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Broken Mirror

Chapter Text

“Okay, I’ll be honest,” Kaidan was saying, “I didn’t really peg you as the baseball type, Commander.”

Shepard didn’t look up from their omni-tool, determined to find the one factoid they’d forgotten. “Really?” they asked. “Then what did you?”

Kaidan made a hrmm sort of sound. “Well,” he began slowly, “let’s see. You’re kinda big, but not really gridiron or basketball big. And honestly, you’re too relaxed for hockey. Maybe… tennis? Or football, I could see you liking football.”

Shepard shrugged. “I played a bit back when I was a kid. Mom was really into it. She was from Milan, back on Earth, you know?” They shook their head. “But in basic, we didn’t have a football, not a proper one anyway, just the kind that looks like an egg. So we played a lot of baseball instead.”

“Huh. Makes sense, I guess.”

Another shrug. “Hey, as long as you didn’t say I seem like the golf type, we’re all good.”

Kaidan snorted. “No danger of that, Commander.”

“Stellar.” Shepard finally gave up the search and closed their omni-tool, then folded their arms and leaned against the wall. “You know my big brother played golf for our school, and I got dragged along to watch the tournaments? Dark days.”

Kaidan shuddered in what Shepard assumed was sympathy, just as a chime drew Shepard’s attention to the elevator. The door slid down, and a massive, bulky shape slid out of the shadowed box, encased in black and red armor.

Whatever they’d been planning to say to Kaidan died in their throat as Nihlus Kryik stalked past, head lowered and torso angled forward. Once upon a time, Shepard would have said he walked like a man on a mission, but a little time around turians had taught them that every turian walked like that. Whether it was a simple matter of balance, or because all turians really were out on a hunt at all times, Shepard had no idea, but it definitely added to their intimidation factor.

The Normandy wasn’t built for turian locomotion- they’d made the stairs more fitting for humans, since turians had both longer and more powerful legs. Nihlus’s first few days on the ship had been filled with crashing and turian curse words as he tripped on stairs he wasn’t expecting to be there. Now, however, as Shepard and Kaidan watched, Nihlus simply picked up speed as he approached the stairs, each stride longer than the last until he could leap up three steps at a time, the armor on his toe-claws making a horrible clank with each step. Shepard counted the climb- one hop, two hops, three, four. He always reached the top after six.

At the fifth clank, Kaidan spoke. “Did he seem in a rush to you?”

Shepard hmmed. “Usually does. D’you think we make him antsy?”

Kaidan snorted. “A big, walking armory like him? Can’t imagine he’s worried about us in the slightest.”

“Sure, but, like, have you ever seen him just stay in one place for a while?”

“Maybe he just doesn’t like being in space. I’ve known plenty of people like that. They get nervous when they’re closed in without solid ground beneath their feet.”

Shepard considered, then shrugged. “That sounds fair. Come on, he’s already gone. Let’s go see where he’s going.”

They peeled away from the wall and headed after Nihlus. Somewhere behind them, all Kaidan had to say was a simple, “What?” before footsteps sounded on the stairs after them.

Good guy, Kaidan. They hadn’t been working together long, but Shepard had decided they liked him. He seemed nice. If anything, he was at least a good sport.

They found Nihlus, surprisingly enough, in the cockpit, pacing back and forth, swinging his head at every about-face so he was always looking out the window. Maybe Kaidan was right, Shepard mused to themselves. Judging by how determinedly Nihlus was staring out into space, a windowless warship might not have been his favorite place in the galaxy. Given what they knew about turians, Shepard couldn’t help but find that a little bit odd.

At their approach, Nihlus didn’t turn, but a different head popped out from around the side of the pilot’s chair. “Hey, Commander, LT,” Joker said, a hand appearing from the top of the chair to wave at them. “You can come watch if you want, but no backseat piloting. We’re starting the relay approach in just a minute.”

There was a rush of footsteps and a short gust of air at Shepard’s side, and before they could take stock of it, Kaidan had hurried past them and slid into the copilot’s seat, tossing a wink and a “you snooze, you lose” kind of grin back over his shoulder at Shepard. They stopped in their tracks for a second, then snorted and shook their head. Figured. They never got the good spot for watching.

Joker started talking, monitoring the ship’s stats as they entered the approach run, but Shepard didn’t hear. Everything always seemed to bleed away when they got to watch. The silent pulse of the mass relay was mesmerizing, swirling blue and flashing white mixing and flaring in deadly rhythm. The interlocking rings surrounding the core danced and spun in a flawless, ancient, unbroken pattern. Perfect chaos.

Sometimes, Shepard’s therapist asked them if there was anything besides doing compulsions that helped them be calm, or at least forget the looming boogeyman of mental illness for a little while. They always promptly responded with relay transit.

Going through the relay’s warp-path, watching colors blossom and fade before their eyes, and the cosmos zip past in less than a blink… There was nothing quite like it. There was no counting. No numbers, no pacing, no endless need for more words to describe something just in case one wasn’t just right. Everything simply was.

It was over too quickly. It always was. Joker was talking again, then Nihlus said something, but again Shepard didn’t hear, staring at where the streaks of color used to be. If they focused, they could still see them, still pretend they were something beyond themselves.

There was more muffled noise. Everything was being passed through a layer of cotton. Hadn’t Nihlus been pacing around, just a second ago?

“Commander?”

Kaidan’s voice broke through, accompanied by a hand waving in front of Shepard’s face. “Hey, ground control to Major Tom,” he said.

Shepard jumped, then shook their head, tearing their gaze away from the hypnotic dance of stars, now back to their stationary, lonely places. “Sorry, what?” they asked, reaching up to run a hand through their hair.

“You alright, Commander?” Joker asked, leaning out of his chair to see. “You were spacing out pretty heavy.”

They shook their head again. “I’m fine, I just… I like the view.” Lame. Very lame.

The others didn’t seem to mind. “Well, now you get to go see another one,” Joker said. “Captain wants to talk with you, back in the comm room.”

“Got it.” They nodded, trying not to sigh in relief. The stars were as dangerous as they were beautiful. It was too easy to get lost in them.

The walk back to the comm room felt more like they were floating. Breathe in, breathe out. Notice nothing, focus on nothing, obsess over nothing. His therapist’s mantras seemed like out-of-touch bullshit when things were actually happening, but confined to a small ship where anything could be ruined by a liberal application of obsessive-compulsive disorder, they were the only thing keeping Shepard sane sometimes.

Pressly was arguing with someone over the comm. Breathe in. Dr. Chakwas was talking to the new kid. Breathe out. What was his name? Jetson? Breathe in. No, Jenkins, it was Jenkins. Breathe out. It wasn’t important. Nothing was important. Just breathe.

Nihlus was in the comm room. How long had he been there? It didn’t matter. Breathe in.

Nihlus turned at his approach, and the mantras faltered. Turians were big. Shepard always forgot how truly massive Nihlus was up-close, a little over two meters of plate and tooth and talon. His armor didn’t help, bulking him up even more and covered in nicks and tears to prove “bark worse than his bite” had it exactly backwards.

“Commander Shepard,” Nihlus greeted them, voice all cool professionalism as he folded his arms across his chest. “I was hoping you’d get here first.”

Because an apex predator saying they wanted to meet you alone was always encouraging. Shepard mirrored his pose, leaning against the railing towards the side of the room. “Nihlus,” they said with a respectful nod. “Something you want to talk about?”

Nihlus blew a short burst of air out his… nose? The plates where his nose should have been. “I’m afraid Captain Anderson may be a bit biased against me,” he mused. “Well, not me, specifically, but… Let’s just say it’s a long story.” He shook his head and tapped his mandibles against his face. Click, click, click. “I wanted to ask, Shepard- what do you know about our current mission?”

Shepard eyed him. “Not much,” they said. “Just that we’re going to Eden Prime. First human colony.”

Nihlus sounded a slow, low trill, more like a rolling whistle, really. His mandibles were still going. Click. “Yes, beautiful, peaceful, all those good things that advertisers use to draw in colonists.” Click, click. “And apparently, riddled with Prothean technology.”

He punctuated his last statement with a sharper clack, and Shepard jumped slightly. “Prothean tech?” they echoed, trying to regain their composure without looking like they’d ever lost it. “What’s that doing on Eden Prime?”

Nihlus shrugged. “Who knows? They spanned the galaxy. I assume you know how the story goes.”

Shepard nodded. The Protheans had traversed the galaxy, millennia ago, then been wiped out by… something. The works describing what had happened were few and far between, and still being translated, but whatever it was, by the time the Protheans had destroyed it, their population had been unsustainable, and they’d left behind impossibly complex technology for later species to find. Humans had found their ruins on Mars, and been catapulted forward technology-wise on an exponential level. “So, Eden Prime was one of their research stations, then? Like Mars?”

“Possibly. More work is needed to be sure.” Click, click. Back to clicking. Was this some form of nonverbal, turians-only communication Shepard couldn’t understand? Were they being insulted? “Construction crews unearthed a beacon, and our mission is to retrieve it.”

Shepard blinked slowly. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.” Clack!

Another blink. “No offense, but… is that really a job for a Spectre?”

Nihlus closed his eyes then, and took a deep breath, like he was giving himself an internal pep talk. “Have you been paying attention to the news lately?”

They shrugged. “I skim the headlines sometimes. It stresses me out too much.”

Nihlus reached up with one hand to pinch the sides of his nose, eyes shut tight. “Wonderful.” He heaved a sigh, then lowered his hand and looked at Shepard again. “Over the past several months, there’s been a spike in crimes against non-human species. It existed before now, obviously, but surges make the Council concerned, especially considering next year will be the twenty-seventh anniversary of the Relay 314 Incident. It’s an important anniversary for turians, so you can understand why the Council might be anxious.”

Shepard nodded. “Makes sense.”

Nihlus bobbed his head. “As such, the Council believes it necessary to increase security on important human-galactic activities-”

“- like offering up important technology,” concluded a voice from behind Shepard.

They turned just as Nihlus rumbled a curt, “Captain Anderson.”

Sure enough, Anderson was walking in, and he gave Nihlus a nod before glancing back to Shepard. “The dig site on Eden Prime is a major find, Commander. It’s massive. They don’t think they’ve excavated even a quarter of it yet. Jumping on handing it over early shows the Council we can play ball.”

Shepard folded their arms across their chest. “And the Spectre thing..?” they prompted.

Anderson looked at Nihlus. Nihlus looked at Anderson. After a couple heartbeats, Nihlus flicked his mandibles. “I think you should tell them, Captain.”

Shepard frowned. “Tell me what?”

Anderson cleared his throat. “Shepard, the Alliance recently gave the Council a list of possible recruits for the Spectres. And, well, you’re it.”

“That’s not to say you’re in yet,” Nihlus asserted, craning his neck just enough to make himself look even taller and more stern. “This mission on Eden Prime is to be a trial run, to determine if you’re worth the effort of Spectre training. I will supervise, and my report to the Council will inform their decision. Should the assessment turn out in your favor, you will then enter Spectre training.”

Something shorted in Shepard’s brain. Data processing has encountered a problem and needs to close. Their mind was blank as Anderson picked up where Nihlus left off: “This is a big opportunity for the Alliance, Shepard. If we can get one of our own in the ranks of the Spectres, it’ll prove to the nay-sayers humanity has what it takes.”

Nihlus rumbled, in a tone Shepard couldn’t make out. “Being accepted into the Spectres is a mark of personal merit, and very few live up to the standard. I wouldn’t make political bets just yet.”

“You’re just saying that because-”

“Nihlus, you’re a turian,” Shepard interjected, noting the turian’s mandibles were creeping downward to show his teeth. They might not have known much about turians, but that was definitely a warning sign on any Earth creature. “I would’ve thought your people wanted us far away from the Spectres.”

Nihlus’s mandibles snapped back to neutral position, and his head turned back to look at them properly. “Not all of us. We do number in the trillions, you know,” he said dryly. “Diversity of heart makes the Empire strong, and all that propaganda the imperial-born feed their children.” He shook his head, then continued, “I was actually the one to recommend you for the selection process. I was impressed by your service record, Shepard. You show great promise.”

Shepard blinked rapidly, more than a little taken aback. “Oh.” What did you say to that? “Thank you?”

The plates that made up Nihlus’s nose flared out, then flattened themselves, and Shepard made a mental note to brush up on turian body language. If Nihlus was going to be hanging around for a while, they’d be better off at least having an inkling of an idea of what his complex gestures meant.

“That doesn’t mean all the Spectres will be as welcoming as Nihlus, of course,” Anderson added. “You’ll have to prove beyond a doubt you’ve earned it.”

“I doubt that will be an issue,” Nihlus said, one mandible dropping down below his chin. “Special Tactics agents are expected to be able to leave personal prejudices at the door, in favor of the mission.”

Anderson folded his arms. “Somehow, I doubt everyone lives up to that standard.”

Nihlus shifted his stance, squaring his shoulders slightly, and Shepard felt more than they heard the thrum that rolled through their chest, vibrating in their very bones. Experience said that was a subvocal, made with a turian’s cowl rather than their vocal chords, to convey emotion alongside spoken words rather than having it all rolled into one like humans. Common sense said that whatever tone Nihlus had just rumbled out, if they were a turian, it would have them quaking in their boots.

They glanced between Anderson and Nihlus, noting the way Anderson’s back had straightened and Nihlus’s head had risen. Probably not good signs. They hesitated, then coughed harshly into one fist. “Uh, excuse me, but is there something I’m missing?”

And just like that, the tension in the air fizzled. Both Nihlus and Anderson eased out of their stances, shook themselves, and turned back to Shepard. “Just a bit of personal history, nothing important,” Anderson said with a wave of his hand. “What is important-”

The intercom crackled then. “Captain,” came Joker’s voice, clipped and professional for once. “Hate to interrupt, but we have a slight problem.”

Anderson frowned and tilted his head up slightly. “What is it, Joker?”

“Eden Prime traffic control’s on the line. We’re arriving earlier than anticipated, and they don’t have either the beacon or a loading site ready for us. They had some unexpected traffic, and their spaceport doesn’t have room for the Normandy.

Anderson hrmmed. “The longer we wait, the longer the politicians will bellyache at us. Joker, ask the controller if a remote drop would be alright with them. We can drop off a team away from the main colony, make our way there, and transport the beacon back.”

“Yes, sir. One moment.”

The intercom cut out, and the three of them were left to wait. Shepard folded their arms across their chest and started counting ceiling tiles. They hadn’t gotten much of a chance to count this room before now. They wondered if it was still a compulsion if they did it before the anxiety set in.

Shepard had finished the ceiling tiles and moved on to the floor when the intercom came back. “Eden Prime says a remote drop will be fine, Captain. They just want us to avoid leaving a path of destruction. They’re sending us the coordinates for the drop now.”

“Good. Thanks, Joker.” The com cut out again, and Anderson looked at Shepard. “Go get a team ready. Nothing big, just a couple people. It’s only a fetch quest.”

Shepard stood up straight and saluted. “Yes, sir.”


Shepard could only stare as they disembarked. Automatically, they started trying to compile words for what they were seeing: lush, alive, thriving, fertile. Beautiful, awe-inspiring, divine, radiant. But their mental thesaurus was failing quickly. There simply weren’t words to describe Eden Prime.

“Hey, Jenkins,” Kaidan was saying behind him. “You’re from Eden Prime, right? Does this look familiar?”

“Uhh…” Shepard turned around to see Jenkins blinking owlishly at the scenery. “I think I’m from the other side of the colony, actually. This doesn’t look like my neck of the woods.”

Shepard cursed under their breath. “So you can’t show us the way?”

“Well, no, but I mean, look.” He pointed with his rifle, and Shepard followed to see a tower rising above the forest. “That’s the main comm tower. If we just keep heading towards that, we should get there pretty okay.”

Shepard considered this, then sighed. “If that’s the plan we have, that’s the plan we have.”

“There’s humans and gunmetal on the air,” Nihlus called out to them as he disembarked, brushing past Jenkins on his way out. Shepard waited for him, saying nothing, and he came to a halt next to them. “Fresh scent. There’s a security patrol somewhere in the area. Likely they’ll be headed this way, to investigate the ship that just came dropping out of the sky. If you want directions, I’d suggest you wait a few minutes.”

Kaidan shifted his weight to one leg behind Nihlus. “You say that like you won’t be with us.”

Nihlus glanced back at him with a flick of his mandibles. “I saw something out the cockpit window on our way. I’m going to investigate. It could be important.”

“What, alone?” That would be Jenkins again.

Nihlus snorted and shook his head, turning away and starting to pace off. “I move faster on my own.”

Shepard turned to watch, and from behind them Jenkins called, “What about backup?”

Nihlus didn’t respond, instead picking up speed and lengthening his stride until he was… well, they wouldn’t exactly say sprinting, since turians couldn’t quite sprint. More of a tear. Yes, that was it, he was tearing away from the landing site, leaving Shepard, Kaidan, and Jenkins to their own devices.

Shepard stared at where he’d disappeared into the woods for a moment, then cleared their throat and turned back to the others. “Well,” they said, “sounds like we have two options. We could just start off towards the tower, like Jenkins said, and ask for directions if we meet anyone along the way, or we could-”

They were cut off by some rustling, a rifle priming, and a voice shouting, “Freeze!”

Chapter Text

Ashley must’ve adjusted her grip on her rifle fifty times by the time the squad was done trotting into the clearing. It was a bad nervous habit, her instructors at boot had always scolded her- what if the enemy got her while she was shifting her hands around?

They’d have to be a damn quick shot to catch her in the split-second her hand wasn’t in ready position, she’d always clamped her jaws around saying. Talking back would do her no favors, no matter how satisfying it would be.

Ahead of her, Jackass- excuse her, Sergeant Donkey, she would like to thank not only God but also Jesus for setting her up so perfectly like that, Donk was a pretty okay guy, really, but a joke like that was practically gift-wrapped- raised his rifle at the three strangers standing in the center of Dog Squad’s ragged ring. “This area is territory of the Eden Prime colony. Who are you and what are you doing here?”

The one in front, kind of scrawny-looking for a soldier, with bushy eyebrows and sunken eyes, raised his hands, and the two flanking him followed suit. “I’m Lieutenant-Commander Matteo Shepard, Alliance Navy,” he said, his voice a dry almost-monotone. “This is Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko and Corporal Richard Jenkins. We’re with the SSV Normandy SR-1.

Alenko gave a little wave when he was named, and Jenkins nodded. “We’re just here to pick up some Prothean tech,” Alenko said. “Control said there wasn’t room for us at the docks, so we did a remote drop.”

Donk glanced around like he was looking for confirmation, and Bates piped up, “I remember something like that on the radio, wasn’t there? It was kinda garbled, my radio’s on its last legs, but I think the commander said something like that.”

Pennyloafer cleared her throat. “Me too, Donk. ’cept for the bad radio part, I heard loud and clear. Cambell said to be on the lookout for some guys coming in.” She dropped her voice and put on a bad fake accent, imitating their commanding officer’s commanding officer as she said, “They’ll be needin’ an ess-kirt to th’ dig sait, so don’t y’all be gittin’ no ideers ’bout lettin’ ’em go wand’rin’ ’round alone, ’cause I’s gon’ check!”

There was a round of giggling, and Donk ducked his head like he was trying to stay professional and not laugh. The newcomers were cautiously putting their hands down, shoulders sloping downward. They were glancing at each other, awkward smiles starting to creep across their faces.

They could do better than that. Ashley snorted. “That was terrible, Pennyloafer!” she called across the clearing. “You forgot to spit at the end.”

More laughter. “But I’m wearing my helmet! That’d be gross!” Pennyloafer hollered back, over the assorted chuckles and chortles.

“Alright, alright, guys, reign it in,” Donk interrupted, lowering his rifle and motioning for the rest of them to settle down and do the same. He looked back at the newcomers and added, “Your story checks out, I guess. Sorry for the interrogation, but we had to be sure.”

Shepard shrugged. “No harm done. Do we get your name, too?”

Donk stammered a bit, then cleared his throat. “Oh, right, yeah, uh, sorry.” He snapped a salute. “Master Sergeant Leopold Donkey, sir. This is Dog Squad, with the 212 here at Eden Prime.”

Shepard returned the salute and dropped it. “As you were, Sergeant. You said something about an escort to the dig site?”

“Uh, yeah, an escort, right.” Donk relaxed, dropping his salute and shifting his weight to one leg. “It’s not really that hard to find from here, there’s a path through the woods, but security stuff, you know.”

“I understand.”

Donk paused like he was waiting for Shepard to continue, then cleared his throat again and craned his neck to glance around. “Uh… Hey, Williams! C’mere!”

Ashley’s shoulders hitched slightly, startled, then she cautiously stood up and walked over. “Yeah?”

Donk motioned for her to lean in and dropped his voice. “Would you mind escorting these guys? I mean, you’re the best in the squad, we all know you should be leading, not me, if anybody can make sure these guys get to where they’re going without any problems…”

Ashley blinked at him slowly. Even though she outranked Donk, he’d been chosen for squad leader over her, and no matter how much their CO denied it, everyone knew it was because of her grandfather. But Donk was pretty decent about it. She didn’t really think he was ready to be a squad leader, but he was trying. Really, as much as they made fun of his name (and the rest of him), Donk wasn’t that bad.

Except for the part where he kept trying to hit on her after she said she wasn’t interested. It had been cute in the hopeful schoolkid kinda way for a bit, but it got very old, very fast. She could do without that part of him, thanks.

“Alright,” she said, casting a glance over her shoulder at Shepard and company. “At least you were nice about it.”

Donk grinned. “Thanks, Ash. I’ll tell the LT where you’re at, if you’re not back by the time we are.”

She nodded and took a couple steps back, then turned her back on him, folded her arms, and sized up the new three. Shepard and Alenko had the nodes placed periodically along their armor that denoted biotics users, while Jenkins didn’t. She probably could have guessed which one was the corporal even if they hadn’t moved at their names; Jenkins had big ears and a soft face that only had the slight lines at the corners of his mouth that said he smiled a lot, and neither the crow’s feet nor stress creases that both Shepard and Alenko sported. She regarded them for a moment longer as they watched Donk lead the rest of the squad away, then held out a hand once they’d refocused on her. “Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams.”

Shepard jumped a bit and stared at her hand like it was covered in… who knew, space bees maybe, then shook. His grip was surprisingly delicate, like he was hoping she’d drop it quickly. “Good to meet you, Williams. You’re our escort, then?”

She nodded and dropped the shake. “Don’t mind Donk, he’s not that experienced yet.”

Alenko coughed into a fist. “Did you say ‘Chief’? Isn’t he a sergeant?”

Ashley grimaced. “Yeah. Let’s just say Command here isn’t that fond of me and leave it at that.”

Alenko mirrored her expression, presumably out of sympathy, and Shepard nodded sharply. “If you say so, Williams. Lead on, then.”

She eyed him a bit, then shrugged and headed off towards the woods. “Like Donk said, it’s just through these trees here. Kind of a hike, but it’s a cakewalk compared to boot camp.”

Footsteps followed her into the trees. After a minute or so, somebody coughed. “Uh, excuse me,” came an unfamiliar voice. Sounded pretty young and unsure of themselves- probably the corporal, then. Jenkins. “I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but… is his name really Sergeant Donkey?”

Ashley slowed her pace and slowly turned to look him dead in the eyes. She waited for a moment, then said, in the most serious voice she could muster, “Sergeant Leopold Julius Donkey,” pause for dramatic effect, “the Fifth.”

There was dead silence for a moment, then Jenkins pursed his lips together, and blew air out through his nose in that very particular way people did when they were trying not to bust out laughing. She grinned in spite of herself, and he took that as his cue, nearly doubling over in a fit of guffaws. “You’re serious?”

She couldn’t help it. She let out a little laugh, too, and replied, “Absolutely. He’s a good sport about it, which is all you can ask for, I guess. He’s heard every different way of saying ‘Sergeant Jackass’ there is.”

“Is he, though?” Alenko asked, sounding genuinely curious. “A jackass, I mean.”

She shrugged and shook her head, starting to walk at normal speed again. “Not really. He’s pretty nice, actually.” She paused for a second, then scowled. “Except when he keeps trying to sleep with me. I keep telling him no, but he still has hope that one of these days, I’ll go, ‘Yeah, sure, Donk, sounds great!’” She snorted. “I mean, I guess it was a little endearing at first, but after a while it’s like, have some respect for my autonomy, y’know? I said I’m not into him, he should respect that and back off.”

Alenko hrmmed. “I see your point. With all due respect, Chief, it sounds like you have more of an issue with him than you want to admit.”

She hesitated, then sighed. “Look, in my position, you learn to put up with it. And that’s his only flaw, honest. He’s pretty stand-up otherwise.”

“If you say so, Chief.”

She wasn’t sure if she liked Alenko or not. At least he was straightforward.

A radio crackled, and she winced. She’d always hated that noise. It was very sharp. But off on Jenkins’s other side, Shepard took no notice, calmly putting a hand up towards the rest of them in a “quiet, please” gesture. “This is Shepard. What is it, Nihlus?”

Ashley blinked, then glanced at Alenko and Jenkins. ‘Nihlus?’ she mouthed at them. That definitely wasn’t a human name.

Jenkins looked mildly panicked, but Alenko just held up a finger and mouthed back, ‘One second.’

Okay, leaning towards like.

Meanwhile, Shepard was intent on his radio, nodding along. “Fine,” he said. “We ran into that security detail you noticed. They sent along an escort. Will that be a problem?” A pause, then a nod. “Understood. We’ll see you there.”

He looked at Ashley then. “How much farther to the dig site?”

She blinked, then cleared her throat and looked around. “Uh, not that far,” she said, frowning. “Funny, usually we’d be able to hear them from here. It’s just around that bend, up there.”

Shepard nodded and continued walking. She stared after him for a moment, then followed, looking at Alenko. “Does… he do that often?”

Alenko shrugged, falling into step beside her. “You get used to it. The commander gets really focused on the mission. Lightens up a lot off-duty.”

Ashley looked after Shepard again. Somehow, she found that hard to believe.

Whatever.

She shrugged and shook her head. “Anyway, who’s this ‘Nihlus’ person? That’s not any kind of name I recognize.”

Alenko opened his mouth to respond, but Jenkins cut in first. “He’s a Spectre!” he enthused, practically bouncing along next to Alenko. “He’s really cool, he’s this big red turian, looks like he could bench a krogan…”

She knew he was saying more words, but they weren’t processing. A turian? On Eden Prime? Well, of course, sure, aliens dropped in now and then, salarian merchants, curious asari, there’d even been a quarian Pilgrim at one point, but Eden Prime was so deep in human territory those were rare visits, just a quick refueling and a drop by to see the famous scenery, that was it.

And a turian was the last alien she wanted to see just hanging around.

Alenko must have noticed something in her face, because he nudged her with a shoulder. “Chief Williams? Everything alright?”

She blinked rapidly, then shook herself. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” she said, hoping to convince him as much as she wanted to convince herself. You’re being ridiculous, she told herself firmly. If there was any invasion BS going on, they wouldn’t send just one turian.

But maybe they could send just one Spectre.

No, no, that was just as bullshit as the last thought.

She suppressed a groan of frustration and shook her head. “It’s fine.” A Marine didn’t complain. “Come on, we should keep up with your commander. The dig site’s not far, we can at least see why the place is so quiet.”

“Maybe everyone’s out to lunch?” Jenkins offered as they stepped up the pace, the three of them now almost-jogging to catch up to Shepard. “I know in my part of the colony, everybody would just up and vanish for meals, that’s how you knew what time it was.”

Ashley blinked and glanced over at him. “You’re from here?”

He shrugged. “Yeah, but not this area. One of the settlements way farther out. Used to think maybe it was just our part of the planet with nothing going on, but then I visited the main colony on this school trip for a couple days, and I figured out there’s not much there, either.”

She snorted. “What’d you expect from a farming colony?”

He barked out a little laugh. “I dunno, a better gridiron team, maybe? You get these guys with big muscles from helping out on the farm, but none of ’em can play sports worth a crap. I don’t get it.”

She jerked her head back slightly, surprised. Then, once her brain had had time to process what he’d said, she let out a snort that turned into a chuckle, shaking her head. Okay, that was good. “I mean, that’s fair. Wish I could say it’s better in other parts, but not really.”

“Figures,” Jenkins complained.

This kid wasn’t half bad, Ashley was on the verge of deciding when, a few steps ahead of them, Shepard pulled up short, tossing up a hand. “Wait,” came the curt command.

She froze, and shared a confused look with Alenko and Jenkins as Shepard paced forward, hauling the shotgun off his back and leaning in to inspect a tree. After a moment, he straightened up and motioned them forward. “Blood,” he reported. “Human.”

Ashley’s hackles shot up. Blood? There were very few situations where that would be a good thing, and this definitely wasn’t one of them. She reached back for her assault rifle as she walked up to get a good look. Sure enough, there was a smear of dark red on the trunk, maybe a handful of shades darker than the rest of the ruddy-brown bark. “How’d you even see that?” she asked, squinting at it.

Shepard shook his head. “Something looked off about it. The color and the texture. I thought maybe it was just fungus or something.”

She whistled. “Good eye, sir.”

Shepard nodded, then turned and surveyed the area ahead, squinting. After a minute, he put a hand up to his helmet, and Ashley heard the comm click. “Nihlus, we’ve found a trail of blood headed for the dig site. What’s your status?”

This time, Ashley was close enough to hear a terse reply. “I think I can do you one worse,” ‘Nihlus’ told Shepard. “Get here as quickly as you can.”

“Understood.” The comm clicked off, Shepard’s hand went down, and his gun went up. “Nihlus found something. Let’s double-time it to the dig site.”

Ashley blinked, then straightened up, lifting her Avenger. “Yes, sir!”

Shepard took off, surprisingly quick for a guy built like a particularly scraggly rhinoceros. She had to scramble after, but managed to keep pace just behind him as they ran for the dig site. Behind her, more footsteps said Alenko and Jenkins were following, but she didn’t dare look back to check on them. She had the feeling that if she took her eyes off Shepard for even a second, he’d leave them all in his dust.

Like she’d told Jenkins, the dig site wasn’t that far, and they were barreling their way up the hill that would hold the site at its base on the other side in only a few minutes. Near the peak, Shepard slowed, and the rest of them followed his lead. He held up a cautionary gesture and murmured, “Careful. I hear voices.”

Ashley held her breath, and sure enough, there was a quiet rumble on the other side of the hill, drifting up towards them. “Commander Shepard, sir,” she whispered, “I think I should call the rest of my squad. We’ve already found blood, I should have told them when we found it.”

Shepard considered. “Hold off for now, Williams,” he said. “We’ll take a quick peek ahead, see what’s on the other side, then radio Sergeant Donkey with the sitrep.”

She hesitated, then suppressed a sigh and nodded. “Yes, sir.” She’d rather have the backup, just in case, but he outranked her, and she didn’t know him well enough to feel safe arguing.

A solemn nod, then Shepard was moving ahead, creeping forward with his shotgun poised. Ashley glanced at Jenkins and Alenko, then followed him up the slope, not for the first time wishing Eden Prime’s forests had a bit more undergrowth to hide in.

As they crested the hill, she spotted the source of the voices: two figures, one burly and armored, the other shrouded in a black cloak, a hood pulled up and over their head. The hood was so deep, Ashley could only just barely make out a thin slice of ghostly white showing beneath it. The armored one was crouched over something on the ground, omni-tool at the ready. They moved slightly, and Ashley caught a glimpse of ruddy-brown plates and long, tapered crest. Turians!

Shepard must have seen it too, because he lowered his gun and looked back at their group. “It’s Nihlus,” he said. “I don’t recognize the other one, though. Be careful.”

They nodded, and Shepard stood up a little straighter, starting to move further down the hill. That didn’t really scream ‘being careful’ to Ashley, but then, she wasn’t the officer.

She and the others were just beginning to follow when the hooded turian twitched, a horrible buzz went up in the air, and she froze in place in a flash of blue-white.

Like any normal human brain, Ashley’s decided that the obvious reaction to suddenly not being able to move was to try really, really hard to move. Every nerve in her body screamed at her muscles to twitch, contract, anything, but there was nothing. But she could still see the three-fingered, black-gloved hand now sticking out of the cloak, and the arcs of lightning-like biotics dancing along it. And she could still hear as the turian said, very matter-of-fact, “We have company.”

The armored turian looked up at the hooded one first, then turned to follow their gaze. He squinted up at them, then he shook his head. “It’s only Shepard. Remember, I told you?”

Oh, Ashley thought to herself. Maybe this was the ‘Nihlus’ turian.

The stasis didn’t let up. “You said three humans. I count four. Or are you still abysmal at simple math?”

The armored one- Nihlus?- groaned. “I distinctly remember telling you they’d picked up another. You’re just ignoring me now.”

“I was busy.” Still, the hooded one seemed to accept this, and the hand disappeared back into the cloak. Ashley nearly collapsed, having given up the attempt to break free on her own, but caught herself before she could take a tumble into the dirt. Beside her, Jenkins wasn’t so lucky.

While she and Alenko helped Jenkins to his feet, Shepard went on ahead. “Nihlus,” she heard him say. “What’s going on? Who’s your friend?”

Rather than answer directly, Nihlus (she’d been right!) turned to the hooded turian. “Go on, introduce yourself.” What was with his tone? She couldn’t tell if he was bored, dismissive… exasperated?

There was a quiet snort from under the hood. “I’d rather not.”

“Saren…”

Saren. Saren. She knew that name. She loped after Shepard, racking her brain. Why did she know that name?

She got her answer with a heavy sigh. Two hands came up out of the cloak, grasped the hem of the hood, pulled back, and-

Razor teeth, white armor, pearly plates. Two figures, one tall, the other less so, sneering at a man. Granddad, but not Granddad, hair still brown. A hyena’s laugh and a jackal’s grin, long, thin spines stabbing at the air behind their skulls.

Memories from childhood, vids she’d been shown over and over again, flooded her memory. She knew every inch of the bone-white face that had emerged from under the hood, and it wasn’t one she’d ever wanted to see anywhere, much less Eden Prime.

Her gun went up before she was even aware she’d given her arms the command. “What are you doing here, Arterius?” she snarled, the words ripping out from between gritted teeth.

The reaction was instantaneous. Less than, if that was even possible. Nihlus jumped in front of Arterius, Shepard jumped in front of Ashley, and Arterius just jumped. “Stand down, Chief!” Shepard barked, putting his hands up between her and Nihlus. “What’s going on?”

Arterius was easily dwarfed by Nihlus’s bulk, and he hid behind him almost perfectly, but he didn’t seem happy with that idea, as he sidestepped out back into view, cloak drawn around himself neatly and held closed by one hand. “Your new friend doesn’t seem terribly observant, Nihlus.”

“Quiet, Saren,” Nihlus scolded, eyes narrowed at Ashley. “Shepard?”

Shepard hesitated, then said slowly, “This is Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams. She’s stationed here with Eden Prime’s garrison. We met her squad on patrol, and she was sent along to escort us to the dig site. Williams, this is Nihlus Kryik, with Special Tactics and Recon. He’s with us.”

“Williams…” Arterius echoed, mandibles flicking once, twice. Then he laughed, a low, ominous sound, different from the one in the vids. That laugh had been the taller one, with blue stripes on his face. Granddad had never told her his name, just spat on the ground every time even the idea of him came up. “I see.”

Ashley curled her lip and tightened her grip on her rifle, hefting it just slightly higher. “Yeah, I bet you do.”

“What?” Nihlus demanded, looking between the two of them.

Arterius hummed, eyes locked on Ashley, somehow without making direct eye contact. Weird fucking turian. “My brother, of course. Pay attention, Nihlus.”

“Your brother?” The plates where Nihlus’s eyebrows should have been lowered, then raised suddenly as it clicked. “Desolas’s reputation precedes you.”

“As usual. We have a bet on about which of us is more recognizable, and he’s already winning. How much do I have to pay you not to tell him about this one, Nihlus?”

“The premium rate, three times.”

Now it was Shepard’s turn to look between everyone. “Would somebody please explain what’s going on?”

Ashley opened her mouth, but Arterius beat her to it. “Very well.” He dipped into a bow with a smug grin. “Saren Arterius, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. My elder brother is the distinguished Major General Desolas Arterius, whom the garrison at Shanxi surrendered to during the Relay 314 Incident.”

“He means the First Contact War,” Nihlus translated.

“No, I don’t.”

Ashley bared her teeth at him. “You’re the Spectre brother, huh? You look bigger in the vids.”

Arterius looked at her and tilted his head, one mandible going down, the other going up, both exposing his rows of fangs. If he were human, Ashley figured he would have been giving her a particularly nasty grin. “I get that a lot.”

Suddenly, Nihlus snorted and snapped his jaws at all of them. “That’s enough,” he barked. “We’re wasting time. We need to figure out what’s going on here, yesterday, and report in.”

The gears in Ashley’s brain whirred to a halt, then restarted. Right. The beacon. She reluctantly lowered her rifle, Shepard’s stance eased up, and Nihlus shook his head and went back to the thing he’d been looking at before, Arterius ghosting behind like a second shadow.

She shook her head and glanced behind her for Alenko and Jenkins. They’d wisely stopped further up the hill, and were only just now exchanging looks and resuming their approach. Great, they probably thought she was nuts, now. Perfect. With a grumble, she turned back to Shepard and the turians, moving closer to see whatever it was the turians were so interested in.

And promptly wished she hadn’t.

It was a human. A corpse of a human, lying on their stomach with arms splayed out like they’d just fallen like that. Most of the body was blocked by Nihlus’s burly build, but she could make out enough of the sleeves and shoulders of their uniform to tell this was one of the science team. “Fuck,” she said, more to herself than anybody else.

Nihlus, pulling his omni-tool up, nodded. “Indeed. Shot in the back five times and left to rot. We were approaching from another direction, and came to investigate when we heard gunfire.”

“Whoever it was must have heard us coming,” Arterius rumbled. “They’re gone now.”

Ashley frowned. “There’s tons of people working at this site, not just this one guy. Why didn’t anyone else come to look?”

The two turians shared a look, then Nihlus said, “There are more bodies, back closer to the beacon and research buildings. Stabbed, not shot. Either an inside job or an ambush. This one must have been returning from break and startled somebody.”

Her gut churned. “How many?”

Another look. “Several,” Nihlus said quietly. “We couldn’t stop to count.”

There was a solemn silence for a moment, then Alenko cleared his throat. “What about the beacon?” he asked. “Sounds like whoever did this, that’s what they were after.”

Nihlus shook his head and got to his feet, closing his omni-tool. “It was loaded in a truck when we passed. I didn’t hear it get started, so I assume it’s still there. Here, I’ve gathered everything I can. Saren, can you go and gather data on the ones who were stabbed? Just omni-tool scans should be sufficient.”

“Don’t tell me how to do my job, Nihlus.”

Ashley stiffened, a thought flashing through her head. “Wait,” she interrupted. “I still want to know what he’s doing here.” She motioned to Arterius with her gun again. “Awful convenient for you to show up right when there’s a load of dead humans on Eden Prime.”

Arterius growled, but Nihlus sighed. “She does have a point, Saren. Tell them what you told me.”

Arterius’s mandibles clicked against his face, and he gave Nihlus a distinctly offended look before shaking his shoulders and lowering his head to stare at the ground. “Another Spectre reported suspicious activity at the fuel depot near Sur’Kesh, but was too busy to investigate herself. I was nearby, so I tracked the activity through the relay to here.”

“The Spectre he got the information from is trustworthy,” Nihlus added, like he could read the doubt in Ashley’s mind. “I spotted Saren’s ship at the spaceport when we were coming in. That’s what I went off to investigate. We ran into each other not far from here.”

Ashley gritted her teeth, but kept quiet as Shepard said, “Thank you for explaining, but we need to focus on the beacon right now.”

Nihlus nodded. “Of course. Saren-”

Arterius flared his mandibles at him. “Yes, Kryik, the data. I’m aware.”

He spun and swept off, reaching back to put his hood back up as he went. Nihlus stared after him for a minute, then shook his head and turned back to the rest of them. “Sorry about him. He hasn’t eaten proper food in days. He gets surly when he’s hungry, and being questioned and told what to do likely didn’t help.”

“How well do you guys know each other?” Jenkins asked. Ashley pursed her lips.

Nihlus regarded him for a long moment, before finally, simply, stating, “Intimately.”

Jenkins looked like his life was flashing before his eyes. Ashley bit back a growl and shook her head, looking over to Shepard. “Commander, I really think I should comm my squad now,” she said, terser than she meant to, but oh well.

He blinked at her, then nodded sharply. “Right, of course. Go ahead.”

Without another word, she spun on her heel and paced off, turning on her comm. “Dog Squad, this is Williams. I’m at the dig site. We have a situation.”

For what felt like hours, her comm was nothing but quiet static. Because that wasn’t worrying at all in these circumstances. Just as she was about to repeat herself, though, the familiar crackle of another end of the line being picked up sounded in her ear, and she suppressed a sigh of relief as Donk’s voice filtered in. “This is Dog Squad. What’s going on, Ash?”

She took a deep breath to steel her nerves, but there really was no steeling yourself for this, was there? “Donk, the researchers… Everyone’s dead, Donk.”

Donk inhaled sharply, but she kept right on trucking. If she stopped now, she didn’t know if she’d be able to start again. “Unknown hostiles killed everyone, then ran off when they heard our party approaching.” The words tumbled out of her mouth like a waterfall. She’d read the phrase in countless books and poems, but never realized how accurate it was until just now. “There’s two Council Spectres here. They’re taking readings. The beacon is safe and loaded in a truck. We need somebody to radio back to base and tell them what’s going on, and we need a guard around the site until they can send people in to clean up properly.”

Silence again, but this time it was punctuated by shaky breaths. “Uh, I, uh…” Donk swallowed. “R-right. Right, you’re right. We’ll, uh, we’ll get on that, Williams. What about you?”

She glanced back towards Shepard and company. “I’ll stay with this group. I want to keep an eye on those Spectres I mentioned. One of them seems okay enough, but the other one’s a real son of a bitch. I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him.”

“Roger. Keep us posted. Dog Squad, out.”

The comm clicked off, and Ashley exhaled with a whooph. Poor Donk sounded just as rattled as she felt, and he hadn’t even seen the bodies yet.

She turned and plodded back to the group, her legs suddenly made of lead. So much had happened, all at once. The newcomers, the Spectres, the Arterius, the bodies… And all of it was hitting her now. It couldn’t have waited another couple of hours, no, sir. This was going to be a long afternoon.

She came up behind Alenko just as Nihlus was saying, “Given the circumstances, it’s now imperative we secure the beacon as quickly as possible. This just became a murder investigation, and the Council won’t be happy about it.”

“The Council are rarely happy about much of anything,” came a drawl from one side, and Arterius slid back into view, head bowed so his hood shrouded his eyes. What a drama queen, Ashley thought to herself.

Nihlus jumped, then flapped his mandibles at him. “That’s because you leave collateral damage they have to pay for wherever you go,” he scolded. “You finished the scans already?”

Arterius shrugged and pulled up his omni-tool. “I cut a deal with Ezekian so he’d fiddle with my omni-tool. Increased range, in exchange for covering half of his guard duty shift last month.”

Nihlus blinked slowly, then shook his head and pulled up his own ’tool. “I’ll never understand you.”

“That’s the point, Nihlus.” Arterius tapped their wrists together, presumably to transfer the data, then pulled his arm back into his cloak once they were done. “How, exactly, do you plan to get the beacon to the Council?”

Alenko coughed into his fist. “It’s still loaded up in a truck, like Nihlus said, right? We were going to get it to the spaceport anyway, so we could load it onto the Normandy. If it’s on a truck, we can drive it there.”

“I can probably drive it,” Jenkins piped up. “I used to drive big rigs around my folks’ farm all the time.”

Shepard cleared his throat and looked at Ashley. “What about you, Williams? Will you go back to Dog Squad?”

Ashley hesitated, still eyeing Arterius, then tore her gaze away from the unsettlingly pale plates visible under the hood so she could look at Shepard properly. “I already told Donk I’d stick with you guys for now,” she said. “Guess I’ll help escort the beacon.”

He nodded at her, and Nihlus made a weird chirping sound. “Then we have a plan. The corporal will drive the truck to the spaceport, and the rest of us will provide an escort. Chief Williams, since you know this colony best, you’ll ride in the cab with Jenkins and navigate. The rest of us...”

"The back of these things can get kinda cramped with bigger cargo," Jenkins said. "Somebody will have to follow some other way. There's probably another truck we can borrow around here somewhere."

Shepard glanced at Alenko. "I can drive okay," he said. "Alenko and I can take the second vehicle, and follow you."

Nihlus nodded. "We should have somebody in back with the beacon. Saren-"

“Don’t insult my intelligence, Nihlus. I can do simple math.”

“That was one time, you little…” He shook his head, then snorted. “Whatever. Let’s move out.”

Chapter Text

The truck was a big, clunking thing, long and low to the ground. It still used wheels, which Nihlus supposed was fair given the area’s terrain. He felt every single rock and divot in the road in his teeth. The beacon’s mass meant their speed wasn’t exactly break-neck, but it was still enough that looking out the back at the ground hurtling behind them made his gizzard twinge in fear instinctively.

Jenkins had been right- it was unfortunately cramped in the back. They’d done their best to make a little room for themselves, but Nihlus still clanged a spur or a talon against the base with every movement. He was going to be more blue than brown with bruises, at this point.

Shepard and Alenko had found a smaller, more compact little truck, and were keeping pace without any trouble. Lucky them. Nihlus was sure the cabins of each truck were downright cozy compared to the bed.

At least he had the space to talk to Saren.

“When’s the last time you ate?” Nihlus asked, fixing him with as stern a look as he could manage given how aggressively he was being jostled.

Saren had never been impressed by his stern looks. “There’s a box of cornin pastries in the cockpit.”

He huffed. “But how many of them did you actually eat? You should be eating regularly to keep up with how often you use your biotics.”

Saren eyed him, one mandible down. “I’m fine, Nihlus.”

“You’re avoiding the question.”

“Don’t I always?” Saren pulled up his omni-tool, now looking steadily down at his toe-claws. “We should review the data from the dig site. The Council will want the records verified, and as I’m not formally attached to your mission, I will be allowed to provide secondary confirmation.”

“Saren!”

“Nihlus.”

Nihlus snorted and looked away, checking the pouches and pockets on his armor. Somewhere… There. He pulled out a ration pack, meant for long missions away from any city or ship, and nearly shoved it at Saren. “Eat. You were just using your biotics. You’ll need the calories.”

Saren jumped slightly, then grudgingly accepted the package and tucked it under one arm while he peeled his gloves off. “I told you, I’m fine.”

“Yet you’re eating it anyway,” Nihlus pointed out.

Saren blinked, then gave him a look he’d learned over several years was the squint of a little brother far too used to this particular brand of logic. He kept meaning to thank Desolas—that look was one of the clearest signs there was that Nihlus had just won the argument.

Satisfied, Nihlus pulled up his omni-tool and flicked to the data transferred from Saren’s. At the very least, having Saren around to share the legwork made sure he never wanted for thoroughness. Saren had not only scanned omni-tools for ID data, but grabbed pictures of how the bodies lay, verified that each body other than the one they’d met Shepard over had been stabbed, and even swiped a roster from a terminal some poor spirit had collapsed on top of. And all in the span of a few minutes.

More biotics had probably been involved. Whatever. He was eating now, so no need to fuss.

He flipped through the pictures first, one mandible flicking. “What were you doing that you were the nearest available responder for an issue around Sur’Kesh?”

Saren paused, a strip of dried meat hanging from one tooth, then tossed that back and cleared his throat. “Tracking a lead at Mannovai. Bau gave me the name of one of the leaders of a crime syndicate there. I was an hour away from the planet when Taeja’s message came in.”

“Harper again?”

Saren nodded, and Nihlus hummed. “I’d offer to help, but it’s looking like I’ll be occupied with Shepard longer than expected.”

Saren eyed him. “Do you really think the human has what it takes?”

Nihlus clicked one mandible against his face. “I think they’re slowed down by Alliance regulations. The Spectres may allow them to reach their full potential.”

Saren hrmmed. “You know my thoughts.”

Nihlus sighed and nodded. “I’m aware, Saren. We can discuss that later. Like you said, we should be checking the data.”

Saren nodded. Nihlus would never admit to how his gizzard twinged with pride at that; part of him, a very small part that he fiercely denied existed, still ached to earn Saren’s approval regarding how he handled missions, even though it had been ages since he’d been his student. He preferred to think it was just because Saren’s requirements had been so ridiculously high—Saren had expected him to be an equal, if not a better, in every sense that mattered to the Spectres, and part of Nihlus wanted to make sure he still lived up to that impossible standard.

Stomping down every emotion a simple nod had brought up in him, he flicked over to the list of omni-tool scans Saren had collected. “Could you pull up the roster of people working at the site? I’ve got the list of the dead, we can cross-reference.”

Saren let out a low trill and did as asked, then moved his arm so they could both look at both omni-tools at the same time. Nihlus shook his head slowly as they trawled the lists, flaring his nasal plates. “So many dead,” he murmured. “I pity whoever has to notify the families.”

Saren gave a noncommittal grunt, then squinted, mandibles lowering slightly. “Hold on.”

While Saren zoomed in on both lists, turning his head to look at each in turn, Nihlus lowered his brow plates. “What is it?”

Saren didn’t respond at first, then pointed to a place on the list of dead. “Here. These lists are sorted alphabetically by family name, they should match up. But this name, here,” he pointed to the list of the employed, “is missing. Harvey Griffith.”

Nihlus looked for himself, and sure enough, the names “Greene, Shelly” and “Gutierrez, Arturo” were separated by “Griffith, Harvey” on the team roster, but together on the dead list. “Maybe this Griffith human was away on break,” he suggested, already doubting his own words. If they were, then where were they now?”

Saren hrmmed again. “Every other name on the roster is among the dead. They’re either a witness-”

“Or a culprit,” Nihlus finished for him. “Either way, it’s a lead. Once the beacon is secured, I’ll request the security logs and feeds, and see what I can find.”

Saren nodded and was opening his mouth to say something further when he was cut off by a sharp yelp from inside the cabin. His jaws snapped shut and his head whipped around in time for the truck to swerve sharply to the left, throwing him on top of the beacon and Nihlus on top of him.

Nihlus bit back a yelp as his cowl slammed into Saren’s. He rumbled an apologetic subvocal and grabbed hold of the bench they’d been sitting on to haul himself upright, barking, “Jenkins! Keep it straight!”

“It’s not me!” came the response over the radio. “It’s moving by itself!”

“He’s right, sir!” That was Williams. “I was watching! The controls just yanked to one side, by themselves!”

Nihlus froze, then a sharp prod at the small of his back from Saren got him moving again. “Check the dash,” he told Williams, cautiously getting to his feet with arms outstretched for balance. “Could it be a malfunction?” It was too much to hope for, he knew, given their situation. In training, Saren had always told him his incessant optimism would get him killed someday. He’d always snapped back that assuming the worst would get him to kill himself instead. Still, maybe he’d be lucky this time.

There was silence, then a curse. “Backseat driver!”

He was not lucky this time.

A horrible banging rose squealed out of the radio, metal on metal, with a few scraping noises for good measure. He shared a look with Saren, and the look on his friend’s face was one he knew all too well. Neither of them had to say a word for the message to be clear: Be ready.

He squared his shoulders and said back, “Keep a lookout. Whoever planted the device-”

A sharp crack! rang out, paired with the shriek of metal tearing and cutting him off, and he nearly threw himself into a defensive crouch. “… is probably close,” he groused, an infuriated subvocal rolling out of his cowl. Even if it carried over the radio, the humans wouldn’t hear it, but it felt good to let it out.

He glanced up to check the hole where the sniper, wherever they were, had pierced the truck—too close—then looked over to Saren. He’d pressed himself as flat to the floor as a turian could go, mandibles set in annoyed and subvocals rumbling indignant. Nihlus’s heart leapt into his throat to see the Brawler clutched in Saren’s hand and the biotics beginning to spark along his spine. “Saren!” he hissed. “Stay down! You have no armor, you’ll get yourself killed!”

Saren’s eyes, previously wide, flicked to him and narrowed. “I’ve had worse odds and come out fine.

“You’ve gotten lucky,” he corrected. “We know nothing about these attackers. Now is not the time for your stubborn ego. We need to-”

This time it was the squeal of brakes that cut him off, and he remembered Shepard and Alenko behind them. He gave Saren one last I’m not finished with you look, then tapped the comm and moved so his view of the truck trailing them would be significantly less obscured by large Prothean tech. “Shepard, what’s going on?” he asked.

The truck was fishtailing, with Shepard pressed against one side and Alenko struggling with something unseen. After maybe half a second, Alenko fell back into their seat and Shepard regained control, and there was a moment of quiet before Shepard’s voice called back, “There was something under the dash. Remote control device. Tried to make us stop. It’s gone now.”

“Good. Keep a sharp eye out, we just missed getting shot.”

“Everyone alright?”

“Nothing we can’t handle. Watch yourselves, and keep in contact.” He snorted and cut the link, then shook his head and drew his assault rifle out of its holster. “Saren, is the Brawler all you have?”

Saren grunted an affirmative, subvocals ringing with irritation, and Nihlus weighed his options. Even unarmed, Saren was a formidable opponent, and he was a lethally good shot with the battered pistol he so treasured. At this range, the slowly-dulling tang of recently-used biotics was the main factor in Saren’s scent, overpowering the gunsmoke and metal that usually mingled evenly with it. Like it or not, they were short on manpower and at a disadvantage given the still-moving truck, and Saren was a valuable ally. “Alright,” he sighed, “I’ll stay by the back of the truck and shoot anything that tries to climb in that way. You stay by the beacon. If anything gets past me, do what you do best.”

Saren considered this, then nodded, seemingly mollified. “I assume you have a plan?”

“Sure.” He chanced a grin. “Don’t get killed.”

Saren blinked, then grinned back. Worked like a charm. It wasn’t the funniest in-joke ever, but they’d had it running since even before Saren had recommended him to the Council, and they’d never failed to at least draw an amused snort out of each other with it. Nihlus leaned over to give his shoulder a friendly punch, then gave his assault rifle a last once-over. “Here we go again. Watch your back.”

“Only if you watch yours.”

Nihlus had barely turned back to look at Shepard’s truck before something white and human-shaped appeared out of nowhere and slammed into the truck’s hood, denting it considerably. Over the radio, one of the humans—probably Alenko, since their mouth was open—gave a shrill, childish scream.

He blinked, mandibles fluttering in and out for a moment. Then he nudged Saren. “Saren, did you see what I just saw?”

“No, Nihlus,” came Saren’s dry response, “I’m doing my job and watching the beacon.”

“Can you, ah, can you look for a second?”

“Fine, but I—” He stopped suddenly, squinting at the truck now fishtailing behind them like Shepard was trying to throw the unwanted passenger aside. “… Nihlus, is there a human on the front of that vehicle?”

“That’s what I was asking you.”

“Maybe it’s a human thing…”

The human dragged themself up the front of the truck and brandished a gun, firing wildly into the front windshield. The truck swerved hard. Nihlus swore and shouldered his weapon. “Naturally. Williams, Jenkins, we’ve got contact at our six!”

The truck thrashed back and forth, and the human with it, barely holding on by the tips of their fingers for a moment before the strain was finally too much, and they disappeared under the front bumper. Nihlus watched as Alenko’s face contorted into a different horrified expression with every subsequent bounce of the truck, followed by them screaming over the comm, “We killed him! Oh my God, we killed him!”

Shepard’s voice answered. “You’re in the Alliance, Alenko! We kill people for a living!”

“Not with trucks, Shepard! We hit him with a truck!”

“Hey, he hit us!”

Williams laughed raucously then. “Man meets truck, truck wins!”

“Uh, guys? We’re going to have to stop for a bit, I want to check on the engine,” Jenkins cut in. “That guy left a pretty big dent in the hood.”

“He hit you, too?” Shepard asked.

“Yeah, like a moose! Walked it off like one, too!”

Nihlus squinted at Alenko as they made a motion near their neck. It clicked once their face contorted into what had to be a scream, but no noise came through the comm. Poor Shepard was leaned as far away as they possibly could without losing their view of the road. “Alright, Corporal,” they said, and judging by the lack of screaming in the background Nihlus supposed they were using an in-helmet channel, “stop once you’re able.”

“Right.”

After a moment, the trucks slowed to a stop, and Nihlus hopped out, a clatter of talons on metal informing him Saren was close behind. Shepard and Alenko clambered out of their own truck, and ahead of them, Nihlus heard a door slam on the driver’s side. “Well,” he drawled, “that was fun.”

Alenko had their hands behind their back, and their lips pressed into a thin line. “Are we sure he’s dead? When you run into a moose, the moose isn’t usually the one who stays down.”

There was a snort above Nihlus’s head, and he turned just in time for Saren to take a seat on the tailgate, set his gun down beside him, and massage the hand that had been holding it. “I still don’t know what happened.”

Nihlus shrugged. “Alenko and Shepard ran over the human on their truck. Is your hand alright?”

“The grip is wearing down and cutting into my thumb joint again.” Apparently anticipating the concerned look Nihlus could already feel forming on his face, Saren quickly added, “I’m fine, don’t worry about me. I can get a replacement on the Citadel.”

Despite his reassuring subvocals, Nihlus wasn’t entirely convinced, but he let it go anyway. There were bigger matters at hand. He looked back to the humans, who by now had the hood propped open and were trying to pop the dented section back into place. From up front, Jenkins called, “Okay, looks good up here! Just a big dent in the hood, we can get going whenever! How about you guys?”

“Did the lieutenant’s heart attack stop yet?” Williams added.

Alenko’s face turned red, and they coughed into their fist. “All good back here,” they said over the comm. “And I’m fine, Chief, thanks for your concern.”

Shepard squinted at them. “Your hair is shiny because you shampoo with your lies.”

Alenko snorted, and Nihlus’s mandibles fluttered. Shepard was acting nothing like how they usually did when Nihlus interacted with them. Was it just shock, or was it some odd quirk unique to Shepard? He could always ask later.

“Well, that’s good to hear,” Jenkins practically chirped into the comm. A door opened somewhere ahead, and he added, “Let’s get going.”

Nihlus nodded to himself, and glanced at Saren. “You’ll need to move. I can’t get in.”

“Your legs are long enough to step over me.” Still, Saren obliged with a flick of his mandible, pushing himself up into a crouch. Nihlus waited, glancing back at Shepard and Alenko idly as the truck’s engine roared to life ahead.

And his mandibles promptly hit the ground as he spotted the massive, white-armored human dragging themselves out from under the truck and onto their feet.

“Spirits,” was all that occurred to him. Before he could think, he was spinning on the ball of his foot and shoving Saren into the bed of the truck, bellowing, “Jenkins, drive!”

That was apparently all that needed to be said. The truck jerked forward, and Saren fell onto his side as it hurtled away with a belch from the engine. The pained yelp that followed was almost too high-pitched for Nihlus to believe it could have been Saren, and a logical part of him neatly labeled that memory for immediate deletion upon pain of embarrassed Arterius.

Something hit his foot with a clank against the armor, and he glanced down at the same time that Saren nearly shrieked, “Nihlus! My pistol!”

He blinked at the tarnished gun on the ground, then hurriedly scooped up the Brawler and hurled it at the retreating truck. There was a clang as it bounced off the beacon, then another yelp, and this time Saren’s voice came over the comm, paired with wounded-irritated subvocals. “Thank you, Kryik.”

He was going to get punched later. Whatever. He’d live. He had bigger things to worry about.

Like how Alenko and Shepard were just staring, frozen, as the “moose” inspected the dark tire tracks on their armor and bumper-shaped dent in their chestpiece.

Whatever a moose was, this one was decidedly unfriendly. With a deep groan, they shook their head and shrugged their shoulders. “Do me a favor and just die already, wouldja?”

Their voice was deep, almost like a krogan’s, and it seemed to shake Shepard and Alenko out of their stupor. They dove to either side as the moose-human wound up, an ominous blue-white fire surging around their body, then thrust one arm towards them. The Throw barreled into the truck instead, shoving it onto one side and into a tree by the side of the road.

The tree must have been sturdier than it looked, because the truck crumpled around it for a millisecond before falling back off, the bark none the worse for wear. Before Nihlus’s brain had finished processing the image, Shepard was already scrambling to take cover behind it, Alenko rounding the other side.

Nihlus noticed the moose-human pulling weapons off their back and almost tore a toe-claw racing to join them.

The three of them huddled behind the chassis, guns clutched to chests. “How is he still alive?” Alenko asked, eyes looking a bit wetter than usual. “We ran him over! With a truck!”

“I think we just made him angry,” Shepard said. Nihlus had to wonder how they could sound so calm about it. They grabbed the upper edge of the chassis and pulled themselves up, then fired off a couple shots and dropped back down. “I think you two should see this.”

Nihlus shared a look with Alenko, then edged to the side of the truck and peered around. His jaw dropped and his mandibles flared almost instantly – the moose-human had pulled out two long, glowing lashes, crackling with energy, and was shaking out their shoulders. Alenko summed up Nihlus’s train of thought fairly succinctly: “What the hell are those!?”

 Good old turian instincts to the rescue: Shoot first, ask questions later. Nihlus’s assault rifle was up at his shoulder and his finger curled around the trigger before he could blink. Ratatatatatat! it shrieked, and within moments it was joined by the sharp report of a pistol and the bark of a shotgun.

The moose-human staggered, but no telltale fizzle or sparks of breaking barriers came.

They retreated again, and Nihlus flapped one mandible. “Strong barriers, and I don’t like the looks of those whips. If we just keep shooting, we’ll be bogged down here for ages.”

Shepard nodded. “We need a distraction. If he stays focused on something else, we can whittle his barriers down faster.”

“We hit him with a truck and he got up like it was nothing,” Alenko pointed out. “Whatever we throw at him will have to be a better fight than a front bumper.”

Nihlus let out a rumble. “This armor reinforces my talons. If I can get in close enough, the whips will just slow them down-”

“- and he’ll have to drop them,” Shepard finished for him, nodding. “Do you think you could get the whips away from him, once they’re dropped?”

Probably not. “It’s worth a shot.”

Shepard nodded. “Then you try to get close, and we’ll cover you.”

“Right.” He collapsed his rifle and put it back on his back, then moved back to the edge of the truck. Admittedly, he wasn’t entirely certain he’d be able to get close in the first place. That was a very big human, with very painful-looking weapons. Part of him wanted to ask why he had to be the bait, even though he’d volunteered for it. Old habits died hard, and Saren had used him as bait for many a plan.

He took a deep breath, then leaped out, toes splayed for better purchase against the ground. Maybe the heavy armor was a mistake, he groused to himself. The heavier the armor, the harder it was to use his feet to their full potential. Small blessings that the road was already so rough, so he didn’t need his toes to spread as far as they possibly could. He put one hand down for balance, then raised his head to take stock of his target.

To their credit (and Nihlus’s dismay), the moose-human wasn’t fazed by a burly turian in heavy armor jumping out in a ready stance. Alenko and Shepard’s weapons started up again, but the moose-human stayed focused squarely on Nihlus. How wonderful for him.

Then the biotic fire rose again, the human drew their whips back, and Nihlus had half a second to contemplate his life choices before the whips came down with a roar of exertion from their wielder.

Nihlus barely made it back into cover in time before the shockwave went thundering past. The biotics that went with it made Nihlus’s teeth throb in his skull and his scales stand on end. “I’m not sure I like this plan anymore.”

From beyond the truck, there came hoarse laughter. “Whassa matter? Is the big, bad turian scared of a wittle human?” the moose-human taunted, and Nihlus pulled his mandibles tight to his face. Don’t respond, don’t respond. A response was exactly what they wanted.

Shepard and Alenko fell back, and Shepard made to switch weapons. “It looks like they need some time to recover from that kind of attack,” they said. “Maybe you can get in while they’re recovering.”

Nihlus hesitated, then sighed. “If I die, you’re explaining to my mother.”

Alenko peered around their end of the truck, then jerked back. “Looks like he’s recovered already. We’ll have to get him to do it again before you can try.”

Shepard nodded to him. “You two annoy him with cover fire. The second he does that lash thing, Nihlus, you get ready to charge. I’m going to try to get ahold of the others.”

Nihlus nodded and retrieved his assault rifle, peeking over the top of the chassis. The moose-human was rubbing at one shoulder and shaking their neck out, legs bent in a defensive stance. “Strange…” he murmured to himself.

If anybody heard him, they didn’t get a chance to ask what he meant, because just then a startled bark came from Shepard’s omni-tool.

Nihlus snapped his head back. “That was Saren,” he said, his heart falling into his gizzard. “What’s going on?”

“There’s a ninja on the truck!” came the hysterical response. Jenkins, if Nihlus was guessing right. It was hard to tell with how high his voice was.

“In the truck, it is in the truck, in back, with me, thank you!” Saren snapped back. Then there was some scuffling, and what sounded suspiciously like Saren telling whatever a “ninja” was, “I am on the comm, don’t be rude!”

Shepard blinked, then shook their head. “A ninja?” they demanded.

“Not a ninja!” That was definitely Williams. “It was a woman with a sword in dark armor!”

“That’s the definition of a ninja, Chief! Don’t you ever watch old vids?”

Shepard cut the comms short, their omni-tool disappearing. “We have to get rid of this guy,” they said, making grim eye contact with Nihlus.

He nodded, then fired off a few rounds at the moose-human before turning back to them. “If Saren was complaining, he can probably hold that one for a while longer, but we should hurry.”

Alenko retreated back, panting slightly. “So, there’s a moose-man here, and a ninja over there. What next?”

As if on cue, a series of high-pitched yelps rang out, and shots peppered the ground ahead of them. Nihlus jerked back, pulling his knees up against his keel with a curse. “You had to ask,” he grumbled. Spirits, he was starting to sound like Saren.

Shepard grimaced, then tossed a glance back at the moose-human. “Sniper must be a friend of his. Keep us pinned here so he can pick us off. But then why doesn’t he…”

They trailed off, and they and Nihlus reached the same conclusion. “The beacon!” they yelped, almost in unison.

Shepard cursed. “Whoever this guy is, he must be just here to stall us while his friend takes care of the beacon. We have to get going, now.

“What if we tried splitting up?” Alenko suggested. “If all three of us do something different, he’ll have to pick who’s the bigger threat, and the other two can get the jump on him.”

Shepard nodded. “Good thinking, Lieutenant. Nihlus?”

He nodded slowly, moving his mandibles in small circles. “Alenko, you’re biotic, correct?”

When Alenko nodded, he continued, “I’ll try to charge him again. You distract him with biotic attacks, and Shepard, you’ll need to provide covering fire for both of-”

An unfortunately familiar grunt came from beyond the chassis, a lot closer than Nihlus remembered it being the last time. “Knock knock, it’s God!”

Don’t think, just go. Nihlus had never been happier for his drill instructors’ motto in basic. His legs responded before his brain did, and by the time the truck was batted to one side like cobwebs he was already hauling himself to his feet a few strides away. Shepard and Alenko, to his relief, had done much the same; Shepard was pressed flat against the ground as the poor abused truck went sailing over them, and Alenko was haphazardly tangled up in the roadside shrubbery, as if they’d tried to somersault away and fallen backwards instead.

The moose-human rolled their shoulders as they put their whips away, then glanced between the three of them. “Now, which of you blind-ass fucks was driving, huh?” They popped their knuckles for emphasis, then rolled their neck around, getting a few pops out of that, and finally tilted their head forward like a “come and get me” gesture.

While Alenko wheezed something about how deep the moose-human’s voice was, they put their hand to the side of their helmet, then grunted. “Really? Already?” A pause. “Fine, whatever.” The hand went down, and they heaved a sigh. “Well, it’s been fun, kids, but I gotta wrap this up. Hope you’ve all got your wills sorted out.”

In retrospect, Nihlus realized he probably should have counted on them charging him first. He was the biggest, sharpest target, after all. In the moment, however, his mind went blank, and it was all he could do to put one leg back to brace himself before the moose-human bowled him over.

They were strong, Nihlus would give them that. He honestly doubted he could have held his ground if he hadn’t been wearing the heaviest-duty boots most armorers could offer, with treads meant for walking easily on any given terrain. As it stood, his arms protested fiercely against trying to hold them back, and no fewer than three of his joints creaked with the strain. But they had the advantage of the attack, and he didn’t know how long he’d be able to hold.

A few shots rang out – the rough, rasping coughs of a shotgun. Shepard. But the moose-human only flinched, and only their shoulders. Still, an opening was an opening, and Nihlus dropped one arm to deliver as solid a punch as he could.

It went home, slamming into the moose-human’s gut. They wheezed and staggered back, clutching their abdomen, then gave Nihlus the most murderous glare possible to give through a gold-tinted, domed visor-

- and promptly jerked back as said visor, and the rest of the helmet with it, was unceremoniously yanked from their head in a blaze of biotic blue.

Back across the road, Alenko yelped, and the helmet clattered to the ground. The moose-human froze, and dark brown eyes locked onto Nihlus’s, and for just a split second, all he could read in them was fear.

He had half a heartbeat to note dark hair cropped close to the scalp, brown skin marked with scars, and a square jaw before shots rang out, rapid-fire, and his cowl exploded in pain that wasn’t quite pain. Even as he ducked, the rational part of his brain noted that the shots had only impacted his cowl, and not pierced through the many, many layers of plate armor over it. But who cared, it still hurt.

By the time he looked up again, the pain spreading out into an ache across his entire cowl, the sniper fire had stopped, and the moose-human was running, already half-disappeared into the trees. Alenko was panting, hands on their thighs. “I was trying to yank his feet out from under him,” they wheezed. “I didn’t… I thought I pulled his head off!”

Shepard holstered their shotgun and shook their head. “Nihlus, are you alright?”

He nodded, reaching up to hold his cowl. “Everything is vibrating, but I’ve had worse.”

“Then you and Kaidan go after the others. I’ll try to catch our friend.”

Alenko’s eyes widened. “Commander-”

“I’ll be fine. Just go, LT.”

They took off running before either of them could protest further, and Nihlus just sighed and pushed himself upright. “Come on. Spirits know what that other human was up to.”

They set off at a fast lope, Nihlus keeping his strides short so Alenko could keep up. As they ran, Alenko pulled up their omni-tool and muttered to themselves. “I can’t get a comm through,” they told Nihlus, mouth curved downward. “Does that say ‘bad sign’ to you, too?”

Nihlus lowered his mandibles. “Unfortunately.”

He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or concerned that the other truck turned out to be not far; they turned a bend in the road, and it was stopped within shouting distance.

