The plan was perfected. Their route was smoothly pre-determined. They even knew how to deal with the situation if Thane and Samara didn't show up, though it involved some serious half-assed excuses about escorting a celebrity through the area and getting lost inside a shady place of business.

But the thing that kept on scraping at the back of Anya Shepard's mind had nothing to do with the particularly precarious mission she was about to go on, or even the childhood hero that was nothing like she expected.

No, instead all she could think about was the stubborn turian gearing up next to her, who didn't answer her calls last night.

The silence ate at her skin, and she was left stuck in between wanting to leave him and deal with this bullshit later and being desperate to talk to him now, see him look at her again without feeling sick inside.

No matter how stupid it might be, she couldn't look at those scars on his face and keep pushing him away. That colder Shepard, the one who refused to get close to anyone, was gone the second he called her a squishy human.

Because dammit, boy was she squishy.

After her shoulder clasps snapped shut, Anya turned towards Garrus. She had to get his attention before he snapped on his helmet and he was Officer Vakarian, Archangel, her back-up not her boyfriend.

Who knew she'd ever want that?

Taking a deep breath she said, "Garrus-"

Garrus cut her off before she could even try to assuage, apologize, anything. His eyes were practically frozen over and his posture stiff, bristling. And the worst part was that he was looking straight at her and she felt fucking neaseous. "I want to talk, Anya. I really do. But we need to focus on the mission first, right?" He narrowed his eyes and flicked her hair, loose around her shoulders. "You should put this up. Helps keep you safe."

It sounded sweet and thoughtful on the surface, but Anya knew every subharmonic duality in what he was saying.

And she didn't like it, the professional distance, not from him. Not when their "professional" behavior was normally full of ludicrous bets and teasing banter.

With a huff, she did put her hair into a bun, but she wasn't putting herself away with it, not right now. She had a moment alone with him and she had to try to seize it. Of all things, she didn't like leaving things unsaid with him. They did that once and it broke her heart and nearly killed him.

She wasn't keen on letting anything like that happen ever again. He may be stubborn, but she could be stubborn, too.

"Why are you acting like this?" she asked, as she holstered her pistol to her hip.

"Because you think I want you to be someone else, when all I want you to do is take care of yourself. That's not the same thing." She could hear his throat tighten on the cusp of a growl. "You don't have to think sacrifice is the default. You can be a hero without it."

Now that she was pulling him out of professional mode, he kept looking straight ahead, at his gun, anywhere that wasn't her. Anya wasn't used to feeling unseen when it came to him, and maybe it made her bristle more than she should.

Or maybe it was just the years of guilt bubbling up.

Anya clenched her fists and asked, "So what, are you saying that Ash died because I quit too early? Or, hell, if I hadn't followed orders I could be Akuze's hero, not it's sole survivor?"

His mandible flexed, and he shook his head. "Anya-"

"You really think I've survived this many awful missions without wondering if I could've saved people? Especially after you held me as I cried for Ash?"

Pinching his nose, Garrus exhaled slowly. Anya could see the complex emotions ripple through his face and she wanted to be angrier, maybe even punch him, but he was Garrus. So she waited. He said, "You're right. It's not fair to act like you've never thought about it." He turned to Anya and finally looked straight at her, his blue eyes soft and gentle and friendly, and her heart felt like it was being torn in two. "You step up where other people don't and it's why I'll follow you into hell. But I have to believe that sometimes it doesn't have to be like that."

"Why? After all we've seen?"

His talon caressed her cheek. "Because I want Anya to make it out of this war, not just Commander Shepard. And I want Anya to be able to dream of saving everyone and have it happen, instead of breaking her heart every time she walks off the battlefield. I want something to be left of her at the end of things."

As her silence prolonged, his hand recoiled and he turned away from her again.

"But hey, I'm just a subordinate out of line, so what do I know?" Just as she wanted to say something, change her answer, talk longer and hear him and work through this, the metal doors opened behind them and Kasumi and Miranda walked through. Taking a step away from her, he ended their conversation with the click of his helmet and a simple, "See you on the other side, Shepard."

And with two other squad-members by her side, Anya had to commit to the bun on her head, move like a well-oiled machine through the Illium streets to meet up with Anaya and Opan. Because no matter how much she wanted to talk to Garrus, they had shit to do.

