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Graded Absolutism

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Prologue:

In spring, when the winds shift and bring the Soft Rains, Kahje is a place of rumors. Of murmured tales, told to the melody of rain against glass and tin. Of half-truths whispered into another's ear, while beyond the pale dunes, salt spray is teased from endless waves. As surely as the tide advances and retreats, in spring, stories are told of light and despair, of love and sorrow.

The most fanciful of these is of the Nameless, who some say arrive each year with the Rains. All things must go to the sea, yet these specters of the past are said to defy even Kalihira herself. Ghosts or phantoms or faded memories, they return only to stand ever-silent at the shore, watching as the ocean continues its eternal advance.

 

1.

He seldom makes mistakes, is rarely flat-out wrong. But when he is, the resulting outcomes are... undeniably spectacular.

At least this is what the Illusive Man thinks, indulging in a moment of black humor.

He plays the holo-vid again.

In the month following Shepard's defection, how many times has he played the vid? Dozens? More? Playing it forward, backing it up. Freezing specific moments in time.

He mutes the audio and watches the exchange between himself and Shepard again, sees her roll her eyes like a spoiled child as she arms the nuclear device and cuts communications.

The holo skips, cuts from the omni-tool recording to one of the Normandy's exterior cameras. The Collector base explodes again in nova of white-hot light.

He raises a hand, stopping the holo mid-explosion. The end of his cigarette glows red as he draws smoke into his lungs, then taps the cigarette on the ashtray at his elbow. Ash and embers fall, points of light burning out like a fistful of dying stars.

Eyes still on the holo, he activates the interface, opening a line to his assistant.

"Do we have a current status on the team locating Miss Chambers and her sister?"

There's a slight pause; he hears the muted ping of a display being activated.

"Yes sir." Another pause. "They report successful extraction, ETA twenty standard hours."

He nods. The team has exceeded his expectations. He had anticipated more difficulty in reacquiring Chambers, if not her sister. Apparently, not all of his former employees were as capable at vanishing as Miss Lawson.

"I trust you stressed they are to be treated as guests, with the respect due that status," he says.

"Absolutely, sir."

"Good." A ribbon of smoke drifts up, unspooling as it dissipates in front of the frozen image of the base. "And the data we acquired from the salarians?"

"Technicians are still deciphering it sir, but it looks promising."

"Hm." Another slow inhale of smoke. "Keep me informed."

"Yes, of course, sir."

He terminates the connection and resumes the vid. The light of the explosion flares once more and his artificial retinas contract in response.

Shepard was one of his mistakes. A spectacular mistake. One which cost billions of credits. A person could argue Shepard owed Cerberus a significant debt.

He stubs the cigarette out and allows himself another self-indulgent moment.

"Time to pay up, Shepard."

Chapter Text

As the Normandy pops out of the Widow relay into Citadel space, Garrus keys a final sequence into the battery console, logging himself out. He can't help but feel a pang of regret; he's going to miss the massive gun, despite the endless calibrations it required.

While the ship settles into a Citadel docking cradle, he packs his duffel. Not that he has much in the way of belongings, beyond his battered armor and rifle, some weapons' mods, and a single set of civvies.

He's always been a little amused by Shepard's model ships and the overpriced fish in her aquarium, but the only souvenirs he's picked up following her seem to be scars. Scars, and a vivid memory to go with each.

He flicks a mandible; he doesn't regret a single one.

He closes the bag, then brings up the display on his omni-tool, sifting through the messages until he finds the one marked with his father's extranet address.

Garrus –

I've read through the reports you forwarded regarding the destruction of the Collectors and subsequent return through the Omega 4 relay.

Your concerns seem to be based in fact, however, I feel it best we discuss this matter in person. With the increase in unrest along Palaven's trade routes, I have taken the liberty of securing passage for you on the Reliant, rather than a standard passenger vessel; find the itinerary attached.

It is my sincere hope you accept this invitation in the spirit in which it is intended.

-CV

Add: Despite our past disagreements, I say with honesty I felt no small amount of pride reading Commander Shepard's notations regarding your contributions to mission success.

Garrus tells himself he opened the message to access the file with his ticket information, but he's never been good at lying to anyone, let alone himself. The final sentence makes him feel... well, he's not really sure. He doubts he'll ever be friends with his father, but this seems like some sort of progress.

Another thing he can thank Shepard for, he thinks, stepping through the battery doors one last time.

He heads for the elevator, duffel slung over one shoulder, battered rifle case in the other hand. He thinks it's for the best that he goes now and avoids the inevitably uncomfortable, awkward goodbyes. The turian frigate is scheduled to depart for Palaven in two days, but right now there's a drink or ten waiting for him station-side.

It wasn't like anything he could do would actually help Shepard, and drinking himself stupid might dull the feeling of uselessness eating at him.

The Illusive Man is pissed over too many things to count and gunning for Shepard, the batarians are screaming for blood after what she'd done in the Bahak system, and the Alliance seems likely to sweep everything under the rug. Instead of giving Shepard a hero's homecoming, chances are the brass are going to try her as a war criminal.

He's been around the galaxy long enough not to recognize stacked odds when he sees them. Bad odds aren't the problem, knowing there's nothing he can do about them is. At this point, getting off the Normandy and losing himself in the bottom of a glass seems like as good a plan as any other.

The mess hall's empty, Gardner missing from his place behind the counter, and a quick glance in the med bay shows that Chakwas is gone, too. Garrus knows without asking EDI that the remaining crew-members are gathered in the briefing room to hear Shepard's last speech.

He isn't planning on stopping by to listen.

He and Shepard said what passed for goodbyes the night before, over neon-colored drinks and Skyllian Five. He really doesn't want to stick around for her speech or mingle with the rest of the crew because he's sure it will have the feel of a funeral.

If there's one thing Garrus Vakarian has had enough of in his life, it's funerals.

Besides, he thinks, what little time Shepard has left before she's escorted back to Earth, she'll want to spend with Krios. It's not like what the two of them have going on is some sort of secret, and Garrus isn't interested in intruding or being a third wheel.

His plan to slip away unnoticed falls apart when he reaches the elevator. The doors part, and Shepard's standing there, hand on her hip with her eyebrows arched. A smile tugs at one corner of her mouth.

"I'm almost offended, Garrus," she says. She probably doesn't know how much her voice gives away - most humans have no clue - and that he can hear how uneven her tone is. "My speeches aren't that bad, are they? I've been working on this one."

The other thing he notices is she's holding a hard-shelled gun case. A soldier's reflex makes him automatically catalog the Normandy's inventory for its possible contents. Right size for a compact sub, he thinks. Probably that Tempest that Mordin kept complaining about going through sinks too fast; Shepard must be taking it to the armory on her way to the briefing room.

He hesitates, shifting his duffel. The handle of the rifle case digs into his hand as he squeezes too hard, the plastic creaking in protest. He goes for humor, nodding at the case she holds. "You going to shoot me over missing a speech?"

She shakes her head, same small smile trying to form, same uneven notes in her voice. "Just get in the damn elevator, Garrus. I don't expect you to stick around, but at least let me walk my best friend to the airlock."

"Kind of pushy for a best friend," he tells her, swallowing around the sudden tightness in his throat. This is what he was trying to avoid, this unwelcome, uncomfortable-as-hell situation that makes him want to shoot something. He finally nods, though, and steps through the doors, turning to face them again as he stands beside her.

He presses the control for the next deck, and as they wait in silence for the elevator to reach the CIC, he's glad for the quiet.

His visor is feeding him stats, and while the information is normally a comfortable background hum, now... he realizes the information he's reading is on Shepard. From what he's seeing, her pulse has climbed to a rate he'd normally associate with a krogan charging her position.

Fact is, he knows she's as bad at this as he is. Feeling like he's intruding on her somehow, he slides the duffel strap down his arm and sets it on the floor, then taps the visor.

He changes his mind about the silence in the elevator; without the data stream to distract him, the quiet is borderline oppressive.

"So," she says, clearing her throat, lifting the gun case she holds. "I wanted to give you something."

Humor seems like a sound tactic, especially when the unwelcome ache is back in his throat. He glances sideways at her, then back at the doors. "That overheating Tempest? Even if it wasn't a piece of shit, it's too small for me. My style is... hm. Bigger."

Shepard doesn't miss a beat. "I thought it was all in how you used it?"

"So some people say." He grins, playing along, relieved she's allowing him the distraction. "Usually the ones without enough firepower. I'd take my rifle over that little gun any day."

"Well, you're in luck." She balances the case in one hand as she thumbs the latch with the other. "It's not the Tempest. Mordin loves that thing. I'd never let someone else have it."

She lifts the lid, and Garrus finally turns toward her. The plates over his eyes raise as he takes in the contents. "Damn. Your Locust? I can't take that, Shepard."

"Kassa Fabrications Model-12 Locust," she says, the words sounding like she's reading a brochure. "If you believe Kasumi, this one killed two presidents, but it's always been sort of lucky for me. I know it's not quite your style, but I want you to have it."

She rests her palm on the grip of the little SMG, and the affection in the gesture makes Garrus' mandibles twitch in a smile.

"Shepard, you had that on you when we took out the proto-Reaper. Are you sure you -"

"Yes, very sure. And you weren't paying attention. It fired the final shot that brought the bastard down."

He laughs despite himself. "Only because you went through too much heavy ammo to fire off the Cain again. Tell me you don't love that gun."

She grins at him, and snaps the case shut, holding it out toward him. "You're not getting the Cain. Have to settle for something that means more to me. Just remember it doesn't have the same punch against biotics and barriers as it does -"

"Armor. I know." He takes the case carefully, and tucks it under his arm before picking up his duffel again. He really wishes he could figure out what the hell he was supposed to say now. "Thanks. I mean it."

She gives him a stiff nod, and then the elevator doors open, saving them both from more words. The command deck is empty except for the flickering holographic shape of the Normandy, the only sounds are muted chimes from controls and the rush of air from the vents.

As they walk through the empty room, toward the first set of airlock doors, he sees even Joker's seat is empty.

It doesn't escape him that he and Shepard have said goodbye like this before. Docked in a Citadel cradle, the quiet hum of the Normandy around them. He'd gone back to C-Sec and...

And then she'd died.

Crap. Not where he wants his mind going. Not now.

"I'm not one for long, drawn-out goodbyes," he says as they stop inside the airlock before the final set of doors, "but, I want you to know, there's nobody in this galaxy I respect more than you."

She presses the control, stepping to one side as it hisses open, then gives him a curt nod.

"The honor's been mine, but if you make me cry, I will shoot you," she says with a smile he knows is meant to be teasing. He'll never be an expert on human emotion, but he thinks the way she bites the inside of her cheek means she's upset.

"If you weren't such a terrible shot, I might be worried." He steps into the docking arm, but before he walks away, he turns his head enough to tell her, "Shepard. You ever need me again, just let me know when and where. I'll be there."

He hears the door start to close and doesn't look back when she calls after him, "Take care of yourself, Garrus."

Chapter Text

The next time Shepard steps off the elevator onto the CIC, she's alone, overnight bag in hand. She tries not to focus on the vacant stations, but that's easier said than done. It's all too reminiscent of when the Collectors took her crew, her friends; the ship is as hollow and empty as it was then.

She steps onto the galaxy map platform, leaning forward on the railing to look down at the curved arms of the Milky Way. She has had the stars at her fingertips, literally. How many people can say they've had that privilege, that amount of power, that heavy of a responsibility?

Another thing she can't ignore is that this will be the last time time she'll be allowed the freedom to stand in this space. There's only one thing she's ever been good at, and it's slipping away.

This time tomorrow, the stations will be manned by Alliance personnel, prepping the Normandy for the trip back to Earth. This time tomorrow, she'll be back on board, confined to quarters on a ship that was once hers to command.

And this time tomorrow, she'll have already said goodbye to Thane. She grips the railing tighter, staring at the bands of stars.

Christ. Rational people didn't pick the eve of war to fall in love.

Then again, when has rationality ever factored into her personal life?

She's always been realistic about her strengths and weaknesses. She can't dance and her hacking skills are sub-par. She'd never admit it to Garrus, but she knows she's only a fair shot at best.

On the other hand, she can drink a krogan under the table. She's excels in biotic combat. She also knows she's a damn good commander, with a knack for accomplishing what most people can't.

But, her relationships had always ended in, to understate it, disaster.

The most painful case in point was Kaidan. She'd never think of what happened between them on the SR1 as a mistake, but she hadn't been prepared for the way he shut her down on Horizon. Her training and past experiences had been useless in combating his cold anger.

He's still a dull ache in the corner of her mind, one she's not too eager to explore.

Slightly less a disaster was her one, awkward attempt at starting... something with Garrus. Garrus, her closest friend, who obviously didn't have a thing for aliens. One look into his startled blue eyes and she'd turned it into a joke about sparring and performed a graceless retreat.

Brilliant strategy, Commander.

A rational person might have taken this as a sign, and chosen to avoid relationships with other crew members.

Then she found herself visiting Life Support, talking with Thane about his family, and philosophy, and the violence that came part and parcel with their lives. Soon after, rationality went into a total, white-flag-waving surrender.

She hadn't meant to love him, obviously. And once she realized that fact, she'd never intended to tell him.

But then they had visited the desert. He'd pulled her out of the rain, and held her tightly against him, while her rain-soaked clothing cooled against her body. He slid a hand along her side, between wet fabric and skin, resting his palm flat in the small of her back.

He looked at her with quiet possessiveness and even though she saw the warmth in his eyes, there was something equally raw there. All she could do was stare at back at him, eyes flicking over his features.

It was his expression that tipped the balance.

He may have pledged his arm to her cause, but he would never really see her as his commander; she would never be his mentor. He might call her siha, but he was someone who could meet her every challenge.

It had been a startlingly easy thing to say.

Thane... I love you.

She'll never regret saying the words, but somehow she hadn't been prepared to hear him speak them in return.

I wish... to tell you I love you as well.

She can already feel the sharp pain of leaving; they both know how unlikely it is that she will be released from Alliance custody before Kepral's takes him.

She shakes her head, trying to clear her thoughts, realizing she's still in front of the galaxy map, staring blankly. This one night of shore-leave will be the last she and Thane share together; she's determined not to spend it with regret hanging over them.

Her omni-tool pings. Joker.

It's sort of creepy when you just stand there like that so long. Got something for you, when you're done with your husk routine.

She frowns and looks down, to her right, at her private terminal station. She knows he can see her scowl in the camera embedded above the screen.

"If you're sending messages to my omni-tool because you shorted out the intercom system again, we may have to have words, Joker," she says, pushing back from the railing, stepping off the platform.

"I'm seriously hurt you'd suggest that. I don't make those kinds of mistakes," he pauses, as though considering his words. "Not twice, anyway."

When she reaches the cockpit and drops her bag behind Joker's chair, he doesn't swivel around to face her. Layers of overlapping holographic display screens are scattered chaotically in front of him, some are updating slowly, but most scroll data faster than she can track.

She tries to read the text on one screen as it races downward and almost immediately abandons the cause; it's always been a mystery to her how he can keep up.

"Hey, Commander," he says.

She can't help but notice how exhausted he sounds. The emotional and physical strain of preparing for this change of command has taken its toll on all of them, and it hasn't spared him. Even if she couldn't hear it in his voice, she reviews the logs and knows how many hours he's been putting in.

"Joker."

"Thought you'd be station-side by now. Didn't Krios leave a few hours ago?"

They both know he had, but subtlety isn't exactly in Joker's skill-set.

"He had some things to take care of first; I'm meeting him later. Besides, I had to feed my fish. That damned paddlefish was expensive as hell."

He shakes his head. "If there were enough of us left on board, I'd start a pool on it being belly-up by this time tomorrow."

She snorts in reply, then narrows her eyes on the top of his hat as she remembers something. "Or put EDI up to telling me there's one."

"Hey, Krios knew about that. He thought it was... amusing." He pitches his voice lower, an attempt to capture the drell's tone.

"Oh. I know," she says, smiling faintly at the memory. "And I told him conspiracy can be considered mutiny."

Joker raises his hands briefly in surrender. "Gotta find something to pass the time. Teaching the AI to appreciate quality humor is important."

"Uh-huh."

She crosses her arms in front of her, and stares into the perfect, eternal daylight of Citadel airspace. Ships and shuttles and air cars navigate traffic, and as a turian frigate glides by, she frowns when one of Joker's less-frantic data screens translate the identifiers. It's the Reliant, the ship Garrus will be on in two days, headed for Palaven.

It's hard not to think that her crew is fracturing, falling away from her as surely as they had on the SR-1.

Joker shifts in his chair, minimizing a handful of screens before bringing up the life-support interface and idly tapping a command in. A row of green symbols light up, confirming all systems are within normal parameters.

He doesn't need to check, of course; life support has redundant safe-guards. Distraction as a coping mechanism is something she's all too familiar with. Whether it's Garrus with his god-awful wisecracks or Joker triple-checking system operations, she understands the need to deflect.

"So. Yeah," he finally says. "Great speech."

"Yeah?" She's known him too long to buy the overly-sincere tone of his voice.

"Oh. Absolutely, no doubt. Knocked it out of the park." He mimes an arc through the air with one hand. "Home run."

"You're not much of liar, Joker."

"How would you know? You don't pick up on half of them."

She smiles, even though he can't see it. "Trust me on this. You'd make a shitty criminal."

"I'll keep that in mind. For when I'm deciding my future career path. Assuming it isn't making little rocks out of big rocks in Leavenworth."

Her smile slips.

They're all falling away from her, and there's not a damn thing she can do about it. She'd promised herself she'd never be as helpless as she was two years ago, but this is all too familiar.

Should know better by now. Rational people don't make promises - even to themselves - they can't keep.

"I won't insult you by suggesting you get off here," she says, cautiously, "...but -"

"Sorry. What did you tell the Illusive Man? Getting a lot of bullshit on this line?" His tone is defensive, borderline insubordinate; if he's trying to hide his feelings, he's doing a piss-poor job of it. He adjusts his hat, like he does when he's getting ready to put the ship through her paces. "Already told you. I'm not losing another Normandy. Commander."

"I know." She uncrosses her arms, rests one hand on the back of his chair, and then clears her throat. "The Alliance will be sending techs before the official hand-off. They're calling it a pre-flight safety inspection, but - "

"Surveillance sweep. New bugs for old. Got it."

"I've forwarded their clearances to EDI."

"Don't worry, we'll play nice with the new kids."

"I'm counting on it." She deliberately doesn't ask about EDI's absence in the conversation. She's fairly certain the two of them have something planned to keep the AI safe when the Alliance techs start digging into the ship's systems. Whatever it is, she doesn't want to know. As many times as they've pulled her ass out of the fire, the least she owes them is her trust.

"You said you had something for me?" she asks.

"Yeah. Just a sec," he mutters, sorting through the minimized displays spread out in front him. She tries to read the data screen over his shoulder, but he's sorting through screens faster than she can follow.

"So, you want the good news first, or the bad?" he asks, as he works.

"Always start with the bad. Finish on a high note."

"Right." He finally sweeps a screen to the middle, restoring it to full size. "The batarians are still mad as hell and from the transmissions we've been pulling in, someone's not-so-secretly hired the Blue Suns to bring you in. The bounty on your head's been upped, too. So congrats, there."

"Thanks." She sighs. "Let me guess... there is no good news?"

He turns his head enough to glance at her. "You really know how to ruin a punchline."

"Obviously I don't appreciate quality humor." She looks pointedly at the displays in front of him.

"Right. When we blew out of the Omega 4, EDI left behind some monitoring buoys. The relay's been seeing some traffic." He slides the projected screen to one side, pulling up another, tapping it for effect. He leans to one side of his chair, propping his head on a closed fist. "Same ship's been coming and going for the last few weeks."

"Another guess... the Normandy."

"Got it in one, Commander."

She makes the connection immediately.

It really shouldn't surprise her that Cerberus duplicated the IFF and is using this to clear the relay. Still, thinking about the implications of the Illusive Man raiding the remains of the Collector base makes her head hurt. He'd made no secret of his desire for the power that the technology represented.

She closes her eyes and rubs her temples.

"Should have used a bigger bomb," Joker says, and this time she believes his sincerity completely.

"No argument here."

Her crew is fractured, she's lost her command, the Reapers are coming, and here's Cerberus, adding to the threat.

"Since time travel and more explosives aren't options... orders?"

She opens her eyes, dropping her hands as she looks at the string of signatures listed down the left margin of display. She can't give the order she wants to.

What she wants to do is tell him to recall those of the crew he can, she wants to stand in front of the galaxy map again and order her ship back out into the spiral of stars, to do the only thing she's ever been good at.

"Commander?"

It's not her fight, not any longer. "Forward everything to the Alliance."

He's silent for a moment; maybe he's thinking the same things she had been. "Aye, aye, ma'am," he says, fingers moving over the screen again.

Shepard watches for a minute more, then bends to pick up her bag. "Take care of my ship while I'm gone."

"Sure thing, Commander," he says, but his tone makes it clear it's a needless order.

She starts for the airlock, stops after two steps, turning back to face him again. "What, no smart-ass remarks about being careful on shore-leave? Safety briefing on the crime rate on the Citadel? Watch out for the Blue Suns and pick-pockets, that sort of thing?"

He turns his chair to face her. Despite the dark circles under his eyes, she can see the glint of humor in them.

"Nah. You and Krios? Total power couple." He raises an eyebrow, before swiveling back to his displays. "I have a feeling it wouldn't end well for anyone messing with either of you."

 

Chapter Text

 

Kaidan's day doesn't start out any more or less strange than usual. He's awake at zero-five-thirty, feeds his cat, runs his regular three-mile route through the Presidium Gardens, and grabs a quick shower before he heads to his office.

Normal stuff.

Sure, when he looks at the plaque next to his office door, and sees the words 'Special Tactics and Reconnaissance' printed after his name it's still a little surreal, but it's been less than a week.

"Good morning, Major," his office VI says as he opens the door. "Your meeting with Councilor Anderson has been moved to sixteen-thirty. There are ten reports which need to be completed and routed today; the datapads are on your desk. You have eleven unread messages. Councilors Sparatus and Tevos have sent three each."

"If those two aren't complaining about something, they aren't happy," he says, switching his coffee maker on; while it sputters he notices that the ficus in the corner looks like it's a day closer to dying. The leaves still clinging grimly to the branches are a little yellow and seem to droop in defeat.

The VI ignores his remark. "Councilor Tevos seems very concerned about the relay technology which was stolen -"

"From the STG base," Kaidan interrupts, filling his coffee mug with water from the cooler on his shelf, dumping it into the ficus' pot. Not that he thinks it's going to help. The plant is terminal.

"And she should be worried," he continues. "We all should be. That much information? Someone's trying to figure out how to take a relay apart. I don't know if it's even possible, but you knock out one key relay and trade gets crippled."

The coffee maker beeps and he fills his cup, then spoons in powdered creamer. "What I want to know is why the salarians are being so quiet about this? You'd think they'd be screaming at anyone who'd listen."

"I am unable to compile a reply, based on your query," the VI answers. "Councilor Sparatus seems quite agitated as well."

"I'm sure." If Kaidan has to guess, Sparatus wants to send him out to investigate the problems the turians are having with their shipments coming out of the Nemean Abyss. A turian Spectre would be better, except there are rumors that humans are behind the attacks.

He doesn't place a lot of stock in it. Thirty years wasn't a lot of time; after Shanxi and the end of the war, there were plenty of bitter people on both sides who were eager to start rumors.

He sits down at his desk, toggling on his terminal screen, loading his mail. Six messages from the councilors. The usual spam that even advanced filters can't seem to eradicate. A note from Anderson, reminding him about their meeting. He sorts and deletes, making sure his calendar will alert him when it's time for the meeting.

It doesn't take long to lose himself in the stack of datapads on his desk, the endless paperwork. He doesn't remember Shepard signing form after form, but they'd all been a little preoccupied with a geth invasion and Saren and Sovereign.

He wishes he could talk to her again, gain a little perspective from her experiences. He'd always looked forward to their conversations on the SR-1, even though it wasn't entirely for professional reasons.

Not a good idea, thinking about her. Dealing with her dying had been hard enough. Horizon had opened old wounds. Now there were rumors going around that she was going to surrender her ship, turn herself in to the Alliance.

More rumors. These he hopes are true. The thought of her working for Cerberus...

He rubs his forehead idly with the back of his hand.

"Incoming message, Major," the VI says. "Marked 'urgent.' No routing information. Anonymous source."

"There's no such thing as an anonymous extranet message," he answers. " And they're all urgent."

Later, he'll be able look back and identify this as the point where things went from normal to what the fuck? because the VI is right: there is no routing information. The message is absolutely clean and anonymous.

He activates an additional firewall - no reason to download a virus that will lock up his system for the next week - then clicks on the header.

The message is short:

Congratulations on both your promotion and induction into the ranks of the Spectres.

You might find the attached video and data files interesting.

He reads the text file first, not quite comprehending. It's mostly medical jargon. Chemical formulas. He's a tech guy, and although he has a basic knowledge, he knows when he's out of his depth.

When he watches the video, everything clicks into place. He recognizes the STG lab as the one that recently got hit and lost critical tech. The salarians had provided a similar video from the raid.

What they hadn't shown was the krogan pacing behind the glass fronts of their cells. Or the way the attackers are clearly organized professionals, moving as a unit. Even though their armor is unmarked, their coordination and weaponry speaks of resources. Not a rag-tag group of mercs.

The final clip is from an outlying posting on the planet; a weather observatory if the quality of the video is any indication. Kaidan doubts the salarians even knew this vid existed; the enemy forces obviously hadn't realized they were being recorded, because they fly directly in front of the camera, giving a clear view of the side of each.

Three shuttles zip by. There's no mistaking the insignia on them: Cerberus.

"Shit." He leans back in his chair. Cerberus, again. And where did that leave Shepard? Was she involved?

He forwards everything to Anderson with a message of on my way, transfers a copy to a datapad, and heads for the elevator.

Anderson's office VI is an older model; slow and deliberate. While Kaidan waits, he taps the datapad against his leg. As if things weren't complicated enough, he feels the beginnings of a headache building around his L2. It's not a migraine, not yet, but it could head that way all too easily.

"Good evening, Major," the VI intones as the doors slide open. "The councilor has agreed to see you early."

As Kaidan enters the office, Anderson looks up from a report, one of dozens cluttering the surface of his desk. He doesn't look rattled by the information in the message, but he hadn't gotten to where he was by panicking.

"So, Major, besides this," he waves his hand at his terminal, "you're not having any problems adjusting to the new pay-grade, are you?"

Kaidan shakes his head as he crosses the room, stopping behind one of the leather chairs in front of the desk. He tries to give the same appearance of calm that Anderson is projecting. "No, sir. No problems other than the paperwork."

"Paperwork. I hear you there." Anderson chuckles, nodding at the clutter on his desk. "I'd like to tell you that it gets easier with practice, but it doesn't. Almost makes a person miss fighting geth."

"Almost," Kaidan says, nodding at the datapad. "Sir, the salarians lied to the Council. They didn't only lose relay tech. They lost the cure for the genophage."

"So those files make it seem." Anderson sighs, nodding. "And whoever has that could control the loyalty of the krogan people."

"When you show this to the council -"

"They're going to try to blame it on humanity in general." Anderson leans back in his chair, lacing his fingers over his waist. "It's going to start a shit-storm, but we can't keep it to ourselves. And because it's Cerberus on that video, I am going to recommend we send you to figure it out."

"I appreciate the confidence, sir. But..." Kaidan shifts, hesitates. Then, because it's Anderson, who understands, he says quietly, "Even though she's a Spectre, one of theirs, they might try to pin it on Shepard."

"Hm." Anderson sits forward again, gesturing at the chair. "Have a seat."

Kaidan tenses at the command. Nothing good ever follows 'have a seat'. Have a seat, is exactly whatAnderson had told him two years ago. After the rescue ship had come, after the pods had been collected and he'd waited with the other survivors for hours. Anderson had pulled him aside, told to have seat and had said, I wanted you to hear this from me, first. She's not coming back.

"Major?" Anderson's voice sounds slightly sympathetic. "She's fine."

The words relieve some of the tension in him, at least he can breath again. He nods and walks around the chair, sitting down on the edge of the seat, unable to relax against the back.

"If she wasn't there, they're not going to try to blame her for any of it," Anderson says. His tone becomes more formal, as though he's reading from an official record. "Commander Shepard surrendered the SSV Normandy to Alliance command approximately four hours ago. The ship's flight logs will be examined by technicians to determine her whereabouts for the last month."

It's like catching a concussive round in the chest. Kaidan opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again, because he can't quite find the words he wants to say.

Even if he could have spoken, Anderson holds up a hand to prevent it.

"Tomorrow at oh-nine-hundred hours there will be an official on-board change of command, following which she will be taken into custody."

Kaidan sinks back into the chair.

Damn.

She'd really done it. She'd turned herself in. Knowing she was here, on the Citadel...

His headache cranks up a notch. When it comes to Shepard, things are never easy.

Despite what had happened between them on Horizon and the things he'd said, he wants to believe she's cut ties. He wants to believe she's still the same person he knew two years ago. The commander who always came down on the side of right, and never flinched from her duty, even when the cost was staggering.

Where Shepard is concerned, his ability to see things clearly is skewed; too many of his memories of her are from before the Collectors and Cerberus. Seeing things clearly is a lot tougher when he remembers her teasing smile above him, the flash of white teeth in dark quarters and smooth skin against his. It's hard to make sense of a picture where someone he loved is also someone he can't trust.

Because, the thing he won't let himself ignore is that even after everything they saw together, all the horrors and atrocities and sick experiments, she had stayed with them willingly.

With Cerberus.

He should say something to Anderson, but all he can manage is voicing his earlier thought, "Damn."

"This is council-level information, Major, so I'll ask that you don't share it until official word has been released. I wasn't going to say anything, but," he gives a small, weary smile, "...I wanted you to hear it from me, first."

"Thank you, sir. I appreciate - " he says, only be interrupted by a chime from Anderson's terminal.

"That's our appointment with the council," Anderson says, pushing back from his desk. He stands and straightens his uniform, tugging his jacket down sharply.

Kaidan follows suit, trying to ignore the way his head has started pounding. He can only hope this is a short meeting, with the bullshit kept to a minimum. Given the contents of the pad, he doesn't see how that's remotely possible.

And the day had started out so normally.

Chapter Text

Thane's first destination after clearing C-Sec is a storage locker.

Although the guard waved him through security with a shrug and a muttered 'Spectre authority,' walking through the Citadel with a rifle case would draw unwanted attention. No one will notice a drell slipping through the shadows, but arm him and someone will remember.

He stows the rifle case, but he keeps his duffel bag, as well as the new pistol, the latter snugged into a shoulder holster under his coat. A gift from Shepard. She'd given her Locust to Vakarian, and a heavily modified Carnifex to Jack, but Thane had received something unique.

She holds the small pistol out, grinning. She's delighted to share this wonder with me. "It's something Mordin's been working on for me. Molded thermoset frame; fires para-aramid slugs. The sinks are shielded. No scanner in the galaxy can pick this thing up."

It's a pleasant memory, but he chooses not to dwell on the reason she has given away her most treasured possessions.

Evening on the Presidium and his meeting with Shepard are rapidly approaching, but his next stop is a small volus-run shop advertising secure extranet access terminals. While he would place his life in EDI and Joker's care, he doesn't necessarily trust their discretion regarding his private correspondence.

He chooses a terminal where he can sit with his back to the wall and see both exits, as well as watch the other patrons. Then, with an amused glance at the volus stamp of security on the terminal, he hacks in, adding layers of misdirection subroutines. It would take even an advanced VI considerable effort to trace his steps to the extranet account he accesses.

There are two messages within the account, each represented only by a string of meaningless alphanumeric symbols. He recognizes the first immediately, but the second... he frowns, a feeling of unease settling over him.

The first is simple:

Mr. Nuara,

As per your request, upon confirmation of your death, your accounts and deposit box items, including electronic files, will be transferred as indicated.

Thank you for placing your trust in Irune Security & Finance.

Dala Tan, SBA (ISF)

He closes the message, tabbing to the next. It's shielded by several layers of encryption and as he works through each his feeling of disquiet grows. When he opens the message, he narrows his eyes.

There's a dossier attached, and he's seen too many of those to not realize what it represents. He scans the contents. The target's face is unfamiliar, but the name causes him curse under his breath.

There is no doubt whoever sent this has knowledge of his connection to Shepard.

He sits back in his chair, clicking on the text portion of the message.

Please, I need your help, but you can't tell Shepard about this. She has too many worries as it is, and in her current situation, there is nothing she can do.

Despite my network, I have been unable to determine the source of this contract. I am aware that you have maintained many of your old connections. Perhaps you can reach out to them.

SB.

SB. It doesn't take any particular power of deduction to realize the message came from Dr. T'Soni.

That she used her resources to uncover portions of his life which are none of her concern is unsurprising. Assassins and information brokers alike know that ignorance could be a death sentence; he would have been more surprised if the asari hadn't researched all of Shepard's crew, especially the one who was sharing her bed.

He closes the message, unsure of a plausible reason why she would send it to him. He met her only once, when she visited the Normandy, and obviously she had determined exactly who and what he is. Most would think twice before placing such trust in an assassin.

He next considers the target in the dossier. He can understand why she didn't contact the target directly. Inciting panic is seldom wise. Better to observe from the shadows and strike at the appropriate time. And yet...

His unease becomes irritation. T'Soni is sorely mistaken if she believes he'll keep something of this nature from Shepard. Yes, it will add to her burdens, but withholding it would be a betrayal of trust.

He adds another encryption to the message, then logs off of the terminal. Next, he uploads an erasure protocol into the system, an elegant program designed by a very clever thief. He watches the data disappear from the screen, eliminating all traces of his presence, and thinks he needs to send Miss Goto something in thanks for the gift.

His omni-tool blinks once. A ping from Shepard.

ETA? At Kassa Fabrications. Tired of trying to convince this turian I owned an original-run Locust once. Also, the damn volus here won't come down on the price of a model of the Kodiak.

He stands, typing a reply as he does. Five minutes. Then a slight smile. Have you offered an endorsement?

Her response comes a moment later. Funny. Meet you at the elevator.

The elevator ride to the Presidium Commons is predictably slow, and when the doors open, Shepard is waiting.

"He didn't want an endorsement," she says, as way of a greeting, stepping into the car beside him, pressing the control for a residential floor he recognizes as having extravagant views of the Presidium.

Her voice carries a warmth he's come to realize she reserves for him, and he can't help but answer in kind.

"Perhaps he deduced you can't have more than one favorite store on the Citadel."

She snorts, pressing the control again, as though the action will speed their ascent. "How's Kolyat?"

He thinks of the message needlessly stored in his omni-tool. "He's well. We're to meet tomorrow, after he's finished at C-Sec."

"That's good. I'm happy for you both," she says. The back of her hand brushes his. The briefest of contact, tentative in this public place.

"I am as well."

He watches, bemused, as she frowns and she jabs at the elevator controls once more.

"I think... it'll be a good thing, you staying on the Citadel," she says, quietly. Then she clears her throat, and looks up at where the floor numbers change as the car moves. "Why are all these elevators so damn slow?"

He ignores the catch in her voice.

"Logic dictates it's an intentional feature," he answers dryly. "Specifically designed as a test of Commander Shepard's patience."

She laughs, and this time when she shifts closer, she surprises him by threading her fingers through his. "Everyone's a comedian today."

He smiles in response to the strangely tender gesture of affection, squeezing her hand in return. "You've never spoken of owning an apartment on the Citadel."

"I don't. Did a favor for someone a while back. She's letting me use it," she says, with a shrug. The gravity field within the elevator shifts slightly as it arrives at another floor and she releases his hand.

The doors part, and a human in C-Sec armor puts one hand against the frame, holding the doors. He looks back down the corridor at the approach of another human, an Alliance officer.

"Hey, thanks."

"No problem, Major. Least I can do for humanity's second Spectre."

The officer steps into the car and freezes, staring at Shepard as the doors close behind him.

Thane has seen many reactions when another being recognizes Commander Shepard. He's seen appreciation, murderous rage, and everything in between. He's gently teased her about it, of course. All of her crew has at one time or another, with Donnelly's rendition of a star-struck civilian even earning a laugh from the commander.

Thane glances at her, and her expression sends a spark of alarm through him. He's never seen her react to recognition in this manner. Her face is pale, her eyes wide, and he tenses automatically, ready to strike.

"Kaidan."

Thane feels another spark along his nerves, because he recognizes this name. The memories of a handful of overheard conversations surface and he knows exactly who this is.

"Shepard. You're... Anderson said you were on the station."

"Docked this morning." Her voice steadies, becomes more professional, more controlled, more like Commander Shepard.

"But what are..."

"Change of command isn't until tomorrow," she says, shifting her weight into an almost defensive stance. Of course, this brings her closer to Thane.

He doesn't flatter himself. Shepard needs no one, least of all him, to protect her. It's an automatic response which has been honed and perfected in battle; depending on her squad is as reflexive as breathing.

But, he doubts she consciously realizes that she allows so few into her personal space. She would never allow a casual acquaintance to stand so near her. If this human was as close to her as the rumors have it, he is aware of the fact as well, had once stood in the same space himself.

Thane clasps his hands behind his back, gaze impassive. Alenko looks between them, and Thane watches as the human makes the necessary connection: Shepard had moved on, this was the person she was intimate with. A dozen different emotions flash through Alenko's eyes, and despite the fact this man has doubted and hurt Shepard, Thane doesn't envy him his discomfort.

"Oh. I get it," Alenko finally says, as his expression settles on something pinched. He rubs at his temple, and glances up at the floor indicator of the elevator.

"Kaidan..."

"Don't Kaidan me," he says, sharply.

"Fine. Major. If I had known you were here, I wouldn't have ambushed you, sir. I would have come to you directly." Her words are spoken with military precision and deliberate emphasis on the honorific, but Thane can also hear the emotion which threatens her.

"Sir? Right," the major says, then he shakes his head and sighs. He looks at Thane, voice flat and tired and resigned when he says, "Kaidan Alenko. Alliance Navy."

"Tannor Nuara," Thane answers, giving a slightly formal bow, voice deliberately free of any inflection. He has no need to prove anything with juvenile behavior.

Alenko jerks his head in a stiff nod, then looks at Shepard again. "You're really giving up the Normandy."

Her jaw clenches. "I never stopped being loyal to the Alliance."

"Shepard, I want to believe that," he says. "But, you've been off the radar for a month. It's a tough sell, that you're not with Cerberus any more."

"I was never 'with' them, Kaidan. We went over this, on Horizon." There's a angry brittleness to her voice. One which means she's being pushed to her limit. "I used their tech and their resources, that's it."

He stares at her for a long moment and the air fairly crackles with tension. "Fine. Just tell me one thing. There was a salarian lab that got raided a while back. It was Cerberus. Do you know anything about it?"

"What? You're serious?" The disbelief in her voice is nearly a tangible thing and Thane knows that if it were anyone else asking the question, she would have reacted with violence. "Tell you what. Tomorrow, before I hand over the ship, get there early and you can personally dig through the logs."

The elevator stops again and Thane is reminded of the human colloquialism of thanking heaven for small favors.

"Shepard, look - "

"I think this is your floor, Major," she says stiffly, drawing herself into a position of parade rest.

"Yeah, I guess it is," he answers and steps into the corridor, then he pauses, as though he's going to say something else. Shepard steps forward and presses the control, closing the doors.

The car moves again, but Shepard doesn't. She stands in front of the controls, hands clenching and unclenching.

"Siha - " he says.

She shakes her head, the movement is sharp and choppy. "Not yet... just... don't, please."

Even though she won't see it, he nods. He would press the issue if it would help; he's certainly done so before.

In the past, in the adrenaline-filled space following particularly brutal combat he has gone to her, breaking down walls of tension and taking the edge from her nervous energy. If she's ever realized his actions were deliberate - that easing her away from ragged emotion has become both his challenge and joy - she's never said.

Knowing exactly when to approach her when she is this keyed-up is a difficult thing, one that must be done with care. For now he's willing to accept her need for silence.

The elevator stops, doors opening into a corridor. She steps out and after passing several apartments, stops in front of one. She keys in an access code before pressing her finger against the DNA sequencing lock.

The apartment is dark, illumination set at minimum, and if the view from the living room window is any indication, this friend owes her far more than a drink. The curve of the Presidium stretches out before them, evening turning into night, descending on the gardens and stores and skyways. A reflection of so many species' need to track night and day and place everything in proper context.

He watches Shepard drop her duffel near a low metal table and then walk toward the window. She crosses her arms over her waist, fingers gripping her forearms tightly as she looks out at this night which is as artificial as the day.

He sets his belongings on the floor, approaching her with careful steps. He stands beside her, shoulder not quite touching hers, hands clasped behind him. Together they watch as the lights inset into the skyways automatically turn on, followed by those in the gardens and shops, until the interior of the Presidium ring is softly illuminated. It is every bit as remarkable as the skyline of Illium.

Minutes pass, but he has spent a lifetime perfecting patience.

"So," she says, eyes fixed on the lights before them. "Now you've met Kaidan. Not how I planned on starting the evening."

Humans have less of a vocal range than his own species, but Thane has spent long enough in her company to hear the bitterness in her voice. She has said very little about those who have walked beside her, and he has never asked.

"You were close, before," he says, turning his head to look at her, but she only stares into the night. The lights from a neighboring skyway cast strange shadows across her features.

"You've never watched the mission vids from Horizon, have you? It was ugly. In every possible way."

"I... no. However, the Normandy is a very small ship."

"And if I said he and I were more than close?" Her arms tighten around her waist, fingers digging into her arm.

He hesitates, not wishing to be misunderstood; for all that they are similar, humans and drell can be so very different. "It is possible to love more than once in a lifetime. I can no more stop loving Irikah than I can choose to cease drawing breath or stop the beating of my heart."

