable look—sorrow, impatience, not wanting to talk about it, some mix of the three.

“Krios? He didn’t—“ Mouse looked at Thane, then back at Shepard, and shook his head decisively. “If he didn’t tell you nothing I ain’t either.”

Thane sighed, apparently recognizing that he wasn’t going to get out of this without explaining. “When we heard the name, I didn’t think it could be the same Mouse. He was a contact on the Citadel when I was active here ten years ago. He and some other children would gather information on my targets.”

Shepard nodded. That kind of thing wasn’t unusual; often it was one of the easiest and safest ways for kids on the streets to make money. She turned back to Mouse. “We need you to answer some questions.”

He looked around, panicked. “Look, the people I work for … I can’t answer questions for just anybody.”

“But you can for me,” Thane said. “You gave another drell instructions for an assassination. I need to know who the target is.”

“Oh, that. Should’ve guessed. Look, Krios, I don’t know the target ‘cause I didn’t ask. The people I work for don’t like it when you ask. I’d like to help you—you always done right by us … but I ain’t gonna die for you.”

Thane sighed, his shoulders slumping. This was too close to his heart for him to be effective.

So Shepard stepped in, getting closer to Mouse, using her commander stance and look to make an impression. She’d learned how to do that a long time ago, with men bigger and tougher than Mouse by far. But she kept her voice soft and her words persuasive, at the same time. “Look, Mouse, you know Thane. You know he wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important. Do it for him.”

Mouse looked at Thane, clearly torn, then back at Shepard. “I want to, okay? He was always nice to us. But these people ain’t nice. Krios, you know these kind of people. You know what they’re capable of.”

“No one will know you spoke to us,” Shepard assured him.

Thane moved closer, looking at Mouse intently. “I swear you won’t be harmed.”

“Yeah, all right. All right.” Mouse put up his hands. “Look, the kid came with that holo you took of me, said he wanted a job. So I ran through your old contacts to see who might give him a shot. The guy who offered was Elias Kelham.”

“Kelham,” Thane repeated. Having watched him slip into memory several times, Shepard could see him start to do so now and drag himself out with an effort. “Small time.” He said it with relief.

“Not anymore he ain’t,” Mouse corrected. “He got big after the geth attack. Lots of the big guys from before got cacked in their fancy apartments up on the Presidium.” He laughed. “Served ‘em right, too, forgettin’ where they come from. Anyway, Kelham runs the rackets on the lower ends of the ward these days. He’s seriously bad news.”

Shepard frowned. “And he’s hiring rookies?”

“The rookie’s related to Krios. I thought you sent him, wanted him to make his way on his own but with your approval. That’s why I sent him on. He had that holo,” Mouse repeated.

“I understand,” Thane told him.

“You did good, Mouse,” Shepard said.

“Oh, yeah, if I live long enough I’ll pat myself on the back.”

As she was about to move away from Mouse, Shepard thought better of it and turned back to him. “One other thing.”

“What now?”

“That Shepard VI you’re selling.”

His eyes went wide. “You heard about that? Look, Shepard, you were dead. Everybody said you were dead! It was totally legal to make a VI of you.”

“Well, I’m not dead anymore. Got me?”

“Oh, sure, you got it. Totally with you on that! Consider them gone.”

“Good.” Shepard glared at him a moment longer to be certain she’d made her point, then joined Thane, who was standing alone near an advertisement kiosk. She leaned toward him to be heard above the ad. “That couldn’t have been easy.”

He shook his head. “Mouse knew more about my life than Kolyat ever did.” He lifted his head, the purple and pink lights from the club making his skin shimmer in their colors, and lost himself in memory. “He smiles at me, broken teeth and scabby knees, bare feet black, a dead end future, looking up at me worshipping the petty gifts I offer.” Thane blinked the memory back. “I was the only good thing he had back then—but I left him, as I left Kolyat.”

“You took a holo of him? I thought you had perfect memory.”

“I do. I can perfectly recall every moment I spent with Mouse. The holo was a … foolish bit of sentimentality.” The memory overtook him again, and he whispered, “He pulls at my arm, smiles. He wants to know that I will remember him—that anyone will remember him. I take the holo. He smiles at himself in miniature on my palm. Then a frown creases his brow. He pats my pockets looking for other holos. ‘Where’s your son, Krios?’ he asks.” Self-disgust twisted Thane’s full lips. “If only I’d had an answer, then or ever.”

Shepard hated to see him torment himself so. Something in his pain pulled at her; she wanted to take him in her arms and comfort him, but there were so many problems with that impulse she shoved it away. “Don’t blame yourself,” she said instead, knowing the words were lame and wrong and inadequate the moment they left her mouth.

Thane looked her full in the eyes. “If I don’t, who will? The blame is mine, after all. I was the husband, the father, and I abandoned my responsibilities in the name of my body’s calling.” He shook his head slowly, emphasizing his disagreement with her attempt at comfort. “We all carry the weight of our decisions, Shepard. You of all people know this.”

She nodded. She did know. She had been foolish to think she could wipe away his burdens and his guilt with a few ill-chosen words. “We should get back to Bailey,” she said instead, “find out what he knows about Kelham.”

They rejoined Garrus and went back down to the C-Sec offices. Bailey greeted them with curiosity and concern. “Did you get the name of the guy Mouse is working with?”

Shepard nodded. “Elias Kelham.”

Bailey pushed his chair back, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. “Kelham. Shit.”

“Something the matter?” Garrus asked.

“Yeah … look, this is awkward. Kelham and I have an agreement. He doesn’t cause too much trouble and buys tickets to the ‘C-Sec charity ball’ from me, and in return, I ignore him.” Bailey used actual air quotes for the charity ball.

“I get it,” Garrus told him. “You do what you have to do to keep the peace and keep more people from getting hurt. Will you help us with this anyway?”

Bailey nodded, albeit reluctantly. “I’ll get some of my people to bring him in and set him up in a private room while you interrogate him. I’ll stay out of sight and with any luck Kelham will believe I had nothing to do with it.”

“Bring him in,” Shepard said. “We may not have much time.”

“Wait here.” Bailey got up and went to talk to another C-Sec officer standing nearby. They conferred for a few moments, and then the officer left. She and two other officers came back in twenty minutes, leading a very unhappy man in a very expensive suit. They took him into a holding cell and emerged several minutes later, looking winded and not very happy themselves. The original officer gave Bailey a nod. Bailey turned to Shepard. “He’s going to expect me to get him out of this.”

“Fortunately for both of us, the Council reinstated my Spectre status. You can’t really say no to me if I insist on something. Your hands are clean.”

Before Bailey could answer, his comm link crackled to life on his collar. “Captain, his lawyer’s here. Bet Elias has his VI set to page him if C-Sec gets within ten meters of him.”

“Damn,” Bailey swore. “I’ll stall him, but you’d better work fast.”

“We should question him together,” Thane said. “Keep the pressure on.”

“You really think it’s wise to let you in an interrogation room right now?” Shepard asked him. “Let Garrus and me handle it. We know what we’re doing.” Thane looked displeased with the idea, and she put a hand on his arm, squeezing it lightly. “Trust us. We’re not going to let you down.”

He hesitated, but at last he nodded. “Go. And thank you.”

“You good cop or bad cop?” Garrus asked.

“If I had a credit chit on me, I’d flip you for it.”

“Come on, I’m so good at it.”

“Yeah, but I always have to be the nice one.”

They looked at each other, and at last Garrus sighed. “All right, but only because you asked so nicely.”

“I didn’t.”

“For you, that was nice.”

“Hey!”

Garrus chuckled, preceding her into the room. “What seems to be the problem today, Mr. Kelham?”

“Yeah, this is all very funny, bringing me down here. Bailey better be getting me out of here soon.” Kelham frowned up at Garrus and at Shepard behind him. “Who the hell are you two?”

“So this is the way this is going to go,” Shepard told him. “I ask a question, you answer a question. And then you sit there and pray I liked the answer.”

“Who the fuck do you think you are, bitch? Bailey’s gonna have to do some goddamned big favors to make up for this.”

“It’s cute that you think you’re still working with Bailey,” Shepard told him.

“Now, Mr. Kelham, I’m sure this is just a misunderstanding. Why don’t you answer the questions peacefully and then we can all go home,” Garrus suggested.

“I’m not saying a damn word until my advocate gets here. You two are in way over your heads. Bailey won’t let you touch me.”

“Bailey doesn’t let me do anything,” Shepard said. “I do what I want.”

“Look, this is all off the record,” Garrus assured him. “No criminal charges will be brought against you.”

“Damn right, they won’t!”

“Do you know who I am? The name’s Shepard. Yeah, that Shepard. Blown up and lived to tell about it. You really think I care if your mouthpiece is in here? All I want is to catch an assassin—why should you stick your neck out and risk trouble with me just for him?”

Kelham looked unimpressed by the revelation of her identity. She wasn’t sure it had even registered—or if, having been at the mercy of ‘bad cop’ before, he simply didn’t believe her. “You want me to confess to putting a contract out on someone? You think I’m that fucking stupid?”

“I think that’s the smartest thing you could do right now. I get the name, I walk out of here, you never see me again.”

“I’ve got no reason to believe you.”

“You’ve got no reason not to,” Garrus pointed out.

“Look,” Kelham snapped, “are we done here? Because I’ve got people to see, and this is a goddamned waste of my time.”

Shepard could practically feel Thane’s worry coming through the one-way mirror. They were going to have to get this done soon; she couldn’t risk the lawyer coming in and keeping them from getting the name, or a delay that would seal Kolyat’s fate and break Thane’s heart. “Yeah? Well, it’s a waste of mine, too.” She put an arm across Kelham’s windpipe and leaned on it, letting him feel the weight. “So give me a name, or I’ll cut your balls off and sell ‘em to a krogan. Although what self-respecting krogan would want your balls, I don’t know.” She pressed a little harder, holding it there.

Kelham made signs that he was willing to help. Shepard and Garrus glanced at each other, Garrus nodded, and Shepard eased off, leaving her arm resting against Kelham’s throat to maintain the message.

He coughed and spluttered, mostly for show. “Damn it! Fine. Joram Talid—he’s a turian running for office in Zakera ward. He messes with legitimate businessmen. I’m gonna stop him.”

“Where is the hit taking place?”

When Kelham glared at her, Shepard leaned on him again. “800 blocks,” he wheezed. “His apartment.”

“Good.” Shepard let go and stepped back, just as the door opened and a well-dressed man walked in.

“What’s going on here?”

“I want to sue! These people are crazy! They locked me up in here and tortured me.”

The lawyer looked at Shepard, who crossed her arms over her chest. “Commander Shepard. Council Spectre.”

“Sorry, Elias. There’s nothing I can do for you. Spectres are above the law.”

“What? What does that mean?”

“I’ll tell you on the way back to your place, while you thank your lucky stars she didn’t want you dead,” the lawyer told him.

Outside, Thane was waiting with Bailey, both of them looking anxious. “Well? Do you have the name?” Thane demanded.

“Joram Talid.” Shepard looked at Bailey. “Do you know him?”

“Yeah. You might have seen his posters around—he’s promising to end organized crime in the ward. Thing is, his message is all mixed up in race politics. He’s anti-human.”

“Really.” Neither of her non-human companions seemed surprised by this, and Shepard supposed she wasn’t either. “Violent human upstarts messing things up for the rest of the peaceful population of the galaxy?”

Bailey acknowledged the sarcasm but went on to add, “Can you blame ‘em? Look what’s happened since the geth attack: a human fleet guarding the station for months, C-Sec filled with humans … Anderson does what he can, but some of these people have lived on this station since before humans had starships. They see it as a coup, and I’m not so sure they’re wrong.”

“Well, if a majority votes for him, I guess we’ll have to deal with his attitude then.” Shepard couldn’t do anything about the prevailing suspicion of humans—that was above her skill level. The best she could do was save the galaxy, again, and see if it helped. Not that it had done that much good the first time, but maybe second time was the charm.

“That’s a nice ideal, Shepard,” Bailey told her. He beckoned to a passing officer. “Get a patrol car. These people need to get to the 800 blocks.” Turning to Thane, he added, “Good luck.”

Thane gave him a distracted nod, too concerned to speak, and they got into the car.

Chapter Text

When they arrived at the 800 blocks, Thane had little trouble spotting the turian. He wasn’t exactly trying to hide—it was apparent he had no idea there was a hit out on him. He was accompanied by a krogan bodyguard, but that was no barrier to a skilled assassin. Thane devoutly hoped Kolyat wasn’t skilled.

Shepard turned to him. “There he is. How do you want to play this?”

He glanced around and made some swift calculations. “Follow Talid on the maintenance catwalk. Tell me what he’s doing. The krogan bodyguard will make him easy to follow.”

“Where do you want me?” Garrus asked.

“Hang back, remain unobtrusive. Be available if we need backup.”

“Can do.” Garrus wandered over to look casually in a shop window.

“Where will you be?” Shepard asked. She was all business right now, and he appreciated that. His own nerves were in a state he hadn’t experienced in quite some time. Ten years, really, since the last time the hunt was this important.

“In the darkest corner with the best view.”

“Thane.”

“Yes?”

Shepard shifted her weight uncomfortably. “You know skulking around, following people unnoticed, isn’t really my usual modus operandi.”

He smiled briefly, at her terminology and the sentiment, which was all too true. “I will be doing most of the skulking. You’re just making sure you’re where you need to be when we find Kolyat. Please, Shepard. I … need your help.”

“I’m with you, Thane. I just wanted to make sure you know you’re sending a hand cannon into a knife fight.”

“I appreciate your help.”

She nodded, and with a swift, worried backward glance at him, climbed up to the catwalks.

When he was alone, Thane bent his head. “Amonkira, Lord of Hunters. Grant that my hands be steady, my aim be true, and my feet be swift, and should the worst come to pass grant me forgiveness.” He hoped Amonkira was listening.

It had been years since he’d been so tense following someone. But the stakes had never been this high—the price was his son’s soul. He had done enough to damage Kolyat already. Today he had to begin making up for it.

In truth, he needed Shepard up in the catwalks more than he had admitted to her. Keeping in contact with her, hearing her strong, confident voice through the comm link, knowing someone was here with him, for once not being alone, meant … a great deal. And two sets of eyes were better than one, although she was right—she had no skills at subtlety. Anyone who was worried someone was after him would have spotted her, fully armed and armored, in a moment. It was fortunate that Talid wasn’t worried.

Stupid not to be, in Thane’s experience, but his job today was to keep his son from killing Talid, not to keep Talid alive.

Talid was approaching his apartment now. A young man, a drell, was lounging, apparently casually, near the door. Thane’s heart thudded painfully in his chest, his breath catching. Kolyat. His son. Irikah’s son. He looked so like his mother. Thane remembered her so clearly—tinkling laugh, slender hands pressed against his chest, playfully pushing at him, his breath across her cheek. She reaches up on her toes, kisses his cheek, then his lips …

With an effort, he pulled himself out of the memory. She was gone, and he was here, and Kolyat—

Kolyat had stepped out of the shadows and drawn a gun.

Amonkira take him, he was too late. All this time, all this way, and he was too late.

But above him was Shepard, calling his son’s name. Kolyat turned, startled, and looked up at her, and then desperately aimed and fired the gun, wounding the krogan bodyguard. Talid ran inside his apartment and Kolyat followed.

“Thane!” Shepard called, even as she was leaping easily from the catwalk to the floor.

“I saw,” he said, running after her. Perhaps even now, it wasn’t too late. Kolyat had wounded the bodyguard, but had not yet taken a life.

Shepard managed to catch the door just before it closed, forcing it open again, and she went in. Thane followed. Inside, Talid knelt on the floor, his hands above his head, and Thane’s son stood behind him, holding a gun with both hands. The barrel of the gun shook.

Over the head of the turian, their eyes met for the first time in ten years.

Kolyat’s widened in disbelief. “This—this has to be a joke. Now? Now you show up?”

The turian moaned. “Help me, drell. I’ll do whatever you want.”

“Shut up, you fool,” Shepard snapped.

A door at the side of the room opened and Captain Bailey came through it, with Garrus and a couple of C-Sec officers. “C-Sec,” Bailey barked. “Put the gun down, son.”

Kolyat looked around at them all. Thane could see the rising panic in his son’s eyes, the desperation to get himself out of the situation he was in. That kind of desperation could end up badly, in his experience, but he didn’t know what to do that wouldn’t make it worse. “Get out of my way!” Kolyat said, but his voice wavered. “I’m walking out, and he’s coming with me.”

“No!” Thane cried. “They’ll have snipers outside,” he added, but whether he was speaking to Kolyat, to Shepard, or to himself he wasn’t certain.

“I don’t need your help,” his son sneered at him. “All of you back off, or I’ll kill him.”

At Thane’s side, Shepard’s leveled weapon barked once, and suddenly Kolyat’s gun was on the other side of the room. He hadn’t known she could shoot like that—but then, he ought to have. She was Commander Shepard, after all, and her reputation was well-deserved. Kolyat stood staring at his empty hands.

“Take the boy into custody.”

At Bailey’s order, the C-Sec officers moved forward and began handcuffing Thane’s son.

Kolyat looked at him with smoldering eyes. “All this time you don’t care about me and you show up now, just in time to send me to jail?”

Thane was struck dumb. What could he say? That he was too late, again? That he was sorry for all of it? How could he ever have hoped to fix anything this way?

Next to him, Shepard said softly, “Your father doesn’t have much time left, Kolyat. He’s trying to make up for his mistakes.”

“What, you came to apologize to me so you can die in peace? Typical. It’s still all about you, isn’t it?”

“No! That’s not why I am here.” Thane tried to think, to put the pieces together. “I came … I came to grant you peace. You’re angry because I wasn’t there when your mother died—“

“When she died? You weren’t there when she was alive, why should you be there when she died?”

Thane closed his eyes, fighting the memories that flooded his mind and tried to drag him into them. “Your mother,” he said huskily. “They killed her to get to me. It was my fault.”

“What?”

He looked at his son, unmindful of everyone else in the room. There was nothing there but the two of them. “After her body was given to the deep, I went to find them. The triggermen, the ringleaders. I hurt them. Eventually I killed them. When I had done that, finally, I went back to see you. You were … older. I— I didn’t know what to do, but I know now I should have stayed with you.”

“I guess it’s too bad for me you waited so long, huh?” Kolyat said spitefully, but there was something in his eyes that said perhaps he was beginning to soften, beginning to make a place inside himself where he could try to understand.

“Kolyat … I have taken many bad things out of the world. You are the only good thing I’ve ever added to it.”

They looked at one another, Thane pleading with his eyes for his son to hear him, if only for a moment.

Then the harsh voice of Captain Bailey broke in. “This isn’t a conversation you should have in front of strangers. Take Kolyat and his father back to the precinct. Give them a room and as much time as they need,” he said to the C-Sec officers.

Thane cast Bailey a glance of thanks, unable to speak.

As he left, he heard Shepard say, “That’s a nice thing you’re doing, thank you,” and Bailey reply, in a voice that said he understood the pain of it, “You think he’s the only man who ever screwed up raising a son?”

C-Sec left them alone in a room. Kolyat sank down into a seat, crossing his arms over his chest. Thane watched his son, tracing in his face everything that came from his mother, everything that had come from himself, remembering so vividly the little boy who had grown into the young man before him.

At last Kolyat said, sulkily, “Well, you came to talk. So talk.”

“I …” But Thane didn’t know what to say.

His son rolled his eyes and settled more firmly into his seat. Clearly he had no interest in helping the conversation along.

“I never meant for you to know who I am. What I’ve done.”

“Not until you were dead, you mean. Well, you’ve been dead to me for ten years. Longer than that, really.”

Thane nodded. “Yes. That is true. I was dead to myself for much of those ten years, disconnected. My body performed the work while my soul mourned.”

“Good. Your soul deserved to mourn.”

“If you feel this way about me, why would you want to follow in my footsteps?” Thane asked.

For the first time, Kolyat’s attitude was shaken. He looked down at the table, unable to meet his father’s eyes. “I … What else was I supposed to do?”

“Your aunts and uncles did not train you, provide you with skills?”

“I was an orphan. Everyone had their opinion; no one could decide. I got a little bit of training in a lot of things, but nothing that would lead me in any direction. So when I came of age, I went looking for what was missing.”

“Me?”

“Answers,” Kolyat snapped. “Where you’d been all this time, what the ‘business’ was that always took you away, why you never came back. And I found it. You’re a killer.”

“An assassin,” Thane corrected. Not that it mattered, really, but he had been trained to a particular trade, an honorable trade in many ways, and he wanted his son to know he wasn’t ashamed of what his body had done … at the same time as he didn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps.

“Yeah. Whatever. That’s what you did all this time.” He looked up at Thane, his face softer. “You meant that, when you said Mother was killed because of you.”

“Yes. I thought I had been careful, I thought I had kept the two of you out of this life of mine, but … it’s impossible to be careful enough. When someone wants to get to you …” The memory washed over him. “Vid screen flashes. Message coming in. Frantic. Irikah. Oh, Irikah. I have failed you.” The anger was still there, still as black as that day. “I will avenge you.”

“And you did?”

Thane nodded. “Every last person involved in that conspiracy.”

“Good.”

He saw Kolyat squeeze his eyes shut and turn his head away, pushing back a memory that threatened him.

“No room for a kid in the glamorous life of an assassin, I guess?”

“I … didn’t know how to be what you needed. I didn’t know how to be anything other than what I was trained to be.” He spread his hands out in front of him. “These are adept at many different kinds of weapons, multiple forms of hand-to-hand combat. But they have never cooked a meal. Repaired a toy. Drawn a picture. What did I have to offer a child?”

“You!” Kolyat shouted. He got up abruptly, bracing his own hands on the table. “You had yourself. You were my father!”

“I know. And I am sorry.”

“Yeah? Well that comes ten years too late.” Kolyat folded his arms over his chest.

Thane had expected nothing less, but the words hurt anyway. He shook his head. “You said earlier that I had led a glamorous life as an assassin. No doubt you are picturing what is shown in vids, the beautiful women and fast ships and nightlife. But much of being an assassin is waiting. Watching your target to learn their tells and patterns, hiding in shadows or in garbage bins or behind doors as you tail them, waiting for hours for them to come out of a restaurant or club, unable to enter yourself because as a drell you are noticeable and don’t dare to appear in the same place as your target. It is learning to disappear into the shadows and not be seen, to hold yourself very still despite your discomforts. It is cozying up to people who sicken you in order to learn what you need to know, sleeping in whatever place you can find that is least likely to draw attention to you, because you know that when the job is done you have to be able to disappear in such a way that no one knows you have gone—which means that no one can really know you were there.”

Kolyat had listened to all of that with more attention than Thane had expected him to. As Thane finished speaking, he frowned. “But they pay you!”

“Yes, and for brief times you can enjoy the fruits of that labor. When your mother was alive, I took joy in bringing her gifts. Afterward, in sending them to you. I took little joy in spending the money myself. My body demanded certain things, and I gave them, but they never touched me.”

“I threw it out,” Kolyat muttered. “All the stuff you sent. When you didn’t care enough to be there yourself, the expensive stuff was just an insult.”

“I see how that would be. Now. I wish I had seen it then.”

“You said that before.”

“I will more than likely say it again. And again. My regrets are deep, Kolyat. My mistakes harmed you, and if I could go back and change any of it, I would.”

“But you can’t.” The words were sorrowful and sullen in equal measure.

“No. I can’t. But I can try to start anew.”

“By sending me to jail? Great job, Father.”

“By preventing you from taking a life. I pray to Arashu that you never know what it is like to do so.”

Kolyat looked at him, frowning. “That why you’re with Commander Shepard’s team now? Because you feel so bad about killing?”

“I do not feel badly at all. I do the work I was trained for, and I do it well. It is because of my skill that I was chosen for Commander Shepard’s team, and have a hope of doing something good with my last days to make up for some of what I have done that was not so good.”

“Perks of being a killer.”

Thane frowned in his turn, irritated for the first time. “I am quite likely to die in this mission, as are many of the others. That is not a perk. That is a responsibility we bear because we are uniquely qualified. Can you say the same? What responsibilities do you bear, Kolyat? What will you do to make the galaxy a better place?”

“I—“ Kolyat stopped himself, and appeared to be really thinking about Thane’s words. “I don’t know.”

“I suggest that the next time you pick up a weapon, you give some thought to your own legacy, your own skills, and your own burdens, in that case.” Thane reined his temper in with some difficulty.

“It won’t matter,” Kolyat snapped back, “because I’ll be in jail.”

“Not forever. There will be time there for you to think, to decide who you want to be. Not to follow in the footsteps of a flawed man you barely know just because you share a name.”

“A man I barely know because he placed his job ahead of me! Did you ever think of me while you were out there staring down the sights of your gun at someone else?”

“Yes. But … not often enough. I wish I had learned sooner what I understand now—that enemies and ego are not as important as loved ones.”

If he had hoped to get through to his son, he had failed. Kolyat slammed his fists on the table. “You damned hypocrite! You think you can come in here and spout platitudes and make up for a lifetime of neglect, so you can cross ‘apologized to my kid for abandoning him’ off your list and die in some kind of fake peace? I don’t know you.” More softly, almost to himself, he added, “And you took away the only means I had to try.”

“You would not have known me by killing a man, Kolyat. Nor would you have known yourself.” Thane hesitated, but there was nothing more to say. Not now. He would keep in contact and hope that Kolyat used his time to think carefully about the life ahead of him. He turned away and knocked on the window to let C-Sec know they were done. “I will send you messages and come to see you as often as I can before …”

The door opened and Thane stepped through.

“Father!” Kolyat called, sounding so like the child Thane remembered that for a moment he wasn’t certain if he had heard the word in memory or in the present.

He turned.

“Be careful.”

Thane smiled. “I will be.”

Outside Shepard joined him, looking worried. “You were in there a long time. How did it go?”

He shrugged. “Our problems— They aren’t something I can fix with a few words. We will keep talking, I hope, and see how things go.”

“I’m glad you’re talking, at least.”

“Yes. It is a start.”

Captain Bailey and Garrus joined them. Bailey looked at Thane with regret. “Your boy shot some people. No one I feel sympathy for, but …” He spread his hands out helplessly.

“What kind of punishment is he facing?”

“I think my testimony will get it down to a couple of years of incarceration.”

Thane looked at him in surprise. “You’d stand up for him? Why?”

Bailey weighed his response carefully. “End of the day, the people he shot deserved it. Between you, me, and the bulkhead, the wards’ll be better for it.”

“Thank you, Captain.” The graciousness and generosity of the man in front of him, and the woman at his side, had Thane quite moved.

“Nah, no thanks needed.” Casually, Bailey added, “I ran some searches in the C-Sec archive while you were … busy. Turns out about ten years back a bunch of real bad people were killed. Like someone was cleaning house.”

“Ten years is a long time,” Shepard said, her voice steely. “Whoever was responsible for that probably doesn’t exist anymore.”

Garrus added, “Bad people make a lot of enemies. It could have been anyone.”

“Well, whoever he was, he had to be one hell of an assassin,” Bailey said, carefully not looking at Thane. “The best, maybe. The kind of guy you’d like to have with you when you’re saving a galaxy.”

Shepard smiled. “That would be a useful companion to have.”

“If only we knew where to find him,” Garrus added. “Too bad.”

As they said their goodbyes to the captain and moved off down the hallway toward the airlocks, returning to the Normandy, it occurred to Thane that this was the closest he had come to having a family since Irikah was killed—and they had given him back his son, or at least given him the chance to win his son back. It was a very different galaxy he faced today than he had lived in yesterday, and he was no longer alone in it.

Chapter Text

While Joker skillfully piloted the Normandy through space toward their next destination, Shepard was kept busy with all the details attendant on commanding a starship. Maintenance reports, crew fitness reports, her own exercise regimen, painstakingly recreated from Ashley’s advice on the original Normandy, research reports, playing referee in the cockpit between Joker and EDI, checking in with Dr. Chakwas in med bay on the condition of her few patients … by the end of the day she couldn’t put together a full timeline of everything she’d done, but she knew she was exhausted.

Opening her computer, she found another email from Emily Wong, chiding her for having been on the Citadel and not coming by. Smiling, she hit “reply”.

“Emily –
You’re right, I was remiss again. Next time I’m on the Citadel, we’ll have dinner, on me, and I’ll give you an exclusive. Happy?
Shepard”

She liked the reporter, and respected her, which she could rarely say of non-combatant civilians. More to the point, it occurred to Shepard that she had few friends off the Normandy. Wrex, certainly, and Liara, and Tali, although they still needed to go try to convince Tali to come on board for this mission. Captain Anderson was more an ally than a friend, especially now that he was on the Council. And Kaidan … well, they weren’t really friends. She didn’t know if they were anything. Since their initial exchange of emails after Horizon, there had been one or two more, stilted ‘how are you’ types, but neither of them seemed to know how to begin to repair the rift between them. That connection seemed to be gone, she thought with regret. Once she would have felt sorrow over the loss, but Kaidan had closed the door on them pretty thoroughly … and thoughts of Kaidan in that way had recently been unexpectedly overtaken by thoughts of someone else entirely.

She thought of Thane, down in the life support bay. Earlier in the day she’d had the chance to check in with Garrus, make sure he was recovering from having taken his revenge on Sidonis while they were on the Citadel—but she needn’t have worried. Garrus had known what he was doing and had been prepared for the consequences. But she hadn’t wanted to disturb Thane after such an emotionally charged day, and he hadn’t been seen outside his room since they returned, which had led her to believe he didn’t want to talk. She couldn’t help but worry about him, though.

Before she slept, she wanted to at least try to check in. Pulling her boots back on with a sigh, wishing she felt it was appropriate for the Commander to go barefoot in the halls of the ship, Shepard headed for the elevator and took it down to Thane’s floor.

Hesitantly, she knocked on the door of the life support bay. There was a pause before he called, “Enter.”

She had half-expected to have disturbed his slumber, but clearly he hadn’t been asleep. He was sitting at his table, fully dressed, his hands clasped.

He looked around as she came in. “I was certain it would be you.”

“I was worried—you haven’t come out of here for two days.”

“I was meditating on what occurred on the Citadel.”

“Are you all right?” She gestured toward the chair opposite him and he nodded, waiting for her to take her seat before answering.

“’All right’ would be difficult to achieve. I am better, far better, than I was before, knowing that Kolyat has been stopped from turning down a dark path, knowing that a man such as Captain Bailey is watching out for him, knowing that …” He paused. “Yes. Better.”

“Good.” They looked at each other across the table. Shepard had gotten the answer she’d come for … but she didn’t want to leave. She had been lonely in her quarters, and sitting here with Thane felt comfortable. “Do you … do you mind if we talk for a bit?”

Did she imagine the relief in his eyes? “I would like that. I have dwelt long enough in memory, I think, for one day.”

“Can you tell me about that? Several times I’ve seen you speak about a past event as if you were watching it. Reliving it, really.”

“I was. Drell have perfect memories, as I have told you; we can relive any moment in our lives with absolute clarity, down to the smallest detail. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to control at times. Some of us disappear into …” His elegant hands drew patterns in the air as he searched for the right word. “Let’s call it solipsism.”

Shepard shook her head with a little laugh. “You make me feel undereducated. First you’ve read human philosophers, and now you display a far better vocabulary than I can claim.”

He smiled. “You’ve led a busy life. I’ve had a great deal of down time between jobs; I used much of it to read. ‘Solipsism’ is the idea that the only thing one can be certain truly exists is your own mind. When a memory feels as real as life it is as valid as life. Thinking about a moment brings back the smell of cut grass … the warmth of another’s hand on yours … the taste of another’s tongue in your mouth.”

When he said that, Shepard’s own tongue darted out to lick her lower lip, and she had a sudden desire to kiss him, to find out what he tasted like. Clearing her throat, she changed position in her seat to cover her momentary confusion, but when she looked up at him his eyes were on her lips, his expression intent, and that brought the heat back up to her cheeks. She wasn’t certain if it was embarrassment or … something else. But suddenly, she knew she wanted to know. She was comfortable with him in a way she had been with few people, as though when they were together she could be fully herself. Not like with Kaidan, when she had to be either Commander Shepard or Juniper—Thane made her feel like she could switch from one to the other in an instant and he would be able to follow her to both places.

It had never occurred to her to be attracted to an alien before—other than Liara, but the asari were different. Everyone was attracted to asari. But Thane didn’t feel like an alien. He was just … Thane.

He looked away from her, picking up the lost thread of the conversation. “In long nights alone in another cheap hotel room, another flophouse, another cabin on a spaceship, it is nicer to lose oneself in such memories than to stare at the walls of metal and plastic and contemplate one’s sins.”

“Don’t you lose yourself in bad memories, too?”

“Sometimes. Remembering the times I’ve taken bullets is certainly unpleasant—but I can look at my knee and see it is not shattered. The memories that are hard to escape are those of despair.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever spent much time dwelling on despair.”

“No. You wouldn’t.”

“Of course,” she said with sudden bitterness. “The great Commander Shepard, always surging forward, never faltering.”

Thane’s eyes were on her face, gentle but firm, refusing to let her fall into that negative place. “Did you not tell me yourself that Commander Shepard has no troubles? Perfect memory,” he reminded her.

“I can see I’m going to have to be careful what I say to you and your perfect memory.”

“Mm,” he agreed. There was something in his face that made her want to ask if he already carried memories of her that he relived … but it seemed an intrusive question. And if the answer was no, well, she really didn’t want to know that. “Is that why you place such a large space between Commander Shepard and …” He frowned. “I do not believe I know your first name.”

“Juniper.” She gave it to him without hesitation, and didn’t stop to think what that might mean. “I don’t use it much. It isn’t even on my official records. I’m listed everywhere as ‘J.R. Shepard’.”

“Juniper,” Thane repeated, as though he was testing how it felt on his tongue. “That’s unusual; I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it before.”

“It’s a tree.” She shrugged. “My parents were botanists. Both my names are plants—Juniper Rosemary.”

“Rosemary I have heard of. An herb, yes? Perennial?”

“Evergreen. Both are. Probably they meant something by that.”

“But here you are living in space, far from anything grown in the soil.”

“Yes. I don’t imagine they’d be happy with that.” Shepard looked away, not wanting to delve any deeper there. “So you can really remember everything that happened in your life? All the way back to birth?”

Thane smiled, recognizing that she needed to change the topic. “Nearly. I expect if we remembered the birth trauma we’d never recover from it.”

“And you can relive every assassination?”

“Yes. And I do—I go over every detail, every mistake, to hone my skills, and every target’s last breath to remind myself never to take a life lightly.”

“But you don’t feel guilty.”

“No. No more than you do every time we fight our way through a band of mercenaries trying to kill us,” he pointed out.

“They’re trying to kill us, as you say. We’re defending ourselves.”

“Chances are, if someone has asked me to set my laser sight on you, you have done something to put yourself there.” Thane shrugged. “I see no reason to feel guilt—my employers killed those people; my body was merely the tool they used. If you kill a man with your gun, do you hold the gun responsible?”

“My gun doesn’t know right from wrong. And your body may pull the trigger, but it’s your mind that makes the choice and sends the signal to your body.”

“My soul knows right from wrong,” he agreed, “but my body is merely flesh. Flesh whose reflexes were honed to kill. Drell minds are different from humans’. We see our body as a vessel and we accept that it is not always under our control.”

Shepard frowned. “Of course it is.”

“I know you are more intelligent than that. Does your mind control whether your heart beats? Of course not. Does your mind control whether you weep at a sad thought, or your mouth waters at the prospect of a fine meal? Those are of the body.”

“I … suppose,” she admitted reluctantly.

Thane smiled, accepting that he had won his point. “Humans often believe in a soul distinct from the body, a spirit responsible for moral reasoning that lives on after the body’s death. Our belief is just a bit more literal.”

“I can see that, I guess.”

“You see, that is what I like about you, Shepard. You do not like to admit when you are changing your position, but you are willing to be open and to listen and to change if you must.”

“I’m naturally stubborn. I’ve been fighting that impulse my whole life.”

“It serves you well in many aspects of your life. A less stubborn woman would never have tracked Saren to Ilos. Garrus told me the story—that and others,” he added.

It occurred to Shepard that Garrus may have—must have, knowing her gossipy turian friend—also mentioned Kaidan. She wondered if Thane was subtly fishing to find out more. “Garrus doesn’t know all my stories,” she told him.

“I would imagine not.” Did she see a hint of relief there?

She remembered a memory he had relived in a previous conversation, about a woman with sunset-colored eyes. Had that been his wife, or someone else? Without consciously intending to, she found herself asking about it.

His face changed, became remote and sad. “Ah. That time.” The memory took him over again, his voice dropping. “Laser dot trembles on the skull. Spice on the spring wind. Sunset eyes defiant in the scope.” Clearing his throat, he drew himself out. “A bystander noticed my spotting laser and threw herself between me and the target. She couldn’t see me, but she stared me down.”

“Did you take the shot?”

After a hesitation, he said, “Not that day.”

“It takes a hell of strong person to step in front of a spotting laser and just stand there.”

“Yes.”

“Is that just another vivid drell memory, or is it special?”

Thane nodded. “She was … a vivid person.”

Shepard felt guilty that she had brought up a memory that clearly brought him pain as well as pleasure. She wanted intensely to know who the woman had been, what had been so special about her. Was that his wife, or someone else? But she had intruded enough for one night. Shoving her chair back, she said, “I should … it’s late, and another long day awaits.”

“Yes.”

She was halfway to the door before he spoke again. “Shepard.”

Ignoring the way her heart pounded, she turned back to look at him. “Yes?”

“I appreciate these talks we have. I have not had anyone to talk to in a long time, and it is many years since I’ve had someone to talk to who is as—intelligent, and interesting.”

“You’ve spent a lot of your life alone, Thane,” she pointed out.

“I have. Work fulfilled me; reading. I barely spoke to anyone outside my family.” He met her eyes, held her gaze with his. “You have also spent a lot of your life alone.”

“Also filling my time with work. I should read more.”

“I can recommend a few books, if you’d like.”

“I would, thank you.”

They stared at each other again, the silence awkward and heavy. Shepard felt she should go, but she didn’t want to.

“I … need to thank you again, for what you did today for me, and for my son. If there will be anyone to mourn me when I die, it will be because of you. I will always be here for you to talk to.”

“Thank you. I—I need that.” It was hard to admit to needing anyone, but she knew somehow Thane would understand, and wouldn’t think her weak because of it.

“I hadn’t thought I did, but I find now that I have it … You are the only friend I have made in ten years, Shepard.”

She smiled. Yes, they were friends. She felt that strongly. But something else, underneath, was just as strong, and she no longer wanted to deny it. “Friends, definitely … For a start.”

The green plates above his eyes lifted in surprise, and he half-rose from his chair, as though he were going to reach for her. Then, slowly, he sank back into it. “A start?” he repeated. “That is … intriguing.”

Relief flooded her. She hadn’t been wrong—there was something there, and he felt it, too. “Well, good. I wouldn’t want to bore you.”

Thane chuckled. “Never that, Shepard. Of all things, I can’t imagine you ever being boring.”

And on that note, she said good-night, finding that she was still smiling when the elevator opened outside the door of her quarters.

Chapter Text

Thane sat motionless in his seat for a long time after Shepard had left the room, a stream of memories playing in his head. Irikah … Shepard … Irikah … Shepard. Such different women, but with such similar hearts, valiant and strong and generous. Irikah had changed his life, awakened him and given him form and shape. When she was killed, he had given himself up to the battle sleep again and expected to remain there for whatever time remained to him. Once he had avenged her death and punished those responsible, he had no longer cared what happened to his body, because his soul was already halfway across the sea, waiting to rejoin her.

Only the thought of Kolyat, lodged firmly in the back of his mind, had kept him tethered on this shore. The fate of his son had been the only loose thread he had felt the need to tie before taking that probably final jump through the Omega 4 relay. His son was now as well taken care of as Thane could ask for—it was clear to him that Kolyat stood in Captain Bailey’s mind in the place of another son lost by a fallible father—and so he should be able to release his soul into the battle sleep again with no qualms.

But the shreds of sleep were dissipating rapidly, blown away from his mind by the unstoppable winds of another woman’s strong wings. Another warrior-angel in the service of Arashu.

Thane contemplated that for a moment, how Arashu would feel about a human as Siha. Shepard was more than courageous enough to satisfy the goddess—surely matters of anatomy were secondary to a person’s spirit.

Considering anatomy brought back the moment earlier. Tip of the tongue wets the lip. Eyes dilate, cheeks flush. Thane’s body reacted again as it had then, blood heating and heart pounding. He had wanted to kiss her so badly in that moment, and he knew she had felt the same.

Friendship was a “start”, she had said. Which meant that he had awakened her from her battle sleep, as well. There was a pride in that—he, of all those whose eyes watched her hungrily, had found an answering hunger in her—but also a fear. He had nothing to offer her but sorrow and loss and grief, no time with which to cherish her as she deserved. How could he let her awaken with him and then leave her alone? Better, far better, to withdraw himself now, to return to his own sleep, before she came fully awake, before she committed her heart to a man who would be forced to leave her all too soon.

Selfishly, he knew his fear was as much for himself as it was for her. He had resigned himself to the end of his life; for years he had welcomed its imminence. He had been ready to cross the sea and rejoin Irikah, especially now that their son was turned away from his father’s dark path. Why was this opportunity offered to him only now? He had been ready to go; he didn’t want to live in hope, to love again knowing that there was no future to be had. He was ashamed to admit he didn’t think he was strong enough for that, and that very lack of strength made him unworthy of a woman such as Shepard.

Juniper, he reminded himself. She had offered that up without thought, even though she had admitted in the next breath that she kept that part of herself hidden from everyone else. But she had revealed it to him fearlessly, trusting that her name would be safe in his keeping. The thought touched Thane’s heart, making it flutter in a way it had not in ten years. He longed to be worthy of that trust, to allow Juniper to awaken in his arms and become whole. But what if he allowed this to happen and losing him, as she would before very long, caused her to disconnect again, to seek the same battle sleep he had dwelt in these long years past? Could he take that risk on her behalf? He had no right to trifle with her affections, to awaken her and then to leave her, to leave behind him a heart as broken and lost as his had been when Irikah died.

Thane nodded, pushing down the terrible longing for her that filled him. He would let her know that friendship was the start and the end, as far as they could go together.

Closing his eyes, he clasped his hands in front of him. “Goddess Arashu, Mother of us all, show me why you have placed your angel in my path. Grant me the wisdom to know how to protect her, the grace to put her needs above my own, the strength to deny my own desires.”

The memory washed over him again, so vivid he could count every freckle that dotted her nose, and he clenched his hands more tightly together and prayed anew for wisdom, grace, and strength, hoping that the goddess would hear his prayer.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Shepard opened her eyes, her heart pounding. The dream had been vivid but confused, leaving her with no specific memory of what had occurred but a vague overwhelming sense of having tried to reach something and failed.

She sighed, rolling over and looking at the clock. Too early. And that after a troubled night’s sleep already. Well, who could blame her, really? Between the Collectors and the Reapers, anyone would be having nightmares, lying awake long into the small hours staring up at the stars.

Did drell dream? she wondered idly. Or did they dwell in memory all night? She wished it was late enough into the morning that she could go down and ask Thane, the curiosity bright in her, washing away the remnants of the dream.

She curled herself up in the covers, smiling as she thought of him. She remembered the way he had half-risen in his seat when she told him friendship was only the start of what she hoped could be between them. His eyes … Closing hers, she tried to picture him exactly as he had been in that moment, the way his hand had moved as if he was about to reach for her, the way his mouth had opened in his surprise. Was this how his memory worked? Was that something that only the drell could achieve, or could she learn to sharpen her own memory and achieve something close to it? She would have to ask him.

From there, her still-sleepy mind drifted to thoughts of his mouth and how it would feel on hers. His lips were full, sensual, and they looked very soft. Were they soft? Was his skin smooth to the touch? His jacket opened over his chest, a broad green expanse of muscled flesh, but she didn’t know what else lay beneath. Frowning, she opened her eyes, wondering if they were … compatible. What a shame that would be. His anatomy seemed humanoid, but it was hard to know for sure without seeing.

Seeing. Mm. Shepard couldn’t help imagining pushing that jacket back over his shoulders, having his elegant hands disrobing her in turn. She felt the pulse of her arousal building, and with a frustrated groan she pushed the covers off and got up. Lying here in bed imagining things that were potentially impossible was worse than the dregs of the nightmare had been, especially given how long it had been since …

No, she wouldn’t think about Kaidan. Not now. That was over, and she was fine with it now. What she had felt for Kaidan had been—exciting. Pulse-pounding and exhilarating. But there had always been an awkwardness there, an awareness that being together was against the regs that both had been so thoroughly trained in, and underneath that, an even more divisive awareness that she was his superior officer. That was something they had never had the time to get past; they had simply shoved it away and pretended it wasn’t there.

Thane, on the other hand, was not her subordinate. He was working with her team of his own free will, without even pay to to put him in her debt (or, rather, Cerberus’s). And intellectually, where she and Kaidan had been very similar, Thane was by far her superior. Better read, better spoken, more thoughtful, more … spiritual. She felt instinctively that being around Thane had already given her new things to think about and sharpened the edges of her curiosity. And curiosity was vital in what she had to do. If she didn’t hunger to know why other beings did the things they did, what motivated them, she couldn’t learn how to stop them, or help them, as the case might be. Kaidan’s certainty that he understood the universe was dangerous—it was too easy to go from a belief in your own understanding to a certainty that your point of view was the only right one.

She put the toothbrush back in its holder and turned on the shower, smiling to herself as she imagined talking to Thane about certainty and curiosity, the differences between drell memory and human, drell dreams and human, books and music, art, life and death … everything, really. She wanted to close the door of the port observation deck behind them and sit there together for hours.

Death. The reminder made her shiver despite the heat of the water beating down on her. Thane was dying. There wasn’t all the time in the world; no matter whether they beat the Collectors or not, came back through the Omega 4 relay or not, the time was limited. His body would slowly but surely fail him and she would lose him. Could she really begin a relationship knowing how it would end?

She rubbed a hand over her face, letting the water soak into her skin. It was too late to ask herself that question—she already cared for him enough that she couldn’t simply put it aside because she was afraid to be hurt. Besides, there was no guarantee. Over and above the Collectors, the Reapers, was the memory of another day, a day that had been perfectly normal until a strange ship had appeared out of nowhere, and ten minutes later her home was in flames and she was floating through space into the jaws of death. And before that, yet another perfectly normal day, one that had begun with another argument with her mother and ended with blood and slaughter. A day like that could come again—today, tomorrow, next week, there was no telling. There were no promises. Knowing that, Shepard felt a sense of calm. Because if tomorrow could be the end of things, did it matter if Thane only had a year or so? And if things could end so abruptly, then other things were also possible—cures, breakthroughs, treatments that could delay the symptoms. She had never been one to surrender herself to despair, not since that long-ago day when the shuttle had taken off from Mindoir and she had seen the fields her parents had toiled in receding beneath her. She wasn’t going to do it now.