Even if everything he said kept reverberating through her skull like a headache that just wouldn't shut up.

When they joined up with the Hanar-Asari duo and started heading towards Dantius Towers, Anya felt the pressure hit her shoulders. In the next hour or so, she had to convince two trained killers to leave each other alive, or choose between the two.

Another choice where someone ended up dead.

While the detective and secret Spectre were suited up more than before (Anaya had basic armor and a pistol of her own, and Opan had an abdominal exoskeleton that his species used sparingly for defence (Anya learned that in Cerberus' classified defense profiles on every race)), their intensity was more intimidating.

The pair that gave each other soft looks and caressed cheeks the other day now looked ready to fight anyone who stood in their path. And Anya just realized that maybe they knew that about each other the entire time.

Naive of her to assume romance and battlefield ideology came hand in hand, wasn't it?

She flicked a glance at Garrus and she wanted desperately to be different from the cold characters to her left and right.

But she shook her head. There wasn't time for patched romances and thoughtful sentiments. This was an important mission and they had work to do.

Anya needed to take a goddamn step back because right now the galaxy needed Commander Shepard.

A block from Dantius towers, she stopped the group. "Time to split up. Opan, Anaya, and I will go the direct route. You three go up the other half and, once you're done, meet up with us at the top. That, or find us wherever we end up. Good?"

Everyone nodded. Miranda and Kasumi led the way, but Garrus grabbed her arm and said, "Be safe."

Despite all the turmoil in her brain, it was like her boiling blood and churning stomach stilled at those blue eyes looking at her again like his world hinged on her.

Fuck, she loved him.

Letting out a relieved, albeit startled, chuckle, Anya said, "I will. You better not find a way to take a rocket to the face, okay?"

Garrus chuckled "I'll do my best." Then, he pressed the forehead of his helmet to hers before letting her go.

When she turned back to Opan and Anaya, the pair did not look amused. Anya coughed and led them towards the front entrance, which already looked disheveled, cracked glass and all. She joked, "Don't make my third-wheeling too awkward, will ya?"

The detective furrowed her brow. "Excuse me?"

"This one and the detective are completely objective on mission, thank you."

With their deadpan stares boring into her, Shepard just grimaced and swiveled. Better she took the lead, anyway.

As they walked through the doors, they started to see the echoes of Thane and Samara on the ground floor itself. But Opan and Anaya were not Grunt commenting on a good fight or Kasumi making jokes about if this was some hardcore adult fun or one hell of a fight. Anya realized her normal crew banter wasn't going to fly with the more serious duo. "Okay, the joke didn't land. Good to know." Like an idiot, before she could stop herself, she coped with the awkward silence using another joke, looking back at them over her shoulder. "Thought from all your movies you might like banter."

"Spectre Blasto's inane little quips distract him. If he was a real Spectre his enemies would shoot him down while he's busy making the Enkindling puns. I always feel silly saying them."

In a rare break of seriousness, Detective Anaya snorted, the kind that followed a comfortable inside joke. "It's a movie, Opan, chill out."

The Hanar shook his head. "Forgive me. This mission makes this one a little irritable." As they entered an elevator to reach higher floors, Opan didn't seem any less tense. Instead, he moved a tentacle onto the gun on his holster. Opan wrapped his appendage around it, pulled it up, and said, "We have been chasing these two for far too long."

Watching him, Commander Shepard was entranced. If the Hanar hadn't told her his Spectre secret, she might've started getting curious about the expert way he handled his weapon. Years of Alliance training made her sure that the flexing of his appendage meant he knew how to fire off the pistol at a moment's notice. Until now, she never even knew Hanar appendages could be useful in a firefight. The calm comfort Opan had while armed was very telling.

Not nearly as telling as the bullet that whizzed past her cheek, though. Twirling herself behind a nearby corner, Anya shouted, "Watch out!"

Luckily, Opan and Anaya got themselves behind a half-wall. Good thing business towers really loved unnecessary accessory features, huh?

Anya looked across the way, though, to see a green-scaled Drell with shining eyes blink at her. He had a black and red flare to his face and a surprisingly peaceful stare on him. The kind that looked almost... surprised to see them. Regretful, even.

