A/N: If you're still here, thanks for being patient with me. Here's the next one.

Chapter Twenty-Two

To Hell and Back

December 29th, 2183

9:20 p.m.

"So," asked Garrus as he and Shepard strolled out of the hospital, "how does it feel to be a free woman?"

"Absolutely fantastic. I expected them to try to keep me overnight."

Garrus chuckled, shifting the plastic box in his arms. He was careful to avoid jostling the smaller box inside too much. He had learned his lesson about subjecting small Earth animals to undue turbulence. "They did. You threatened to buzz the Council for Spectre clearance."

"Did I? How strange. It's all a blur. Must be the pain meds."

The mechanical whir of an approaching shuttle caught Shepard's attention, and she looked up to see a slim black Kia hovering at about twenty feet above the street. The side window peeled away and Kaidan leaned out. "Shepard?" he called. "You're out early."

"Nice car," she called back.

"It's a rental. I meant to come back sooner, but traffic held me up."

"It's all right. I was just going to go home and get some sleep."

"Home?" Even from twenty feet away, Shepard could see his composure flicker in confusion. "Where did you say you were staying?"

Shepard glanced at Garrus. She had sensed a few times over the past week that it wasn't exactly normal for her to be staying in his apartment. It wouldn't surprise her if it was against turian customs or something like that. She hadn't said anything because she figured that he would bring it up if it was serious. But now he just gave her a small nod, shifting the box in his arms again. Which was pretty much permission to say whatever she wanted.

"I've been crashing on Garrus's couch."

It took Kaidan a minute to formulate a reply to that. "Oh. Well… There's, uh, hotels. The Alliance covered the bill for my rental. They would probably…"

"It's no trouble." Shepard glanced in surprise at Garrus, who had just spoken for the first time since Kaidan had pulled up. "My apartment is big enough for two."

Liar, Shepard thought with an inward smirk. To be honest, the idea of a big, fluffy hotel bed all to herself had lost some of its appeal. She liked sitting on the floor of Garrus's bedroom, talking about tigers and painting each other's faces. She liked sharing meals and poking fun at how weird alien food was. She liked watching movies, going to McDonald's, and playing tag in the Night Gardens. No fancy hotel with room service and as much free television as she wanted could match up.

"Well, okay," Kaidan said, sounding terribly confused. Shepard felt a pang of guilt. Maybe she should explain everything later: how she'd missed her chance at a motel room that first night, and staying with Garrus had just become too comfortable and convenient to leave. How she had missed him so much these last three weeks that staying on the same station for a week and not seeing him every day for as many hours as possible seemed barbaric. Well… maybe she would leave out that last part.

She raised her hand and waved. "See you in a few days. Thanks for coming to get me."

"Just doing my duty, ma'am." Dammit, she hated it when he did that. They were supposed to be way past ma'am by now. Apparently he'd never gotten the memo. "I'll see you on the Normandy. The first, right?"

"Eight o'clock sharp."

"Roger that. See you."

The shuttle window closed and the sleek black vehicle slowly peeled away, gaining speed until it was just another glowing speck in the Citadel skies. Shepard watched it go, feeling as if she'd left something unfinished. It was the same feeling she'd had a few days ago, coming back to Garrus's apartment after seeing Kaidan. Something was going to have to change between them, eventually. She just didn't know what.

"Shepard," Garrus said, making her jump. She'd nearly forgotten he was there, standing on the pavement beside her. "You know, if you did want to get a hotel room… It's not too late."

"Oh, but all of my things are already at your place. It would be such a pain to move everything."

He chuckled, and she knew he was thinking of the single bag she had brought with her, most of her things still packed neatly inside. "Well, you were just released from the hospital. Someone should keep an eye on you for the next couple of days."

"Good thing I know just the turian to do it."

December 29th, 2183

9:48 p.m.

"So…" Shepard leaned back against the cushions. Garrus had insisted that she have the couch to herself, bringing in a chair from the kitchen for himself. He had also managed to procure some soft cushions from somewhere; Shepard had even seen some on the bed. She had put up some token protest about the whole couch thing, but to be honest, being treated like an invalid wasn't so bad when it was Garrus who was doing it. Garrus, who hadn't made a big deal out of anything, hadn't even mentioned the pillows, had just placed them there for her. "Let's hope kitty is housetrained."

Garrus lifted his head, his palm hovering over the furry blue back of the kitten in question. The kitten was curled up on the cushion in his lap, batting playfully at Garrus's arm every now and then with claws extended. Shepard winced every time she heard the metallic screech of the cat's claws against Garrus's skin, but he didn't even seem to feel it. Damn turians and their plates. "Housetrained?"

