The first thing Shepard sees as she rounds the corner is Garrus, hunched over a tray of something gray in the mess and looking out of place. She changes course with the practiced smoothness that come from learning the art of command from someone like Anderson, grabbing a packet of something from one of the food cupboards and sitting down in the seat opposite him like that had always been her intention.
“Shepard,” he says - she’s managing to get something other than ‘commander’ out of him these days - and turns back to his food with what seems to be reluctance. She takes a look at her own packet with a grimace, but peels back the lid and lets the companionable silence continue for a few moments. No need to push the conversation just yet.
She can’t stop herself looking at the food on Garrus’ tray, which looks about as out of place as he does, and seems to be being pushed about the tray listlessly more than being eaten. Not that Garrus is out of place on her team, or even visually on the ship - he looks quite at home with the turian-inspired interior of Normandy- but he doesn’t tend to mix on the crew deck so much. None of her alien crewmates seem to venture far from their usual haunts, so she’s pleased to see him in the mess.
He pushes the food on his plate across to the other side again, and sighs. He doesn’t look so pleased to be here.
“Do all turians play with their food?” she asks with a grin, almost immediately regretting teasing him as his hands go still. She never can seem to tell what will bounce right off him and what will fluster him, and whatever the press wants to call her, she’s not out to make her alien crew any more uncomfortable than their isolation already demands.
But Garrus just looks at her levelly. “Only the ones unlucky enough to be stationed on human ships with only the vaguest of ideas of what turian food should look like.”
“You mean it’s not meant to look like, er -”
“Decomposing pyjack gizzards?”
“Some of us are trying to eat here, Garrus,” she says, and he cracks what she’s come to recognize as a grin. “Seriously, you need me to requisition something? I can't promise anything fancy, but I can see what we can get.” He looks a little put on the spot, so she shrugs and turns back to her own food. “Just send me a list if you think of anything.”
“Thanks, Shepard,” he says, and makes a valiant attempt at a another mouthful with his expression so pained that she can't help but laugh.
“So,” she says, “decomposing pyjack gizzards, huh? You got some first hand experience?”
“You really don't want to know.”
“Can't be worse than some of the other stories you've told me. This another C-Sec one?”
“They were pretty popular pets on the Citadel a few years back, harmless enough, but you're supposed to have a license if you want to breed them.” Garrus gives her another look. “You sure you want to hear this while you're eating?”
Shepard glances down at her own not particularly appetizing meal. “You got any C-Sec stories that don't involve innards?”
Garrus laughs a little, but only a little, expression turning pensive. “Believe it or not, sometimes there were boring days.” He taps a finger on the table with a sort of controlled agitation she can't quite read. “I've been thinking about Doctor Saleon, actually.”
“What would the Alliance have done if we'd handed him over?”
“Hard to say. Extradited him if the Salarians asked, probably. Maybe handed him over to C-Sec to show willing to the Council.”
“They'd have used him as a political play?” He's clearly unhappy with that answer, which she can understand. “He was a criminal. A murderer.”
“Two birds, one stone, Garrus. He would've got what he deserved.”
“You don't think he deserved to die?”
Shepard hums thoughtfully as she contemplates her next mouthful, Garrus a live wire across the table. She lets him stew in his self righteous anger for a moment longer.
“You never think that's too good for some people?” She looks him right in the eye. “He got a quick and easy death without ever having to face up to what he'd done. I think it was a lot more than he deserved.”
Garrus’ shoulders relax a little. “I… yeah, maybe.”
“What would you have done if you'd still been with C-Sec?”
“Depends,” he says slowly, and then nothing else for a few moments. She stays quiet, lets him work through it without interruptions. “Protocol would've been for me to bring him in,” he says eventually, though she doesn't miss that he's dodging the question.
“And C-Sec never extradite?”
“Of course they do, they’ve barely got enough holding cells. The Protheans didn’t figure law enforcement into the Citadel schematics, apparently.”
Shepard raises her eyebrow. “So it’s the political exploitation you object to?”
“I’m not criticizing your decision, commander,” he says hurriedly, “I was just … surprised that you see it that way.”