But just as the depth of his eyes hit her in the chest, shots were fired from their far-left. She ducked behind cover, only to realize they weren't the ones being shot at. One peek and she could see a heavily freckled Asari barreling towards Thane's position. The Drell threw one more glance towards her, like trying to tell her something, and bolted away.

To no one's surprise, the Justicar didn't even look at them, just kept charging after her target.

Under her breath, Anya muttered, "Fuck." Cracking her neck to break the tension in her shoulders, she broke cover. "Well, that was a warm welcome."

Opan and Anaya followed behind her, both their paces brisk. Opan said, "Indeed."

Over her left shoulder, Detective Anaya gave her input. "Okay, well, if Thane is going to shoot at us, guess the best we can do is help Samara take him down. Get this whole thing over with."

"No. This one must secure the Drell."

The air rippled with Anaya's anger, but they couldn't stop for this squabble. Anya had to keep on walking, even if the detective paused to say, "Like hell. We have to protect Samara."

"The Justicar's safety isn't a priority."

Their loud footsteps were like drum beats in Anya's ears, and she was only half listening. She knew where this argument went; she knew the second she walked out of that seedy bar. She heard Anaya and she heard Opan. Neither of them were the kind to budge.

By god, though, did she want them both to be so wrong.

The detective scoffed. "That's not how this works. We don't know if he'll try to fight us the second she's down. She is the obvious choice."

"No. I have orders and seniority." Despite their connection, despite the soft cheek caress she once saw them share, it was like she was listening to a war on the brink of waging. A battle, where, at the very least, nothing between the two would survive.

Anya's pace stayed rhythmic, but she felt her stomach stumble and drop along the way.

Was this what Garrus meant when he said he wanted her to survive?

Tired of their arguments, Anya spun around at the corner of an entry-way and said, "We don't have to make a choice like this is some philosophy class! These are two living, breathing people. Let's just fucking talk to them, okay? So both of you get your damn fingers off your triggers." Opan nearly looked satisfied, like he won, but Anya shook her head. "Or your tentacles."

Just as Anaya opened her mouth, though, two metal doors slid closed between them and the rush of slamming air pushed Anya backward into the open hallway.

When she opened her eyes, she saw two black and two blue looking at her from each side, just as perturbed as she was.

Well, this was one way to try to talk to them.

At a loss for words, right where she probably shouldn't be, Anya awkwardly chuckled. "Well hello strangers."

Both of them continued to stare at her. While she felt her cheeks flare and her skin crawl like she was embarrassing herself in front of her weekly speech tutor all over again, Anya could at least feel better about the fact they didn't shoot her on sight. And, considering the fact they were eye to eye, it was nice that they were taking a break from killing each other to be baffled by her.

It was something.

Sucking in a breath, Anya pinched the bridge of her nose. "That was the lamest thing to say." Just then, both Samara and Thane raised a gun-laden arm. In sheer panic, Shepard spread out her own limbs to try to make herself wider and waved them. "Hey! Put down your weapons! Why is everyone so goddamn trigger happy?"

Samara didn't even flinch before saying, "I need to kill him."

"She is trying to ruin my mission. I have several mistakes to expunge before I leave this world." Thane seemed equally sure of himself.

It was a terrible thing that they were, because all Commander Shepard knew was that she didn't want either of them dead.

Pulling out her pistol was the easy choice, pick one, end it. But it was like Garrus kept on ringing in her head, that stupid subordinate he was, and she couldn't help but want this to be different this time.

Things had to start being different.

Anya kept her arms raised and cleared her throat. "Cool. But if you both didn't shoot each other, we can all walk out of this. I have a dangerous mission of my own that I could use both of you on."

"I cannot abandon my calling just because some pretty human child asks." While that was a compliment, especially from probably one of the most attractive looking Asari she ever met, it was decidedly not the time to get flustered. Attractive didn't mean people got a free pass to threaten murder.

Though she really shouldn't think too hard about the amount of headshots Garrus made that made her think about-

Interrupting her absolutely out of turn thoughts, Thane said, "My life needs to end for retribution, not money and violence. Why would I abandon that?"