Then he noticed the smoke coming from under the hood, and decided very definitely on “concerned.” “Hurry!” he barked to Alenko, just before pouring on the speed.

After his tussle with the moose-human, his legs weren’t terribly happy about the running, but he’d been through worse. He couldn’t even pin it all on basic training anymore, either, not after the gauntlet Saren had put him through during Spectre training. Part of him had the thought that he was probably kicking up dust into Alenko’s face, but that was dismissed. The dinky little biotic could probably use the extra iron in his diet. That was how human blood worked, right?

When he got to the truck, Williams and Jenkins were standing off to one side, omni-tools up. “Okay, on three,” Williams was saying. “One… two… three.” They pressed a button, and Jenkins jumped slightly.

Nihlus trotted up to them, trying not to pant. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Are you alright? Where’s the human?”

“Ran off, sir,” Jenkins said. “The truck died, and our omni-tools got scrambled. Chief Williams was just re-syncing mine for me.”

Williams shrugged modestly. “Standard issue ’tools are cheap, so they get messed up easy. Had a buddy in tech support on my last posting, and I picked up a few tricks for getting them sorted out.”

Nihlus nodded to himself. Made sense. The turian military was equally as stingy with standard-issue, so most of his old squadmates had opted to just save the credits for getting better models. “Where’s Saren?”

“Still in the back, I think.” Williams shrugged again. Their voice had a rhythmic cadence to it. Had that been there before? “We only just stopped, so we haven’t checked yet.”

As if to answer his question, a low groan rose from the back of the truck, and without a second thought Nihlus darted to the tailgate. “Saren?”

He peered in, and his heart leapt into his throat. The beacon was illuminated by a hole cut in the top cover, and, intermittently, by the bright, angry sparks jumping out of the back of Saren’s neck. “Saren!”

He placed his hands on the tailgate and swung himself up in what he’d wanted to be one fluid motion but in reality was more of a clumsy scramble, then hop-stepped over to where Saren lay sprawled in a heap of black cloak and lunar-white plating. There was a heavy, tangy scent hanging in the air around him, unpleasantly familiar: coppery turian blood. The source wasn’t hard to find, and in fact was fairly obvious once Nihlus’s eyes had adjusted to the lighting. A thin piece of metal was sticking up out of Saren’s forearm, right between two plates.

Saren groaned again, and automatically, Nihlus rumbled a soft subvocal, trying to calm him. “Saren, Saren, shh,” he said absently, patting himself down and trying to remember which pocket had the spare medi-gel. “You’re wounded.”

Saren sniffed the air, then rolled his head to one side and cracked open one ice-blue eye. His pupil instantly narrowed to a needle-thin slit, then settled back to a more normal opening, and another low groan rose from Saren’s chest. “Niyhlezh…”

Nihlus shushed him again, finally locating the medi-gel and pulling out a canister. He couldn’t risk pulling the blade out, that would just make the wound worse. But he could at least numb the area. “Hold still,” he told Saren. “This might sting a bit.”

Saren’s only response was a mumbled, "Tsang tait zeteh."

Nihlus blinked. “What?”

"Tsang tait zeteh," Saren repeated, clearer and more insistently this time.

Wait. Hadn’t Williams and Jenkins’ omni-tools..?

He groaned. Dammit. “You’ll have to speak Standard. I think your translator’s out.”

“Shej?”

He’d heard that word before. Definitely Carthaani. Nihlus sighed and shook his head. “Your translator is broken,” he repeated, as slow as he could without sounding condescending. “Speak Standard.”

Saren blinked slowly, then groaned again and closed his eye. He was quiet for a moment, presumably trying to remember how to speak Imperial Standard, then simply said, “Pain.”

“You don’t say,” Nihlus deadpanned. “Your amp is sparking, and you have a sword in your arm. I’d be surprised if you weren’t in pain.”

“The… computer. The computer is… bad. The computer is bad, Nihlus.”

Nihlus shook his head. “Yes, I know. I just told you.”

Saren shook his head and lowered his mandibles. “No, the computer is bad,” he stressed. His Standard was clumsy and unpolished. Nihlus knew Saren rarely spoke it, but he hadn’t thought he was this out of practice.

He sighed and cracked open the medi-gel canister. “How hard did you hit your head?” he muttered. “Hold still, I’m going to put this on your arm.”

Saren growled and kicked the beacon with a clang. “Hey!” Nihlus scolded, lunging to swat Saren’s leg away. “Don’t take it out on the beacon, we still need it.”

Saren shook his head fiercely and dropped his chin to the floor, mandibles set in a surly pout Nihlus knew all too well. Well, fine.

A knock came towards the end of the truck, and he glanced up to see Alenko, Williams, and Jenkins peering in. “Everything okay?” Alenko asked.

Nihlus shook his head. “Saren’s been injured, and his translator’s fried. If it hasn’t run self-repair protocols yet, probably the entire omni-tool is dead.”

Saren growled below him, and Nihlus snorted. “My thoughts exactly. And I’ll need to pull your amp out, too, before it fries something important.”

"Tsi'no zous tou."

“And you kiss me with that mouth?” He didn’t actually know what Saren had said, but he assumed a swear word was in there somewhere.

Jenkins tilted his head. “Wait, if our translators are working, how come we can’t understand him?”

Nihlus shrugged. “I don’t know, I’m just a soldier.”

Saren grunted. “Nihlus. Arm.”

“Right, right, be patient.”

Williams coughed. “We’re going to pop the hood, see if this thing’s salvageable. You have fun.”

The three heads disappeared, and Nihlus shook his head. “Right,” he muttered to himself before turning his attention back to Saren. “This will sting a bit,” he reminded him, dipping a finger into the medi-gel.

Saren bore the medi-gel application without complaint. The amp removal, however, he did not. No real surprise there- Nihlus had had to do it before, and Saren had always reported it felt like his brain was being pulled out through a hole in the back of his head. The amps were supposed to be easy and comfortable to use, but that only applied when the removal wasn’t necessitated by short circuits.

He would pity Saren more if the removal process didn’t usually mean he received at least one clawed hand to the face in a desperate attempt to make the pain stop.

By the time Saren’s amp had been safely stowed in one of the pockets lining the inside of his cloak, Nihlus was praying for the truck to roar to life beneath them, but no such luck. Instead, he helped Saren to his feet, then let him lean on him for balance as they staggered back to the edge. “I don’t suppose you happen to have any spare translators on you?” he asked, wrapping an arm around the back of Saren’s cowl. Translators separate from omni-tools were popular for a multitude of reasons, but most Spectres he knew liked them as back-ups in case of an omni-tool malfunction. Which, unfortunately, were rather common in their line of work.

Saren grunted and held up two fingers. “On my ship, not with me.”

Nihlus sighed. That figured. He pulled away from Saren and hopped down out of the truck, then raised an arm to help him climb down. “Once we get to the spaceport, you can grab a spare.”

Saren nodded and took his hand, then jumped down, wincing when he landed. Nihlus automatically stepped closer, and he flicked a mandible. “I have a lot of… word, word… bruises. I have a lot of bruises.”

Nihlus trilled. “Are you alright to walk?”

“I’m fine,” he insisted, shaking his head. Then he hesitated, made eye contact for a split-second, and sighed, nudging Nihlus with an elbow. “I’ll explain at the Citadel,” he said, subvocals thrumming with apology and promise. “A lot was happening. I need to think.”

Nihlus mulled it over, playing with the words in his head until he figured out what Saren meant. Even I’m not sure what happened. “Alright,” he said, leaning in to touch their brow plates together. “I’m not happy about it, but alright.”

“Once I have my translator,” Saren assured him, moving to rub their zygomatic ridges together. “Then we can talk.”

“Deal.” Nihlus hummed low in his throat, rubbing his thumb along the back of Saren’s hand. He chanced a smile and added, “You’ll have to wake me up first. I could sleep for a week after this mess.”

One of Saren’s mandibles twitched, and Nihlus took it as a good sign. “I’ll buy breakfast.”

“I’m holding you to that.”

There was a loud, conspicuous cough from up ahead of them, and they looked up simultaneously to see Alenko standing by the front tire, face slightly red. “Uh, I hate to interrupt,” they said, rubbing the back of their neck, “but this thing’s kicked the bucket. The spaceport’s just around the bend up there, so Jenkins went running for some cargo transport, if either of you want to join him, I don’t know.”

Nihlus glanced at Saren, who looked downright mystified. Right, he couldn’t understand. “The truck is dead,” he told him, and got an “ah, okay” expression and a nod in response.

Just then a rustling sounded behind him, and he spun on his heel, hand going for his pistol before he recognized the haircut emerging from the woods. “Shepard, there you are,” he said, rolling his shoulders. “What happened?”

Shepard grunted and rubbed at their side. “I got shoved into a tree by a rhinoceros,” they wheezed.

Alenko coughed. “I don’t think rhinos live on Eden Prime, Commander.”

“Oh, right. Then it must’ve been the big guy.” They shook their head. “I ran into their sniper friend and got her pinned against a tree. I think I broke the barrel on her rifle, I don’t know. Before I could say anything, the big guy came out of nowhere and slammed me into a different tree.” They winced and hobbled closer. “Talking hurts.”

Nihlus noticed a white-and-gold object in their hand, and gestured to it. “Is that the helmet?”

They glanced down, then nodded and held it out. “I went back for it. I figured we might want it.”

Nihlus nodded and took it from them. “Good thinking. We can probably extract at least some information about those hostiles from the interior computer.”

Shepard nodded, then noticed Saren. Specifically, they noticed his arm, and pointed at it. “Sword.”

Nihlus sighed. “Yes, he got stabbed. We can’t pull it out here, it’ll just make things worse.”

Saren grunted. “Am I being talked about?”

“You are now.” Nihlus flicked a mandible at Shepard’s confused expression. “His omni-tool is completely dead, so his translator’s out.”

Alenko decided to jump in then, moving over to Shepard’s side. “Here, Commander, you look dead on your feet.”

They offered an arm, and Shepard needed no further encouragement, practically collapsing sideways. “Thanks,” they said weakly.

Nihlus snorted quietly, then glanced at Saren. “Think you can manage a little walk?”

Saren snorted and jerked his head up. “Of course.”

“Then let’s go get your translator.”

Like Alenko had said, the spaceport was just around another bend in the road. Nihlus thought he might have collapsed with relief at the sight of it if the situation weren’t so serious. Saren’s small personal ship had been docked near the edges, very unsurprisingly. Saren hated getting trapped in the middle when docking. The familiar silhouette was like an old friend to Nihlus, a welcome sight after so long on the Normandy. Sure, half the design was turian, but only half.

The usual hustle and bustle of the spaceport was nonexistent as they trotted along, instead replaced by colonists watching them from windows and retreating behind crates. Williams’s squad must have called ahead and warned them, he reasoned. In the distance, he spotted Jenkins trotting along, clutching something in their hand.

Saren insisted on collecting his translator alone, so while Nihlus waited, there was enough time for Jenkins to notice him and veer sharply in his direction, waving a hand. “Nihlus!” they called, loping over. “You’re here already?”

Nihlus waited for them to get closer, then flicked a mandible. “Saren and I went ahead to get a spare translator,” he explained. “It’s easier to communicate that way.”

“Oh, okay.” Jenkins nodded, then tossed a set of keys to themselves. “I had to track down port authorities and ask for truck keys. Hopefully the beacon isn’t too heavy, or we’ll need help moving it onto the new truck.”

“Don’t bother,” came the familiar grouse. Saren came sweeping down the ramp of his ship, hood now neatly back over his head. A thin black band- the translator- was visible clipped around one of his zygomatic spines. “It’s broken.”

Nihlus and Jenkins jerked back simultaneously. “What?” Nihlus demanded.

Saren lowered his mandibles. “That’s what I was trying to tell you,” he huffed. One hand reached up and pulled off the translator, and he repeated, “Tsang tait zeteh." Translator went back on. “It means, ‘the beacon is broken.’ That human that attacked me did something to it. I don’t know what, but it made a noise and stopped humming.”

Jenkins blinked. “Humming?”

“Like a terminal on standby mode.”

Another blink. “I’ve never heard a terminal on standby humming.”

Nihlus shook his head. “Saren has very sensitive hearing, even for a turian,” he explained. “And if it was humming that way…”

“It was inactive, and the human deactivated it permanently,” Saren concluded. “No more beacon.”

Nihlus cursed. “Jenkins, get on comm with the others, tell them what Saren said. This is not going to go over well.”

Jenkins saluted, then stepped away, and Nihlus looked at Saren, evaluating him. He hesitated, then asked, “Are you telling me you forgot the word for ‘beacon’?”

Saren blinked, then snorted. “I haven’t spoken Standard in years, Nihlus, much less used that specific word.”

“I said it right in front of you.”

Saren shrugged. “I’ll admit, I was mostly just piecing what you said together from context.”

Nihlus stared at him for a moment, then groaned. “You worry me sometimes, Saren, you really do.”

Saren just raised one mandible, and Nihlus grimaced at him. “If you want to get going now, I won’t hold it against you. I’ll probably be handling things here for a while longer.”

Saren shrugged and folded his arms. “I understand. You’re alright with me corroborating your report?”

“Of course. The Council trusts you.”

“Then I’ll need to know when they’re seeing you.”

“I’ll make sure you know,” he promised. “Honestly, with what a mess this turned out to be, I’d rather you be around to face them with me. That beacon was important to them.”

Saren hummed. “There’s no way you could have predicted it. You’ll be fine.” One mandible lifted, and Nihlus refused to admit to himself that some of the weight on his shoulders went with it. “I’ll get in touch with some of the others, see if I can arrange a meeting. The more eyes we have on the situation, the better we can prepare what we’re going to tell the Council.”

Nihlus nodded. “Good idea.” He waggled one mandible. “If it’s at the usual place, you can buy me that breakfast there.”

That got a full, two-mandible smile out of Saren, a rare phenomenon Nihlus was proud to know he was one of very few who could cause. “Of course, Nihlus. Let me know where you’re docking and when, and I’ll meet you there.”

“Deal.” He reached out to clasp forearms with Saren, then leaned in to press one last parting kiss to his nasal plates. “I’ll see you on the Citadel. Don’t do anything stupid, and be prepared to have to drag me home. I’ll be dead on my feet after all this.”

Chapter Text

Shepard heaved a sigh and leaned their forehead against the cool metal of their locker. Well, that went well. Maybe they’d get lucky, and the Council would be generous enough to give them a second chance.

Ha.

They shook their head and double-checked the lock. As an officer, their locker was separate from the rest of the ground team’s, so the area was deserted. Nihlus had run off to take care of “paperwork,” and Kaidan and Jenkins had volunteered to show Ashley around the ship. Their chest still hurt from where the big human had slammed them into a tree, so moving too far too soon sounded unpleasant at best. No harm in indulging their rituals, not when they weren’t going anywhere and nobody was around to ask awkward questions.

“Shepard.”

“Uaahh!”

Okay, maybe one person was around.

Once they’d made sure they had not, in fact, jumped clear of their own skin, they turned to face Anderson, hoping their eyes weren’t stretched as wide as they felt. “Captain Anderson,” they said. “Sorry, sir, you startled me.”

Anderson held up his hands. “No harm done. I probably should’ve made some more noise when I came in.” He shook his head and tucked his hands behind his back. “I just wanted to check in. The others already told me what happened down there, and I wanted to hear your take on things.”

They shook their head slowly. “I doubt I can tell you much different, sir. We ran into a squad with the 212 running patrol, and picked up Williams as an escort to the dig site. Nihlus met up with a colleague. Everyone was dead, so we scanned their omni-tools for the data and made to drive the beacon to the port ourselves. We were attacked along the way, and the beacon was destroyed.” The words fell from their mouth almost too easily. Cold, clinical, detached. No, professional. Better to say professional. It sounded more like what you wanted to hear about Alliance officers. Professionalism under stress.

Anderson hesitated, then sighed. “The Council won’t be happy about the beacon getting destroyed. We’ll probably be able to mollify them with the rest of the dig site, once it’s uncovered, but this will just get them fussing about security. And I doubt Parliament will be content with the results, either.”

“There’s nothing we could do, sir.” They kept their voice flat. Safety in disinterest. “Even with two Spectres, our attackers got the better of us.”

Anderson’s brow furrowed, and his lips pursed. “That’s another thing. Nihlus’s friend. Williams and Alenko told me it was Saren Arterius. Is that right?”

They nodded, and Anderson winced. “Damn. If he’s involved…”

Shepard blinked. “Do you know him, sir?”

“Damn right I do.” Anderson scowled. “Worked with him, at one point. He’s a nasty piece of work.”

Shepard thought for a moment, then leaned back against their locker, carefully arranging their arms so one was massaging the sore spot on their ribs. “This sounds like something personal, sir.”

Anderson sighed. “Like I said before, it’s old news.”

“But it has you worried, sir.”

Anderson eyed them for a moment, then sighed again, heavier and a little resigned. “This was eighteen years ago. Eight years after First Contact. I was running a patrol out in the fringes of Alliance space, and we intercepted a distress signal. Long story short, I ended up investigating a terrorist attack on one of our science bases. Saren had his own mission of some sort in the area, and he ended up getting tagged along. Later I found out Ambassador Goyle was angling to get me into the Spectres, and Saren was supposed to evaluate me, like Nihlus is doing for you.”

Shepard hrmmed. “I’m guessing it didn’t work out.”

Anderson scowled. “Of course it didn’t. That son of a bitch sabotaged me. The terrorists got away, and he pinned it all on me. Said I didn’t have what it takes. Meanwhile, he had no regard for civilian lives, he didn’t care about collateral damage, he carved a path of destruction through every area of space we had to stop in. He’s ruthless, and if he has morals, they only make sense to him. And worst, he hates humans.”

Shepard rolled their neck out. “Plenty of turians don’t like us,” they pointed out. “What makes Saren different?”

Anderson shook his head. “It wouldn’t be so bad if he were someone else. But he’s a Spectre, with all the diplomatic immunity that entails. And his brother’s some sort of celebrity to their people, so that makes him even harder to touch. Saren would be happy if he could wipe us all off the face of the map, and he has the legal freedom to do it.”

Shepard considered this, then shook their head. “I don’t see what that has to do with the current situation, sir.”

“All I’m saying is, it seems a little too convenient that of all the Spectres who could have been dropping by Eden Prime, it was him. Nihlus said he had an alibi, but I’m not sure I buy it.”

“You doubt Nihlus, sir?”

Anderson pursed his lips. “I assume Nihlus told you he and Saren are friends?”

Shepard blinked, and their memory helpfully started playback. How well do you guys know each other? Intimately. “In a sense.”

Anderson nodded. “Nihlus is biased in Saren’s favor. Saren’s the one who trained him to be a Spectre, and they were friends before that. Been thick as thieves ever since. Nihlus won’t hear a word against him. We almost had a row about it a few days ago.”

Something clicked in Shepard’s head. “I thought you seemed a little snappish with each other before Eden Prime.”

Another nod. “Right. If you ask Nihlus, Saren can do no wrong. Insists he can put his mission before his own opinions, and I didn’t make Spectre because I just failed to impress him. I told him I didn’t impress him because I’m human, and the only thing that saved me from a brawl was Nihlus getting a call he had to take.”

Shepard hummed to themselves, considering. That would definitely explain the prickling tension in the room earlier. Still, Nihlus had said Saren’s alibi checked out, and the blade sticking out of Saren’s arm went a long way towards defending his story. “If it’s all the same to you, sir,” they said slowly, “I think I’d like a little more evidence before I go around pointing fingers. It was pretty confusing down there.”

Anderson hesitated, then sighed and nodded, just once. “You’re right. Just be careful, Shepard. I don’t trust Saren as far as I can throw him, but I do trust you to know what you’re doing.”

They blinked, then stood up straight and saluted, reminding themselves not to wince when their ribs protested. “Thank you, sir. I’ll do my best.”

Anderson returned the salute, then tucked his hands behind his back. “I’ll get out of your hair. I need to talk to the brass about what went down, anyway. Get Williams’s transfer squared away, too, if she’s going to be tagging along. You should go see Dr. Chakwas, make sure you’re still clear to run around.”

Shepard resisted the urge to snort. “I feel fine, sir.” The ache would go away on its own, right?

“The day Chakwas accepts your opinion without tests, you let me know, and I’ll man the disaster shelter.”

They finally grinned, and just like that, the clamp of “mission mentality” started to fade away. “Point taken. I’ll see her in a minute. Where’s Nihlus?”

“Oh, he’s holed himself up in the comms room to work on his report to the Council. Says the extranet connection is better there. Keep out of his way until he’s done, Ambassador Udina told me he’s one of the Spectres that gets a bug up his ass about paperwork.”

They nodded and flashed a thumbs-up. “Will do, Captain.”

Anderson quirked up a smile, then wandered away, headed in the general direction of his own quarters. With the vague, undesirable goal of “medbay” square in their mind, Shepard checked the lock again, then debated how long they had before Dr. Chakwas came and found them herself. Talking too much hurt, too, but it didn’t hurt that bad.

Luckily, it was then that an excuse presented itself in the form of Kaidan, Ashley, and Jenkins reappearing, with a couple more Normandy crew members tagging along.

The three who’d been on Eden Prime had already changed out of their armor, even Ashley. Trailing behind them were two people Shepard recognized from the bridge: a woman wearing hijab and old-fashioned aviator sunglasses, and a man with short-cropped natural hair and arms the size of footballs. “Hi, Commander!” Jenkins practically chirped at them with a wave. “Pressly gave us the go-ahead to use whatever we want in the mess, ’cause we’ll be restocking at the Citadel, so we’re gonna make a decent lunch for once. You want in?”

There were very few things Shepard would rather do than lunch, and visiting the medbay was not one of them. “Sure,” they said, moving to follow the little party. “What are we having?”

“That depends on what we can find,” Kaidan responded, turning to one side so he could squeeze into the cargo area beneath the sleeper pod bay. “It’ll have to get cooked on a small heat source. Whoever designed the Normandy decided we didn’t need a proper kitchen.”

“Actually, that was Alliance brass.” The woman in hijab coughed into her fist, then continued, “They said since the SR-1 is just a prototype, they didn’t need to include all the comforts, and they’ll just add them in on the full version. Both engineering teams thought that was stupid, so they paid off the requisitions officer to tack on some big camp stoves and cooking utensils to the inventory list. Check behind the winter survival gear.”

Jenkins turned to look at her. “How do you know all that?”

“I’m logistics. I know everything.” She shook her head, then noticed Shepard looking at her and held out a hand. “Niazmina Khulozai. Technically a programmer, but they have me working half the computer systems instead. That’s what you get when you try to keep staffing low.”

Shepard shook her hand, and Football Arms spoke up. “She’s also the one you go to if your omni-tool fucks up. She’s been working on them since she was a kid.” He winked and added, “Isaiah Torres. S’posed to be biotic support for the ground team on bigger missions, but obviously for such a little thing like Eden Prime nobody thought you’d need more than who you took.”

“Isaiah’s an old friend,” Kaidan called back to them. “We’ve been stationed together nearly every posting since we joined the Alliance.”

“Yeah, so I know you’re lying when you say you didn’t scream like a little girl on Eden Prime!” Isaiah mocked, leaning over to punch Kaidan in the shoulder. Kaidan swiped at him, and he leaned back with a laugh. Then he looked back to Shepard, stuck out a hand, and continued like nothing had happened, “Me and the rest of the grounders on this ship were mostly just to pad the roster so the Alliance would let us take off.”

Shepard shook his hand with a nod. Made sense. Alliance regulations demanded a certain number of crew members on any given ship for safety reasons, and it was usually easier to just cram in spare guns than it was to find extra brains for working the more technical aspects of the ship. “Why haven’t I met any of the others?”

Isaiah shrugged and dropped the handshake. “No offense, but you’re the XO. We try not to get in your way. Kaidan’s the highest rank, so he was cool with hanging out with you, but the rest of us have been chilling in engineering.”

They considered this, then shrugged. That was fair. “Then who else here is ground team, besides you?”

Isaiah thought about that, sliding into a seat at one of the tables. “Uh… Well, there’s Feliks Haugen and Kia Isotalo, they’re usually stationed together. Been that way since basic, for some weird reason. Nobody’s sure how. And Lin Chan-mi, she’s pretty cool. Tiny, though. Could probably eat nails for breakfast if she wanted, but tiny. And… that’s it, just us four, Jenkins, and the LT were supposed to be combat backup.”

“You’ll meet them in a minute or two,” Niazmina said, grabbing a box Kaidan had pulled out and carrying it over to the table. “I sent them a message to grab food out of the coolers in storage.”

“There’s coolers in storage?” Ashley asked, hefting a box that clanked onto her hip. “I didn’t see any when we were down there earlier.”

“That’s because they get boxes stacked in front of them. Nowhere else to put anything.” Niazmina shrugged and started pulling out cooking tools. “Hope nobody’s hoping for anything Afghan. I burn water.”

“Do you burn marshmallows?” Kaidan called, retreating out of the storage area long enough to wave a bag of them in the air and toss it to Jenkins. “There’s a lot of those in here, for some reason.”

Ashley snorted. “Maybe reqs thought you guys would just have a bunch of cookouts.” She glanced around at the group. “There’s enough biotics on board. Think you guys could contain a campfire?”

“No. No campfires.” Niazmina brandished a spatula at her. “You will make my computers cry.”

“Aw, thanks for the vote of confidence, Khulozai.”

Another box dropped onto the table with a thud, and Shepard turned to see the source of the new voice. A blonde woman with high cheekbones and biceps to rival Isaiah’s had come in, trailed after by a man with tired eyes and a face like a bulldog, and a pixie-ish woman hiding behind ruler-straight bangs. Probably the other combatants Isaiah had mentioned, Shepard reasoned. Especially given they each bore a box neatly labeled RATIONS. “You don’t think we can handle a little fire?”

“Fires are not meant for inside,” Niazmina insisted, shaking her head. “Especially not inside spaceships. Controlled sources only.”

The blonde was opening her mouth to retort when Isaiah jumped in. “Chill, Isotalo,” he said, grabbing the box of food she’d brought and sliding it over to himself. “Did you introduce yourself to the commander yet? Or the newbie?”

Isotalo – what had Isaiah said her name was? Kia? Kia glanced around, then spotted Shepard first and stuck out a hand. “Kia Isotalo,” she said without further ado. “Vanguard. Like you, right?”

They nodded and shook her hand, and she grinned. “Good to hear it.” She noticed Ashley then, and nodded to her. “So you’re the one we picked up on Eden Prime?”

Ashley nodded and offered her hand. “Chief Ashley Williams.”

The handshake Kia gave Ashley looked a lot more enthusiastic than the one she’d offered Shepard. “Nice to meetcha. This is Feliks Haugen and Lin Chan-mi. Hope they taught you what to do with the dehydrated beef patties, ’cause there’s a lot of those.”

Ashley grimaced. “Maybe if there’s any seasoning. Maybe.”

“Will this do?” Kaidan called, resurfacing and heaving another box, this one helpfully labeled SEASONINGS, onto the railing. “You would not believe how many boxes of recyclable dishes I sorted through to find this. We’ll never have to do dishes again.”

“Famous last words, LT.” Ashley smirked as Kaidan handed the box to Jenkins, then closed the storage bay and wriggled his way back into the main area.

Shepard tried stretching out, then winced as the nerves in their side shrieked in pain. Bad idea. At least it seemed like they’d found a position the sore spot liked. Now if only they could stay here. It was more professional for them to stay standing while the subordinate crew sat around, anyway, right?

Jenkins whistled as he carried the box over, then set it down and asked, “So, Khulozai, right? You work on omni-tools?”

“Omni-tools, translators, visors, what have you.” Niazmina shrugged and sat down, pushing her shades up her nose. “My dad would bring home stuff that was glitching out, and show me how to fix it. Then I got to where I could do it without his help, so we started up a racket where his friends from work would pay him to take their broken stuff home and fix it, and he’d let me have a crack at it first. I got the money if I could solve the problem by myself.”

“Cool. So, I bet you know how all of it works, yeah?”

“Is there a point to this?”

It wasn’t exactly hard to guess what Jenkins was after. Maybe he should work on that. “Well, y’see, back on Eden Prime, when the beacon blew? Arterius’s omni-tool got fried, and we couldn’t understand him, even though our translators were working fine.”

Ashley snorted. “To hear Nihlus talk, I don’t think we really wanted to know what he was saying, anyway.”

“Well, yeah, maybe not,” Jenkins admitted. “But still, I was just curious, y’know?”

Niazmina hrmmed. “Translators aren’t as one-and-done as the vids say, you know. It’s a two-way street. In order for real-time translation to occur with minimum lag, implants in the skin intercept signals from the brain, translate those into the sounds they produce, translate those into language, and then transmit those to active comm units and-or omni-tools in-range. If the receiving end is open, those signals are then translated into the user’s language and sent to their brain through their own implants. Ta-da, you’re hearing English, Mandarin, Greek, or whatever coming out of a face not physically capable of speaking it.” She adjusted her shades. “Is that it?”

She was met with blank stares from around the room, and Jenkins said, “I understood the word… ‘the.’”

There was a grunt, and Feliks deposited his box of rations on the table. “In stupid-speak,” he said, falling unceremoniously onto the bench, “she means that both translators have to be active for any translating to actually happen.” Then he folded his arms in front of him and dropped his head so only his ears and the back of his hair were visible. Behind him, Chan-mi moved to open his box, and started pulling out packages and cans of food, setting them in neat little piles.

There was a round of “ohhhh”s, and Shepard resisted the urge to cough into their fist. That would just make their ribs hurt again. “Is he alright?” they asked, gesturing towards Feliks.

“Idiopathic hypersomnia,” Kia rattled off, sliding onto the bench across from Feliks. “Or, in less smart words, a lazy fuck.”

“Go fuck yourself, Isotalo,” came the muffled response from behind Feliks’s arms, and Kia just snorted and knuckled his head.

Chan-mi made a little noise. “Um, she just means…” She swallowed. “It is medical. He does not sleep well. It is, um…” She checked her omni-tool. “Something in his, um, in his central nerves.”

“Central nervous system?” Isaiah asked.

“Yes!” She smiled. “Central nervous system.”

Ashley started pulling the camp stove out of its box. “Sorry if this is rude, but why am I hearing you with an accent?”

Kaidan wandered over, arms folded across his chest. “She’s trying to learn all our languages, so her translator’s in transmit-only mode.”

“Really? All of them at once?” Ashley whistled. “Cool.”

Chan-mi beamed. “It is challenge… ing, challenging, but it is, um, fun. I enjoy it.”

Jenkins took the camp stove box off the table and tossed it towards the storage area. “That’s another thing I was curious about, what languages is everyone speaking? I always wonder about that.”

Chan-mi shook her hair out of her face. “English. It is a difficult language, but it is useful to know.”

Ashley nodded to her. “Honduran Spanish.”

They went in a circle from there. Isaiah spoke Tagalog. Niazmina, Pashto. Kia answered for both her and Feliks, since he’d already passed out- her Finnish, him Norwegian. Jenkins knew English, and he was quick to assure Chan-mi she sounded great to him. Kaidan was speaking Canadian French, and made a joke about how French people were always scandalized by his atrocious grammar and sensible words. When everyone turned and looked at Shepard, they had to resist the urge to cough again, and just muttered, “Italian.”

Ashley got the camp stove to start with a weak little puff, then set a pan over it and brushed her hands off. “Alright, while that heats up, let’s see what we can do here. What are we looking at with that meat?”

Chan-mi cleared her throat. “Well, um, there is a lot of dehydrated beef, like Kia said,” she began, gesturing to the largest pile of cans. “There is also much… Corned beef? Is that correct?”

Isaiah grimaced and reached over to grab a can. “I wish it wasn’t. There’s so much salt in that stuff, it’s impossible.”

“That’s quitter’s talk, Torres,” Kaidan declared, trotting over to take it from him. “There has to be something in here we can use to balance out the salt. Any stock in there?”

Chan-mi nodded and offered him a box neatly labeled CHICKEN STOCK. He accepted it with a “Thanks,” then walked back to the camp stove. “We can just cook it in this and dilute the salt. Add some frozen vegetables or something, and we’ll have a good stew going.”

“Okay, seriously?” Niazmina looked around the group. “Raise your hand if you can cook. Even if it’s just one dish.”

Ashley, Kaidan, Chan-mi, and Isaiah put up a hand each, and Kia raised Feliks’s hand for him. After a moment, Shepard raised theirs, too, and Niazmina groaned. “I was stationed on this ship to feel bad about myself. Great-grandmother did this.”

Kaidan raised a brow. “Family issue?”

“Let me put it this way: when I was six, my mother and I tried to bake a cake, but we set it on fire instead. Once it was out, all we could do was laugh at our own ineptitude and go buy one from the store. Great-grandmother never let my father forget it.”

Kia whistled. “Priorities.”

Niazmina nodded. “When I was seventeen I set my tea on fire, and instead of doing anything, I just took vid and got famous on the extranet for it. I think that was the day I got written out of the will.”

Shepard winced in sympathy, then immediately regretted it as their side complained again. “Harsh.”

“I think I might’ve seen that vid, actually,” Ashley said, digging in the seasonings box. “Was it the one where you were cry-laughing about how you didn’t know the flammable parts would float?”

“With my family screaming in the background? That was me,” Niazmina confirmed. “I thought great-grandmother was going to murder me. My grandfather, though, he thought it was so great, he asked me to show him how I did it, and now every time we meet for tea, we set it on fire and clink glasses before it goes out.”

“I like your grandfather.” Kaidan accepted a bulk-size bag of frozen mixed vegetables from Chan-mi and set it next to the camp stove. “Sounds like a reasonable man. Hey, if I’m making stew, what’re you doing, Chief?”

Ashley grabbed a can of meat and tossed it to herself. “I think I can cobble something together. This isn’t as varied a range of ingredients as I’m used to, but the first things Mom taught me to make were street food, and that’s all innovation.”

Isaiah raised a hand. “What kind of street food are we talking here?”

Ashley shrugged. “All over. Mom was a food critic in Central and South America before she left Earth, and Dad traveled the world with the military. Whenever they found a recipe they liked, they figured out how to make it themselves.”

“Cool.” Isaiah flashed her a dual thumbs-up. “Know anything Filipino?”

“A couple things, but I don’t think we have the ingredients in here, y’know? Maybe some haluhalo for dessert, if we can find any ice cream. And evaporated milk.”

“There should be some cartons of ice cream back in the freezer somewhere, if you want to send someone spelunking,” Niazmina suggested. “And some cans of the evaporated milk in a box. I’ve got the inventory list pulled up.”

Shepard blinked. There was no omni-tool visible she could have it pulled up on. Jenkins beat them to the punch, though: “Where?” he asked, tilting his head.

She tapped the side of her shades. “You ever try arranging a hijab around one of those clunky tactical visors they give tech specialists? It’s ridiculous. So I modified some old tech from before the holo craze.”

“Cool. How’s it work?”

“Muslim magic.” She lifted the shades and winked, calling attention to a small port on her temple previously hidden by the earpiece.

Shepard blinked, then nodded as it hit them. “So it’s synced to your omni-tool and neural implants, then.”

She put her shades back down, then clicked her tongue at them. “Right on.”

Isaiah snorted. “Don’t ask if she’ll make you a set, though. You’ll have to pay for the shades yourself, and cool ones don’t come cheap.”

“Hey, Isaiah, are you going to sit around, or are you going to cook something, too?” Kaidan asked. “The more cooks we have, the sooner we eat.”

Isaiah shrugged. “You see these biceps? You see this face? I’m doing community service just sitting around looking pretty.”

“He has a point,” Kia said. “What if grease splashes up on that flawless skin?”

“I don’t think dehydrated mystery-meat-in-a-can makes grease,” Ashley grumbled. “Hell, I think I might actually have to cook it in the can.”

“Ooh, my favorite.”

“See what I mean?” Isaiah waved a hand. “Williams is valiantly sacrificing her sanity by wrangling the canned flubber for the rest of us. Way to take one for the team, Chief.”

“Who said I’m doing it myself?” Ashley said, waving the can in his direction. “You can taste-test.”

“Hey, don’t fight over the weapon of mass food poisoning,” Kaidan said. “Isaiah, you can make the haluhalo for dessert.”

Isaiah was happy to agree, and the group fell into an amicable rhythm, Ashley and Kaidan sharing the camp stove while the rest helped prepare the meat and try to bring life back to a bag of dehydrated fruit Chan-mi found at the bottom of the box. Shepard stood around, trying not to hover too close. After the disaster on Eden Prime, it was nice to just relax and watch life continue. It was a thought that had comforted them even before they’d started therapy: even when everything went wrong, there were still universal constants you could count on. The stars would always blink back from the world beyond the window. Military rations would always be questionable at best. Soldiers in a group would always pick on each other like old friends, no matter how recently they’d met. The smell of cooking mystery meat would always make approaching turians look queasy.

Wait.

“Nihlus?” they asked, as the turian in question wandered into the room. He’d removed most of his armor, just the guards on his abdomen, thighs, and shoulders still in place over his endosuit, and his mandibles drooped like he’d simply gotten tired of holding them up. “Are you alright?”

Nihlus grunted and moved to lean against the wall near the officers’ lockers, apparently ignoring how the other humans in the room had turned to stare at him. “Let me put it this way: While I don’t agree with them, I can understand why a good number of my colleagues procrastinate on their paperwork.”

Ah. “Say no more,” Shepard said. “So you got everything squared away with the Council, then?”

“For the most part,” he said, folding his arms under his cowl. “I’m waiting on the Council to confirm a meeting time. ETA at the Citadel puts us right at the start of the night cycle, and they won’t be happy about interrupting their evenings to come talk to us.”

Shepard considered this, then shrugged. “That’s fine. We’ll need time to get ready to see them first, anyway.”

Nihlus nodded approvingly. “I’ve been coordinating with Saren to that end. Since he left so long before us, he’s already in the system and getting ready to dock. He’s going to get his arm taken care of properly, then go home and start making arrangements with other Spectres. They’ll want to meet you, and the more heads we can get working on a puzzle, the more leads will be sent our way if they appear.”

Jenkins raised his hand like he was in school. “I thought Spectres worked alone?”

Nihlus shrugged. “For the most part, yes. But we’re not fools. We don’t get involved in each other’s missions when we’re not wanted, but we’ll discuss what’s going on. Exchange tips, pass along leads, whatever helps. None of us is ever truly working alone.”

“Ohh. That makes sense.” Jenkins nodded and gave a thumbs-up, then went back to watching Isaiah frantically smack at the can of mystery meat in his hands, which sounded oddly as though it were growling.

Nihlus stared at the thing in Isaiah’s hands for a moment, then shook his head and looked back to Shepard. “Saren will meet us at the docks when we get to the Citadel. More specifically, he’ll meet me, and I’m going to go back to my apartment, where I’ll be able to eat properly, bathe properly, and sleep properly. We’ll meet you, Alenko, Williams, and Jenkins on the Presidium the next morning. I’ll send you the coordinates. Look for the sign that says ‘Niravi’s’ in fancy script.”

Shepard nodded and pulled up their omni-tool to make a note. Meanwhile, Kaidan cleared his throat. “Excuse me, but why are we coming along? Do we have to tell the Council our side?”

“You? No.” Nihlus shook his head. “C-Sec wants to talk to you three, for their own end of the investigation. I’ve asked they wait until we’re speaking with the Council, so nobody is left standing around waiting. We should try to avoid wasting time, given the circumstances.”

Kaidan made an “ah, alright” kind of noise, and Kia coughed into her fist. “So, what about the rest of us? What do we do, while you guys are off playing CSI: Citadel?”

 “I don’t know what that reference was, but you’ll have to ask Captain Anderson.” Nihlus shrugged. “I suppose you’ll get shore leave, but don’t quote me.”

Kia made an “okay” gesture with one hand, and Niazmina grunted. “If we’re talking shore leave, I can give you guys a restaurant to meet me at for lunch. I know the owner, we can get a discount.”

The others started buzzing amongst themselves, and Shepard shook their head slightly, then turned fully towards Nihlus. “Is that all you wanted to talk about?”

“For now.” Nihlus raised a hand to cover a yawn, then shook out his neck. “I’m going to attempt to get some sleep before we reach the Citadel. I suggest you review our evidence and story.”

Shepard nodded and was opening their mouth to respond when the door to the medbay chimed and a decidedly unwelcome head of white hair rounded the corner. “Commander,” Dr. Chakwas said, and the chatter in the mess hall immediately ceased. “Captain Anderson said you would be coming to see me.”

They swallowed. Oh, right. “I was going to come in after lunch.” That wasn’t technically a lie. They’d just been planning to find another distraction after eating.

Chakwas tutted and shook her head, pulling up her omni-tool. “Waiting so long after a mission to seek medical attention could be detrimental to your health. No matter how many times I say it, it just never seems to stick.”

They winced, then offered feebly, “I guess my side has been hurting since I got shoved into the tree…”

“Hold still.” The familiar orange glow of the medical scanner powered up, and they tried not to fidget as Chakwas passed it over them.

Then she fixed them with a steely stare, and their heart plummeted into their stomach as she said, “You have two broken ribs. I should certainly hope your side hurts. Come with me.”

Oh.

Dammit.

Chapter Text

News Bulletin, Citadel NewsNet, 2183 Terran Common Era

TOPICS: Eden Prime, Terrorism, Human Colonial Affairs, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance, Ongoing Investigations
REPORTER: Tiyo Riik

Disaster struck on human colony Eden Prime yesterday, as a routine artifact retrieval turned into a murder investigation.

A few weeks ago, colony authorities at Eden Prime reported discovery of Prothean ruins on the planet, and the commencement of excavation efforts. Earlier this week, a particularly large find was called in, and Council agents were dispatched to retrieve it. Council representatives stated that the use of their own agents, rather than allowing the Alliance to deliver it themselves, was done in the interest of security given the recent rise in pro-human terrorist acts.

Upon arrival at the site, agents discovered the slaughter of researchers and excavation crew by unknown parties. The Council has since declared that Special Tactics and Reconnaissance will be handling the investigation. Citadel Security has requested permission to attach their own detectives to the case, but no word yet on the Council’s decision regarding the request. Citadel NewsNet will continue to provide updates on this case as they are forthcoming.


Private comm message, sent out on standard Alliance military channels

TO: Dog Squad [Donkey, Leopold; Pennyloafer, Emily; Bates, Romeo; …]
FROM: Williams, Ashley
SUBJECT: So, uh…

Hey, guys. So, remember how I said I’d stick with that Shepard guy and keep an eye on everything? Well, turns out I would’ve ended up going anyway, because now I’m part of an active murder investigation. Fun, huh?

So, yeah, I won’t be getting back for a while. Don’t worry, I’ll keep you guys up to speed on whatever isn’t too classified to breathe on. And it’s not like it’ll be terrible, I think. The humans on the ship seem pretty okay, at least. I’m still trying to get a bead on Shepard, but Alenko and Jenkins seem friendly. And there’s plenty of other people to hang with. One of them has biceps bigger than mine- real accomplishment, right? (Just to be clear, that wasn’t sarcastic.) And, we’re headed for the Citadel. Don’t worry, Donk, if I see any pretty girls with high heels and low standards, I’ll send them your way ;)

Don’t be strangers.


Transcription of audio message left on the private comm terminal shared by Saren Arterius and Nihlus Kryik at their apartment on the Citadel

[various sounds audible in the background, likely music or vid feeds]

< Saren, you idiot, did you fry your omni-tool again? I called you, like, six times, and I don’t even get your fucking voicemail. I’m not buying you a new one this time, you can’t pin it on me. Spirits… >

[clearing of throat]

< Anyway, I’m just calling ’cause- dammit, hold on. > [slight scratch of talon on metal] < Lucipius! I told you, keep it down when I’m on the comm! > [pause] < It’s a rerun! You’ll live! The subtitles are on anyway, so turn it down and read for once in your life! >

[the noise in the background fades away, and the caller clears their throat again] < Sorry. Stubborn fucking kid. He gets it from you, by the way. And don’t start with that ‘that’s not how it works’ monologue, we’ve had that stupid conversation so many times I can recite it by heart. >

< What was I talking about… > [quiet clicking] < Oh, right, right, I remember. Taniria just got stationed on the Citadel, so just… I don’t know, keep an eye out for her, would you? You know how she is. She’s only seventeen and hasn’t been outside turian space before. Valis and I worry about her. I’m not asking you to babysit her or anything, just… don’t shove her away if she comes knocking, would you? >

[voice in the background, unintelligible] < What? > [voice repeats] < Oh, alright. Valis says hi. I have to go, it’s my turn to make dinner. Shoot me a message whenever you get this. Later, little brother. >


Group chat between Councilors Tevos D’Mirosi, Waraji Valern, and Ierian Sparatus

SPARATUS: I just got a message from Kryik. The beacon retrieval went sideways. And Saren was there, too, apparently. He’s the backup witness. Do we have any time we can pencil them in for a private hearing?

TEVOS: I’m flexible for most of the day, except for the budget meeting in the middle of the afternoon. Does right after lunch work?

VALERN: Not for me. I have a conference call with the major dalatrasses after lunch.

S: I’ll have to cut out early, right after the budget meeting. My granddaughter’s sick, and nobody else can get free to take her to the doctor.

T: Fair enough. What about any time before lunch, then?

V: I already agreed to debrief Bau in the middle of the morning, but any time before that works.

S: I try to use the early hours for waking up, but I suppose I can get coffee before work.

T: Or you could try going to bed earlier. Just a thought.

V: But if he did that, then he couldn’t complain about having to be awake at such an unholy hour.

S: You be quiet.

T: We’re getting off-topic.

V: Don’t we always?

T: I’m ignoring you now. Does first thing in the morning work for everyone?

S: I need to call Primarch Fedorian at some point before lunch, but he said any time would work, so I’m free.

T: And I can work with whenever. Valern?

V: I thought you were ignoring me.

T: You know what I meant.

V: Whatever. I already told you, as long as we’re done before I have to speak with Bau.

T: Good. Ierian, can you contact Nihlus and let him know? Let Saren know, too, if he’s the corroboration.

S: Of course. In the usual room?

T: Naturally.

S: One second.

S: Sent. I’ll forward everything to both of you so you can see.


Post on a private extranet forum used by agents of Special Tactics and Reconnaissance for work-related communications

Saren A.
19:71 GST (Citadel)

Kryik and I will be back on the Citadel shortly. Something’s come up, and we could use a few extra heads. You all should also meet Kryik’s new student, I suppose. They’ll need to be briefed on how to speak to the Council.

We’re first on the Council’s schedule, so we’ll need to meet earlier than usual. An hour earlier should work. The usual place, of course. Let me know if you can make it, and we’ll save a chair.

[6 likes, 2 comment threads]


Private comm message, sent on official Alliance channels used primarily by intel workers

TO: Landry, Jason
FROM: Landry-Torres, Jai
TOPIC: Strange comm traffic [1 Attachment]

Hey, I was sorting through all the comms flags, y’know, make sure it’s all on the up-and-up, and I found this… I don’t know. I mean, obviously it’s a message, right? But like, it’s super-ultra-mega encrypted, and it was on one of those back channels nobody’s used in years, so I was like, ‘Hey, what’s this?’ and tried to crack it, but, well, y’know. Decryption’s not really my strong point. I managed to get something about a mission failure, but that was it. This is a weird cypher, man.

So, here. I know you’re even worse at tech stuff than I am, but you know more people than I do, so I figured maybe you’d know someone who could get it. And I think there was an attachment, but this cypher garbles everything so bad I honestly couldn’t tell you which part is which.

And if you start that ‘big brother to the rescue’ shit, I’m totally telling Mom who REALLY broke that ugly statue she liked so much.

[attached is a file containing a heavily-encrypted data cluster, the purported message in question]

Chapter Text

Kaidan had never been to the Citadel before, but if you asked him, the Presidium was probably the best way to be introduced to it.

He was sure he probably looked like a gawping tourist to any locals that might see. Bleary-eyed asari, salarians absorbed in their omni-tools, yawning turians, and more than a few humans shuffling along clinging to cups of coffee like lifelines – the Citadel was just waking up for the day, and what a sight it was. It wasn’t too unlike the early hours back home, really. It seemed daybreak was the same no matter what part of the galaxy you found yourself in.

Shepard was in the lead as they walked, eyes on their omni-tool as they followed the nav software to wherever they were meeting Saren and Nihlus. Kaidan was trailing along after them, Chief Williams to his left and Jenkins behind. Upon arriving at the Citadel, they’d elected to just spend another night on the ship, rather than try to find a room at a hotel somewhere. He had a crick in his neck, but that was nothing new. In the Alliance military, you got used to that after a while. Getting a good night’s rest despite the uncomfortable sleeping spots was an art form. To her credit, Williams seemed to have done even better than he had; while he kept trying to work out the sore spot, she was trotting right along like she’d slept in a hotel so posh they’d had to add another star to the ratings system just for it.

As they approached the meeting point, with the “Niravi’s” sign Nihlus had told them to watch for, though, Kaidan noticed he definitely couldn’t say the same for their turian friend.

Nihlus looked a lot smaller out of his armor, though he was still very definitely much bigger than Kaidan. The bulky, battered plating of turian heavy armor had been replaced with what Kaidan hazarded a guess was turian business casual: simple black pants, white shirt with two black stripes around the lower hem, a black pair of the almost sock-like shoes turians wore, and an olive-green cloak that reached down to his calf spurs. He was standing upright, but everything about his posture screamed “I didn’t get enough sleep.” His head leaned against the back of his cowl, his mandibles were slack, his shoulders drooped, and the way his arms were folded just didn’t have the same stern, professional air he’d had on the Normandy earlier. He caught sight of them just as Kaidan squinted to try and see his eyes, and waved them over. “There you are,” he called, and even his voice sounded dog-tired. “We’re a bit early yet, I’m afraid.”

There was a snort, and Kaidan’s head automatically turned towards the source. Saren was sitting with his back against their destination building, one leg stretched out and the other up close to his chest, foot resting on a small duffel bag. Admittedly, he looked closer to how Kaidan wanted to be so early in the morning, decked out in what appeared to be gray sweatpants, a dark blue hoodie (at least, Kaidan assumed it was a hoodie; he hadn’t seen turian hoodies before, but the amount of fabric bunched up in Saren’s cowl definitely seemed to lend itself to that end) emblazoned with the distantly familiar Special Tactics logo, and combat boots laced loosely up his feet. A pair of sunglasses were propped up on his forehead, and a translator module was clipped to one of the horns that curved off his cheekbones (cheek-plates?). He could easily have just rolled out of bed and tossed on the first thing he found.

If Saren noticed Kaidan eyeing him, he paid no mind. He simply reached up to scratch behind his head and said, “We’re not. She’s late.”

Nihlus flared his mandibles at him, and Shepard cleared their throat as they came to a stop nearby. “Who is ‘she’?”

The two turians glanced at them, and Nihlus yawned before answering. “Niravi Jalix, the asari who runs the bakery. She lets Special Tactics use this place to meet and catch up outside our regular business.”

Behind Kaidan, Jenkins whistled. “Really? She’s cool with that?”

Nihlus yawned again, wider than the first, then nodded. “Her daughter is an intern for Citadel NewsNet under Councilor Sparatus’s wife. Aediteia is a very… she loves to socialize and network, essentially.”

Saren grunted again. “You might have gotten a better night’s sleep if you’d crashed on her couch.” Was it Kaidan’s imagination, or did he hear a hint of a scolding? “The councilor has more comfortable furniture than ours.”

Nihlus glanced at him, brow plates lowering. “For one thing, who’s the one who hides weapon cases under the cushions? For another, I notice you don’t complain when you’re taking two-hour naps on that same couch.”

“I can sleep anywhere, on anything. You cannot.”

Kaidan shared a look with Williams. Somehow, when Nihlus had said he and Saren knew each other intimately, he hadn’t really been imagining that translated to “we bicker like an old married couple.”

Shepard, meanwhile, just coughed into their fist. “What happened to ‘eat, bathe, and sleep properly,’ Nihlus?”

Saren cut in before Nihlus could answer. “He made it five steps inside and almost fell flat on his face.”

“I did not, he’s exaggerating.” Nihlus raised his head, but the droop of his eyelids didn’t lend itself well to making him look stern.

“Fine. Six steps.”

Tuning out the squabble, Kaidan glanced around the storefront. They stood beneath a metal overhang, with baskets of flowers hanging from each corner. The window was frosted glass, nearly impossible to see inside, but patches of color he assumed were more flowers were bunched up along the bottom. Next to the door was a little handmade sign; when he squinted at it, Kaidan’s translator helpfully informed him it read “The floor is NOT lava, please walk around like reasonable sapient beings!”

He snorted to himself, and was about to point it out to Williams and Jenkins when he noticed a blue form moving on the other side of the glass. His eyebrows shot up, and he cleared his throat. “Uh, is that the ‘she’ we’re waiting for?”

The background noise from the two turians died abruptly, and before either of them could respond, he got his answer. The holo-lock on the door turned orange, then green right before sliding open with a cheerful chime, revealing a short, plump asari with eyes the color of warm honey, minimalist facial markings that reminded him vaguely of turian tattoos, and smile lines at her eyes and mouth. “Oh!” she said, taking a step back, and the telltale clack of high heels on tile rang out. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting anyone would- wait.” She peered outside, past the little squad of humans standing near the door, then snorted. “I should’ve known. Saren and Nihlus.”

Confused, Kaidan could only step out of her way as she swept out. Saren hopped to his feet and slung his bag over one shoulder in one fluid motion, and he and Nihlus bowed in unison. As they straightened up, she promptly dragged both of them right back down for a decidedly awkward-looking hug. An impressive feat, given her arms didn’t look like they should reach that far. “Why don’t you two ever tell me when you’re back on the station?” she exclaimed.

Saren made a choked noise, and she released them. As they stood back up, Kaidan noticed patches of dusty white where her arms had gone. “We just got in last night,” Nihlus told her, clasping his hands behind his back. “It’s good to see you again, Niravi.”

“I’ll bet.” She glanced back towards Kaidan and the rest, a bright smile now gracing her lips. “Is one of those that human you were supposed to be checking out, then?”

Shepard coughed into their fist and waved. “That would be me, ma’am.”

She gave them a quick glance-over, then spun on her heel and offered her hand. “Niravi Jalix. If you’re joining the Spectres, we’ll probably be seeing each other quite a bit. What kind of pastries do you like?”

Shepard blinked. “What?”

Niravi waved a hand. “Oh, I collect recipes from every culture. I just love food. My bondmate, Galerio, we met in culinary school on Palaven, and we started this bakery together. He passed on a few decades ago, and I started gathering recipes into cookbooks in his memory.” She let out a wistful sigh. “He was as sweet as his pretaria.”

Nihlus coughed into his fist. “Speaking of which…”

“Oh! Right, of course.” She motioned for them to follow her and headed back to the door. “You humans can check out the selection. Saren, Nihlus, the usual?”

Kaidan turned to follow Williams in. Behind him, Nihlus sighed, “Double my drink. I didn’t sleep well last night, and Saren’s buying anyway.”

“That alright with you, Saren?” Niravi asked, turning around to walk backwards.

“Whatever Nihlus wants.”

“Hear that, Nihlus? He loves you.” Niravi smirked and trotted behind the counter. “You new kids, drink menu’s on the wall up there-” she gestured to a holo-screen hanging behind a register, “-and what you see in the cases is what you can eat. Everything’s sorted according to species, so no worries about accidentally eating anything dextro. Just read the cards. I don’t have much for a human selection just yet, but I’m working on it.”

Kaidan eyed the displays of pastries, all shapes and sizes and colors. As he watched, Niravi ducked down and pulled out three reddish-brown lumps with a sickly yellow glaze drizzled over the top, and two faintly violet balls of dough rolled in colorful sprinkles. The cards in front called them pretaria and pompan, respectively, a couple of turian delights. “Any recommendations?”

“An adventurous spirit. I like you.” Niravi smiled, putting the turian pastries in a bag. “The salarian keru-jero is popular. Those are the ones with little fish painted in the icing on top.”

“Do they actually have fish in them?” Jenkins asked, moving up to inspect the case.

“They do, but it’s a Sur’Keshi fish that actually tastes pretty sweet. You grind it up and put it in the dough.” She handed the bag across the counter to Saren. “Is this a personal visit, or are you stealing my big table for the morning?”

“Just for an hour,” Saren said, accepting the bag and ghosting off towards a large, circular table in the center of the eating area. “Vasir, Bau, the lesbians, Valerian, and Aelianus. Ezekian said he might make it, he might not, depending on whether or not his daughter cooperates.”

“Ooh, Isalienus, great. I’ll put the asphalt on to boil. Any decisions made yet, hon?”

“I’ll try one of those salarian fish ones,” Jenkins volunteered immediately. “And can I get a cappuccino with that?”

“Sure thing, sweetheart. Is Saren buying for the rest of you, too?”

“Not on your life,” came the dual-toned grouse before Jenkins could reply.

Niravi just laughed and shook her head, popping a keru-jero into a bag for Jenkins. “Didn’t think so. Anybody else got a hankering?”

Shepard cleared their throat. “Just a decaf coffee for me.”

Kaidan and Williams followed suit (an éclair for him, two cinnamon twists for her), and the four of them found seats at Saren and Nihlus’s table. Shepard, perhaps fittingly, ended up next to Nihlus, with Jenkins on their other side. Wanting to keep the table a bit more balanced, Kaidan left two empty chairs between himself and Jenkins. After a moment’s deliberation, Williams sat down to his left, and he noticed her head moved about like she was trying to look anywhere but at Saren.

Remembering what she and Saren had said on their meeting at Eden Prime, Kaidan made a mental note to ask her what was up with that later.

For now, though, he simply coughed into his fist. “So, now what? Why meet here, of all places?”

Nihlus grunted, taking one of the pompan out of Saren’s bag. “For now, we wait. If we were only reporting to one councilor, as usual, we’d be fine. But we have to speak to all three, which requires a bit more planning. So, as I said on the Normandy, we’ll be meeting with other Spectres to look at the case. Beyond that, given this is Shepard’s first time speaking to the Council…”

“You’d rather I not go in and make an idiot of myself?” Shepard guessed, leaning on their elbows.

Nihlus nodded, and Saren grunted. Kaidan had to wonder if that was just his default tone of voice. “Valern will be there, so he’ll think you’re an idiot regardless. It’s a lost cause.”

“Which one’s Valern?” Jenkins asked, prodding at his keru-jero with a fork. “That sounds kinda like a turian name.”

“He’s the salarian, actually,” Nihlus said, elbowing Saren in the side. “Though I suppose they all have turian-sounding names. The asari is Councilor Tevos, and the turian is Sparatus.”

“Asari can have alien parents, right? Was her dad a turian?”

“Batarian, actually,” came a new voice, and Kaidan’s head spun around so fast he was sure he gave himself whiplash. An asari with markings that Kaidan swore were the color of asari blood hauled out a chair at the table, plunked down, leaned back, and folded her hands behind her head. “Made it kinda awkward when she leaned the human way in that big human-batarian fiasco last decade.”

Saren snorted what sounded suspiciously like, “Nice entrance.” Kaidan had to agree.

Nihlus just sighed. “Everyone, this is Tela Vasir, one of Special Tactics’s asari agents. Vasir, this is... I’d rather wait for the rest to get here before we introduce the humans, actually. Save everyone’s breath.”

“Suit yourself.”

Kaidan could only stare as Vasir turned to check the displays of food. Judging by her posture and EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT BUT BIG BICEPS ARE IMPORTANTER tank top, Vasir leaned more towards Saren’s end of the apparent Spectre spectrum (Spectre-um?): casual and relaxed, but in a way that still said she could kick your ass from one end of the station to the other in a single well-placed punt. She’d picked a seat so there were two chairs between her and Saren on her left, and two between her and Ashley on her right – did that mean something, or was it just convenient?

Behind Vasir, Niravi rounded the countertop, a tray in one hand. “Alright, caffeine and one decaf delivery,” she said, bustling over. “Tela, the usual?”

Vasir flashed her some hand gesture Kaidan didn’t recognize. “Sure. Thanks, Jalix.” Okay, maybe it was an asari peace sign.

Niravi smiled, and was halfway through distributing drinks when the door chimed. Kaidan heard the new arrivals before he saw them: a pair of turians, one crested and one cloaked in a hood, hand in hand and chattering with the salarian following them. “Oh!” Niravi said. “Over here, you three, I’ll get your drinks started. And Vee, don’t walk on my tables.”

The three glanced her way, then loped over, weaving between the furniture. While nobody walked on any tables, the salarian did vault over a few chairs, which got a scowl out of Niravi. As the crested turian turned their way, Kaidan had to fight not to jerk back. His mandibles were, in as polite terms as Kaidan could think of, mismatched, in that the left one was missing entirely. That side of his face was webbed with scars that stretched down under his collar, and Kaidan chose to avert his eyes right then. Everything looked like old wounds, but it also looked like it was probably still painful.

Nihlus took a drink, then cleared his throat and shook his head. “I don’t suppose you’d all mind introducing yourselves?”

The crested turian nodded as he pulled out the chair next to Saren. “Szarus Valerian,” he said, lifting one hand in greeting. He bobbed his head toward his companion and added, “This is Vreena Aelianus.”

The other turian slid in between Szarus and Vasir, pulling their hood down to reveal dark maroon, almost black plates, graceful loops of bright red paint, and no crest. “Call me Vee,” she chirped with an upward tilt of her mandibles. She fluttered the left one and glanced around the table. “So which of you is the new kid, huh?”

Shepard raised their hand just as the salarian took a seat next to Jenkins. “That’d be me, ma’am,” they said. “Lieutenant-Commander Matteo Shepard.”

“Nice to meet you.” Vee had an odd accent for a turian. If she’d been human, he would have said it sounded almost British, but since she wasn’t, where, exactly, would it have come from? “I’m technically still in training, too. Don’t feel too bad if it takes you a while to get approved.”

Szarus’s mandible flapped. “She’s my student, but only in the most legal sense of the word. The Council basically treats us like we’re a partnered team at this point, the only reason she’s not official is because she’s not quite ready to work on her own yet.”

Saren grunted, carefully tearing one of his pretaria into a single spiraling strip. “I’d just like to point out Shepard isn’t a student yet. The Council won’t be passing judgement until the meeting this morning.”

Vee waved a hand. “Sure, be technical about it. If Nihlus is in charge, they’ll accept his verdict, no problem.”

Vasir snorted. “Sure, everyone loves Kryik. But just for fun, anybody got any bets on what it’ll come down to?”

The salarian coughed into his fist then. “Tevos will be a shoe-in, I expect. Everyone knows she was the one angling to open candidacy for the humans again.” Apparently realizing he hadn’t introduced himself, he hastily added, “Jondum Bau,” and nodded in Shepard’s direction. “Well met, Commander.”

As the Spectres talked politics, Kaidan let his attention wander, and looked around the bakery. A short quarian had replaced Niravi at the front counter, and was chatting amicably with her while she fiddled with the various drink machines. A few new customers had come in while Kaidan was focused on the Spectres at the table, and were idly checking the display cases and their omni-tools. Beyond the displays, vague, muffled chatter emanated from the kitchen, occasionally punctuated with an oven timer. It was busier than it had been, but it was a peaceful busy, the kind of busy that welcomed more activity.

Beside him, Williams was slowly picking the halves of one of her cinnamon twists apart, a look of intense determination on her face. He elbowed her, then leaned in to ask, “You doing alright?”

She glanced at him, then shrugged and went back to her task. “Yeah, fine. Just don’t have anything to say, is all.” She pointed her pinky at his éclair. “That’s gonna get gross if you don’t eat it.”

“Huh? Oh.” He glanced down, then picked up the pastry with a small, sheepish smile. “Right.”

She snorted, and he thought he saw the corners of her mouth quirk up as she started stuffing cinnamon twist in her face.

There was a loud roar from outside then, and he almost dropped his éclair from spinning to look out the window too fast. The frosted glass made it difficult to determine anything certain, but there was a dark shape, with two more shapes hopping off it and walking towards the door. “Here come the lesbians,” Vee said behind him.

“I’m betting fifty credits on seven,” Bau said mildly. “Any takers?”

Kaidan turned back around to see most of the Spectres patting themselves down and pulling out credit chits, muttering numbers, while the rest of the humans all looked about as confused as he felt. “Wait, what?”

The door chimed, and Vasir hitched her thumb over her shoulder without looking at the two crestless turians who’d just walked in. “Those two are so stupidly saccharine, it’ll rot your teeth right out of your head.”

“We take bets on how many times they kiss in the first ten minutes of talking to them,” Vee added. “It’s fun.”

At the entrance, the smaller of the two turian women had gotten into an animated conversation with an elderly turian carrying a tray of drinks, and the taller was handing over a credit chit to the quarian at the register. Both carried helmets at their hips, and the taller wore a leather jacket with a blue patch on the shoulder. “The helmets are for Tulinia’s hy-cycle,” Bau said. “I’m told Mariya thinks it’s attractive.”

“I mean, she’s not wrong,” Vee purred. “Bow chicka bow wow.”

“I’m not getting a hy-cycle,” Szarus grumbled. “Those things are death on mass effect propulsion drives.”

“Ah, well. There’s always photo editing.”

The tall one glanced around the eating area, then tapped the little one on the shoulder and said something while gesturing towards their table. The little one nodded, waved at the table, then went back to talking to the old turian, and the tall one loped over, holding her helmet up by her keelbone to keep it from hitting anything. “Hey, guys,” she said, just slightly out of breath. “Sorry we’re late, the cyc needed fuel.”

There was a chorus of assurance to not worry about it, and Vasir turned around to squint back at the other turian. “Are those our drinks?”

“Yeah, Naas told Amadeus to hold on. He said if we were with you guys, then he’d just whip up ours real quick and send them out with the rest.” Her hand waffled back and forth over the chairs between Vasir and Williams, then settled on the one next to Williams. Kaidan just hoped she didn’t notice how Williams tensed as she sat down. “Serlius is on his way, by the by. We passed him on our way here. I would’ve offered him a ride, but no room.”

Shepard coughed into their fist, and she blinked, mandibles flaring out. “Huh? Oh, the humans! Right, sorry, I just woke up a little bit ago.” She shook her head. “Tulinia Calposcus. My girlfriend back there is Mariya Isalienus. You’re Nihlus’s new student, then?”

One of Saren’s mandibles flared, but he must have decided not to bother with his comment, because he kept silent as Shepard introduced themselves. Mariya came loping over midway through, the elderly turian following with the tray of drinks. True to prediction, no sooner had Mariya sat down than she was planting a kiss on Tulinia’s cheek, and the others shared a look that even Kaidan could tell meant “here we go again.”

By the time everyone had their drinks, Kaidan had finished his éclair, and the occupant of the final chair had arrived: a dark brown, yawning crested turian with mustard-yellow markings and a muddy brown infant sleeping against his cowl. He settled next to Kaidan gingerly, and said in a soft voice, “Sorry I’m late. Millie needed her sleep, so I volunteered to take the baby.”

Mariya cooed and leaned forward, propping up her chin in her hands. “Aw, she’s so cute! How old is she now?”

“Three.” The father nuzzled the top of the baby’s head. “Her birthday was two weeks ago.”

Kaidan fidgeted, then cleared his throat. “Uh, excuse me, sir, but you are..?”

The turian blinked at him, then hummed. “Oh, my apologies. Serlius Ezekian, Special Tactics. Sleepyhead here is my daughter, Caien. I’m technically the division’s tech support until she’s old enough to spend time away from both parents and I can return to full-time missions. You?”

He blinked back, then stammered a little before managing, “Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko, sir. Systems Alliance Navy.” He hesitated, then added, “I’m probably not the one you’re looking for, sir. Commander Shepard is the one getting looked at for the Spectres.”

He nodded in their direction, and Serlius turned to look as they waved. “Oh,” he said. “Then I hope you live up to expectations. Nihlus learned from our best, and I hear he follows his example with his own students.”

Every pair of Spectre eyes at the table turned to look at Saren, who picked resolutely at his food. Kaidan wondered if it meant much that what skin of his neck was visible seemed a few shades more blue than he remembered it being.

Vasir cleared her throat then. “Alright, now that we’re all here, what are we doing here? Saren’s message was awful vague.”

Saren grunted then, tearing off a piece of pretaria and tossing it back. “I assume you all saw the news feeds about Eden Prime.”

There was a chorus of agreeing noises, and Saren nodded, leaned over, and hoisted his bag onto the table with a clunk. “There were four hostiles, all human. All of our leads are in this bag. A stolen helmet, a broken sword, and an OSD with a copy of Nihlus’s omni-tool data. I would prefer to have a more concrete plan to present to the Council.”

Szarus tilted his head. “A sword?”

“Very thin, very sharp.” Saren rolled up his right sleeve, revealing gauze bandages wrapped tightly around his forearm, with one spot stained blue. “One of the hostiles stabbed me with it, and it broke off in my arm.”

Vee’s mandibles fluttered. “Bau, your people use swords a lot, right? You know anything?”

Bau hrmmed. “I tend to favor the staff, myself. You may be able to track the manufacturer and go from there. Try having Genoa look at it. If it was salarian-made, the method used to make it will be patented and available on the extranet.”

Kaidan blinked, then leaned over to Serlius as Tulinia asked a question. “Who’s Genoa?” he whispered.

Serlius rumbled. “Forensic scientist with C-Sec. She helps Special Tactics now and then with evidence analysis.”

Cool. “Thanks.”

Serlius shrugged, then leaned back in his chair and raised his voice so the rest of the table could hear him. “What kind of data is on that OSD?”

Nihlus sighed. “I’ve been over it a thousand times, trying to pick out anything we can use. We have a name we can check, a face to go with it, and scans of the bodies. I’m hoping forensics can puzzle out a little more information.”

Shepard coughed into their fist. “There’s also the helmet. The internal computer’s encrypted.”

“The terminals at HQ can handle that, right?” Mariya asked. “Getting through the encryption, I mean.”

Serlius grunted and shook his head. “Not today. Rix was trying something similar the other day, and the thing shorted out on him. He had to run off after his target before it was fixed, so even if I could figure out the problem and solve it before you needed it, there’s a waitlist.”

Kaidan shifted in his seat as a thought struck him, then cleared his throat. “What about C-Sec?” he asked, trying not to flinch as everyone turned to look at him. “I mean, C-Sec probably has similar programs, right? Maybe we can borrow theirs for a bit, just to crack the helmet and extract whatever we can.”

There was a moment of silence, then Vasir whistled. “Wow. A human had a good idea. Point to that one.”

