Part 2 – Garrus Vakarian

Time seems both frozen and passing all too fast. I was watching the stars fly past, but that was a short distraction. I lost my focus completely in the human lying beside me. It's still lost in her now. She's still watching as the ship crosses the sky, but she's also holding tight to my hand, gently sliding her fingers over mine. For what feels like hours, I've been taking in the sight of her. Every detail that makes up who she is, inside and out, reminds me why I know so certainly that I must be falling in love with her.

The hand not lying over her waist, caught by her affectionate motions, is simply resting at her side. Her free hand is right beside it. Slowly, I bring mine over to hers and start to softly trace the curves. She smiles at the sensation, closing her eyes to take it in. That brings me to give a smile of my own as I move my hand away from hers and let it inch its way over her arm. She barely moves in response, except for the steady rise and fall of peaceful breathing.

This perfect moment keeps up until my hand reaches her upper neck, around her ear. Suddenly, she pulls away from my touch, holding back a small burst of laughter.

"What?" I ask.

"Nothing, just stop touching my neck like that."

"What, like this?" Partially with the express intent of provoking her, I start lightly digging my fingers into her skin again, producing another reaction of flinching back and a this-time-unsuccessful fight against laughter.

"Stop it!" she snaps, forcing my hand away and pulling herself up to a sitting position.

I follow her lead. "Something wrong?"

"No! I'm just ticklish."

I blink, not understanding. "What?"

She sighs. "Most humans have areas on the body where the nerves are over-receptive and the right kind of pressure causes the endorphin rate to go up, usually causing spasms and violent, involuntary fits of laughter."

"That sounds painful."

"It's more of a 'friendly torture.'"

"So this is fun for you?" I smirk, reaching to try again.

She starts laughing again, curling up to push me off. "No! Now stop!"

I comply this time, pulling my hand back, but the whole scene almost has me laughing.

"Don't turians have anything like that?"

"Well, some of us have trigger points—pressure on them makes hormone levels increase rapidly, it, uh…causes strains of ecstasy."

She just gives me a curious look. "Are they always in the same place or do they vary, too?"

"It varies, but the most common place is just under the fringe, between the plates."

Before I can notice how her eyes are alight with the spark of mischief I love so well, she already has her hand behind my scars. "You mean right here?"

A sudden, overwhelming flow of euphoria breaks through me. The fact that she's the one kindling it makes it even stronger. I start to fall into it completely. Then the sound of her almost laughing at my reaction snaps me out of it long enough to remember what's causing this feeling and I push her hand away from me. "That's not funny!"

"It's kind of funny for me!" she smirks back, "All this time and effort I've been putting into getting you excited and all I had to do was scratch behind the ears?!" She starts to do it again.

I just barely keep myself from falling for it again, grabbing her by the wrist before she can dig too deep. "Shepard! I'm serious."

Her smirk fades as she starts to understand and pulls her hand away. She always understands. Sometimes I feel like she knows me better than anyone. I did once tell her that she was the only friend I had left. All we've been through since then has offered to alleviate that, but no one has gotten 5% as close to me as she has. I might never understand what it is about her that automatically affects me so much. Guess that's just how love is.

yeah. It is. Because this is love I feel for her—there's nothing else it could be. Nothing else could cause me to abandon all reason the moment she touches me or let myself slip away every time I get lost in her emerald eyes. I find myself smiling again as any doubt I might have is pushed aside. I really do love her. Who would've guessed?

Before I know it, I've reached over to wrap my hand around hers again. She looks down at this, watching as if for the first time. …maybe it is. She almost never talks about her life on Earth. She'll mention some days she spent on the streets, but she absolutely never mentions anyone she knew. And from what we know of her service record, especially after Akuze, she wasn't exactly a very social soldier before Eden Prime. …could it be possible I'm the only one she's ever given this chance to? Did she really decide that I'm the only one worthy of her heart? If that is true, I'll never understand why.

Of course, at this point, I can't see how anyone could truly be worthy of her.

She seems sullen now, as if lost in darker thoughts. It's never been easy for me to see her hurting or haunted like that. She deserves to be happy even when things seem dark. Even if she doesn't want to…

She looks at me again right as I form my evil plan. She must see the same mischief in my eyes that I found in hers because she almost instantly realizes what I'm about to do. "Garrus, no! Don't! Garrus—!"

Too late. Before she can fight me off, I press my fingers behind her ear and start looking for those "over-receptive nerves."

Almost instantly, her serious demeanor gives way to laughter so fierce it sounds like she's having trouble breathing. She finally manages to kick me, not enough to hurt me but hard enough that I'm out of reach. "Stand down, soldier!"

"Nice try, Commander, but we're not on duty!" I overpower her just enough to start over and discover just how strong a reaction I can get from this.

In between the spasms she warned me about, she gets one hand free. But instead of pushing me away like I'm expecting, she reaches over to "scratch behind the ears" again.

"Shepard!" I snap even as pleasure takes over, "Knock it off!"

"I'll stop when you stop!" she snaps back.

Within a second, we're practically at war, each of us trying to fight off the other without releasing our hold on them. The struggle, though, just brings us both to dig deeper until we end up falling over each other and landing on the floor, both of us still struggling with laughter.