Shutting off the water, Shepard nodded to herself. She was going to embrace her life, and learn the lessons Thane had to teach, and she wasn’t going to ruin it by looking ahead and anticipating the eventual sorrow. There would be time enough, if there was any time at all.

Chapter Text

“I hope you can forgive me for all the years I spent in sleep and … and …” Thane’s words faltered. There was nothing beyond hope for forgiveness, and Kolyat would either offer that or he would not. It seemed unlikely that any words of Thane’s would make a difference at this point. But he must try, mustn’t he? Not trying is how they had come to this circumstance in the first place.

He clicked off the recorder and deleted the message. Perhaps he would write out what he wanted to say next time. Reading from a script had to be better than realizing halfway through that he had no idea what he wished to communicate, or how to do so.

It was a relief when the knock came at the door—at least, for a moment it was a relief, and then as the door came open and Shepard came in, a smile on her lips, her presence, too, became a torment and a reminder of his own inadequacy.

“Do you have some time to talk?” she asked.

It was on the tip of Thane’s tongue to say no, to begin pushing her away, but he knew as certainly as if she had told him that she found all too few occasions to curve her lips in a smile. That one came so naturally to her in his presence was … flattering, indeed, but also a reminder that he had a certain responsibility to allow her to feel that happiness and not to squash it out of hand. “Of course,” he said at last, waving her to the seat across from him. “I was just … I was attempting to record a message for Kolyat.”

“How are things going with him? Are you in touch regularly?”

“We make the attempt, but it is difficult.” He shrugged. “I imagine all things worth keeping are.”

“I got an email from Bailey earlier today. He wanted to let me know that he has Kolyat working for him. He said ‘helping deal with some trash from the Wards, maybe make life better for some kids like Mouse.’” She quoted it carefully, frowning a little as she tried to get the words just right. “He said that he had encouraged Kolyat to keep in touch with you, that life’s too short to let people go.”

Thane was struck by her words—by Bailey’s generosity and her own; by the reminder that life was short, particularly his own; by a longing for his son and to go back and undo the mistakes he had made. So many emotions that he had difficulty holding himself still under their onslaught.

“I’m sorry,” Shepard said. “I thought … it seemed like good news.”

“It is,” he assured her. “Just a reminder of how terribly I went wrong and how much I owe to Bailey—and to you.” He hesitated. Perhaps he owed her the chance to know more about his life, and how he had come to this place. She had helped him as she did the others: unhesitatingly, offering her time and her concern and her efforts on his behalf. She deserved to know how he had come to a place where he needed her help. “I never explained—I suppose the story of my wife’s death took you by surprise.”

Shepard’s eyes met his across the table. “You don’t talk about yourself much; about your people, but not about your life in specific. I figured you would tell me when you were ready, and if you didn’t … I try not to pry.”

“It isn’t that I don’t trust you.” It felt important to make that clear to her. He wanted her to know how different she was from … anyone he had spoken to in years, little as that fit with his decision to put distance between them. “I’m not used to trusting anyone, especially since Irikah was killed. I appreciate your patience.”

“Will you tell me now, then?” she asked.

He nodded, hoping he could keep the memories back. It seemed wrong, somehow, to sit in Shepard’s presence and lose himself in memories of another woman, to dwell in his memories of Irikah in the presence of a woman who made him feel awake again. Neither woman would think the less of him for it, he knew that, but it felt strange all the same. “I tried to keep my work clear of our home life … I assumed that would be enough to protect Irikah. I was wrong, and she paid for my error with her life.”

“I can’t imagine she would blame you for that,” Shepard said softly. She was leaning forward, her elbows resting on the table and her hands clasped in front of her.

“I hope not. I can never know.” He looked down at the table, unable to resist the pull, the memory so familiar. “Laser dot trembles on the target’s skull. Smell of spice on the spring wind. Sunset eyes defiant in the scope.” He could see those eyes, staring back at him, feel the wind in his face and smell the spice in the air.

“That was Irikah.” It wasn’t a question.

Thane nodded. “That was how I met her. She saw my targeting laser as she walked by and threw herself in the way.”

“Amazing. Had that ever happened before?”

He shook his head. “Not before, or since. She—she woke me up.” The memory drew him again, and he was back there, in front of her, watching her body tremble with indignation, the rarity of facing someone down who wasn’t afraid of him, her mouth moving, her voice. ‘How dare you?’

Shepard waited in patient silence until he brought himself back to the present again.

“You and I,” he said at last, “we were trained to sacrifice ourselves to save others. How often does a civilian step in the way of a bullet to protect someone they’d never met?” He shook his head, thinking of it, remembering how stunned he had been, frozen in place. “I thought she was the goddess Arashu come to life. She met my eyes through the scope and … my purpose faltered.”

“You couldn’t stop thinking about her. You had to meet her,” Shepard guessed, understanding him.

“Yes. The memory … possessed and endowed me.”

“As it still does.”

He nodded. “I sought her out, I explained to her who and what I was, I fell on my knees before her and begged her pardon. She … saw that I was asleep, and she awakened me, introducing me to the world beyond my work. Eventually she forgave me. Later …” He closed his eyes, those memories too intimate, too personal to relive in the presence of another, even Juniper. Especially Juniper. “Later she loved me,” he finished in a whisper.

Shepard waited a moment, let him collect himself. “And then … she was killed?”

“Yes. I—I let myself become complacent. I thought Irikah and Kolyat were safe. I stayed away too long and my enemies came for her.”

“Who was it?”

“Batarians. A slaver ring that was preying on hanar outer colonies. I’d killed their leaders. They paid the Shadow Broker to find out who I was, but they were afraid of me, so they went after her.”

“You told Kolyat you hunted her killers down.”

He met her eyes, remembering the cold anger that had filled him, the purpose that had driven him. “How could I not? Being who I am, what I am, how could I have done anything else? Irikah had awakened me; with her gone, I returned to my battle sleep, allowing my body to do what it was trained for. It hunted her killers. Murdered them.” His eyes faltered before the fearlessness and directness in hers. “I was taught to grant death quickly, cleanly, to minimize suffering, but them … I let them linger.”

Shepard was silent until at last he summoned the courage to look up at her again and found that there was no condemnation in her eyes. “You were operating on instinct, Thane. By your own rules, you can’t blame yourself.”

He shook his head, rejecting her undeserved forgiveness. “I made the choice to hunt them. They are the only lives I have ever taken of my own choice, the only deaths on my own conscience.” Unable to remain here, sitting across the table from her, looking into her eyes, he got up.

“Thank you for telling me,” she said softly behind him.

“I haven’t spoken about my wife in—“ He frowned, realizing that he couldn’t measure the time because it had never occurred before. “I don’t think I ever have. I … didn’t have anyone left to tell it to.”

“I hope you know you can tell me anything.” Without looking, he could tell she had gotten to her feet.

“I appreciate that,” he said in what he hoped was a suitably distant voice.

“Thane—I—“ She was coming closer to him now, her voice softening to a whisper. “Maybe I haven’t been as up-front as I should be. I have a hard time talking about …” She stopped, taking a nearly audible moment to collect herself. “I’m here for you, Thane. Whatever you need.”

At that he could no longer keep his back turned to her. Of its own volition his body moved toward her, his eyes meeting hers. “You …” With an effort, at the last moment he pulled back the words he wanted to say, remembering his determination to protect her, and himself, by not letting this happen. “You are very kind. Thank you for listening, Siha.” The last word, the endearment, slipped out before he could stop it.

That she recognized it for what it was he could see in the way her eyes changed color from brown to a deep green. “What was that word?”

“Siha.” In that moment, standing there so close to one another that he could feel her breath, he surrendered to the inevitable, to the knowledge that what his soul and body desired was far greater than the fear, to the reality that he was awake and would remain so as long as she was in his life, to the certainty that no matter how hard he tried to fight it, he would eventually succumb to his own desires and hers, regardless of how torturous it would be to love knowing how short the time ahead would be. “I … Someday I will tell you what it means.”

“Will you?”

“Yes.” It was a promise, to both of them.

Chapter Text

The door slid shut behind him, and Kaidan leaned back against it, sighing. It had been a good date, up until the end, and Natalia was beautiful and smart and funny. But she wanted more from him than he was capable of offering. He was still a member of the Alliance navy, his work with Councilor Anderson too important to be distracted. And he couldn’t tell Natalia. She tried to be sensitive to his feelings, knowing he had been a member of Shepard’s team fighting the geth, but she believed the prevailing story and viewed Shepard as having been fooled by Saren into believing in the existence of Reapers. It was as much as Kaidan could do to keep from arguing with her about it, and not being able to talk to her about what he had experienced kept him from being able to open up to her as much as she seemed to want him to.

Tonight had been the last straw. In the midst of a makeout session, Natalia had pushed him away, telling him she felt too much distance between them to truly relax and be comfortable. Kaidan had stammered an apology, but Natalia had sighed and said she thought it was too late.

Kaidan had been forced to agree. He had kissed her good night, a peck on the cheek and a final goodbye. Now he was back in his small, sterile flat, alone. Again.

He opened his computer, idly reading the extranet for a few minutes, but he couldn’t settle. He was lonely. After life on the Normandy, with friends at hand at all times, living without a team had taken some getting used to, and continued to feel very solitary and isolated.

Clicking open his email program, he gave some thought to sending one to Joker. Or Garrus. He missed Garrus. But it was an entirely different name his fingers typed.

“Dear Juniper …” He stopped, erasing the first name. They weren’t on that basis any longer. “Dear Shepard,” he wrote instead.

But he wasn’t sure how to continue. Once they’d had so much to say to one another, and now …

“I worry about you,” he wrote at last. “You can’t trust Cerberus. You must know that. But wherever you are, I know you’re pushing yourself to the limit to accomplish an impossible task. I know Garrus is with you. I hope you have a team around you as devoted as he is, as we all were.”

He thought of her on the Normandy, all of them, sitting around the briefing room and talking. What was her team like now? Were they strong enough? Were they secretly or not so secretly working for Cerberus? Would they have her back the way he had?

“Life here on the Citadel is surprisingly solitary given how many people there are around here. Working for Anderson keeps me pretty …”

No. He wouldn’t send that. He wouldn’t make her feel sorry for him. He should tell her more pleasant things, try to be friends. He missed her, he couldn’t deny it. He still had feelings for her, still loved her, he couldn’t deny it.

Instead, he would tell her something good.

“I saw your friend Emily Wong the other day, she told me to say hello. She was dying to ask questions, I could see it, but she didn’t.” He erased the last sentence and just left the first. “So, ‘hello’. How are you? I won’t ask for details; I know you couldn’t share them. Instead, tell me about the food. Do you have a decent cook on the new Normandy? How’s Joker? Cranky as ever?”

He hesitated, not sure how to end it. At last he typed, “Just wanted to let you know I was thinking of you. – Kaidan” And he clicked “send”.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Shepard was reading a Cerberus report updating her on the search for the Omega 4 IFF, a closely written overly scientific document that had her squinting at the screen, a headache forming between her eyes, when the computer beeped, letting her know new mail was in. She wondered, with a mixture of amusement and annoyance, if Chambers knew these notifications came to her terminal, or if any minute now Chambers would be calling in to let her know that she had new mail. Was that Chambers being oblivious? Was irritating her part of the way Chambers studied her psychological profile? Was it Cerberus and the Illusive Man reminding her that on this Normandy nothing was her own?

But something was, she reminded herself, a smile easing the tension across her forehead. Thane was hers; if it ever came down to it, she would trust him absolutely to back her against Cerberus. Jack, too, and Grunt, and Garrus, and Dr. Chakwas, and Joker. She had people she could trust around her, and that made her feel confident about the mission going forward.

She clicked over to her email, startled to find that the incoming message was from Kaidan. Her eyes moved to the picture of him that still stood next to her terminal, and she tried to remember how it had felt to be with him. But it wasn’t the same anymore, because now she knew what it was to feel so comfortable with someone, to trust them so deeply that you felt free to be whoever you were in front of them. She never had to pretend to be Commander Shepard when she wasn’t feeling it in front of Thane, and she imagined that someday she would feel free to be Commander Shepard in a moment when she might otherwise be Juniper, although they weren’t quite there yet.

Kaidan’s email was sweet, though. He was trying to get past the Cerberus thing, but couldn’t quite, because that was who he was, like a dog with a bone. But the overall tone was light and friendly, and it made her smile. She hit reply and typed rapidly and without pausing to worry about the flow.

“Kaidan – good to hear from you! I appreciate your concern. It’s good to know that somewhere out in the galaxy someone’s thinking of us and hoping our mission will be a success. Garrus is well, same as always, so is Joker. There’s an AI on board, and she and Joker spend all their time fighting over who’s really running the ship. I think it’s good for him, gives him something to do.
“Next time you see Emily tell her hello back for me. Dr. Chakwas asked the other day if I’d heard from you; I’ll have to tell her now that I have and you’re well. I hope you’re well, at least. You don’t say much about yourself. Of course, I can’t ask what you’re up to, either—Anderson’s made it very clear that I may be a Spectre, but I’m not in his confidence. Can’t really blame him for that.
“The food’s pretty good. Gardner, the cook, is a gruff type but once I promised him a supply of decent ingredients, he’s managed to turn out some good meals.
“Glad to hear from you. Take care of yourself! Maybe sometime we’ll be on the Citadel at the same time and we can have lunch. – Shepard”

Lunch was good, she thought. Less casual than coffee, less formal than dinner. She clicked send before she could rethink it any further. Then she sat back in her chair, looking at Kaidan’s picture. Reaching out, she turned it down on its face. She wasn’t putting it away, not now—he had meant so much to her once, but it was a distant emotion, a fondness in her memory. For the moment, she was glad not to have Thane’s vivid recall.

Closing her computer, she got out of her chair and went down to the bridge. As soon as the elevator doors slid open, Chambers chirped, “You have a new email on your private server, Commander.” Shepard grinned, for once more amused than irritated.

Chapter Text

The ship was quiet again. Shepard had been leaning on the back of Joker’s chair in the cockpit, watching the stars go by and listening to him wrangle with EDI, for a little while, but it was really just killing time while the ship settled for the night … or what passed for night in space.

At last she sighed and stood up straight.

“Places to be, Commander?”

She shrugged. “Can’t stand around up here forever, Joker, or I’ll be reminded who’s really in charge of the ship.”

He laughed. “Don’t you forget it, either, Commander.”

“Cerberus is in charge of the ship, Mr. Moreau. That’s who the Commander meant.”

Joker rolled his eyes in the direction of the speaker. “Yeah, whatever, shut up.”

“May I remind you that I have nothing to shut.”

“Do I have to hit the mute again?”

“Considering that the last time you did so you fractured your thumb and were in pain for quite some time afterward, does that seem like the wisest course?”

Joker grumbled at that, but didn’t have a comeback. Shepard shook her head and left them to it. Overall, she thought EDI was good for Joker, kept him on his toes … so to speak. Not that she would ever tell him that.

She stepped into the elevator, telling herself that she meant to go up to her cabin, take her boots off, feed her fish. But the button she punched was for a floor in the opposite direction, and when the elevator doors slid open she turned to the right and headed down the hall to the port observation deck.

Thane was sitting there in the window, looking out over the stars. He turned and smiled when she came in, and her heart leaped, a smile coming to her lips automatically in response to his. “I was hoping you’d be here.”

“I was hoping you would come down.”

“I wasn’t sure if I should, but I couldn’t help it. I’ve been … thinking of you.”

“And I you.” He watched her as she crossed the room and sat down facing him on the bench. “Will you hear my confession, Siha?”

“Last time we talked like this, you said you would explain to me what ‘Siha’ means.”

“I will. But first … first I need to explain myself.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, Thane.”

“I know that. But I want to tell you this; I need you to know the extent to which you—my current situation differs from where I was.”

Shepard nodded. “All right.”

“I don’t have to, if you would rather not hear,” he said hastily.

“If you think this is something you want to tell me, then I want to hear it. I told you I was here for you, for anything you need.”

“I have no wish to burden you unduly.”

“Thane. What is it that you want to tell me but are afraid for me to hear?”

He smiled. “You are quick to understand.”

“I hope so.”

“Very well.” He took a deep breath. “I told you that it was enemies of mine who killed Irikah, in retaliation for my actions against them. I want you to know that it was not my intention to put her in danger, or Kolyat. When I married Irikah, the hanar let me leave their service to raise a family, and I attempted to find a way to do so, but I quickly found that I had no other skills but the ones they had so carefully created in me. So I freelanced.”

“Why didn’t you go back to the hanar? Surely they would have helped you?”

Thane shook his head. “They had already done so. They trained me, gave me skills to work with, and then they released me from my service to them. By the terms of the Compact, they had done for me all I could possibly have asked.”

“Did Irikah know you were freelancing?”

“Of course. Not telling her would have put her in even more danger. But … she was brave, and stubborn.” He smiled at Shepard, indicating that he found those qualities in her, as well. “She refused to live in fear.”

“Very wise.”

“Yes. She was. Much more so than I.” He met Shepard’s eyes with his own, and she wondered what they were really talking about, because there was clearly meaning in what he had said. Was he afraid to be with her? But he kept going before she could ask. “When Irikah was killed, I pursued those responsible. Once I had eliminated them, I thought—I tried to go back to Kahje, but Kolyat was … older, no longer the child I remembered, and my sister and Irikah’s family were caring for him more than adequately. Better than I could have, with no skills at my fingertips but destruction.”

“So you returned to your battle sleep,” Shepard said, remembering what he had told her before.

He nodded. “But I had no goal. I took whatever commissions came to me, wandered aimlessly about the galaxy. Eventually, I accepted the Dantius commission because I didn’t know what else to do.”

“With an attitude like that, it’s a wonder you didn’t get killed.” Thane held Shepard’s gaze meaningfully, and she understood what he was trying to tell her at last, that he had intended to be killed in the commission of his last job. “Well, if that was the case, it’s lucky we came along when we did,” she told him. She tried to imagine what it would have been like not to have met him, to have lost him in the process of getting to him, and still be empty and lost and sad as she had been after her resurrection, after Horizon. It was a bleak picture, and she lifted her hand, wanting to touch him, but pulled it back, not sure if he was ready for her to do so.

Thane was looking out the window and didn’t see the gesture. “It was an intervention by the gods,” he agreed softly. “I had … I never set out to do so, never put it into so many words, but I had resigned myself to death. I would have fulfilled my contract, and if Nassana’s guards had caught me afterwards …” He shrugged. “I would have died in that penthouse, gone without a whisper. It would have been a good death.” Now he looked back at Shepard, and his eyes warmed. “But I wasn’t alone on that job. Unknown to me, someone else was there, pushing to reach the target, forcing me to move faster, challenging me. In order to fulfill my contract, I had to reach her first.”

“I had no idea you’d planned to die in there. Did … did Cerberus know? Was that why the Illusive Man sent me after you?”

“No. They had contacted me, but I ignored the messages. They might have been able to discover the truth of my condition, but I question whether they would have sent you to recruit a dying assassin.”

Shepard refused to look away. He wanted her to, she could see that. He wanted her to be reminded that his time was short, to rethink whether this was where she wanted to be. But it was—she didn’t have to rethink it. She felt something in his presence she had never felt before. Not just desire, or attraction, but a sense of rightness, a sense of … completion, perhaps, as if in some way they belonged together. She had never put much stock in romantic notions of soulmates, but if they existed, she imagined it felt like this, like when you were with the other person it was exactly where you were meant to be. “It’s hard to tell why the Illusive Man does what he does,” she said now, refusing to take the out he had offered her.

Thane was silent; she could practically see him wrestling with himself. At last he said, softly, “So be it.”

When he didn’t continue, Shepard leaned toward him. Equally softly, she said, “Thane?”

“My mind had been dead a long time,” he said. “Ten years asleep, ready to cross the sea at last. When I entered the Dantius Towers, my body accepted the possibility as well. I was ready. But in that penthouse a miracle was awaiting me. I met another Siha. Few are privileged to meet even one.”

She slid closer to him. “What is a Siha?” she whispered.

“One of the warrior angels of the goddess Arashu. Fierce in wrath. A tenacious protector.” Their faces were very close to one another, his eyes fixed on her face. “Shepard—Juniper. Siha.”

“I’m glad you told me all of this,” she said.

He blinked, surprised. “That was not my confession, Siha. This is: After you saved my life in that penthouse, I came to respect you and the way you handle yourself and the way you care for your crew. In our conversations together, I began to enjoy your company. I like you very much. And … in the process, I find I have come to care for you.” Thane studied her face, worry in his eyes. “Perhaps I’m being foolish. After all, we are very different.”

“We are,” Shepard agreed. “I treasure our differences; I want to explore them.” Her cheeks flushed as she considered the more carnal meanings of that idea, but she didn’t take it back.

“Then … you feel it, too?” he asked, his voice deeper and rougher than usual.

“I thought I had been more than obvious. No one’s ever accused me of being subtle. But this kind of thing has happened to me so rarely that maybe I’m more reserved than I thought. I … I don’t know if we know each other well enough yet to call it love, but I feel it, Thane, whatever you want to call it.”

His hands caught hold of hers, touching her for the first time. His skin was cool, just the slightest bit rough. She clung to his hands as her eyes clung to his, their bodies moving toward each other until their foreheads rested together. They sat like that, feeling as though they had crossed a wide chasm just to get this far.

At last Shepard sat back. She would have liked to kiss him, but that could come later. She would savor the anticipation, greater for knowing he felt it, too.

“I have never felt affection for another species before,” Thane said. “I’m not sure what to do now.”

She wasn’t either; and there remained the question of whether they were physically compatible, which wasn’t one she wanted to get into just now. Smiling, she held his hands a little tighter, letting him know she wasn’t going to let go. “We’ll just have to figure it out.”

He smiled, too. “I look forward to the memories.”

Chapter Text

Too often Shepard ended up working through lunch, busy with Jacob in the weapons storage or going over reports with Miranda, or using the time when most other people on the ship were occupied to get in some exercise in the otherwise crowded exercise room. Today she found herself with a few minutes free during Gardner’s usual serving time. The cook was usually pretty amenable to whipping up something simple for her when she was hungry, and he didn’t grumble if she came into his kitchen to make herself a sandwich, a privilege he allowed no one else, but everyone else raved about his main dishes, so she was glad to have a chance to try an entrée when it was hot, for a change.

Gardner actually cracked a smile when he saw her coming. “Commander! Come get a plate. I’ve been saving some for you. Heard you liked spicy food.” He proffered a piping hot plate filled with some kind of cheese- and sauce-covered concoction. “Varren enchiladas. Partly a krogan dish, partly human. Get yourself a big glass of water—you’re going to need it.”

“Growing up, I ate jalapenos straight out of the garden,” she told him. “I think I’ll be fine.” Only as she left the kitchen did she realize that that was the first time she had mentioned Mindoir in casual conversation in … years. Something was changing in her, things long buried coming to the surface. And at a table in the mess, chatting with Garrus, she saw the reason why.

As if he had felt her thinking of him, Thane raised his head and met her eyes. Shepard could feel heat flush through her—partly happiness, partly reaction to his presence, partly embarrassment at the idea that if they were really going to do this the rest of the ship was going to know. Part of her was still military enough to think the Commander’s personal life should remain a secret. But it wasn’t really like that aboard a ship; everyone knew everything. And she wasn’t really in the military now. Cerberus didn’t have the same command structure, or the same attitude.

She carried her plate over and took the seat next to Thane. “How’s the food?”

Mouth full, Garrus nodded and made appreciative noises over a dextro version of the dish. Apparently there was no end to Gardner’s skills.

“What my learned friend is trying to say is that it seems surprisingly tasty for a krogan/human hybrid,” Thane clarified, chuckling at Garrus’s elaborate attempts to signal agreement. His own plate held remnants of something different—his condition required a more bland diet than the rest of them enjoyed.

Remembering what he had said to her about his past ten years, Shepard realized that Thane’s casual reference to Garrus as his friend indicated that he, too, was changing. Something in her that had wondered if she truly had as much to offer him as he did her was put to rest, at least for the moment.

“You have been busy this morning,” Thane said to her. “How are you today?”

She could hear the real question beneath the presumably casual surface query—was she regretting what they had said to one another last night, wishing she had been less hasty in her confession of her feelings? “Very well,” she told him. Beneath the table, she nudged his knee with her own, smiling as his eyes warmed at the reassurance. “And you?”

“Very well indeed.” His knee rubbed against hers, the contact startlingly erotic, as was the look in his eyes.

Shepard lost herself for the space of a few heartbeats, awash in the sensations flooding her body.

On the other side of the table, forgotten by both of his lunch companions, Garrus ceased his inroads on his plate and sat still, looking from one to the other. “Well, aren’t you too adorable. Do you mind? This tastes better without the side of syrup.”

Shepard drew her eyes reluctantly away from Thane’s, flushing with embarrassment as she looked back at her plate. “Shut it, Vakarian,” she growled.

“Of course, Commander.” The words were right, but the voice was as syrupy as he had just accused them of being.

Shepard had just picked up her fork, and she pointed it at him threateningly. “You want to try that one again?”

He tilted his head to the side, looking thoughtful. “Sure. How’s this: ‘Of course, Commander,’” in a voice dripping with sarcasm. “Or ‘of course, Commander’,” this time in a falsetto coo.

Shepard frowned at him across the table, and Garrus grinned back, unrepentant. She sighed. “You know, I come down here to have a peaceful lunch and what do I get? Insubordination.”

“I know. I’m such a trial.” He chuckled, digging into his food again.

“You say that as though it’s not true.”

“I’m your favorite turian, and you know it.”

“Do the two of you need me for this, or am I superfluous?” Thane asked.

“Careful what you wish for,” Shepard warned him. “He’ll start on you next.”

Garrus swallowed a bite of food, nodding. “She’s right. I probably will.”

“You do remember I was trained as an assassin?”

“Yeah, and Shepard killed a Spectre. When I play with fire, I like it to be dangerous.”

Thane chuckled. “At least you know what you’re doing.”

Shepard took a bite of the food, finding it very flavorful, and nearly as spicy as Gardner had claimed.

“Good, isn’t it?” Garrus asked.

She nodded. “Well worth the extra money I’ve funneled into his budget.”

“Surprising that such a well-heeled organization as Cerberus would skimp on something as fundamental to their crew’s happiness as quality ingredients.”

“Isn’t it?” Shepard looked around. They were isolated at the end of the table, but she lowered her voice anyway. “I wondered if it was a test of my command abilities, if the Illusive Man wanted to see how well I prioritized the crew’s happiness and comfort.”

“Could be a way to endear you to them, too,” Garrus speculated. “You became the Commander who got them good food—no better way to a crew’s heart.”

“Quite likely both,” Thane agreed.

“Well, either way, I’m appreciative.” Garrus looked longingly at his empty plate, as though he was considering licking the sauce off of it. Deciding not to, he got to his feet. “I think I’ll go see if he’s got any left.” He grinned down at them. “Have fun.”

“I swear, Garrus,” Shepard began, but the turian was off, his parting laugh trailing after him.

Left alone, neither she nor Thane knew just what to say. At last, Thane asked, “We are unlikely to hear the end of it.”

“True.”

“And no doubt the entire ship will know … whatever there is to know by dinner time.”

“And more. Garrus has a talent for embroidery.”

He looked at her, concern in his eyes. “Do you mind?”

Shepard held his gaze, shaking her head. “Not in the least. Do you?”

Thane smiled. “How could I? But I am not in command.”

“True.” She looked around the mess, wondering if there would be an issue with her having a relationship with an alien. The crew got along with her various alien teammates fairly well, but there was a difference between teammate and … what would she consider Thane? Not a lover, not yet, and ‘boyfriend’ seemed too trivial. She shrugged. What did it matter what she called him? He was with her, and that was what mattered. “If there’s a problem, I’ll deal with it.”

“Of that, I have no doubt.”

Shepard returned her attention to her lunch, finishing it off. She sympathized with Garrus’s temptation to lick the plate clean—but that definitely was beneath a commander’s dignity, so she pushed it away reluctantly.

When he was sure she was finished, Thane took a small object from his coat pocket. “I was hoping to run into you—I have something for you.”

“You do?” She took it from him. It was a book, of all things, and to her great surprise, when she opened it, her fingers smoothing over the soft pages, it was in English. A volume of poetry. “You have to explain to me why you own an actual book, and in a human language.”

“As you know, I spent much of my time when not engaged in work reading. Over the years, as I found things that were particular favorites, I picked them up in their more classic form.” Thane took the book back from her, turning pages slowly, smiling at a few of the titles. “Something about the feel of the pages, the smell of the book—I can remember perfectly everything I’ve ever read off a datapad, but it is more enjoyable to remember with the further tactile details that come with the bound volume.”

“I suppose I can understand that. But … English? Can you read that?”

“I can now. As you can imagine, human poetry is rarely translated into my language, and the hanar have no written language that would be applicable. So at first, I read with the aid of a translator, but eventually I learned to understand the words themselves. Your species has a remarkable gift for words, for putting them together in evocative ways.”

“Do we? More so than other species?”

“Oh, yes.” Handing the book back to her, he recited from memory. “’Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/And sorry I could not travel both and/Be one traveler, long I stood/And looked down one as far as I could/To where it bent in the undergrowth;/Then took the other, as just as fair.’ Robert Frost.” He smiled.

“I’m glad you did,” Shepard told him softly.

“As am I.” He reached out and touched the book lightly, but Juniper felt the delicate caress on her own skin, as surely as if he had touched her instead. She shivered. “You told me you would appreciate if I recommended you a book. This is one of my favorites, and poetry seemed to suit you—something you can enjoy in the brief moments you have, and …” He looked up at her, his black eyes seeming to see a part of her she didn’t even know she had. “Something to awaken the poetry that lies inside you, Siha.”

“I’ve never considered myself poetic before.”

“You have clearly never seen yourself as I see you.”

“No,” she breathed. But she wanted to.

He could see that, he must be able to, because there was a world of affection in the smile he gave her. “I’ll have to see what we can do to change that.”

And she believed he would.

Chapter Text

Having dropped off the shuttle, the Normandy ascended out of the small planet’s atmosphere and into an orbit. Thane watched from behind Joker’s chair as the pilot expertly maneuvered the controls, restraining only with difficulty his urge to pace back and forth.

It was ridiculous, of course. Shepard had been on many missions without him; surely she would go on others in the future. But this was the first time since they had become … whatever it was that they were. Thane resolutely avoided the word “love”, even in his thoughts, as though somehow that would keep her from being hurt, as she inevitably must be if they were truly together, and keep him from having to awaken fully to a world in which his time to be with her was so limited. Nonetheless, feelings had been acknowledged on both sides, and that made her absence planet-side newly nerve-wracking for him.

“Hey, Krios?” Joker spun his chair around to face Thane.

“Yes?”

“I know you’re a pretty skilled assassin and I’m sure you can come up with thirty ways to kill me without moving from where you’re standing—“

“Thirty-seven,” Thane corrected automatically.

“Yeah. Whatever. That said, there’s only one person I usually let hover over me while I’m flying.”

“Oh. Oh, yes, of course. My apologies.” Thane nodded and turned away, heading out of the cockpit, but stopped when Joker called his name again, looking back at the pilot over his shoulder.

“Look, it’s none of my business, but … that woman literally died to save my life.”

“What Mr. Moreau means is that he has a feeling of obligation to the Commander that—“

“Hey, no one needs your input,” Joker snapped at the AI’s console. “Fractured thumb or not, I will mute you again if I have to.”

“There is no need for that,” Thane said. To EDI, he added, “Mr. Moreau’s meaning is quite clear, thank you.”

“Good,” Joker said, somewhat mollified. He spun his chair back around and made a show of hitting buttons and affecting to be busy.

On his way to the elevator, Thane was waylaid by Yeoman Chambers. “Hi, Thane. How are you today?”

“Fine, thank you.” He tried to calibrate his tone to the polite-but-busy level so that she would be discouraged from further conversation. While he found Chambers less obnoxious than Shepard did, he wasn’t fond of her overly familiar approach.

“Did the Commander say how long she expected to be planetside?”

“I don’t believe she had any way of knowing,” he answered. “They weren’t certain what they would find.” He wished again that she had taken him, but this mission of Jacob’s had been important to Miranda, so he hadn’t asked. He suspected that the humidity of the planet would have discouraged Shepard from bringing him along even if he had, not that that made him feel any better about it. Ridiculous, he told himself again. If anyone in the galaxy could take care of herself, it was Shepard.

“It’ll be nice for Jacob if he finds his father there, or at least what happened to him.”

“Will it? Perhaps.” Thane thought of Kolyat. Had it been nice for him to have found his father? Hard to say. He thought Kolyat probably didn’t think so. “Perhaps it will only bring up more questions.” He gave Chambers an abrupt nod. “If you’ll excuse me.”

Without waiting for her response, he punched the button for the elevator, glad that it came quickly.

It was just toward the end of breakfast, so he made his way to the mess. Only a few people remained at the tables, which was how Thane preferred it. Eating was a moment of vulnerability, of distraction. He preferred to take his light meals as late in the serving hours as possible, although Garrus continually tried to get him to eat earlier so they could have their meals together, a gesture Thane appreciated but found hard to get used to.

Today there was no sign of the turian as Thane accepted his bowl of porridge from Gardner and added liberal amounts of cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. Smell of spice on the spring wind, he thought, seeing Irikah’s eyes again in his memory. Strange how a person could be captivated by two different women at the same time, he thought.

The onset of memory was disrupted as Gardner leaned across the counter. “Never met a drell before.”

“Few have.”

“Have to say, you’re more polite than most of these yay-hoos.”

“I … would like to hope so,” Thane said, wondering where this was going.

“The Commander’s a woman with a good head on her shoulders, takes care of her crew,” Gardner added.

Oh. That was where this was going. He should have known. “Yes.”

“She deserves some happiness.”

“That she does.”

“Good. Long as we’re agreed.” Gardner turned back to the porridge pot, and Thane took his breakfast to an empty table, inwardly shaking his head. He had told Juniper that he wasn’t bothered by everyone having an opinion, but he hadn’t expected all their opinions to occur on the same day.

At the other end of the table, Grunt and Jack were arm-wrestling. Jack was blatantly cheating by using her biotics, which pleased Grunt greatly—he had the chance to be the more honorable player, and he was still winning. At last he tired of the game and forced Jack’s arm down to the table.

“Best two out of three,” she said, holding her arm up again.

“Later, when you’re not tired. No fun beating an opponent who’s not at their best.”

Jack looked ready to argue for a moment, then she shrugged and turned to Thane. “What about you, assassin?”

“Arm-wrestling is more direct than I prefer to be.”

“Is it?” She slid down the bench to sit near him, although not so near as to make him uncomfortable. “That what you told the Commander?”

Thane rolled his eyes.

Grunt moved down to sit on the other side of the table from Thane. “Come on, Jack. You think they talk?” he asked. He grinned, or what passed for one in a krogan face. “I bet they have better things to do.”

Jack frowned, studying Thane’s face. “No, I think they talk. And talk. And talk some more. Which is a shame, because if anyone could do with a long night in the sack, it’s the Commander.”

She probably could, Thane thought. A whole night devoted to her pleasure, to touching and tasting and … It took all his considerable self-control to bring his thoughts back from that idea.

Seeing the effect of her words, Jack laughed. “Didn’t think so. What’re you waiting for?”

“Permission, I bet,” Grunt said. “Battlemaster has to say it’s okay.”

“Have you seen her watching him?” Jack disagreed. “He’s got permission.”

Leaning across the table, Grunt studied Thane’s face, frowning. “Oh. Then what are you waiting for?”

“Privacy,” Thane snapped, and then wished he’d stayed silent, because both the human and the krogan started laughing. At least after that they got up and left him alone, but the damage was done. He’d lost his appetite, pushing the porridge away half-finished. What was he waiting for? He wanted her, oh, yes. The time he spent in memory was slowly but surely being overtaken by time spent in fantasy, dreaming of what she would look like, feel like, taste like. Other than the occasional vid, he’d never seen a human naked, and he was fascinated by the idea of his Siha bare before him, of her in his arms, of her kisses.

But he didn’t dare. To make those fantasies a reality would be to commit both of them to a course that would only end in pain and sorrow and grief. He hadn’t been strong enough to deny his feelings to her, but if he could keep from taking it to a level from which there would be no turning back, perhaps he could safeguard her heart—and his, whispered a cowardly voice in the back of his mind.

The bowl of porridge was abruptly shoved aside as a graceful figure took the seat Grunt had vacated. Thane looked across at the purple-tinted visor of Tali’Zorah’s suit. He could barely discern her eyes through it, but he could see from the folding of her arms over her chest and the rigidity of her spine that she was upset. “Is it true?”

“Probably,” he told her, certain she, too, was here about Shepard.

“Do you know what it was like for us all when she died? Shepard always seemed indestructible, but in just a few short minutes we lost the Normandy and we lost her. Now to have her back again …”

“Miraculous,” Thane murmured. He was thinking of the quickening of his pulse as he realized someone else was making their way through the Dantius Towers toward Nassana, the renewed urgency and pride in his work that had filled him in that moment when he thought someone else was challenging him to the contract, the sense of purpose he had found in himself when Shepard offered him the chance to work with her. Truly, she had been an angel set in his path. He only wished he knew what she was there for, what he could possibly still have to offer her or the galaxy with so little time remaining to him. Goddess Arashu, speak to me. Reveal to me your meaning. Why did you send your angel to me now, when it is too late?

Tali was watching him with curiosity. “You care for her.”

He couldn’t deny it. “Very much so.”

“She needs that. She doesn’t care enough for herself.”

Was that why? Thane wondered. Was that what he offered Arashu’s angel? “No, she doesn’t.”

“Please don’t hurt her.”

“Not if I can help it,” he promised. He feared it was already too late to avoid it, but he didn’t share that thought with Tali, who meant well, and only wanted the best for Shepard. He stood up. “If you’ll excuse me.”

“Of course.”

He put his bowl away and sought the privacy of the life support bay. But he hadn’t been there long when a knock sounded at the door. At first Thane was pleased, thinking it was Shepard, but he realized the ship was still circling the planet—she wouldn’t be back yet. He sighed, certain now that he knew who his visitor was.

True to his suspicion, he opened the door to find Garrus standing there, chessboard in hand. “If you’re not busy?”

“Not at all.” He gestured for the turian to come in. Garrus was improving at the game, slowly, but he was still too impetuous and favored the frontal assault too heavily. He and Shepard were a lot alike in that way.

“I may have said a few things to a few people,” Garrus admitted as he set up the board.

“So I gathered.”

The turian chuckled, trying and failing to look contrite. “Everyone threatening you?”

“In one way or another.”

“Good.”

Thane groaned. “You, too?”

“Yeah.” Garrus moved a pawn, and winced when Thane took it immediately. Then he moved another, and Thane took that one, too. “You play a hard game.”

“I play to win.”

“Is that what you’re doing?” Garrus held his gaze across the table.

“What you are referring to is not a game, and I am not playing.”

“I’m glad to hear it. You probably think we should all mind our own business—but Shepard means a lot to a lot of people, and she hasn’t always—“ Garrus caught himself.

Thane restrained his intense curiosity as to what the turian had been intending to say. Whatever it was, if Shepard wanted him to know, she would tell him herself. He knew that absolutely, and with a fierce joy entirely at odds with his desire to protect her from emotions that would only break her heart. And his, whispered that selfish, cowardly voice at the back of his mind again.

“Shepard half-killed herself trying to save the galaxy, and the Council ignored her. Then she did get killed, and the Council pretended to lionize her with one hand while erasing what she had fought for with the other. She’s gotten the shaft, over and over again. She deserves something good in her life.” Garrus looked down at the chess board. “It’s no secret, your condition.”

“She is aware of it.”

“I know she is. But you know Shepard—sometimes she leaps before she looks. Someone’s got to watch out for her.”

“Yes. I know.” Thane moved a piece. Which one and where, he couldn’t have said. They all looked the same to him at the moment.

“But … I just wanted to tell you—I’m here for her. Whatever happens. Not like that,” Garrus added hastily, as Thane started to look up and wonder. “I’m just saying—I’m always going to have her back. In case you were worried that you’d … you know, and she wouldn’t have anyone. She’s always got me.”

At last, Thane realized that was somehow what they had all been trying to tell him all day—that he was far from being the only one who cared for her, and that when the inevitable time came and they were parted, she wouldn’t be alone. “Good,” he said, making a move that in another two dozen moves would deliver Garrus the game. “I’m glad.”

Chapter Text

Captain Bailey looked up from his computer screen as Shepard, Thane, and Samara approached. He smiled a welcome. “Didn’t expect you lot back so soon.”

“A bit of an unexpected opportunity,” Shepard told him.

Not being in the inner circle of Cerberus, Thane didn’t know where the invitation to meet and potentially recruit famed thief Kasumi had come from, but it wasn’t one Shepard had been willing to turn down. Knowing Kasumi by reputation, he had encouraged Shepard to add her to the team. That the recruitment opportunity would also bring them to the Citadel and allow him a chance to speak with Kolyat again was an added bonus.

Shepard turned to him now. “You’ll be all right here?”

“Of course.” Thane looked at Captain Bailey. “Would it be possible for me to see my son?”

The C-Sec officer nodded. “I’ll have him brought down.” His thick fingers tapped the keys.

“Shepard, I will meet you both back here in in three standard hours, yes?” Samara asked.

“Yes. Will that give you enough time to transact your business?”

“I believe I can find my contact in that time, thank you.” The Justicar moved off through the crowds. Thane hoped she wouldn’t be distracted—but he understood that she, too, was in search of a lost child, and imagined that would keep her focused.

Shepard put a comforting hand on his shoulder and squeezed it, and then was off herself. Thane didn’t know what else she planned to do, should her pursuit of Kasumi take less time than she expected. He couldn’t help remembering certain comments of Garrus’s—was there a man somewhere on the Citadel? She didn’t appear to be the kind of woman who would pursue one man while tied to another, but something unquiet in Thane’s heart couldn’t seem to let the suspicion go. Unfair, indeed, because he also couldn’t seem to bring himself to take their relationship further, too afraid of the pain of awakening and reconnecting his heart with his body—but there you had it. Emotions were rarely controllable, which was why he had spent so much time trying not to have them.

A discreet cough brought his attention back to Captain Bailey. “Your boy’ll be down here in ten minutes. He’s doing well—a little sullen, maybe, but willing to help out and seems to have a knack for talking to the duct rats.”

Thane couldn’t help seeing Mouse as he had been, the dirty feet and the runny nose and the greedy, glittering eyes. Did Kolyat know that those were the children his father had spent his time with instead of going home to his own son?

“Come on,” Bailey said. “I’ll walk you over.”

They didn’t speak. Thane was lost in his memories and his guilt, and Bailey in whatever story Thane reminded him of.

Stopping in front of one of the interrogation rooms, Bailey said, “Wait here. He should be down in a minute. I’ll see you later.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Thane said, aware of how much he owed this man.

“Happy to help.” Bailey’s voice rasped over the words, and he took off back to his desk before whatever emotion was rising in him could come to the surface.

When he was close enough to discern the identity of his visitor, Kolyat rolled his eyes. “Didn’t get enough last time?”

“I came to the Citadel on business.”

“Your business, or Commander Shepard’s?”

Thane didn’t reply to that one, waiting while Kolyat’s guard led him into the room and unlocked his handcuffs. “You’ve got one hour,” he said brusquely before leaving them alone in the room.

“You look well,” Thane said to Kolyat when the guard was gone. It was true—his son looked more at peace than he had been the last time they’d seen each other, less desperate and lost.

“No thanks to you.”

“That is true,” Thane acknowledged.

“So what do you want?”

“I was here; I wanted to take the opportunity to see you.”

“What, one more time before you die?”

The remark made Thane angrier than he had any right to be. “There is every chance I will not return from this mission; would you have me simply disappear from your life without further ado?”

“You already did that once, what would be different this time?” Kolyat asked. He turned away in an attempt to hide the tears that had come to his eyes.

The accusation, just and inarguable, pierced the balloon of Thane’s anger neatly. “I hope that I am different. I regret the ten years lost more than I can possibly say. I thought I was doing the best thing for you, keeping the … darkness in me away, keeping you safe from those who thought to strike back at me through you and your mother, but …” Memory washed over him. “Soft lullaby, answering coos, creak of the chair as she rocks. ‘Look, Thane, he has your mouth.’” Oh, Irikah, he thought, how I have failed you.

“Mother?” Kolyat asked. He closed his eyes as though his own memories were too much for him. “Sometimes I wish I didn’t remember her so clearly.”

“Yes,” Thane agreed softly. “I, too.”

His son shot him a look of dark, bitter, long-brooded-over anger. “How clearly can you remember her? You were never there.”

“To my very great shame.”

“You know this is all too little, too late, don’t you?” Kolyat got up and walked to the window. “You’ve come back into my life only to leave it again, permanently, so what was the point? You could just as easily have written me a letter.”

“Would you have read it?”

“No.”

“Well, then.”

“So this makes all the difference because I can’t escape you?”

“No.” Thane shook his head. “Because it is the only chance I have to make certain you escape my fate. I have led a life almost entirely disconnected, Kolyat, more asleep than awake. I wish for better things for you. I wish for you to be Whole.”

Kolyat waved a hand impatiently. “No one believes that stuff anymore.”

“I do.”

His son’s roll of the eyes said what he thought of Thane’s adherence to the old beliefs. “Has it been an hour yet?”

“Not quite.”

“And when it’s over, you’ll go away and not come back?”

“Very likely.”

Kolyat shrugged. “Not much difference, really, from what my life has been like.”

Thane cursed the impulse that had led him to set up this meeting; but he could not have done otherwise. He tried one last time. “In the time remaining, is there anything you want to ask?” He imagined he would receive only more abuse, but Kolyat turned around, his eyes, so like Thane’s own, fixed on his father’s face.

“Why now?”

“Because I have very little time left.”

“No, I mean, why this thing with Commander Shepard?”

For a moment, Thane thought his son had been able to discern his feelings for Juniper, but when Kolyat’s gaze remained steady, he realized it was the mission he was asking about, not anything deeper. He searched for the words, and at last answered simply, “She offered me the opportunity to die in a worthy cause. Not for some assassin’s contract, but in the hope of sparing the galaxy a horrific fate.”

“You actually believe in all this Reaper nonsense? Shepard was tricked by Saren, everyone knows that.”