Ah. Shepard is starting to get it now. “My reputation precedes me, clearly.” Garrus looks as though he’s about to say something further, but she holds up her hand to stop him and allows herself a quiet sigh. If it’s about Torfan - and of course it’s about Torfan, everything alwayscomes back to Torfan - then she wants it to be on her terms. She’s had enough of people inventing their own truth.
“After Torfan,” she says, because she never says butcher, “the press had a field day. People forget how close the batarian threat felt back then, how noncommittal the Council had been, how scared everyone was. They ran a dozen stories with me as a brave hero against impossible odds before they decided that wasn’t selling enough subscriptions. So they took a few vids and flattened out my voice with speech editing software, and I think you know the rest.”
Garrus stays silent.
“Truth is, I’m neither of those things. I’m not a hero and I’m not some kind of trigger happy xenophobe, I’m just a soldier who had orders and followed them, simple as that.” She sets her jaw, trying not to go on the automatic defensive the way she learned, but she still faces him down coolly.
Garrus shakes his head. “I didn’t think you were, commander.” They’re back to ‘commander’, apparently, and she holds in a heavy sigh.
“I’m not trying to accuse you of anything, Garrus. I’d just hate to think you were joining this mission for the wrong reasons.”
He sits up straighter. “Sir?”
“I wouldn’t want you to be under the impression I operate in a different way to how I do in reality.”
“No,” he says immediately, a little unexpectedly, and then - even more unexpectedly - he gestures towards her tray of regulation meatloaf and back at his own uneaten meal. “Humans cook their meat.”
The heaviness descending on her turns quickly into bewilderment. “Excuse me?”
“I think that’s why the dextro rations don’t fare so well in your Alliance defrosting facilities, actually, but that’s not my point.”
“You’ve lost me here, Garrus.”
“Traditionally, meat dishes are prepared from start to finish by the same person. Because we don’t cook it, the art is in how the animal is prepared and how the cut is taken. It’s a very well respected profession, it’s not open to just anyone.” His mandibles flutter slightly with what she assumes is amusement at her own confused expression. “There was a translation note on your file at C-Sec. Your word ‘butcher’ doesn’t exactly exist in most turian dialects, so translators tend to use the word for this profession as a rough cognate. It works when you’re talking about preparing meat, mostly, but not really as a metaphor.”
“So you’re saying that turians call me, what - the Chef of Torfan?” Despite herself, she starts to grin. It’s been a while since she’s found any levity in the situation, and even longer since since one of her crew used the word ‘butcher’ to her face. It doesn't her nerves on edge as much as she'd imagined.
“Something like that,” Garrus says, and his expression is more relaxed now, too. “The translation note wasn’t there to correct our assumptions, it was there to explain any potential human hostility.”
“Thanks, I think,” she says, and takes a surreptitious look at his food. It does look raw; that much she can pass on to the mess sergeant. “You know,” she continues, feeling more inclined to be open about it all than she has in years, “they grounded me for a few months afterwards on Arcturus, gave me psych evals, the whole thing. I got offered a new posting off the back of it in the Terminus, basically on batarian watch duty. They make a move, we make a move first, that sort of thing.”
“I’m guessing you didn’t take it?”
“Nope.” She grimaces. “I wasn’t about to become their own personal batarian executioner. I don’t regret what I did at Torfan, but - well, that wasn’t what I wanted to be known for. So they put me up for N7 with Anderson as my mentor.”
“I bet the Council started considering you for the Spectres even then.”
“Yeah, Anderson said as much. I nearly turned the N7 training down to start with, because I didn’t want Torfan to be what earned me it.” Shepard meets Garrus’ surprised look with a self-deprecating raise of the eyebrows. “He talked me out of it, like he talked me out of refusing to let Nihlus do his field evaluation. He said you can’t pick your legacy, but you can pick what you do with it. I’m still not sure about that one.”
“I think,” Garrus says carefully, “that it might just be a matter of perspective.”
“Here’s to hoping,” she says, “when all this is over we’re either going to be the heroes who stopped Saren or the idiots who followed him halfway round the galaxy on a wild goose chase.”
“The first one, definitely.”
Shepard grins, and out of habit slaps him on the shoulder as she stands up. She’s not sure if that’s an acceptable gesture to turians. Garrus looks vaguely surprised, but otherwise takes it in his stride. “That’s what I like to hear.”