Mariya elbowed her. “Be nice, Tela!” she scolded, then turned to Tulinia. “Tuli, you worked with C-Sec for a bit. Do they have anything that can do that?”

Tulinia hummed, putting a finger along the side of her nose plates thoughtfully. “Not ones as fast as ours, no, but they could get it done. You’d just need to kiss up a little, probably. Lots of cops hate it when Spectres get involved in investigations, they think we’re taking their spotlight.”

“To be fair, we kind of do,” Bau pointed out.

Whatever the response was, Kaidan didn’t catch it, because his attention was suddenly on whatever was grabbing at his hair.

He jumped and turned, then jumped again when he was met with a pair of big, blue eyes with slit pupils. The baby on Serlius’s shoulder had woken up, and apparently had decided his hair was absolutely fascinating. She wasn’t even looking at him, totally absorbed in trying to touch his hair. He watched her for a second, then gave a mental shrug and leaned a little closer so her tiny arms could reach. Hey, why not? It wasn’t every day a baby turian wanted to play with your hair.

Caien’s hand made contact with his scalp, and she gasped, then made a series of chirps and trills that Kaidan assumed meant she was delighted. Serlius looked over then, then inhaled sharply and raised a hand to draw her away. “Caien, no,” he scolded, mandibles fluttering. “I’m sorry, she’s a very curious child.”

Kaidan shook his head. “It’s not a problem. She’s cute.”

Serlius smiled at that, then looked down and murmured to Caien to use her indoor voice. Kaidan smiled slightly and looked back to the others, trying to tune back into the conversation. Tulinia and Mariya were kissing (with Williams wearing an expression that said she was trying very hard not to react), Jenkins had moved on to playing with his omni-tool, and Saren and Bau were going back and forth about someone named “Taeja.”

Okay, so he hadn’t missed much.

He glanced around the bakery again, surprised to find more people had filled in the other tables while he’d been distracted. Niravi was talking to a frazzled-looking asari who, he managed to make out, was calling her “Mom.” The quarian was still at the register, and another one was restocking the displays. The elderly turian (Amadeus, he assumed) had sprouted some small turians of his own, helping him carry drink trays to the other customers.

While he watched Amadeus with the kids, however, Serlius elbowed him sharply and hissed, “Put your head down!”

He responded automatically, ducking his head and staring at his crumb-covered napkin for a solid ten seconds before his brain caught up enough to wonder why. Doing his best to keep his head low, he glanced around, then back to Serlius. “What’s going on?”

Serlius nodded solemnly over his head, and he turned to look towards the entrance. A turian couple had just walked in, a dark brown male with a tan female. “The crested is Councilor Sparatus,” Serlius told him. “He’s a stickler for the rules, but not that bad to work with. You just have to catch him after he’s had breakfast.”

“Not a morning person, I take it?” Kaidan asked dryly, watching as the frazzled asari rushed up to the duo and started talking to the woman.

“Let’s just say Ierian before breakfast makes thresher maws look friendly,” Bau replied.

Ashley hmmed. “That lady with him looks familiar. She in magazines a lot, or something?”

Vasir snorted. “Guess again. She’s a reporter.”

Tulinia let out an agreeing trill. “Aediteia Epirian, one of Citadel NewsNet’s senior reporters. She’s his wife.”

“Does that asari know her?” Shepard asked.

“Oh, that’s Kiali. Niravi’s daughter,” Vee said. “Isn’t she, like, an intern at the station?”

Nihlus rumbled an affirmative. Meanwhile, as Aediteia chattered, Sparatus turned his head to look around – and immediately spotted the table full of Spectres. His chin went up, his mandibles went down, and Szarus started muttering what Kaidan was pretty sure was “If I can’t see him, he can’t see me,” repeated over and over again.

Kaidan was suddenly intensely glad that he wasn’t a Spectre, and as such wasn’t anybody a cranky councilor might care about.

The councilor watched them for a moment, then turned away as his wife finished her conversation. Within a heartbeat, the circle around the table leaned in on some unspoken cue. “Alright, newbie, crash course,” Vee said to Shepard. “Council Etiquette 101. Rule number one: that one, you do not want to be on the shit list of.”

Bau made an agreeing noise. “Ierian Sparatus was Palaven’s top xenocriminal prosecutor for several years before he was recruited to work in the Citadel embassy. If you make him angry, and he’s feeling vindictive, he can nail you down to the paragraph of whatever laws you’ve broken, no matter what your species.”

Saren flicked a mandible. “He studies old Rannochian-era quarian law for a hobby. I’ve seen him.”

“Kind of a nerd, when you think about it,” Vasir mused.

“So, play nice with the scary lawyer,” Shepard said. “Any other tips?”

Bau hmmed. “Be careful dealing with Councilor Valern. He’s… tricky.”

“He means Valern’s a clever son of a bitch,” Tulinia drawled. “Just remember, salarians approach politics like a strategy game. You want him to work with you, play the game his way.”

“Harder than it sounds,” Mariya added conspiratorially. “It’s trial and error, mostly.”

Shepard nodded. “And Tevos?”

Every head at the table turned to look at Vasir, who by now had propped up her cheek on her fist. Her eyes flicked around for a moment, then she snorted. “I try not to talk to her too much. I hate matriarchs. She’s not evil, she’s just…”

“Hoity-toity?” Vee suggested.

“Yeah, that’s good. It’s a matriarch thing, they all get so holier-than-thou once they hit seven hundred.” She shuddered.

Szarus flicked his mandible. “I don’t think she’s so bad.”

“Yeah, well, she likes you.”

“Shh!” Serlius hissed then, and the table ducked their heads down again like they were all suddenly very interested in their fingernails and talons.

Kaidan had barely started turning his head before Councilor Sparatus came striding into view, walking by with a bag of food in one hand and a coffee in the other. “Fifteen minutes, Kryik,” he said as he passed.

Caien squeaked something that sounded vaguely like, “Missy Teia!” and waved excitedly to the councilor’s wife, a stark contrast to the look of sheer panic that had crossed Nihlus’s face. He sat frozen for a minute, eyes bugging out of his head, then slowly, agonizingly turned his head to check the councilor’s location. The moment Sparatus and Aediteia had sat down, he practically jumped out of his chair, threw back the last of his pompan, and adjusted his cloak. “We have to go.”

Saren gave him an indignant look. “The conversation isn’t over, Nihlus.”

“We’ll cover what we missed on the way. Do you want to be early to meet the Council, or late?”

Kaidan shared a look with the other Normandy crew, then started getting to his feet, balling up his napkin as he went. The rest followed suit, while the other Spectres looked on with bland expressions. “Have fun,” Mariya purred, wiggling her fingers at them as they followed Nihlus out.

It wasn’t until they were standing around the entrance that Kaidan realized Saren hadn’t come with, but that didn’t last long. Just as Nihlus was starting to make exasperated noises, Saren came trundling out, his duffel bag back over his shoulder and another paper bag of pastries in one hand.

Nihlus noticed the new bag at the same time Kaidan did. “Did you really have to get something for the road?” he asked, mandibles creeping downwards. “It’s only a five-minute walk to the Tower.”

“Don’t get snippy.” Saren shook his head, adjusting the fabric bunched around his neck with one hand. “It’s for my niece. She’s on the Citadel, and I doubt she gets up to the Presidium often. I’ll drop by the outpost after the meeting.”

Nihlus blinked, his head jerking back a little. He tilted his head this way and that, then flicked his mandibles. “That’s… not the answer I was expecting you to give.”

“I do have a heart, you know,” Saren said mildly. “If you’re done questioning me, we should get going.”

Nihlus barked a little cough, then nodded and motioned for the little party to follow him as he started walking off.

Kaidan hoped it wasn't a bad omen that the only word to come to mind to describe the Citadel Tower in the distance was "looming."

Chapter Text

At this point in Saren’s career, being met at the Tower by surly-looking C-Sec investigators was a familiar annoyance.

It was possible the little team of three was waiting for someone other than him, of course, but considering their heads collectively snapped towards their little party as they approached, that was a very slim possibility.

“Agent Kryik. Saren,” said a gray crested turian with blood-blue markings, stepping forward from between his asari and drell companions. “Garrus Vakarian, C-Sec Criminal Investigations. This is Kashiamea V’Tiro and Ruko Theel. Are these the humans from Eden Prime?”

That name was familiar, but Saren couldn’t quite place it. Six or seven sarcastic responses flitted through Saren’s head, but Nihlus answered before he could say any of them. Professional to a fault. “Yes, officer,” Nihlus said. “Lieutenant Alenko, Chief Williams, and Corporal Jenkins. Commander Shepard will be reporting to the Council with us.”

He wasn’t sure how Nihlus could remember their names. He knew Shepard and Williams, and that was it – the other two, as far as he knew or particularly cared, were the one that smelled like biotics, and the one with big “ears.” He wasn’t entirely certain what an ear was, only that it apparently served the same function as a turian auditory matrix.

Ears spoke: “Wait, what’s going on, exactly?” they asked. “I thought we weren’t getting talked to until after the Council meeting.”

V’Tiro shook their head. “On Agent Kryik’s request, you’re getting interviewed during the meeting. It’s more efficient.”

Nihlus nodded. “Do you have an estimate on how long this will take, Detective?”

“If the reports are right, your friends have nothing to hide, Spectre,” Vakarian said. “Should only be an hour, hour and a half max.”

Another nod, then Nihlus stepped to one side, gesturing towards the door. “Then by all means, go ahead. You three, we’ll meet you at C-Sec once we’re done with the Council.”

Vakarian flicked a mandible, and the Normandy humans, minus Shepard, followed C-Sec out of the tower. As Vakarian passed by him, the name clicked in his memory, and he quirked his mandibles upward as a possible remark occurred to him. Now wasn’t a good time, but he’d have to remember it for later.

Nihlus turned to head for the stairs just in time to see his smirk, and his brow plates lowered almost immediately. “Every time you make that expression, I can feel my lifespan shortening.”

Saren dropped his mandibles back to neutral position and snorted. “You fuss too much.”

Nihlus shook his head and headed for the stairs, motioning for Shepard to follow. “I think it’s more that I’ve known you too long.”

Saren drifted after them, then hesitated at the foot of the stairs. His eyes were drawn to Nihlus’s legs as he climbed, powerful and sturdy. His cloak was a summer cut, only reaching his knees and made of a light material that swayed back and forth with each step, so Saren got a periodic view of the backs of Nihlus’s legs. He couldn’t watch his muscles coil beneath the plates, as they were currently swathed in fabric, but he knew the view well enough to picture it perfectly. His calf spurs jutted out of artsy, tasteful holes in the fabric, relatively short and stout and battle-scarred but still appealing in their own way. Really, Saren’s only complaint was that the cloak hid Nihlus’s ass.

About three-quarters of the way up the flight, Nihlus paused, then turned around to look back at him. “Are you coming, or are you waiting for the Council to invite you personally?”

“I’ll be along in a moment,” he drawled, flicking his hand in a “move along” gesture. “It’s a very nice view from down here, you know.”

Nihlus raised a brow plate at him, then snorted, shook his head, and continued up the stairs. “And you wonder why your brother says you’re too gay to function.”

Saren just hummed noncommittally. It was a waste of breath to explain he’d stopped wondering ages ago, and complaining about it was just part of the eternal game he played with his brother. It was “you know, a brother thing,” as Desolas eloquently put it.

He waited until Nihlus was two steps from the top to make his move. He closed his eyes, feeling the familiar crackle at the back of his skull. It came easy now, with barely a mental twitch, not the concentrated effort he’d needed as a spry but inexperienced teenager. Ready. Once the gathering charge (ha) had started creeping down to his shoulders, he opened his eyes again, flicking his gaze away from Nihlus’s beautiful calf spurs and over to the column at the top of the staircase. Aim. He drew back his head and shoulders, and with a sharp, forward jerk-

Vwop!

He wasn’t entirely certain how one would describe a biotic charge. All he could really say about it was that one moment, he was standing at the foot of the stairs, then he was being squeezed through a slit in spacetime so narrow it went between atoms, and he’d emerged at the top before his heart had finished a single beat.

He’d had a few (not entirely sober) debates with other biotics he knew about whether it entirely counted as a charge, per se, when it wasn’t being used as an attack, or if the lack of a proper target made it a different move entirely. He’d gotten too drunk to remember their conclusion by the time they reached it, so he just stuck with charge.

Unfortunately, he had yet to figure out how to turn around midway through, so he was facing the hall when he came out of the wrinkle in spacetime. He spun neatly on the ball of his left foot, stuck his hands in his pockets, and started walking backwards, raising one mandible at Nihlus. “I told you I’d be along.”

Nihlus just shook his head at him. He was never phased by Saren semi-sort of-almost-teleporting around anymore. Disappointing, really. Though he supposed he could content himself with the look of pure shock on Shepard’s face. And they smelled of biotics, too. Tsk. What did the Alliance teach their not-Cabals, if not to watch out for blatant misuse of biotic combat techniques for mundane situations?

If he was going to be working with Nihlus and this human, he’d have to work on that.

He spun around again, running one talon along the edge of the bag of food he’d stuffed in his pockets. He’d only just eaten, and it was already taunting him. Eat me, Saren, it seemed to say. Taniria doesn’t have to know you ever bought me.

As true as that may have been, the look on her face if he didn’t have at least something the first time he ran into her away from home would kill him, he simply knew it would. If there was one thing she’d gotten from Desolas, it was his innate ability to arrange his face into the most pitiful expressions known to the Empire.

While he was internally debating the morality of eating someone else’s gift, Nihlus started talking behind him. “Let’s go over this one last time, Shepard. The councilors will have already read my report, and they’ll be asking questions based on that.”

“Sparatus is most concerned with the law, Valern with science, and Tevos with…” Shepard paused. “Peacekeeping?”

“Maintaining balance, yes,” Nihlus said lightly. “Tevos and Sparatus will most likely be doing most of the questioning. Valern isn't much of a talker, unless he thinks it’s important. What else?”

“Sparatus’s scars are from boot camp, Valern’s are from the STG, don’t stare at either,” Shepard rattled off, and Saren was certain he could hear notes of boredom and restraint in their tone, even without a set of subvocals. “Don’t try to argue with them outright, because they’re lawyers and they made arguing into a career skill. Just present the facts, comment when asked, and don’t antagonize them because they sign the paycheck at the end of the mission.”

“Precisely.” Saren resisted the urge to roll his eyes at Nihlus’s pleased subvocals. “Enclosed in my report is my evaluation of you, so they’ll be deciding the fate of your Spectre candidacy, as well. That will, of course, be at the end of the meeting, once they’ve had a chance to talk to you themselves. They’ve probably already been discussing it. And Saren is with us because?”

“Corroborating witness. He confirms we’re not just bullshitting everything.”

“My translator didn’t quite catch that, but if that means ‘we’re not making it up,’ then yes.”

Saren fought back an irritated sigh. He couldn’t really say anything, as he himself had run through the exact same routine with Nihlus in Shepard’s place many duodvae ago. If anything, he supposed he should be at least a little pleased something had stuck. But spirits, he hadn’t realized how annoying it was to listen to.

He tuned out the rest of the conversation. He knew what he was doing, he didn’t need to hear whether or not the human did.

Besides, Nihlus had it covered. He always did. Spirits, Saren was proud of him.

Not that he’d say that. He had a reputation to uphold, after all.

The conference room they were headed for was situated in the exact middle between the stairs and the elevator. It was nothing fancy, just blank walls and a long table with three chairs on either side. The big, open hearing area at the top floor, in the atrium with the podiums that the news cameras loved, was more for major cases, and for the weekly sessions where the Council talked to whoever had a solid enough case to be heard. Major xenocriminal cases, usually. Like if somebody attacked another species’ colony. And if the mission had gone entirely as planned, they wouldn’t even be meeting the full Council, just getting debriefed by Sparatus in his office. But this wasn’t routine enough for routine, yet not a big enough deviation from the norm to justify a hearing in the atrium, so they used the little conference room reserved for exactly this type of event.

Unsurprisingly, Councilor Tevos was already inside when they wandered in, unpacking datapads and setting up their terminal. They were always early, Sparatus on time, and Valern late. It was almost frightening. They glanced up as they entered, and their eyes widened for a fraction of a second. “Saren, you’re early.” Their gaze flicked past him to Nihlus. “I assume you have something to do with this, Agent Kryik.”

“I’ll make a respectable morning person out of him yet, Councilor,” Nihlus said, and Shepard made a noise like they were trying not to laugh.

Saren rolled his eyes, but Tevos’s lips curled upwards. The soft-skin version of what turians did with an upward tilt of their mandibles. “While I doubt your results, Agent Kryik, I applaud your determination.”

“Are we discussing Saren’s sleeping habits again?” Saren turned to see Councilor Sparatus striding in, one hand fiddling with the clasp on his cloak and the other clutching a coffee cup. The old, jagged scars running down the left side of his face made him an imposing old turian, despite his small, slight build. “We’ve known that was a lost cause for fifty years.”

Saren glanced at Nihlus and flicked a mandible. “Was he behind us this entire time?”

“I walk faster than you, you should know that by now.” Sparatus took a drink of coffee and walked brusquely past Saren, shrugging a worn old messenger bag off his shoulder. “Teia says hello, by the way. She actually is a morning person.”

Nihlus elbowed Saren. “You should spend some time running bodyguard duty for her. Maybe she’ll rub off on you.”

Sparatus snorted, taking his seat next to Tevos and pulling his terminal out of his bag. “Don’t bet on it,” he grumbled. “Tevos, I’m ready when you are.”

Tevos nodded to him, then surveyed their group. “You may as well sit down. Councilor Valern has had a slight delay.”

Sparatus grunted as the three of them took their seats, Nihlus in the middle with Saren on his left. “Is it really a delay when it happens every time?”

“He uses a different excuse every time, so I’ll let it slide.” Tevos shuffled through their datapads, then pulled one out and set the rest in a neat pile to one side. “Ierian, was there any part of the report you wanted clarification on, or shall we move on?”

Sparatus clicked his mandibles and shook his head, pulling a set of reading glasses and a datapad out of his bag. “No, I thought it was straightforward enough. Nice work, Nihlus.”

Nihlus nodded to him, and Tevos scrolled through their own datapad. “Agreed. Let’s move on, then… Saren.” They looked up at him. “What were you doing on Eden Prime?”

Of course that was the first question anybody asked. Hardly surprising, really. Alliance space was a far cry from his usual haunts. Before he could answer, however, the door slid open again with a chime, and Councilor Valern came trotting in, water dripping from their long, thin horns. At the moment, they were talking to their omni-tool, and picking bits of something green off their neck as they demanded, “No, I don’t know what it was, but whatever it is, it better be cleaned out of that grate before the end of the day, or I’ll make you do it. So pick an intern you hate, and give them a job for the day. I have to go. Get it done, Esheel.”

Tevos simply raised a brow as Valern deactivated their omni-tool, and made room for their things beside them. “What happened?”

Valern grimaced and shook their head fiercely, scattering water droplets across the wall. “I swam through something slimy on my way here. Some sort of algae, I think. Disgusting.”

Tevos nodded, presumably in sympathy. “Well, you didn’t miss much. I just asked Saren what he was doing on Eden Prime.”

“Oh, I know this one.” Valern shrugged their backpack off their shoulders and dropped it on the table, then slid it along over to the last remaining seat. “But let’s hear him tell it.”

Tevos blinked, and started to say, “How do you-” but cut themselves off in the middle as a flash of realization flitted through their eyes. “Right. Salarians.”

“Congratulations on your functioning memory.”

While Valern sorted out their section of the table, Saren shook his head and looked to Tevos. “If I may, Councilor.”

They nodded, and he flicked a mandible. “I was on personal business at Mannovai, and got an alert that Agent Gurji had found something in the Pranas system and was requesting someone investigate. I simply followed the trail.”

“And what was this ‘something’?” Sparatus asked, already taking notes. Lawyers.

“Traffic at the fuel depot near Sur’Kesh, from ships not flagged with any known markers. Gurji was suspicious.” Gurji was always suspicious, but then, most Spectres were. Come to think of it, if they could trace that traffic back to wherever it had come from before Sur’Kesh, and what it was doing there…

Tevos interrupted his train of thought. “Why didn’t Taeja investigate herself? Sur’Kesh is her home territory.”

“Undercover work,” Valern cut in, dropping their bag to the floor. “Requesting an investigator was likely the most she was able to do.”

“What about the STG?” Sparatus asked. “Where were they?”

“The ships were human in make,” Saren said, leaning back and folding his arms under his keel. “They were concerned they may invoke conflict with the Alliance, should the ships have turned out to be on Alliance business.”

Valern nodded to themselves. “Gurji would have told the STG, who would have contacted the dalatrass, who would have told Gurji to get on it herself. But as she was already on a mission, she sent out a message to the rest of Special Tactics, requesting assistance. Standard operating procedure. What I’m more concerned with is, how was the beacon destroyed?”

The last sentence hung in the air, and Saren shifted in his seat. Was he on trial and wasn’t informed? “That’s a bit longer of a story, Councilor.”

Sparatus cleared his throat in that rough, rasping, coughing way elderly turians had. As terrifying as it was to think of Ierian Sparatus as an elder, anyway – the councilor was a mere six years his senior. “We’re listening, Saren.”

Saren glanced at him, and even managed to make eye contact for a few moments before dropping his gaze to the edge of his cowl. “It was after the human crawled out from under the second truck. Nihlus pushed me into the back with the beacon, and told the humans driving to take off…”


Saren grumbled and rubbed at his head where his Brawler had hit, stumbling his way back towards the front of the truck bed. He’d be able to see more from there.

Noise, noise, there was too much noise back here. The engine roared, and just below it was an incessant humming. Low and faint, but there and just within his hearing range enough to make his plates stand on end and his cowl ache. It would be better if he was wearing his armor. The cowl armor held sound dampeners, to make all the cacophony of battle less distracting and painful. A gift from Desolas, when they were young, that he’d kept in mind every time he got new armor afterwards. But all he had was civilian wear, and as much as his cloak protected him from solar radiation, it did nothing for sound. Maybe he’d switch to wearing armor full-time.

Shaking his head, he took a seat back where he’d been with Nihlus earlier. All he could do now was wait, and hope they made it to the spaceport without further incident.

And that Nihlus made it out alive.

His throat knotted as the thought struck him. No, no, don’t think about that, he scolded himself. Nihlus will be fine. He’s Nihlus Kryik, for Palaven’s sake.

Focus on something else. His inner monologue really did sound like his brother sometimes, not that he’d tell him as much. Desolas’s ego was big enough as it was. Focus, focus. Not Nihlus. What else? Sound. The engines. The humming. What was that damn humming? Focus. He could figure out what the humming was. Yes, good, he could do that. Something to take his mind off Nihlus stranded and fighting–

He closed his eyes and listened. The humming wasn’t as loud as the engines, but it was close enough that it wasn’t being drowned out. He twisted slowly in his seat, rotating his cowl to try and triangulate how the sound hit. Regardless of which way he turned, the direction didn’t seem to change – it had to be right in front of him.

He opened his eyes and blinked at the beacon. Of course. He mentally kicked himself; it should have been obvious. Interesting. The beacon didn’t appear to be active at all, yet still it hummed. Like a terminal in sleep mode.

It occurred to him that this was suddenly a much more valuable find than anybody had guessed. The archaeologists would be downright giddy. Almost as an afterthought, he turned on his comm, and started hunting for the right frequency. He used to know the Alliance frequency, but eighteen years was a long time.

Then there was high-pitched scream from the cab, and he forgot all about his comm.

He jumped to his feet and was turning towards the cab when a thump sounded above him. He looked up just as a sharp point plunged through the canvas covering, just barely missing his face, and he stumbled back onto the bench with a startled bark.

A slightly staticky voice rose from his comm unit. “That was Saren.” Nihlus’s voice. Apparently he’d gotten close enough. “What’s going on?”

The not-Williams human in front screamed something about a “ninja,” whatever that was, just in time for a skinny, human-esque shape to tumble down through the now gaping hole in the roof.

He didn’t think. He leapt toward the new human, tackling them into the side wall of the truck and scraping along the base of the beacon as they went. The collision sent shockwaves racing all through his body, and he fought back a groan as he snapped into his comm, “In the truck, it is in the truck, in back, with methank you!”

He turned off his comm almost immediately. No distractions needed.

The human lay stunned for a moment, but only for a moment. Before more than a few heartbeats had passed, they were struggling against his weight. His brain shorted out for a half-second as their fist connected with his keel, and then he punched back, driving a fist into their shoulder. “I am on the comm, don’t be rude!”

Hm. Avitus was right. He really did lose his tidy, composed speech patterns in the heat of battle.

Who cared? He reared back, then slammed his head against their chest with as much force as he could muster.


“Hold on, you headbutted this human?” Sparatus interrupted.

Saren grimaced and rubbed at his frontal plate. “It hurt more than I anticipated.”

Nihlus snorted, but his worried subvocals betrayed him. “I think there’s more of your brother in you than you care to admit. I know that’s something he does in close quarters.”

Saren flicked a mandible. “Desolas preferred a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ teaching philosophy when I was young. I wasn’t a very good listener.”

Tevos cleared their throat. “What happened next, Saren?”

He glanced at her, then bobbed his head and cleared his throat. “Apologies, Councilor. As I was saying, I headbutted the human…”


The human didn’t seem to appreciate being headbutted very much at all.

Saren’s head was ringing from the impact. So much so, he didn’t notice the human drawing up their legs until after their feet made contact with his chest – more specifically (and painfully), one foot hit him right on the pointed edge of his keel, and a horrendous yelp wrenched its way out of his throat as the force of the kick sent him sailing across the truck.

He lay there dazed for a moment, head lolling back and keelbone a static mess of lit-up nerves. But he couldn’t lie down now, not yet. He dragged his head up, making a mental note to never admit to the pained whimper that escaped him. Ow.

The human had moved. Now they were at the beacon’s base, hurriedly fussing at an interface they’d pulled up. The humming was louder now, more active, more like a terminal waking up. Not good. So very not good.

Fighting a grunt of exertion, he pulled his legs underneath him, then launched himself at them. Lucky for him, they were just focused enough on the beacon that they didn’t notice him until he was right on top of them.

Unlucky for him, they’d been prepared anyway.

As he reared back to punch them again, a sudden pain erupted in his forearm, and this time there was no holding it back. He screamed, loud enough that he thought his throat might explode from the sheer volume of the sound forcing its way out of his lungs.

The human didn’t seem to like that, either. Their hands flew up to cover where he assumed their strange auditory reception flaps (no, ears, that was the word) were located, and Saren heard a brittle crack! followed by the clatter of something falling to the floor.

A turn of his head, and the problem was clear: a long, thin piece of metal was sticking out of the fabric of his shirt, coated in enough of his own blood to make his gut churn. Straight through. He glanced down, and there was the rest of it, a wrapped hilt with a jagged stub of however much sword hadn’t made it into his arm.

Time slowed down. He stumbled backwards, and the human snatched up their broken hilt. They said something, maybe a curse. He didn’t care. He was more concerned with the piece of sword sticking out of his fucking arm. You’re in shock, said the annoyingly rational voice at the back of his head that sounded like Desolas (funny, since Desolas was rarely rational when injured). Try to think.

His arm hurt. That’s what he thought.

The human had their hand to their head. A private comm unit? Didn’t matter. He shook his head, trying to clear out the pain-static coming in from all over his body now, and tried to take an unsteady step forward.

Keyword “tried.” The humming from the beacon suddenly reached a fever pitch, high and sharp and undercut with an ominous crackling. He turned his head to look at it-

-and the back of his head exploded.

His vision went white. His entire world was pain. His chin, his keel, his arms, his hips, everything slammed down onto the floor of the truck. The lightning he was so accustomed to became an enemy, surging down his spine and out into the rest of him, consuming his every cell. Amp overload, his brain took a split second to remind him before going back to screaming in absolute agony.

Logically, he knew it could only have lasted a few seconds, but it felt like years before the surge slowly, mercifully receded. Everything hurt. But what about the human? Forget the human, just rest. No. With a long, frankly pitiful groan, he struggled to open his eyes.

The beacon was sparking. The humming was gone, too, which could only mean the sparking was a sign of something much worse. The truck wasn’t bouncing along anymore, either, and he couldn’t hear the engines. Just dead silence.

The human was still standing, though, and they cast him one last look before taking a running jump off the tailgate and disappearing.

He stared after them for a moment, then groaned again and allowed his eyes to slide shut. Well, shit.


“Nihlus found me shortly after,” Saren said, nodding to his friend. “He applied first aid and removed my amplifier before it could do permanent damage to my nervous system.”

“Let me see if I understand you properly.” Tevos cleared their throat. “You’re saying that the beacon was overloaded, and whatever happened also shorted your amplifier, your omni-tool, and the truck?”

Saren nodded, then jumped when Shepard spoke. They’d been so quiet, he’d almost forgotten they were there. “Could it have been an EMP?” they guessed. “Something with a wide radius.”

“That would be the most viable option,” Valern said, looking to the other councilors.

Sparatus rumbled. “If it was, then what concerns me is how it got there. Warfare conventions prohibit EMP usage near colonies. They’re too indiscriminate.”

“Says the one whose culture is built around war,” Valern muttered.

“We prefer to cut off power supplies and damage systems the old-fashioned way, thank you.”

Nihlus cleared his throat, and the two glanced at him. “I’m sure further investigation will turn up an answer to that, Councilor. We should have enough evidence to begin tracking our assailants.”

Tevos nodded. “That brings up my next point, actually. What were your plans in regards to how the investigation will proceed, Kryik?”

Nihlus hummed low. “We still have the sword that broke off in Saren’s arm. We can take it to forensics, have them examine it. With any luck, they can determine enough about it to trace it back to its manufacturers. Run the name and face on my omni-tool through the system, and see what turns up. And, of course, there’s whatever we can glean from the helmet. We’ll also be checking with whichever sources we can get ahold of. Usually, the underground knows things the computers don’t.”

Tevos nodded again. “Reasonable enough. Let me see, that’s Saren’s reasoning for being there, how the beacon was destroyed, what destroyed it, plan of action…” They glanced between the other two. “Is there anything I’m forgetting?”

Sparatus flicked a mandible. “That I can’t read your mind?”

Valern made a noise like they were choking on a laugh, but Tevos simply rolled their eyes and shook their head. “Every time…” they groused to themselves, going through their stack of datapads for a different one. “Then all we have left is the matter of Commander Shepard.”

Saren tensed, but nobody paid him any mind. Sparatus grumbled and pinched the sides of his nasal plates. “Did we really have to discuss it so late last night? I was trying to sleep.

“Would you rather we discuss it in the morning, while you were trying to be sweet with your wife?” Tevos asked innocently.

Sparatus stiffened and stared at them for a moment, then growled and looked away. “Point to you.”

“Thank you. Then we’re agreed?”

Valern grumbled. “Yes.”

Sparatus’s subvocals hummed annoyed-resigned-bitter. This hadn’t been his idea, then. “There’s no harm in letting them try, I suppose.”

Tevos cleared their throat, then looked between Nihlus and Shepard. “The Council has already discussed the matter at length. Commander, given your service record, your actions on Eden Prime, and your conduct in this meeting, we’ve decided that you will continue training under the tutelage of Nihlus Kryik, and will be inducted into Special Tactics as a proper agent when he feels you have met the standards in full. You are expected to show courage, determination, and independence, and use them to defend the galaxy and, should the need arise, this Council. Do you understand?”

Saren craned his neck to see Shepard nod, and Tevos continued, “I cannot stress enough how much your success will mean for the Alliance, Commander, but you mustn’t let that overshadow the importance of your work. The hostiles you encountered on Eden Prime destroyed an important piece of technology, yes, but they also slaughtered a great number of innocents, and assaulted Council agents and Alliance military as well. These are dangerous people, and the sooner you can get to the bottom of who they are and what they’re doing, the sooner the galactic public can rest a little easier.”

Shepard nodded again and said, “I’ll do my best, Councilor. I’m honored by your trust in me.”

“Make sure it’s not misplaced,” Valern said, voice almost a low hiss but not quite.

Tevos shot them a look, then shook their head and folded their arms. “If there’s nothing further, this meeting is adjourned. If any of us thinks of anything else, we’ll be in touch.”

Sparatus cleared his throat as the other two started reaching for their bags. “Saren, given your involvement, we’ve decided to formally attach you to the case, as well. I’ll have the case file updated once I get to my office.”

He gave Saren a hard look, and the low hum of his subvocals added another message: Don’t do anything stupid.

Saren flared his mandibles, then nodded. ‘Anything stupid’ most likely included interfering with Nihlus’s new student, or raising a fuss about it in any way. Part of him was insulted anyone thought he had to be reminded. He could at least trust Nihlus to know what he was doing. Besides, Shepard was Nihlus’s student, not his. Interfering in Shepard’s training in any way was grounds for suspension.

Nihlus was already standing up, so he hastily got up as well, not particularly caring to be left behind. A couple long strides to catch up, and he fell easily into step beside him. “That went well.”

Nihlus hummed thoughtfully. “They had less to say than I thought they would.”

“You always did file your paperwork a bit too thoroughly,” he teased, nudging him with his shoulder. “Someday, they won’t even bother meeting with you when you’re done.”

There was a flash of gray off to one side, and Valern vaulted over the railing, plummeting to the floor below without a word. Behind them, Shepard yelped, but apparently noticed Saren and Nihlus hadn’t reacted. “Does… that happen often?”

Saren grunted an affirmative, and Nihlus hummed. “Salarians think elevators are too slow, especially in the Tower. You get used to it.”

Nihlus stopped walking and turned to face Shepard, so Saren did, too. No point in doing otherwise. The three of them made a haphazard circle, and Shepard pulled up their omni-tool. “Nothing from the others yet,” they reported. “Probably still talking to C-Sec.”

Nihlus’s mandibles fluttered, and he looked at Saren. “That reminds me, what were you smirking about earlier, as the officers were walking off?”

“Hm?” Saren blinked, then the memory clicked, and he flicked a mandible. “Oh, nothing important. I thought I recognized Vakarian’s name, but he didn’t look familiar to me. Then I remembered Desolas used to complain about a Castis Vakarian during his mandatory service. To my knowledge, they didn’t get along well.”

Nihlus snorted. “Does your brother get along well with anyone?”

Saren was opening his mouth to reply when a familiar voice called out across the walkway, two simple words that struck fear into his heart.

“Uncle Saren?”

Chapter Text

Shepard didn’t know turians could move the way Saren did right then. It was like something out of the old cartoons their father used to show them and their siblings when they were little, with all the different parts of him trying to go their separate ways all at once.

Nihlus, in stark contrast to his partner, wasn’t fazed a bit, and simply turned his head, then sidestepped to invite the newcomer into the circle. “Ah, Taniria,” he said, dipping his head. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

A skinny, crestless turian all but waltzed up to them. Her mandibles quirked upward, and she chirped, “Hi, Uncle Nihlus! My squad’s got today and tomorrow off-duty, so I wanted to do some sight-seeing.” Then she turned wide, electric blue eyes on Shepard, tilted her head, and asked, “Why’re you hanging out with a human?”

Shepard stiffened slightly, and Nihlus lowered one mandible, looking between them. He cleared his throat, then said, “Taniria, this is Commander Matteo Shepard, with the Alliance Navy. As of a few minutes ago, they’re officially in training for the Spectres, under my tutelage, so I’ll thank you to mind your manners. Shepard, this is Taniria Arterius, Saren’s niece.”

Shepard blinked, regarding her carefully. There was an obvious family resemblance. The strange, spiny horns arcing back from Saren’s cheeks were also present on Taniria, though hers were shorter and a bit thicker. They had a similar build, broad-shouldered yet ultimately skinny, and both were shorter than Nihlus (but Taniria was still taller than Saren, which Shepard had to admit was a little funny). They both also had blue-gray skin, rather than the reddish-brown Shepard had seen on other turians like Nihlus and the councilor. In contrast, however, Taniria’s plates were a dull, washed-out golden color, and she actually had facial tattoos: two thick turian-blood-blue stripes going down her brow plates and a third down her chin, with thinner lines ringing the edges of the plate openings for her eyes, and the horns of her fringe painted solid. Her outfit was about what Shepard would expect of any Alliance cadet on a day’s leave, just a pair of gray cargo pants, a black muscle shirt, and black combat boots. More tattoos winked at Shepard from her exposed shoulders and cowl. She held herself like someone used to getting her way, a posture that, in Shepard’s experience, translated across species.

They could definitely believe this was a relative of Saren’s.

Realizing they’d been staring, they shook their head, then offered a hand. “The general’s daughter, then, I assume?”

She looked at their hand with a slight tilt to her head for a moment, and Nihlus nudged her. “Humans shake hands as a greeting,” he said.

“Oh!” She fluttered her mandibles and ducked her head, neck turning a faint blue as she grasped Shepard’s hand. “Sorry. I, uh, I don’t meet aliens much, not ’til recently, I mean, my mom doesn’t leave Palaven anymore, not since, um, well, I don’t really know what happened, exactly? She gets really upset when it comes up, and she stops talking, but Daddy says they were on that planet, the Relay 314 one, Shanxi I think? And they ran into some bad people, and there was an accident, and Mommy got hurt really bad, and she was in the hospital for a while, and…”

Did this girl ever stop talking? She’d stopped shaking Shepard’s hand, but was still holding it, and they looked between Nihlus and Saren, hoping “help me” was a universal expression.

Mercifully, Saren coughed into his fist. “Taniria,” he interrupted her, voice surprisingly light, “Breathe.”

She went still, mouth hanging open for a second before she dropped Shepard’s hand and snapped her jaws shut. “Spirits, I’m sorry!” she shrilled, neck flushing an even brighter blue. “I just get nervous, you know?”

Saren coughed into a fist and shook his head. “She’s seventeen,” he hummed. “Never been out of turian space before.”

Shepard nodded in understanding, and shrugged to Taniria. “Don’t worry about it,” they said, and the relief in her face and body language was almost tangible.

They were saved from having to think of what else to say by their omni-tool going off, and they muttered a quick, “Excuse me,” while they pulled it up. To their surprise, it wasn’t Kaidan’s name at the top of the alert, but Anderson’s. It wasn’t a very long message, either. Anderson always kept it short and to the point. They read it over exactly four times, committing it to memory, then closed their omni-tool and looked up at Nihlus. “Anderson’s talking to Ambassador Udina, and he wants me there to discuss the mission.”

Nihlus had barely started to open his mouth when Saren cut in. “Anderson?” he asked, and when Shepard glanced at him their heart jumped into their throat at the fire in his eyes. Taniria looked how Shepard felt, taking a fidgety step away from her uncle as he turned to Nihlus. “You didn’t tell me Anderson was involved.”

Nihlus shook his head. “It wasn’t relevant at the time,” he said. “And it still isn’t. As Spectres, neither we nor Shepard have any obligation to involve him further unless pertinent to our investigation.”

Shepard wanted to ask if that meant they wouldn’t be using the Normandy, but decided against it. Something told them that would only fan the flames.

There was something in Saren’s eyes other than anger now, but Shepard wasn’t quite sure what it was. “Nihlus, you know how I feel about Anderson. How he feels about me. You should have told me he was involved.”

“If I had, would you have been so willing to come along?”

The two stared each other down for a heartbeat. Then, to Shepard’s surprise, both relaxed at the same time. Both heads went down, both voices started murmuring apologies and acknowledgements of the other’s point, and both sets of hands reached out to clasp forearms. “Talk about this later?” Nihlus offered.

Saren nodded and touched his forehead to Nihlus’s. “At home, after we’ve calmed down,” he promised.

Shepard shared a look with Taniria. “What the hell just happened?” appeared to be another cross-species expression.

Saren and Nihlus split apart, and Nihlus hummed. “Right, then. Shepard, you should go meet with Anderson and the ambassador. There’s maps all over the place, you should be able to find your way. I’ll go to C-Sec and wait for the others. Saren-”

“Can I steal him for a bit, actually?” Taniria cut in, taking a huge step forward and leaning heavily on Saren’s shoulder. “I told my squad Uncle Saren can juggle crates with biotics, but they totally didn’t believe me, so I told them I’d find him and get vid and show them, and please, Uncle Nihlus?”

Nihlus raised a brow plate, but glanced at Saren. “Do you mind?”

Saren considered, then sighed and shook his head. “I may as well.”

Taniria squealed and hopped a little, and Nihlus hummed.  “Taniria, please. Saren’s omni-tool is out, so I’ll be calling you if we need him. Do you still have my contact?”

“Yes, Uncle Nihlus, and I’ll be careful, and answer my comm right away, and not sass my uncle, and you sound like my mom, can I go now?”

Shepard blinked, eyes widening slightly. Huh. Apparently teenagers were the same no matter what planet they came from. Nihlus took it in stride, though, only nodding and watching as Taniria immediately started hauling a half-stumbling Saren away. He and Shepard stood in silence for a moment, then Nihlus simply said, “It’s a good thing we won’t need him for an hour or two.”

Shepard snorted, then eyed him. “How intimate is that relationship of yours, Uncle Nihlus?”

Nihlus made a choking noise, and his neck turned a faint blue. “No comment.”

Shepard raised a brow, then snorted and shook their head. “I’d better get to Udina’s office. I’ll comm you when I’m done.”

Nihlus nodded sharply, relief evident in his eyes. Maybe Saren would be an easier avenue for that question. No- Taniria. Saren was opposite of chatty in general; they didn’t want to know how evasive he’d get if something personal came up.

The two parted ways, and within a few paces Shepard was already back on their omni-tool, finding a map on the extranet. Dammit. They’d gone the wrong way. Well, Nihlus hadn’t corrected them, so maybe he wasn’t sure where the human embassy was, either. Small mercies, they’d been saved that embarrassment.

They ended up asking for directions in spite of the map, and got an escort from a friendly elcor ambassador who happened to be going the same way. He was quite the jovial sort, going on a long tangent about elcor politics that Shepard just didn’t have the heart to tell him had lost them within two sentences. His deep monotone just washed over them, soothing in its own way.

Ambassador Udina’s office, helpfully, had a sign hanging from the ceiling to catch the eye of anybody walking down the hall. DONNEL UDINA: Chief Ambassador, Systems Alliance, it boasted in cheerful green letters. A smaller, matching one was by the door, just to confirm this was indeed the right place. The elcor paused his ramble to announce, “Helpfully: Here you are. Friendly farewell: It was nice talking to you. I wish you luck in your endeavors.”

Shepard nodded and waved as he lumbered off, then turned to the door, sucking in a breath. They’d just faced the Council, and were pretty sure they’d done just fine. They could handle one ambassador and Anderson.

They were raising their fist to knock when the holo-lock turned green, and the door whooshed open, revealing Anderson himself. “Shepard!” he exclaimed, relief in his eyes. “Thought that was you, what took you?”

He ushered them in the office, and they cleared their throat. “Sorry, sir. I got a little lost.”

Anderson shrugged. “Can’t blame you. I did, too, the first few times. What did the Council have to say?”

They shook their head. “Not much. They asked for Saren’s side of the story, what we’re planning to do next, and wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into. Then they approved me for Spectre training, assigned Saren to the case formally, and that was it.”

Anderson frowned. “Really? Just that?”

Shepard nodded. “Saren said something about Nihlus always filing his paperwork too thoroughly.”

“Hm. Guess I can believe that. Still, if Saren’s going to be part of the case officially, that might cause some issues. But here, we’ll get to that in a minute.” He motioned towards the window with one hand, and Shepard glanced over to see a face from the vids waiting patiently. “Shepard, this is Ambassador Udina. Any problems the Alliance can’t solve itself, he brings to the Council.”

The ambassador nodded to Shepard, then took the cue to stride over to them. “Congratulations are in order, Commander. This is a great honor you’ve been given.”

They shook hands, and Shepard nodded back, then coughed into their fist. “Thank you, sir. Is this going to be a ‘don’t screw this up’ meeting?”

Udina shook his head and went back to his desk. “I assume you’re intelligent enough to figure that out. No, you and Captain Anderson are here for another reason entirely.” He sat down in his chair and tapped at his terminal for a moment, then cleared his throat. “The Council actually alerted me that they were planning to confirm you for Spectre training prior to the meeting. We lawyers like to plan everything out in advance, you know, and they trusted Nihlus’s recommendation. What we have now is a different dilemma.

“As a Spectre, you are released from Alliance command. You may still help us with missions as you see fit, of course, but you are not legally bound to. As such, you are no longer assigned to the Normandy.

Shepard folded their arms and looked between him and Anderson. “I understand, but what does that mean for the rest of the mission? Do I just hop on another ship? And what about Williams, Alenko, and Jenkins? Their input might be valuable.”

Anderson nodded. “That’s what the ambassador and I have been talking about. He did some research, and it’ll take a bit of maneuvering with Alliance brass, but we think we have a solution.”

Udina coughed into his fist, then shook his head and resumed typing. “There is some precedent for Spectres to assume temporary command of a vessel and her crew, or at least work with them if not directly in command. Some do it just for transportation, others so they can have extra hands to cover whatever they cannot. It seems to be especially popular with turians, what with their emphasis on helping each other, and all.”

Shepard squinted at him. They could only see one possible end for that train of thought. “You want to give me the Normandy.”

“That’s what we’re looking at,” Anderson confirmed. “The ambassador and I will take care of all the details, but the idea is, we’ll turn over the Normandy to the Council for your mission, with a crew for her, of course. Then you’ll have a ship, the Eden Prime team can stay with you, and the Alliance gets to say we’re cooperating.”

Udina cleared his throat. “It may also improve relations with the Hierarchy. The Alliance brass swooping in and claiming the Normandy prototype before final testing was concluded ruffled quite a few feathers in the Turian Engineering Corps, no pun intended.”

Shepard was relieved that Anderson gave Udina a look just as confused as their own. Udina glanced up at them when neither responded, then sighed and explained, “As a collaborative effort between the Alliance and the turians, the general understanding was that once Normandy cleared testing, each side would take the prototype out for a few missions to ensure both species could use the model comfortably, then retire it in time for both the Hierarchy and the Alliance to roll out full-size versions of the ship for their own fleets. But there was nothing in writing, so the brass decided to assign the prototype to a fleet. I can’t begin to tell you how many angry calls I received when word got out to the turians.”

A little, old-fashioned lightbulb went on in Shepard’s head. “So giving the Normandy back to the Council would soothe the turians’ wounded pride.”

“Precisely.” Udina steepled his fingers together in front of him. “I doubt the Alliance will be very happy with me for this, but I believe it is our best option, both logistically and politically.”

Anderson nodded. “That’s why I’m stepping down as her captain. Having you at her helm, a Spectre, would look a lot better for the Alliance than it would to have you hanging around, but me calling the shots.”

The lightbulb turned into an exclamation point. “What?” they asked, eyes going wide. “Sir, are you sure?”

“Hundred percent,” Anderson said firmly. “Besides, a mission of this magnitude can’t be getting all tied up in Alliance regulations. That’s the whole point of the Spectres. Get the job done, and the only rules are the ones you set for yourself.”

“And what the Council sets,” Udina interjected. “Essentially, collateral damage beyond a certain point comes out of your pay, and be able to justify yourself when questioned. The second part is less a rule and more of a strong preference.”

Pay was one of Shepard’s very favorite words. “That reminds me, I forgot to ask the Council. How much does this job pay?”

Udina shrugged. “It varies by mission and specific agent, but usually quite a handsome amount. Of course, the amount is to offset the lengths of time Spectres usually go between paychecks…”

Shepard decided not to point out that the ambassador’s idea of a “handsome amount” and their own were probably vastly different. It didn’t matter. At least there was a paycheck.

They shook their head. Back on track. “Are you certain about giving me the Normandy, sir? I thought she was going to be your ship.”

Anderson waved a hand. “I’m certain, Shepard. Besides, she’s a young ship ready to explore the cosmos, and I’m getting on in years. A ship like that deserves a life of grand adventure, don’t you think?”

They thought for half a second. They couldn’t really deny that. The Normandy was state-of-the-art, after all. And from what they’d heard, she’d been designed to charge headlong into the unknown, not trawl around settled space hoping for something to happen.

Shepard had to admit, being at her helm was a tantalizing idea.

And it wasn’t like they could think of any more arguments, anyway. So they cleared their throat, squared their shoulders, and offered Anderson their hand. “I’m honored, sir. I’ll take good care of her.”

Anderson shook their hand with a small smile. “Just try to leave enough for the museums. I’m sure the Alliance already has a place picked out for her somewhere. Be a shame to tell them she got lost or disintegrated out in unexplored space.”

They snorted at that, and Anderson’s smile grew as he dropped their hand. “Good luck out there, Shepard. Bring back some good news for all those families on Eden Prime, won’t you?”

Shepard took a step back and snapped a sharp salute. Arm at a perfect right angle, hand perfectly flat and perfectly positioned at their brow, back perfectly straight, eyes staring perfectly beyond the horizon. Perfect, perfect, perfect. They couldn’t allow themselves anything less. “Yes, sir!”

Anderson returned the salute, then nodded sharply. “Go get ’em, Shepard. We’ll give you the all-clear once the transfer goes through. Should only take a day or two.”

They dropped their salute and nodded back, then glanced to Udina. By now he’d buried himself back in his work, so they made for the door instead. They knew a dismissal when they heard one.

Outside the office, they pulled up their omni-tool, switched to the comm function, and keyed in Nihlus’s code. One dial tone, two dial tones-

Nihlus picked up on the third tone. Damn. One more, and it would have been a good number. “Kryik.”

“Nihlus, it’s Shepard,” they said, leaning against the wall. “I’m done with Udina and Anderson. They’re giving the Normandy to the Council for the mission. Anderson’s stepping down.”

Nihlus let out a relieved sigh. “Good, that’s a few less things to worry about. We have a ship, and you and I don’t have to see what happens when Saren and Captain Anderson get within arm’s reach of each other.”

Shepard nodded, then remembered he couldn’t see them and made a noise of agreement. “Udina’s going to handle the paperwork, should only take a couple days at most. And the crew will be transferred with her, too.”

“Excellent. Alenko, Williams, Jenkins, and I are waiting in the park across from the C-Sec outpost closest to the Tower. With, ah, a new friend. I’ll send the coordinates over, we’ll explain in person, then we can work out a course of action for the day.”

“Got it. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Provided their nav software cooperated, anyway.

“We’re by one of the lakes. Can’t miss us.”

“Right. See you when I get there.” They hung up, then shook their head and switched over to their navigation app. After a moment, coordinates popped up, like Nihlus had promised, and they told the app to pull up directions. At least this time they wouldn’t have to wander around like an idiot.

The app pointed them back the way they’d come to find the embassy in the first place, small mercy. They at least recognized this area. It was just a matter of retracing their steps back to the main lobby of the Tower. They tried not to get distracted, but that was easier said than done – it was a beautiful location, full of statues, murals, and landscaping that were all painstakingly, almost lovingly taken care of. No wonder Taniria had come here for sight-seeing. Shepard had to stop themselves from doing the same.

The park Nihlus had talked about was visible from the front steps of the Tower. It reminded Shepard of a place they’d visited on Earth once, as a teenager vacationing with a father who wanted his children to see the homeworld at least once. The difference was, besides this one being on a massive space station, not all of the “greenery” was green. The grass on either side of the meandering cobblestone path was green, sure, but pinks and blues and yellows and all sorts of colors winked at them from the branches of trees and shrubs and flowerbeds, all artfully arranged so nothing clashed and no one color overpowered the rest. The Presidium lakes glistened in the artificial sunlight, and they were pretty sure they could hear some sort of wildlife just out of sight. Space pigeons, maybe. It was downright serene.

Nihlus had been right. The little group was impossible to miss, sitting by a small pond with a bench. Nihlus had claimed the bench for himself, his arms folded under his cowl and his head tucked down. A power nap if Shepard had ever seen one. Kaidan was sitting under a tree, looking at something on his omni-tool. Jenkins was perched in the same tree, legs hanging down from a low-hanging branch and swinging casually. Ashley, meanwhile, was skipping rocks across the surface of the water, a small pile of stones at her feet. There was another turian standing off to one side, watching; as they approached, Shepard recognized one of the C-Sec officers from before. If it weren’t for him, Shepard mused to themselves, they might have mistaken the gang for a scene from a vid about lazy summer days.

Jenkins was the first to notice them. “Commander!” he called with a wave. “There you are!”

Kaidan, Ashley, and the C-Sec officer looked up and around at his voice, and three sets of eyes landed square on Shepard at once. After a moment’s consideration, the officer paced forward and shook Nihlus’s shoulder. “Your friend is here, Spectre,” he said while Nihlus startled awake.

Nihlus glanced over, then cleared his throat and nodded, then pushed himself to his feet. “Sorry, Shepard,” he said, ambling over. “I only meant to close my eyes for a second. Apparently, I was more tired than I thought.” A wide, gaping yawn punctuated his point, and he shook his neck out.

Shepard shrugged and folded their arms. “No harm done. So, what’s going on?”

Nihlus glanced over his shoulder, then waved the officer over. “You remember Officer Vakarian, I assume?” Shepard nodded, and he continued, “C-Sec has been granted permission to attach a detective to our mission, for their own investigation. Vakarian got picked.”

Shepard frowned even as they reached out to shake Vakarian’s hand. “Isn’t that a bit redundant?” they asked. “I thought investigating was our entire mission.”

“My investigation will be filed separately from yours, Commander,” Vakarian said, accepting the shake. “Special Tactics case files are classified and sealed unless the Council decides to make the information public, which is rare. Because of the severity of the offense, C-Sec wants our own files on it, so we have something we can tell the public ourselves.”

Shepard considered as they dropped Vakarian’s hand. Then they shrugged. “Makes sense, I suppose. I won’t say no to an extra set of eyes and hands. Welcome aboard, Vakarian. Is this ‘rookie gets the worst detail,’ or does C-Sec have reason to trust you with this?”

Vakarian gave a slight bow. “Call me Garrus. ‘Vakarian’ is my father. And I have an extensive record, most of it is public access. Just look it up on the extranet.” He stood up a little straighter and fluttered his mandibles. “I’ve put away serial killers before, Commander. This is right up my alley.”

That got them to crack a smile. “Tell you what, I’ll call you Garrus if you call me Shepard. You’re going to have to tell me some of those stories someday.”

Garrus’s neck turned a faint blue. “I, ah, I mean, if you insist.”

“Over lunch sometime, it’ll be fun. We’ll swap stories.” They grinned and shook their head, then looked back at Nihlus. Back to business. “So, any ideas?”

Nihlus jumped slightly, eyes snapping open like he’d been falling asleep again. Then he shook himself, cleared his throat, and said, “Right, yes. We’ll need to meet back up with Saren, he has the sword and helmet. Then we can discuss what to do from there.”

Shepard blinked, then snapped their fingers. “I’ve got an idea. Give me a minute.”

They turned and took a few steps away, pulling up their omni-tool’s comm function as they went. Behind them, they heard Nihlus ask, “Are you related to a Castis Vakarian, by any chance?”

Shepard snorted to themselves as they selected a contact and hit call. There was a conversation they didn’t mind missing. One dial tone, two, three, four (dammit), five…

A click interrupted the sixth. “You’ve reached the home of under-appreciated genius, how may I help you, Commander Shepard?”

They smiled to themselves and glanced back at the others to do a quick headcount. “Niazmina. Does that offer of lunch still stand?”

Chapter Text

Niazmina’s boyfriend had a fair amount of cool bonuses, most of them his uncles. There was Dallin, angling for a seat in the Alliance Parliament. Dresden, the hacker. Durttá, the general. Sascha, who didn’t have a particularly cool job, but was covered in really cool tattoos.

“Now, his uncle Tommy – Thomas, you know,” she was telling Isaiah as they sat on a bench outside the restaurant doors, “Tommy is the sweetest guy, he just wants to make good food for people to enjoy and be happy.”

“Mimi!”

She glanced towards the door, and the facial recognition software in her shades automatically locked onto a familiar face poking out of the door. She smiled and waved him over. “Tommy! See, Isaiah, mention the lion, and he eats you.”

Tommy Gallagher had a smile that could melt a mountaintop. He slid the rest of the way out the door and came trotting over, idly wiping his hands with a towel. “Are the rest here yet, or is this it?” he asked, glancing around.

Niazmina twisted to look at the assembled gang, just to make sure nobody had slipped in when she wasn’t looking. “Not yet, habibi, but it shouldn’t be long,” she assured him. Command: Show window “AllianceTracking.” Lucky for them, being able to find ground team members at a moment’s notice was part of her job. “They’re, uh…” Command: Show “Label.Locations.” “Oh, they just turned down this street, should be here any minute.”

Tommy nodded. “Good, good. I reserved the banquet room for you, they’re getting the buffet set up in there as we speak. Thought you might like the room and privacy. Just be sure to stop by and introduce everyone to me, okay?”

She gave him her very brightest, most sincere beam. Command: Hide all. “Sure, of course! Tell Griff and Sammy I said hi, okay? And send news more often, I never hear from anyone!”

No sooner had Tommy gone back inside than Isaiah was nudging her. “I thought you were speaking Pashto. Habibi is Arabic, isn’t it?”

“Huh?” She twisted to look at him, then the words processed. “Oh, right. See, my dad’s Pashtun, but Mom’s side of the family is Arab, from Tunisia, so growing up, I learned both Pashto and Tunisian Arabic. I’m better at Pashto, but there’s a few Arabic words I got in the habit of using a lot because of my mom.”

“Like habibi.”

“Exactly.”

He considered this, then made an “alright, cool” kind of expression. “Makes sense. So, you’re a polyglot and a tech genius. Is there anything you can’t do?”

She snorted and went back to scanning the crowd. “Actually, that’s pretty much it. I can’t even do simple math without a calculator. I have to think about two plus two for ten seconds.” She squinted, then craned her neck. “I think I see them. Make yourself useful, Obnoxiously Tall Man.”

Isaiah heaved a sigh that was definitely exaggerated and pushed himself to his feet. “Uh… Oh, yeah, there they are!” He put a hand in the air and hollered, “Commander! Over here!”

And just like that, Shepard came melting out of the crowd, followed by the rest of the party that had left the Normandy early that morning, plus a new turian in a C-Sec uniform and a tactical visor. She decided against pulling up her identity scanner, figuring Shepard would introduce him anyway. “We’re back,” they said with a wave.

Niazmina flashed a peace sign and pushed herself to her feet, motioning for the rest of the group to congregate. “You introduce your new guy, we’ll introduce ours,” she said, jerking her head towards the one member Shepard hadn’t met on the flight from Eden Prime, a towering Slav she primarily knew as Adrian-from-Engineering. Only Isaiah and Chan-mi had deigned to join the lunch brigade of the gang who’d met Shepard in the mess hall; Feliks was catching up on sleep, and Kia had decided to seize on the opportunity provided by a brief shore leave and go hunting for new armor “that doesn’t suck,” quote-endquote.

Shepard’s head swiveled up to look at Adrian, then swallowed, nodded, and motioned forward the C-Sec turian. “This is Garrus Vakarian,” they said. “C-Sec’s assigned him to tag along with our investigation. Garrus, this is Niazmina Khulozai. She’s one of the techs on the Normandy.”

Garrus gave a little bow, and she nodded back. “Haven’t I heard that name before?”

Garrus fluttered his mandibles and lowered his head. “Probably. My, ah, my father is very prominent in C-Sec. I grew up seeing him on the news every other week, it seemed like.”

She pursed her lips. “No, I swear I’ve heard ‘Garrus,’ specifically. Hold on.” Command: Extranet search “Garrus Vakarian.” She skimmed over the results that scrolled up her left lens, then snapped her fingers. “Right, you’re the guy who caught that elcor organ harvester. It was all over the news when I was getting my master’s. Cool, in a creepy way.” Command: Hide all.

Garrus blinked, his neck turning faintly blue. He stammered and sputtered a bit, then cleared his throat. “Thanks,” he said. “I was just doing my job.”

“That’s what they all say.” She shrugged, then gestured to Adrian. “Commander Shepard, Adrian Marinov. He works with Adams down in Engineering. He was actually one of the guys who got sent to Palaven to work with the turian side of designing Normandy.

“Really?” Shepard shook hands with Adrian, eyebrows raised. “What was that like?”

Adrian shrugged. “Hot, mostly. And the lead turian engineer wasn’t very friendly during working hours. She was very… focused.”

“Was her name, by chance, Sephira Actinus?”

Niazmina nearly jumped clear out of her skin. She spun in midair, came down, and found herself staring up at two new turians, both with prominent cheekbones stretching out into long spines that definitely weren’t a standard part of turian fringe. The smaller one, on the right, had a crest and plates as pale as bone, adding to the scare factor, and the taller was crestless, with pale gold plates, blue stripes on her face, and a dark blueish-green cloak obscuring the rest of her body. Command: Execute function “Identity_Scan.”

The crestless’s results popped up on her left lens, the crested’s on her right. Huh. So this was the fabled Saren Arterius everyone had been talking about. Probably should have guessed from the Spectre hoodie. She’d pictured someone taller. And more normal-looking for a turian, but whatever. And the girl was Taniria Arterius. His daughter, or something? She’d probably find out soon enough.

The others apparently got over their shock at the Arteriuses’ appearance, because Adrian shook himself, cleared his throat, and nodded. “That was her. You know her?”

Saren flicked a mandible. “An old friend of my brother’s.” He turned his head to look at Taniria for a long moment, then back to the group. “By which I mean they used to sleep together.”

Taniria’s reaction was immediate. Her jaw and mandibles dropped, her brow plates went up, and her eyes squeezed shut. “Oh. My. Spirits, that’s so TMI! Why would you tell me that, I don’t need to know which of Daddy’s friends are his exes!” Okay, so she was his niece, then.

Saren, looking immensely pleased with himself, hummed and buffed his talons against his sweatshirt. “It was nearly sixty years ago, ages before Desolas met your mother. Consider it payback for two hours of listening to idle teenager gossip.”

“That’s so disproportionate, I’m telling my mom…”

Niazmina could only exchange a look with Adrian. What kind of weird family squabble had they walked into? Though, more accurately, it had walked up to them.

Somebody gave a long-suffering sigh behind her. She turned so she could see most of the group at once as Nihlus grumbled, “Saren, don’t torture your niece. The last thing we need is the general deciding to stick up for her in person.”

“He’d think it’s funny,” Saren hummed with a shrug.

Shepard cleared their throat. “Niazmina, Isaiah, everyone who didn’t go to Eden Prime, this is Saren Arterius. The Council’s assigned him to work with us. Everyone in general, the other turian is Saren’s niece, Taniria. She’s… Sorry, why are you here?”

“Because I have nothing more pressing to do, and Uncle Saren said he’d pay me if I hung out and let him use my omni-tool for comms.”

Saren grimaced at her, like she’d confessed something he’d rather be kept secret, but Shepard merely nodded. “Fair enough. Niazmina, is anyone else coming?”

She shook her head. “Not that I’m aware of, no.”

They gave her a little bow and gestured towards the doors of the restaurant. “Then by all means, lead the way.”

She snapped a quick salute, then shook her head and turned to head inside. “Tommy wants to meet you guys first, then we have the banquet room. All-you-can-eat, and everything should be labeled with allergens and whether or not it’s halal, kosher, and so on. He’s really thorough about it. And don’t worry, I already said there’d be turians coming, so there should be something dextro.”

“And he’s agreed to the discount?” Shepard asked, following.

“Of course.” She stopped to wait for everyone to file in and started patting herself down. Which pocket had she put her glasses case in, again? “Tommy’s the nicest guy in the galaxy, just be polite.” There! She pulled out the case and swapped her aviators for standard glasses. Normally, she didn’t care about the whole “don’t wear sunglasses indoors” rule, unless the indoors in question had poor lighting, but this was a special case.

She blinked rapidly at the lights, then shook her head and did a headcount. Seven plus her made eight humans, four turians. Cool. Enough for two volleyball teams. She motioned Shepard forward, then rolled her shoulders, cleared her throat, and neatly slid around the corner into the main reception area. “Tommy!”

Tommy had been easily startled as long as she’d known him, and today was no different. He jumped and scrabbled at the host’s stand for a moment, then froze, staring at her. His eyes were wide enough she swore she could see his brain pulling itself back together. After a second, he straightened up and ran a hand through his hair, beaming at her. “Mimi, dear! So sorry, I didn’t hear the door, you know how it gets in here…”

She nodded sagely, then turned and gestured towards Shepard. “Tommy, this is-”

“Holy Toledo, Commander Shepard?” Tommy blurted, eyes widening to roughly the size of dinner plates. “Mimi, you didn’t say he was your CO!”

Her eyebrows shot up, and she glanced between him and a now furiously blushing Shepard. “Oh, so you know who this is.”

“Oh, well, of course, heard about him on the news first, of course, Akuze, you know, nasty business, all that, crops back up in the feeds now and then, not exactly the kind of thing you want to be a celebrity for, I suppose, is it? And then Dallin – my brother, Commander, you know, Dallin Copeland, running for Parliament? Bit standoffish, I know, but he’s like that, brilliant man, my brother, really, doesn’t shut up if you get him talking, probably why he’s so good at politics, filibusters you know – Dallin went rabid over the whole thing, couldn’t get him to switch topics, but he’s like that, brain like a bull terrier-”

Niazmina cleared her throat. “Uh, Tommy? Breathe.”

He promptly inhaled so hard it was a miracle his teeth didn’t go down his throat. Typical Tommy. He really was perfect for his job.

Tommy shook his head, took another deep breath, then chirped, “Anyway, who hasn’t heard of Commander Shepard? Thomas Gallagher, and might I just say, it’s an honor, sir, just an honor…” He trailed off, staring at something off over Niazmina’s shoulder with slowly-widening eyes. Then he inhaled sharply and leaned forward. “Niazmina,” he hissed, “are those Spectres?”

She glanced over her shoulder, and sure enough, Saren and Nihlus had rounded the corner at the back of the group. “Did I forget to mention those?”

“Yes, and I’d thank you to not do it again, I get enough panic from my brothers, thank you.” Tommy shook his head, then put up another smile. “Two Spectres, and Commander Shepard, and my nephew’s beloved Niazmina? Food’s on the house today, my treat.”

Shepard and Niazmina blinked at the same time, but Niazmina spoke first. “Hold on, so I only get a free meal if I have famous people with me? I see how it is, okay, thanks Tommy, really feeling the love.”

Tommy was unfazed. “When you survive a thresher maw attack, you let me know. Until then, you have to pay something for those insults to food you call sandwiches.”

“‘Insults to food,’ my left pinky toe, I’m being creative.”

Shepard cleared their throat very loudly. “Thank you very much, sir. We have things to do today, so if you don’t mind..?”

Tommy blinked, then nodded quickly and showed his teeth again. “Right, yes, of course, terribly sorry about that! You’ll be in the banquet room, over there.” He gestured off to the left, towards a room with frosted glass windows for privacy. “There’s already a buffet set up, with a selection for your dextro friends, of course. Please, enjoy, and let the staff know if you need anything.”

“Of course, thank you.” Shepard gave him a thin smile, then turned and motioned for the group to follow them.

Niazmina held back long enough to give Tommy a quick hug, then fell into step next to Chan-mi and Jenkins. “Sup.”

“Hi! Niazmina, right?” Jenkins chirped. Oh, the chipper rookie thing was going to get old real fast. “So, is that guy really the owner? And a politician’s brother? Why do they have different surnames? And how do you know him?”

She suppressed a sigh. “Yes, yes, they’re adopted, he’s my boyfriend’s uncle,” she rattled off. “It’s a big family, I don’t know all the details. You’d have to ask one of them.”

“Oh, alright.” Just like that? That was easy.

Jenkins struck up a conversation with Chan-mi about what everyone had been up to that morning, leaving Niazmina mercifully alone. She was only a people person in short bursts. Adrian held the door to the banquet room for the group, and she trailed inside, stuffing her hands in her pockets. It was a small blessing that eating meant she didn’t have to talk.

She only just managed not to freeze like an idiot drooling over the wave of food-smells that smacked her in the face not five steps in.

The buffet lined the walls to her left and on the opposite side of the room. Meats she couldn’t name, fruits she’d thought were a myth, dishes she’d only dreamed of – Tommy spared no expense. Everything was neatly labeled, with a sign in the corner between the two tables helpfully pointing out that the left wall was levo food, and the far wall was dextro.

“Pinch me, I’m dreaming,” Isaiah said with an exaggerated sniffle. “It’s so beautiful.”

Niazmina had to agree, especially as she spotted the towering pyramid of chocolate cannoli at one end of the levo table.

By the time she was done at the buffet, she’d crammed her plate with enough food that she couldn’t tell where one dish ended and another began. They all simply smushed together with no boundaries. That would probably make for some interesting flavor combinations later.

No sooner had she claimed a seat at the corner of one table than she was swarmed by Alliance fatigues. Chan-mi took the chair to her right, Adrian sat across from Chan-mi, and Jenkins on her left at the head of the table. At least as the others filled in, they left an empty chair across from her. Still, as she craned her neck to check who was where, she couldn’t help but notice that Shepard and the three crested turians had deigned to sit almost opposite the room, huddled around the end of one table with their heads down. “Aw, look, we don’t get to sit at the cool kids’ table,” she mused.

Six heads swiveled to see what she meant, then looked back. “Probably discussing what to do next,” Kaidan suggested with a shrug. “Shepard and Nihlus were saying something to that effect before Shepard called you.”

“Sure, but do they have to do it while eating?” She poked through her veggie fried rice, looking for the pieces of carrot she knew were lurking inside. “Relax a little. Eat, be merry.”

“I do not think Nihlus can relax,” Chan-mi said. “He is always so serious and professional.”

“I would say maybe it’s a Spectre thing, ’cause the commander gets that way too, sometimes,” Jenkins said, “but I mean, Saren’s the polar opposite, it seems like.”

“I don’t know, he seemed pretty focused on Eden Prime,” Kaidan countered. “He was all business when we were actually talking about the mission.”

Isaiah swallowed a mouthful of mashed potatoes, then said, “We could ask the niece. She’d know what he’s like, wouldn’t she?”

“Where’d she go, anyway?” Jenkins asked.

Adrian hrmmed and gestured with his fork. “Sitting by herself.”

Niazmina, Chan-mi, and Kaidan, all on the side of the table with their backs to the buffet, turned as one to look. Sure enough, Taniria had taken a seat in a corner near the buffet, and was slowly picking her way through her food, head pulled into her cowl so she could press her nose against the fabric of her cloak.

“I believe she is shy,” Chan-mi said. “Do you think we frighten her?”

“She seems kinda young,” Kaidan mused. “Maybe she’s nervous about all the adults in the room.”

Ashley grunted, artfully spinning spaghetti around her fork. “And all the humans. That family’s not the most pro-alien of the bunch.”