She says nothing in response, watching as a C-Sec patrol car sweeps past, lights flashing, tinting her skin first red, then blue. The weight of her burdens shows now - in the tiny muscles at the corner of her eye, and the set of her jaw - and speaks of strung-out nerves and too many sleepless nights.

"You heard that C-Sec guard. They've made him a Spectre," she says, "and from what he said, smart money is on them sending him out after Cerberus. Whatever mess he's going to have to clean up, it's because I didn't after I blew that base. He's a damn good soldier, but..."

He's seen this in her before, when the Collectors took her crew, in the moment before she told him the Alliance had recalled her to Earth. There's the same anger and despair, a frustration at her own helplessness, and it pains him to see her this way.

He chances touching her now, raising his hand to brush against hers where she grips her arm. When she doesn't pull away from his touch, when her fingers loosen ever so slightly, he covers them with his own.

Her eyes close. "I should be the one going out there, Thane."

"Siha," he says, wrapping his fingers around hers, gauging her response. "Even the most enduring of protectors must occasionally rest."

She opens her eyes, looking at him as though she's calculating as well. He's still unable to decipher her expression, but he's patient, waiting for her.

He can see the precise moment when she comes to a decision. Her weight shifts, muscles relaxing slightly. "I think you mean there's no rest for the wicked."

The undercurrent to her voice is unexpected, pleasantly so. He recognizes it for what it is: a letting down of barriers.

"Hm. Perhaps," he answers. This earns him a trace of a smile, and he continues. "You neglect yourself in favor of those around you."

"This coming from you," she says. "Ever hear the one about the pot and the kettle?"

"I have," he answers, releasing her fingers. She watches, following his movement as he reaches out, keying a command into the controls embedded in the window. The glass darkens, obscuring the night beyond, and now serves to imperfectly reflect their images and the room behind them.

He meets her eyes in the reflection, holding her gaze. He slides his hand up her arm and shoulder, stepping behind her, fingertips ghosting a line along the bare skin above her collar.

She breaths out, an uneven sound of release, of letting go. "It is a peculiarity of folly to discern the faults of others..." she says.

Another pleasant surprise. The quote is obscure, a translation from a text he read long ago. The ability to perfectly recall every moment is often times a burden. Now is not one of those times.

"...and to be forgetful of one's own," he finishes.

Even as he sees the faint flush her skin takes, her smile widens in a further, silent challenge.

"Reprove yourself first..." she says.

It's a challenge he'll gladly meet. He stares into her eyes, watching their reflections as he rests his palm on her hip and then slides his hand around her waist. He shifts closer, the arm around her a parody of confinement as he presses tightly to her.

Even through her clothing, he can feel the warmth of her body, knows the strength and speed disguised by her softer curves. Her fingers cover his, lacing together unevenly.

He bends his head so that when he speaks, his lips brush the curve of her ear. The subvocal he uses is deliberately low, laced with his desire for her; she will feel it as much as hear it. "Then you will be able to reprove others."

He also anticipates exactly the reaction it will provoke, and watching her reflection, he isn't disappointed.

Her eyes close, eyelids pressing darkened lashes over pale skin. Her fingers tighten on his and she leans back against him, tilting her head to rest on his shoulder. He places a slow kiss beneath her ear, then another lower, this time letting his teeth scrape her skin.

His omni-tool pings, a discordant note in the quiet room.

"You're kidding me," she says, a little breathlessly. Then she chuckles, as though she really isn't surprised. She squeezes his hand. "Probably important if it's alarming instead of blinking. Better get it."

He brushes another slow kiss against her neck, sighing regretfully as he releases her. He steps back to access the message, frowning as he reads the text.

"Thane?" She turns to face him.

"Kolyat," he answers, closing the message. "He wants to meet now. His message... he seems distressed."

"Uh-huh. Distressed. Tell him he owes me."

"Shepard, I -"

She closes the distance between them, and placing one hand on his chest, gently kisses him. It's strangely chaste, a warm gesture of affection that makes his heart step up its beat as surely as any passionate exchange could.

"Just go," she says. "I have reports I can read, make sure Joker and EDI aren't hassling the Alliance techs, that sort of thing."

He thinks to tell her he loves her, but instead says, "Once more, I am in your debt."

"And I plan on holding you to that," she says, stepping back to the window, waving a hand over the control so the glass is clear once more.

Before he leaves, he looks back. She's framed in the lights of the Presidium, watching him with an odd smile tugging at one corner of her mouth.

"See you soon," she says.

Chapter Text

 

It takes Garrus most of the afternoon to find a hotel in one of the lower wards with clear defensive points overlooking the lobby. It's in a crappy part of the station, close enough to the flight path of cargo ships making deliveries to the warehouse district that he's guaranteed a night of broken sleep. He's willing to put up with the engine noise, knowing if Cerberus or anyone else with a grudge hits the place he'll be able to hold them off until C-Sec can respond.

The salarian behind the front desk eyes the rifle case suspiciously, then the scorch marks the gunship left on his armor.

"Check with C-Sec," Garrus says as way of an explanation, knowing the clerk won't hear the irritation in his subvocals. At this point, his temper is short enough that he wouldn't have cared if it was another turian behind the desk, catching every nuance. He sets a credit chit on the counter with a sharp click, and lets his mandibles flare out a little.

The salarian looks from Garrus to the chit, then back again once, before sweeping the currency wafer into one hand.

"Checkout's at ten standard." He sets an access card down, sliding it to Garrus with a little sniff. "If you start a firefight, I'd appreciate it if you wait until after my shift."

The room is small and cramped, but it's clean, and close to the emergency exit. Garrus dumps his gear on the bed, then sweeps for bugs. The only one he finds is amateurish at best, probably the work of a nosy front desk clerk; he tosses it into the toilet, grinning as he presses the flush button.

He debates changing out of his armor, but his clothes are at the bottom of the duffel and he doesn't want to take the time to dig them out. He does pull the Locust from its case, feeling the weight of it in his hand.

Shepard's favorite. The housing is battered and scorched but - even though he likes to give her a hard time about her aim - when she's pulling the trigger, it's accurate as hell. She never went anywhere without it, and the fact that she's not carrying it now bothers him more than he'd care to admit.

He checks the heat sink, then clips the little gun to the hold on the thigh of his hardsuit before letting himself out of the room. After a long moment of hesitation, he turns off the extranet connection on his omni-tool. Drunk messaging isn't part of tonight's plan.

By the time he finally reaches Flux, it's standing room only.

The noise reaches him before the doors even slide open, the chaos of alien voices, punctuated by pounding techno music that reverberates through the floor and his armor; he feels it long before he hears it. The doors open and the heat strikes him, followed by the smell. Too many bodies packed into a small space have overwhelmed the air-scrubbers and the cooling system. The heat he doesn't mind; the Normandy was always too cold, so is the Citadel. The smell, though...

The scrubbers roar overhead, fans desperately cutting the air, but there's no masking the smell of alcohol, vomit, and piss. Apparently, getting stumbling drunk was on the agenda for half of the station. Humans and asari and turians crowd the floor, but there's a group of krogan making noise around a table in the back, and even a few elcor in a corner.

The part of him that will never quite stop being a cop thinks that the legal capacity limit has definitely been exceeded. The part of him that wants to drown nagging thoughts in cheap drinks really doesn't give a damn about fire codes.

He side-steps a staggering human before she collides with him, ignoring her cursed mutter about his parentage. Then, he catches the eye of a bouncer; a twenty-credit chit slipped into a fat-fingered hand buys him a small table against the wall, where he can keep an eye on the crowd. Another five credits and the elcor ignores that he lays the Locust on the table in front of him.

He's not in the mood for bullshit tonight.

An asari waitress with pale scalp markings stops at his table, empty tray held against her hip. She gives the Locust an appraising look and then smiles. "Nice. Haven't seen one of those in a while. Take it you're not waiting for someone to order."

"Huh. No," he tells her, mandibles relaxing into a grin, thinking of the hotel clerk. "And don't worry. I'll wait until you're off-shift to start shooting people."

She laughs. "If you promise to put a round into that asshole at the bar who keeps hitting on me, you can start now."

"I'll keep that in mind," he answers. "Right now I have a lot of catching up to do with a few shots of turian whiskey."

"Capum and... green cervisia to chase it?"

"Yeah. That'll work." He grins again, this time at her terrible accent. Then he sets a neat stack of credit chits on the table, followed by a second pile, then a third, all lined up alongside of the Locust. He knows his limits, and doesn't want to end up passed out in the restroom, but by the time he's spent these he should be happily numb.

"Okay, I"ll be right back." The waitress picks up the first stack, raising an eyebrow at the rest, but doesn't comment as she turns and makes her way back through the press of beings.

It turns out the capum is decent, the cervisia is better than he's had in years, and the waitress makes regular stops at his table with a steady supply of each. At some point, he loses track of exactly how many shots he's had, and how many glasses of neon-green he's drunk, but there are still chits on the table, so he hasn't reached maximum saturation yet.

The music changes to something faster, with a bass-line that buzzes against his plates, but he isn't there to enjoy the crappy music.

He isn't there to dwell on memories either, but that seems to be what's happening. It shouldn't be a surprise that most of those memories revolve around Shepard.

It's like watching a damaged vid, where the sequence of events is jumbled and the damn thing keeps skipping back to highlights he probably shouldn't be reliving. It's Omega and hitting her with a concussive round, to prove to himself that this ghost was real. It's seeing her make that jump back onto the Normandy while the Collector platforms fell away under her feet.

It's a conversation in the battery, about blowing off steam and relieving stress.

He'd laughed awkwardly when she'd made the comments, and then, while he floundered, she'd turned it into a joke about sparring. Somehow, he'd managed to keep a completely blank face when he told her he didn't want to get knocked on his ass.

Was he crazy for thinking there'd been a flash of disappointment in her eyes when he said it? That maybe she was waiting for him to press the issue?

Probably. It didn't seem likely she'd go for someone like him. Sure, she obviously didn't have a problem with cross-species relationships, but when it comes to human physiology, he's about as far from home as it could get.

He pushes a stack of credits over with the tip of one claw, then restacks them as he turns the issue around in his mind. Before that moment in the battery, he'd never considered her in any other way than his closest friend, his commander. Before then, he'd never given any serious thought to a physical relationship with anyone outside of his own species.

The question he keeps asking himself - has been asking himself since that day - is what if he'd said 'yes?'

Not that it matters, though, because he's seen the way Shepard and Krios were together. Nothing overt, obviously, both were professionals, but... Garrus has known her too long not to spot the looks, the casual touches, the way she allowed the other sniper into her personal space. Unless he was missing his mark -which didn't happen very often- it wasn't some fling to relieve tension, she really cared for the guy.

Still. He's drunk enough to argue with himself that he could fit into her life just as well. Which brings him back to 'crazy.'

"Definitely," he mutters, drawing the word out, draining the last of his drink, rolling the empty glass between his palms. The obvious thing to do at this point is have another round.

His waitress stops beside the table, but instead of another green cervisia, she sets down a fizzing red drink.

Garrus looks at it, puzzled. He hasn't seen one of these in years. "That's -"

"From her," the waitress says, taking the empty glass from him, nodding to his right.

He turns to look, and can only blink at the female turian who stops on the other side of the table, because he hasn't seen her in years, either.

"Garrus Vakarian. Tell me you haven't forgotten how we drank in the 5th," she says.

She still has the same cocky grin that doesn't quite reach her eyes, the same way of carrying herself that makes it clear she's someone who can handle herself. Exactly what a person would expect to see in a top-ranked hand-to-hand specialist.

"Livilla Amicus. Tell me you didn't buy me a drink just so I wouldn't kick your ass again."

"That's not how I remember it." She looks pointedly at the chair opposite Garrus.

"You look like shit," he tells her, using his foot to push the chair out.

She doesn't. Back in their days of serving together, Livilla had always turned heads. Even dead tired, with pyrite dust caked into the creases of her armor, she's attracting not-so-subtle looks from the other turians in the club.

"Right. Like I was going to stick around and wait for a shower." She sits down, vocals rich with a familiar warmth. "You've been out too long, Vakarian, if you don't remember how that goes. Besides," a pointed look at the side of his face, "...you want to talk about looking like shit?"

"Figured you'd have moved up enough to warrant your own quarters and shower." He responds with similar tones; he and Livilla may have been at each others' throats more than occasionally, but he'd still count her as a friend.

"Rank. Well, you know how it goes on a small ship. Never enough hot water, even for officers," she says, voice deliberately laced with amusement. She reaches for the drink she bought him. "If you're not going to drink this, I am."

"Help yourself," he says. "And the scars? Best a gunship could do."

She tilts her head and really examines the scarring.

"You always were a tough bastard," she says, lifting her glass, draining half of it. He hasn't forgotten that they could match each other, drink for drink.

"So I've been told," he says. "Small ship? Last I heard, you were on the Ascendency."

"Not for a while." She laughs, raising her voice so she can be heard over the changing beat of the music."Got assigned to Special Tasks over a year ago."

Special Tasks. Even back then, she'd been a much better turian than him. "That's... congratulations."

"You really have been away for a while." She tilts her head. "You don't know who's the head of it now, do you?"

"No..." he says, drawing the word out. Her expression and the caution in her subvocals is enough that his smile starts to slip.

The waitress is back with another round. One red, one green, two shots of amber. She sets the glasses down, and moves on to the next table.

"Shit," Livilla mutters, humming softly. She's letting him know before she says the words that he's not going to like it. "Cassius Vakarian."

She might as well have told him the Palaven sky was orange, or that fillian wasps didn't sting. Either would make as much sense as his father being the head of Special Tasks.

He suddenly feels completely sober.

"What? He's retired," he says.

"Was retired, yes. For the last three or four months, we've been losing shipment after shipment coming out of the Nemean Abyss. The Hierarchy got tired of it and wanted someone who would figure out who's behind it, and lock it down. By the book."

"By the book," he repeats. Well, that was certainly his father. He scowls. "But, he hasn't been in the field in years."

"He's administration only, Garrus. Rarely leaves Palaven," she says, a little more gently. "Still. He's a pain in the ass to work for. My paperwork has tripled."

"Yeah, that sounds like him." He doesn't miss that she used his first name. "Doesn't make sense, though. Pirates have been raiding those shipments for years. Last time it was a problem they solved it by doubling the guards."

"It's not eezo they're after," she says, running a talon around the elbow-joint of her armor, then taps it on the table. Dust falls from her finger, dispersing in a puff of shimmering gold as the air scrubbers disperse it over the table. "They're hitting cargo ships carrying pyrite, refineries, storage facilities... there are so many small targets, we can't effectively guard them all."

"Pyrite?" He searches his memories, recalling his early years in boot camp. "That's a waste product from eezo refinement. Aren't turians the only ones that use it? Hmm... as a semiconductor in photovoltaic solar panels?"

"Yes. We can't figure out why anyone would steal it, either." She pulls one of the shot glasses towards her; the dust on the table collecting at the bottom of the glass as she slides it across the surface.

"Plus," she says, "it's a nightmare to work with. Hit a container of it with a stray round, it goes everywhere. Gets into weapons and you remember what happens then?"

"Uh-huh." He's not that drunk. He can still picture the old training master dumping pyrite into the element zero chamber of a Predator, pointing the gun at his own hand, and pulling the trigger.

Dramatic, sure. But, it made for an effective teaching aid when the pistol only made a crackling sound and refused to fire.

"Semi-conductor," he says. "Disrupts the electrical charge meant to activate the eezo. Pyrite and eezo bind together instead."

"Right," she continues. "After this last mission, we'll be cleaning weapons and armor for days."

"So, that's why you look like shit," he says, as he takes the other shot glass.

"Forget what I said about your father. The Vakarian that's a pain in the ass is sitting across from me."

He chuckles at that. "Can't argue with you there."

She smiles in return, making rings in the pyrite dust with the base of her glass, before she tosses the shot back. She doesn't chase it. Instead she sets the glass down and regards him seriously.

"Wherever you've been all this time, it's changed you," she says, all notes of teasing vanishing from her voice. "You want a spot in Tasks, it's yours. If you think you could stand working for me."

It catches him off guard.

"Definitely wasn't expecting that," he says, finally.

"Wasn't expecting to offer it," she answers. "Won't lie. It's a lot of long hours and the food's as bad as when we were in the 5th, but there are times when it feels like we're making a difference."

He wouldn't be working with Shepard or even as a Spectre, and his father would be watching his every move. On the other hand, serving in Special Tasks was considered a huge honor. He doesn't doubt his abilities and if there's one thing he knows about Livilla, it's that she wouldn't offer the position if she didn't feel he would succeed.

He'd be a fool to decline.

"I'll take it." He smiles at her, drinking his shot. "Have to go home for a while first, but yeah."

"Good," she says, bringing up her omni-tool display. "Extranet address? I'll have a copy of your orders sent."

He waves his hand over his own interface, turning it back on. Immediately the screen fills with messages. All from an address he recognizes as Joker's pseud.

"Everything okay?"

"Yeah, fine. Just someone who thinks flooding my inbox with a zetabyte of porn makes for a good going-away present."

He clicks on the most recent message.

Where the fuck are you?

He frowns, accessing the next on the list.

The club is suddenly too loud, the crowd pressing in too closely. A chill goes through him, slipping under his armor, biting at his hide.

Sending this again: Shepard's gone. There's no body, but C-Sec's still calling it a homicide. Krios is in custody. The crime scene photos EDI's hacked are scaring the shit out of me. Why the fuck won't you answer your messages?

Chapter Text

Blood. There had been so much blood.

Thane smells it still. The sharp metallic scent that is so distinctive to humans seems to cling to his clothing, to the smallest scales of his skin. Even here, in the C-Sec interrogation room, there is no escaping the horror that he found in the apartment upon his return.

He doesn't need the stills spread in front of him on the steel table to remind him of the panic he felt, stepping across the threshold. He has a perfect memory, he doesn't need a print of a holograph when he can relive every moment in excruciating detail.

It was as though he was discovering Irikah again. It was stumbling into their bedroom, staring at blood-spattered sheets and walls and carpet. Pure of heart, strong of will, and they had utterly destroyed her to punish him. The only thing missing was her body. Broken. Tormented. Subjected to cruelties meant for him.

Grief washes over him, as unforgiving as the tide.

Past and present collide.

It was a sick twist of fate that his training, his work, had allowed him to understand the method which caused each of Irikah's injuries.

He had unbound her wrists, taking her hands so gently in his own. It had been with the utmost of care that he unclenched her raw-tipped fingers, as though the wounds left where they tore out her nails could still pain her.

Cradling her in his arms, he knew what each of her bruises meant. The mottled skin around her eye, her wrists, the insides of her thighs. The imprint of teeth on her shoulder and the delicate blue skin of her neck.

He had held her, but he hadn't wept; he wouldn't cry for many years. After he found the bladesman and exacted a precise revenge on him, only then had he allowed himself tears. The knife marks on Irikah's body spoke of skill, someone who enjoyed his work and took his time. Thane hadn't needed his eidetic memory to recall every one.

Struggling against memories of the past, he attempts to focus on his immediate surroundings. On the bite of the overly-tight duraplast restraints where they dig into his wrists, bound behind him. The cold of the room, the air chilling him as a petty form of torment.

The door behind him opens. He recognizes a human's footsteps before he sees his plain clothes, no uniform. Regulation sidearm. A guard follows, closing the door, taking a wide-footed stance across the room.

The first human stops to his right, almost beside him, looking over the printed holos. Then the human turns and perches on one corner of the table. In one hand, he holds the small thermoset pistol which had been taken during Thane's arrest.

She holds the small pistol out, grinning. She's delighted to share this wonder with me.

"Nathan Carter. C-Sec Special Investigations." He pauses, looking down at the pistol, then back up at Thane. "And you're here because you helped kill the Hero of the Citadel."

There's a certain coldness to the man, one that speaks of cruelty and intelligence. A dangerous combination, and one Thane has seen before. Shepard had once joked about being the 'bad cop.' This human had no need to pretend.

Silence is the wisest course. He's certain that reiterating his request for an attorney will go unheeded, and that the cameras in the room have been disabled. No matter, he can feel his soul disconnecting with every breath he takes. There is little that can be done to his body which will harm him further.

"This is very nice. Illegal as hell, though," Carter says, sliding and releasing a toggle on the side of the pistol. When the ablative heat shield covering the sink doesn't retract he frowns, and tries the toggle again. This second attempt to open the sink chamber is no more successful and he pulls a small knife from his belt. "Even if we didn't have you for homicide, this would get you a year, easy."

Thane knows the last comment is meant to provoke him. Were he a common criminal, he might have reacted. Instead he watches as the human uses the blade's tip to force the shield. It gives with a brittle snap as the latch breaks.

"Here," she tells me, thumb over mine as she demonstrates, holding both thumb and toggle in place. Her lips curve in a smile. Her hand is warm and steady, voice betraying her difficulty in concentrating on her task. "Need to hold it for a full second before it opens. Not the most convenient thing in a firefight, but Mordin says it can't be helped."

Shepard had been so pleased with the pistol. Seeing it treated carelessly is upsetting. Still, Thane remains silent, giving away nothing as Carter continues. He depresses a catch above the grip, and then knocks the barrel against the table so the firing group slides free.

"Polymer rounds? How does that even work?" Again, the investigator uses the blade, this time to pry out the ammunition block. He turns it in one hand, casually scoring a groove into the smooth surface end with his thumbnail.

Thane inhales, slowly. When she had handed him the block, her fingers had brushed his palm. "Good for a few thousand rounds. Shoot those up, you'll have to see Mordin for a replacement block."

There's a long silence, filled only with the sounds of the weapon being pulled apart.

"You have to know how bad it looks. Calling another drell and sending him to the hanar embassy instead of calling the cops is not something an innocent person does."

Carter next removes the laser which shaves slugs from the ammunition block. He drops the cylindrical housing on the table, ignoring it as it begins to roll toward the edge. Instead, he focuses on gingerly taking out the eezo chamber, setting it to the side. The laser reaches the edge, falls to the floor.

Thane's inner eyelids close and then open again quickly. His fingers, long since numb, clench in the small of his back.

"Obviously, killing a Spectre takes more than one drell with a fancy little gun. Why didn't you run with the rest of your squad? Why'd they take the body?" The investigator points at the still prints. "And don't try to tell me she lived through that."

The words bear more cruelty than the human knows. Shepard is gone. Thane knows he was granted a second chance to stand beside one of Arashu's own, protect her with all that he was, and he has failed.

He follows the human's gesture, focusing on the stills, and memory swallows him again.

I stare at streamers of red, stricken, reading the story they reveal; one of frantic defense against overwhelming numbers. A stumbling retreat, marked by empty sinks and a smeared handprint on the wall. I follow, unwilling to believe the truths spelled as plainly as words before me.

The bedroom door has been shattered; frame streaked with the carbon of an explosion. I step through the wreckage and fear is an acid creep in my gut, a lick of fire in my throat, sour and thick in my mouth.

There is no solace in finding the room empty. The story of her death is told over and over in the wake of destruction.

Thane, who prides himself in steadiness of hand and eye and nerve, trembles.

Fresh grief and despair wash over him, followed closely by anger. It burbles in the corner of his consciousness, begging him to return to his slumber, to allow his body to rule his actions, to seek those responsible.

It's unsurprising that Carter chooses now to strike him.

Thane sees the blow coming before it lands, but there is little he can do about it. The human is fast enough that all he can do is loosen the muscles of his neck and allow his head to roll with the attack.

He feels the impact against under his eye first, then, almost as a separate event, his head snaps sideways. Distantly he realizes he's been struck with the butt of the pistol instead of a fist. There isn't pain, not yet. That will come in another heartbeat.

Carter bounces on his toes. "Really, really shouldn't have killed a human, let alone the Hero of the Citadel."

Thane lifts his head slowly. Pain blooms now, along his cheekbone, radiating outward. He breathes in slowly; he's no stranger to pain, or to controlling it. The torments he has endured in the past would make this human pale.

He isn't surprised when Carter hits him again, striking the same place a second time. The pain now tells him the orbital bone has been cracked. His face has begun to swell, but he can still see well enough to put an end to this interrogation.

"So," the human says. "Let's talk about finding the rest of your squad."

Thane concentrates on the restraints. The tightness of the duraplast bands have numbed his fingers and this is an additional handicap. It will take some effort to remove the cuffs, but he has no doubts of his abilities. Dislocating his thumb and tearing tendon and tissue will be painful, but his body can be free in less time than is required for most humans to blink.

Another blink and Carter will be down with a shattered trachea, sidearm torn from him. A heartbeat later, the guard at the door will go to the sea by way of a metal slug through his left eye.

He tenses against the cuffs, but Amonkira sees fit to spare their lives.

The guard puts his hand to his helmet, and then responds to something over his radio. "Yes, sir," he says, crossing the room to open the door.

Thane hears two more sets of footsteps. One human, one turian. He plans their deaths with the same precision as he had the others.

There's a pause and someone else is speaking, barely registering on Thane's consciousness.

"Krios? Hey?"

He hears this as though from a great distance, but it is only meaningless sounds. It isn't until Garrus touches his shoulder that he recognizes his own name. He raises his head, turning it in a slow, mechanical motion to look at the turian.

In his peripheral vision, he sees that Captain Bailey has also arrived. The captain glares at Carter, then jerks his head at the door. The investigator mutters something under his breath and slaps the pistol frame onto the table, but marches out of the room as ordered.

Thane regards Garrus. "It seems you've come at an unfortunate time."

"I have a few C-Sec contacts left," Garrus says. He takes in the bruising and swelling and then glares at the guard. His demeanor shifts to something infinitely more dangerous than the affable technician who calibrates the Normandy's main guns and congratulates his fellow squad mates on successful shots. "You want that rifle up your ass? Back off."

"Hey. I don't get paid enough for this shit." The guard shrugs, crossing the room, leaning against the wall. He taps the trigger housing on the rifle as Garrus crouches down beside Thane.

"You look like hell. You okay?" Garrus asks, speaking quietly. There is no way the human with his inferior hearing will be able to discern their words.

"I'll survive," Thane answers. It's more than he can say for Carter when he returns. "You should leave."

"Uh-uh. I went to the apartment," Garrus says. He take a grounding breath. "What happened?"

Thane shakes his head. "I don't know. I was with Kolyat. I left him and returned to..."

The memory of the door opening flashes in his mind, and he struggles to focus on Garrus instead of thoughts of blood drying in tacky pools.

Garrus' mandibles flex.

"Spirits," he says. "There was so much blood... but, look. EDI and Joker have been busy. They hacked C-Sec files. The video feeds from that section? Every one has been wiped. The soundproofing in the apartments on that level is perfect, no way anyone heard what happened, but there's an anonymous call about 'a disturbance.' This feels like the worst sort of set-up."

Thane considers the final statement. "Logic would point to framing me, however, there is no one within several relay jumps who would care to do so."

"Not setting you up personally. You're collateral damage. A diversion. They wanted Shepard off the Citadel."

Thane's sense of disconnect begins to fade as this slim thread of hope appears to him. Were he thinking clearly, he would have seen this himself. Shepard could be alive while he was wasting time in an interrogation cell.

"The potential exists that she still lives."

Garrus' mandibles tighten against his face, but instead of agreeing he says, "C-Sec is planning on taking you from here to a maximum security center. The Alliance wants to interrogate you, but the Council is calling this their business because Shepard's a Spectre."

"I have a suspicion I might not survive the transfer," Thane says, nodding toward the door, where the sounds of an argument can be heard.

"Yeah. Carter's a specist son of a bitch. Worked with him a few times. Can you get out of those cuffs?" He looks toward the door where the voices are louder, as though the men are returning. "Exactly how good are you?"

Thane once told Shepard that pride was the defining element between a professional and a thug. "Very."

The answer earns him an amused glance and Garrus continues "If C-Sec procedure hasn't changed in the last few years, they'll take you by cruiser and have to avoid main traffic routes. You'll have a three minute window once the car goes off course."

"Then?"

"Normandy's still docked where we left her. We go from there and figure this thing out."

Bailey and Carter return, the former grim-faced, the later slightly smug, and Garrus steps away without another word.

Carter takes Thane by the elbow, fingers closing in a needlessly hard grip through the leather of his coat as the human helps him to stand. As he's taken from the room, he nods at Garrus.

"May Arashu guard your steps."

"Same to you," Garrus answers. Thane doesn't miss the way his eyes narrow and knows he's planning the next stage of this campaign even before they lose sight of one another.

The walk to the cruiser is short, but given the way his head has started to pound, he doesn't mind. He steps into the car and doesn't protest when Carter gives him a shove toward the farthest seat. He watches as the investigator walks around the car and settles into the front seat.

The guard takes the other place in the rear of the car, but the moment Thane leans against the back of the seat and his hands are concealed, he begins to work at the restraints. He knows they're too heavy to stretch, too thick to break. His particular biotic abilities are of no use for this task.

He sighs, willing his mind into acceptance of what is to come, and rotates his left hand, tensing as he waits for the thrusters to fire. When they pop to life, he pulls up with as much force as he can generate in the space available. His thumb dislocates first, followed by the excruciating pain between smallest finger and the heel of his hand which means he's torn tendons free of their attachments.

It's an easy thing to pull his hand free after this.

Overwhelming his captors only to crash back onto the landing site would be useless, so he settles into the seat, attempting to ignore the throbbing which is beginning to build in his damaged hand.

He waits until the car levels into flight altitude, a prayer going to Amonkira, begging her assistance.

Then a thought of Shepard, speaking words of love to him as desert rain falls around them. Of the silhouette of her body, framed by the soft lights of the Presidium.

The guard next to him, the one who had complained of his pay, blinks once before Thane ends his life. A sharp blow of his elbow combined in a strike with biotic power to the man's temple is all it takes to return him to the sea.

The next instant, he uses his uninjured hand to wrap the passenger's safety belt around Carter's neck. A quick jerk sideways and then his weight falling precisely against the strap, and he hears a series of cracking snaps which mean vertebrae have separated from one another. He blames the damage to his left hand for the length of time it takes to accomplish this.

The driver has had time to react, although his response is mostly one of shock while his slow mind attempts to construct a defense. He can't quite seem to decide if he wishes to reach for his weapon, fly the car, or radio for assistance.

Thane opens his hand, palm up, letting the blue light of power gather in what he knows is an overly theatrical display. It accomplishes his goal, the driver makes a croaking noise that Thane takes to mean, what do you want?

"If you would, please land on that balcony." He points to an outcrop of grass framed with a steel railing, letting the biotics fade. "Do as I say, and I swear no harm will come to you."

He keeps his word. Unconsciousness will not lead to permanent damage. For the lives he took, however...

With the first stirrings of far-off sirens wailing their plaintive notes, he bows his head in prayer.

 

Chapter Text

Garrus almost makes it back to the Normandy before the plan goes sideways.

He's two levels up from the ship, waiting for an elevator, when the audio in his visor pings. An incoming message from Joker. He glances down the corridor where two turians in C-Sec blue are talking, watching him more closely than he'd like.

He scratches his mandible, trying for nonchalant as he turns on his audio, aware there's not enough casual in the galaxy that will make him, his beat-up armor, and submachine gun less conspicuous in this perfectly clean and civilized corridor of the Citadel.

"Now's a bad time. Can it wait, Joker?" he asks quietly, wishing the elevator would hurry the hell up.

"I'm thinking... no," Joker says, sarcasm offset by urgency. "It's going to get real interesting on your end in about ten seconds. C-Sec just found the cruiser and the officers Thane took out."

"Damn," Garrus says, turning from the pair of turians, trying not to look like he's rushing as he starts to walk away from them.

"You can say that again. Looks like your name and description are going out over their channels right now."

There's no way he's going to allow himself to be arrested now. It had been hammered into his head far too many times that the first twenty-four hours in a kidnapping were the most vital. Legally, the Sector Executors could hold him seventy-two standard hours, while they took their time figuring out they didn't have any solid evidence to use for a conviction.

Seventy-two hours of wasted time. That's not going to happen, not while Shepard needs him.

He doesn't make it five steps before he hears the whine of assault rifles warming up.

"Garrus Vakarian? C-Sec! Stop right there."

Garrus sighs, following the order. He's well aware of what comes next. The guards expect him to put his hands on top of his head. Expect him to kneel and wait to be cuffed.

There are turians who would obey almost without thought. Theirs is a culture based on discipline, and a decade and a half of military service makes following orders reflexive, a conditioned response. No doubt that's what the guards are hoping for.

"Joker?" he asks, under his breath. "Twenty feet ahead and to my right, there's a maintenance hatch. Can you and EDI get it unlocked?"

He can hear the rattle of armor behind him as the guards advance on his position. Not too close yet; they're sticking to their training. They won't move in until he's down. He hears their comms crackling as they radio in, knows the code they're using. Twenty-five-delta; suspect apprehended.

"Give me a sec," Joker is muttering under his breath. "EDI... if you route that... yeah, that connection right there... atta girl."

The guards shift behind him. "You're ex-C-Sec, right, Vakarian? You remember how this goes. Hands on your head and get down on the deck."

Garrus raises his hands, lacing them over his fringe like a good turian. "Joker?" He tries to keep his voice down, but the tension in the situation is increasing by the second.

"Yeah. In three. Two. One," Joker answers. "Override's in place. You have five seconds before the station VIs figure it out."

"On the deck, Vakarian!"

There's no more time to keep playing along.

He pivots, omni-tool activating in a blur of orange as he drops his hands. He doesn't hesitate before sending an overload charge towards the guards. The pulse of energy hits them full-force, surging over their shields in a crackling web, overheating their rifles.

They fall back immediately, shouting obscenities as they try to find cover behind a bench and an oversized potted plant.

If the overload caught them off guard, they're definitely not expecting him to open fire as he retreats. The Locust fits better in his hand than he expects, firing with a crisp snap-snap-snap and almost zero recoil as he squeezes the trigger.

He tries to be careful with his aim; with the mods Shepard's put into the SMG, it's capable of piercing failing shields and standard-issue armor in a single shot. Most of his shots end up zinging into the walls as he sprints for the maintenance hatch.

The guards are cursing at him again, but now they're backing up words with rounds of their own. He hears metal particles zip by, thwacking into wall and floor around him, a few sizzling as his shields absorb them. He can take maybe two more direct hits before they fail, leaving only his armor protecting him.

Another round strikes him, catching him in the side as he reaches the hatch. His visor alarms, alerting him that his shields have reached the point of critical failure. Shit. Must have lost count of rounds.

He smacks the hatch controls with his fist, and for one gut-clenching moment, it doesn't open. Then it swings inward and he ducks through the low opening.

"Joker!" he shouts as he slams the door shut, "I need you to - "

"Lock that hatch, I know! It's already done." There's a pause. "Sheesh. Don't need to yell. Not like I don't get the urgency of the situation. Not like I haven't been dealing with this bullshit for hours while other people are out getting wasted with their omni-tools off."

Garrus doesn't bother answering. He turns from the hatch and jogs down the narrow maintenance passageway, using his omni-tool to light the way. Joker takes his silence as a cue to continue his monologue.

"Every time things go to hell, guess who gets the blame? Collectors abduct the crew? It's all Joker's fault. Unshackle the AI? 'Joker's a tool, never mind that he saved the ship.' Probably blame me when we run out of coffee. If anyone gets to yell it should be me. But, no. It's 'Joker, close that hatch and Joker, - ' "

"You done?" Garrus interrupts. He understands that this is Joker's way of dealing with stress, that the pilot is as worried as he is about Shepard. On the other hand, he doesn't have time to deal with Joker's problems right now. Refocusing on the mission will help them both. "Give me a status report?"

He'll give Joker this. The man is capable of adapting to changing conditions in a hurry.

"Uh, does 'world of shit' translate into turian? C-Sec is going nuts trying to find you and Thane. Alliance command's realized their guards are missing from the end of the docking arm. And, hey, they're also noticing I've locked the hatch. Sending me some really nasty messages."

"Do I want to hear what happened to the guards?"

"What? And ruin the surprise?"

"I'm not big on surprises at this point." Garrus hesitates at an intersection, unsure of which way to go. During his time working on the Citadel, he'd learned duct rats weren't the only ones who fell into the fans. He'd helped clean out plenty of engineers, too. "Could use a little help here."

"Yeah. EDI's going to upload some schematics to your visor. You're going to have to come in through the Normandy's cargo bay. C-Sec reinforcements and extra Alliance troops are on the way, so you might want to move like you have a purpose."

The schematics pop up on his visor's display, and Garrus nods, scanning until he finds his location. He looks at the intersection, then back to the blueprint. He zooms in and frowns. There should be a shaft to the right and there isn't.

Of course there isn't. Given the keepers' habits of rearranging the station layout, it's not unexpected that schematics don't always exactly correspond. Doesn't make it any less aggravating, though.

"Joker?" he says. "Things aren't matching up."

"Uhh. You'll want to go left, then take the next right," Joker says.

"Thanks," he says, starting down the left passageway. "Any word from Krios?"

"No. His comms are out. Wait. EDI's got eyes on him... No, hold up. EDI? That looks like a shadow to me." There's a brief pause and Garrus can hear a muffled exchange between Joker and the AI while they argue about the shadow. Then Joker's back. "Shit. It was him. He's fast. Lost track..."

Garrus ducks around a keeper clipping wiring inside of an electrical panel. The insectoid creature ignores him, front limbs darting in and out as it works.

"Hey. Hang on," Joker says. "You're about to walk over some grating and it looks like there's a patrol passing. Give it thirty seconds and you're good."

Garrus stops, leaning against the wall, using the time to catch his breath. Behind him, the keeper chirps to itself, and the smell of super-heated metal reaches him as the keeper solders wiring together.

Thirty seconds. Doesn't feel like much time when a person is preoccupied with calibrating a Thanix cannon, but it's an eternity in a combat situation. Standing in the passageway, listening to the keeper, Garrus can almost feel the heavy tick of each second as it slowly passes. Unfortunately, he's always been the kind of turian who starts to overthink situations when he's not moving. Even though this isn't the time or the place to allow his mind to wander, it does.

He doesn't need to dwell on the fact he's about to help pirate an Alliance ship. Or the very real possibility that if he lives through it, he's going to serve time for his part in the theft.

He shouldn't be considering the fact that his father was going to disown him for this. He'll be lucky if they let him keep his colony markings.

What he really doesn't need to keep coming back to is the carnage in the apartment. He'd only glimpsed the scene through the open door before investigators shoved him back through the electronic crime-scene tape.

It had been long enough, though. Long enough to see the gore, the places where rounds scored the walls in messy lines. Plenty of time for the smell to reach him. There's no mistaking the stink a firefight leaves behind: the overwhelming odors of explosives, overheated thermal clips, and drying blood.

It's not helping him any to think about Shepard, and what kind of injuries she would have after a fight like that. He doesn't need to keep circling back to the fact that if she's still alive, her injuries would mean she's in absolute agony.

He doesn't need to think about any of things, but he does.

"Hey, Garrus?" Joker's voice is softer. "She's going to be okay. I mean, she's Commander Fucking Shepard, right?"

"Yeah," he says, quietly. He's not sure if he's trying to convince himself or Joker when he adds, "And all this is going to do is piss her off."

"Damn straight."

"What about the techs on board the Normandy? Do I want to know what you did with them?"

"Relax. They're all safe and sound, tied up in the Kodiak. Before we hit the relay, we dump the shuttle."

"How -" He starts to ask a question, but is interrupted by a sound in the passage behind him. The faint noise of clothing brushing against steel. Definitely not a sound a keeper makes.

He twists, staying tight against the wall as though it will offer him cover. The Locust comes up in a smooth arc and his omni-tool brightens with the pent up energy of an overload charge.

Nothing. Other than the keeper, the tunnel's empty. The light from his omni-tool casts sharp-edged shadows that shift with his movement, but beyond the orange glow, there are only layers of inky black.

"Perfect. Jumping at shadows," he says, shaking his head.

He turns around again, and takes a startled half-step backward, cursing under his breath as he almost stumbles. Thane is five feet away, watching him with quiet patience.

Garrus keeps his voice down, not sure the patrol has passed yet. "Little warning next time, Krios."

"A training master would tell you to listen more closely," Thane replies.

Garrus twitches a mandible. The drell's tone is less strained then it had been in the interrogation room, and there's definitely some of his usual dry humor laced into his subvocals.

His face doesn't look any better, though. The swelling has almost closed one eye, and from the way he cradles his left hand, it's injured as well. Garrus raises his omni-tool, wincing as the light touches the bruised scales of Thane's face, turning the discoloration a shade that's slightly reminiscent of varren shit.

"Thought you looked bad back at C-Sec," Garrus says, mandibles dipping away from his jaw in a quick grin.

"No doubt I will suffer Dr. Chakwas' displeasure," Thane replies, but there's the faintest smile beneath the damage.

The stats on Garrus' visor change as a transmission comes in from Joker, and he toggles the audio so Thane can hear as well.

"This is incredibly touching and all. A real lover's reunion." Joker says, and it's easy to picture him rolling his eyes as he sorts screens in front of him. "But you two need to get your asses onto the ship. You're clear."

"Got it," Garrus answers, and with a short nod from Thane, he leads the way across the grating, deeper into the maintenance network of the Citadel.

It doesn't take long to remember why he hated going into the shafts while he worked for C-Sec. To start with, it's quieter than it has any right to be. There's only the rush of air and the far-off hum of fans kicking on and off, with the occasional distant rumble of elevators rising and falling.

Thane, following behind, might as well have been a spirit for all the noise he makes.

"Listen more closely. Uh-huh. Right," Garrus mutters to himself at one point, after checking behind to make sure the drell hadn't disappeared.

The schematics EDI uploaded are precise, except when they're not. He and Thane have to retrace their path twice when the keepers have altered the passageways, and relying on the AI to track the position of the elevators almost proves disastrous.

A straight-line path through the shafts is the fastest route. There are narrow ledges around the perimeter of each, which Garrus has used during past emergencies to navigate from one opening to the other. The trick is not getting crushed by an elevator. As slow as they seem to be when a person is riding in one - or waiting for it - they rush up and down the shafts with incredible speed.

