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In This Dark Hour

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The sun was rising over Ninari.

It was hardly the first time Shepard had ever seen it, and yet her throat tightened the way it always did as the garden world's star, younger than Sol, burst out of the wispy cloud-cover to turn the beaches to white glass. Even the ocean glittered, calmer today than it had been in a week; in the distance Ninari's twin moons hung low and still, the yellow-gold sunrise staining them warmer and softer than they ever were at night. A wave crested and broke over a dune; in the distance some alien seabird cried out, dove into the water, and surfaced again without prey.

Her omnitool pinged, the quiet beep cutting through its synthesized rendition of breaking waves. The video froze as she pulled up her messages over the display of Ninari's dawn; too many line items scrolled by as she flicked the screen, a half-dozen intel reports she needed to file, three requests from Tali for miscellaneous engine parts she couldn't begin to understand—and there, one new message, blinking insistently at the top of her inbox.

04:38:18 GST gv: I just smelled coffee. Tell me that's not you at this hour.

Shepard pursed her lips, deliberately suppressing her guilty glance at the mug perched by her elbow. Hardly her fault if no one but Jack brewed it strong enough, even if EDI constantly reminded her that Normandy's shipwide air circulation system had not been intended for filtration of noxious fumes.

04:39:44 GST cs: can't help it that you can't sleep like a normal person

04:40:10 GST gv: If there were other turians here, they'd be just as awake as I am. You'll notice you're the only human conscious right now.

04:40:50 GST cs: always work to do vakarian

04:40:56 GST gv: Where are you?

04:41:36 GST cs: strbd obsv. samara went to medbay to talk to mordin

Her omnitool went silent after that. She let it go without complaint, the sun dimming quietly, suspended mid-rise with the ocean made a mirror below it. Outside the massive observation window Wrill loomed heavy and hot and black, only the thin northern edge of the world left visible by their stationary orbit of the planet's dark side: a sliver of dry-baked red earth, cracks and crevices scarring its surface like the crust itself had withered.

This close, she couldn't even see the stars. Without their light she was left with only her reflection against the emptiness, suggestions of shadow and skin curled at one end of the low, comfortable couch. It was so quiet. No sound from outside the ship, of course, but—only her breath, or the low distant hum of the drive core, or the soft rhythmic beating of her own heart—

Not her heart, she realized, rueful, and the door hissed open behind her. Footsteps. Turian footsteps, and she leaned her head back on the couch as the door closed again behind Garrus. "Morning."

"Or something like it," he agreed, and crossed the lounge to sit on the couch beside her. Not quite close enough to touch—but close enough she could feel the change of air when he breathed, could hear him swallow from his own black, steaming mug, his mandibles pressed tight to his jaw. Not in his armor, either, though she supposed at five in the morning even turians might spare themselves the weight; and yet she'd so rarely seen him out of it, rarer even like this, that she found herself smiling.

"What?" he asked, and Shepard grinned at the longsuffering in his voice, at the flick of a mandible in her direction.

"Just wondering. Are those turian pajamas?"

Garrus glanced down at himself, smoothing a three-fingered hand over the fitted, cowled navy shirt with the turian characters for Cipritine emblazoned down one arm, the snug pants with neat holes at each calf for his spurs. "It's turinex skinwear, meant to be worn under our armor. Light, breathable, comfortable to sleep in, and it provides maximum mobility for killing Reapers. And, considering how cold you humans keep your ships, it's warm."

"Hmm." She plucked at the fabric over his cowl, biting back a smirk; it was thick enough to surprise her, but with a stretch that would allow movement in a firefight. Durable, really—which, considering the spurs and fringe and naked spiky teeth, was probably a fundamental cornerstone of turian marketing strategy. "It's a pretty casual look, Garrus. Especially for you."

"Going to report me for being out of regulation? I know the commander. She might put in a good word for me."

Shepard snorted, and after a moment, Garrus's arm unfolded along the back of the couch behind her. A new thing in this…whatever-it-was, hesitant and determinedly casual and perfectly Garrus, all at the same time, and she hid her smile in her coffee. "Just didn't know you had anything besides the busted armor and the dress blues. We didn't exactly stop to pack on Omega."

"I picked them up on the Citadel at our last stop—standard military issue combat wear for the discerning soldier. A guy can't live in armor all the time. Even a turian one."

"Did you pick up a new cowl-piece while you were at it?"

"You know, I was thinking about that. What do you say to holding onto the 'grizzled mercenary' look for a while? Massani's not the only one who can pull off the rambling war stories."


"I could name my Widow."

"Sure," she said, rolling her eyes. "We'll bury you with it when that lucky shot takes your head clean off. 'Here lies Garrus Vakarian and his beloved sniper rifle, united for all eternity, because the stubborn turian refused to replace broken armor in the middle of a war.'"

"Strange. When you say it like that, it's almost like you care."

Shepard laughed despite herself, rubbing her forefinger and thumb across her closed eyes. "Garrus. You promised you'd get it fixed."

"Don't worry, Shepard," he said, relenting, and glanced at her from the corner of his avian eye. "I've already put in the order. They had to ship it from a Hierarchy warehouse on Ontarom—it's an older model, mostly put away in storage. It'll be waiting at the Citadel the next time we swing by."

Good, she thought, but her throat was tight, and before she could question herself she leaned back, resting the weight of her head on Garrus's shoulder, her eyes lidding as she looked out over the shadowy planet they circled.