Anya was getting annoyed with them, but she kept her voice as peaceful as possible.

She could play mediator, right?

Gesturing to both of them, she said, "Because you're both valuable to the galaxy. Nobody really wants to see you kill each other. Think of other people who need you before you shoot each other's faces off!"

Over her comms, she suddenly heard it reconnect and a measured voice thrum against her eardrums. "This one only cares about the Drell."

Detective Anaya sounded like a viper spitting venom. "The Justicar is the only salvageable one, don't listen to him."

"Commander Shepard, I need you to remember your duty as a Spectre."

Shepard was stunned, in a somewhat offensive manner. Okay, if Opan was going to try to pull that one, he really could go fuck off.

Rage fueled her cheeks instead of embarrassment. At the very least, she didn't make sacrifices so callously. "Shut up, both of you!" She paused and looked to the ever-confused Justicar and assassin. "Not you two, you're being way more patient than I deserve." In a bold move, Anya shut off the communicator yelling in her ear, put down her gun, and raised her arms in surrender. This better fucking work. Anya begged, "Stop this cat and mouse game. Saving people doesn't have to mean making so many choices like this. You both could walk out of this and still change the galaxy."

Even though her glare faltered, Samara insisted: "I have a mission, Shepard. And he is in the way."

Thane was similarly stiff, pistol pointed at Samara, looking so sure of himself. "And she is in the way of mine."

In the bottom of her stomach, that pit screaming Garrus' words over and over fell through her, the floor, all the way to the goddamn basement of the tower. She couldn't stop them, could she? Commander Anya Shepard wasn't made to have another option. Sacrifice was the default.

To think she thought she could stop it.

Frustrated, she said, "You goddamn-"

The building loudspeaker suddenly was blaring a rumbling voice she knew all too well, interrupting her mild breakdown. "Shepard, let me try for a moment?"

Exhaling, Shepard said, "Please."

From there, Garrus took over talking. "Hey, you two live for your very objective missions, right? Well, from up here in ops they actually sound pretty damn personal. A Justicar running after an assassin because he's trying to kill your daughter's contact? A conscripted assassin trying to end his life because he feels guilty about his wife's death? Good reasons to be fighting, but don't pretend either of you are noble. Because we've got you figured out." Commander Shepard raised an eyebrow. When in god's name did they have the time to find all of this out? Because she sure as shit knew Garrus wasn't some research wizard.

But the other team had gone the other route, towards the Dantius security offices.

Anya blinked. Kasumi and Miranda were more frightening than she ever gave them credit. She'd have to take them both out for drinks some time.

Garrus continued: "If you're serious about your missions, about bringing justice to the universe, we got a better offer: save the goddamn galaxy. It's the greatest calling of them all. And hell, we'll even help you finish your impossible missions along the way. If you want to have a fucking chance at accomplishing all of it, follow her. But at the very least don't pretend you're looking for justice right now."

The air in the hallway chilled, like all the red-hot energy had been sucked right out of it. Thane was the first to speak. "There might be some selfishness in my crusade."

"Mine as well." Samara loosened her grip on her gun and asked, "Can you really save the galaxy, Commander Shepard?"

"I have to."

The Justicar's gun fell to her side. "Then I will join you."

"So will I."

Anya stood in awe, staring at these two people on each side of her. A part of her was trapped in a state of stunned shock. This was quite the gamble. Should they even trust them? She'd seen the horror that these people could cause.

Another knew they were still people, and hopefully they'd keep acting like it.

All she could do in the moment was nod and smile.

Well, and punch Anaya and Opan for being assholes before telling them to climb down the tower on their own and fuck off. She could practically hear Opan's scathing request for Spectre dismissal in her head, but she didn't give a damn.

When the Hammerhead came to pick them up off the tenth floor, Garrus was right there, waiting to grab her bloodied hand. Thane and Samara sat across the vehicle from each other, still understandably uneasy about the whole situation. But Kasumi was talking Thane's ear off about a Drell she once met on a heist, helping patch up a few wounds, while Miranda did a mini-physician's assessment with some alarmingly stiff posture and some wavering syllables.

They could talk about that later, though.