He and Thane are sidestepping along one of these ledges, almost to the opposite side, when he hears the telltale rumble of a on-coming elevator car.

"Haste might be wise," Thane says, impassively.

"Uh-huh." Garrus glances at the opening, doing the math as he tries to move faster. Turian feet aren't made for delicate work like this, and his slow pace is holding Krios up. They're going to get smashed. So he follows the logical course.

He jumps.

He bends his knees, pushing off from the ledge as hard as he can. He'll be exactly two things if he misses the door: a bright blue splotch on top of the oncoming elevator, and a side note in a C-Sec report as, 'DNA identifiable only. Recommend closed casket ceremony.'

It's close. His arc is too flat, not enough momentum to make it completely inside the door. Instead he ends up crashing into the bottom edge of the frame with his chest, claws scrambling for purchase on the slick floor, feet kicking against the wall of the shaft. Thane is a blur of black and green as he darts out of the shaft, bending down to grab Garrus one-handed by the collar of his armor.

The drell isn't strong enough to haul him out, but with Garrus still digging in with hands and feet, the combined effort is enough that he can drag himself into the passageway. He flops onto his stomach with an umph just as the elevator screeches by.

"Crap," he twists and sits up, looking into the shaft as the car disappears from sight. "EDI? You losing your touch?"

"No, Officer Vakarian. The station VIs and I are having a... disagreement. It is somewhat distracting."

"Shuh. A disagreement. Not from where I'm sitting," Joker says. "More like a really nasty cat fight."

Garrus' translator chokes over the last bit, feeding him words that don't make much sense. "Joker..." he warns, realizing as he says it that he's mimicking Shepard's tone for dealing with the pilot. "Just give me an update."

Thane offers him a hand, and Garrus levers himself off the floor.

EDI's voice comes through the audio, instead. "What Jeff means to say is you are now clear to proceed. There should be no further distractions." If an AI can sound smug, she does.

Then Joker resumes giving directions. "Hundred more yards, there's a hatch. Exit stage left. The corridor outside of it is empty, hang a right and the cargo docking arm doors are front and center."

"Got it," Garrus answers, with a glance back to make sure Thane's heard the directions. The drell gives him a nod of understanding and Garrus again leads the way.

The hatch is exactly where Joker said it would be. Garrus cracks it open, half expecting to be met by C-Sec, scanning the corridor beyond. Empty. And the large door of the cargo docking arm is within easy reach.

"No guards? You're certain of this?" Thane asks quietly, stepping close enough to Garrus that the visor picks up the question. There's no fear in his vocals, only caution. Understandable, given the fact that he's injured and without a weapon.

Joker responds with, "Again. Part of the surprise. You'll see in a minute."

Garrus looks at Thane, but the drell only gives a slight shake of his head in response, so he swings the hatch door open, and ducks through the opening.

No guards appear, no alarms sound, and he and Thane are able to walk up to the door as though it's any other day on the Citadel, neither of them are wanted by C-Sec, and they're returning from a routine supply run.

Thane heads for the door controls, but before he can reach them, the locking mechanisms on the doors release with a series of low clunks and the panels start to slide apart. Garrus raises the Locust with a sigh.

The doors open completely, exposing the interior of the docking arm. Leaning casually against the wall is one of the last people Garrus expects to see.

"Surprise," Jack says. "About time you fuckers showed up."

Chapter Text

The Illusive Man leans back in his chair, one ankle crossed over his knee, glass of bourbon in his hand. He swirls it in a slow circle, listening to the clink of ice against crystal as he considers the various screens tiled on the curved display in front of him.

To the uninitiated, each screen and set of images might appear to be random, yet they're all intrinsically connected, woven into a framework which has been crafted with painstaking care. Of all the projects he's directed as the head of Cerberus, this is by far the most ambitious. Considering the expense and complexity involved in the replication of the Normandy and Shepard's resurrection, that was no minor claim.

There's a live feed from the sprawling research facility constructed deep in the empty mining caverns on Klencory. Another feed is of a holding cell where Kelly Chambers paces nervously. One screen contains only data; it scrolls results from first trial of the genophage modification virus.

Lastly, there are still images which were taken earlier that night on the Citadel, downloaded from his extraction team's helmet cameras. He starts to bring them up, then hesitates, choosing to view the progress being made at the Klencory facility instead.

He takes a drink and rolls the bourbon in his mouth before letting it warm a path down his throat. Then he draws the research facility screen to the center position, maximizing the video as he does so. Seeing it in person would be his preference, but more and more frequently, his obligations prevent him from leaving his base of operations. For now, he settles for the vid.

The facility appears to contain little of value. Set in a massive cavern vast enough to hold several dreadnoughts, the bulk of the space is devoted to what seems to be scrap metal. A single bay, closed off with semi-transparent walls, is set to one end, blue light spilling from its confines to illuminate the entire cavern in unsteady shadows.

The metal dominating the space is twisted and blackened from the effects of a nuclear detonation. It's all that remains of the Collector base, painstakingly gathered and transported piece by piece back through the Omega 4 Relay. The Illusive Man frowns; even now, seeing the result of Shepard's final disobedience annoys him. The fact that the power generator from the embryonic Reaper survived only slightly tempers his irritation with her.

Refusing to focus on that particular set-back, he types a command into his console. On Klencory, light-years away, the camera pans left and zooms in, giving him a clearer view of the wreckage.

In the midst of it, new construction is underway. Clean lines, graceful curves form what even the most ignorant would recognize as the scaled-down shape of a mass relay. Impressive to look at, but - another frustrating set-back - incomplete.

Despite the data acquired from the salarians, too many key components are missing to begin to chart a reasonable time-table for activation of the relay. Fortunately, he's aware of additional leads that can be explored; repositories of technology which remain untapped. Once Shepard's loyalty is assured, those leads could be pursued.

He taps the controls again, activating the camera inside of the sealed bay. In this smaller space, closed off from the other components, two metal pylons had been erected, electricity dancing from one to the other, charging a small nucleus of element zero between them. The mass effect field snaps and hisses, and although the light is strongest in the bay, the clear walls mean the entire warehouse is cast in blue light and stark shadows.

The Illusive Man notices the technicians working at the base of one of the towers wear their rebreathers loose around their necks, and that the rows of overhead fans currently sit idle, despite the glimmer of golden flakes clinging to everything. He checks a chronometer embedded in the display, noting with slight disappointment that it will be several hours before another trial is conducted.

Ice resettles in his glass as he takes a sip of the bourbon, and then minimizes the video.

The next screen is merely columns of data. Shipping manifests, cargo tallies, the gradual accumulation of material at various locations. Continued success. Progress towards an ultimate goal.

He finally maximizes another window, the one containing the holographic stills collected from helmet cameras, taken on the Citadel.

It had been a calculated risk, extracting Shepard from such a high-profile location. It hadn't gone as smoothly as anticipated. Although, he concedes, it could have been much worse. Had Krios been with her the causalities would have been significantly higher and disposing of his body would have further complicated matters. That the drell had been elsewhere had been a fortunate circumstance.

The holos are graphic. If they were to be viewed quickly, in sequence, they would form a strange, bloody animation. While leaving so much of her DNA coating the walls had been the intention, he would have preferred more of it came from the containers each of his operatives had carried, and less from Shepard herself.

The first holo shows the apartment door blowing open. In the next Shepard sends a wave of biotic energy toward the camera. Then she overturns a table, diving behind it, presumably scrambling for the pistol which appears in the next still.

It's impressive how many times the video source changes as she takes out targets with both the weapon and biotics. Equally as impressive is the number of rounds she absorbs before she begins to retreat.

The next still freezes the moment in time when slugs tear into her shoulder and arm, throwing her sideways. Another still, and a barrier of blue tints the air between her and her attackers as she staggers toward the bedroom.

That door caves to the force of another explosion.

She takes out two more of his employees before one gets close enough to finish her with an electrical prod.

The last still is of her, crumpled and bloody on the floor of the bedroom.

He shakes his head. "What a waste."

If the estimates provided to him are accurate, she'll be delivered to the remote facility in the Sentry Omega Cluster within sixty hours. The technicians assure him that her health can be restored within a relatively short amount of time. The next phase can be implemented immediately after.

He closes the images, then taps his intercom. "Send in Kelly Chambers."

Having her brought into his innermost sanctum is a deliberate choice. Little he does is by accident. From his adopted moniker to the perpetual glass of bourbon and the chain of laughably expensive cigarettes, he has cultivated the illusion of power, exclusivity, and anonymity.

It's not simply a matter of wealth. Having the resources of Cerberus at his fingertips is undeniably vital to his success, but power is more complex than credits. There are many individuals whose net assets exceed those of his organization, but there is more to him than the average reclusive billionaire.

There is little to fear from a face-to-face meeting with a mercenary named Jack Harper. Strip him of his name, give him an aura of secrecy and the ability to strike from the shadows, and he becomes the boogeyman, the monster under the bed. In a galaxy where fear of the unknown is as valid a form of currency as credits, he has very deep pockets.

Of course, there are those who see past the smoke and mirrors, the affectations. Who recognize him for what he truly is. Not a monster, but a man in the fortuitous position to ensure his species' place in the galaxy. It was fortunate that people like Shepard were few and far between.

Kelly Chambers, despite outward appearances and bubbly personality, possesses a unique talent for reading people. She's no Shepard, though, and as she's brought into the room, she's the picture of fear.

She's escorted onto the polished black surface of the dais by two armed guards who tower over her. Excessive yes, but the illusion of power and control is what matters.

Kelly stands across from him, her hands twisting together, face pale. She looks as though she's about to cry.

"Chambers," he says. "I apologize for the theatrics, but they were necessary."

Her hands fall to her sides, and she swallows hard. "Where's my sister?"

He has to give her credit, her voice is far steadier than he expects it to be. "Safe," he answers, setting his glass on the arm of his chair. "For now."

"What do you want?"

"Only for your help in regaining Shepard's trust."

She frowns, no doubt looking for a trap in his words.

"I don't understand."

He lights a cigarette, regarding her through twists of smoke that spiral upward. He had planned this conversation long before she entered the room, but he allows the suspense to build.

"Given what I'll be requiring of you, you'll need complete information." He leans forward, watching her face closely. "Shepard's being taken to a medical facility, where she will have a neural interface implanted. You'll be sent to assist with her recovery, and ensure she remembers the proper sequence of events during her time in my employ."

Her frown deepens as she processes what he's said. The moment she comprehends what his words truly mean, her mouth opens as her expression settles on disbelief.

"That's insane," she says. "You can't just rewrite a person's memory."

He raises an eyebrow. The months spent aboard the Normandy had changed her, surviving abduction by the Collectors strengthened her will. She has a new resolve to her. Interesting. He wonders if she believes Shepard will miraculously save her from this as well.

"I think you'll find it's quite possible, given enough effort." He lifts the cigarette to his mouth, dragging smoke in, letting it drift out with his words. "And you will make the effort. Or your sister will suffer for it."

Her mouth trembles. Tears well in her eyes, as she weighs her sister's well-being versus her loyalty to Shepard. Family against the commander who saved her from gruesome death.

Watching the emotions play over her face, he can almost hear her thoughts. She's bargaining with her morality, no doubt. Likely she makes an apology to Shepard and promises some sort of revenge in exchange for her sister's life, possibly the beginnings of a plan to thwart his intentions.

Given this, he's not surprised when she eventually nods, the tears which threatened now rolling down her cheeks.

"Let my sister go. Let her go now." Her voice wavers, but only slightly. "Then I promise I'll help you."

The demand is unexpected and he takes another drag on his cigarette while he considers her. He's seen her psych profiles. One of the reasons he selected her for Shepard's initial crew was her malleability. She wouldn't have rebelled like this six months ago.

"Agreed," he finally says. "You have my word she'll be on Illium in two day's time." He could have chosen to deny the request, or lie. But in the end, if he needs to retrieve the sister again, it won't be a challenge.

Kelly blinks, wiping her face and sniffing. If possible, her skin seems paler now than when she'd first come in.

"I'll do what I can for Commander Shepard," she says.

There's a sharp chime from his console. He frowns; his staff knows better than to disrupt an in-person meeting. When the console chimes a second time, he knows it's urgent enough to warrant the interruption.

He nods at the guards. "Show Miss Chambers to the transport. Shepard will respond best to a familiar face when she wakes from surgery."

He waits until the doors close behind them to open the channel to his assistant. The man hesitates to make eye contact, and when he does, it's no more than a fleeting glance.

The Illusive Man remains silent, not letting his impatience show. Having to prompt his employees is an annoyance. He makes a mental note to review this one's file later.

"We have a problem, sir," his assistant finally says.

"A problem."

"It.. well." His assistant takes a deep breath. "From what we can piece together, the Blue Suns intercepted the ship transporting Shepard. Didn't even make it past the first relay jump out of the Widow system. They slaughtered the crew."

"And Shepard?"

Another long pause. "Sir... Shepard's gone. They took her."

Chapter Text

Shepard's first thought is that with as much pain as she's in, she can't be dead. While dying might hurt like hell, actually being dead doesn't. Having experienced both she thinks she can call herself an expert on the subject.

A pained breath tells her that repair work has been performed on her lungs. She's been shot enough times to recognize the feeling of post-op sedatives, and this time it feels like multiple bullet wounds have been patched. At least everything seems to be where it should, but she can almost feel her cybernetics working overtime to correct the damage.

How the hell did she get so banged up, how long has she been out, and most importantly, is her team okay?

There's a strange buzz in the back of her head, and she doesn't need a diagnostics check to determine that her amp is gone, yanked out without a proper shutdown. She's not completely helpless without the wetware; most biotics had at least minimal control of their abilities without the amplifying device. Still, it's not a comforting thought to know it was removed so carelessly.

She tries to open her eyes, but can't. With her thoughts crawling through the sedatives, it takes a minute to figure out why. Tape, she eventually thinks. Her eyes have been taped shut for surgery.

She lifts her right hand to pull the tape off, but can only move her arm a few inches. She frowns, twisting her wrist, and it's another long reasoning process before she realizes she's cuffed to the metal rail of the bed.

It's automatic to fall back on her training, the basic operational protocol drummed into every soldier's head. Don't panic. Assess the situation. Stay rational.

She tries her other hand, and it's free, but when she reaches up, the movement is sluggish and slow. Her fingers are clumsy, and picking the tape away from her eyelid seems to take an eternity. The adhesive pulls and she winces at the sting as the tape comes away from her cheek. It's not enough she's been perforated like some a firing-range target, she has to deal with industrial-strength medical tape that feels like it's peeling off the top layer of skin.

Her eyesight is blurry and she blinks, trying to make sense out of the shapes in the dark room. Turning her head is a mistake. The room swims around her and she squeezes her eyes shut again against the sensation, trying not to throw up as a wave of nausea strikes her.

When she's reasonably sure her stomach is under control again, she opens her eyes slowly. The only illumination comes from the display of a vitals monitor to her left, and the faint green glow doesn't provide much light. The room is small, probably five paces wide, but it's impossible to get a fix on details when her vision keeps fuzzing in and out.

One thing she's sure of is that this isn't a hospital and it definitely isn't the Normandy. Too dark, too cold, too... wrong.

She reaches across herself, to her cuffed hand. An old-fashioned metal band circles her wrist; the two red lights inset near the lock blink occasionally, confirming the disabled status of her omni-tool.

The slight vibration and the sterile, recycled air tell her she's on a ship. Probably the sickbay of a frigate, from the sound of the engines. The monitor beeps, following the rhythm of her heartbeat. She can hear an IV machine whirring and feel the cool spread of fluids and sedatives as they flow from the catheter set into her forearm.

Given the nausea, she's having a bad reaction to something they're pumping into her. She tries to call out, but her mouth is dry and her tongue feels too thick to form words. She needs to know what happened, how she got here. She swallows, the action a small torment of its own.

She breathes in, trying to calm her rolling stomach, trying to remember. The memories start in fits and starts, as though she's dragging each from the furthest corner of her mind, but then the images come so quickly she can't seem to stop them.

The Alliance recalled her. She was going to turn herself in. She remembers docking at the Citadel. Then giving Garrus the Locust. Joker and his wisecracks about teaching EDI humor. The model of the Kodiak she wanted to buy and going to the Presidium apartment with Thane and god she wanted to reach through his omni-tool and smack Kolyat for being a bratty teenager and...

Cerberus.

She'd gone to the door without a weapon, as though she could afford the luxury of complacency. With the number of enemies she had, she should have been smarter. Should have stopped to think for a second that Commander Shepard didn't ever really get to feel safe.

She'd expected Thane, thinking maybe Kolyat stood him up. Instead, the door had blown open as she approached it and there were far too many troopers to hold them off. She'd managed to take out six of them before one with a prod reached her.

Her last thought had been that the next time she saw the Illusive Man, she was going to put a round through one of his million-credit eyes. When she gets off this bed, her new priority will be hunting down the head of Cerberus. She's tired of his bullshit. The monitor beside her chimes in warning; her heart-rate's climbing too rapidly.

She hears a door open and light spills into the room. She winces, squinting as she tries to make sense of the blurry silhouette in the doorway. The door slides closed, but in the moment of half-light, she sees two things: the color blue and the outline of a turian's crest.

She sighs in relief, relaxing back into the bed. It takes considerable effort, but she manages to croak out a single word. "Garrus?"

He crosses the dark room and she thinks that as soon as he undoes the cuff on her wrist she's going to either hug or punch him. Maybe he can get the medics to adjust the sedatives, or at least cut the dose. It would hurt more, but being able to lift her head without puking would be great. She wants to tell him this, but it feels like too much work to form the words.

He pauses beside her and she hears the click of a switch and then the illumination strip above her buzzes softly before flickering on and casting flat light over them both.

She focuses on his face and then can only try to tamp down bitter disappointment before he notices her reaction. Red colony markings. No visor. The armor is blue, yes, but the chest piece is accented by an oval of white.

Don't panic. Assess the situation. Stay rational.

Panicking isn't an option, but she's not stupid enough to be unafraid. She's on a Blue Suns ship, in cuffs, with no amp, recovering from who knows how many gun shot wounds. Bad odds no matter how she looks at it.

She and the Suns aren't exactly on the best of terms. First there was that thing with Archangel on Omega. Followed by screwing up plans to steal Prothean artifacts. And then the messy trip to Zorya with Zaeed. All of which meant she was squarely at the top of Vido Santiago's shit list. The only group that she's certain hates her more is the batarian Hegemony.

If the turian notices her reaction to his armor, he doesn't say anything about it. He stops next to the bed and keys a command into the IV pump. Instead of being pushed back into unconsciousness by another hit of sedatives, things abruptly become sharper. It hurts a hell of a lot more, but at least it's not like she's trying to think through fog. She concentrates on the turian instead of her injuries.

"Where am I?"

He doesn't reply, but raises his omni-tool and passes it over her chest. He types into his interface, reads the information, then turns back to the IV pump. From the way the injection site burns, he's upped the antibiotics. At least he didn't drug her again.

"What happened to Cerberus?" she asks, trying a different approach, asking a question she's fairly sure he'll answer.

She's usually not patient enough to fish for information, but until the sedatives clear her system, she can't take him head-on.

"Dead."

Not the talkative sort, apparently. Then again, everyone has a subject they won't shut up about. She needs to know what she's up against.

"How many rounds did you pick out of me?"

"Lost count." He looks at her and for a second she thinks she might have found an in with him, but instead he says, "Shut up, human," and casually backhands her across the mouth.

It's unexpected and her head rolls to the side. She sucks in a breath, tasting blood. He didn't hit her hard enough to do any real damage, but she's reached the end of her patience. He turns and crosses the room, to sit down in a chair and pick up a datapad.

Even without an amp, raw biotics can still add a hell of a lot of power to a blow. She and Thane had spent hours sparring with their amps disabled. He was a ruthless teacher, holding nothing back, but she had learned a new appreciation for the danger unamplified biotics could present.

The turian across the room from her is about to learn as well.

"Hey," she says, waiting until he's comfortable.

He looks up, one mandible twitching in irritation.

Instead of glaring or threatening, she smiles at him, because the same liver that can clear a toxic dose of ryncol from her system in half an hour has just eliminated the last of the sedatives.

"I thought turians had dignity," she says. Her biotics prickle in hot lines through her body, firing the eezo nodes along her nervous system. "Smacking a prisoner? Surprised you're not barefaced."

He slowly stands and drops the pad into his chair, mandibles flattening against his jaw and the small browplates above his eyes lowering in a scowl. She's spent enough time around a turian to recognize 'something's going to get its ass kicked' when she sees it.

In the dim light of the room, he looks like a holo-vid monster, but she needs him close enough to grab if she's going to try break his neck. Or rather, she needs his sidearm and omni-tool closer if she's going to turn this into an escape attempt.

She smiles wider and even though she doesn't have mandibles to flare, she makes sure he can see her teeth when she clicks them once, lightly. She'll have to thank Garrus for his lessons in the finer points of turian insults when she sees him again.

Turians are built for speed, and when they're attacking, that quickness increases tenfold. He's across the room in a snarling blur, over the bed with his arm drawn back to strike her faster than she expects and she has a split-second to think that maybe getting him this riled was a bad idea because she's not ready.

On the other hand, it's an established fact that none of Shepard's plans go as they're supposed to. Before he swings, the door to the room opens and the overhead lights flick on.

"Enough."

The turian freezes at the command, but he still glares at Shepard, looming over her. She stares back, not flinching from the hate in his deep-set eyes. She's not quite reckless enough to taunt him more, though the thought of smiling at him again does occur to her.

"Back off, Corik."

Corik growls, a note she can barely hear. "Sure thing, Torrin," he says, stepping away so Shepard can see who gave the command.

A batarian. She doesn't recognize him, and given the nasty scar running from his chin, over his mouth, splitting one side of his nose, he's not one she's likely to forget. As he approaches the bed, she sees all that's left of one ear is a ragged stump.

"Commander Shepard," he says, hands loose at his sides.

She wonders if she can get more information out of him than Corik.

"The Suns are messing with Cerberus?" she asks. "Seems like a ballsy move, even for Vido." She doesn't know if it's him, of course, but it seems like a good place to start.

He chuckles. "You really pissed him off."

She would have liked to have been wrong. Yes, Vido hates her, but he's as much a businessman as a thug. The only reason the unofficial head of the Blue Suns would risk going to war with Cerberus would be a huge payoff, and she can think of only one group with that big of bounty on her.

Somewhere on Khar'shan, the highest ranking officials of the Hegemony were pissing themselves in anticipation over getting their hands on Commander Shepard.

"Yeah. I suppose blowing up that refinery was a little over the top."

"Wasn't there. Heard about it." He pauses. "You might have pissed Vido off, but he and Solem Del'Serah have an offer for you."

That's not what she expects to hear. Solem was the figurehead of the Suns in name only. He kept its batarian soldiers in check; she didn't think he was in a position to offer anything.

"An offer. If I'm a little suspicious," she holds up the chained wrist, rattling the metal, "don't hold it against me."

Torrin glances at the restraint and shrugs.

"Few months back, you were on Omega. Solem had a brother on Omega. Helped take out this turian's team, then got shot." He smiles, tapping a spot between his two sets of eyes, as though demonstrating where the unlucky brother took a slug. "The bosses have come to an agreement. Your life in exchange for Archangel."

Shepard's stomach clenches. At least the heart-rate monitor doesn't register her shock. "Archangel? Don't you watch the news feeds? He died on Omega."

"As reliable as mainstream media is, we know Garrus Vakarian is still alive and well."

Fuck.

Now her heart does betray her. The measured electronic echo of her pulse increases its beat. Torrin glances up at it, grinning as he looks back at her.

"Personally, I want to hand you over to the Hegemony." He moves closer, pressing against the bed as he leans over her and plants a hand on either side of her head. His smile falls away as he stares down. His breath stinks, soured by his last meal.

She draws her hand up between them, but stops herself from punching him by digging her fingers into the blankets over her chest. As good as it would feel to break his jaw, she knows now isn't the time to attack.

"I was born on Aratoht," he says. Four eyes blink, and his need for vengeance laces his words with hatred when he says, "My parents lived there. My brother would have celebrated the tenth year of his birth next week."

She knows all too well what it cost to keep the Reapers at bay, buy the galaxy a little more time. There is no way she can put into words how ending so many innocent lives weighs on her. That she tried to warn them doesn't lighten that burden. Not in the least.

"I know what I did, I -"

"No! Shut your mouth, human." What little control he was showing snaps as he almost screams the words. "Nothing you can say - nothing - will undo the agony you have caused our people."

She doesn't flinch and this seems to make him angrier. He lowers his face, until his mouth is next to her ear.

"Maybe you should know what that suffering is like."

He shifts, pulling back, supporting his weight on one hand. It's not a shock to her that when he reaches down and pulls a closed knife out of its sheath. It's obviously not a utility knife. Those are shorter, sturdier, made to stand up to heavy work. Even without seeing the blade, she knows it's delicate and wickedly sharp.

He stares at her, locking his eyes on hers, and snaps the blade out with with an abrupt snick of sound.

The sound of the knife opening makes her twitch, more out of reflex than anything, but Torrin grins at the response. "Problem with humans is you only have two eyes to take out."

Adrenaline spikes, coursing through her body as the fight or flight response kicks in. Her nerves twinge as the eezo reacts to the flood of epinephrine . Even without her amp, at this range, she could blow this asshole through the ceiling. But then there's still Corik. No way she can take him out, too. Her mind scrambles for a better solution.

There's a grunt from Corik. He sounds annoyed. "Just finished patching her up."

"And you can do it again. Hold her arm," Torrin says, tilting his head, watching her face for a reaction as he holds the knife between them and brushes his thumb over the blade.

She's a second away from smashing Torrin despite the fact it's almost certainly a death sentence when she sees the opening she needs. The problem with this batarian, she thinks, is he has one too many ears.

Corik starts to walk around the end of the bed and Shepard knows she needs to act now. Instead of trying to push Torrin away, she reaches up and grabs the collar of his armor, jerking him downward so his body is between her and the knife. He gives a startled umph as his feet slip and he falls on top of her.

Things don't get truly chaotic until she bites off his remaining ear.

He howls, slapping at the bed, frantic to push away from her. She registers that as he's flailing, he loses his grip on the knife and his panicked motions send it skittering across the room. In the middle of the confusion, it's training and instinct that tell her it ends up well out of his reach.

If she hadn't been filled full of Cerberus rounds recently, there's no way he could have broken her hold. As it is, he manages to punch her in the temple with his empty hand and that rattles her enough she's forced to let go.

Still, she has time to spit out his ear and land another solid bite on his neck before Corik grabs him from behind and hauls him off.

Torrin is cursing so violently her translator refuses to even try. As she glares at him and spits again - this time skin and blood - she hears the words 'pyjak bitch' and thinks he deserves zero points for being original.

She turns her head enough to wipe her mouth on her shoulder. The taste of blood makes her want to gag, but she doubts asking for water to rinse her mouth out will go over too well.

She watches as Corik opens a cabinet, pulling out a packet of medi-gel. He goes back to Torrin, plasters the gel over the bites, and then examines the bloody stump that was once an ear, shaking his head. "There's no way I can reattach this."

Torrin shoves away from him, putting one hand over the wounds, the other shaking before he balls it into a fist. His voice has a steadier timbre as he regains control of himself.

"Get us Vakarian, you go free. One-time offer."

She could probably spin this to her advantage, figure out some way to double cross them. It would put Garrus at risk, and even though she would never doubt Garrus' abilities, there's no way she's taking that chance.

She lets the offer hang in the air.

Then she says, "Go to hell."

His reply is another curse that her translator chokes over, but she thinks it has to do with her mother and a varren. As he turns and presses the door control, he looks at Corik and says, "As long as she's not dead when we arrive at the meet point, I don't care what condition she's in."

"Wait!" Shepard says, hoping she sounds desperate and frightened by the prospect of being left alone with the turian. She must have gotten it right, because Torrin stops.

She doesn't say anything until he faces her again. "Some free advice," she says, making a point of relaxing and smiling. "You go through with this and someday Vakarian will catch up with you."

Torrin stares at her, a mix of medi-gel and blood oozing from between his fingers. "That's supposed to scare me, pyjak? One turian who couldn't keep an entire team from being slaughtered?"

"You've never seen him angry. But no, he'll be the least of your worries," she says, dropping the friendly tone completely. Her voice goes cold. "The drell who'll be with him is the one you need to be afraid of."

"I'll keep that in mind," he says, punching the control for the door.

Shepard waits until it closes behind him to look at Corik.

"Weren't you and I having a conversation?" she asks, pushing herself up onto an elbow, trying to gauge how much progress her cybernetics have made on her injuries. Definitely enough to take out a turian, she decides. "Think I was calling you a coward."

His head turns towards her in degrees, reminding her of a mech with impaired functionality. This time when he comes at her, it's slowly, head tilted to the side. Maybe she's overplayed her hand, she thinks, came on too strongly with the bait.

All she needs is for him to take two more steps. Retrieve the code-key for her cuffs. Hack his omni-tool, steal his pistol, and shoot her way off this ship. It's bad enough to be one of her plans.

"All the stories have you as being brave, Shepard." He takes another step. "But the line between bravery and insanity can be..."

He trails off, taking the last step. His mandibles droop as Shepard sit up in the bed, grabbing him by the arm. The blue of her biotics casts an uneven pattern of shadows over his face.

Corik tries to back away, but Shepard hauls him in closer. She can feel power rippling along her nerves, almost completely out of control. This is going to wipe out her reserves totally, might as well give it everything.

"Fuck, they said your amp was - "

He doesn't get to finish, but he does make a choked gurgling sound when Shepard jerks him down and cracks her skull against his. Turian skulls aren't nearly as hard as krogans'. He half slumps across her, moaning.

She can feel her biotics starting to fizzle out, the short burst of energy leaving her drained and dizzy. Still, there's time to use something else Thane taught her: she grabs the turian by the fringe and using his own bodyweight against him, pulls to the side hard, not letting go until she hears a muted crunch.

There's no time to catch her breath. She pauses only long enough only to yank the IV out of her arm, then rolls Corik's limp body over so she can search his armor for the cuff release device. His head lolls like a broken toy and a wide mark of blue smears across his forehead where she smashed him. When she catches up with Torrin, he's going to look worse.

A few things happen in quick succession. The entire ship shudders. A second later, the power goes out. Then the emergency lights activate, followed by the deafening blare of a monotone VI issuing a ship-wide alert.

"This is not drill. Hostiles have breached decks two, three, and four. Standard defensive protocols are authorized. Be advised Cerberus forces are not to be taken alive."

Shepard doesn't stop her search, but she does shake her head, talking to herself as she works. "Cerberus? You've got to be kidding. Like a shitty joke with a worse punchline. Someone needs to tell the Illusive Man to get a new hobby."

She finds the key in a compartment over the turian's left shoulder. The second the cuff falls away from her wrist, she shoves Corik away. He slides from the bed, falling to the floor in a series of dull thuds and clatters as flesh and armor land on the deck.

Sitting up, she taps the omni-tool dermaplant set in the back of her hand. Waiting for the tool to finish a reboot cycle strains her nerves. She needs to move, now. Just as she's getting ready to tap it again, it sparks to life, lighting up her arm in an orange glow, fingertips to elbow.

From somewhere on the deck above, she hears the staccato tat-tat-tat of a assault rifle and she knows the fight is getting closer to her.

She frowns, accepting an unwelcome truth. Escape is impossible. Someone from one side or the other is going to be guarding the shuttles. Even if she can fight her way through, no matter who comes out on top of this little skirmish, the winner would be able to track down the craft in minutes.

But no one would look twice at an emergency beacon launched during a firefight, and if she surrenders to Cerberus, she's more likely to live long enough for a future escape attempt.

Swinging her legs out of the bed, she expects the way her muscles shriek at her. Cybernetics or not, the amount of damage she sustained won't simply disappear. She doesn't expect the sudden fatigue that strikes her. She'd forgotten the reason biotics normally didn't try this unamped shit.

She pushes herself upright, and crosses the room slowly, strength returning. First, she finds a set of off-white hospital-style pajamas in one drawer. They're stained with faded rust-colored blotches, and in a moment of dark humor, she hopes she fares better than the last owner of them.

More shots echo overhead. No more time to rummage through the rest of the drawers. She crosses back to Corik. Crouching down, she grabs his limp arm, twisting it until she can scan the back of his hand.

Using the advanced hacking program in her omni-tool makes breaking into the turian's interface less difficult than cracking the average safe.

Files and directories crowd the display. She types a query into her screen, seconds ticking by as her tool searches his. She's looking for any inventory report which mentions emergency buoys, with files that aren't locked under anything more complex than a single-layered encryption.

Simple or not, they take time to work through and staying in this room much longer isn't going to be possible. When the reports she's waiting for pop up a second later, she grins.

"There you are. Four delta-class Kelsar beacons," she says, scrolling for the storage location. "Cargo bay two." Now all she needs is a blueprint of the ship's layout.

Another explosion makes the ship tremble around her as she starts pulling up more files. She glances at the door, then back at the omni-tools.

Damn. There are no less than ten that could include the ship schematics she needs. There's not enough time to decode them and then upload onto her own tool, while ensuring she gets everything. Dragging Corik behind her isn't going to work, either. She considers Torrin's knife, still where it landed during their struggle.

She comes to her next decision without hesitation. It's not like a dead man needs two hands.

 

Chapter Text

11.

Garrus settles into the front passenger seat of the Hammerhead, buckling his harness into place before leaning forward to key in the pickup signal to the Normandy. A gust of wind makes the small drop ship rock slightly, stirring up dust around them. Behind him, he hears Thane stifle a cough.

"Anytime, Jack," he says, raising his voice to carry over the wind. He knows she's just showing off now; the scrapyard manager was thoroughly intimidated long before Jack started hurling pieces of wrecked ships through the air.

The hatch from an skycar lifts above her, then slams into a storage container, glass and hardened kyvex exploding on impact. The volus is backed up against his office door, cursing at her between stuttering wheezes of air.

"Jack!" Garrus shouts. "Either get in the damn ship, or I'm driving."

"Like hell!" Jack turns toward the Hammerhead and her grin makes him sigh. He leans back in his seat. No point in trying to stop what she's about to do. Her respect for his leadership only goes so far. Then again, he's reasonably sure Shepard wouldn't have stopped her, either.

As Jack walks toward the ship, she casually tosses another wave of energy behind her. The charge snaps through the air, landing two feet in front of the volus. The earth in front of him bubbles up in a small dome. Then it pops, showering him with dirt.

"Fuck yeah," she says, smirking. She breaks into a jog, vaulting lightly into the driver's seat, and triggers the canopy. Pneumatic seals tighten around them in series as the air filters kick on. Her smile slips when Thane starts coughing again, harder than before, dry and pained. The noise of the wind is abruptly shut out, and Thane's ragged breathing rasps in the silence.

Jack gives Garrus an uneasy glance. Garrus nods at her harness.

Not the time.

She pulls the straps over her chest, clipping the metal tab into the seat between her legs. Then she starts the pre-flight checks, or at least her version of them, and activates the thrusters.

As they thrum to life, Garrus looks over his shoulder at Thane. The drell is leaning against the lowered canopy, inner eyelids closed. As though he senses he's being watched, his eyes open.

"What did you find?" he asks, hoarsely. He pushes himself upright, pulling his harness into place with deliberate care. His voice falls into a register which for a turian would mean pain. Garrus thinks it likely means the same thing in drell. At least his breathing sounds a little easier.

Jack snorts. "A waste of fucking time."

"Maybe not," Garrus replies. He closes his eyes, rubbing them for a moment before dropping his hand and bringing up the display on his omni-tool. "Liara was closer this time. The flight recorder was probably from a Cerberus ship. It got hit this side of the Widow jump. Blue Suns. Medical logs indicate a human on-board was literally dumped in a bath of medigel."

"Probably. Maybe," Jack repeats, hands on the controls, lifting the ship into the air. She hits the turbojets and the Hammerhead pivots smoothly in place. "Three weeks, and that's all we've got? You sure your asari is as good as you say?"

"She's the Shadow Broker. Doesn't get much better than that," he answers. As an afterthought, he adds, "She was with Shepard on the SR-1."

"You trust her because she followed Shepard around two years ago? Because she's a friend from way back when?" Jack asks, voice full of sarcasm, as she adjusts the thruster output. Garrus tries to ignore the way the tolerance gauge flashes in warning.

"Shepard wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Liara," he says. "And I'm a friend from way back when."

"No, you're a dumbass who still thinks it's that simple. 'Friend' is just a shorter word for someone who fucks you over and then has the balls to say, 'I'm sorry.' "

"Then why are you here? It's not the pay."

She doesn't answer, only throttles the thrusters up another notch. The ship shoots out of the scrapyard, Jack navigating the airway with more speed than is probably advisable. They dart around cargo vehicles and a few smaller air cars, and a red light blinks above her head.

Definitely more speed than advisable.

"Okay, let's play a game. It's called 'ask someone who might have a fucking clue.' " Jack says, banking the ship around the sharp corner of a building, and then looks in one of the auxiliary camera screens at Thane. "What d'you think?"

There's a long enough pause that Garrus turns to look over his shoulder. Thane stares out of the canopy glass, and Garrus wonders if the drell is lost in a memory. Not that Garrus would fault him for it. He knows a thing or two about survivor's guilt.

"I think," Thane says, not turning from the view, "that Dr. T'Soni would go to any length to assure Shepard's well-being."

There's a particular coldness to Thane's voice that surprises Garrus; maybe something to ask about later.

But, he could be misreading it. They've been at this three weeks. They're all exhausted, eaten by fatigue, worry, and fear. One jump ahead of the Alliance, three steps behind Cerberus. It was taking its toll on all of them.

Jack considers Thane's answer, then shrugs, but Garrus doesn't miss that she glances at the screen before the Hammerhead clears the edge of the industrial zone and starts to gain altitude.

When the Normandy sweeps in, holding a steady course in front of them and drops the docking bay ramp, Jack guides the ship in. It glides to a stop and hovers above the deck for a second before the thrusters disengage and it comes to rest without so much as a bump.

"Think when this is over, Shepard's going to owe me this little ship," Jack says as she opens the canopy, reaching to unfasten her harness. Instead of clicking the release, though, she hesitates. Her tattooed fingers rest on the buckle, her lips press together tightly. "Fucking dumb girl scout. Should have been smarter."

Garrus doesn't answer, just undoes his own restraints, and lets the harness slide into the recessed holders.

The strain is getting to them all.

Jack unclips her harness and then levers herself out of the ship. She lands with easy grace on the deck. She waves a hand on her way to the elevator and says, "Gardner has the night off. Guess one of you assholes is cooking."

Garrus climbs out, feeling stiff and sore. He's really too tall to crunch up in the cockpit of the Hammerhead. Makes him wish they hadn't dumped the Kodiak when they left the Citadel. If he steals the Normandy again, he'll make sure the shuttle goes with it.

Thane walks around from the other side of the Hammerhead, stopping at the nose. He stands there, hands clasped behind his back. "A word, if I may?"

"Got pretty bad down there." Garrus can still hear the catch to the drell's breathing. He wonders if Thane understands exactly how acute turian hearing is. "You good for the next mission?"

"I realize the time will come when I am not at my best. At that point, I will remain on the ship." He says it without malice or anger; it's a statement of fact.

"Fair enough," Garrus says, turning around to reach into the cockpit of the Hammerhead for a bag of thermal clips. He knows when to drop a subject. "You wanted something?"

"I... have not been completely forthcoming with you." There's a short pause. "EDI. Joker. I would prefer this conversation remain private."

Garrus frowns and turns. Thane's face is set, as stoic as the first time Garrus saw him on Illium.

The overhead comms click, and EDI sounds especially disinterested when she says, "I have disabled all monitoring. Including Jeff's secondary channels. Should you need further assistance, you will be required to contact us by omni-tool. Logging out."

Normally, knowing that Joker had been caught snooping would earn a chuckle from Garrus. Not today.

"Okay..."

"Liara T'Soni contacted me some weeks ago with a dossier."

"You're still taking contracts?" And what is Liara doing ordering hits, he wonders? He crosses his arms and leans against the Hammerhead with an ease he doesn't feel.

"No. Dantius was my last. T'Soni requested my assistance, and the use of my network of associates. She wished to determine the source of the commission in her dossier, in an attempt to prevent its completion." He hesitates again and his expression becomes stonier. "She also requested, due to Shepard's impending incarceration and trial, I withhold the target's identity from the commander."

That explained Thane's tone earlier when Jack asked him about Liara. Garrus shifts his position slightly, rubbing his scarred mandible as he thinks. Why would Liara care enough to go to Thane - someone she'd met once - for help?

He also wonders if Liara has lost her damned mind. Hiding anything from Shepard is a bad idea. She isn't the most patient person, especially when she thinks she's been lied to.

"Wild guess says you told her."

"There wasn't time," Thane says. "I intended to. But then..."

Garrus nods; it's hard not to feel the weight of thinking that they've already run out of time. He sighs. "I don't see how it matters at this point."

Thane only stares at him, inscrutable.

Garrus raises an eyeridge. "But you're going to tell me why it does matter, aren't you. And I'm not going to like it."

He straightens from the Hammerhead, letting his arms drop. He doesn't miss the subtle shift of Thane's weight in response.

"No. You're not," Thane says. "The target is Cassius Vakarian."

The words hang there. It's as though his translator glitches because his brain isn't able to process the information.

"My father?" He tilts his head, mandibles flaring out. An ugly flash of anger fueled by fear ignites inside of his chest. "You've known all this time, and didn't say anything?"

"Yes. But during that time I have been in contact with associates who - "

"That is not something you keep from someone, Krios." His anger turns into rage. He takes a step forward, not caring that he's showing his teeth, not caring that the situation could get very messy very quickly.

"Had I revealed the information, you would have alerted him to the danger." There's a note of weariness in Thane's voice, and the catch to his breathing is becoming more pronounced.