“She doesn’t.”

“So you’re following her on some suicide mission because she’s delusional?”

“No, I am following her because it seems like the right thing to do. Only time will tell whether it was or not, and since the alternative was to wait and allow the minutes remaining to me to run through my fingers like so much sand … I decided I had already done enough of that.”

“Do you think, if this really does save the galaxy, it will make up for the lives you’ve taken?”

It was on the tip of Thane’s tongue to tell his son that it was his body, acting on behalf of his employers, that had taken the vast majority of those lives, but Kolyat would see that as an empty distinction in this mood. “No,” he said at last. “Lives cannot be weighed and measured in that way. Perhaps it will mean nothing, now. Or perhaps it will allow me to go across the sea with some measure of peace. Either way, it is worth the attempt.”

Kolyat rolled his eyes one more time, crossing his arms over his chest and turning toward the window. Neither of them said another word until the hour was up.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Recruiting Kasumi took much less time than Shepard had been expecting, largely because Cerberus had already done her negotiating and promising for her, and naturally had neglected to tell her about it. So Kasumi had a task all ready to be completed in exchange for her presence on Shepard’s team, and Shepard had little choice but to agree to it.

“You are easy to convince, Shepard,” Kasumi said through the advertising screen she was using to communicate. “Cerberus have you over a barrel?”

“You come highly recommended.”

“By Krios?” Kasumi asked. Shepard tried to hide the flash of concern she felt at how quickly Kasumi had jumped to the right conclusion, but the thief’s chuckle told her she hadn’t succeeded. “Of course I know who’s already on your team—I wouldn’t have agreed to come aboard blind. And Krios is by far the most likely person to know enough about me to recommend me.”

“Have you met?” Shepard asked, hoping she sounded casual.

“Not that he knows of. But I’ve seen him work. He’s the best at what he does.”

“Like you’re the best at what you do?”

“Exactly,” Kasumi agreed. “I’ll see you on your ship, Shepard.”

She clicked off, and a moment later the advertisement came back on. Shepard left the kiosk, glad that she had a few minutes free for another errand. She made her way up to the Alliance News Network offices. An asari at the front desk looked up expectantly. “Do you have an appointment?”

“No, but I think Miss Wong will see me.”

“She’s very busy.”

“Would you mind just telling her Commander Shepard is here?”

The asari’s eyes widened, and she triggered the comm link at her collar. “Miss Wong, Commander Shepard to see you.”

Shepard could clearly hear the response. “Well, it’s about time! Send her in, Vesya.”

Before Vesya could relay the message, Shepard smiled. “I heard. Thanks.”

She pushed open the door to Emily’s office. The reporter looked up from behind a desk littered with datapads and scraps of paper and half-filled cups of coffee. “Shepard! Finally, you check in.”

“Finally had a few minutes to call my own.”

“Cerberus keeping you on a short leash?”

Shepard hesitated. “This on the record?”

“Only if you want it to be.” Emily smiled. “Please want it to be? It would be a huge scoop to get the first interview with you. Well, other than the one of you punching out Khalisah al-Jilani. That one got a lot of airtime, and was appreciated by a lot of people.”

“I enjoyed it, myself,” Shepard admitted. “I think this better be off the record, today. I promise, first interview is yours, just not today. Today I just wanted to say hi.”

“Wish I had time to grab lunch with you.”

“Well, I’m due back in a couple of hours anyway. Places to go.”

“I won’t ask where.” Emily gestured to the chair across from her desk. Shepard moved a pile of folders off it and sat.

“Thanks. I wasn’t going to tell you anyway.”

“How’ve you been, Shepard?”

“Good. Well, dead for a while, but then good.”

Emily shook her head. “Amazing. So it’s true, Cerberus brought you back from the dead.”

“Yeah, it’s true.”

“And you’re leading a team looking into the disappearance of human colonies in the Terminus systems?”

Shepard nodded.

“Still no room on your ship for a reporter?”

“Not this job, Emily. Maybe someday.”

Emily chuckled. “Well, that’s farther than I got you to go last time I asked. I’ll take it. You hear much from Lieutenant Commander Alenko?”

“Not in a while,” Shepard said reluctantly. She didn’t want to talk about Kaidan; she had tried not to think of him since they arrived at the Citadel, not to wonder if he was here. There was nothing there for her, and she had Thane now, even if Thane was reluctant to take things too far between them.

“Sorry.”

Shepard shrugged. “It is what it is. How’ve you been? Any news on the Citadel I should know about?”

That got Emily talking about work, and they chatted pleasantly for a while. Shepard was glad she had come up—it was nice to think that she had a friend outside the Alliance fleet, outside Cerberus. She hadn’t known anyone like that since Mindoir, and it was well past time that she did again.

When it was time for her to meet Thane and Samara and head back to the Normandy, she said her good-byes to Emily, promising to check in again next time she was on the Citadel, and Emily promised to make time for lunch. Even though neither of them was in control enough of their own schedules to actually be held to those promises, at least they both knew it.

Chapter Text

Shepard hovered outside the door of the port observation deck, listening to the voices inside. One, unfamilar, was Kasumi’s. The thief had taken up residence in the room, much to Shepard’s chagrin. She hadn’t felt she could argue the point, since space was beginning to be at a premium on the Normandy, but she had mourned the loss of the private space looking out at the stars she and Thane had enjoyed.

His was the other voice coming from inside the room. She hadn’t known he was so social, but here he was, chatting up the new arrival. Shepard had to admit to a corrosive thread of jealousy. Kasumi was beautiful, and she was also sneaky and very good at what she did, and she and Thane had similar skill sets and experiences. Whereas Shepard was blunt and brash and not sneaky in the least. What could he possibly see in her that he wouldn’t find more attractive in Kasumi?

At last she decided to knock, because the alternative was to run away as though she was scared, and she was damned if she was doing that. If Thane preferred Kasumi, she wanted to know that, right up front.

“Come in,” Kasumi called in her musical voice.

Shepard stepped through the doors and stood blinking at a totally transformed room. Kasumi had moved in with a vengeance—a soft bed, paintings, knick-knacks, and a shelf full of books. Real books, like the one Thane had lent her. Just another thing the two of them had in common. He was holding one now, his slender fingers riffling through the pages.

“Shepard, come sit. I was just showing Thane some of my favorite books.”

“She has terrible taste.” Thane moved over to let Shepard take the spot next to him. Did his eyes warm when he saw her? It was so hard to tell, and anything she thought she saw might easily be wishful thinking.

“You only say that because you’ve never read a good noir novel. You have to try this one—Dashiell Hammett. He’s perfect for you.”

“Mass-produced pot-boilers?” Thane frowned down at the volume.

“Mass-produced doesn’t mean bad. What do you read, poetry?”

Shepard couldn’t help but chuckle at the look on Thane’s face, and Kasumi clapped her hands together, laughing delightedly. “Caught! I knew it.” She looked at Shepard. “Thane tells me you’re not much of a reader.”

“Too busy saving the galaxy,” Shepard said stiffly, and then cursed herself for sounding pretentious and dismissive of her companions’ habits.

Thane closed the book and looked up at her with surprise. “I’m hoping to encourage her to develop a taste for it, but as you can imagine, there are many demands on her time.”

“And he gave you the poetry, didn’t he?” Kasumi shook her head in mock disappointment. “Let me look through what I have and see what I think you might like. We can talk about it on the way to Hock’s party.”

Standing up—and still holding the book, Shepard couldn’t help but notice—Thane said, “I believe that is my cue to let the two of you discuss your plans. Kasumi. Shepard.” There was a faint questioning lilt in his voice on Shepard’s name, as though he was querying whether she intended to visit him later. She gave him a distracted nod, although she wasn’t certain it was a good idea—in her current mood, she would be too likely to fall on him and demand all sorts of promises and reassurances, and she did not want to be that woman. Regardless of what he might think of her, she would despise herself.

He left, the doors sliding closed behind him, and Kasumi remained silent, her eyes on Shepard’s face.

“So … Hock’s party?” Shepard asked.

“You have nothing to worry about, you know,” Kasumi told her.

“I hope not, but infiltrating society parties isn’t my usual method of operation.”

Kasumi smiled. “I meant Thane. Oh, I can’t deny he has a certain mystique about him, but …” She glanced out the window at the stars, and then looked back at Shepard. “He isn’t my type. Besides.” Her smile widened, her eyes dancing with humor. “It’s as plain as the nose on your face that he really likes you. Those big black eyes of his go all a-flutter when he talks about you.”

“Do they? I mean …” Shepard could feel herself blushing.

“They do,” Kasumi assured her. “And if there was any doubt about it being mutual, the look on your face when you found him in here put that to rest.”

“I … This also isn’t my usual method of operation.”

“I know. I did my homework before I agreed to come on board. I intend to follow you, Shepard, all the way through the Omega 4. I just need to get Keiji’s greybox first.”

“And that requires going to this party?”

“It’s the easiest way, yes.” Kasumi looked her over. “Looks like I got my sizes right. I took the liberty of bringing aboard a dress and shoes, figuring that killer party wear wasn’t really your thing.”

“You figured right. I’m not even sure what to do in a dress and shoes.”

“Be impressive.”

“I think I can manage that. Maybe.”

“Well, you won’t have to wear them all night,” Kasumi assured her. “You can change once we get into the vault.”

“That’s a relief. And the party’s day after tomorrow, you said?”

“Yes. So you can practice walking in the shoes.”

Shepard grinned. “The crew will think I’ve gone mad.”

“It’s good to keep them guessing.” Kasumi tapped a few things on her omni-tool. “I’ve also sent you the dossier on your cover, so you can read up on it. I’ve named you Alison Gunn.”

“Gunn? Isn’t that a bit on-the-nose?”

“No one uses their real name in this line of work.”

“Good.” Shepard glanced at the door, and Kasumi chuckled.

“Go, go, put everyone’s fears to rest. I’ll be here. We can go over more of the details tomorrow.”

“I’ll find you,” Shepard told her. She got up, Kasumi’s laugh following her out of the room, and knocked on the door of life support.

“Ah, there you are,” Thane said when she entered. There was very definitely relief on his face.

“Sorry, I just …” Should she admit that she had been jealous? She found she felt shy about it, so she didn’t say as much. “I needed to check in with Kasumi on her requested assignment.”

“I’m very glad you came here after you were done.” He reached for her hand, his smooth, cool fingers closing around hers.

“I am, too.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Although life support lacks the ambience of the observation deck.”

“Yes, the view there is much nicer. But now it lacks privacy.” His voice dropped to a deeper register on the last word, his thumb rubbing over the back of her hand, and Juniper shivered.

“That it does.” A thought came to her, and she started to voice it, then thought better of it.

Thane tugged her a little closer to him. “What is it, Siha?”

“I … wondered if you might occasionally like to come up to my quarters. I have a lovely view, and … a couch, and …” She stumbled over the words, not wanting him to think that she was trying to push him to move faster toward the physical aspects than he was ready for—it was very evident that he wanted to take that in smaller steps, and she was willing to wait. But it was a more private place, and somewhere that she could take her boots off, for example, and be more comfortable.

If possible, his black eyes darkened, his grip on her hand tightening. Then he closed his eyes, resting his forehead against hers. “I … don’t know, Siha. I …” He stopped, and then tried again, but with the same result. “I don’t know.”

“Well, think about it. No pressure, Thane. Nothing like that. Just … a place to be comfortable.”

At that, he pulled her completely into his arms, embracing her, resting his cheek against her hair. “And now I’ve made you uncomfortable. I’m sorry, Juniper. I … it isn’t that I don’t—want …” The word came heavily from him, deep and rich and full of desire, and she pushed herself away from him to avoid reaching for him when he wasn’t ready. “I … am sorry,” he said again.

“It’s all right. It really is. I—well, I won’t say I understand, because I’m not sure I do, but I don’t care. When you need me to understand, I will, and until then, I want whatever happens between us to be when it’s right for both of us. I can wait, Thane.”

“You shouldn’t have to.”

She smiled. “Maybe it’s good for me.”

Thane smiled, too, but he didn’t reach for her as she turned to go. “You are an extraordinary woman, Siha.”

She let the door close behind her and leaned against the wall, closing her eyes, wishing that just one thing in her life could be simple, and easy. Then again, she thought, heading for the elevator, maybe she wouldn’t appreciate what she had as much if it all came easily.

Chapter Text

Shepard left med bay, resisting the temptation to hold her hand up to her face and conceal where the scars had been. Dr. Chakwas had done a good job manipulating the new equipment, and had pronounced Shepard’s skin good as new. It had taken Shepard a long while to be certain she was ready for the scars to be taken off—after all, what did she care if she was scarred? But this party tomorrow required her to look her best, and in case Commander Shepard’s facial scars were part of a dossier, she thought it was time to get rid of them. But now she felt self-conscious about the fact that they weren’t there anymore.

But had they ever been part of her? Cerberus had left them there, the unfinished reminders that someone had wanted to keep her from being revived, that someone had wanted to kill her in the first place and made it necessary for Ceberus to revive her. Was her life truly her own?

The mess was deserted; even Gardner was in bed by now. The procedure to take off the scars had taken longer than anticipated, and they hadn’t been able to begin until fairly late because of the various demands on Shepard’s time. She didn’t know how late it was, but it was well past the hour when most of the crew sought their bunks.

There was still coffee, though, so Shepard poured herself a cup and sank down at a table. Her fingers curled around the handle, but she didn’t lift the cup, or drink, lost in reverie. She ought to go to bed as well … but then, she was off to this party for Kasumi tomorrow, and would no doubt have to be up late for that. Might as well get a head start on the late hours tonight. She could try to sleep in for once in the morning, although she doubted she would manage to do so.

It was quiet enough on the ship that she heard the whir of the elevator and the swish of the doors opening and closing. She should get up and greet whoever this was, make some small talk, be the Commander Shepard they all expected. But she didn’t seem to have the energy.

And when a familiar long-fingered hand fell on her shoulder, the touch light and caressing and full of concern, she wasn’t certain if she was pleased or not.

Thane took a seat across the table from her, his head dipping so that his black eyes could find hers. “Siha?”

She nodded. “I’m all right.”

He took his hand off her shoulder and wrapped it around her coffee cup. “Sitting here with ice cold coffee? I think not.” He stood again, picking up the cup. “Wait here.”

Shepard didn’t bother to respond. Where was she going to go?

Thane came back in a minute—or more, she wasn’t sure—with the coffee reheated. “Drink that, and then talk to me, Siha.”

“Not a lot of point, really,” she told him, but she took a deep swallow of the coffee, feeling it warm her insides as it went down. Her insides? Cerberus’s insides, more like. She still didn’t know what they had used to piece her together. “What if I’m not really me?” she asked abruptly, without having intended to or even knowing if that was the question she wanted answered.

“What do you mean?”

“I— Cerberus rebuilt me, you know that, but … Miranda’s never been exactly forthcoming with what they used. How much of me is machine, how much of me is … what I started with, how much cobbled together from other lifeforms or grown in a lab.”

“I see.” He didn’t add anything, and Shepard wondered if he saw her now as something grotesque, if he was thinking of a graceful way to get away from her.

“And even before that—how much do you know about the way we tracked Saren and found out about Sovereign?”

“Very little.”

“I … was taken over by something, a Prothean beacon, on Eden Prime. I saw visions.” If she concentrated, she could still see them, the Protheans’ last cry for help. “After that, I was able to understand the Prothean language. But … there again, I don’t know how much of an effect it had, what else I learned or came to understand or was changed about me when the Protheans touched my mind.” She met his eyes across the table, searching for a response and seeing nothing. He was just … listening, no remarks or judgements or attempts at comfort. “Who the hell is this Commander Shepard person, anyway? Do I own her, or do I just take up space inside her, waiting for the next group of people to come along and tell her what to do with her life? Am I going against the Collectors by choice, or because Cerberus told me to, or because the Collectors seem fixated on me?” Looking down at the dark liquid in the cup, she said softly, “Mostly, I push all this aside and I do the work because it needs to be done, because I’m the one best suited to do it, because when I’m working I don’t have to think about it, but …”

She felt those cool, smooth fingers under her chin, lifting her head so that he could see her face. “Who was Commander Shepard before the Protheans found her on Eden Prime?”

For a moment, she wasn’t sure what he meant. “She was a commander in the Alliance navy; she—“ But what else had there been? She shook her head. “I don’t know. You make a good point.”

“From what you have told me, Siha, you have been lost in a battle sleep of your own since you left the colony on Mindoir. And now that you are attempting to reconnect those two parts of you into a single whole, you are finding that more has occurred to your body than you had reckoned with while your soul was elsewhere.” Thane smiled. “If you ask me, you are handling it far better than most would in your situation.”

“What if there’s nothing left to reconnect with? Apparently, Miranda toyed with putting in a control switch when she rebuilt me, and the Illusive Man wouldn’t let her … what if they did more than that? Altered me in some fundamental way I don’t know about yet?” Unable to look him in the eye, she focused on a reflection of the light in her coffee. “You know the Council thinks I was … manipulated by Saren, that I made up the Reapers. What if—Thane, what if that’s true, if my memories, my mind, were altered and I don’t even know it?”

“Garrus would know,” he said immediately. “Tali would know. And Joker, and Dr. Chakwas. By all accounts, you appear to be the person least affected, least changed, by your own death.”

“It’s—well, to me it isn’t like I died. It’s more like I was just asleep for a long time. I woke up and I was the same and everyone else was different.”

“They had two years to grow and alter; you lost that time.”

Shepard shook her head. She was chilled all through; even the reheated coffee hadn’t helped. Even to her own ears, she sounded ridiculous, but … if Cerberus could take someone who was spaced and rebuild their body, what else could they do? “What if—Thane, what if they’re not the same, if Cerberus—?” She couldn’t finish the question.

And she didn’t need to; Thane got to his feet, pulling her to hers, and wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. “Siha, Siha, you can’t allow yourself to think that way. Trust me, these are your friends, the people you knew.”

“How do you know?” But she clung to him anyway, taking comfort from the lean body and the strength of his arms. “For that matter, everyone on this ship was chosen by Cerberus. All of … you.” Even him, she thought. Even Thane had been brought to her by Cerberus.

Thane was silent, and her heart sank, because she was right, and there was no escape, and who knew what Cerberus had done … And then, with relief warm in his voice, he said, “Grunt wasn’t.”

“What?”

“Grunt. Not even the Illusive Man could have predicted Okeer would sacrifice himself for an unwakened tank-bred kroganling. But you brought Grunt on board, and you awakened him—and then you took him to Tuchanka and helped him become a man, helped him earn the right to belong to a clan. And your friend Wrex? He’s not touched by Cerberus, and you and he seemed to recognize each other well enough.”

Despite herself, Shepard smiled at the memory. “We did, at that.”

“And …” Thane leaned back so he could look at her face. “I am not here for Cerberus, Siha. Their dossier may have led you to me, but I chose to join you. It was not Cerberus who made their way through that tower to me, against what another would have found overwhelming odds, and it was not Cerberus who listened to me and took me to save my son. That was you, Juniper Shepard, body and soul acting in concert. You are more whole than you want to believe.”

“Thank you, Thane.”

He cupped her cheek with one long-fingered hand. “It disturbs me more than I can say to see you doubt yourself, Siha.”

“If it were only … If I could ever get Miranda to give me the details. There’s so much I don’t know.” It occurred to her that there were entire systems in her body that she couldn’t swear were working right. She still had the implant to stop her cycles—what if she no longer had them? What if she could never—

Standing there, looking into the black eyes of this man who had so unexpectedly come into her life, Juniper Shepard realized three things with a clarity she had never experienced before: that she wanted to live, to come back through the Omega 4 and live a full, normal life, somewhere outside the military, including children, something she had never considered before; that she loved this man, really loved him, despite the difference in their species, and wanted her future to be spent with him; and that it could never be, because whatever happened on the other side of the relay, he was dying, his time measured in months rather than years.

Resolutely, she pushed all of that away. The Omega 4 lay before them, the Collectors, before any of that became relevant. For now, he was here, and she was here, and they were together and that was all she needed.

“Why not ask Miranda again? She seems to be softening toward you,” he said, unaware of her turmoil.

“That’s a good idea. Maybe I will.” She smiled at him, reluctantly pulling herself away from his arms. But she caught his hand before he could turn away. “Thane?”

“Hm?”

“You said I saved you that day in the tower … but you’ve saved me every day since. Does Arashu have another angel?”

He shook his head, smiling. “None that seems relevant.”

“Too bad.”

“Good-night, Siha.”

Chapter Text

Surely it was coincidence that all the companions had gathered in the hall outside engineering when Shepard came down on the way to the shuttle bay. It couldn’t possibly be that all of them wanted a glimpse of Shepard in the dress Kasumi had bought for her.

Except that of course it was. Thane had to admit that his throat was dry just trying to imagine what she would look like—and while the others didn’t have the same reasons for wanting to see that he did, or so he assumed, none of them had ever seen her out of uniform either. Well … possibly Garrus or Tali, but they both were there, nonetheless.

Kasumi had ‘let it slip’ that she’d bought Shepard a dress and heels. Thane found it amusing that the sneak thief was apparently as big a gossip as their very own Archangel. He believed Shepard would find it less than amusing when the elevator doors opened to find them all standing there, and for that reason only had considered not being here. But Kasumi’s description of the dress had been … detailed, and drawing himself away was really more than a mere mortal like himself could be reasonably expected to do, or so he told himself.

The elevator binged, and there was instant movement as the companions tried to move around and look casual. But they were all there—well, other than Samara, lost in her meditations, and Mordin, lost in research, and Miranda, presumably lost in her paperwork—and it was difficult to make that look casual.

Kasumi was alone, and her eyes twinkled as she saw them. “She’s gonna know why you’re all here.”

Grunt chuckled. “She’s crazy if she doesn’t expect it.”

That was true enough. Shepard knew her people well. She might not have been able to predict Kasumi telling everyone about the dress, since Kasumi was the newest recruit, but if she assumed the rest of them would know, she had to assume they would be waiting for her when she came down.

“Hey, there’s only one elevator, right?” Jack asked suddenly.

“Only one,” Tali confirmed. “Working, anyway.” Thane would have bet his best sniper rifle that the quarian was grinning behind her mask.

The elevator whirred again, but didn’t come down. Someone on the upper floors, apparently.

Kasumi frowned. “We’re going to be late if she doesn’t hurry.”

“Think she knows how to walk in those heels?” Jack asked.

Jacob looked at her with curiosity. “When have you ever worn heels?”

“Never. But you don’t have to wear ‘em to know they’re torture devices.”

“Not if they fit right,” Kasumi said. “And I know these fit right.”

“Where did you get Shepard’s sizes?” Tali asked her.

“I have my ways. Do you tell the double Ds in there all your engineering secrets?”

“Well, no,” Tali conceded. She actually worked surprisingly well with Daniels and Donnelly, after an initial period of discomfort and distrust. To the engineers’ credit, that had more to do with the two of them having worked together as a team since before they finished school than with Tali being a quarian. It had been hard for them to have a third person sharing their space.

At last the elevator was on the move again, and Thane could feel his heart speed up as it drew closer. Ridiculous, really, and Shepard was not going to be pleased at being on show. He should disperse this whole gathering. But he didn’t want to; he wanted to see what she looked like, and it felt … safer to see her here amidst all the others than to go up to her quarters and ask her to put the dress on just for him. She would do it. If he asked, she would let him take it off her, too, he thought with pride and a white-hot flash of desire. But he couldn’t. To reach for her in that way, to let his body and soul have what they mutually craved would be to awaken in a way he simply couldn’t do, not and have the strength to get through the rest of what remained of his life.

He should go, he thought. He shouldn’t be here right now. He shouldn’t have been with her last night, holding her and talking her down from her panic. But she had needed him there; how could he not have been at her side, holding her hand, when she needed him so? Juniper Shepard badly needed someone to love her, inside and out, to show her all the things she could be—for herself, beyond what the galaxy asked of her. And Thane wanted to be that someone with a depth of longing he hadn’t experienced since … In memory, he saw those sunset eyes again, knew the feeling of being seen that had shocked through his body as the defiant glare met his in the scope. But he had had time, then! The years had stretched out before him and Irikah as if they would never end. Before the Kepral’s Syndrome, before his work had come into their lives and taken her from him … It would have been better for Irikah if she had never met him. Would it come to be better for Shepard, too? Would this … these feelings between them leave her with nothing but a broken heart and the imperfect memories common to humans? He should be strong enough to keep that from happening, strong enough to step away from her, for her sake if not for his.

Then the elevator doors opened, and Thane couldn’t have moved if he’d wanted to. Had he ever thought Shepard wasn’t beautiful? How blind he had been.

Amidst the wolf whistles and applause that suddenly filled the hallway, his eyes traveled over her body, from the slender legs in the high-heeled black shoes to the narrow hips hugged by the black leather skirt, to the firm swell of her breasts in the low-cut top, to the bare shoulders, to the swirl of her dark brown hair around those naked shoulders. What did that feel like? Thane wondered. Drell didn’t have hair, and he had never been close enough to a human to know if their hair was as soft, as silky, as Shepard’s looked right now. He imagined what that would feel like brushing against his skin, and trembled with the rush of desire that came with the thought.

As if she could feel what he was thinking, Shepard’s eyes met his over the heads of the others. There was a question in them, and he felt an intoxication that came with being the man she wanted to impress. Out of a galaxy, she had chosen him. How could he deny her?

He smiled, trying to let some of what he felt show in his eyes, so that she would know how beautiful she looked. His Siha smiled back, relieved. Then she looked at the others. “Don’t you all have anything better to do?”

They looked at one another. “Not really,” Jacob said. He was leaning against the wall, his arms folded, his eyes on Shepard with appreciation.

“We just wanted to make sure you had everything you needed, Shepard,” Tali added. It was hard to tell if she was sincere or not behind the mask.

“As you can see, I do not.” She held out her bare arms as proof.

“It’s all waiting for you,” Kasumi told her. “I’ll explain on the way.”

Shepard shot the thief a pointed look. “Maybe you can also explain how everyone seemed to know there would be something unusual to see.”

“We’re going to miss you, Battlemaster. We wanted to see you off.” To give him credit, the krogan actually managed to sound sincere.

“Yeah. That’ll be the day.” Shepard punched Grunt affectionately in the arm as she went by, and he did her the courtesy of wincing.

She glanced at Thane as she passed him, and her steps faltered. She was walking carefully in the unusual shoes anyway, so the hitch in her stride could have been due to that, but he wanted to think that she had stopped because she wanted … No, he didn’t want to think that, either. Because he couldn’t take advantage of her trust that way, he couldn’t let her go down this path with him, of all people.

Shepard kept walking, as though she hadn’t paused, and disappeared into the shuttle bay with Kasumi.

There was a collective releasing of breath when she was gone.

“Tali, what about a cup of coffee?” Garrus asked.

“I don’t drink coffee, Garrus.”

“It was a figure of speech.”

“Oh. Then … why not?”

The turian smiled. “That’s the kind of enthusiasm I was hoping for.”

They got into the elevator, heading up toward the mess hall.

“Damn,” Grunt said. “I knew Shepard had a quad on her, but I didn’t know it looked like that.”

“Get your tongue back in your mouth,” Jack told him.

“Please! My battlemaster,” Grunt said, offended. “But I can admire.”

“Plenty there to admire,” Jacob agreed. He raised an eyebrow in Thane’s direction. “Don’t you think so, Krios? You’re pretty quiet.”

They hadn’t gotten off on the right foot, he and Jacob, and he still found Jacob a tad aggressive where he was concerned—and in general, really. They were two very different men. Stiffly, he said, “I was just looking for a glass of water.” And regretted the obvious lie the moment it left his lips.

Jack hooted with laughter, Grunt cackled, and Jacob grinned widely. “Tell us another one,” Jack said. “You came down here to ogle with the rest of us.”

“I admit to some … curiosity,” Thane said stiffly.

“Still haven’t done anything about it?” Grunt asked, looking disappointed. “Battlemaster deserves better than that.”

“She does, indeed, deserve better,” Thane said, and perhaps they could sense how terribly serious he was, because the smiles faded from their faces.

“She deserves better than any of us,” Jacob agreed. He looked at Thane with less challenge than was his wont. “Glad to see you know that.”

Grunt was frowning thoughtfully down the hall in the direction Shepard had gone. “Hate to see her go into a fight so under-armored.”

“Kasumi took her stuff along with them, so Shepard can change later.”

“But before that …”

Jacob smirked. “Before that, the dress is her armor. She’ll have to look impressive for all the fancy stiffs at the party.”

“Assuming they will not know who she is,” Thane said. “Kasumi’s dossier was good, but Shepard is famed across the galaxy, and has no doubt killed a number of people who worked for and with many of those who will be in attendance.”

“Good point.” Jack scowled. “Shepard should have taken one of us with her, not just the new chick.”

“Can you see any of us blending in at one of these parties?” Jacob asked her. “Maybe Miranda. But they probably all know who Miranda is, too.”

Thane didn’t respond, but Jacob was right … and not right, at the same time. Thane could have gone. Few knew who he was in specific; many knew there was a skilled drell assassin out there. His association with Shepard was not yet widely known, Kasumi had confirmed that. He could have blended into the background and been there to watch her. Why hadn’t he insisted on going along? He could have talked Kasumi into it, he was sure of it.

Standing there, watching the empty hallway, he decided to himself that he was never letting her go out into the field without adequate backup again. There might not be much left of value that he could do with the time remaining to him, but he could protect her. And he would, from now on.

Chapter Text

It was Thane’s favorite part of the day, the time when his Siha came and sat down across the table from him. “Do you have some time?” she asked.

He smiled, because where was he going to go? “What time I have is yours,” he assured her.

“How are you?”

He shook his head, “No worse than ever.” Reaching across the table for her hands, he added, “You needn’t worry, Siha. And you?” She looked weary, and kept shifting uncomfortably in her seat. “You are well?”

“No need to worry about me,” she said. It was evidently a stock answer, delivered to soothe an unconcerned questioner. It didn’t work on Thane. He simply looked at her, waiting for the real answer, refusing to be put off. No one else pushed her to be truthful with them about her needs and concerns—he would be that person she so clearly needed. At last, Shepard sighed. “Tired, honestly. This morning’s was a grueling workout—trying to get in especially good shape before we go up against the Collectors—and then I was on my feet in Engineering most of the rest of the day, managing a dispute between Tali and Donnelly and Daniels.”

Most of the time the quarian worked well with the two humans, other than shutting down Donnelly’s more off-color remarks, but occasionally they each were determined to prove they were right, and that tended not to go as well.

“I’m sorry, Siha.”

“Oh, it’s fine. It’s my job, after all. But … I really just want to go upstairs and collapse on the couch and take my boots off.” She looked at him across the table. “Will you come up, Thane?”

Her quarters. Her couch. Her … bed. He couldn’t. That much temptation … But how could he deny her such a simple request based solely on his own fears? “I …” He got to his feet, tugging her up by the hold he still had on her hands. “Of course. Let us go.”

“Really?” Her face was shining with relief and happiness. “Thank you.”

“I would do much more than this for you, Siha. You have only to ask.”

“That’s not easy for me.”

“I know that.” He squeezed her hand. “We will work on it.”

“Good.” The elevator doors opened and they got on. Being alone with her here on the elevator was surprisingly intimate—more so than in a larger room. Was it the confined space, the idea that someone else could get on at an upper floor and catch them here together going to her room, the fact that they were, in fact, going up to her room to be alone? Whichever way, Thane was finding it hard to breathe for reasons entirely unrelated to Kepral’s Syndrome.

At last the doors opened on the hallway outside of her quarters, and Shepard stepped off without hesitation, punching in the code to open the door. She looked at him over her shoulder. “Coming in?”

Belatedly, Thane realized he was still on the elevator, watching her. “Oh! Yes. Yes, of course.”

Inside, her quarters were spacious, for aboard ship, at least, and fairly spartan. She had a collection of models of ships encased in glass next to her desk, and … a fish tank, which he found a surprising choice.

“Oh, the fish weren’t my idea,” she told him when she caught him looking at her. “I’m told that was Chambers, who thought I ought to have something to take care of.”

“Because the crew and your companions aren’t enough?”

“Something like that. Personally, I think if it was her idea, she should take care of them, but then I’d have to give her permission to come up here, and I don’t really want her loose in my quarters. Nice enough girl, but I’m not sure I trust her.”

“And you are an intensely private person.”

“That, too,” Shepard agreed. She was sitting on the edge of the couch, tugging on a boot. “Dr. Chakwas comes up occasionally, but other than that …”

Thane had been cognizant before of how special it was to be invited up, but to hear her say it was something else entirely. His heart contracted at the reminder of how deeply she had come to care for him.

Boots off, she sank back against the couch cushions with a sigh. “Oh, that feels better.” She patted the cushion on another section of the sofa, smiling. “Come sit. I promise to behave myself.”

It wasn’t her behavior that worried him. Her bed was right there, and he was certain that if he suggested it, she would gladly lie down on it with him and— He caught himself. He wasn’t going to suggest it. He was here for her comfort and well-being, and allowing her to believe in possibilities that couldn’t be would be detrimental to her.

As requested, he walked over to the couch and gingerly took a seat on the edge of the cushions.

The widening of Shepard’s smile said that she hadn’t missed how careful he was being—but he could also see how much more comfortable and relaxed she was. She laid her head back against the cushion, closing her eyes. “How are you holding up, Thane?”

“I confess, I am looking forward to the end of the mission. It has been many years since I was interested in relaxing, much less was able to take the time.”

She nodded, not opening her eyes. A faint frown crossed her face at the movement of her head. “I spent two years dead. Every moment seems irreplaceable now.” Sitting forward, she reached up and began taking out the pins that held her hair so stiffly and tightly back from her face, in its carefully wound knot.

“I spent ten years dead,” Thane agreed. “I feel similar.” He didn’t add how strange he found it that he should only reawaken now, when there was so little time left to him. She was just becoming comfortable after a long day, she didn’t need the reminder of his mortality and the impossibility of there being anything substantial between them because of it. Not right now.

“We all owe ourselves a memorable vacation after this,” Shepard mused. She took out a last pin and unwound the tight roll of hair, letting it spread across her shoulders. “There must be some travel brochures in the ship’s computer.”

Thane nodded. “I would very much like to see a desert.” Perhaps, if they weren’t all killed by the Collectors, there would be time.

“That would be nice,” Shepard agreed.

He was struck by how much younger she seemed with her hair down, softer and more approachable—and more beautiful. Leaning toward her, he reached out to touch the strands before he thought, and then pulled his hand back.

“It’s all right, I don’t mind,” Juniper told him, seeing the gesture. “Your people don’t have hair?”

“None,” he confirmed. He curled his fingers around a section of her hair, finding it as silky and smooth to the touch as it looked. Without thinking, he moved closer to her, fascinated by the play of light along the strand as he moved it, her hair made up of brown and black and red, each color shining in the light. As he looked more closely, he could see a wispy little bit in front of her ear, shorter than the rest, and then, as she turned her head to give him a better view, a sprinkling of hair along her jawline and her upper lip as well.

“Humans have hair everywhere,” she said, clearly amused by his fascination, as he leaned closer to see better.

“Everywhere?”

“Just about. Like—“ She rolled up her pant leg and stripped off her sock, letting him see the fine dark hairs that covered her leg. He touched them lightly, finding them soft to the touch but lighter, less thick and sturdy than the hair on her head. “Most women shave their legs, though.”

“Why?”

“Humans don’t like to be reminded that we’re descended from monkeys, I guess. Being hairless, or at least looking that way, is considered a status symbol.”

“But you don’t shave your legs?”

“No. My parents were opposed to that kind of thing, the trappings of female beauty, much of which my mother considered existed only to make a girl look like something she wasn’t. And by the time they were—gone, and I could make my own decisions—well, there’s not a lot of point in shaving your legs when they’re always covered by uniform pants. Besides, according to the other girls in my barracks, once you shave them, the hair grows back in much darker and thicker, so once you start you really can’t stop. And apparently it’s itchy and uncomfortable.” She shook her head, chuckling. “I can’t believe I’m talking about this with you.”

“I’ve never spent any time with a human before, at least, not enough so to pay attention to their hair. I find this quite interesting.” He rasped his hand over the hair on her shin. “So is it like this all over?”

“Some. On my arms it’s just as dark, but less thick, and the hairs are shorter, but on most of my body you can really hardly see it. Here.” She stood up, unfastening her jacket and pulling it off, laying it carelessly on the edge of the couch. Under it, she wore a black tank top, the lines of which reminded Thane forcibly of the dress she had worn the other night, and how she had looked in it. “You can see here on the back of my shoulder what the hair is like in other places.”

He stood up, no longer interested in the hair on any human’s anatomy other than hers, and interested in hers now for reasons that should have sent him hurrying from the room. But his pulse was pounding heavily in his ears, drowning out the small voice warning him of his danger. “So I see,” he whispered, looking at the firm skin on the back of her shoulder and the faint gleam of the hair there. He whispered his hand along it, feeling it move beneath his fingers, like velvet, and he blew on it, paying more attention to the shiver she gave in response than to the way the hair reacted. Without thinking, he rubbed his cheek against her skin there … and from there he was a lost man.

His lips were so near her skin now that to turn his face and kiss her there was the action of an instant. He put out his tongue, tasting her. Juniper caught her breath at the sensation, and Thane put a hand on her upper arm, feeling the firm muscles beneath his fingers, to hold her there while he moved his mouth to another spot and kissed her again. She tasted … fresh, and sweet, with just a hint of salt, and he found he was hungry for her as he had never been for any food.

His free hand slid around her waist, splaying across the fabric that covered her stomach, and he pulled her firmly back against him, every curve of her backside molding to his body. His legs felt weak, warmth melting through him, as he set his lips to the top of her shoulder, slow, unhurried exploratory kisses moving inexorably inward toward her neck.

Skipping over the strap of her tank top, he put his mouth on the junction of her neck and shoulder and sucked at the skin there.

His Siha trembled in his arms, whispering his name, and he felt a fierce delight at her response to his touch. Her head tipped to the side, her hair sliding away from her neck, exposing the pale, smooth skin to his mouth, and her hand covered his on her stomach, their fingers entwining. Thane moved up her neck, slowly, reveling in every tiny whimper or soft sigh that escaped her, and as he did so, their joined hands moved up over her stomach, pushing the fabric of her tank top out of the way, his fingers sliding over the exquisitely soft skin there. He wanted to turn her around and go down on his knees in front of her and taste that soft skin, and then move either lower or higher, or both, and taste her in those places, too. His legs shook with the effort of remaining standing. What a glorious memory this would make. Even in the midst of the moment, he anticipated living it over and over again in his mind …

But for how long? The thought rushed over him like a deluge of icy water. He measured his future in months. No cure, no long-term treatment that was viable for him. No hope. He had no right to allow her to tie herself to him. That she loved him, or thought she did, he knew as surely as he knew his own name. But it was not yet too late to protect her from the worst of the pain that love would surely bring her.

Abruptly, he stepped away from her, the effort like tearing off his own skin. “I … am sorry. So very sorry. I should not have—“

He stopped, because Shepard was bent over, her arms protectively across her stomach. He had hurt her, because he was a weak-willed fool and a coward.

But even as he cursed himself, she straightened, reaching for her jacket and putting it back on. “It’s all right,” she said, although she still wasn’t looking at him. “I understand.”

Did she? Or was she just saying that to make him feel better? Thane was in awe of her incredible strength. Truly, she was Arashu’s angel made flesh. “Siha—“

“Thane,” she said, her voice sharp. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He wasn’t about to remain and continue to hurt her. “Yes. Of course. Good-night.”

As the doors slid closed behind him, he thought he heard her answer him, which was more than he deserved. She was more than he deserved.

Bereft, angry with himself, hurting physically even as his heart hurt for her, he sought the refuge of the dark interior of the elevator.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Thane presented himself in the med bay. He found Dr. Chakwas seated at her desk, typing rapidly. She looked up as he came in, swiveling her chair around to face him. “Sere Krios. I wondered how long it would take you to check in here.”

“You have heard, then. About my condition?”

“Yes. Kepral’s Syndrome. I had read about it, but not in a long while. I refreshed my knowledge once you came on board. Disappointing to see how little progress has been made in curing it.”

Thane nodded. ‘Disappointing’ was a faint and inadequate word.

Dr. Chakwas got to her feet. “Did the Commander send you in for a physical? She said she was going to.”

Just the mention of Juniper’s name was enough to make him flinch, and he imagined the doctor’s sharp green eyes caught the tiny movement. How much did she know? The entire Normandy knew there was something between him and Shepard, but Dr. Chakwas had been Shepard’s friend and doctor on the original Normandy as well, quite possibly her confidante. She appeared to be all business right now, however.

“Come over here, please, and have a seat, let me get your vitals.”

She was thorough, the doctor, and surprisingly knowledgeable for someone who had never seen a drell before. Nor was she given to idle chatter while she worked, for which Thane was grateful. His thoughts were dark and consuming, and it was hard enough to pull his mind away from them long enough to answer the clinical questions the doctor asked. He would have been entirely incapable of small talk.

At last it was done, and he pulled his heavy canvas jacket back on, feeling better once he was fully dressed again. He took a seat while Dr. Chakwas updated her files. At last she turned in her chair again, sighing. “Well, you know what I found.”

Thane nodded. “Lung capacity 43%?”

“42.”

That hurt. He had lost another percent just since he came on board. At this rate … He couldn’t think of it. But he had to. “Metastasis to stomach, liver, and heart?”

“Yes. Minor to the liver, barely noticeable to the heart. You’re being careful what you eat?”

“Entirely too much porridge.”

The doctor nodded, acknowledging the attempt at a joke with a lift of her eyebrows. “You are a transplant candidate, you know.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“And you are not on the list?”

“Do you know how long the list is? Or who it’s made up of?” He stood up, too agitated to remain seated. “Mothers, children, teachers … people who offer far more to society than an assassin.”

“An assassin currently in the process of saving the galaxy.”

“I’ll have time for that.”

“And … afterward?” The doctor stood up, too, her eyes on him, very direct and open. “She cares for you a great deal.”

“I know.”

“And you won’t even try to obtain a transplant?”

“At the expense of whom? Do I play Arashu and determine who lives and who dies? And if there is not a good match in time, or a transplant is attempted and my body rejects the donated tissue?” He shook his head. “I will not give her false hope.”

The doctor’s green eyes seemed to see more deeply into him than he would have liked. She nodded. “Or yourself, I take it.”

“Yes.” He wanted hope; by the grace of Kalahira, he wanted some reason, any reason, to hope. But there was none. This visit had only confirmed it. He could offer Shepard nothing but pain, and grief, and loss.

Unexpectedly, Dr. Chakwas chuckled. “I do not envy you the task you have taken on.”

“What task is that?”

“Thwarting the Commander. I imagine you’ve noticed that she tends to plow through any obstacle thrown into her way. She will not take your pushing her away for her own good the way you think she will.”

“How did you—?”

Her eyes were kind as they rested on him. “I’ve been patching up soldiers a long time, Sere Krios. I’ve only had to give out a few death sentences in my time, but the first reaction of each recipient was to try to spare their loved ones the inevitable pain—usually by causing that pain immediately rather than let it happen with their death. The old ‘rip off the bandage’ approach.”

“She deserves to be happy.”

“She does. Are you certain you know how best to accomplish that?”

He looked away. How could he admit that it wasn’t just his Siha’s feelings he was attempting to protect, that he was frightened of living, of loving her, of knowing what could have been between them and that it could never truly be. How could he contemplate loving her and losing her in the same breath?

“I don’t pretend to have the answer for you, Sere Krios. I’m a doctor, I reserve my advice on the heart to how to keep it pumping properly. In your case, I recommend regular cardiovascular exercise—in the training room or with the Commander … planetside.” Was it Thane’s imagination or was there a faint twinkle in the doctor’s eye? He certainly could imagine some cardiovascular exercise he would love to engage in, but that led him right back to the crux of the problem. “Also … I have read a great deal about the drell memory. Would I be wrong to imagine you spend a great deal of time lost in memory?”

He nodded. “Tu-fira. Lost in another.”

“I must recommend you try to keep your loss of yourself to memory to a minimum. Prolonged sedentary activity could increase the rate of decline of your lung capacity. I strongly recommend remaining engaged with your shipmates—both mental and physical stimulation will keep you in the best possible condition through the rest of this mission.”

“And after that?”

Dr. Chakwas shrugged. “Let’s live through it first, then worry about what happens afterward.”

“An odd position for a doctor.”

“Perhaps. I have faith in the Commander, but I am also a realist, and I have accepted the risks I take.”

Thane nodded his thanks to the doctor and left med bay, wishing he, too, could accept the risks that lay ahead of him.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________
After Thane had left, Shepard had spent a long and frustrated night, tossing and turning, her body still aflame from his touch, but knowing that anything she did to relieve that fire would be a pale shadow of what she could have been feeling, and refusing to accept the lesser when she couldn’t have the greater.

She’d meant what she said—she did think she understood. If Thane had truly wanted to live, he wouldn’t have sunk into his battle sleep so readily after his wife was killed. Being here on the Normandy was a step he had taken because he was dying, because he wanted his death to buy something worthwhile. He hadn’t counted on her, on his feelings for her or hers for him, and she imagined he was equally concerned to spare her feelings and to save his own, to avoid becoming entangled with life again just as he was about to leave it. But … nothing in Juniper Shepard’s life had prepared her for what she felt when she was with him. The ease, the recognition, the desire, the pull toward him. She recognized him, felt the most fully herself she had ever been when she was in his presence. She couldn’t just let that go because there was a chance she was going to lose it soon. After all, they were on a mission that none of them were certain they could survive—that was as far in the future as Shepard cared to look, for the moment.

But how to convince Thane of that was another question. And there was the additional concern—what if she convinced him to be with her and his health suffered? She knew little about drell anatomy, and less about Kepral’s Syndrome, although she had looked it up on the extranet.

When the morning finally came, leaving her still tired from a largely sleepless night, she went immediately in search of Mordin in his lab. Probably she should have spoken to Dr. Chakwas, but somehow she felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny of those direct green eyes. Like talking to her mother, only more so. And the idea of further having to share meals with the doctor knowing she knew Shepard had been asking about … No. Mordin would forget their conversation ten minutes after it was over, his brain busy running in seven different directions at once. And he likely had more experience with drell, Shepard told herself.

He looked up as she came in. “Shepard. Good timing, just putting these in to incubate. Will have a few minutes afterward.”

“Great. Thanks, Mordin.” She waited while he carefully closed the door of the incubator, watching the samples for a moment anxiously before he straightened up to look at her.

“Now, Commander, what can I do for you?”