"Yeah. You know, to use a litter box."

"I don't think I have an accurate translation for litter box." Garrus cocked his head to one side, obviously watching his visor. Shepard had learned to recognize the sort of double focus his eyes went into when he was paying attention to his visor rather than his surroundings. "Box of… fake dirt?"

"Pretty much. Cats use the toilet in the box instead of on the floor. The box cleans itself. All you need to do is take out the bag once a week and toss it in the decomp unit."

"I don't have one of those."

"I know you don't. So we're going to have to rig up something temporary. I mean, what's the game plan? Does Chellick want the kitten back?"

"I don't think so." Seemingly mesmerized, Garrus ran the tip of his claw under the kitten's chin. Shepard tensed, half-expecting him to hurt the animal by accident, but he was careful; the kitten just purred and batted lazily at his claw. "He asked me to… get rid of it."

"Get rid of it? What—airlock it?"

"No, no. I think he was telling me to take it home. Except he couldn't actually say that, because I don't have a pet license."

Shepard hesitated, watching the way he teased the kitten's fur, mandibles twitching in amusement every time one of the tiny paws connected with his hand. It was really quite amazing how quickly the animal had acclimated to him. "I mean… Do you want to keep it?"

"I don't know." Garrus sighed and lifted the cushion off his lap, placing both pillow and kitten on the floor. The blue kitten promptly climbed off the cushion and began to explore, sniffing around the base of the couch and arching its back against the legs of Garrus's chair. Then it stalked over to the window, where it caught sight of its reflection in the glass and stared, tail lashing back and forth. "I barely know anything about Earth animals. Or pets. How often does it need to be fed? Will it eat my furniture?"

"Eat your furniture? Probably not. Do turian pets make a habit of eating furniture?"

"It's been known to happen."

"It might scratch things up a bit. But you can get toys to keep it occupied. I mean, cats don't need much. Food, water, clean box. They're the perfect first pet."

"How large are the adults?"

"Oh, not big." Shepard held her hands about a forearm's length apart. "About this big. Like varren pups."

"Varren pups." Garrus nodded pensively, watching the kitten growl at its reflection. "I hope they don't act like varren pups."

"Well, it depends. If you piss them off enough, they go through this transformation. Grow horns, sprout saber teeth and start mauling everything in sight. They're damn near unstoppable."

Garrus tensed, reaching instinctively for the sidearm at his waist. "Well, they can't be bulletproof."

"Actually, you can't really see it under the fur, but they have this tough outer shell—oh, God, I'm kidding. I'm totally kidding." Shepard doubled over, hands clasped over her mouth in a vain attempt to stifle her laughter. "They're harmless. Even more so for someone with plates."

Garrus stared at her. "Abuse of power, Shepard. I believed you."

"Yeah, that was a little mean. Sorry." Shepard got up from the couch and went over to the window, bending down to scratch the kitten behind the ears. The little animal tensed for a moment before relaxing into her hand. It didn't like her quite as much as Garrus yet, but she thought it was warming up to her. "If you do want to keep it, we should name it."

"Hmm. What is the human protocol for naming pets?"

"We don't really have one. Anything goes."


"Pretty much. Like…" Shepard thought for a moment. "Archimedes."

"That glitched out."

"Obscure historical reference. Uh… Barbara Streisand."

Garrus consulted his visor. "A twentieth-century human vocalist?"

"You know, maybe we should figure out whether it's a boy or a girl. I'd hate to stick a name like Barbara on a guy." Shepard teased the kitten onto its back with her hand, studiously avoiding the claws. With the other hand, she activated her omni-tool and set it for a basic DNA scan, to corroborate her findings. The scan and her own visual evaluation matched. "It's a girl. We could use Barbara, then… but I'd hate to add animal cruelty to my list of shortcomings."

Garrus made a series of noises that alternated between chirps and guttural purrs. Shepard stared at him. "What was that?"

"A name. I was suggesting a name."

"I think we're going to have to pick something that clears both our translators."

"Fair point." Garrus spread his arms. "I'm out of ideas."

"Well, we could name her after somebody we both know."

"Such as?"

Shepard watched the kitten thoughtfully. She had wandered over to Garrus again and was pawing at his boots. When he ignored her, she let out an earsplitting meow and leapt onto his lap, giving him a reproachful look. "She's quite a headstrong little one. I have a feeling she could hold her own against a couple of alley toms any day of the week. But she's got class, too."