"What? Of course I would have contacted him. He's my father." His father who could have a sniper's laser sight trained on the back of his skull right now.

"Yes, and he would have altered his habits. Do you know what that says to an assassin?" Thane asks, stifling a cough in his fist.

"That someone told him his life was in danger. And?"

Thane blinks for the first time since their conversation began.

"And?" he echoes, as though he shouldn't have to explain further. "When I accepted a contract, my target would die. Failure was not an option. But if my target broke from his routine, complications would inevitably arise."

"There better be a point coming soon," Garrus forces the words out. Imagining his father tracked so relentlessly is the final push he needs. This is about to happen. One more step and he'll be too close to stop the momentum building between them.

Thane's weight is balanced, hands loose at his sides; he's more than ready to defend himself. Not that Garrus expects him to back off. Neither of them are good at retreat.

"If I thought my target was aware of me, I would be forced to action. And to ensure no trace of my activities remained, death would come to those who did not deserve it." Thane's eyes are flat and his voice unreadable. "The wicked will go to great lengths to achieve their goals. Would you rather lose one family member, or all of them?"

His entire family. His mandibles dip and he clicks them back in place, feeling as strung-out as though he'd walked through a cloud of red sand. He knows Thane isn't exaggerating. He's seen the devastation a botched assassination attempt can leave behind.

"It wasn't your call. You should have said something."

"My contacts are close to determining the source of the contract. My former associates have been warned not to accept it. The risk to your father is minimal at this point."

"Then why tell me at all?" He know he sounds sarcastic and mean. He doesn't give a damn.

"My intent was to eliminate the source myself, eventually. But - " Thane stops, interrupted by another short series of coughs before he can continue, "it seems my time grows ever shorter. The files will be transferred to your account today."

Garrus stares at him. He's still pissed. No doubt about that. And nothing will convince him Thane was right not to speak up. The difference now is Garrus isn't going to pick a fight with a dying man.

He doesn't get a chance to say anything else because the elevator doors part. Before they're completely open, Jack stalks out.

"What the fuck are you two doing? We've been pinging you for the last five minutes." She looks between them, glaring. "Your asari found something."

The elevator ride from the bay to CIC has never felt longer. By the time they get there, Chakwas is waiting. So is Joker, leaning against the wall. His hat is pulled low enough to shade his eyes, but it doesn't hide the scowl he gives them when they enter the room. Daniels and Donnelly stand near the door, with Gardner beside them.

Liara's image is projected above the conference table. She nods stiffly at Garrus as he and Thane stop at the end of the table.

In one hand, Liara holds a small holo-player controller; her other arm is across her waist, as though she's subconsciously protecting herself. From the dark shapes behind her, Garrus assumes she's transmitting from her base orbiting Hagalaz.

"That's everyone, Liara," Joker says. Then he mutters, "'Bout damn time."

"I have more information, but..." she hesitates, "...it's not easy to watch. This was pulled from an emergency beacon delivered to me this morning."

She raises the controller and her image is replaced by a grainy holo.

There's a loud, steady hiss of static, followed by Shepard's image as it fills the gridded space. She's looking down, fingers moving over the orange glow of her omni-tool. From her surroundings, mostly storage crates, with some unorganized piles of armor, Garrus guesses she's locked herself a small cargo hold.

A wave of small sounds goes around the room as they all react to the sight of their commander. There are a few low curses, mostly from Joker and Gardner, a soft, oh, from Chakwas.

Shepard looks like she's been through hell. She's dressed in stained white clothing which is far too large; the shirt gapes at the neck, exposing her shoulder and collarbone. Her pale skin is dotted with puckered, partially healed bullet wounds. There's a fresh bruise at her temple, the purple mark spreads from her hairline half-way down her cheek.

Garrus sucks in a breath. Beside him, Thane mutters, words that might have been part of a prayer.

Shepard glances up, as though she hears him. Her eyes are bloodshot, and there are dark circles underneath.

Gunshots and an explosion echo in the background, and she returns to her task.

"To any party finding this beacon. There is five-thousand credit reward for returning it to the Shadow Broker. The beacon must in untampered condition when delivered." Her voice is rough, as though she's spent too long shouting.

Or screaming.

Garrus silences the thought ruthlessly and focuses on Shepard.

She's looking at her omni-tool, eyes moving back and forth over the display. Then she reaches down and picks up something that glows orange. It looks like...

"Is that a... hand? Is she using some dead guy's omni-tool?" Jack asks. She laughs, the sound viciously happy. "She is! Shepard is one scary motherfucker."

Garrus smiles, faintly. She is. She definitely is.

"If there is any corruption of the included data or messages, the reward will not be issued."

Another explosion nearby makes the room she's in shake. The fine, branching lines at the corners of her eyes deepen. She rushes with the next sequence, tapping the interface of the other omni-tool.

"Few other things. Cerberus is responsible for what happened to me on the Citadel. Any other parties are innocent."

She runs her finger over a line of data. Her lips move as she reads to herself, then she nods and continues working.

"The Suns know the truth about Omega."

Garrus' mandibles dip, understanding instantly what she means. Someone had made the connection that he was Archangel. And the Blue Suns know.

Because this mission needs another complication.

Shepard completes the sequence of data she's entering, glancing at the camera. "So, watch your ass. Duck if you have to. Don't give me that shit that you don't know how. You die and lose that Locust, we're going to have words in the afterlife."

Garrus' throat tightens. Damn it, Shepard.

On the screen, Shepard finishes her programing. She sighs and after a moment, looks directly into the camera lens.

"Everyone else. You're the reason we accomplished what we did. No commander could ask for a better crew." The noise of a firefight is louder now, shouting can be heard, accented by the muffled noise of a concussive round detonating.

"Tannor... odds say I'm not making it out of this. You need to know I - " she breaks off, the muscles in her jaw tightening before she swallows hard and says, "I love you and -"

There's a sudden flash of light behind her, and she ducks. The camera angle jerks and tilts, falling so that the view is of the floor.

There are more explosions and a choked-off scream. And then there's only darkness.

The feed ends and Liara reappears. She clears her throat. "She was programming it to track the trajectory of any ship leaving the area after the beacon launched. It was a very badly written program, so all I can give you is the Grissom System."

No one says anything, but Thane abruptly turns from the projection and walks out of the room, head bowed, none of his usual grace in his strides.

Garrus watches him go. He's not finished with the conversation they started in the bay, not by a long shot, but it can wait.

"Well, then," Chakwas says, softly, "I would suggest we depart now."

Chapter Text

12.

Thane finishes cleaning the barrel of the Viper, then sets it with the other disassembled components on the table before him. Once more he regrets the loss of his heavily modded rifle. Obviously, there hadn't been time to retrieve his weapons from storage before they left the Citadel.

He supposes eventually they will be discovered, along with his alias. Not that it will matter by that point, he thinks, as he begins to reassemble the rifle.

Firing group first. Ammunition block, cutting laser, eezo chamber. The pieces fit together easily and he sets them to the side. The upper receiver is next. He picks it up and holds the barrel to the light, examining the bore with a critical eye.

It's a needless check. He performs it despite this. He will be ready before the Normandy arrives at its destination within the Grissom system, and the task keeps him occupied.

It's unlikely Shepard remains at the facility they are bound for. The moment they cleared the relay, a series of monitoring buoys had alarmed, presumably alerting her captors to their presence. It seems probable they will find the base located on the moon Solcrum to be either abandoned or heavily guarded.

"Sere Krios," EDI says. "I apologize for the interruption."

"Did you need something?" he asks as he clicks the firing group into the receiver.

"My records indicate that following the mission through the Omega 4 relay you read extensively about the planet Notanban."

"Your records are correct," he answers. The phenomenon of the single-celled bioluminescent organisms which float in the upper atmosphere interested him greatly. The alterations the hanar had made to his eyes when he was a child would allow him to see the planet in a way most could not.

"Although our presence within the nebula has been detected, Officer Vakarian has determined our best course of action is to use Notanban to disguise our final approach," she says, repeating mission details of which he's already aware. "You may find the view from the starboard lounge interesting."

The upper and lower receivers of the rifle slide together smoothly. There is no catch in the action as he pulls the trigger, dry-firing the rifle before pressing a thermal sink into the chamber.

"Thank you," he says, with genuine appreciation. Meditating now would likely be a pointless endeavor. And he has no desire to spend the time reliving memories.

He stands from the table, clipping the rifle to the holds on his back before leaving Life Support.

The illumination in the observation lounge has been extinguished. Thane takes a place in front of the window, and it as though EDI and Joker had been waiting for him, because the Normandy banks in a graceful arc.

The planet of Notanban shimmers before him.

There is little left in the galaxy which takes him by surprise, but the sudden wash of color and light does. He hadn't imagined it would be so overwhelming. He blinks as his eyes adjust, staring out while the ship assumes a geosynchronous orbit, sinking into the upper atmosphere so that they are engulfed in ever-shifting patterns of bioluminescence.

As the planet turns, the system's sun super-heats the atmosphere. The ammonia-based lifeforms which inhabit the layer in vast shoals travel at fantastic speeds to escape. Chased by searing heat, they mindlessly live and breed and then die by the countless billions. Even understanding the science of the phenomenon does nothing to lessen the impact of it.

He had never expected to see it in person. And now, a sight that should awe him only underscores his emptiness. There are times when sharing a thing of beauty with another is as much a wonder as experiencing it.

He wishes, in a way he knows to be foolish and childish, that Shepard were here. He wishes to describe the way the creatures churn over and over. The shoals merge and break apart, cresting waves in a place where there is no sea.

Shepard woke him from his battle sleep, so that once again he knew the joy of being alive. And now, beyond all of his worry for her safety, he finds he misses her.

The door behind him opens, and he hears Garrus' footsteps. The turian says nothing in greeting, only walks to the far end of the window.

They stand in silence, watching the glowing creatures spilling over one another as the Normandy travels through their midst.

"I read the files you sent," Garrus says. His tone is guarded. "Still mad as hell."

Thane inclines his head in a careful nod of understanding. "I would expect nothing less."

"There was a lot of information there," Garrus says. "You put all of that together in three weeks?"

"Yes."

He doesn't add that it had been another welcome distraction. Better to have a focus other than dwelling on his own failures and sorrow.

"Cerberus again," Garrus says. "I thought the Illusive Man had his own people for that sort of thing."

"He does. One who is particularly... unpleasant." Thane doesn't bother to hide the distaste in his voice. He knows of Kai Leng only by reputation, and in a profession marred by thugs, he counts Leng among them. "I believe it to be further subterfuge."

"And the Illusive Man went through a lot of trouble to hide his tracks on this. No way he's using the connection to me to hurt Shepard in some way."

"I agree. There is a purpose to his actions."

They stand in silence for a while, watching as the microscopic organisms swirl and eddy around the shields.

"We had another mission to Solcrum, back on the SR-1," Garrus says. "It was geth that time. Didn't get this close to the main planet, though."

"They're called panlokt," Thane says, watching as another crest breaks around the ship. "They flee the coming day, the advance of the termination line."

"Sounds like life everywhere," Garrus says, his armor creaking faintly in the quiet room. They stand like this for some time, watching the play of light before them. Then Garrus adds, "I'm sure humans have a saying about it."

"They do have a fondness for idioms," Thane says. Then he smiles faintly. "Most of which do not translate."

"Ducks in a row?" Garrus says. "Still haven't quite figured that one out."

Thane turns away from the view. "I believe we should be in position soon."

"Yeah," Garrus answers, turning and walking toward the door. "Let's hope this isn't another - "

"Wild goose chase?" Thane asks, raising an eyeridge.

Garrus chuckles softly as they fall into step beside one another, making their way to the elevator. Thane knows the turian is still upset about his father, but at least some of the ease which existed between them before has returned.

Jack is already in the Hammerhead when they reach the docking bay. The reason she hasn't been comming them relentlessly is immediately apparent. She's preoccupied herself by using her biotics to manipulate small metal crates, placing them in a neat stack across the deck from the Hammerhead.

Thane keeps his face deceptively blank. He recognizes the exercise as an asari technique for teaching patience. He's also aware of where she learned it, and that this was not common knowledge.

"You two kiss and make up?" she asks, as he climbs into the ship and takes his place in the rear seat. "What crawled up your ass and died anyway, Vakarian?"

Garrus gives a huff of annoyance as he settles in beside Jack.

"Whatever it was," she pauses, lifting another crate, dangling in the air above the others, "I'm sure you two little boys ended up settling it by pulling them out and measuring."

Thane contains his own sigh. She is a challenge at the best of times. He leans forward and says conversationally, "I am glad to see you're not wasting the time Samara spent instructing you."

The crate wobbles.

"Wait." Garrus flares his mandibles in amusement. He grins at Jack. "You were taking lessons from a thousand year-old Justicar?"

The crate drops in an uncontrolled fall, toppling the rest of the stack in series of crashes.

"Fuck you, Krios," Jack says, slapping the control for the canopy. "I had that."

"Until emotional response overwhelmed you." Thane says calmly as he leans back and fastens his harness.

"If you're such hot shit," she says, firing the thrusters, spinning the Hammerhead in place to face the bay door, "we get back, you show me how it's done."

"Of course." He replies without hesitation, as though it is a foregone conclusion.

She half-turns in her seat and looks at him. He can see the uncertainty under her anger; she's trying to determine if she's being mocked.

"It is a worthy exercise, one I have not practiced in some time," he says, inclining his head in a formal nod. "I look forward to the challenge."

A crease forms between her eyes.

"Don't let Donnelly hear about it. Might start a pool," Garrus says.

Jack ignores him, but she gives Thane a quick nod before she goes back to the controls.

"Joker?" Garrus says. "We're ready."

"Five seconds and we'll be in position," the pilot says. "Hey. It's gonna get ugly down there. Reading at least twenty hostiles."

The artificial gravity fluctuates slightly as the Normandy drops in close to the moon and the Hammerhead shifts in response before Jack can steady it.

The door lowers, and they can see the uneven surface of the terrain below. Jack activates the thrusters and the Hammerhead shoots from the bay.


A/N:

Sorry this chapter is so short and filler-ish. I've been down with a head cold, and this is all my brain could manage. Next week's chapter will hopefully make up for some of it!

Chapter Text

13.

Shepard really doesn't like Kai Leng.

When the door to her room opens unexpectedly, she looks up from her desk, annoyed. When she sees who's standing there, she considers ignoring him and returning to the mission report she's finishing. It's bad enough with doctors and technicians invading her privacy on whim, but for him to do it, too?

"That door does have a chime," she says, leaning back in her chair, thumbing off the datapad. "Use it next time."

"The Illusive Man wants to speak with us," he says. The cybernetics behind his eyepiece seem to glitter as he stares her.

In the week and a half she's spent working with Leng she hasn't found a single redeeming quality in the man. The one mission they've been on together had been a success, but it had only highlighted her dislike.

She doesn't like his superiority, she doesn't like his cruelty, and his affected sense of style makes her want to punch him. She does manage to ignore these things in favor of the single point she likes least about him - he has one of the controllers that's tuned to the chip in her head.

"Debriefing, or new orders?" she asks, hoping for the latter. Anything to get off this base, away from the probing fingers, tests, and endless questions. Away from the boredom. She might not remember much about her life before, but she knows she's never liked sitting around.

Leng doesn't answer her question, only gives her a faintly disgusted look before walking away.

Shepard shakes her head. Such an asshole.

She stands and stretches, picking up the datapad, tapping it against her leg as she leaves the room and closes the door without locking it. She hasn't been given the keycode. Not that she has anything worth stealing. Not anymore. It all went with the Normandy when the ship was taken from her.

When her crew mutinied, her inner voice corrects.

She walks down the corridor, past the other private quarters that she knows are empty. She's wondered more than once if she should be flattered or offended she's been given her own tier of this underground facility.

Most of the installation is off-limits to her, and other than the medical labs, the areas she does have access to are empty and uninteresting. The base has a simple layout. A long hangar forms a spine, three stories high, with railed-off catwalks at each level. Corridors branch off of the hangar at regular intervals.

A single oversized cargo elevator which leads to the surface is set into one end of the hangar. At the other, a vertical shaft large enough for shuttles and fighters, capped with both titanium blast doors and an electrostatic field. The only other access point to the base is an emergency stairwell behind the research labs.

The labs are on the lowest floor; set behind a bank of windows facing the hangar, with smaller observation rooms behind. She tries not to think about waking up there, the newly implanted neural device feeling like an incendiary grenade burning her brain out.

The Illusive Man calls it insurance. She thinks it's bullshit. It's a point of contention between them. The dull ache above her amp is a constant reminder of his distrust. And, despite the fact that the techs say it's perfectly synchronized to her brain patterns, she can't help but wonder if it's impeding the return of her memories.

Just like old times, Shepard.

Shit.

She stops, inhaling slowly through her nose. She hates these flashes.

Usually, when she thinks about what her crew did, she feels blind rage. She's seen the vids. Kelly Chambers was very clear on how events played out and who was involved. If Shepard ever sees any of them again, there won't be a question of sparing their lives.

But the flashes of memory. She hates them because they don't fit with what she knows is true.

Vakarian was a merc from Omega who tried to murder his ex-partner. He led the secondary strike team opposite of hers when they went after the Collectors. Then the bastard tried to kill her.

So why does she have memories where she can feel genuine warmth between them?

There's a twinge of pressure above her amp, and she doesn't think it's a coincidence it's exactly where the chip sits. Her vision blurs for a second, and she reaches out with one hand to steady herself against the wall.

That's new. And, like the flashes, it's not something she's going to mention to her doctors.

She pushes away from the wall and continues down the corridor. As with all of the upper-level corridors, it opens onto a catwalk. Kai Leng stands at the rail, looking down at the hangar below. Shepard stops beside him, eyebrows raising at the activity.

The bay is normally disorganized, filled with medical equipment and tall stacks of smaller storage crates. Full-size shipping containers take up a large portion of the floor space. There's no real rhyme or reason to the organization. It bothers her, but it's not her problem if the Illusive Man wants his facility run haphazardly.

Today is different, though. This is a level of chaos she hasn't seen before.

Troops in full gear are loading into the elevators to the surface. Doctors and Cerberus techs are gathered around one of the installation's shuttles. A small group of engineers with small hardcases file out of a restricted access corridor.

"We're under attack?" she asks. Leng ignores her, walking away without answer. She watches him until he steps into a personnel elevator, then looks again at the hangar floor at the sound of thrusters activating.

Three of the shuttles lift off, their pilots guiding them into the air shaft and out of sight.

The engineers are setting up near the cargo elevators; the turrets make their characteristic click-whir as they activate and lock in on the elevator doors.

That amount of firepower could stop a squad of charging krogan. She wonders what attacking force could warrant that reception.

Boredom suddenly doesn't seem so bad.

She takes the same elevator as Kai Leng did down to the hangar level, then cuts through an empty lab. It's odd to see all of the work stations vacant; she's never seen it completely deserted before.

There's a lot of empty chairs in here.

She stops again, gripping her fingers into the back of her skull, as though she can drive out the memories by force.

The pilot. Jeff... No. Not Jeff... Joker. They'd killed him, too.

Kelly had told her about it. About all of the good people who had died. She'd brought in the casualty report and the vids that survived the sloppy cover-up. By the time they had finished going over everything, Kelly was an emotional wreck. Not that Shepard was much better.

The memory fades and Shepard continues down the corridor. When she reaches the briefing room, Illusive Man's image is already projected above the conference table. Kai Leng is standing in front of it, speaking to him quietly. When Shepard steps into the room, Leng breaks off what he's saying, moving back and leaning against the wall.

"How are you feeling, Shepard?" the Illusive Man asks.

She knows what he's really asking is whether her memories have returned. It seems to be the question everyone asks her.

What do you remember And her answer is always the same, almost the truth. My team betrayed me, slaughtered everyone who wouldn't follow along. Next thing I remember is waking up here.

"Fine, sir. A little dizziness from time to time."

"The implant bothering you?"

"Yes. It bothers me," she says. "I don't need a leash."

"Not open for debate," he says. His tone is mild, but she knows if she pushes the point, it won't stay that way.

"Are we under attack?" she asks, changing the subject. She knows when to pick her battles.

"We'll get to that in a moment," he says, then nods at her datapad. "Your report?"

"Yes." She activates the pad, then keys in a transmission sequence. "Although, I still haven't been told why we're stealing outdated relay tech from the asari."

Kai Leng starts at this, glaring at her before snapping his head back to speak to the Illusive Man. "This information was not something I provided."

The Illusive Man glances at him, but otherwise overlooks the disruption as he continues speaking to Shepard. "I'm impressed. How did you come to that conclusion?"

"I just... did. I can also tell you it's based off a Prothean design. Which raises the question of how the hell did I know that?" She raises her eyebrows and crosses her arms, rocking back with her weight on one hip. "I keep getting the feeling that you're keeping things from me. I can't do my job if you're not straight with me."

The Illusive Man says nothing, and Shepard wonders if she imagined the brief moment of surprise in his expression. Maybe he didn't answer immediately because he doesn't know the origin of the tech himself.

He takes a drag on his cigarette. The glow from the end casts a red tint over his face.

"We'll discuss that at a later time," he finally says. "And to answer your first question: a ship matching a known signature came through the relay an hour ago. Intel points to it using Notanban's bioluminescent layer as a source of concealment. A small assault craft was dropped ten minutes ago. I'm sending the details now."

Beyond the annoyance that he's keeping information about the Protheans from her, she feels a surge of adrenaline. She looks down at her datapad, scrolling through the data until she sees the name of the ship that came through the relay.

"The Normandy?" She snaps her eyes up, narrowing them on the Illusive Man.

The pressure at the base of her skull is back.

"I want to stay," she says.

"Of course. You and Leng will remain to deal with this. "

"I... " She realizes she's rubbing the back of her neck and forces herself to drop her hand. "How many?"

He glances to the side, then back at her. "Surface troops are reporting a three-person squad: turian, drell, and a human female."

She nods slowly, putting faces to the first two species. The last... there are only three possibilities, and each are very dangerous people in their own right.

The Illusive Man continues, "I want you and Leng to wait below. Provide support to the engineers. When the threat is eliminated, take one of the shuttles and rendezvous with the frigate Ennobled at the provided coordinates."

"They're going to slaughter those troops. You know it as well as I do," she says.

"They're buying you time."

Leng can't keep his mouth shut. He interrupts again. "All this for three?"

Shepard bites back the words she wants to say. Her head aches, and her mouth is dry. "Depending on who it is, we have less time than you think."

Time for me is short, Siha. But any I have is yours to take.

The Illusive Man is watching her. "Is this a problem?"

Thane Krios. Who had looked at her with his black, dead eyes as he stood beside Vakarian and pulled the trigger. Whose voice she hears more than the others, speaking to her in a language her translator refuses to attempt.

The pressure expands, ballooning out. She shakes her head to clear the sensation, but the action only makes her feel dizzy.

"No." She thinks of how it felt when the rounds struck her. She still has the scars. She's going to kill him, then Vakarian, then the human who's with them. "No problem at all."

"Good. Send me a report after the frigate picks you up. The engineers will clean up."

His image sparkles, then fades, and Leng turns to face her. "You're this convinced of their skill. You think they will survive beyond the turrets at the elevators."

"Is there a question in there?" She walks to the door, palming the control. "Grab your gear. Meet me on the west side of the hangar. We'll set up behind the shuttles."

"You intend to use our only means of escape as cover?" Leng says, trailing behind her as she hurries down the corridor. "The catwalk would give us a better vantage."

"Catwalk is the first place two snipers would check, the cover up there is marginal at best, and," she cuts back through the lab again, purposely avoiding looking at the empty stations, "if they live long enough to return fire, we can activate the kinetic barriers on the shuttles."

She hears his grudging hmm, but when she reaches the hangar and looks back, he's gone. She hopes it's to get his equipment.

Five minutes later she's in her armor, kneeling behind one of the rear stabilizers on the shuttle, sub-machine gun resting on the metal support. She twists her helmet on, sealing it in place, opening a comms channel to the engineers. Right now, they're muttering to each other. From what she's hearing, the troops on the surface have been eliminated.

"Just focus, people," she says, calmly. "Get your shields up. Don't be surprised if they start with biotics when those doors open."

The engineers activate their portable shields, the steady ping, ping, ping of the generator echoing in the otherwise silent hangar.

Kai Leng crosses to her in quick strides, crouching down to take a position to her left. He holds up the controller for her neural chip, then returns it to an inside pocket of his coat. He smiles sadistically at her. "In case your commitment wavers."

"When this is over," she says, lining up thermal clips on the floor, "you and I are going to have a talk."

His smile thins and he tilts his head to one side.

The indicator on one of the elevators chimes as it begins it's descent. Each floor is announced with the electronic sound, setting a counter-beat to the ping of the shield generator.

Three.

Two.

One.

The doors slide open and black smoke billows out.

"Clever," Shepard mutters. The turrets buzz to life, raining slugs into the small space. "But, not quite clever enough."

It wasn't a bad strategy. If the infiltrators were wearing full helmets it was as simple as putting a barrel of combustibles into the elevator, lighting it up, and riding the car to the bottom. The smoke and enemy surprise would allow for enough time to find cover, but they couldn't have anticipated meeting this type of resistance head-on.

There's no response from the elevator and the turrets wind down.

"Hold position," Shepard orders. She peers into the smoke, uneasy.

"Leng. Notice they didn't fire a single shot?" Shepard doesn't take her eyes off of the elevator, where the smoke continues to boil out in dark clouds. "Check infrared."

He doesn't answer immediately, switching his cybernetics to a different visibility mode and scanning before he says, "No, but there's an odd signature..."

"What? Odd? What does that mean?"

"Not sure. There's a cold spot. Almost appears to be... shielding?"

Shielding?

"Get back!" Shepard shouts at the engineers. "There's a bomb -"

The explosion that blows out of the elevator tears the engineers apart in a flash of white and orange fire. Shepard drops behind the shuttle, her machine gun gripped in one hand, pulling Leng out of danger with the other as the shock wave crashes by. The wind generated from the concussion of the bomb sweeps by, buffeting against her armor, scattering her spare clips before she can get a hand free to stop them.

Then metal and small pieces of flesh rain down in the wake of the blast. She ducks, but not before a large piece of tissue spatters against her helmet, sliding down the faceplate. The noise is almost overwhelming, and it's only luck none of the shrapnel that bounces off of her armor is large enough to damage the hardsuit.

There's a strange stillness to the hangar after that, a pause in the chaos that feels out of place. Then the emergency ventilation fans roar to life and the silence is broken.

Shepard lifts her head, clipping her rifle behind her back. She can't see through the streaked visor of her helmet, so she pulls it off. Superheated air presses thickly against her nose and mouth, and when she takes a breath in she can smell the unmistakable odor of charred flesh.

It's hot enough in the bay that some of the splotches of red are steaming; she feels sweat bead up on her forehead. The fans are working, but it will take some time before the hanger cools. Beside her, Leng is scowling as he tries to wipe blood from his coat.

Shepard looks around at the destruction, wondering where the enemy will strike next. It it were her...

Another explosion, this time from the other end of the hangar, shakes the floor.

Air starts to rush by, and she recognizes the tell-tale sign of an atmospheric breach even before a klaxon blares. Shepard looks at Leng. "The access shaft. They disabled the electrostatic field and blew the heavy doors. "

There's the screech of metal being twisted, then jagged pieces fall down the shaft, colliding against the walls before banging into the floor.

"We need to leave." He jerks his head at the corridor across the hangar. It leads to the emergency stairwell, and a way out.

"No," she says, biting the word off. "We need to finish the mission."

His mouth twists into a hard grimace, but he doesn't follow it up with comments.

She lifts her helmet, but before she can put it on, the alarm abruptly silences. The secondary safeties have activated. She and Leng hear the sound of thrusters at the same time.

"Incoming vehicle," he says, moving in a low, running crouch for cover behind another shuttle.

She follows him, skidding when she slips on a splotch of gore, almost falling on her ass as she drops down beside him. She finally cleans the front of her helmet, grimacing at the smear left on her hand. She wipes it on the thigh of her armor.

"Look," he whispers, as though anyone could hear them over the steady thrum of engines.

"Fuck," Shepard says, watching as a craft lowers into view. The Hammerhead.

It descends to the floor, slowly, then glides forward and turns in a deliberate half-circle, every bit as deadly as the shark it's named for.

"It's only a matter of time before this area cools off enough and they can detect us," Leng hisses at her. "We aren't properly equipped for this situation."

They aren't. Shepard shakes her head, unwilling to accept failure. She looks around the hangar, at the layout of the shuttles, at the Hammerhead. The solution is clear.

She picks up her helmet, toggles the comms to maximum volume, waits until the Hammerhead noses away from their position, and then pitches the helmet across the bay. It lands and skids, spinning crazily until it disappears into the narrow alley formed between two large shipping containers.

The Hammerhead swings in another arc; a predator seeking prey, trying to determine the source of the movement.

"Get your rifle out," she whispers, pulling her gun, taking a position behind the twisted remains of a crate. She hears the series of clicks which mean Leng is following her order. She signals him, motioning for him to set up beside her, close enough their shoulders touch.

"We cannot engage an assault vehicle." Leng's voice is rough, as though he's inhaled smoke.

"We won't have to. Just watch."

She watches as the Hammerhead settles against the floor. After a few seconds, the seals on the canopy release, and it lifts with a soft hiss.

Vakarian. She glares at the turian's profile as he pushes himself slowly out of the cockpit. He has an assault rifle in hand, and looks slowly around the bay. He stops when his eyes lock on her position.

Shepard holds her breath, willing herself to stay calm. She's well-hidden and the heat of the metal around her is probably still cloaking her energy signature, but his visor can pick up the slightest movement.

A human walks cautiously around the nose of the ship and he finally looks away. Shepard lets the breath out slowly.

Jack. Unsurprising. The biotic loathes Cerberus. Right now she seems... twitchy, eyes darting around as though she's been dosed with stims.

And then a final figure. Krios.

Shepard grins. She couldn't have planned this more perfectly. She leans toward Leng, whispering. "You get Vakarian. I've got Krios. Subject Zero... we'll clean her up together."

He nods understanding, but she can see he hasn't completely figured her plan.

"That helmet has open comms. Now I need to use yours." She tilts her head, as close as she can get to Leng without losing sight of the target. Zeros in on the back of Krios' skull. Two steps and she'll have the perfect shot. "Set the channel at max volume. I need to be able to hear them."

She clears her throat. Her voice wavers with an appropriate amount of weakness. "Hello? Anyone there? I've... been hit."

The response is exactly what she hopes for. Three heads turn in unison toward the gap between the storage containers, and after a momentary pause they start toward her helmet.

"Shepard?"

She hears Vakarian's voice, thin and metallic over Leng's comms.

"Over here," she says.

Shepard's smile widens into something brutal and she focuses on Krios. Through the scope, his features are magnified until she can see the way his eyes reflect the light of the hangar.

She rests her finger on the trigger, just behind the pad. One breath and he dies.

"Goodnight, sweet prince," she murmurs. He stops, blinking oddly.

Jack and Vakarian have stopped as well, looking between him and the source of her voice.

Shepard breathes in.

The plated ridges above Krios' eyes lower into a frown. Then his eyes widen, shining for a moment in an expression she hopes is fear.

She exhales.

"...and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest," he says.

Her eyebrows twitch up, but that doesn't stop her from squeezing the trigger in a smooth motion.

She doesn't sit still long enough to see him drop.

Leng takes his shot in the same heartbeat Shepard does, but she's already up and running, darting through the wreckage the explosions have left in the hangar. It's a quick sprint past the restricted access corridors, then behind what she realizes is one of the doors to the elevator, somehow miraculously still intact.

Pausing there, she turns to check with Leng, she curses under her breath when she sees she's alone. He's disappeared.

Asshole.

She thinks she hears the murmur of voices and curses Leng again, this time for missing his shot.

Vakarian is still alive, quietly conferring with Subject Zero. From the rise and fall of their words, they're having a debate about something.

"Shepard?" Jack calls out. She's moving, her voice echoing slightly. Shepard chances breaking cover to peer around the elevator door. The biotic is still watching Shepard's initial position, using a stack of crates for cover.

Stupid.

"Look. Cerberus is fucking with your head. You don't want -"

Shepard throws a ball of energy into the base of the crates, blowing the stack over. She doesn't take the time to enjoy watching the collapse of metal, only sprints away again, making her way between a heap of medical equipment and what was once a refrigeration unit. Another two seconds and she'll be in the lab. Beyond it is the emergency stairwell.

She's at a dead run when she reaches the lab, grabbing the door frame, using it to yank herself into the room.

She collides chest-first with Vakarian, bouncing off of his armor. It doesn't knock her down, and even though they're almost close enough to touch, she simultaneously starts to bring her gun up and gather herself for a biotic strike.

"Sorry, Shepard," he says, taking a step toward her.

The last thing she sees is the butt of his rifle swinging up, before it connects with the side of her head.

Chapter Text

14.1.

Four's a tight fit in the Hammerhead, but they make it work.

The cockpit stinks of explosives, blood, and smoke, but the smell is the least of Garrus' worries.

Shepard's shot had dropped Krios. The only reason that he wasn't a corpse was he managed to jerk back at the last split-second. The bullet had grazed his skull, carving a deep line from his temple to the corner of his eye; he probably had a concussion, too, but at least medi-gel had stopped the bleeding.

Garrus is well aware that he's alive because he'd wrenched back in reaction to Thane's sudden movement. The slug meant to tear out his throat is still embedded in the cowl guard of his armor.

The stack of crates that collapsed on top of Jack had snapped the biotic's left arm. She'd refused to let Garrus touch it, only jammed an auto injector of narcotics into her thigh and told him to fuck off.

And Shepard. Whatever Cerberus had done to her, they hadn't done it in half-measures. She had been intent on killing them. His mandibles tighten against his jaw; he's sure he fractured her skull stopping her. Odds were that when she woke up, she wouldn't have had a radical change in thinking and was going to be mad as hell.

"Are there cuffs in here?" he asks Jack.

Her face is set in pained concentration, and she holds her arm awkwardly across her waist, the limb twisted at an unnatural angle.

"Under your seat." She grinds the words out. Broken arm or not, she maneuvers the ship over rough ground at speeds that have indicators flashing an erratic beat of red and orange. "And Krios is bleeding on my seats again."

"Got it."

He unlatches the compartment and pulls out a pack of gel and a set of restraints. He ignores the ship's repeated warning about his unfastened safety harness, and twists sideways so he can look into the back.

Thane holds Shepard to his chest, one arm wrapped protectively around her, his free hand gripping hers tightly where it rests on her stomach. His head is bowed and he murmurs in a low voice that catches, cracking on the edges of words. Shepard's expression is slack, and other than the bruising and swelling of her face, she might have been asleep instead of unconscious.

Garrus watches the rise and fall of her chest, barely perceptible under her armor, trying to find some small comfort in the fact that she's still breathing. He swallows, remembering the way her bones gave when he hit her. Even with billions of credits in upgrades, she's still a human with a delicate skull.

If he's seriously injured her, he'll never forgive himself.

Thane looks up and it takes longer for him to focus than it should. He blinks, his inner eyelids reopening slowly.

Garrus has seen enough people in shock to recognize the signs. Whether he's seeing emotional, physical, or a combination of both, he doesn't know.

He also sees the bullet wound is oozing blood again. A thin trail of crimson winds in an uneven path down the drell's face to drip from the edge of his cheek. The blood forms a bead, breaks free, then spatters against Shepard's armor.

"You're..." Garrus gestures with the medi-gel as another droplet collects and then falls to Shepard's chest-piece. He breaks the tab on the medi-gel, opening the pack, holding it out.

"Not yet." Thane says dully, shifting Shepard's weight, gathering her hands together, holding them carefully. "Cuffs."

Garrus hesitates, then nods, handing over the restraints, watching as Thane slips the flexible strip around Shepard's wrists. The catch on the duraplast makes a zztt sound as Thane tightens it.

Not ten minutes prior she'd been intent on killing them. Until they figure this mess out, limiting her movement is necessary. It still disturbs Garrus to see the way the bindings dig into her skin. Instead of saying anything, he hands the medi-gel to Thane.

Jack grunts. "Tying her up isn't going to do shit if she wakes up with that amp in. Fifteen minutes until the Normandy can pick us up."

Garrus turns enough to look at her profile; she doesn't take her eyes off the terrain.

"Wake up in cuffs, scared, with your head fucked..." She trails off, then says, "You don't stop to ask questions."

"I get that. But I wouldn't put it past Cerberus to have attached a deadman to it. Or if that's what's making her..." He waves a hand vaguely at his head. "Yanking it out might be a bad idea. It's not a spent sink."

Shepard groans, and Garrus looks back at her again. She's always been larger than life to him, but right now, cradled like a child, she seems very small and vulnerable.

Her hands, bound in front of her, twitch and she mutters something unintelligible. Thane looks down at her, touching her cheek carefully.

Garrus sighs. "Your call, Krios."

Thane nods, slowly. He brushes hair from Shepard's forehead, tucking it behind her ear. "I hadn't expected to see her again," he says. "I had anticipated that loss. Prepared my soul for that inevitability. Now..."

"I know," Garrus says, a cold weight settling in his stomach. It feels like the same weight he carried for two years, the one that landed him on Omega. "We might be able to make it to the ship before she wakes up."

Shepard's eyelids flutter.

The cockpit of the Hammerhead glows orange as Thane activates his omni-tool. "It's similar to her previous model." He slides his hand behind her head, watching the display on his tool, dark eyes glittering with reflected light.

"Joker just pinged us," Jack says. "Five minutes."

Thane pulls the amp free. Garrus stares at Shepard, waiting for the worst, hoping for anything but.

Her eyes snap open.

"Siha," Thane says, so softly it's almost lost in the noise of the engines.

She stares at him for a long moment. Then her face contorts with fear and rage, and she makes a choking noise, kicking with both feet in an attempt to escape. Thane tries to restrain her, and Garrus lunges in time to grab her wrists before the two-handed punch aimed for the drell's head connects.

She kicks out again, hard, head colliding with the bulkhead of the ship. Then she passes out again, going limp. Blood trickles from her nose, forming an uneven streak of red across her skin. Garrus waits until he sees that she's still breathing, then releases her wrists, pushing himself back into his seat.

Thane bows his head again and hums a low note, one that makes Garrus think of his childhood. Not a happy memory. The day his grandmother died, his grandfather had made that same sound. Apparently grieving over a loved one was universal.

Garrus turns away, pinching the bridge of his nose, rubbing his eyes. Jack glances at him. She's pale, a sheen of sweat on her forehead, no doubt the drugs she injected herself with are wearing off.

"Got Joker on comms," she says.

"Put him on speaker."

"You got her?" Joker asks. "Is she – "

"She's alive," Garrus says, clipping the words. "Tell Chakwas to set up med-bay. We'll need full restraints. There are - "

"Wait? What the shit? For - "

"Joker! Shut up and listen," Garrus says, with the force of command coloring the pilot's name. "Both Shepard and Krios have head injuries. Jack has a broken arm; closed compound fracture."

"Shit. EDI's filling Chakwas in. She'll get Gardner to help her. You want me to get Donnelly and Daniels to meet you with a stretcher when you land?"

Garrus dips his mandibles, thinking. "No. If Cerberus decides to hit us before we leave the system, I want them at their stations."

"Right. Should have visual... now."

Garrus thinks the Normandy has never looked more beautiful. The ship drops down in front of them and Jack pushes the Hammerhead in without her usual flair, setting down on the deck and popping the canopy without a word.

He's out of the ship before the canopy is up all the way. Krios isn't in any shape to carry Shepard; he'd barely been able to climb into the cockpit in the first place.

Garrus leans over to scoop her up, stopping when Thane puts his hand on his arm. Thane's expression might be closed off, but his voice still carries the sounds of grief and worry. "If she wakes again... she's stronger than she appears."

"I know," Garrus says. "I've got her."

Thane hesitates, then drops his hand and nods, and Garrus slides his arms under Shepard's shoulders and knees, lifting her easily. He knows there's no way it's possible, but she seems lighter, more fragile than when he carried her to the ship earlier.

"Joker," he says as he strides toward the elevator. "Get us somewhere safe."

"Aye, aye. Setting a course for anywhere but here."

Garrus figures they look pretty bad when they finally step out of the elevator onto the crew deck. The way Chakwas' mouth compresses into a thin line tells him he's right.

"Restraints?" she asks, eyes moving over their injuries as she opens the med-bay door.

"Yeah. Shepard tried to kill us. Almost took out Thane."

Gardner is waiting in the med-bay; he shakes his head slowly. "God damn it. If I wasn't seeing it with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe it. You got her back."

Chakwas nods, all business. "Of course they did. Rupert, the instruments I laid out, please."

Garrus carries Shepard to the exam table, setting her down as gently as he can. He tries not to look at the dark bruise that's spread to cover the side of her face. Here in the stark lights of the med-bay, he can make out the imprint left by the butt of his rifle, and despite the swelling, sees that her head is misshapen.

His stomach rolls. He'd literally caved in her skull.

"If you would, Garrus, remove those," Chakwas says, nodding at Shepard's hands. Then the doctor takes a place beside him, peeling back Shepard's eyelids to shine a light in each of her eyes.

Garrus starts to reach for the knife he keeps in his armor, but Thane is there before him, slicing through the duraplast with precise care, before looping the straps on the table around her wrists.

Chakwas gives Thane a sharp look. "Thank you. Now, please go have a seat on the other table. Jack, you too."

Thane hesitates, and Garrus catches his eye. "Hey. Sit before you fall."

Jack steps closer to them. "C'mon, Krios. We're in the way."

Chakwas isn't done, though. She turns from her examination of Shepard and fixes Garrus with a pointed stare. "You too, Garrus. Thank you for bringing her home. Now let me do my job."

He looks at Shepard's face, then reaches out to touch the back of her hand with the tip of one talon. He knows there's no arguing with Chakwas when she's decided on a course of action, and gives her a quick nod before turning and leaving the bay.