“How old d’you suppose she is?” Jenkins asked. “I mean, I’m only twenty-two, so maybe I could go talk to her, if we’re around the same age.”

Silence fell, and everyone turned to look at him. He blinked owlishly, then fidgeted a bit. “What?”

Ashley snorted finally. “The sacrificial lamb volunteering. Now that’s a new one.”

“It’s no big deal,” Jenkins protested. “I was just thinking she might be more comfortable with someone her age, you know?”

“Hey, if you want to, go ahead,” Adrian said. “Go be nice to the lonely teenager.”

Jenkins hesitated, then stood up, grabbed his plate, and left. Niazmina watched him wander over to Taniria’s lonely corner of loneliness, then shrugged and turned back to the others. “Well, while he’s doing that. How’s the food, guys?”

There was silence, like her words were still processing. Ashley broke it first. “Hold on, you’re friends with the owner, right? How do we know any shit-talking won’t make it back to him?”

Niazmina snorted. “You caught me. I’m a spy, here to rat out dissenters to be charged double price.” She shook her head and took a bite of chicken curry. “Seriously, though. I’m from Afghanistan, and he’s my boyfriend’s uncle. Constructive criticism only. Speak freely.”

Chan-mi let out a sharp giggle. “I cannot speak for Chief Williams, but I do not think there is criticism to be had. Everything tastes wonderful. The beer duck, especially, is quite good.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Super haram. But I’ll pass the word along. Compliments on the beer duck. Anybody else?”

Isaiah cleared his throat. “I’m with her. Everything’s great. Can we come back here next shore leave?”

“Seconded,” Ashley chimed in. “The bean soup reminds me of my grandma’s.”

There was a chorus of agreement. From there, the conversation somehow looped around to the pros and cons of their various grandparents’ cooking, then grandparents in general. Ashley, Kaidan, and Isaiah did most of the talking, which was just fine by Niazmina. She liked to eat in peace. So after a cursory glance over her shoulder to check on Jenkins (who appeared to have hit it off well with Taniria, if how much she was talking was any indication), she put her head down, tuned out the conversation, and ate.

She’d finished the main course and gone back to the buffet for dessert when Shepard stood up and cleared their throat.

“Alright, listen up.” Shepard’s voice rang around the room. Easy feat, since it was half-empty. “We have a lot to do, and a lot of ground to cover before we can move on in the investigation, so we’ll be splitting into teams to get as much done in one afternoon as we can.”

Niazmina cleared her throat and put her hand in the air. “We get to finish eating first, though, right?”

Shepard nodded. “Of course. We won’t leave until everyone’s had enough to eat. Now, Garrus has agreed to let us use C-Sec’s computers to decrypt and extract information from the helmet Kaidan stole from the big guy on Eden Prime, so the first team, my team, will go back to C-Sec with him and get that process started. While the computers are doing that part of the legwork, we’ll go out to the Wards and check with some of Garrus’s contacts, see if we can learn anything more about what happened. It’s not the friendliest part of the station, so I want a few volunteers to be extra muscle, just in case.”

“Question.” Now Ashley’s hand shot up. “Is this actually volunteering, or are we getting drafted?”

“Both.” Was that a smile on Shepard’s face, or did her eyes deceive her? “Some of you will be coming with regardless, it’s just up to you who.”

Ashley considered this, then shrugged. “Fair enough. I’ll go.”

Shepard nodded to her and folded their arms across their chest. “Isaiah, you said you’re biotic support? Would you mind coming along?”

Isaiah glanced at Ashley, then back at Shepard with a grin. “Sure, no objections here.”

“Great, then the three of us plus Garrus will handle all of that. Meanwhile, Nihlus will head back up to the Presidium and run the name and face we got from Eden Prime’s security data. The terminals in Spectre HQ will have better access to classified data than C-Sec. He’ll also try to locate another Spectre, Gurji Taeja. She was the one who directed Saren towards the traffic that led him to Eden Prime in the first place, so she may be able to help us find where they were coming from.”

“Gurji sounds familiar,” Jenkins piped up. “Is her family in politics, or something?”

Garrus lifted his head and flicked a mandible. “Gurji Beelo was the first Spectre, back before the Krogan Rebellions. Taeja is a direct descendant.”

“Oh. Cool!”

“Moving on,” Shepard interjected brusquely. “Saren will take the sword to forensics for analysis. With any luck, they’ll be able to narrow down where it came from, and we can track it from there. Since his omni-tool is still out of commission, Taniria will go with him for comms.”

Taniria put her hand up this time. “I only have Uncle Nihlus’s contact,” she pointed out. “Am I gonna need somebody else’s number, or..?”

Shepard blinked, then glanced at Saren. “Would you mind bringing one of ours along, to keep in touch?”

Saren grunted. “Only if they’re quiet.”

Shepard considered this, glancing around the room. “Hm. Chan-mi, do you think you could handle it?”

Chan-mi stiffened, eyes wide, then nodded slowly. “I believe so, yes.”

“Then that’s that team. The rest will get started on inventory and resupplying. Since we’re not technically bound by Alliance rules now, I’d like the Normandy to be outfitted with more than just combat equipment, and I’m sure Dr. Chakwas wouldn’t object to some higher-quality stock. Niazmina, do you think you can manage all of that?”

All eyes turned to her, and she froze just before biting into a cannoli. She glanced around, then put it down, coughed into her fist, and nodded. “Sure, I can do that. We’ll have to go back to the ship and look around first, see what we have and don’t have. Sometimes the requisitions officers don’t mark everything properly.”

“That’s fine. Keep in mind we don’t know how long we’ll go between supply stops, so everything will need to store well and keep for a while.”

She nodded and flashed a peace sign. “Will do.” Was she supposed to salute there? What were the policies on saluting Spectres? She’d look it up later.

“Thank you.” Shepard went back to looking around the room. “Now, everyone finish eating. We don’t want Mr. Gallagher’s generosity to go to waste.”

Chapter Text

Isaiah did his best to balance the Evidence Helmet, as he’d started referring to it in his head for ease, on as few fingers as possible. It was the only thing to do besides stare out the window. On the one hand, thank God for the Citadel having surprisingly good public transportation so they didn’t have to walk all the way from the restaurant to the particular C-Sec outpost with Garrus’s office in it. On the other, he was just so bored.

He could always stare of into space in Ashley’s general direction, he supposed, but he didn’t want to be, like, creepy or anything. Besides, the helmet itself was interesting enough. It wasn’t Alliance standard issue, that was for sure. Most of it was gold-tinted glass, with some sort of reflective material applied so the wearer could see out, but nobody could see in. Like Niazmina’s aviators. The glass stretched over the forehead, almost to the back of the skull, went down to the cheekbones, then had an even slope down from there to the chin. The dome was almost squared, oddly enough, like a cube pretending to be a sphere. It sort of reminded him of deep-space helmets he saw in the vids sometimes.

So what, then, was a terrorist brute doing with one?

Maybe that’d be one of the questions the computer could answer, he mused to himself as the taxi set down outside a blazing neon sign reading CITADEL SECURITY.

“My office is on the third floor,” Garrus told them, heading for the door. “My terminal is equipped with most of the useful software, so we can just hook the helmet in there.”

“Will it be safe if we leave it there?” Shepard asked.

Garrus nodded. “It’s in one of the most secure parts of the station. I have a few friends I can ask to keep watch while we’re gone.”

“Great.”

Isaiah watched them head off into C-Sec, then glanced at Ashley. “Do you get the sense that we’re not really needed here, or is that just me?”

“Of course we’re needed.” She patted his shoulder. “Somebody has to ask dumb questions so they can explain what they’re doing. Don’t you ever watch detective shows?”

He shrugged and started wandering after Shepard and Garrus. “I dunno, cooking competition shows are more my speed. It’s the last bastion of feeds that can’t disappoint me.”

“Suit yourself. Me, I like a good whodunit.”

“So, what we’re doing right now, you mean.”

“Sure.” She fell a step behind him as they weaved through the lobby and its many, many officers running around. “This is like the first fifteen, twenty minutes of the show, before they have any suspects and they’re running everything through the computers. Hopefully we manage to find the culprit faster than an epiphany in the last ten minutes of the hour.”

Isaiah snorted, watching Shepard and Garrus disappear up the stairs. “When do you think they’ll realize they left the helmet behind with us?” He stuck his fist in the bottom of the helmet like a hand puppet and made it face her for emphasis. “Shepard, come back!” he said in as bad a falsetto he could manage, bobbing his arm up and down to make the helmet jostle. “You need me!”

Ashley snort-laughed, hand flying up to cover her mouth. “Oh, see- see if the glass retracts, maybe you can make it have a mouth.”

He checked it over as he reached the stairs and started up. “Uh, let’s see, maybe there’s a button somewhere…” He ran his hands around the helmet, but he couldn’t find anything that felt like it might fold away, just seams where the glass had been melded together and the seal around the edge. “Nope, I think it’s one big piece that pops off.”

“Damn.” Isaiah walked sideways up the stairs so he could still see Ashley as she followed him. She shook her head and mused, “I mean, d’you think that’s a safety thing, or would folding away be safer?”

He shrugged. “Dunno. We could ask one of the nerds in Engineering, they’d probably know. Blah blah blah, structures and materials and stuff.”

“Big nerd words,” she concluded for him with a grin. “Were you the kinda guy who stuffed them in lockers, Torres?”

He laughed. “Nah, I was actually one of the guys keeping them out of lockers. Metaphorically speaking, anyway, the lockers at my school weren’t really big enough to shove nerds into. Trash cans were popular, though.”

“Aw, were you a knight in shining armor?”

“You know it.” They reached the second floor, and he looked forlornly at the next flight of steps. “You heard Vakarian say third floor, too, right?”

“Unfortunately.” Ashley shook her head and headed up ahead of him. “Come on, don’t tell me you can’t handle a whole two flights, big guy like you?”

“I can,” he protested. “I just don’t want to.”

“Bet your mom loves that one, huh?” she teased, grinning back at him as he followed her upstairs anyway.

Isaiah snorted. “Please, I’d get skinned alive if I tried that.”

“Oh, you, too?” She snickered and paused at the top of the flight. “Common ground, good to hear.”

He laughed and took the steps two at a time to catch up. “I think it worked when I was, I dunno, four? And I’m pretty sure I had a cold, so I was tripping over my own feet, anyway.”

“Aw, that’s cute. I mean, you at some point being little and tripping over your own feet, not being sick.”

Somebody cleared their throat, and Isaiah glanced ahead to see Shepard and Garrus had apparently realized they’d forgotten something. So he grinned and tossed the helmet up in the air, just as high as the top of his head. “Hey, guys,” he chirped. “Something we can help with?”

Shepard, at least, looked sheepish. “We’re going to need the helmet back.”

“Oh, this?” He caught the helmet as it came back down, then handed it to Shepard. “Sure, knock yourselves out. Heard it might be a bit important.”

Shepard accepted it, nodded, and turned to Garrus. “Which one’s your office?”

This floor of C-Sec was a bit more like what Isaiah expected from the police. One big, main room, floorspace filled with desks and walls lined with doors to smaller, private offices. Some officers at the desks waved or nodded to Garrus as they passed, others were too busy with paperwork or with the civilian sitting across from them. Like Ashley had said, it was like they’d stepped into a detective drama. Which was cool, but hey, he wouldn’t say no to getting dropped into judging a cooking competition.

Garrus’s office was tidy and professional, the fifth door on the left. Datapads were stacked neatly in one corner of his desk, a deep blue cloak hung by the door, the news headlines hanging on the back wall were perfectly straight and even. Everything had its place. Garrus made a beeline for the terminal, Shepard in hot pursuit. “There’s spare weapons in that locker,” Garrus said over his shoulder, gesturing to a footlocker by the door. “Pick something you can use. We’ll be headed for a bad part of the Ward.”

All Isaiah could do was look at Ashley, shrug, and wander over to the footlocker. They had said the two of them were just there for backup; he just hadn’t really thought that meant there’d be nothing to do, period.

“Connector equipment should be in the middle left drawer, and there’s blank OSDs above that,” Garrus was telling Shepard, typing away at his terminal. “I’ll set the program to copy all the extracted data to one of those directly.”

“Got it.” Shepard plunked the helmet down on the desk and started rifling through drawers. “What about added security?”

“I saw Settozyn on our way in. I’ll ask him to stand guard.”

“Can we trust him?”

Garrus snorted. “Have you ever tried to move an elcor out of a doorway after he’s decided that’s not going to happen?”

Isaiah whistled as Ashley sorted through the weapons neatly stored in the locker, picturing a team of maybe ten Shepards trying to haul a lone elcor a single step forward. “Nice.”

Garrus nodded to him. “Settozyn’s usual partner’s on paternity leave, so he won’t be getting called away any time soon. He’ll keep the office secure while we’re gone.”

“Great.” Shepard handed Garrus an OSD and started untangling a mass of wires. “I assume you know how to hook this up?”

Isaiah shared another look with Ashley, then she cleared her throat, slinging the assault rifle she’d found over her shoulder. “So, should we wait outside, or something?”

“We’ll just be a minute or so,” Garrus said. “You can wait down in the lobby, if you want. Just watch out for reporters, there’s usually at least one or two sniffing around for a story.”

“Gotcha.” Isaiah didn’t think he’d ever about-faced so fast in his life. At least there’d be things to look at in the lobby.

While they headed for the stairs, Ashley eyed him. “You didn’t take a gun.”

Isaiah jumped a bit, then shook his head. “Nah. They’re not really my thing. I’m biotics support, not biotics assault.”

“Eh. Fair enough, I guess.”

As the two of them tromped back down the steps, a small group of officers rushed around them, thundering downstairs like somebody had dropped a thresher maw’s leash behind them. All they could do was jump together with their arms around each other and freeze in place, hoping they wouldn’t get knocked over.

Once the gang was gone, they split apart, coughed and laughed awkwardly, and Isaiah tried not to think about how rock-solid Ashley’s biceps had felt. Nope, not going there. Not a bit.

The problem, it turned out, was at the bottom of the stairs. When they got to the lobby, they found the surge of officers had all been in response to an absolutely gigantic krogan with jagged scars running all the way from the apex of his skull plates, down his neck, and disappearing into his battered red armor. The krogan didn’t seem terribly impressed with the welcoming committee, upper lip curled back and brow furrowed. “I didn’t do nothing,” he was rumbling as Isaiah and Ashley came trailing up behind the group of cops. “Get lost.”

“You were reported skulking around Chora’s Den,” a human officer in front scolded. “Fist’s bodyguards mentioned you by name. Said you were looking to get into Fist’s private area.”

“Have you ever met a bodyguard?” the krogan challenged. “They’re paranoid. It’s the job. I was just going for a drink when you pyjaks came in and said it was time to go. What, is it illegal to look in some idiot’s general direction these days?”

“What’s going on?”

Isaiah only just barely managed to suppress the instinct to scream like a five-year-old girl. Unfortunately, the “jump and flail like a cartoon character” mechanism was fully operational. He turned around as he did so, freezing mid-spasm when he recognized Shepard and Garrus. Garrus looked alarmed, but Shepard only wore the face of someone far too used to startling people for comfort. “Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to startle you. What’d we miss?”

Ashley shot Isaiah a bemused look and said, “Not much. They’d just brought the krogan in when we got here.”

Garrus looked past them and flared his mandibles. “That’s Wrex. He’s a merc who shows up on the station now and then, usually to cause trouble. Did you catch why he’s here?”

Isaiah ran a hand through his hair and shrugged. “Apparently he was snooping around some place called Chora’s Den? Something about a fist.”

“Fist?” Garrus echoed, brow plates going up. “Fist’s not a something, he’s a someone. Chora’s Den is his bar. Seedy little place, not far from here. We have a few contacts who operate there.”

Shepard hrmmed. “Maybe Wrex can help us out. If somebody sent a merc after Fist, he might have information we can use.”

Garrus fluttered his mandibles. “I’m not sure. What are the odds of the two cases being related?”

“Pretty terrible,” Shepard said with a shrug. “But, if we were headed there anyway…”

Garrus looked at Shepard for a long time, then sighed. “You have a point. I guess there’s no harm in trying, anyway.” He cleared his throat, then raised his voice and called to the officer still arguing with Wrex, “Hey, Raycraft! We’ll take it from here. Spectres have business with Wrex.”

The gang of officers turned to look straight at them, and Isaiah swallowed, then gave a little wave. “Hi.”

The one called Raycraft considered for a moment, then snorted, shook his head, and turned to walk off. “Suit yourself. Stay out of trouble, Wrex, or next time, I’ll arrest you for real.”

Wrex sneered at him. “Go ahead and try.”

The other officers dispersed quickly, and before too long, they were alone with Wrex. The krogan looked around the group with a curled lip. “Make this quick, turian, I’ve got places to be.”

Shepard cleared his throat. “It’s my mission, actually.”

Wrex turned his massive head his way. “You?” He looked Shepard up and down, then snorted. “Huh. Heard the Council was opening applications for you humans again. Didn’t think they’d go for handy bite-size ones, though.” He gave a sharklike grin.

Shepard coughed into his fist. “It’s a, uh, recent development. Moving on. We need information from down in Chora’s Den. Why were you lurking near Fist?”

Wrex eyed him, then glanced at Garrus, then back to Shepard. “Spectres mean this is all classified, right? C-Sec here can’t slap the cuffs on me once I tell?”

“Unless it’s a serious offense, not that I’m aware of,” Shepard replied.

Wrex mulled this over for a moment, then shook his head. “Not here. We get somewhere more private, then we’ll talk.”

“Understandable.” Shepard nodded, then glanced at Garrus. “So, which way to Chora’s Den?”

Garrus just shook his head and started off, Shepard marching along after. Isaiah glanced up at Wrex as they followed, giving him his best pensive look. “Hey, big guy. Wanna arm-wrestle?”

Wrex glowered down at him and said, “Human, you’re either brave, stupid, or both.” He waited a moment, then grinned. “Heh. We’re gonna get along just fine.”

Isaiah beamed, and moved to flank Wrex with Ashley as they weaved their way around the lobby and out a door opposite the one they’d come in from. The group traveled in silence for a while, and Isaiah’s attention wandered. The Wards weren’t that different from the various stations he’d been on with the Alliance, just a lot more diverse. And, obviously, less military.

He was squinting at an advertisement for salarian webbing extenders, trying to figure out exactly what a webbing extender was, when Shepard cleared his throat. “So, Wrex,” he began, “what was your business in Chora’s Den?”

Wrex twitched like he hadn’t quite been expecting the question, then harrumphed. “I was hired to kill Fist.”

“By who?” Garrus interjected. “And why?”

They stopped walking so Shepard and Garrus could turn to look at Wrex, and the whole group moved to the side of the walkway. Wrex glanced around, as if checking for listeners, then leaned down and said in a low voice, “You humans are still new here. You hear of the Shadow Broker yet?”

Isaiah was very relieved when he wasn’t the only one who shot a confused look around the circle. Garrus fluttered his mandibles and explained, “The Shadow Broker’s a galactic info broker. Buys and sells information from anyone, to anyone, about anyone. Nobody knows who he is or where he operates. Everything goes through his agents. It’s the biggest intel network in the galaxy.”

Wrex nodded solemnly. “Fist was working for the Broker. Keyword was. The Broker got wind Fist switched sides, started dealing with some other network and selling the Broker’s secrets to them. Probably offered him more than the Broker pays.” He snorted and shook his head. “Dumbass. I got hired to take him out.”

“You mean, kill him,” Ashley said.

“Is that not what ‘take him out’ means in your language?” Wrex snorted again. He seemed to do that a lot. “Point is, I’m getting a lot of credits to put a big damn hole in Fist’s ugly face.”

Shepard raised his eyebrows and slowly swung around to look at each of the rest of them in turn. “The intel trader who’s suddenly got a new deal, right on the heels of a terrorist attack on a human colony.”

Ashley scowled. “It’s too close to be a coincidence. We have to talk to this Fist guy.”

“We can’t,” Garrus said, clicking his mandibles. “At least, not right away. He’s behind too many guards. We need a way in.”

Isaiah raised a brow at him. “You say that like you’ve already got an idea.”

Garrus nodded. “We go in and act like we have information Fist will be interested in. We wouldn’t even be lying, really. I can talk to one of our contacts at the bar, and she’ll set us up for a little chat. Then we go in and ask why he turned on the Broker.”

Shepard nodded along, putting a hand to his chin and stroking his stubble. “Interesting. What about Wrex? He just got kicked out.”

Wrex snorted. “Vilak’s not that smart. Just tell him I’m Wrex’s identical twin Drex, and he’ll fall for it. Idiot.”

Shepard gave a dual thumbs-up. “Great. And the rest of us?”

“Just mingle around for a while, it’ll look suspicious if we all talk to the contact as a group,” Garrus said. “There’s a door off to one side of the bar. I’ll head that way once the meeting’s been arranged. Watch for me, and catch up when you see me.”

Another nod from Shepard. “Got it. Everyone understand the plan?”

There was a chorus of agreement, and Shepard clapped his hands once. “Great. So, who’s up for some clubbing?”

Garrus had been right. Chora’s Den couldn’t have been more than a fifteen-minute walk from the C-Sec outpost, twenty if you included their stop to chat. Like Wrex had said, the bouncer seemed to buy that the krogan staring him in the face was not actually the same guy they’d tossed out earlier. Isaiah had to wonder how he kept his job.

Garrus had also been right in that it definitely wasn’t the sort of place most people would admit to visiting. It wasn’t even very big. Stripper poles adorned a small dance area over the bar in the middle of the room, with more in every corner and either an asari or human woman on every one. Fist had to be a human dude, and not the kind ambassadors would prop up as examples of Alliance citizens, Isaiah reasoned to himself with a twitch in his eye. Unsurprisingly, most of the customers paying any attention to the dancers were humans and asari, though there were a couple interested glances from the rest. Everyone else seemed intent on ignoring them, huddled over drinks in darkened booths like lifelines. Bad techno pumped out of speakers so low-quality, “tinny” was an understatement, though the dancers seemed to be trying their best to make it work. It wasn’t a place for social drinking. It was a place for “forget your problems” drinking.

So, in short, it was a dump.

Garrus peeled away right off the bat, with just a quick mutter to Shepard before he headed off. Wrex, meanwhile, plunked himself down at a table near the door. “I can see most of the bar from here,” he grunted by way of explanation. “You go act natural, and I’ll keep watch.”

Shepard nodded to him, and motioned for Isaiah and Ashley to follow him further into the bar. “Non-alcoholic drinks only,” he said over his shoulder. “We don’t want to be at a disadvantage when we talk to Fist.”

Isaiah nodded, and was about to ask if Shepard thought the bartender would know how to make a virgin mojito when he almost crashed right into him.

Shepard had pulled up short suddenly, very obviously because of the crestless turian who’d appeared in his path. She had slate-gray plates, intricate white markings, and a frantic look in her bright green eyes. “Oh, spirits, I’m sorry,” she was saying, and there was a faint clicking as she clasped and unclasped her hands. “I just- you just got here, so you’re obviously not drunk yet, and you look military, so you’re my best shot in the room.”

Shepard raised a hand. “No harm done, ma’am. What’s going on?”

The turian took a deep breath, then shook her head, clicked her mandibles, and looked right at Shepard. “Sorry. My name is Kasantia Oraka, and I could really use some help from someone sober.”

Shepard glanced back at Isaiah and Ashley, then turned back to Kasantia and folded his arms. “Depends what you need help with.”

Kasantia sighed and looked over her shoulder. “See the old turian in the booth back there?”

Isaiah was willing to bet the three of them looked pretty silly as they all craned their necks and bent to one side to see what she meant. “Do you mean the one glowering at your back?” Ashley mused.

Another, bigger sigh from Kasantia. “Unfortunately. He’s my grandfather. General Septimus Oraka. He’s, um… How do I put this…”

Shepard coughed into his fist. “A mean drunk?”

“What?” She blinked, then flared her mandibles. “Oh! Spirits, no, he’s actually kind of a mopey drunk, but…” She sighed again. “His husband, my granddad, Admiral Vartus Oraka, he’s out on an escort deployment, but at his rank he doesn’t get sent out much, and definitely not for as long as he’s been gone this time. They haven’t been separated this long in ages, so Grandpa got lonely, and, well…” Her mandibles fluttered. “Grandpa drinks when he gets lonely, and when he drinks, he makes bad decisions. He won’t tell me what he did, but he’s really surly about it. I think I heard him muttering about some elcor diplomat.”

Ashley folded her arms across her chest. “If he won’t tell you, what makes you think he’ll talk to us?”

“I’m family,” Kasantia said bluntly. “More specifically, I’m his granddaughter. He still sees a little kid with stubby mandibles and blunt talons when he looks at me. He’s not going to tell me anything. But you, well, if you managed to work it right…”

Isaiah cleared his throat. “Uh, if he’s looking at you while you’re talking to us, won’t he figure it out you’re trying to get someone else to get him to talk?”

She sighed. “Look, he’s a hundred and twenty-four years old and really drunk, I’m not even sure he’s aware of where he is. All I need you to do is convince him to put the drinks down and let me take him home. Granddad led the fleets at Relay 314, the Oraka name is big for our people. Appeal to his sense of honor. Once you’ve got him wavering, you can switch to his familial loyalty, tell him his family’s worried about him and wants him to come home. I’m visiting my mom on the station, I can help him get back to her place, and we can keep an eye on him there. I’ll pay for your drinks, just tell them to put it on General Oraka’s tab and I’ll sort it out. Mom and I just want him home safe.”

Shepard was quiet for a moment. Kasantia had some pretty intense puppy-dog eyes, Isaiah would give her that. Finally, Shepard sighed and nodded. “I’ll see what I can do, ma’am. Williams, Torres, you two go mingle and keep an eye out for Garrus. I’ll join you later.”

Isaiah blinked, then glanced at Ashley, back to Shepard, and shrugged. “Alright, sure thing. You want us to order a drink for you?”

“Just a glass of water, thanks. I’ll see you in a bit.”

Shepard gave a small wave as he followed Kasantia away. They watched the two head for the general’s booth in silence for a moment, then Isaiah looked over at Ash. “So,” he said, cracking a teasing grin, “you come here often?”

She gave him an incredulous look for half a second, then snorted and grinned herself. “Really? I hope that’s not the best you’ve got, Torres.”

He laughed and made for the bar. “Nah. But it lightens the mood, don’t it?”

“Fair enough,” she chuckled. She took a seat at the bar, and he sat down next to her as she leaned her elbows on the counter. “So, what now?”

“Dunno.” He looked around for the bartender, and spotted one, a human woman, talking to Garrus about halfway down the bar. “We wait for them to finish talking, I guess.”

She turned to follow his gaze, then shook her head. “That could take a while. Guess that’s a good contact, though.” She puffed out a sigh, then eyed him. “Okay, small talk. Worst pick-up line you’ve ever heard. Go.”

He blinked, then hrmmed and put a hand to his chin. “Lemme think… Oh, I know. ‘Are you an orphanage? Because I want to give you kids.’”

Ashley made a choking sound and almost fell out of her seat. “You can’t be serious!”

“Scout’s honor!” He put a hand over his heart and made a face he hoped looked like he was wounded. “I was hanging out with a buddy just last year, and he used that on a girl. She slapped him so hard, I thought for sure she’d snapped his neck.”

“Jeez, I can believe that,” she wheezed, clutching her stomach. “That’s awful.”

He grinned and gave her shoulder a friendly punch. “Okay, now you.”

She sucked in a breath and looked thoughtful. “I dunno, I’ve heard some pretty bad ones… Oh, one time, I got, ‘Are you an antiquer? ’Cause I’ve got some junk that hasn’t been touched in years.”

Now it was Isaiah’s turn to double over wheezing, slapping a hand on the bar. “You’re kidding!”

“No, I swear!” Ashley’s face was beet-red from laughing. “And this was in, like, boot camp, so I doubt it’d been touched ever… Your turn, your turn, any other bad ones?”

“Ah, man, let’s see…” He looked at the ceiling, racking his memory. “Okay, so this was from the same friend, I think he was convinced that the worse the joke was, the more likely it was to actually work. He said, ‘Are you my appendix? I don't know what you do or how you work but I feel like I should take you out.’”

Ashley snort-laughed. “Okay, that one might actually work, that was kinda funny.”

Isaiah raised a brow. “Seriously? Okay, then you have to name the worst one you’ve heard that actually worked on you.”

“Ugh, really?” She snorted. “Okay, fine, let me think…”

Before she could answer, though, a throat was cleared on Isaiah’s other side. He jumped and spun, then relaxed when he recognized Garrus. “Would you people stop doing that?” he complained. “You’re gonna give me a heart attack!”

Garrus fluttered his mandibles and ducked his head. “Sorry,” he said hastily. “Our contact’s gone to talk to Fist’s men and set something up. Where’s Shepard?”

Isaiah gestured over Garrus’s shoulder, to where Shepard was still deep in conversation with the old general. “Some turian lady wanted help convincing her grandpa to go home for the night.”

Garrus twisted in his seat, and his mandibles dropped. “Spirits, I know him,” he said. “General Oraka, he and his husband live nearby. Did she say why he was here?”

“Just that he’s lonely, drunk, and crabby about some bad decision he made,” Ashley said.

“Hm. Last time that happened, C-Sec got involved,” Garrus mused. “Glad she found another route.”

“So he is a mean drunk?” Isaiah asked, tilting his head to one side. “The granddaughter said he wasn’t.”

“No, no, he isn’t,” Garrus agreed. “But you don’t want to see what happens when a high-ranking turian general gets brought in to C-Sec. First he gets mad, then the Hierarchy gets mad, then his equally high-ranking husband gets mad, and it’s that third one that’s really scary. Septimus is pretty harmless as far as generals go, but Vartus will bury you alive if you get on his bad side.”

Isaiah’s eyes widened slightly, and he shared a glance with Ashley. “So, we want Shepard to part on good terms with General Sad Face.”

“Ideally, yeah.”

A flash of movement caught Isaiah’s eye, and he turned in time to see the bartender Garrus had been talking to earlier come waltzing up. “Hi, guys! I’m Jenna. So sorry about the wait, something came up, and the guy who’s supposed to cover this shift with me is a no-show. Anything I can get you?”

Isaiah blinked, then cleared his throat. “Uh, can you do a virgin mojito? And a glass of water for my friend, he’ll be back in a couple minutes.”

Ashley lifted a hand. “Shirley Temple?”

“Sure, sure, and sure! Who’s paying?”

Isaiah coughed. “We were, uh, told to put it on General Oraka’s tab? His granddaughter said.”

“Fine by me. Coming right up!” Jenna leaned down to rummage under the bar, and as she went, she added in a low voice, “Fist’s seeing somebody right now, but you’ll get to talk to him once he’s done. I’ll let you know.”

Garrus flicked his mandibles. “Thanks. I owe you one.”

“You and half the station.” She winked as she came back up with a few bottles clutched in one hand and two glasses in another. She set the glasses down and started with Ashley’s Shirley Temple, eyeing the two of them, her bubbly bartender mask back up. “So, you two on a really bad date?” she asked with a wink.

Ashley turned as red as Isaiah felt. “No, no,” she choked out, waving a hand frantically. “Not a date. We’re just on shore leave.”

“Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive,” Jenna pointed out with a grin, sliding Ashley’s drink to her. “But sure, if you insist. So what brings you to this neck of the woods?”

Isaiah fumbled for an answer in his head, but Ashley apparently had one ready. “We got lost,” she said, lifting her glass to her lips. “Our buddy, the one who wants a glass of water? Looking for his girlfriend’s apartment and got us hopelessly lost. No sense of direction.”

Jenna winced in sympathy, now mixing the mojito. “So you end up in Chora’s Den? Tough break.”

“Yeah. He just wanted to take a leak and ask for directions, but he got waylaid. Spotted by an old friend, you know?”

Jenna nodded sagely. “I understand completely.” She slid Isaiah his drink, then reached down to put the bottles away. “I’ll go get you that water for your friend. Enjoy!”

Isaiah watched her go, then spun on Ashley. “How’d you do that?” he asked, just a little bit awestruck. “Just come up with all that off the top of your head?”

She shrugged, taking another drink. “I have three little sisters. Being the oldest means you get really good at bullshitting cover stories.”

Garrus whistled. “Impressive.”

They were interrupted yet again, this time by Shepard sliding in on Ashley’s other side. “I’m back,” he said. “I miss anything?”

“Fist’s in a meeting with someone else,” Garrus told him. “The bartender will let us know when we’re clear to go back.”

Shepard nodded, and Isaiah coughed into his fist. “What about the general?” he asked. “How’s he?”

Shepard shrugged. “I convinced him to go home. I think he was already leaning towards it, I just gave him the push he needed. Kasantia’s letting him finish his drink, then they’ll go to her mother’s place and keep an eye on him there until his husband comes home.” He sucked in a breath and pulled out a datapad from behind his back, presumably tucked into his waistband. “Unfortunately, we now have another errand. The general felt guilty and asked me to take this to an elcor by the name of Xeltan. He- the general, I mean, leaked some of Xeltan’s private information to frame… somebody he was upset with, he wouldn’t say who. This is the proof.”

Ashley raised a brow. “And he did it drunk? Wouldn’t want to get on his bad side once he sobered up.”

“Tell me about it. Anyway, I figured we could swing by the elcor embassy after we’re done here. We can talk to Xeltan, then go to Spectre HQ to meet back up with Saren and Nihlus.”

Isaiah shrugged and took a drink. “Sounds like a plan.”

Jenna came back then, and set a glass of water between Isaiah and Ashley. “Here’s the water,” she chirped. Then she lowered her voice and added, “Finish up quick, the guys say Fist’s ready when you are.”

All eyes turned to Shepard, and Ashley handed him the water as Isaiah tossed back the rest of his drink. Ashley and Shepard followed suit, and within seconds the four of them were on their feet and headed to an inconspicuous little alcove in the side of the room with a door and a krogan standing guard. Heavy footsteps sounded behind Isaiah, and he glanced back to see Wrex had deigned to follow along behind.

The guard curled his lip when he spotted Wrex, but didn’t say anything, just grudgingly moved aside so they could go in. “Watch yourselves,” he snarled after them.

Isaiah didn’t think that would be much of a problem. Security turrets swiveled to aim at them the moment they stepped into the office, blinking lights at the top indicating they wouldn’t shoot until a switch was flipped. Fist himself, if Isaiah’s assumption was correct, sat behind a spacious desk cluttered with datapads and OSDs. He assumed the nickname was meant to make him seem tough, but looking at him, it seemed more like it was a reference to something long past. He had a face like the lovechild of a pug and a toad had had a hot date with the business end of a shovel, all squashed and broad and very, very ugly. Isaiah wasn’t that great with fashion, but it was more than obvious to him that Fist’s suit was way too nice to belong to the owner of a dive like Chora’s Den. Maybe that was what Shadow Broker money could get you. Or maybe Fist just put more into his wardrobe than his business, who knew?

Fist narrowed his beady eyes at them as they approached his desk. “You have a lot of nerve, asking to come see me when I don’t know who the hell you are.”

“And yet, you let us in anyway,” Ashley pointed out.

Fist pursed his lips, then started again. “My men said you have information on Eden Prime you’re willing to sell,” he said. “What do you want for it?”

“Just a little information of our own,” Shepard replied evenly.

Fist hmphed. “Depends what you want to know.”

Shepard folded his arms, paused (for dramatic effect, Isaiah supposed), then asked, “Who’d you sell out the Broker to?”

The reaction was instantaneous. Fist’s eyes shot open wide, and his arm jerked, but Ashley, Garrus, and Wrex all had their weapons out in a heartbeat, trained on his head. After a half-second, Isaiah tensed and gave a mental twitch, drawing up a biotic aura. It was a pretty simple trick, but it usually could give people at least a little fright. “Touch that switch, and you’re a dead man,” Garrus barked. “Hands where we can see them!”

“Alright, alright!” Fist put his hands in the air, visibly quaking. “Don’t shoot! I don’t know too much, I swear! All I know is, they wanted anything I could gather on Eden Prime. Just the colony and the dig site, that’s all they wanted. They offered me good money, and swore the Broker would never know.”

“They just wanted to know about the colony?” Shepard repeated, sharing a look with Ashley.

Fist swallowed. “Well, I mean, that’s all they wanted at first. Then they told me to look out for a quarian with information about… I dunno, something about somewhere in geth space, and if I saw her, let them know. Said they had good intel she’d be on the station and looking for a broker. Then word about the colony attack came, and they said to send them anything I could gather on it. That’s it! Nothing else!”

Garrus flicked a mandible and looked at Shepard. “Sounds like the attackers, alright.”

Shepard nodded to him, then glowered at Fist some more. “The quarian you mentioned, did she ever show up? What did they want with her?”

“I don’t know, honest!” Isaiah thought Fist might be on the verge of tears, judging by the shake in his voice. Some tough guy. “But- but she just showed up not too long ago, she was just in here actually, said she had info for the Shadow Broker.”

“What did you do?”

Fist swallowed audibly. “She wouldn’t deal with me. Said she’d only deal with the Broker himself. Stupid kid, you know, nobody meets the Broker face-to-face.”

“Did you sell her out?” Shepard demanded.

Fist’s eyes were the size of dinner plates. He stammered and babbled for a moment, then swallowed again and practically wailed, “I told her I’d set up an appointment and sent her to the alley that runs behind the marketplace a few blocks down, then sent word to the guys who contacted me that she’d shown! If you hurry, you can still catch her! God, please don’t hurt me! I didn’t think it mattered!”

“Well, you thought wrong.”

BANG!

Isaiah shrieked and jumped so high his head thunked against a ceiling tile. When he came back down, Wrex’s shotgun was still smoking, and everyone else still had their hands over their ears (well, Garrus had his covering his entire head and pinning it down into his cowl, but same gesture). “Jesus, dude!” he practically squealed. “Did you have to do that!?”

Shepard shook his head and rubbed at one ear, then nodded in agreement. “That was unnecessary,” he scolded. “He was cooperating.”

Wrex scowled. “I was paid to kill him. I don’t leave jobs unfinished, no matter how nicely they ask.”

Garrus rumbled something Isaiah assumed he’d need to be a turian to understand, then shook his head. “Well, now we can get into Fist’s terminal. Shepard, you go and see if you can help that quarian, I’ll stay here and see what I can get out of the drives.”

Shepard nodded slowly. “Copy what you need to an OSD, and we’ll meet you back at C-Sec. If there’s a lot of data, just take the whole terminal with you.”

Wrex coughed. “I’ll stick with him. Should have backup in case Fist’s men show up, and the security footage should prove to the Broker I got the job done.”

“Hey, there’s a point,” Ashley said. “Why didn’t anyone run in when the gun went off?”

“Soundproof walls,” Wrex said with a shrug. “Good investment for intel brokers. Also good for killing them.”

Shepard cleared his throat. “We don’t have time to chat. Garrus and Wrex will stay here to dig through the terminal. Williams, Torres, come on, we’ve got a quarian to save!”

And that was that. Before too long, the three of them were sprinting out of Chora’s Den, Shepard in the lead, Ashley hot on his heels, Isaiah bringing up the rear a few paces behind. He wasn’t much of a sprinter. Better suited to endurance runs, really. A lap or two around base, he could do, but the hundred-metre dash? Not his best event. Still, he did his best to keep up with Shepard and Ashley as they tore down the streets of the Wards, weaving around the few people who didn’t leap out of their way at the sound of their thunderous approach.

The marketplace was in sight when his omni-tool went off, and he smacked at his wrist to answer. Chan-mi’s voice rang in his ear: “Isaiah? Is that you? I can’t reach Shepard, what’s going on?”

He struggled to suck in enough breath to answer properly, and only kind of managed. “We’re kinda busy, Chan-mi,” he panted. “Can I call you back?”

“I suppose so, but-”

He slapped his omni-tool off before she could finish. Some little part of him felt bad, but there was no time. He’d apologize later. Right now, he had to focus on running.

The alley entrance was thankfully easy to spot, just a big, gaping gap in the wall with drastically reduced lighting a few paces before the first vendor’s stall. Shepard slowed when he got to it, and Isaiah almost fell over trying not to crash into Ashley. Shepard held up a signal for caution, and crept forward.

The good news was, there was indeed a quarian not far inside, and still alive to boot. The bad news was, she wasn’t alone.

The quarian had her back to their little group as they sidled up behind stacks of crated merchandise for the vendors. Facing her were two figures, both most likely human, one female, the other indeterminate but maybe male. The latter was impossible to miss, a towering mountain of hunter-green armor that couldn’t have been any less than two meters tall. He wore a helmet similar to the one currently being analyzed at C-Sec, complete with gold mask. His partner was positively dwarfed next to him, but what she lacked in size, she certainly made up for in sheer creepiness. She wore a close-fitting, silver-accented black body suit, not unlike the quarian’s, but beneath her hood was a mask that would haunt Isaiah’s nightmares. It was like a gas mask out of history class, black to match her suit, with gold lenses of the same reflective material as her partner’s mask. Even though she wasn’t looking at him, Isaiah could have sworn those lenses were staring directly into his soul. Lining the suit were what looked suspiciously like biotic amplification nodes, the type usually saved for chest pieces and pauldrons. These were all over the suit. That couldn’t be good.

“What’s going on?” the quarian was saying, looking around. “Where’s Fist?”

“He’ll be here,” the little one said. “Just hand over the data, and save us all some time.”

“No,” the quarian snapped, taking a step back. “I’m not doing anything until I’m sure of what’s going on.”

Shepard must have taken that as his cue, because he stood up then, biotics flaring to life. “Leave her alone.”

The quarian spun, the two humans tensed, and Ashley and Isaiah got to their feet. Everyone was still for a moment, then the woman said, “Commander Shepard. My friend wants his helmet back.”

Shepard curled his lip. “Tough luck.”

And then everything exploded.

More accurately, a grenade exploded. The quarian tossed one down and dove to the side, yanking a pistol off her hip as she slid away. Meanwhile, the human in green threw his arms up, the little one stumbled back, and Isaiah and the others ducked back behind their crates. Within seconds, Ashley had her gun out and propped up on top of her cover, and she was squinting down the sights. Ratatatatat! the rifle chattered.

Isaiah just screamed.

Ashley stopped firing while Shepard got up to try and move to a better vantage point. “Torres, what the hell?” she demanded. “You’re in the Alliance!”

“Hey, I told you, I’m biotic support, not assault!” He put his hands close together and focused, watching the ball of a beginning singularity form. “I’m not really a firearms kinda guy!”

Ashley groaned, but shook her head and checked the field again. “Well, you’re in luck, I think,” she said, voice suddenly at a more conversational volume again. “Looks like they’re not too interested in fighting.”

Isaiah blinked, then sat up to look out again. Sure enough, the little one was biotic, and had thrown up a barrier across half the area as the bigger one backed away. “Love to stick around and chat!” she chirped. “Unfortunately, we gotta go. Be seeing you!”

She dropped the barrier, but Ashley didn’t have any time to fire before she’d spun, taken a running leap onto the big one’s back, and disappeared with him in a flash of biotic blue.

Time felt sluggish as Isaiah cautiously emerged from behind the crate. “Did that feel anticlimactic to anybody else?”

Ashley cleared her throat and put her rifle away. “Maybe they knew they couldn’t win, and wanted to get out while they could.”

“Sure, but what the hell was that?” he asked, gesturing to where the two had disappeared. “Just, poof, and gone? What kind of biotics lets you do that?”

“No idea,” Shepard said, rolling his shoulders. “Saren might know. He did something similar at the Tower earlier. Like a biotic charge, but without a target. We can ask when we meet back up with them. In the meantime…” He cleared his throat and made his way over to where the quarian had hunkered down behind the skeletal remains of an abandoned skycar. “Are you alright?”

The quarian stared up at him for a moment, still clutching her pistol, then pointed it at him shakily. “Who are you?” she demanded. “You’re not going to try to kill me, too, are you?”

Shepard put his hands up. “Relax, ma’am, we came here to try to help you. I’m Commander Matteo Shepard, with the Alliance- well, I was with the Alliance Navy,” he corrected hastily. “Special Tactics and Reconnaissance is giving me a test run. This is Ashley Williams and Isaiah Torres. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now Fist set you up?”

Even unable to see her face beyond her glowing eyes, the quarian’s scowl was obvious. “I thought something seemed odd when I was talking to him.” She holstered the pistol, then hauled herself to her feet and dusted herself off. “Sorry, but you can’t be too careful. My name is Tali’Zorah nar Rayya. Call me Tali.”

“I understand completely,” Shepard assured her. “It’s good to meet you, Tali. Fist got paid off by people who thought you had valuable information.”

Tali nodded solemnly. “As a matter of fact, I do. But I’d rather not discuss it here, if it’s all the same to you.”

Shepard nodded. “We have a few things to collect, then we’re headed to Spectre HQ in the Tower to swap notes with the others we’re working with. You can come with and tell us there, if you’d feel more comfortable doing that.”

“Sure.” Tali shrugged. “If you think it’s relevant.”

“Those two seemed to know us,” Ashley pointed out. “Neither of them were at Eden Prime, but they knew who you were, Commander. Gotta be a connection, right?”

Shepard nodded to her. “Exactly what I was thinking. Even if Tali’s info isn’t related to our investigation, it’s connected to that gang, and that’s good enough for me. I’ll call the others, let them know we’ve had a slight change in plans. Then we head back to C-Sec, meet Garrus and Wrex, grab the data from the helmet, and catch a cab back to the Tower so we can say hello to Xeltan and meet up with the others.”

“Hold on,” Tali interrupted, raising a hand. “Did you say Eden Prime? Isn’t that the colony that was attacked? What’s going on?”

The three humans looked at each other, and Isaiah puffed out a long, whistling sigh. “Hoo, boy. Should we take turns?”

Chapter Text

“… so then Tannion was like, ‘You stole my sealant,’ and Mercalin was like, ‘No I didn’t,’ and then the sergeant told them to knock it off, so Tannion used some of Velidus’s sealant, but it totally wasn’t her color, and she was like, so mad, ’cause that shade of pink super didn’t go with her armor, and it clashed, and her hands looked terrible, but she couldn’t do anything about it? But there was no way she could’ve just used plain black, that’s so lame, I mean, no offense, Uncle Saren, it’s not lame when you do it, I mean, you’re a Spectre, so you can’t do anything lame, everything you do is cool by default, I just mean Tannion can’t do plain black, ’cause it looks like shit on her? And-”

“Taniria,” Uncle Saren interrupted, his mandibles hanging low in that way they did when he was trying so hard not to be too mean, “are you going to keep talking the entire way to forensics?”

Taniria blinked and clicked her mandibles against her face. “Um, maybe?” She knew he wasn’t listening to her gossip. He never did. But he was so quiet, she just liked to talk at him and fill the silence. “Do we have to walk the whole way?”

“It isn’t far enough to justify taking a cab,” he said, shaking his head. “Genoa’s lab is only a few blocks from here.”

“A few blocks?” she whined. “But I’ve been walking my spurs off all day! I do that normally, it’s my day off!”

“You should have thought of that before agreeing to help.” He flicked one mandible sharply.

She whined again, but knew an end of conversation when she heard it. That, at least, was something he shared with her father. So she just pulled her cloak around herself, ducked her head into her cowl, and inhaled deep. Her mother’s scent, faint and musty but still comfortingly soaked into every thread, flooded her nose, and she immediately relaxed. It had been a going-away gift, once she’d gotten word she was getting stationed on the Citadel. Mommy had told her it was just so she’d have something suitable to wear around the Citadel, something more adult than her old cloak, but after seeing her wearing it around for several days before departure, she was pretty sure it was so she’d have something to remind her of home.

Not that she was, like, complaining or anything. Mommy’s scent was a comfort that never failed. And Uncle Saren was mean sometimes, sure, but Daddy said he just had trouble dealing with people. He really did care, in his own weird way. He’d let her detour to get her cloak while they were on base, after all. She’d insisted it was just because she was cold, but she was pretty sure he’d known the real reason. At least she could count on him not to tell anyone, except maybe Uncle Nihlus, because he told Uncle Nihlus everything.

Off to her left, there was a rough sound, like a throat being cleared. She picked her head up and blinked at the little human who’d been assigned to help them. Taniria couldn’t remember their name beyond that it started with a tzhah sound and there’d only been two syllables. Spirits, she was going to hear it again and feel like an idiot, she just knew it. Tzhah what? Tzhah-nee, Tzhah-kri? She could hear her brother mocking her. “Huh?”

The little human (and wow, they really were little, they only came up to maybe her elbow, how did anyone live like that?) blinked up at her. “I’m sorry, but I noticed you put your head in your cloak back at the restaurant. I’m curious, why do you do that?”

Now it was her turn to blink. “Um? It’s, um, a comfort thing, I guess? It used to be my mom’s, it still kinda smells like her?”

“Ah.” They nodded like that explained some unknown secret of the universe. “So it’s true, then, that the turian sense of smell is more powerful than a human’s? You can identify each other by scent?”

She nodded, and the human’s mouth covers lips curved upwards. “Pardon me if this is a rude question at all, but what does your mother smell like?”

Taniria pulled her head back, fluttered her mandibles, and let out a questioning trill. Couldn’t they smell – oh, right. No, they couldn’t. They’d just gone over that. Stupid Tanni. She shook her head, then chirped. “Um… Like gunsmoke and metal, usually, but I guess a lot of turians smell like that? I mean, we’re all usually around guns and stuff a lot… Mommy smells like this one kind of tea, I forget what it’s called, she drinks one cup every evening when she gets home ’cause it helps her leg stop aching, and sometimes she’ll make us kids a cup if we have a headache, I don’t know why, but it works.” She flared her nasal plates. “She walks with a cane, ’cause her leg is hurt but she won’t let them do any more surgeries to fix it, Daddy says it’s ’cause she got scared she wasn’t going to wake up the next time they put her under, so every few months she does physical therapy instead, and she comes home smelling like the hospital, and Daddy won’t get close, ’cause he’s afraid of doctors and it gives him bad memories. But every morning, she smells like laundry detergent, ’cause she just wraps herself up in the blankets in her sleep, and when Daddy’s home from deployment she smells like him, ’cause they like to cuddle when he’s home, and…”

She trailed off, caught up in memory. After a moment, the little human cleared their throat again. “And you miss her,” they finished for her.

She flicked her mandibles, trying to stamp down the plaintive cry doing its level best to well up in her throat. “When I went to basic, I got sent to the same base Mommy works at. She has special permission to stay off-base, for medical stuff, and ’cause we live real nearby, so she got to go home at the end of every day, and I got to go home on weekends cause we lived so close, so, um…” She fluttered her mandibles and swallowed, subvocals wobbling. “This is actually my first time away from home for a long time, like, properly? And I’m not even in the same system anymore, much less the same country, and the extranet access on base here isn’t as good as back on Palaven, so I can’t just call, and, and…” A decidedly unprofessional snuffle escaped, and she clamped her mandibles to her face. “And I want my mommy, and my daddy, and my brothers and sister, but I’m not homesick, I just miss them, being homesick is for nestlings, the sergeant said so, and-”

“I could punch your sergeant, you know.”

Her head snapped back up. It had definitely been Uncle Saren’s voice, but he hadn’t turned or made any other indication of having said it. “What?”

Her uncle gave a noncommittal hum. “Telling recruits to stop crying and ‘grow up already’ stunts emotional growth among mandatory service-aged turians. They don’t express themselves for fear of reprimand, which leads to internalization of negative feelings and poor emotional regulation,” he recited, in the dry monotone she’d heard countless kids in her classes use when they’d memorized a quote instead of just writing an outline in their notes. “New studies saying the exact same thing are published every few years. However, drill sergeants are rarely willing to listen to scientists.” One mandible fluttered. “They do, however, tend to listen to getting beaten into the ground. And I have diplomatic immunity.”

Taniria’s brow plates shot up, and she shared a look with Tzhah-something. Thank the spirits, somebody else thought the offer was unnerving. “Um, thanks for the offer and all, Uncle Saren, but I don’t really think that would be a good idea in the long run…” Sergeant Dexilin already called her the squad’s resident spoiled rich brat. The last thing she wanted was for him to think she was using her family to get her way.

Her father was a general, her mother was a captain, both parents were celebrated for something they refused to talk to her about, and both her uncle and the man who was as good as her uncle for how long she’d known him were Spectre agents. She had greatness in her blood, that’s what everyone said. But she wanted to prove it on her own.

“Besides, I’m not homesick,” she added insistently. “I’m just not used to being away from home, is all.”

Uncle Saren seemed to consider this, then shrugged. “If you insist.”

He was quiet for half a second before he flicked a mandible and added, “We’re here, by the way.”

Taniria blinked, surprised, and turned in the direction he’d indicated. Sure enough, a neatly-lettered neon sign reading FORENSICS glowed cheerfully at them from a window, with another, handwritten one slapped in the corner proclaiming that walk-ins weren’t allowed. “Are… we a walk-in?”

“Yes.” Uncle Saren ambled towards the door, motioning for them to follow. “But then, I’m a special case.”

Taniria shared another look with Tzhah-whatsit, then trailed along behind him. Daddy had always said Uncle Saren could be a little strange, but he usually knew what he was doing, so just trust him, and things will probably work out (and call Mommy or Daddy if they don’t). She hoped he was right.

The lab lobby (try saying that twelve times fast, she told herself) was surprisingly spic and span for a place where crime scene evidence got analyzed. There were chairs along one wall, a little table with magazines neatly arranged on top, and a potted plant on every surface that could hold one. In the back of the room were a set of old-fashioned swinging double doors, presumably leading to the rest of the lab. It could have been a dentist’s waiting room.

No, wait, not dentists. Taniria shuddered, remembering the sting of numbing agents and flashes of metal tools. Anything but the dentist.

A drell looked up from behind the counter when the door chimed. They blinked at them, like they were trying to process what they were seeing, then bared their teeth with lips curled up. “Saren! It’s been a while! Who’s this?”

Uncle Saren shrugged and pointed at Taniria first. “Don’t know.” Then he pointed at Tzhah-something. “Don’t care.” Then he stuffed his hands in his pockets and asked, “Are they available? It’s important.”

“Oh, come on, Saren, don’t be rude!” came a new voice, and an asari clad in medical scrubs, a bloodstained tool apron, and massive goggles like something out of a comic book came waltzing out of the double doors. Taniria jumped and took a step back, some part of her brain fully expecting the asari to haul a roaring chainsaw out of their back pocket. Because that made sense.

This must have been the person Uncle Saren came to see, because he didn’t even tense. Instead he just looked at them calmly, one mandible falling lazily to the side. “What a convenient appearance.”

The asari waved a hand. “I was coming down to see if this one sergeant had swung by yet and heard Silyah speak. Now, c’mon, who’s the company?”

Uncle Saren’s subvocals rumbled irritated-resigned-indignant. “Fine. Guess.”

“Hmm.” The asari pushed their goggles up on top of their head and squinted, putting a hand to their chin. “Well, judging by those markings, I’d say you must be the child of the fabled elder brother, huh?” they asked Taniria. “Hanging out with your uncle for the day?”

Taniria felt her neck heat, though she wasn’t sure if it was because she was suddenly the center of attention, or if she was just still embarrassed by her reaction to the asari’s appearance. She ducked her head and told her keelbone, “Private Taniria Arterius. Daughter of General Desolas Arterius and Captain Valis Abrudas.” She couldn’t be faulted for introducing herself like a proper turian youth should, could she? How was she even supposed to address an asari? It wasn’t like asari fit into the crested-crestless pronoun system, and it would be rude to ask for more specific ones. She hesitated, then added, “My uncle asked me to assist with communications.”

The asari made a clucking noise. “A very disciplined answer. Still hasn’t finished mandatory, huh?”

Taniria’s neck burned as Uncle Saren answered for her. “She’s seventeen. This is her first time out of turian space.”

“I see. Well, relax, sweetie, this is a demilitarized zone. No special manners needed, within reason.” Taniria risked a glance up to see the asari showing their teeth for a moment before turning to look at Tzhah. “And you… I don’t know. I have no idea why Saren Arterius, of all people, would be hanging around a human. Who are you?”

Tzhah’s face turned faintly pink. “Ah, Lin Chan-mi, ma’am. With the Alliance Navy.” Oh, that was their name. Whoops.

The asari considered this for a moment, lower lip stuck out just a bit, then folded their arms across their chest and looked at Uncle Saren. “Alliance Navy, huh?”

He growled low in his chest. “It wasn’t my idea. Nihlus is training a human for the Spectres, and I was assigned to work with them. They’re just here to provide communications until the requisitions officer gets to the Spectre offices and I can get a new omni-tool.”

“Did you fry yours again?”

Uncle Saren snapped his jaws. “Why does everyone act as if I do that on purpose?” he hissed, and Taniria instinctively flinched away. Tired-angry-indignant. Her uncle’s subvocals were vicious against her cowl. She wasn’t sure how the aliens couldn’t hear them.

The asari just snorted and raised their hands. “Relax, just curious. So, I’m guessing this isn’t a ‘hi, how you doing’ visit?”

Uncle Saren grumbled, but nodded and shrugged the bag off his shoulders. While he tried to find the clasp, Taniria saw her chance, and cleared her throat. “Um, Uncle Saren? Who is this?”

“Hm?” He glanced at her, then flicked a mandible and went back to his bag. “Right. This is Dr. Genoa Ateci. They run the lab and sometimes do forensic work for the Spectres.”

Taniria blinked with wide eyes at the asari, who perked right up and waved. “Really?”

“Really, really,” Genoa chirped. “I’m very popular.”

“Then put it to good use,” Uncle Saren grumbled, pulling out a long, thin object wrapped in fabric from the bag. “I need this analyzed. Preferably quickly. We need to know where it could have come from.”

Genoa hummed and held out their hands, and Uncle Saren gingerly handed them the package. They unwrapped it carefully, revealing an impossibly thin piece of metal streaked with blue. “Ooh, a sword. Whose blood?”

“Mine,” Uncle Saren said, back to rummaging. “I was stabbed with it. It broke off in my arm.”

“Huh.” Genoa looked it over. “Probably because it’s so thin. Oh, I just got in a new machine that can help, come on, it’s on the fifth floor. Silyah, if Sergeant Donirius shows up, send her up to microbiology, would you? Valena is finishing that analysis for her.”

The drell behind the counter chirped an affirmative, and Genoa whisked back off through the double doors without another word. Uncle Saren pulled another small bundle out of his bag, this one wrapped in what looked suspiciously like fast food foil, and tossed it to himself once before nodding, stuffing the bundle into his sweatshirt pocket, slinging his bag back over one shoulder, and following Genoa. Chan-mi followed suit, leaving Taniria to bring up the rear.

She stopped dead in her tracks one step beyond the doors, her nose awash with the smell of harsh cleaning chemicals and synthetic materials she had no name for. To her surprise, Uncle Saren was waiting for her, one mandible tilted sympathetically. “Here,” he said, handing her a piece of wrinkled, rumpled red cloth. “Put this over your nose, and tie it behind your head. It will mask the smell.”

Startled, she could only do as told as he pulled a second, blue cloth out of a pouch on the side of his bag. Immediately, the hospital smells were replaced with a soft, flowery scent she swore was familiar but couldn’t quite place. The pressure against her nasal plates was odd, but tolerable, though she didn’t particularly like the fabric covering her mandibles. That was an easy fix, at least – she just swung her mandibles out until the fabric fell away, then pulled them back in so the cloth was between them and her teeth. “What are they?” she asked with a tilt of her head.

Uncle Saren finished tying his in place before he answered. “Rags, soaked in perfume and left out to dry overnight. Your father came up with it when I was young. I anticipated coming here last night, and made a few, just in case.”

She blinked at him with wide eyes, reaching up to touch the cloth where her nasal plates made a slight bump in front. “Thank you.”

He only shrugged and motioned for her to follow as he walked off again. She scurried to keep up, and spotted Genoa waiting by an elevator with Chan-mi. They acted like they’d been there all along, and just cheerfully asked Uncle Saren, “So, where’s Nihlus? You two are usually joined at the hip.”

Uncle Saren took a second to readjust himself, then shook his head. “He’s following another lead at the moment, but we’ll be meeting him once we’re done here.”

“How’s he doing? Working himself to the bone again?”

Uncle Saren flicked a mandible, hard. “As usual,” he grumbled. “He nearly collapsed on top of me last night. I want to get our next target sorted out by the end of the day, so he can rest tomorrow.”

“So he was right, you do fuss sometimes. You two married yet?”

Uncle Saren’s neck turned bright blue. “No, and it’s none of your business, regardless.”

Taniria recognized an old song and dance when she saw it. “Aw, but Uncle Saren, remember when I was four, and Uncle Nihlus said maybe he’d be my actual uncle by the time I was ten?”

“I try not to.”

The elevator interrupted them, arriving and opening its doors with a friendly chime. So Genoa just showed Uncle Saren their teeth and offered an upraised hand to Taniria for a high-three (or was it a high-five when it was with a five-fingered species?), then practically skipped into the elevator. Uncle Saren did not offer Taniria a high-three, and instead just gave her a dirty look over his shoulder as he followed, subvocals threatening a family disagreement.

There were a lot of buttons in the elevator. So many, Taniria’s eyes practically bugged out of her head. “Are these all labs?”

Genoa shrugged and pressed the button for the fifth floor. “It’s a skinny building, to be honest. Restaurant on one side, cheap motel on the other, only way to go was up. A lot of departments got spread out to multiple floors.”

“And we’re going to…” Uncle Saren prompted, circling his hand in a continue gesture.

“Autopsy!” Genoa chirped. “I’ve got a new machine that analyzes murder weapons for me. Detects chemical makeups, flaws, dimensions, manufacturing process in some cases, the whole deal. And it can figure out what kind of wounds and damages it would make, if you put in parameters for it. It’s great for detecting if a weapon could actually have killed someone the way you think it might have, or determining where the thing came from, or just figuring out what the shit you just pulled out of some dead guy’s intestines. We just pop your sword in there, let it run for a while, and by the time it’s done, we should at least have a starting point for you.” They paused, then added, “Oh, how’s the wound? If it’s not too healed up yet, we can compare it to wounds from forgemasters we know of.”

“That’s possible?” Chan-mi asked, with a tilt of their head.

“Database for everything these days.” The elevator shuddered to a stop, then opened the doors with a pleasant bong. Genoa promptly took off, striding out into the waiting hallway. “Come on, this way!”

They led them to a glass door set in a glass wall, through which Taniria could see… the morgue. The far wall was shiny steel and full of small, square doors, just the right size for sliding bodies into. The wall to the left was lined with instruments and machines of countless sizes and shapes; to the right, tables and cabinets full of things Taniria couldn’t even fathom. Sterile white tables took up the middle of the room. One was even occupied, by a dead salarian and the asari currently elbows-deep in their gut. A crestless turian with a datapad stood nearby, watching with a tilted head.

As they walked in, the turian and asari both looked up. “Oh, Dr. Ateci!” the asari exclaimed, a split-second before their gaze fell on the rest of them. “Oh, um, never mind,” they amended. “I see you’re busy.”

Genoa waved a hand. “Relax, Mia. I’m just going to get something set up for them, then I can help while Special’s running. What’s up?”

The asari shared a look with the turian, then shook their head. “Would you mind taking a look at this, see what you think? Most of him’s fine, but his digestive tract has… liquefied.”

Taniria’s gizzard churned at that, and she was suddenly very glad the rag Uncle Saren had given her was blocking out every smell in the room. She could handle most smells of death. Turians were predators. But “liquid entrails” wasn’t really a cause of death most turians would want to eat after causing. A glance to one side told her it wasn’t one humans were fond of, either – Chan-mi looked positively green, and Taniria had a sneaking suspicion that wasn’t a normal color for humans to turn. “Uncle Saren,” she whispered, “do you have any more of those rags?”

Uncle Saren glanced over his shoulder, lowered one mandible, then heaved a sigh and reached back to pull out another cloth from the little pouch. Taniria was probably ninety percent certain the look on Chan-mi’s face was either “relieved” or “grateful,” maybe both, maybe neither. It was so hard to tell without subvocals, how did any of the other species communicate properly? Either way, they folded the cloth neatly so it would only cover their nose, not their mouth, which Taniria privately appreciated. She was still learning alien facial expressions, she could use the practice.

Genoa apparently didn’t notice, traipsing over to a big machine with Galactic Standard script on the side. SPECIMEN ANALYSIS MACHINE v3.41, it read. Huh. Simple and to the point. “This is Special,” Genoa chirped, thumping the machine with one hand. “Short for ‘Specimen Analysis.’ I mean, doesn’t translate that way for me, but one of my human interns suggested it, and it rolled off the tongue pretty nice, so we kept it. We just put your sword on this tray, pop it in the chamber, and let it do its thing.” They demonstrated, pulling out a black slab with a handle on one end from a slot in the side of the machine. The slab, upon closer inspection, was more of a drawer, which Genoa deposited the sword into before sliding it back in and pulling up a terminal screen. “Okay, so let’s see… We want anything it can tell us, so that’ll be a full-detail scan, which’ll be… Damn, hope you guys have a bit to spare.”

Uncle Saren’s subvocals growled irritated-resigned again, but this time mixed with impatient. “We have the afternoon.”

“Oh, good, you won’t need that long. Now.” They clasped their hands together, two fingers on each hand outstretched and pressed together. “What do I get in exchange for taking valuable time out of my busy schedule to help Special Tactics?”

Uncle Saren actually hissed this time, but pulled the little foil bundle out of his pocket and tossed it to them. “Here. From a restaurant we visited for lunch. I don’t know what it is, but the humans seemed to like them.”

Genoa caught it, lips curled upward, and carefully unwrapped it. Inside was a mess of browns, with a splash of yellow and garish red. Genoa showed their teeth and exclaimed, “Oh, I know what this is! It’s called a cheeseburger, humans love them. It’s just slabs of ground meat topped with mold and plant paste, between two pieces of grain product.”

Chan-mi blinked slowly. “That’s… I suppose it’s accurate, but it’s not how most humans would describe it.”

Genoa shrugged and took a bite of the “cheeseburger.” “Try to think of things from our perspective,” they said as they chewed. “Us turians and asari, we don’t know your Earth animals or what they taste like, so we have to break things down into their basic components to explain.” They swallowed, then added, “Do you know what a telal is?”

Chan-mi blinked and shook their head. “No.”

“It’s an evolutionary cousin of turians that lives on the Galsian Steppes, back on Palaven. Turians think they’re delicious, but if Goldie here told you she was having one for lunch, you’d probably look at her like she’d grown a second head, same if you told her you were having chicken.” Genoa bared their teeth and spread their arms wide. “It’s all perspective. Fascinating, innit? I’ve got a sibling who works in xenolinguistics, helps develop all those translator updates you get every couple of months. Tells me all about it. Really, all about it. Like, for example-”

“Um, Dr. Ateci?” came a call from across the room. The other asari, the one Genoa had called “Mia,” was still waiting by the body. “Could you, um…”

“Oh, right! Sorry, Mia, I’ll be right over!” Genoa wrapped up the remaining cheeseburger and stuffed it into one of the pockets on their apron, then bustled over to the other table, waving a hand back at them. “Juteia, Agent Saren has a stab wound I’d like you to scan, and compare the results to the database of known forgemasters. We’ve got a mystery sword.”

The turian flared her mandibles and glanced between Genoa and Uncle Saren, then handed her datapad to Mia and scurried over. “Okay, um, Agent Saren, sir, if it’s convenient, I’ll need to see the wound…”

Uncle Saren just sighed and led her a few paces away, rolling up his sleeve. Taniria watched them for a moment, then cleared her throat and turned back to Chan-mi, rocking on the balls of her feet. “So, um… What’s a chicken?”

Chan-mi blinked, then looked at the ground, the fuzzy lines over their eyes knitting together. “Um, well… It’s an animal we eat on Earth, it’s quite versatile, you can make pretty much anything with it. It’s a bit bland of a meat, honestly, unless the chef knows what they’re doing.”

“D’you have pictures?”

Chan-mi looked up, then curved their lips upward. “Oh, of course! Here, one moment…” They pulled up their omni-tool and typed for a few seconds, then turned so Taniria could see. “They come in a lot of different colors and types, of course, but this is… Well, this is the first picture that comes up on an image search.”

Chickens, apparently, were round. Or at least, this one was. A big, colorful orb with skinny, scaly legs at the bottom and two extra lumps sticking out to the left and right. The larger lump was obviously the head, with eyes, a beak, and some strange fleshy bits on the top and bottom. The other lump was… A tail? A wing, maybe? It was small and tapered, whichever it was. Its pelt was an orange-ish brown, with black speckles and some almost greenish color down by the legs. Taniria could really only think of one word to describe it.

“It’s so pretty!”

Chan-mi let out a startled bark of a laugh. “You really think so?”

Taniria nodded quickly. “Yeah! Like, we get those colors a lot on Palaven, but you don’t really see a lot of animals with patterning, ’cause of our plates, the ones that do have patterns are the more scaly ones, especially kori, they’re like a big lizard, but we’re not allowed to hunt those, ’cause they’re sacred, the spirit of Palaven takes the form of a big, blind one, so we don’t eat kori, never ever ever, but we can gather their quills for headdresses for ceremonies and stuff, they’re all stripy, Mommy wore a kori-quill headdress when she married Daddy and it was so pretty, they showed me pictures, I mean, my mommy is already really beautiful and perfect by herself, but the headdress just looked really nice with her plates, and Daddy said if it wasn’t their actual wedding he would’ve asked her to marry him on the spot, and-” She wheezed and panted for a moment. “I’m sorry. I got distracted.”

Chan-mi curled their lips up at her. “It’s alright. You remind me a lot of a friend I had growing up.”

Taniria flicked her mandibles up and down. “Really? Were they nice? Did people like them?” Her gizzard twinged as something less pleasant occurred to her. “What about annoying, did anyone think they were annoying?”

Chan-mi blinked rapidly, then pursed their lips together. “Some people did, I suppose,” they mused. “But they weren’t her friends, and they weren’t really the people most would want to be friends with, anyway.”

Taniria could have hugged her, but before she could do anything, her omni-tool went off. “Oh! Sorry, one second,” she said, pulling up the interface. Her brow plates lowered as she read the display, and she tilted her head. “It’s Uncle Nihlus.” Clamping her mandibles tight to her face, she hit answer, then jumped right in. “Hi, Uncle Nihlus. What’s going on?”

On the other end, Uncle Nihlus hummed low, subvocals low and reassuring. He was more patient than Uncle Saren. She’d learned that when she was little. “Hello, Taniria. Could you please hand the comm to your uncle? I need to talk to him about something.”