Instead, Anya looked up to the turian next to her and couldn't fight her smile, leaning close and whispering, "You saved them."

"Between C-Sec and years of Turian Military, you learn how to appeal to "justice" types. The "call them out on their shit" part is vital." He nuzzled the top of her wispy bun and said, "But you really fought hard to keep them both alive."

"Someone important to me once said that sacrifice doesn't have to be the default."

"Sounds like one hell of a smart guy. Handsome, too."

"Shut up." Before he could be more of an ass, Anya grabbed his closest talon and squeezed it in her own hand. "I'm sorry."

This time she didn't look up, trying to look straight forward and be somewhat professional, but she could hear the damned smirk in his voice. "You better be, because I was right."

Anya snorted. "Not very gracious or humble, are you?"

"It's your fault. Having the most important woman in the galaxy fall for you is quite the power trip."

It was stupid, what he said. She was just a soldier people kept on putting on some pedestal, the survivor who had the worst luck and kept surviving. A hero who never felt like she made very heroic decisions.

But today, fighting to keep everyone alive again? Today felt good.

Standing close by his side only made it all the better.

When everyone else walked out of the Hammerhead, Kasumi acting as tour guide and Miranda still stumbling over herself, Anya leaned close again and said, "It was totally love at first sight."

Garrus rolled his eyes. "Fine. But I should get credit that the handshake was next level, though. Miranda even stuttered."

As they walked back into the cockpit, the pilot's chair was turned and Joker was scowling at them. "What are you-" His eyes widened, looking between Miranda's close stride next to Samara and their own whispering, and Anya shriveled up inside. Maybe they weren't nearly as quiet as they thought. "Oh my two have a gambling problem."

Going on the offense, Anay scowled. "Oh, don't act all high and mighty. We all do it. Who bet on Garrus and I in the first Normandy's infamous dating pool?"

Half amused, Garrus asked, "You did?"

"I did not!"

Appearing in all her blue glory and piping up, EDI asked, "Then why did Commander Shepard transfer 300 credits to your account after she and Garrus Vakarian started a relationship?"

"EDI, I swear to fucking god, this is why I shouldn't tell you anything. I don't know why I do." Joker groaned and waved them away. "You two, out of my office with your smirking."

This time, they waited all the way until the elevator to start talking. They greeted a couple cadets, smiled and gave reports, even did a little small talk with Kelly. But the second those doors shut, they could stop being Spectre and Archangel.

Alone, they were Anya and Garrus.

Anya was the first to break her serious face. "Wanna bet how long it takes Joker to realize he kinda has the hots for the AI?"

"Way too long for it to be a fun bet." Garrus grabbed her waist and pulled her close, changing the entire mood of the elevator ride to her room. It went from "fuck to I need a shower" to "who could I fuck in the-"

Garrus broke her brain, though, when he breathed into her neck and said, "But how 'bout we skip the betting and go straight to the prize part?"

Fighting off a tragically satisfied moan, Anya had to admit she would be one hell of a way to celebrate a win. "I like how you think, Vakarian."

"And I like it when we both win." Much to her surprise, Garrus picked her up over his shoulder and carried her into her room. Anya wasn't sure if the big guy thought it was romantic, but it was kinda nice not to walk-

But then he tapped the keypad with a code she didn't recognize and heard the door lock click closed behind them.

Finally putting her down, he said with a smirk, "Especially when I've already convinced the crew that you need a day off."

"How dare you-" Anya walked for the exit, but it didn't budge. Not even when she punched it.

"Too late. Doors are locked."

She changed tactics and punched his chest, albeit not very seriously. "You scheming asshole."

"A man's gotta do what he has to do to get his girlfriend to take a fucking break."

"Ugh, fine. But you're not allowed to leave, either."

"Fine by me."

And Anya had to admit, there were perks to having a wonderful asshole boyfriend who always had her back. Though she wasn't sure she was ready to admit how wonderful yet. She'd keep those accidental three little words said in her head secret... for now.

Finallyyyy I finished this way too long chapter. I will make no consistency promises but after some of this... I missed these guys And of course I missed y'all, too. Tonight I'll be streaming some Mass Effect so catch me if you can at /thespacebard Thanks for reading everyone and anyone 3