"Shepard?" a familiar synthesized voice suddenly comes over the intercom, "Is this a bad time?"

"No, EDI, please," Shepard answers, pulling it together but unable to stop smiling, "anything to make him cut it out."

"We are approaching our destination. Shall we begin our descent?"

"I'll let you know when to signal Joker. Just give me a few minutes." As EDI acknowledges the order and leaves the room, Shepard takes a few deep breaths to steady herself and turns back to me, still smiling, her eyes as bright as the sun waiting outside. "And we were having so much fun."

"You don't think shooting down geth is fun, too?" I smirk.

"No, it is." She sighs. "I just wish it could always be like this. No Reapers, no galaxy in jeopardy, just…"

She doesn't have to say the rest. I know. I want the same thing. I keep my eyes locked on hers for a moment, slowly reaching over to her. The hand I extend to her longingly rests against her, and I bring myself to push her hair behind her ear. Then I smile as I start to brush my fingers against it.

She shies away, letting off the beginnings of a laugh, but it's out of reflex. She steadily eases back into it, pressing her hand against mine so that I couldn't move it if I wanted to. Then she gently reaches over with her other hand, placing it against my scars.

I press my free hand against it, clinging to it. It's enough to make me forget entirely all that we've been through. Like this is all that matters. She's always had a way of giving me my hope back even when I thought it was gone forever. Though, sometimes, I…sometimes, I still need more…

Before I can convince myself not to, I tighten my grip on her hand just enough to move it. When I stop, her hand is in place not to stroke my scars but to "scratch behind the ears."

She smiles again as she catches on. She knows this is the biggest sign of trust I can show to her in this moment. Still, she very delicately begins to follow through.

I don't fight it this time when the thrill kicks in. It's not as strong now, but it's still enough to make me wish it'd never end. As we slowly move closer to each other, never once letting go, the yearning deepens. I wish I could stay in this moment forever and never wake from this…

dream… No, it is a dream! I have no way to stop them, and memories flash in my mind. Not memories like this one, of these days I spent with her, but memories of war on her home-world, of fire raining down on us until I was forced to leave her to fight alone, of months of torture on both sides before—

I wake up abruptly to the sound of glass shattering. As part of a habit I've developed over the past few weeks, I instantly reach to the side.

There's nothing there.

Ever since that day on Omega, there've been nights I woke up wondering if it really was all a dream, if maybe the poison killed me after all or I was never attacked to begin with and I'm still on Palaven mourning my kalwen. There was even one night I woke up from a nightmare so strong that the fear ran deeper, almost had me believing that maybe it was all a dream and our love wasn't even real. But those fears have always been alleviated the moment I reach to the side and find her lying beside me in the bed. So when I reach out and she's not there, my heart starts pounding harder and harder at the thought that maybe my fears are justified.

I instantly start searching the room for some sign of her. I'm in the captain's cabin on the Normandy and it's dark. But she's not here. Then I see that the lights in the bathroom are on and I realize what caused the noise that woke me. I'm not even thinking about what I'm doing (I can't since every thought I have is practically praying to the spirits that she's alright) when I simply throw the covers aside and run for the door.

As soon as I open the door, I see her. The sight of her is enough to calm me down. Every time I see her, I'm reminded of the longest—worst—year of my life, of going almost 400 days thinking I would never see her again, and I feel the greatest joy I've ever felt overcome me to know that she's really alive, that I got her back and I'll never let her go again as long as I live. But, this time, that joy is extinguished almost immediately when I see blood on her hand. Not for the first time, my emotions take over my actions and I fall to my knees before her, reaching to make sure she's OK. "What happened?"

I can basically see what happened. The mirror's been broken and there's glass on the floor below where it hung, so one of the shards must have cut her hand. But I don't understand what broke it or how she managed to get injured when it did. And when she meets my eyes, I suddenly couldn't care less. There's terror behind the tears she's trying so hard to fight away—whether for my sake or her own I may never know—and she's shaking all over, even in her lungs. I thought it tore me apart when I saw her crying in the message she sent me as her last goodbye. But this? This is much, much worse.

Clearly, she doesn't want to talk about it and I'm not going to risk making her actually cry just to get my answer. I can't put her through that. I can't take it. So I force myself to forget about it and locate the small med kit she keeps in here and start treating the cut. Every second I do, I wonder at what could be hurting her so much. Commander Sara Shepard, who never wavered for a second before running under the biggest gun in existence to save the geth and the quarians, who risked everything to save everyone it was within her power to help, who almost singlehandedly defeated the Reaper army… I followed her without question through impossible situations every day for years because I trusted her more than anyone else and I knew she had the strength to face it all. But in all that time, I never saw her hurting this way.

She's never told any of us everything about what happened with the Crucible. And I saw what the Black Shadows did to her when they brought her back to use her as a weapon to take over the galaxy. Something in all that madness made her breakable. To see my kalwen so fragile makes me…makes me…too many emotions at once. At the same time I want to hold her in my arms and never let go, I also want to track down whoever did this to her and break every bone in their body. Of course, that might be impossible now seeing as any one person who could be directly responsible is likely already dead.