Taniria flared her mandibles out, even though she knew he couldn’t see it. “Is something wrong? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, don’t worry.” His subvocals rose in volume, like he was trying extra hard to calm her down. “This just isn’t for you to hear. Spectre business. It’ll just be a moment.” A note of amusement wove into his subvocals. “Believe me, I have no objections to you hearing it, but your father’s been looking for an excuse to kill me since I gave your brother that robot varren for his birthday three years ago.”

Taniria smiled in spite of herself. The stupid robot toy had been small enough that her youngest brother had been able to carry it around in his backpack. Lucipius had loved it. The rest of the family had not – the thing had glitched and kept having a barking fit every few minutes, so while her brother was at clawball practice after school, their mother had “accidentally” knocked it off the balcony with her cane.

Still, she couldn’t really argue with “Spectre business,” so she just sighed, loud and exaggerated so he knew she wasn’t happy about it, and wandered over to where Uncle Saren was holding out his arm for the lab tech. “Uncle Nihlus wants to talk to you. In private. He says it’s ‘Spectre business.’”

Uncle Saren lowered his brow plates and mandibles, but glanced at the tech. “Are we done?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll go run the results. And, um, you should probably redress that arm soon.” She gave a little bow, then scurried away.

Taniria stared after her as she unclipped the comm unit from the lip of her cowl and handed it to her uncle. “Is she okay?”

Uncle Saren gave a noncommittal grunt, fastening the comm onto one of his zygomatic spines. “She’s either frightened or starstruck. I’ll need your omni-tool band.”

She wriggled it off her wrist and handed it over, and he nodded in thanks before walking a few paces away. “It’s me,” she heard him say.

She hesitated, then reluctantly wandered back to Chan-mi and the analysis machine. “So, um… what now?” she asked, rubbing her wrist where her omni-tool used to sit. Uncle Saren had stolen her comm, Genoa was still busy with the dead body, and now there was nothing to do.

“Now you guys can come check this out, if you want!” Genoa called, and Taniria glanced over to see them waving a bloody, gloved hand at them. “I mean, when else are you going to get a chance to see liquefied innards?”

Taniria shared a look with Chan-mi. They bit their lower lip and shrugged. “I suppose it would at least be interesting to see…”

Taniria fluttered her mandibles. “You go first.”

So they did. Taniria followed them back to the table where Genoa and Mia were hovering over the body. Mia had the distinct look of somebody about to either pass out or throw up, but Genoa was almost disturbingly chipper as they rooted through the dead salarian’s innards. “This is great,” Genoa was telling Mia. “It’s been years since we got a case like this, absolute ages. I just love the more complicated deaths, it’s so much more fun!”

Mia swallowed audibly, but managed to shakily curl their lips up when Taniria and Chan-mi got close. “Miarada T’Sare,” they introduced themselves. “I’d offer to shake hands, but, well…” They gave the corpse a rather pointed look. “According to these notes, this is the fourth body like this we’ve gotten in the past couple months, but it’s the first one I’ve looked at. I just… I thought they were exaggerating!”

“So, you have a serial killer, then.” Uncle Saren’s voice drifted across the room, and she turned in time to see him wandering back over. So Uncle Nihlus had been right, it was only a moment. “Want to trade?”

Genoa laughed. “Are you kidding? C-Sec hates giving up serial killer cases to the Spectres. I mean, if another body turns up, they might have to, but still.” They gasped quietly. “Maybe they’ll put Agent Rix on it. Or, ooh, maybe T’Kirev, I wonder if I can put in requests…”

Uncle Saren grumbled and drew up next to Taniria, fiddling with her comm unit in his hand. “I’d do it for free, if it would get me out of this mission.”

Genoa snorted. “You just prefer dead people to living ones.”

“They don’t talk back.” He removed Taniria’s omni-tool from his wrist and handed both it and the comm unit back to her, adding a muttered, “Thank you.”

She took them and nodded respectfully. “Uncle Nihlus is okay, right? He wasn’t just lying so I’d hand the comm over?”

Uncle Saren bobbed his head. “He’s fine. He only needed a name. I’ll explain later.” He flicked one mandible upward. “I don’t think it’s anything your father would kill us over.”

“And are you gonna redress your wound, like the tech said?”

He shrugged and pulled his sleeve back down. “It’s fine. It’s stopped bleeding, and I’ve had worse.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, a reprimand that sounded almost suspiciously like both of her parents combined on the tip of her tongue, but before she could say anything, Genoa spoke up. “You still haven’t explained me what’s going on, Saren,” they said, removing their hands from the salarian’s abdomen and wiping them off on their apron. Was that sanitary? Taniria was too unnerved to ask. “What happened that ended in you getting stabbed and your omni-tool fried?”

Uncle Saren grumbled. “Nihlus was on a retrieval mission that went wrong, and I happened to be in the area when it did. A handful of humans attacked, and destroyed the beacon Nihlus was attempting to secure using an EMP blast.”

Genoa’s brows lowered. “An EMP blast? Did it get your amp, then?”

Uncle Saren grimaced. “Unfortunately.”

They pursed their lips. “Well, let me take these gloves off, then I can do a scan of your implant and pull the error banks off the internal computer. There’s only so many EMPs in the galaxy, I should be able to match your errors to the ones from known blasts.”

Taniria tilted her head. “How will that help?”

Genoa shrugged, peeling off the left glove. “Well, in regards to finding your mystery swordsperson, it won’t. But I have blueprints for a black ops-grade biotic amp surge protector. My sister – not the linguist, a different sister – patented it and gave me a copy since I work with Special Tactics so often. There’s a holo-printer downstairs, I’ll just send the order in and you can pick it up from Silyah on your way out. If we know what kind of EMPs they’re using, I can add specifications for that type. It’ll still work against basically everything, but it’ll be more fortified against those.” She got both gloves off and deposited them on an empty table, then motioned for them to follow. “Come on, Special should be almost done by now. I’ll just do the scan and send the data to the printer while we wait for it to finish up. Mia, can you go file that autopsy report? I think Annalise is downstairs, she can help you if you need it.”

Mia darted off without another word, and the three of them trailed after Genoa. “Is she new?” Chan-mi asked.

“Yeah, poor kid. Just started on her first forensics degree, and she gets the intestine goo guy. Like, welcome to forensics, y’know?” They shook their head and motioned Uncle Saren over. “Here, I’ll need to get at your amp node.”

Uncle Saren thrummed an agreeable subvocal and drifted closer, then turned around so Genoa could reach the back of his head. “I’ll need to take your amp out, if that’s alright,” they said.

“Go ahead.”

And that was the exact moment Taniria learned there was something very distressing about seeing your uncle get a piece of technology pulled out of his head, complete with clicks, a spark, and little wires coming out of the amp. It was probably even better that she didn’t have to see the hole, some part of her brain tried to reason, but thinking about that just made it worse.

While Taniria tried to stay upright, Genoa just clucked their tongue and inspected the amp. “This doesn’t look like your usual. I didn’t know you used Serrice Council amps.”

Uncle Saren grunted. “It’s a spare Savant model I keep for emergencies. My last spare. Serrice Council is getting increasingly hard to find on the market. It’s easiest to go to Spectre requisitions, but the officer only comes in for an hour or two at the end of the business day.”

“Ah.” Genoa nodded sagely and pulled up their omni-tool. “Is that also why you haven’t replaced your omni-tool yet?”

A low grumble. “You have no idea how difficult it is to get ahold of decent combat-grade omni-tools these days.”

“Wow, you sound old.” Genoa chuckled and shook their head, then tapped a key on her omni-tool. “Alright, just hold still a moment.”

“Dr. Ateci?” The tech from earlier was back, now holding an OSD in one hand. What was her name? Juteia? “I ran the wound pattern, like you said. It came back to some place on Noveria, but it’s… smaller, almost? It looks experimental.”

Genoa bared their teeth. “Great! Thanks, Juteia, just give that to one of these three, would you, please?”

Juteia wordlessly offered the OSD to Chan-mi, who dropped it into a pocket. But she didn’t leave, and instead just hovered at the edge of the group, eyeing Uncle Saren.

He must not have appreciated that very much, because his mandibles went down and out. “If you have something to say, I suggest you do it while I’m unarmed,” he rumbled.

Juteia jumped and ducked her head. “I’m sorry, sir,” she stammered, “but, well, you see, my brother, he’s a big fan of the Spectres, collects everything he can get his claws on, you know, and he’d be so upset if he knew I met you, of all people, and didn’t ask, so, um…” She swallowed, then blurted, “If it’s not too much trouble, could I get an autograph? For my brother, I mean?”

Uncle Saren was silent, but his eyes flicked over to Taniria for a half-second before he sighed. “Fine.”

Her gizzard fluttered as Juteia tripped over herself to thank him and pull up her omni-tool. Juteia talked an awful lot like her, at least when she was nervous. Had that been what that look was about?

It had to be that he was just being nice, she decided, watching Juteia bring her uncle a picture to digitally scrawl his admittedly only vaguely-legible signature on. He had a heart, she knew he did. He just didn’t show it very often. Daddy said he was just better with guns than with people, and that was why everyone said he was a jerk. He could be nice without family incentive, right? Right.

The analysis machine chimed pleasantly, and Genoa groaned. “Damn. Another handful of seconds, and these would’ve been in sync. Juteia, when you’re done, would you mind taking care of Special? Take the sword out of the tray, and it’ll have printed the results onto another OSD, so take that out, too. We can look at the screen readout in a minute here. I’ll just send the blueprints to the holo-printer downstairs, and it prints pretty quick, so it’ll probably be done by the time you get out of the elevator. I think I have the blueprints for the Savant model amps, too, I’ll print you a few more spares, save you some time with requisitions.”

Uncle Saren flicked a mandible. “Fine.” Genoa’s omni-tool chirped, and he apparently took that as his cue to shake his neck out and glance between Chan-mi and Taniria. “Call Nihlus and Shepard, let them know we’ll be done here shortly.”

They nodded and pulled their omni-tools up at the same time. Uncle Nihlus’s comm rang once, twice, four times before he picked up. “You again,” he said, and his primary vocals sounded annoyed but his subvocals purred friendly-amused-welcome to assure her he was only teasing.

So she grinned. “Me again!” she trilled. “We’re almost done on our end. We just have to look at some results and pick up a couple things off a holo-printer first, then we’ll head up.”

“Excellent, perfect timing,” Uncle Nihlus purred. “I’m on my way back now, I had to make a run across the Presidium to talk to an old friend. I’ll see you there.”

“Okay, bye Uncle Nihlus!”

She hung up and glanced to Chan-mi, only to drop her mandibles at the way the little human had their lips pursed and brows lowered. “What’s up?”

Chan-mi shook their head. “Commander Shepard didn’t pick up his comm. I’m trying again, perhaps he just didn’t hear.”

Taniria fluttered her mandibles, but decided against saying anything. Uncle Saren was sliding the sword and new OSD into his bag, so she turned on him. “Was that ‘old friend’ Uncle Nihlus mentioned who he called about earlier?”

“Yes.” Uncle Saren shrugged the bag back onto his shoulder and stuffed his hands into his hoodie pocket. “You’ll find out once we’re back at the Tower. Be patient.”

She suppressed the urge to groan. She hated being told to be patient. What was she, six? But she’d learned early on that her uncle was a lot harder to pester information out of than her father, so she just kept her mouth shut and looked back at Chan-mi, who by now was groaning and rapidly typing. “Still not answering?”

“No,” they answered with a huff. “I’m going to try Isaiah and hope they haven’t all gotten into trouble. Here, I’ll put it on speaker.”

They hit two more buttons, and a dial tone emanated from Chan-mi’s wrist, then a ring. Two-

Click!

“Isaiah? Is that you?” Chan-mi exclaimed. “I can’t reach Shepard, what’s going on?”

The Isaiah human panted into the comm, slightly muffled by a constant whoosh of air rushing past the mic unit. “We’re kinda busy, Chan-mi,” they panted. “Can I call you back?”

Chan-mi glanced around the circle, then back at their omni-tool. “I suppose so, but-”

The line went dead before they could finish, and they groaned. “Really?” they complained. “He didn’t even let me finish…”

“It sounded like he was running,” Genoa pointed out. “Or, well, in the middle of something strenuous, anyway.”

Uncle Saren fluttered his mandibles. “It’s out of our hands,” he hummed. “We just have to wait.”

Chan-mi sighed and deactivated their omni-tool. “Right. What did the machine say?”

Genoa rounded on the machine’s display, and the three of them crowded around them. “Let’s see now, what’s relevant… Nothing special about the chemical makeup, so that won’t help… Huh. Well, that’s new.”

“What?” Taniria asked, squinting at the holo. “What’s it say?”

“It says here that the blade is abnormally thin. I mean, we knew that already, it’s a skinny piece of metal, but I figured it was just the type of blade.” They zoomed in on one section of the report, and a series of numbers popped up. “But it looks like this is an attempt at a monomolecular blade. Not a very good one, Special says it’s a ways off, but here – see this number, the edge thickness?”

They tapped one entry, and it highlighted for them to see easier. “That’s much thinner than your standard skinny blade. Somebody was trying to get this thing as thin as physically possible.”

“Why would you want a monomolecular blade?” Chan-mi asked. “That doesn’t sound plausible. Or like a good idea, honestly.”

Genoa shook their head. “Supposedly, if you can hone the edge down to a single molecule, or as near as you can get it, it’ll cut anything in its path. If I remember right, it works in theory, but in practice, the blade breaks before it gets anywhere close. It’s just too thin. And theory says even if it does work, you’d have to be sharpening the thing pretty much after every single use. It’s impractical, y’know?” They shook their head again, apparently mystified by whoever was stupid enough to make such an unreasonable sword. “Anyway, the thickness, or lack thereof, is why it broke so easily. A sword like this would be meant for slicing and dicing, not stabbing. Either that was a last resort, or your attacker didn’t think this was a good idea, either.”

“Perhaps it was both,” Uncle Saren grumbled. His mandibles went down and out, and his subvocals sang unhappy-reluctant-despairing. “I suppose we have questions for this forgemaster on Noveria.”

Genoa sucked in a breath. “Wow, I super do not envy you. Have fun!”

Taniria shared a look with Chan-mi. “Wait, what’s Noveria, and what’s so bad about it?”

Uncle Saren grimaced and turned to head for the door. “Ask your parents, and be happy you get to stay behind. We need to get going.”

They hurried to follow, and Genoa called after them, “Silyah will have the holo-prints ready for you. Good luck!”

Uncle Saren growled under his breath. “If we’re going to Noveria, I’m going to need it.”

Chapter Text

Nihlus stifled a yawn as he lumbered along the Presidium for what felt like the ninetieth time that day. Usually, when he had to go to this part of the station, it was just for an hour or two, he stayed in one place in the Tower, and he wouldn’t be coming back for at least another month. But no, this was one of those missions, the ones that sent him scurrying all over the station with barely a minute to sit down. At least public transit was reliable.

If nothing else, at least he’d gotten the lowest-effort part of the plan. While Shepard and Saren got to run all over the Wards, he got to spend his time in Spectre HQ running bits of data through a computer, and maybe a few minutes in the salarian embassy talking to Valern.

Maybe not necessarily in that order. As he approached the Tower, he spotted a long, thin shape sitting at the feet of one of the statues on either side of the main stairs. Valern had his eyes closed, and one leg swung lazily over the edge of the statue’s pedestal, the other tucked neatly underneath him. His head was tilted slightly up, basking in the artificial heat and light of the Presidium’s simulated sky.

Nihlus blinked, then cleared his throat and approached. “Councilor Valern!”

One eye slid open. Somehow still managing to look imperious despite his relaxed position, Valern regarded him silently for a moment, then closed the eye again. “I’m on break.”

Nihlus suppressed a groan. Valern was notorious for being the councilor most difficult to work with when he had no interest in working with you. “It will only take a minute, Councilor. I only have one question.”

“I’m a salarian, Kryik, even a single question can take hours to answer. Come back later.”

Nihlus clicked his mandibles to his face. He’d been at this job long enough to have a basic grasp of salarian social code, and it all came down to what they did, not what they said.

Salarians only had forty years to get things done. If they were done talking to you, they were done talking to you, and you knew it by the scrape of their feet against the ground as they walked away. But Valern didn’t leave. He merely pulled his hanging leg up onto the pedestal, crossed his legs, and wriggled slightly to get more comfortable against the marble. You may speak, but don’t test my patience.

Nihlus waited three heavy turian heartbeats before speaking again. “Councilor, I need to know where Taeja is. It’s important to our investigation.”

That earned him a half-opened eye and pursed lips. “You’re missing two-thirds of your team, Kryik.”

The question was obvious enough. “We split up to cover more ground. Shepard is handling the helmet and checking informants, and Saren is taking the sword to forensics.”

“Acceptable.” The half-lidded eye slid open fully, and the other followed suit after half a second. “You have thirteen minutes before I have to go inside and speak with the dalatrasses. But allow me to guess. Saren tracked suspicious human traffic to the colony from Sur’Kesh, so you’re hoping to trace it from Sur’Kesh back to wherever it came from first, and Gurji is your best chance of doing that.”

“She was the one who found it in the first place, so yes,” Nihlus said with a nod. “As a Sur’Keshi native, Taeja is the best source we have available for following traffic through Pranas’s mass relay without treading on any dalatrasses’ toes.”

“That will happen regardless,” Valern commented dryly. He straightened up, propping his elbows on his knees for better balance. “Unfortunately for you, the Gurji bloodline is not a popular one on Sur’Kesh, at least not politically speaking. Brutes, delinquents, and trouble-makers, every one of them. Beelo’s name and the Council’s favor are all that keep them from being blacklisted from the breeding pools. Taeja in particular is rumored to be Beelo back for another round. You’ll do yourselves no favors running around the planet at her behest.”

Nihlus lowered his brow plates. “With all due respect, Councilor, I know a dodge when I hear one. We’d only be on Sur’Kesh for a few days at most. Frankly, I’ll take my chances. Where is she?”

Valern looked him up and down, then harrumphed. “Did you learn to be stubborn from Saren, or was that already in you?”

“I get it from my mother, Councilor.”

“My condolences to her, for having to raise you. However, in this case, wrapping your feet in the weeds will do you no favors. I believe I mentioned in the meeting that Gurji is deep-cover at the moment. The only one allowed to contact her is me, and even I must go through a proxy. Anyone else puts her at risk.”

Nihlus pulled his mandibles tight to his face. “But if you could just tell us an approximate location, we could go there ourselves, and let her come to us,” he argued. “She knows how to stay hidden better than prey in the cold months. We wouldn’t compromise her mission.”

Valern bared his teeth, then twitched a membrane and shook his head. “You know the policies regarding deep-cover as well as I do, Kryik. No contact.”

Nihlus opened his mouth to argue, but Valern held up a hand. “However,” he said, “I can pass word along to Gurji that you’re looking for her. When she feels it’s safe to do so, she will contact you herself.”

Nihlus worked his mandibles in small circles, lowering his brow plates further, then sighed. It was a compromise, at least. “Fine,” he said. He could accept a compromise. He could be patient. “Thank you, Councilor.”

Valern nodded, already looking away to check his omni-tool. Without another word, he hopped off the statue and headed for the doors, typing away.

Nihlus waited for him to get a decent distance ahead, then loped on up the stairs and into the Tower proper. Spectre headquarters had been put on the floor below the lobby, mostly so the Spectres could spread out and claim as many basement floors as they needed as the department grew. The salarian agents loved it, of course – the underground waterways used for keeping the various reservoirs and decorative lakes around the station were also quite popular routes for salarians to get around quickly without having to walk around everywhere, and one such path happened to run directly alongside the Tower basement. A new airlock had been one of the first things installed, on request from Beelo himself.

(Swimming in the passages was technically illegal, but when even the councilor did it, no C-Sec officer felt brave enough to enforce the rule.)

Usually, Nihlus was able to slip into the building and over to the elevators without notice, which suited him just fine. But today just didn’t seem to be his day.

“Hey, Nihlus,” an unhappily familiar voice purred as he approached. “Mind stopping for a chat?”

If it had been any other reporter on the station, Nihlus would have just taken a hard right and headed for the stairs. But no. None other than Councilor Sparatus’s wife was standing next to the elevator call button, leaning against the wall with camera drone hovering at her shoulder. Aediteia was friendly, as far as aging crestless turians went anyway, but she was notoriously stubborn when she smelled a story. And, unfortunately for him, being married to one of the galaxy’s three most politically relevant people meant she had an incredible nose for them.

He tried not to meet her eyes as he walked up and pressed the call button. “I’m a bit busy today, ma’am. Can it wait?”

“Oh, it’s just a couple questions, it won’t take long.” Her mandibles fluttered in the corner of his eye, and he suppressed a shudder. When the cameras were off, she was your standard old broody, an empty nester who chattered about her grandchildren and invited Spectres over for dinner. But on-duty, she could get downright predatory. “Please? For me?”

He hesitated, then eyed her warily. “I get the strangest sense I already know what you want to talk about.”

She quirked one mandible up and folded her arms under her keel. “You mean the human Spectre?”

He heaved a sigh as the elevator arrived with a pleasant chime. “Of course.”

She laughed and followed him in, camera drone loyally floating along behind. “Ierian’s been cranky about it since Tevos reopened applications for humans. You should have heard him last night, Tevos insisted on discussing your report right after you confirmed the meeting time, he was in a bad mood for the rest of the evening. He was all soft and sunny with me, of course, couldn’t nick a scale on me to save his life, the big flower-eater, but spirits, I heard him rumbling from a room away.”

Nihlus pushed the button for the first basement floor, raising one brow plate at her. “And you pieced everything together just from overhearing that call?”

“Oh, spirits, no.” She waved a hand. “Ierian came in to bed and complained about all the talking he was going to have to do. Reassuring people he hadn’t lost his damn mind, mostly. Then he made me promise not to release any information until after the official press announcement. Which goes out at the end of the business day, so I’ve been getting quotes and footage all day.” She leveled one lovingly-manicured talon at his nasal plates. She was only the third-shortest turian he knew (following her own daughter in second and Saren in first), but she certainly knew how to make up for it. “You have been very hard to find today. You haven’t been avoiding the press, have you?”

He crossed his eyes to keep her talon in focus, raising both brow plates and lowering his mandibles. “Who, me? No, ma’am,” he said, and he allowed himself a moment to be proud he hadn’t stuttered. “I’ve just been busy in the Wards.”

Luckily, she was an easy reporter to please. She lowered her hand and flicked her mandibles, subvocals singing amicable-cheerful-apologetic. “Well, that’s perfectly alright. Can I get a blurb on the mission, dear?”

Oh, no. The dreaded pet names. Very dangerous. “Let me ask your husband, and I’ll get back to you on that,” he hedged, trying to resist the urge to tap his talons against his thigh as the elevator slowed to a stop. There was always a delay between stopping and the doors opening, no matter what the techs fiddled with. He wasn’t sure what was worse, that, or how agonizingly slow the elevators themselves could be.

Aediteia flicked her wrist so her talons would clack together. “Making my job difficult today, I see. C’mon, at least a bit about Shepard? Just a quote or two? Please?”

The doors mercifully slid open, and he strode out into the big open area before the headquarters proper. A statue of three figures with their backs to each other dominated the floor, an homage to the original three Spectres. Beelo, of course, and his two hand-picked allies, batarian troublemaker Rothok Shad’derah and quarian serial arsonist Sol’Raan. Supposedly, after Beelo had been recruited out of prison and begun the first-ever Special Tactics mission, he’d realized he needed help, and first tracked down his cellmate, Rothok, then gotten the Council to release Sol when they needed heavy weapons. Of course, that was back before the Krogan Rebellions; in the modern day, the three of them were frozen in rock, guarding their legacy’s entrance and, Nihlus swore, watching him as he headed for the doors with Aediteia hot on his tail. “Are you allowed to be down here?” he asked over his shoulder, hoping that would distract her.

“I need footage of a few things, and Ierian gave me a pass as long as there’s other people in the area.” For someone with such short legs, she certainly moved quickly. By the time he’d passed the statue, Aediteia had caught up and was trotting along at his side. “Nihlus, sweetheart, please, a story like this only comes around once a generation,” she pleaded. “I’d barely gotten my youngest off my hip when the Anderson fiasco happened. Help me out here, would you? I just want some sound bites, then I’ll go pester somebody else for a while.”

He hesitated outside the doors, then sighed. As much as he wanted to protest, he couldn’t really find much of a reason to. Besides, Aediteia was a gentle soul. It was difficult to tell her “no” without feeling bad about it later. “I can’t right now,” he said, trying to put an apology into his subvocals. “But if you can wait another hour or so, Shepard themselves will be back here, and I can see about getting them to talk to you.”

Aediteia’s entire being lit up. “Spirits, really?” When he nodded, she bounced on her toes, clasped her hands together, and trilled so high it was very nearly a squeal. “I knew it, I knew you were a good bet, I just knew it! Spirits, thank you so much, Nihlus, you really are a dear, you know that?” She let out a series of whistles and chirps, then continued, “Spirits, you’re not allowed to leave this station before you come over for dinner, okay? Even if it’s just takeout an hour before you have to get going, I insist.”

His mandibles lifted in spite of himself. “Should you really be thanking me already? You haven’t even met them yet.”

“Hey, a promise to try is better than a ‘get lost,’” Aediteia hummed. “Now, we both have work to do, so be a sweetheart and let me in, would you, please?”

He bobbed his head, pulled up the keypad for the doors, and punched in his entry code. Each Spectre got a unique one, just to make it harder for anyone without authorization to get in. Technically, the media were allowed their own access code, but the Council always “forgot” to share it. Nobody wanted reporters abusing the privilege.

The holo-lock turned green a split second before the doors slid open, and Nihlus wandered in, stuffing his hands in his pockets. The main room was the one with all the terminals, one at each of the twelve desks around the edge of the room, plus a massive holo-table in the middle for planning out strategies, plotting a path on a galaxy map, or just laying out all the data you had for the mission. Each terminal had a different set of specialized software, both to reduce wait times and to prevent one terminal from getting bogged down with too much programming. Rather than the standard tiny holo-screen monitor most terminals got, these utilized a set of five, one big one with two smaller on either side of it, so multitasking and looking at multiple windows at once didn’t require too much flipping back and forth.

As expected, a familiar brown head was at the terminal neatly labeled DECRYPTION, and looked up at the sound of talons on tile. Serlius took a second to recognize them, then bobbed his head. “Kryik. Lady Sparatus,” he thrummed. “Watch out for-”

He didn’t need to finish the sentence, because his daughter interrupted him before he could. There was a slight scrabbling noise, then Caien popped out from behind one side of the table. “Misser Nihlus! Missy Teia!” she whistled, waving enthusiastically. “Hi! Hi!”

Aediteia purred and waved back. “Hi, Caien! Are you helping Daddy today?”

“Uh-huh,” Caien chirped proudly, drawing herself up to her full height and tottering slightly to keep her balance. “Mommy an’ Auntie Theri are shopping, an’ it’s for my birthday so I’m not s’posed to see, so I’m helping Daddy fix the ’puter!”

“And she’s doing a very good job,” Serlius said, shaking his head while Caien couldn’t see him. Then he sighed and turned back to the terminal. “Millie was out on deployment when Caien’s birthday rolled around, so she promised her we’d wait until she came home to celebrate. Then it turned out I had to come here to fix this stupid thing, so the sister that lives here got involved, too. We’re staying in her guest room until I can get this hunk of junk working again.” He grumbled and smacked the humming hard drive. “Just wait ’til I get my hands on Rix. I have no idea what he was doing to crash it so hard, but whatever it is, I’m going to sharpen the edges and shove it down his throat.”

“No, you won’t,” Aediteia hummed, picking up a cooing Caien and tucking her against her cowl.

Serlius heaved a sigh. “No, I won’t,” he agreed. “Still, this thing’s a disaster. You know Bau’s the one who asked me to do it? He said I have a ‘magic touch’ with computers. Pah. Fifty credits says that’s just salarian for ‘you’re a bigger nerd than me.’ I spend a month and a half on the ground on Shanxi, save my entire squadron from an ambush with a single well-placed turret, and this is what I get for it.”

Nihlus shared a glance with Aediteia, then shook his head and wandered over to the terminal two to Serlius’s left, labeled DATABASE SEARCH. Serlius Ezekian was easily one of the most mild-mannered of the Spectres until he got frustrated. He rarely actually meant any of it. Nihlus had learned to tune it right out.

While he input his access code and waited for it to log him on, Aediteia just clicked and whistled. “I need to get a few shots around HQ, Serlius,” she told him. “If you want, I can take the baby along, let her stretch her legs and explore a little.”

Caien gasped. “Can I, Daddy? Please! I’ll be good!”

Serlius was quiet for a minute, then sighed again. “I suppose so,” he rumbled. “But you have to promise you’ll do whatever Miss Teia tells you, okay?”

“I will! I promise!”

Another sigh. “Okay,” came the reluctant response. “Go ahead.”

Caien cheered, and Aediteia chuckled. “I’ll keep a close eye on her,” she assured Serlius. “We won’t be long.”

“Oh, go ahead and wear her out,” Serlius said. “I’d love to give her back to her mom in the middle of naptime. I think Vasir is still lifting weights downstairs, if you want some shots of her biceps.”

Aediteia just laughed, waved a hand, and drifted out of the room, cooing to Caien, “Why don’t you tell me about this birthday party you’re having?”

Nihlus turned his head to watch them go, and Serlius sighed one last time. “I love her, but spirits, that kid’s a handful. I know I probably shouldn’t have her down here, but this program is driving me absolutely bonkers. I just want to get it fixed so we can go home. If that means I bring a three-year-old into HQ, well, so be it.”

Nihlus glanced at him, then back at the terminal as it finally chimed that he was logged in. “Relax. She’s the second younger relative I’ve run into today. Saren’s niece is helping him with comms until he gets a new omni-tool. I don’t suppose you know how to get these terminals to log us in faster?”

Serlius snorted. “Not a chance. This OS just has bad login coding. Tastaf sent out a corporate statement about it. They promised to fix it in the next release, but spirits know when that’s coming out, of course.” He hummed low, and a series of quiet beeps told Nihlus he’d gone back to his coding. “How’s the niece doing? That’s the general’s daughter, right?”

Nihlus took a seat, scrolling through the various shortcuts in the menu to find the cloud storage synced to his omni-tool. “Yes, his oldest. Taniria. She’s doing fine, as near as I can tell. She’s seventeen already, I remember when she turned seven.

Serlius grunted. “Welcome to my world. It feels like just last week I was requesting paternity leave, and now she’s running around endearing herself to the boss’s wife. It’s going to be fun when she goes off to basic, and me and Millie are still snuffling over her baby blanket.” He hummed deep in his chest, then asked, “Have you ever thought about kids? I’m not saying you should go out and have one or anything, I’m just curious.”

Nihlus hummed, clicked on the right shortcut, and put his chin in his hand while he waited for it to load, idly dragging the window over to one of the smaller monitors so he could save the big one for the search. “On occasion. I wouldn’t mind one or two, though I don’t think it would be a good idea until after retirement, and of course, only if Saren agreed. You know how he is with other people.”

Serlius chuckled to himself. “Fair enough. It sounds like he gets on okay with his brother’s kids, though.”

“True, but those are his brother’s. He can give them back to their parents whenever he decides he’s had enough.” Nihlus shook his head and straightened up so he could start hunting through his data for the security images with the face they were looking for. “I think he’s content with being an uncle.”

Serlius clicked his mandibles against his jaw. “Whatever suits you. Not everyone’s cut out for parenting. Are you two ever even going to get married?”

Nihlus tensed slightly, more out of habit than anything else. Then he shook his head and went back to the hunt, squinting at the monitor. Thumbnails only seemed to get smaller every year. “We’ve discussed it a few times. Hypotheticals, mostly. A small ceremony, just family and close friends. I doubt either of us will actually make a move until we’re retired, at this rate, but I suppose there’s a comfort to knowing he’s not opposed to the idea.”

“If it makes you feel any better, Millie proposed to me twice a month for a year before I said yes.” Serlius chuckled dryly to himself. “She didn’t buy my nonsense about wanting to keep it casual for a heartbeat. Not with how I looked at her, she said.”

Nihlus snorted, finally locating the right pictures and dragging them over to the search function. “Alright, Mr. Griffith, let’s see where you’ve been,” he mused, letting the recognition software get started while he adjusted the window so it took up only half the screen. From there, he opened a new search window, and typed in the name, painstakingly copying it out in Galactic Standard calligraphy rather than the Turian Imperial his omni-tool had automatically converted it to. He entered a few extra search parameters – occupation, location, and species – and hit enter, then sighed, sat back in his seat, and folded his arms under his keel. “And now we wait.”

The room lapsed into an amicable silence, broken only by Serlius muttering to himself as he went through the code. The search engines ran refreshingly quick after the almost painful login time, but with how much data they had to comb through, there was still enough time for Nihlus to close his eyes and get comfortable.

When the terminal finally chimed at him to signal the end of a search, he reluctantly opened his eyes and sat up with a shake of his head. The image search was still running, understandably, but the name search window was almost distressingly blank. No results found within parameters, the screen reported. Recommendations: Widen search. Check spelling.

He frowned, mandibles fluttering. Then the terminal chimed again, and the image search returned another window. No results found, it echoed. Recommendations: Input clearer photographs. Ensure image is cropped properly.

His mandibles went down and out. The name search, he could understand, for the most part. Sometimes databases simply didn’t have everything. But the images? There should have been something. Something wasn’t right.

He worked his mandibles in small circles, staring intently at the screen and trying to think. Unfortunately, all his ideas eventually circled back around to one solution, and it wasn’t his favorite in the galaxy. But it was all he had, and they didn’t have time to go the long way.

He pushed himself to his feet and tapped the key to lock the terminal, then headed for the doors. “Don’t let anyone touch that, would you?” he asked Serlius. “I’ll be back.”

Serlius barely spared the effort to wave a hand and grunt in acknowledgement. Engineers.

He waited until he was back out of the Tower and walking along the pathway towards the financial sector to pull up his omni-tool. He didn’t particularly need anyone overhearing what he was calling about. Granted, it wasn’t the biggest scandal in the galaxy, but there was bound to be at least a handful of people who wanted to hassle him about it.

With a sigh, he started sorting through his contacts. The captain, as he still referred to Saren’s sister-in-law in his head after all these years, had all but begged him to let Taniria have his contact information, in case of emergency. It made sense, of course; having both himself and Saren in her contacts meant that Taniria would always have somebody she could call for help, especially given her father rarely left turian space and her mother hadn’t even gone beyond Palaven’s orbit in years. And it certainly came in handy now, of course. But that didn’t make him any less apprehensive about hitting the call button.

She picked up almost right away. “Hi, Uncle Nihlus,” came the too-chipper voice. Anxious-suspicious subvocals undercut her attempt at sounding normal, as teenagers were wont to do. Lying with subvocals took years of practice, and Nihlus had it on good authority Taniria’s parents hadn’t accepted that sort of behavior one bit. “What’s going on?”

He took a deep breath, then rumbled out reassuring subvocals, low yet loud enough for his comm unit to pick them up. “Hello, Taniria. Could you please hand the comm to your uncle? I need to talk to him about something.”

She hesitated. “Is something wrong? Are you okay?”

He flared his mandibles and mentally kicked himself. Should’ve opened with that, he scolded himself firmly. “I’m fine, don’t worry.” He forced his cowl to vibrate more intensely, hoping beyond hope the heightened subvocals would soothe her. “This just isn’t for you to hear. Spectre business. It’ll just be a moment.” A thought occurred to him, and he allowed a note of laughter to slip into his subvocals as he added, “Believe me, I have no objections to you hearing it, but your father’s been looking for an excuse to kill me since I gave your brother that robot varren for his birthday three years ago.”

She went quiet for another moment, apparently thinking this over, then heaved a loud, very clearly exaggerated sigh. Teenagers. There was a faint whoosh of air passing over the comm, like she was walking, then he heard, “Uncle Nihlus wants to talk to you. In private. He says it’s ‘Spectre business.’”

He heard Saren and another, unfamiliar voice in the background. Then there was a series of scrapes and clunks, presumably as Taniria’s comm unit was transferred to Saren. When they faded away, Saren was talking, requesting Taniria’s omni-tool band. A moment longer, then Saren cleared his throat. “It’s me,” he said, and Nihlus’s gizzard twinged with relief. “What’s going on?”

Saren didn’t broadcast his every thought and emotion like his niece, but Nihlus knew him well enough to hear the question he didn’t voice. “I’m fine, I promise,” he assured him. “I ran a search on the security footage and that name we pulled from the rosters, and got nothing on both. I was thinking we may want to look into… getting a little help.”

Saren was quiet for a minute, then thrummed, “You forgot the name of the Shadow Broker agent on the Presidium, didn’t you?”

Nihlus put his free hand over his face. “I remember they’re a volus, and they work over in the Emporium. I’m already on my way, I just need the name.”

Saren’s subvocals sang with amusement. “Their name is Barla Von. A financial consultant, if I remember correctly. Business should be slow this time of day.”

Nihlus exhaled slowly. “Thanks, Saren.”

“This is what you get for pointing it out that I forgot the word for ‘beacon,’ Nihlus.” He could just picture the smug grin Saren was probably wearing at that moment. “Now we’re even.”

Nihlus grumbled and dragged his hand down his face. “I hate you. So much.”

“No, you don’t.” Saren never needed to laugh. His subvocals did it all for him. Amused-pleased-affectionate, they whispered through the comm. “Anyway, we’re waiting on a machine here, and then we’ll be on our way. It shouldn’t take too long. I’m thinking something light and simple for dinner, after such a heavy lunch, what about you?”

“I feel like I should be amazed you’re already thinking about dinner at all, but I’m not.” Nihlus sighed and shook his head, glancing up to check where he was. “I should get going, I’m almost there. We can discuss dinner later.”

“Suit yourself. Taniria likely wants her omni-tool back, anyway.”

Nihlus nodded, one talon hovering over the ‘end call’ button. “Bye, Saren. I’ll see you soon.”

“Goodbye, Nihlus.”

He ended the call, then deactivated his omni-tool and shook his head. Already planning dinner. He should have guessed. As often as Saren forgot to eat like a normal person, it was nearly impossible to go hungry when he was around, because he was always thinking about food and what was in the vicinity that he was willing to eat. Provided he decided to, of course. Gizzard-brain.

The financial emporium, where most bankers and merchants gathered to trade goods and secrets, was mercifully close to the Tower. Logical, really. The volus’s role as the main financial brainpower on the Citadel meant it was in everyone’s best interest to have the two within a reasonable walking distance. Barla Von’s office was a few doors past the big open area where tradesfolk with nothing particularly important to do gathered to socialize and discuss… whatever it was bankers talked about for fun, and neatly labeled with a holo-sign attached to the building overhang. The holo-lock on the door glowed a steady green, which Nihlus decided to take as an “enter at your leisure.”

Sure enough, Barla Von was alone in their office when Nihlus wandered in. They looked up from their terminal, then nodded and motioned for him to take a seat. “Khhht. Agent Kryik. The news, khhht, mentioned you this morning, khhht. Agent Saren is not with you today? Khhht.

Nihlus shook his head and pulled out the chair Von had indicated. “Saren’s busy elsewhere,” he said. Did they really work together that often, that even people he barely knew expected Saren to be within shouting distance? Other Spectres he could understand, but there was something strange about hearing it from a volus he’d only met maybe twice before.

“Khhht. Of course. My apologies, for assuming.” Von just breathed for a moment as they tapped a few keys on their terminal, then looked back up at him. “Now, khhht, what does Special Tactics need from me?”

Nihlus flicked a mandible, folding his arms under his keel. “It’s more of what Special Tactics needs from your employer, really.”

Von was quiet for a moment, then hrmmed. “Of course. Khht. As I assumed. Spectres rarely request, khht, financial advising.” They waved a hand. “You’re all hoarders.”

Nihlus quirked up a mandible. “Never know when we might need it.”

“Of course, of course. Khhht. Now, what can the Shadow Broker do for you?”

Nihlus leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees. “There’s a face I need you to run for me. Spectre database access didn’t return anything. Not even government records. It’s as if-”

“- someone wiped it from the system,” Von concluded for him. “I see. Khht. And you’re hoping the Broker will have data, khhht, the hacker wouldn’t have, khht, access to.”

Nihlus nodded. “Wiping digital records of someone’s existence only works for systems you can find. Any underground intel networks would be untouchable, unless the hacker was already a member, and the Broker has the most extensive net in the galaxy.” He pulled up his omni-tool and found the security footage, then held it out so Von could see. “This human is a suspect in the Eden Prime attack. We need anything the Broker can give us.”

Von examined the picture for a moment, then nodded. “I understand. Do you have, khht, a more accessible file? An OSD, perhaps, khhht.”

Nihlus nodded and pulled the OSD from Saren’s bag out of his pocket, glad they’d thought to divvy up all the evidence according to who was most likely to need it back at the restaurant. He held it up for Von to see and said, “This has all our data from Eden Prime, with the most important separated into its own folder. I already ran the name, and got nothing fitting the parameters. I’d be willing to bet it was a pseudonym.”

Von nodded and accepted the OSD from him. “I will message you when the search is, khhht, complete. We can negotiate a price then.”

Nihlus nodded and got to his feet. “Thank you. I’ll be waiting.”

Von waved a hand. “Until later, Agent Kryik. It was good seeing you again. Give Agent Saren my regards.”

Nihlus gave a little bow, then turned on his heel and made for the door. That went well, he mused to himself. Dealing with the Shadow Broker and their agents was always a gamble, but he’d remembered Barla Von was one of the more pleasant ones. Choosing a location so close to the Tower was a stroke of genius on Von’s part, come to think of it. There was always a politician looking for a leg up, or a Spectre who needed a helping hand in their investigation. Plenty of deals to be made.

No sooner had he left the office and turned back towards the Tower than his omni-tool went off. A glance told him it was Taniria again, so he hit “answer” and quirked up a mandible she wouldn’t see. “You again,” he said, doing his best to sound annoyed while still providing subvocals that would assure her it was a joke.

The response was a cheerful trill. “Me again! We’re almost done on our end. We just have to look at some results and pick up a couple things off a holo-printer first, then we’ll head up.”

His other mandible went up to join the first. “Excellent! I’m on my way back now, I had to make a run across the Presidium to talk to an old friend. I’ll see you there.”

“Okay, bye Uncle Nihlus!”

She hung up, and he shook his head as he deactivated his omni-tool. Ah, to be young again, he mused to himself, stuffing his hands in his pockets as he strolled back towards the Tower. Spirits knew he and Saren had been discussing retirement with increasing frequency in the past couple of years. They’d even turned into a game, trying to one-up each other’s plans. It was fun, and he was certainly looking forward to whenever they decided to finally put their weapons down for good, but he also wouldn’t mind having Taniria’s energy and livelihood again. The typical teenage “I’m invincible and will live forever” mentality would have been nice to get back, too.

What felt like half his digestive tract took that moment to interrupt his musings with a noisy, almost painful gurgle and growl, and he winced. He’d only just eaten, too. It never failed.

He considered his options for a moment, then shook his head and broke into a trot. More than a few diplomats in the turian embassy had snacks hidden around their offices. If he hurried, he’d be able to get to the embassy, beg food off an ambassador who liked him, and get back to headquarters before Saren got back.

Chapter Text

Entering the staircase that led down to Spectre headquarters, Shepard just kept telling themselves that if they acted like Wrex and Tali were supposed to be there, then everyone else would just accept it. It had been working, too, except for the suspicious looks their little gaggle had gotten from Councilor Valern and the team of cronies ambassadors surrounding him as they'd passed by each other outside the elcor embassy. Xeltan and Ambassador Calyn hadn't said a word, probably more happy to have the info leak matter cleared up than concerned about what a krogan and a quarian were doing with a C-Sec officer and a Spectre.

Finding Tali had turned out to be a stroke of luck. Garrus’s terminal had been able to extract the data from the helmet, but it had all been heavily encrypted in a code he didn’t have the cypher for. Ashley had pointed out the coding looked like some of the old stuff they’d been made to practice working with back in basic training – so, an old, retired Alliance code that nobody would remember a week after learning it. Shepard supposed it was fitting for a set of human assailants, especially with such heavy-duty armor and training. It was a start, but it certainly felt like a waste of time.

Fist’s terminal had proved a bit more useful, Garrus had reported. For a Shadow Broker agent, he hadn’t learned much from his boss. In fact, any Shadow Broker dealings were the only things that had been wiped from the terminal, and Wrex said that was mostly because the Broker encoded his dealings with self-deletion protocols, “in case of morons.” Not only had Garrus found data backing up what Fist had told them about his contacts, but he’d also found plenty of evidence that could have been incriminating on organized crime charges if Wrex hadn’t already killed him to death. He’d opted to just pack up the entire terminal and bring it with them, just in case. Tali had offered to carry it in her bag, since she’d previously just been using it for storing nutrient paste and a first-aid kit, and Garrus had thought that was a much better option than carrying it bare-handed, so that’s where it went, bouncing along against Tali’s back as they trekked.

Walking down the staircase, a cascade of sound reached Shepard’s ears, high and melodic, like a song they couldn’t quite make out. They paused, then glanced over their shoulder. “Does anyone else hear that?”

They got a collective nod in response. “Nice set of pipes,” Ashley offered.

Tali put a finger to the bottom edge of her helmet and lowered her head for a minute, then perked up. “Oh! I think I’ve heard this before!” she blurted. “I can’t pronounce the title, but it’s by this turian band, Slightly Talented. The name is a joke, I think. One of my friends on the Flotilla gave me one of their albums as a going-away gift, so I listened to it a lot while I was traveling.” She glanced around at the various surprised looks she’d gotten, and shrugged modestly, adding, “Well, it was all I had to listen to, really, and it was better than silence…”

Shepard nodded to her. “Thanks, Tali. I think we can guess who’s singing it, then.”

Sure enough, as they reached the bottom of the stairs and trotted out into a wide open area, Shepard spotted Taniria spinning and dancing around the base of a statue of a salarian, a batarian, and some species they couldn’t place. The body looked familiar, but the head… Wait, was that what quarians looked like under the mask?

Taniria was oblivious as they approached. She must not have had her translator on, because it took Shepard’s brain a minute to recognize the chirps, trills, and whistles coming out of her mouth as anything resembling words. But when they focused, they noticed a rhythmic cadence, and her boots made a steady beat with each step. She had a pretty voice, and she looked downright serene as she danced her way around the lobby.

Then Wrex reached the bottom of the stairs, and his steps were heavy and loud enough to echo.

Taniria jumped like somebody had dropped ice down her shirt, limbs splaying out comically. She spun in midair, landed in a crouch, and stared at them, bug-eyed, for a long, dramatic minute before she finally opened her mouth.

The chatter that came out was nothing short of demonic. Shrieks and trills and squawks that Shepard had no hope of processing as anything but the demented ramblings of an angry finch filled the air between them, and Shepard automatically took a step back. They weren’t the only ones – Ashley and Isaiah clapped their hands over their ears, and Tali jumped clear back onto the stairs.

Garrus was the one to take charge. “Hey!” he barked, and Taniria went silent immediately. Garrus waited for a moment, then continued, at a more conversational volume, “They can’t understand what you’re saying. You’ll need to turn your translator back on.”

Taniria stared at him for a moment, then, slowly and shakily, opened up her omni-tool and hit a few buttons. She cleared her throat and straightened up, then lowered her head. “I’m sorry.” Her voice shook. “I, I was just, Nihlus is busy with the holo-deck, and Uncle Saren is talking to requisitions about a new omni-tool, and they said I could do what I wanted, so I just…”

She gestured helplessly, and Shepard opted to shrug and wave a hand. “You don’t have to apologize. It’s fine.”

Her mandibles fluttered. “You’re sure?”

“Of course.” They attempted a reassuring smile. “You like to sing, I take it?”

She hesitated, then lowered one mandible and raised the other. “It’s, um, kinda the only thing I can do,” she clucked. “I wanna be a singer, but Mom and Dad say I have to finish mandatory first. Or, I mean, at least get to the part where I can get on the decreased-combat track, I mean, wait, the sergeant says you aliens don’t have those, like, when we’re twenty-four we have to choose, lifer or no, and if you don’t want to be a lifer you get put on the decreased-combat track, so you don’t have to do drills and exercises and go on missions as much, so you have time for, like, university or whatever, and Mom and Dad said that if I take that track then I can do what I want, so I want to do that, so I can be a singer, cause, like… It’s the only thing I’m good at, and music makes people happy, and I kinda just… wanna make people happy. Like, everyone expects me to be this big military prodigy, ’cause of my family, but like, it’s just not for me, y’know? Like, I don’t want to just be the general’s daughter all my life, I wanna be… me.”

Shepard was learning there was a trick to talking to Taniria, and most of it was just waiting for her to take a breath. “Understandable,” they said, sauntering closer to her so they didn’t have to shout across the room. “But your father is a pretty big name in the Hierarchy, isn’t he? What does he think of that idea?”

By the time Shepard reached her, both mandibles had quirked upwards, but not by much. “I think he’s, like, relieved, actually? Him and Mom are always, like, telling us to be careful, and when we were little, they always, like, encouraged us to try stuff that wasn’t super combat-oriented? And they told us about the decreased-combat track kinda early on…”

Garrus grunted. “That’s strange. Usually, officers are the ones pushing the hardest for their kids to be lifers. Follow in the family footsteps, you know. And those two are Shanxi veterans, you’d think they’d be shoving it down their kids’ throats.”

Taniria trilled. “Well, yeah, but, like, I heard Dad talking to Uncle Saren once, and, like, after what happened to Mom, I guess they’re worried that we could get hurt that bad, too?” She glanced around, then dropped her voice and leaned in. “And, like, he was getting really mad about it, he was just, like, going on and on about how he, like, doesn’t care if it’s dishonorable or whatever to put us before the Empire, he doesn’t want us to be in that much pain, ever.”

Shepard looked around at the others. “What happened to your mother?”

She hesitated. “I don’t know,” she mumbled. “I think I might’ve said it before, they won’t tell us anything, just what we learn in history class. I know Dad was one of the lead generals on the ground, and Mom was his second-in-command, but…” She shook her head. “All I know is, Mom walks with a cane, and her peripheral vision isn't very good, and some days she has trouble remembering things, and every year, around the anniversary, you can’t watch the news around her. She starts, like, totally freaking out, and even Dad has trouble calming her down. I don’t even think she knows where she is.”

Shepard shared a look with Ashley. That sounded ominously familiar. But before anyone else could say anything, a new voice cut through the air. “That’s enough family history, Taniria.”

They turned to see Saren ambling out of Spectre headquarters, left sleeve rolled up while he adjusted a skinny black band on his wrist. “Saren,” they greeted with a respectful nod. “You got your new omni-tool, then?”

Saren flicked his mandibles downward. At some point since they’d seen him last, Saren’s combat boots had disappeared, and his bare talons clacked sharply against tile as he approached. “I’m waiting for my data to finish syncing with cloud storage. Nihlus asked me to see if you’d arrived yet.” One mandible twitched. Combine that with his tone, and Shepard hazarded a guess that he wasn’t exactly pleased with being sent out to look for them.

They shrugged. “Sorry. We got a bit sidetracked.”

Saren cast a long, slow look over the rest of their group, mandibles low and pressed in towards each other. “So I see.” Then he looked at Shepard again, in that odd way he had that seemed like he was looking straight through them. “Nihlus is waiting for your share of the information. I suggest you get going.”

He didn’t say it, but Shepard got a very strong sense of My family is none of your business. So they quickly nodded, and carried it into a small bow for good measure. “Of course. Sorry for keeping you waiting.”

Saren said nothing, just watched as they hustled past him. When they’d almost reached the door, they heard Taniria ask, “Am I in trouble?”

Saren was assuring her otherwise as the doors slid shut behind Wrex. Meanwhile, inside, Nihlus glanced up from where he was standing at a wide, glowing holo-table. “There you are,” he said. He studied the new additions for a moment, then mused, “It looks like you’ve had an adventure.”

Shepard nodded sheepishly, reaching back to rub the back of their head as they wandered up to stand around the table corner from him. Chan-mi stood across the table from them, and looked up from her omni-tool to stare with wide eyes at Wrex in particular. “It was an accident, really.”

A dimly familiar voice rose from the mass of brown plates huddled at one terminal by the wall. “Usually is,” rumbled the brown crested from the café that morning. What was his name? Ezekiel? No, Ezekian, that was it. Serlius Ezekian. The child he’d had with him was here too, resting in Ezekian’s cowl with her head propped up on the back edge. Cute.

A new voice sounded from the other side of the room. “Is this them, then?” asked a small, crestless turian as she padded up to Nihlus. “The human Spectre-to-be?”

Shepard had only just placed her as the turian woman on the councilor’s arm at the bakery that morning when Nihlus nodded to her and cleared his throat. “Shepard, it’s my honor to introduce Aediteia Epirian, senior turian reporter for Citadel NewsNet, and mate of Councilor Sparatus.”

“Call me Teia,” she purred, holding out a hand. Shepard reached out and shook it, and she added, “Start kissing up early, sweetie. Piss Ierian off bad enough one of these days, and I might be the only reason you get a paycheck.”

Serlius lifted his head and twisted his neck so he could see the rest of the room over his daughter’s slumbering body. It looked a bit awkward to Shepard, but then, they didn’t have a neck like that. “Don’t let her scare you,” he advised, flicking the mandible not pinned to his face by a tiny cowl. “She’s got no teeth.”

“No, but my husband does, and isn’t he the one who really matters?” Aediteia flicked one mandible upwards.

Nihlus shook his head and glanced back to Shepard. “I’d recommend addressing her as either ‘Mistress Epirian’ or ‘Lady Sparatus,’ at least while you’re on duty. Turian respect customs, of course.”

“Personally, I like how the second sounds better, myself,” Aediteia mused. “The first just has so many syllables, and apparently, the way ‘mistress’ translates tends to make aliens think I’m the one Ierian cheats on his real wife with.”

“What’s it mean for turians, then?” Isaiah asked, and Shepard shot him a quick glance and nod of approval. They’d been planning to ask the same question, he’d just gotten there first.

Aediteia shrugged. “Just that I’m married and kept my original name. ‘Lady Sparatus’ would usually mean I’m married and took my mate’s name, but since Ierian’s so important, it’s also to show respect for me and deference to my husband. And before you ask, yes, there’s equivalent terms for if I had a crest, but I hear they don’t translate quite as easily.”

She folded her arms under her keel and lifted her head, perhaps trying to make herself taller. “Now, while you’re still waiting for Saren to get back, I have a request for you, Shepard,” she said brusquely. “Like Nihlus said, senior reporter for Citadel NewsNet. I got advance word on your entry into the Spectres from guess who, and he made me swear not to tell anybody until the press release at the end of the business day today, which is, by my clock…” She checked her omni-tool. “Just under an hour away.” Her golden eyes had a predatory glint to them as she met Shepard’s gaze. “I’ve gotten pretty much all the footage I need for a decent segment, and I know I’ll have the first report out there. But, what I really want is an interview.”

Shepard blinked, then cleared their throat. “Well, ah, I’m honored, ma’am, but I don’t really have a lot of time right now-”

She waved a hand, cutting them off. “Of course, of course, I don’t mean right away, I know how you Spectres are. I’m just asking, if you have some spare time, give me a call, and we can set one up. If I can include in my bit tonight that I’ve already gotten you to agree to an interview, that’ll put CNN at the frontlines. Everyone will know we’ve got the best information, ratings will go off the charts, I’ll win a pretty little award for journalistic whatever, and maybe I can work it out so you get a little bonus in your paycheck. No promises.”

They just stared at her for a long moment, processing. Aediteia was a tiny thing, about as tall as Saren, maybe slightly taller, but rather than Saren’s broad shoulders and sturdy build, Aediteia was skinny and delicate, more built for dancing than fighting. She was like a turian pixie, really. Her plates were a light, warm brown, somewhere between tawny and caramel, with a splotch of muddy brown centered on her nose and taking up maybe two-thirds of her face. In Shepard’s opinion, the blotch made her look rather homely, but then, they didn’t know turian beauty standards. Like her husband, the pigment of her face was starting to fade, an age spot reaching out to the corners of her eyes. She had the face of someone who would have been cute, back when she was young, but time had given her a more “aging gracefully” type of appeal. If nothing else, they supposed she certainly looked like a politician’s wife. And acted like one, too, if this conversation was anything to go off – someone who knew she was owed and could easily demand deference, but preferred to try to get it herself before resorting to husband-related threats. Noble enough, they supposed.

So they just swallowed. “Well, I suppose I’ll have time tomorrow, we’ll just be resupplying…”

Aediteia’s entire being seemed to brighten. “Great! Is here okay? The statue outside would make a great backdrop, very symbolic. Right after lunch, I’m thinking, I have to fill in for the morning anchor tomorrow. Does that work for you?”

They could only nod, and her mandibles spread wide. Logically, they knew it was just the turian equivalent of a beaming grin, but the only thing their brain could focus on was how many sharp, gleaming teeth she was showing off. “Wonderful! See you then, then.” She turned on the balls of her feet, and marched over to one of the terminals not currently being worked on by Serlius, one with a neat hand-lettered COMMUNICATIONS sign next to it. “Now, I need to get back to work, I have to send my footage back to my editor so he can start pulling out the good parts, and then I’ll be out of your teeth so I can pick up my granddaughter from daycare. Thanks, Shepard!”

Shepard just stared after her, eyes wide. Next to them, Nihlus cleared his throat. “You get used to her,” he offered. “I can guarantee that you’ll have been invited over for dinner at least twice by this time next year.”

Tali coughed. “Did she… even notice the rest of us? At all?”

Nihlus shrugged, but before he could say anything, the doors reopened, and Saren came breezing in, shaking his head. “Nihlus, we’re buying Taniria dinner,” he announced, with all the emotional investment of “we’re out of milk.”

Nihlus raised a brow plate as Saren trotted up to him. “Did she give you the eyes?”

Saren flicked a mandible. “She started crying, actually.”

Nihlus tilted his head and flared his own mandibles. “Spirits, what did you say?”

“Why do you assume it was anything I said?” Saren protested, turning around so he could lean against the side of the table and fold his arms under his keel. “She was off on a tangent about her siblings, and simply started crying. She claimed it was because she realized she’ll miss her brother’s clawball games for school.”

Nihlus blinked, then raised his brow plates and nodded. “Ah. She’s homesick, then.”

Saren nodded. “She’s calling her parents as we speak.”

“Understandable. And you offered to buy her dinner.”

Saren grumbled for a minute, then bit out, “She didn’t want to go back to base quite yet.”

Nihlus’s mandibles quirked up. “So you took pity on her. I’m going to mark it on the calendar. ‘Today, Saren had an emotion.’”

Saren’s brow plates and mandibles all lowered, and he punched him in the shoulder while Nihlus chortled. Shepard glanced between them, then cleared their throat. “Shouldn’t we get started?”

Nihlus fluttered his mandibles at Saren, then turned back to Shepard. “Of course, of course. Thank you, Shepard. As you were the last to arrive, why don’t you start? I can work the holo, if we need it.”

“Yes, by all means, explain where the krogan and quarian came from,” Saren added with a surly flare of the mandible closer to Shepard.

Their brain went blank. That hadn’t been part of their plan. Going last would be preferable. But, well… They shook their head to clear it, then coughed into a fist and nodded. “Alright, I can do that.” Mostly because they didn’t want to ask if Saren or Nihlus could go first, and, well, Saren had a point.

They cleared their throat and folded their arms across their chest, turning to face the table. “We went to C-Sec and got the helmet hooked up to Garrus’s terminal for data extraction. While we were there, we ran into Wrex, who got brought in for lurking around Chora’s Den. We’d been planning on going there for info anyway, so we talked to him, and found out the Shadow Broker hired him to kill Fist for dealing with other brokers and selling the Broker’s intel.”

Nihlus flicked a mandible. “So soon after Eden Prime?”

Shepard nodded. “That’s what we thought. It’s too much of a coincidence. So we went down to talk to Fist. Apparently, these people approached him for intel on Eden Prime. Anything he could get on the colony and the dig site.”

“Because that’s not suspicious at all,” Ashley quipped.

Shepard nodded to her. “After the attack, Fist got another message telling him to send whatever he could get about it. So whoever it is, I’d bet money they’re connected to the people on Eden Prime.”

Nihlus and Saren shared a look, nodding, then Nihlus flicked a mandible. “What about Fist?” he asked. “I’m assuming he didn’t volunteer this information.”

Shepard grimaced, glancing back at the rest of their team. “Well…”

“He’s dead,” Wrex grunted. “Turns out, shotgun blasts from an arm’s reach away are hazardous to human health. Who knew.”

Shepard nodded sheepishly. “Wrex fulfilled his contract, to put it mildly. On the plus side, that allowed us access to Fist’s terminal. Garrus went through it, and found his comms with the attackers.”

“You actually got the terminal?”

Shepard turned around to see Aediteia was facing them again, mandibles tight against her face. “Yes. Why?”

She let out a sharp trill. “There’s a new kid at the station who’s working on an exposé of Fist. I mean, I heard you talking about him before, but I figured it wasn’t relevant, but- spirits, if you have his terminal, it could really help Emily’s case. Did you find anything else, besides the comms?”

Shepard looked at Garrus, who nodded sharply. “Plenty. Connections to known criminals, bribes, everything. I don’t think he ever wiped his terminal.”

Aediteia trilled again. “Spirits, that’s fantastic. I don’t suppose… Well, I’m not sure on the legality of it, but could you give me the terminal data, if you’re done with it? I’ll pass it along to Emily, and tell her not to touch the things related to that one contact, of course, Spectre business.”

Shepard shared a look with Garrus, then said, “I don’t see why not. We only needed the comms records. We have the entire terminal with us, if that works.”

Aediteia’s mandibles shot up. “Oh, that’s even better! She should be at the station for a few more hours, new kid gets the crap assignments, and all. I’ll give her the terminal and your comm address, in case she has any questions. Her name’s Emily Wong, she’s an absolute sweetheart, reminds me of my daughter, really. This’ll help her out a lot, thanks so much, Shepard.”

Shepard nodded, then looked over at Tali. “Tali, could you..?”

She jumped, then nodded quickly. “Oh! Sure, of course!”

The room fell mostly quiet while she hustled over to Aediteia, pulling her backpack off her shoulders. Then Saren flicked a mandible. “Question.” He finally stood up straight and turned to face them properly, rolling his shoulders. “If Fist is dead, why is the krogan still here?”

Wrex blinked, then scowled. “The krogan has a name.”

“So does my sister-in-law, but I try not to use hers, either.”

Nihlus elbowed Saren. “Don’t be rude.”

Shepard cleared their throat as loudly as they could. “Wrex is still here because…” They blinked and looked over at him, noting Aediteia fleeing the scene with Fist’s terminal behind him. “Actually, that’s a good question. Why are you here, Wrex?”

Wrex thought about this for a moment, looking at the ceiling, then shrugged. “I have nothing better to do.”

Shepard glanced back to Saren. “Is that a satisfactory answer for you?”

Saren shrugged. “I have no objections.”

He said it in a tone that Shepard suspected meant “I have many objections, but none of them are actually valid criticisms of this plan, so I’m not going to voice them,” which they supposed was good enough. “Right, then,” they said, clearing their throat. “So, Fist’s terminal backed up what he told us about the Eden Prime attackers. But, that’s not all he said. He also told us they’d asked him to keep an eye out for a quarian with information about somewhere in geth space, and let them know if she showed up. That’s where Tali comes in.” They gestured to her as she took one giant step back up to the holo-table. “We went to where Fist said he’d sent her, and guess who we ran into.”

Nihlus and Saren shared a look, and Shepard nodded. “Neither of them was one of the crew from Eden Prime. Two new ones, both human. A female biotic, and a…” How did you describe the second one? “A mountain with legs. Bigger than the guy in white, and without whips. And the woman addressed me by name, and said, ‘my friend wants his helmet back.’”

They shivered just remembering it. The woman’s gas mask-like breather helmet had only increased the creepiness of knowing Shepard’s name. And then the biotic teleporting, taking both her and the man in green. Who were these people?

Nihlus was tapping at the holo-table’s interface. “Then this is bigger than just those four. We should start keeping track of who we run into. It might be useful later.”

A series of figures appeared above the surface of the holo-table, four in a group, two in another. “So, on Eden Prime, there was the big one with whips that Shepard and I encountered with Alenko.” One figure grew slightly in size, took a more distinctly human shape, and gained two glowing strands that Shepard supposed represented whips. “Shepard, you said you found the sniper?”

Shepard nodded. “She was pretty small and skinny, but that was about the extent of what I saw of her. The lighting in the forest wasn’t very good.”

Nihlus nodded, and a second figure changed to resemble a tiny human sniper. “And at this point, I’m almost certain the tech from the security feeds was a part of it, like we thought.” A third figure changed accordingly. “Then there was the sword-wielder. What did Corporal Jenkins call them? A ‘ninja’?”

Chan-mi coughed lightly. “Ninja were mercenaries in a region of Earth called Japan, centuries ago. Human media usually associates them with espionage and assassination, and typically portrays them dressed in all black and using swords. There haven’t been any real ninja in millennia, but, well.” She shrugged. “They make for good vid material. There’s an old cartoon about ninja turtles that’s still popular, even though it’s nearly two hundred years old. They just keep remaking it, and doing it in different mediums.”

Tali tilted her head. “What’s a turtle?”

Chan-mi beamed. “Oh, they’re adorable! They’re an Earth animal that lives in a shell, and when they’re in danger, they pull their legs and head inside for protection.” She motioned for Tali to go around the table. “Here, I can show you pictures.”

While Tali eagerly did so, Nihlus hrmmed and edited the final figure in the group of four so it looked more like the opponent Saren had described in the Council meeting. “Right. Then, Shepard, the two you saw today, describe them.”

Shepard nodded. “The woman was really small, and dressed in a bodysuit with a hood, sort of like Tali’s, but with a different mask. It covered her entire face, all metal except for two big lenses over her eyes.”

Saren flicked a mandible. “Like hazmat helmets, then.”

Another nod. “Right. And the whole suit had little amp nodes everywhere, like the ones on my armor’s chestpiece and pauldrons. I don’t remember what they’re supposed to do, but I know they’re meant for biotic output.”

There was a pause as the whole group shared glances with each other, as if hoping somebody would have the answer. When nobody did, Shepard cleared their throat and continued. “Whatever they’re specifically for, she was powerful. She was able to hold a barrier to protect her and her partner, and then… I don’t know. There was a flash, and then they were both gone, like she’d teleported out and taken her friend with her.” They tried to make eye contact with Saren, and had to settle for the edge of his cowl. No matter how they turned their head, he somehow managed to keep his gaze trained at least forty-five degrees away. “We were hoping you might have an idea how she pulled it off. It seemed similar to what you did earlier, upstairs.”

Saren blinked, then fluttered his mandibles. “I suppose it’s possible,” he said slowly. “You would need to have a very good mental map of the area, though, in order to get far enough away that you were no longer visible would require tremendous effort.”

“Could they have gone sideways?” Isaiah asked, and suddenly all eyes were on him. He hesitated, then soldiered on, “Maybe instead of going really far ahead, they went sideways. There’s lots of alleys back that way, maybe they just… hopped into one of those.” He glanced around. “Is that possible?”

“It is, actually.”

Half the room jumped as Serlius spoke up. He’d turned in his seat again, and was watching Isaiah intently. “My wife’s an officer in the Cabals. She’s been practicing that exact maneuver at home a lot recently. Some new tactic the asari showed them, according to her. She says it’s like taking a step off the fabric of spacetime. It takes a lot of focus, and killer reflexes so you step back on in the right place. They start you on popping a step to one side at first, and gradually work you up to bypassing walls.” He fluttered one mandible. “My Millie’s amazing, best Cabal there ever was, but she’s hesitant to even pop over the couch. Apparently, if you don’t time it exactly right, you could get trapped inside something solid.”

Shepard’s brain sorted through their entire vocabulary to try to find the right word to describe what Serlius had just explained, but could only come up with one.

Yikes.

They shuddered, and Garrus spoke up. “Can they take anything with them when they do it, or is it just them?”

Serlius bobbed his head. “Yeah, that’s something else they’re working on. The asari apparently said it could be used for getting civilians out of dangerous situations, but for now, they’re sticking with just cargo. Simple cargo. They haven’t even tried taking a comm unit through, in case the dark energy messes with it.”

Nihlus nudged Saren. “Please say you’re not getting any ideas.”

Saren glanced at him, then flared his mandibles down and out. “I am perfectly fine never trying that at any point in my life.”

Nihlus heaved a sigh of what Shepard assumed was relief. “Good.” He turned back to the table and started typing at the interface, apparently taking notes. “So, this biotic has been learning from the asari and the Cabals, and making it a lot farther than the latter. That’s… concerning, given how much even a single trained asari can do. Anything else you can remember on her?”

Shepard shook their head. “They didn’t stick around long, but if what she said about the helmet was any indicator, I doubt this was the last we’ll see of them.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Saren grumbled.

Nihlus elbowed him. “Straighten your crest out,” he huffed. “Shepard, what about the other one?”

They thought for a moment, then shook their head. “He didn’t really say or do anything. All I know is, he was really tall, and had dark green armor.”

“How tall are we talking here?” Wrex asked. “Turian tall, krogan tall, or hanar tall?”

Shepard looked at Ashley and Isaiah, but Ashley put her hands in the air. “Don’t look at me, you’re all giants from this height,” she said.

Chan-mi giggled. Probably a relatable feeling for her, since she was easily the shortest person in the room besides the toddler, Shepard reasoned. Isaiah, meanwhile, put a hand to his chin and stroked an imaginary beard. “Hmm, I’d say… Probably salarian tall, with krogan bulk. I mean, he was definitely not your normal really big human, but at the same time, how much of that was just armor?”

“Every species has its giants,” Garrus said. “I met a salarian the size of a krogan once. Got curious, did some research, turns out there’s a genetic disorder that affects maybe point-eight percent of the population. Maybe this human was in the same kind of situation.”

Ashley nodded. “Sure, gigantism. There was a guy in my neighborhood growing up who had it. That’d make him easier to track, at least.”

Nihlus rumbled. “That’s if he’s on record. And if his friend from Eden Prime is any indication, I sincerely doubt it.”

Shepard blinked. “Why, what did you find?”

Nihlus clacked his mandibles to his face. “Nothing at all. That’s the problem. I ran facial recognition, and I got no results whatsoever. Not even so much as a social media profile. Whoever he is, the system is convinced he doesn’t exist.”