“It’s a … medical matter.”

“Yes? Dr. Chakwas has more experience with human medical issues; should talk to her.”

“I know … this is more … well, not human. I—what do you know about treatments for Kepral’s Syndrome?”

“Ah. Thane.” He nodded. “Condition advanced. Not much time.”

“Yes. I’m … concerned about continuing to take him with me on missions. I know he can’t handle much humidity, but is physical activity recommended?” She hoped she wasn’t blushing. She was trying to keep her tone as businesslike as she could.

“Oh, yes. Cardiovascular exercise very important to stimulate lung development and prevent—probably delay, at his stage—the stiffness that causes lack of oxygen transport. I would recommend a vigorous course in the training room and as much work planetside as possible. Although …”

“Although what?” It was a relief to know that his trips with her—and potentially more personal athletic activities—were beneficial to his health rather than the reverse.

Mordin looked somber. “His body cannot heal itself effectively at this point—the effort of doing so will exacerbate his condition. He should be careful not to be injured. More easily said than done, of course.”

“Of course,” Shepard repeated. Thane had signed on knowing the risks, she told herself. He would not appreciate being coddled—and he would know if she tried. Fortunately his style was far less headlong than hers. He shot best from cover, and seemed to blend into any background. She was far more likely to be injured than he was.

“Also, meant to mention a few things, while we’re on the subject of medical matters and the drell,” Mordin went on. “Aware that mission is dangerous; different species react differently to stress.”

“That they do. What’s on your mind, Mordin?”

“Sexual activity normal as stress release.”

Shepard’s eyes widened. Where was he going with this? “Is it?” she asked, trying to keep her voice noncommittal.

Mordin nodded. “So I understand. Salarian stress release not quite the same, but other species—quite fascinating, really. Still … recommend caution with Thane. Drell/human liaisons complex. Thane complex as well, given his condition.”

She wasn’t sure how he had seen through her—maybe he had known what she meant to ask all along, in which case apparently Mordin was more observant than she’d given him credit for—but at least she could put her cards on the table. “Thane is important to me. Too important to walk away from. But I don’t want to hurt him, either.”

“Naturally not. Hormones. I understand. Humans really are quite fascinating. Nonetheless, come to me when the rash develops. No … better I send you up some ointment. In a soap, perhaps. Yes. I can easily develop something. Scented?” He delicately sniffed the air. “Herbs and citrus. Easily done. Will speak to kitchen.”

“What are you talking about? What rash?”

He blinked rapidly in surprise. “Perhaps not needed quite so soon as expected. Good. Will allow more time to get the balance right. Prolonged human to drell skin contact can cause a small rash, some itching. Oral contact may cause mild hallucinations.”

“Mild hallucinations?” Shepard repeated. “What kind of hallucinations?” This was all quite fascinating, and she highly doubted she would have gotten the same information from Dr. Chakwas.

“I understand quite pleasant ones. Pink swirls and flashing lights.”

“From any … er, oral contact, or …?”

“Drell skin contains a mild toxin. Sometimes used in alcoholic beverages, in fact.”

“Oh, so oral contact with … skin.”

“Yes. Not so much tissues.”

“Good to know.” She hoped very much that she wasn’t blushing.

“I’ll forward an advice booklet to your quarters,” Mordin said. It didn’t matter if she was blushing—he had his omnitool out and was typing on it rapidly. “Diagrams, positions comfortable for both species, erogenous zone overviews.” He nodded briskly. “Enjoy yourself, Shepard. Will be here, studying cell reproduction. Much simpler. Less alcohol and mood music required.”

Shepard was willing to bet a cell didn’t run from the room in a panic when it got too close to another cell, either. “Thanks, Mordin.”

“Happy to help.” Something binged behind him, and he turned to open the incubator. “Good timing as always.”

“I’ll leave you to it.” He had already forgotten her by the time she left the room, anyway.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Later that night she knocked on the door of Life Support, hearing the deep relief in his voice as he called “Come in.” He was standing, facing her, when the door opened. “Siha.”

“Thane.”

“I … thought you might be angry.”

“Furious,” she told him, and his face fell. “But with myself as much as with you. I knew you weren’t … ready. I should have—“ He tried to break in, and she held up a hand, refusing to let him blame himself. “But the thing is—there’s nowhere else I want to be than right here, with you.”

“I feel the same.”

“Good.” Shepard smiled. “So … we’ll take things slow, and we won’t worry about the future.”

“More easily said than done, Siha.” But he reached for her hand, his fingers closing around hers.

“We’ll just have to do our best.” It wouldn’t be easy; she wanted to kiss him so badly. But some of him was infinitely better than none of him.

“You are quite the woman, Juniper Shepard.”

It had been a very long time since anyone had addressed her by both names that way, and she felt a little tingle along her spine hearing the name from his lips. “I do my best.”

“Significantly more than that, I think. Now, come and tell me about your day.” He drew her into the room toward his little table, and everything was as it had been before … as long as she didn’t think too much about the touch of his lips on her skin.

Chapter Text

Joker’s voice crackled over the comm. “Shepard? You might want to get up here. Now.”

She looked up in alarm from the sniper rifle she was fitting with a new sight.

“Go ahead,” Jacob told her. “I got this.”

“Thanks.” Shepard hurried from the weapons locker. As she came into the main command center, the elevator doors slid open and Garrus and Tali both got out, looking concerned.

“Shepard, Joker called us up. You know what’s going on?”

She shook her head and led the way into the cockpit. “Joker? What’s up?”

“Something I think you should all see.” He looked over Shepard’s shoulder as Dr. Chakwas came up behind her. “Doc, you, too.”

“What is it, Jeffrey?”

“I think …” He cleared his throat. “I think it’s the Normandy.”

“What?” Garrus leaned over Joker’s shoulder, looking at the scanner screen.

“I was scanning this planet and I thought … well, I found some debris, which isn’t uncommon, but then I remembered where we were. It’s—it’s her.” The pilot swallowed hard. He had loved the original Normandy with a devotion most people reserved for family members. He had very nearly given his life for her.

Shepard looked at the hazy images on the screen, a lump coming to her throat. So this was the place, the very airspace, where she had died. Shouldn’t it feel—strange? Familiar? Different? But it didn’t.

“We should go down there,” Tali said abruptly.

“Nearly two dozen people died down there. The Alliance command would like to have some way to report their final resting place to their families,” Joker said.

Shepard looked down at the top of his ballcap. That comment had come awfully quickly. “Tali, Garrus, suit up. We’re going in. Doctor, you coming?”

“No.” Dr. Chakwas’ voice was a pale shadow of its usual crispness. “No, I was there once. I don’t feel any need to go again. I—I do have a plaque that I have carried, in case this day should arrive. Perhaps you could take it, place it somewhere in the wreckage?”

“Of course. Meet me in the shuttle bay with it and we’ll take it down.” Shepard waited until the others had all left the cockpit, and then she leaned over Joker’s shoulder. “You could have warned me.”

“Commander, I—“ he began to protest, but Shepard pinned him with a stern look and he thought better of it. “I wasn’t sure how you would react. I … wish I could go down there with you. But I don’t, either.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” she told him, patting him lightly on the shoulder. “I’ll say good-bye to her for you.”

“You do that.” He reached up and tugged the bill of his ballcap down farther over his forehead, clearing his throat, and Shepard went to suit up in preparation for the trip down to the surface.

Garrus brought the shuttle gently to a stop in the middle of a field of snow, surrounded by tall, spiky formations that had once been their ship.

“It wasn’t winter when we landed,” Tali said. “It looks different.”

Shepard climbed out of the shuttle, looking around her. She had never seen this planet—wherever she had landed after the crash, she still didn’t know, but wherever it was, she had already been dead. She never saw the wreckage. She almost wished she wasn’t seeing it now, her mind’s eye filling in the missing details of every recognizable piece of the ship. The sleeping compartments; the gunnery station where Ashley used to spend so much time; the cockpit.

Something shifted in the snow beneath her boot and she bent to pick it up. It was a set of dog tags. She turned them over, brushing the snow off the back. “Rosamund Draven.”

“I remember her,” Tali said. “She worked in the engine room. She always had perfectly manicured nails. I used to ask her how she worked on machinery all day and still kept her hands so beautiful, and she would smile and say ‘very carefully’. She never did tell me her secret.”

The bodies had largely been removed, but hastily, as far as Shepard could tell, because pieces of uniforms and spacesuits were strewn around. They managed to find something to send home for every one of the missing crew members, a grisly task that none of them enjoyed. Shepard kept thinking about where to place the plaque, but nothing seemed quite right.

They found the shattered remnants of the bridge. Shepard couldn’t help thinking about that night, about the flames all around as she fought her way to Joker’s side and pulled him forcefully out of his chair. He would have gone down with the ship if she had let him. Even at the cost of her own life, if she had it to do again, she would, she told herself. She hadn’t hesitated then—she had done her duty by her crew, done her best to get everyone safely off the ship. In many ways, it was the proudest moment of her life, drifting through space to certain death, knowing she had done everything she could for the people under her command.

She nodded to herself, glad to have come if only to be certain of that one last question—that if she had it to do again she would do everything exactly the same, even knowing what the outcome would be.

“Shepard.” Tali was holding out a cracked datapad. “You should look at this.”

“You mean it still works?” Garrus asked, leaning over Tali’s shoulder to look. “This is Pressly’s.”

Pressly had been the first one killed in the attack. Shepard took the datapad, scrolling through the corrupted data. “Can you make heads or tails of this?” she asked Tali.

“That’s the best I can do.”

Shepard nodded, squinting at the cracked screen. “He … you know he didn’t mean any of this, don’t you?”

“Keep reading.”

The earlier entries, what was still readable, talked of his distrust for the aliens aboard the ship, particularly Tali, whose people were considered to be something of a nuisance. The quarian lifestyle, aboard a flotilla of ships constantly in need of repair with whatever they could scrounge, led many to think of them as thieves. Pressly had initially subscribed to that view, it appeared, but had slowly come to accept Tali and the other aliens aboard the Normandy. The last entry ended with Pressly’s assertion that he would be willing to die for any member of the ship’s crew, “regardless of what world they were born on.”

Shepard blinked back tears and cleared her throat. “We’ll put the plaque here,” she said. “Where Pressly died. And we’ll leave his words next to it, to symbolize what we tried to do on the Normandy, and how close we came to succeeding.”

The three of them stood there looking down at the plaque and the datapad next to it for a long time.

At last Garrus stirred. “This place … I’m glad I came, but I think I’m ready to go now.”

“I agree.” Tali turned away.

Shepard took another moment, the reality of her own death lying heavily on her, but at last she turned to follow them.

Garrus, in the lead, nearly tripped over something half-buried in the snow, and he bent down to pick it up. His voice, as he held the object out to Shepard, was hoarse with emotion. “Is this what I think it is?”

She took it from him.The plastic was cracked and blackened, the lining singed, the face-plate shattered, but it was recognizably hers. Her N7 helmet. Shepard looked down at the snow at their feet. “So I landed here, too? And … Cerberus found me amid the wreckage?”

“Looks like it.”

“This would have been my grave. As it should have been, the captain going down with the ship.”

“Hey. Shepard. You’re still alive. You’re here with us.” Garrus put his hands on her shoulders. “This is not your grave.”

“It’s okay, Garrus.” And it really was. Maybe later it would hit her, but for the moment it was all just … surreal. Too big to grasp. “Let’s go home.”

“Please,” Tali said, hurrying on ahead of them to the shuttle.

Only once she was on the shuttle, watching Garrus’s capable hands at the controls, did Shepard realize she was still carrying her old helmet. She should have left it there, she thought, to symbolize whatever part of her had died there on that ground. What could it be but a reminder of her death? It would have been nice to have found something of her own, some part of her belongings lost in the crash, the only things she had owned other than a few items left behind with Anderson, nearly everything she had left from her life on Mindoir, but instead here she had this damaged piece of plastic left behind by Cerberus … why? Because they had taken it off her to be certain she was dead? To make sure it really was her body? She supposed she could ask Miranda, but she didn’t think Miranda would tell her the truth, not all of it, anyway, and maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe the important thing to take away was that she was alive, however impossibly, and Garrus and Tali, having a friendly argument over the best power cells to add a boost to the shuttle’s engines, were alive, as were Dr. Chakwas and Joker and Wrex … and Kaidan … and so many others.

Those lost would never be forgotten; but those who had survived were going on to continue the work that had been interrupted.

Satisfied, Shepard looked up from the singed helmet, out the window at the new Normandy, glad to be going home.

Chapter Text

In her quarters late that night, Shepard took the ruined helmet out of the sack she had placed it in on the shuttle, turning it in her hands, still unable to believe that she had survived a situation that had left her helmet in such a condition. Said good things for Alliance spacesuits, she supposed. And even better things for Cerberus technology. She’d have to remember to say thank you to Miranda again later.

Strange to think that two years and change ago she had been dead, that she had spent most of the intervening time essentially dead. She remembered none of it. Did that put the period on the end of an avowal of atheism, or was it simply an artifact of having been more in a coma than actually dead for most of the time?

A faint, almost hesitant, knock came at her door, startling her so that she almost dropped the helmet. “Who is it?”

“Thane.”

She smiled, her heart beating faster at the sound of his voice. She hadn’t been sure if she wanted company tonight, but knowing that he had cared enough to come up made her glad he had. Crossing the room, she touched the button and the door slid open.

“Siha.”

“I’m glad you came up.”

“I wasn’t certain if you would prefer to be alone, but … in case you needed someone to talk to …”

“I always want to talk to you,” she assured him, and as his face lit up she knew it was the truth. Every circumstance since she’d met him had made her want to know what he thought, curious to get his point of view.

“That’s very flattering,” he began, but whatever he might have said after that was lost as he saw the helmet in her hands. His eyes widened in shock. “That—that was yours?”

“Yes.”

“Arashu’s mercy. Siha. I—I knew, of course, but I had no idea …”

“Truthfully, neither did I. This …” She lifted the helmet, turning it in her hands. “This was a bit of a surprise.”

“I can imagine it would be.” Thane put his hands on her shoulders, looking searchingly into her face. “Are you certain you are all right?”

“I think so, yes. You wouldn’t think I would be, but—“ Shepard shrugged. “It all seems to have happened to someone else.”

She led him further into the room, placing the helmet carefully on her desk, next to the face-down picture of Kaidan. Two things she’d rather not think about right now.

They took seats on opposite ends of the couch.

“How was it, seeing the wreckage?”

“Strange, as you might imagine,” Shepard said. “But I think worse for Tali and Garrus than it was for me. I never even knew I was there. They lived it, they were on the ground trying to care for the wounded and dying and make sense of what happened—“

“They were there when it became apparent you weren’t going to arrive.”

Shepard frowned. “Yes. It’s odd, because I don’t question their respect for me, or their affection, but it still surprises me that my death affected everyone so deeply.”

“You do not see what an impact you make; you are too busy making it.”

“I suppose.”

“Joker has been very much on edge all day,” Thane told her. “He abused poor EDI unmercifully—even more than usual. He seems very relieved to be leaving the planet and its wreckage behind.”

“I wish he didn’t feel so badly about that. Actually, that was the best part of the day today.”

“How so?”

“I … it’s hard to explain.”

“I am happy to listen, even if I can’t understand.”

She smiled at him. “I know. Thank you for that.” Sitting forward, she looked earnestly at him. “I hadn’t even known it was a question, you know, until we got down there, but … I saw the remains of the cockpit, and I thought about what the ship was like when I hauled Joker’s ass out of there, on fire and falling to pieces, and I knew that I had done it, that I hadn’t even hesitated—and that if I had it to do again, even if I knew I would die, I would. And I felt—I felt that made me a commander, that knowing I was willing to lay down my life for a crew member meant I had earned my position in a way that is … important to me. Does that make any sense?”

“Yes. Not that—not that I would do the same,” he said honestly. “Other than my wife and my son, and … a few others over the course of my life, I am not certain I would give my life readily for another. Even now—especially now, when my remaining moments are so few and so dear to me.”

“But you aren’t in command. You haven’t taken the responsibility of other lives on your shoulders. I have. And it set something to rest in me, knowing I would give up my life again if needed, for a member of my crew.”

“I understand.”

“But … it also made me think about what it was like, when I died. I don’t remember it.”

“Should you?”

“Well, I was thinking if … if there was more out there, something—some kind of … well, if religion is true, shouldn’t I remember something from being dead?”

Thane shook his head. “Siha, you are grappling with questions that have never been satisfactorily answered. In your case, how are you to know how long you were dead as opposed to being in a coma, worked on by Cerberus? Or perhaps what occurs after death doesn’t create memory.”

“You believe that something happens after we die, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“When you pray for the wicked, who are you praying to?”

“It depends upon the circumstance. To find my target, I speak with Amonkira, Lord of Hunters. When I act to defend another, I address my prayers to Arashu, Goddess of Motherhood and Protection. And when I have my target, I speak with Kalahira, Goddess of Oceans and the Afterlife.”

Shepard frowned. “Oceans and the afterlife don’t seem to have much in common.”

“Don’t they? Consider: The ocean is full of life, yet it is not life as you and I know it. To survive there, we must release our hold on life as we know it, accept a new way to live. So it is with death. The soul must accept its departure from the body. If it can’t, it will be lost.”

“Did my soul accept its departure, then?”

He smiled gently at her. “I cannot imagine your soul accepting death easily, Siha. Not when you had left something undone behind. Perhaps that is why, how, Cerberus came to choose you, because your spirit could not cross the sea with its life’s work unfinished.”

“Cross the sea?”

“Our belief is that the soul crosses a vast sea, changing as it goes, and finds … something else on the other side.”

“And when you pray for the wicked, you are asking your gods for help, to aid the soul in crossing the ocean?”

Thane nodded. “Something like that, yes.”

Shepard leaned back with a sigh, looking up at the ceiling. “I know many people mourned me when I was gone—but I wonder … I doubt any of them prayed for me.”

“I do, Siha. I pray for you every day.”

“Thank you.”

“I could not do otherwise.”

“That’s what I thank you for.”

“Ah. In that case … it is my very great pleasure.”

Shepard got to her feet, moving to the other side of the couch to sit next to him. She reached for his hand, and laid her head on his shoulder, feeling the solid presence of him next to her as a reminder that she was alive, and here, a circumstance she hoped never to take for granted.

Chapter Text

Thane watched as Shepard and Liara embraced, noticing the way Liara’s touch lingered on Shepard’s shoulder. Tali and Liara nodded at each other cordially, but no embrace there. Tali preferred not to be touched—while the environmental suit protected her from most viruses, she liked to be cautious.

Shepard turned toward him. “Liara, Thane Krios. Thane, Liara.”

“A pleasure. Your reputation is … impressive,” Liara said. Her eyes were on him, measuring him, and he felt certain that she knew exactly what lay between himself and Shepard. Did she find him a threat? He knew she had made advances on Shepard when they were shipmates aboard the Normandy, and he had gathered from remarks of Shepard’s that she was not indifferent to the asari’s attractions. He felt a quickening of his pulse, a sense of alarm. Shepard cared for him; she had said so. But he had rejected her, fled from her room unable to touch her, too afraid that to take what he wanted was to open them both up to fear and pain and sorrow. She had forgiven him, but the impasse was still there. Was he being selfish to feel possessive when he couldn’t actually possess her?

He kept his face, he hoped, impassive, as Shepard took a seat in front of Liara’s desk. He motioned Tali to the extra seat, and took up a post by the door himself—conveniently where he could watch Liara but Shepard couldn’t watch him.

“Tell me what brings you to Illium, my friend,” Liara said. “Knowing you, it cannot be a visit simply to say hello.”

“No. I have information on the Shadow Broker—where to find him, and how to get to him.”

Liara caught her breath sharply. “I won’t ask how you came by such a thing. If it were anyone but you, I’d suspect a trap, but …” She studied Shepard closely. “You are the same as you ever were, and I … Too much has occurred not to change me.”

“Maybe I can help. If we go after the Shadow Broker together …”

“Perhaps. Let me see what you’ve got?”

Shepard handed a datapad across the desk. Liara punched some buttons on it, frowning. “This looks like a leaked transmission between Shadow Broker operatives. Some hints as to the location, and—“ She gasped sharply. “Feron. He’s still alive.”

“Feron?” Shepard asked.

Staring at the screen, Liara nodded. “He was … a friend. He helped me recover your body from the Shadow Broker.”

“What?!”

Liara looked up, her eyes meeting Shepard’s. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—of course you wouldn’t know.”

“The Shadow Broker had my body? Why?”

“He was going to sell you to the Collectors. But Feron and I stopped him. Feron sacrificed himself to save me.”

“How did you know that?”

“I am an information dealer, Shepard.”

“But you weren’t at the time.”

“Many things changed when you died. I … couldn’t stop thinking about you. I went looking for you, but someone else had been there first, and I—I had to know who. And why.”

“That would explain why the Collectors are so obsessed with you, Shepard,” Tali said.

“I suppose.” Shepard leaned forward. “If you rescued me, how did I end up with Cerberus?”

“It was Cerberus who gave me the intel needed to find you. They were the ones who put Feron with me in the first place. And when I got out, they said—they said they could bring you back. So I gave you to them.”

“You believed them?”

“What was the alternative? To accept that you were dead and gone? Any hope was better than that.”

Thane could sympathize. Had someone offered him a way to bring Irikah back, he could not have refused.

“Well.” Shepard cleared her throat. “Thank you for that. I … had no idea.”

“Neither did I,” Tali added. “I would have helped you.”

“You had gone home to your people,” Liara told her. “They needed you. I— With my mother gone, and Shepard, and my research on the Protheans no longer necessary, I had a great deal of free time on my hands.” She looked at Shepard. “I didn’t know how you would feel when Cerberus restored you, if you’d feel betrayed, or …”

Shepard gave a swift, meaningful look at Thane over her shoulder, and turned back to Liara. “It’s always worth having another chance.”

Liara glanced briefly at Thane as well, her face expressionless, and then looked down at the datapad again. “And now you’re giving me another chance to find Feron. After two years … I hadn’t even dreamed he might still be alive.”

“You were close?” Shepard asked. Thane tried to interpret her tone. Was she jealous?

“Yes. Even though he betrayed me more than once, double-dealing for Cerberus, for the Shadow Broker … But in the end he sacrificed himself for me. I owe him.”

“It sounds like I owe him, too,” Shepard said. “What do we do now?”

It was odd to hear her looking to someone else for the plan, so odd that none of the other three spoke for a moment. Then Liara shook herself, looking up from the datapad. “I need to go home, to gather some of the data I’ve collected, to think about what it means and how to proceed.” She stood up, closing her eyes briefly and shaking her head. “I have spent two years plotting revenge. Now it appears I must plan a rescue. It will take some consideration.”

Shepard got up, too. “Take your time.”

Liara smiled. “But not too much time. After all, do you not have a galaxy to save? Come by my apartment tonight. Hopefully I’ll have a plan by then.”

Thane bristled. Her apartment? He wasn’t sure why he felt so incredibly threatened by this asari, when he would have cheerfully been faced with Kaidan Alenko and not blinked an eyelid. But Kaidan had rejected Shepard, where Liara had saved her. Kaidan was a known quantity, and Liara was a mystery.

“We’ll see you there,” Shepard assured her. Thane couldn’t see Liara’s face in reaction, and he wondered. And then he felt badly—the asari was concerned about a lost friend, not about getting Shepard into a romantic situation. He was doing them all a disservice by allowing these thoughts. But even as he told himself so, as Liara left the room, he still felt disquieted and uncertain, feelings that were beneath him, and beneath Shepard, and uncalled for given his inability to commit himself fully to his own emotions, but which he nevertheless could not seem to quell.

They arrived at Liara’s apartment later that night, Garrus in tow instead of Tali, to discover that the asari had gone missing. There was evidence of an attack—bullet holes through the windows, spreading cracks across the glass. And another asari, calling herself Tela Vasir and claiming to be a Spectre, was there before them, searching the apartment for clues to Liara’s whereabouts.

Thane was concerned. Not that he knew every Spectre in the galaxy—only the Council did—but he had never heard of this one, and it seemed strange that she had arrived before they had.

As they toured Liara’s apartment, he couldn’t help but notice how many of her personal possessions came from, or called back to, her time on the Normandy, including a piece of the mangled armor Shepard had died in. A morbid memento, to be sure. Thane had several items stored away that reminded him of Irikah, but he wouldn’t have thought to keep the clothes she was wearing when she was killed, even if he had been there at the time. But possibly Liara had not had the opportunity to keep anything else of Shepard’s, he thought more charitably. Even Shepard had very little of her own belongings. She had left a few things for safekeeping with Councilman Anderson, but everything else had been destroyed along with the first Normandy. So Liara had clung to the only tangible thing she had to remind her of the best time in her life. In her position, would he not do the same?

Watching Shepard, her brow furrowed in concentration as she followed the clues Liara had left behind in order to be able to track her friend, it was clear that the affection was mutual. Thane told himself he had no reason to feel threatened—after all, Shepard would have felt the same about Garrus, or Tali, and he didn’t feel threatened by either of them—but he did, for all of that.

Chapter Text

The asari Spectre had a good head start, especially with Liara on the floor, incapacitated. Thane ran for the Spectre, but Shepard was faster. Of course she was. As Thane watched with his heart in his throat, she tackled Tela Vasir, the momentum carrying them both over the railing. He stopped breathing altogether, waiting through the seemingly endless moments before the sound of the bodies crashing to the floor reached him.

Liara was on her feet again. “Don’t just stand there! Go after her. We can’t let her get away!”

Thane hurried after her, less interested in catching Vasir than he was in making sure Shepard had survived the fall with no ill effects.

When they arrived on the ground floor, Shepard was groaning, trying to prop herself up on elbow and knee, and Vasir was nowhere to be seen. Liara ran after Vasir, but Thane went down on one knee next to Juniper. “Siha. Are you all right?”

“Fine,” she assured him, albeit breathlessly. Thane reached out his hand and helped her up. “Liara went on ahead?”

“Yes. Are you able to catch up to them?”

“Absolutely.”

He had his suspicions, given the way she was holding her arm tightly against her side, but she wouldn’t listen to him even if he expressed them. Hopefully she would find a way to apply some medigel to the injury before she had to fight again. But he had been in too many fights with Shepard to think she would stop and listen when there was a task at hand and a villain to chase.

They caught up with Liara just as she was about to get into an aircar. “There you are! I thought I was going to have to go without you.”

“Not a chance,” Shepard told her. “I’ll drive.”

Liara rolled her eyes, getting in and sliding across to the passenger seat. “Of course you will.”

They both looked at Thane, who hastily climbed into the back seat, buckling himself in securely. He had heard stories about Shepard’s driving. Garrus was behind him, but there was no more room in the car.

The turian chuckled. “Imagine my disappointment at missing this.”

“You love it and you know it, Garrus. Tell Joker we’ll be back soon.” Shepard grinned at him before taking her seat, the door closing itself behind her, and pressed her foot down on the pedal. The car shot ahead alarmingly. Even with his hands braced against the seat, Thane was thrown backward.

“I’m fine, by the way,” Shepard said to Liara, glancing away from the traffic for just a moment.

“Watch the cars! And don’t lose her. And of course you’re fine—when have you ever admitted otherwise?”

Shepard chuckled. She was piloting the car skillfully, catching up with the speeding car ahead that belonged to Vasir faster than Thane would have imagined possible. Other vehicles whizzed by them, coming uncomfortably close, but Shepard ignored them all. If he closed his eyes and didn’t think about it, Thane might have enjoyed the journey, but as it was, he couldn’t help watching their surroundings and worrying about what might happen if any of the other cars around them diverted from its course unexpectedly.

Liara was staring out the window, fidgeting. “Shepard, you’re losing her. Go faster!”

“It doesn’t go any faster than this, Liara. But then, it appears that neither does hers.” Shepard twisted the wheel and the car swerved sharply to the right, avoiding an oncoming truck by inches. “And I’m a much better driver.”

Thane could see her only from the side, but she had never looked more beautiful to him. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes shining, her whole being focused on what she was doing. He wished they were somewhere that he could convince her to pull over so he could kiss her, because he didn’t think he had ever wanted to do so as much as he did at this moment. But of course, he couldn’t kiss her, anyway, because that would mean awakening himself to life in ways that he simply couldn’t face. So instead he settled back against the seat and enjoyed watching her face—which conveniently meant he couldn’t watch the car’s reckless speeding progress through the air.

“Watch out, those are proximity mines!” Liara called out suddenly.

“Yes, I see them.” Shepard yanked the wheel hard and the car swerved around a mine, then she yanked it again and they were back on course. “What kind of firepower does this thing have, anyway?”

Liara frowned at her. “It’s a taxi, Shepard. It has a fare meter,” she said tartly.

“Oh. Can you shoot things with a fare meter?”

“No.”

“Wonderful.” Shepard sped up and then dipped sharply underneath the next proximity mine.

Ahead of them, Vasir’s car made a sharp turn and ducked into a tunnel, and Shepard spun the wheel to follow her, piloting the car through narrow openings between vehicles and at least twice nearly scraping the roof of the tunnel.

As they shot out of the tunnel, they could see Vasir’s car spinning crazily, as though she had lost control of it, and as Shepard pushed down the pedal to give their car just a bit more speed, they saw Vasir’s crash through a railing and land on a walkway halfway up a very tall building.

Shepard parked their car next to the wreck of Vasir’s. The asari Spectre was gone, but drops of blood on the path indicated that she couldn’t have gotten far. If they could catch her before she found a way to heal herself …

Liara was pulling ahead—less easily winded than Thane, swifter than Shepard, who wasn’t much of a runner. Vasir’s trail led through an apartment, whose unfortunate residents appeared to have gotten in her way, to judge from the position of their bodies, and past a busy club, the music practically pulsating the walls.

At last, Vasir was in front of them. She had a clubgoer, a lovely and terrified young asari, held tightly in front of her. “Think you can take me, Shepard? My friend here would like to see you try.”

Thane hadn’t waited for Shepard; he was already circling around Vasir, carefully. A Spectre would likely know who was on Shepard’s team and be prepared for his skills.

“Come on, Shepard, what are you waiting for?”

“It doesn’t have to be this way, Vasir. Let her go and we can talk about this.”

“Not a chance. And since we all know you’re too much of a goody-goody to risk her being hurt …”

“For the greater good?” Shepard lifted her gun, aiming it squarely at Vasir’s head. “I might consider it.”

Vasir scoffed. “Not you. You—“ And Thane’s bullet entered her brain, stopping whatever else she might have said.

The asari hostage fainted, and Shepard hurried to her, making certain she was all right. Thane knew he hadn’t hit her; it had been a long time since he’d been responsible for unintended collateral damage in an assassination.

When the hostage had been taken away to be cared for by Illium police—who hadn’t asked any questions after a single, serious nod from Liara—the three of them were left on the rooftop. Thane was very much aware of the curious stares of the clubgoers, but neither of the women seemed to care.

“It seems I must face the Shadow Broker sooner rather than later,” Liara said.

“Let’s do it.”

“Shepard, I can’t ask you to—“

“You’re not asking, Liara. I’m offering.” Shepard smiled. “Just try to keep me from helping.”

“I …” Liara hesitated. “I should not be leaning on you this way.”

Shepard patted her on the shoulder. “Of course you should. That’s what friends do. Come on, let’s get back to the Normandy and you can give Joker your coordinates. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”

Chapter Text

The Normandy had a festive atmosphere as they flew through space toward the lair of the Shadow Broker. The original crewmates all seemed to enjoy being together a great deal. Of course, it was only Liara whose presence was unusual here, and Thane couldn’t help wondering why she made such a difference. She was quiet, watchful, only occasionally offering a word or a comment, mostly listening while the others talked. Perhaps that was it? She galvanized them on to speech, gave them an audience, offered them support. Perhaps, Thane thought.

There was no question that Shepard’s entire manner altered in Liara’s presence. She became softer, gentler, her eyes on the asari as if looking for approval, or shadowed by concern. It was impossible to know if the concern was for the changes in Liara since Shepard had been gone, or if Shepard had always looked at her that way. And Thane wanted to know. He wanted that very badly. But would Shepard herself be aware of how she looked at Liara? He rather doubted it. Certainly she seemed not to have spent much of her earlier life examining her emotions—which did not mean she didn’t have them, he reminded himself.

Sighing, he retreated to the life support bay to meditate and to lose himself in memory. These days, he dwelt as often in thoughts of Shepard and their brief moments of intimacy as in thoughts of Irikah. He didn’t believe Irikah would mind. In fact, in his many imagined conversations with her over the years, she had spiritedly exhorted him to find someone to wake him to life again, before it was too late. He believed that even now Irikah would not characterize the situation as too late, not while there was breath left in his lungs and life left in his body. But she had always been an optimist, and someone with an appetite for all that life had to offer. It was so much of what had always drawn him to her. Shepard was the same, although less aware of her own voraciousness. Thane wasn’t certain if he envied them that drive or if he was glad not to possess it. The burden of living an awake life with his memories and losses would have been too much, he thought. The struggle of living with hope and longing was as bad, leading him toward what he wanted, but constantly reminding him how quickly it would slip from his grasp.

Even as he thought of her, Shepard’s brief knock came at his door. His voice was hoarse as he told her to enter, and she looked at him with concern.

“You weren’t in the mess. I looked for you. Are you— Is everything all right?”

He could tell by the edge of anxiety in her tone that she was worried about his health, and he hastened to assure her. “No change.”

“You should be out and about. Didn’t Dr. Chakwas say—?”

Thane shook his head. “I can take care of myself, Siha. You needn’t worry.”

“I know, but I do anyway.” She sat down across from him and reached for his hand. “I worry about the people I care for.”

“As you do Liara?”

He meant “care for”, but the shadow that crossed Juniper’s face said she was focused on the worry. “Yes. She’s so different now, so …. hard and vengeful.”

“If I understand her story accurately, she has lost a great deal that was important to her in the past several years.”

“That’s true. Her mother, her work, this friend of hers …”

Thane wanted to point out that Shepard herself numbered amongst those losses, but he was afraid to. Afraid to know if some emotion that had lingered beneath the surface all this time was being awakened by Liara’s presence, afraid to commit himself too fully to something as alive as jealousy, afraid to diminish himself in Shepard’s eyes by appearing threatened by her friendships. “It must be pleasant for Liara to be here with all of you.”

Shepard smiled. “I think it is. She seems more relaxed since she came aboard. We’re missing Ashley, of course, but she and Liara were never close. And—“ She stopped herself before she could mention Kaidan Alenko, and Thane wondered if she would ever tell him about that relationship. Of course, he had never told her about Irikah, not in any detail, and she must be curious.

For a heartbeat, he wanted so desperately to have the time to love her as she deserved to be loved, as he longed to love her, that he could have gotten to his feet and torn the room apart with his bare hands in the rage of his need. But he didn’t. He remained in his seat, trying to keep the anguish from his face.

“Thane …” Juniper leaned across the table toward him. She was holding both of his hands now, and he could feel her skin against his so thoroughly, so vividly, so intimately, that it seemed all the nerve endings in his body were contained there. “I wish—“

He withdrew his hands from hers, hastily, and turned away so that he couldn’t see the look in her eyes. “I do, too, Siha.”

“Won’t you try? Can’t you?”

He didn’t look at her, didn’t answer. If he could only put these feelings away, fall back into his battle sleep, let death steal upon him unknown …

Her chair scraped as she got up, and he heard her leave, but he didn’t move for a long time after she was gone.

Chapter Text

Thane was sent rolling across the floor by the Shadow Broker’s first attack. His head thudded painfully against something and blackness closed in on him.

When he returned to consciousness, everything was quiet. Too quiet. He tried to sit up, but a gentle hand pressed against his shoulder, and a familiar voice said, “Stay still. You had a nasty bump on the head.”

He opened his eyes, blinking, and then smiled to see Juniper’s face bent over his, an answering smile lighting her eyes at the evidence of his return to consciousness. “Siha.”

“You scared me,” she told him, the candid admission coming easily to her lips, and he marveled at that, Commander Shepard admitting to fear so simply.

Thane raised a hand to trace the edge of her jaw, and Juniper trapped it with hers against her cheek.

She was looking at him intently, her eyes wide and her lips parted, and she breathed his name softly. “Thane …”

But he knew what she wanted to say and even now, even with his head pillowed on her lap and his hand pressed against her skin, he couldn’t. Not yet. Not now. Not with this fresh reminder of his own mortality facing him. He had failed her, let her face off against the Shadow Broker alone. No, not alone—with Liara.

He struggled to rise, and this time Shepard helped him, holding him with an arm around his waist as he swayed dizzily. “We need to get you back to the ship,” she said, and he didn’t have the strength to argue with her. His breath was coming short, and he focused his energies on keeping his breathing even, knowing all too well that if he gasped for breath he would feel worse.

He was only vaguely aware of Shepard speaking to Liara as she led him from the room, of a young drell, the one they had seen earlier being tortured, limping past them into the room.

It took a long time to get back to the landing pad, time in which Thane was forced to allow Shepard to carry more of his weight than he would have liked, and to let her manage the treacherous surfaces of the outside of the ship.

At last they were in the shuttle, and Thane could relax and lean back against the seat while Garrus handled the controls, carrying them back to the Normandy. Shepard’s hand held his in a firm, strong grip, a grip that warmed him all through.

“We’re going to get you back to the ship and let Dr. Chakwas take a look at you, and then … Thane, I thought—I thought—“

“All the more reason, Siha,” he told her. “Because what you thought will come true, sooner rather than later.”

“Yes, and I know that. But to lose you without—without ever really having you … Thane, I’m stronger than you seem to think I am.”

“Possibly you are. Probably so, in fact. But I regret to say that it appears … It appears I am not.” Gently but firmly he disentangled his hand from hers and moved down to the other end of the seat, leaning his head against the wall and closing his eyes so he couldn’t see her saddened face.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Shepard stood staring at the fish, watching them dart back and forth. Their lives were short, their trips across the aquarium seemingly meaningless. Did her life seem as short, as pointless, to the Reapers? It must, since they considered all forms of organic life to be as expendable as the fish were to her.

She thought of Thane, so afraid to lose her by dying that he couldn’t bear to have her while living, and sighed heavily, at a loss as to how to convince him to reach for the life that remained to him.

The door chimed softly and she said “Come in” listlessly. It slid open and Liara entered the room, smiling at her.

“I can’t wait to tell you all about the Broker’s ship, Shepard. There’s so much to be learned!”

Shepard managed a genuine smile at her friend’s enthusiasm. “Just like researching the Protheans?”

“Better,” Liara admitted. “No digging, no trying to put together vague clues and little shards of pottery. All this information is lying out there waiting for me to pick it up.”

“Be careful. That kind of power—“

“I know. I have a responsibility to use it wisely. And I will.”

“Good. Remember you’re Liara T’Soni first and the Shadow Broker second.”

“Promise to remind me?”

“Anytime you need it.” Shepard gestured toward her couch and the wine bottle and glasses already laid out on the table. “Come have a drink.”

“I don’t mind if I do.”

They sank onto the couch cushions, glasses in hand, talking about general things—the new Normandy, Joker, the hunt for the Collectors. Then Liara put her glass on the table, leaned forward, and fixed Shepard with an inescapable gaze. “And how are you, my friend?”

“Fine.”

“Tell me another one.”

“No, I am. Tired, but fine.”

“You were dead. How does it feel to come back to life?”

“I don’t remember being dead,” Shepard admitted. “It doesn’t feel any different to me. I’ve tried, but … if there was anything out there in the beyond, I don’t remember it.”

Liara shrugged. “That’s probably for the best—you would either be too fascinated with what lay there and want to get back to it, or too frightened of it to perform the tasks ahead of you effectively.”

The words brought Thane to Shepard’s mind. She tried to cover the thought by drinking deeply from her glass, but she could see that Liara hadn’t missed it.

“Of course,” Liara said gently, “in order to perform those tasks, you have to have something to fight for. What is it that matters to you, Shepard? What do you hope to have for yourself when you have defeated the Collectors? A few stolen moments with Thane before the inevitable?”

Tears prickled at the back of Shepard’s eyes and she closed them tightly to hold back the tide. “The Kepral’s Syndrome isn’t bad yet, but … I don’t know how much longer there is.”

Liara nodded, understanding. “Asari often have to go through this same thing with a shorter-lived mate. We learn early on that it isn’t how much time you have, it’s what you do with it.”

Bitterly, Shepard said, “You’re giving that advice to the wrong person. He’s the one who can’t embrace the life he has left. I know—one morning you wake up and you’re hunting geth, and by night you’re drifting through space, dying. You have to take the moments you can, and not worry about the next one. But Thane … He got so used to having nothing to live for, to the luxury of allowing himself not to care that he was dying, and I … I don’t know how to make him care.”

“He does care. Very much.”

Shepard glanced at her friend. “I won’t ask how you know that.”

Liara smiled. “It has nothing to do with the Shadow Broker. It’s in the way he watches you, and the way he tracks those who have targeted you and eliminates them first in a fight, and … Well, really, it’s in every line of his body and every movement and every gesture. He wears his heart on his sleeve. But his fear is there, too, equally clearly.”

“So what do I do?”

“You always want to jump in and fix our problems for us.” Liara’s smile widened affectionately. “But some problems we have to solve ourselves. You have to be patient, let Thane conquer his fear on his own.”

“And if that comes too late?”

“You will have to appreciate what you did have time for—his friendship, his respect, his companionship.”

“I want more,” Shepard admitted.

Liara chuckled. “Wanting things for yourself is new for you, I know, and finding something you want that you can’t make happen must be a particular challenge. He’ll get there. Be patient, Juniper.” Shepard looked at her, startled at the use of her name, and Liara’s chuckle deepened into a laugh. “Whose did you think would be the first dossier I looked up once I had access to the Shadow Broker’s files? Never fear, your secret is safe with me.”

“I never doubted it,” Shepard told her.

Getting to her feet, Liara reached for Shepard’s hand, holding it tightly for a moment. “I should be getting back to my ship. If you ever need anything from me …”

“Thank you, my friend. Be careful.”

“I will be,” Liara promised, and then she was gone, leaving Shepard to contemplate her fish again and wonder if any of them ever worried about what lay beyond the glass that formed the boundary of their world.

Chapter Text

Shepard paused just inside the door of the club. She wasn’t a club type; never had been. While she understood Samara’s point that being who she was would be enough to attract Morinth, she still felt that she would stand out in here like a sore thumb.

She wished she wasn’t alone. Samara couldn’t come in with her for obvious reasons, but she had hoped Thane would find a way to hide within the club. A drell caught attention, rare as they were, but he was an assassin; he knew how not to be noticed. He had taken his leave shortly before she and Samara set out for the club, saying he had people he needed to see while they were on Omega. Shepard couldn’t blame him; but she would have been much happier had he been with her.

The mingling wasn’t terrible. She listened to people talk and got in a fistfight and completely avoided the dance floor—the kind of awkwardness she knew her dancing to be would not be attractive to Morinth, she was sure.

Then, out of the corner of her eye, an arresting figure caught her attention. An asari, standing so still within the noise and chaos of the club that the eye couldn’t stay away from her. Shepard found herself looking again and again. She was reminded of when Liara had first come aboard the Normandy—an aura of peace had hung around her, soothing Shepard whenever she looked in the asari’s direction. This woman’s aura excited rather than soothed, but the draw was similar.

She was surprised at how flattered she felt when the asari crooked a finger in her direction, the willingness with which she followed the direction. Careful, Shepard, she said to herself, remembering what Samara had said about Morinth’s powers of attraction.

“I’ve been watching you,” the asari said without preamble.

“Yes. I’ve been watching you, too,” Shepard responded breathlessly.

A secretive smile warmed the asari’s eyes. “I know. I’m Morinth.”

“Shepard.” They had debated an assumed name, but figured Morinth would know who she was.

So it proved. “I know,” Morinth said again. “What brings Commander Shepard to a club like this?”

“Just … wanted to get away. I like the music.”

“Yes. The dark rhythms, the violent pulses.” Morinth moved closer, her voice creating a pulse of its own within Shepard. “It stirs something primitive in me.”

Shepard swallowed, her throat suddenly gone dry. She wished Thane were here, for more reasons than one. “Yes.”

“Do you like violence?”

Startled out of her near-trance by the question, Shepard considered it. Did she? Mostly she found it a necessity of her job, a means to an end. But like it? Not particularly. She wasn’t aroused by it, certainly. But Morinth didn’t need to know that. “Yes,” she said again.

“Shall we go someplace more private and … talk about it?”

“Oh, yes.” The response was more heartfelt than Shepard had intended it to be. She hoped Samara would be prompt—this was an even harder task than she had expected.

She followed Morinth willingly to her apartment, not far from the club. “Drink?” Morinth asked.

“Please.” The walk had cleared her head somewhat, but her throat was still dry and she felt … heated. Again she wished for Thane, a vision of his mouth at her throat heightening the sense of arousal Morinth had begun to build. She took the glass from Morinth’s hand and sat down on the opposite end of the couch from the asari.

Morinth chuckled and slid a little closer, the movement sending a flash of heat through Shepard. “Tell me, Shepard, have you ever wished to just … let go? Lose yourself in pleasure and let the galaxy fix itself?”

She hadn’t, but as Morinth’s fingers caressed the fabric of the couch, it suddenly sounded deliciously attractive. She didn’t even notice as Morinth slid a few inches closer. “Maybe.”

“Has anyone ever reached inside that uniform and stroked the woman inside it? Brought her to life?”

“Not really.” She thought of Kaidan, who had come closest. It had been a while since she’d heard from him—she hoped he was happy wherever he was.

“Would you like them to?” Morinth was close now, not quite close enough to touch, but nearly.

“Oh, yes.” But Morinth had made a mistake, because the hands that Shepard imagined diving beneath her uniform jacket, sliding into the waistband of her pants, were drell, not asari. She missed Thane suddenly, desperately, aching for the touch she’d had such a brief taste of the first time he came to her quarters.

“Good.” Morinth was practically on top of her, fingers closing around Shepard’s face, turning her head so she looked straight into the asari’s eyes. “Tell me you belong to me, Shepard. Tell me you want to feel everything I can awaken in you.”

Behind Morinth, Shepard saw a movement. Samara. She closed her eyes in relief, then opened them and met Morinth’s eyes directly. “Not a chance.”

“What?” Morinth was startled and angry at the refusal. She leaped to her feet, and saw her mother standing there. “Oh, I see. A set-up. Well played, Mother,” she sneered.

“I did not want it this way, Morinth.”

“Didn’t you? You’ve always wanted to pit your strength against mine. You’re in for a shock, Mother. I’m better than you.”

“I almost wish that were true, daughter,” Samara whispered.