He waits until she’s halfway out the door before he answers. “I’m in this for the right reasons, Shepard. You can count on me.”
“Always knew I could, Garrus.”
Shepard trusts Hackett, and that’s the only damn reason they’re doing this. She doesn’t take assignments that remind her of crap she doesn’t want to relive, and she doesn’t let the Alliance use her like the blunt weapon she knows she can be, but if Hackett says there’s a chance of a geth invasion, then there’s a chance of a geth invasion.
But it doesn’t half remind her of the aforementioned crap she does her best to avoid.
Small outposts, increased activity, hit and run attacks, too many phrases that make her grit her teeth. Four outposts down, and here they are on another damn moon in another damn prefab. This is exactly the kind of crap she didn’t want, to the letter.
She gets Garrus’ attention from behind the crate across the way, flashes her fingers up in quick succession in the signal for ‘four’, turian style, for the benefit of her two-fingered squadmates. Tali responds quickly with the correct signal of acknowledgment, but Garrus just moves silently into position. Shepard rolls her eyes. They’ve never had a misunderstanding, but she’s starting to see why he might have pissed some of his C-Sec colleagues off. It’d be easy to make the mistake of thinking he isn’t a team player if you were looking at the wrong things.
She supposes that aiming at flashlights is a bit better than aiming between four eyes, but sometimes, she’s not so sure. Tali’s explained geth consciousness to her in half a dozen ways, none of which really help her conceptualize it, but the point is it’s there. However they network, they’re genuine AI, and Shepard has read enough early twentieth century pulp sci-fi to feel uncomfortable. No doubt Tali would laugh herself stupid at the three laws of robotics, but here’s the thing: Shepard’s not all that keen to do her part in annihilating a species, however synthetic. She files that under ‘crap she tries to avoid’, for obvious reasons.
Three, Garrus signals, a little smugly. Funny how he manages that with a helmet on. Shepard ducks around the corner of her crate, and abandons all thoughts of flashlights and consciousness and what it means to be shooting one; it isn’t helpful. Two shots from her pistol and the geth is down, Tali moving round her back to flank the remaining two without prompting. They make a good team.
Shepard stays crouched behind her cover as the last two crackle and screech their way to the floor, half expecting another wave. She motions for Tali and Garrus to follow as another eerie sound echoes across the prefab, which seems to startle Tali. She scrambles to her feet.
“Get down, there might be more.”
“I don’t think so, Shepard.” Tali holsters her gun and starts to cross the room, uncharacteristically ignoring the order.
“I know that song -”
Shepard swears under her breath and dashes out behind her, thankful to see Garrus covering her back. She’s right - luckily- and as no more geth emerge from the corners, Shepard stops gritting her teeth a little. Tali has stopped in front of a screen, utterly transfixed by whatever recording it is that she sees, and so Shepard takes a breath before she speaks, tamping down on her irritation. Tali always has her reasons.
“Hey, listen -”
“It’s a traditional quarian lament,” Tali says, but whether she’s horrified or fascinated Shepard can’t say. “From before.” She doesn’t need to say from ‘before’ what.
The quarian on the screen is swaying gently from side the side, the audience mirroring her slowly in synchronized ripples. It makes Shepard deeply uneasy. “Tali, we should grab the data and go.”
“They’re transmitting it back beyond the Veil. It’s a warning.”
“To let them know the base is destroyed,” Garrus guesses, having joined them across the room. “To request reinforcements.”
“I’m… not sure, I can’t see any evidence of - “ Tali shakes her head. “No reinforcements requested. They’re just transmitting this song, in real time.”
“Why this song?”
“Quarian culture is the only culture the geth would know,” Garrus says with a shrug. “Maybe they like it.”
Shepard gives him a sharp look. “You’re saying they’re being sentimental?”
“More than that,” Tali says, and not for the first time Shepard wishes she was better at reading her emotions by voice alone. “It’s… traditional.”
The pause before Tali speaks is heavy.
“At funerals,” she says quietly.
They stand in uncomfortable silence as the song slowly fades away. Shepard closes her eyes for a moment and lets herself take a deep breath. Beneath the helmet it’s private, or private enough. She keeps her face pointed resolutely towards the screen, as does Tali, but she has the distinct impression Garrus is watching her.