“Like somebody was covering their tracks,” Saren hummed.

“Exactly.” He shook his head and straightened up. “I took the images to one of the Shadow Broker’s agents here on the Presidium. The Broker hoards data like an empty-nester hoards their child’s toys, and their network is impenetrable. If anyone can find what these attackers don’t want us to, it’s them.”

Shepard thought this over, nodding slowly. “Are you sure this agent is trustworthy? Fist already proved the Broker’s organization isn’t completely airtight.”

Saren was the one to answer. “Barla Von’s clients are politicians, bankers, Spectres, and other such high-profiles. Whatever Fist was given to change sides, Von makes it before his lunch break.” He flicked one mandible. “Besides, he would have been a much easier target, given the data he fields. If they didn’t go after him already, it’s because they know he won’t fall for it.”

Shepard considered this, then sighed. “Well, I wish we had better news from the helmet, but I can’t say we do. It’s all encrypted. The good news is, Williams recognized it as an old Alliance code. The bad news is, it’s not one we have the cypher to readily available.”

“An old Alliance code…” Nihlus stared intently at the holo-table for a moment, like he was turning the words over in his head. “Then these people are washouts at best, a rogue faction at worst.”

That was about when Shepard realized their collarbones were vibrating.

A glance around the room told them they weren’t the only one. Ashley, Isaiah, and Chan-mi all looked varying degrees of uncomfortable, while Garrus had a look of downright pain in his eyes. But Nihlus took it in stride, just clearing his throat. “I know, Saren. I know.”

The vibrations dimmed, but were still definitely, unfortunately there as Saren fluttered his mandibles at Nihlus. “Nihlus, if it’s them…”

“We’ll take care of it,” Nihlus said firmly, turning to face Saren properly. “And we will not tell Desolas or the captain. Right?”

“Obviously, obviously.” Shepard had thought Saren was incapable of being as agitated as he now looked. His eyes were wide, and he was scratching the backs of his hands in sharp, jerky motions. “They can’t – She can’t know, especially. Nihlus, what if-”

“Saren, shh,” Nihlus soothed, putting a hand on Saren’s shoulder and guiding him a few steps away. They talked quietly, so quietly Shepard couldn’t make out a word, and all they could do was look at the others in confusion. Well, that was unexpected. What had gotten to Saren so badly, and what did it have to do with former Alliance people? And who were the ‘them’ Saren was so worried about?

The two turian Spectres came back, Saren breathing slowly with his eyes shut and Nihlus guiding him by the arm. “Sorry about that,” Nihlus said evenly. “I’ll explain later. We need to sort out what to do with the helmet.”

Shepard watched Saren for a moment. Something seemed off about his stature now; he was hunched over on himself slightly, arms held close to his chest, neck muscles tense. Shepard was sure that if his eyes were open, they would have been darting around, probably to all the different exits, or maybe looking for enemies that weren’t there. Something had definitely rattled him, but Shepard was pretty sure they weren’t about to find out what.

So they just shook their head slightly and looked back at Nihlus. “The Alliance keeps records of all its codes, just in case. I could ask Captain Anderson to take it to the Alliance base on the station, and see if they can make anything of it.”

Saren hissed at Anderson’s name, and Nihlus reached over to place a hand on his bicep. “I know, Saren,” he murmured. “Just breathe for a minute.”

Saren grumbled, but stayed silent. Nihlus looked back to Shepard then and nodded. “Get it done,” he said. “And what about the quarian? You said the attackers wanted some information off her.”

Shepard blinked. What an about-face. They shook their head slightly, then looked over at Tali. “Tali?”

Tali stared for a moment, the little glowing spots where her eyes presumably were going wide, then shook herself. “Oh, right, of course!” She pulled up her omni-tool and started flipping through it, saying, “I was out on this little station in the Traverse trying to find some supplies when I noticed a couple of humans behaving oddly. Looking over their shoulders, shifty eyes, very jumpy – you know, your usual suspicious behavior. This wasn’t a big station, but I knew it was prone to pirate attacks, so I followed them. I thought maybe, if they were planning an attack, I could warn some locals about it.”

“And that's not what they were up to, I take it,” Nihlus mused.

Tali nodded. “Right. I overheard them talking about the Phoenix Massing, which is out in geth space. Not actually very far from Rannoch – they tell us these things on the Fleet, I mean, so we know what regions of the map to avoid. I couldn’t tell you much about where anything else is, except major hubs, like here or Omega. But anyway, the Phoenix Massing is close to Rannoch, and overrun with geth, so I knew something had to be up. What would humans be doing out in geth space, right?”

Nihlus nodded, and Saren managed a jerky nod, too, his eyes half-opened. That was a good sign, right? “Did you get a recording?” Nihlus asked.

“That’s what I’m trying to find,” Tali said, hitting her omni-tool with her free hand a couple of times. “Keelah, this old thing… It’s one of the models that assigns a random alphanumeric string for file names, instead of a logical progression. Supposedly, it saves memory, but it makes it so hard to find anything…”

Nihlus raised a hand. “If you’re sure it exists, we don’t need to hear it right away,” he offered. “Just tell us what you remember.”

Tali hesitated, then nodded and deactivated her ’tool. “If you say so. One of them said something about hating that assignment, and his friend punched him, and reminded him not to talk about it in public. Then the first one made a joke about ‘flashlight-heads,’ and his friend started punching him more. ‘What did I just say?’, or something like that.” She fidgeted. “Well, they were obviously talking about geth, so I moved a bit, because I was surprised, and I guess I must have made some sort of noise, because then…” She shrugged helplessly. “Then they found me, and I had to run for it.”

“I see,” Nihlus said. “And they tracked you here.”

Tali nodded. “I figured I could sell the information to the Shadow Broker, maybe get enough money to take care of myself for a few months. I thought that if there was anywhere I could find an agent, I had a few solid bets, and this was the closest one.”

Shepard cleared their throat. “I thought it might be tied to what we’re doing, somehow,” they told Nihlus. “Humans out in the Traverse, planning to go out to geth space, and right around an attack on a colony by human terrorists. It seemed worth checking into.”

Nihlus nodded. “I see your point, Shepard. Unfortunately, unless we can get a more solid tie than strict guesswork, I doubt we’ll be able to justify heading that way.”

“Well, what about that other Spectre you were going to look into?” Isaiah cut in. “The salarian, with the traffic.”

Nihlus flicked a mandible. “Gurji Taeja. Unfortunately, she’s deep-cover at the moment, and won’t be able to be in contact with anybody but Councilor Valern until she decides it’s safe. The councilor agreed to let her know we’re looking for her, but that’s the best we’re going to get on that lead, for now.”

Shepard winced. Yet another lead cut down. This was going just spectacular.

Chan-mi looked over at Saren, then cleared her throat. “We, ah, we found something at forensics,” she offered.

All eyes turned on her, and her cheeks turned pink as she hesitantly continued, “The forensics specialist, Dr. Ateci, was able to determine the sword is an attempt at a monomolecular blade, and traced it back to a manufacturer on Noveria.”

Nihlus’s mandibles flared. “Noveria?” When both Chan-mi and Saren nodded, he cursed under his breath, then shook his head and sighed. “I suppose, if it’s the best we have at the moment…”

Shepard hesitated, then raised a hand. “So, what’s Noveria?”

Nihlus’s mandibles and brow plates arranged themselves in what could only be called a grimace. “An ice planet, and one of the least-pleasant ones, at that. It’s technically out of Council jurisdiction, so we’ll have to be careful. Spectre privileges will only go so far.”

Garrus spoke up then. “Noveria’s run by corporations. Will they even let us in?”

“That’s a good question,” Nihlus grumbled. Then he sighed again. “Still, it’s all we have to go on for now, so to Noveria we go, I suppose.”

Ice planet. The phrase alone made Shepard’s stomach churn. They’d never been a fan of winter. “We can do a full briefing on the ship,” they offered. “We’ll need to let everyone know what to stock up on, and what the plan is from here.” A thought occurred to them, and they glanced between Tali and Wrex. “Were you two going to come along?”

There was a pause, then Wrex shrugged. “Might as well,” he said. “Kind of already got myself roped into it anyway, didn’t I?”

“Fair enough,” they said with a shrug. “Tali?”

She hesitated, then apparently made up her mind, straightening her shoulders. “I’ll come, too,” she said. “I know I’m not really part of this, but I want to help, anyway.”

Shepard nodded. How noble of her. “Then we’ll need to find accommodations for you on the Normandy. Garrus and Saren, too.”

“Saren and I can share quarters,” Nihlus said quickly. “I didn’t care for being by myself much, anyway.”

Shepard didn’t miss the grateful look in Saren’s eyes as they nodded to Nihlus. “Alright, then just Garrus, Wrex, and Tali. We’ll get you three settled, so you can get your own supplies ready during the day tomorrow. We still have a while before the Normandy is officially free to go, anyway.”

“So tomorrow is ‘Make the Place Livable Day’,” Isaiah quipped. “Fun. If we’re working for a Spectre, do we still have to follow Alliance regs, or can we get the good stuff?”

Shepard fought a smile and lost, the corners of their mouth twitching upward. “We can discuss that with the others onboard,” they said.

Nihlus cleared his throat. “Actually, Shepard, if it’s all the same to you, I think Saren and I will be heading home from here,” he said lightly. “We did promise to feed Taniria, after all, and I think we’ve had enough excitement for one day.”

One look at how Saren was still trying not to collapse in some sort of fit, and Shepard couldn’t blame them. “Not a problem. I’ll forward you the outline of everything I cover in the big speech to the crew.”

Nihlus nodded, and they looked around at the others. “If that’s everything, we might as well get going,” they said. “Garrus, I assume you live on the station? Do you want to go home, too?”

Garrus fluttered his mandibles, eyes going wide for the briefest of moments. “I do, but I’ll stick around for the briefing,” he said. “I’d like to hear as much as possible firsthand.”

“Got it. Then everybody move your feet.”

They let the others go ahead of them, waiting for Nihlus and Saren to shut down the holo and head out. Once the two were close enough, they fell into step next to them and whisper-hissed, “What was that about?”

Saren’s mandibles snapped to his face with a clack, and Nihlus tensed. “Saren…”

Another subvocal filled Shepard’s chest, deep and foreboding. “It may not be relevant,” Saren said, almost a growl. “I don’t know for sure.”

Shepard hesitated, torn between pressing for more and leaving him be. That was obviously a “none of your damn business,” but whatever could induce such a reaction in Saren, of all people, had to be something important.

But then, every millimeter of Saren’s body said now wasn’t a good time to push their luck, so they decided to err on the side of caution. They nodded respectfully, and hurried to catch up with the others.

Outside, Taniria had apparently yet to realize anyone had left headquarters. She was sitting at the base of the statue, hugging her knees to her chest, omni-tool alive as she talked to it. “Okay, Daddy,” she was saying as Shepard approached. “Thanks for listening. Tell Mommy I love her.”

There was a wobble to her voice, Shepard noted. Part of them had to wonder what she’d been talking about for so long. She was quiet for a moment, then snuffled, and said, “I love you, too. I’ll see you for New Year’s, right?” Another pause, then, “Okay. Okay, Daddy, I promise. Bye.”

She hung up, and as her omni-tool died, Shepard cleared their throat. By now, they expected the jump and startled yelp, and waited for her to look at them properly before speaking. “Everything go okay out here?”

She stammered for a moment, then swallowed and nodded. “Are, um, are you done already? I didn’t, I didn’t realize how much time had passed…” She looked down at her hands. “I, um… Daddy was happy I called. I haven’t called home much, ’cause I didn’t want anyone to think anything was wrong, but I guess that made everyone worry anyway? I got to talk to my dad, and my mom, too, but she just got back from therapy, so she was kinda tired, so she went to go take a nap, and my little brother Desivius was home too, so I got to talk to him, but my sister Galenia was hanging out with her friends, and my brother Lucipius had clawball practice, and I wanted to tell him I was sorry I was gonna miss all his games this year, but Daddy promised to tell him for me, and…”

While she rambled, Nihlus wandered up to her, and gently nudged her shoulder with one hand. She stopped talking to look up at him, and he coaxed, “Come on. We’re going to get dinner.”

She paused and glanced around at the group. “Are they coming with?”

Nihlus shook his head. “They’re going back to their ship.”

“Oh.” Taniria’s gaze fixed on something behind Shepard. “Is Uncle Saren okay?”

Nihlus hummed. “Do you remember what your father told you, about how sometimes your uncle gets overwhelmed and needs to take a break?”

She thought about this, then nodded slowly, eyes widening. “Ohhh, okay. Should I be quiet, then?”

“That’s up to him. You can ask once we’re out of here.”

Taniria nodded, and Shepard watched as she, Nihlus, and Saren headed for the stairs. Once they’d disappeared, they turned to the others, trying to put the oddities of the Arterius clan out of their mind for the time being. They were going to be stuck on the Normandy with Saren for a while. There'd be plenty of time for puzzling him and Taniria's fabled parents out later. “So,” they said, “did anyone do the math on the cab fare, or should we just put it on the Alliance’s tab?”

Chapter Text

The Normandy was the most beautiful ship Tali had ever seen.

Of course, it helped that it was also the newest ship she’d ever seen, but who cared about that? The Normandy blew every ship in the Fleet away, from the little scouting ships in Patrol Fleet to the hulking dreadnought Neema in Heavy. The lines were sleek and uncluttered, the hull gleamed, and nothing sputtered, groaned, or took a few minutes to decide whether or not it wanted to work that day as Tali followed Shepard and the rest inside.

It was so bizarrely open, too. On the Rayya, you could barely take two steps without tripping over someone or something. But the Normandy not only had plenty of space for everyone, but there were several stations empty. Empty! The ship was so spacious, they could have terminals lying idle! It would be unthinkable on the Fleet! Of course, Shepard had said most of the crew was busy elsewhere, but still!

While she was marveling at all the new technology (the galaxy map had a holo display!), Shepard walked up to two other humans standing by the CIC. She assumed they were a man and a woman; they had the same body types as quarians, so it seemed a safe enough assumption to make, and none of the humans she’d talked to out in the Traverse had corrected her, so either she was right, or the translators did all the work for her. Either way, the woman wore a piece of plain black fabric wound neatly around her head and tucked into the collar of her shirt, like a quarian’s hood, and an odd accessory over her eyes, two pieces of heavily tinted glass held in place by a wire frame that rested across her nose. Tali had seen a fair amount of humans with similar hoods, but very few with those… glass things, whatever they were.

She was so busy trying to puzzle out what the glass bits could be for, she almost forgot about the other humans entirely until Shepard cleared his throat and the woman turned to face him. “Oh, Shepard, this is-”

She froze. “You have a krogan and a quarian with you.”

Tali flinched. Oh, right. She’d forgotten. She wasn’t exactly welcome.

But Shepard just shook his head. “This is Tali’Zorah nar Rayya and Urdnot Wrex. They’ll be joining us for the mission. Tali, Wrex, this is Niazmina Khulozai and…” He trailed off, looking at the other man.

He blinked, then jumped as he realized Shepard was waiting on him. “Oh! Sorry, sir! Joshua Crispin, requisitions. Khulozai and I work together.”

“I do the math to figure out what we need, he works the supply lines to get it for us,” Khulozai added. “So, if you want something, you go to him. If you need it, you still go to him, but he’ll tell me, and I’ll adjust my math.”

Shepard nodded to Crispin. “Good to meet you. I know this is short notice, and I’m sorry about that, but we still have a day or two before we can leave. Is that enough time to add a few newcomers in to the food order?”

Crispin and Khulozai looked at each other, then Crispin offered, “If I do a rush order by lunch tomorrow, we can have it by the day after.”

Khulozai put her thumb to her mouth and started chewing on the nail. “I think…” She shook her head. “I’m going to need nutritional needs for everyone. Can’t calculate without it.” She looked out at the group again and pointed at Wrex, Tali, and Garrus in turn. “Which means you three- Wait.” She paused for a minute, then looked back to Shepard. “You’re short two turians.”

Shepard put his hands behind his back. “Saren and Nihlus went home early.”

Khulozai stared at him for a minute, then groaned and put her hands on her head. “Oh, great,” she complained. “That’s a gaping hole in my data. I already had Kryik, he’s fine, but Saren is an unknown. He’s a turian, and a biotic, and a ridiculously powerful one, if Jenkins is to be believed. I can’t use standard benchmarks!”

Shepard put up his hands. “Relax. I have to talk to the crew, and I’ll be sending Nihlus a summary of what I covered. I’ll just ask him for anything he has about Saren’s dietary needs.”

Khulozai grumbled a bit, then huffed. “Tell him I need it by lunch tomorrow, or somebody’s going to starve. Literally. And the rest of you,” she turned on Tali and the other two again, “need to talk to Dr. Chakwas so she can do a nutritional assessment. Then she can tell me what you need, and I can tell him how much to get.”

Crispin raised a hand. “And, just a general note, really, if anyone has any food they want that we can store without it spoiling, just send me a note. Since this won’t technically be an Alliance ship during the mission, we can take a few extra liberties with the creature comforts.”

Khulozai nodded sagely, and Shepard coughed into a fist. “Thanks, you two, I’ll make sure they see Chakwas later. Where is everyone? We need to talk.”

Khulozai and Crispin glanced at each other. “I think they’re down by the sleeper pod bay,” Crispin said. “We’re clearing out the storage area underneath so we can move things to different rooms, free up some space.”

“There’s also a group down in food storage,” Khulozai added. “Taking inventory, you know. And Joker’s helping Chakwas take stock in the medbay, since he had to go down there for a quick physical, anyway.”

Shepard nodded. “Can you send a message out to everyone, ask them all to meet by the pod bay? There’s a few things everyone needs to hear. Engineers, combat support, tech crew, everybody.”

Khulozai shrugged. “Of course. Give us a minute, then we can head down with you.”

Shepard nodded again, and as Khulozai sidestepped over to a free terminal, Crispin behind her, he turned back to the group. “Right, while they’re doing that,” he began. “Garrus, Tali, Wrex, this deck is the Combat Information Center. Everything to do with what we’re doing will be up here. Galaxy map, data processing, comms, if it’s important, it’s on this deck. The lower decks are crew living space, engineering, and the cargo bay.”

It didn’t take much thought for Tali to decide which of those she wanted to spend her time in. Did this mean there’d be a tour later?

Khulozai and Crispin came ambling back, and Shepard motioned for the group to follow him towards one of the doors in the back of the main room. Through the doors, down some stairs, around a corner, and they were in a room bustling with people, some carrying boxes, some pulling more out from under a raised pathway leading toward what she suspected was the main battery and lined with sleeper pods, a few standing around chatting, and one man with white hair holding a datapad and apparently directing everyone. Now, this felt more like the Fleet – cramped and crowded, with everyone trying to do something at once despite the limited space, but not unpleasant. It would have been downright homey, if these were quarians rather than humans.

Shepard rapped on the wall with his fist a few times, and a loud clanging rang out around the room. The clamor died out as so many heads turned to look at them. Tali was suddenly very self-conscious and took a step back, but Shepard simply looked at Khulozai and Crispin. “Is this everyone?” he asked.

Khulozai glanced out over the group, then shook her head. “The gang down in food storage is still out.”

Crispin snorted. “Probably still on the elevator. State-of-the-art ship, Stone Age locomotion.”

There were snorts and noises of agreement from the gathered humans. Keelah, were the elevators really that bad? And did this ship not have stairs?

Shepard shook his head and motioned the white-haired man with the datapad over. “How’s organization going, Pressly?”

The white-haired man, Pressly apparently, grumbled and tapped at the datapad as he wandered closer. “Oh, it’s a mess under there, Commander. No rhyme or reason at all, everything’s just stuffed in where it would fit, like Tetris. It’s a good thing you brought Lin and Williams back, we’ll need some people who can fit under there to get it all out.” He eyed their group, then asked, “Sir, far be it from me to question your judgement, but why do you have aliens with you? I understand Nihlus, he was assigned here by the Council. But what’s with these three?”

“I’ll explain once everyone’s together,” Shepard assured him. “Who are we waiting on?”

“Just Adams and his team. Figured it would be easier to ask them to do inventory on the food once they finished routine on the drive core, since they were down there, anyway.”

There was a low, shuddering groan from behind them, and as Tali turned to look, Pressly added, “Speak of the devil, and he shall appear. That’s probably them now.”

Sure enough, a new pack of humans rounded the corner, led by a man with a receding hairline and a tired face. He was vaguely reminiscent of Tali’s father, if she used her imagination a little. The man raised a hand and waved, then picked up the pace to jog over while the humans behind him went on to mingle with the rest of the crowd. “Well, shoot, sorry we’re late,” he told Shepard as he approached. “Made some new friends, I see.”

Was he looking at her in particular, or was that just her? Keelah. Pressly had said something about a drive core, did that mean these were the ship engineers? She hoped that was it. She always seemed to get on best with engineers, not that that was surprising at all. Common ground.

“I’ll explain in a moment,” was all Shepard said before glancing around, apparently finding nothing worthwhile about the scene, and clambering on top of a table. “Alright, listen up!”

That was probably unnecessary, because most of the eyes in the room had already turned to him anyway. Maybe it was just the principle of the thing. He glanced around to make sure he had everyone’s attention, then cleared his throat. “Okay,” he began, “as most of you have probably heard by now, the Council has accepted me for Spectre training under Nihlus. Our mission is to investigate what happened at Eden Prime – who did it, what they were after, and why. To that end, Captain Anderson is working with Ambassador Udina to release the Normandy from Alliance command so we can travel and work freely, without Alliance regulations interfering.”

There were some murmurs, and somebody called out, “Does that mean we don’t have to stay in uniform?”

Shepard’s mouth fluttered like it was struggling to remember how to smile. “I’ll get back to you on that, Isotalo. For now, we have bigger things to worry about, starting with our mission.” He folded his arms across his chest. “Long story short, our best lead right now points us to Noveria. It’s an ice planet, so while you’re all stocking up tomorrow, make sure you have winter gear and plenty of blankets, heaters, whatever it takes for you to stay warm.”

Pressly raised his hand at a sharp right angle. “Sir, Noveria’s a corporate holding. The Alliance doesn’t have jurisdiction there, and neither does the Council. I was warned to avoid plotting courses anywhere near its zone, much less to it,” he protested. “We won’t have any authority if anything goes wrong. Even Spectre privileges might not hold up to the board. Are you sure about this?”

Shepard pursed his lips. “Believe me, Pressly, I’m not thrilled about it, either. But right now, it’s the only option available to us. We’ll just have to be careful, and try not to step on any toes.”

Next to Tali, Khulozai raised her hand. “Um, Commander?”

Shepard looked over at her, and she folded her arms across her chest. “Remember my boyfriend, with the huge family?”

Shepard blinked. “One of them works on Noveria, I take it?”

“Better. A lot of them work on Noveria. Orion’s uncle Tony runs a security firm there. Collaborative effort with a bunch of his siblings. If I ask, they can get us in, no problem.”

Shepard considered this, then nodded. “Get in touch with them when you have a minute.”

“Wait.” Another human raised his hand. “If it’s a corporate holding, won’t somebody get their shorts in a knot if they find out Spectres are investigating? It’s not exactly a sign of good faith.”

Khulozai shrugged. “One of Tony’s guys is a master at alibis. If we need a cover story, Dresden’s our man.”

“The word ‘alibis’ seems a little ominous, but I’ll take your word for it,” the other one said.

Shepard nodded. He seemed to do that a lot, Tali was noticing. “I agree with you, Kaidan, but we can’t afford to be picky with our resources. Niazmina, tell Tony we’ll be investigating one of the labs on Noveria, and ask what we’ll need and how we’re going to get it.”

Khulozai nodded, and Shepard rubbed his temples. “What else…” he muttered to himself, then shook his head, looked back up, and cleared his throat again. “Finally, we have some new crew members.” He gestured down towards Garrus and the rest of them. “This is Officer Garrus Vakarian, with C-Sec. He’s been assigned to our investigation to file his own report that C-Sec can actually look at. The krogan is Urdnot Wrex, and the quarian is Tali’Zorah nar Rayya. They’ve agreed to help us out, and will be traveling with us.”

Murmurs broke out again. “Where’s Nihlus?” came a call from somewhere in the crowd. Maybe somebody too short to be seen over everyone else?

Shepard glanced around for the source. “Nihlus will still be coming along. His partner, Saren Arterius, will be joining us as well.”

“And where are they?” Pressly asked, brow creased in a frown. “Shouldn’t they be hearing all this?”

Shepard shook his head. “There was a problem, and they went home for the evening. I’ll be sending Nihlus the synopsis when we’re done here. They should be bringing their gear tomorrow.”

Pressly pursed his lips. “Well, where is everyone going to be sleeping? The quarian should be fine, but we don’t have any turian- or krogan-sized bunks.”

Wrex grunted. “I don’t need a bunk. When’s the last time you ever saw a krogan sleeping in some...” He paused. “I dunno. What do they make really fancy beds out of?”

Whoever he’d asked made an “I don’t know” noise (Tali had been very relieved to learn that was a universal sound), and Shepard cleared his throat. “We still have plenty of time before departure to sort out living arrangements,” he said. “Captain Anderson told me it would take a day or two to talk the Alliance around and complete the transfer, and since we’ve already burned through most of a day with no further word, I’m going to assume we won’t be leaving this station for a little while longer. For now, just keep working on what you’re doing. Any missing gear, extra supplies, little luxuries you want, whatever you’re getting, I want it all bought, delivered, and put away by the morning after next. Remember, we’re going to an ice planet, so plan accordingly.” He stopped to think for a moment, then clapped his hands. “As you were.”

Shepard hopped down from the table and motioned for Tali and the other two non-humans to come over. “Okay, before I turn you loose, you’ll need a tour,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. “This room we’re in is supposed to be the mess hall, but, as has been explained to me, Alliance brass decided a test prototype doesn’t need a proper kitchen and just gave us a room with tables instead.”

Wrex snorted. “What kinda idiots think you don’t need somewhere to feed yourselves?”

“Well, I hope not Admiral Hackett, because up until…” Shepard paused to check the chrono on his omni-tool. “Thirteen, minus seven, is… Six galactic standard hours ago, he was still my boss.”

Wrex stared at him for a long moment. “Your old bosses are stupid.”

Shepard sighed. “Unfortunately, I’m aware of that.” He shook his head, then turned to look out over the crowd for a moment before pointing to a human woman with silver hair, talking to a human using what Tali assumed were some sort of crutches. “See those two? The woman is Dr. Chakwas, our chief medical officer. You should all see her before the end of the day for an assessment. If there’s anything she needs to know, make sure to tell her. She’ll be a bit busy with Joker for now, but go find her once things die down. The door behind her is the medbay.”

“What do you mean by ‘joker’?” Garrus queried. “Does one of your crew like to pull pranks?”

Shepard blinked, then shook his head. “No, I mean Joker, our pilot. That’s him, on crutches. It’s a nickname. His real name is Flight Lieutenant Jeff Moreau, but I can’t remember anyone ever actually calling him that.”

“Then why do they call him ‘Joker’?” Tali asked with a tilt of her head.

“Because…” He paused. “Actually, I don’t know. That’s just what everyone calls him. I’ll get back to you on that.” He shook his head. “Anyway, moving on.” He gestured towards the hall of sleeper pods. “Back there, past the pods, is the main battery. The engineering team locked it for safety reasons, but if you need somewhere quiet to be alone, you can go into the corners by the door, and nobody will be able to see you from this room.”

Tali pulled her head back slightly. That didn’t seem like the type of thing the ship’s ranking officer would know. Of course, she’d known her fair share of quarian officers who sought alone time wherever they could get it, so maybe it wasn’t really that odd.

Shepard continued, “Back on the other side of the elevator are private rooms, for officers and such. Nihlus already claimed one of them, and my gear is in another. I’ll move it to the captain’s quarters later. A floor down is general crew’s quarters, divided up into engineering, tech crew, combat, and so on. Below that is the cargo bay, armory, and engineering.” He scratched the back of his neck and added, “The Alliance only gave us a skeleton crew, so we’re a bit short on hands at the moment. If there’s anything you can help with, ask somebody and get to it.”

Wrex let out a low, rumbling hmm. “I think,” he said, slow and thoughtful, “that I should guard the food.”

Garrus squawked. “You?”

“Relax, Featherweight, I wouldn’t steal all of it.” He rasped a chuckle and gestured to Tali with his elbow. “This one needs some meat on her bones. She can help me.”

Tali’s eyes went wide while Garrus just spluttered. Shepard chose that moment to step in. “I don’t think guarding the food will be necessary,” he said hastily. “Just take a look around, and if you see something that needs doing, and you can handle it, we’d appreciate it if you would.”

Tali fidgeted, then cleared her throat. “Your engineering team wouldn’t happen to need any help, would it? I mean, I know a few things about drive cores, and I like to think I know what to do with a wrench…”

Shepard blinked at her, then offered an attempt at a reassuring smile. “I’m sure they won’t say no to an extra set of hands. Let me ask…” He glanced around, then frowned. “Well, they left in a hurry.” He shook his head, then headed off, motioning for Tali to follow him. “Come on, I think I know where they went. The rest of you help out up here for now.”

Mystified, Tali trailed after Shepard as he headed for the elevator. It was like Shepard’s mind ran on an entirely different plane. Even when he spoke casually, everything was as short and concise as necessary, and his tone rarely differed from neutral. His movements were quick and sharp, even beyond what she might consider normal for a military officer. Maybe he was a very short salarian in a clever disguise?

She didn’t think the elevator was as bad as the humans upstairs had said. At least it responded within a respectable amount of time. There was one elevator on the Rayya that could take up to a full minute before responding to commands some days. Understandably, nobody used it, but this seemed to be the only elevator on the Normandy, so if it ever got that bad…

She tried very hard not to giggle to herself trying to think of how these humans would react to the old tech on the Fleet, some of it held together with tape and a prayer. Now, that was a viral vid in the making.

When the elevator door slid open, Tali was greeted by a massive cargo bay, currently stocked with an armory on one side, a six-wheeled tank on another, and so many boxes lying open with their contents being neatly removed and counted all over the floor. In the middle of the mess was the man with the receding hairline from before, taking notes on a datapad as the people around him called out what they found.

The man looked up as they approached, and his face split into an easy smile. “Commander Shepard! And Miss Zorah, if I recall.” He offered her his hand, and as she shook it, he continued “Lieutenant Gregory Adams, chief engineer here on the Normandy. Anything I can help you two with?”

Shepard cleared his throat, and Adams glanced back at him. “Tali here said she might be able to help in engineering, so I said we should talk to you.”

Adams blinked, then grinned. “Are you kidding? How could I say no?” He looked back at Tali. “How much do you know? I mean, I know quarians are usually pretty fair hands at it, but I didn’t want to assume.”

Tali felt her cheeks heating. “Well, my father is one of the lead engineers in Special Projects, and he made sure I could fix my ship myself if anything bad happened…”

“So, do you think you could help manage a frigate drive?”

She thought carefully. A warship was much bigger than the tiny little thing she’d been given to start off her Pilgrimage. But really, drive cores tended to work similarly, even with all the different things they could specialize for. The Neema’s was a more heavy-duty version of the Rayya’s, and the Rayya’s was a bigger version of the Tonbay’s. How much different could this be?

So she nodded, and Adams positively beamed. “Excellent! Welcome to the team, Tali. I’m a little busy right now, but I’ll have somebody show you the core, so you know what you’re going to be dealing with before we take off and throw you in. Let me see…” He glanced around, then whistled. “Hey, Adrian! C’mere!”

A human nearby glanced up, then pushed himself to his feet and loped over. This one was tall, almost as tall as a short-ish salarian. He wore a piece of blue cloth on his head with a stiff, rounded rectangle sticking out in front, curled to shade his eyes, with a dark green logo on the front of the cloth part she dimly recognized from biotiball feeds. A hat, she remembered. Sometimes she forgot the words for clothing quarians hadn’t used since Rannoch. “Tali, this is Adrian Marinov,” Adams explained as the new human approached. “He doesn’t talk much, but he’s a good guy. Adrian, Tali’s going to help us out in engineering, would you mind showing her the core?”

Adrian nodded, and Adams smiled. “Thanks. Tali, I’ll come help you get settled once we’re wrapping things up down here. If anyone tries to give you trouble, just let me know, alright?”

Tali’s heart lifted. Adams was a very warm kind of human, it seemed. It was a relief to know someone so friendly and easy-going was in charge of at least something. “Sure,” she agreed with a bob of her head. “Thank you, sir.”

“It’s no trouble at all. Come on back whenever you’re ready, we could use some help with inventory, too.”

Noticing Adrian was already walking off, Tali hurried after, casting a quick wave back at Adams. If he was looking out for her, which he seemed to be implying he would, then maybe this wouldn’t be as scary as it seemed.

She almost had to jog to keep up with Adrian, his legs were so long. Adams had been right about how quiet he was; he didn’t so much as grunt even once as he led her back towards a door off to the side of the elevator and down a short hallway.

But then, she thought as she walked into another large room, this one filled with a cool, steady light, who needed words?

The Normandy’s drive core might have been even more beautiful than the ship itself. A wide, cylindrical thing with three rings to dispense and electrify element zero, the core gave off a deep, rhythmic thrum that Tali could feel reverberating through her bones. Every few heartbeats, a wave of energy ran through the core, making the thrum almost wobble. The charged eezo spinning around the cylinder glowed a comfortingly familiar pale blue, reminding Tali of the nights she would sneak down to the Rayya’s core and let its grumbling lull her to sleep. And it was enormous, easily twice the size of any drive core she’d ever met. Considering how compact the rest of the ship was, it was impressive they’d even gotten it in.

“Keelah,” was all she could say.

Beside her, Adrian nodded sagely. “Yeah,” he said.

She took a few halting, awestruck steps closer to the core, eyes wide, swearing she could feel her heartbeat syncing with the drive core’s waves. “This is incredible,” she breathed. “I mean, I knew your ship was a prototype, but this… What is it?”

“The Tantalus drive core,” Adrian answered. “Optimized for stealth and reconnaissance. Completely new design. There’s heat sinks deep in the hull. In stealth mode, the heat emissions go into those instead of space, leaving Normandy totally undetectable by scanners. We can stay that way for hours before having to vent.” He fidgeted, then added, “Two-point-nine-seven galactic standard hours, specifically. I did the calculations myself.”

Tali turned on him, eyes wide. “You?”

He fidgeted again. “I was one of a handful of grad students sent to work with the Turian Engineering Corp in Cipritine. Our job was to check the work the official engineers handed to us. I’d been specializing in mass effect propulsion technology, so I was assigned to the drive core part of the project. The lead for the turians was a woman named Sephira Actinus. I think she liked me, but she got frustrated a lot.” His mouth twitched. “She kept telling me that if something was off, she didn’t need a half-hour presentation on it, she just needed me to fix it and move on.”

Tali giggled in spite of herself. If there was one thing she’d picked up from various quarians recounting tales of their Pilgrimages, it was that turian engineers were notoriously grouchy. “So, you know a lot about the core, then?”

Adrian nodded. “That’s why they wanted me on board for the maiden voyage. A bunch of us on the team now helped design her, actually. I think Adams might have been one of the heads on the human end.” His attempt at a smile was a little bigger this time. “I even know where there’s a dent in the eezo rings. Sephira got frustrated with bad comm signal and hit it with her wrench. It works fine, so it doesn’t matter much, but we were all sworn to secrecy until after it had been installed, just in case.”

Tali tried not to laugh, and it came out as something of a snort. “Keelah, somehow, I can believe it.” She shook her head and went back to watching the eezo dance around the core. “So, what are its specs, then? Is it like the Adjunus or Faewan lines, or is it completely different from anything on the market? How fast can it get? What method do you use to charge the eezo, field or ionic?”

Adrian lit up, and as he started chattering away about the specifics of how the core worked, Tali felt… giddy, almost, like her spirits weren’t just lifting, but flying away. The engineers on the Normandy were friendly, at least, and she’d get to work on a state-of-the-art prototype. Keelah, what an adventure this was turning out to be!

Chapter Text

Saren’s apartment never felt more welcoming than it did when he’d had an attack.

As the door shut behind Nihlus and the duffel bag containing Saren’s boots and what remained of their evidence hit the floor, Saren was enveloped by the peaceful background noises he’d gotten accustomed to after moving to the Citadel – the buzz of the lights, the hum of the refrigerator, the distant cacophony of traffic on the other side of the kitchen wall. Today, his terminal beeped softly from the kitchen table where he’d left it, probably wanting him to listen to a comm message that could definitely wait. Everything in its place, nothing glaringly wrong. Everything was okay. Everything would continue to be okay. The galaxy was a dangerous place, but it would not, could not touch him here.

He exhaled slowly, then adjusted his grip on the bag of groceries he’d been carrying. They’d picked up fast food for Taniria, as promised, but as much as he enjoyed Parnitak takeout, he had standards. The little chain store they’d stopped at was one he knew for a fact didn’t season their meat enough, and he refused to believe Taniria’s claims that you could simply fix it with salt and hot sauce. So they’d escorted Taniria back to her squadron’s base, said their goodbyes and their promises not to tell Desolas anything that had transpired that day, and headed straight for the store.

Embarrassingly, before they’d left, she’d caught Saren by surprise and given him a tight hug, an affectionate nuzzle, and a squeaky wish of good hunting. Nihlus thought it was sweet. Saren thought, not for the first time that day, about calling his sister-in-law and asking why she’d ever even considered having children with Desolas. And then he’d relented and, albeit somewhat awkwardly, returned the gesture. She meant well. There was a lot of her father in her.

He trailed after Nihlus into the kitchen, feeling the tension slowly drain out of him, to be replaced with the reassuring sense of security the apartment provided. “I’ll get started on dinner,” he mused to Nihlus’s back. “You still need to clean your armor from last night.”

Nihlus gave a low chirrup. “You’re sure?” he hummed, a note of teasing in his subvocals as he set his share of the groceries on the counter. “You might need me to get something off the top shelf for you.”

Saren stared at him and his ridiculous grin for a moment, then punched him in the shoulder, smiling in spite of himself. “Just for that, I’m making your share last.”

Nihlus simply laughed and pressed his frontal plate to Saren’s brow. “I’ll go get my armor and bring it in here. I need access to the sink.”

Saren gave him a noncommittal grunt, but flicked a mandible in thanks. Needing the sink was an excuse; they were trained in basic how to clean armor in a waterless desert if need be. He simply knew Saren hated being alone for too long after a breakdown, just like he knew Saren wouldn’t appreciate it being stated aloud.

It was nice to have him home again.

He turned the bags on their side, letting the various foods tumble out. Tonight’s dish was a simple one, something easy he used to make with Desolas when he was small. Ground meat, simmered in its own juices and mixed with bone marrow and seasonings to taste, then wrapped in the animal’s skin and fried. Almost mind-numbingly simple, and so one of the first things he’d been taught to cook by himself. He could easily cook both his and Nihlus’s portions together, but Nihlus preferred far, far too much seasoning for Saren to bear, so separate it was.

His mind wandered as he pulled out the necessary pans and bowls and utensils, as it always did. Unknown, all-human attackers; old Alliance codes; maybe dishonorable discharges, maybe a rogue faction. His hands trembled trying to free the telal meat from its packaging. He hadn’t lied when he’d told Shepard his attack may not have been relevant after all, not truly. For all he knew, it was all a coincidence. The Alliance military was quite large, as militaries tended to be. There were still plenty of dissenting groups, if the news feeds were to be believed. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe he’d overreacted, maybe this group was wholly unrelated.

Or maybe he was right, and after so many years of hunting the survivors from the cave on Shanxi, they’d fallen right into his lap.

He took a shaky breath and put his share of the meat into a bowl, then reached for the bag of bone marrow meal. It wouldn’t do to panic now. All he had was speculation. If this was tied back to Harper, he’d need more definite proof to submit to the Council. There were rules for this. Vague ideas were to be investigated on his own time. That much had been made very clear to him during his own training for the Spectres. When he had a mission, court-admissible evidence was all that mattered. If it wouldn’t hold up in a criminal trial, it wasn’t a reason to run off. If it was Harper, there’d be proof, and he could finally tie up the last loose ends from Shanxi. If it wasn’t, well…

Those loose ends had been waiting for twenty-six years. They could wait a little while longer.

Regardless, he told himself, it wouldn’t hurt to investigate and be sure of the answer either way. That thought comforted him as he shook in spices and seasonings just the way he liked it, rolled up his sleeves, and started kneading the mix all together. No matter what came of this mess, he’d do his job, and do it well.

The clatter of ceramic plating on a solid surface interrupted his train of thought, and he glanced to his left to see Nihlus had finally returned with his armor. “You took your time,” he commented. No need to let Nihlus know he’d been dwelling again. At some point, Nihlus had changed clothes – neat, professional shirt and pants were out, and baggy shorts fraying at the hems and nothing else were in, to the delight of every part of Saren’s brain not currently focused on making dinner.

Nihlus grunted and wandered over to the drawer where they kept the rags. “I stumbled over the pile three times this morning. I had to fish several pieces out from under the bed.”

Saren watched appreciatively as Nihlus leaned over to dig around for the stained rags designated armor cleaning-only, mentally tracing the white tattoos artistically cascading down Nihlus’s cowl and torso. “You also changed, I see.”

Nihlus paused, then shifted his weight to one leg so his hips would cant towards Saren. “I didn’t want that shirt to get dirty,” he mused. “Are you complaining?”

“Of course not,” he hummed, finally removing his hands from the bowl of meat and brushing off the pieces that clung to his plates. “Far be it from me to dictate what you wear.”

Nihlus snorted, retrieved a rag, and shut the drawer before ambling back to the table. The swing of his hips was definitely exaggerated for Saren’s benefit, like the terrible tease he was. “Just don’t forget to keep an eye on the food this time.”

Saren snorted, subvocals rolling with indignation. “That was one time.”

“It was seven, actually. Almost thirteen, but you caught it before disaster those other six times.”

“A minor detail.” Saren shook his head, trying not to smile. He always missed bantering with Nihlus when they were on separate missions, or when Nihlus was so focused on the mission he left his sense of humor at home.

They worked in companionable silence after that. Nihlus always liked to focus when he cleaned his armor, so he could make sure he got every last speck out of every last groove. Saren, meanwhile, allowed the greasy, salty scent of cooking meat to permeate his brain and drive away any and all lingering thoughts of what might be lurking below the surface of this Eden Prime case. That was something to worry about at another time. Right now, he was safe, Nihlus was safe, his family was safe, and all he need concern himself with for the moment was whether or not the meat would start to burn while he got out the sheets of telal skin.

A sudden chirp pierced the air, and Saren very nearly dropped the package on the floor. There was a clattering thud, and he looked over to see Nihlus had dropped the greave he was working on, startled, and was hastily pulling up his omni-tool. “Spirits, Shepard,” he was grumbling under his breath.

Saren exhaled slowly, then went to take the meat off heat. “What do they want?”

Nihlus was quiet for a moment as he read, then clicked his mandibles. “Just the basics of what they told the crew. Tomorrow is packing day, remember to prepare for the cold, all of that. They also need your nutritional requirements for logistics, and a list of food requests for requisitions.” He hummed, and his omni-tool made a shutting-down noise. “I’ll get to that later.”

Saren shook his head, then flicked one mandible as a thought occurred to him. “Before you get back to your armor, I could use some help over here. This will get done faster with two sets of hands.”

Nihlus made an acquiescing sort of noise, a chair scraped against the floor, and taloned footsteps clacked their way over to Saren. “And here I’ve already wasted the top shelf joke. I don’t suppose you’d like me to stand in your light and block the glare?”

“You’re a regular comedian. Really, Nihlus, you should leave Special Tactics for a career in stand-up.” Saren shook his head and pushed Nihlus’s portion of the meat towards him. “Get yours ready to cook while I wrap mine. I’ll fry both at the same time.”

Nihlus gave a low chirrup, humming agreeable subvocals. Saren moved over to make room for him to work, and he started unwrapping the meat, mandibles fluttering slowly. “Which armor set will you take to Noveria? I’ll set it aside with mine for packing once I’m done cleaning.” Almost like an afterthought, he stretched out his neck to brush his maxillary plates against the side of Saren’s head.

Saren hummed, leaning into the contact. “I suppose the Spectre set would attract too much attention. The white set will do.”

Nihlus snorted and pulled away. If Saren didn’t acknowledge the twinge of disappointment at that, then it didn’t actually happen. “Oh, good, so you can pull your disappearing act in the snow, like on Altakiril. My favorite.”

His subvocals were more amused than truly annoyed, and Saren’s mandibles lifted. They’d had to visit the turian ice colony for a mission once, and Saren had decided to test how well his armor color blended in with the landscape, holding perfectly still so he’d disappear amongst the snowdrifts. Nihlus had been distressed up until he’d walked smack into Saren and toppled over backwards from surprise. At least he was laughing about it now – at the time, he’d sputtered and tried to scold Saren, to little avail.

Nihlus hummed as he started mixing bone marrow into the meat. “It was nice to see Taniria again,” he mused. “I think the last time we met, she only came up to top of my hip spurs.”

Saren flicked a mandible. “Children grow quickly when you don’t have to see them every day, though I’ve no doubt if you brought it up to either of her parents they would both start crying over the passage of time regardless.”

Nihlus snorted softly and reached for the canisters of spices. “Speaking of, Desolas’s birthday is coming up soon, isn’t it?”

Saren blinked, then lifted both mandibles and thrummed a delighted-amused subvocal. “Yes, as a matter of fact. He’ll be turning ninety, Nihlus, if you can believe it.”

“Ninety? Already?”

Saren allowed himself a rare high trill. “Isn’t it wonderful? I can practically see the new avenue of brutally mocking, yet affectionate, jokes opening itself to me.”

Nihlus turned his head and raised one brow plate, then snorted again, shook his head, and went back to adding seasoning. “Remember when you told me that whenever your brother hugs you, you feel like he’s planning to suplex you through a table? I think I may know what drives that compulsion.”

“Just because you’re an only child.” Saren gave a good-natured hum and elbowed him.

Nihlus chuffed and started kneading the mix all together. “Yes, yes, I’ll never understand the love in a man’s aggressive trapping of his brother in an inescapable, iron-gripped headlock and noogieing him until he cries for either mercy or Mother. Frankly, I don’t think I want to.”

“I do not cry for Mother,” Saren said with a flick of his mandible, a protest that wasn’t much of one.

“You used to. I have vid footage.” Nihlus shot him a small, mischievous grin.

Saren paused in wrapping up the current dumpling, then continued like nothing had happened. “I see. And where do you keep the file?”

“Somewhere you’ll never be able to delete it.” The grin probably meant it was just a lie, a little joke Nihlus was playing on him. It usually did. Nihlus wasn’t so immature as to keep data when he knew it would upset its subject and it wasn’t relevant to a mission.

Still, he could play along. He hummed, set down the dumpling in his hand, and reached for another handful of meat. “Then I suppose you’ll simply have to sleep on the balcony until you do it yourself. Out in the perpetual twilight and chilly air of the Wards, nothing but a few cheap cushions for comfort…”

Nihlus chirped. “It sounds downright cozy. Like those ‘outdoor survival training expeditions’ they made us do in basic. Do you remember those?”

Saren snorted. “I try not to. The base quartermaster strongly disliked my squad leader, so we were always given the field rations even starving varren would turn up their noses at.”

Nihlus shuddered as he removed his hands from the bowl and shook off the clinging bits. “My gizzard churns just thinking of it.”

“You weren’t the one whose only option was that or starvation.” Saren grimaced, his gizzard practically shrinking at the memory. One had to wonder exactly what was done to the meat in the legendarily bad cornin tongue stew and stuffed phodros claw MREs – ordinarily, those meals were delicacies of northern Palavenian cuisine, yet the MRE versions couldn’t even be considered edible by the loosest sense of the word possible.

Maybe that was what he should get Desolas for a birthday gift. He’d paint over all the labels so he wouldn’t know what it was, and because his brother had more teeth than brain cells dedicated to impulse control, he would probably eat it anyway. Happy birthday, dear brother, now eat this so you’ll die of rapid, concentrated food poisoning, ninety years was long enough.

One mandible twitched. Bad joke.

Nihlus merely chuckled, and gestured toward the nearly-empty skillet. “Here, I can cook mine, if you want to finish those,” he offered.

Saren blinked and stared at his hands for a moment while his brain caught up, then bobbed his head. “Fine. Put the rest of mine into a bowl for me, I’ll put the rest of the dishes in the sink so there’s more room. Let me know once you have yours ready to fry, and I’ll do it. You still need to reply to Shepard.”

Nihlus clicked his mandibles and hummed an agreeable subvocal, already reaching over to do as asked. They fell into amicable silence again, punctuated only by the sizzle of browning meat and occasional low, wordless vocalizations as the two of them brushed against each other. There was something soothing about it, Saren noted as he finished the final dumpling and set it aside. Though they weren’t touching, Nihlus’s presence beside him eased some unknown, subconscious anxiety, and let him breathe just a little bit easier.

This time, the silence went uninterrupted, and by the time either of them spoke again, Saren was carefully scooping perfectly-fried dumplings onto their respective plates while Nihlus pecked out a response to Shepard’s message. “Alright,” Nihlus mused, “I attached your medical file, and gave a list of the good MREs, what meats store well, different teas, and a few fruits and sweets for good measure. Our usual grocery list, really. Anything you can think of?”

Saren moved one mandible in and out slowly as he checked to make sure everything was cooked properly. “Did you mention dansa?” He always preferred having a bag of the little talon-sized fish on hand for snacking. Luckily, they were more than easy to come by – despite nearly everything on Palaven eating them, nothing had ever successfully put a dent in the population for long, and more than a few places specifically bred large schools of them just to be harvested and eaten by hungry turians.

Nihlus hummed and nodded, typing away. “Shepard said to look out for a human named ‘Crispin’ when we go to the Normandy tomorrow. He’ll be getting everything we need.”

Saren gave a noncommittal grunt, simply picking up Nihlus’s plate and nudging his bicep with it. “Eat,” he said mildly. “You have plenty of time left for comms, but nowhere near as much before your food gets cold.”

“Says the one who regularly forgets to eat.” Nihlus flicked a mandible, but accepted the plate, only to set it down on the counter next to him. “I’m almost done, anyway. Just give me a moment.”

Saren clicked his mandibles and sighed, exaggerating it a bit on principle, then took his own plate and moved to lean against the opposite counter while he ate. “Honestly, Nihlus, if the Council hadn’t assigned me to this mission, I would have come along anyway, just to save you from yourself,” he mused, thrumming an amused-friendly subvocal with an undercurrent of concerned. “You always focus so hard on the mission, you forget everything else.”

“You’re one to talk,” Nihlus pointed out, tapping what Saren assumed was the send key and deactivating his omni-tool before picking up his plate again. “Remember when we were chasing that serial killer on Edessan, and we both forgot to eat until we passed by-”

“The Galatan restaurant with the patio,” Saren finished for him, mandibles quirking up at the memory. “We argued over whether it was good or bad manners to ask for the menus back so we could have seconds.”

Nihlus mirrored his smile, impaling one dumpling on each talon. “And the server overheard us and offered. I notice you weren’t complaining about me forgetting to eat then.”

Saren hummed, tossing a dumpling back and trying not to shriek as the nerve endings in his tongue reminded him it was still fresh. Bad idea. “Point taken,” he said around the piping-hot lump of meat in his mouth, trying to cool it off with his breath. He swallowed with a wince, then continued. “But surely you see my point.”

“‘You work too hard.’ Yes, I know.” Nihlus shook his head. “You know me. I like to get responsibilities out of the way first.”

A rebuttal was on the tip of Saren’s tongue, but he fought it back with a low hum. “Yes, I do.” Arguing was pointless. He’d learned ages ago that Nihlus could handle Nihlus just fine, whether it made sense to Saren or not.

Besides, they’d had a long, stressful day, and he was far more interested in eating than in fighting.

He’d managed to finish off three more dumplings before Nihlus sighed, and uneasy subvocals got Saren to raise his head again. “Saren, about earlier…” he began, and the low hang of his mandibles gave Saren the impression he’d been debating how to approach this for a while, “I’m sorry. You were right, I should have told you Anderson was involved. I know how you feel about… that entire mess. I was hoping Anderson would be out of the picture quickly, and you’d never be any the wiser. I was trying to avoid exactly what happened, and I’m sorry.”

Saren blinked and fluttered his mandibles, then swallowed and looked down at his plate. “No, I… understand,” he managed. Why did his throat always close up in these situations? He’d been planning what to say within minutes of the fight, but all the day’s activity had flushed it right out of his head. “I overreacted. I’m sorry.”

He quickly stuffed more dumplings into his mouth to stall for time. Nihlus simply hummed, deep and ponderous. “I can understand why,” he commented. “After what happened, I wouldn’t want anything to do with them, either.”

Saren hesitated, then choked the mouthful down before answering, “It didn’t warrant picking a fight.”

“No, it didn’t,” Nihlus agreed, and paused to eat several of his own dumplings. Once the swallowing noises had subsided, he continued, “But I’m partially to blame, too. I knew you wouldn’t be happy if Anderson came up before I had a chance to explain, and had plenty of time to plan how to react in that event, but I started to lose my head anyway.”

Saren risked a glance up. Nihlus was also staring awkwardly down at his food, mercifully enough, so Saren took a deep breath and thrummed an apologetic-forgiving-uncertain subvocal. “If you’re at fault, and I’m at fault…”

Nihlus looked up at him, and stayed silent for a moment before his mandibles slowly lifted. “Then who writes the incident report?” he finished, and the clamp on Saren’s gizzard disappeared. It was an old joke, and a very, very stupid one, but they’d been using it for years to signal the end of an argument. It was easier than awkwardly asking for a truce, if nothing else.

So he mirrored the smile, or at least tried. It never looked right on him, he thought. One mandible always went higher than the other, and angled farther out, and his eyes squinted unevenly. He used to practice in the mirror, when he was younger and still cared about things like that. It looked stupid and awkward, like it was being manipulated by a drunk puppeteer. But Nihlus seemed to think it endearing, and his sister-in-law had once called it “cute” (and then laughed when he’d protested), so he supposed it was a matter of opinion. “I suggest we stick to fighting over whose turn it is to buy lunch.”

Nihlus snorted and shook his head. Amused-forgiving-satisfied, hummed his subvocals as he snapped down another dumpling. “To be fair, I can understand why you wouldn’t want Anderson involved. We didn’t exactly get along, either.”

Saren let his face fall back to neutral, and he lifted one brow plate. “Do tell.”

Another shake of Nihlus’s head. “For starters, when we were introduced, they asked if it was true I’d been your protégé. In hindsight, I should have taken it as a warning. They always seemed on edge around me, and a few days before Eden Prime, we almost got in a fight over you. They insisted you let personal prejudice get in the way of your mission, especially in regards to them.”

Saren flapped one mandible. How completely unsurprising. He was more surprised that he felt a slight twinge of offense, really. He was more professional than that. “Ridiculous,” he scoffed. “Did you remind them I only give respect when it’s being given in return? I’m still waiting on that thanks for saving their life.”

Nihlus snorted and finished off the last of his food, then set his plate down and folded his arms under his keel. “I didn’t get that far, honestly. I was this close to flattening them, I tell you. I haven’t wanted to knock somebody’s lights out so badly since… Well, to be totally honest, since you during Spectre training.”

Saren snorted to himself. “That’s fair.” He had pushed Nihlus to the limit and past it on multiple occasions. It was all a part of the training, but try explaining that after the fifth straight hour of sparring practice. He polished off the last two dumplings on his plate, then hummed, “You say that like you didn’t, Nihlus.”

Nihlus hummed, then sighed. “I was debating where to hit first when my omni-tool went off. It was only my mother, but I decided it was wiser to pretend it was the Council and bow out before I did something reckless.”

Saren fluttered his mandibles and turned to set his plate in the sink. “Yes, I’m sure she would have loved to hear you ignored her call because you were punching an Alliance military officer. I see no way that conversation could possibly go poorly.”

Nihlus snorted. “Well, obviously, there was that, too…” He shook his head. “Regardless, part of me is glad they’ll be taking a step down, especially now that you’re officially assigned to the case. I may not have been there for the mission eighteen years ago, but I know I’d rather avoid a repeat incident.”

Saren shook his head and stared at the dishes still on the stovetop for a moment, then flicked one mandible and turned away, instead moving to lean against the counter next to Nihlus. Logically, he knew he should probably do something about those before bed, but he was tired, and he’d had a long day, and his brain was just sort of going “no” anyway, so it could wait. “Come now, Nihlus, it isn’t as if I’d space them the moment we left the station.” Maybe. “I can be civil.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Nihlus mused, nudging him with an elbow. “But how long would the two of you last trying to avoid each other, enclosed on a small frigate? Something would happen sooner or later, and frankly, I’d rather avoid it at all costs.”

Saren considered. Trapped on a small ship with David Anderson, of all people, for days, possibly weeks on end, legally obligated to not harm them, and probably forced to speak to them at least a few times.

Torture.

He flared his mandibles down and out, rumbling a distasteful subvocal. “I see your point. Though I’m sure Anderson has already been working to poison Shepard against me, so this will be… interesting, to say the least.”

Nihlus gave a noncommittal hum. “That’s another thing. What do you think of Shepard, now that you’ve had time to see them work?”

Saren stiffened for a fraction of a second. He should have seen that one coming. He inhaled slowly to sort his thoughts, then shook his head. “An afternoon running around the Citadel separately is hardly adequate activity to judge, Nihlus.” He was stalling, but it was true. Barely anyone had done anything beyond get a good stretch of exercise, and they’d been split up for most of it. He knew the smallest human kept to themselves unless prompted and far more than he particularly cared to know about his niece’s entire squadron, and that was it.

Nihlus clicked one mandible. “Fair. Preliminary thoughts, then?”

Damn. Saren rumbled and looked down to inspect his talons while he thought. He’d need to file them soon, and re-apply the sealant that helped strengthen the keratin. Bah. He’d get Nihlus to help him. He never managed to finish when he did it himself. He hated how the file scraped.

Right, Shepard, not talons.

He exhaled, long and slow, and folded his arms across his keel. “I suppose they seem competent enough,” he hedged. “Decent manners. Know when to keep their mouth shut.” Better than Anderson already. At least they hadn’t been stupid enough to try to push him on why he’d panicked earlier. “The tale with Fist was a moment of ingenuity, if nothing else. Using their resources and jumping on opportunities, and all.”

Nihlus moved his hand in a “go on” gesture. “Which means…”

Saren twisted his head to look at him, brow plates twitching ever-so-slightly downward, then snorted. “I will give you that they show promise. Nothing more, nothing less. They’re still human, and the best human is one that stays far away from me.”

Nihlus sighed, and the way his keel fell caught Saren’s eye, drawing his gaze down to russet plates and the thin brook of tawny skin where a broken abdominal plate had never fused back together. A very small part of his brain hissed that Nihlus taking his shirt off earlier had to have been a clever tactic of some sort. The rest of his brain, frankly, didn’t care, so he almost missed it as Nihlus mused, “I can’t say I expected much better than that. And to think your brother claims I’m a bad influence on you.”

That got his attention. He groaned and covered his eyes with one hand, pulling his mandibles tight against his face. “Spirits, he won’t be happy about this,” he managed. Working with humans because the Council said he had to had been one thing. That it was Nihlus who’d put Shepard forward in the first place was another entirely. “There’s going to be a forty-minute rant on the comm when we wake up tomorrow, mark my words.”

Nihlus snorted gently. “What do you think he’ll say? I’ll bet you a hundred credits if you’re right.”

Saren moved his lower finger so one eye could squint out at Nihlus. “His usual bluster, I’d presume. He always knew you’d do something stupid like this, you’re going to get us both killed, you can’t trust aliens and especially not humans, and so on. Never once use your first name, but that’s a given. I’m not even sure he knows it, at this point. Oh, and at least two paragraphs’ worth of how useless humans are in a fight. Your standard Shanxi veteran bravado.” Granted, Saren usually agreed with him, but he could at least phrase it a bit more eloquently, when he voiced it at all. His work was more important than personal prejudices.

Another snort. “What is it he calls them? Ugly something. Their evolutionary cousins.”

Saren shrugged. “Na’ankiys, or something to that effect. One of those sounds we can’t pronounce without lips at the start. Can you believe he claims I’m the ‘nerd brother,’ when he’s the one who did research to make his derogatory comments more accurate?” Almost ninety years old, and Desolas still had his moments when he was just as thick-skulled as he’d been in his twenties. That had to be some sort of talent.

Nihlus flicked one mandible upwards. “Well, to be fair…”

Saren lifted the hand not over his face and touched a single talon to Nihlus’s mouth plates. “Don’t.”

Nihlus chuffed, subvocals thrumming his amusement, and pulled away with a flutter of his mandibles. “Protest all you like, the fact that you knew I could finish that sentence speaks volumes.”

“You know, Nihlus, every time you speak, I find myself wondering why we’re friends.”

Nihlus laughed and wandered back over to the table, where his half-clean armor lay abandoned. “I think you missed your window of opportunity for that joke by several years,” he teased. “Your family keeps asking when you’re going to marry me, there’s no getting rid of me now.”

Saren chuffed with amused-agreeing subvocals and trailed after him. “Are you going to finish your armor, or wait?”

Nihlus surveyed the waiting slabs of ceramic and composites, then sighed and cast a forlorn glance back at the chrono over the stove. “I want to say I’ll do it now, and get it over with, but…”

“But it’s getting late, and we already wasted time with dinner and chatter,” Saren finished for him. He hummed, then brushed his hand along the back of Nihlus’s. “It can wait until morning. The dishes will be.”

Nihlus glanced at him, one brow plate lowered, then shook his head and looked back at his armor. “I suppose it won’t hurt. What do you think, finish cleaning tomorrow morning, pack and shop in the afternoon, haul our gear over to the Normandy after dinner?”

Saren flicked a mandible. “Sounds reasonable.”

“Good.” Nihlus shook out his neck. “Then I think I’ll head to bed early. Are you coming?”

Saren didn’t miss the familiar glint in his eye, and a million responses jumped to mind. Of course. Absolutely. It’s about time. Please.

He settled on a simple excited thrum and ambled after Nihlus as he headed out of the kitchen, eyes on the swing of his hips.

Chapter Text

Shepard paced along the dock, watching the crew load what remained of the gear and food shipments onto the ship. They had maybe an hour before takeoff, and yet they were still waiting on everything to get in its proper place. They supposed it was a small miracle that everyone had already shown up, at least – Garrus lived on the opposite end of the station, most of the crew had opted to get breakfast off-ship while they still could, and Shepard had woken to a message from Nihlus dryly reporting that rousing Saren was proving difficult that day and they’d be along eventually.

But that problem had resolved itself quickly enough. Garrus had appeared with what Shepard assumed was the turian equivalent of a coffeemaker in tow, explaining that nobody else had apparently thought to get one, so he’d brought his from home. The crew had come filtering in, munching various pastries and sipping coffee, and gotten down to the all-important business of making sure everything was ready for takeoff. And Nihlus and Saren hadn’t been that delayed, showing up maybe half an hour ago, Saren apparently mollified with a steaming cup of something that smelled strangely like dirt and old blood. All they had left to do was finish loading everything and putting it in its proper place, and they could start pre-flight checks.

“Shepard!”

Oh, and talk to Anderson, apparently.

They turned, a greeting on the tip of their tongue, but stopped dead when they realized Anderson’s familiar march was accompanied by two more figures, one jogging to keep pace with the other’s rapid hobble.

The hobbler was on crutches, and topped by a blaze of red hair and an almost elfin face currently split in a grin. “Matt!” they hollered, somehow managing to keep pace with Anderson despite the cast on their left leg. “Long time, no see!”

For once, Shepard’s memory worked in a flash. Several years in therapy with a person would do that to you. “Jade- excuse me, Jai Landry-Torres,” they said with a wry grin. “Did you forget your glasses again?”

“I’m trying out contacts, actually,” Jai crowed, coming to a stop a few paces away. “I busted the glasses a couple weeks ago. Gave me this.” They gestured to a thin, scabbed-over cut across the bridge of their nose.

“And that,” added the jogger, motioning to Jai’s cast as he came up behind them. “Jumped off a building. Who does that?”

Jai rolled their eyes. “This is Jason Landry, my brother. Well, step-brother, I guess, technically, but I mean, who really cares?”

Anderson cleared his throat rather noisily, and they all turned to look at him. “Sorry to interrupt the reunion, you two, but Shepard, Landry-Torres has something you and your team need to hear.”

“Oh, shit, right!” Jai hit the side of their head with the heel of their hand, then hastily grabbed their crutch again before it could fall over. “I spaced.” They paused, then grinned. “Heh. Spaced.”

Anderson rolled his eyes and snapped his fingers rapidly. “Come on, Torres, focus. Eyes on me.”

“Huh? Oh, right. Sorry, Andsy.”

“That’s Captain Andsy to you.”

Jai gave him a cheeky grin. “Whatever you say, Cappy.”

Anderson turned towards Shepard with a meaningful look on his face, but it morphed into surprise when he noticed Shepard was grinning in spite of themselves, then into a scowl. “Oh, don’t worry, they’ll be your problem soon enough.”

Shepard’s face fell, and Jai snickered to themselves. “Anyway, so, Anderson brought me that helmet you guys stole, right, and I was looking at the data, and, uh, the good news is, I recognized it! The bad news is, uh, well, that’s what we need to tell the whole crew.”

Shepard raised a brow, then nodded solemnly. “Come on in.”

As the trio followed them into decon, Shepard’s mind whirled. They’d already assumed the helmet held some secret, most likely of the unpleasant variety, but what could be so bad as to necessitate an in-person briefing? Or was it less that it was so terrible, and more that they just wanted to address the whole crew at once?

They supposed they’d just have to wait and find out, they told themselves as decon finished and allowed them inside. Most of the crew were again out of station, busy making sure all the new supplies were safely stowed away and secured in their proper places, so they turned left into the cockpit. “Joker,” they said, reaching out to put a hand on the back of the pilot’s chair. “Can you get on the intercom and let everyone know to meet in the mess hall?”

Joker froze, a doughnut sticking rather comically half out of his mouth. He looked up at Shepard, then bit off what was in his mouth, caught the part that fell off, and swallowed the rest before asking, “I’m assuming ‘everyone’ means me, right?”

Shepard nodded, and Joker raised an eyebrow. “What’s going on?”

Shepard glanced over their shoulder at where Jai and Jason were marveling at the Normandy’s interior while Anderson waited, then back at Joker and shrugged. “I don’t know yet.”

Joker’s other eyebrow joined the first, and he craned his neck to check behind Shepard. “What’s Anderson doing back?” he asked, voice dropping to that sort of hissing whisper everyone used when they wanted to shout incredulously but knew they probably shouldn’t. “And who’s that with him?”

Shepard considered their options, then simply shrugged. “That’s what’s going on, I guess.”

Joker gave him a long look, then shook his head and shrugged. “Fair enough. I’ll get the word out. And could you pick up my crutches over there?” He waved one hand, and Shepard glanced over to see said crutches lying haphazardly under the copilot’s chair. “They were supposed to be propped up against the dash in easy reach, but I accidentally knocked them over.”

“Good job,” Shepard said, hoping that sounded like a joke as they leaned over to grab the crutches off the ground. “Good place for them.”

“Isn’t it, though?” Oh good, Joker had recognized it their tone as an attempt at humor. “I’m trying out a new decorating style, try to spruce the place up a little. You know, make it look a little more lived-in.”

Shepard snorted and handed him his crutches. “Well, good luck with that,” they said. “See you in the mess hall in a few minutes.”

Joker flashed them a thumbs-up, and they turned to walk back to the others. “Come on,” they said, drawing all eyes back to them. “The mess hall is this way.” They eyed Jai’s crutches for a moment, then added, “Torres, can you handle stairs?”

Jai considered this for a moment, then arranged their face into the most over-the-top, sugary begging face Shepard had ever seen and looked up at Jason. “Well, maybe if my pwecious big bwother helps me…”

Jason shuddered violently. “Only if you never talk like that again.”

Jai grinned. “Deal.”

Shepard suppressed a nauseated expression and led the way to the stairs as the intercom crackled to life overhead and Joker’s voice rang out across the ship. At the top of the stairs, they paused so Jai could clamber onto Jason’s back, then continued on, counting the steps as they went down. There were twenty-eight stair steps between the bridge and the deck below. It was a multiple of four, which was good, but not an even multiple of four, which was bad. So they rectified it by stepping on every seventh stair twice, to add another four steps for a much nicer thirty-two. Four times eight, which was four times four times two, or sixteen times two. Sixteen was an especially good number because it was a perfect square.

If Anderson or the Landry-Torreses noticed the ritual, they said nothing. That was also good. Shepard didn’t really feel like answering any of the usual questions that came with people noticing a ritual.

Some of the crew had already made it into the mess hall by the time their little quartet came sauntering in. Most were simply standing around or sitting at the tables. A small group was huddled around a wide spread of datapads on one table, and as Shepard walked closer, they realized they were arguing over the upcoming Galactic Simulstim Awards and which vids deserved to win. “I’m telling you, The Spirit’s Star should’ve been nominated for Best Picture and Best Choreography!” Kia was insisting. “Did you see how well that fight scene flowed? It was art!”

“I didn’t see it at all,” Niazmina deadpanned. “Now, Waters of Vengeance-

“You watched that dreck, but not The Spirit’s Star? I don’t know you. We can’t be friends until you get your priorities in order.”

“It was for my mom’s birthday, and it was better than the trailers made it seem.”

“Both of you are wrong,” Kaidan interjected. “Nomad was better than both of those. And besides, Isotalo, that fight scene was, what, thirty seconds? Out of a three-hour vid? They don’t give awards out for that. Are you sure you didn’t watch it for the romance?”

Kia puffed up. “The only love I feel is for these girls!” She threw up her arms to flex her biceps.

“That’s a lie,” Isaiah called from a couple tables over, where he was playing cards with Jenkins. “Remember the puppy, and the kittens, and the bunny rabbit, and the other puppy, and-”

“Okay, okay, the girls and cute animal vids on the extranet!”

“Hey, Shepard,” Kaidan called out to them, waving them over. “Maybe you can settle this for us. As the CO, and all.”

Shepard raised a brow and folded their arms across the chest. “I can try.”

Kaidan motioned them over and slid a datapad across the table. “Have you seen any of these? Which one do you think deserves Best Picture?”