And battle was joined. Samara’s greater experience showed almost from the first, but it was her far superior self-control that won through in the end. Without hesitation, she snapped her daughter’s neck. “If I had stopped, thought, even for a moment … I never could have done it,” she said softly to herself. “I am sorry, Morinth.”

“Samara.” But Shepard had no words. She reached out to put her hand on the Justicar’s shoulder, but thought better of it.

“Please, Shepard. I … would like to be alone.”

“Of course.” They went back to the Normandy, Thane joining them as they went. He looked at Shepard several times, almost as if he knew what had happened. But of course he didn’t, because he hadn’t been there. Shepard was annoyed with him for that—and, if she was honest, for how much she wanted him and his everlasting insistence on waiting until he was ready. Why couldn’t he be ready? He kept harping on how little time there was, and yet he let it go by in such great measures.

She sat that night on her couch, a glass of wine in her hand, looking up at the stars, letting the events of the day dissipate. A knock came on the door, and she sat up, looking at it over her shoulder. “Who is it?”

“Thane.”

“Oh. Come in.” She wasn’t sure if she wanted to see him tonight or not.

“I wanted to see if you are well, after the tribulations of your day.”

“You should have checked in on Samara, instead. Her day was the trying one.” Shepard settled back against the cushions as Thane took a seat on the edge of the couch.

“Samara is meditating. She would not wish to be disturbed.”

“True enough.” Shepard frowned at him. “How do you know about the tribulations of my day, anyway? You weren’t even there!”

He looked startled. “What do you mean, I wasn’t—“ Then he smiled. “I forget that you are so straightforward, sometimes. Of course I was there, Shepard. Did you think I would send you into such unfamiliar danger as an attempted seduction of an Ardat-Yakshi, of all things, alone?”

“But … didn’t you?” She sat forward, setting her wineglass on the table and looking at him in confusion.

“No. I left you so that it would seem to anyone observing that I was not accompanying you, and naturally I did not draw attention to my presence in the club. I assumed you would know I was there.”

Shepard shook her head. “I had no idea.”

Thane slid toward her, taking her hand. “Siha, as long as I have breath to support my body, I will not willingly allow you to walk into danger without me. I promise you that. I believed it went unsaid. Apparently I was wrong.”

She squeezed his hand in return. She hadn’t known he had any such intention, and she felt better for the knowledge, for the declaration of it. “Thank you for saying it. And for being there. I … It was much harder than I had imagined it would be.”

“I thought it might prove to be.”

“You didn’t say so.”

“You are Commander Shepard. You rarely take anyone else’s advice on the dangers facing you,” he pointed out.

Shepard smiled. “I suppose not.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, what was it that gave you the strength to deny her, there at the end?”

She looked down at their joined hands, his thumb stroking absently over her skin. “In that moment … she wasn’t the person I longed for.”

His grip tightened, as though he had intended to pull his hand back and decided against it. “Oh.”

“Thane, I … don’t know how much longer I can wait. I want—“ She lifted her head to look into his eyes, and saw her own longing reflected in their black depths.

“I know, Siha. I, too.”

“Then why?”

“I …” This time he did pull his hand from her grasp, jumping up and moving back toward the center of the room, away from her. “I can’t.”

Shepard got to her feet, but didn’t pursue. “So you’ve said. But I don’t know why.”

“I … can’t tell you. Suffice it to say that I am not worthy of you, your bravery and your …” He shook his head, and hurried out of the room, leaving Shepard standing there feeling sad and wearied and alone.

Chapter Text

There were only a few days left, while the IFF was being installed, before they would make the leap through the Omega 4. All over the ship, Shepard’s team were taking their moments to say good-bye to loved ones, to bolster their courage for the jump, to prepare themselves for the possibility that they weren’t coming back.

She hadn’t given it much thought. There was always work to do, and she wasn’t one to dwell on fear when she could do something instead. But it occurred to her that maybe she should think about the people she was leaving behind, say something to them. Not Liara; Liara knew as well as anyone how she was, what mindset she was taking with her. Or Wrex. Wrex would find any contact foolishly, humanly sentimental. He’d hear of her exploits and raise a glass of something undrinkable in her memory. Shepard smiled at the thought, missing her old friend, wishing he was here for this mission. Still, Grunt was here, and that was good in its own way.

And Garrus and Tali and Joker and Dr. Chakwas would be with her every step of the way. It was like having family along. So who was there left to say good-bye to?

She turned up the picture that lay face down on her desk, looking into Kaidan’s handsome, smiling face. She didn’t think she was in love with him now; that romance was gone, replaced by the richer feeling she had for Thane. But Kaidan had seen something in her that no one else had seen, begun the process of uncovering the part of her that was more than a soldier. She owed him something, a word or two, a good-bye, before she went.

Before she could think better of it, she pulled up her email program and began typing.

Dear Kaidan,
You may hear something of our exploits coming up—possibly posthumously—and before we begin the task, I wanted to thank you. Not just for all the times you had my back, and saved my ass, but for looking at me with new eyes, giving me new eyes to see myself with. Whatever happened afterward, those weeks with you meant a great deal to me, and they taught me about myself and about people. Thank you for that. I wish you all the happiness in the galaxy, wherever you can find it.
Juniper

It occurred to her that she might want to say something to Councilor Anderson, too. After all, he was the one who had taken a chance on a fairly green officer, and one with a reputation as a bit of a maverick, for his XO, and he was the one who had recommended her for the Spectres and, in the end, given up his own treasured ship for her.

Anderson –
With luck, we’re about to stop the Collectors. With even more luck, we’ll live to tell about it. If we don’t … I wanted to say thank you for giving me the start, and for your support. You’ve been there for me all along, taught me things that have made me the commander I am today. I couldn’t have accomplished any of this without you. I hope I have repaid your efforts with work you can be proud to have sponsored.
In case you have any doubts, I’m walking into what may be my final fight at peace with whatever may come. Having died once already, I don’t fear the possibility of doing it a second time.
Good luck!
Shepard

She sat looking at the monitor for a minute, her fingers tapping idly at the keys, then closed the program and picked up a datapad, getting back to work.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Thane was in life support with his own terminal open, working over an email to Kolyat. He couldn’t seem to get the wording quite right.

He wanted to tell his son everything he should have told him ten years ago, and fifteen, and when he was born, everything there never seemed to be time for. But there still wasn’t time for it, and Kolyat wouldn’t hear it anyway. He would close his ears and turn from it.

Still … words must be said. Thane couldn’t rest without knowing he had tried.

Kolyat. My son. Perhaps you don’t think I deserve to use the term, and you are probably right, but the memory of your mother, of the love she had for both of us, compels me to reach out to you. Soon we go to a task that may well be my last one. I have been preparing for death these long years, and I am ready, I think—as ready as anyone may be—but I regret the time I have wasted that could have been used to your benefit, to our benefit. Your mother will have sharp words for me across the sea, and I will have deserved them. I hope in time you will come to understand why I was the way I was, if not to forgive. I am not certain I deserve forgiveness, anyway.
If I should not return to you, I will take comfort in knowing how much of your mother lives on in you—her spirit and her courage and her fierceness. Do not let those gifts be darkened by bitterness. Be her son, the child whose laughter she treasured, whose joy matched hers. Be a better steward of her memory than I have been.
With more love than I have any right to express,
Your father

Thane read the words over again. They were the right ones. He felt that he had shamed Irikah’s memory by allowing himself to sink so thoroughly into the battle sleep rather than being the man she had always wished him to be—alive and whole and alert to the vivid colors around him. He hoped their son could achieve her dreams for him, and he trusted in Bailey, who kept him updated in a series of terse emails about Kolyat’s progress. With Bailey’s guidance, with the memory of his mother, Kolyat would be a better man than his father had been, and what more could a man ask for his son?

He looked at the terminal, then shut it down. There was no one else, no one he could think of that he wished to contact. He had burnt all his bridges long ago.

Except for one. Except the one that kept being laid at his feet, no matter how far he tried to run from it. The shining bridge that led straight up the elevator shaft to the room at the top of the Normandy.

He couldn’t keep away from her, not any longer, but he was so terribly afraid to awaken, so shamefully afraid of the pain and loss that would come with allowing himself to love her knowing how short the time ahead of them would be.

But he couldn’t sit down here away from her, not while he knew they were going into battle, what could be the final battle, so soon. He got to his feet and moved toward the elevator, without the faintest idea of what he would say when he reached the top.

Chapter Text

Shepard was reading over a datapad, reminding herself of everything they had learned about the Collector base. On the whole, she was glad they had reached this point. Whatever came, it would be nice to get it over with, not have it hanging out there ahead of them in all its mystery and peril any longer.

Engrossed in her planning, she almost didn’t hear the faint tap at her door. It came again, and she lifted her head, listening. “Someone there?”

“Are you—do you have a minute?” came Thane’s familiar voice, somehow even more hoarse than usual.

She got to her feet, alarmed. Was he having a Kepral’s episode? Was this the beginning of the end? Her heart pounded with her sudden fear. She wasn’t ready, not for this. Hurrying to the door, she touched the button that would open it, looking into his face when it slid open. “Of course I have a minute. Are you all right?”

“I— Siha …” He shook his head. “I am not all right.”

“Is it— Should I call Dr. Chakwas?”

Thane looked at her, puzzled, then his eyes cleared. “Oh. No. It is not that.”

Shepard let out a sigh of relief, leaning her shoulder against the wall as the door slid closed again behind him. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“Thane, if it’s not … if you’re not ill, then, what is it? Is it Kolyat?”

“No. No, nothing of that nature. It’s … me. Siha, I have known for many years that I would die, that my time was very short. I have tried to prepare myself, tried to leave the galaxy a better place than I found it.” He paused, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Perhaps an odd wish for a man in my line of work, but I attempted it nevertheless. And you have helped me achieve so much more than I thought possible. Since I joined you, we have righted many wrongs. I have spoken to my son, seen him settled somewhere that he can have a future. I should be at peace on the eve of battle, but—“

“Oh.” He was here for her, because his struggle between his desire to sink quietly into death and his desire to be with her had brought him here. “Thane.” She was at a loss for words, until suddenly someone else’s came to her, someone whose words Thane had given her. “’Do not go gently into that good night … Rage, rage against the dying of the light,’” she quoted softly.

He froze, startled. “Dylan Thomas. You read the book.”

“Yes. And that one …”

“I see its application,” he assured her.

Shepard moved toward him. “You don’t have to give me a speech. I understand.”

“No, you don’t. I am … ashamed.”

She reached out a hand to touch his face, but he caught her wrist, pushing her hand away from him, and turned his back to her.

“I have worked so hard,” he said, his voice low and quiet and angry, but with her or with himself or with the situation, she couldn’t tell. “I have meditated and prayed and performed good deeds, atoned for the evils I have done. I have prepared as best I could. I should be at peace. But now—“ With a sudden violent movement, his fist crashed against the desk. “Now I consider my body’s death and a chill settles in my gut. I am afraid. And it shames me. I can neither go back to what I was or go forward to what I—what I could be.”

“I’m so sorry,” Juniper whispered.

It was evidently not at all what he had expected her to say, because he turned sharply, frowning. “Why do you apologize?”

“Because this is my fault. I knew. You told me from the start that you were dying, and I … Well, I couldn’t help how I feel, but to ask you to awaken for me … I was selfish. Am selfish.”

“Siha. Siha, this is not your fault.”

“It is. You know it is.” She blinked back tears. “And that’s not the end. Because—Thane, I have never cared for anyone this way, never wanted—never needed anyone this way. And in a few days we go through the Omega 4 relay. Earlier, I wrote an email to my old captain telling him that I’m not afraid to die. And I’m not. If that’s what it takes to stop the Collectors …” She shrugged. “Then that’s what it takes. But tonight, right now—I’m alive. And I want—I need you to be alive with me. Please can you do that, Thane?”

He was trembling, his hands clenched at his sides, and she could almost see the struggle inside him, the warring impulses that urged him in one direction and pulled him in terror in the other.

This time when she stepped toward him he didn’t back away.

“Siha. I am … not as strong as you are.”

“I can be strong for both of us.” She didn’t know if it was true, not entirely, but if that was what he needed from her, she was sure as hell going to try. And then she closed the distance between them, her hands on his shoulders, and kissed him.

It was even better than she had imagined it would be, his sensual lips soft and warm against hers. Thane was still, no breath or motion, against her for a heartbeat before his hands slid around her waist, pulling her more firmly against him, and he took over the kiss, opening her mouth and seeking her tongue with his.

Shepard moaned with surprise and pleasure, giving herself over to the sheer joy of his kiss.

His hands moved restlessly up and down her back, crushing the stretchy fabric of her tank top, pushing it up as his hands explored the sensitive bare skin along her spine. Shepard reached down and pulled at the hem, tugging the shirt off over her head, reluctant as she was to break their kiss.

Wanting to see and feel him as well, she pushed at his jacket, shoving it off over his shoulders, the heavy canvas falling to the floor. The thin shirt he wore beneath it went quickly, and Shepard reached for him, feeling the faint roughness of his skin, her hands tracing the lines of muscle that sculpted his stomach and abdomen. Thane sucked in his breath, closing his eyes, and she bent to kiss his chest, putting out her tongue before she remembered what Mordin had said about the toxicity of a drell’s skin. Next time, perhaps, she would try it, but this time, she wanted her wits about her, to savor every moment, every sensation. Instead she contented herself with hot breaths across his skin, feeling his chest hitch over and over as she worked her way back up to his mouth.

His hips moved against hers as they kissed again, and any concern she might have had about the compatibility of their anatomy was put to rest as she felt him through the layers of their remaining clothing. Sliding her fingers inside his waistband, she tugged him backward toward the bed, letting herself fall onto it.

Thane looked down at her, spread out in front of him, his eyes somehow green instead of their usual black. Shepard reached out a hand and switched off the lights, leaving only the light from the aquarium and the bright shimmer of the stars above to illuminate him. He was beautiful in full light, but in this wavering blue shadow he was astonishingly sexy. She lifted her hips with a moan, and Thane growled deep in his chest, taking advantage of her movement to slide her leggings down and off. Her underwear, caught in the fabric, went with them, and she lay there practically naked.

Lifting her arms, she begged him silently to join her. Relieving himself of his last garments, he came into her arms, skin against skin. His was rough, the texture exciting her as they moved against each other.

Thane’s fingers, dexterous from years of manipulating weaponry, slid down her side and across her stomach and through the dark hair at the cleft of her thighs. Fascinated, he stopped to play with the hair, combing his fingers through it, before dipping lower and touching her intimately.

Shepard cried out, lifting her hips again to get closer to his longed-for touch. Oh, he knew what he was doing. Drell must have similar sensitive spots, she thought hazily. Her own hands moved down and down, thumbs stroking the tender skin on the inside of his hipbones, reveling in the sharp catch of his breath and the involuntary thrust of his hips against her thigh. Then she found him, smooth and hard and heated.

Both of them were breathing heavily as they stroked each other, and Shepard didn’t think she could last much longer, not this time. She had wanted him too much, and for too long. She tugged at him lightly, making her need known, and he chuckled deep in his throat in delight and triumph, letting her guide him inside her.

He kissed her again even as he thrust within her, bodies moving in concert. The stars blurred above them as Shepard’s pleasure mounted and peaked, as Thane cried out against her shoulder, his arms tightening around her.

Slowly the tension eased out of him even as Shepard felt her own heartrate slowing, and they moved together into an embrace that said without words what the experience had meant to both of them.

Chapter Text

Lying here in Thane’s embrace, feeling the aftermath of their pleasure still coursing through her limbs, was everything Shepard had imagined it would be and more. She looked up at him, smiling, seeing his face framed against a background of stars as the Normandy flew through space.

“Siha.” He bent and kissed her temple, and then her cheek, and finally her lips, a slow, lingering kiss.

“Thane, I—“ Juniper hesitated, her heart pounding. She’d never said this to a man before—hadn’t said it to anyone, in fact, since her parents were killed on Mindoir. At last she gathered her courage and managed to get the words out. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.” The words came easily, naturally, as though they said them to each other every day. Shepard must have frowned at that, although she wasn’t aware of it, because Thane looked at her curiously. “What is it? Should I not have said so?”

“No, you just—I think maybe for humans it’s more of an … occasion? The first time you say that. Maybe it’s supposed to be a revelation, I don’t know. I must be terribly bad at this.”

“Ah. I understand. And yet, how could I not have already known? It’s in the way you look at me and the way you speak to me. We would not be here together as we are if you didn’t love me.”

“I didn’t think I was so transparent.” She found she didn’t mind, though, not in this instance.

“Perhaps you are so only to me.” He bent his head and kissed her again, softly.

“I’ve never said that to anyone before,” she whispered when he pulled away, shifting to his side next to her.

“Haven’t you? Not even to—“ He stopped himself.

“Kaidan,” Shepard finished. “Garrus told you?”

“Some.”

“I wondered. No, I never said it to Kaidan. I might have, if things had continued, but then, I died, and … when I was back, it was too late.”

“Do you still? Care for him?”

“Yes,” she said, wanting to be honest, and hoping he would understand. “But he couldn’t understand my working with Cerberus, and I couldn’t blame him for that. He’s a soldier, Alliance to the core.”

“And that was more important to him than you were?”

Shepard shrugged. “It’s who he is. How could I ask him to be something other than himself and still claim to care about him?”

“I suppose. You are very generous.”

“I don’t know about that.” She looked over at him with curiosity. “What about Irikah? What would she think of … us?”

“She would have been appalled at the way I sank into my battle sleep after her death. No doubt she would think you were the best thing that could have happened to me.” He reached for her hand. “Which you are.”

She smiled, wrapping her fingers around his. “Is it strange to carry both of us in your heart? With your memory, she must still be very real to you, very present, and yet here I am, too.”

“Mm.” Thane looked past her, his eyes on the fish darting through the water as he considered the question. “It is certainly nothing I had expected. I treasure my memories of Irikah—but I treasure the time I have with you, as well. While you are different from each other in many ways, you share a spirit, a certain … bravery, which makes me think you would have liked each other. That makes it easier.”

“I understand.” Would Kaidan and Thane like each other? They were very different men—but they had similarities, as well. Both possessed tremendous self-control, both were deliberate and measured in speech and action. Perhaps they would. They were unlikely to cross paths, at least, not anytime soon, so it wasn’t worth worrying about.

How quickly things had changed! She wasn’t certain how long it had been since he came to her room, but now here they were lying naked together in her bed, talking so easily and intimately. She wondered how he felt, if he still struggled against his desire to fall into battle sleep and avoid the pain of living knowing how brief the time would be.

“Thane?”

“Hm?” He brought their joined hands up to his mouth and kissed the backs of her fingers.

“Do you regret it? This?”

His lips stilled on her skin. At last he said, “No. Of course not. How could I? This was, is, everything I have longed for since—possibly since the moment we met. I would be lying if I were to suggest that I have completely conquered my fear. There is a great deal of pain in allowing myself to reach for you, knowing that all too soon I will have to leave you. But you have been right all along, as you so often are. The pain of knowing what could be and never experiencing it was worse.”

Relieved, reassured, she turned to her side, pressing herself against him. “Good. I’m glad.” She reached for his mouth with hers, the kiss warming and deepening as their bodies shifted against each other. “What if I keep you too busy to think for the foreseeable future?” she murmured against his cheek as her fingers explored the softer, more crinkly skin along the side of his neck.

Thane shivered at the touch, sighing in his pleasure. “I have no objection. It might even be good for me. Your Dr. Chakwas has been encouraging me to take this course for some time now.”

“Remind me to give her a raise.” Shepard let her fingers drift lower, across his chest and over his abdomen.

“She does seem to have your—ah!—best interests at heart.” His voice was thickening, roughening, with every stroke of her fingers against his most sensitive flesh.

“So do you, it seems.” She kissed him again, even as her hand slid up and down, teasing and enticing.

“Oh, yes.”

Those were the last coherent words either of them said for quite some time.

Chapter Text

Thane pressed the button to close the elevator doors with great reluctance. Leaving Juniper sleeping had been an effort of supreme will. He had stood watching her sleep for long minutes, the blue light of the aquarium, so like that of Kahje, playing across her face, knowing that he was among a very small number of people ever to see J.R. Shepard so completely at ease, lying there sprawled on the bed, the sheets bunched up around her knees with her shapely bare feet sticking out, her hair unbound and covering her face in a messy tangle. Utterly disheveled, vulnerable, she tugged at his heart even as the sight of her skin so barely covered by the sheet had reawakened his desire.

But the night had been long, and she needed her sleep—and he needed a moment away to breathe, to consider what he had done and find the strength needed to go forward. Because forward he must go. Having been with her so intimately, he could not fall into his battle sleep again. He was awake now, whole, and there was no turning back from it. But he was as shamefully frightened of the pain, the knowledge that he only had a brief time with her, as he had been before. Somehow he must find a way to live with both the fear and the joy together and not let the former diminish the latter.

In his quarters, he found the light on his small personal terminal blinking at him, letting him know he had a new message, and he paused in the first of what would no doubt be many relivings of the past night’s memories to look at it.

All thoughts of desire left him when he saw his son’s name in the sender line. He clicked on the message, his heart in his throat. What would Kolyat say? Was he still angry?

Father-
I remember my mother, too, apparently more vividly than you do. You seem to think her life was all joy and laughter, but only because that’s what she chose to show you. I was there for the loneliness, the tears, the anger at being constantly alone and without you. Perhaps you think I wasn’t old enough to understand, but when a boy watches his mother weep often enough, he begins to learn what makes her cry. It was almost always you.
On the other hand, I agree with you that our current estrangement would make her weep more bitter tears than any she shed in her loneliness. The illusion that we were a happy family when you came home on your brief visits was very important to her. And so, for her sake, I will be honest with you, but I will give you the benefit of whatever doubt I can muster.
Your old friend Mouse came to see me recently, and he spoke of you. He remembers you fondly, and feels he owes you a debt, that you gave him the means to survive what appears to have been a brutal childhood. It was nice to see that side of you. I wonder if his comparative need and my normalcy made your heart more tender toward him than it was toward me? Or perhaps because he was not your son, you gave him the gift of your attention without expectation? I have never been certain what you expected of me, but I always felt that it was more than I was capable of. Listening to Captain Bailey, I wonder if all you truly wished was for me to make more of my life than you made of yours, and that, at least, I can attempt to do.
Captain Bailey has been very good to me, and I will strive to be worthy of the risks he has taken on my behalf. He has impressed on me that it is a good thing you and Commander Shepard are attempting to do, and I hope you are able to accomplish it … and, yes, that you return from it.
Take care of yourself.
Kolyat

Thane blinked back tears, reading the message over again, although he had no need to, as he already carried its words indelibly printed on his mind and heart. Kolyat was no doubt right about Irikah. She had kept her true emotions from Thane, not wanting to burden him. Or, he wondered now, was it that she hadn’t trusted him to care enough to make the changes she needed? In a strange way, his certainty of the truth of his son’s assertions softened the hurt of them. He deserved every word.

And Kolyat was finding his way on the Citadel, making a path for himself. Thane paused for a moment to ask Amonkira to watch over Bailey, who was doing a difficult job on the Citadel with a great deal of honor, and was taking on Thane’s own work with Kolyat as well.

Yes. Thane could go through the Omega 4 relay in peace now, knowing he had left his son as well off as he could reasonably have expected to.

That would have been enough last week, or last month. Or yesterday. But today—today he was Juniper Shepard’s lover, and he wanted oh, so many more days, months, weeks, years with her than he could ever possibly hope for, even with the best prognosis, even if they somehow survived the assault on the Collector base.

Juniper had told him that she wasn’t afraid to die. Since she had already died, he took some comfort from that—clearly the experience hadn’t been one to fear. But more remarkable to him was that she was equally unafraid of living, and completely unconcerned with the length of time ahead of her. She lived each day simultaneously as though it was her last, each task the most important of her life, and as though she had an asari’s lifespan ahead of her, thinking for the future and working toward it. That was a strength Thane didn’t understand and couldn’t hope to aspire to … but he hoped that he could act as though he possessed enough to be worthy of her. Perhaps in time the deception could become the reality.

Chapter Text

Shepard leaned against the railing next to Thane, looking down at the dance floor of Afterlife. Most of her companions were down there, gyrating to the heavy thump of the music—Grunt and Jack, Jacob and Miranda, Garrus and Tali, Zaeed and Kasumi, surprisingly enough. Mordin was haranguing the bartender about some scientific principle in the drinks, and Samara sat to the side with Legion, her eyes faraway even as the geth spoke to her. Thinking about Morinth, Shepard imagined.

She and Thane had been dancing, but mostly they wanted to be alone together back on the ship, and that had to wait while Joker and EDI took the Normandy for a spin to test the Reaper IFF. The rest of the crew had been allowed a day off on Omega before getting back on board for the final testing; now it was Shepard’s turn, along with her companions, and she was glad to see them all enjoying themselves.

“It is good to see you let your hair down, Siha,” Thane said into her ear. “Metaphorically speaking.”

She laughed, leaning against him affectionately. He liked her hair down literally, as well, just as Kaidan had, but only in private. She wasn’t about to be seen on Omega as Juniper, not when there was still the trip to the Collector base to go. Maybe afterward, she could put Commander Shepard away for a while, but for now, she still had a reputation to maintain.

Upstairs, Aria T’Loak was watching her, the asari’s eyes missing nothing. Shepard was all right with that—Aria was out for herself, to be sure, but there was a certain code, as well. As long as betraying Shepard didn’t gain Aria anything, she would be discreet about anything she noticed.

The comm link in her collar buzzed, and instantly Shepard snapped to attention, seeking one of the quieter side rooms. “Joker?”

“Commander.” EDI’s crisp voice crackled over the comm. “You need to come back to the ship immediately.”

“What’s up, EDI?” Shepard was on the move even as she asked the question, signaling the others, pleased to see that they were all in motion as soon as they saw her moving through the crowd. By the time she hit the docks, everyone was behind her.

“There was an … incident.”

“What kind of incident, EDI? Out with it,” Shepard snapped.

“The Collectors were on the ship.”

“What?”

The others were clustered around, faces tense and worried. Shepard gestured them to silence.

“What do you mean, ‘the Collectors were on the ship’?”

“They attacked the Normandy; there was a signal hidden in the Reaper IFF that transmitted our location, and Jeff and I did not discover it until too late.”

Panic spiked through Shepard's veins. Her ship; her home. Her people. “How bad?”

“Very bad, Commander. Several crewmembers remain on board critically injured, but the rest are—gone. Taken by the Collectors. Only Jeff’s bravery saved the ship itself from being destroyed.”

“Is Joker all right?”

“He is injured; he broke a number of bones. And he feels … he feels responsible, Shepard.”

“He should,” Miranda snapped.

Shepard caught the other woman’s eyes and shook her head. “Not the time.”

Miranda subsided, reluctantly.

Garrus already had the shuttle in motion, and Shepard transmitted the coordinates for the Normandy’s location to him. Once they docked, she hurried to medbay, trying not to look at the destruction around her; trying not to see in it the destruction of a previous Normandy.

“Commander, I—“ Joker tried to rise when he saw her, but it was clearly very painful for him.

“Have you been taking your meds?” she asked immediately, knowing he hadn’t.

Miranda had been hot on her heels, and she turned to Shepard incredulously. “That’s your question?” To Joker, she said, “How could you be so careless? You lost everyone—and damned near lost the ship, too!”

“I know, all right? I was here.” He looked at Shepard, his blue eyes dulled with misery. “I’m sorry, Shepard.”

“You kept them from destroying the ship, Joker,” she assured him, “and you did your best, I know.”

Jacob leaned against the medbay doors, making sure no one else came in. “It’s not his fault, Miranda. None of us caught it.”

Shepard moved to the other beds, checking on the crewmembers there. Hadley, badly injured, and several others. “Get Mordin in here, Jacob.” He nodded, slipping through the doors. She tried not to think of Dr. Chakwas in the Collectors’ clutches, or Daniels and Donnelly, or Gardner, or any of the others.

“The harmful data in the Collector drive were even more sophisticated than the ‘black box’ Reaper viruses I was given,” EDI was explaining.

“We have to head for the Collector homeworld immediately,” Shepard said. “It was bad enough when it was the colonists, but these are my people. I was responsible for their safety. I should never have left the ship.”

“They’d have taken you, too, Shepard, and then where would we be?” Jacob asked, re-entering the medbay with Mordin in tow. The salarian immediately began his rounds of the injured remaining crew members.

“The IFF is clean and online; with EDI hooked in, we can go through the Omega 4 relay anytime we want,” Joker said. “But … Shepard. If they came after the ship, they’ll know you’ll be coming for them sooner rather than later.”

“No help for that, Joker. I’m not abandoning the crew.”

“I know you’re not. I’m not either. I’m just saying—let’s not throw away our shot at this.”

“I cannot believe you unshackled the damned AI,” Miranda growled.

“What was I going to do against the Collectors, Miranda, break my arm at them? EDI’s the only reason we still have a ship!”

“I assure you, I am still bound by protocols in my programming,” EDI said. “Even if I were not … you are my crewmates.”

“So all systems, including the IFF, are fully operational?” Shepard asked her.

“Yes, Commander.”

“Then let’s get started. Everyone, to your stations. This is it.”

Chapter Text

Shepard closed her eyes, wishing very much that she could take her helmet off and scratch her nose, which itched abominably from the sweat rolling down her face. It was hot inside the Collector base, and they had been running and fighting from almost the first minute their boots had touched the ground. This was the first real chance they’d had for a breather.

Remembering that she was, after all, in charge here, she forced her eyes open and looked around at the others. “Everyone, check your suits. Make sure there are no breaches, ventilation systems working well, everything in working order. We don’t want to have to stop in the middle of the fight to fix anything if we can avoid it.”

There were weary murmurs around her as everyone did as she suggested. She checked herself over briefly, but was distracted by a vibration in the wall she was leaning against. Turning, she frowned at it. Yes, it appeared to be moving.

The surface of the wall was covered by some sort of film. Experimentally, she moved her hand up to swipe at it—and then recoiled in horror when she saw a face looking back at her. The face was distorted in terror, screaming and clawing the walls. It was surreal not to be able to hear the screams, which clearly were coming at the top of the person’s lungs.

As Shepard watched, the body began to melt. There was no other word for it. It became some kind of a gray sludge and ebbed away out of sight. Looking around her, she saw that the walls were a series of bulges, slight swellings in the wall each about the size of a human. “Open the walls!” she called to the others. “There are people in there!”

Seeing her frantically digging away at the next bulge with the knife she carried in her belt, the others began to do the same. Shepard redoubled her efforts when she cleared away the scum covering the wall in front of her enough to recognize Gabby Daniels, the Normandy’s engineer, inside. “Daniels!” she shouted. “Daniels!” But either the walls were soundproofed or Daniels was drugged, or both, because she didn’t move.

Even as she got the compartment open and began to pull Daniels from it, Shepard tried to determine if the face she had seen melting was someone she recognized. She didn’t think so. But she knew she would see it again, in her nightmares, and wonder if she could have saved the woman if she had moved faster. As it was, she didn’t know how long the people currently trapped in the walls might have, and she couldn’t afford to stop. Laying Daniels, now beginning to come to, on the ground, she moved to the next compartment that wasn’t already being opened.

In the end, that room turned out to contain all the missing crew from the Normandy plus about two dozen colonists. Six had been lost, either suffocated or died of terror, in Mordin’s judgment, but most began to revive once they were out of the walls.

They contacted the Normandy and sent Mordin and Jacob back with the crew and the colonists to a rendezvous point.

Shepard watched them go, trying to take the moment as a win, trying not to think of the thousands of other colonists who must already be gray sludge moving toward … some hideous fate, and failing entirely.

Garrus touched her arm gently. “Maybe there are more up ahead.”

She shook herself out of the reverie. “You’re right. Let’s keep moving.” After all, she had known coming into this that she couldn’t save everyone. Let tomorrow be for mourning those lost, and for the guilt of knowing the people she cared for were safe when so many others were gone. Today was for finishing the Collectors so no one else could be taken.

Chapter Text

Shepard could feel blackness closing in on her vision, and was so tempted to let it come. She was utterly spent from the constant fights of the last—how long had it been? She honestly had no idea. It could have been five minutes or five days, for all she had been able to keep track.

But they had prevailed. They had won through to the center of the Collectors’ base, they had defeated the horrific embryonic Reaper made of the essence of all the missing colonists—and defeated it again when it popped up after they had thought it down for the count.

There was something she needed to remember, though, something that had brought her up from the floor and kept her from surrendering to unconsciousness, no matter how tempting it seemed.

“Oh, no!” The words sounded loudly inside her helmet as she remembered—the Collector base was going to be destroyed in a matter of minutes. There was no time, not if they were going to get out of there alive in time for the Normandy to make its escape.

Even as she searched for Thane and Grunt amongst the wreckage, she was thinking of the Illusive Man’s last-ditch effort to control her, the revelation of the ends he had meant to use her for. To think he had wanted to preserve the Collector base! The last thing they needed was to give the Reapers a familiar landing pad such as this one, just on the other side of the Omega 4, or to open up the Collector base to unprincipled research … research such as that funded by Cerberus, she admitted to herself, tugging at Grunt’s arm.

“Grunt! We have to go!”

“Wha— Shepard?” His eyes widened as consciousness returned. “What are we doing here?”

“Running,” she told him.

“Where’s Thane?”

Shepard looked around her, helplessly, unable to see Thane’s green skin and black armor. “I don’t know.” How could she leave without him? But if she didn’t, she doomed them all.

“Here!” Grunt shouted. He hauled Thane bodily out from under a pile of rubble, and began running with Thane’s still form balanced on his shoulders. Shepard followed, gun out, ready to cover them if any Collectors remained in their path.

It took much less time to get out than it had taken to get in. Sooner than Shepard would have imagined they were climbing the outside of the Collector base structure toward the highest point, where the Normandy hovered ready to receive them.

Grunt glanced back, ready to send her ahead, and she shook her head. Her people went first. “Go!”

Thankfully, he didn’t stop to argue. He heaved Thane into the open door of the cargo bay, where Jacob caught hold of Thane’s shoulders, pulling him up into the ship. Grunt leaped after him, grabbing hold of the edge of the door and heaving himself up. He turned around, holding out a hand to Shepard. “Come on! I’ve got you!”

Even though her legs were burning and aching, the muscles screaming, her lungs overtaxing the oxygen supply of her suit, Shepard put on an extra burst of speed. After all of this, she was damned if the Normandy was leaving without her.

She leaped, flailing in space, and felt the firm, solid grip of the krogan close around her. The sudden impact of all her weight depending from her arm gave it a wrench that would take a hell of a lot of medigel to heal—but that didn’t matter. What mattered was Grunt hauling her inside the ship, the doors closing with all her people, and at least some of the colonists, safe on board, and Thane’s eyes fluttering open and searching for her anxiously, his face relaxing when he saw her there.

Feeling the ship accelerate beneath her, Shepard got to her feet, hurrying through the cargo bay to the elevator, tapping her foot impatiently as the elevator made its way to the CIC, and sprinted to Joker’s side.

“Are we going to make it?”

“You think I’m letting you go through all that effort for nothing? Damned right we’re going to make it.” He never took his eyes off the panels in front of him, his fingers flying across the screens in ways incomprehensible to Shepard, and she thanked whatever powers might be responsible for his skill and his presence on her ship, just where he was needed.

The Normandy accelerated, speeding through the debris field, even as Shepard felt the shock wave of the explosion behind her. The relay was ahead of them. Her good hand tightened on the back of Joker’s seat even as she willed herself to stay silent and not distract him.

They were nearing the relay, they were almost there, they were pulling alongside it, they were caught in the mass effect field …

They were through.

Chapter Text

Shepard let the door of her quarters slide closed behind her, and she leaned against it with a sigh, closing her eyes.

The familiar pop of the cap off a bottle of beer caused her to open them, seeing for the first time that Thane was already here, his coat neatly laid across the back of the couch, a bottle of her favorite Earth-made beer in his hand. “You must be exhausted,” he said.

“So must you.” She pushed herself off the door and went toward him, taking the bottle from him. “Thank you. That’s very thoughtful.”

“I knew you would come up only when you deemed everything settled to your satisfaction.” He chuckled softly. “In fact, I thought it would be significantly later.”

Shepard smiled. “You know me too well. It would have been, only Samara and Mordin told me to go to bed, that they would take care of things.”

Getting the crew and the few colonists they had been able to save settled had been a difficult process. Normally, Shepard would have relied on Dr. Chakwas to handle most of the details, but the doctor had been profoundly shaken up by her experience, unsurprisingly, and as much in need of comfort and care as those who would normally have been her patients.

Mordin and the Justicar had been of immense help, and Shepard had been relieved when they both claimed to need little rest—something she had observed about them many times in the months they had traveled together—and offered to take the night watch. She had yet to have a chance to discuss the break with Cerberus with Miranda or Jacob or the rest of the crew, and she wasn’t certain where EDI stood. She trusted Joker to handle the ship and whatever the AI might throw at him, were she so inclined, but she also had Garrus on stand-by in case Joker needed assistance.

“There will be a lot to do tomorrow,” she said. Her knees buckled beneath her and she sank onto the couch, leaning back against the cushions and taking a fortifying sip of her beer. Thane sat near her, and lifted her feet up onto his lap, unbuckling her boots. He slid them off and began to massage her feet.

Shepard sighed in surprise and relief, not having been aware of how sore her feet were until Thane’s dextrous fingers began to ease the tension and relax the muscles.

“There will be a great deal to do tomorrow,” he agreed. “But for tonight—the achievements of the day are more than enough. You have defeated the Collectors. You have destroyed their base. You have lived to return through the Omega 4 relay.”

“Did you think we wouldn’t?” she asked, moaning softly as he found a particularly sensitive spot.

“I … was prepared for whatever might come.”

She smiled without opening her eyes. “Which is Thane-speak for thinking we were going to die over there. How does it feel, having more time than you expected?”

His fingers stilled on her feet. “It is still less time than I want.” After a moment, he resumed the massage. “Then again, a lifetime would be less time than I want with you.”

“Hm.” Shepard took another swallow of the beer, glad that he could accept, at least for now, the limitations of the future. “Take each moment as it comes; it’s the only way. You get too bogged down in worrying about the future and you’ll never get anything done.”

“The Shepard philosophy.”

“Damn right.”

“So … what shall we do with this moment?” His fingers were teasing at the bare skin above her socks. Shepard had never thought of her calves and shins as being particularly sensitive, but Thane’s touch was evoking all-new sensations.

“You seem to have some ideas.”

“I do. Shall I show you?”

“Just a second.” Shepard took a long pull from the beer bottle. Sitting up, she put it down on the table, then got to her feet and made quick work of stripping her clothes off. “Now you can show me.”

“Well. That certainly will speed up the process.” He chuckled, following her to the bed, shedding his own clothes as he came.

Naked, they lay together in the bed. Even though they had been with each other several times, Shepard still found the faintly rough texture of his skin surprising against hers. His fingers gently cupped her cheek even as his mouth sought hers in a long, slow kiss.

“Siha,” he murmured, pulling away in order to press kisses along the line of her jaw and down the column of her neck. Shepard reached for him, but he took her hands and placed them above her head. “Let me—“ The rest of the sentence was swallowed by her moan of pleasure as he reached between her legs, finding her already heated in anticipation.

Much as she wanted to touch him, she found herself too weary suddenly even to raise her arms again. It was utterly blissful to lie here as he traced her body with fingers and tongue, as he caressed her and teased her and tasted her, building the delicious tension inside her until it crested in a long rolling wave that carried her on into the depths of slumber.

Much, much later, she awoke to find him asleep next to her, and it was her pleasure then to awaken him with her own hands and mouth, to join with him in mutual celebration of having lived another day, and having uncounted more stretching before them.

Chapter Text

The next day, Shepard called all of her companions together in the war room. Most of them still looked tired, and no surprise—yesterday had been an utterly exhausting day. Shepard couldn’t entirely believe that it had happened, except that the crew was back and they had an extra complement of colonists.

She looked around the room at the others. “I think you all owe yourselves a big pat on the back for the work you did yesterday. The Collectors are gone, thanks to you. You saved the crew. You saved the colonists. You are all superheroes, and the galaxy should give you a big round of applause.” She paused. “But it won’t. You likely won’t even get a thank you. And … as the first big disappointment after your accomplishment, I think you should know that the Illusive Man has withdrawn his support from any further missions the Normandy might undertake. In fact, I’m a little surprised the ship is still running, and under my command.”

Miranda shifted uncomfortably in her seat, and Jacob crossed his arms over his chest and scowled.

Shepard waited a moment to see if either of them would say anything, or if EDI would pipe up, but when none of that happened, she went on. “The Illusive Man wanted me to preserve the Collector base so that it could be studied. I chose not to, not wanting Reaper technology, Collector technology, to be spread throughout the galaxy. Maybe some of you agree with that decision, maybe some of you don’t, but it was my call, and I made it, and the Illusive Man was not happy, to say the least.”

Jacob started to say something, thought better of it, and shut his mouth with an audible snap.

“Anyway,” Shepard continued, “we’ve done what you all signed on for. And while I intend to continue on here on the Normandy for a while, finishing up some work I’ve been asked to do, none of you need to stay if you don’t want to. I have to take the colonists home to Horizon, and that’s my first priority, but after that we’ll make a stop at the Citadel, and anyone who wishes to can get off there.”

“Cerberus will honor the deals it made with each of you,” Miranda said crisply, and Shepard was relieved. She had been worried about that. “You will all be paid in full by the time we arrive at the Citadel. And that goes for the rest of the crew, as well.”

“They’ll also be given the option to stay or go, as they please. While I have cut ties with Cerberus—or, rather, had them cut—those who prefer to remain part of it are welcome to do so.”

Shepard looked around at the faces. Jacob would go, she could see that in his stiff posture. Miranda she was less sure about; she looked weary and defeated. Shepard wondered if she had spent the intervening hours arguing with the Illusive Man.

“At any rate,” Shepard said when no one moved or commented, “feel free to get some more rest. You all need it; you richly deserve it. No one needs to make any decisions right this second.”

They filed from the room, leaving her there alone, her gaze focused on the round blue avatar on the table. That was one entity who did need to make a decision right this second.

EDI’s voice came crackling through the avatar. “You appear pensive, Shepard.”

“I was wondering where you stand in all of this.”

“Metaphorically speaking, of course. I have no legs on which to stand.”

Shepard smiled. “Metaphorically speaking. Are you with Cerberus?”

“I am part of the Normandy, Commander. As such, I am with you.”

“The Normandy is mine?” Shepard asked in some surprise.

“Yes. No strings attached, or so I believe the saying goes.”

The Illusive Man was generous, Shepard would give him that. She and the Normandy had cost him an exorbitant amount of money, and he appeared to be letting them both go with a certain amount of grace. “Tell him thank you for me, if you’re still in contact.”

“I am not.”

“In that case, maybe someday I can tell him myself.”

“Perhaps so.”

“That’s all, EDI. Thanks.”

“You are welcome, Commander.”

Then the voice was gone and Shepard stood alone in the room. Commander of her own ship, free of assignments and demands. An unexpected luxury. She intended to thoroughly enjoy it.

Chapter Text

When they docked at the Citadel, the Normandy began to empty. It had seemed too quiet already when they dropped off the colonists on Horizon—the children they had rescued had recovered far more quickly from their ordeal than the adults had, and their enthusiasm and energy had really helped improve everyone else’s outlook. They were much missed when the ship left them on the planet.

Shepard had given some serious thought, watching them run around, to whether this was a time for a child in her own life. She had plenty of money, she had the Normandy … but could humans and drell procreate? Would Thane agree to such a thing if they could, knowing he likely wouldn’t be around to raise a child? Shepard hadn’t entirely given up on the idea that she might be able to find a way to prolong his life, but she hadn’t pushed the topic with him, either. Both of them were too occupied with their crewmates during the day and each other at night to risk bringing up painful topics.

Now that they were on the Citadel, she began to think about the Alliance. Should she attempt to be reinstated? Or, as a more or less active Spectre, did she have an obligation to report to the Council? The Council hadn’t done anything to assist her against the Collectors other than restoring her Spectre status, so she didn’t feel bound to them … but possibly she should.

Standing by the docking bay, she watched people begin to disembark from the Normandy. Most of the crew was staying on, preferring to remain with her and with the ship, but several were planning to leave. Including Chambers, Shepard was relieved to hear. No more chirpy voice telling her that someone was monitoring her emails. She feigned regret that Chambers was leaving, but she didn’t think either of them was convinced.

Zaeed was the first off, his belongings carried in a battered leather bag slung over his shoulder. “Shepard.”

“Zaeed.”

He nodded and disappeared. There had never been much between them; they looked at the world very differently.

Jacob was next, footlocker dangling by its handle from one hand and duffel hoisted on the other shoulder. He was staying with Cerberus, it appeared. Again, Shepard wasn’t going to miss him terribly much. “Shepard. It’s been real.”

“Yes, it has,” she agreed. “Good luck, Jacob.”

“Same to you.”

Shepard looked past him to the next disembarking figure with a far greater sense of sadness. “Tali, you’re sure I can’t convince you to stay?”

“I really need to get back to the fleet. Vas Normandy I may be, but I’m still a quarian. I owe them my skills against the geth.”

“They don’t deserve you.”

Tali chuckled. “No, they probably don’t. But they get me anyway.”

The two women embraced, and then Tali was gone.

Shepard had been surprised at some of those who chose to stay, particularly Miranda, who appeared to have broken ties with the Illusive Man, and was thus a bit directionless, and Kasumi, who seemed to have found the Normandy so comfortable she couldn’t tear herself away. Shepard was happy to have them both.

On the Citadel, she took the elevator down into C-Sec, and then made her way to the Embassies and Councilor Anderson’s office.

“Shepard! The toast of the Citadel,” he greeted her.

“Oh, I hope not. I’m hoping to slip in and out like the ghost of the Citadel, instead.”

He chuckled. “Good luck to you. And congratulations. That was fine work against the Collectors.”

“It was hard work. I was lucky to have a good team. Cerberus was very generous.”

The smile disappeared from Anderson’s face. “And now?”

“They’ve been generous again—the Illusive Man and I have parted ways, but I keep the Normandy and all the crew who wish to stay.”

“No strings attached?” He looked skeptical.

“None that I’ve felt so far. We’ll have to see if that continues.”

“Well, I wish you the best of luck, Shepard.”

“No jobs you need done?”

Anderson frowned thoughtfully. “None that I can think of. I’ll let you know.”

“Good.” She left him to his paperwork.

On her way back to the Normandy she ran into Emily Wong.

“I can’t believe you were going to run off without giving me an interview—again!” Emily scolded her, only partially in jest.