The song comes to a shuddering, mournful end. Nobody moves.
“If there’s any data we can use,” Shepard says finally, “we grab it and go. Got it?”
She leaves Tali to it and ostensibly does another sweep round the back of the prefab, stepping around the fallen geth without looking at them.
Hackett was probably right. This could easily have been the start of an invading force, and she was the best choice for the job by far. She has no doubt that it needed to be done. Hell, the geth have tried to put her in the ground more times than she can count, she shouldn't object to returning the favor.
She reloads her rifle with a terse snap, then taps the side of her helmet to make the connection with Normandy. The line is a little muffled by whatever the geth lined this prefab with, but clear enough.
“This is Shepard,” she says, “I need an ETA for pick up.” She's ditched a lot of the Alliance radio protocols, which she figures is just what happens when you spend too much time with Joker.
“Give me ten, commander.”
“Roger that.” She turns back to Tali. “How's that data coming?”
“Got it, Shepard.” Tali taps one last thing into the console and then turns to face her, tugging at her hands with small, excited little gestures. “There's… this is more than we expected.”
“Very useful,” Tali clarifies, and as she wrings her hands once more Shepard thinks she might know where this is headed.
“We'll send it to Alliance command, see what they make of it. I'm sure Hackett will be interested.”
“He's not the only one. Shepard, this is a lot to ask -”
“It's yours,” she says, the decision easier than Alliance command would probably like it to be.
“I - Thank you, Shepard.” Tali bows her head for a moment, and Shepard returns the gesture, not knowing if it's a quarian convention or just Tali’s own idiosyncratic one, but it feels right to echo it either way. Her gratitude is written plain to see, mask or no mask. “This means a lot to my people, and to me.”
It feels good, and she holds onto that, because not a damned thing otherwise about this operation has.
The news vids are looping on the screen in Anderson’s office as he waves her in, frowning to a point past her on the wall as he holds two fingers to his ear. Commlink with Udina, she's guessing, and so she wanders over to the balcony to give him some space.
“- assisting with recovery efforts after the geth attack thwarted by Commander Shepard, as promised in his reelection campaign -”
She tunes the vids out and tries to enjoy the view. The Presidium didn't take the brunt of Sovereign’s attack and nor has it suffered from lack of funding, volunteers, or resources to repair the small amount of fire it did take, so there isn't much to see in the way of debris or damage. That's one reason she can't enjoy the view, knowing the Wards are paying a higher price.
The other reason is knowing what she knows now. She looks out across the lakes and greenery and sees nothing less than a giant mousetrap. Seeing Sovereign slot itself so neatly into the structure of the Presidium is all she can think about. Maybe the Protheans really did disable it, maybe they didn't, but disarmed or not it's Reaper technology, and that's enough for her to distrust it. She doesn't mind the ‘Savior of the Citadel’ as far as epithets go, but she was never defending it for its own sake.
“I've made my position clear,” Anderson says, and it's only because Shepard knows him that she hears the sharpness in his voice. “I understand.”
He looks at her as she suppresses a grin, holding up his hand and nodding towards his desk. “Shepard?” he says, as she takes a seat. “No, I haven't seen her.” Her grin widens as his lips get thinner. “Of course, ambassador. We'll talk later.” He disconnects the call and pinches the bridge of his nose.
“No, no, I wanted to talk.” Anderson reaches below his desk and pulls out two glasses. “Drink?”
Shepard leans back in her chair with a smirk. “Don't we have a meeting with the Council later?”
“Why do you think I'm asking?” He produces a distinctly expensive looking bottle with a flourish that is clearly deliberate, and starts to pour. She eyes it suspiciously.
“Are you trying to butter me up, Councilor?” Her tone is light and teasing but Anderson’s answering sigh is heavy.
“Wouldn't dream of trying, Shepard,” he says, but he looks up at her with an expression that says otherwise. “Strictly off the record, the Council is going to give you a new assignment.”
The quick flicker of optimism she feels is cautious, but unmistakable. “About time they quit stalling.”
Anderson shake his head. “They're still stalling, in their own way. They want you to eradicate the geth in the Terminus -”
“No,” she says, cutting across before he's even finished. “They can't ask me to do that.”