Shepard blinked, then picked up the datapad and scrolled through with their thumb. Admittedly, they hadn’t seen very many of the nominees, but then, that usually seemed the case with these award shows. They recognized a few names, though. “Uh… I liked Red Planet.” It was a fun little “what-if” horror vid about what researchers might have found on Mars along with all the Prothean tech. Despite the obviously human-only cast, it had reached surprising interspecies popularity; apparently there was just something about killer monsters lurking in the dark that appealed to everyone. Shepard had been talked into going to the premiere with their younger brother, an avid horror aficionado, and a few friends from group therapy as a “happy anniversary of your not dying” type of thing.

The other three looked at each other, then Kia said, “So, we can all agree, at least, that Shepard is wrong, right?”

There was a chorus of agreement, then Kaidan looked up at them. “Sorry, Shepard, but you’re out of the cool club.”

Niazmina flicked her hand lazily. “I thought we agreed to kick them out of the cool club when they became CO.”

“Well, yeah, but I wanted to let them down gently.”

Kia snorted and punched his shoulder. “You bleeding-heart fuckin’ Canadian.”

Before Kaidan could respond, Shepard raised their hands. “I appreciate the thought, Alenko,” they said, hoping the gesture they were making could be read as placating. “Glad we could sort something out.”

They turned on their heel and paced away before they could get drawn into any more odd arguments. A hurried clatter on the floor gave them a three-second notice before Jai said, “You liked Red Planet? It was a rip-off!”

Shepard turned back around to face them, now walking backwards towards the sleeper pod bay. “Looks like the galaxy disagrees with you. I thought it was clever.”

“It was so obviously just a cheap mimic of older, better vids. ‘Humans find alien technology, alien technology comes with murderous alien’ is such an old genre. Alien did it better back in 2134.”

“Were you even alive in 2134? And wasn’t that a remake of a remake of some 20th-century vid?”

“Details, details. My dad showed it to me when I turned fifteen.”

A few paces back and closing fast, Anderson cleared his throat. “Personally, I think those awards are just a popularity contest, but that’s not important right now.” He gestured back towards the tables, which now had a lot more people gathered around them than when Shepard had walked in: Adams and Pressly were chatting amicably while taking head counts, Wrex was helping Tali balance on his hump so she could see over the crowd, Joker was gingerly making his way to a seat, Garrus was watching Isaiah and Jenkins’s card game, and, at the very back, Saren was standing next to Nihlus and staring very intently at Anderson’s back. “I think most of the people who are going to show up have by now. The less time we take, the sooner you can get going to Noveria.”

Shepard looked over the crowd again, then nodded to Anderson before taking a step towards the others. “Alright, listen up!” they called, and the low chatter petered out. They waited to make sure they had everyone’s attention, then continued, “I’ve just been informed that the Alliance finished decoding the data we sent them the other day and found something we need to know.” They gestured to Jai. “This is N6 Operative Landry-Torres. They were the one who found the anomaly. Jai?”

They stepped back, allowing Jai to move up into their place. “Okay, so, howdy, I’m L.T. L-T, I mean L.T. Tandry-Lorres, I mean, fuck!” They sucked in a breath, and Shepard’s mouth twitched when they noticed Jai was looking resolutely at anywhere but the crowd. “Jai! My name is Jai. Call me Jai. It’s nice to meet all of you ceiling tiles, I mean people, I mean crew, I mean just pretend I didn’t say anything, and I’m gonna start over.”

There were some muffled giggles, and Shepard spotted a few heads shaking in sympathy.

Jai took a deep breath and adjusted their grip on their crutches so they could count off on their fingers. One: “I’m Lieutenant Jai Landry-Torres.” Two: “It’s nice to meet all of you.” Three: “I’m here on behalf of the Alliance Intelligence… thing. Intel Alliance- ohmigawd. Alliance. Intel. Command. Finally.” Four: “Hello.”

They placed their hands together in front of their nose, closed their eyes for a moment, and took another deep breath. “Okay. I’m cool. No, I’m not, but I’m okay, and that’s what matters.” They reopened their eyes and put their hands back on the grips of their crutches. “Okay, now that I’ve thoroughly embarrassed myself, I found something in that helmet you guys turned in. See, before you guys got to the station, I found these comms messages, right, in the same coding the helmet used, and on these back channels nobody’s used in ages. Piggybacking off our system, sort of. So me and my brother – that’s Dorkinator 6000 over there, Field Commander Jason Landry,” they nodded towards Jason, “we pooled our resources and cobbled together a cypher. I mean, on the surface, it looks like an old one of ours, but once you strip that away, there’s a bunch more layers underneath that are like ours, but sent through a blender.

“So I was digging through the data, right, and it was like… Okay, so you know how your hardsuit’s computers will get tailored to the specific user, so it can orient the subroutines for maximum efficiency, and that’s why we’re not technically supposed to share gear and junk, ’cause it throws the computer off?” There were nods from the combatants, and Jai continued, “Well, all the user data in this helmet, it was totally wiped. Not even the ID for returning pieces to the user. I think there were probably some auto-delete functions, or maybe a remote access type of thing. I dunno. Either way, I couldn’t find anything on this specific dude wearing that specific helmet. Total wipeout. What I did find was, uh…” They cleared their throat. “Well, to be totally blunt, once you add everything together, I found enough evidence to convince a jury we’re dealing with a rogue faction.”

Murmurs broke out, more fervent than earlier. Shepard noted a flash of white out of the corner of their eye, and turned their head to see Saren’s gaze had snapped away from Anderson and was now squarely on Jai. Right, his panic attack the other day had been right when Nihlus had mentioned the possibility of a rogue faction. Shepard pursed their lips and made a mental note to try to pry more information out of him, now that he was calmer, though something told them that’d be like pulling teeth.

For his part, Anderson himself cleared his throat noisily. The crowd settled, and Jai fidgeted a bit before they continued. “We’re still working on figuring out exactly who these people are, the data’s pretty sparse at this point, but I think they might be affiliated with Terra Firma.”

Wrex grunted. “Who?”

Anderson answered before Jai could open their mouth. “Human political party. They oppose humanity integrating into galactic society. Something about how it’ll compromise our individuality as a species. Legitimate enough concern, I suppose, but when you don’t do anything about all the xenophobes and racists flocking to you, it tends to undermine your platform.”

There was more mumbling, and Jai coughed. “We can, uh, we can talk politics later, but yeah, basically, Terra Firma equals bad juju. Well, I mean, at least as far as this goes, obviously, I mean, who really wants a political party with a merc group working for them? We have an entire genre of vids about why that’s a bad idea.”

“I don’t know, I think that’s how salarian politics work,” Tali offered.

“Those aren’t mercenaries,” Nihlus cut in. “Those are organized crime syndicates and the Gurji clan.”

“What d’you mean, the Gurji clan?” Jenkins asked.

“If you ever meet them, you’ll understand.”

Shepard coughed into a fist. “Anyway…”

The gang quieted again, and Jai nodded gratefully to them. “Right, so, we can’t quite pin this on Terra Firma just yet, but they seem like the most logical option, especially with the response back home. I dunno how much attention any of you have been paying to the news lately, but right after the attack, a whole bunch of assholes on pro-human channels started getting their shorts in a knot about how it’s, like, super mega totally a sign human cooperation with the Council is bad. ’Cause everything’s a conspiracy, apparently. I was able to pull some junk out of the mission computer, mostly just the primary objective, and it looked like the plan was to either seize the beacon, or destroy it.”

“Makes sense,” Kaidan mused. “We know the big guy tried to stop the trucks, and then…” His eyes widened slightly like he was having an epiphany, and he looked over at Shepard. “That must be why he was stalling!”

Shepard nodded slowly, putting a hand on their chin while they followed Kaidan’s logic. “He was waiting for his friend in the other truck to tell him the beacon was secured. And if we go off Saren’s story-”

“- then the one with the sword decided it was a lost cause when they found Saren in the back,” Nihlus concluded for them.

“And then, ZZZZZT!” Ashley mimed being electrocuted. “Goodbye, beacon.”

“And truck, and omni-tools, and Saren’s amp,” Jenkins added. “Seems a little overkill, Commander.”

Shepard shrugged. “Like Jai said, we know very little about these people so far. It sounds like they’re operating on a ‘if we can’t have it, nobody can’ agenda. Could be a clue, could just be standard M.O. for their breed of merc.”

Jai looked between them, dumbfounded. “Okay, I feel like the Alliance’s briefing on what happened left out just, like, so much detail, and somebody is gonna fill me in when we’re done here.”

Next to Anderson, Jason cleared his throat. “Hey, JJ. The point?”

“Oh, right!” Jai coughed out a startled little laugh, then went back to staring at the joint between the ceiling and the left-most support column. “So, anyway, wherever you guys go, it’d be, like, super great if you could try to gather as much data as you can. Comms, especially. I can try to trace comms. Somebody, somewhere, has to get sloppy sooner or later, and the sooner you can catch them doing it, the sooner we can get a more definite target than some rando the approximate size, strength, and temperament of a bulldozer and his stabby friend. And if we can get a target, we can get you more help.”

Shepard rubbed at the corner of their jaw, mulling this over. The advantage was clear, but if Jai’s end was going to be strictly on the Citadel… “What if you came with us?” they asked.

Jai froze, then turned eyes as wide as dinner plates on them. “Please tell me you mean that and aren’t just proposing a hypothetical for no reason.”

They shrugged. “That would be more convenient, wouldn’t it? Less time between us finding the data and you getting it. Besides, I have it from both Pressly and half the crew that we need more techs to man the terminals.”

Jai stared for a while, then slowly turned to look at Anderson. “Sir. Please.”

Anderson’s face briefly flashed into shock, then he arranged it back to neutral. “Well, I don’t really see why not-”

Jason cut in, sputtering. “But your leg!”

“It’s fine!” Jai protested. “It’s in a cast! It’ll be okay!”

Shepard cleared their throat. “Jai won’t be coming with us into combat. I doubt they’ll be in much danger at all.”

The look Jason gave them was single-handedly the most unimpressed one they’d ever seen in their life. “Commander, I think you, of all people, know this idiot well enough to know they will find a way.”

Shepard fought a laugh. Admittedly, that was fair – Jai had more than easily established themselves as the most “adventure-seeking” (or “trouble magnet,” as their CO had scoffed) in the squad during the brief months they’d been stationed together before Akuze. Even during rehab, they’d managed to find disaster where it should not logically have been. Still, they’d always managed to make it out okay, so Shepard assumed Jason was just being a standard overprotective, fretful big brother. “If it makes you feel any better, I’ll personally ensure Jai stays out of trouble,” they offered.

Jai raised their right hand. “I promise I’ll send regular updates and not do dumb things. C’mon, Jase, you know you’d do the same thing if your only other option was a desk job until the doctors said otherwise.”

Jason pursed his lips, but his eyes said he knew arguing was a lost cause. Anderson, meanwhile, coughed into his fist and glanced over to one side. “Pressly, do you mind a last-minute roster addition?”

Pressly blinked like the metaphorical deer in the proverbial headlights, then cleared his throat. “Under normal circumstances, yes. But for a technician, when we’re critically short on those…” He nodded. “I’ll make an exception. Welcome to the Normandy, Lieutenant.”

Jai beamed, Jason groaned, and Shepard fought a smile of their own. “That’s that, then. Joker, how much longer in the pre-flight checks?”

Joker jumped, then glanced around quickly, apparently casting around for his ability to do mental math. “Uh, this kind of interrupted them, so I think we might need to start over, Commander. That’ll be another hour.”

Jai snapped their fingers. “I can be packed and back in half.” Then they glanced down at their leg and corrected, “Well, maybe slightly more than half.”

Motion off to one side caught Shepard’s eye, and they turned to see Isaiah had put his hand in the air. “Permission to speak freely?”

They nodded, and he closed his eyes, made a show of clearing his throat, and put his hand over his heart. Pause for dramatic effect, then his eyes popped back open and he jumped to his feet. “Cousin!”

In three strides, Isaiah had crossed the room and scooped Jai up into a tight hug, which they were enthusiastically returning with a squeal of, “I knew it! I knew it was you, I was like, ‘Is that?’, but then I was all, ‘Nah, his hair’s longer than that,’ but I knew it!”

Isaiah laughed, and it occurred to Shepard that at some point between Isaiah jumping to his feet and the hug, their eyebrows had found a new home by their hairline. “So, you two are..?”

Isaiah set Jai down gingerly, and they grinned. “First cousins! Mom’s his dad’s little sister. Big family, small galaxy, huh? I mean, I thought it might be him, but I wasn’t really looking at anyone too much, plus, like, we haven’t seen each other since we were teenagers, y’know? He grew up on Earth, I was a spacer brat, you know how it is.”

“I knew you looked familiar,” Jason said, coming over to clap Isaiah on the shoulder. “Do I get to report to Mom and Uncle Hugo now?”

Deciding to leave them to their reunion, Shepard turned back to the crowd. “Alright, you all get back to what you were doing. Like Joker said, we have an hour before takeoff, so use your time wisely.”

They made a dismissal gesture, and turned to walk over to Anderson. “Thanks for the heads-up,” they told him, offering a hand to shake.

He took it, nodding and offering a small smile. “Any time, Shepard. Figured you might want to know exactly what you’re butting heads with. Terra Firma’s not the biggest party out there, but they’ve still got a fair amount of clout.”

Shepard nodded and folded their arms across their chest once Anderson released their hand. “I’m not making too much trouble for you, stealing Jai, am I?”

“Nah, of course not. Transfer paperwork’s boring, but routine. Besides, the way Udina pitched this whole idea to the brass, they’ll jump at the chance to give you more help. Makes us look better to the Council, according to him.”

They considered this, then nodded. “Fair enough.”

Anderson nodded, then glanced back at the Landry-Torres clan. “You go on and help prep for takeoff. I’ll wait for Jason. Him, we won’t be able to lend you just yet, but I think you’ve got enough combatants with you to manage just fine without.”

They nodded again and snapped a sharp salute. “See you around, Anderson.”

Anderson returned the salute, and once they’d both dropped theirs, Shepard turned and walked away, trying to look casual as they made a beeline to where Saren and Nihlus were loitering by a support column. Both had their omni-tools up, and were talking in low voices. As Shepard approached, they heard something about articles and headlines – some news feed, maybe?

They were within two arm’s lengths when Saren flicked one mandible, hard. “Shepard.”

They paused, then continued forward until they were only slightly out of arm’s reach. “Uh… Hi?” How exactly were they supposed to respond to that kind of greeting?

Nihlus nudged Saren with his elbow, then fluttered his mandibles. “Is there something you need, Shepard?”

They cleared their throat to stall for a few seconds, then took a deep breath. “I just wanted to ask what Saren knows about rogue Alliance factions. You seemed pretty intense when Jai brought them up.”

Just like the other day, Saren’s neck went rigid, and his mandibles snapped against his face. But this time, after a few heartbeats, he exhaled slowly, relaxing a few increments as he did. “As I said in the Tower, I only suspect. Special Tactics hears about a great deal of rogue factions, from all species. I could very easily be wrong.”

Shepard opened their mouth to press for more, but he cut them off before they could, closing his omni-tool and rolling his shoulders. “If you will excuse me, my niece wishes to say good-bye properly before we leave, and she can be very persuasive.”

With that, he abruptly turned on a dime and swept off, and Shepard swore they could hear a vault door slamming shut on that particular conversation. Again.

They looked at Nihlus, and he shook his head before they could speak. “I know what you’re going to ask, Shepard, and I’m afraid I only know some of what he’s not telling you. I’m also afraid I’ve been sworn to secrecy, and not by him, at that.”

Shepard pursed their lips. “And if it’s important to the mission?”

“If it is, then he’ll tell you when it becomes apparent that he needs to. Until then, you’ll just have to be patient.”

They met his gaze, and they thought they saw genuine apology in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Commander,” he said. “The Arteriuses are a private bunch. I’m as good as married in already, and even I don’t know everything they’re hiding. And not for lack of trying, mind you. Whatever Saren’s keeping to himself, he’ll tell us when he’s ready. Not a moment sooner.”

Shepard regarded him for a moment, then sighed. “And I suppose I’m not going to find out why he’s keeping secrets, am I?”

Nihlus’s mandibles flicked slightly upward. “That, at least, isn’t a secret. It’s simply how he is. The only thing about himself you’ll get him to say easily is that he’s bored.”

Shepard couldn’t help it. They snorted, and Nihlus’s smile grew. “Try living with him,” he said breezily, folding his arms across his chest. “He can tell you when the heater’s out again, no problem, but he won’t say he’s hungry until he’s about to collapse.”

Shepard finally allowed themselves to smile. “I’ve known a few people like that,” they admitted. This was nothing new, really. It was just coming from a turian who wasn’t a people person, was the only difference.

“Then you know my pain,” Nihlus deadpanned. Then he shook his head ruefully and flicked his mandibles. “My advice is to let him warm up to you on his own terms. Whatever attitude you show him, he’ll return in kind. You won’t get anything but a talon across your jugular if you press him before he’s willing to trust you.”

Shepard considered, choosing to tuck that information away for later. “Thanks, I think.”

Nihlus shrugged. “Think of it this way: this mission won’t get anywhere fast if we’re always snapping our teeth at each other.”

Shepard rubbed their jaw. “Fair point.”

Nihlus nodded, then clapped Shepard on the shoulder and made to start wandering off. “Just give him his space and be respectful. I doubt he’ll let you in very far, but you’ll at least get to breathe the upper atmosphere of his little world. Now, if you don’t mind, Taniria wants to say good-bye to me, as well.”

He wandered off, leaving Shepard to flounder in what he’d said. On the one hand, that had been a very roundabout way to say he wasn’t going to help them figure out whatever Saren wasn’t sharing. On the other, they supposed it was good advice, given both how prickly Saren was and how desperately they needed to get along with him for the sake of the mission. And if anybody could offer a sound strategy for dealing with Saren Arterius, they supposed his best friend and, apparently, love interest was probably the best man for the job.

And at least Saren hadn’t gone into another attack when they’d brought it up. That had to be a good sign, right?

They sighed and shook their head, then headed for the CO’s quarters. Pressly had said it would be a couple days’ flight to Noveria, and they still had to finish moving their gear. They could worry about what Saren knew later.

Chapter Text

Private comm message, sent out on standard Alliance military channels

TO: Cmdr. Shepard, Matteo
FROM: 1Lt. Landry, Jason
SUBJECT: Some updates…

Shepard,

I've been assigned as your Alliance liaison for this mission. If you and your Spectre friends need anything from the Alliance, you go through me. Anderson's idea. He figured it'd be easier for me, keep an eye on Jai and all.

Take good care of the Normandy and her crew. The Alliance agreed to consider this “special assignment” for everyone, so you’ll have a bit more elbow room than usual, but don’t get sloppy. Anderson's already working on finding more crew for you. I heard him on comms with Hackett, trying to track down some guy named Stoykanov. If you're lucky, he meant that Stoykanov, but don't get your hopes up. I'll know more once Anderson tells me.

Good luck, Shepard. Keep Jai out of trouble. Hope you packed your long underwear.


Note attached to an OSD, delivered to the SSV Normandy twenty minutes before departure from Citadel Station

Commander Shepard:

We haven’t met, but you helped me out a ton. My name is Emily Wong, I’m Citadel NewsNet’s newest cub reporter. You met one of my coworkers, Aediteia Epirian. She’s the one who told me where to send this, actually.

I just wanted to say, huge thanks for letting me have Fist’s terminal when you were done with it. The OSD has a copy of my story, if you want to see it. Don’t worry, I made sure not to say too much about who got it for me, I know everything a Spectre breathes on is classified! That data was amazing, Commander, I really can’t thank you enough. Fist had dirt on every crime lord in his ring on that terminal. Dumb criminals are a reporter’s best friends.

I’m including my contact info, too. I’d love to thank you in person, obviously, but I totally get it if that’s not in the cards. If you ever have some spare time and need some spare credits, just drop by the studio sometime, or get in touch. There’s always something a reporter needs that only a Spectre can do! And I’m sure the producers wouldn’t turn you away…


Private comm message, sent out on standard Alliance military channels

TO: Dog Squad [Donkey, Leopold; Pennyloafer, Emily; Bates, Romeo; …]
FROM: Williams, Ashley
SUBJECT: Click for pictures of a krogan sleeping! [3 attachments]

That wasn’t a joke. Those really are pics of a krogan sleeping. This assignment keeps getting weirder and weirder.

So, bad news: I could not find a pretty girl with low enough standards for Donk. As we all know, this is a true tragedy. But never fear, for the search continues!

That means we’re going to Noveria next. Maybe there’ll be a cute administrative assistant who wants to get off a frozen hellscape of a planet. I mean, I would. Not a whole lot else to report, except that now there’s even more aliens tagging along. One’s a quarian, can you believe that?

I’m going to start logging whatever’s not classified to hell and back on social media. Easier than trying to sum it all up with text. Search ashwilliams212. Yeah, I know, super creative, but all my other ideas just sounded stupid.


Note attached to a package delivered to Private Taniria Arterius at Turian Imperial Army Base #38201 on the Citadel

Tanni,

I know you said you’re doing okay and you’re not homesick, but, well, your uncle’s a tattletale, and I just know these things. Maternal instincts, or whatever.

A lot of this stuff is against regs. Don’t leave them lying around, and don’t share. The more people who know about it, the more likely it is that some idiot will get careless.

Miss you,

Mom

PACKAGE CONTAINS: 3 boxes of dextro Blast-Ohs breakfast cereal, 1 box of assorted baked goods, 6 boxes of assorted tea bags, 1 blanket (handmade), and 1 plush toy pyjak (“Cuddly Climbers” line, extensively repaired, no longer carried in stores)


Private chat between Niazmina Khulozai [NK] and Dresden Sheach [DS]

NK: Dresden, my dude.

NK: Did you get my message?

DS: yeah sure thing

DS: btw i found a use for the miniature human with the squeaky voice

DS: wanna see

NK: That’s called a child. He’s your boyfriend’s foster son.

DS sent a file. [Image: a human child, roughly in his preteens, fiddling with a datapad]

DS: im teaching him to pick locks

DS: hes less suspicious than i am

NK: Talking to you makes me want to take screenshots and submit them to hyper-religious forums as proof demons are real.

DS: ;)

DS: anyhway i talked with tone and i get to meet you at the docks

DS: lucky me

DS: the spectres will be let in cause the board doesnt want the council to think theyre up to no good but the rest of you might raise a fuss or five

DS: ottos working on it so like

DS: dont panic

NK: Thanks.

NK: Do me a favor and don’t tell Ri or Katya I’m coming, cool? I want it to be a surprise.

DS: ur secret is safe w me

DS: boy w stupid name will have no idea

NK: I genuinely don’t know why I keep talking to you.


Extranet search history from the private terminal of Cmdr. Matteo Shepard

22:62 – “saren arterius + alliance”

22:67 – “saren arterius + alliance military”

22:75 – “saren arterius shanxi”

22:81 – “arterius shanxi”

22:84 – “arterius shanxi + direct interaction with humans”

22:91 – “arterius + interaction with humans + captain abrudas”

23:04 – “turian hierarchy classification levels and meanings”

Chapter Text

Kaidan idly glanced around the mess hall-turned-rec lounge as he stirred his coffee. He was sitting with a handful of the rest of the crew, watching Niazmina build something her mother had asked her to jerry-rig as a field test, purely out of lack of anything better to do. Transit was always the most boring part of missions. He’d been awake for three hours, and he was already considering going back down for a nap. At least Joker had said at breakfast they’d completed the last relay jump during the night shift. They were in the right cluster and the right system; Noveria and the chance to get off the ship were within reach.

They just had to get there first.

“So,” he said to Isaiah, sitting next to him with a finger holding something down in whatever it was Niazmina was fiddling with, “if we went up to the cockpit and asked Joker ‘are we there yet,’ how fast do you think he’d kick us out?”

Isaiah snorted. “I bet we wouldn’t even make it in. Haven’t you noticed pilots have, like, a sixth sense for when people are about to ask that?”

“Bet you it’s a class they take in flight school,” drawled Feliks from Niazmina’s other side, also drafted into holding unspecified electronic pieces in place. “Deflecting Dumb Questions 523.”

“I’d take that class in a heartbeat,” Niazmina grumbled, lifting up her shades so she could squint at the bundle of wires and silicon on the table. “Do you know how often people ask me ‘why software engineering?’ Like, I don’t know, Chad, why did you major in philosophy?”

Isaiah raised an eyebrow. “No way did you actually know a Chad. I thought those were a myth.”

“One hundred percent true, my friend. Big blond guy with a popped collar and frat association, and everything. It was like he stepped right off the vidscreen. Honestly, I think he might’ve been a plant by the university to study us.”

“Where did you go to uni?” Feliks rumbled.

“Stanford. Dad wanted me to go to Cambridge, ’cause that was his old stomping grounds, and Mom was championing the U of Tokyo, ’cause that’s where she went. But y’know, Stanford was really trying to sweet-talk me, and it was like… the second-best engineering college in the whole world wants you to attend, how do you say no?” She shook her head. “I mean, the culture shock was ridiculous, of course, and I actually had to learn English to study properly. I was like, this is the 22nd century, and we still can’t translate with a hundred percent accuracy to non-major languages? Ridiculous.”

Kaidan whistled and lifted his spoon to his lips to check how his coffee tasted. “Still, Stanford. They only have, what, a five-percent acceptance rate?”

“Somewhere around there, yes.” Niazmina prodded at something in the electronic mess with tweezers. “My parents were ecstatic when I got the letter. They were up so late comming all our family and friends, they ended up taking the next day off work so they could sleep.”

Jenkins, across the table from Feliks, cocked his head to one side. “I thought Harvard was better.”

“Please, Harvard just has better publicity ’cause of its law school. It’s only ninth globally for engineering. Overrated.”

At the other end of the table, Adrian flushed and tried to pull his head into his shoulders like a turtle, to the apparent surprise of Tali sitting next to him. Maybe that wasn’t something quarians could do, who knew? Kaidan raised an eyebrow at him as he took a sip of his now-perfect coffee, then called, “What, you go to Harvard, Marinov?”

Adrian’s face turned a few shades redder. “Online courses,” he told his hands.

“Space Harvard,” Niazmina confirmed, maneuvering a wire into place. “I mean, brains like his could’ve had MIT begging at his feet, but nah, Big Nerd Boy opted for Big Nerd School.”

“’Scuse me.” Isaiah raised his free hand. “What about us regular people who went to Regular People University?”

Kia, sitting at the table behind them, turned around, one hand shooting into the air. “What about us dumb people who went straight to boot camp?” she asked flatly.

Niazmina paused, then snorted. “Bragging is less fun when you insult yourself, Isotalo.”

Kia grinned and was opening her mouth to respond when the intercom interrupted her. “Commander Shepard, please report to the bridge,” Joker’s voice called out. “All hands, be advised, we will be beginning landing procedures momentarily. Port Hanshan ground control reports inclement weather, so brace for possible turbulence as we enter the troposphere.”

There was a pause, then, in a significantly less formal tone, Joker added, “Oh, and Khulozai, somebody on the ground is asking for you in specific, so if you could get up here at any point between now and the airlock opening, that’d be just super.”

Kaidan’s heart jumped. Finally! Best news he’d heard all day. Maybe they’d be lucky, and Shepard and Nihlus would handle everything while the rest of them got shore leave. Fat chance, he was pretty sure, but there was no harm in hoping.

Niazmina, meanwhile, hastily inserted clamps where Isaiah and Feliks’s fingers were, then shooed them away and slid the whole kit and caboodle into the bag from whence it had come. “Here goes nothing,” she said. “You all remember winter survival training, right?”

She whisked off before anyone could respond, and the group stared after her for a moment before Kaidan cleared his throat. “You’re all going to follow her, too, right?”

All seven of them stood up almost perfectly in sync. Kind of impressive, if you asked Kaidan.

He’d gotten maybe three steps onto the bridge when the turbulence Joker had warned everyone about hit. The Normandy’s hull groaned unhappily, and there was a slight quake and shudder as he headed for the cockpit and its prime viewing spots. But nothing fell out of its place, and Kaidan was only slightly jostled, so he just held his arms out a little farther for balance and carried on. The Alliance had assured him time and time again that no ship was allowed out into space until it had proven it could handle atmospheric flight under any number of possible conditions, and most had scanners and alarms to tell the pilot to turn back if an atmosphere was too hostile besides. This would be fine.

The cockpit windows, it turned out, weren’t much better than just staring at the metal-plated wall and using his imagination. The blizzard raging beyond the glass hurled ice past them at ungodly speeds made worse by the Normandy’s own, obscuring any details of the landscape with snow and motion blur. Occasionally, he caught a glimpse of a mountain scraping the sky, but before he could get anything resembling a decent look, it would be gone again. The storm had eaten the world.

Shepard, standing behind Joker’s chair, must have gotten the same impression. “You’re sure we’re on the right path?”

Joker’s head twitched a millimeter to the right. “Yep.” Back to front. “There’s computer programs at the port’s control station that talk to Normandy’s onboard nav computer, tell it where to go. Most places on planets with weather have them. Long as they have power, we have a heading.” He gestured to one of the many displays on the dash and added, “Trajectory says we’re right on course. If it weren’t for the storm, we’d be able to see it by now.”

“You’re sure?”

As if the port had heard them, a faint glow appeared, dead ahead. With each passing second, the glow got brighter and more defined, splitting into rows and beacons of individual lights. “Pretty sure, yeah,” Joker said.

The storm was not happy with this development. The closer they got to the docking bay, the more it seemed like the Normandy was fighting to stay on course. Logically, he knew that was probably just because they were flying into the wind, and other things from a physics class he’d spent doodling superheroes in his notebook, but logic rarely flew in the face of a ship’s nose jerking up and down. “Brace yourselves!” Joker called out. “We’re getting the worst of it up here, and it’ll only get stronger the more we slow down!”

Kaidan lurched to one side and hugged the back of an unoccupied technician’s chair that Tali mysteriously appeared in barely seconds later. “Is it too late to turn back and wait for better weather?” he asked.

“Nah, that’s quitter’s talk,” Joker told him with a grin. “We’ll be docking pretty soon, just don’t start screaming and we’ll be fine. I’m good at this part.”

Kaidan exchanged a look with Tali, then tightened his grip on the headrest.

Joker’s hands flew over the dash, fighting the storm for control. Like he’d said, the turbulence only got more violent as the lights in the distance grew closer and assembled into the vague notion of a sprawling complex. As they approached rows of yawning caverns that made breaks in the snow, something beeped, and Joker glanced at the new window that had popped up. “Docking bay five, coming right up,” he said cheerfully. “Thank you for flying Normandy Interstellar Lines, don’t forget to thank your stewards and tip your pilot.”

“Here’s a tip,” Niazmina deadpanned from the co-pilot’s chair. “Watch your wingtips on the way in, our guy says sometimes snow builds up on the edges of the bays during storms.”

“Hey, Commander, did Anderson say anything about getting me a copilot? Or maybe just a mannequin in a uniform so people will stop sitting in that chair and backseat flying?”

“Just take us in, Joker,” Shepard said, the corners of their mouth twitching. “I’m sure Garrus has some police tape we can put around the chair, or something.”

“Oh boy, oh boy. My own personal crime scene. Just like Mom always said my room was.” Joker waved a hand, then went back to focusing on keeping the ship from going spiraling off.

They hadn’t even entered the bay yet when the turbulence abruptly died, the wind blocked by the port complex. Instead, the Normandy was left to amble inside in almost perfect peace, just the distant bellow of the storm accompanying them. Joker tapped a button, and as he next spoke, his voice rang out over the intercom. “Commencing docking procedures. Brace for impact.”

There was something decidedly comforting about the docking clamps clanking into place, making the Normandy give one last shudder before stilling. The viewports were whited out from the snow that the clamp’s force hadn’t shaken free, and Kaidan swore he could feel the internal ship temperature dropping, but they were out of the demonic winds, and that was what mattered. Even if the storm switched direction and got into the bay, it would take enormous power to rip the clamps free. Slowly, cautiously, Kaidan let go of the chair and glanced around at the other faces in the doorway. “Well,” he said, “that was fun.”

A new light turned on near Joker’s hand, and he snorted. “Not over yet. Time for the fun police.” He tapped a couple more buttons, then sat back in his chair and waited.

The comm crackled, then a gruff, flanged voice said, “Port Hanshan control to SSV Normandy.

Joker propped up his head on one hand. “This is Normandy. Go ahead, Control.”

“We’ve received confirmation of your identity. Please wait on your ship for security clearance. A private representative has requested permission to board and escort your team into Port Hanshan, do you consent?”

Niazmina sat up a little. “That’ll be Dresden. He’s Tony’s guy.”

Joker glanced at Shepard, who nodded back to him. “Permission granted, Control. Send him over.”

“Understood.” The controller’s voice took on a more conversational tone as he added, “Keep your comm open so we can send weather updates. This is the last place you want to get snowed in. Stay warm.”

“Roger that, Control. Normandy out.”

Joker hit another button, and the blinking comm light turned off. “Well, he was nicer than the last guy,” he commented.

Kaidan raised an eyebrow. “You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Last one almost bit my head off for being unscheduled, then didn’t apologize when he found the notification about us coming. I swear, he only let us begin the approach at all ’cause I said we had Spectres on board.”

“Traffic controllers are generally foul-tempered,” mused a dual-toned voice behind them. Kaidan turned to find the crew parting like the Red Sea before Nihlus as he meandered up to them, Saren ghosting along behind. Both were already bedecked in thick, heavy, just-a-smidge-shorter-than-floor-length cloaks, with Nihlus once again in hunter-green and Saren in a deep indigo. Saren’s had a black lining that looked almost like fur. “I imagine they only get worse in bad weather.”

Shepard gave them a little nod. “Come to watch the party?”

Nihlus bobbed his head, reaching up to close a couple clasps on the front of his cloak. “And to deliver a message. Officer Vakarian asked us-”

“Just him,” Saren muttered.

“Officer Vakarian asked just me, and not the unfriendly second shadow I’ve mysteriously acquired, to let you know he’ll need to come along with the ground team for his investigation.”

Shepard nodded again. “I thought he would. And I assume you two will be along, as well?”

Nihlus flapped his mandibles. “Of course. I’m required to accompany you, and Saren is an investor with one of the corporations on the planet. He’ll have leverage with the board, if we need it.”

Kaidan blinked and jerked his head back a little. “Really?”

One of Saren’s mandibles twitched downwards. “Binary Helix performs research on biotic implants and the effects of element zero exposure,” he recited, voice a dull monotone. “It can be… useful to be kept up-to-date on the field.”

Shepard folded their arms. “And you didn’t mention this earlier because..?”

The other mandible fluttered, and he shrugged. “I forgot, until Nihlus was checking a list of Noveria’s major corporations.”

Shepard stared at him for a long moment, but before they could decide how to respond, Joker shifted in his seat and started tapping away again. “Face-off’s gonna have to wait. Khulozai’s friends just knocked on the airlock. I’ll let them in, decon’ll take a while. ‘State-of-the-art,’ they said…”

Niazmina’s head snapped up, and her brow furrowed, probably squinting behind her aviators. “Why did you make that word plural.”

“Uh, because there’s two of them?” He adjusted the brim of his cap. “One big, one little, like those books they give the kiddies to teach them about opposites.”

Niazmina stared for a moment, then groaned. “Oh, great, they sent Probie.”

Shepard pursed their lips. “Who’s ‘Probie’?”

“His probation officer. And no, not literally, it’s just Tony’s brother, Sascha. Hope you can understand Russian accents, Commander.”

Kaidan frowned. “Is he mean, or something?”

“No, he’s pretty cool. He’s just twice my size, and that’s just not fair.”

Somebody behind Kaidan snorted. He had to agree.

Shepard shook their head. “Well, so many people crowded around the airlock doors won’t do us any favors. If you’re not Khulozai, Joker, or a Spectre, move down to the mess hall. And somebody make sure the rest of the ground team crew are there, too, so we can decide who’ll be leaving the ship.”

There was a little grumbling and a little groaning, contrasted sharply by Jenkins snapping an eager salute and dashing off to collect the others. Rookies. Couldn’t live with them, couldn’t live without them. Kaidan finally cleared his throat and made a shooing motion at the others. “Come on, guys, there’ll be plenty of time to ogle in a couple minutes. It’s crowded up here, anyway. There’s tables to sit on downstairs.”

“Don’t you mean sit at?” Tali asked, trotting along at his elbow.

“Nope. Do quarians not sit on tables?”

Tali rolled her eyes, obvious even despite the mask. “Admiral Gerrel and his marines sit on tables. My aunt says they’re uncouth.”

Who used the word uncouth in this day and age? Maybe it was a translation thing. “Well, your aunt’s probably right, but personally, I’m going to have to side with Admiral Gerrel.” Whoever that was.

“You’re definitely not a scientist,” Tali said, turning away from him.

He grinned at the side of her hood. “Gee, what gave me away?”

As they walked into the mess hall, he noticed Ashley had joined them, Garrus was wandering in from the elevator, and Saren was trotting briskly past him to disappear into the private cabin he shared with Nihlus. The room was abuzz with excitement and the potential to get out and explore a planet they normally wouldn’t get anywhere near. “D’you think they’ll let us out in the snow, once the storm lets up?” Kia was saying as Kaidan slid into a seat. “I haven’t been out in the snow in ages.”

“Y’know, the only way that could have been a more Finnish thing to say would be if you had also included death metal,” Feliks mused.

“Hey, fuck you, you butter-munching pansy.” Kia stuck her tongue out in Feliks’s general direction. “First off, death metal is fucking glorious and if you can’t stand it, it ain’t my fault you have no taste. Second, I’m a fuckin’ Finn, you jagoff.”

“Don’t bring butter into this!”

“I’m gonna bring butter in all I damn like cuz it’s true! You assholes threw a goddamn riot like, what, ten times over the last fifteen years cuz—”

“Girls, girls, you’re both excessively well-built,” came Isaiah’s voice from across the room where he was lounging rather uncomfortably on one of the sleeper pods, somehow. “Let’s not break the shiny new spaceship with your Scandinavian dick-measuring contest.”

“Mine’s bigger than his.”

“Is not.”

Kia just grinned. From the stairwell came a soft, “What the fuck,” from one of the less in-the-know technicians who never had to deal with two bitchy Terrans at the same time.

Poor Garrus and Tali looked completely lost. “What kind of measurement is a Scandinavian dick?” Tali asked, mystified.

“And what does a fatty spread have to do with anything?” Garrus added, head tilted so far to one side his crest clacked against the armor ringing his cowl. Tali shrugged helplessly.

“Look up the Terran 2011 Butter Crisis,” Shepard said, walking into the room with a faint smile on their face and Nihlus, Niazmina, and two bundled-up humans with ski goggles and scarves obscuring their faces trailing along behind him. The taller of the two unknowns had to keep ducking to keep from hitting his head on the exposed pipes in the ceiling. “It’s stupid.”

Feliks made a horribly wounded noise and a comical expression to match, one hand over his heart and the other in the universal gesture for “why?” “It was not stupid, it was a tragedy!”

Kia cupped her hands around her mouth. “Wee-oo, wee-oo, somebody call Chakwas, Haugen’s caught the smør-panik!”

Shepard waved their hands. “Alright, alright, that’s enough,” they said. “We have work to do.”

The smaller new human tugged down the scarf covering his mouth, revealing pallid skin and shark-bite piercings. “Is this normal for you?” He jabbed the taller one in the side and added, “Yo, I want a transfer.”

Too-Tall tugged down his own scarf, and Kaidan got a glimpse of a thin scar crossing through the corner of his lips. He took a deep breath and adjusted his shoulders like he was bracing himself for a rant, but instead just let out a heavy sigh. “For last time, little man, nyet.”

Shark-bite folded his arms across his chest. “You suck.”

Shepard cleared their throat. Behind them, Niazmina socked Shark-bite in the arm, hard enough to knock him a few stagger-steps sideways. Shepard ignored them, instead asking, “Is Jenkins back yet?”

“Over here, Commander!” came the answering chirp from the other side of the elevator as Jenkins came trotting back in, now accompanied by Chan-mi and Wrex.

Shepard nodded and gestured for them all to find seats like normal people. Isaiah almost flew to sit next to Ashley, and Kaidan suddenly found himself sandwiched between Feliks and Chan-mi. Saren reappeared then, ghosting up to Nihlus and handing him a bundle of fabric Kaidan guessed was probably more winter gear before drifting back to lurk in the corner, like one of those drama queen goth kids in teen entertainment media.

Shepard waited to make sure everyone was done moving, then nodded to Niazmina and took a step back. She stiffened, but recovered quickly, and cleared her throat as she gestured to their guests, who started hastily reaching to remove their winter gear off their heads. “These guys are our in for Noveria. The big one is Sascha Kozlovsky. His brother Antonio runs a private security firm, and Sascha handles all the physical parts of that word.”

Too-Tall (or, well, Sascha, apparently) nodded, putting down his hood so he could push up his goggles into a neat field of brown buzz cut. When he turned his head to watch Niazmina, Kaidan spotted an intricate mess of tattoos on the back and sides of his neck that stretched down below the scarf and hood, and he shuddered. Big, heavily-tattooed Russian dude. He should’ve guessed from ‘Sascha’ alone.

Niazmina, oblivious to Kaidan’s sudden pang of fear, continued on. “And the short guy is Dresden Sheach. Cybersecurity expert and scam artist extraordinaire.”

“That’s ‘Dresden’ as in the city in Germany, and ‘Sheach’ as in however you think it’s spelled, you’re wrong,” Shark-bite drawled. “It’s Scottish, I think. Maybe Irish.” The lip piercings weren’t the only ones, Kaidan noted. Eyebrows, nostrils, ears, if it could be pierced, Dresden had at least one hoop or stud going through it. Completing the look, his eyelids were also painted black with eyeshadow, matching the mop of jet-black hair crowning his head and the full-black set of winter gear he wore.

Shepard nodded to Niazmina. “So, what’s the plan?”

Dresden shrugged. “Tone’s still working out the finer details. It’s late afternoon here, so for now, the plan’s just to give your team a quick glance-around the port, then get you set up to stay the night. Otto, our finances dude, he’s got your back, booked the top-floor conference suite at the hotel. Bunch of private rooms, all connected to a main room and a kitchen. Real swanky. Then Tone’ll come fill you in on the little shit tomorrow morning.”

He’d had Kaidan at “stay the night in a nice hotel room,” but Shepard just pursed their lips. “Is that really all you know?”

Dresden peeled his lips back in a wolflike sneer. “I don’t know nothin’, man, Tone’s the man with the plan. Most I know is, you’re gonna want somebody who can keep Anoleis and his cronies busy while you’re snoopin’ around.”

Shepard blinked. “Anoleis?”

Sascha answered. “Port Hanshan’s administrator. Salarian. Very unfriendly.” He paused, then added, “Especially to Council. Is paranoid.”

Dresden bobbed his head, peeling a glove off so he could run a spidery hand through his hair. “He ain’t gonna take too kindly to Spectres and C-Sec poking around, so the more you can keep him off your back, the better. And no Alliance uniforms, either. Those’ll put people on alert, too. Otto and me did the math, you can probably get… ten, twelve, fifteen people in, max, before the Board starts getting their fancy shorts in an art deco twist.”

If Kaidan had a credit for every crease in Shepard’s brow, he could’ve bought himself a better pair of winter boots. “And what happens if they do?”

Dresden shrugged. “Well, to you, they might start getting in your way, following you around, accusing you of bullshit, the usual ‘paranoid corporates who want to avoid labor laws and ethical restrictions’ junk.” He shook his head. “The Council, though, they’re gonna get a bunch of nasty calls and threats of lawsuits that’ll ultimately get thrown out in court, ’cause the Council is allowed to send people in to make sure the Board’s not throwing too many laws out the window, but they’ll get real annoyed with you for making them put up with it, and I hear getting the Council ticked at you is awful bad for anybody’s health, but particularly hazardous to Spectres.”

Nihlus nodded. “He’s right. The last thing we need is Noveria shrieking at the Council, and the last thing you, in particular, Shepard, want is Sparatus going on the warpath.”

Shepard’s head snapped around to look at him. They hesitated, then asked, “How bad?”

Nihlus thought for a moment, mandibles working in small circles, then he glanced at Saren, who fluttered his mandibles. “I don’t suppose you were paying attention to the news when the batarian-human conflict came to a head?”

The vid footage popped into Kaidan’s mind’s eye even as Shepard shook their head and Saren told them, “Ierian and Tevos disagreed on how to handle the situation. Ierian supported the batarians’ legal claim to the space, Tevos the humans’. They were within a claw-length of coming to blows over it, quite literally.”

The color drained out of Shepard’s face, and Nihlus nodded grimly. “Exactly,” he said. “The less reason we give Noveria to pester the Council, the happier we’ll all be.”

Shepard raised their hand to their mouth and bit the tip of their thumb, bushy eyebrows lowered. “Right.” They glanced at Dresden again. “So, fifteen, you said?”

Dresden nodded. “Thereabouts. Or less. From what Tone said, I’d hazard a guess you’ll want some tech experts, somebody who’s good at talking people around, and backup in case ERCS shows their teeth.”

“Who’s that?”

“Elanus Risk Control Services,” Sascha cut in. “Security group for port in general. Individual firms are allowed to choose own security as preferred, but Elanus is official. With big paycheck from Anoleis.” He put his hands in his pockets. “Is interesting. But no talking for now.”

Dresden nodded. “Officially, you’re here doing business with us, but you still gotta watch your back.”

Shepard nodded slowly, starting to pace. “So, fifteen total maximum, including techs and a diplomat. There’s already me, Nihlus, Garrus, and Saren, so that’s four. Niazmina makes five.” They stopped pacing and glanced at the crew. “Who do we have who can talk to Anoleis?”

The crew glanced around each other, then Niazmina spoke up. “Hey, Marinov, weren’t you saying the other day you were good at convincing that crotchety old turian during development?”

All heads in the room swiveled to look at Adrian, who looked distinctly “rabbit in a fox den”-ish. He hastily looked down at his hands and mumbled, “I just showed her my work and explained my thought process.”

Kaidan felt the faintest vibration in his sternum, and Nihlus glanced over at Saren. “You knew the head engineer, didn’t you?”

Saren flicked one mandible, and Nihlus was silent for a minute before glancing back at Shepard. “Actinus is a stubborn old hen, according to Saren. If Marinov can talk her around, he may stand a fair chance against the administrator.”

The buzz in Kaidan’s chest died, and he made a mental note to look up how turian subvocals worked. If Nihlus was able to get “this lady is a nasty piece of work, and convincing her of anything is an impressive feat” out of a single fluctuating hum, maybe there was more to it than he’d thought.

Shepard nodded to him, then glanced at Adrian. “Congratulations, Marinov, you’ve just been drafted.”

Adrian gulped audibly, and Tali patted his shoulder.

Shepard resumed pacing, hand on their chin. “Backup, backup… Alenko, Haugen, we could use a couple sentinels. You too, Torres.”

Kaidan nodded, and accepted a fist-bump from Feliks next to him. As long as they didn’t ask him to talk to any fancy administrators, this would be fine. He wasn’t sure how maneuvering a corporate-run whatever went, and he didn’t particularly care to find out. Somewhere behind them, Isaiah gave a loud groan, then there was a loud THUNK, presumably Isaiah’s head hitting the table. Chicken.

A table over, Jenkins raised his hand. “Can I come along, too, Commander?” he asked, sounding way too chipper about it.

Shepard considered, then nodded, and within seconds Kia’s hand shot skyward, so fast she stood up with it. “If you’re taking volunteers, mememememe, puh-lease!”

Shepard blinked rapidly, jerking their head back, then cautiously nodded. “I don’t see why not.”

While Kia fist-pumped victoriously, Shepard worried at their lower lip with their teeth. Huh. Kaidan thought for a moment, counting out everyone they had. Three Spectres, a C-Sec officer, two engineers, five ground team… That made eleven, then. A fair number, within the danger range Dresden had specified.

Then a half-remembered conversation flitted across his brain at the same time as Chan-mi raised her hand. “I will go, too, Commander,” she said. “Then we will have an even twelve, and can split into groups evenly if necessary.”

Relief washed over Shepard’s face as they nodded to her. Right, Kaidan remembered now. Something about numbers. Prime numbers, especially, were evil, and multiples of four were safe. “Thanks, Lin,” Shepard said. “We should put the cap on there, try to keep our numbers on the lower end. Shore team, go make sure your gear is all in order, then move it to the airlock so it’s ready to go in when we need it. The rest of you, have fun staying inside.”

They made a dismissal motion, and turned away to talk to Nihlus and the two guests. Next to Kaidan, Feliks clapped his hands and got to his feet. “Frozen wasteland, here we come,” he grunted.

Kia took a huge step closer to them and affectionately bunted Feliks’s shoulder. “Like a home away from home, huh?”

In spite of himself, Kaidan couldn’t help but smile.

Chapter Text

Turian teeth were spaced too far apart and too staggered to chatter when cold. Having seen countless aliens doing it, Nihlus thought this was perhaps an oversight on evolution’s part, if for no other reason than that the obnoxious clacking was a very useful way to let the rest of the party know that hypothermia was imminent and going inside would be pretty neat and awfully convenient for anything with an intact survival instinct.

The intense cold made the walk from the Normandy’s airlock to the port proper into more of an agonizing shuffle. A very large part of him wanted to bolt back to the ship and switch into his armor, just for the blessed comfort of the internal thermal regulators. He’d be more than happy to settle for just the endosuit, even – it was meant to help keep warm even in the vacuum of space, after all. But no, the armor would be too conspicuous, so it was locked away in his footlocker for an emergency, and he had to make do with his heaviest winter cloak and various accessories. At least the cloak had thermal lining.

At the very least, he wasn’t the only one suffering. From his vantage point at the back of the group, he could watch as most of the humans hunched in on themselves, bunched together for warmth, and generally looked miserable. The only ones who weren’t were the short, violent one who smelled strongly of biotics, and their taller friend with sleeping problems. He couldn’t remember their names for the life of him. They appeared only vaguely inconvenienced, absently hugging themselves around the waists as they chattered sentimentally about their homelands. Up at the head of the gaggle, Vakarian held his cloak so tight around himself Nihlus could see his elbows sticking out, Shepard a mostly-amorphous blob of winter gear beside him, the shortest human (what was their name, Lin?) trotting valiantly to keep up. Next to Nihlus, Saren was taking extra-large strides to match him step for step, pressed up against his side so firmly Nihlus could feel how hard he was shivering.

On impulse, Nihlus grabbed the edge of his cloak and swung his arm around to drape it around Saren. “Here,” he said, lifting his head free of his scarf so he could speak clearly. “It’s easier to share heat this way.”

His gizzard twinged when Saren only keened quietly, subvocals carrying a grateful note, rather than grumbling that he was just fine, Nihlus, stop fussing. Saren was a proud creature, Nihlus had learned; if he wasn’t bothering with even a symbolic protest, it was bad.

He fluttered one mandible and gripped Saren’s shoulder. “We’ll be inside soon,” he assured him. “Then you can sit over a grate or something.”

Saren mulled this over, then snorted and knocked his head against Nihlus’s cowl, the blow cushioned by Saren’s thick hood. “I can see that, Nihlus,” he grumbled. “I’m not a child.”

Well, at least he wasn’t entirely too miserable to be indignant. That was a good sign. So he just quirked up his mandibles and hugged him closer to his side. “Yes, yes, how dare I worry about you,” he teased, subvocals a lilting affectionate-amused-relieved mix. “Spirits know the great Saren Arterius would hardly be felled by hypothermia, of all things.”

One of Saren’s mandibles flickered, a flash of white against his hood’s black lining. “Of course not,” he scoffed, the barest hint of amusement creeping into his subvocals. “Don’t you read, Nihlus? I’m invincible.”

Nihlus allowed himself a short bark of a laugh. “Yes, I really trust the likes of Empire Weekly, the same publication that regularly manipulates pictures of both you and your brother to look like each other, even when it’s blatantly obvious which Arterius it really is. Truly, the pinnacle of accurate journalism.”

Saren shook in that peculiar way he had when he wanted to laugh, but didn’t want anyone to know he found whatever it was genuinely amusing. It was a welcome change from shaking with cold, so Nihlus smiled and rubbed his shoulder, noting appreciatively how soft Saren’s cloak felt even with thick winter gloves between it and the pads of his fingers. “I like this cloak,” he hummed. “Is it new?”

Saren’s mandibles stayed angled a few degrees upwards from their usual neutral position. “Technically speaking.”

Nihlus raised one brow plate and lowered the opposite mandible. Come to think of it, dark blue wasn’t usually Saren’s color, at least not for cloaks. And this one seemed almost suspiciously nice. “Did you steal it from your brother and have it tailored?”

Saren let out a low chuff, interlaced with distinctly self-satisfied and unrepentant subvocals. “I stole it from my brother and had it tailored.”

Nihlus snorted and shook his head. “And let me guess, you had the embroidery spelling out his name removed and replaced with yours, just to spite him.”

Saren shrugged. “He can’t wear it now, anyway. His shoulders are broader than mine. I thought it only fair.”

“Only fair, he says, after already having stolen the thing in the first place.” Nihlus heaved an exasperated sigh, but, like Saren’s protesting, it was more of a symbolic gesture than true annoyance. He’d accepted Saren’s odd feud-that-wasn’t with his brother ages ago. They never really hurt each other, just did their best to irritate. It was hard to really scold Saren for antagonizing Desolas when the worst that ever happened was somebody getting wrestled into submission.

Saren chuffed again, and Nihlus smiled for a fraction of a second before noticing the humans ahead of them stopping. He lifted his head, and after a few moments of squinting up ahead, he sighed and withdrew his cloak from around Saren. “Come on, looks like we might be needed.”

Saren grumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, “I hope not,” but nonetheless stayed barely a step behind as Nihlus weaved through the gaggle of humans up to where Shepard waited behind the two new humans. “C’mon, Matsuo,” the small one with metal in their face was saying. What was their name? It had sounded almost turian, but not quite. “We have clearance, the paperwork’s all in order. Pfyffer filled it out, for fuck’s sake. Dude goes through with a ruler to make sure his t’s are all crossed in the same place.”

The human they were talking to, a short one with blue-black hair and blue-gray armor flanked by another human and two turians, pursed their lips. “I’m sorry, Sheach-kun, but this is an administrative demand. Even if I did trust the judgement of a misanthropic shut-in, I cannot disobey a direct order.”

“Oh, that’s cold.”

Nihlus cleared his throat, and various faces turned up to look at him. It was almost uncomfortable, being taller than most of the species he interacted with, and having so many humans craning their necks to see his face was no exception. It certainly didn’t help that both Saren and Vakarian had to look up, too. “Excuse me, what’s going on?” he asked. “Are we not allowed in?”

He squinted at the lead guard, fluttering one mandible. They had the slightly rounder face he knew humans typically associated with females of the species, but then, with most of them clad in armor, he couldn’t really discern any other features. They just squinted back at him, furrowing their brow and lifting their chin in a gesture which he’d learned, surprisingly, humans considered defiant, rather than submissive like turians did.

Shepard coughed into their fist. “Uh, Captain Matsuo, Agents Nihlus Kryik and Saren Arterius of Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. Nihlus, Saren, this is Captain Maeko Matsuo, with the ERCS. She’s just told us we need further administrative approval before we can come in.”

“Even though we had clearance twenty minutes ago when we came out here,” the metal-faced human spat. Dresden, that was their name. They seemed a thorny sort.

Matsuo pursed her lips. “It isn’t up to me,” she repeated. “I would let you in if I could, but the administrator…”

She trailed off, and the human flanking her lifted one side of their upper lip, showing the sharper tooth omnivores had for eating meat. “Besides, that was before you brought him.” They shot a distinctly hostile look straight at Saren.

Nihlus bristled, and was drawing himself up to retort when Matsuo interjected. “Sergeant, please,” she said, voice brittle. “The Council’s protections for the Spectres do still extend here.”

“She’s right, Stirling,” came yet another new voice, this one over the intercom. “Let everyone through, Captain. Anoleis stood down.”

Matsuo glanced up, presumably at wherever the speakers may have been, and nodded. “Understood.” She looked over her shoulder and signaled for the sergeant and the turians flanking them to step aside. She waited for them to obey, then did the same and motioned for the group to head in. “Sorry for the hold-up, Commander Shepard. Welcome to Noveria.”

“Watch yourselves,” the sergeant called after them as they headed inside. Nihlus had to fight the urge to look back over his shoulder. He had to be professional here.

They waited in the corner for the whole group to get inside, and as the others trickled in, Shepard folded their arms across their chest and looked at their guides. “Who was the blonde?” they asked. “Anyone we need to worry about?”

The taller human answered first. Sascha. “Sergeant Kaira Stirling,” they said, and whatever a “Russian” accent was, Nihlus’s translator couldn’t make tooth nor talon of it. The roughened, truncated version of Imperial Standard he heard was only just barely comprehensible. “Captain Matsuo’s second-in-command. She is… no friend to outsiders.”

Dresden snorted. “That’s his way of saying she’s on a power trip. Matsuo’s pretty good as far as cops go, follows the rules and all, but Stirling…” He gave a disapproving hrmm. “Her file ain’t too flattering, I’ll tell you that.”

“You’ve seen her file?” Vakarian asked, subvocals ringing with alarm-suspicion.

Dresden shrugged. “Just the employment record. Going in too far can set off alarms that don’t like attempts to shut them down. ERCS has moved her around a few times for ‘differences in opinion,’ whatever that means.”

Shepard nodded slowly, but Vakarian lowered his mandibles. “What do you mean by ‘going in too far’?”

Dresden started to respond, then noticed something behind Nihlus and put his hands behind his back. “Show you later,” he said with a wink.

Nihlus shared a look with Vakarian, then shook his head and turned around to see another human approaching, this one a female in a pink dress. “Sorry about that,” she said as she came to a halt between Nihlus and Shepard. “The paperwork was all in order, the administrator was just… suspicious.”

Shepard nodded to her. “No harm done. We’re out of that storm, at least.”

The human grimaced. “Yeah, you have my sympathies. Ground traffic here is halted until it clears up a little more. And on Noveria, that can take a while.” She cleared her throat, then extended a hand towards Shepard. “Gianna Parasini. I’m Administrator Anoleis’s secretary.”

Shepard shook her hand. “Commander Shepard, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance.”

Parasini’s eyes gleamed. “So it’s true, then? The Council really let a human join the Spectres? The news wasn’t just working itself up over nothing again?”

Shepard’s face turned faintly pink. “I’m not officially a Spectre yet, ma’am. They’ve only accepted me for training.”

“Still, though. That’s better than the news inflating the truth.” She gave a little smile.

Dresden coughed into their fist. “Yeah, yeah, we’re all very proud, all that touchy-feely shit. What was the deal with Anoleis, Gi? They ain’t even been here an hour yet, what’d they do?”

Parasini blinked and jerked her head back, then shook herself and puffed out a sigh. “Oh, you know him. Salarians jump at their own shadow, and he’ll tell you the shadow pulled a knife on him.” She shook her head. “The short version is, he didn’t trust the Spectres’ reasoning for being here. Especially not since you came in a warship, asked permission to bring extra help groundside, and brought a C-Sec officer and Saren Arterius with you.”

Nihlus lowered his brow plates and started to open his mouth, but Parasini raised a hand. “I know, I know, Special Tactics has the right to bring anybody they damn well please with them. But you have to admit, it does look kind of like the Council’s springing a surprise inspection on everybody. And, Agent Arterius, I’m sorry, but your reputation isn’t exactly leaving a trail of sunshine and rainbows wherever you go.”

Saren rumbled an acquiescent note, but all he said was, “Agent Saren.”

Parasini blinked and furrowed her brow, then apparently decided it was none of her business and shook her head again. “Agent Saren, then. My apologies.”

Saren gave her a single nod. She fidgeted for a moment, then inhaled and soldiered on. “Anyway, Binary Helix stepped in on your behalf. You’re now officially here under their good graces, even though they didn’t know you were here until about ten minutes ago. Which works out for all of you, because just Mr. Carvalho’s invitation looks suspicious to the administrator.”

Shepard raised an eyebrow. “I hesitate to ask, but… why?”

Parasini sighed. “Letting other security firms operate at Port Hanshan is kind of a sore spot for him. The board likes the level of security Elanus brings, but they think the image they create scares people too much for good negotiations. So, they bring in private firms of their own, and that gets Anoleis antsy. Easier for them to slide things under the radar if their own security checks it instead of his, you know?” She shrugged. “Corporate politics are messy like that. Just try not to piss anybody off, and we’ll all be happy.”

Shepard nodded. “Thanks for the tip, ma’am.”

“Anytime.” She checked her omni-tool, then glanced back up at them. “I should get going. Dresden, Sascha, Maiga asked me to let you know the conference suite’s ready whenever you are. They’ll send people out to get their things once they check in.”

Dresden curled a fist and stuck up their thumb at her, and she went trotting briskly off. As Nihlus watched her go, Shepard asked, “Maiga being..?”

“The hotel manager, dude,” Dresden replied breezily. “He doesn’t like me much, ’cause apparently, I scare guests away.”

Looking over the human’s face and outfit, seemingly engineered to provoke a “stay away from me” instinct in any species who looked at it, Nihlus could certainly imagine why.

Shepard pursed their lips, then glanced over the group. “Everyone’s here. We should get going.”

Nihlus checked over his shoulder to see that, indeed, the rest of the team had filed in behind them and were loitering around, some chatting, some still shivering. Jenkins was bizarrely chipper despite the weather, enthusing to Alenko about winters on Eden Prime and somehow managing to have a bounce in his step regardless of the many thick, puffy layers of winter gear he wore.

Spirits, Nihlus was too young to envy the young.

The group started off again, following Dresden back the way Parasini had gone, and Nihlus fell into step beside Saren again. “Do you ever get the sense you’re getting too old for this?” he mused, watching Shepard strike up a conversation with Sascha.

“Frequently,” Saren said breezily. “Then I remember Desolas is nineteen years older than me, and I feel much better.”

Nihlus considered this, then quirked one mandible upward and the other out. “And you’re two years older than me. You’re right, that does make me feel better.”

Saren’s scowl was so comical it almost made up for the cold. Almost.

Dresden led them into a large, open common area, neatly divided into two separate levels and connected by dual sets stairs on either side of and down the middle of the room. It was mostly deserted, only populated by guards in ERCS colors and the occasional huddled form scurrying between doors. A lone hanar was visible through a wall of windows, hovering near piles of crates. A merchant, most likely, Nihlus assumed. Across the upper level, a sign for one PORT HANSHAN HOTEL glowed steadily, with a sign for a garage underneath it pointing down and to the left. Closer to them, midway across the path, there was a small kiosk with DIRECTORY stamped neatly on the side. Some attempt at making the place seem more welcoming had been made, with planters placed at strategic locations with plant life from a different homeworld in each. The outer rim of the room glinted with the metal-rich flora of Palaven, planters running alongside the nearby stairs bloomed with Thessian and Sur’Keshi specimens, and in the middle of the room he thought he recognized the dim bioluminescence of Rannoch and Khar’Shan.

Dresden shook out their neck and traipsed a few steps ahead, turning on the ball of one foot to walk backwards and face the group as they led them further inside. “Welcome to Port Hanshan,” they said breezily. “Try not to go anywhere without at least a jacket, Anoleis is too cheap to crank up the heat enough to warm up the atrium properly. Hotel’s pretty good about it, more enclosed space, easier to heat, and Maiga has a bunch of hot-climate species working there so he wants to keep them comfortable enough to actually be of use, but this big room here’ll freeze your kidneys.”

The group followed them to the middle of the room, where they hopped up to sit on the retaining wall for a planter containing something leafy, magenta, and speckled with glowing green dots. Khar’Shanni ornamental shrubbery, if he remembered the old batarian embassy right. “Okay, crash course,” Dresden declared, motioning for them all to gather around so they could hear. With a flourish and a dramatic point, they pointed back towards where they came, down at the bottom of the atrium. “Down there, most importantly, is Anoleis’s office. I would strongly recommend against finding yourself in there. Parasini works in there, so if you really have questions, talk to her, but otherwise, pretend there’s police crime scene tape over the door.”

Their arm swept back to point at a doorway on the opposite end of the room. “That-a-ways is the garage and the Synthetic Insights office. Anoleis doesn’t get along well with the head S.I. guy, so watch your step in that area.”

“Why don’t they get along?” Shepard asked, brow furrowed.

Sascha shrugged. “Lorik Qui’in does not approve of Anoleis’s business practices. Anoleis does not approve of him.”

Dresden nodded. “Qui’in’s this old turian, like, super old. Nose is practically whiter than that snowstorm outside. Bit of a traditionalist, y’know? Qui’in says Anoleis is corrupt, Anoleis says Qui’in’s an old windbag. You’d have to talk to him to get the details. I’m curious, but I ain’t dumb enough to go poking around that hornet’s nest.”

Shepard nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll keep it in mind. Anything we need to know about the garage?”

“Just that it’s on lockdown until the storm blows over,” Dresden said. “Unless you get your hands on a garage pass. Might be a problem, might not, depends what we find in that lab’s system.”

“Garage is run by turian named Lil…” Sascha frowned and tried again. “Lili… Li…” They scowled.

“Lilihierax,” Dresden supplied. “Most of us call him Li. It’s shorter, and most non-turians have trouble with his name, anyway.”

“You said it fine,” Nihlus pointed out.”

They shrugged modestly. “I speak eight languages. I’m good with names.”

Next to Shepard, Alenko made face like if they’d been drinking anything, they would have spat it out. “Eight?”

Dresden smiled wide enough to show the pointed teeth at the corners of their mouth. “Sure.” They started counting off on their fingers. “Predominantly ethnically Javanese, there’s my first language. Born in Suriname, learned Dutch ’cause that’s what they taught me in school. Two. Moved to Indonesia when I was twelve, learned Malay and Hakka Chinese to make friends. Three and four. Went to the EU for uni when I was eighteen, got wanderlust and hopped around the planet, picked up basic conversation in English, Arabic, Japanese, and Spanish. Five through eight. Plus a little bit of others, y’know, like, ‘hello,’ ‘do you speak Dutch,’ and ‘where’s the bathroom,’ essential stuff like that.”

Sascha snorted. “Also speaks Portuguese when insulting boyfriend.”

“Okay, to be fair, I learned those from him, so it’s fair play,” Dresden pointed out with a scowl.

“Not that this isn’t utterly fascinating,” Saren cut in suddenly, almost making Nihlus jump, “but I truly, sincerely could not care less. We have work to do.”

More heads than just Nihlus’s whipped around at his remark, but before anyone could get out a startled bark of his name or otherwise, Sascha told Dresden, “Small turian has point. It would be rude to keep Maiga waiting, and there will be much to do in morning. Best to finish quickly.”

As if he could hear the scold on the tip of Nihlus’s tongue, Saren shot him a “you see?” kind of look, like their guides agreeing with him absolved him of any untoward behavior. Which, in Nihlus’s opinion, it didn’t, but he certainly wasn’t going to say anything about it now. Instead, he just made a mental note to remind him later, in private, that they were guests of tenuous standing here and minding their manners was paramount, in as stern a voice as he could muster for however long it was able to last against Saren’s surely unwavering indifference.

Spirits, for all Nihlus cared about and admired Saren, sometimes he genuinely lamented that threats to tell Desolas about what he was up to had about as much effect as telling a storm that he’d appreciate not being rained on.

“So, anyway,” Dresden continued, “as I was saying.” They pointed off towards the hotel sign. “That, hopefully obviously, is where you lot get to put your feet up tonight. Like I said, top floor, bunch of space, real nice. Hotel for corporate types, y’know? Snobs won’t accept anything less, even paying economy.”

They gestured off to the group’s right, towards another set of glass doors like the ones they’d come in through. “And over that way is the office complex. Most of Hanshan’s companies have a suite in there. Only the real fancy and probably illegal snot-noses get one of the lab facilities out in the mountains.” They shook their head, and Nihlus thought he saw a small pattern of light pop up over their pupils, then disappear again as they said, “You assholes get to come with us to number 38 tomorrow, and we’ll check out that lab of yours. Tone’ll meet you up in the hotel suite in the morning, hammer out a plan of action, then we’ll go from there.”

“Will either of you be with him?” Shepard asked.

“I will do my very best to not be,” Dresden replied cheerfully. “But I guarantee Tone’ll drag me along anyway.”

“Dresden is nocturnal by nature,” Sascha supplied. “Antonio is fine with it, until he is needing him for important goings-on before afternoon.”

“Sounds familiar,” Nihlus muttered with a glance at Saren, who merely twitched a mandible.

Dresden merely waved a hand dismissively. “Tone just gets pissy ’cause he’s a morning person and I’m not even a person before noon. Come on, you should check in before Maiga sends out a search party.”

 They hopped to their feet and headed off for the hotel before anybody could respond. Nihlus shared a look with Shepard, then followed, shaking his head. This mission was… interesting, to say the least.

The hotel lobby was the kind of place clearly designed for people to hang around. There was a bar in the middle of the floor, surrounded by smaller tables where guests of all species were huddled over hot drinks, some talking in groups, some keeping to themselves. As Dresden and Sascha led their group through, Nihlus overheard snippets of conversation: an asari talking about implants, a salarian gossiping over the comm about Anoleis, one human whining to another about how hungry they were. About what he’d expect, really.

At the very back of the lobby, an asari and a volus were waiting for them behind a counter helpfully labeled CHECK-IN. While Dresden and Sascha talked to them, Nihlus glanced around, a prickling sense on the back of his cowl letting him know in no uncertain terms he was being watched. And, well, it was less him, specifically, and more of the whole group; despite everyone having switched to civilian gear, their number nevertheless drew a fair bit of attention. Nihlus had no doubt that it would be even worse if Saren’s hood had been down, thus allowing the lobby’s occupants to see the distinctive spines that still dominated the news feeds every time something related to Relay 314 came up.

Luckily, nobody seemed to think they were worth investigating, and their guides retrieved the room keys and led them to the elevator without incident. Or, elevators, really. With fourteen people, three of which being turians, they had to split into two groups to get everyone up. And even then, everyone’s relief at getting out of the crowded cars was palpable.

Admittedly, Nihlus had very little benchmark for what constituted a “nice” hotel room. He never bothered to spring for anything more expensive than necessary while on a mission; it wasn’t like he really needed original artwork on the walls or a massive bathtub to do his job. But walking into the top-floor suite, he could certainly see the appeal.

The suite was lavishly decorated, to say the least. He didn’t think even the councilors lived in such comfort. Past a small entryway was a spacious main room, with a vidscreen on the opposite wall sandwiched by two floor-to-ceiling windows, old-fashioned synthread curtains tastefully drawn to hide the storm outside. Off to their left, Nihlus spied a kitchen area, and to the right was a hallway that he assumed led to bedrooms.