Just when I'm almost finished bandaging her wounded hand, my thoughts are thrown from my mind completely when I feel her left hand softly trace my scars. Just for a moment, I forget everything else but the need to give in to the feelings coursing through me from her touch. But now's not the time. I finally bring myself to finish applying the bandage. Then I'm free to turn all my attention to her. Once again, I gaze into her emerald eyes. All the other times I've done that, I've gotten lost in them, hypnotized by the bright, shimmering spheres and the love behind them. This time, though, I see the pain buried inside them and all I want is to do everything I can to ease her suffering. She deserves that much. And it's certainly the least I can do after all she's given me.

She looks over at my scars as she continues to lightly run her fingers against them. I find myself moving in response, reaching up to take her hand in mine. "…are they still fading?" I can hear it in her voice. The anxiety. Anyone else might think she's worried I'm somehow still in pain from a wound I took two years ago. But I know her better than that. …she's asking for herself.

I sigh as I follow through on the move I already started and wrap my fingers around hers. "Slowly. Yeah." Honesty. Sympathy. Proof that I'm here for her, that I'll give her whatever she needs from me and everything will be OK…eventually.

She seems to take my answer well, but it doesn't seem to be helping much. Not that I'm surprised. There's no reason anything this deep could suddenly start getting better now. What bothers me, though, is that she seems so troubled by it that she can't even look at me. As if she's afraid it'll somehow pass her pain right to me. Maybe she doesn't realize that I would gladly take that deal if I thought for a second it would give her some peace again.

"…hey…" I reach over to her, placing my hand in her hair and gently forcing her to face me. My other hand still clinging to hers, I make sure she can see it in my eyes that she has nothing to be afraid of as long as I'm here. It's hard to show her that without adding on the part about me falling apart entirely if anything really happened to her now. I've already lost her twice, I can't take it again. One more time will kill me for sure without any help from any poison. But that's just one more reason for me to fight with all I have and more to keep her safe this time. We both know I'd give my life for hers in a second—I already tried to—and we both know she'd do the same for me—she already did. If we could only make sure that would never again be necessary, all our problems in life could be solved.

But nothing's ever that simple.

The look in her eyes doesn't change. She's still harboring the same fear, the same pain, the same…guilt? What does she have to be guilty about—? …oh. Right. The tears are gone now, but she's still hurting. After all she's been through, I can't say I blame her. My greatest wish is that I really could relieve her of some of that burden even if I had to take it upon myself. No one should have to bear it all alone.

Just when I'm about to start facing the threat of losing myself in her eyes again, she reaches up her bandaged hand and uses it to pull me closer. This is what we both need. Every time in the past that we've kissed, it's been like the world faded away and it was just us in this one perfect moment. This time is the first time I think it might actually be possible to stay like this forever and leave the galaxy behind. So I throw reason out the window and give everything I have to this embrace. As I do, time falls away and I lose myself in her like I was so desperately longing to for over a year.

Sadly, though, we eventually have to break it off to breathe. But when we do, she leans against me and pulls her hand loose from my grasp so she can wrap her arms around me. I let her and hold her close. She's changed so much since she came back from the dead this time—that spark of mischief I loved so well is all but gone and there are times it seems like I'm the only reason she's really holding on anymore. But this, the way we cling to each other, determined to stay together for as long as we possibly can…this is the eternal constant. This will never change.

"…Garrus?" Sometimes I wonder if she's aware of how she makes my heart start pounding a little faster just from the way she says my name. She doesn't seem to know. But she does it so often it's like she's trying to draw out that all-consuming fire inside me so that I can't resist the desire to get lost in her all over again.

"Sara?" I answer her call and feel her breath catch for a moment when I do. She still hasn't gotten used to me calling her by her first name. But I can't stop now.

She takes a moment to voice her concern, as if she's afraid to. "…would you still love me if I wasn't human anymore?"

When I realize what she's asking, I freeze in shock. …oh… That's what she's so afraid of. It's got nothing to do with all the torture she endured—she's always been too strong for that. No. She's worried that interfacing with the Reapers might have changed her somehow, that she's not who she was before she connected to the machines that tried to destroy all organic life in the galaxy. I'm not sure there's anything I can do to reassure her of that. We don't even know for certain if she isn't somehow different. But I know her. She's still Sara Shepard. That's all I need to know.

But she needs more. She needs me as much as I need her. So I push her away enough to look her in the eye when I give the honest truth so that she knows without a doubt how much I mean it: "I love you no matter what, Sara Shepard. Nothing will ever change that."

That's what she needed to hear. As soon as she knows it's true, her smile returns. It's faint, but it's enough to bring my own joy back, if briefly. Then she leans her head against mine and closes her eyes, her smile not fading once. That much brings me to smile back as I close my eyes as well and take in the sensation of having her pressed against me.

It's times like these that I wonder how I survived before she came into my life. Now that I think about it, every memory I have that doesn't involve her seems very dull or even painful.

Life on Palaven wasn't exactly easy. My father put a lot of pressure on me from day one. Military work certainly wasn't any easier but at least I found what I'm good at. Some days I wonder if going to work at C-Sec was the best choice to start with. At the time, I was more concerned with how I missed my shot at becoming a Spectre, but other concerns started weighing me down instead as time went by. Every case I worked made it worse and worse. The more I tried to keep at bay the crime running rampant through the Citadel, the more I saw how much was being allowed to just run free because of "technicalities" from all the rules and regulations. Dr. Saleon was the absolute worst. The day that psychopath got away was the day I almost lost it. When I got the chance to prove that Saren was a traitor, I figured it was my chance to make up for all of it. I threw everything I had into that case and it still wasn't enough. When Pallin shot me down, that was the last straw.