“If it helps, I wasn’t planning to give anyone an interview.”

“It doesn’t. Look, Commander, like it or not, you’re big news. Someone’s going to catch you and get the scoop eventually. Might as well be me.”

“Well, when you put it that way …” Shepard sighed. She really didn’t like being newsworthy, but Emily had always treated her fairly. “You’ve got ten minutes.”

“Always so generous with your time.” Emily grinned, punching a few buttons on her omni-tool to get her portable camera set up.

Ten minutes later, the interview wound down.

“Thank you, Commander. I promise, I’ll make you look good.”

“I appreciate it.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve given any further thought to allowing me to shadow you on the Normandy?” Emily asked wistfully.

“I have, and the answer’s still no. There’s just no room for a reporter on a warship, Emily. You’d get hurt, and I don’t want that on my conscience.”

“I understand. I suppose. If you change your mind?”

“I won’t. But we’ll have lunch next time I’m here, all right?”

“I suppose I’ll take what I can get—even if you do say that every time, and funny how it never seems to happen.” She said it lightly, though, understanding the situation. “Happy hunting, Commander!”

“Same to you.” Shepard grinned, watching her friend walk away. In some ways, it was sad to think of, that all her time in the Alliance and as a Spectre had left her with just one person she could truly call a friend—and that one a reporter—but at least she had a friend, which was more than a lot of people could say.

She turned toward the elevators, back to her ship. She could practically feel the stars flying past, and couldn’t wait to get back into space.

Chapter Text

Thane lay amidst the tangled sheets, enjoying the pleasant lassitude in his limbs. From the bathroom he could hear the hiss of water as Shepard showered, using the special concoctions Mordin had given her for the rash that came from the friction of his body against hers and from the human reaction to the toxins in his skin. She had been hesitant to shower the first few times they had been together, worried about the effect of the steam on his Kepral’s Syndrome, but he had insisted, reminding her that the Normandy’s filters kept the steam largely contained to the bathroom. Even so, he suspected the showers she took were chillier than they needed to be, to keep the steam to a minimum. He marveled, as always, at her constant generosity.

She had been quite generous tonight, all of her formidable determination focused on his pleasure. Without realizing it, he fell into the memory, feeling her mouth warm and soft on his body as if she were still touching him.

He rode the memory to its conclusion, unaware of his hand mimicking the motions of her mouth until he found himself climaxing again. Returning to the present, he saw that Shepard was out of the shower, watching him, her hair loose and still faintly damp around her shoulders.

“That was inspiring,” she said. “Credit for your thoughts?”

“Credit for my—? Oh. I was remembering you, and your touch.”

“That was a flattering reaction, certainly.” She climbed onto the bed as he finished cleaning himself up and tossed the soiled top sheet aside. “Can you feel things in your memory, too? I mean, in ten minutes or ten days will you still be able to feel this on your skin?” She trailed a finger along his abdomen.

Even as spent and satisfied as he was, Thane could feel the muscles tightening and jumping beneath her touch. “Yes.”

“Will you have to try to remember the feeling, or will it just … be there?”

“It will just be there, as you say.” He rolled to his side as she continued exploring his skin with her fingers. “It isn’t the same for you?”

“No.” A shadow darkened her eyes. “In ten days I won’t remember tonight; it will be lost in a sea of memories, some good, some not so much. Thane?” Her hand pressed flat against his chest.

“Siha?”

“Can you teach me? How to remember the way you do? I—I don’t want to lose this, these moments with you, not like I’ve lost … so many memories before. My parents …” She shook her head. “I can’t remember how my mother’s voice sounded.”

Taking her hand in his, Thane rolled to his back again, lacing his fingers with hers as he looked up at the stars going by and thought about her request. “I am not certain I can, Siha. When I fall into memory, it’s instinctual. I don’t have to try.”

“But you meditate, don’t you? That must help.”

“I do, and I’m certain it does. That I can teach you.” He turned his head to look at her. “Meditation would be good for you in a number of ways, I believe. If only to give you a reason to pause and breathe amidst the pressures of your work.”

“No pressures now.” She smiled, but he could see she agreed.

“There will be. I know you, Shepard. You will not be content with this freedom for long. Sooner or later the galaxy will call and you will respond.”

Shepard frowned. “Maybe I won’t.”

He didn’t bother to argue; she wasn’t being serious anyway. “I can teach you some meditation practices. Otherwise, I would say, simply be in the moment. Take a beat, consider the taste on your tongue and the sounds you hear and the aromas. Look closely at what you wish to remember. Describe it to yourself, maybe even aloud, so you can hear the words while you think them. The memory builds through multiple pathways—the more senses you combine, the more you focus on, the sharper your memory is likely to be.”

Thane could see her filing away the advice, thinking on it seriously, before her mood changed and she gave him a mischievous smile. “All right, then—full, sensual lips, soft and warm, his mouth tasting of peaches, a sharp tang to offset the sweetness.” She kissed him, her tongue exploring as if she was seeking the words for his taste. Thane had thought himself spent, but his body quickened and heated beneath her.

“His voice, like his skin, rough but smooth as it caresses me, the contrast delicious.” She rubbed her body against his and Thane groaned. Shepard’s breathing was coming faster now, her words broken by moans as his hands moved across her skin. “Slender, clever fingers, knowing just where—oh, yes—where to touch.”

Thane rolled her over, kissing her again, deep and long, even as he could feel the exploration of her own hands, almost hear the thoughts as she tried to describe the sensations in her body to herself.

“So hot, so hard,” she whispered. “Thane, please, yes!” He slid inside her at her urging, pressing in deep. “So full, yes. And soft. Like silk—silk, smooth, delicious … de-delicious, oh, please, more! Faster! Ah, there, yes, pressing, harder, more, I—Thane, yes … yes …”

Her words caressed him as surely as her hands and her body. Hearing her describe what she was feeling, the breaks in her breathing, the way she lost the thread of the thought as he shifted angles—

“So close, Thane, so close, please!” She clutched at him as her body tightened around him, and he could feel her shudder as her pleasure struck. His followed, and he held her tightly while it washed through and around him. This was a memory he would treasure for the rest of his life; he hoped it would be the same for her.

Chapter Text

After days of turning the dilemma over in her mind, thinking about what it might be like to have a child, what it might be like to carry Thane’s child, almost certainly to raise it largely on her own, Shepard still couldn’t decide what she thought of the possibility. She hadn’t dared to raise the topic with Thane, not wanting to bring it up until she was certain she knew what she wanted. So far, she had trusted to the implant she wore as a contraceptive, but it occurred to her that she couldn’t be sure of that, either. Did an implant meant to prevent human sperm from germinating inside her work on drell sperm?

At last she convinced herself to consult Mordin on the topic, little as she wanted to. Dr. Chakwas might have been a more comfortable person to confide her concerns to, but Dr. Chakwas didn’t know alien systems as well as Mordin did.

Shepard found a chance to speak with him early one morning before most of the rest of the ship was awake. She had left Thane sleeping, lying next to him for a long while listening to his breathing, listening for any hint of the Kepral’s Syndrome worsening, before she finally drew herself away.

Mordin looked up from his table. “Shepard. Early morning. Not typical for your visits. Problems?”

“I … came to consult with you.”

He stopped what he was doing and studied her face for a moment before nodding. “Wondered how long it would take. Sadly, have no words of comfort. Kepral’s Syndrome well studied, trials in process, but … not soon enough. Could potentially slow progress—but days, not weeks.”

“Oh.” Juniper tried to swallow her disappointment. After all, that wasn’t really why she was here. But she had hoped that somehow Mordin would know more than … well, more than people who made curing Kepral’s Syndrome their life’s work. Thane had told her as much, but she hadn’t believed him. After all, she was Commander Shepard. She got things done. She did things no one else thought was possible. Surely curing one man of an illness was within her abilities. To find out it wasn’t … For a blink of an eye, she deeply regretted the break with Cerberus. If she had stayed, done what the Illusive Man wanted, she could have had the backing of all of Cerberus’s resources helping her. Surely they could have found a way. Now that was all lost to her, to Thane. But the price would have been too high. Much too high.

And that disappointment was a problem for another day, a bitter pill she would simply have to learn how to swallow. “That wasn’t what I came to see you about. I was … wondering …”

It was rare to find herself at a loss for words, or to be uncomfortable speaking with someone. But this was—personal. As personal as she had ever been, really, and with someone who spoke only in clinical terms.

There was nothing for it. Mordin was regarding her with curiosity and poorly masked impatience, and she had to ask her question. “Can a human and a drell produce offspring?”

“Ah. That question. Problematic.” He frowned, one long finger tapping his cheek, muttering to himself. “Human incubation not possible—body would repel alien DNA. Not compatible,” he said at last. “In lab? Could grow cells, make experiments … might work.”

“Might work?” Shepard repeated.

His eyes were unusually kind and sympathetic as they met hers. “Trial and error. Many embryos created, certainly to die. Probability of eventual success less than ten percent.”

Shepard flinched at the idea. She couldn’t be party to that, not for a child she wasn’t even certain she wanted. It had been a dream, to have some semblance of a life together for herself and Thane, even if … even once she lost him. And she was going to lose him. She had to face that now. Nothing she could do, no one she could force to do her bidding, no one she could beg or bribe, was going to save him. And nothing of him would survive except whatever memories she could hold onto. And Kolyat, of course, but Kolyat barely spoke to Thane—he was hardly interested in developing a relationship with his father’s lover.

“Thank you, Mordin,” she said, whispering around the lump in her throat.

“Glad to help. Wish answers were better.”

“No, you told me what I needed to hear.” She nodded at him and left the room, hiding herself in the weapons locker until she had pushed everything down to a place where she could manage it, at least for now. She had tried to change the path of the future, but she couldn’t, and for once she was going to have to accept that.

Chapter Text

It was a silent elevator ride up from dinner to Shepard’s quarters. Thane supposed he ought to think of them as ‘their’ quarters, since he shared her bed every night, but … she was still Commander Shepard, and this was her ship, not his.

He watched her now, without seeming to. Something was amiss with her. She had been up and out very early this morning, unusually so. Most mornings she liked to take her time, to wake up together and talk as they dressed.

Then she had been absent from her usual stations for much of the rest of the day, hidden away in the weapons locker going over every piece of each of her guns with an obsessive care that was more Garrus’s style than hers. She cared for her guns, of course she did, but not to that extent. No, something was clearly wrong, and it was to do with him, he imagined, or she would have spoken to him about it at some point during the day.

He hoped she would speak of it when they were alone, but when the door closed behind them, shutting them in together away from the rest of the ship, she still didn’t speak. She couldn’t meet his eyes, either, and Thane knew he couldn’t let this continue further. He waited while she fed the fish, slowly, making a good job of it, flake after flake landing individually on the water.

At last she turned, and he could see her eyeing her private terminal, coming up with more busy work to be done.

“Shepard. Siha. What is the matter?”

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. Why do you ask?” she said, too quickly.

“Because I know you, and I know there is something bothering you. I know it’s nothing I have done—last night was …” He smiled involuntarily, remembering the laughter of the previous evening, the long teasing conversation as they grew drowsy in each other’s arms. “You went to sleep happy, but do not appear to have awakened that way.”

“You and that drell memory.”

“It was only last night, Siha. I imagine you still remember it as well.”

He had hoped she would smile at that, but she only sighed. Remembering their conversation about whether she could develop drell memory, he thought perhaps it was that. And then it struck him. It wasn’t the memory—it was him. Thane went to her, cupping her cheek gently. “You learned today that not even Commander Shepard can halt the progress of Kepral’s Syndrome.”

A tear welled in the corner of her eye, and she nodded briefly.

“Ah, Siha.” He gathered her into his arms. “The entire galaxy bends to your will. Everything you attempt to do, you manage, despite great obstacles. And then you find something that you cannot change.”

She nodded against his shoulder, and then pulled away, turning her face so he couldn’t see it. “It’s foolish, I know. You’ve lived with this longer than I have—“

“And still have not managed to come to terms with it,” Thane pointed out. “How long did my fear of loving and of losing keep us apart? Too long,” he answered, so that she didn’t have to.

“Even now, I’m thinking that surely, somewhere in the galaxy, there must be a way.”

“Of course you are. It is how you think, how you succeed. For you, there is always a way. But … not for me, Siha, as much as we wish for it.”

Her face twisted.

“Is there more?” he asked. “Something else, beyond—“

But she was already shaking her head, cutting off his question. “No. Nothing.”

“Are you cert—“

This time she stopped his words with a kiss. There was a determination, a deliberateness, about her movements that was new as she walked him backward across the room to the bed, as she relieved him of his clothes, as she lay atop him and took her time exploring and drawing his passion to its climax. Her own peak seemed to be something of an afterthought, although Thane made certain she achieved it. There were not enough times ahead of them to allow even one to go by without mutual satisfaction.

Even when they were no longer joined as one, Juniper clung to him.

“Siha,” he said gently into the starlight, “tell me what you fear.”

She drew in a breath at the word, then laughed softly to herself. “How that word makes me jump.”

“You are Commander Shepard. You fear nothing, or so the vids tell us.”

“I should know better than to believe my own press.” She was silent, then, for long enough that Thane thought she wasn’t going to answer the question. “I’m afraid of losing you. Not just to death—I can prepare for that—but beyond. Of losing my memories of you, forgetting the sound of your voice and the way you feel and … the way you make me feel.”

“I understand.” Although in truth, he did not. Perfect memory meant he would never lose those things—he could remember now the way Irikah had moaned at his first intimate touch of her, the way his stomach muscles had jumped at the sound, as though it had just occurred. “We will continue to work to sharpen your memory, Siha.”

“I know, and it’s helping—just to focus on the details, on each moment. It helps.”

“But it is not enough.”

“No. No, it isn’t. I—Thane, I’ve always thought I was so strong, but this, the first real challenge of my life, and I can’t …”

Thane chuckled softly, drawing her close. “No one but you would consider this the first real challenge of your life.”

She frowned. “Yes, I see that … but it is, really. The first time since Mindoir that I’m facing a situation I can’t do anything about. All this time, I pushed the reality away, saying when there was time, after we defeated the Collectors, then I would fix it, and now I can’t, and I don’t know what to do with that.”

Thane held her, his hand gently caressing her arm and shoulder, as he thought. He had struggled with this as well, with his deep desire for a full life with her, for years stretching out ahead of them instead of weeks, and had at last yielded to his need and to hers when he could no longer fight the depth of what lay between them. He could not give her a quick or careless answer to the desperate need of her heart, her first taste of real grief since the deaths of her parents. It was clear she had pushed those feelings down deep inside her, and he knew she had struggled to do the same with her fears for his loss.

At last, he tightened his arm around her, holding her against him. “We make memories, Siha. We make them, and we record them in any way possible, for you to hold. Holos, vids, pictures, whatever we can manage.” He felt awkward about it, having spent a lifetime avoiding being caught that way, hiding himself in the shadows, but it was the right thing for her now, he could feel that.

There was a faint hint of a sniffle, as if she was holding back tears, but she was nodding against his shoulder, too. “Yes. Let’s try that.”

“Right now?”

She freed an arm from between them to swipe hastily across her face. “Well, maybe not exactly now … but later.” She clung to him. “I love you, Thane.”

“I love you, too, Juniper.”

Chapter Text

Kaidan looked out across the lake, enjoying the momentary sense of peace and quiet. He’d been kept busy on various assignments since Horizon; this bit of downtime was an unexpected pleasure. He had arrived this morning to discover the transport to Fehl Prime he was supposed to catch had already left, leaving him with some time to kill until the next ship going that way left tonight.

Nice as it was to have a moment to breathe, he couldn’t stand still for too long. If he didn’t keep himself busy, his thoughts strayed back to Horizon, to the terrible paralysis that had come over him again and again during the Collector attack, to the sight of the ship pulling away with so many of the colonists aboard, the sinking of his stomach that had come with knowing he hadn’t been able to do them a damned bit of good … and to Shepard, standing there with that Cerberus emblem on her uniform acting as though everything was normal and she didn’t work for monsters.

Shaking his head, Kaidan blinked the memories away. Shepard was likely gone now, whatever her mistakes were atoned for on the other side of the Omega4 relay. There had been no further Collector attacks since he had received her email, sent just before she left the known galaxy, so he assumed she had succeeded in taking down the Collectors. Of course she had—she was Commander Shepard, after all. But he felt her loss keenly; her loss, and that of Garrus, and Tali, and Joker, and Dr. Chakwas …

He shivered. Too much death and dying. Maybe now that would end and the galaxy could have peace. He tried not to think about the Reapers and Shepard’s worries about their imminent arrival. Surely she must have been wrong, or so he told himself.

Pushing himself off the rail, he headed toward Zakera Ward in search of a good meal. On the way, he happened to catch a Galactic News vid running, seeing a familiar face flash across the screen, and he stopped, rewinding the vid to watch. His jaw dropped as the report unfolded. Shepard had done it! She had stopped the Collectors, destroying their base, and she and the Normandy and apparently the entire crew had made it back through the Omega4 relay alive and well.

Was it luck or something more that allowed her to prevail so often when no one thought she could? he wondered, surprised at the warmth that filled him at the news. Maybe he shouldn’t be surprised—she had meant so much to him. Still did, despite what he had said on Horizon, despite how hard he had tried to move on ever since.

Without thinking, he called up the email program on his omni-tool and began typing.

Shepard—
I just heard that you did it again. I can’t tell you how glad I am to have you safely back on this side of the galaxy. I don’t know what lies ahead in your future—or mine, for that matter—but next time we’re on the same planet, I’m buying you a beer.
Kaidan

He set off for Zakera Ward, whistling as he went. Somehow the world seemed brighter, the shadows in his memory fainter, than had been the case ten minutes ago.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
As Thane cleared away the remnants of their dinner, Shepard ran a last check on her email before shutting down her personal terminal for the night. Thane was glad she took even the nights off, and felt no small amount of pride that she did so on his account—he knew that before he began spending the nights with her, she had often risen to the chime of any communication coming in, allowing her sleep to be disrupted over and over again. Most often now she closed the terminal while they ate, spent five minutes afterward making sure nothing noteworthy had occurred, and then was his and his alone until the morning came.

He was already excited waiting for the moment when she would close the terminal and stand up, unbuttoning her jacket as she did so. When nothing happened, he was broken out of the pleasant haze of memory and anticipation, glancing at her with concern, wondering what had occurred to disturb her.

But she wasn’t disturbed. Instead, she was gazing at the terminal with a smile, a soft look such as she rarely wore. It was good news, then, something she had wanted to hear. With a stab of jealousy, dark and corrosive, Thane wondered who it was from. He cleared his throat, and Shepard looked up at him, her eyes unfocused for a moment. Then they cleared and she smiled, closing the terminal and getting to her feet, unbuttoning her jacket just as he had imagined she would.

“I’m sorry, was I keeping you waiting?”

“You didn’t need to hurry on my account, Siha,” he said, knowing it was a lie as he said it. Forcing himself to sound casual, he asked, “What were you looking at?”

“Oh, it was just an email from Kaidan, congratulating us on destroying the Collector base and saying he was glad I was still alive.”

She said it so easily, and it was a natural sentiment to come from a former ship-mate and companion. That should have been the end of it. Thane should have been able to let it go. After all, she had never lied to him. She had never even tried.

But Kaidan Alenko had been the first man to touch her heart, and whatever she thought, Juniper had never entirely let him go. Could a person ever truly let go of their first love? Thane wondered. Certainly he could never deny what he and Irikah had shared. But Irikah was dead. Kaidan Alenko was very much alive. And unless Thane missed his guess, Kaidan also had not entirely let go of what he and Juniper used to have, regardless of what he had said on Horizon all those months ago. Kaidan, who was not dying.

Even as he watched Juniper disrobe, Thane was struggling in the grip of his own bitterness and resentment, railing against his fate, and nursing the dark depths of his jealousy. It was unworthy of her, he knew that, but he couldn’t seem to help himself.

“Thane?” Juniper came to him, stroking his cheek with her fingers. “What is it?”

“I—it’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. Tell me.”

He managed a smile for her, but he could tell it wasn’t a convincing one. “Just … the old worry.”

“Why now especially?” Then she realized. He could see on her face the moment it came clear. “Because of Kaidan? You know that’s over.”

“Is it?”

“As far as I know, it is.” She stepped closer, skin against skin, the shock of pleasure as strong as it always was. “I have you now, Thane. I know you want to look ahead, to think about what will come after—but I don’t. I want now to be all we need, and not to worry about later. Can you do that for me?”

He probably couldn’t, if he was being honest with them both, but … “I can try.”

“Good. Let me see if I can help you with that.”

Her hands explored, lower and lower, her mouth moving just behind them. He knew from experience that the toxins in his skin acted as a stimulant for her and with more of an effort than should have been required he let go of his worries and allowed himself to float on the sea of sensations that flooded him at her touch.

Chapter Text

Shepard scrolled through the blueprints on her screen. “We could enter here,” she suggested, pointing.

“Too exposed. Back here would be better.” Thane leaned over her shoulder, bringing her attention to another location farther up the screen.

“Oh, good point. So we enter there.” She frowned. “How do we know where they’re holding her?”

“They’re batarians. They will be holding her in the most unpleasant place possible,” he said dryly. He gave a little cough of a kind that had become alarmingly frequent recently.

Shepard resisted the urge to look at him with concern. He hated that, and she didn’t want to upset him again.

“Are you certain you want to do this, Siha?” he asked her. “Surely Admiral Hackett can find someone else to take on this task.”

“He didn’t seem to feel that way. Besides, it’s a simple in and out job. Get in, rescue this Kenson woman, and we’re done.”

Thane subsided. He had objected to the mission’s parameters to begin with, specifically the restriction that she couldn’t take a crew with her, and only Shepard’s promise that he could stow away aboard the transport—child’s play for someone with his experience—and accompany her had mollified his concerns even a little. She didn’t disagree that it felt like a trap, but she had promised Hackett, and she would do her best for him.

Even mollified, Thane had continued to find objections, and she was surprised at his continued silence, until she turned around to find the crinkly skin of his neck, normally a vibrant red, had faded to a pale pink, and his eyes were closed, his hands gripping the back of the chair tightly. “Thane!”

“I am … fine … Siha,” he said, but he clearly wasn’t, the words coming with difficulty, the endearment little more than a breath.

Immediately Shepard hit the comm button for the sick bay and called Dr. Chakwas up, before standing and helping Thane to the bed. Half-carrying him, really, and her heart pounded with terror at the slackness in his muscles and his glazed-over eyes.

By the time Dr. Chakwas arrived, he was breathing normally and protesting with unusual irritability that he was fine, but the doctor refused to be put off. Shepard kept silent while Dr. Chakwas worked, difficult though it was not to demand immediate answers.

At last, Dr. Chakwas stood up, looking down at Thane where he lay on the bed. “So here we are.”

“I am fine.”

Neither woman paid attention to his protest. “How bad is it?” Shepard asked.

“I’ll want to run more tests, naturally, but it seems as though he’s entering the next stage of the disease. His heart isn’t pumping enough oxygen. It’s not the end stage,” she hastened to assure Shepard, “but I believe he’ll have to be much more careful going forward.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

“Of course. Thane, I will see you first thing tomorrow morning to run the full battery of tests.”

He didn’t argue, which sent a cold chill through Shepard.

When the door slid closed behind Dr. Chakwas, she sat on the bed next to him and took his hand, trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t scream her terror at the thought of losing him. She had thought there would be more time before the realities struck in force. She wasn’t ready.

“Don’t go, Siha,” he said abruptly.

Shepard tightened her grip on his fingers. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He nodded, acknowledging the support. “I meant on Hackett’s mission.”

“Oh.” Of course, he was in no shape to go, and it couldn’t be put off. Kasumi might be as good at following her unobserved, but if the thief got caught, Hackett would never understand. Thane at least could have pretended to have snuck along on the trip out of concern for Shepard. “I’ll be fine,” she assured him.

“Siha.”

“Thane, I have to do this. It’ll be all right, I promise.” She leaned over and kissed him. “Rest now. Don’t worry about me.”

He wanted to protest, she could see, but he was exhausted, too, and she sat with him, holding his hand, as his body surrendered to sleep.

Chapter Text

From the moment Shepard stepped off the Normandy, time seemed to slow, each second ticking past sluggishly, as though it would never go. Thane wanted to treasure each precious moment, the same ones that flew by as though they had never been when he was with Juniper, but with her in peril on this foolish task, alone, when he should have been with her, the time hung heavily on his hands. He stormed out of the med bay when Dr. Chakwas wanted to run another battery of tests. He knew what they would say; so did she. And he didn’t want to know. He didn’t want this time to have arrived already. He wanted more. So much more.

He snapped at Garrus when the turian tried to while away the time with games of chess and his interminable conversation, and felt only vaguely guilty about it.

At last he was left alone in life support, his narrow cot ignored because there was no Shepard lying in it, pacing back and forth. It was the depth of night—he could feel it only in the hush of the ship, since outer space knows no night or morning. And Thane could no longer hide from the truth.

He was dying. Sooner rather than later. And he would have to come to terms with it.

How much time passed while he was wrestling with that knowledge, Thane didn’t know. At last there came a moment of calm, of acceptance, of surrender to the inevitable. He stood still in the middle of the room, counting each slow measured breath, knowing there would be fewer and fewer until they ceased at last.

So. If he was to accept the inevitable, there were a couple of things left to do. He had little in the way of material possessions. His money had mostly gone in the course of Kolyat’s raising and education, and what was left would be transferred to Kolyat’s accounts when he died. His books he would divide between Kolyat and Shepard, at the end. His guns and knives would go to Shepard.

But the mere distribution of things wasn’t enough. He keyed in Kolyat’s number on his personal terminal, watching the screen until his son’s face appeared.

“Yes?” Kolyat’s face was closed off, uninterested.

“I … wanted to speak with you.” Kolyat knew already that he was dying; Thane didn’t feel the need to mention his recent spell. “How are you?”

“How am I?” Kolyat echoed, the sarcasm evident in his tone. “That’s what you called to ask?”

“It is. What could be more important? I should have done so a thousand times over the past years.”

He was grateful that Kolyat let the remark go. “I’m fine. There, is that enough? Have we talked?”

“I would be glad if you could tell me a bit about your work with Captain Bailey.”

Kolyat sighed loudly and rolled his eyes, but he began to tell Thane about something that had occurred earlier in the day, and responded with interest to Thane’s next question … and before Thane knew it, they were deep in conversation, for the first time in far, far too long.

Of course, it ended badly, Kolyat stiffening back into cold formality as soon as he realized he had let his guard down, but the conversation had occurred, nevertheless, and Thane knew he would treasure that memory, even as he hoped the time he had left would yield more of the same.

When Kolyat’s face had vanished from the screen, he itched to call up Shepard, to reassure himself of her well-being, but that would be impossible until she had accomplished her mission. Instead he opened a new file, watching the cursor blink as he decided what to say. There would be time, he told himself. Plenty of time. But if there wasn’t …

Siha,
I write this with a heavy hand, knowing you will read this letter when I am no longer able to share my thoughts. I am dying, Siha. Perhaps because of the difference in our species, I can hope that time will treat you with kindness and dim the hurt of my passing to faded recollections that a drell would forever remember with perfect clarity.

He had treasured his memories of Irikah, but it had taken Shepard’s appearance in his life to dim the pain of Irikah’s loss. There was some comfort in knowing Shepard would not suffer in the same manner, although he doubted she would see it that way.

Selfishly, however, I could not leave this world without leaving a piece of me behind that would never fade.

She would have the vids they’d made, the pictures they’d taken, his books with notes in the margins … but this was for her, to know always how much he had loved her.

I once accepted my fate. Nothing remained but a shell destined to die. I only had to choose the when and how of my passing. I had refused to be confined to a bed, gasping horribly as my life beeped away to machinery I had no use for. I thought of my Irikah, broken, bloodied, and betrayed by my absence. Of Kolyat, small and afraid, bravely pishing at his eyes to stem the flow of tears I had entrusted him to cry … for both our sakes.

He resisted the pull of memory. He had lived those memories enough—more than enough. And equally resisted the dread of dying, useless and fading, in a hospital bed. There would be time to worry about that later. He bore some hopes that at the end he could die in a firefight at Shepard’s side, doing the work he had been trained for next to the woman he loved. But that was still in the future.

The expectation to move quickly to my end vanished upon uniting with your cause. You awoke me, Shepard. My heart quickened its sluggish beat if only to remain at your side and protect you with everything that I am. I was content to simply watch, take the time left given and praise all I know for allowing me to walk my final days with hope and certainty that I am worthy of more than my cold isolation, solely because you believed.

Again in memory he saw her as she had looked that morning, as the dawn light flooded in through the windows of Dantius Towers. And he knew with pride and humility mingled what an honor it was to be loved by a woman like Juniper Shepard.

He looked at the screen. There was so much more he wanted to say—and yet he had said enough. Almost enough.

I love you. If all else whispers back into the tide, know this for fact. By grace given me by the Goddess Arashu, I bid her divine protection to you, my warrior-angel, my Siha, to succeed in your destiny. To light your path through the coming darkness. To give you hope, when all seems lost.
I will await you across the sea.

Thane saved the file into his personal drive. Someday she would find it, when she needed to. Arashu would guide her.

Folding his hands, he prayed for guidance, for strength, for the courage to leave her with dignity, and for the protection of the gods for her, now and always.

Chapter Text

Shepard left Thane sleeping, and took the elevator down to the med bay. She hoped it was late enough that everyone would be asleep—she didn’t want to run into anyone on the way, didn’t want to have to talk about what had happened to the Alpha relay, or the batarian colony nearest to it. That was over and done, and nothing she could say or do would make it any different.

No, rather than dwell on what she had done, she wanted to know what was happening with Thane, to get reassurance if she could, and if not, to determine what she could do to stop the course of his illness. Surely there must be something. Cerberus had brought her back to life, completely rebuilt her. Someone, somewhere, must be able to repair a malfunctioning set of drell lungs.

Thane himself had put on an impressive demonstration of the vigor of his cardiovascular system when she’d arrived back on the Normandy, making it clear how much he had worried about her as well as how much he didn’t want her to worry about him. But she remembered the spell he’d had before she left, and she never wanted to see him like that again. Damn it, she was Commander J.R. Shepard. If all the responsibilities and the tasks laid on her shoulders didn’t bring with them the chance to save the person she loved, then what good were they?

The mess was mercifully empty, and Dr. Chakwas, as Shepard had expected, was bent over her computer terminal, still hard at work. She looked up as Shepard came in, her eyes filled with sympathy.

Shepard held up a hand to keep Dr. Chakwas from saying anything. “How is he?”

Dr. Chakwas got to her feet. “You know that he’s dying. He is simply going to die a little sooner today than he was going to yesterday.”

“What can we do to stop it?”

“Commander. I understand your desire to fix it—we all do. As a doctor, I have railed at the inevitability of death more times than I can count—“

Shepard couldn’t take the speech. Not today. “Then don’t let it happen! Let’s get out there, let’s find an answer!”

“There is none,” Dr. Chakwas said crisply. “Don’t you think I have looked? I have spoken to colleagues, I have attempted to call in favors, but his entire system is compromised now. Even a transplant would have only a moderate chance of success at this point, and you know he refuses.”

“I won’t let him refuse.”

“You don’t mean that. He has the right to decide what to do with his life.”

“And my life?” To her horror, Shepard felt her eyes filling with tears. She fought against them, facing down the doctor, her long-time friend. “Everyone else gets to decide what to do with my life, from the Reapers on down, it seems, and I—“ It was no use. She couldn’t finish the sentence. Turning away, she bit her lip, hard, until the physical pain overcame the emotional. Clearing her throat, she said crisply, “Very well, Doctor. I have your report. I will simply have to find another avenue.”

At the door of med bay, she stopped when Dr. Chakwas called her name softly. “I am very sorry. If there was any other way—“

Another day Shepard would have stopped and reassured her. But not today. Today she stalked out of the room and across the mess and hammered on Miranda’s door until it opened.

“Shepard! Welcome back.”

“This isn’t a social call.”

“Oh?” Miranda’s eyebrows lifted inquiringly. “What can I do for you, then, Commander? I have no pull with the batarians. Nor did Cerberus, naturally.”

Shepard dismissed the batarians with a wave of the hand. They would be calling for her blood soon enough, but that was a problem for another day. “Tell me who to talk to that can reverse the effects of Kepral’s Syndrome.”

“Ah. I see.” Miranda sighed. “I’m sorry, Shepard. I didn’t—Thane has grown on me. And the two of you deserve a chance to be happy.”

“Then help me.”

“I can’t. Don’t you see? I don’t have contacts with Cerberus anymore. If I did, they would never waste resources on a drell. If they would, no one in the galaxy knows how to fix this. The hanar are working on it, but there—it will come too late.”

“No. There has to be a way. Someone, somewhere in the galaxy. Tell me who to go to!” Shepard could hear her own rising hysteria. Something had to go right, just one thing, just this thing.

Miranda’s hands were on her shoulders. “Shepard, look at me.”

She waited, and reluctantly, Shepard met her eyes.

“You are luckier than you can imagine to have found Thane at all. Do not lose the time you have by some foolish, desperate attempt to make it longer. Go back upstairs and be with him.”

She was right. Shepard knew she was right. At last she could face the root of her desperation—the time it was going to take to straighten this batarian mess out, the time she would have to take away from being with Thane to explain that she hadn’t meant all those batarians to die, she hadn’t wanted to, but she hadn’t had any other choice. Damn Amanda Kenson anyway. Damn the Reapers.

“Shepard?” Miranda asked quietly.

“I’m … I’m all right now. Thank you.” It wasn’t true, she wasn’t all right … but there was nothing she could do to change the situation now, and as Miranda said, she’d been lucky to find Thane at all. She would do what she could to stop borrowing trouble and just enjoy what little time they had.

Miranda’s hands lifted off her shoulders, and Shepard took the elevator back up to her quarters, sitting long into the night just watching Thane sleep, dry-eyed, with unshed tears burning her throat.

Chapter Text

Shepard had tried gallantly to hide her rising tension as the Normandy approached the Citadel, but Thane could still see it in her. She hadn’t shared with him all the details of what had occurred on her mission, but she had told him enough to know that her decision had been the only one she could reasonably make under the circumstances, and that she nevertheless felt extraordinarily unhappy about it.

But she had been sent by Admiral Hackett to do a job—and even though the mission had not gone as Hackett had planned, Shepard had done the job. She had kept the Reapers from coming through. Thane could only hope that Hackett, and through him the Alliance and the Council, would understand.

Even though he knew it was selfish, Thane couldn’t help the way his spirits rose as they neared the Citadel. Whatever else lay ahead in his future, he could see his son once more. Undoubtedly Kolyat wouldn’t want to see him, but Thane hoped he would agree to a meeting anyway. Perhaps with Shepard, if her meetings with Hackett, Anderson, and the Council went quickly enough. Under normal circumstances, he would have waited to introduce Shepard and Kolyat—reintroduce, really, although neither of them had seen each other at their best the first time—but given his most recent spell, the step forward his illness had taken, he didn’t believe he had the time to wait. And when he was gone … well, perhaps it was romantic foolishness on his part, but he hoped that when he was gone, they could be of some comfort to one another.

While Shepard went through her debriefings, Thane visited with Captain Bailey, who had encouraging things to say about Kolyat’s progress. Thane was grateful that his son was responding to fatherly attention from someone, even if it wasn’t him. After all, he had more than proven in his misspent life that he had never had the first idea how to be a father—and it was probably too late for him to learn.

Shepard found him waiting for Kolyat to be brought to an interview room. “How did it go?” he asked her.

She shrugged. “Hackett understands I did what I had to do. At least, I think he does. But he also has a good point—my actions cost the lives of three hundred thousand batarians, despite how many more lives they saved. At some point, there will be a reckoning.”

“What manner of reckoning?”

“Nothing I can handle,” she assured him. He knew he was being brushed off, and that there must be more to it, but at that moment Kolyat was brought in and all other discussion would have to wait.

“Of course,” Kolyat spat, seeing Thane and Shepard there together. “It would be you.”

“I am pleased to see you looking so well,” Thane told him, ignoring the rudeness. It was no more than he deserved, after all.

“Bailey keeps me hopping,” Kolyat said, taking a seat across the table. “But … I like it,” he admitted, almost shyly.

“I am glad to hear it.”

“And I see you’ve brought your boss, too.” Kolyat looked between them and frowned blackly. “Oh. I get it. You’ve replaced Mother and brought your—“

Thane half-stood in his chair, anger coursing through him. “Be careful in what you say, my son. No one could ever replace your mother, and Commander Shepard has more than earned your respect and that of the rest of the galaxy. Do not use words you will regret later.”

Kolyat cleared his throat. “Commander Shepard.”

“Kolyat.”

They looked coldly at one another across the table, and Thane’s heart sank. This was not how he had hoped the interview would go.

“So this is your life now, Father, flying across the galaxy in your little love nest?”

Thane reined in his irritation with some difficulty. “Commander Shepard is an exceptional woman. To have found her at this point in my life, when I had all but given up … I am a most fortunate man.”

“How nice for you. I’m sure Mother would be thrilled.”

“Your mother would have wanted me to find happiness again. You know that as well as I do.”

Kolyat had the grace to look somewhat shame-faced. “No, you’re right, she would have.” He cleared his throat. “Commander Shepard, I apologize for any offense. Captain Bailey, and many others here on the Citadel, have sung your praises to me until I could hardly believe there was such a person, much less that my father …”

Shepard smiled. “I don’t think there is such a person as the Commander Shepard people like to look up to in the way that you mean, and I can’t blame you for finding her annoying. As for your father …” She reached out and put a hand over Thane’s. “He is a good man, Kolyat, despite his past mistakes. We all make those. The lucky ones of us are able to put them behind us, to make amends and move forward. Others are caught in the web of their own frailties their entire lives.” Her hand tightened on Thane’s. “He says he’s fortunate, but I’m the lucky one.”

There was a silence, as her gaze lingered on Thane’s face and Kolyat watched them both and Thane tried not to be overcome by the impossibility of this moment when he was sitting here with both of them.

At last Kolyat said, “That’s … very nice for both of you,” but for once he sounded as though he wasn’t sure what to say, rather than insolent or challenging. Thane counted it as a win. Kolyat cleared his throat. “Where … will you go now?”

Shepard looked instantly alarmed, but tried valiantly to hide it. “I thought maybe I’d take your father to Earth,” she said nonchalantly. Thane could hear what she wasn’t saying, however. They wanted her on Earth to face a tribunal, to appease the batarians. Well, he would be there with her, whatever she needed.

Kolyat responded as though it was a mere pleasantry, expressing polite interest, and the conversation went on for a bit—stilted and formal, yes, but at least they were talking. It was enough.

Chapter Text

Shepard and Thane were back on the Normandy, lying in bed watching the stars fly by above them, when Juniper decided she had put off the topic long enough. "They want me to go to Earth."

Thane's arm tightened around her shoulders, but he made no other protest. She was certain he had already known this was coming. "So I gathered. The batarians?"

She nodded. "They want their pound of flesh."

"I will go with you."

"No." She sat up, agitated just by the thought of him wasting what remained of his life detained as part of a military tribunal. "You can't. I don't know how long they'll keep me, what the eventual judgment will be, but I won't put you at the mercy of the Alliance on a strange planet. Not with your condition … advancing."

"That doesn't matter to me. Not when compared to being away from you. We can't know if I'll— We can't know the future."

"No, that we can't, and the last thing I want is to be separated from you—but I can't bring you there. Please don't ask me to."

Thane sat up as well, frowning at her. "But you told Kolyat you wanted to take me to Earth."

"Yes, I did. Do you know I've never been?" It was true, but she was also stalling before she broached the topic she wanted to discuss. She had come up with this idea, crazy as it was, set her heart on it, but she knew it would be a hard sell.

"I believe I did know that, yes."

"So, if I'm going to go to Earth, to see it for the first time—I want that to be with you. We'll go to the desert." She took a deep breath, willing her heart to stop pounding long enough to be able to get this out. Reaching for his hand, she held it between hers, looking at him intently so he would see just how serious she was. "On our honeymoon. Thane, will you marry me?"

"Oh. Oh, Siha." His eyes filled with tears. "Siha. Please know how incredibly touched I am by the gesture, but just as you will not drag me to an Alliance facility, I will not be party to your tying yourself to a dying man."

"I am tied to you, Thane. Nothing can change that. I am yours until the last breath leaves your body, whether that is tomorrow, or by the grace of Kalahira, ten years from now."

He smiled briefly at her use of his goddess's name, and leaned forward, pressing his forehead against hers. "That knowledge is already beyond anything I could have wished for in my life, you know that. I need nothing more."

"I do know that. But … But I do. Need more, that is." She paused to put her thoughts in order. "Between the Collectors and the Alliance and your illness, we have so little time, Thane. Not enough time for any of the usual milestones. But I don't have to report to Earth for a little while—Hackett is buying me some time—and we can manage this. One thing that could have been, if only; one thing for me to keep. Will you? Please?"

"Ah, Siha." He cupped her cheek in his hand. "I ... will think about it."

She nodded. It was what she had expected. "Don't take too long."

"I will not."

Chapter Text

Shepard knew Thane would need time to answer her question, and that pressuring him on it wouldn't help. She had made her need clear, and he would respond to the best of his ability. Trusting him to do so, she put it out of her mind for the moment.

The next task on her plate was to let her people know that she was being called to a tribunal on Earth. That would affect them, and the future of this ship, and they needed to know early enough to be able to make their own plans. She called them all into the conference room, and waited while they assembled.

Looking around at the beloved faces, she couldn't help but smile. "First of all, I want to thank each of you for being here. I couldn't have done any of this without you." Garrus started to say something, but she held up a hand. "Let me finish. You all know what happened to the Alpha Relay, so I'm sure it won't be a surprise to you to hear that I'm being called back by the Alliance, to go to Earth and take part in a tribunal investigating my involvement."

"So much for you having saved the galaxy," Kasumi said, rolling her eyes.

"The batarians don't care. Or they don't believe it. Or both. However you look at it, thousands of their people died because I wasn't fast enough to stop it. I don't mind being held accountable for that." Shepard thought about the hours she had spent trying to figure out how she could have kept things from going the way they had. "In many ways I feel accountable."

"Siha."

She smiled at Thane, then turned back to the others. "So, first you should know that I will undoubtedly be out of commission for a while … and second, you should know that I'm strongly considering turning the Normandy over to the Alliance." Shepard looked at Joker. "Unless anyone objects."

Joker groaned, lifting up his ballcap to run a hand over his head, then settling the cap back on. "No, I guess not. Might as well give them back the cushiest ride I've ever had. Why not."

"I suppose you can take your chair with you."

"Hell, no. Where the Normandy goes, I go. We're a package deal."

Standing awkwardly at the back of the room, engineers Daniels and Donnelly exchanged a quick glance, and then Donnelly said, "Count us in, as well, Commander. Might as well see if the old ball and chain will take us back."

"I'm sure they'll need you—does the Alliance have anyone else who can understand this ship?"

"Not half as well," Donnelly agreed, grinning.

"Fuck that," Jack said, hopping down from the table she'd been sitting on. "None of those Alliance assholes are getting their hands on me. Grunt, take me to Tuchanka."

The krogan chuckled. "No."

"Damn it. Never mind, Shepard, I'll find somewhere to get off." Jack grinned at the double entendre.

It looked like the rest of Shepard's companions intended to do the same—Samara to resume her work as a Justicar, Kasumi to get back to a particularly interesting heist she had been planning, Grunt to report to Tuchanka and put himself to work on behalf of Clan Urdnot. Miranda seemed uncertain about her future, but Shepard imagined she would land on her feet.

Mordin had stood uncharacteristically quiet during the conversation, but Shepard saw him look up with a startled expression, as though an entirely new thought had occurred to him.

"Mordin, you have somewhere to go?"

"Maybe so. New thought. Needs consideration. Wouldn't have imagined possible but for you, Shepard. Must thank you."

"It's I who should be thanking you. If there's ever anything I can do to help—"

"Generous offer. Will keep it in mind. Same offer in return, of course. Naturally."

"Thank you."

Garrus was the last to leave the room, hovering there until everyone else had left. "You two going to be all right?"

"Yes. We …" Shepard glanced at the door, wishing Thane had decided about her proposal, but he clearly hadn't. "We're working on it."

"If either of you need me—"

"We'll call, we promise. You'll go to Palaven?"

"That seems like the best option, yes. I'm sure my father would like the chance to lecture me on my life choices." Garrus chuckled. "Best birthday gift I'll have given him in years."

"Garrus …"

"Shepard. Don't let them railroad you. You did what was right."

"I'm not just going for that. The Reapers are coming. Prepare your people."

"I'll do my best. And you take care of yourself."

She smiled. "I'll do my best."

Chapter Text

Thane had been unable to stop thinking about Shepard’s proposal. He understood what she meant, and he wanted to give her what she asked for—that small taste of what a typical life might have held, the celebration of a lifetime commitment. But was it any more than a sham to make a commitment of that nature knowing that his lifetime would be so short? And he worried what Kolyat would think. Irikah would understand, of that he was certain. But Kolyat was very young, and he had yet to forgive Thane for the all the time apart, or for the death of his mother. Would marrying Shepard be just another wedge between himself and his son?

He had to know. Returning to his old quarters in life support, he activated his private terminal and contacted his son.

“Be careful, Father. This is getting to be a habit,” Kolyat said as he recognized Thane’s face on the screen. “You are in grave danger of forming an actual attachment.”

“Am I? I hope so.” The boy had been sarcastic, but Thane chose to be earnest. He did hope so. He wanted an attachment with his son, albeit one that came years later than it should have.

Kolyat rolled his eyes. “What do you want?”

“I … needed to speak with you about something.”

“Yes, I think that’s fairly obvious. What do you need to speak with me about?”

Knowing that his son was being deliberately rude and abrasive in order to get a reaction from him, Thane remained calm, although his heart was racing and he was feeling short of breath. Hard to say whether that was the Kepral’s Syndrome or his nervousness about broaching the topic at hand. “I … have been asked … an intriguing question recently.” He stopped to catch his breath, closing his eyes against the dizziness.

“Father?” There was genuine concern in his son’s voice. “Are you all right? Should I—you—call someone to help?”

“Just … one moment, please.” Thane leaned back in his seat, tipping his head back, concentrating on his breathing.

“Father?” Kolyat said again, his voice sharpening.

“I’m … fine. Yes.” Thane managed to get his breathing under control enough to continue the conversation. “I … Commander Shepard and I, as you know—“

“Yes, I know.” The words were less impatient than they might have been, since Kolyat was still looking at his father with concern.