He stays silent for a few moments, taking a seemingly leisurely sip as he watches her breathe heavily through her nose, teeth clenched and anger held tightly back behind her tongue. “They are,” he says finally, “and so am I.”
“No,” she says again, hating how petulant she sounds. It's nostalgically familiar, this scene. Shepard digging in her heels, all piss and vinegar, Anderson calmly containing and redirecting her anger, digging his own heels in with a dignity and poise she's still not learned. She's been here before.
They first met just after Torfan, when Shepard was skipping her psych evals and storming out on admirals offering her promotions. She only wishes they'd met a little sooner, when her particular brand of righteous anger used to get the better of her even more. When she shoved the Alliance recruitment administrator into the wall for making a comment about her omnitool, and spent her first night as a new recruit in disgrace.
He’d taken one look at her and decided it was stolen, but Shepard knew the difference between salvaged and stolen. She didn't have much, but she had that, and it mattered. So she grabbed him by the collar and didn't stop to think it wasn't the smartest thing to do when your form is already missing a permanent address and any standard aptitude scores.
“You know I wouldn't ask if I didn't have to,” Anderson says, and she slumps forward in her chair and sighs noisily, defiance knocked out of her. She must be getting old. “I wanted to explain before the Council spring it on you with their usual tact and diplomacy.”
Shepard drags her hands through her hair and tries to shake off her agitation. “They know the geth aren't the real threat. They must know.”
“And they want me out their hair,” she says, the realization a bitter one.
Anderson doesn't lie to her. “They need time.”
“So I should waste mine to give them more than they've already had?”
“It doesn't have to be a waste. We know the geth were working with Saren, there could be more intel out there for the taking. They're the best lead we have.” Anderson shrugs. “See it as an investigation.”
“You said ‘eradicate’.”
“They said that. I'm saying investigation.”
She laughs without humor. “Same difference, when they both end with dead geth.”
“It makes all the difference.”
“You keep saying that,” Shepard says almost angrily, but she sighs and rubs her forehead in a weary gesture. “We don't have a better lead, though. I can keep making noise here, but even the Savior of the Citadel starts to sound like a broken record eventually.”
“It won't hurt to try playing at ‘obedient spectre’, either,” Anderson says, and when she looks up his expression is amused. “Get on their good side for once.”
“I thought that was your job.”
“My job,” he says, “is to protect humanity's interests in the wider galactic community. The Reapers are the top of my list.”
Shepard squares her jaw. “How long?”
“A few months, no more. Enough to give you a chance and to give them some time to process.”
“I get Normandy?”
“Of course. Williams has already requested a permanent transfer, Doctor T’soni has indicated she's happy to stay, that turian of yours has asked for extended leave from C-Sec -”
Shepard raises an accusing eyebrow; Anderson almost never calls turians by their names. Whether it's intentional or just a force of habit remains to be seen, but she's not about to let it slide. Not least because it feels good to turn the tables, and call him on his bullshit.
“Vakarian,” he says, “the one who was investigating Saren.” As if she could somehow have feasibly forgotten which particular turian he was referring to. Then again, Garrus isn't much more than an abstract to Anderson, he had to sit that one out. None of them are. It's a strange realization about a man she never imagined not serving with.
“He shouldn't have done that,” she says absently, not in the least surprised. Tali has also registered her interest in staying even past her pilgrimage, despite Shepard's transparently insincere objections. Wrex was the only one who took her at her word, and good for him. She only hopes they cross paths again.
“It's a good crew, and you know them,” Anderson says, still selling it to her even after she's resigned herself to taking the assignment. “Looks good for interspecies cooperation, too.”
“Spoken like a true politician,” she says, finally managing a grin. Anderson returns it with his own half-grimace, which is the first time she remembers that maybe this wouldn't have been his first choice of assignment, either. “So they'll brief me later?”
He nods, relieved. “Effective immediately.”
Shepard shoots him another weary look, then takes her glass and knocks it back, not without melodrama. Anderson chuckles.
“Two months,” he says. “That's all.”
“You have my word on that.”
“And then what?”
“Hell of a question,” he says with a sigh, “I hope I have an answer for you. Until then, stay sharp. Don't take risks, come back in one piece.”
“Don't worry,” Shepard says, her grin sharp, “I've no intention of dying running pointless errands for the Council.”