But then she found me. I didn't understand what happened when I first laid eyes on her. It actually made me forget for a moment what was eating away at me. It was much, much later that I started to see that I was falling in love with her from the moment we met. When I did see it, I didn't want to believe it. And there was too much on the line for me to let myself think about it. I didn't bother trying to deny how overjoyed I was that I ditched C-Sec to join the company of the first human Spectre and help her save the galaxy. But I did all I could to deny that I was having feelings for her. I probably didn't even realize that's what it was.

Not until the Normandy SR-1 crashed. When I heard that she was dead, something inside me broke. I missed her. It hurt to think that she could be gone. Maybe that's one reason why I lost it completely when the Council started denying the Reaper threat. I thought everything would change after Sovereign's attack, but everyone just…what is it humans say? Right. Swept it under the rug. And everything stayed the same. Trying to get back with C-Sec at all during that was infuriating. I needed to do something that would actually make a difference, go somewhere I could do some good. I ended up on Omega. I may not have made much of a difference in the end, but at least all I endured led her right to me when she came back. After believing for two years that I'd never see her again, seeing her on that bridge gave me my hope back. That was something I hadn't had in a long time.

When I woke up after the gunship attack, the first place I went was right to her. Nothing could keep me away. I started to feel like myself again when I saw her alive and ready for the fight. She got me to laugh again for the first time in all too long. I already trusted her with my life and was more than willing to follow her into anything, but she went out of her way to help me the moment I asked for it. She saved me when I didn't even realize I was in danger. She showed me what I was afraid to face. After how I reacted, a small part of me was amazed she ever wanted to see me again. But the first place she went once we were back on the ship was straight to the battery to make sure I was alright. That was when we realized what we were feeling. Suddenly, there was no reason to deny or hide what was waiting there all along. Every day after that, we came to truly fall in love. I still may never understand why she would've trusted me, of all people, with that. But she did. And I did the same with her. And I'll never regret it.

For a moment, I feel like I should tell her so. But when I open my eyes, I see that the tears she was fighting back are starting to fall. The sight brings a familiar ache to my soul, the longing to keep her from ever feeling that kind of pain. I don't know what's bothering her now, so the best I can do is place a comforting hand to her face and wipe her tears away.

That brings her to open her eyes as well. When she sees mine, I see into hers. The pain she was drowning in when I first came in here has very drastically subsided and her fears seem to have been dismissed entirely by what I said to her. In fact, the light is starting to come back to her eyes. Before I can show my own confusion at why she'd still be upset, she starts to look confused for a moment, like she doesn't see why I'm still worried about her. Then she seems to notice how her eyes are watering and actually laughs. It's a small laugh, but it's real. I know because only her laugh could bring that surge of light to even the darkest corners of my mind. Just when my confusion starts getting deeper, she dries her eyes and looks into mine. The moment she does, I can see what she wants to say: It's OK. I'm not crying. I'm happy…because of you. She then proceeds to lean her head into the hand I extended to her and press her own hand against it to keep it in place.

Just hearing her laugh again was enough to make me happy. The way she clings to me now, not for a second allowing her eyes to look away from mine, makes those feelings intensify until I can't resist giving her a smile. That brings the same happiness to her. For the first time in all too long, I see a spark in her dazzling green eyes. The same spark I woke up to every other morning during the war, the one that first made me realize that what I felt for her and what she felt for me was love. I thought that spark died when she did, that it was lost somewhere along the way from the transition between her own body and her consciousness' presence with the Reapers. I've barely seen it since she came back. But it's still there, bright as ever and enough to bring back the burning need to lose myself in those eyes all over again. Some of my fondest memories with her started that way.

I won't lie and say it's been easy to love her. Love has a funny way of turning a guy like me into a nervous wreck with something to lose. And the aim to make sure he doesn't. Every time I thought there was even a chance I might lose her, I'd do whatever it took to help her stay alive. There were times she mocked me for being "overprotective." I usually retorted that she was being "self-destructive." Then she'd give me some big speech about how the galaxy was in danger and she had to do whatever it took to help even if it was at the cost of her own life. Anyone else would call that heroic. Not me. I'd always wait for her to finish then look both fiercely and pleadingly into her eyes when I gave my response: "You wouldn't be you if you didn't save the day all the time. But try to remember that I need you, too." Selfish in retrospect. But she understood. She always did. And when she forgot that plea entirely, when she disregarded my order to come back alive…that was the moment I lost her. What happened at the Crucible just made sure she stayed gone. It destroyed me. I was killing myself with the grief long before any emotional instability became life-threatening. Now I have her back again and there's no war looming over our heads. There's no way in the galaxy I'm losing her this time. No matter what it takes.