After the chaos of the med-bay, the mess hall is too quiet. Garrus looks over his shoulder, but Chakwas has darkened the windows. He sighs and walks to the table, running a hand over his fringe as he pulls out a chair. He feels jittery, the letdown from stress hitting him hard.

"Hey, EDI? Get Joker for me." He lowers himself into the chair, elbows on the table, and rests his forehead on his palms.

"Yeah. What's up?"

"When we came through that relay, Cerberus knew."

"Right. Beacons," Joker agrees.

Garrus nods against his hands. "So they'll know when we leave."

"Probably. EDI zapped the beacons with junk code, but..."

"Right. No way to know if she got them all." Garrus closes his eyes. "For now, stay in the nebula. At least until we know something about what's going on with Shepard."

"Got it." There's a pause. "If anything changes in there, I'll let you know."

"Thanks."

He listens to the sound of the ship around him, the distant pulse of the engines, the rush of air from the vents. He feels sleep coming and doesn't fight it. An old habit from his days in the military. Sleep where you can, when you can.

The click of a cup on the table wakes him. He looks up quickly, startled, no idea how long he's been asleep, taking longer than he'd like to get his bearings.

Thane sits at the table in the chair opposite, two cups of tea steaming between them.

Garrus looks at the med-bay. The windows are translucent again. He can see Chakwas at her desk, and starts to stand, but Thane holds up a hand.

"Shepard is stable," he says, pushing one of the cups toward Garrus.

"Stable." He ignores the mug, settling back into his seat. "More to it than that."

"They..." Thane pauses, wrapping his hands around his own cup. His tone shifts, subvocals going dull and flat. "Cerberus implanted a transponder."

"What? They put a chip in her head?" Garrus sits back, staring past Thane at the med-bay. The cold weight is back in his stomach. It twists painfully. He'd seen control chips at work at C-Sec; they'd confiscated more than one batarian slave with an implant. "And I'd guess unlike her amp, it does have a deadman."

"Yes. If the chip is tampered with it will cause a massive cranial bleed. She will die," Thane says. The last words are rough. He clears his throat. "The imaging scans indicate, in part, temporal lobe involvement; in humans, the portion of the brain devoted to memories."

In part. Which sounds an awfully lot like Chakwas isn't sure what they're dealing with. Despite the sleep, he feels more exhausted than before.

In the medical bay, the doctor looks up from her work, then she turns toward the mess hall. She beckons to Garrus with a quick wave of her hand. He pushes back from the table, standing quickly.

Thane glances over his shoulder, then stands as well. They enter the bay together, and the first thing Garrus notices is that Shepard looks almost normal. Chakwas has raised the head of the bed, and Shepard looks strangely peaceful. The bruising has faded, the mark his rifle left vanished.

The monitor above her beeps in a measured beat; he assumes it's a normal rate for humans. Her eyes are closed, but he can see movement under the lids. He wonders what she's dreaming about.

"Commander Shepard?" Chakwas asks, running a scanner over her, and as he and Thane approach, Shepard turns her head toward the doctor.

"Commander?" Chakwas repeats.

Shepard's eyes open slowly, close, and then open again. She focuses on Chakwas with an expression that's clearly puzzled.

"Mhm." Whatever she tries to say next comes out as a croak and she swallows before trying again. "You're... dead."

Chakwas smiles. "Dead? No. I assure you I am the picture of health."

Shepard shakes her head slowly. "I saw you die. You - " She breaks off abruptly, her eyes falling on Thane and Garrus.

"Shepard..." Garrus says, taking half a step toward her. The steady rhythm of the heart rate monitor lurches into a faster tempo.

"You made me leave them. Barefaced coward," Shepard spits. She looks down at her hands. The monitor ratchets up another notch. "Let me go."

Garrus looks at the monitor nervously. His visor feeds him echoes of the same information; if he doesn't know what normal is for a human, he has no idea what the safe upper limit is.

"Commander," Chakwas says, quietly. "No one is going to hurt you."

"They shot you. Made me watch," Shepard says. Her nose has started to bleed again. She looks at Thane. Her eyes have a strange glassy quality to them. "And I shot you. You fucking bastard. You should be dead. I shot you."

"Yes, Siha, you did," he says. His tone is filled with sorrow.

She sucks in a breath and her heartbeat skips. Once, twice.

Chakwas steps in close, pressing an injector to her neck, and Shepard doesn't have time to blink before she's out again, chin dropping to rest on her chest. Her pulse slows and Garrus scrubs a hand over his face.

"Well," Chakwas says, setting the injector on an instrument tray. She touches the monitor, bringing up a display. "That answers that. Gentlemen, I'm afraid I'm out of my depth. We need a neurologist. And even then, without detailed schematics of the chip and surgery notes the prognosis is quite grim. It may be time to return to the Alliance."

Garrus shakes his head. "You might be right, but we both know what happens to people with control chips."

On the Citadel, there was an entire hospital ward dedicated to treating batarian slaves. It seemed a nice enough place, until a person realized no one ever recovered. The treatment plan was caring for the patients until they died of old age. The violent ones spent that time in chemically induced comas.

Thane moves to stand beside Shepard. He doesn't touch her, only watches her breathing. "Not an option I will entertain."

The door to the bay opens and Joker limps in. "What if I said I found Mordin?"

"What?" Garrus asks, not surprised in the least that Joker's been listening in on the conversation. "Where is he?"

"Meeting us at Liara's, once you give the word to head that way," the pilot says, making a point of not looking at Shepard. "I did try to recall everyone back to the ship, not just you two and Jack. He just got the message."

Chakwas goes to her terminal, fingers moving over the keyboard. "I'll forward my files on the commander to Liara. It's not much information, but it's a place to start."

"Information," Garrus repeats. "Joker, set a course back to Solcrum."

"Uh... okay," he answers. "Why?"

Thane finally looks up. There's a thread of hope in his voice when he says, "Data. That was a medical facility. There may be records of what they did to her."

"Huh." Joker reaches up, adjusting his hat. "Seems like long odds to me."

Garrus looks at him, mandibles flaring a little. "Since when do we get anything but?"

Chapter Text

14.2

An hour later they're in the Hammerhead, dropping back to Solcrum's surface. The Normandy climbs away from them and as it does, Joker comms them.

"Hey. We're getting some heat readings. Looks like you didn't get all of the Cerberus troops your first time through."

Not what Garrus expected to hear. "Why wouldn't they attack? Doesn't make sense."

"Yeah, well, readings don't lie. Picking up three or four life signs, grouped to the west of where you'll go in. From the structural interference I'm looking at, probably bottom level of the facility."

Jack banks the Hammerhead around an outcrop of rock. "West. Across the hangar from the lab where you took out Shepard."

He narrows his eyes and gives her a sharp glance; he doesn't need the reminder.

"Krios," he says. "What's on that side of the bay, hangar level?"

There's a pause before Thane says, "Unmarked storage containers. Two shuttles, one of which appeared to have sustained damage from the explosion. Three corridors; two with poor cover, one with blast-grade double doors, restricted access indicators illuminated."

Ahead, the profiles of the surface buildings appear. The environmental barrier over the entrance is still functional, but uneven tears open and close randomly in the energy field. The generators are starting to fail.

"Looks like we're short on time. I'll work on breaching the encryption on that door. Jack, your bone weave hasn't completely set, so just stick close and watch my back. Krios, sweep the hangar for hostiles and see if the terminals in the lab have anything we can use."

Garrus pulls his rifle from its holds, letting the weapon unfold in a series of clicks, then presses a fresh thermal clip into the firing chamber.

Behind him, he can hear Thane going through the same process, and passes the box of sinks back. He checks his medi-gel supplies again as the Hammerhead passes through the barrier, blue light of the electrostatic shield sparking around them.

When the canopy opens, he can still smell explosives, but the heat has dissipated. Unlike when they left, the giant fans aren't running; facility-wide, systems are starting to shut down.

Thane leans forward. "The undamaged shuttle is gone."

"Uh-huh," Garrus says. Fewer people shooting at them is always a good thing. He climbs from the ship, scanning the hangar with his visor. He tips his head toward the storage crates and the lab. "I'm not getting anything else. Do your sweep. Jack, you're with me."

Thane nods, disappearing wordlessly into the shadows between two shipping containers. Garrus starts toward the doors, making his way through the wreckage, with Jack falling in behind him.

He clips his rifle to his back, crouches in front of the red-lit control panel, and brings up a decryption program on his omni-tool. The lock isn't complex, with a typical configuration of pins that have to be matched before his hack times out. He lines up the first set, moves on to the next.

Jack leans against the wall, glancing down at him and then back into the hangar. "Christ, you're slow. You sure you got that?"

He pairs off another set of pins. "I'm not Tali, but I can handle this."

The lights in the bay dim, all but a few shutting off completely as the environmental systems switch to emergency backup. He curses under his breath, trying to work faster. They have light mods built into their weapons, but the thought of working their way through a dark Cerberus base isn't too appealing.

Jack shifts. "If you're so good with tech, why's it seem like you never finish calibrating that gun?"

A third set matched, the circuit between them buzzing as they connect.

"Not my fault the ship wasn't built to provide optimal power configurations. The firing algorithms need to be adjusted constantly to compensate for the energy flux."

"You're blaming Cerberus for not putting the ship together right?"

The program running the hack begins a countdown. He ignores the monotone alert and concentrates on the final four pins, tapping one and then its mate.

"Yeah," he says, connecting the final two pins. "I am."

The lock flashes from red to green, and Jack laughs, pushing away from the wall.

"There's Krios," she says. "And... that's fucking morbid."

Garrus glances up in confusion. Jack is looking toward the Hammerhead with one eyebrow quirked up.

"Huh," he says, following her gaze. With most of the lights off, it's darker in the bay, but he can see that Thane is holding a helmet. From the size and shape, it's Shepard's.

"Don't know if I'd want a reminder of almost having my head blown off," Jack says.

"Don't know if I could have left it behind, either," Garrus replies, watching as Thane sets the helmet in the cockpit.

Jack snorts, but doesn't comment as Thane approaches them. The drell nods at Garrus as he reaches them.

"There are no indications Cerberus returned during our absence," he says, switching his rifle for the pistol he uses for close combat. "The terminals have been destroyed. Any data they held is irretrievable."

"There are those long odds," Garrus says. He nods at the unlocked door. "The shielding on this is too dense; I can't pick up anything past it with my visor, so stay sharp."

He pulls his rifle again, motioning for them to take defensive positions. They take their places, and he presses the control, stepping to the side as the double panels slide apart.

A quick look around the frame and he sees that the corridor beyond is empty. It extends for a hundred yards, illumination panels in the ceiling flickering weakly. Doors, most standing open, are set at regular intervals.

The air is stale and sour, and he notices that while he was occupied with the door encryption, the temperature dropped. Life support is failing faster than he expected.

"Jack. Clear the rooms on the right. Krios; the left. I've got eyes downrange." He's still not getting a read on the life signs EDI had reported, but with all of the interference from the metal walls and the rock beyond them, he hadn't expected to.

They work their way down the passageway in practiced movements. It soon becomes obvious why this wing had restricted access. There are a couple of offices, a janitor's closet, but mostly the corridor is lined with holding cells.

The set-up, the dank air, the eerie quiet, it all reminds him of Pragia. He's not the only one who sees the similarities. When the lights unexpectedly blink out, leaving them in darkness, before humming back to life, Jack starts cursing.

"Fuck," she says, staring into a cell. "God damn Cerberus. They don't stop."

"You okay?" Garrus asks, not taking his eyes off of the doors further down the corridor.

Jack tilts her head to one side, then the other, stretching tense muscles. "Yeah. Fine. Let's just do this and get the fuck out of here."

They keep moving, past more offices, a restroom, more cells, until they're at the end of the corridor with only two more possibilities remaining. Jack clears the one on the right, looking at Garrus with a shrug.

"Always the last place you look," he mutters.

"A universal truth," Thane agrees, pressing the controls.

They're faced what appears to be a smaller medical lab, judging by the terminals and scanners and the Cerberus-standard exam chair with shackles. Observation cells line one wall, their glass fronts cloudy enough to indicate two-way mirrors. One of the units holds three batarians. They're still in their Blue Suns armor, slumped despondently against the walls.

Garrus checks the corners of the room quickly. Left, right.

"Clear," he says, glancing at the prisoners. From the way they fail to react to his voice, the power fluctuations haven't impacted sound cancellation.

He crosses to one of the terminals, returning his rifle to its holds at his back, then accesses his omni-tool. Given the safeguards Cerberus is fond of, he's facing more encryption. "Jack. I want you back in the hangar; make sure we don't get cut off from the Hammerhead."

Jack looks between him and the mercenaries. "That beacon Shepard sent. You think those are the same Suns she was talking about?"

"I plan to find out. I need you in the hangar."

From his peripheral vision he sees her hesitate, still looking at the mercs. He starts to tell her to move, but then she turns abruptly and walks out, Carnifex ready.

The terminal flashes a warning and Garrus twitches his mandibles in irritation, watching as a sector worm tries to block his access. He initiates a subroutine to distract it, the data scrolling by in blocks of text as the two programs race to delete one another.

The overhead lights dim again, the terminal too, and he utters a soft curse.

"Krios," he says, nodding at the Blue Suns. "We're short on time. See what they know."

While he concentrates on keeping one step ahead of the system defenses, he's aware of Thane moving toward the imprisoned Suns. The drell stands in front of the glass, regarding each of men in turn before keying a command into the controls to change the transparency. At the same time he turns the audio feed on, then uses the barrel of his pistol to rap on the interface.

The men scramble up and approach the glass, one of them stepping forward with the air of authority. Thane asks something quietly; the volume on the interface is too low for Garrus to hear the batarian's reply.

Then his omni-tool flashes and he refocuses on the terminal. The worm disappears in a broken line of code and he breaches the final layer of encryption, grinning briefly at the victory. He enters another command into his omni-tool, an extraction executable that will strip out all relevant files. When it pings almost immediately, he knows something's wrong. He runs it again, and gets the same result.

"Crap."

Most of the directories are empty; the files that remain are corrupted. He tries to tamp down the feeling of bitter disappointment. There's no way of knowing if he triggered another bug, or if someone wiped the files before abandoning the base.

He downloads the damaged files to his tool, deactivating it with a frustrated sigh. He knew the odds, but that doesn't help the way he feels.

On the other side of room, Thane's still speaking with the Sun, and Garrus is surprised to hear the man laugh. It's a short, rude chuckle that sounds hollow coming from the interface speaker.

Pushing away from the terminal, he moves to stand next to Thane.

"This is Malik Torrin," Thane says. "He claims to be Vido Santiago's third."

Garrus raises his eye-plates because Thane's subvocals are tinged with anger. It's not something Garrus has heard before and it's surprising to see even this minor loss of control.

"Uh-huh," Torrin says, looking away from Thane dismissively. Garrus realizes the batarian has grossly underestimated Thane.

He obviously isn't hearing what Garrus is.

Torrin looks at him, four eyes traveling over his colony markings. "I know you."

Garrus shakes his head; he would have remembered meeting this particular batarian. The scar running chin-to-nose and the missing ears would have ensured that. Missing ear, he amends. One of the stumps looks like a recent, untidy wound.

"I don't think so," he says.

Torrin grins. "I'll make you a trade. You get me and my men off of this rock, I'll tell you what the Suns know about Archangel."

"Archangel? That dead turian on Omega?" Garrus relaxes deliberately, folding his arms over his chest. "Sorry. Not interested."

The batarian's grin widens. "You should be. Rumor has it, dead or not he still has family on Palaven."

Garrus' eyes narrow before he can stop himself. First Cerberus threatened his family, now the Blue Suns were. "You're going to tell me everything you know, right now."

"Get me out of here and I will," Torrin says.

Thane is watching the batarian with far more intensity that he would a target on the battlefield. Without breaking his gaze, he secures his pistol behind him and says, "Bring him out. I have some questions of my own."

"Fine." Garrus unclips his rifle and motions at Torrin. "Step away from the glass."

Torrin's smile doesn't fade. He lifts his hands and follows the order, backing until his shoulders touch the wall of his cell.

Garrus taps the control, then moves away himself, rifle trained on the batarians. He nods at Torrin when the glass has receded completely into the wall. "Come out and have a seat. Close that panel on your way out."

Torrin follows the orders, eyes moving to Thane who watches his movements with detachment. When the batarian is in the chair, Thane approaches slowly, clicking the thin metal bands around Torrin's wrists.

Then he hits him. It's a sharp blow to the nose that rocks his head back against the chair. Torrin groans, squinting watering eyes against the pain. Blood pours down his face, over the scarred gap in his lip.

"Gloating was unwise," Thane says. His voice is mild and unconcerned. "That was for threatening to take her eyes."

Torrin turns his head and spits, a smear of red spattering on the floor. He's furious, upper set of eyes slits as he glares. "She told me you were the one to worry about. Didn't think she was being serious about a drell."

Garrus leans back against the wall, folding his arms over his chest, wondering exactly what the conversation between the two had covered. Now's not the time to ask, so he keeps his mouth shut and watches.

Thane slowly walks around the chair and rests his hand on Torrin's shoulder. It's a strangely friendly gesture, but it reminds Garrus of the care Thane took when he lowered Nassana Dantius' body as she died. Thane stands like that until Torrin shifts under his touch.

"I was married, once," Thane says.

Garrus tilts his head to one side at the statement, wondering what he's getting at.

"And? Congratulations?" All four eyes narrow as the batarian turns his head, trying to twist his neck enough to follow Thane's movements. He's full of nervous bravado, defensive from being struck, and not ready to spill what he knows. Garrus wonders how much more of a push he's going to need.

Thane lets his hand fall from the chair, walking to stand in front of an empty cell.

"She's gone now. Slaughtered by slavers. I was the one to discover her body." He clasps his hands behind his back, then turns around once more to face the shackled batarian.

"Bet that was something else," Torrin says thickly, voice wet around the blood that must be trickling down the back of his throat. He chuckles again, then adds, "Some of those guys really enjoy their work."

Garrus' mandibles tighten against his jaws and his hands clench from wanting to bust the batarian in the face himself. Instead of following through with the impulse he breaths out through his nose. This is Krios' show.

"You misunderstand," Thane responds, voice controlled, almost friendly. "I have been a student of violence my entire life. I have a perfect memory. When I found the slavers... Are you familiar with the phrase, 'an eye for an eye'?"

Torrin finally has the sense to look a little unsettled, so maybe he's finally starting to understand the situation. His hands make fists, metal shackles digging into his wrists as he pulls.

Thane seems not to notice as he walks to stand beside the chair again and continues speaking. "First I found the shuttle pilot who flew for them. The least of those responsible, if a person were to assign levels of guilt to such a thing. His resolve was remarkable, but he eventually confessed to having knowledge of their intentions when he accepted the contract."

"Killed him, then?" Torrin asks.

"No. Death I reserved for the triggermen and the ringleaders. I released the pilot." Thane rubs at his cheek with a thumbnail, a gesture as casual as though he's discussing the weather. "I imagine surgeons were able to clone replacement hands for him."

Torrin's mouth twists, but he says nothing.

Garrus frowns. He's no stranger to violence, but when it comes to outright torture...

On the other hand, he knows how he would feel if he found one of his parents or sister or Shepard like that. Spirits grant mercy on anyone who had been involved, because he certainly wouldn't.

Still. It doesn't escape him that Thane hasn't asked a single question.

"There is... an art to removing a hand without excessive blood loss." Thane reaches out and using one fingertip, traces the line of the metal loop. Then he carefully pushes the batarian's sleep up, exposing his forearm, before tightening the loop down hard.

Torrin's eyes widen; the blade that unfolds in Thane's hand hadn't been there a second before. The metal gleams, reflecting the dim light.

"Wait," he says, hurriedly, looking at Garrus. "Vido knows you're alive. He knows where your family is and has a standing order to track you down, but I swear by the Pillars your family is safe. The whole Hierarchy would come down on us."

Garrus clenches his jaw, then nods. He believes that. Turian command would take that type of attack personally and wouldn't half-ass the counter-campaign; there wouldn't be a single one of them left in galaxy when they were done.

Thane taps the restraint with the flat of his knife, the sharp click-click is over-loud in the room. "And what of Shepard?"

"What about her?"

"If you leave this place, you will tell your superiors she lives. That she is not in Alliance custody. They will come for her again. The Hegemony will know." Thane pauses, stepping behind the chair. He looks down and then pushes the batarian's head forward, releasing him after a long moment. "They are not secrets you can keep, given the control chip Cerberus implanted."

Garrus shifts away from the wall, uncrossing his arms. He's not surprised to learn they've been chipped. The options for what to do with them are becoming extremely limited. No matter how he looks at it, they'll be liabilities.

Torrin's top set of eyes close, followed by the bottom. He takes a breath, lets it out in a thin stream of air. "Do what you will, drell. Quit drawing this out."

Garrus' comms crackle.

"Hey," Jack says. "That barrier is almost shot. And Joker says we're going to have company if we don't move now."

"Company? Cerberus?" He goes through the other possibilities mentally. None of them are good.

"Don't know. Don't care. Quit fucking around and get out here."

Garrus looks at Thane, then at Torrin. The batarian's eyes are still closed. Thane bends down, speaking quietly and says, "For the record. I have never cut off anyone's hands. The threat alone is enough to make a captive wet himself and tell all of his secrets."

Torrin opens his eyes, startled.

"My wife was a siha," Thane continues just as softly. "Strong in spirit; pure of heart. The ones who came for her spared her no cruelty. They killed her by inches."

He presses the tip of his knife to Torrin's cheek. When the batarian pulls away, Thane trails the blade's point past the ruin of Torrin's ear, down his neck, not breaking the skin. There's a wound on his neck, an ragged circle where the flesh is missing.

A bite mark, Garrus realizes.

"One last question," Thane says. "What did you do to Shepard to receive this?"

"Nothing! I swear it. I - I - " Torrin's gibbering now, trying to find words. "I got too close. Her eyes! You know I was going to - "

Thane flicks the knife. For a heartbeat, nothing happens, then red begins to pour from Torrin's neck. He makes a gurgling sound, unable to speak, eyes frantic as he pulls against the metal loops.

Thane wipes the blade on Torrin's shoulder. "May Kalihira grant you the forgiveness I cannot."

Torrin jerks once more on the restraints, and then collapses in the chair.

Garrus lets out an uneven breath and rolls his shoulders.

Thane looks at him, eyes cold and flat. A distant corner of Garrus' brain wonders how many people saw him like this and lived to tell about it. Not many, he thinks.

"We should discuss the other two," Thane says quietly, slipping the knife back into his coat. He nods toward the two batarians still in their cells.

"Yeah," Garrus says. "Can't take them. Leave them here, they suffocate or freeze."

"A word, then," Thane inclines his head toward the corridor. "Out of earshot."

Time is running out, but Garrus nods. He walks from the room, Thane behind him.

As he steps over the threshold, he hears Thane say, "When you hunted Sidonis, Shepard blocked your shot. She would not want this on your conscience."

Garrus spins around, but is met with a closed door. He stares at the red indicator dumbly for a second before pulling up his omni-tool, rushing to access his breaching program. There's silence in the room beyond, then a sharp pop, pop, then more silence.

He drops his arm, orange glow from his omni-tool fading away. The quiet stretches. Then the indicator turns green and the door slides open. Thane meets his eyes with that same icy detachment.

Just as when Shepard took the choice from him on the Citadel, Garrus can feel anger bubbling up inside of him. He turns and marches away; it's going to be a long trip back to the Normandy.

Chapter Text

15.

Thane stands in an exterior maintenance alcove on the Shadow Broker's ship, watching as the endless storm batters the hull. He's reasonably sheltered in the space off of the catwalk, and between his mask and the micro-shielding embedded in his clothing he's in no danger, but the wind still tears at him, wrapping his coat around his legs.

A lightning capacitor in front of him discharges, its energy cracking harmlessly into the atmosphere before beginning its charge cycle again. Around the ship, orange-tinted clouds roll in a churning mass of charged particles; it is as every bit as remarkable as Notanban.

Shepard had chosen Vakarian for her team when she took the base from the yahg, but upon her return, she had told him of the ship. Well, she had begun to tell him.

I follow her from the elevator, into her quarters. Her movements are stiff with the aftereffects of combat, but she seems to be pleased with the mission's success. She stops beside her terminal, pulling off her gloves slowly, dropping them on her desk.

She clears her throat and flexes her fingers. I smell ozone, as though the lightning has followed her.

"Missed you out there," she says. Her voice is warmer than it had been on the crew deck below. The weight of command easing from her here, with me. "That ship... could have used another biotic."

"Hmm... two were not enough?" I step closer, to the end of her desk. It has been far too long since we have been alone. The loneliness and worry I felt in her absence is telling; I had never thought to allow another such power over me.

"Besides Liara, I mean. Not quite the same. On the hull, flinging troops in the air, you not there to throw them off the edge." The corner of her mouth tugs up in a grin.

"Truly unfortunate," I chuckle.

"I do have to go back. Didn't have time to check any of the files the old Shadow Broker left behind." She tucks her hair behind her ear, smirking. "That ship has a view you wouldn't believe. It's not the desert, but we should go see it together."

"With no combatants to 'throw off the edge' I wonder why you would need me," I say, still teasing.

She turns toward me and my pulse quickens under the intensity of her gaze. All playfulness has disappeared; this is undisguised want. Need. My heart jumps again when she lifts her hand, gripping the collar of my coat, pulling me forward gently.

"I missed you, Thane," she repeats.

The power she holds over me is a frightening thing.

"And I you," I say, leaning toward her, the hoarseness of my voice betraying me. When she kisses me, I feel her biotics hum against my lips. I meet this fire with my own, but she is Arashu's servant, the bringer of wrath and all-consuming flame. There are times I believe she could turn my body to dust.

She draws back too soon, releasing my collar, and begins unsealing her armor, dropping the pieces around her carelessly. Her eyes never leave mine, and I think again of lightning. Of the coming storm.

"You would take me to see a ship?" I ask, shrugging my coat from my shoulders, tossing it beside her gloves.

"Mm-hm," she says. She reaches for the top clasp of my vest. "It has a great view."

"I believe..." I tell her, pulling down the zippered tab of her shirt with deliberate slowness, "I was promised a desert."

"Something," she replies, before she kisses me again, "we can talk about later."

Thane stares into the rolling atmosphere, the warmth of the memory slipping away from him, knowing that reliving it is a pointless indulgence. Before, when he hadn't thought to find her alive, he had closed himself off from such things. But now...

In front of him, the capacitor disperses another jolt of power. Chains of electricity dance across the hull. He watches until the show of light fades, then turns and begins making his way back toward the hatch.

The Normandy has been docked with Dr. T'Soni's ship for four days, and in those four days she and Professor Solus have found no way to safely remove the control chip from Shepard. The files Garrus had retrieved had proven to be useless.

At least, Thane thinks, they had found a combination of sedatives which limit the worst of the symptoms. Her heart rate no longer accelerates to dangerous levels when the chip exerts control over her and she rarely has nose bleeds when confronted with conflicting information from her past.

She is still a danger to them all. She trusts no one, to the point of marked paranoia and violence. Even Chakwas and Joker and the other members of the crew she believed to be dead are treated with suspicion. Their limited options are quickly dwindling.

He enters the airlock, securing the hatch behind himself, and removes his mask. The sound of the momentum dampeners is louder here than anywhere else on the ship, but after the roar of the wind, the steady noise of the panels rising and falling is hardly objectionable

The decontamination process begins. He resists the urge to hold his breath, gasping when the dense air floods his lungs, forcing them to struggle against the added burden of moisture and chemicals.

He braces himself against the wall with one arm, clutching his mask with the other hand, enduring the pain until the cycle completes. The process takes fifty-five seconds from start to finish, but it feels like several times that before the inner door finally opens of its own accord. The overhead fans activate. Fresh air flows in.

The tightness in his chest gradually tapers off, the pain retreating to the level to which he is accustomed. When he can draw a series of fairly level breaths, he straightens from the wall and steps through the inner hatch.

Garrus is waiting in the corridor beyond, and that is unexpected, as are the two rifle cases he holds. Thane stops and regards him silently.

"If this were a turian ship," Garrus says, "we'd go to the sparring ring and beat the living hell out of each other like civilized people."

Thane puts his mask away, then straightens his coat. He inclines his head toward the rifles. "I see you have found an alternative."

"Yeah. Not quite the same, but it'll do. Liara's given us a hangar all of our own. Practice rounds." He lifts one of the cases, using it to gesture down the passageway.

"Of course," Thane says, falling into step alongside him. He has no illusions that this will solve the issues between them, but it cannot cause more harm.

They walk without speaking, the steady rhythm of the dampeners accompanying them as they move deeper into the vessel. Eventually, even that is canceled out, until all that can be heard is Garrus' footfalls and the creak of his armor.

Garrus glances at him. "You knew you'd have to go through decontamination. What was out there that was so important?"

Lightning. The coming storm.

"I was told it had a... great view."

"Right," Garrus draws the word out. "Because getting swept off the hull - "

They turn a corner and are met by Liara. She looks upset, furrow between her eyes, mouth pressed in a grim line.

"Shepard is asking for you," she says, looking at Thane.

Hope can be such a cruel and horrible thing.

"Then she - " he begins.

"Remembers? No, but Mordin and I believe we have found a temporary solution. A possible override."

Garrus asks, "Why do I hear a 'but' in there?"

"Because Shepard refuses to let us near her until she speaks with Thane. If she will not willingly allow us to test our theory..." she trails off.

"You'll test it without her consent?" Thane doesn't disguise edge to his words.

"Mordin thinks the danger is negligible. Experience and memory make us who we are," Liara says, hands twisting unhappily in front of her. "If we can't get around this chip, we may not be able to get her back. Not the way she was."

"Drell have a firm understanding of the importance of memory," Thane says. He stares at Liara coldly. "Taking what little she has left, is not an option."

"Hold on," Garrus says, interrupting them. He looks at Liara pointedly. "No one's doing anything right now. Krios, go see Shepard and we'll talk about options after."

Thane considers pressing the point, but instead nods. "Very well."

"Wait," Liara says. "Before you do, I need to talk to you. Garrus, could you give us a moment?"

Garrus frowns at her, mandibles flaring from his face. Liara choosing to inform Thane about the assassination contract on Cassius Vakarian before telling Garrus had caused a certain amount of tension between them.

"Garrus," she says. "It's personal."

The turian's irritation becomes confusion, then understanding.

"Right. I'll go set up those targets." He glances at Thane before he leaves, but says nothing.

Thane waits until he's out of earshot, then turns to Liara.

She rubs at her temple, and sighs. "Before Shepard destroyed the Collector base, EDI monitored and recorded the activities on the ship. The original Shadow Broker was able to access those same feeds. Mordin and I decided to let her see the videos."

Thane raises an eyeridge. If she wanted to speak to him privately, there could be only one reason. "There was no surveillance in her quarters. Between myself and Miss Goto, we ensured Shepard's privacy."

"Yes. I know. The files didn't have anything inappropriate in them. Shepard is a professional, she wouldn't - " she cuts herself off, cheeks flushing darker blue as she holds out a small, square holo-vid disk. "Here's a copy of the vids we gave her. You might want to watch them before you talk to her."

He takes the disk, turning it over. There were very few times there had been physical contact between them beyond her quarters.

"And she suffered no ill effects with the conflict of memory?" he asks.

"Some. We increased the sedatives, and so far she's stable. Now she wants to see you."

He nods, walking away, only to have Liara call after him.

"If you can't convince her to allow us to use the override, there is a possibility that by linking my mind with hers, I could help her."

He stops, forcing his subvocals to remain neutral. Quarreling with her now would be pointless. "Given her feelings regarding your last such encounter, it's unexpected that you'd suggest it."

"She has no memory of that, either." A pause. "Would you object?"

Thane's fingers tighten on the vid. His chest constricts and he draws a slow breath. "Not if she consents."

The section of the base in which they've contained Shepard once housed the Shadow Broker's crew. The cabin she stays in most likely belonged to a ranking officer, if the size is any indication. It's larger than her quarters on the Normandy, but unlike on the frigate, Liara has replaced the door with a gridded electrical field.

Thane hears the voices before he reaches the barrier and knows Shepard is playing the holo-vid. His assumptions about the contents were correct. It's a recording of a sparring session, one in which they had worked with unamplified biotics.

He takes care that his footsteps are audible as he approaches the gridded field, stopping when the barrier pops faintly. Inside the room, Shepard is sitting cross-legged on her bed, small holo-player whirring in front of her. Above the player, in a grainy projection, is the cargo bay of the Normandy.

"I've watched this four times now. Still don't believe it," Shepard says. Her voice is thick from the drugs she's been given. She picks up a tissue from the bed, dabbing at her nose; it comes away red. "And that makes this damn chip heat up."

The vid skips and Thane sees their images come into camera range. They're both moving quickly, but he clearly has the advantage and is not holding back. Even though by this point she is exhausted, he teaches as he was taught; full contact, without mercy.

The glow of biotics surrounds us as Shepard tries yet again to counterstrike. I dodge the blow easily, shoving her backward against a shipping container. She collides with the surface, the air driven from her. I don't relent, using my momentum to pin her in place, forearm across her throat. I press down, quickly bringing up my other hand, light surrounding my fingers.

The blow aimed for her chin, which would have likely broken teeth, lands with a feather's touch. So perhaps there was some mercy in me. Blue sparks dance along her jaw and she tenses under my hold.

She is breathing hard, chest heaving and she lifts a hand, bracing it against my elbow as though she might attempt to throw me off. My biotics flare in response; I have not worked without my amp in some time and control is harder to maintain than it should be.

She stares back, unyielding and unafraid. At such a close range, unamped biotics can kill, and yet she is so certain I will not make an error and harm her.

Shepard stops the holo, but Thane knows what happens next. He knows the precise second when something shifts between them. He knows that when she moves her hand from his arm to rest on his cheek that he relaxes his hold slightly. And when she slides her hand behind his head, he allows her to draw him into a kiss.

Shepard gets up from the bed, approaching the barrier unsteadily, stopping before it begins to crackle. Her eyes have a strange glassy quality to them; the effects of the drugs she's been treated with.

"This chip," she says, gesturing at her head. "The salarian says it's blocking my memories. He wants to rig me with some sort of jamming device. The asari wants to jump into my brain with boots on."

"Yes," he says. Then, a bit more softly, "There are few options left to us."

"And then there's you. In my memories, you tried to kill me. Pulled the trigger without hesitation." She presses a fist against her temple, squeezing her eyes closed. When she opens them again, they're red-rimmed. "But this holo. It's not a forgery. And, sometimes, in my other memories... you call me a name I don't understand. It doesn't make..."

Her voice cracks and she taps her fist against her head.

"Shepard," he says cautiously, at the same time bringing up his omni-tool and sending a message to Liara.

"No! That's not it," Shepard says. Her voice raises an octave, the edges of hysteria creeping in, as pink tears gather in her eyes. "That's not it. You say it in my dreams, too and I wake up because of the chip and -"

She grinds the heel of her hand into her temple, blood trickling from one nostril.

The gods must despise him.

"Say it!" she says, but it is without the whip-crack of authority, in a voice too fragile to belong to Commander Shepard.

"Siha," he answers, quietly.

Shepard freezes, dropping her hands. She laughs and it's a brittle counterpoint to the tears that trickle down her face. "And it doesn't make sense. None of this does. I shot you. You shot me."

Liara and Mordin approach at a run. Mordin draws his pistol as he reaches the barrier.

"Shepard. Cannot sustain brain function much longer with chip interference," he gestures quickly with the barrel, the movement as succinct as his words. "Know the procedure."

Shepard's eyes don't leave Thane's, even as she sinks to her knees, lacing her fingers over the crown of her head.

"We both must be dead, because this feels like hell," she says. Her voice drops until he's certain he's the only one who can hear it. "And I don't know how much more I can take."

Liara is first in the room, pressing an auto-injector into Shepard's neck. The commander blinks, then sighs, eyelids drooping.

"Better," she says. Liara kneels beside her, taking a cloth from her pocket, cleaning Shepard's face gently while she murmurs something in her own language. Thane recognizes the sound of prayers when he hears them.

Mordin holsters his pistol. "Misjudged impact of holo. Forget sometimes, humans complicated. Possess capacity other than for violence." He pauses, breathing in. "Should proceed with override implementation. Brain likely compromised otherwise."

Thane feels the others looking at him, waiting for his decision. He ignores the way the muscles in Liara's jaw tighten as he crouches before Shepard.

"I see no alternative. This must be done," he says. Her hair has fallen over her cheek. He doesn't attempt to touch her.

There's more noise in the corridor behind him. Garrus. Chakwas. He hears Mordin repeat himself about the override, and Garrus' curse.

Shepard hasn't answered and so Thane reaches out, fingertips resting on the back of her hand. "Shepard?"

She draws her hand away, the movement sluggish as she slowly raises her eyes to meet his. Her pupils have expanded into dull black pools, memory and emotion and life slowly being stripped from her.

The storm has broken. There is no lightning here.

Her mouth twists, a played-out grimace rather than a true smile. "I don't..." she trails off. "Sure... how much worse can it get?"

They get her on her feet with a minimum of difficulty, or perhaps it is that she can no longer struggle against them. Thane purposely falls back, allowing Chakwas and Liara to flank her on the long walk to the base's sprawling research wing.

They make a strange procession. Mordin in the lead, his rapid-fire voice echoing from the metal walls as they proceed. Garrus beside Thane, the turian with his rifle out and ready, concussive rounds loaded. Shepard in the middle, each step measured and weary.

When they reach the portion of the ship that Mordin has appropriated for his use, Thane takes a place to one side, where he will not be a hindrance. Garrus steps back as well, without shifting his aim from Shepard's torso. If she becomes violent, he will not hesitate to fire.

Liara and Chakwas busy themselves with monitors and data screens, and the sounds of Shepard's heart and respiration rates fill the room.

Mordin goes to a workbench, opening a drawer as he speaks.

"When passive, chip constantly broadcasts electrical signal. Redirects neural patterns, access to memories. White noise interference." He breathes in quickly, lower eyelids sweeping up. "When activated, noise overwhelms conscious thoughts. Subject easily manipulated. Overriding signal simple."

Then he holds up a strip of woven vectran, no wider than Thane's smallest finger. Inset in the long band of material is a single indicator light, which glows red. Each end of the strip has a locking tab, and as they watch, Mordin fastens these together, creating a loop before releasing the ends and letting the band dangle from his fingers.

"You're fucking kidding me," Shepard says, tiredly, hand going to her temple. She doesn't look at anyone but Mordin as she speaks. "A collar."

Mordin stares back. "Thought another cranial implant excessive. Can reconsider. Assure you that device is waterproof!"

"Will it work?" Garrus asks bluntly.

"Yes! Immediately," Mordin nods, eyelids moving rapidly. "May need a short-duration increased blast. Then adjust frequency to simple modulation. Minimal collateral damage to brain tissue."

Thane watches Shepard. Her eyes never leave the collar, and are still flat and exhausted, but there's fear in them as well.

"Increased blast..." Shepard repeats, unzipping the top of her shirt, exposing her throat and collarbones. "Just... get it over with."

Mordin steps to her bed, slipping the collar around her neck with professional efficiency. Then he looks at Thane.

"Will likely be initial unpleasant side effects." A quick breath in before he pulls a small cylinder from his coat. It has blue casing and a black button on the end and bears an unfortunate similarity to an explosives detonator. "Not dangerous. But dramatic. You and Garrus will keep her from self-injury. Liara and Chakwas will monitor."

The monitors register Shepard's unease; her heart rate has increased. Her hand flutters at her throat, fingers tracing the vectran, touching the light.

Mordin holds up the blue device, thumb over the button. "Interference frequency." He looks at Shepard. Blinks. And says with some sympathy, "Won't lie. Will hurt."

Then he presses the button.

The light on the collar turns blue, flashing rapidly, and for the briefest moment it seems nothing has happened.

Then Shepard makes a high-pitched sound of agony and shock. She topples forward, landing on the deck on hands and knees, immediately clutching at her head with both hands. Convulsions strike her next, and she claws at her scalp as her body spasms. The noise of her head striking the floor is sickening.

Thane and Garrus move at the same time, Garrus grasping her wrists, Thane cradling her head so she cannot continue to slam it against the floor. When he realizes the cries she makes are a series of pleas to stop, he wrenches his attention to Mordin.

"Enough!" he demands, but then he sees Mordin has released the trigger. The salarian has his omni-tool up, scanning.

Shepard's frantic movements finally cease, but she shakes, entire body shuddering with the aftereffects. Minutes drag by, and then even those tremors pass.

She allows Garrus to pull her hands from her hair. The turian makes a soft humming noise; it sounds oddly similar to the subharmonics Thane used to sing his infant son to sleep, so long ago.

Shepard opens her eyes in a series of long blinks. Her face seems more pale than a moment before, red hair in stark contrast to colorless skin.

She stares at Garrus blankly as the turian releases her wrists, allowing her to sit up. Thane puts a hand under her side, assisting her. She steadies herself by placing a hand on his arm and looks at him, but there is no recognition there. Then she turns back to Garrus.

"I know you." Her focus shifts to Liara and Chakwas. "And you, too. And..." she frowns at Mordin. "I know you."

"Yes," Mordin says. "Memories, true memories, should return slowly. Will be gaps. Rushing process problematic."

"My crew... they're alive?"

Thane clears his throat against the ache he feels. "Yes, Shepard. Most departed the Normandy at the Citadel."

"Shore leave," she says, quietly. She looks at Garrus. "I gave you my gun."

He smiles, relief plain in his voice. "Yeah, Shepard. Your Locust. Not getting it back, either."

The corner of her mouth twitches in the beginnings of a smile, and then her gaze returns to Thane and her expression becomes pained. "I shot you."

He clings to the flicker of... not lightning, not fire, but something in her eyes. "Yes. You did," he replies, gently.