"And claws," added Garrus.

Shepard gave him a calculating look. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

He nodded. "Ashley," they both said at once.

December 29th, 2183

10:13 p.m.

"You know, I don't know if Ash was even a cat person," said Shepard. "She might have preferred dogs."

She was lying sideways on Garrus's carpet, wiggling a broken buckle for the newly christened kitten to chase. It felt odd to be able to devote hours to playing with an animal; she hadn't done that since Mindoir. Even stranger was the idea that her turian best friend was going to be keeping a kitten in his apartment. Shepard shrugged inwardly. Things were way past strange by now, anyway.

Garrus appeared in the kitchen doorway, holding two bowls, and bent over to set them on the floor. One contained water, the other a type of shredded meat Shepard's omni-tool told her was safe for cats to consume. As Ashley cautiously sniffed the food, Garrus sat down on the floor, his rear-facing knees bending in ways Shepard's human brain told her shouldn't be possible.

"Dogs are the carnivorous pack animals that vocalize through barks, right?"

"Right. They sort of resemble varren, I suppose."

"I think Chief Williams would have taken a liking to any animal with a warrior's spirit." Garrus looked at the kitten. "It's too bad you can't take her with you to the Normandy."

Shepard chuckled. "Now that would be something to see. But space is no place for an animal. One pressure leak, one oxygen failure, and she'd be done for. You can't put a suit and oxygen mask on a cat. Maybe on a civilian vessel… I've heard of spacers keeping pets before. But definitely not on a warship."

"I know. I just thought she would be good company for you."

"I appreciate the thought. Space does get lonely." Shepard looked around the small room. "But I imagine this flat does, too."

"You know me, Shepard. I like my privacy."

"Which leads me to wonder why you invited your commanding officer to spend a week living with you."

"You're different, Shepard." Garrus lifted his eyes from the kitten and looked right at her. "You're the exception to just about any rule I can think of."

"You flatter me."

"I'm serious. You're the most exceptional human I've ever encountered."

"If your typical experience is with Harkin and his like, I'm not surprised."

"There are plenty of human C-Sec officers these days. Most of them are good ones, too. Honorable men and women, like Johannes. More and more turians are gaining respect for humans every day. Personally, I've never had a problem with humans. But I didn't have any particular regard for them, either. Until I met you."

Shepard smiled, more touched than she cared to admit. "I could say the same, you know," she said lightly.

Garrus looked surprised. "What do you mean?"

"Do you think I've had a lot of experience dealing with turians? I grew up in the colonies. Didn't even see my first alien until I was twelve. I thought they were scary, growing up. Like the sort of aliens you see on old Earth vids, always out to get humanity and harvest our brains or whatever. My first real experience with aliens didn't exactly help the impression."

Garrus winced. "The batarians."

"Right. I joined the Alliance right after, and you know, I came so close to holding a grudge. This close." Shepard held her thumb and forefinger inches apart. "Like Saren and his vendetta against humans. It would have been like that for me, except with all aliens, because I thought they were all like the batarians. Obviously that didn't last, but I never really trusted any of them, especially turians. The ones I met were so cold-bloodedly efficient and practical that I thought they didn't have souls."

Garrus made a humming noise. "I can see why you would think that. Turians on duty are very different from turians off duty. We're trained to separate ourselves into two halves: the soldier and the civilian."

"Well, all I saw was the soldier. Even Nihlus was like that, although he was more talkative than the others. Probably because he was supposed to evaluate me. Hard to do that from a distance. Anyway, then he died… at the hands of another turian. So I added 'bloodthirsty' and 'backstabbing' to the list of things I knew about your species."

Garrus said nothing, but something in his eyes shifted. Shepard hesitated, on the verge of apologizing, but decided to continue. There was no blame in Garrus's expression, just curiosity.

"And then I met you, and gradually realized how utterly wrong I'd been about everything." Shepard put a tentative hand on his arm. "So, can you forgive me for being an ignorant racist in my early years? I've seen the error of my ways."

"If you can forgive the Council for treating you like you're worthless and incompetent for being human, instead of turian like their precious Saren…" Garrus took a deep breath. "Then I'd be a fool if I blamed you for a second."

"I'm glad. It's not an easy thing to admit to, you know."

"What isn't?"

"Being a racist. That word carries a lot of very ancient stigma in human culture."

"Really?" Garrus twitched a mandible, a gesture Shepard had learned to recognize as exhibiting curiosity. "How?"