For a while, we stay like this. I'd be content to stay here all night, but I finally take notice of how her eyes are dimming. She's exhausted. I need to get her back to bed. Getting myself to stand up is not much of a problem, but she doesn't exactly rush to follow. She's still clinging to my hand, not letting it move, so I turn it just enough to take hold of hers in return. Then I pull it to bring her to her feet. Apparently, I pull just a little too hard because she stumbles forward. I move without thinking, wrapping my free arm around her so she doesn't fall. That leaves us locked together again. Suddenly, I can't remember why we moved and I lose all will to break from this. One hand tight in hers and the other pressed against her back to hold her close, I'm right where I want to be. Right where I longed for 13 months to be.

Then she curls up closer to me and I feel her leaning in just for the strength to stand and breathing at a slow, steady pace. Right. She's dead tired. From the way she's clinging to me, I'd say she's about ready to drop. As much as I'd love to carry her across the room, I'm not exactly wide awake myself and there is still some broken glass on the floor behind us, so we need to walk back while we still can. As I open the door and lead her through it by my hold on her hand, she turns out the lights behind us and follows me through the darkened room.

When we actually reach the bed, though, she gives my hand a mild though sharp tug, bringing me to stop moving and face her. I can barely see her in the dim light, but I don't need to. It's not like I wanna stop her. Just feeling her hand against me makes my heart start pounding again. Then she draws me forward enough for her to kiss my scars. Like always when she does that, it makes me fall in love all over again and know beyond a doubt how much she loves me. Sadly, though, she follows the gesture by pulling away from me to climb onto the bed.

After a moment of sheer joy from her kiss, I turn to look at her. I see her sitting on the bed and hugging her knees. The second she knows I'm looking her way, she nods pointedly to the side of the bed she's not occupying. Not that she had to. I already know she wants—needs me there. She hasn't been able to sleep peacefully for one night since her return. Not unless I'm here with her. I'm definitely not complaining. It's the same for me. But it's been more violent with her and I'm not risking anything with her when I just got her back. So I don't hesitate for a second before going around to the free side of the bed and sitting down there. Once I'm here, I reach over and take her hand. I need the assurance that this is real and not a dream as much as she needs to know that I'll always be right here when she needs me.

It's strange how life works. How we could go from covering each other in firefights to covering each other in dreams. How a turian and a human could find love with each other. How I found my kalwen in the last place I expected. I'd like to believe that everything we've been through has led us here, allowed us to have a chance at a real life together. A chance I have absolutely no intention of wasting.

"Never let me go again." She pleads the same thing every night. As if she's afraid I ever could.

I answer wordlessly by squeezing the hand I'm hanging onto and leaning closer. In case that's not enough, I translate it: "Wouldn't dream of it."

I think I can see her smile, even in the darkness. Then, as I cling to her hand, I feel her place her other against mine, warmly caressing it with her fingers. I wish I could give in to this, but we both need to rest while we can. So before she can cook up some reason not to and talk me out of it, I retrieve the covers I threw aside in my earlier panic and bring them back into place. She reluctantly lets go of my hand so she can lie down beside me and I follow her lead. She wraps herself around me, only relaxing once she's certain I'm right here and not going anywhere. I smile briefly and reach over to stroke her hair. I can feel her shivering and her heartbeat briefly pulsing when I touch her. Guess I just have that effect on her, I smirk to myself as I use my other hand to hold her close. I lose myself in the fainting rhythm of her heart as she slowly fades asleep, so hypnotic that I don't take long to follow…

…"Garrus?"

I feel someone nudging me, a familiar voice pulling me from my slumber. It's not her. So who is it? I force myself to open my eyes and look.

Liara is standing next to me as EDI waits by the door. "We need to talk."

This sounds really urgent. I look over at my kalwen, still asleep in my arms. I don't want to move. But I want to wake her up even less. Carefully, I slide out of her hold and get up from the bed, following Liara over to the door. Once we reach it, I open it. After Liara and EDI are in the small hallway between the cabin door and the elevator, I close the door back and turn to them. "What's wrong?"

"We went through the data we recovered from the Shadows' base," Liara explains, "like you suggested, and EDI performed a few scans on Shepard last night. The results were…troubling."

That doesn't sound good. I try to hide the fact that my pulse is rising and my mind is racing with reasons for why the results would come back as "troubling"—She's dying is the worst of all of them. "Why? What'd they say?"

"I believe we have found the source of Shepard's attacks," EDI says.

The attacks. The moments when that blue flash strikes through her eyes and she takes leave of her senses. Brief but terrifying, most of all to her. They've been happening ever since before we freed her from the Shadows, presumably since they brought her back to begin with. Every time it happens, she breaks down. She doesn't want us to worry about it. But I can't help but worry. I asked Liara and EDI to try to figure out the cause in secret. Looks like they've found it…and didn't like the answer.

EDI hesitates to explain. She probably did a quick scan of me and saw how much I'm already freaking out. Still, she finally brings herself to elaborate: "When I ran a continuous scan of her brain waves at the time of one of the attacks, I was able to isolate a unique spike in the readings. Each of the attacks…was provoked by Reaper code."

Every panicked thought brewing inside me is stamped out instantaneously the moment she says that. I don't know what to think. My body and even my mind is paralyzed. Somehow, though, I bring myself to react. "…what?"

"The abnormal chromatic flare in her eyes—the 'blue flash'—is indicative of her neurons receiving signals from active Reaper units in dark space."