His shirt was soft. His shoulder—was not, though not nearly as hard as she'd expected; it gave like a callus, thick but not without flexibility, and he was warm, and when she'd settled again her cheek brushed his cowl, and she found she didn't mind it. Didn't mind the smell of his kava either: a rich, sweet-smelling brew, certainly not so bitter as her own coffee—but few drinks were, especially on the Normandy, and she thought that if Garrus had managed to acclimate to her morning beverage of choice she could certainly return the favor.

His chest lifted against her head with a breath. His heart thumped low in her back, the beat slower and harder than a human's, and every now and then there was a little catch, as if it had tripped over itself, and she thought about Omega, and the impossibility of blue blood slicking her gloves, and the way a universe could end a hundred times in the span of a single moment.

"So," he said at last, his subvocals nearly lost behind the hum of the ship's temperature regulators kicking in. "What woke you up so early?"

Shepard stirred, settled again. "The sun, believe it or not."

"Which one? Wrill's sun?"

"Yeah. There's a window in my cabin without a shutter, right above the bed—when Joker brought us into the system, I got an eyeful of blind daylight right through it. Woke me up, and then I couldn't get back to sleep."

Garrus's browplates drew down, his cup pausing halfway to his mouth. He looked at her a moment, and out the observation window, and back again; then he said, disbelieving as she felt, "There's no shutter?"

"Unless the Illusive Man hid the controls in the fishtank, no."

"You can't close the window, but you have a fishtank."

"Cerberus has priorities, Garrus. Responsible pet ownership is nothing to sneeze at."

He frowned. Or rather, he pulled his mandibles close to his teeth, and his narrow jaw jutted forward, just slightly, and the respiratory ridges of his flat nose flared as he drew in a breath. A very turian frown, she thought, and wondered when it had become so familiar to her. He said, "To sneeze at."

She hesitated, then offered, "To… hm. To—dismiss. To take for granted."

"What does that have to do with sneezing?"

"I don't know. Nothing. As much as my fishtank has to do with my window."

He hummed absent agreement, a dual-toned thing that vibrated up the back of her neck. "You know, Tali could probably rig up a solution in an hour."

"Forty minutes, tops. But it doesn't matter. The cybernetics don't let me sleep as much as I used to, anyway."

Another rumble, less content, but he said nothing and she was grateful for it. The long sliver of cracked, sun-red Wrill had broadened in the last few minutes, the Normandy tracking faster than the planet's orbit around its swollen sun. Here and there pinpoints of artificial light pierced through its heavy cloud-cover and occasional swirling storm, mapping out the few settlements tenacious enough to survive the world's natural hostility; somewhere she knew EDI was monitoring mineral deposits on its surface, her scans methodical and thorough and slow.

Important, Shepard told herself, the smooth rim of her mug pressed against her lower lip. No need to charge into battle without preparation; no reason to hurry towards death, not when it would cost more lives than her own. She'd had enough of near-misses. And yet—

And yet here they sat, in darkness, staring at a planet neither aware of their existence nor interested in it, and somewhere in the emptiness between the stars something terrible and malicious was hiding, waiting for them—for her—and all the minerals in the wouldn't be able to stop them when they came. She ached for the stars.

The sun was rising over Ninari.

She could feel Garrus turn when she woke her omnitool again, the soft orange glow bright enough to erase their dimmed reflections in the window. His mandible brushed against her temple as she flicked the video into motion again; when the waves broke against the sand with a rushing sigh, he laughed, quiet and perfectly contented, and said, "This is what you were doing before I came in?"

Shepard nodded, eyes on the screen as the hapless seabird made a second unsuccessful attempt at breakfast. Garrus laughed again; she jabbed him with her elbow, jostling his kava dangerously. "It's nice. I like watching it when I wake up."

"Where is it? Earth?"

She shook her head. "Ninari. It's a minor city on Teyolia, an asari world somewhere…" she craned her neck, then gestured up and to her right. "Somewhere over there. It's a popular vacation place. Lots of—well, beaches."

"When did you visit?"

"Actually, I've never been." The seabird dove again, this time emerging with some glinting silver flash in the grip of its talons. It let out a high, triumphant cry made smaller by her omnitool, and Shepard blew out a breath. "I saw a postcard once. When I was a kid. It was in some rack with dozens of postcards for places thousands of light-years away, but I remember being annoyed that even asari tourist traps were beautiful."

She'd stolen that postcard. Stuck it to her wall above her bunk as long as she'd slept there, though it'd been lost in a raid a few years later, just before her enlistment. Ninari waits for you, traveler. It seemed like such a stupid thing, now.

"You want to go, sometime?" Garrus asked. His voice was low.

"A birthday present," she said without thinking; he smiled and she felt it, and after a moment, more deliberately, she added, "But I'd rather see Palaven first."

There was a long silence broken only by the synthesized sounds of a distant ocean, by the quiet pinging of EDI's mineral scans drawing to a close—by her own breathing, by a turian heartbeat. Then— "Yeah," Garrus said, and for a moment his chin rested atop her head. "Yeah. Definitely."

"Okay," Shepard said, and leaned against him where he was warm until her cheek brushed over his cowl. Somewhere in the galaxy Collectors waited, and Hackett waited, and no matter what brief peace she might scrape together in these few moments with Garrus the weight of those lives would find them soon enough. But for now, here, as the world before them turned with day and the Normandy broke through the edge of Wrill's shadow at last—

She had the stars.