"Well, it's an embarrassing thing to talk about now, but humans used to treat each other like trash if they looked differently from each other."

"But humans don't vary much. Not outwardly, anyway."

"Yes, I know. It was based on color, mostly. The color of your skin and hair. For a long time, people thought light skin made someone better than if they had darker skin. They enslaved other humans and fought wars over it."

"Putting things mildly, Shepard, that sounds ridiculous."

"I know. But humans took it very seriously for centuries, along with sexism. A couple hundred years ago, I wouldn't even have been allowed into combat unless I were a male."

"I'm confused. What did your women do for all those hundreds of years, if they weren't allowed to fight?"

"Get married and have babies, mostly."

"They couldn't do both?"

"Well, if both men and women go to war, who's going to take care of the kids?" Shepard looked at him curiously. "How did it work for turians?"

"There have always been more male soldiers than female ones. But no one would ever prevent a female from enlisting. It wouldn't make sense. They're just as competent."

"Well, our biology is different. I've never met a turian female, but from what I hear, they're built along nearly the same lines as males."

"More or less."

"Human females have some… marked differences. These, for example."

Garrus nodded sagely. "Mammary glands. Used for feeding offspring."

"You're so knowledgeable on the subject."

"Alien anatomy classes. No personal experience, I'm afraid."

Shepard stared at him, a grin stretching the corners of her mouth. "No personal experience?"

He looked uncomfortable. "That came out wrong. I'm sorry, Shepard. Turians have no comparable attributes. I've heard breasts are a sensitive subject for humans."

Shepard put her head in her hands and tried not to erupt into convulsive laughter. She didn't want to embarrass the poor turian too much. "A sensitive subject, hmm? For some humans, sure. But I'm a soldier. I left modesty behind a long time ago. Sharing communal showers will do that to you." Plus, you're an alien. I don't have to worry about you ogling my chest when I'm not looking.

"Is that why you wear that undergarment? With the straps and support wiring?"

"Oh, that. Yeah, most human females wear something like that. It must seem strange to you."

"Compared to some other things about humans, it's hardly worth mentioning."

"What, like our soft pink feet?" Shepard wriggled her toes at him, thinking fondly of how engrossed he'd been at the Night Gardens when she'd first taken off her shoes.

"I'm used to those by now. I'm talking about other things."

"There's something weirder than breasts and human toes? Do tell."

"Things like… how delicate your bones are." He took her hand and lifted it into the air, fitting the bones of her wrist between two of his claws. Shepard held still, knowing he wouldn't scratch her but wary all the same at having those sharp edges so close to her, especially after what had happened with Nephim. "How thin your skin is. Like paper and glass."

"Asari are almost the same, you know."

"That's not the strangest part, though. The strangest part is that you're so fragile, so defenseless, and yet…" He tested the strength of her fingers one by one, taking his time, like a child with a toy. His hands felt odd on her skin, like leather stretched over metal, but familiar. "You're still the strongest person I know."

"Are we talking about all humans here, or just me?"

He looked at her thoughtfully, but didn't answer her question. "I think even Wrex would agree with me."

"You must mean a different kind of strength, then. Because I'm pretty sure he could beat me in an arm wrestling match. Or any other human, for that matter."

"Different. Yes." Garrus released her hand, looking satisfied. "Different is the right word."

"Well, then, how shall I describe you? If 'different' is already taken…"

"Handsome," Garrus suggested. "Charming. Talented. Deadly."

"That's four words. And I'm not sure that any of them fit."

His mandibles twitched. "Shepard, you wound me."

"I'm just saying, I think—hey there." Shepard picked up the kitten, who had started pawing her leg, and stroked her back. "I think Ash wants some attention."

Garrus took the animal from her carefully. "The two of you have a lot in common."

"Don't tell me—you're replacing me with a cat."

He looked at her seriously, in the sort of way that made her stop breathing for a moment without knowing the reason why. "I could never replace you, Shepard."

"Well, if I'm so irreplaceable," she said lightly, "you'd better not lose me."

"I don't intend to."

"I don't think a master turian sniper is something you can pick up down on the Wards for a couple thousand credits, either. So you'd better not be planning on going anywhere."

"If I went anywhere, it would be with you."

"Really? You'd follow me anywhere?"

"Is that a question, Shepard?"

"To hell and back?"

"If I couldn't persuade you to stay and have a drink instead."

"Then I guess it's a good thing I don't plan on going to hell anytime soon."