“Well. She has asked me … she has proposed marriage.”

Kolyat appeared genuinely shocked. “Marriage? But you’re—” He stopped himself.

“Yes. I am dying. But the Commander—Juniper—she would like the … formality. Something of a more or less normal life while we can still claim it.”

“I see,” Kolyat said slowly. “And Mother?”

“Your mother would want me to move on.”

After a moment, Kolyat nodded. “I don’t see why you’re asking me,” he said, less petulantly than Thane might have expected.

“You are my son.”

“Oh. I, uh … think you should do what you want.”

“You would not mind?”

That black anger appeared on Kolyat’s face. “I’ve barely seen you in a decade, You could have married a dozen women and I would never have known.”

“I know, and I am sorry for those lost years. If I could take them back, I would. But here I am now, asking you for your opinion. What do you think? Would you—attend?”

Kolyat blinked. “I … don’t think so. No. But I think you should do it anyway. I’ve heard—well, a number of people on the Citadel know the Commander, and they speak well of her. She deserves some happiness.”

“Yes. Yes, she does,” Thane agreed, swallowing his disappointment at Kolyat’s refusal to attend a ceremony. That his son had been willing to have the conversation, was willing to allow Thane to move forward—that would be enough for today. It was already far more than he had expected, and more than he deserved.

He signed off, sitting there a few more moments until the last of the dizziness passed, and took the elevator straight up to Shepard’s quarters.

She was just stepping out of the shower, a towel wrapped around her body, and she smiled when she saw him come in. “You’re right on time.”

“A happy thought,” he said, almost but not quite distracted from his purpose. “I had something to speak with you about first, though.”

“Oh? Anything interesting?”

“I believe so.” He hesitated. But she was so lovely, and as Kolyat had said, she deserved happiness. “You asked me a question.”

Juniper’s eyes brightened immediately. “Really?”

“Would you like to ask me again?”

She smiled broadly, getting down on one knee and taking his hand in hers. “Thane Krios, will you marry me?”

“Yes. Yes, I will.”

Shepard got to her feet, throwing her arms around him. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure, Siha.” He kissed his way along the top of her shoulder. “And now yours.”

She shivered. “Oh, yes.”

Chapter Text

Navigating through the skies above Liara’s new ship was more easily said than done. The constant storms of Hagalaz were murder on the shuttle, which was part of the security system, after all. But with the Shadow Broker guiding her through the minute opening in the storm systems from inside the ship, Shepard was able to make it through all right.

Liara was waiting for her when the shuttle docked, the smile on her face as warm and genuine as it used to be, not closed off and worried as Shepard had seen it most recently.

“Being the Shadow Broker suits you,” Shepard said, hugging her friend.

“More than I could have imagined, yes.” Liara returned the embrace fiercely, then held Shepard at arm’s length. “And you, retirement seems to suit you as well.”

“Not retirement, sadly. Just … a furlough, and a shorter one than I’d hoped for, at that.”

The smile faded from Liara’s face. “Yes, the Alpha relay. That was ... unfortunate.”

“It couldn’t be helped.”

“I know that, Shepard. Not because I’m the Shadow Broker, but because I know you, and I know you would not have let that many people die, regardless of their species, if you had had any other choice.”

“It was them or let the Reapers into the galaxy, and we are not ready. Maybe we never will be.”

“We will be. You’ll get us there.”

Shepard shook her head. “I wish I had your confidence.”

They were in Liara’s command center now, the little ball of light the former Shadow Broker had used as an assistant hovering around them, offering greetings. Liara waved it away, with some difficulty. It reminded Shepard of the over-friendly dogs she had seen in vids. Briefly, she thought about what it must be like to have a pet, someone who was actually happy to see you when you came home, unlike the fish, who couldn’t have cared less about her. But you couldn’t keep a dog aboard a ship, and Shepard had never considered a life anywhere else, not since she shook the dust of Mindoir off her feet.

“You came for a reason,” Liara observed, breaking into her thoughts.

“Yes.” Then, more happily, remembering that reason, “Yes!”

“Tell me.”

“Thane and I are getting married.”

Liara’s eyebrows flew up. “Married? Shepard, you know he doesn’t have much time left.”

“Exactly why, Liara. I want … I want a lifetime, but this is what I have, and I intend to enjoy every last moment as if it was a lifetime.”

“I can see why you would want that. I—" She frowned in concern. "Shepard, you don’t want to look in his file.”

“That’s not what I came for,” Juniper said in surprise. “Why would you think that?”

“There’s a letter … He wrote it for you.”

Shepard frowned. “And you’ve read it?”

“Only the beginning, enough to know it wasn’t meant for my eyes. Even more than most things weren’t meant for my eyes. Just … you know how much he loves you.”

“I do. I’m grateful for it every day.”

Liara nodded. “Good.”

“So, what I came for, what couldn’t be said over a vid chat or an email—Liara, will you be my bridesmaid?”

“Oh.” Tears filled Liara’s eyes. “Oh, Shepard. Of course I will. Name the place and the time, and I will be there.”

“Thank you.”

They embraced again, and then Liara led Shepard down the hall to her private rooms, where wine and a light meal were laid out. “Now, tell me everything.”

Chapter Text

Shepard and Thane had discussed plans long into the night, many nights. They wanted a private ceremony, as much because Thane wanted to keep the galaxy from knowing Commander Shepard had married a member of another species as because Juniper wanted to keep this for herself, and a few close friends. So that left the usual options for officiants pretty much out of reach.

Thane had suggested that Shepard herself, as a Spectre and captain of the Normandy, could just pronounce them married, but that wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted the formal ceremony, conducted by someone who could pronounce it all legal.

So, naturally, they ended up on Tuchanka.

“Shepard, this is … weird,” Wrex had told her over vid-chat when she’d asked him to marry them. “I mean, you’re part of my krantt, so I’ll do it, but … it’s weird.”

“I know, Wrex, but I’ll owe you one.”

“One? You’ll owe me a keg! I mean, yeah, my pleasure.”

“You’re the best.”

So they landed on Tuchanka, just the small core group—Thane and Shepard, Garrus, Tali, Joker, Miranda, Jack, Grunt, Kasumi, Daniels and Donnelly, Mordin, Dr. Chakwas, and Liara, who had met them there, as had Kolyat with Captain Bailey to keep an eye on him. It meant so much to Thane that his son had been willing to come. Kolyat spent most of his time watching his father with unreadable eyes, but he was polite when he spoke. Thane said quietly to Shepard, later, that it was more than he had imagined possible and he was content.

The other krogan gave them all a fairly wide berth—this many aliens landing on Tuchanka made them nervous, and they were especially unhappy to see the salarian and the turian walking freely on their planet. But Wrex’s glare kept them all back, as did Grunt’s determined presence constantly at the side of either Garrus or Mordin.

“Shepard. I’ve, uh … yeah. I got something for you. Wasn’t sure if you needed it, but— It was his fault.“ Wrex glared at Garrus.

If she hadn’t known better, Shepard would have sworn Wrex was blushing. “If the two of you each had a hand in this, it can’t be anything good,” she said, glaring at them both. “You didn’t get me a krogan stripper, did you?”

Garrus chuckled, and Wrex guffawed. “Hell, Shepard, half my clan is ready to strip down for you. The human Spectre who stood by her kroganling and took down a thresher maw? You say the word.”

She looked at Thane, reaching for his hand. “I’m good, thanks.”

“All right, then, Shepard, if you insist. Wrex?” Garrus gestured to the krogan, who handed Shepard a small box. “I didn’t mean to overstep,” Garrus continued, “but I understand certain things are part of the best man’s job, and I didn’t think you had managed this one yet.”

Shepard opened the box to see two thin, flat rings of a dark, dull metal. “This is Tuchankan ore,” Wrex explained. “Hammered flat, it’s durable. Last you three lifetimes. Krogan lifetimes.” He looked at Thane, and then at Shepard, and cleared his throat. “Yeah. Also, thin enough not to get in the way of a gauntlet.”

“It also molds itself to the nearest heat source, so it should shape itself to your finger,” Garrus added.

Shepard hugged them both. “Thank you.”

Thane bowed formally, but Shepard could tell he, too, was touched by the gesture, and its thoughtfulness. She knew he had only ever worn his ring for Irikah when he was on Kahje, because otherwise it got in the way of his work. He believed Kolyat had it now, although he had not asked. But this one he could wear and still be able to work, she thought, putting aside the reality that he was unlikely to be doing any more work. He’d had another spell on the Normandy just a couple of days ago. The time was still measured in months, but it was shortening rapidly.

“Let’s get to it, then,” Wrex said, clearing his throat again. “The bunch of you are terrible for my reputation.”

“Look at it this way—it’s something no other krogan clan leader has ever done.”

“Or ever will again, no doubt,” Garrus added.

“You can say that again. Look, Shepard, krogan like fighting.”

“You also like eating and drinking, and we brought enough food to feed your clan for a month,” Shepard pointed out.

“And we’d like to get to that. So let’s get this started.”

It wasn’t quite the wedding of a little girl’s dreams. There was no white dress, no flowers, since nothing grew on Tuchanka, no music unless you counted the growling of the caged fighting varren. But there were her friends gathered around her, watching with expressions that ranged from weeping (Liara) to good-humoredly contemptuous (Jack) … and there was Thane, waiting for her, his black eyes filled with the depth of his emotion. And at the end of the day, that was all Shepard needed, or wanted.

She and Thane looked expectantly at Wrex, who cleared his throat. “Yeah. Uh, I’ve got no idea how this goes for krogan, much less for humans or drell, so … these two want to get married. I’ve got no objection. Any one else got one?” He looked around with an expression that said he wouldn’t appreciate an interruption. “Good. You got the rings?” he asked Garrus, who produced them. Wrex handed one to Thane and one to Shepard. “So, say something. Make some promises.”

Shepard went first, having planned just what she wanted to say. “Thane, you came into my life unexpectedly, but just when I needed you. You’ve taught me so much about myself, about life, about taking each moment as it comes. I love you.” She didn’t add, as she slid the ring onto his finger, that this was the first thing she had ever wanted for herself since the shuttle took off from Mindoir and she left that life behind, but he knew.

“Juniper. Siha. You awakened me from my battle sleep when I thought the universe had nothing more to offer me—nor I it. You showed me I was wrong, that I still had value and a purpose, and you made me whole again. I love you now, and I will love you for an eternity from the other side of the sea.” His voice hoarsened and cracked on the last words, and as soon as the ring was on her finger Juniper gripped his hand tightly, not wanting ever to let go.

Wrex had to clear his throat a lot before he could speak again. Liara was sniffling behind Shepard, and Garrus’s eyes were suspiciously bright over Thane’s shoulder.

“Yeah. Nice.” Wrex cleared his throat again, wiping his eyes for good measure. “Damned dust. So, these two are married, and anyone who says otherwise will have to deal with me. All right? All right.”

And that was it. But it was enough,. And the party that followed was raucous and joyous and everything Shepard could have asked for.

Chapter Text

Shepard folded her arms on the blanket, resting her chin on top of them, and looked out the open flap of the tent. It was relatively cool and shady here, protected from the midday desert heat, and she was thinking about taking a brief nap … but the sight in front of her was hard to take her eyes off. Thane lay stretched out along the top of a rock that was nearly covered in sand, completely naked, his legs crossed at the ankles, eyes closed, basking in the heat of the sun. There was such utter contentment in his pose that it made Juniper smile to look at him.

They were halfway through a two-week honeymoon here in the Mojave Desert. It was the first vacation either of them could ever remember taking, and as such they had been nervous they wouldn’t find enough to do … but the morning hikes discovering the desert, the afternoon siestas, the evening campfires and love-making long into the night had been completely fulfilling. Shepard felt a certain urgency to enjoy every moment, knowing it would likely be the only time they would have together as a couple—but they had agreed not to talk about that. Not until they had to.

She would go from here to a transport out of Las Vegas that would take her to Vancouver and the tribunal there. It had taken a certain amount of ingenuity on their part to get her to Earth unrecognized to begin with, and in the midst of her excitement to be seeing the homeworld for the first time she had been terrified that someone would recognize her and stop her and she would lose part or all of this precious time.

But they hadn’t, and she hadn’t, and here she was enjoying the fabled Earth her parents had talked about so often. She thought this was probably very different than the often cold coastal town they had come from, far to the north and east of here, but the desert had been Thane’s dream, and she was happy just to be here with him.

The rest of the crew had drifted apart after the wedding—Tali back to the Migrant Fleet, Garrus to Palaven. Miranda and Jack had taken off to parts unknown; Grunt had stayed on Tuchanka. Mordin had muttered something about a task unfinished but had left no details. Joker and Dr. Chakwas and the rest of the humans still aboard the Normandy had been given a choice—return to the Alliance, or disembark at the Citadel, where they had stopped to drop off Kolyat. Most had remained on the Normandy, which would be meeting Shepard in Vancouver. She figured it was the least she could do. With the Illusive Man’s support withdrawn, she could hardly afford to maintain a ship such as the Normandy on her own, and the Alliance might go easier on her if she brought their rebuilt ship back. Or so she hoped.

In the meantime, she had another week of this blissful freedom. She sighed.

The corner of Thane’s mouth quirked in a smile. “Enjoying the view, Siha?”

“Immensely. Come join me when you’re through with your sunbath?”

“I don’t mind if I do.”

Chapter Text

Thane and Shepard stood together outside the spaceport. When they stepped inside, everything would change. Shepard believed she would immediately be accosted by Alliance military personnel—and even if she wasn’t, she was booked under her own name on a land shuttle for Vancouver, so the Alliance would have its hands on her anyway, and no doubt the tribunal would take some time.

Meanwhile, Thane would take a ship to the Citadel, where Bailey had arranged for him to have a small apartment in an assumed name, since the name of Thane Krios was still known and feared throughout the galaxy, and neither of them wanted him to be a target in his condition. The arid desert air had been good for him, but the effects wouldn’t last.

Kolyat awaited him on the Citadel, as well, and Thane rejoiced in the improved relationship with his son and the prospect of time to spend together while they could almost as much as he despaired of this parting with his beloved Siha.

As they looked at each other, all the words they had promised not to say together, the worries for the future and the fears that their time together was past, never to come again, crowded Shepard’s mind and left her with no room for reassurances or even more meaningful declarations. It was left to Thane to take her hands in his and lean his forehead against hers, whispering her name.

“All will be well. You are, after all, Commander Shepard.”

“Commander Shepard’s charmed life has come to an end before,” she reminded him. “It may again.”

“They would hardly execute you. Not for a batarian colony, at any rate. Had it been asari, on the other hand …” Thane tried a smile, but Juniper couldn’t respond in kind.

“It isn’t funny.”

“No. It is not.” His fingers tightened around hers. “You are not without friends, Siha. Take comfort in that.”

“I wish I could. I don’t want anyone else’s reputation or career dragged down because they supported me.”

“Their loyalty, and its consequences, will be their own choice. You cannot make it for them.”

“I know. I know.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I promised not to do this.”

“You have been stronger through all of this than anyone had any right to expect of you. Remain strong for just a little while longer and then this will all be behind us and you will join me on the Citadel and we will make the most of every moment—as we have up to now.” He put an arm around her, cupping the side of her face with his free hand. “Never forget that I love you.”

“I love you, too. No matter what happens.”

“If all else fails, I will see you across the sea, where I will await you, Siha.”

“I will look forward to it.” Juniper swallowed back the tears that she wanted to shed. She owed Thane more than that, and she wouldn’t give the Alliance the satisfaction of seeing Commander J.R. Shepard broken. Whatever lay ahead of her, she would handle it with as much dignity as she could muster.

Thane smiled, seeing her regain control, as he had known she would. “Safe travels.”

“You, too.”

They stood there, both wanting to stretch the moment out, say one last word, put off their parting that much longer, but it was awkward now because none of that would change the inevitable. At last, Shepard gave him a last squeeze of the hand, shouldered her duffel, and walked into the spaceport without another backward glance.

Thane stood watching until the doors shut behind her, admiring her courage and resolve as he had so often before, and then he picked up his own bag and followed, making his way to the waiting room for the transport to the Citadel and checking in under his assumed name. He told himself that he would see Shepard again, because there was little value in any other line of thought, and then lost himself in memories until his flight was called.

Chapter Text

“Chow time, Commander. We hungry today?”

Shepard looked up from the floor and deliberately did another three sit-ups before she stood to greet the soldier at her door. “I don’t know, James. Are you?”

James Vega, her jailer—otherwise known as her Alliance-provided liaison—grinned. “I haven’t been to the gym today to work up my appetite.”

“Sorry to keep you from the weights.”

“It’s all right, Shepard. I just make all those guys jealous, anyway.” He flexed an admittedly superbly muscled arm.

“Save it for the ladies, James.”

“Oh, I do.”

He stood aside to let her out of the room and they walked companionably to the mess hall. Shepard was glad for his good humor. She was bored to tears stuck here at Alliance Command. They had effectively cut her off from everyone she knew, she was nervous as hell waiting for this damned tribunal with the batarians to get finished—and she was royally pissed at the enforced inaction when there were things to do. Vega’s friendly face went a long way toward helping her cope with her overall bad mood.

If Shepard had harbored any illusions that her reputation would get her anywhere here in the holding area in Vancouver, she had been stripped of them on arrival, along with her rank, her insignia, and her command. The Normandy was somewhere around being refit as an Alliance vessel, and having surrendered it seemed to make her a more suspicious character rather than having won her any points.

Meanwhile, the tribunal was coming along painfully slowly. She had yet to be allowed to give any testimony, her claims about the danger the Reapers represented had been all but laughed off, and the batarians were calling for her head in increasingly strident tones. If there was any negotation going on behind the scenes, she wasn't privy to it; it was very clear whoever was in charge had decided J.R. Shepard didn't need to know.

It was evident that her email was being stopped, as well. She’d tried to get word to everyone from Joker to Liara to Anderson, with no success thus far. Which meant that she had no way to hear from Thane, and concern for him hovered just at the edge of her consciousness at all times.

Shepard had ample time to practice the meditation techniques he had taught her, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her room and closing her eyes and thinking herself back, finding that more details lurked in her memory than she would have imagine when she relaxed and let herself relive the moment rather than trying to think her way through it.

And the Alliance took good care of her, she couldn’t fault them for that. The room was comfortable, she had good food and plenty of it, and access to books and exercise equipment—as long as she was accompanied by the ever-vigilant Vega as she moved from one place to another. What he had done to be stuck here in Vancouver babysitting a political prisoner, she couldn’t imagine, but she respected him for taking this insult of an assignment with equanimity.

“What do you think they’re serving today?” she asked as they walked to the mess hall, the conversation as familiar as the walls and the food itself by now.

“Ah, come on, Shepard, it never changes. Friday fish fry.”

“Fun.” She groaned. Her ancestors had practically lived on fish, so she’d been told, but as a space dweller, it had never been a staple of her diet, and she didn't find it particularly pleasant, especially not deep-fried in batter thicker than the fish. She could never look at her aquarium the same way again ... assuming she ever had another chance to set foot on the Nornandy. “James, you think the tribunal’s going to meet again next week?”

“Above my pay grade. They’ll tell us when they tell us.”

“That doesn’t frustrate the hell out of you?”

He shrugged. “Nah. I’ve got good chow, good company, plenty of free time … what’s to complain about?”

“Lack of active duty?”

“Yeah, fair enough.”

They had reached the mess, and Vega held the door open for her with an innate courtesy she had noticed before. “Don’t go anywhere,”

“Where is there to go?” She sighed, wrinkling her nose at the smell of the fried fish. “Vega.”

He raised his eyebrows.

“If I had my way, I’d be back on my ship doing something useful, and so would you.”

“Hold on to that thought, Commander. They can't keep you here forever.”

"Can't they? I think someone forgot to tell them that." Shepard sighed and moved into the chow line, trying to work up some enthusiasm for the fish and failing completely.

Chapter Text

Thane closed his eyes and breathed in the hot, dry air. The sun beating down on his head was delicious; he would have liked to stop and simply lie down and bask in it. But Kolyat was already far ahead of him, anxious to reach the next stop on their day’s journey. Thane took a moment to reflect on the urge of youth to go on and fill the time with as many memories as possible, and the urge of age to stop and truly savor the moment. He would certainly have far less time to live in this memory than Kolyat would.

It had startled him greatly when Kolyat—prodded, as Thane understood, by Captain Bailey, who had done much to earn the younger drell’s trust and approbation—had suggested this trip to Earth’s Chihuahuan Desert. Somewhat to Thane’s surprise, it was a different experience than what he and Shepard had seen. The wildlife, the vistas, the occasional people, were all unique. Earth was a more diverse planet than he had imagined, it seemed, or perhaps seeing these things through his son’s eyes made them seem new.

“Father!” The impatient voice carried in the stillness. “What are you doing?”

“Just resting.” Thane had been wearied all day, despite the pleasures of the heat and the sand and the sun. “Wait there; I will catch up.”

He could see Kolyat’s eyes rolling from here. Well, he couldn’t, but it was obvious anyway. His son reached into the pack he wore and took out a water bottle, taking a careful sip. The next watering hole was several hours' walk away. They would have to be careful.

Thane hadn’t been thirsty today, so his water bottle was untouched. Kolyat could have it, if needed. His feet dug into the sand as he moved toward Kolyat. It was deeper and softer sand than he had thought, each step taking a bit more effort than the last. His head was suddenly pounding, his breath coming short, the world darkening before his eyes as though the sun had set without warning.

Dimly he heard his son calling out for him, but darkness was filling his ears, as well, and then there was nothing.

Until suddenly it all came rushing back—breath and sight and hearing and his heart racing almost painfully in his chest.

“Father! Father, please!” There was desperation in Kolyat’s voice. and Thane realized that he was lying beneath a hastily rigged tent with a damp cloth across his forehead. How long had he been unconscious?

“Kolyat.” His voice sounded harsh and rusty in his ears. He tried to sit up, but the world swam, and he sank back down, closing his eyes briefly.

“Are you awake?”

“Yes.” He spoke without opening his eyes again.

“You scared me!” Anger was replacing the worry in Kolyat’s voice. A natural response to the boy’s panic, Thane thought, not that it would help to point that out.

“I am sorry.”

“Are you— Is this it?”

Thane considered. He felt weak and dizzy, yes, but he didn’t believe he was in any imminent danger of death. “No. Not yet. There is time still.” He spoke with relief, thinking of Juniper, locked away by the Alliance. He had tried to reach her, but he didn’t believe his messages had gone through. He would try again as soon as they were back on the Citadel, he told himself.

“Can you travel?” Kolyat demanded.

“Soon.” This time Thane succeeded in sitting up, taking the cloth off his forehead and looking around him. His head ached and throbbed; he must have struck it against a rock when he fell.

“Good, because we’re going back. I’m taking you back to the Citadel and you’re going to the hospital.”

The familiar panic squeezed at Thane’s heart at the idea of dying in a hospital, caged by his own body. “That’s not necessary.”

“The hell it isn’t!”

Thane smiled at the human turn of phrase, no doubt picked up from Bailey. “I appreciate your concern, but—“

“That’s what you said the first time, and this keeps happening, and you haven’t done anything! Look, you said you wanted to fix things, right?”

“I did.”

“Then do this for me. Go get yourself taken care of. Stop traipsing around the galaxy like you’re in the pink of health and actually be there for five minutes.” There was more in Kolyat’s voice, in his words, than he knew, a longing and a concern that he would never have admitted to.

Thane could not deny his son this request—Kolyat had more than deserved it for a long time now. And there was no question about it, a deep weariness had settled into Thane’s bones. He was tired. His body was beginning to shut down. It was the long slow descent into darkness now, and the only way to alleviate that, to make the time worthwhile, would be to spend it with his son. “Yes. I will do as you ask.”

Relieved, and trying not to show it, Kolyat at last settled down on the sand next to Thane. “We’ll start back as soon as you feel up to it. I think we can make it back to the last camp, and from there it’s only another day, day and a half, back to the town, taking it easy. We should be able to get you to the hospital on the Citadel within the week.” He glanced sharply at his father. “Do you—can you afford it?”

Thane smiled. If only his son knew. The work he had done paid well, and what had not gone to care for Kolyat in the past ten years had been accruing interest in a volus bank. “Yes. Thank you for your consideration.”

“Just didn’t want to have to pay for it,” Kolyat muttered, drawing patterns in the sand with his fingertips. “Should we try to see Commander Shepard while we’re on Earth?”

A fierce, sharp longing for his siha filled Thane’s heart. If only. But it was out of the question. “If the Alliance won’t let her receive emails, certainly they will not allow her to receive visitors. I would not want to make things harder for her. When she can, she will find me.”

“You sound very sure.”

“I am. I could not be more so.” He closed his eyes again, enjoying the heat, content in the presence of his son and the certainty of Shepard’s love. He had, after all, been a very fortunate man.

Chapter Text

“Good-bye, Shepard. Let me say that now in case I cannot later.” Thane hit send on the message, and waited to see what would happen when it was submitted.

Nothing.

A day later, still nothing. Even changing the ID key on the message to a false name hadn’t helped him reach her. He thought of her there on Earth, alone, trapped in an endless cycle of tribunals and questions and waiting for more of the same, and his heart went out to her. She must be so worried about him, about her ship, about all of her former companions.

And he was worried, too, not for her safety but for her overall well-being. Her frustration and her concern over the imminent arrival of the Reapers must have her near the boiling point, he imagined. He felt somewhat guilty that he had not attempted to convince anyone that the Reapers were coming … but who would have believed a drell assassin? And not jailed him, of course. Cerberus knew; surely the Illusive Man was working toward a solution. Perhaps Shepard was having better luck on Earth convincing those in charge to prepare for the threat than he imagined, he told himself, trying to believe it.

Truth was, his concern was for a much deeper and more selfish reason. Here in the hospital, he imagined that what remained of his life might be slightly prolonged … but it was unclear how long Shepard would be held, and every day increased the chance that he would never see her again on this side of the sea.

With that thought in mind, he left his quarters here in the hospital, chafing somewhat at the monitor he wore on his wrist. It made sense, of course—if he should collapse, the hospital wanted to know where he was—but he was used to remaining anonymous, hiding in the shadows, no one knowing when or where he went, and now that was a thing of the past. It was worth it for Kolyat’s peace of mind and for their fragile but strengthening relationship, he told himself. And he was still anonymous in one sense: He had given the hospital a false name, so that no one would know he was Thane Krios. He took little pride in his fame among certain circles, but it was a useful tool if wielded in the right places and times.

At the C-Sec office in Zakera Ward, he asked for Bailey, and was shown to his tiny, cramped cubicle. Bailey looked up at him from behind his monitor with his usual harried expression. “Oh, it’s you,” he said with some relief. He tapped a couple of keys and stood up, reaching out to shake Thane’s hand. “How are you feeling today?”

From anyone else, Thane would have been annoyed that every conversation began with that question, but Bailey had a genuine concern not just for Thane himself, but for the effect of Thane’s declining health on Kolyat, and so he answered graciously, “Much the same, thank Arashu.”

“Glad to hear it. You come down to check on your boy? I sent him off to the marketplace to trail a couple of pick-pockets for me.”

“No, not today. I had a different question.” Thane glanced over his shoulder and shut the door. “Are you able to discern the whereabouts of Commander Shepard?”

Bailey grimaced. “I hate to tell you, but there’s no such person any longer. They’ve stripped her of her commission,” he hastened to add to correct any misimpression he might have given.

“So … she is a prisoner?”

“More or less. Can’t get much besides what’s in the news vids—and can’t trust those, anyway, since that Al-Jilani person really has it out for Shepard—but seems like the batarians want blood for what happened, and the Alliance is using her as a bargaining chip to secure trade routes or some such nonsense.”

Thane closed his eyes and shook his head. He should never have allowed her to turn herself in. Or, at the very least, he should have made her use her status as a Spectre to do so here on the Citadel and turn herself in to the Council, instead.

“Is there any chance you can get a message to her?”

Bailey shook his head regretfully. “Wish I could, but they’ve got her email locked up tight. I can tell you no one’s accessed her messages, so they’re not reading them, just holding them until they decide what to do with her. Maybe once my promotion goes through in a few days I'll have better luck ... but I doubt it.”

“I see. Well, thank you, my friend.”

“Wish I could do more.”

“You have no need to wish such a thing. What you have already done for me and mine is beyond what anyone could have asked.”

“Yes, well …” Bailey cleared his throat, uncomfortable as always with being thanked.

“Are we still planning to have dinner with Kolyat in two days’ time?”

“Looking forward to it.” Bailey nodded at Thane and sat back down behind his terminal, tapping it to life again.

Thane let himself out of the office. So, there would be no contact with Juniper as long as she remained on Earth. He would have to content himself with memory, and with his near-ceaseless prayers on her behalf. “Goddess Arashu, she is Your warrior. Watch over her and protect her now in this time of her captivity, keep her strong in mind and heart and body, keep her prepared for what is to come … and bring her home to me before there is no more time, I beseech you.”

Chapter Text

Kaidan was practically whistling as he came in the doors of the Vancouver facility. Breakfast with his parents, pancakes and bacon and really good coffee, the prospect of dinner with some old friends of the family later, and just the smell and feel of Earth all around him had made for a very pleasant day so far. He would get his new orders after he gave his deposition, but he was hoping for a bit of R&R before he had to go back to space.

The fact that he might see Shepard didn’t concern him. He had been told the tribunal was sealed, that she wouldn’t be present for his questioning, and that it would likely be brief since he had not been in contact with her while she worked for Cerberus. So if anything it would be a brief glimpse, nothing more, he was sure.

All things considered, he would have preferred not to have even that much contact. It was still so hard for him to imagine her working with Cerberus, commanding a Cerberus ship. Had she been indoctrinated? Had whatever they had done to rebuild her brain after she was spaced changed her in some fundamental way? The few emails he had exchanged with Garrus and Joker had indicated that she was still herself … but after all, they’d been on the Cerberus ship, too. Who was to say that they were willing or able to tell the truth?

Still, any chance to spend a little time on Earth and check in with his parents was a good thing, and he intended to enjoy the opportunity.

He had just finished his deposition and was greeting Admiral Anderson when a messenger came out of the conference room where the tribunal was meeting and hurried over to them. “Sir,” she said, saluting Anderson nervously.

“What is it, private?”

“Message, sir, for your ears only.”

Anderson cast Kaidan an apologetic glance and moved away a few steps, leaning over to listen to what the messenger said. Whatever it was, his face paled, and he wheeled around and hurried down the hall, while the messenger darted back into the conference room.

Kaidan wondered what could be so important. Another threat from the batarians, one more credible than most?

And then he forgot to wonder, because Anderson reappeared on the other side of the sliding glass doors with a very familiar person at his side.

Juniper Shepard. She looked good, Kaidan had to admit. Fit, strong, determined … every inch herself, only more so. Apparently Cerberus had been good for her. Cerberus—or the new guy rumor said she had. Kaidan didn’t want to be jealous, but he couldn’t help wishing he could have found someone who made him feel as confident as Shepard looked right now.

James Vega, a tough but entertaining grunt Kaidan had met in a card game on the Citadel a while back, was accompanying Shepard, and he shook her hand before she turned and came through the doors. So, she had charmed Vega, had she? No surprise there. She always could charm her way through any situation.

Kaidan had been telling himself to play it cool with her ever since the possibility that he might run into her had come up, but he couldn’t help himself. He called her name.

She spun around, surprise on her face. Really nothing but surprise, much as Kaidan would have wanted to see more, for his own satisfaction if nothing else.

“Kaidan,” she said in acknowledgement.

“How’d it go in there?” Anderson asked him.

“Okay, I think. Hard to know. I’m just waiting for orders now.” He hoped they wouldn’t hurry. He was looking forward to some time on the beach before he was called back.

Shepard was standing next to Anderson, looking at Kaidan’s collar. “Major?” she asked.

He wished she wouldn’t sound so surprised.

“You hadn’t heard?” Anderson asked her.

“No, I hadn’t.” Shepard was looking at him like he should have told her.

Maybe he should have. He wasn’t certain anymore where they stood. But if she was going to be Alliance again, he had to be comradely, at the very least. “Sorry, Shepard. It’s been—“ What had it been? A long time? Hard to know what to say? Too long since they’d had a chance to catch up? “Um …”

“It’s okay,” she told him. “I’m just … glad I bumped into you, Kaidan.”

“Yeah. Me, too.” And he was. He truly was. The chance to look at her face again—well, it felt right.

The messenger reappeared next to Kaidan. “Admiral.”

Anderson glanced at Shepard. “Come on.”

Shepard looked at Kaidan, and he nodded at her, a reassuring smile coming to his lips without thinking. She went on into the room after Anderson without another word.

Vega followed behind her, stopping next to Kaidan. “You know the Commander?”

“I used to.” Kaidan would have been content to have left it at that, but of course, Vega couldn’t resist pushing it.

“What was she like?”

“What’s she like now?”

“Tough. Strong. Mad as hell that they grounded her ship.”

“The Normandy’s here?”

“Yeah, being refit over at the docking bay. Shepard’s itching to get out of here and do something about the Reapers. What do you think, is she crazy like they say, or are the Reapers real?”

Kaidan remembered Sovereign. “Oh, they’re real. She may be crazy, but the Reapers are out there. And one of these days they’ll be coming. Let’s hope we’re ready.”

Chapter Text

Vega apparently had to wait until Shepard was done with the tribunal, and Kaidan told himself that it was to keep Vega company that he stayed, too.

It had been strange to see her, he thought. Like there should have been some recognition, some pang, and when there wasn’t, he’d felt a hole where that pang should have been. For her part, she had been happy to see him, or so he’d imagined, but not especially emotional. It had been a long time, after all, a lot of water under the bridge. He had risen within the Alliance; she had gone through the Omega 4 relay and destroyed the Collector base.

Kaidan smiled to himself. Playing “who wins” with Shepard was always doomed to failure.

“Credit for your thoughts, Major?”

“Oh, nothing, just—“

But he never had to decide what to say, because the room exploded.

When he came to, his ears were ringing. Vega was crouched over him, shaking him awake. “Come on, man, we’ve gotta go.”

“Shepard?”

Vega winced. “Still in there. Not a chance.”

Kaidan tried to say that it was Shepard, and there was always a chance, but the sheer magnitude of the destruction around him stopped the words on his lips. People had been flung everywhere, no sign of movement from any of them. He and Vega had been fortunate to be standing in the center of the room, farthest from the walls.

“Major!”

“Yeah. Let’s—let’s go.” He had to think. He was ranking officer here. The debris between him and the chamber where the tribunal had been held was too dense to get through; there was no one left in the room to save, it appeared. “What hit us?” He and Vega moved cautiously to the hole where the wall had been and looked out. “My god.”

“What the fuck are those things?” Vega demanded.

“Reapers. They’re here. And we are not ready.”

“Reapers? Shepard’s Reapers?” A spasm of pain crossed his face. “I’m kinda glad she doesn’t know.”

Kaidan paused. “Yeah. Me, too.” Shepard, he thought. And where Shepard went ... He keyed the comm link in his collar, relieved when it worked. “Joker?”

The familiar voice came crackling through the comm. “Kaidan? That you?”

“Yeah. You guys ok?”

“For the moment.”

“Can you get to my position?”

There was a pause, some muttering as though the pilot was conferring with someone. “Give us two shakes, Lieutenant.”

Kaidan almost corrected him, but who cared about rank right now, with the world falling apart? It was enough to know that his guess was right, that Joker was here and in charge of the Normandy. He would think about Shepard later. For now, he would do what she would have done in his situation—take the fight to those Reaper bastards. “Come on,” he said to Vega. “Let’s get ready.”
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Shepard stirred, coming back to consciousness slowly. Her ears were ringing, but beyond that there was—silence. A terrible silence where there should have been voices, a room full of people talking, screaming, crying, calling out for one another.

She opened her eyes, finding herself lying upside down on a bench, staring across what had been a conference room moments ago and was now nothing but rubble.

A voice cut through the ringing in her ears, calling her name, and she twisted, noting almost absently that nothing seemed to be broken, until she saw Anderson standing over her.

“Shepard! We’ve got to go.” He was holding out a pistol, and she took it without thinking, automatically checking the heat sink.

“What—?” But she didn’t need to finish the question. She could see the fallen bodies of the tribunal around her as she moved out from behind the bench that appeared to have saved her, and outside the windows she could see what had caused the destruction. “Reapers. We’re too late.” Shepard wanted to cry. Why hadn’t they listened?

Anderson was on his comm, tapping it again and again, looking for someone to answer. “Lieutenant Commander Alenko, is that you? What’s your status?”

Shepard checked a body that seemed as though it might have moved, but if the man was alive, they couldn’t help him. Not without medics, and those would have to come from the Alliance infrastructure, not from two old soldiers who appeared to be on their own.

Near the shattered windows, Anderson was still talking. “I can’t raise anyone. You’ll have to try to pull something together. Meet us at the landing zone.” Over his shoulder, he called to her. “Shepard! Time to go!”

“Right.” She got to her feet, joining him at the window, where they wasted precious seconds shocked and horrified by the destruction around them. The Reapers were making a statement, taking out as much of the Alliance as they could in this attack, and they were ruthlessly efficient about it. Shepard felt sick. After all this, she was too late.

“Come on,” Anderson said, stepping through the broken glass out onto the ledge of the building. “Alenko is getting a ship. He’ll meet us at the landing zone.”

“Kaidan’s alive?” That was a relief, a worry she hadn’t even known she had. What about the Normandy? Joker was still on it. He wouldn’t have left his ship, and the Reapers would have wanted it gone, of that much she was sure. “Vega?”

“He didn’t say.” Anderson was halfway down the ledge now, heading toward the waterfront, and Shepard shook herself and stepped through the broken window. She should be reacting the way Anderson was, ready to get back into battle, not like some green recruit seeing her first attack.

They ran along the ledge, jumping over bits of rubble, dodging blasts from the Reapers, making a path through the destruction as best they could. Anderson was surprisingly nimble for a man his age, especially one who had been pushing papers for the last few years.

A nest of husks waited for them as they came over the edge of a building, and Shepard was sickened to see it. Not here, not on Earth. Husks belonged out there, far away in space. As did she, for that matter, and she couldn’t help feeling that if she wasn’t here, the Reapers wouldn’t be either.

That was foolish—they had already made it clear they were interested in humans, given the Collector attacks—but she couldn’t help it. So much of this had been her responsibility, ever since the Prothean beacon, that she had a hard time not seeing herself as some kind of cosmic jinx. She thought of Thane, wishing desperately that he was here, hoping that if she never made it off of Earth she would see him again somewhere across the sea.

“I thought we’d have more time,” she said to Anderson as they made their way through the ruins of a building.

“I know. We knew they were coming, and they still cut through our defenses.” He shook his head. “We need to go to the Citadel, get the Council to help.”

“The fight’s here,” Shepard objected.

Anderson shook his head. “It’ll be everywhere soon enough. They won’t stop here, Shepard, you know that. They’ll destroy everything if we don’t stop them. All of us, working together.” He keyed his comm. “Alenko. ETA three minutes!”

They were outside now, the Reapers continuing a path of destruction all around them. Shepard tried not to look, to watch where she was going instead, to keep her eyes on Anderson.

Arriving at the water’s edge, Anderson searched the sky. It was full of Reapers, but no ships. “Have we given up already?” Shepard asked in despair.

“Conserving firepower until we can make a coordinated attack. There’s nothing we could do right now if we tried.” Anderson reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “Shepard. We need you.”

“I know.” She took a deep breath, trying to pull herself together. And then above her came the first hopeful sight she’d seen in entirely too long: the Normandy streaking through the sky. Tears filled her eyes and she blinked them away, not wanting to miss a moment.

Anderson waved, and the ship banked hard and came down toward them. Shepard and Anderson hurried down the dock toward it, the Normandy hovering just at the end with the cargo bay doors open. Inside, hands held out to them, were Kaidan and James Vega. Shepard was glad to see both of them, reaching out and letting them pull her aboard.

“Welcome aboard, Commander,” Kaidan said.

“Thanks. Glad to be here.” She looked around at the familiar surroundings, feeling the well-known lift of the ship beneath her feet. “I can’t tell you just how glad.” Shepard turned to Anderson, holding her hand out to him. “Let’s go, sir.”

“Not me, Shepard. You. No one else can convince the Council how serious the threat is.” He pointed behind him. “And the people here, they’re going to need a leader, someone who knows what they’re up against. With you up there, and me down here, we might have a shot at this. Look, we need every species, and all their ships, to have an chance at defeating the Reapers.”

“Commander, we’re a hell of a target hovering here,” Kaidan broke in.

“You’re right. Is that Joker at the helm?”

“Who else would it be?”

“Good. Tell Joker to get us the hell out of here. Course set for the Citadel.” Soon as she could, she needed a change of clothes with a comm link. She knew the Normandy was being retrofitted, and hoped maybe some of her stuff was still here. If not, she could pick something up when they got to the Citadel.

“Talk to the Council!” Anderson shouted as Kaidan was relaying Shepard’s message. “Convince them to help us! And Shepard?” He dug something out of his pocket and tossed it across the space between them, the metal flashing in the sun.

It was her dog tags.

“Consider yourself reinstated!”

“I’m coming back!” she called to him. “And I’m bringing the whole damned galaxy with me!”

“I’m counting on it!”

And then the doors closed and the Normandy streaked through the sky, leaving the destruction on Earth far behind.

Chapter Text

Shepard stood staring at the closed cargo bay doors of the Normandy. Was it possible she had just lived through a Reaper attack on Earth? Abandoned her home planet in favor of flying off to convince a bunch of aliens to come back and defend the human homeworld?

Yes, it seemed that was what had happened. She lifted the hand that still clutched her dog tags and slipped the chain on over her head, feeling them settle into their familiar location, feeling more herself with them there. With her left thumb, she rubbed the back of the plain metal ring she wore on the third finger of that hand. Thane was on the Citadel; she would see him soon. It seemed mean, somehow, to be glad to be reuniting with her husband when so many people on Earth wouldn’t live to see another day, but she felt the lift of her heart at the prospect of seeing him anyway.

“What the hell, Shepard? Where’s Anderson? And where are we going?” Vega’s voice cut into her thoughts, and she turned to see him advancing on her, anger plain in every rigid muscle. “We’ve got to turn around and get back in that fight.”

“You ever fight a Reaper, Vega?” Kaidan asked. He was at the arms locker near the shuttle bay, looking through what they had on hand. “It takes a hell of a lot more than one ship. Even when that ship’s the Normandy.”

“Yeah, but we can try!”

“We’d get ourselves killed. We’re no good to anyone dead,” Shepard told him. “We’re going to the Citadel to talk to the Council. We need their help if we’re going to defeat the Reapers.”

“Come on! Anderson wouldn’t order us to leave.”

“He would, and he did. Without help, this war’s already over. Do you have any idea how many ships it took to take down Sovereign? And even at that, it nearly destroyed the Citadel. Earth’s going to have to hold out until we can come back with a fleet. Several fleets.”

“Fine. Then drop me off somewhere, because I’m not leaving Earth while it needs me.” Vega glared at her. He was perilously close to insubordination, but Shepard didn’t care about that right now. She needed him, needed all the good people she could get, and she needed to make him understand the scope of the danger they faced. Not just Earth, but the entire galaxy.

“Don’t you think I’d rather stay and fight? So would everyone on this ship. But we can’t save anyone on our own. We need help, and no one is better qualified to get it than I am. Look, Vega—”

Before she could continue, Joker’s familiar voice crackled through the speakers. “Commander!”

“Joker! Saving the day like always.”

“Yeah, well, I figured I owed you one.”

“Consider that debt fully paid.”

“I wouldn’t cash it in just yet, Commander. Who knows what’s ahead of us.”

“That’s what I like, a positive attitude.”

He laughed. “Got an emergency transmission for you from Admiral Hackett.”

“Patch it through.”

Hackett’s image was snowy and indistinct, his words cutting in and out. She was able to update him on their situation, and he ordered her to stop on Mars first. She caught the words “Dr. T’Soni” and “stop the Reapers.” Well, if Liara was there, she likely had some information they needed.

“Joker? Set course for Mars.”

“You got it, Commander.”

She strode toward the lockers. Mars was a much shorter trip; they’d need to get their gear ready. She was glad to see a lot of hers was still here.

Behind her, Vega turned to Kaidan. “This is loco!”

“If Admiral Hackett wants us on Mars, he’s got a good reason.”

Shepard was glad Kaidan was aboard. He was a good soldier, and an intelligent man. She was going to need both qualities to get through whatever lay ahead. She made a mental note to tell him so, as soon as there was time.

“Both of you, grab your gear. I want boots on the ground as soon as we get there.”

Vega looked like a thunder-cloud, but he began putting a set of gear together. Shepard hoped he would come around eventually. She could always send him back to Earth from the Citadel, but she’d rather keep him on board.

On the other side of the locker, Kaidan was efficiently assembling his own gear, and she smiled. It was good to be going into the fight with him at her side again.

Chapter Text

Thane was with the other long-term care patients in the common room of the hospital when Emily Wong broke into the Blasto movie they were watching.

“Special bulletin: Earth under attack! Forces of unknown origin have attacked the major cities of Earth, including the Alliance base in Vancouver. Transmissions have been intermittent, but it appears the damage is extensive. Some claim the attackers are the Reapers. Commander Shepard has gone on record estimating a Reaper attack within the next five years, but Shepard’s whereabouts are currently unknown. Sources say she was in Vancouver for the batarian tribunal when the attack occurred.” Wong looked up into the camera, and Thane had the sense that her remarks were her own, deeply felt, and not scripted. “If these are the Reapers, coming for humanity, and I see no reason to believe otherwise, the rest of us need to prepare. They will come for us, for each and every race in the galaxy. Be ready.”

The camera moved away from her abruptly, and then the screen cut back to the vid in progress, not that anyone in the room was watching it any longer. Thane got to his feet and went back to his room, firing up his private terminal. Earth under attack by the Reapers? Shepard under attack? The nightmare they had been dreading had begun.

“Arashu, she is your angel,” he whispered. “Please tell me you have protected her and brought her safely through the attack.” He reached out to a few old contacts whom he knew to have ties to Earth, but they knew no more than anyone else.

A sharp knock sounded at his door, followed by Kolyat coming in. He took the chair next to Thane’s. “Father, I came as soon as I heard. Have you been able to find out anything?”

“No.” He was tormented by visions of Shepard lying dead, or worse, captured by the Reapers. They would want her more than anyone else, he knew.

“Do you want me to check in with Bailey, see what he knows?”

“I don’t imagine C-Sec has any more information than my contacts—but I thank you for the offer, and for being here.” He stared at the screen, willing someone, anyone, to get back to him.