Then she leans forward and before he realizes what she's doing, she's put one arm around his waist and the other around his neck. When she embraces him, her breathing is ragged in his ear and her voice catches around his name when she says, "Thane. I... "

He wraps his arms around her, pulling her closer still. Her hair is soft against his face, and she is not a memory which slips away when he reaches for her, but solid and warm and real.

"Siha..." he begins, but the words threaten to overwhelm him. And though it cannot begin to explain how he feels, he tells her the truth. "I have missed you."


:-:

Art commission of this scene by the absolutely lovely paragonparadigm.

Chapter Text

If it hadn't been for Councilor Sparatus' request, Kaidan wouldn't have agreed to meet with the turian officer from Special Tasks. The supply depot was on a mined-out asteroid two relay jumps out of his way and he's not convinced the hits on their shipments are related to his investigation.

Being a Spectre came with certain advantages: cutting edge tech, access to information without filling out a zetabyte's worth of forms, and a reasonable amount of freedom from bureaucracy.

Reasonable being the key word. He still had to answer to the Council and a request from Sparatus was as good as an order. Which is why he'd had to play hopscotch on three different Alliance vessels before he could catch a ride on the SSV Shanghai to the asteroid.

Sparatus had insisted this was vital to the investigation of Cerberus, but Kaidan has his doubts. Cerberus steals tech or information. They don't steal the left over waste-product of eezo manufacturing.

The ship's VI announces they're five minutes out from the depot while Kaidan finishes suiting up. He clips his Paladin to the thigh-hold of his armor, and secures a smaller pistol at his waist. The reason he carries the second pistol isn't something he wants to examine too closely.

One of the communication techs - Carter? Carver? - is waiting outside his quarters. Kaidan motions for her to follow and heads toward the elevators.

"What can I do for you, Carter?" he asks, taking a chance on the name.

"Sir, you wanted an update you on those comm buoys from Notanban?" She waves a hand over her omni-tool, bringing up a schematic holo.

"Yeah," he says, stepping into the elevator, pressing the control for the shuttle bay. "Let me guess. That base on the moon was Cerberus, so it follows that the buoys are too?"

"We think so, based on the tech. I'm transferring the data we retrieved from them. As we expected it's mostly ship signatures."

He lifts his eyebrows. Almost two months and he's ready for a break. "The Normandy?"

"Yes, sir. From the logs, it looks like we missed them by a matter of minutes. As we entered the system, they left."

Finally. Something concrete. Not that it makes him feel any better. No way of know if Shepard's on board. No way of knowing if she's alive or not. And if she is... well, that's another thing he's not going to dwell on too deeply right now.

The elevator reaches the shuttle bay, the doors opening with a hiss. He nods at Carter before he starts across the bay to his assigned shuttle. "Thanks. Send it all to my omni-tool."

The Shanghai is too large to drop shuttles close in, but the captain has already agreed to hold orbit around the asteroid. Kaidan confirms the coordinates with the shuttle pilot before taking a seat near the door and strapping into his safety harness, hoping this won't take long.

When they touch down twenty minutes later in the landing bay of the warehouse and the shuttle door swings up, he sees a turian waiting for him. White colony markings, light armor and if he's not mistaken, the mods on her Predator are illegal as hell.

"Lieutenant Amicus?" he asks, stepping from the shuttle. He knows better than to offer to shake her hand.

"Spectre Alenko," she responds, sharp eyes meeting his. He feels like he's being assessed. Then she smiles, mandibles flaring slightly. "Thank you for meeting me."

"I have to be honest, Lieutenant, I'm not sure why I'm here."

Her mandibles extend from her jaw a bit more. Kaidan tries to remember if that's a good thing or not.

"I need to show you something, and then I'll explain," she says, nodding at the airlock separating the bay from the warehouse. As she leads the way, she asks, "What do you know about pyrite?"

"Turians use it to manufacture solar panels, mostly on Palaven."

She looks surprised as they step into the airlock. "Yes. We do."

"Don't look so shocked," he says, with a quick smile. "Just because I don't think this is related doesn't mean I didn't do my homework."

Face masks with micro-filters hang neatly along one wall. She takes one from its hook and hands it to him. "Here. Pyrite dust is impossible to control. Turians aren't too sensitive to it, but you might want to wear this."

When she opens the second door he sees what she means. He holds the mask to his face and steps onto a walkway, taking in the sight. The warehouse stretches out beneath them, row after row of precisely spaced storage containers, but it's the pyrite that takes him by surprise. It coats everything in a thin shining layer, and where the overhead lights strike motes of shining dust, the air shimmers.

"Fool's gold," he says. Then he shakes his head doubtfully. "So... what, you think Cerberus wants to stop production of solar panels?"

"No. Our power grid is established. Losing so much raw material has been damaging to our economy, but that's not the real problem." She crosses her arms over her chest, looking at him seriously. "Element zero binds to pyrite naturally. The refinement process separates the two, but that can be reversed by placing both together into an electrical current."

He understands almost immediately and pulls the mask away from his face as he looks at her in disbelief. "You're telling me that anything that generates a mass effect field can be shut down with fool's gold? Weapons, ships... relays?"

"In theory? Yes," she says, seriously. "It would take an enormous amount. To disable a pistol you'd have to pack the firing chamber full. A warehouse this size... possibly the drive core on a dreadnought. To shut down a relay? It would take the equivalent of a small planet. An impossible amount to store and transfer."

"Cerberus has a habit of trying the impossible," he replies. "How much has been stolen?"

"We honestly don't know. Only some of the mines and refineries are turian, we purchase the rest. Until it reaches our lines, there are no records."

"The Council should be throwing everything they have at this," he says. He runs his hand over his hair. "Sparatus is just sitting on it? Why?"

"Tevos and Valern are unconvinced it is Cerberus. They want more proof before committing to anything." She shakes her head, then flicks her mandibles. "And, you're aware that tracking Cerberus isn't as easy as it sounds?"

The dust has started to make breathing more difficult, but before he puts the mask on he gives her a wry smile. "Yeah. I hear that. So what do we do?"

Amicus turns and walks back to the airlock door, pressing the controls and stepping into the small chamber beyond.

"We wait for them to hit what they believe is an underguarded ship with a particularly large cargo. When they do, Special Tasks will assist the Alliance in the capture and follow-up intelligence. If Sparatus can prove this is related to Cerberus, the salarians and asari will agree to assist."

"A trap," he says, following her in, sealing the door behind himself. "Guessing that's where I come in?"

"Yes. Our soldiers are already in place. Reports indicate raiding parties have been less than ten-man squads. We'll have double that." She keys a command into a panel set flush with the wall. "You and I will join them in four standard days."

He nods. Not like he's going to get a better opportunity at Cerberus any time soon. "You know I'll have to report this back to Councilor Anderson."

"I'd be disappointed if you didn't."

"And why didn't Sparatus tell me this himself? Or tell Anderson? Would have saved some time."

The fans kick on before she can answer, sucking the pyrite from the air and their armor. She waits until the cycle finishes. The plates above her eyes lower into a frown as she opens the door to the shuttle bay.

"Politics." Her frown deepens. "There are more than a few people who think Commander Shepard faked that scene on the Citadel to avoid prosecution and allow her to return to Cerberus."

"There's no proof either way. And what does that have to do with - "

"You served with the Commander. For some time."

This throws him, a little. "Yes. I did."

"And during that time, there was a turian on her crew." She glances away. "It's likely that if she went back to Cerberus, he followed."

If Horizon was any indication, Kaidan has to agree. "And?"

"If - when we take this organization apart, the Alliance will demand jurisdiction and this will be a very public mess while our governments dance in circles around each other." She looks at him directly now. "But the name Vakarian isn't a small thing on Palaven."

"I know. I told you I did my homework." He tries to keep his voice level. "You're asking to cover up his involvement?"

The surprise on her face is obvious even to Kaidan. Her mandibles drop and he sees the points of her teeth for a split second before she clamps her jaw shut.

"If he is guilty of terrorism, we want him back, not in an Alliance prison." She stares at him without emotion. "The Alliance takes a dim view on turian ideas of justice. If he is guilty, he needs to be given the chance to do the honorable thing."

17.

The Illusive Man regards the screens in front of him and only years of practice maintaining a facade of calm keep him from betraying his anger.

A static-filled series of images from Notanban loop in front of him. The live link had gone down and the cameras had been damaged during the explosion, but enough footage had been captured for him to see what happened.

Against all odds, Shepard's crew had come for her.

He glances to his left, where Kai Leng stands and stares impassively.

"You had the opportunity to eliminate them." He indicates the image of Vakarian kneeling beside Shepard's prone body.

"Destroying the data seemed more essential. I believed her dead."

"I'm certain she's not. "

The Illusive Man stands from his chair, and walks to the edge of space. Beyond the station's shielding, Anadius boils. Solar flares arc from the dying star, plasma looping and twisting above the chromosphere.

"Each of those flares causes a massive spike in radiation, which strike our shields soon after."

Leng's optics gleam, but he says nothing.

The Illusive Man glances at him, then back at the sun before he continues. "The fluctuating radiation causes added strain on resources, and we could assume a more distant orbit, but I consider the expenditure to be a fair exchange for the view."

He doesn't feel the need to elaborate that it also adds to the image he's so carefully striven to create. He doubts Leng would appreciate the nuance; for an assassin, the man tends toward the obvious.

Leng watches the sun for a moment. "And when the cost of maintaining such a close orbit becomes too high?"

The Illusive Man pulls a silver case from his pocket, drawing out a cigarette. Before he lights it, he asks, "You still have the controller for Shepard's chip?"

One corner of Leng's mouth twitches. "Yes."

"Good." He takes a drag from the cigarette. Another flare erupts in front of him. "I've been in contact with Solem Del'Serah. We've come to an agreement. You'll take the controller to him."

Leng shifts, his face a study in barely-restrained irritation. "I would be - "

"No. After you're done with the Blue Suns, I need you to accompany the infiltration force striking the shipment in the Abyss."

The irritation on Leng's face slips away, leaving a thin smile behind. "The turians don't know their deception has been discovered?"

"No. We'll take the ship with a full company." He lifts the cigarette to his mouth again. "And this time, Leng, make absolutely sure there are no survivors."


A/N:

Sorry for the delay on this, folks, some bumps in real life put me behind schedule. :)

Chapter Text

If he tries, Garrus is almost able to pretend things are normal.

Shepard's been back less than a day and is still sleeping while the ship drifts in an unpopulated system, but with her on the Normandy, him running calibrations in the battery, Chakwas behind her terminal in the med-bay, Joker and the rest of the crew playing cards in the lounge, it feels right.

Just like old times.

Until he considers the override controller he carries. The one synced to Shepard's collar, that can drop her to the floor with the press of a button.

And he can't ignore the nightly batch of reports EDI and Joker forward to his terminal, either. It's as grim as it has been for the past two months. The charges against them range from piracy to resisting arrest to the murder of three C-Sec officers on the Citadel. When they turn themselves in, they're charges he won't lie about.

He's always owned his choices. He knew going in what it might cost to get Shepard back. If it's decided he spends the rest of his life at hard labor for his decision, he won't flinch from it.

There are other things on his mind, of course. Things he keeps coming back to, unable to find answers for. He can only imagine what this is doing to Sol and his father, but when he thinks about his mother...

He pulls off his visor and rubs his eyes. When Shepard's finished sleeping off the exhaustion of the last few days and makes a reappearance, he knows she'll want to talk to him. Maybe she can help him see through this, because he can't get a fix on the solution.

He's not going to solve it tonight, though. He's going to get out of his armor, have a cup of something hot that for once isn't loaded with stims, check some algorithms that have been compiling, and then try to get a few hours of sleep.

When he leaves the battery he sees the mess hall is dark, even the lights in the med-bay are off. Chakwas must have decided to sit in on the card game after all. Garrus smiles at the thought. The woman has a poker face that could put an elcor to shame; no way she is coming out of there behind.

The battery doors hiss closed behind him as he reaches the top of the stairs. He stops abruptly; he thought the mess hall was empty, but Shepard is standing in the kitchen. She's facing away from him, at the counter near the coffee maker. She's in casuals, one's he's never seen her wear, but what catches his attention is the high neck on the shirt.

Can't blame her. He wouldn't want that collar on display, either.

Her head is bowed and as he watches she draws in a deep, uneven breath and he realizes if she's not crying, she's close to it.

Crap. He feels like he's intruding on her, but he can't just stand there.

"Shepard?"

She stiffens, then lifts her hand and wipes her face without turning.

"Hey, Garrus," she says, starting the cycle on the coffeemaker.

He steps down the stairs and walks to the counter, leaning against it with his arms crossed. "I won't insult you by asking if you're okay."

She doesn't reply, only unlatches the cupboard and pulls out a white mug, setting it on the counter. Her thumb taps the handle restlessly.

A full minute ticks by, the time counting up on his visor, and the movement of her thumb becomes erratic. She still doesn't look at him, but her voice is bitter and tight when she says, "I can't remember how I like my coffee. What else did they take, Garrus?"

His chest tightens like he just took a concussive round. How does he answer that? He has no idea what other memories Cerberus has stolen from her. He does the only thing he can; he opens a drawer and pulls out a container of powdered creamer, setting it next to her cup.

"Three scoops."

She picks up the creamer, turning it in her hands. Then she shakes her head and sighs.

"Thanks," she says after a minute, twisting open the top, spooning powder into the empty cup. "Damn. The great Commander Shepard. Crying over coffee. Give Harbinger a good laugh, wouldn't it?"

"Mordin said it will come back," he says. "Give it some time."

"Time. There's not a whole hell of a lot of that left." She finally turns, her eyes meeting his. "Two months. I've been out two goddamn months. You think the Reapers took a break, too? You think the Illusive Man will wait for me to remember what he took?"

"What do I think?" He lifts a brow plate. "I think we're better off than we were a week or two ago."

"Two weeks ago, do you want to know what I was doing? Because I do remember that," she says. "I was helping steal Prothean technology from the asari. For Cerberus. And god only knows what they're going to do with it."

She slips her fingers back through the cup handle, the tempo of her thumb picking up the same fast rhythm.

Shepard has a lot of tics and Garrus knows them all. She tucks her hair behind her ear. Rolls her shoulder until the joint pops. Sometimes grinds her teeth. This is new.

"Stop." He reaches out and covers her hand with his own and squeezes carefully. But it's not fragile skin or thin bones that he's worried about hurting. "That's on the Illusive Man. Not you."

"I know," she replies. "It's just - "

"Regret is never that simple."

"You'd think I'd have it down by now," she says with a faint smile.

"You'll get through this, Shepard. You always do." The coffee sputters, finishing its cycle and he squeezes her hand again before he releases her.

Her eyes travel over his face, and he wonders what she's trying to find. Whatever it is, she must see it because she her smile becomes a bit stronger. If he tries he might be able to pretend she's okay. Might be able to ignore the new tic and shirt.

"Thanks, Garrus. I mean... for everything."

"Didn't do it alone." He keeps his thoughts about his family, about consequences, to himself. She doesn't need his problems right now. He watches as she pours her coffee. "Which brings up the point that Mordin wanted you to be under observation for at least a few days. Surprised you're down here by yourself."

"Figured I could handle making a cup of coffee on my own," she says, with small shake of her head at the words. "Whether he'll admit it or not, Thane needed some time to himself. Life Support is just around the corner." A quick glance at him. "And the battery's right there. I know you don't sleep, Vakarian. That gun doesn't calibrate itself."

"No, it doesn't," he says, returning her smile. "And I've, uh, actually moved into Miranda's old office."

She nods, picking up the cup. "Good. More room."

There's the sound of a door sliding open and closed from the corridor beyond the mess, and they both turn.

Jack walks in, ignoring them as she makes a straight line for the refrigeration unit. Judging from the smell of alcohol, she's had more than a few drinks while Chakwas kicked her ass.

"About time you came up for air, Shepard." She pulls the door open and leans behind it, hand on the edge. Garrus can still hear her fine, though. "You two going to completely puss out on this game?"

"Chakwas already clean you out?"

She flips him off without a word.

Shepard laughs and it sounds genuinely happy. "Glad to see some things haven't changed."

Jack steps back from the unit, a vacuum-sealed cube of what might be sliced meat substitute in one hand, and a packet of reduced nutrient paste in the other. She bumps the door shut with her elbow, then tosses her food on the counter.

Shepard takes drink of her coffee. "Of all the people I expected on board, Jack, you weren't one of them."

"Yeah, that makes two of us," Jack says.

"But here you are."

Joker comes into the mess hall in time to catch the exchange. He gives Shepard a quick smile before he lowers himself into a chair at the table. "Hey, Commander. It's my fault. Had to scrape the bottom of the barrel on the Citadel."

"Fuck off," Jack says. "At least I picked up when you called."

Garrus watches as the biotic tears the packaging on the meat open, dumps it into a bowl, and then reaches for the paste. He's not an expert on human food, but he's not sure those two items go together. From the expression on Shepard's face, she's not either.

"So, there's a story there," Shepard says. She looks at Garrus, then Joker, then at Jack again.

"Drop it, Shepard," Jack says.

Joker muffles a laugh and Garrus shakes his head at the commander. "You're on your own here."

There's no denying how good it feels to be here, how right this seems. He smiles at Shepard and knows if she decides to go after the Illusive Man next, instead of turning the Normandy in, he'll be with her every step of the way.

From the way she relaxes against the counter and smiles in return, maybe she's thinking the same thing.

She looks at Jack. "Fine. The thing I want to hear about is this asari crate-stacking exercise."

Jack grunts, stirring the mess in her bowl. "That's the bullshit you and Krios talk about in the sack?"

"No." Shepard doesn't hesitate. She knows how to deal with Jack. "Usually it's weapons' mods."

Joker raises his hand. "Hearing about your pillow talk isn't on my bucket list, Shepard."

"Elkoss is coming out with new phasic jacketing," Garrus interjects. He can see the sharp light in Shepard's eyes and normally he wouldn't save Jack from herself, but he's in a good mood.

"Really?" Shepard takes another drink of her coffee. "Thought that was a prototype."

"No. You're thinking of Kassa's next-gen cryo mod."

Jack rolls her eyes and scoops up another mouthful from the mess in her bowl.

Gardner wanders in next. He has the appearance of a man who has been taken for his last credit.

"Commander. Late night?" He reaches the end of the counter nearest Shepard, crouching down and swinging open a door. When he stands up, he has a bottle in one hand. His pleased expression sours when he notices Jack's bowl. "What the hell is that?"

"Better question," Shepard asks, "is what is that?" She nods at the bottle.

"This? Private stash." He untwists the cap on the bottle. He uses it to gesture at Shepard's cup.

The smell of levo alcohol hits Garrus as the cook pours a generous shot into the coffee.

"Batarian?" Shepard sniffs it before taking a sip. "Figured you for more of a traditionalist when it came to your whiskey."

"We all have our weaknesses, Commander." He steps between her and Garrus, and takes out a shot glass. "Vakarian keeps a stash of that goddamned vat-grown seafood in the cooler. Throws off the taste of the vegetables."

Garrus shrugs in response to the glance Shepard sends him.

"Yer pilot knows more about asari wines than he lets on," Gardner continues, splashing alcohol into his mug.

"Hey. Wait," Joker says. "Just because you saw the delivery lists, doesn't mean you should abuse that power."

"This one," Gardner looks at Jack's bowl with a grimace, "eats emergency rations when she doesn't have to."

"Only because you can't cook worth shit, Gardner."

"That leaves Shepard," Garrus says. "What about her?"

"We taking bets?" Joker asks. "I say it is coffee. Not that cloned, rapid-growth stuff, but old-style Earth."

"Five credits?" Garrus asks. He knows what it is, of course.

"Don't know. Don't care," Jack says. "I'll put my money on neither of you dumbasses knowing."

Garrus' visor catches movement in the corridor before he sees Thane enter the mess.

"Commander," the drell says, nodding at Shepard, as he takes a seat opposite Joker. He's obviously heard some of the conversation because he reaches into his coat and sets a credit chit on the table.

"Uh, Krios, you sorta got an unfair advantage," Joker says.

Garrus isn't so sure. He's been with her a lot longer, followed her in and out of tight spots, and most importantly, gone on more trips to the Citadel with her.

Thane rests his elbows on the table, hands folded in front of him. "Strawberries."

Shepard's eyebrows lift slightly and her smile softens a bit, but then she shakes her head slowly. "No. And it's not coffee, Joker."

"Ha," Gardner says. "Y'know why we went to Illium so often? Those little asari chocolates."

"All those were for Grunt," Shepard says. She looks at Garrus. "Your turn."

He knows it's those things that remind him of long white worms. Ramen. He almost says it. But for a reason he can't explain, he realizes he wants to keep that information to himself. He crosses his arms again, mandibles relaxing away from his jaw. "So, not the chocolate?"

"No," she says. There's a faint crease between her eyes, almost like she's disappointed, but she doesn't push the point.

"That's right, fuckers," Jack says, dropping her empty bowl in the sink. She points at the chit in front of Thane, her fingertips glow with light, and the chit floats upward, before flying toward her. She grabs it out of the air one-handed, smirking.

Shepard watches this, then pulls three shot glasses from the cupboard. She flips each upside down, then arranges them in a line on the counter, before walking across the mess to stand at the end of the table. She holds out a hand toward the glasses. "So much better than stacking crates."

Her biotics flare, steady and blue, and she lifts one of the glasses. It floats, unwavering, as she sets it on the other two, forming a pyramid.

It's a drinking game Garrus had seen played in the clubs on Omega, mostly by asari. Ten glasses, stacked within an increasingly shortened time-period. Knock down the pile and pay up. He doubts anyone here is going to get shot when they can't cover their debt.

"Want to put money on this?" Garrus asks. He's not sure who will come out on top. Shepard's always been a strong biotic, but she's not very patient.

"Might as well. Shepard's good for this," Joker says, pushing himself up from the table, moving stiffly toward the corridor. "But not without something to drink first."

"You in on this, Krios, or you just going to sit there?" Jack asks. She sets out more glasses, idly lifting two into the air as she joins Shepard at the table.

Shepard looks at Thane and raises her eyebrows. "Credit per round?"

"Very well," Thane answers, rising from his seat. He walks to stand beside her.

"Sounds good to me," Jack, third glass hovering above the counter. It trembles slightly as she places it on top of the others.

"My credits are on Krios," Garrus says.

Shepard snorts. "Your confidence is heartwarming, Garrus." She eyes the glasses, then shrugs. "And probably not misplaced. I haven't worked the bugs out of this new amp yet."

The lines on Gardner's face deepen. "Destroyin' a man's kitchen might justify mutiny, Commander." He takes his bottle and walks to the battery stairs. Sitting down on the bottom tread, he rests his forearms on his knees. He points at Garrus. "If I was in your place, I'd get out of range."

Garrus can't fault his advice and makes his way to the stairs. He lowers himself next to the cook, stretching his legs out in front of him, crossing them at the ankle. "Joker really drinks asari wine?"

"That red garbage, from the '30s. Gives me indigestion."

"You do understand how that sounds?" He dips a mandible at the batarian label on the whiskey. "There are krogan that won't drink that crap."

Joker comes back from the lounge and cuts across the room, two bottles of beer held by the necks. "Here," he says, when he reaches the step and hands one with a purple dextro label to Garrus. Then he limps back to his place at the table, sitting down carefully. "Always bet on the commander."

"Damn straight," Shepard chuckles as she brings up her omni-tool. She tucks her hair behind her ear, one corner of her mouth turning up when she says to Thane, "Ten seconds enough?"

"I should think," he answers dryly.

Her omni-tool pings and Thane's biotics light up the mess hall. He gestures at the glasses, bringing the first row into place with twist of his hand. They click into a neat line, probably with more force than he intends, but he ignores this, focusing on the next row. This gets stacked on top of the first with swift precision, one glass after another. The next row is finished with even more speed, and the final glass crowns the pyramid with a decisive clink.

There's silence for several seconds, and then the timer on Shepard's tool goes off.

Garrus lets out a soft whistle, mostly to annoy Joker. That was fast. Damn fast. And the stats on his visor tells him it barely stressed Krios to do it. Jack and Shepard might have more strength, but this type of campaign calls for finesse. He takes a drink of his beer. "Anyone want to hand over their creds now?"

"Huh," Shepard says to Thane. "Spent some time in asari clubs?"

"Some," he answers, distinct amusement in his voice.

"Uh-huh."

"Fuck," Jack says. She unstacks the glasses and then rejoins Shepard and Thane. "Next time we do this, we're seeing who can throw crates the farthest on a two-gee world."

"Commander?" Thane says, bowing slightly. "Ten seconds?"

"No one likes a smart ass, Krios," she says, corner of her mouth tugging up again. She squares off with the glasses. "Ready."

The timer pings and the blue from her biotics sparks around her arm and hand. She's not as smooth as Thane, the first line rattles together and one glass in the second clunks down with enough force it chips, but she manages to finish the pyramid with time to spare.

Unlike the drell, her heart rate bumps up. Not enough to be dangerous, but enough that it's a unpleasant reminder to Garrus of what she's been through recently. No way he's going to mention it, not here and not now. He sighs softly and takes another drink.

Shepard unstacks the glasses, spreading them out on the table before returning to stand next to Thane. She brings up her omni-tool.

"Remember, Jack," Joker says. "The goal is piling them up. Not blowing them through the wall into Garrus' fancy new quarters."

"Breaking my glasses isn't alright, neither," Gardner mutters.

Jack rolls her neck, stretching the muscles. The tattoos on her skin seem to move on their own when she starts, energy spreading out around her more widely than it had the others. The glasses move fast, faster than either Shepard or Thane had done, but her control is less refined. The second and third tiers aren't as solid, and by the time she gets to the top glass, the entire structure looks like it might collapse.

Still. It holds.

"That's right. Not as fancy as you assholes, but I get the job done." She jerks her head toward the lounge and then starts for the corridor. "Hold my turn. I need a beer."

"Grab us refills?" Joker calls after her.

"And see if Donnelly will spot me some credits," Gardner shouts. " I'm feelin' like I might take another crack at the doctor."

Garrus isn't shocked that she ignores them both.

Thane takes the next round at the glasses, with Shepard shaving two seconds off the timer. Again, he does it with calm control, well before his time is up.

Jack comes back with her beer, and surprisingly, she's carrying one for each Garrus and Joker. She passes them out and takes a long drink of her own. She sets it down by her feet, stares at the glasses for a moment, and says, "Eight seconds?"

This time, though, she rushes too much and her pyramid doesn't hold, and it's only Shepard and Thane's quick biotic grabs that keep the glasses from shattering on the floor.

Jack takes Thane's credit chit from her waistband, tossing it on the table again. She grabs her beer and starts for the corridor, lifting a hand in a wave. "Later. Chakwas is down fifteen. I want to see her lose."

With the timer at seven seconds, Thane moves faster, but he still seems to manipulate the energy fields effortlessly. Or, at least his stats aren't giving away any signs of exertion. Garrus lifts a plate over his eye at Joker; he's going to win their wager.

Joker shakes his head wordlessly from across the room, no sign of worry on his face.

Shepard is up again, and even without the visor it would be clear to Garrus that she's pushing herself too hard. Her movements aren't as graceful, and the final glass wobbles in the air before it finds its place.

Thane leans closer to her and murmurs something that Garrus can't hear, but he does catch Shepard's it's fine.

Garrus wants to add that, no, it's not, that she's not, but he's very aware of the fact that it isn't his place. Best friend or not, when Krios is around, he doesn't fit into her life like that. With this unwelcome thought, the corner of his mind that picked at him months ago in the Flux lounge starts back up again.

He silences it without mercy, running a hand over his fringe and scratching the back of his neck, as though the thought is a physical itch under his hide. He's not going to do anything to hurt Shepard, and dwelling on might-have-beens only leads to problems.

Gardner interrupts his thoughts by leaning in close to him. The smell of whiskey is strong enough that it almost burns.

"Want some advice, son?" Gardner asks, quietly, voice so low Garrus can barely make out the slightly slurred words.

"Not really," Garrus answers.

"Tough shit." The cook pours himself another drink, putting the bottle on the stair tread next to his knee. "You keep mooning after her, all yer gonna get is a broken heart."

His translator feeds him something unintelligible on one of the words, but the intent is clear. He squints at the cook, feeling more than a little agitated. He's careful to keep his voice down. Not a conversation the others need to hear. "First, you're drunk. Second, disrespect Shepard like that? Not likely."

"'Course not. Ya got too much honor to get in the way of - " He gestures at Thane and Shepard, disassembling the pyramid, deciding on the terms of the next round. "But humans, we say 'the heart wants what it wants' and if you're not careful, you'll carry a torch for her until you die. Trust me on this, that's a mighty heavy weight to pack around for a lifetime."

"Five seconds," Shepard says, drawing Garrus' attention. He relaxes his mandibles away from his jaw. A five-second time limit with Shepard this worn out isn't smart; and she's not the type to ease up just because she's tired.

Thane breaths out slowly. Blinks both sets of eyelids. "On your mark, Shepard."

He doesn't get a chance to try when they're interrupted by EDI's voice on the overhead comms.

"Commander, Dr. T'Soni wishes to speak with you. She indicated it was an urgent matter."

"When isn't it?" Shepard asks, the edges of fatigue apparent under the voice of command. "On my way to the briefing room. If Jack is still sober enough, let her know. Garrus, Thane, you're with me."

When they enter the room, Liara's image is already projected above the table. She offers them a tense smile, focusing on the commander.

"Hello, Shepard. I had expected you to be sleeping." A pause while her eyes pass over Thane and then Garrus. He gives a small shrug. If Liara thought she could do better keeping Shepard from doing whatever the hell she felt like, the asari was welcome to try.

"Hey, Liara."

Shepard stops at the head of the table, fingertips on the surface. Garrus moves automatically to one side, and despite the fact that this can't be good news, falling back into these roles is another item in an increasingly long list of things that feel right.

"What do you have for me?"

"Nothing good, I'm afraid."

"Well. I didn't expect it to be a social call." She starts tapping the table with her thumb. "What is it now? Alliance figured out where we are? Cerberus jammed a tracker into my head, too? Batarians haven't taken a crack at me," she laughs, a short, angry sound, "that I remember. Is it them?"

Liara's lips purse. "Blue Suns."

"They don't give up, do they?" she asks. "But that's nothing new. So why call me?"

"Because every contact I have has told me the Blue Suns have suspended all operations in favor of one single objective."

Shepard shakes her head and looks at Garrus. "I'm guessing I'm higher on their list. No offense."

"None taken," he answers. This is bad. Total war with the Suns means every backwater supply planet will be a potential risk, every fuel depot a potential ambush point.

"But that's not the worst of it." Liara rests her fingers on her temple. "It seems Cerberus has negotiated a truce with them and, in all probability, provided information on you."

"Technology?"

"We can't know that."

Shepard taps harder on the table and Thane steps forward, touching her elbow carefully. Shepard stills, squeezing her eyes closed. Seconds crawl by. Her eyes snap open and she turns toward Garrus.

"Even with this shit in my head, you trust me, right?"

Her intensity throws him as much as the question. "What? Yeah. Definitely."

"Then I have an idea." She crosses her arms over her waist, facing Liara. "Few things. Question Mordin, make sure this collar is going to hold up under combat stress. I don't want to get out there and find out the overrides don't work. Second, see if you can find Zaeed Massani and tell him I could use his help; he's bound to want in on this, so I think he'll say yes. Third..."

She pauses and swallows. Hesitates a second longer.

"Let the Vido Santiago know I'm ready to hand over Archangel."

Chapter Text

19.1

Shepard stands inside of the storage container, staring down at Garrus. He's slumped on the floor, eyes closed, mandibles slack, arms at an uncomfortable angle where he's cuffed to the wall.

There are thick rivulets of blue trailing down the front of his armor and when his head lolls forward she sees crusts of blood and saliva caked on his jaw. More blue is spattered on the wall next to him, evidence of how he'd been worked over.

His missing visor is final gut-wrenching detail. Before today, she'd never seen him without it, and it's unsettling how wrong he looks. She crouches beside him, taking in the gory scene.

She has to hand it to Chakwas, the bruises and blood spatter look authentic. It reminds her too much of Omega, begging him to hold on while she frantically tried to keep him from bleeding out.

"What are the odds this is going to work?" she asks.

"I wouldn't put money on it." He lifts his head, cracks his eyes open, and flares his mandibles. "But for the chance to nail you, me, and Massani all at once? At least we know they'll show."

"Here's hoping." She lets her gaze fall to her hands, realizing she's laced her fingers together and is tapping one thumb against the other.

"Bad time to be doubting this," he says. He's always been too perceptive and now there's no blaming it on the visor. When had he learned to read her this well?

"Not getting cold feet, if that's what you're asking."

"What?"

"Human thing. I'll explain it sometime." She looks up again. "Garrus, when this is over, I'm taking the Normandy back to the Citadel and turning myself in. With what's coming, the Alliance will need the ship."

He blinks at her, like the words aren't quite translating, then lowers his head to scratch his face against his arms. The drying blood smears over his scars.

"Hell of a time to hit me with something like that. When we get done with this, we'll talk about your timing," he finally says. "But if this goes sideways, I'll make sure it happens."

"Yeah, well, you're going to hate this part. However this works out, you, Thane, and the rest of crew are getting dropped off with Liara. The Normandy goes back, not you."

"What?" His mandibles clamp against his jaw. "I'm not - "

"I know you're not," she shakes her head, "but if this does fall apart and I'm not around, it's what I need you to do. Liara has my sworn statements as a Spectre regarding your involvement in the theft of the Normandy, but it will take time for the bureaucrats to decide you're not guilty of the other charges."

"I'd rather take this head on. Figure out a way to beat it. Worst case? Sitting in a cell won't kill me."

She can hear the stubbornness in his voice and realization hits her. Somewhere along the line, he'd stopped being her subordinate.

"No," she says, "it won't, but with the Reapers coming, the galaxy needs all the good people it can get. While I'm getting this mess straightened out, there are better places for you than fighting red tape."

"Shepard, I don't know if there is a way to fix this. C-Sec won't care about statements or - "

"They will if I threaten to release information to Emily Wong and every other galactic news source at the same time. The details about Saren and Tela Vasiir never came out. Throw in Shepard and you've got the cross-species hat trick. There are enough people out there who hate the Spectres, willing to make a stink, that the Council will back down."

"That's your plan? Blackmail the Council?" He breaks eye contact, focusing on a point over her shoulder. His voice is tight around his next words. "You think I'm going to go for this?"

"When this becomes a democracy - " she says it out of habit, but bites off the words. "I need you to have my back on this."

"Then you're going to have to explain it to me, Shepard." He still won't look at her. "Because the first time I wasn't there for you, you died. Second time, Cerberus snatched you and stuck a chip in your brain. I'll be damned if I'm letting you walk into hell by yourself."

She wants to flinch from the barely concealed hurt; she's no stranger to guilt and regret.

"You want explanations. Fine," she says, anger fading into a bone-deep exhaustion. "Here's the truth: I need you to do this, because if you go with me, Thane won't stay behind. Because, Spectre or not, I can't fix what he did on the Citadel. Because we both know he wouldn't last more than a week in prison before some cop with a grudge arranges an accident for him. Because... I'm asking as your friend."

He's quiet, plates over his eyes lowered, and she can see he's working through their options. She knows there aren't many, she's done the math herself, more times than she cares to admit. Always comes up with the same answer. He turns to look at her and from the unhappy set of his mandibles, she knows he's come to the same conclusion.

"Shepard. I'm always behind you, even if I don't like it." His expression sharpens, clear blue eyes narrowing on hers. "But so we're clear? I don't like it."

"Didn't expect you to," she says. Her smile might be worn out, but it's genuine. "Thank you. I know - "

"Hey. You're welcome," he cuts her off, grin as tired as her own. "Need a favor of my own, though."

"Okay," she says. She's known him too long not to recognize that he's still upset with her, but he's dealing with it. "Name it."

"One, take care of that Locust. I want it back after this."

"Absolutely," she says, patting the gun where it's clipped to a thigh hold.

"Two, tell Krios to pull his punch a little this time around. Bastard almost took my head off when we rehearsed this."

She raises her eyebrows and jerks a thumb behind her. "I could get Zaeed or Jack to clock you. Sure they'd love a turn."

"Yeah. Forget I mentioned it." He glances toward the bay. "You better get out there. Don't want to keep Vido's guy waiting. My guess is we have five minutes."

EDI's voice interrupts from the overhead comms. "You are correct. The shuttle with Vido Santiago's representative will arrive in approximately four minutes and thirty seconds."

"Right. Thanks, EDI." Shepard heads toward the door, pausing with one hand on the frame. From here she can see the Hammerhead, where the others wait. Zaeed is leaned against the ship, arguing with Jack, who's slouched in the pilot's seat. Thane's watching the discussion, but he turns toward her expectantly, eyeridge quirking in a question as he starts toward her.

Shepard nods, but before she steps from the container, she looks back where Garrus is resting his head on his arms. "Couldn't do this without you, Garrus. Any of it."

He sighs and for a second there's real pain in his eyes, but before she can say anything he snorts and the strange expression is gone. He clears his throat. "Next time you get to be the one cuffed to the wall and covered in fake blood."

She almost asks him what's going on, but now isn't the time.

"I'll see that and raise. We do this again, you can be the one to hit me," she says, hearing his laugh as she walks toward the inner bay doors.

Thane meets her there, glancing at the container with another unspoken question.

"We're good," Shepard says. She crosses her arms and shifts her weight to one hip. "You set out here?"

Jack's voice carries to them as she hauls herself out of the Hammerhead. She's still arguing some point with Zaeed, and Thane smiles faintly at this.

"I believe so," he says. He regards her closely and says, with words spoken quietly enough they won't go beyond them, "Once again you push yourself too hard."

The memory this elicits is so sudden it almost overwhelms her. The fact that she had forgotten it - that Cerberus had stolen it from her - fills her with a flash of anger and raw emotion. She tamps it down quickly. That type of rage during a mission gets people killed.

"Pot, meet kettle?" she asks.

There's little Thane misses, and he certainly sees her stumble, but he surprises her by touching her hand. "A peculiarity of folly we share."

"It would seem."

Jack and Zaeed wander up and Thane retreats to arm's length again, but not before Zaeed makes a sound half-way between a cough and a laugh.

"Bad enough when you two were sneakin' around like you thought no one knew you were playin' the game of twenty toes. Now you can't keep it in your go'damned quarters?"

Jack picks at the base of her thumbnail. "Wait until they start talking about weapon mods."

Shepard unclips the Locust, automatically checking the sink and firing mechanism. Everything is immaculate; Garrus takes care of his firearms. "Think you forgot the air quotes, Jack."

"Implied," the biotic says, pulling a piece of cuticle free, flicking it away.

Joker's voice comes through the overhead comms. "Hate to interrupt the party, but we've got company."

"Got it," Shepard says crisply. She looks at the others in turn. The easy smiles are gone as they take positions on either side of her in a line, pulling their weapons. "Joker, Vido isn't known for playing well with others. Stay in low-atmo. Chances are I'll need that strike."

"I know the plan, Commander."

"Jack, make sure you and EDI do a full sweep for tech after we're gone. Make sure they didn't bring - "

"I'm on it Shepard. Not my first time doing this shit."

Zaeed trades out the sink in his assault rifle. "Jus' be thankful we're not gettin' a rousing speech."

Shepard laughs, the sound short and rude, rolling her shoulder until the joint gives a satisfying pop. This is where she belongs, standing with a solid team, doing what she's best at.

"Shuttle docking," Joker says. "Scans say one occupant. Sidearms only."

"Stay sharp. Open the inner doors," she says, "and let's go to work."

The doors slide open, revealing a Kodiak-class shuttle. As the thrusters extinguish, the hatch on it swings up and they can see a barefaced turian in Blue Suns armor. He holds his hands up at shoulder level, focusing on first Zaeed and then Shepard. She's known enough turians to spot a case of nerves when she sees it.

"Thought you'd be taller," he says to her.

She looks at Zaeed, but his response is a slight negative head shake. The turian is a low-level trooper, expendable, sent in alone in case this was a trap. So far, Vido's keeping to the terms of the agreement. Unless there's a bomb on the shuttle, she doesn't expect him to try to screw her until they hit the planet.

"Usually I get 'thought you were dead.' "

He grunts, obviously trying for unaffected. From the way he keeps glancing between her and Zaeed, he's anything but. "Let's just get this over with."

Shepard gestures and Zaeed moves in, Revenant aimed casually at the turian's head as he circles the Blue Sun, taking a flanking position.

"This way." She turns on her heel and strides toward the container. As she walks alongside it, she bangs the wall with the butt of the Locust. "Wake up, Archangel. Your date's here."

They enter the container together, Zaeed taking a position in the corner, Thane to her side, and the merc behind her. Given that the Suns sent another turian she doesn't trust her voice when Garrus lifts his head groggily. Chakwas did a good job, but the defeat in his eyes is what guts her.

"This who they sent?" Garrus asks, wincing as he tries to stretch in the restraints. He lets out an unsteady breath. "No offense, kid. Figured I rated someone higher up."

"I'm not the one chained to the wall like a fucking varren." The merc spreads his mandibles a little as he speaks, then says to Shepard, "I need genetic confirmation." He starts forward, but Shepard immediately blocks him and Zaeed taps the trigger guard of his rifle.

"Not a chance," Shepard says. "Like I told your boss, you don't get to touch him until I get the authorization codes to call off the Suns." She looks at Thane, jerks her head toward Garrus. Tries not to react to the low warning sound Garrus makes.

Thane doesn't hesitate. He's coldly professional when he crouches next to Garrus, pulling a thin-bladed knife from his coat. He twists one of Garrus' hands in the cuffs and with precision that speaks of knowing far too much about where a plated species can bleed makes a shallow cut across the back of his hand.

Shepard scratches the side of her nose, then rolls her shoulder again.

"Bored?" Garrus asks, bitterly, watching as droplets of blood well from the wound, spreading over the blade of Thane's knife.

"Shouldn't have screwed me over."