"It appears that what we are in contact with, what she is consciously aware of," Liara says, "is only a fraction of her true mind. While her soul, her spirit, the essence of who she is, remains within her body, her subconscious mind is still spread out to the Reapers, controlling them permanently though without direct correlation. Every so often, that link reaches the piece of her mind connected to her natural form. But the rest of it is communicating the way the Reapers do. Her organic state is not designed to commune that way. The messages are like shocks to her nervous system."

With every word, my emotional reaction gets worse. It's too much all at once, something I can't relate. Finally, I just settle for leaning against the wall, staring at the floor. "…spirits…"

"If it is any consolation," EDI speaks up, "the attacks seem to be decreasing in intensity. What was at first immobilizing is now barely hurting her. Her system is adjusting. As she continues to adapt, eventually she will not notice the attacks at all. They are erratic, however, so it may be difficult to find a way to treat them in the meantime if she so desires—"

"You can't tell her!" I instantly snap, just barely keeping my voice down enough that it won't wake her from the other side of the door.

Liara is certainly shocked at that (EDI is). "I'm sorry?"

"We can't tell her. We can't tell anyone."

"I can understand withholding this information from the crew," EDI says, "But I believe Shepard has a right to know."

"No! She had one of the attacks last night and she was terrified of this. If she finds out she really is still connected to the Reapers, it'll destroy her. I can't put her through that." I can't. I can't do it. I think of broken mirrors and bright red blood in a shaking hand, of shallow breaths and watering green eyes filled with fear. Now I know what happened. That was when the threat of a permanent connection to those monsters was just a distant possibility. If she sees it as reality… Just the thought of how she could react is enough to break me down. I swore I'd protect her. I never want to see her hurt again. I'll do whatever it takes to make sure I don't have to.

Though Liara is still somewhat shocked, EDI brings herself to speak again. "If she ever discovers you have been keeping secrets from her, you will likely lose her trust."

I know that. For a moment, I remember the panic gripping my lungs and the dread clawing through my heart at the thought of losing her forever. I remember watching her run for the conduit on Earth and reaching for her with all the strength I had left. I remember pacing through her cabin after the fight with the Shadows on Korlus, hoping for the first time that I was wrong about her being alive and that she hadn't truly forgotten me—forgotten us. I remember nightmares in hopeless nights when I almost thought she didn't love me and the only thing that kept me from breaking was all I had left of her. I remember how the grief tore me apart, the hallucinations from the Shadows' poison, the chemically-induced "siren song" that almost secured my death, the way she seemed to haunt me. I can't lose her now.

But then I remember her broken and helpless in the Shadows' lair. I remember how she cried at the thought of losing the war—of losing me. I remember how she broke down after Thessia fell. I remember how she begged me never to let go of her again because I was all she had left to hold onto. And, most of all, I remember waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of shattering glass, finding her bleeding from a wound that was self-inflicted (whether an accident or not) in a moment of sheer panic brought on by the fear that she might somehow be something other than what she was before her death…something other than human. I've never seen her more hurt or distressed than I did last night. It kills me every time as is. That much pain is something she should never have to endure. …never again.

I'd rather see her walk away than see her fall apart.

I sigh, still not meeting EDI's eyes. "For her? …that's a risk I'll take any day."

Lucky for me, EDI actually understands. "Very well. I will purge this information from all accessible networks…including my own."

Now I do look at her. For EDI to rewrite her own memory, that's…unthinkable. This is beyond a show of friendship. I definitely don't have the words for it. Guess I'll just have to settle for the obvious. "…thank you."

EDI simply nods and heads for the elevator.

Now it's just me and Liara.

Liara looks at me. I can see it in her eyes. Concern. For me and for Shepard. She's always been one of the most compassionate people I've ever known (not to mention one of our closest friends), so it's no surprise. "Are you sure about this, Garrus?"

A small part of me still says "no." The selfish part of me. But every other part of me is too in love with the human in question to care. "Yeah. I'm sure." I bring myself to face my asari companion again. I have a question of my own. "Can I trust you with this, Liara?" As soon as I ask it, I know I didn't need to. If it wasn't for her, I'd never have survived any of the attacks from the Shadows' poison. She's seen my mind and she's seen Shepard's. She knows how we feel about each other and that I'll do anything to protect both it and her. If she's any kind of friend, she won't jeopardize that.

At first, she smirks. "I do keep secrets for a living." Then, once she's accomplished her goal of both reminding me how true that is and letting some light back into this dark situation, she sighs, slowly growing serious again. When she does give her answer, she looks straight into my eyes so I can see how much she means it. "I care about her, too, Garrus, even if not the way you do. I do not wish to see her suffer either. With this? …you can trust me."

I can believe that. It's kind of hard not to. I've known her for four years now, I'd like to think I know her pretty well. There are very few people in the galaxy I trust. Far fewer I could trust with something like this. Lucky for me, Liara does fall under that category. She'll carry this past our dying days if need be. The more I think about it, the more I believe I wouldn't want anyone else to share this burden with. …yeah. I can trust her.

For one final reassurance, she places a hand on my arm and gives me a small smile. Only then does she step over to the elevator and leave the deck.