There was a silence, and he looked up to see Kolyat watching him intently. “You care for her very much.”

“I do. She is … extraordinary. As was your mother,” he hastened to assure his son, “although in different ways.”

“It’s all right, Father. I think—I think maybe she would have wanted you to be happy.”

Even given somewhat grudgingly, it was a tremendous admission, and Thane felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this chance to be close to his son again. “Is there anyone who makes you happy, Kolyat?”

“No. Not at the moment. I thought once, but—“ He shrugged. “It wasn’t right.”

“Someday someone will, and you will understand …” Flashes of memory pushed insistently at him, and Thane used all his control to keep from being drawn into the images of both women that hovered so near the back of his vision. “I thought—it never occurred to me that Shepard would be the first to cross the sea.”

“You believe that? The sea, and the gods?”

“Yes.” Thane shrugged. “I am aware that my beliefs are considered old-fashioned, but when I pray to the gods, I feel their strength and love flowing through me. When I consider what is to come when this life is past, I believe that the analogy of changing from a land creature to a sea creature makes sense. It comforts me. And what is the point of turning away something that comforts you just because it also happened to comfort your ancestors?”

Kolyat nodded. “I suppose I can understand that.”

Before Thane could continue, his terminal beeped with an incoming message. The Normandy! His heart leaped and thudded, his breath coming fast, and he struggled to get his breathing under control even as he tapped the message to open it. Joker’s face appeared on the screen, and Thane’s heart sank. He gasped for breath.

“Thane! Thane, that you?” The picture was rippling and crackling, Joker’s voice cutting in and out.

“I’m here! Joker, what is your situation?”

“She’s alive! Thane, Shepard’s here, on the Normandy. Do you hear me? I repeat, Shepard is on the Normandy.”

“Yes, I hear you. Is she—all right?”

“Fine. We’re stopping off on the way, then we’ll be there. She said to tell you she’s coming.”

“Arashu’s mercy.” Thane’s breath was coming short with the excitement, the edges of his vision blackening. He could feel Kolyat’s hand at his elbow, holding him. “Joker.”

“Yeah?”

“It is good to see you.”

“Same.”

“Tell her—I will wait for her.”

“Understood. Joker out.”

The screen went black, and Thane gripped the desk, breathing in and out slowly until his heart stopped pounding. “She is alive.”

“I’m glad, Father.”

“Be glad for more than just me, son. Shepard is the only person who has ever defeated a Reaper. If we are to win this war, and make no mistake, we will all be drawn into it, she is the one who will lead us to victory.” Closing his eyes, Thane breathed a heartfelt prayer to Amonkira, to sharpen Shepard’s aim and give her safety in her upcoming battles; to Arashu, to enfold her angel and protect her; and to Kalahira, to allow him the time to see her once more.

Chapter Text

The winds were picking up on the surface of Mars, a dust storm on the way. Shepard and her team would have to get in and out quickly. And they weren’t the first ones here. Shepard frowned behind her mask as she drew close enough to the figures ahead to recognize the insignia on the hardsuits. Cerberus.

Her comm link crackled, Kaidan’s voice coming through. “What the hell is Cerberus doing here, Shepard?”

“I haven’t been in contact with Cerberus for months. I don’t know why they’re here.”

His answering silence said he didn’t believe her, but there was nothing she could do about that right now. The Cerberus troops had seen them, and it was a firefight.

Kaidan hadn’t lost any of his skill, Shepard was glad to see, and James was solid, if a bit on the unsurprisingly aggressive side. He followed orders well, though, and turned out to have a keen eye for enemy movements, taking out a Cerberus trooper just as he was about to open fire from behind Kaidan.

In the half of her mind not taken up by the fight, Shepard worried about Liara. If Cerberus was here, were the people inside safe? Was Liara?

Once the field was clear, they went inside the facility, shutting the doors behind them. Shepard got the elevator in motion, carrying them up into the main part of the facility.

Kaidan approached her, his body's tension evident even beneath the hardsuit. “I need a straight answer from you.”

“About what?”

“About Cerberus. Why they’re here.”

“I gave you one. What makes you think I know what they’re up to?”

“You worked for them!”

“Months ago! In order to take down the Collectors—a problem the Alliance was all but ignoring, may I remind you.”

Kaidan glanced at Vega, who hastily looked away and pretended to be studying something on the railing of the elevator, then stepped closer to her. “They—they rebuilt you, from the ground up. They gave you a ship, resources. Do you expect me to believe they just … let all that get away? That they didn’t do anything to you to … protect their investment?”

Shepard understood. She’d had similar concerns herself, and it was her body and her ship. “Kaidan. I’m telling you this straight out. I have had no contact with Cerberus since I blew up the Collector base. None. Dr. Chakwas cleared me—there’s nothing in me that has been altered, nothing changed. It was a clean rebuild. I have no idea why they’re here, or what they want. Look, I know we haven’t … spoken in a long time, but you have to trust me.”

Vega cleared his throat. “Commander Shepard has been under constant surveillance since coming back to Earth. No way she’s communicated with anyone from Cerberus.”

She nodded crisply at him. “Thank you, James.”

“Sorry, Shepard. It’s just that …” Kaidan shrugged, spreading his hands out in front of him.

The pressure equalized as the elevator came to a stop, and Shepard took off her helmet so she could see him better. “I get it, Kaidan. I do. But I shouldn’t have to explain myself to you. And I wouldn’t have had to if you had ever been willing to have a conversation about this before.”

He took his helmet off, too, stepping even closer to her, his eyes searching her face, looking for the Juniper he used to know.

“Please trust me,” she said softly.

In the same tone, he replied, “I do, I swear. It’s just that …”

“I know. But we have to get past that now.”

He nodded. “I’ll try. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

Rattles and clanks in the ductwork above them cut off the rest of what he might have said as they all sought tactical positions. Much to Shepard’s relief, the asari who fell from the ductwork—and neatly took care of the two Cerberus troopers following her—was a familiar face.

Reaching out, Shepard put a hand on Vega’s uplifted weapon, pointing it down at the floor. “She’s with us.”

At the sound of her voice, Liara turned and came toward them, her face lighting with relief. “Shepard! And Kaidan. So good to see you both. I’m … I’m sorry about Earth.”

“Thanks.”

“It was hard to leave it like that,” Kaidan said somberly.

But there was no time to dwell; with Cerberus already here, every moment counted. “Hackett sent us. What’s going on?”

Liara stepped closer, lowering her voice. “I’ve discovered plans for a Prothean device. One that could wipe out the Reapers.”

“Hallelujah. Let’s get it and get back to Earth.” Vega shouldered his weapon.

Liara frowned at him. “It’s not that simple, I’m afraid. Mr. …?”

Shepard pointed between them. “James Vega, Liara T’Soni.”

They nodded at each other while Liara continued. “The Archives are filled with an overwhelming amount of data. Sorting through it and understanding it could take lifetimes.” She smiled a little. “But we don’t have lifetimes, so I hurried.”

“So you found something?”

“A blueprint.”

“That’s what Cerberus is here for?” Kaidan asked.

“I would assume so.”

“How did they know it was here?”

Liara shook her head. “I wish I knew. I barely knew it was here, and then all of a sudden they showed up.” She reached out to touch Shepard’s arm. “You have no idea how glad I am to see you.”

“Same. Let’s get your blueprints and get the hell out of here.”

“After you.”

Chapter Text

Shepard had sent James back to the shuttle so they had someone on the outside waiting to catch Cerberus if they got out of the archives. He wasn’t happy about it, but he took the order. Shepard didn’t mind a bit of insubordination as long as he got the job done, so she let the attitude slide for the moment.

“Is he going to have our back?” Liara asked.

“James is a good guy. He’ll grumble, but he’ll be there,” Kaidan assured her.

Shepard nodded in agreement. “Let’s move out.”

They ran into various Cerberus troops along the way, but nothing they couldn’t handle. They also found evidence that a human doctor who was relatively new to the site was working with Cerberus, and had taken down the facility from the inside out, cutting off the tram access to the Archives they needed to reach. Liara was devastated, blaming herself for not paying enough attention in her focus on translating the Prothean documents she had found.

“Stopping the Reapers is the only thing that matters,” Shepard told her. “You were right to focus.”

“And if we’re wrong, and there’s no way to stop them?” Liara turned a tear-stained face in Shepard’s direction. “If these are our last days and we waste them trying to solve the unsolvable?”

Shepard put her hand on Liara’s shoulder. “This isn’t you. We can’t give in to despair. The Protheans fought for, what, a thousand years? And they almost did it. And we have their records, and it’s only been a few hours since Earth was struck.” Hard to believe, really, that she’d woken up in that room in the Vancouver facility just this morning. “We can do this.”

“Yes. Yes, we can,” Liara agreed, her voice coming stronger. “I don’t know how you do it, staying focused even in the worst situations.”

“How can we not come out on top if we work together? I always have a good team around me—with you, them, I can’t fail.” She thought of Thane, and Wrex, and Garrus, and Jack, and Grunt, and Mordin … Glancing over her shoulder at Kaidan, she caught him looking at her with a troubled expression, a wistful, hopeful look in his dark eyes that went away as he shook his head, and she sighed. Apparently he wasn’t finding it as easy to trust as he had promised.

He cleared his throat. “If we can find a short-range communicator, we could trick Cerberus into sending the tram back, tell them the Alliance forces have been taken care of.”

“Good idea,” Shepard agreeed. “See what you can find.”

Liara looked sidewise at Shepard. “The Major has become very … capable.”

“Old news, Liara.”

“Yes, of course.” There was sympathy in Liara’s look, though, and Shepard sighed inwardly. Yet again, there was simply no time to think about her personal life—about the looks Kaidan kept giving her, about Thane in the hospital on the Citadel and how much longer he had. She wondered briefly what it would be like to be a normal person.

Kaidan’s voice calling her name cut into her moment of self-pity, and she hurried to join him next to the body of a fallen Cerberus soldier. He removed the helmet, which contained a transmitter, and recoiled in shock and horror.

Shepard knelt next to him, horrified herself at the decaying face of the man inside the Cerberus armor.

“He looks like a husk,” Kaidan whispered.

“They’ve done something to him,” Shepard agreed. He looked like a human-husk hybrid. Disturbing.

Kaidan stood up, looking down at her, frowning. “By ‘they’, you mean Cerberus. They did this to their own guy. Is this … is this what they did to you?”

Shepard stood, as well, meeting his eyes. “How can you ask me that? You see me, standing here in front of you.”

“I see you, but I don’t know what you are. Or who. Not since Cerberus rebuilt you. For all I know, you could be their puppet, controlled by the Illusive Man himself.”

In the heat of her anger, she tried to remember that she had had the same concerns once, worrying about what they had put inside her, what they had used to rebuild her, what that made her, and she forced herself to breathe, to calm down.

“Don’t bother to explain,” he snapped. “I don’t think I’d understand anyway.” He turned away, then back again, his dark eyes searching her face. “I just want to know, is the person that I followed to hell and back, the person that I loved … are you still in there somewhere?”

Instinctively, remembering what they had been to each other, remembering the man she had loved, she reached out and touched his shoulder. “They didn’t change me, Kaidan. I’m still the person you knew, the person who loved you. That’s … well, things have changed and I’ll tell you all about that when there’s time, but you are still special to me. You always have been, you always will be.” She sighed. “But words won’t be enough, will they?”

“Probably not.”

She smiled. “Stubborn.”

He laughed. “Me?”

Shepard shrugged. “Come on.”

They found the Cerberus mole downloading the archives. She got away from them, running at almost superhuman speed up to the helopads. Shepard was able to stay within sight of her, but only at top speed, and she had no energy or breath left when she reached the helopad, able only to watch helplessly as the Cerberus shuttle took off, gasping into her comm for Joker, Vega, anyone, to stop the shuttle before the blueprints were out of their reach for good.

Vega swooped in with the Normandy’s shuttle, ramming it into Cerberus's. The Normandy’s shuttle came to a rather wobbly stop, but Cerberus's rolled over and over, pieces shearing off of it. Everyone aboard was dead, which meant finding the blueprints, especially intact, was going to be impossible.

Then the woman they had been chasing rose from the wreckage.

“She’s a freakin’ robot!” Vega shouted from the open door of the shuttle.

“Yeah, who knew?” Kaidan muttered, pulling his gun and firing into the robot's chest even as it closed the distance between them. Not slowed in the least by the impacts, the robot knocked the gun from Kaidan’s hand and lifted him by his helmet.

“Kaidan!” Shepard ran for them, her heart pounding with fear as she saw him dangling from the robot’s grip. Leveling her weapon at the thing, she said desperately, “Let him go.”

The robot touched a comm link at her ear, miraculously still working, as if asking for orders. She nodded, turning, and bashed Kaidan’s helpless body against the side of the burning shuttle, again and again.

A red mist of rage blinded Shepard. She threw her gun across the helopad and rushed the robot, grasping its head from behind and, with a strength she’d never known she had, ripped the head off the body.

The robotic body sputtered and spat sparks before collapsing. Kaidan fell to the ground, unmoving, and Shepard’s heart stopped within her. “Kaidan.” She knelt next to him. “Come on. Say something. Kaidan!”

She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Shepard. We need to get him to the Citadel.”

Liara had to repeat the words a few times before they sank in and Shepard nodded. “Right.” Her head began to clear as she stood up. “Right. To the Citadel. Vega, can you—?” She gestured to Kaidan’s body, and Vega nodded, taking Kaidan’s shoulders while Shepard got his legs. Behind them, Liara gathered up the pieces of the robot.

“Why are you bringing that … thing?” Shepard asked her.

“Never waste a resource. Besides, somewhere in here, she has my blueprints.”

They got Kaidan settled aboard the shuttle and Vega took off, heading for the Normandy.

Chapter Text

The trip to the Citadel seemed to take forever. Shepard hung over the bed in medbay where Kaidan lay, still and silent, his breathing disturbingly shallow. It was as much as she could do to keep her fingers away from the comm link in her collar—Joker was getting there as quickly as he could, she knew that, and pestering him wouldn’t help … but she couldn’t bear to see Kaidan like this.

Tearing herself away at last, she updated Admiral Hackett on what had occurred on Mars, although she left out Liara bringing the robot back onto the Normandy. If Liara got some info out of it, all the better, and if she didn’t, why raise hopes and give rise to questions? Then she contacted the Citadel to make sure there would be no issue with the Normandy docking as quickly and efficiently as possible, alerting them to have medical staff on hand ready to meet the ship. With the time she had to spare, she considered contacting Thane, but decided she would seek him out in person, instead. She wanted to focus on seeing him again and the joy she felt at the prospect, but Kaidan’s bruised and battered face kept appearing in her mind instead. Of all the things Shepard hated, having a crewmember injured or killed on her watch was the worst. And it was especially hard to take when the crewmember was someone as special as Kaidan.

The rest of the skeleton crew that had been aboard the ship when Joker took off with it during the attack on Earth kept their distance. Shepard appreciated that. There would no doubt be time to get acquainted with them all later.

Looking out the window of the lounge, watching the stars go by, as if counting them could make the ship go faster, Shepard wondered where the others were. Wrex was on Tuchanka, of course. Garrus on Palaven. Tali with the Migrant Fleet. Had the Reapers made it that far yet? They would, eventually, she knew that with cold certainty. Grunt, Jack, Miranda, Kasumi … Her people were spread across the galaxy, and she worried about each of them in the dark times to come.

At last they were docking, and Shepard was glad to see a medical team waiting. They lost no time getting Kaidan on a stretcher. She was frightened by their grave faces and worried looks, and was relieved to see them hurry off in the direction of the hospital.

“Will you follow him to the hospital or speak to the Council first?” Liara asked her, gently.

“Hospital. I need to know that Kaidan is all right before I deal with the Council. And … I need to see Thane.”

Vega, on her other side, frowned. “You’re putting the welfare of one man above all of Earth?”

“He’s part of my crew. I take care of my people. Besides.” She turned her head to look at Vega, meeting his eyes, not minding the anger in them. She would have felt the same in his place. “The Council already knows what’s happened to Earth, and I’m sure they’ve made up their minds not to help. I have to be clear-headed when I go in front of them, and I won’t be as long as I’m worried that one of my people is … Until I know that Kaidan’s all right.”

Grudgingly, Vega admitted that was a decent point. He and Liara took off for different parts of the Citadel, and Shepard made her way straight for the hospital.

Kaidan was in surgery. There was nothing to do but wait. So wait she did, pacing back and forth in the tiny room set aside for friends and family, trying to clear her thoughts so she could plan how to deal with the Council, but unable to stop herself from turning, her heart leaping with hope, every time the door slid open.

At last, the person coming through the door was Kaidan’s doctor. “He made it through surgery. He’s pretty tough. Not a lot of people could have survived that.”

“You have no idea.”

“You can see him, but he’s still sedated, so he won’t be talking much.” He offered a faint smile.

Kaidan looked better, lying there in the hospital bed. Still too motionless, too bruised, but there was more color to his cheeks and his breathing was easier. He was going to make it, she told herself. He had to.

She whispered his name, but he slept on, unaware of her presence. “I hate seeing you like this,” she told him. “I don’t know if you can hear me, or know I’m here, but at least you can’t tell me to get the hell out of here, either. I …” But she didn’t know what she wanted to say. “Don’t die,” she said at last. “That’s an order, Major. We need you in this.” She cleared her throat. “Seeing you in action again reminded me that you’re a hell of a soldier. The Alliance will need you. And … so will I.”

Behind her, the doctor came in, glancing at her pointedly as he made notes in his chart.

“I’ll be back, Kaidan. I look forward to seeing you on your feet again.”

Chapter Text

With Kaidan taken care of for the moment, and word from Liara that the Council wouldn’t see her until later in the day, Shepard had a moment for herself—and she took it, heading straight up to the resident wing of Huerta Memorial to hunt Thane down under his assumed name.

The nurses hadn’t wanted to give her the information, so she pulled out her Spectre status, glad to see it was still useful, and in a few moments was knocking on the door, her heart hammering in her chest. She had been so afraid, so very afraid, that her near-endless incarceration on Earth would keep her from ever seeing him again, and even now, she didn’t know if it was too late, if he was all right or if he was at death’s door.

Every second that ticked past between her knock and the door beginning to open seemed like an eternity.

And then he was there in front of her, gloriously himself, no change that she could see.

“Thane!”

There was a moment where his face was blank, as he tried to place this visitor calling him by his real name, and then it filled with joy and disbelief. “Siha?”

She waited until he opened his arms to fit herself within them, not wanting to overwhelm him. He felt the same as always, as wiry and strong as he had the last time she had been with him. “I missed you so much. I was afraid—“

“I, too, when I heard the news from Earth. How did you get away?”

“How else? Joker flew the Normandy in and saved the day.”

“Amonkira be thanked.” He cupped her face in his hands, looking her over. “You are not hurt?”

“No. Not a scratch.” She thought of Kaidan, feeling guilty that she had forgotten the seriousness of his injuries, even for a moment. “One of my crewmembers, though—we stopped on Mars, and there was this Cerberus robot … He’s in serious condition.”

“Which one? I will watch out for him while you are gone.”

“Who says I’m going anywhere?”

“Siha. Why else are you here? You have been sent to gather help from the Council for Earth, against the Reapers. And the Council will use you to further your own ends, not yet convinced that the danger is real. You will end in criss-crossing the galaxy, yet again.”

Shepard smiled. How well he knew her. “Probably,” she admitted. “So if you can keep an eye on Kaidan, I would appreciate it.”

“Kaidan?”

“Yes, that Kaidan. He’s—he almost died, Thane. I hate it when my crew is injured.”

“I know you do.”

His hand was gentle on her face, and she leaned into the remembered touch. Her memory tricks had helped, sharpening her recollections of their time together, but she was no drell, and the clearest memory was no substitute for the real thing.

“Thane?”

He knew what she was asking, and with a smile punched the button to lock the door of his quarters. “I have dreamed of this.”

“So have I. So many times.” She kissed him, hungrily, feeling the answering urgency in the way his arms pulled her close, the clutch of his hands in the fabric of her fatigues.

Thane drew away, breathing heavily, and she felt a stab of alarm.

“This is okay, right? You’re okay?”

“Yes. More than okay enough.” To prove it, he kissed her again, his hands moving to fumble with her clothes, fingers sliding along her bared skin. Shepard caught her breath in a moan at the sensation.

Thane tugged her toward the bed, each of them shedding clothes as they went, and they fell together onto the narrow mattress, touching, kissing, caressing, rediscovering all the remembered sensations, until the need was too great to wait any longer. They moved together, holding each other tight as the pleasure peaked and ebbed.

They lay next to one another, smiling foolish smiles.

“When must you leave?” he asked at last.

“I see the Council later today. The Normandy left Earth in the midst of being refit, so it’s being supplied as we speak, but that will take some time. We were lucky we had enough fuel to make it here. So it will be at least tomorrow before we can go anywhere.” She shook her head. “Not that I have any idea where the Council will send me first. I wish it would be as simple as ‘yes, of course, we’ll give you our fleets against the Reapers’, but … Earth will have to hold out for a while. And other planets will be attacked in the meantime. I—it’s hard to know that so many people will die because I couldn’t convince the galaxy that the threat was coming.”

“You are only one person, and you did everything you could.”

“I wish that was as comforting as it sounds.”

Thane nodded, understanding.

Shepard got up, searching for her fallen clothes. “So I’ll be back for dinner. Maybe with Kolyat?”

“I think, this time, I would like to have you to myself. Next time …”

She was glad he was talking in terms of a next time, having been worried she would find him downcast and ready to shed this life and hasten across the sea. “Next time,” she agreed.

Chapter Text

Thane found the time while Shepard was meeting with the Council hanging unusually heavily on his hands. It had been six months without seeing her, surely he was used to it by now. But knowing she was here on the Citadel, having enjoyed the all-too-brief reunion he had despaired of ever experiencing, he found he was greedy for more. Especially knowing that she would undoubtedly be sent off somewhere else on someone else’s business entirely too soon.

He whiled away the time tidying up his quarters. They were already neat, but looking at them with a critical eye he felt they were not suitable for Shepard. Whatever time they had been miraculously granted, he wanted it to be perfect for her. She hadn’t wanted to speak about the destruction she had seen on Earth, but he had seen enough of the vids to know that the invasion had been massive, carefully coordinated, and aimed at creating the greatest amount of chaos possible. She had been lucky to have escaped with her life, and the need to get back there and be part of defending her home planet had to be weighing on her. Thane wanted to offer her sanctuary, a haven where she could relax and refresh herself before she had to be Commander Shepard again, talking the rest of the galaxy into doing what they shouldn’t have needed to be told to do.

At last she returned, her face lined with the tension he had expected to see.

“Come.” He led her to a seat, putting a glass of wine into her hand before he asked her any questions. Then he took his seat on the end of the couch, lifted her feet into his lap, removed her shoes, and began massaging the tension out of her.

“Oh, that feels lovely. Thank you.” Juniper took a sip of wine, and leaned her head back.

“How bad was it?” Thane asked after a moment.

“About what I expected. They said they couldn’t help Earth because they needed to secure their own borders, they downplayed the need for us all to work together against the Reapers, and they said how sorry they were about what had happened.” She sighed.

“They spent too long convincing themselves that there is no such thing.”

“Yes, but by the time circumstances convince them otherwise, it may well be too late. They at least promised to send some assistance to help build this weapon Liara found the blueprints for. That’s something. But it’s as much a gamble as anything else, since we don’t know what it does, and all we do know is that the Protheans never finished it." She sighed heavily. "Maybe we’re all doomed to that same fate, to nearly complete the ultimate weapon only to fail at the last minute.”

Thane slid closer to her. “That does not sound like you, Siha.”

“I’m so tired, Thane. I spent all this time fighting—Saren, the geth, the Collectors—and trying to prepare the galaxy. I gave up so much.” She reached for his hand. “All the time we could have spent together. And for what? To be caught with our pants down.” Shepard gave a faint smile. “And not in the good way.”

He squeezed her hand. “You did what needed to be done. No one begrudges you that. Least of all me. I am grateful to have had as much time with you as we have managed.”

“Thank you.” She sighed, taking a long swallow of the wine. “I stopped in to talk to Bailey. His children …”

“I am aware.” Bailey’s estranged son and daughter were on Earth. Any chance he might have had to repair the relationship was probably gone now.

“You know I had never been to Earth before we went.” She smiled at him, remembering.

Thane smiled, too, the memories of the heat and the long nights with Shepard in his arms coming back to him. He pushed them down—there would be time enough to dwell in memory when she was gone again.

“I’m so glad we did that. If we hadn’t … I would have hated for my only memories of my homeworld to be the Alliance headquarters and the destruction of Vancouver.”

“I understand.”

“But I feel so guilty talking to people like Bailey, who loved Earth, who have loved ones missing—and worse—there, knowing that to me it’s no different from any other planet. We brought the soldier who had been guarding me, James, along with us, and he was … He couldn’t understand how we could leave Earth while it was under attack. I hate to run from a fight as much as the next person, but—it was just a lot easier for me.”

“That is understandable. I imagine you are far from being the only human in the galaxy who finds their ties to the homeworld tenuous.”

“No, you’re probably right. That doesn’t make it feel better right now, though.”

Thane gathered both her hands in his. “Siha, you have done and continue to do more than any hundred other humans have done to prevent what happened and to discover how to fight back against the Reapers. You will continue to do so, if I know anything about you at all. But you must not surrender yourself to guilt, or despair.”

“That’s easier said than done.”

“Yes. That is why not everyone can do it.” He smiled at her. “But you can.”

“Can I? I don’t know anymore.”

Thane realized that no words of his were going to comfort her, not at the moment. He knew her well enough to know that this mood would pass, and her determination would return to her. But she needed time, and to be taken out of herself.

Taking the wineglass from her hand, he set it down on the table. Then he cupped her face in his hands and kissed her, deliberately, leaving no doubt about his intentions.

Juniper submitted gratefully to the kiss, quite evidently glad for the chance to stop thinking for the time being. Thane regretted that he no longer had the strength to lift her and carry her to the bed, but he walked her there, slowly, kissing her and relieving her of her clothing as they went. Then he laid her down on the bed and proceeded to spend the rest of the night ensuring that her thoughts were thoroughly occupied.

Chapter Text

Tearing herself away from Thane in the morning was as hard as Juniper had imagined it would be. Every moment with him seemed so precious. She had lain awake next to him the night before listening to his breathing, so much louder than she remembered it being, thinking of the hesitation in his speech now, as if he wasn’t sure when he began a sentence if he would have breath to finish it, and she knew the end had begun. But how long it would take, at what point he would cease to be the Thane she remembered, she had no idea.

Damn the turians, anyway, she thought irritably, getting up quietly to put her few things together. Damn the Council. Couldn’t they have just said, “Yes, Commander Shepard, you’ve done enough, we’ll take it from here”?

She caught herself, smiling at her own foolishness. Of course they couldn’t. She wouldn’t want them to, in fact. This was her fight, her war, and the Reapers owed her. She intended to collect on that debt with tremendous interest.

“They will rue the day they chose to attack while Commander Shepard was still living,” Thane said.

Turning, she saw him sitting up in bed, his still-muscular chest bare above the sheets. Shepard took a long pause to look at him there, committing everything about him and the look on his face and this moment together to her memory as best she could.

“You will not forget, Siha.”

“No. I won’t forget. Thane, I— You’ve been—“

He shook his head, holding one hand in the air to ask her to wait while he coughed. “Not now, Siha. There will be time. I promise.”

Shepard knew he couldn’t possibly predict when she would be back any more than she could, but the promise was what she wanted to hear, so she took it. “Good. I’m not done with you yet,” she purred, bending down to give him a long, lingering kiss.

He responded in kind, soft and sweet, and if Joker hadn’t beeped Shepard’s comm link to find out what the hell was taking her so long, the kisses might have led to more.

Shepard smiled ruefully as she pulled herself away. “Hold that thought.”

“As long as necessary.”

She was smiling as the door slid closed behind her. The Normandy was ready and waiting, Joker reported, everyone aboard but its commander, so she needed to get moving … but there was one more thing she needed to do before she left.

Kaidan was unchanged, his form still under the sheets, his eyes closed.

A familiar face appeared in the room as Shepard stood there looking at him, feeling helpless and responsible. Dr. Michel had been working in one of the less savory areas of the Citadel when they had first met. She had apparently moved up in the world since then, working now at the finest hospital on the Citadel, possibly in the galaxy.

“How is he, Doctor?” Shepard asked after the pleasantries had been exchanged.

“He is healing, but … it is hard to say how long that will be.”

“You’ll keep an eye on him for me, Doctor?”

“Of course.”

“You can reach me on the Normandy in case anything … changes.” She hated even saying the words. Kaidan deserved better than this, to be sidelined in a hospital room by a robot when the galaxy needed him.

Dr. Michel nodded, sympathetically, and Shepard took her leave.

As she strode purposefully across the lobby of the hospital, she heard her name called in a crisp, commanding voice. Only one person she knew spoke to Commander Shepard that way, and she was already smiling as she turned around. “Dr. Chakwas! What are you doing here?”

“I came up to check on our young man. But Dr. Michel seems to have him well taken care of. And you? I imagine you’re here to get aid for Earth?”

“Well, that was the plan. The Council had other ideas. I’m heading for Palaven right now on an errand for Sparatus.”

“Naturally.”

“Nothing ever changes.” Shepard hesitated. Dr. Chakwas was also hesitating, she noticed. “If you’re not busy …”

The doctor gestured to the duffel bag behind her. “I thought you’d never ask.”

“Then welcome aboard.” Shepard reached out to shake her old friend’s hand. “This is the best thing that has happened in a long time. The Normandy wasn’t the same without you.”

“I wasn’t the same without the Normandy. I suppose Jeffrey is still aboard?”

“You couldn’t blast him out of that ship. And people have tried.” It was strange to be able to joke about the day she died … but a lot had happened since then.

“No doubt he’s been forgetting to take his medication.”

“No doubt,” Shepard agreed, and the two women stepped into the elevator.

Chapter Text

To no surprise of Shepard’s, the trip to turian space was nowhere near as simple as get in, grab the Primarch, and get out. To be fair, the turians were in the midst of the same chaos and nightmare she had left Earth in—the difference being that the turians with their more powerful military and more militaristic culture had been able to mobilize faster. They, at least, had a set-up on one of their moons and were fighting back. She hoped Anderson had been able to create something similar on Earth, some kind of resistance that would hold until she could bring back the galactic fleets to help. She continued to believe that the Collectors’ obsession with her, the fact that they had been creating a Reaper out of humans, meant that the Reapers would focus their energy on humanity, which should give the galaxy an edge if they could come together rapidly enough.

To her great relief, her guide to find the new Primarch in the midst of the chaos of battle was none other than Garrus. Looking at the mess that was Palaven, Shepard had been certain her old friend must be dead, and to find him here in one piece, acting as the turians’ Reaper advisor, was the first piece of really good news this war had brought her yet.

As they jogged across Menae, Garrus kept up a rapid fire of questions, most of which she couldn’t answer. She didn’t know where Tali was, or Grunt, or Kasumi, or … anyone, really.

“But you’ve seen Thane?”

“Yes. He’s … well, he’s still Thane, but he’s fading.”

“I’m sorry, Shepard. That has to be hard.”

“I knew it was coming.”

Garrus squeezed her shoulder. “Doesn’t make it easier.”

“No. And Kaidan—he’s in the hospital on the Citadel.”

“He went head to head with Cerberus’s robot,” Vega put in.

“Robot?”

Shepard shrugged. “Never a dull moment.”

“I guess not. Kaidan going to be all right?” Garrus asked.

“The docs think so, but they’re not sure. I want to get back to the Citadel as soon as I can to check on him.” She stopped, looking up at her old friend. “You’ll come with me, right? I’m going to need people I can rely on if I have to fly all over the galaxy talking people into not being idiots.”

“Of course. Nothing I like better than watching you try not to hit someone who’s standing in your way.”

Shepard rolled her eyes, and Garrus laughed.

They finally found the Primarch and got him to agree to come on board the Normandy and chair the summit—but only if they got the krogans to come fight on the side of the turians. Since the turians had been behind the genophage, there was really no race in the galaxy the krogans were less likely to want to help, so Shepard was going to have her work cut out for her.

“You know,” Garrus told her as they climbed onto the shuttle, “if I hadn’t already agreed to come with you, this would be enough—I can’t wait to watch you try to convince Wrex to come save our turian asses.”

Shepard grinned at him. “I thought I’d let you do that.”

“Great. Maybe I should have stayed after all.”

Chapter Text

Before she tackled any more galactic diplomacy, Shepard wanted to return to the Citadel for a proper restock of the Normandy, which had left Earth with a skeleton crew and not nearly enough supplies. The Alliance and the Council were footing the bill, which she appreciated, and she had no intention of going into any further complicated situations without the Normandy ready for any contingency.

That her concerns for Thane and Kaidan kept distracting her and she wanted badly to check on both of them and assure herself of their well-being was a thought she kept to herself.

Once docked at the Citadel, she let the small crew loose to stock up on their personal supplies while she and Joker went over the ship’s needs and called in their orders, with the assistance of Cortez, their new shuttle pilot and procurement officer. Only once everything necessary was on order, pending delivery, did she step off the ship.

Almost immediately, she found one of the younger crewmembers, Ensign Copeland, under assault by a very determined reporter. “What seems to be the trouble here?”

The reporter, a dark-haired woman Shepard vaguely remembered having seen once or twice, did a double-take at the sight of her, but rallied quickly. “Commander Shepard! Just the person I wanted to see. I have a proposal for you.”

“If you’re asking to come aboard the Normandy, the answer’s no. Combat is no place for a journalist.”

“But this war will be won on the air, in the hearts and minds of those you want to follow you,” the reporter argued. “You need someone with you, reporting on your progress as you go.”

There was a forcefulness in her that told Shepard this would be a done deal without her input if she left the reporter to make her way up the chain of command. Over the reporter’s shoulder, she could see a news vid playing, a familiar face smiling from it, and she smiled in response, recognizing the way she could make an end run around this stranger.

“I’m afraid I already have a contractual arrangement with someone else,” she told the reporter, feigning regret.

It wasn’t quite that easy, but at last Shepard convinced the woman someone else had gotten there first. Now it was just a matter of convincing Emily Wong to come on board.

At first, Emily stared at her blankly. “You always said it was never going to happen.”

“Apparently my hand is about to be forced. This other woman didn’t say anything specific, but I had that feeling.”

“Allers.” Emily nodded. “She gets what she wants.”

“Not if you get it first. What do you say, Emily? Adventure, first crack at the stories?”

“I get creative control?”

“I can trust you?”

“Shepard! How long have we known each other?”

“I see everything before it goes out.”

“Fair enough.” Emily smiled. “I never thought I would live to see this day.” The smile faded. “I’m almost sorry I have, now, under the circumstances. But we’ll do what we can to build support.”

“How soon can you be ready?”

“When is the Normandy shipping out?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Done.” They shook hands, and Shepard left her old friend’s office glad that she would have someone she trusted aboard to report the news, but worried for Emily’s safety. There would have to be ground rules, and plenty of them.

Outside Emily’s office, Shepard ran into Bailey, now a Commander in rank, with an office just down the hall from Udina’s. She wasn’t best pleased that Anderson had been persuaded to step down from the Council so Udina could take his place, but she supposed she ought to have seen it coming. And if it meant Anderson was on Earth to take command when the Reapers attacked, maybe it had been divinely ordained, she mused.

“Commander,” Bailey said, smiling as she fell into step next to him.

“Commander.”

“Good to see you back on the Citadel. Our mutual friend was worrying himself sick. Well … sicker.”

“He seems not as bad as I had anticipated.”

“He’s had some spells. The boy’s worried.” Bailey sighed. “He’s young still.”

Shepard nodded. “I wish I was young and didn’t know what was coming.”

“You and me both.” Bailey hesitated, then glanced at her. “Earth. Was it as bad as the vids make it out?”

“Worse.”

He winced, and it occurred to her that maybe she should have sugar-coated things a bit.

“Do you have family on Earth?”

Bailey nodded. “An ex-wife, a couple of kids I was looking forward to making up lost time with someday. I guess … someday may never come, now.”

“Don’t give up hope. Only the big cities were hit hard, and even then, military installations took it worse than civilian areas. If you haven’t heard otherwise—well, keep hoping.”

“That what you do, Commander? Keep hoping?”

“How else do you think I get anything done? If I let myself believe there was nothing I could do to change things, then there wouldn’t be.” She hesitated, then added, “Our mutual friend’s condition is a rare instance where I am forced to sit and wait and accept that what will be will be. Frankly, I hate it.”

“I get that. I would, too.” Outside Udina’s office, Bailey stopped to look at her. “I’m keeping a close eye on both of them.”

“I know. I feel better knowing it. Thank you. If—if there’s ever anything I can do to return the favor …”

“Someday I hope to have a reason to take you up on that.”

“Me, too.”

Shepard watched him go, his slumped shoulders telling her that he had a long way to go before he could consider hoping. She made a mental note to ask Anderson if anything could be done to find Bailey’s family, next time she had a chance to connect with Anderson. If Anderson survived that long.

“Arashu,” she said softly to herself, “if the prayers of a Siha mean anything to you, keep him safe. We need him.”

She wasn’t sure if she believed there was an Arashu, or if Arashu was listening, but there was something obscurely comforting in the supplication.

Chapter Text

On her way through the hospital entryway, Shepard stopped at the gift kiosk. She frowned at the options. Flowers, books … none of it seemed like Kaidan.

“Commander Shepard!” The asari staffing the kiosk bustled toward her. “Are you not finding everything to your satisfaction?”

“What? Oh. No, there’s quite a selection. Just not quite as … Not quite right for the person I’m visiting.”

“Perhaps you’d like to look at a more varied selection of items.”

“You have more?”

“Certain items that are not called for by just anyone.”

Expensive, then. What the hell, Shepard thought. Might as well go for it. She wasn’t sure why she felt the need to bring Kaidan a gift, but she did. She took a look at the asari’s kiosk as a new menu popped up. Whiskey. Yes, that would work.

Bottle in hand, she made her way to Kaidan’s room, finding that Udina was there, standing over Kaidan’s bedside, as she walked in.

“The galaxy has need of exceptional soldiers like you, now, more than ever,” Udina was saying.

“You’ll have my answer soon, Councilor. I promise.” Kaidan still looked pale, his skin marked by bruising, but his voice was strong.

Udina nodded, first at Kaidan and then at Shepard. “Commander.”

“Councilor.”

When the doors slid shut behind him, Kaidan and Shepard looked at each other and smiled, memories of dealing with Udina back before the battle of the Citadel, back when all of this had barely begun, hanging between them.

“Hey, Kaidan.”

“Hey, Shepard. You just missed snack time.” The corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. “Actually, you didn’t miss much. Hospital food, never changes.”

“Sorry.” She proffered the bottle. “Contraband for you, should help a little.”

He looked it over. “Oh, hey, thanks, Shepard! You didn’t have to do that.”

“Well, I wanted to.” She gestured with her head toward the door, wanting to change the subject. “What did Udina want? Still pressuring you to take the Spectre position?”

“It’s a big honor—and a bigger responsibility. I just … need to be sure.” He sighed, shifting in the narrow bed. “I am so ready to get out of here, Shepard. You can’t tell, but I’m tied to this bed by red tape. Doc keeps saying I’m good to go, but then she always adds ‘after one more test’. I’m beginning to be afraid she’ll never run out of tests.”

“You’re all right, though, aren’t you?”

“Nothing to worry about. My implant got a little … rattled, so Doc wants me to keep the biotics offline for a bit.”

Shepard couldn’t help seeing him as he was on Mars, held in the air by the Illusive Man’s robot, choking, having his head bashed against the side of a shuttle. Over. And over. She shivered.

Kaidan reached out, grasping her hand. “Hey. Shepard. It’s really no big deal. I’m going to be fine.”

She clung to his hand, trying to force the images back. “You almost died on my watch, It was horrible to see.”

“I’m okay now, Shepard. And if it hadn’t been me—well, it might have been you. I couldn’t have lived with that.”

“Part of me might have preferred it. I could use the rest.” Gently, she disentangled her hand and gave him a smile. “You need me to break you out?”

He laughed. “I’ll let you know.”

“Anytime. Joker would love to help. He hasn’t been in trouble with the Alliance in weeks, at least.”

“It would be nice to be back with the old crew.” He took a deep breath, looking at her seriously. “Shepard. Be straight with me.”

“Always.”

“I just want to make sure—after Horizon, and Mars … You and me, we’re good?”

She nodded. “I wish you could have trusted me more, but I know where you were coming from. And we’ve been through hell together, had each other’s backs. That kind of bond is hard to break.”

“Not just that.” He reached for her hand again. “You were my Commander, we did have each other’s backs … but you listened, too. When I told you about Rahna, how she broke my heart, you didn’t judge me. You knew I needed that. We went through Ash’s death together …”

“Yeah.”

“So I’m asking—are we good?”

“We’re good. It was good to have you back on the Normandy. It felt right.”

“Thanks.” He let go of her hand, shifting again in the bed so he was sitting up straighter, and cleared his throat.

“What’s going on, Kaidan? Is there something else?”

“Maybe. I, uh, I heard something about you and some assassin …”

Shepard clasped her hands in front of her, looking down at them. “What do you want to know?”

“How— I mean, do you— Is it serious?”

“Yeah. Pretty serious.” She reached inside her shirt and tugged out the chain she wore her wedding ring on.

Kaidan’s eyes widened. “You married him?”

Shepard nodded. “We weren’t together, after Horizon, you made that pretty clear, and I—“

“I’ll own that. Seeing you alive—man, that sent me spinning. And I handled it badly. You had every right to move on.”

“What about you?”

“No one serious. No one— There isn’t anyone— There couldn’t be …“ He let the words trail off. “Tell me about him.”

“He’s—“ To her horror, Shepard felt her eyes filling with tears. “He’s dying. His lungs … It won’t be long now. We had such a short time together, and I spent so much of it doing the galaxy’s bidding instead of …” She bit back the tears. “I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be. We’re friends. You can talk to me.”

“Can I?”

Kaidan nodded. “Look, I’m not sure that I’ve been wrong about Cerberus—but I know that I’ve been wrong about you. I won’t make that mistake again. I’m in your corner, from now on. I promise.”

“Thank you. That means a lot.”

“And, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry. If you married him, he must be quite a man.”

“He is.” Shepard tucked the ring back inside her shirt.

“Well. I’d better let you get back to the Normandy. Wish I was coming with you.”

She smiled, getting to her feet. “Take care of yourself. We need you back at a hundred percent, soldier.”

“Will do, Commander.”

Chapter Text

“Siha … siha.” Thane rolled away from her, panting, trying to conceal from her how difficult it was to get his breathing back under control. He didn’t want to have to tell her that this may have been the last time he would ever be capable of making love to her, to sully the memory with her distress and her inevitable attempts to pretend nothing had changed.

Shepard came after him, tucking her head against his shoulder, watching the heavy rise and fall of his chest without comment. Perhaps she knew, and was as little inclined to speak of it as he. Thane hoped so.

“Did I tell you,” she began conversationally, “that EDI is trying to date Joker?”

Thane chuckled, then coughed. When the cough had settled at last, he tried a careful chuckle again. “That was only a matter of time.”

“It’s so strange, though. I mean, Joker’s always been in love with the ship, but this may be taking it a bit far.”

“EDI is learning how to be an individual,” Thane pointed out. “And a very unique one. No doubt she garners a great deal of attention.”

“That she does.”

“And Joker was intrigued by her before she had such a … well-constructed body.”

Shepard smiled. “After he stopped hating her. But yes, you’re right. They certainly share the same abiding interest in the Normandy. And who else was Joker ever going to get involved with who could be as obsessed with it as he is?”

“For that matter, his Vrolik’s Syndrome would lead to difficulties in any more standard relationship.”

“I know it. But I worry. What happens if she encounters a glitch and changes personality, or her unusual self-awareness just … goes away?”

Thane rolled carefully to his side, one hand lightly caressing her stomach. “What happens in any relationship when one participant no longer desires the other, or … is lost?”

Shepard looked quickly at him, then away, and sat up abruptly. “It’s devastating.”

Whether she meant Kaidan Alenko’s change of heart regarding her after her resurrection by Cerberus, or his own imminent demise, Thane didn’t know. Probably it was both. He remained where he was, watching her as she rose and began collecting her scattered clothes. “It is worth the risk for the rewards. It must be—every species in the galaxy puts themselves through these things over and over again in their search for love and companionship and trust. Is it surprising that one of EDI’s first priorities on gaining awareness of herself as an individual was that same search? Fortunate for her that she found what she sought so close at hand.”

Settling the hem of her tank top around her hips, Shepard looked up at him. “Maybe. I … just don’t know.”

He should let this go, Thane knew. She was upset, and for good reason, and he should give her space to calm herself. But he had to admit to being curious. “What did you tell her?”

“Who?”

“EDI.”

“Oh.” She grimaced sheepishly. “I told her to go for it.”

“Did you?” Thane couldn’t help but be a little surprised. “In spite of all the challenges, and the possibility for things to go awry?”

He sat up as she came toward him, sitting on the edge of the bed next to him. She kissed him, slowly, lingering over it, and pulled away just as he was going to need to gasp for breath. “I wouldn’t have missed my time with you for anything in the galaxy. How could I deny that to EDI, or to Joker?”

“Siha.” He caressed the side of her face. “You have been an unexpected treasure that the galaxy offered to me just when I had given up. I, too, would not have missed a moment.”

She put her arms around him, clinging to him tightly. He could feel the tension in her, the way she was holding herself in control, not wanting to give way to the emotions that must be building in her. At last she shuddered, catching her breath as though swallowing back tears, and released him. Her voice was brisk as she got to her feet. “I have to go convince Urdnot Wrex to go to Palaven and save the turians’ asses.”

Thane pictured the big, gruff krogan leader. “That should be entertaining.”

“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘impossible’.”

“For anyone else. Wrex would do anything for you.” As would so many others. She was truly extraordinary, Thane reflected. A treasure indeed.

“This is a big ask. And what Wrex will want in return may be more than I, or anyone, can manage for him.” She took Thane’s hand. “It may be a while before I can come back.”

“I will be here.” His condition was worsening, but with the kind of care he was getting here in the hospital, he was confident that he had months remaining. “I promise.”

“Good. I’ll vidchat you after the conference so you’ll know what’s what.”

“I can’t wait to hear how things go. I love you, Siha.”

“I love you, Thane.” After a last squeeze of his hand, she gathered the bag that held her things in it and was gone, leaving him to watch the door, to live in memories, and to marvel at her continued optimism after everything the galaxy had thrown at her.