"Should have put a slug between your eyes when I had the chance." He glares at her. "What I get for trusting a human."

The memory that hits her isn't hers. She knows it isn't. Garrus never shot her. Never looked at her with naked hate and squeezed the trigger. She can feel the Mordin's collar warm at her neck, knows what she's remembering is a feedback loop brought on by stress. She digs her gloved fingers into her palms, as though she can hold onto reality by will alone.

The memory passes, leaving her shaken. It's lucky that the merc's attention is fixed on Thane, because she's sure she's giving away everything right now. Thane rises and holds the knife out to the turian.

The merc runs a scan on the blood, omni-tool beeping as it runs through its analysis. Then it pings, the sound indicating a match.

"Happy?" Shepard asks. "Get Vido on the line and let's do this. EDI, make sure they don't try to piggyback anything onto this call."

The turian shrugs, but follows her order. He brings up a screen on his omni-tool and waits while EDI routes his signal. He keys in a message and after another brief wait, Vido appears on the display.

"Shepard," he says, interference making his image fade in and out. "Let me say again, I'm pleased you accepted my offer. So much better for both of us. You received the coordinates for our meet?"

"Uh-huh. You send out the codes and call off this little war, you get Archangel. And so we're clear, my omni-tool is monitoring my life signs." She raises her arm. "It stops transmitting, our weapons systems automatically fire. I'm sure you're aware of what a Thanix can do."

The display crackles with static. "All you need to worry about is keeping a leash on your dog."

Zaeed grumbles, but Shepard waves him off with a sharp gesture. Not the time to get into a pissing contest.

"Fine. We'll be there in ten."

She doesn't wait for an answer as she marches into the bay, barking commands as she walks. "Cut him down. Get him in the shuttle. The sooner I get that smell off my ship, the happier I'll be."

She doesn't stop, leaving the others to carry out her orders as she heads for the shuttle. Jack is leaned against it, still picking at her thumb.

"All clear," the biotic says, conversationally. "I'd tell you to chill the hell out, but that turian's a dense motherfucker and can't tell freaked from pissed."

"I'm working on it." Shepard steps inside the shuttle, dropping into a seat furthest from the door. From here she can see the others shove Garrus into view. She forces herself to look at Jack instead. "He's a better actor than I expected."

Jack turns, looks at the group and nods. "Yeah. Guess so. Watch your ass down there."

"If I don't come back - "

"Fuck that. No way you're putting shit on me," Jack says, pushing away from the shuttle, sauntering past the rest of the crew, not giving them a second look.

Shepard leans back against the headrest. The collar of her armor digs into her neck and she tries to concentrate on that when Garrus is shoved into the seat opposite of hers.

Thane leaves an empty space between himself and Garrus, but stays within reach. The merc is next in, taking the place nearest the hatch. Zaeed swings the door closed and heads for the pilot's chair. Less than a minute later, the shuttle lifts from the deck, and it doesn't take long to clear the exterior door of the Normandy.

Bright blue skies greet them. It's a deception. The planet itself is a radioactive pile. Whatever race had once lived here had decimated their world.

She checks her omni-tool. The monitor is transmitting correctly. Not that it's overly reassuring.

They're thirty seconds out from their destination, descending steadily when the shuttle bobs up and then down abruptly, Shepard snaps her head toward the cockpit.

"Thought you could fly one of these damn things," she shouts, not having to pretend to be irritated.

"You want a pilot, pay for a damned pilot," Zaeed yells back.

The merc snorts, and apparently he's feeling better about the situation because he attempts to make conversation. "You could settle a wager for me."

"What?" she says.

"We got ahold of some of the recorders off of the ship Cerberus snatched you from."

"That right?"

"Yeah. And how some of it looks, you took out a medic named Corik."

She raises an eyebrow, then realizes this turian won't realize what that means. "Red markings and a bad temper?"

"That's him. He was tough. Fast, too. How'd you do it?"

"Used his temper against him." She makes the mistake of looking across the ship, Garrus is watching her and she knows what she has to do next, knows that it will only help sell this.

The shuttle drops sharply, then levels out, before thumping sharply against the ground. The hatch swings up, and scorching heat, reflecting from the hard-packed earth beyond the door, fills the compartment.

Shepard stares at Garrus, putting everything she has into making sure her voice is loaded with disgust.

"He wasn't too bright. I just got him mad. Like this." She grins widely, all of her teeth showing. Then she clicks them together once.

There's the briefest of silences in the shuttle, then the barefaced turian starts laughing, and Shepard is worried she's blown their cover, because in that same second, Garrus is genuinely shocked. His eyes widen and his mouth opens slightly

He's always been fast to react, to adapt. He covers his surprise with anger. "You bitch," he says, voice rough and mean. Even though he's still in cuffs, he tries to get up, only to have Thane shove him back into his seat and Zaeed step from the cockpit with his rifle.

The string of curses he uses on her are uniquely turian. From the way the merc keeps laughing, they're pretty good insults.

"Would you shut him up?" she says to Thane. The sound of the blow that cuts off Garrus' rant is dull, flesh meeting plates. Garrus' head rolls to the side and he hisses as he breathes in, mandibles fluttering in pain. Shepard hopes at least some of that is an act.

The merc is still chuckling when he stands and goes to the door of the shuttle. He squints against the hot sun, then spots three figures in blue who have appeared from the cover of a rocky outcropping; Shepard recognizes Vido immediately, but the others are unknowns.

She's not the only one who's seen the Suns' head; Zaeed is grumbling under his breath, hands gripping his rifle stock as he glares at Vido.

"Zaeed," Shepard warns, quietly as she stands. "You screw this up and I will shoot you myself. We need to get those codes. I need him alive."

"Long as you don't let him go again." He's eying the troops who are now listening as the turian speaks to Vido. "The woman. Know her. Biotic. Likes that slam shit much's you. The turian with the white marks, never met him."

Vido finishes questioning the barefaced turian and faces Shepard. She lifts a hand in a casual wave, half-turning. Garrus is leaned back in the seat, a fresh trail of blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. He flicks a mandible at her. On a human it would be a reassuring smirk.

She can't risk the other turians overhearing her, so she lifts her eyebrows. Then she raises her voice as she faces Vido again. "Get him up."

Vido is taller than her, and from the way he swaggers up as she walks toward him, he thinks he can use that to intimidate her. She fixes him with the same glare she uses for dealing with Grunt and he stops several paces away, scowling.

"Gotta say, Shepard, surprised you didn't deal with the problem yourself." He's looking past her, at Garrus.

"That makes two of us. As much as I would like to put a bullet in his head," she gestures vaguely behind herself, "makes more sense to do this. Send out the codes, you can have him."

"You don't think this is a trap?" Vido says, he tilts his head toward the biotic who stands to his right.

"I think you'd like it to be. I know you have an extra squad in the rocks. But here's the thing, I took out the Collectors. Believe me when I say a few Suns are nothing. Screw me on this, and you'll regret it."

"It's true then. You have gone rogue."

She doesn't answer. She can hear Garrus' steps, uneven as they drag through the dirt, behind her. Without looking, she knows Thane and Zaeed flank her. She also knows that Thane has cut Garrus' cuffs.

Vido smiles at her. "Before we get to the codes, I have something else for you."

"This is where you try to kill me?"

"No. You're worth more alive."

He holds up one hand, showing her what he's holding. It looks like a detonator, same shape, button on the end. One of the controllers for her chip.

The smug bastard actually expects her to back down.

She grins at him and trips the cut-off on her omni-tool monitor. "You've got ten seconds."

He's trying to decide if she's bluffing. "Targeting on that cannon isn't that precise. Might kill me, but you'll go too."

"Maybe. Could be I'm just too tired to care any more." She shrugs. "Five seconds."

He obviously decides to take his chances, because he presses the button and her world flashes over as white-hot pain explodes behind her eyes.

Chapter Text

19.2

Shepard comes back to consciousness in stages, feels hard-packed earth under her cheek, rocky ground digging into her shoulder and hip. She breathes in slowly; her throat is raw, her lungs ache. Smoke and dust choke her and she coughs raggedly into the dirt.

She hadn't expected to be completely flattened. How long had Vido held that button?

She reaches for her biotics next, but there's nothing there. She doesn't remember using them, but from the sparks of electricity randomly firing along her peripheral nerves, she went hard enough to fry them. Her cybernetics are scrambling to repair the damage, but with the way she's feeling, it'll take time.

An aftershock from the chip shoots through her and she groans at the spike of pain. When she tries to lift her hands to her head, she's stopped by hands on her wrists and Thane's voice.

She opens her eyes, slowly. He's kneeling on the ground before her, murmuring something she doesn't understand, and it takes her a long, puzzled minute to realize his voice is shaking. She's never seen him angry. Not like this.

"'S okay," she says, pulling her hand from him. She wipes at her nose. Bleeding again. Shit. "It's okay."

"No. It is not." He lets go of her, touching her cheek gently. He looks at something behind her, nods, and then stands, all fluid grace and angry focus. Shepard struggles to sit up as he strides away, only to feel a hand on her shoulder.

"Give it another minute," Garrus says, leaning over her. His eyes meet hers and she smiles weakly.

"You look like hell," she tells him. Her stomach rolls and she fights the urge to throw up. "You get hit?"

"If I look bad, you look worse." He gestures at his leg. "Blast threw me against a rock. Leg's broke. Medi-gel's only doing so much." Another pause. "Does this mean next time we try this I get to blow you up?"

"You want to try this again, you're on your own," she says. "Help me sit up."

He doesn't argue, only hooks his hands under arms, helping her scoot back against the rock he's leaned against. She takes in the bodies around them; she's been out for a while. A firefight like this doesn't happen in a matter of seconds.

"Where'd Thane go?"

"With Zaeed, talking to Vido," he says. He points past the shuttle.

"That's - " she tries to push off the ground, but she's too weak and slips, landing hard on her ass. "Damn."

"Give it a minute," Garrus repeats, dryly, voice flanging around the words.

"I've been told patience isn't my strong suit," she says. This time she uses his shoulder for leverage and drags herself upright. She stands still for a minute, letting her stomach settle as she weaves in place as she wipes her nose again. Her eyes burn and she's certain some of the smaller vessels have ruptured again. She's never given much thought to her appearance, but it would be nice to occasionally not look like a zombie.

The Locust is nearby, half-buried in the dirt. She picks it up, checking the firing chamber and makes sure the bore is clear before seating a fresh clip. "You okay here by yourself?"

Garrus pats an assault rifle laying next to his injured leg. "Absolutely." He tilts his head up, facing the sky. "Just like a summer day on Palaven."

Shepard tries not to stumble when she walks away from him, and does a decent job of it. She dabs at her nose with the back of her hand and sees her nose has stopped bleeding; she'll take that small victory.

From the casualties she counts, Vido brought more than a handful of extras. She wonders how many of them she took out when she cut loose with her biotics. Reasonable guess said he wasn't expecting her to mow down everything in front of her.

She picks her way through the chaos, then around the shuttle. On the other side, Vido is kneeling, keying something into his omni-tool. Thane and Zaeed stand in front of him, and from the way one eye is almost swollen shut and his split lip, he'd needed some convincing to release the codes.

"Hey," Shepard says, clipping the Locust to her thigh.

Vido glares at her, but when Zaeed grunts and gestures with his rifle, he drops his eyes back to his work.

"He's providing the data," Thane says, approaching her. "I believe we're equipped to deal with this. There is no need for you to tire yourself further."

"I don't doubt it," she answers, dropping her voice so the others can't hear. "I'm fine, Thane. I know it looks bad, but I'm okay. Don't worry."

"An impossible task." His eyes don't waver from hers. "Allow me my petty fears. There is no need to carry this burden alone, Siha."

She thinks of a dozen arguments, doesn't voice any of them. After all of this, she owes him at least this. "Fine. I overextended my biotics and I'm exhausted and it feels like there's a spent sink lodged inside my skull, but I swear to you the second I can't handle this, you'll be the first to know."

"Upload's finished," Zaeed calls out. "EDI says the codes check out."

She lifts a hand in acknowledgment, but doesn't turn from Thane. She offers him a crooked smile, hoping that he can see she's trying. "And I'll let Chakwas check me out when we get back on the ship. And maybe try to sleep."

He finally nods, not quite returning her smile. "It is a start."

Vido shouts at her. "What about me? Not like I can hurt you now. You know I can't rescind those orders without looking like I had my balls handed to me."

"From where I'm standing, it already looks that way." Shepard walks toward them, stopping next to Zaeed. "Sorry. Promised Massani that was up to him. Think he still wants to kill you?"

"Wait," Vido says. "I have more information. I'll trade you. I know the one person you want to hurt worse than me."

Shepard laughs. She can't help it. "You understand how that sounds right now?"

"When the Illusive Man's pet assassin brought us that controller, we... discovered some information about their next target."

"Like I said," she shrugs. "I made a promise. I pay my debts."

"What sorta target?" Zaeed asks, ignoring Shepard's surprised look.

"Give me your word that you'll cut me loose, I'll tell you everything I know."

"Zaeed..." Shepard says. "You really want to play it this way?"

"No. I want t'put a bullet in his head." He pushes the muzzle of his rifle against Vido's temple, mismatched eyes narrowing. "This is twice I've caught up to 'im. I'll do it again." He lowers his rifle. "You could 'a let me burn. Not the only one here who pays their debts, Shepard."

"Thought we squared that up blowing the Collector base to hell."

"That? I don't charge for somethin' that easy," he scoffs. "Better hope this intel pays off, Santiago."

Vido lets out long breath, then looks at Shepard.

"There's a cargo ship gonna be hit in the Nemean Abyss; two standard days. Illusive Man's throwing a lot of resources into it. Sending his top people to take care of it. Did some digging, because that didn't make sense. Job like that calls for a five-man crew, tops." He shrugs. "Word has it that when the ship made a supply stop, it had a full turian combat squad on board, some Alliance marines, and a Spectre to boot."

"Sounds like they'll be fine." Shepard crosses her arms, then says to Zaeed, "That worth cutting him loose?"

"Let me finish," Vido snaps. "The Illusive Man knows about it. He's sending a company. It'll be a slaughter. You get there in time, you shaft Cerberus and save some soldiers. Me? I couldn't give a shit. But the way I figure it, you do."

Shepard is aware of Thane, standing beside her. She'd told him the truth; she's exhausted, but Vido's right. "I won't turn my back on this."

"I wouldn't ask it of you," he answers.

She gives a sharp nod and clicks on her comms. "Joker, plot a course for the Abyss."

Chapter Text

20.

They find the turian cargo ship where Vido told them it would be, but there's no sign of Cerberus, and Garrus wonders if there's any truth to that part of his story.

No support ships have arrived to escort the Austere as it continues its plodding course, and with the military forces on board, warning them directly isn't a risk Shepard's willing to take. Garrus can't blame her. If Cerberus does show, the Normandy will be on its own to help. So, they hang in space, hidden by their stealth systems, passively drifting well beyond short-sensor range.

Garrus sits in Miranda's office, waiting for a secure link between her terminal and the extranet, tapping his talons in an uneven rhythm on her desk. He doesn't see the point in thinking of it as his desk or office, not with the inevitable surrender of the ship looming. No point in getting used to the bed in here either. Most nights, if he doesn't fall asleep on the couch, he ends up on his cot next to the Thanix.

An icon on the terminal blinks and he pulls up his account, unsurprised by the forwarded message from Thane. The drell had told him to expect it, briefly outlining the contents. Garrus is almost through the first screen when the door chimes.

He's been expecting Shepard; she still makes her rounds, but it's not quite the same. Before when she wanted something she'd just walk into the battery without warning, always with the same line, always expecting the same response.

"It's open," he says, minimizing the display. "But I'm in the middle of some—"

The doors slide apart, but it's not Shepard standing there.

"Hey. Sorry, Krios." Garrus gestures at the terminal. "You here about the file?"

"In part. May I?" Thane tilts his head toward the threshold.

"Yeah. Come in."

Thane walks to the window and stares out into the darkness, hands clasped behind his back. Unless Garrus is imagining things, he hears a new rasp to his breathing. He wonders if Shepard has noticed it, then decides that's probably none of his business.

The drell is silent so long that Garrus wonders if he's slipped into one of his memories. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair.

"How is the injury to your leg?" Thane asks.

"Bone weave's set." He touches the side of his mouth. "Face still hurts."

"I imagine," Thane says, dryly.

"About this..." Garrus nods at the terminal. "Thought you blacklisted this contract?"

"I did. That someone has accepted it... well, call it a lack of professional courtesy."

Under different circumstances, Garrus would have smiled at the undercurrent of annoyance in Thane's voice. It was a safe bet pissing off other assassins didn't lead to a long, lasting career.

"How worried should I be?" he asks.

"He has some measure of skill," Thane says, "but is young and lacks patience. I doubt he will survive a year." He seems to consider his next words. "Not that this matters to your father."

Garrus frowns, glancing at the minimized screen. "And all I can do is sit here and wait."

"His impatience will lead to mistakes. Now that his identity is known, the right person—one with the correct resources—could pursue him without endangering your family." Another pause. His breathing is definitely more labored, there's no mistaking it. "Although I am no longer in a position to do so, there are such individuals who are in my debt."

"People you trust?"

"No," he answers. "Not precisely."

Garrus chuckles humorlessly and runs a hand over his fringe, scratching at the back of his head. It's one thing to work with an assassin, another to ask him to call in a favor.

Thane shifts, meeting Garrus' eyes. "But I would place my son's life in their care."

Garrus lowers his hand, nodding slowly. "Fine. And thank you." Something else occurs to him, and he asks carefully, "Have you told Shepard?"

Thane blinks, inner eyelids remaining closed for a moment. He faces the window again. His hands tighten, one around the other and he answers in a single terse word: "No."

"Yeah," Garrus says. "She's got enough to deal with right now."

Thane doesn't reply and Garrus drags a finger over the display, restoring it to full size. He's a little surprised to see that the assassin who accepted the contract is turian. The image included in the file is grainy, probably from a surveillance vid, but there's no mistaking his own species. It's not unheard of, but it is rare.

"You said this was only part of the reason you were here," he says. "Doubt you came to find out how my leg is."

In his peripheral vision, he sees Thane shift and wonders just how bad this next bit of news is going to be.

"Before," Thane says, "I assured you I would not allow myself to become a liability in the field. If boarding the cargo ship becomes necessary, I will remain on the Normandy."

Garrus stops reading, eyes fixed on the screen. "Sorry to hear that."

"There is no need to be. I have accepted this eventuality. But that is not what I wish to discuss with you. I..." He pauses. "You have never doubted Shepard."

Garrus narrows his eyes and doesn't bother to hide the flash of irritation the words bring. "Of course not."

"You have stood with her from the beginning."

"That's right. From the very beginning."

When Thane continues, his words sound flat. "I have known for some time how deeply you care for her."

Garrus' jaw tightens, teeth scraping together. It makes sense that if someone like Gardner had spotted his feelings for Shepard, the professional assassin had too. And he has no idea how to handle this conversation.

"What do you want me to say, Krios? Deny it?" He twists to stare at the drell's back. "We both know I can't lie for shit."

"You misunderstand. It is not an accusation," Thane says, quietly, turning until Garrus can see his profile again. "She is very precious to me. I trust that you will watch over her when I can no longer guard her steps."

Of all the things Garrus might have expected to hear, this isn't one of them. He takes time choosing his words. "You know, the way this conversation usually goes, you tell me to keep my distance. Or threaten to knock my teeth down my throat."

The corner of Thane's mouth twitches. "Even were I so inclined, I believe Shepard would react poorly to the gesture."

"Yeah. She would. Kick both of our asses." Garrus exhales slowly, trying to force away some of the tension. "Look, Krios—Thane. I'm not going anywhere."

If Thane replies, Garrus doesn't hear it, but he sees the way Thane's expression closes off, hands tightening once more. He'll never be an expert on other species' emotional responses, but he knows grief. He looks away uncomfortably, trying to focus on the data on the screen.

The door pings and this time it's Shepard. She's in her armor, helmet in one hand, Locust in the other, and her lips are is set in a grim line.

Garrus pushes back from the desk, not needing to be told that it's time.

"Shit's about to hit the fan," she says, tossing the gun to him. If she can tell that something's not right between him and Thane, she doesn't comment.

He catches the Locust, snapping into place. "You understand what my translator did with that?"

Thane faces them, watching her without a trace of emotion. Shepard gives him a slight nod.

"Take care of my ship. Don't let Joker do anything stupid," she says.

"Of course," he answers, and something passes between them that definitely isn't Garrus' business.

"Meet you at the elevator, Shepard," he says, stepping around the desk, heading into the mess hall. Gardner is missing from his station, and that's fine with Garrus. He's had enough advice from the cook to last him the rest of his life, and after the conversation with Thane he's not in the mood for more.

He's still waiting when Shepard comes around the corner. She stops next to him, facing the doors.

"There's a ship five minutes out from the Austere. We're at least fifteen. Tried to warn them, but they're blocking our signal," she says, the words clipped short. "And it's just you, me, and Jack for this one."

He looks over her head, toward Miranda's quarters. "Yeah. He told me. How bad is it?"

The elevator doors open and she steps inside, waiting for him to follow before pressing the indicator for the CIC deck.

"Some days are worse than others. Chakwas thinks it's a flare-up, not—"

Her voice doesn't waver, but she doesn't finish the sentence either and Garrus knows when to let a subject drop. They ride in silence, the only sound the hum of the ship around them.

"Nice of Santiago to donate that shuttle to the cause," he says. "But it's too bad Zaeed couldn't stick around."

"Couldn't give Vido too much of a head start, could he?" she says, pressing the controls again.

"Guess not. Surprised Massani didn't kill him when he had the chance."

"Makes two of us. Gave up on understanding Zaeed a long time ago," she replies, looking at the floor indicator, impatient.

"You know, I think they designed elevators just to aggravate you."

Deflecting with humor isn't anything new between them, and she snorts.

"You're not the first person to tell me that," she says, as the elevator stops and the doors part. She gives him a half-smile as they step out, walking side by side past the galaxy map. "Ready to go kick some ass?"

He grins back, mandibles wide. "You have to ask? It's what we do best."

21.

Kaidan's had his share of bad assignments. The worst being when he'd first received his commission and did a year-long rotation as an instructor at the Amundsen-Scott station. Antarctica was cold and windy, but it was the students who made life miserable. The only time he got frostbite was when a group needed extraction from an ice shelf collapse in an off-limits area; the surgeons had to clone three new toes on his right foot.

Almost as bad was the time he spent as part of a good-will mission to Ekuna. The elcor needed help clearing decades of waste from illegal colonization—Kaidan and a team were volunteered by the Alliance. The gravity wasn't quite strong enough to make small falls dangerous, but even so, living inside a powered exoskeleton for a month straight hadn't been pleasant.

There were other stints that made the list. A short time in a pressure suit on Irune. Tour on a swampy world in the Verge. Being stuck on a turian cargo freighter as it made its way through the Abyss shouldn't have been so bad. It was warm enough, and mandatory armor and arms didn't come close to the discomfort of of a grav-suit.

The problem with being on the Austere was the boredom. The marines assigned to him were professional soldiers and got along well with Lieutenant Amicus' squad, but there was only so much to do on the freighter. Didn't help that quarters were tight.

Less than two weeks in and the marines were on edge.

Then they found out that turians dealt with excess stress by sparring. Which somehow ended up with him agreeing to go a few rounds with Amicus.

He might have had his share of bad assignments, but he can safely say this is the first one where he's had his ass kicked by a female turian.

It's still early when he walks into the mess hall, but he sees that Amicus is already at one of the tables, datapads spread out around her, cup of tea at her elbow. She waves a hand without lifting her eyes from her work, and Kaidan makes his way to the serving counter. Although the levo rations are depressingly bland, he will give the Austere's cook one thing: the man has figured out how to make decent coffee.

The cook eyes him, dropping one mandible a little, and a week and a half on a turian ship has taught Kaidan to spot a smirk.

"Spectre Alenko," the cook says, setting a tray between them. A mound of something off-yellow is heaped on the tray, and Kaidan guesses it's meant to be scrambled eggs. The cook gives him another grin and adds a mug of coffee and a packet of creamer to the tray. "Can't believe no one told you she was top-ranked."

"Yeah. Me either," Kaidan says dryly, picking up his breakfast. "Maybe the odds your crew had against me should have tipped me off?"

The cook's mandible drops again and Kaidan chuckles, then turns and makes his way to Amicus' table. She pushes the datapads away from the seat opposite her, still not looking at him. Maybe because she's trying to hide the amused flare of her mandibles.

"Spectre."

"Lieutenant," he answers, sitting down, tray in front of him.

Amicus reaches across the table and picks up the packet of creamer, tears it open, and holds it out without speaking.

"Thanks," he says, taking it and stirring the powder into his cup. It turns the coffee a dirty brown as it dissolves. Good thing it tastes better than it looks.

"I feel I should apologize. Again. I haven't spent much time around your species." Amicus finally looks up. She takes in his black eye for a moment, mandibles flexed in a smile. "I had no idea humans could be bruised like that."

"Yeah," he says, taking a sip of coffee before smiling at her. "We do. But, it's okay. At least you didn't break my nose, right?"

Her mandibles flare a bit more. "During military training we're told that they can be broken. Didn't really believe it." She makes an indistinct gesture toward his face. " They seem so... malleable."

Kaidan laughs. "Cartilage, not bone. Yes, it can be broken, and no, I'm not in a hurry to give a demonstration."

"Fair enough," she says, returning to her data. "It did earn you respect. From both my team and the civilian crew."

"I think it's more likely they were happy taking credits from marines." He takes a bite of eggs, chewing as he watches her reading, then uses his fork to point at her datapads. "How's it going?"

"Slowly. Last night I decided to approach the problem from a different angle. Storing the amount of pyrite we've discussed would require several large locations..." She frowns at the pad, taps it with a talon, and then sets it aside to search through the others. "What do you know about the planet Klencory?"

It sounds familiar. Given all the places he'd followed Shepard, that wasn't surprising. "Might have heard the name?"

"It's most notable feature is the network of mines and the wealthy volus who apparently abandoned the venture." She finds the right datapad, and keys in a command. "Several months ago, there was an insurance claim filed by an asari merchant in the Newton System. She maintained a collision with another freighter resulted in pyrite contamination of her shipment when the hulls ruptured."

"Pyrite?"

"Yes. The crew disappeared before the insurance adjusters could speak with them, and they were unable to trace ownership. It was taken to a shipyard within the system. " She scrolls down, highlighting lines as she goes. "I contacted the manager and received the following report on the assets recovered from the ship."

She pushes the pad across the table. Kaidan takes it, presses the icon to translate to English, and begins to go over the information. He finishes and passes it to her again, picking up his coffee, taking a drink as he considers what he's read.

"There wasn't much fuel left on that ship. Couldn't have made it far," he says. "It had to be headed somewhere nearby to drop its cargo and refuel. You're thinking Klencory?"

She shrugs, pulling the pad toward her, stacking it with several others. "Possibly. I've had several leads like this. None have yielded positive results. If this trip proves uneventful, I plan on visiting Klencory. I'll likely spend days scouring the planet without finding anything, but will still be required to complete a lengthy expenditure report for my supervisor."

"They never tell you about the paperwork when they offer you the job, do they?"

She laughs and picks up her tea. "No, they don't."

A comms channel on her omni-tool blinks and she taps the interface, tilting her head as she listens.

"Wait. Spectre Alenko is here with me. I want him to hear this." She keys the omni-tool again. "Repeat what you just told me, Captain."

"Spectre Alenko," the captain says. "Short-range sensors show a distortion in our radiation discharge."

"Another ship?" Kaidan leans forward, setting his cup carefully on the table. "Thought the closest thing to our position is a turian carrier."

"Yes, the Undaunted. But it's several hours from us," the captain says. "Running diagnostics on the sensors to ensure it wasn't an anomaly. I'll notify you if—"

A tremor runs through the Austere, the movement setting off the repetitive buzz of alarms. The captain's voice follows from the overhead comms.

"All personnel, we are under attack. This is not a training exercise. Report to stations immediately."

Kaidan and Amicus are out of their seats before the announcement finishes, heading for the exit.

"Leaving the mess hall now," she tells the captain as they step into the main corridor running the length of the ship, passageways branching off right and left at regularly spaced intersections. As they approach the nearest of these they can see two of the Austere's crew waiting impatiently.

Behind them, a door opens and closes again. The cook nods at them as he jogs past, an assault rifle held in one hand. He joins the waiting turians, and the three of them disappear into a passage that leads to engineering. Kaidan has to hand it to the Hierarchy; mandatory military service meant the civilians aren't helpless.

"Captain," Amicus says, "does it look like Cerberus?"

"Unknown," he replies. "Having some problems getting a reading. They're shredding our defenses."

"How long can—"

The ship lurches again, this time hard enough Kaidan's forced to brace himself against the bulkhead. The lights cut out briefly, and when they reactivate, it's with the weak glow of emergency lighting.

Another of the Austere's crew, a turian with purple markings, sprints toward them and they step to one side to let her pass.

"Port side, over the hold! They've fired locking clamps." The captain's voice distorts over the comms. "Thirty seconds."

"On our way now, Captain," Amicus says sharply, breaking into a run, heading for the mid-ship stairwell.

"All personnel!" the captain barks. "We have contact! They're going to break directly into the hold!"

Kaidan follows close behind Amicus, unclipping his assault rifle. Adrenaline rushes through him, along with the familiar sting of his biotics. The only continuous stairwell, connecting all of the decks, is at the far end of the ship, near the maintenance bay. They'll have to take the long route, winding their way down deck by deck.

They reach the closed hatch for Deck Three without incident, and Amicus' omni-tool blinks with an incoming transmission.

"Captain?" she asks.

"That ship. We just got an ident signature on it." He pauses, consulting with one of his crew, their voices muffled as they debate something. When he returns to the comms he says, "It's the Normandy."

"The Normandy?" The muscles in Kaidan's jaw tighten. If it's the Normandy, then he can assume Shepard lied to him and faked her own death on the Citadel. And if it's Shepard, the situation the Austere is facing is far more serious than they thought.

"At least we know who we're up against," Amicus says, hand over the door controls.

Each deck on the ship is a duplicate of the same blueprint. One main corridor, branching side passageways. This corridor is filled with smoke, ventilation systems spreading the acrid haze from the deck below, the ever-present alarm even louder on this level. At least the movement of the door doesn't draw fire. If Cerberus troops have made it this far, they're showing unusual restraint.

Amicus takes a step forward, freezing when the alarm abruptly cuts off, mid-pulse, and the emergency lighting dims to a brown glow, before brightening again to its previous level.

"That's not good," he says.

She raises a plate above her eye. "No, it's not."

Then the lights abruptly power down, leaving them in complete darkness. The sudden stillness is unsettling, surrounding them like a physical thing. Now Kaidan can hear the sound of a firefight in the hold beneath them, the rapid cycles of machine gun fire punctuated by occasional cracks as grenades detonate.

"Shit," he says softly, the only sound a faint ringing in his ears from the alarm. The auto-light on his assault rifle clicks on, casting its beam on the floor beside him.

"That translates extremely well." Light from her weapon forms a circle on the wall. Her features are hard to distinguish, but from the way her head is tilted, she's listening to her comms. "We need to clear this corridor and get down there. Cerberus brought more troops than expected."

Kaidan nods. "I've got our six."

Amicus cautiously shifts her weight enough to check the corridor, light sweeping left, then right.

"Clear," she says, stepping out.

He follows, and together they start for the next set of stairs. They're only a hundred feet further along the corridor, but moving through the smoke, black pressing around them, it seems like more. Knowing they'd be easy targets for anyone with thermal-vision equipment doesn't help.

Checking their rear, light casting harsh shadows, he thinks he sees a movement in a branching corridor and snaps his rifle up.

"Hostiles?" Amicus asks, an edge to her voice that wasn't there before.

Kaidan stares into the dark, but nothing materializes and he shakes his head. "No. Jumpy, I guess."

"Understandable," she answers.

She doesn't say anything more until they reach the stairwell, but there she stops, playing her light through the open hatch.

"One of your marines," she says, light moving over the soldier's armor.

"Jackson," Kaidan confirms. The marine is sprawled on his back, one of his arms bent behind him, head resting on the riser above him. When Amicus' light hits his eyes, he doesn't blink and his skin has pale cast to it. His throat has been cut; blood pools under his head, almost black in the dim light, dripping slowly from one tread to the next.

Kaidan crouches down, tipping Jackson's chin to one side. Whoever had done this had almost taken his head off.

"I don't see bullet wounds," Amicus says.

"No," he answers. "No defensive wounds, either," he says lowering Jackson's head, standing up slowly. He's seen the classified reports on Shepard's odd collection of crew, and the drell that had been involved with her disappearance from the Citadel. It didn't take a genius to put it together.

She taps her omni-tool again, opening the channel to the bridge. "Cerberus made it past the cargo hold."

"Understood," the captain responds. His voice flanges around the word, stress taking a toll. "We have—"A sparking noise fills the channel. "Electrical problems across the board, but that's not..." he pauses. "There's a second anomaly on our scans. I think it's a second ship."

"Another Cerberus vessel?" Amicus asks.

"Unknown. I'll—What? Who authorized—" He's cut off by the sound of a flash-bang grenade and indistinct shouting. There's a wet, choking sound, and the channel goes silent.

"Captain?" Amicus asks.

That this goes unanswered is no surprise, and Amicus curses under her breath, something that doesn't require translation, trying to raise him again. When she can't, she looks at Kaidan. "My comms are out, but we can assume Cerberus has control of the ship," she says. "We need to move now."

"No argument here," Kaidan says, standing. He steps around the dead marine and leads the way down, light shining into the dark stairwell below him, Amicus covering their rear. They reach Deck Four without incident, and this time he takes the lead through the hatch.

Just as with the deck above, they're facing another long, tense walk down a smoke-filled primary corridor. Their objective is located off the second passage to the left, and as Kaidan leans around the last corner, he can see that the double doors of hold are closed.

Signaling that the way is clear, he hurries down the corridor, and he and Amicus take position to one side of the doors. He clicks off his auto-light, and the lieutenant does the same. The sound of brutal, bloody combat is clear here, but that doesn't quite prepare him for the scene that greets them when he triggers the controls and the doors slide open.

Muzzle flashes from gunfire and jerking, erratic light from hardsuit insets and rifle attachments turn the scene into a nightmare of shadow and noise. And it's impossible to ignore that there are far, far greater numbers than they expected, with more pouring from the boarding tunnels.

"Raiding parties have never included this many. I need to get my men out," Amicus says, raising her voice to be heard.

"There." Kaidan points to a metal storage container, overriding the light on his rifle. The container should offer a fair amount of protection, if they can get there without being seen.

They crouch, trying to avoid being spotted as they rush forward down a narrow aisle formed by crates and equipment, dodging into cover just as another light appears, coming from the rearmost tunnel, near the shuttle docking area. This one is so bright it illuminates the entire hold like a beacon, pyrite billowing in great clouds through the beam.

Even through the chaos of the hold the mechanical voice is clear.

"Target acquired," it intones, beginning a rapid countdown of clear tones. That's followed by the whump of a rocket launch and a second later comes the sound of an explosion and shattering crates.

Amicus inhales sharply. "They brought a heavy mech."

As if in answer, the guns on the mech fire up, chewing through everything in its path as the Cerberus line advances. From the sporadic return fire, there aren't many of their men left. The situation is grim at best, but retreating to the escape pods without remaining troops clearly isn't an option.

"Do you see anyone?" Amicus asks, pressing against the container.

Kaidan shakes his head, coughing. "No," he answers, checking the firing chamber of his rifle. Not enough pyrite in the air to bind up the eezo. "Need to move up."

The mech is still working through the crates, the overlapping shots ringing through the hold, and a turian voice screams in agony for brief moment. Amicus' mandibles flex and then tighten against her jaw.

"Ready," she says.

Kaidan shifts, looking around the corner of the crate, but his timing couldn't have been worse. The mech's light shines directly in his eyes. He jerks backward, shouting a warning to Amicus, but it comes too late.

The missile hits the container and explodes, the force of it swatting him to the deck as the container is blown apart. The wreckage rains down around him and chunk of steel catches him in the back of the skull. Light blooms across his vision. Another piece of the container lands across his shoulders, and all he can do is lay there in the dust and gasp, clinging to consciousness.

The sounds of the fight come to him, far-off and indistinct.

The mech thumps forward, servos grinding. "Primary defenses online," it drones, launching another rocket.

An absurd thought strikes him before he passes out. Of all the bad assignments he'd ever had, this topped the list.

Chapter Text

22.

"I fuckin' hate EVA."

Garrus hits the hull of the cargo freighter feet-first, magnetics in his boots locking against the metal. The auto-spool at his hip vibrates, the tether retracts, and he stows his line gun. Beyond the utilitarian, squared-off edges of the freighter's hull, he can see the sleek curves of a Cerberus warship. Behind him the Normandy floats, undetected, almost a mirror image of the other ship.

"You ever meet anyone who likes it?" he says into his comms, turning to look at Jack, the biotic still standing in the Normandy's open airlock. Behind her, he can see Shepard, checking her gear again.

"Yeah." Jack aims her line gun at a space to his left. She squeezes the trigger, and the tether from her spool snakes across the space between the ships, clamp at the end impacting soundlessly. The indicator light on it blinks amber twice, then changes to green as it secures.

"There was this asari," Jack continues, focusing on the gap between the ships. Even with her mask and the distance between them her grin is clear, wide and mean. "Said she liked it."

She rolls her neck, shrugs both shoulders, then takes two steps and pushes off. Floating in a smooth arc between the ships, she lands beside him without stumbling, still wearing that white-toothed smile. If he had to guess, he'd say she's had some practice at boarding ships this way.

So far so good, humans liked to say. Accessing one of the unpressurized maintenance ducts is the next step. And while he and Shepard are busy with that, Jack will be making another jump, this time onto the Cerberus vessel. Unless she runs into resistance, she'll plant the tracking beacon she's carrying and get back in time to help them.

"Went on and on about it." Jack locks her boots down, line automatically spooling again as she adjusts the pack she carries. "Liked to talk a lot of shit, you know?"

"Yeah. I know the type," he says, layering on the sarcasm so even human ears can pick it up.

"Fuck you," she says, clipping her gun behind her before starting across the hull. "Maybe you'd like to hear about this turian I knew. He—"

"Settle down, people," Shepard says, sharply.

Garrus doesn't fault her for being short. He's seen enough vacuum exposure victims to know it wasn't a good way to go. Not sure he'd be able to hold it together as well as she is.

He doesn't blame her for taking what Cerberus has done personally either. The chip was the worst of it, but they'd also forged her ship's signature, used it to retrieve Reaper tech, and are now attacking supply lines. Tracking it is too good an opportunity to pass up.

The ship shudders under Garrus' feet and he looks toward her again. She still hasn't jumped from the airlock. They need to hurry. He switches his comms to a private channel.

"You okay?"

"Seem to remember this being easier."

"Uh-huh." He hesitates, hoping Cerberus hasn't taken all the good times. "Like when you, Alenko, and I went EVA on that geth ship?"

At first he thinks she doesn't remember and he's made a mistake by bringing it up. She fires her line gun, the clamp landing almost where Jack's had.

"Yeah." She does a funny little bounce and if she wasn't magnetically attached to the Normandy, he thinks she'd be up on her toes. "That Prime, popping up out of that hatch like some demented Jack-in-the-box. Wish I had the mission vids from that. You and Kaidan, I didn't know you two could move—"

"Rifle was overheated, Shepard."

She unlocks from the ship, hesitates a second longer, and then she steps forward and jumps, body framed by pinpoints of light as she floats between the ships. She lands safely beside him a moment later and he puts out a hand, gripping her armor until her boots lock.

She looks at him, one corner of her mouth turning up a little. "It was dead, Garrus."

"Didn't know it at the time. For the record, I think Alenko moved faster."

Jack's making good time across the freighter's hull. Garrus is more sure than ever that she's had practice at this. She doesn't look back as she comms them.

"I know you two are probably getting all touchy-feely back there, but you might want to start on the hatch."

Shepard raises an eyebrow, starting the process of stowing her line. Then she tightens a strap on the toolkit slung over her shoulder, unlocks her boots, and moves toward the hatch.

"Overwhelmed by your compassion," she says. "Reminds me... you never answered something. When Joker recalled the crew, why weren't you off getting drunk or laid or both?"

Garrus follows behind her, mandibles flexing. "She was at—"

"Shut it, asshole." She's almost to the edge of the freighter. "See you pussies in five."

Shepard gives him a quick grin. She's not going to let the matter drop. Might not ask about it right now, but he's known her for far too long to think she's given up.

Even though she can't see it, he smiles back. Then he unclips his Mattock; while she burns open the hatch, he'll keep an eye on the perimeter.

Joker cuts in. "Hey, Commander?"

"That's not your happy voice, Joker," she says, kneeling beside the hatch, pulling a torch from her kit. "Cerberus figure out we're here?"

Garrus feels himself tense and does another quick sweep around them. So far so good could turn into crap in seconds. Not that he would have refused to go along with this plan. Following her into hell was part of the job.

"No. We're good," Joker answers. "Turians aren't. EDI hacked their comms traffic. You need to get in there. Cerberus brought a lot more troops than we expected. Oh, and a heavy mech."

"Shit." The torch ignites, the white plasma flame casting sharp, jerking shadows as she moves. "We too late?"

"EDI's run some projections."

His mandibles tighten against his jaw. It's not a direct answer.

"Alright, let's hear them," Shepard says, leaning into the recess. The first latch glows white-hot as she cuts through it.

"The turians will be subdued within ten minutes," EDI says. "Venting the area before Cerberus advances further will eliminate the majority of hostiles, thereby increasing the chances of survival for those who remain elsewhere on board."

"Noted," Shepard replies. Her forehead creases; she's searching for an alternative.

Garrus looks away, scanning the perimeter again. Vent the hold. Space everyone in it. Possibly save a few more lives. It's brutally simple math.