I sigh, taking a moment for myself before opening the door and heading back into the cabin. I stay quiet as I walk through, thinking things over. When I reach the steps halfway through the cabin, I lean against the wall and lose control of my mind, like I did when I was grieving her.

We all knew already that she was somehow aware of the Reapers, we all saw her writing Reaper code at the Shadows' base. Liara herself even confirmed that the asari "mind switch" Shepard described shouldn't have been possible with a whole consciousness, even if it was treated like the Cipher. But we also knew that she was quite clearly separated for good. Except, apparently, she's not. They're still connected with her. If she really is a part of them…then she…she could be…

…no. I said it last night and I meant it. I love her and nothing will ever change that. Yes, she is still hooked up to the Reapers, but not consciously. The fact that she's even in a state where she could be so worried about it proves that it hasn't changed who she is. She's still the woman I love.

She'll always be my kalwen.

As the thought truly breaks through, I just barely resist a laugh. If you'd told me five years ago that I'd start calling a human my kalwen, I would've been very skeptical. Now I can't imagine ever doing less with her or feeling anything close to this with anyone else. Pushing the doubts away entirely, I instead reach for the brighter memories of the days since she came back to me…

like the day we spent with our old squad-mates just after leaving Omega. Everyone was still on some level of recovery after that last fight with the Shadows and agreed to stick around for a while if only to help the reacclimatizing Shepard. She never let it show, but she really needed that. Of course, there wasn't much to do just hanging around the ship all day but someone eventually brought up the select few nights before the suicide mission when Shepard talked the team into "movie night." And once the idea was in the air, Sara almost instantly suggested we try doing it again with three 180-year-old human vids she had loved pretty much all her life, something called Lord of the Rings—really close to the mythology she enjoys so much, so I can see why she brought it up. Before we even got it playing, she'd pulled me onto the couch and curled up next to me, laying her head against my shoulder and taking hold of my arm. I responded by wrapping my other arm around her. We stayed like that for the whole thing, which ended up being nearly 12 hours long. Then, of course, we wound up spending 10 hours the next day watching Hobbit in much the same manner. Not that I'm complaining.

or the night after, the first time since her return that I came to her cabin without waiting to be called up. I wound up coming in a few minutes after she had taken a shower and her hair was still wet. Judging by the way I ended up staring at it, it must have been the first time I saw that. Funny how a little water could somehow turn light red into…well, actual red. Her back was to the door and she was really intently focused on the datapad in her hands, which meant she didn't even know I was there. So I snuck up behind her, carefully set my left hand on her left shoulder, and started to run my right hand through her hair. At first, she seemed startled—of course, I should've expected her to be keeping her guard up—and outright dropped the datapad onto the bed. Then she realized who was behind her and smiled, tilting her head to the right as she placed her hand over mine. For a moment, I simply took pleasure in having her here with me. When that moment was over, she slowly pushed my hand away and turned to face me, holding her gaze on my eyes for exactly three seconds before drawing me closer so we could kiss again. Even after over a year of grief, that was more than worth the wait.

or just a night ago, when I held her close in the bed and watched the stars with her because she couldn't even fall asleep. I wasn't exactly fading myself, so I wound up referring back to a conversation we had during one of these moments in the war, when she told me about the pictures in the stars and the stories they told. She responded by searching the sky for some of the ones she knew and pointing them out to me, even telling me the stories behind them. After about five, I stopped listening and lost myself in her eyes again, a sight I thought far more beautiful than any star in the sky. Eventually, she seemed to lose interest in the stories as well and turned her attention to me. When she saw the way I was looking at her, she smiled and pulled in closer to me, laying her head against my chest. I slid my fingers into her hair and moved her just enough so that her ear was over my heart. The gentle pounding rhythm finally brought her to sleep. I didn't rush to follow. I stayed awake long enough to run my fingers through her hair for a while and watch her steady breathing.

Huh. Turns out the greatest moments of my life really have been exclusively reserved for her.

Just that thought is enough to bring back the insanely pleasant feeling I associate with my emerald-eyed Shepard. When I at last bring myself to step over to the bed and see her curled up there, deep in a sleep that's, for once in her life, peaceful and just as beautiful as she is awake, I fall in love all over again and can't resist smiling. I take a few steps closer and gently stroke her light red hair again. She must recognize the touch because she starts to stir. At the thought of her waking up, I remember the fear in my heart from waking up alone. I can't put her through that either. So I make my way over to the free side of the bed and crawl back in, carefully, caringly, wrapping her arms back around me before placing my own around her. As the feeling of simply lying here with her takes me over again, I almost hope I can fall asleep and pretend that my exchange with EDI and Liara never happened so I don't have to carry that weight at all. It's not like anything would change. This, holding her again…this is all that matters.

I'm close enough to feel her heartbeat again. My right hand is pressed to her back, in just the place to feel the slow, steady rhythm. I let myself get lost in it again and chase all other thoughts away, taking any concept of time I currently have with it. This pure, musical sensation is beyond captivating, strong enough in itself to fight any fears I might have. At the very least, it's undeniable evidence that she's truly alive and here with me. I've needed that desperately for far too long.