"This something you can do remotely?" Shepard asks. "Wading through a war zone to find the controls isn't something I want to do."

"Of course." If an AI can sound offended, EDI does now. "Overriding the exterior doors and inner field is a simple task."

"Fine. When I give the word. Do it."

Sometimes she's almost turian in her thinking.

"Joker? Is Thane there with you?" she asks, slicing through the next latch.

"Yes, I am," the drell answers.

Garrus doesn't doubt Thane is focused on the feeds from their cameras. Positions reversed, he'd be doing the same thing.

"We'll still try for shuttle extraction off the hull, but if things go pear-shaped, we might need you to pull us from the hold itself."

"Understood. I will await your signal."

Shepard cuts through the latches in a little over a minute, and he moves back while she disengages her boot locks, gripping the the frame of the hatch as leverage while she stomps down on the plate. It doesn't move, even when she stomps it another time.

"Son of a bitch," she says, relighting her torch, crouching down again. "Missed one."

The wisp of atmosphere that leaks from the hatch seal is there and gone so quickly, Garrus almost doesn't see it. He blinks, replaying the image on his visor. Then he realizes that the maintenance duct below has somehow become pressurized.

"Shepard!"

He doesn't get a chance to finish. Time slows until he can see each moment as distinctly as stills on a projector.

First the hatch blows out, knocking her upward and back, momentum lifting her in a tumbling arc from the hull.

Then the cutting torch scores a line over her thigh, flaring brightly as her shields try to absorb the energy. She drops the torch, reaching for any handhold, finding nothing as she spins into space. She tumbles again and he sees her face, eyes wide with fear.

She reaches for her line gun, but Garrus can see that it won't help; even if she gets it loose, she's spun around, facing empty space instead of the ship and there's no way she'll turn around again while she's still in range.

He reacts quickly, automatically. Pulls his line gun. Points it at the hull. Fires. Doesn't check to see if the clamp is set, only pushes off hard.

Direct trajectory, greater speed; he's going to overtake her. Her armor is a dark shape, cut against distant stars.

He stretches out his hand and the tips of his fingers reach for her ankle. For a heartbeat he thinks he has her—spirits, please, this one thing—then his line jerks him to a stop.

His talons close around empty space.

He's missed.

Jack hasn't, though. She's forty feet back, standing with one hand stretched out above her, blue glow of biotics surrounding Shepard. The commander hangs there, immobile, until Jack makes a quick motion and yanks her back down to the hull.

Garrus punches the control on his auto-spool, using it to reel himself in. The second his boots hit metal, he's moves to crouch in front of Shepard, omni-tool scanning the ceramic plates of her thigh guard where the plasma torch cut across.

"It's... no ruptures," she says, words coming around short, choppy breaths. Whether she's telling him this, or reassuring herself, he's not sure, because even though she's looking down at him, her eyes are unfocused, like she's seeing through him. She reaches for the back of her helmet and he doesn't have to ask to understand why.

"Fuck yes!" Jack says, closing the distance between them. She gives him another vicious grin and laughs. "Told you assholes! She and Krios can keep their goddamned shot glasses."

There's a click on the general comms as Joker patches in an override and Shepard turns away, shaking her head in response to words Garrus can't hear. Thane is still there, of course, and had seen everything that happened.

He watches her for a moment, the tense set of her shoulders relaxing by slow degrees, giving the slightest of nods as she talks to Thane. It's another conversation that isn't his business. He looks at Jack instead.

"Nice catch," he tells her.

"Damn right it was," she says.

"Uh-huh. Here I thought you didn't care."

"Maybe I didn't want to hear Krios piss and moan if we let her dumb ass get spaced again."

"Right," he says. "Just here for the paycheck."

She flips him off, both hands, and despite the fact he's still rattled himself, he chuckles.

She snorts, but before he can reply, Shepard faces them, shaking out her hands, rolling her shoulder.

"Jack. Thank you."

"Whatever. Don't read too much into it." She shrugs, but her eyes narrow and she looks out into space, where Shepard's plasma cutter is steadily shrinking from view, spiraling away, unimpeded in its trajectory. "You're still a dumbass."

"Tell me about it, later. We've got work to do," Shepard says, turning toward the hatchway, pulling her Tempest from its holds. The maintenance shaft below is dark, even the emergency lighting strips are out. Shepard doesn't hesitate, releasing her boot magnetics, crouching to grip the frame, using it to push herself over the lip and down through the opening.

Jack unlocks her boots and follows. Before she disappears from sight, she looks up at Garrus and grins. "'Got work to do.' Fuckin' crazy."

Not like he can really argue the point.

At the end of the maintenance shaft, an environmental field flickers on and off; the emergency panel which should have sealed the passageway is standing partway open. Garrus twists the override handle, pulling the cylinder out, resetting the circuit so the panel slides home.

Atmosphere reclaims the space and with it come the sounds of gunfire. Some of the Austere's crew are still alive and fighting back. Shepard and Jack are waiting further along the passageway, next to an access door.

Shepard pulls her helmet off with a grimace, taking a deliberately slow breath in. He can't help but notice the dark rings under her eyes. Near miss like she had, he's not surprised.

"We have a plan?" Jack has her Carnifex out, checking the cryo mod she has installed. "Other than killing shit?"

As if on cue, there's an explosion from the hold. Shepard lifts an eyebrow.

"I think that's a decent start," she answers. "Our only goal now is saving who we can and leaving before the Undaunted gets here. Turians don't half-ass retaliation."

"No, they don't," Garrus agrees. "They'll see two ships with the same transponder IDs and won't stop to ask questions."

"Right." She brings up a holo of the ship's schematics on her omni-tool. "The passageway we're in now takes us within a hundred feet of the cargo hold; we'll come out here. Stairwell here, midway. Jack, I want you to clear that. We'll cover."

"It's a standard layout," Garrus adds. "Bank of escape pods to the left, door to the cargo hold to the right. Inside, it'll be rows of containers and crates, narrow aisles. Lot of blind spots."

EDI interrupts again. "Commander, communications traffic indicates Cerberus has eliminated primary resistance. The remaining turian forces have been effectively cut off from retreat and are grouped defensively along the starboard bulkhead."

"Shit," she says, shaking her head, running through the options again. "Garrus, I want you to hang back, try to lay down fire for us and keep an eye on the door. Anyone comes in behind us, I need to know."

"Got it."

"Jack?" Shepard glances at the biotic. "You stick tight to my nine. I don't want us getting split up. We go in fast, we might take them by surprise. We pull out anyone we can find and get the hell out."

"Fine. Let's just go."

Shepard pulls her helmet on, nodding at each of them as she reaches for the door controls, shifting to one side as it slides open.

They check their corners and move out at Shepard's hand signals, rushing up the corridor as a single unit, sticking close to the wall. Clouds of smoke and pyrite roll out of the hold, pierced by flashes of light.

Shepard motions for them to cut their lights. At least with the chaos inside the hold, no one will hear them coming

The stairwell's clear, none of the escape pods have been launched, and they move on toward their next objective. Shepard takes point at the door, leaning around the frame cautiously. Then she gives another wordless signal and they advance.

It's worse inside the hold than he expected. The contents—equipment and crates of supplies and the large pyrite storage containers—have been largely demolished, and what's left of them are strewn in haphazard piles.

The mech's lights swing around in wild arcs, the air is thick with pyrite, and the sounds... gunshots and explosions and screams. There are fewer turians left than he'd hoped, and the mech is making short work of them, flushing them out of cover for the troops to gun down. EDI's estimate of ten minutes was generous.

Shepard motions at him, pointing to a container thirty yards from the door, tight against the bulkhead. One end has been blown apart, metal walls twisted and dark with carbon scoring, the top collapsed to form a steep incline. If he climbs to the top, he'll have a decent vantage point, and with its position, no one will be able to flank him.

He signals an affirmative. Not waiting for confirmation he starts for the container, keeping his head down as he rushes from one point of cover to the next.

Jack and Shepard don't waste any time; he's halfway there when he hears Jack's shockwave tearing through the debris, followed by the rapid fire of Shepard's Tempest. He picks up his pace, dodging around broken crates and ruined equipment, the occasional ricochet zinging too close for comfort.

He's almost to the container when he sees the blood, nearly stepping in the thick blue smear. The blood trail hitches unevenly across the deck from the left, originating near a pile of spare shuttle parts—a row of seats, exterior ablative panels, thruster housings—terminating to his right under broken composite storage crates.

He slows up, switching his visor to biometrics, and scans the crates. Nothing. Someone lost a lot of blood trying to drag themselves to cover.

The mech winds up and fires off another set of missiles, lighting up the area like a mid-summer day. In that brief space of time he sees the bottom half of a turian boot, sticking out from under the heap. It's small, so it probably belonged to a woman, and looks to be custom Ariake, so she was likely part of a protection detail.

It doesn't take much combat experience to read what happened here. The unlucky turian took cover behind the container, near the shuttle parts. The mech hit it with rockets and she was first caught by the shrapnel, then as she tried to crawl away another blast buried her in debris.

No life signs means there's nothing he can do. Garrus shakes his head, adjusts his grip on the rifle, and starts scrambling up to the top of the container. He's halfway there when Shepard comms him.

"Got a few wounded here," she says. "Doing what we can, sending them back."

"Understood. Almost in posi—"

Movement in his peripheral vision surprises him and he pivots sharply towards it, bringing his rifle up. Nothing. His mandibles flex inside of his helmet.

"Garrus?"

"Here, Shepard. I—" He knows he didn't imagine the movement. "Something I need to check."

"Watch your ass," she answers. There's another biotic whump and he doesn't need to be beside her to picture the way she's smashing a trooper against the floor, expression behind her helmet's shield set in concentration. "And Garrus? We're running out of time. It's too hot. EDI's waiting on my mark."

"Understood," he answers, edging back the way he came

Betting that she and Jack are keeping Cerberus' attention focused, he takes a chance and clicks on his light, playing the beam over the shuttle parts.

He lowers his browplates in a frown. His visor still isn't registering anything, but his gut says something isn't right.

This time, when the hand moves, he's looking directly at it. Three gloved fingers, grasping blindly, the owner completely buried under the wreckage. He doesn't hesitate, rushing forward, setting his rifle down so he has light to work by.

He lifts the topmost panel, heaving it away. He understands now why his visor didn't pick up anything. The panels are rated for atmospheric drops; makes sense they'd obscured the woman's heat signature.

"Garrus," Shepard says. "I'm calling it. Get clear and anchor down."

"Got a friendly down here," he answers, moving another panel. "Need a little time."

"Shit," she curses, and he can hear her Tempest working its way through another sink. "We'll do what we can."

He works as quickly as he can. He won't compromise Shepard's safety, but he'll be damned if he's not going to at least try to save this person.

There's movement near the entrance and he reaches for his assault rifle again, relaxing when he realizes it's only the crew Shepard sent back. Two turians, obviously injured, limping toward the corridor. He lifts a hand at them, but they're already gone and he reaches for a shuttle door.

He shifts it with a grunt, exposing the turian's lower body and grimaces when he realizes what he's looking at. He'd read that original blood smear wrong. The boot on her remaining foot matches the one under the crates. She'd crawled away after losing everything below the right knee. Even though the auto-seals on her armor had clamped down, the ragged mess of tissue and shattered bone had still bled enough to leave a trail behind.

Shepard comms him again. "Garrus—" she starts, not needing to say more. He knows he's almost out of time.

"Almost there," he interrupts, pulling a final panel free. The turian underneath groans and coughs weakly, and for a moment Garrus is frozen, because what he's seeing doesn't make sense.

He recognizes the dark purple of her colony markings, the faded shrapnel scar barely visible above her collar, the graceful sweep of her fringe. But it doesn't make sense. There is no way that Livilla Amicus—with her cocky grin and razor-sharp mind and infuriating way of getting under his plates—is laying on the deck in front of him with her leg torn off.

Then he's on his knees beside her, oblivious to the ongoing fight, omni-tool glowing over hers. At some point she'd overridden the safety protocols for her armor, it's pumped her so full of painkillers and medigel and stimulants he's surprised she's not trying to walk.

"Amicus?"

He doesn't expect an answer but her eyes flutter open. She gives a pained cry and looks at him, blinking in confusion. He releases the seal on his helmet and pulls it off, setting it on the deck beside her.

"Livilla," he says, coughing as the pyrite hits him. "Just hang on."

Her armor hits her with another dose of stims, and she takes a hitching series of gasps. Then her focus on him narrows.

"You're... here." She tries to pull away, but she's weak. "Cerberus."

"No," he says. "Not with them."

"What..."

"I don't have time to explain. But I've never lied to you. We're not with Cerberus," he reaches for her arm, "and you need to trust me now."

She stares at him for a few seconds longer, then nods.

He barely registers Shepard telling him he's got sixty seconds, that she and Jack are falling back. He glances at what's left of Livilla's leg. It's going to hurt like hell when he moves her, but staying here isn't an option.

"Just hang on," he repeats. Then he slides one arm under her shoulders and the other behind her thighs, trying to be gentle as he stands up. The brittle keening noise she makes tells him he wasn't careful enough.

He sees Cerberus troops advancing through the hold, lights on their weapons and hardsuits making them easy to spot, but they don't notice him. He switches his visor to receive communications as he reaches the doors.

EDI brings up the emergency field to protect the rest of the ship from vacuum as he steps through the opening.

"Garrus?" Shepard asks.

"I'm out," he says. The sudden relative quiet in the corridor is welcome, so is the fact that Cerberus isn't storming this rest of the ship. Means they haven't figured out what's coming next.

He hurries toward the escape pods. It's not safe on board and there's no way he's bringing Livilla with them. Even this brief contact, no matter the context, would make some of her superiors—including his father—doubt her loyalties. As grey as his world might be now, he hasn't forgotten how good turians see it. Black and white. Absolutes.

Livilla coughs again, breathing unsteady against him.

"You... look like shit," she tells him, pain and chemicals making her voice flange strangely.

"Yeah. I know." He tries to laugh, but it comes out like a sigh. "Almost there."

The escape pods have their own power reserves. The door to each is ringed with tiny white lights.

"I—" Livilla says. "There was... Spectre."

He uses his elbow to hit the activation sequence on the nearest pod. The door slides open smoothly.

"I don't think he made it." And right now Garrus doesn't care. He has bigger things to worry about than tracking down a Spectre.

She mutters something and it brings Garrus up short because he would swear she said Alenko.

And it's his special brand of luck that he hears movement behind him, and a rough cough that is distinctly human.

"Wait. Who..."

Even though it's hoarse and raw, Garrus recognizes Kaidan's voice, and he slowly turns around. If he looks bad, Kaidan looks worse. Blood from a scalp wound has trickled down his temple and cheek and his face is bruised, turning that odd purple color humans take on when injured. He's holding a pistol in one hand, though, and that's what Garrus eyes.

Kaidan stares at him, then at Livilla, recognition and suspicion and anger darkening his expression. Then he snaps the pistol up, and despite the injuries, his aim is steady and the halo of biotics that flares around him doesn't waver.

"You. What are you—"

"Just getting her to the pod, Kaidan. She'll be safer there."

He'll give Alenko this, despite his occasional poor judgment in trusting who he should, he picks things up fast. The barrel of his pistol lowers fractionally.

"Where's Shepard?"

Then EDI opens the exterior doors, and the roar of atmosphere and cargo and people spilling into space explains things in a way Garrus can't.


A/N: Nope, not abandoned! Real life and an increasing focus on original fiction have meant less time for fanfiction. (I'm as sad as you are, trust me.)

 

Chapter Text

It takes the average person fourteen seconds to black out following exposure to vacuum. When the Normandy broke apart over Alchera, Shepard's fourteen seconds had passed like an eternity, and she had known with the first of them, she wasn't coming back. Her ship burned in front of her, the pods were gone, and no one had come.

Vacuum is a horrible, lonely way to die, and it's her orders sentencing these people to it. She shifts inside of her boots, testing the magnetics as space begins to pull at her in earnest.

The farther the doors move apart, the more hectic things get. Cerberus troops and the few remaining turians alike are scrambling. Some of the troops are trying to get back to the breaching tubes, others to lock their boots down. More than a few pinwheel past, smashing into containers and each other, spinning away in the dark. At least none of them are worried about firing at her.

Some of the containers aren't secured. They go next. The mech loses its footing, light jerking up to illuminate the ceiling as it slides along the deck, vacuum sucking it outside.

It's a good thing, too. She isn't done yet, but she's getting close. She pushed too hard today and the days leading up to this. Her amp is buzzing, sending out phantom prickles of electricity. The chip's a dull ache inside her head, collar warming the skin around her neck.

Jack gives her a sideways glance and Shepard shakes her head in return, shifting her weapon in her hands, bracing herself.

Five seconds later, the inner barrier reactivates, the blue field popping and sparking as the power fluctuates. The outer doors stay open, keeping the escape route clear.

The quiet that fills the hold is almost complete, only a few scattered shouts from the remaining Cerberus as they try to regroup. Shepard lets out a slow breath, rolls her neck against the collar, and unlocks her boots.

"Shepard," EDI says. "The majority of lifeforms in your immediate area have been eliminated, however—"

"We're gonna have to cut this party short. Cerberus knows something's up," Joker says. "They're running scans on the Austere's radiation discharge."

"Shit," Shepard says, unlocking from the deck. "They look hard enough, they'll see our shadow."

"Give the lady a Kewpie doll," Joker says. "Don't doubt my baby could hold her own against that frigate, but—"

"Hey asshole, you ever tried to dock a shuttle on a ship during a firefight?"

"Jack, enough," Shepard doesn't hold back the edge on the words, giving her a pointed look before she continues with orders. "Thane, we need extraction from the cargo hold. LZ will be clear."

"Of course," Thane answers.

"Garrus, wrap up what you're doing, we're leaving."

No response.

"Garrus?"

Nothing. No patchy transmission, no burst of static. Just unbroken silence. She looks first toward the barrier, then back down the length of the hold, toward the corridor.

"He can handle himself. Landing zone's the priority."

She signals and they sprint out into the hold. There isn't much resistance, a handful of troops they mop up without much trouble. Vacuum did its job and if Jack notices she's relying on her weapon instead of biotics, she doesn't mention it.

They reach the breaching tubes, and find them empty. No surprise there, not with Cerberus scanning the radiation wash. If she were in their position, she wouldn't commit more troops either.

Then it's another short sprint to the landing zone, at the distant end of the hold, where they crouch behind a pallet of boxed rations.

"Vakarian? You copy this?" she tries again. Still no reply. Even if he has his hands full, he'd answer if he could.

She checks around the corner of the pallet in time to see a trooper making a run for the tubes. She starts to form the physical mnemonic to throw him into the air, but the pain that radiates out from her amp makes her suck in a breath and she stops with her hand half-raised.

Jack's shockwave blows him through the barrier, then she turns and scowls at Shepard. On anyone else, it might be called concern.

"Joker? What's Garrus' video look like?"

"Lost his helmet feed when he pulled out that wounded turian, but his vital signs are good."

"Run diagnostics on his comms," Shepard says, ignoring both Jack's expression and the throb at the base of her skull. Maybe it's the chip, maybe it's the amp. Either way, she doesn't have time to think about it. Not while one of her team isn't responding. "Ping him across all frequencies and don't forget—"

"To try his omni-tool," Joker says. "Already done. Everything checks out. He's just not picking up."

"Damn it." She realizes she's tapping her thumb against the stock of her machine gun. "Fine. Just keep monitoring."

Lighting strips set into the walls begin to flicker on and off, settling at half power. It's an improvement over fighting in the dark, but now Shepard sees the way blood is spattered on the deck and walls and remaining containers.

"Shuttle ETA in twenty seconds, and whoo boy," Joker says. It's easy to picture his hands moving over the interface. "They know we're here now."

The clamps on the one of the breaching tubes start to unlock; even through layers of steel the dull thunk of each unlocking is distinct. Then it releases, falling away. An emergency field springs into the gap left behind, but Shepard can still see the black of space beyond.

"Three minutes, tops," Jack says. Shepard doesn't ask if it's firsthand experience speaking.

The growing ache in her skull pounds in time with her pulse. Not enough time.

"I'm going after Garrus." She looks at Jack, but her comms are open and Thane is listening. "If I'm not back by the time that last tube starts to unlock, do not come after us. Get on the shuttle and leave. That's an order. Worst case, Garrus and I will surrender to the turians."

Jack seems like she might say something, then shrugs and looks away, and Thane doesn't answer immediately.

"Understood," he says, finally. She doesn't open the private channel between them. Even if there was something she could say, there's no time.

She starts toward the corridor, hearing the shuttle break through the barrier, thrusters firing as it comes to a stop on the deck.

"Second tube's gone," Joker says.

She's to the corridor, and when she pauses at the door to check that her path is clear, she catches a glimpse of very familiar blue armor and the glow of a visor, barely visible in the alcove that houses the escape pods. No doubt he's clearing his corners, too.

"You see that on your end, Joker?" she asks.

"Uh-huh. Gonna recommend saving the touching reunion scene for after you come home."

She grins and pulls off her helmet so Garrus can hear her.

"What the hell's wrong with your comms?"

Then he moves into the open, walking towards her and she realizes things aren't right. The front of his armor is streaked with blue blood. His browplates are drawn together in anger, mandibles pressed hard to his jaw. He takes two more steps and she sees what the problem is. She stops short, helmet dangling from one hand, raising her gun with the other.

Following close behind Garrus, pressing the barrel of a Paladin into the small of his back, is Kaidan Alenko. His face is a discolored mess of bruises and dried blood, and he's holding his left arm awkwardly against his ribs, but there's no mistaking his grim determination.

She's still processing the fact he's here, on this ship, when he steps away from Garrus so he can cover them both. His aim shifts to her, center mass. Her helmet clatters against the deck, rolling in a lazy circle as she takes aim, both hands steady on the Tempest.

"Shepard." Her name has never sounded so much like a curse. His eyes lock on hers. "Drop your gun."

She doesn't lower her weapon. Neither does he.

"Kaidan." She can feel the seconds ticking by. "This isn't—"

"Don't." She's never seen him so closed off. So betrayed. Horizon was nothing compared to this. He gestures at the hold. "You spaced them!"

Garrus looks like he might make a move; she waves him off, a side-to-side twitch of her finger against the receiver.

"They were already lost." Ninety seconds. "I need you to listen to me."

"Listen to you?"

"You don't have all—"

"No! You lied about being loyal to the Alliance. You lied about Cerberus. You turned your back on everything we believed in. And now this? Why should I listen to you?"

"For the last time: I am not with Cerberus. No matter what it looks like."

He shakes his head. "Commander Shepard. Drop your weapon or I will fire."

Garrus' hands tighten, and she signals negative to him a second time. Her head pounds. There's no time. The Normandy can't wait, not with the carrier approaching. In a few minutes the turians left on the ship will have retaken it. She stares at Kaidan over the barrel of her machine gun, not doubting the resolve she sees in him.

She's always admired his unwavering loyalty. Not to her or the brass or the Council, but to his convictions. She'll have to shoot him to get him to back down.

And she knows she can't pull the trigger.

This is it. It's time to stop. She gives a stiff nod and starts to lower the Tempest.

A dark shape moves in her peripheral vision. It's not an accident. Thane wants her to know he's there. She freezes, Tempest still on Kaidan.

"God damn it," he says. The regret in the words is raw and honest.

Then Thane steps from the shadows, pistol drawn. Garrus lifts his omni-tool, fingers twitching as he calls up an offensive application.

The shift in the dynamic is tangible. A muscle in Kaidan's jaw tightens.

"Let it go," she tells him.

Movement further down the corridor catches her eye. She'd been too focused on him—rookies didn't even make that mistake—forgetting to watch downrange until it's almost too late. She sees another figure in black, recognizing who it is.

She shifts her aim, firing even as she warns the others. "Leng!"

It's all she has time for, because before she said a word Kaidan misinterpreted her movement and then all hell breaks loose.

She dives sideways and falls hard. No way of knowing if it's Kaidan's rounds that clip her shoulder or Leng's. Doesn't really matter. She's up and in a defensive position almost immediately, trying to make herself less of a target by sticking to the wall.

Garrus has managed to knock Kaidan out of the line of fire by tackling him to the floor, and even though his biotics are glowing around his hands, he seems to realize that they're not targeting him.

From her nine, she hears Thane's pistol, and she's putting rounds out as fast as she can pull the trigger. Even if his face is pinched and angry, Kaidan throws out reave. Without a word they fall into a familiar rhythm.

Leng has always been a slippery bastard, though. Garrus sends a streak of orange from his omni-tool, but overload won't work against the smoke grenade the assassin deploys, and then he's gone. Shepard glares at the haze, but there's nothing that can be done now, and her time is up.

"We need to go," she says, turning toward Thane, stopping at what she sees.

He's slumped halfway down the wall, hand pressed tightly against his side.

"Thane," she says, rushing to him.

Blood, thick and dark in the dim light, leaks from between his fingers. Where his back presses against the metal, she can see another smear of red. He looks at her and takes a sharp, pained breath in.

"I have time."

There's so much blood and his breath rattles in a way that scares her. She starts to reach for her medi-gel only to have him stop her.

"Through and through—nothing vital," he repeats. "The shuttle."

She takes his pistol from his hand, clipping it to the hold at her thigh. Then she grabs his wrist, turning and pulling his arm over her shoulders so she can support his weight.

Looking at Garrus and Kaidan, she sees the latter has lost his firearm, probably when Garrus shoved him to safety, and now Garrus has the Locust aimed in his general direction. He doesn't seem happy about any of it.

"We're leaving," she says, ignoring the shimmer of biotics around him. "You have a few choices."

His frown darkens, but he doesn't interrupt.

"You can try to take us all out; won't work. You can stand down and stay here and take the chance you'll never catch up with us again. Or—" Garrus gives her a sharp look, like he knows what's coming next—"you can come with us and let me explain. That was Kai Leng. The Illusive Man's lap dog. Cerberus wants me dead. If you don't believe what else I have to say, I'll turn myself in."

She doesn't give him a chance to answer. With Thane leaning on her, they start for the shuttle, Garrus at her six. Kaidan is deadly with his biotics and the all know it. As she walks away, she can feel his stare, heavy between her shoulder blades.

Jack is waiting beside the open door of the shuttle, far too calm for the situation, arms crossed over her chest. She looks at Thane, then lifts her chin in greeting before pulling herself inside the small craft.

"Hang on," Garrus says from behind them. He moves to Thane's other side and together they help him into the shuttle. He slumps in a seat, smearing it with blood.

"Medi-gel. Get Chakwas on the line. I want her waiting when we touch down." She clips her Tempest behind her in a smooth movement, then turns toward the door, facing the hold again.

Kaidan's watching her, fists clenched, a deep crease between his eyebrows. Shepard doesn't blame him at all. Positions reversed, she wouldn't trust her either. But then Garrus starts with the medi-gel, Thane draws in a sharp breath, and she lifts her hand to the door controls.

"I could have shot you back there. I didn't," she says. He doesn't reply and she nods, once. "Goodbye, Kaidan."

His lips thin to a line and he makes his decision, taking two swift steps before boarding the shuttle.

She lowers the door with a smack of her fist against the controls. Jack maxes the thrusters, lifting them up in a smooth arc out through the barrier.

Shepard's glad for it, because Thane's eyes are half-lidded in pain, inner eyelids blinking slowly as she kneels down beside him. Garrus pulls a pressure dressing out of a medical kit; she takes it with a nod of thanks, placing it over the mess of medi-gel and ruined leather and torn flesh.

Thane covers her hand with his own, eyes closing, but most of the bleeding has stopped, and his breathing sounds marginally less strained. She leans in so only he can hear.

"Pretty sure disobeying orders is still considered mutiny, even if you are sleeping with the commander." she says, voice less uneven than she expects. "Told you not to come after us."

He gives a soft hm. "That is not precisely correct. I had three minutes."

Joker comms them. "Coming up on your twelve. That last tube just unlocked. We need to leave."

Seconds later, Jack punches the thrusters again, and with a lurch, the cargo bay of the Normandy is visible outside of the shuttle.

"Get us out of here, Joker," Shepard says.

"Already gone, Commander."

Chakwas is there, too, waiting with Gardner when Jack swings the door up. The doctor and cook have a gurney between them. Shepard knows, rationally, that it doesn't take more than a handful of seconds for her and Garrus to help Thane out and snap out orders for Jack to go with them, but it feels like an eternity.

She watches them until the elevator doors close. The ache in the base of her skull hasn't eased and she still has to deal with the Spectre she effectively kidnapped.

She takes a steadying breath, glancing at Garrus. His mandibles flare in response.

"Okay, Shepard," Kaidan says. "I'm here."

"Fine, Kaidan," she says. She crosses her arms over her chest, a barrier between them. "The truth?"

"Yeah." Blue fire dances around his hands, disappearing quickly enough he clearly hadn't intended for it to flare. "I think I deserve that much."

The eyes are the windows to the soul, or so the saying goes. There was a time she could read Kaidan's thoughts, just by meeting his eyes. But as he's staring at her now, she sees nothing. His eyes are still clear brown, with the same fine wrinkles at the corners which deepen when he smiles. Still the same purposeful idealism.

But now she can't tell if there's anything beneath that. If what she sees is a window, or a wall.

"Fine," she repeats. She taps her temple. "Cerberus put a chip in my head."

His reaction is predictable.

"What?"

"Not indoctrinated. Just packing some heavy-duty tech around in my skull."

"Jesus, Shepard. A control chip?"

He takes half a step back. Whatever consideration he might have been willing to offer her has just dissolved.

Shepard stares at him without flinching.

"We found a way to jam it."

"Jam it."

Another step back, and Garrus gives a soft warning hum. She knows he's fast, but she also knows exactly how fast Kaidan is. She waves him off.

This is not going to end well, unless she does something drastic. She reaches up to undo the right shoulder clasp of her armor, followed by the left. The chest-piece falls to the floor with a dull clank. The tab of the zipper on her under-armor is cold to the touch and as she pulls it down, she can hear the teeth part with a metallic series of snick-snick-snick.

It strikes her, absurdly, that she's undressed for this man before. The timing of the thought makes her grit her teeth. A person with a modified transponding chip embedded in her brain shouldn't have to put up with the white noise of the past. At least she has a tank-top underneath.

Kaidan's watching her fingers and Shepard flicks her eyes at Garrus. He'd followed her order, no doubt there, but his hand is still resting on the Locust. Seeing his calm focus as he nods at her is steadying.

Suit unzipped, she shrugs it back, down her arms. Then she lifts her chin, turning her head enough so he has a clear view at the thin strip of metal and plastic. She has to see the damn thing in the mirror every morning; she knows how it looks, its lights blinking like a perverse heartbeat at the hollow of her throat.

Kaidan frowns, then surprises her by walking toward her, head tilted to one side as he looks at the collar.

"What is that?"

"Tech you'd probably understand. I sure as hell don't." She tries to laugh, but the humor falls flat. She runs a hand through her hair. "If the chip receives an active signal from any outside source, the collar knocks me flat. Worst case, I start acting like it's running the show, one of the crew hits me with a controller."

"But to get that kind of push from something so small—" he breaks off, glances at Garrus, then back to her. "How do you know it works? Who has the controller?"

She isn't surprised he asks. She would.

Garrus clears his throat. "Krios and I each have one. A third's with the salarian who designed it. And it does work."

"You tested it?" Kaidan sounds doubtful, and that doesn't surprise her either, but even she has limits to her patience.

"Garrus? Show and tell time."

"Shepard..."

"I can make it an order."

He doesn't answer, but she hears him move, and the click that means he's accessed one of the compartments of his armor.

"You're sure?" he asks. The reluctance in his voice is clear.

Kaidan is frowning again, wary, but she's not going to give him time to ask more questions.

"Do it," she answers.

The collar beeps and she tries not to tense against the assault she knows is coming.

Before the heat and agony of the of the implant frying in her brain drops her to the floor, she has a split-second view of Kaidan's horrified expression.

Vaguely, as she's trying to claw through her own skull, she wonders if Garrus is going to keep his thumb on the trigger until the second coming of the Reapers. Just as vaguely, she can hear Kaidan shouting for Garrus to stop.

An eternity later, the worst of it passes. She curls on her side, with her eyes squeezed shut and hands clutched against her temples, waiting for the aftershocks to fade. The deck is cold and hard against her shoulder and hip, and the metal plating stinks like thruster fuel.

Another violent tremor shoots through her nervous system and she's pretty sure she's going to be sick.

Garrus is kneels on the floor in front of her, solid and familiar. He puts one hand on her shoulder, and the other is gentle on her wrist as he restrains her through the last of it.

He's humming something turian under his breath that makes her translator glitch, like the things Thane says when she wakes from a nightmare. More white noise fuzzes her mind. She's glad Thane hadn't seen this, she's not sure if she could have asked him to push the button.

"What the hell was that?" Kaidan's voice, strained and angry and maybe a little frightened.

She cracks open one eye. Sees the toes of his perfectly shined boots.

"Show and tell." Her mouth is dry, her voice thick. "God, Vakarian. Hold the button down long enough?"

"Maybe next time I ask for a raise you'll say, 'yes.' " His claws press carefully against her shoulder. It doesn't take an expert on turian subvocals to hear the unsettled notes in his voice.

Kaidan makes a disbelieving noise, but he seems to have temporarily forgotten about being suspicious, so... win, she thinks.

"Help me up."

She uncurls her fists, jamming one hand under body and tries to push off the floor, only to find her strength is gone. Garrus slips a hand around her waist, dragging her upward, supporting her as she leans against his chestplate, eyes clenched shut against another wave of pain.

She's reasonably proud of the fact that when she vomits, she has the presence of mind to twist to the side and not spray Kaidan's boots.

Chapter Text

24.

The Illusive Man drains the last of his bourbon, and while the ice melts he reviews status reports from across the entirety of Cerberus' empire.

The research on Klencory is proceeding, although key technology has yet to be obtained. Acquiring it will be a significant undertaking. The strategy for infiltrating the Mars facility has multiple hurdles to overcome, one of which is a disposable attack force.

He pulls up a file from Tuchanka. Early trials have shown promise, and negotiations with Wreav are progressing as planned. That the krogan betrayed his clan and brother shows his ruthless ambition. The Illusive Man does not doubt for a moment that the krogan will betray him. him at the first opportunity. Wreav is as predictable as he is aggressive.

While relying on Wreav is a minor gamble, curing the genophage presents a greater risk. The key is control. If krogan who have been cured are allowed into the general population once more, control will be lost. The Illusive Man makes a note to request an additional status report. The one he reads is lacking details regarding the holding cells and cranial implant success rates.

The report from the Austere draws his attention. He opens it and stares at the figures.

A catastrophic failure with catastrophic losses. Men, equipment, cargo. The majority of the turians on board had been eliminated, but enough had survived that the Hierarchy would no doubt retaliate. Given turian philosophies on war, the thought isn't comforting.

All these difficulties have a single root cause. Somehow, Shepard had discovered his intentions, and once again she has frustrated him. It would be amusing, were it not so infuriating.

The door opposite opens. Leng is early for the briefing. The Illusive Man lifts his eyes from the screens organized in front of him, watching as the assassin approaches. He nods at the space beside him, waiting until Leng takes his place and can read the report as well.

"This is disappointing," the Illusive Man says, gesturing at the losses. "But ultimately unsurprising."

Leng makes no reply. His hands tighten into fists at his sides.

"I chose to resurrect Shepard because she is the very best humanity has to offer." His eye move over the statistics before him. "I was correct. She is. But I failed to account for her stubborn refusal to recognize certain truths. Now humanity is faced with her as one of its greatest enemies. Seemingly unstoppable."

"Every enemy has a weakness."

"True. Do you understand Shepard's?"

Leng stares down with a blank expression and the Illusive Man allows himself a faint, dark smile.

"You've evaluated the mission reports from her fight against the Collectors. You noticed the multiple delays to complete non-critical tasks for each of her team?"

"Yes." He makes no attempt to conceal his disdain. "She was strengthening their resolve by eliminating personal conflicts."

"You see it as a waste of time." A pause, while he draws his silver cigarette case from a compartment of his chair. "You overlook so much. Her strength lies not only in her stubborn dedication to her cause, but in the loyalty of those under her command. They would follow her anywhere."

"But she can be cowed. Anyone can. It's simply a matter of method.”

Leng is silent, cybernetic eyes blank and unreadable. “How?”

He pulls a cigarette from the case. Before he answers, he deliberately lights up and takes a slow drag.

"She isn't the one we hurt."

25.

The elevator ride from the bay is filled with tense silence. When the car stops and the doors part, Shepard steps out without a word, striding away.

"Wait." Kaidan starts after her, only to feel a hand fall on his arm. He turns and shrugs off Garrus. He glares at the turian. He's pissed and tired and he wants answers.

Garrus stares back, eyes just as hard. "She's going to the med-bay. Wounded take priority." Then he follows Shepard's path. "Come on. Mess hall's this way. She'll be out when she can."

Not like he has a choice. He walks behind Garrus as they enter the mess hall. He sees the med-bay, Chakwas working on a still form on an exam table, Shepard standing opposite. Her arms are crossed over her waist and her jaw is set. She's pale and more worn out than he's ever seen her.

"Have a seat," Garrus says.

Kaidan understands it's not an invitation. He says nothing, sitting down at the long table. Across the room, behind the counter, a greying soldier is wiping down the top. He alternates between scowling at Kaidan and the windows of the medical suite.

"Coffee on, Gardner?" Garrus asks, crossing to the area behind the counter.

"You look like hell. And coffee's always on in my kitchen," Gardner answers, eyes on Kaidan. "Looks to me like we picked up some ballast."

"Rupert Gardner, our mess sergeant. Kaidan Alenko, our... guest," Garrus says.

Guest. From where he's sitting it feels a little tense to be called that. He watches as the cook sets out cups and a dextro-purple box from the cupboard

Garrus looks at Kaidan. "You still take your coffee black?"

"Yeah." The way his head is starting to pound, he's going to need more than coffee.

Garrus fixes his own cup before picking up one of the mugs. He looks at Gardner and nods at the third. "Take that in to Shepard, black out those windows, and tell Chakwas I said you'll give her a hand."

He walks back to Kaidan, setting the extra mug down, waiting until Gardner follows his orders. Then he sits down heavily, lets out a long sigh, and rubs his eyes.

Kaidan notices the blood on the turian's armor has dried to black streaks. He breathes out, the image of Garrus holding Amicus' limp body all too clear. She's is a hell of a soldier, and if she dies, it's on Cerberus.

"How's your head?" Garrus asks.

"I'll live." Kaidan takes a long drink from his cup, barely tasting the scalding coffee. He sets it down carefully, looking pointedly at Garrus' chestplate. "You think she'll make it?"

Garrus' mandibles tighten against his jaw. "Don't know. Depends how fast that carrier gets there. Livilla's tough."

The 'but' goes unspoken and another uncomfortable silence settles between them. Kaidan drinks his coffee.

Garrus looks past him, toward the darkened windows. "She was turning herself in. Back on the Citadel. Cerberus grabbed her. Only reason she hasn't yet is she thought she could stop what happened on that cargo ship."

Kaidan considers his words. "I want to believe that," he says, slowly. "But there are vids. Few months back an asari research base was hit. It was Cerberus."

"Shepard on those vids?"

"They all wore helmets, but I know how she fights, Garrus. I know the hand signals she uses and what her biotics look like. Hell, I know how she reacts when she gets a head shot with whatever crappy little submachine gun she's using at the time."

Garrus finally looks at him. "If it was her, it was the chip."

"You mean the one she still has in her head?"

The door to the med-bay opens and Shepard comes out alone, coffee in one hand. Taking the seat next to Kaidan, she nods at Garrus.

"No internal damage. Chakwas will have him up in a few days." Her armor is smeared with blood, too. She starts pulling off her gloves, setting the first into the seat of the chair beside her. "Get cleaned up, Garrus. I've got this."

Garrus looks like he might argue, but he pushes away from the table, armor creaking as he stands. He takes a step, then turns to face them again. "Shepard. That soldier I pulled out of the hold. She was a good friend."

Shepard's jaw tightens as she yanks off her remaining glove. Her exhaustion is clear as she looks up at him. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. We hadn't shown up, she'd be dead," he answers, turning away, heading for a set of doors behind the galley. "They all would have been."

Kaidan hears the implication in the words, but says nothing. It's likely true. The attackers hadn't seemed interested in taking prisoners.

Shepard waits until the doors close behind Garrus, then curls her hands around her coffee cup. Kaidan glances sideways at her. Two years he spent trying to move on with his life. Not get over her, because he's come to realize there is no getting over Shepard. Not for him. During those years he would have given anything to see her again, to hear her voice, see her smile.

Then Horizon happened, and now this—whatever this is. He looks down at his coffee, growing cold in the cup, at the Cerberus sigil emblazoned on the side. The damned thing is everywhere he looks. He hadn't lied to Garrus. He does want to believe her.

"Shepard—" he starts, only to have her interrupt.

"Sorry about your boots," she says. "Thought I cleared them."

The comment catches him off guard and he turns to look at her. Shepard. Close enough he could touch her. The person he once trusted with his life, who he believed stood for the same things he did. A soldier who bled Alliance white and blue.

The light at her throat blinks steadily and he looks away. He doesn't know who she is now and that makes his gut twist.

"You have me here," he says. "I'm listening."

"One of our engineers will be up shortly to act as an escort, but I've ordered full access for you to all of the logs from the time the Normandy left the Citadel."

He raises an eyebrow at the word 'left,' but says nothing, and after a pause Shepard continues.

"Your weapons will be returned to you and you'll be given clean clothing. The quarters are comfortable and the food is decent. When you've made a decision, whatever that is, I'll honor my end of the agreement."

Chakwas interrupts them, tapping on the window, and Shepard stands. "For what it's worth, Kaidan, I'm sorry."

She doesn't say what for, and he doesn't ask. He listens to her walk away, and the med-bay doors close behind her. Then he's alone, with only the quiet of the ship around him.