After I-don't-care-how-long, I look down to my side, where her right arm is draped over me, and see the bandage on her hand. Cautiously, using my left hand both because it's closer and so I don't have to take my right hand away from her heart, I bring her wounded hand up to where I can see it. The bleeding stopped sometime in the night, but the bandage itself is still stained red over the cut. I recognize the tightening inside me as I see it—the same miserable sensation that strikes me every time I see her hurting. Now I realize that I'm seeing the same thing she sees when she looks at my scars. So I do what she does for them and kiss her where she was hurt. Tenderly brushing my fingers against the fading injury, I place her hand back where it was and begin to slowly slide my hand over it and up her arm to her shoulder.

Without waking up, she responds. No…no, it's not in response to my touch. I know what that feels like. The way she's moving, huddling closer to me as if searching for protection, implies fear more than longing. That's enough to worry me. She could be having one of the nightmares again or reliving some of the horrors she's endured. The thought of her suffering so deeply even in her sleep hurts me. She deserves so much better than that. I've been doing all I can to give it to her. But while the attacks may eventually fade, the memories won't go away. Nothing can ease that. At least not anything I can do. The only thing I can do is wake her up before it becomes too much for her to bear. "Sara…"

She moans softly from the sound of my voice whispering her name into her ear. Then she starts to really wake up. When she does, she leans back so that the first thing she sees when she opens her eyes is mine.

That much gives me the urge to smile for her again. Seeing the spark come back to her eyes, getting the chance to wake up to it again for the first time in well over a year, makes me follow through. "Hi."

She smiles back, so bright and happy that I forget about everything else. "Hey." Before I know it, she's leaning closer and we kiss again. For some reason, we shift position during it and go from lying down to sitting, but I don't really notice. All I care about is how we're holding to each other, rapturous and unbreakable. Nothing could keep me away.

But I don't lose my thoughts in it this time. My mind is weighed down—not by what I learned, but by the thought of hiding something so life-changing from her. Just when I believe I've succeeded in covering this up, she pulls away from me. When I meet her eyes, I find that they're silently asking why I was holding back. I can't answer. I am never going to tell her. But I absolutely cannot lie to her. So all I can do is turn away.

She knows. She has to. She knows I'm keeping something from her. And here I was counting on at least a few days of suspicion before we faced this. Am I going to lose her already? I can't take that. I thought I could, but…

Before I know it, she's quietly running her fingers against my left hand. I find my gaze caught on this. I know what she's thinking. The hand she's holding to is the same one that was broken in the last battle with the Shadows, just before I attempted to give my life for her. The thought of me suffering for her sake is hurting her. That's it, then. She's trying to tell me that she knows I'm hiding something from her and she couldn't care less. At least, I want to believe that. Then I feel her hand pressed to my scars again, one finger gently stroking them. Like usual when she does it, my heart beats just a little harder and I know this love is real. Which means her assurance must be true. Even that is drowned out, though, as a wave of ecstasy floods through me from—hey, wait a minute!

I quickly move to push her off when I realize what she's doing. Her hand was behind my scars. "Scratching behind the ears." I see her smirking at me and I know she meant to. Honestly! The way she makes my heart speed up when she touches me or says my name is one thing, but that? She knows how that affects me. That'd be like me…! …hmm… Before she can figure out what I'm planning, I reach over to her ear and start sliding my fingers across the flesh just behind it. When she gets a chance to push me away, she's already laughing.

It's really her really laughing. The small laugh she gave last night might have been enough to make me smile for her, but this lights up my whole world. I was expecting my "retribution" to make me smile again, but this—pure, unrestrained joy from my kalwen, something I have most definitely not seen since she came back to me—this gives me more than I could've hoped for.

As I smile to her to ensure that she knows how happy that makes me, I notice that her method of escape tossed her hair over her eye. I don't even think before reaching over to brush the light red strands away from her face. She doesn't even react, just keeps her eyes locked on mine. I can practically feel the need rising inside me to get lost in the sight of radiant emerald glistening with whispers of unequaled love. Just a glance at it fills my thoughts with sheer delight as I realize it's true. Nothing can ever change that. "What were you dreaming about?"

She smiles again. That's enough to make my worries fade completely as I believe she's finally managed to bury the past and find some happiness again. But she still answers my question. "…how you woke me up." Guess I was right. Not that it matters. As long as she's found her way, whether or not I somehow gave it to her…that's good enough for me.

I guess she knows it as much as I do. Suddenly, we've both stopped holding back entirely. While we bring each other closer, I feel her digging in between the plates again, bringing back the ecstatic feeling she sends sweeping through me every time she does. This time, I let her instead of fighting her off, so I don't bother stopping myself from audibly reacting. The whole time, I lightly stroke her around her ear, causing her to light up with delight and just barely suppress miniature fits of laughter. I must be dreaming again. Surely, it's not physically possible to be this happy.

As loyal as I've been to her over the years, I never would've predicted we'd make it this far. At times like these, I almost believe that all we've been through has been worth it if only because it's given us this chance. She's starting to seem more like herself again. That brings me to feel like myself again, too, like she's the one who brought me back to life. Maybe she is. I can't say I was really living much without her. I don't see how I ever could. There's no way in the galaxy I could ever truly survive without the human I love, Sara Shepard, my kalwen. No matter what happens, I know I want to spend the rest of my life with her. And now I know that she wants the same. I know she loves me as much as I love her. In the end, that's all I really need.