While the Normandy team marveled at the plush carpeting and artisan furniture, Dresden waltzed into the center of the room, spreading their hands. “Welcome to the best Port Hanshan has to offer. I’ve lied my way in here a couple times when me and Tone were on the outs, real nice. Six bedrooms down that way, fridge and cupboards should have at least a workable stock. They usually use this thing for team-building business retreats and shit like that, great for big groups.”

Sascha cleared his throat. “Staff will be bringing up gear. Antonio will be telling Niazmina when is plan to arrive in morning. Will be early. Recommend getting of good sleeping.”

Shepard looked up from inspecting the coffee table and nodded to them. “Thank you both. Is there anything else we should know?”

“Yeah, don’t order room service. We’ll get charged for it, and you’ll wake up with a knife in your throat.”

Sascha cuffed him around the head. “Is exaggeration. Otto would not hurt fly. Still, do not order. Very expensive. I will be doing of silent judgement.”

Shepard nodded again, and they left with an impartial nod from Sascha, a jaunty salute from Dresden, and the human in the headscarf sticking their tongue out at Dresden’s back.

The room was quiet for a moment as everyone spread out to investigate their new accommodations, then Shepard cleared their throat and clapped their hands together twice. “Well, we can’t get anything done until Antonio talks to us tomorrow, so I say we sort out sleeping arrangements and get settled. There’s six rooms and twelve of us, so everybody pick a friend and go claim a room.”

Saren and Nihlus took a step towards each other at the exact same time and, naturally, collided. Saren, being almost pitifully smaller than Nihlus, almost fell over, which Nihlus would have felt sorry for if the resulting image of Saren Arterius, the most notoriously stoic and impassive turian in the galaxy, stumbling back and catching himself on a chair just before falling flat on his ass hadn’t been so comical. As it were, Nihlus simply fought a laugh as he offered Saren a hand. “Sorry, I didn’t see you down there.”

He considered the withering look Saren gave him to be a fair price for an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

The humans at least sorted themselves out without similar incidents. Nihlus felt a brief pang of guilt when he realized Vakarian, being the odd turian out, would have to find a human to room with, but that was quickly resolved when Shepard stepped up to make the offer. The other humans all seemed to already have at least one friend present, so he didn’t want to imagine how awkward it would have been otherwise.

On request from Saren, they took one of the rooms at the very end of the hall. Nihlus didn’t even pause to look around before collapsing face-first into the bed closest to the door. The thick comforter was nothing short of a cloud enveloping him. “Do me a favor,” he grunted out of the sides of his mouth. “Don’t wake me until absolutely necessary.”

Saren snorted, and Nihlus heard a quiet series of taps and clicks. The vents came alive with a groan and a whispering hiss, providing the answer to what he’d been doing with a gust of warm air from above Nihlus’s head. Blessed thermostats. A hand pulled up Nihlus’s shoulder and fussed at his cloak for a moment, then set him back down, and his cloak was gently lifted off him. “I’ll save you a plate from dinner.”

Chapter Text

Shepard woke to faint, muffled music whispering from beyond the bedroom walls.

They sat up with a groan and rubbed at their head, blinking blearily. After a moment, they realized Garrus had already left, his bed neatly made in his wake. Huh. The chrono on the bedside table only read 0600. Wait, right, turians needed less sleep than humans.

They threw on a muscle shirt over the sweat pants they’d passed out in and went loping into the main room, where they discovered the source of the music. “Morning, Shepard,” Kaidan said with barely a glance up, inspecting a handful of black boxes carefully while some inane cartoon belted out its theme song on the vidscreen. “D’you know what a vidscreen needs with five remotes? This is ridiculous. All I want to do is change the channel.”

Shepard squinted at him, then shook their head, trying to clear some of the sleep out of their head. “Rich people,” they mumbled.

“Huh. Yeah, that’s probably it.” He nodded towards the kitchen area. “Isaiah’s making omelets for everyone. Khulozai and Jenkins are in there, too, and the turians.”

Shepard nodded and suppressed another yawn. “Anyone else up?”

“Khulozai said Lin’s taking a shower, and I thought I heard movement from Isotalo and Haugen, but I’m not sure.”

Shepard blinked slowly. So they were one of the last up. They weren’t actually sure whether or not to be surprised – it wasn’t like they were that familiar with the crew yet. “Thanks,” they told Kaidan. “Good luck with the vidscreen.”

Kaidan nodded and went back to trying to figure out which remote was the one that worked, and Shepard continued on into the kitchen. As promised, Niazmina, Jenkins, Saren, and Garrus were sitting around the big dining table that took up most of the floor, while Nihlus and Isaiah worked over the stove. Niazmina was reading off her terminal at the very far end of the table, a spoon traveling between the bowl of cereal in front of her and her mouth at a snail’s pace. Jenkins was sitting with his back to Shepard, watching Isaiah attentively as he cooked. Saren and Garrus sat across from each other, a platter heaped with lavender spheres between them. Saren had a neat little pile of the things split in two at his elbow – shells of some sort, Shepard guessed. As they watched, Garrus reached out and took one of the whole spheres, popped it into his mouth, and choked it down whole like it was nothing.

Nobody noticed them at first, so they waited and listened as Nihlus asked Saren, “Are you going to eat the shells?” in a tone of voice that seemed to say he already knew the answer.

“Sungui.”

“They’re good for you.”

“Zu uusata.”

Shepard blinked and shook their head. Had his translator gone out again? The other humans in the room seemed totally unfazed by Saren’s squawking, so had it been going on all morning?

Their reaction must have caught Saren’s eye, because he looked up from his omni-tool for half a second before going back to it and pulling up what looked distinctly like the settings window, grumbling, “Uusar’ur, riup osei-ei kazir orupurxadei.”

Garrus jerked his head back, then glanced behind him, recognized Shepard, then spun back to Saren and said, “I’m a cop, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Saren snorted, and this time when he spoke, Shepard understood: “You’re, what, twelve? And C-Sec besides. The Council couldn’t pay me to care what you think.”

Shepard raised a brow and ambled further in. “Let me guess, he said ‘shit, it’s the cops’?”

Nihlus snorted softly. “Technically, he said, ‘Watch out, it’s the fun police.’ I’m surprised he didn’t get particular about semantics, really.”

Saren shrugged and reached for another… egg, Shepard supposed. “I haven’t finished eating yet.”

“I have never known you to ever be finished eating.” Nihlus shook his head. “Eat your shells.”

While Saren grumbled a protest, Shepard pulled out the chair next to Garrus and sat down. “Has this been going on long?”

“Not really,” Garrus reported, calmly fishing a stray piece of eggshell out of his teeth. “Earlier, they were arguing over whether or not steaming the eggs in the microwave is a crime against good taste. Honestly, I feel like I’ve been transported back in time to when I was a kid, except instead of my sister fighting with my mother, it’s two grown men.”

Shepard nodded sagely as Isaiah turned around and called, “Hey, Alenko! Eggs!” He reached for a plate from the stack beside him, turned towards Shepard, and added, “Hey, Commander, what d’you want on your eggs? And how many do you like in an omelet? Ten?” Something must have flashed across Shepard’s eyes, because he flashed them a broad grin and giggled. Giggled. “Just sayin’, man, we have, just… so many eggs. So many. Niazmina’s guy hooked us up.

Shepard raised an eyebrow. “How many is ‘so many’?”

Jenkins cut in then, leaning around Garrus to see Shepard. “A whole shelf of chicken eggs, and a shelf of… what’d you call ’em, Garrus?”

“Cornin eggs,” Garrus supplied. “They’re a staple on Palaven.”

“I looked them up, Commander,” Isaiah said. “Imagine if an iguana and an antelope had an evil baby. The turians raise them for their meat and their eggs and their bright, shining personalities, and I’ve been told they’re delicious. But I haven’t been told how you like your omelets. Come on, skillet’s hot.”

Shepard cracked a smile and shook their head. “Ham, cheese, and mushrooms, if you have any of that. Three eggs.”

“No ham, sorry. Cheese and mushroom it is.” Isaiah whistled as he wandered over to the fridge. When he opened it, Shepard was startled to see that, sure enough, the two top shelves were positively packed with carton upon carton of eggs. The team’s respective breakfasts had barely even made a dent. Shepard had thought they’d all been exaggerating.

Heh. Egg-xaggerating.

Shepard mentally kicked themselves in the shin and watched Isaiah close the refrigerator door with three eggs in one massive mitt.

While Isaiah busied himself with that, Kaidan entered the kitchen, accompanied by a wet-haired Chan-mi. “You bellowed?”

Isaiah snorted and put a plate with Kaidan’s omelet on it on the table. “Come get your eggs, handsome, before the bottomless pit over here mistakes them for dextro.”

The room went relatively quiet for a moment, but Saren only pressed his thumb-claws into another egg, cracked it neatly in half, and juggled the yolk over to one of the half-shells. Finally, Nihlus asked, “What, no comment?”

Saren paused in the middle of lifting the gooey presumably-goodness to his mouth and glanced around, then back at Nihlus, shrugged, and shook his head slightly. “No, that’s fair.”

Nihlus stared at him for a moment, then shook his head and went back to whatever he was cooking. “Well, you’re in a good mood. How long will it last?”

“Five minutes, if you keep talking about it.” Saren popped the egg yolk into his mouth, and with his mandibles slightly lowered, Shepard got a fantastic view as his tongue arced up and carried it back to his throat. Ew. He swallowed, then added, “My good moods spook easily.”

Nihlus sighed, Garrus snorted, and Shepard fought a grin, instead just looking back at Isaiah. “So, just omelets for the whole group, Torres?”

Isaiah shrugged. “Well, I was the first one up, and I found all those eggs in the fridge, and this is really all I know how to do with them, y’know? My mom used to make eggs Benedict every Sunday for us kids, and she taught me in theory, but I could never get the hang of the hollandaise sauce. Always made it so thick, it’d glue your jaws shut. I was gonna just make one omelet for me, but then other people started showing up, so I figured, eh, why not, right?”

Shepard nodded sagely. “Makes sense. Is the storm still going on?”

“Can’t you hear it?” Garrus asked, tilting his head to the left. “It’s been howling since I woke up.”

“Human hearing isn’t as sensitive as ours,” Nihlus reminded him, turning off the burner on his side of the stove. “Saren, could you grab me a bowl, please?”

Just as Saren hauled himself out of his seat, there was a clatter, a BANG!, and a yelp of “JESUS!” from the other end of the table.

Shepard nearly jumped out of their skin, and looked down to see Niazmina hastily fishing her spoon out of her cereal bowl and forcefully hitting a flashing green icon on her omni-tool. She took a deep breath, then pushed her glasses back up her nose, put a hand over where Shepard assumed her right ear was, and complained, “I had earbuds in, man, do you know how badly you have to get startled to take somebody else’s god’s name in vain? Send me a text first next time, sheesh…”

While Shepard and the others exchanged confused glances, Niazmina got up and made her way out of the dining area, listening to whoever it was on the other end of her comm. In the doorway, she paused, told the caller, “Yeah, one second,” and turned to tell the room at large, “Tony and company will be up in fifteen minutes to talk over the plan, so if you’re not respectable, go make it so.”

She was gone before Shepard could think to ask her to define “respectable.” A tank top and N7 sweats counted, right? Probably at least passable, they supposed. Most of the others were also checking themselves over, apparently having the same mental debate. Chan-mi and Garrus were the only two who were properly dressed, and Jenkins and Nihlus were mildly passable, Jenkins in an Alliance-issue white shirt and track pants, Nihlus in a hunter green (his favorite color, Shepard was beginning to suspect at this rate) muscle shirt and blue sweats emblazoned with the Spectre logo below each hip spur. Kaidan’s pajama pants, festooned as they were with cartoon dinosaurs wearing top hats, were clearly out, as was Isaiah’s seafoam green, dark green polka-dotted bathrobe. Saren didn’t even bother debating, merely brushing imaginary eggshell off the turian script on his shirt that Shepard’s translator took a moment to decode as reading TURIAN IMPERIAL ARMY 13TH LEGION (either his own assignment during mandatory, or another article stolen from the elder brother who apparently never learned to guard his closet, Shepard reasoned) before turning, pulling down a bowl from the cupboard, and handing it to Nihlus.

Nihlus hummed his thanks and started poking at whatever was in the pan. “Don’t run off, you can have the brain. You like it more than I do.”

Saren paused, then shrugged and leaned against the counter. “Just because your mother never fed it to you as a child.”

“Yes, how dare I be born outside the empire and get raised on synth-meat and imported muscle. You imperial.”

“Faceufozos.”

Shepard glanced at Garrus, but this was apparently not a bad thing for one turian to call another, because turian number three just calmly kept eating eggs and ignoring the other two. There was a faint breeze behind them, and Niazmina reappeared, sweeping past to collect her dishes. “So Tony has Dresden with him,” she reported. “Plus a couple others to help out a little. Sascha’s already at the office. Tony’s cool, but he’s really serious, so keep it professional, yeah?”

“I try,” Shepard told her, watching her down what was left of the milk in the bottom of the bowl. Maybe the remark had been meant for the others. Or perhaps just a precaution, since she seemed intent on staying on Antonio’s good side. “Is there anything you need us to do?”

She paused, considering, then said, “Somebody put coffee on.”

Kaidan swallowed his last bit of eggs and stood up. “I can do that,” he volunteered, gathering up his dishes. “I should go change, anyway.”

Shepard eyed his pants, noting a purple T-rex doing the can-can. “I don’t know, I like those.”

Kaidan made a noise like a choked snort. “I’ll tell my mother you think so. ‘Hi, Mom. Doing fine. Commander Shepard likes the fluffy dinosaur pants.’ Hell, she’d probably buy you a pair, too.”

“Can you ask if she will get all of us a pair?” Chan-mi asked with a small smile. “Then we can all match. Like a team.”

Kaidan grinned, traipsing over to the sink. “Sure, I can hear her now.” He pitched his voice up to an exaggerated, creaky-old-lady voice and said, “Oh, Kaidan, I’m so glad to hear you’re making friends, they sound like such nice young people. I bought plenty of dinosaur pants, and just to be safe, I also sent along five cases of coconut macaroons and a bag of hard candies.”

The humans erupted into giggles and snorts, while the turians looked at each other in confusion before shrugging and moving on with their lives, with Saren taking the bowl back from Nihlus now heaped with suspiciously wobbly blue-gray something, Nihlus emptying the rest of the pan onto a plate, and Garrus tidying up his own dishes to take to the sink. “There’s no way your mom sounds like that,” Isaiah said, reaching for another plate from the stack. “Unless you’re way older than you look.”

Kaidan shook his head. “Nah. But when I was a kid, she was a regular with the local community theatre group, and one year, she got the part of this really old lady. Her fake voice was so good, you’d have no idea it was a trick. So me and Dad mimic her from time to time, all in good fun.”

“Nice.”

Niazmina cleared her throat and put her dishes in the sink rather noisily. “Hi, not to be all bossy-boots, but, uh, important person I really want to impress with a bigger stick up his rear end than the turian attitude two-point-buzzkill, arriving in thirteen minutes?” She paused, then added, “No offense.”

Garrus replied with a simple, “None taken,” standing up and picking up his dishes. Saren and Nihlus just elbowed each other back and forth a few times, like they were silently arguing over who had a bigger stick up their ass, then broke off so they could finish eating.

“Easy, Khulozai,” Shepard said, raising a hand in what they hoped would be taken as a placating gesture. “Thirteen minutes is plenty of time. Deep breaths.”

She looked at them like they’d grown a second head for a moment, then shook her head slightly, stepping aside so Isaiah could hand Shepard their omelet. “Right, breathe, right, right.” She inhaled, long and slow, and managed to hold it for a few seconds before letting it all out in a big puff and a fierce shake of her head. “Nope, not gonna do it, gonna go back to my room and die in peace.”

She pushed past Kaidan and zipped out of the room, and the rest of the group was silent for a moment before Jenkins cleared his throat. “Wasn’t she, like, all cool and collected just yesterday? Or is there some body-snatching alien here we haven’t discovered yet?”

“To be fair, she did say she wants to impress Mr. Carvalho,” Chan-mi pointed out. “It is possible her nerves are getting to her.”

“Somebody should probably talk to her about that,” Isaiah mused.

Shepard had just raised the first bite of eggs to their mouth when they realized all eyes had slowly turned to them. They sheepishly flicked their eyes between the group and their eggs a few times, then sighed and put their fork back down. “Okay, I’ll go.” They were the commander and the mission leader, it was their responsibility to make sure everyone could do their jobs without getting upset. That didn’t mean they liked it, of course – feelings were illogical, other people were messy, it was just far out of their wheelhouse in general. But, well, they were loyal to their responsibilities, so they’d do it anyway. At least it was acceptable to ask if there was anybody the upset person wanted to talk to and direct that person to help in their stead.

“If it makes you feel better, those eggs will need to cool a bit first, anyway,” Isaiah offered as Shepard stood up.

“It doesn’t, but thanks for trying.” They shook their head and wandered after Niazmina into the main room.

Only to pull up short a few steps out of the kitchen, precariously wobbling on their toes and just shy of running smack into her.

She didn’t notice, more focused on her omni-tool, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why. Her camera was pulled up and trained on Adrian, who was currently doing push-ups in the middle of the main room floor, singing quietly to himself and completely oblivious to their presence. He must have had his translator off, because Shepard couldn’t understand a single word coming out of his mouth – what language was that, Polish? Slovakian? Definitely not Italian. He was facing away from them, and Shepard had a clear view of his back muscles as he worked out. He was surprisingly… buff for an engineer, really.

Shepard couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious as it occurred to them that Adrian was more muscular than they were.

Doing their best to avoid thinking about that, they leaned over to Niazmina. “I thought you had a boyfriend.”

“And a girlfriend,” she mused, tapping her omni-tool screen to zoom in on Adrian’s trapezius. “Who says it’s for me, though? Maybe I’m doing a nice, but shy girl in engineering a favor.”

Shepard raised an eyebrow, and she glanced at them, then shrugged. “Oh, believe me, if this was for me, I would’ve said so. Besides, you’re seeing this, too, right? That man has been blessed.”

They waited a moment, then sighed. “If he asks you to, you’ll delete it?”

“Uh, of course? I’m not an animal.” She shook her head. “This isn’t even recording or anything, I’m just trying to get a good picture. This camera is better for pictures than vid, anyway.”

“I see.” They rolled their eyes. “Are you calm now, I take it?”

“Oh, I’m always calm when Allah blesses me so.” She raised one hand in a praise type of gesture.

Shepard suppressed a sigh of relief. Having to be emotional support avoided. Personal crisis resolved.

Motion on the other side of the room alerted them to the presence of Kia and Feliks, emerging from the hall. Feliks was buffing his hair dry with a towel, while Kia worked on buttoning up a double-breasted jacket. Surprisingly fashionable.

Unfortunately, Adrian also noticed them. He froze mid-pushup, then jumped to his feet with only a little bit of flailing limbs. Niazmina’s omni-tool disappeared while his back was turned, her arm going down only just barely before he spun to look around with wide eyes. There was a good five seconds wherein Shepard noticed Adrian’s face turning red before he started stammering, “Prze- przepraszam… Zh-zhao mi je…” He swallowed, then managed to get out in English, “Sorry!” before turning and half-stumbling, half-running back to his room.

Shepard and the other three in the room exchanged wide-eyed looks, then Shepard swallowed and asked Niazmina, “You speak English, right? What’d he say?”

“He, uh… apologized?” Her head moved like she was blinking in confusion behind her shades. “Dunno why, we spooked him, so…”

Shepard shook their head. “He’ll be fine. We have other things to worry about. Just give him his space. How much time do we have until Carvalho and company show up?”

“Uh…” Niazmina put her hand to her shades, then let out a startled yelp. “Nine minutes, bye!”

Feliks and Kia had only just recovered from Adrian running past when Niazmina charged between them. Judging by the looks on their faces, Kia would have jumped into Feliks’s arms like a cartoon if he hadn’t given up on standing in the runway entirely. “Hey, where’s the bear!?” she bellowed after her.

“Right here!” Isaiah called from the kitchen. Shepard turned around to see him flexing in the general direction of the doorway with a broad, stupid smile on his face.

“Alright, square up!” Kia responded without missing a beat, and Shepard awkwardly took a step to the side for her to enter the room. “We’re gonna wrestle.”

“Never mind, it was a chicken in a suit,” Isaiah said smoothly, arm going down and back to his spatula. “Same chicken that gave us all these eggs, God bless its bird-nevolent soul. Whaddya want on yours?”

“For you to stop making bad puns.” Kia pulled out a chair next to Jenkins and plopped down.

“We’ve been over this, Lulu, that’s not on the menu.” Isaiah prodded at the eggs currently in the pan. “Shep, you gonna eat yours? They’re probably half-cold by now.”

“I was getting to it.” Shepard shook their head and went back to their chair, glancing around at who was where. Saren was slipping out of the room (presumably to change into slightly more suitable clothes), Jenkins and Chan-mi were curiously examining the cornin eggs left on the table, Garrus and Nihlus were attempting to balance their dishes neatly by the sink, and Kaidan was squinting at the instructions for the coffee machine. “Everything alright over there, Alenko?”

“Mostly,” Kaidan reported, turning the instruction booklet upside down as if that would somehow make it easier to understand. “This thing has fifty different settings, and detailed instructions for each. I just want to make some regular coffee, is that so hard? Rich people…”

“Mm.” Shepard nodded sagely and stabbed at their omelet, opting to just take bites out of it whole rather than cut it up like a reasonable person. They were on a time crunch, according to Niazmina, so sue them. “Why don’t you let someone else work on it, and go get dressed?”

Kaidan put a hand to his chin and considered this. “Y’know, I think you make a fair point.” He turned around, waltzed over to Jenkins, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Congratulations, Rookie, you’ve just been drafted.”

Jenkins’s eyes widened for half a second, and he stammered, “Uh, would you believe I can’t read?”

“Not a chance.” Kaidan winked and handed him the manual, then made for the doorway. “Have fun!”

Jenkins stared at the booklet like he’d just been given the Necronomicon, and Chan-mi reached over to pat his forearm. “I can help,” she offered. “Two heads are better than one, yes?”

Jenkins gave her a grateful smile, and the two of them got up. Taking that as a good sign, Shepard decided to focus in on their omelet so they could finish eating with minimal interruptions. The eggs were starting to get cold, after all.

Credit where it was due, Isaiah knew what he was doing with eggs. It was easier than they wanted to admit to tune out everything other than eating every last bite. In their peripherals, they were dimly aware of the remaining two turians also leaving, Jenkins and Chan-mi finally deciphering the coffee machine and sharing a victory high-five, Isaiah imperiously designating Kia and Feliks as the ones who had to do the dishes since they’d been the last to arrive, Niazmina reappearing in a flurry of nail-biting and pacing, and Adrian showing back up in dress blues in case of having to talk to Anoleis.

And, as they were putting their fork down, a distant knock at the door.

There was a sharp yelp from (Shepard guessed) Niazmina, and they decided they should probably get out there before she died or something. With a sigh, they stood, pushed in their chair, motioned to Feliks that they were done, and headed for the doorway.

Niazmina, surprisingly, had opted to not open the door right away, and was standing nearby, flapping her hands so rapidly part of Shepard expected them to fly right off. They raised an eyebrow at her, then shrugged and hit the doorpad to let their guests in.

When the door opened, the first thing Shepard’s gaze fell on was the mop of dull black bedhead leaning against the frame. Dresden looked decidedly out of place in a sport jacket wrinkled enough to look like he’d slept in it and mostly piercing-free, only three in his left ear and two in his right as opposed to the veritable black market jewelry shop his face had been the day before. He actually looked like he might pass for professional, provided you didn’t look for more than a second, assumed the dark makeup around his eyes were bags from lack of sleep, missed the goat skull and pentagram design on his T-shirt, and stood where the light couldn’t glint off the stainless steel hoops in his earlobes. He must have noticed Shepard staring, because he curled his lip in a sneer. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer.”

“Dresden,” came a light scold, and Shepard turned to look at his companion, a thin, tired-looking man with a long face and curly black ponytail. He turned to meet Shepard’s gaze and sighed, “Ignore him, he hasn’t had a normal sleep schedule since juvie.”

Shepard just raised a brow, then offered a hand. “You must be Tony.”

The man grimaced, but nodded and shook their hand, his grip firm and confident. “Please, call me Antonio. I was nicknamed against my will.”

Shepard raised their brow again. “Brothers?”

“Brothers.”

They nodded sagely and dropped his hand. “I understand completely. Would you like to come in?”

Antonio glanced off to the side. “Actually, we’re still waiting on-”

The elevator interrupted him with a ding, and he smiled a very small smile, the kind of smile that could only be achieved by a face that didn’t do it very often. “Never mind, here they are.”

Out of the corner of Shepard’s eye, Niazmina seemed about to vibrate out of the material plane. They ignored her, instead leaning out slightly to look out. Approaching from the elevator were two people, one on crutches and the other carrying a bag full of… whatever. Once they were close enough for Shepard to make out their faces, Antonio said, “Commander Shepard, may I introduce my secretary, Yekaterina Markovna Galkin, and my nephew, Arcangelo Marinos.”

Yekaterina was a chubby woman with brown skin, a mass of curly brown hair, and a smile that lit up her entire face. “Call me Katya,” she gushed. “It’s an honor, Commander, we’ve heard so much about you.”

“Yeah, the news won’t shut up about you.” The one on crutches flicked his head to toss a couple rebellious locks of his curly, chestnut-brown hair back into place. “And it’s Orion, by the way. Middle name. Arcangelo was Mum’s idea, wanted these flowery, prissy names ’cause he’s actually just five peacocks in a trench coat.”

Dresden raised an eyebrow while Shepard shook Katya and Orion’s hands. “Just five?”

Orion considered, then shrugged. “Six and a half, seven when he goes out.” He tilted one of his crutches so Shepard could see the rhinestones embedded in the side. “These are on loan from him, if that tells you anything.”

Shepard raised a brow. “What’s the story, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Another shrug. “I play biotiball. Amateur leagues, probably gonna go pro if my skeleton ever gets itself straightened out. Genetically weak. Doesn’t usually give me too much trouble, but I had a bad fall during a game and fucked my knee up. Mum’s got permanently fucked-up legs ’cause of an accident when he was younger, he’s got a wheelchair but he can walk with leg braces and crutches. So when I busted my leg, he lent me these.”

Shepard blinked, distracted by wondering why ‘Mum’ and ‘he’ were occurring in reference to each other for a moment before they decided it was none of their business. “That was kind of him,” they commented, taking a step back. “Come on in, there’s somebody here dying to see you.”

Antonio and Dresden exchanged a knowing look while Katya and Orion just looked confused, and they entered one by one. At some point in the conversation, Niazmina’s shades had disappeared to be replaced with the thick-rimmed regular glasses she’d been sporting back in the restaurant on the Citadel, allowing Shepard to properly see every inch of the absolutely starry-eyed excitement plastered all over her face. She was biting her lip and everything.

Katya spotted her first, and her loud gasp was punctuated by Niazmina throwing her arms in the air. Orion had to stop in his tracks as both women let out delighted squeals and threw their arms around each other. “Mimi!” Katya all but shrieked, wrapping Niazmina in what to Shepard looked like could only be a bone-crushing hug. “You little minx, you didn’t tell me you were coming!”

While the three reunited, and more of the crew came over to see what the fuss was about, Antonio motioned Shepard over to where he and Dresden were standing by the couch. “They don’t get to see each other in person often,” he explained. “Normally, Arcangelo isn’t here, either. He’s only on an internship with us until his leg heals and he can go back to sports. We – that is, Dresden and I – thought it would be best to bring them along so they could see Niazmina.”

“And give everyone else something to ooh and ahh over while we talk business,” Dresden added. “Dunno ’bout you, Shepard, but I get antsy when people are talking important shit and leaving me to wait in awkward silence with everyone else.” He nodded towards Orion. “He’s pretty enough to be a good distraction.”

Shepard glanced over at the slowly-growing group around Niazmina and her partners and had to agree. Orion looked like a Greek statue come to life. Granted, the leg brace and crutches gave the impression that maybe that statue was Hephaestus, but ignoring everything from the torso down left Shepard just a little bit dazzled. “He is good-looking,” they admitted. “Sounds like it might have come with its price, though.”

Dresden snorted. “That’s not the half of it. His mom, Tony’s brother Griffin? Designer baby of designer babies. Fucked him up on the molecular level.”

Antonio nodded and elaborated, “Griffin’s parents were both genetically engineered. Supermodels, the both of them. They liked the aesthetic of each other, lust-based relationship, and their agents decided it would be good for their images to have a child, just as perfect as they were. And, well, a relationship based on curb appeal doesn’t have the strongest foundation. Before the baby was a year old, he was given up. Fortunately, he was adopted by our father, and got a loving family. Unfortunately, the extensive meddling in his genetic code set him up for problems down the line. He’s inhumanly beautiful, but his body hates itself, which was sadly passed on to his children. Arcangelo’s bones aren’t as strong as they should be, and his twin sister Persephone-”

“Cygnus,” Dresden corrected.

Antonio continued like he hadn’t heard. “Persephone has a bad respiratory system. Persistent cough, poor girl. Not that she’s let it stop her, of course. She’s an artist by trade, regardless of whatever fumes or dust her work might involve.”

Shepard clicked their tongue sympathetically. “Rough.”

“Quite.” Antonio shook his head, then cleared his throat. “Is there somewhere a bit more private we can plan, Commander? Nothing against your crew, of course, I just… prefer it.”

Shepard nodded. “Kitchen’s this way. There’s coffee, if you want it,” they offered, gesturing towards the aforementioned kitchen.

As Antonio and Dresden nodded their thanks and wandered in that direction, Shepard glanced around quickly. Noticing the three turians re-emerging from the hall, they waved them over, reasoning they should probably be included in the discussion. Garrus and Saren seemed to be quietly arguing something, while Nihlus just looked like he was debating shooting himself. Probably a stupid thing to be arguing over, then, or at least Nihlus thought it was.

On a whim, they also looked over and made eye contact with Adrian, who was slightly awkwardly towering over the rest of the crew. They motioned for him to follow, and they didn’t miss the grateful look on his face. Wasn’t comfortable in crowds, Shepard reasoned. Relatable enough.

In the kitchen, Dresden and Antonio were already putting together cups of coffee, amicably gossiping about somebody named “Raph.” Saren and Garrus’s argument had apparently concluded, because they were making distinctly annoyed faces at each other. Vaguely curious, Shepard sidled up to Nihlus and murmured, “What was that about?”

Nihlus’s mandibles pulled down sharply, and he closed his eyes and shook his head. “Clawball. Vakarian is apparently a fan of Saren’s least favorite team. Something about referee bias and stealing all the good players from teams who need them more.”

Shepard blinked slowly and looked between Saren and Garrus. Neither of them seemed like the sports fan type. “You’re kidding.”

“I wish.” Nihlus dragged a hand down his face. “It’s moronic, if you ask me, but I’m not that into the sport in the first place, so my opinion doesn’t count.”

Shepard considered this, then opted for a simple sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “My condolences.”

Nihlus grumbled and shook his head. “Just do me a favor and don’t use sports for small talk fodder.”

They gave him a small salute, then turned back to face the rest of the room as Antonio leaned against the counter, stirring his coffee. “So,” he said, eyes squarely on Shepard. “We have good news and bad news.”

“My favorite,” they said. Privately, they weren’t even focused on what he was saying, more concerned with how much effect coffee could really have. Antonio’s thick eyebrows, perpetually low as they were, could only distract from the bags under his eyes so much, and it certainly didn’t help that, spreading out from his goatee and sideburns, his jaw sported the kind of scrappy stubble only achievable by a man who had a five-o’-clock shadow mere hours after shaving. While they could certainly understand, the overall picture it created was one of perpetual exhaustion. When was the last time he’d slept properly? “Go on.”

Antonio nodded and took a sip from his mug before continuing. “The good news is, the people you’re looking for are a client of ours. Haribon Military Industries. Mostly dabble in experimental weapons and augmentation tech.”

“Originally, they wanted to do all their own security,” Dresden added. “Worked fine for physical stuff, but cyber, well…” He winked, and when his eye reopened it was covered in a web of multicolored lights. “Kindergartener coulda done better. So an ‘anonymous hacker’ showed them the error of their ways, and they went shopping for a good system.”

Something clicked in Shepard’s head. “You’re a decker,” they said. “Professional hacker.”

“Did it really take you that long?” Dresden snorted and took a drink. “Thought Mimi told you I’m your ‘getting into the systems’ guy. Half my usernames are wanted in Alliance space for dicking around where they shouldn’t’ve been. And personally, I prefer to think of it less as a professional hacker, and more of the next step above hacker.”

Antonio rolled his eyes and elbowed him. “Ignore him, he’s a vain bastard,” he deadpanned.

“Hey, I earned the right!”

Garrus’s mandibles flickered. “What was that about being wanted?”

There was a brief flash of panic across Dresden’s face, then he smoothed it over and flicked his hand at Garrus. “You can’t arrest me for shit, this is Noveria and you ain’t Alliance.”

Nihlus cut in then. “Is that what you meant about looking at Sterling’s file yesterday?”

Dresden rolled his shoulders and nodded to him, still glancing in Garrus’s direction. “Yeah, but that was more of a request job. Tony’s brother Otto is in charge of company finances, and he, uh…” He looked to the ceiling like he was trying to remember a word. “Spooks easy. I look up people he asks me to, soothe his nerves.”

Antonio cleared his throat. “Anyway,” he said firmly, “since Dresden did the security for Haribon, we have a way into their systems. He can help you find any evidence you need.”

Shepard nodded slowly. About what they’d expected. “And the bad news?”

Antonio puffed out a sigh and ran a hand over his goatee. “The bad news is, Administrator Anoleis decided overnight that he’s less okay with your visit than he was yesterday. There was a message waiting for us this morning, demanding we either explain why we invited you here or kick you out.”

Nihlus flicked a mandible and lowered his brow plates. “Why didn’t he message us ourselves?”

“Uh, because he’s evil and paranoid?” Dresden snorted into his coffee. “Salarians are nutty, what else is new?”

“Don’t be rude,” Antonio scolded, shaking his head at him before turning back to Nihlus. “As you’re formally here by our invitation – and by Binary Helix’s, of course,” he added with a nod to Saren, “the Board’s rules demand he try to work things out with us first before bringing anything up with you. Otherwise, he risks losing business for Noveria’s shareholders by chasing off potential clients.” He cleared his throat. “I told Anoleis we would send a representative to explain later today.”

Shepard nodded at Adrian. “Congratulations, Marinov. Sounds like it’s your time to shine.”

Adrian nodded stiffly, his expression indicating that he would rather do literally anything else but knew damn well this was the entire reason he was even there.

Antonio took another sip of coffee. “That’s the facts we have. We’ll leave the rest to you.”

Shepard nodded to him. “Thanks. If you wouldn’t mind?”

“Of course not.”

They waited for the two men to wander out of the kitchen, then folded their arms across their chest and looked at the others. “Sounds like we’re splitting up again.”

“Nihlus, are you sensing a pattern?” Saren mused, idly tapping at something on his omni-tool. “I’m sensing a pattern.”

Nihlus gently cuffed him around the back of the head. “You don’t get to comment. Remember how much you used to use me as bait?”

“You can’t fault me for that. You’re bigger than me, and I had to trick you into it. Really, you’re the one who fell for it every time, without fail.”

Shepard cleared their throat, opting to ignore the pattern comment. Fair point, really. “If Anoleis is getting touchy about Spectres on Noveria, it’s probably best to avoid all three of us trooping around,” they reasoned. “I’ll take two or three people and go with Antonio and Dresden, while you two stay back and look innocent.”

“I don’t think he knows how,” Nihlus commented, giving Saren a friendly hip-check. “But why you?”

Shepard paused. His tone didn’t seem like he was indignant, or doubting them. Testing their reasoning, maybe? “I’m the rookie,” they said finally. “I’m still in training, and a lot of people probably won’t even know I’m a Spectre unless they’ve been paying attention to the news.” They nodded to him. “You’re big and look like you’re ready for a fight even out of armor and without any weapons. And Saren…” They shrugged. “Well, you’re you.”

Saren twitched his shoulders, and a ripple of crackling, lightning-like biotics travelled over his crest and down his arms, as if to emphasize their point.

Shepard repressed a shudder at the static that was suddenly in the air and continued, “Anoleis will probably consider me the lowest-level threat of the three of us. Therefore, I’m the best option for getting things done with minimal interference.”

Nihlus nodded, a pleased glint in his eyes. So they’d passed the test, then? “Good thinking,” he said. “And everyone else?”

They put their hand on their chin, thinking for a moment, then glanced at Garrus. “Garrus, you’ll come with me, in case anything comes up you need to know for your investigation.”

Garrus nodded and flared his mandibles. “Works for me. Thanks, Shepard.”

They nodded, then looked at the floor, still thinking. “Marinov should have a small group with him when he talks to Anoleis. It’ll look more professional.” They nodded to themselves, then looked back up at Nihlus. “The rest can stay behind with you and Saren. It’ll both keep us from having too many people out at once, and provide a sort of mission control. Three groups of four should work out for everyone.”

Nihlus nodded deeply, eyes gleaming with approval. “Solid plan,” he rumbled. The look in his eyes took turned mischievous as he added, “And since you came up with it, you get to explain it to everyone else. Let’s get going.”

Chapter Text

0670 Galactic Standard Time [9:20 Terran Coordinated Universal Time]

Noveria was still waking up as Garrus followed Shepard, Alenko, Lin, and the new humans through the atrium and down a long hallway of doors leading to office suites. Just as well. The fewer people around to gape and gawk while they were trying to get things done, the better.

Gallagher Security Systems, LLC was housed at the far end of the hall and up two flights of stairs. Before he could really find out anything else, though, the Carvalho human turned to face Shepard and clasped their hands together. “Before we go in, Commander, I should ask, are any of you perchance allergic to dogs?”

The three humans shared glances and shook their heads, but Garrus could only lower his brow plates and flutter his mandibles. Dogs? Those were those four-legged, hairy things some humans on the Citadel kept as pets, right? He hadn’t known you could be allergic to them. Maybe this was a health concern he should bring up. He’d do research later. If it was a major problem, surely the Alliance would have put up notices and such things on the extranet.

Carvalho nodded and offered a small smile, then turned and knocked on the door. “It’s me. With guests.”

There was a pause, then the holo-lock turned from red to green, and the doors slid open to reveal… a hairy chair?

No, no, not a chair. Chairs didn’t move. A gaping hole dropped open around the top of the mass of black hair in the doorway, and a slab of pink flesh lolled out. Slow panting filled the corridor, and the thing’s entire body heaved with each exhale. Probably the weight of all that hair.

The humans seemed significantly less confused. Lin was the first to speak, a high, delighted squeal of, “Puppy!”

Carvalho gave a thin smile and walked past the hairy mountain. “This is Pookie,” they commented. “He’s Otto’s security guard.”

“Pookie” thumped an appendage at its back (a tail?) on the ground. Garrus could only stare. “What is it?”

Alenko grinned. “That’s a dog,” they said. “Terran animals humans keep as companions and helpers.”

Well, that couldn’t be right. “I know what a dog is,” he told Alenko with a sharp flare of his mandibles. “I’ve seen dogs on the Citadel. That is not a dog.”

Shepard looked like they were fighting a smile. “Hate to break it to you, Garrus, but dogs come in all shapes and sizes,” they explained. “Some are small enough to carry, and some are big enough to use as pack animals.” They gestured to Pookie and added, “This fella isn’t even the biggest size they come in.”

Garrus looked at them and lowered his mandibles. “I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true!” Lin piped in. “Great Danes are the biggest. My neighbor growing up had one. Her name was Scuba, and she came up to...” They moved their hand up and down like they were debating, then settled around the middle of their chest. “Here!”

Garrus blinked and fluttered his mandibles incredulously. Given Lin themselves came up to the bottom of Garrus’s keel… That was a lot of dog, if true.

Behind Lin and Shepard, the surly human with less metal in their face than they’d had the day before skirted around the (alleged) dog, getting by with the animal only swinging its head around to sniff at them. As it leaned, a patch of smooth red fabric appeared, and Garrus craned his neck around to see more. SERVICE ANIMAL, proclaimed bold white letters on the side of what Garrus now recognized as a harness. WORKING, DO NOT PET.

Ah. Well, that explained why an uptight corporate facility would let such a giant animal inside.

Apparently done being amused by his unfamiliarity with Terran animals, Shepard, Lin, and Alenko moved to follow the other humans inside, squeezing past the dog rooted in place one by one. The dog only turned its head to sniff at them, and thumped its tail against the floor again, but otherwise didn’t move.

And it didn’t move until Garrus tried to follow. Its jaws snapped shut, and it lowered its head with a low, rumbling growl, hindquarters shifting like it was about to get up.

Garrus fell back, raising his hands instinctively. “What did I do!?”

“Easy, big fella,” Carvalho told the dog, reaching over to gently tug on its harness. “He’s with us. Sorry,” they added with a glance up at Garrus, “he’s not all that used to turians.”

The dog gave a low whine, but got to its feet and backed up to let Garrus in. Garrus gave it a Look, lowering his brow plates and fluttered his mandibles. “There’s turians all over Noveria,” he pointed out, stepping through the doorway.

“They don’t come in,” retorted a new voice.

Garrus looked up in time to catch Shepard jumping nearly half their height off the ground in response to a small, wild-haired human seemingly materializing at their elbow and staring directly. At. Garrus.

Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But there was something about this human’s eyes. They were the most intense Garrus had ever encountered on a human, deep-set and accentuated by heavy bags underneath but somehow fully alert, attentive, and drilling into Garrus’s soul. It was the way a predator watched its prey – or maybe, he thought, noticing an almost haunted hollowness to the gaze, the other way around.

“Oh, Otto, you’re out and about.”

Carvalho’s voice broke the spell, and Garrus shook his head and looked away gratefully as Carvalho wandered over to the newcomer and ruffled their unkempt hair. “Have you eaten anything today?”

The dog added a low, “Bff,” and went trotting over to Otto with its tail wagging rapidly. “Bof, buf. Bof bof bof. Boof.”

Otto ignored Carvalho, and instead nodded to the dog, scratched behind one of the flaps of skin and fur hanging down from its head, and murmured, “Danke schön. Wer brummt?”

While the dog continued boofing at them, Garrus blinked and tilted his head. The last thing they’d said had translated, and he didn’t think he’d seen them do anything that could have been turning off a translator. Was it some language only dogs spoke?

He needn’t have wondered. Sheach sidled up next to Alenko, who looked just as perplexed as Garrus felt, and informed them, “His translator’s programmed to only broadcast Turkish. He speaks German when he doesn’t want people to understand what he’s saying. Nervous guy.”

Ah. Odd.

Sheach motioned for the group to follow them as they skirted around Otto and through a door beyond, leaving Carvalho to their conversation. Garrus was the last one inside, and took a careful look around. The office was shared by two large desks facing each other, a handful of chairs between them. The one on the right was neat and tidy, but the one on the left was a disaster zone of junk. Picture frames, datapads, precariously-balanced stacks of OSDs, spare bits of tech, complex doodads Garrus guessed were meant for restless hands to fidget with, a variety of figurines and statues he strongly suspected were just toys posed inconspicuously… The only place where Garrus could actually see the surface of the desk was around the terminal in the middle, with a frame for three holo-monitors to pop up once it was turned on.

Noting the lack of furniture designed for turians, he opted to take up a stance next to the door as Sheach stuffed their hands in their pockets, turned around, and raised their brows at Shepard. “Otto Pfyffer,” they said, presumably by way of explanation. “Head of finances. Shrewd businessman, gentlest soul you’ll ever meet, and legitimately afraid of his own shadow. Tone invited him to come work on Noveria ’cause he figured it’d be good for his psyche.”

“Has it been?” Lin asked.

Sheach shrugged. “Search me. He’s Tone’s brother, not mine.”

They walked backwards around the desk on the left, adding, “Make yourself comfortable. This might take a minute.”

Alenko promptly sat down and pulled a deck of playing cards out of their pocket. “Cards, anybody?”

Lin dragged a chair up next to them and sat down. “As long as it is not Crazy Eights. It was the only game Adams knew on the way here.”

Alenko shrugged, tugging the cards out of their little box. “I’m worse. Go Fish only.”

“Still better than Crazy Eights.”

Garrus flicked one mandible, then shook his head and opted to focus on Sheach and Shepard instead. Sheach’s terminal was already booting up, and they were fiddling with an OSD on a string around their neck he hadn’t noticed before. Hidden under their shirt, maybe. “You gonna sit down, Commander?” they asked, leaning back in their chair and propping their feet up on the table.

Shepard shook their head. “I’m fine standing.”

“Suit yourself.” They shrugged and pulled up their omni-tool, those odd little lights appearing in one eye again. A corneal HUD, Garrus realized – a popular implant in the hacking community, originally pioneered by the STG and intended for military use, replacing clunky visors, but quickly stolen and twisted by criminals to suit their own needs. “I have to call Haribon and let them know I’ll be mucking around in their systems, so everyone keep quiet for a hot minute.”

Shepard’s brows lowered. “Won’t that give us away?”

Sheach simply winked, held up a finger to their lips, and hit the call button on their ’tool.

The room went silent except for the shuffle of Alenko’s playing cards. The quiet lasted long enough that Garrus was actually startled when Sheach sat up in their chair, poised their hands over their terminal, and spoke. “Hi, this is Arjani, with Gallagher Security?” they said, their voice now shockingly different, much softer and an octave or two higher-pitched. Garrus had heard of the “customer service” voice before, but this was like another person entirely had replaced the brash-voiced human he’d only just begun to get accustomed to.

He exchanged a look with Shepard, who seemed just as startled as he was while Sheach went on, “Last night one of your systems flagged a potential breach – nothing to worry about, just a false alarm, but we don’t want it to happen again, so today we’re going to be taking some of your systems down for maintenance to patch the issue, in rotation of course, your data will still be perfectly safe…” They listened for a bit, with a few “uh-huh”s and “mm-hmm”s for good measure, then chirped, “Okay, then I’m gonna let you go, I’ll call you back once we’re done, okay? Okay, thank you, bye.”

They hung up, then heaved a noisy sigh of relief. “See? Cover story.”

Garrus moved his mandibles in small circles. “You seem awfully comfortable lying to gain access.”

Sheach winked at him and lifted one corner of their lips. “You can’t prove anything, C-Sec.”

Shepard caught Garrus’s eye and shook their head slightly. He pulled his head back and tilted it slightly, lowering his mandibles. It was only an observation. He didn’t have the authority to make any arrests on Noveria.

They ignored him, instead watching Sheach start tapping away at their terminal. “Where’d that voice come from? And, Arjani?”

“You didn’t actually think my parents would name me after a city in Germany, did you?” Sheach snorted and shook their head, reaching up with one hand to undo the OSD from around their neck. “Arjani’s what it says on my birth certificate. It didn’t fit.”

Garrus fluttered his mandibles, part of him wanting to note that Sheach hadn’t answered Shepard’s other question but the rest of him more interested in what they had said. “What’s Germany?”

Sheach opened their mouth to respond, but Shepard beat them to it. “Nation in the European Union, back on Earth,” they explained. “Used to be its own separate country, before the unification. These days, lots of people still specify which nation they’re from, rather than just being from the EU or the Americas or Asia.”

Garrus blinked slowly and made a mental note to look up Terran nation politics. If he was going to be working with humans, he should probably have at least a basic grasp of their political divisions, he reasoned. It seemed to matter to them a lot more than it did to turians on Palaven.

Sheach plugged the OSD into the drive on the side of their terminal, then shrugged off their jacket, folded their hands behind their back, and leaned back in their chair while the computer automatically pulled up several windows. “Well, I’m in,” they said, looking at Shepard. “Gonna need you to tell me what I’m looking for before I can do anything, though.”

Shepard blinked, then shook their head and walked around the desk to hover behind their shoulder. “Shipping manifests, commission comms, experimental tech records, anything that can connect them to the sword Saren was stabbed with on Eden Prime. Forensic data pointed us to them, but it wasn’t a definite match to any of their available products, so we need definite proof it’s their handiwork before we go barging in.”

Sheach puffed out a sigh. “Sure, no problem, that’s a super narrow range, won’t take long at all,” they grumbled, already clicking into new systems. “Get comfy, Commander. Even if I run multiple searches at a time, this’ll take a while. That OSD’s my skeleton key for the whole thing, but it still has to talk to the database, and that’s a lot of ground to cover. I suggest a few games of Go Fish.”


 0690 GST [9:35 TCUT]

Port Hanshan was so full of white and grey washed in cold blue light, Jenkins had to wonder how anybody could stand it. He hadn’t even been sitting in the lobby outside Anoleis’s office for twenty minutes yet, and he was already getting a headache from eye strain. At least Ms. Parasini had tried to add a few splashes of color. Potted plants dotted the room, and a big vase of flowers sat on her desk.

It didn’t help a whole lot, but hey, at least she’d tried.

Anoleis hadn’t seemed super thrilled that they’d shown up with a group, and one that didn’t include a single Spectre, at that. Parasini hadn’t even finished telling him they were there before he was snapping about having wanted to talk to Shepard, not some lackey. She’d had to do some quick talking to get him just to agree to talk to Adrian alone.

He seemed like a very pleasant person who was super easy to work with. Jenkins wondered if Parasini was open to pity.

“How long’s it take to convince a guy we won’t tread on any toes?” he half-wondered, half-complained to the room at large.

“Dunno,” Isaiah answered, more focused on the game he was playing on his omni-tool. “Hopefully long enough for me to finish thi-” His eyes went wide, and his tapping went supersonic. “No, no, nonono-!” There was a faint explosion noise, and he groaned and slumped in his seat. “I just had to say something. Never fails.”

Kia snorted and was opening her mouth to respond when she was interrupted by muffled yelling from the office, of the “video playing at three times its regular speed” variety. All three of them turned to look, then shared a glance with Parasini, who just sort of shrugged helplessly. “Does this happen with everyone who tries to talk to him?” Jenkins asked. “This is, what, the fourth time?”

Parasini heaved a sigh and nodded in what Jenkins assumed was resignation. “Administrator Anoleis is…” She pursed her lips and frowned, then tried again. “He’s a bureaucrat through and through,” she offered with the I-like-being-employed kind of shrug Jenkins knew all too well from summer jobs in retail growing up. “He was going to be a politician back on his homeworld, but, well, his sister got the job and he was offered a position here instead.”

Jenkins nodded like that explained everything even though it really didn’t, at least not for him.

“Salarian politics are female-dominated, aren’t they?” Isaiah asked, starting a new game on his omni-tool.

“I don’t really know much about it,” Parasini admitted. “You’d have to ask one of them.”

Kia sat up in her chair and pulled up her own omni-tool. “That’s what the extranet’s for, isn’t it?”

Jenkins blinked and turned to look at her. “I didn’t know civics was your thing, Kia.”

“Eh, it isn’t.” She snorted again. “But I’d look up the effects of zee-gee on how paint dries if it meant something to do around here.”

Isaiah glanced up from his game, then shook his head and went back to it. “I am, like, ninety-nine-percent sure there’s better things to do than eighth-grade social studies.”

Kia raised a brow at him. “Like what? Push-up contest?” Jenkins assumed this was a joke, but her face actually lit up a little, so maybe not. Push-ups for fun, now he’d heard everything.

But to his surprise, she apparently wasn’t the only one. Isaiah actually looked up from his game, stared at the wall for a second, then looked at Kia and grinned. “I’m down if you are.”

“Hell yeah!”

Oh, no.

Jenkins wasn’t actually sure this was happening. This only happened in those weird, jingoistic, “be STRONG like a REAL soldier” vids they’d played during PT that he and his squad had all made fun of in basic, right? Just random push-up contests?

Isaiah and Kia hopped up, and Jenkins could only share a look with Parasini in terrified confusion. Nope, it was real. He was in that special kind of hell his sergeant had talked about where PT was considered fun. “Well, uh, you guys have fun, I guess?”

Kia was busy rolling up her sleeves and flexing at Isaiah. “Oh, c’mon, Jenkins, you join, too! Put some muscle on those bones!”

He wondered if it was possible to burst your eardrums from inside your head from screaming too much. “No, thanks, I’m good,” he said, swallowing hard. “I did my routine before breakfast this morning.”

“No, you didn’t!”

He scowled. “Well, how would you know? You were asleep!”

“Chill, guys,” Isaiah said. “You totally should, though, Jenks. Never too many push-ups.”

“Actually, uh…” Think, think, think! “I think I’ll call back to the Normandy,” he managed to stammer out. “See if they’re doing alright.”

“Oh, shit, yeah!” Isaiah lit up. “Think, uh, think you could ask how Williams is doing? I mean, see if she’s settling in alright, y’know, we were talking about it, and I mean, throw the new kid in with a bunch of wacky aliens to ship-sit while the CO runs off to play hacker, y’know, just wanna check how she’s getting along with everyone, and how everyone’s getting along with her, y’know, squad cohesion and that stuff.”

Jenkins stared at him for a long moment, then shrugged and pulled up his omni-tool. “Sure.”

“You’ll get a better signal out in the atrium,” Parasini suggested. “Less concrete to bounce through.”

He blinked at her, then processed what she said, smiled, and nodded. “Thanks!”

Leaving Kia and Isaiah to their jock-ness, he wandered out into the atrium, nodding to the turian guards as he passed. One flicked a mandible and made a friendly gesture with his gun, the other just eyed his omni-tool like he was trying to memorize the number Jenkins was typing in. Difference between wanting the job and the paycheck, he guessed.

He took a seat on the edge of one of the decorative planters as the comm rang. Once, twice, click! “Hey, Jenkins,” Williams said on the other end, sounding just slightly out of breath. “Everything alright over there?”

He smiled. “Yeah, that’s the problem. Nothing’s happening. Shepard went to go do some computer stuff, and Marinov’s talking politics with the administrator. So we’re stuck waiting around for something to happen, I guess.”

Ashley whistled. “Tough break.”

“Tell me about it. How’s things going for you guys?”

“Eh…” Ashley paused like she was mulling it over. “Don’t tell Shepard, but we’re renovating.”

Jenkins’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding!”

“Nope. Engineering is drawing up plans to move in a few appliances and make a proper mess hall, and everyone else is either cobbling together some decorations with what we have or making calls to see what we can get our hands on. You know, make the place a little homier. Pressly’s not too happy about it, though. Something something regs. Landry and Wrex are distracting him.”

Jenkins gave himself a minute to picture Pressly running around the Normandy after a ginger headcase on crutches and a krogan, mentally adding some ridiculous saxophone music in the background, then shook his head. “Anything I can do from here?” he asked, hoping he didn’t sound too desperate.

“See anybody with a spare refrigerator?” she joked. “You can ask the others if they’ve got any suggestions. Or see if Marinov will come back and help when he’s done. Adams said something about him being useful.”

“Adams is helping?”

“Well, yeah.” Jenkins swore he could hear the shrug in her voice. “Those shifty astro engineers, y’know. Most dangerous when left to their own devices. Any idea how much longer you guys’ll be out, by the way? Completely coincidentally, of course.”

Jenkins snorted and grinned. “I have no idea.”


 0700 GST [9:45 TCUT]

Niazmina groaned and turned off the vidscreen, letting her head thud back onto the back of the couch. Watching streams had been her best hope for something to do, so of course it wouldn’t work. “Why couldn’t I be mission control from the lobby?” she complained to the ceiling. Cuddling with her girlfriend while Shepard and company had to go out into the cold rest of Port Hanshan had been nice, but, well, she was nothing if not antsy. “At least there’s stuff to do there.”

Katya patted her arm. “I hear usually the signal is really great up here,” she offered. “It’s just the storm.”

“The storm is Islamophobic,” she grumbled. “When’s it supposed to let up, anyhow?”

Katya shrugged. “Could be this afternoon, could be next week. Noveria’s storms have a mind of their own.”

Niazmina pouted. “I could be having root beer right now.”

“Aw, it’s okay, Mimi.” Katya leaned over to kiss her forehead. “I’ll get Ori to buy you a whole case of root beer next time he gets to spend time with you.”

Niazmina stuck out her lower lip a little further, then smiled and hugged her. “You’re the best.”

“Mm, you’ve said it, now you don’t get to change your mind.” Another little peck on the forehead.

Blink. “What.”

Katya smiled angelically, then pushed Niazmina off her lap without further ado. “Come on, get up, I should get going.”

Niazmina tumbled off and rolled over to the other side of the couch, then looked up at her, boggled. “I thought Tony said you didn’t have to come in!”

“He did,” Katya said, getting up and straightening out her sweater. “But you know me, I can’t just sit around.”

“Just sitting around is good for you. It’s good for the soul.”

Katya rolled her eyes. “And here you were just complaining about not having anything to do.”

“That was before you decided to abandon me in my time of need.

She giggled and kissed her again, this time on the cheek. “Don’t be dramatic. It’s not like you’ll be alone up here.”

Now it was Niazmina’s turn to roll her eyes. “Yeah, a hypersomniac, a PT junkie, and the galaxy’s biggest misanthrope. Super fun. And there aren’t even any good streams on.”

“You’ll be fine,” Katya insisted. She shook her head, then turned to the kitchen and raised her voice to call, “Ori, come on, I want to get to work!”

Orion poked his head out, where he’d been chatting with Feliks and making coffee. “Uh, you go ahead. I’m not going if I don’t have to.”

“Ohmigod. You’re just like your mom.”

“You can’t say that, you’ve only met him once.” He paused. “Even though Dad says the same thing, so like, fair.”

Niazmina couldn’t see Katya’s face, but she flipped him a rude gesture, so she assumed she was either scowling or big-time pouting.

Niazmina smothered a giggle and got to her feet. “Here, I’ll walk you down to the lobby,” she offered.

Katya turned back to her and tilted her head. “Aren’t you supposed to be mission control?”

She shrugged and tapped her glasses. “I don’t need a terminal to monitor comms. Hey, Haugen!”

Feliks appeared next to Orion, and she told him, “I’m gonna walk Katya down to the lobby, then I’ll be back. Let me know if anything comes up, will you?” She didn’t expect it would, given Kryik was working out in the little weight room at the far end of the hall and Arterius was meditating in his room, but you never knew.

He nodded, then retreated. Orion glanced back after him, then emerged fully from the kitchen and wandered over to wrap Katya in a bear hug and kiss on the cheek. “See you later,” he mumbled into her hair.

She was beaming as he let go, and Niazmina rolled her eyes with a little smile of her own as she went to collect Katya’s bag. “Come on, lovebird, you live with him.”

“Hey, you get to come back and see him,” Katya said with a pout. “I’m gonna be talking to Tony all day.”

Niazmina raised an eyebrow. “Then do you not want to go to work?”

“Shhh.” Katya stuck her tongue out at her, but smiled as she traipsed after her to the door.

They held hands and exchanged more chaste little smooches in the ten years (well, two minutes, she supposed) it took for the elevator to arrive, and Niazmina was startled to see how spacious it was without a small army of people packed inside. There was enough room for the two of them to stand across the car from each other and not be able to touch even if they leaned and stretched out their arms.

Not that they had any interest in doing that.

About halfway down to the lobby, the elevator stopped to let on a small party of humans. Niazmina was surprised to find she was surprised. It was midmorning, after all, prime time for Noveria’s clientele to start heading to meetings. They looked about right for it, too – a tiny blonde woman wearing the galaxy’s cutest sweater, a big Caucasian dude, a man in a slick suit who appeared a vague mix of Latino and East Asian, an armored bodyguard with a mask hiding their face, and a black woman with a shaved head and the air of somebody used to getting what they wanted. Generally people Niazmina would have steered clear of on the premise of “don’t mingle with rich folks.”

And that’s what she would have done, if not for the big guy looking like he was in the middle of a panic attack.

It hard not to notice. Big, gulping gasps, full-body quaking, whimpering that was surprisingly high-pitched for such a massive man. The Asian guy was doing his best to calm him down, talking to him quietly, but to little avail.

Katya spoke up before she could. “Hey, is he okay?”

Everyone but the crying man glanced over at her, then looked to the black woman. A boss and her assistants, Niazmina guessed. “Security gave him a hard time,” the black woman said. She had a faint accent that made her vowels sound a little strange. Slavic of some sort, if Niazmina had to guess. “He doesn’t do well when he’s getting needled.”

Katya and Niazmina exchanged a look and nodded. Sounded about right, given how security had been the night before. “Was it Sterling?” Katya asked. “The blonde lady. She’s gotten written up for going overboard before.”

Niazmina nodded. “Yeah, she was rude to my team last night, too.”

“Last night?” The woman’s eyes darted away, like she was searching her memory, then flicked back to Niazmina. “Are you with the group that got Anoleis so flustered, then? What was that about?”

Niazmina shrugged. “We’ve got Spectres in the party, and it made him antsy.”

“Spectres?” The blonde woman looked at her with wide eyes. “Really? Who?”

“I mean…” She debated whether or not that was oversharing, then decided it was fine. Executives on Noveria couldn’t do a whole lot to get in a Spectre’s way. “Have you been watching the news? Commander Shepard, the human they accepted for Spectre training. Plus Nihlus Kryik and Saren Arterius.”

The blonde’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. “You’re kidding!”

“It’s true!” Katya piped up. “Saw them myself!”

They continued to burble at each other, but Niazmina stopped listening, more concerned with how the boss had gone stiff and silent, lips pursed. So everyone hadn’t been exaggerating about how people would react to Spectres appearing on Noveria.

The smaller of the two men cut in then. “Sure hope they don’t come after me,” he joked.

That snapped the boss out of her trance. “Oh, sure, for the crime of not listening to me, maybe,” she retorted.

He made a mocking sound, and she mocked him back, and he started to do it again when the big guy sniffled, “Leave her alone, Sueh-yen, c’mon…”

The two of them jumped, apparently startled by his sudden coherence, and the smaller man (Sueh-yen?) was quick to reassure him that it was fine, just a little teasing, please stop crying, it’s okay, really.

Niazmina frowned slightly and squinted at the big man. He looked oddly familiar. Had he been in any of her classes at Stanford? She was sure she’d remember such a giant, though. But he seemed anxious, so maybe he’d stayed in the back? She’d sat in the front of class a lot so she could just write down what was on the board instead of trying to parse English, so she hadn’t exactly memorized many faces. Maybe he was one of the students who’d passed by on their way to the back of the lecture halls.

Hmm.

Mercifully, the elevator doors opened shortly after, sparing her from the man’s sniffles and face that she didn’t know why she knew. The group bustled out first, drawing away to one of the little corners of couches near a fireplace, leaving Niazmina and Katya to drift out in their wake. Niazmina was able to hold her tongue just long enough for the two of them to walk out of earshot of the others, only to finally hiss, “Is that normal on Noveria?”

Katya blinked those big, sweet Bambi eyes at her. “What, the panic attack? Yeah, security here’s not exactly gentle.”

Niazmina pursed her lips. “Think that guy’ll be okay?”

“Probably. It looked like his friends were handling it.”

“You said Sterling’s been written up before. Why hasn’t she been fired yet, if that’s what she does to people?”

Katya scowled. “I bet you anything somebody’s getting paid off. She acts like she’s this tough, no-nonsense cop, but I think she’s just mad she’s a private security officer for shady rich people and compensating for it by being a bully. She almost sent Otto into an episode once, but Pookie got between them, and she wasn’t dumb enough to try to go through sixty kilos of pissed-off Newfie. Tony was this close to getting her kicked off-planet, called Dallin for advice and everything, but then somebody got him to drop it.”

Niazmina furrowed her brow. “Is that even legal?”

“It’s Noveria. People come here specifically to do illegal things. It’s awful, but that’s what happens.” She shook her head and sighed. “Anyway, I should get going, if I want to get anything done today.”

Niazmina pouted. “You’re sure you want to go to work?”

Katya finally smiled. “Positive. If I don’t go in, there’ll just be extra stuff to do tomorrow.” She leaned over to wrap her in a hug, adding, “You are required to come see me again before you leave. I’ll bribe your commander with cake if I have to.”

Niazmina beamed and squeezed her tight. “If he has a problem with it, I’ll tell the ship doctor it’s important for my mental health,” she promised. “But I don’t think he will, he seems like a reasonable person.”

“Good, then the cake will just be a gift.” Katya let out a little giggle and planted one last kiss on her cheek before releasing her. “Love you, Mimi. Be safe, okay?”

“I will, I promise,” she assured her. “And I love you, too.”

She waited for Katya to be out the hotel doors before turning back to the elevator, trying to put the irate security out of her mind. There wasn’t really anything she could do about it. That was kind of the whole point of Noveria.

The trip back up to the top floor was uninterrupted, leaving her alone with her thoughts. The anxious man drifted back into the forefront of her mind, and she couldn’t help but chew on it a little more. Why did she know him?

By the time she got to the top floor, she’d gotten an idea. She pulled up her omni-tool, hunted through her contacts, and hit call.

The click came right as the door was opening. “Hey, Otto, it’s Mimi.”

“What do you want?” She could just picture him baring his teeth. Otto never smiled, only pulled his lips back like a cornered animal.

She glanced around. Nobody in the common area. Good. “Security feeds from the hotel elevator and lobby in the past fifteen minutes. There’s a face I want to run, see why I know it.”

“Why do you think I have access to that? Not my cameras.”

She puffed out a sigh. “Dresden let it slip. Back when you guys were moving in here. Eye in the sky for the paranoid guy, right? I swear I won’t tell anybody, I just need access.”

Silence. Down the hall, there was a sharp thud, accompanied by the musical yet demonic chatter of untranslated turian-speak, and she wandered over to see what was up.

Otto didn’t respond until after Nihlus had emerged from the weight room, retrieved the boot that had hit the door, and started back towards the room he shared with Saren. “Window closes in two hours. Make recordings. You didn’t get it from me.”

She jumped, then shook her head quickly and headed for the couch, already reaching to wake up her terminal. She’d brought it out to the coffee table so she could use it if she needed it, but that had quickly been forgotten in favor of cuddling with Katya. “Right. Thanks, Otto, I owe you.”

“That’s what they all say.” Click.

She sighed and flopped down in front of her terminal, watching the screen slowly wake up. Well, she had been complaining about having nothing to do.


 0738 GST [10:15 TCUT]

Garrus had officially reached the point where he was so bored his brain forgot how to read. “Do you have any threes?”

“Go fish,” Alenko said, not even looking at their cards but rather staring off into infinity. That was probably more interesting, anyway.

Garrus sighed as he reached for the pile of cards in the middle of their little circle. Shepard had elected to join Alenko and Lin’s card game while they waited for Sheach’s computer to do its dirty work, and, for lack of anything better to do, Garrus had listened to an explanation of how to play and joined in. They’d been joined half an hour ago by Carvalho’s foster child, a nervous twelve-year-old by the name of Haakon with a backpack stuffed full of more snacks than it looked like it should be able to hold. The kid didn’t have anything dextro for him, but there’d been more than enough to share with the humans in the room, and the trash can next to Sheach’s desk was half-full with wrappers and bags. Sheach themselves had declined the game, and instead propped up their feet on the desk, leaned back so the chair was precariously balanced on a single wheel, tucked their hands behind their head, and settled in for a nap that had lasted almost the full sixty-eight minutes they’d been there.

Shepard was fanning out their hand, upper lip stuck out over the lower one in a “concentrating” expression Garrus couldn’t help but consider somewhat weird, when a cheerful beep sounded from behind them. The alert was swiftly followed by a yelp and a series of thuds as Sheach jumped and fell out of their chair, causing everyone else in the room to spring to their feet.

Turned out they didn’t have to – less than a heartbeat later, and Sheach popped back up, probably on their knees from how low their head was. They squinted at the screen, then their arms reappeared to plant their hands on the desk and push the rest of themselves up to a standing position. “Good news, Commander,” they said breezily, motioning them over.

“You found a link?” Shepard asked, moving to stand behind them. Garrus drifted over to the side of the desk, close enough to see the screen at an angle.

“Yes and no,” Sheach said, typing away. “No in that it’s not clear, definite proof. Yes in that it’d be good enough for a jury. Or a search warrant.” They winked at Garrus.

He lowered his brow plates and flared his mandibles, but Shepard ignored it, instead breathing a sigh of relief and pulling up their omni-tool. “Then it’s good enough for us. Send it to my omni-tool, I’ll comm the others to let them know.”

While the child mumbled to Alenko that Sheach knew a lot about what juries and cops would accept, Shepard hit a couple of keys, and within seconds Garrus’s visor was alerting him to an incoming call over the squad channel.

Jenkins was the first to pick up. “Port Hanshan Morgue, you kill ’em, we chill ’em, what’s up, Commander?”

Garrus let out a sharp caw of a laugh, while Alenko sputtered, “Oh my God, Jenkins.”

“Well, I thought it was funny,” chimed in Isotalo. Garrus was thankful for the little nametags that popped up next to the ‘in call’ light to let him know who was speaking. He still wasn’t entirely certain who everyone was in the crew.

Shepard shook their head, lips twitching like they were fighting a smile. “Never mind that. Good news.”

“That Chinese takeout place at Arcturus delivers to Noveria?” Torres asked hopefully.

“Korean is better,” Lin muttered.

“You’re entitled to your opinion. Can we agree Thai is good? ’Cause back on the Citadel I found this great Thai place-”

Shepard cleared their throat loudly. “Back to the topic at hand,” they stressed, “Sheach found prototyping records. Mono-molecular blades, commissioned by an anonymous benefactor and scheduled to be picked up in person two weeks ago. The labs recently received feedback that the blade was too delicate to be used with the same versatility as a standard sword.”

Jenkins whistled. “Sounds like Saren’s stabby friend, alright.” A pause, then, “Oh, hey, great timing, Commander! Adrian just got out of Anoleis’s office.”

A quiet click as another commlink joined the call, then MARINOV flashed up on Garrus’s display as they said simply, “We can leave when we want to. Garage passes will be sent to omni-tools.”

Shepard puffed out a sigh of relief. “Good, because it looks like it’s time for a field trip. I want everyone to-”

They were cut off by a loud WHOOM and several startled shouts, making Garrus jump nearly out of his plates. “What? What’s going on?” he barked.

“Uh, uh, uh, shit!” was Jenkins’s only reply.

Torres was a bit more eloquent. “Well, Kia’s gone, I guess!” A pause, then, “Oh, shit!”

That seemed to be a popular sentiment when humans were startled. Garrus wondered why.

“What? What’s going on?” Shepard demanded.

“Uh, I, uh, the, the, the,” Torres stammered, then swallowed and managed, “Whips, and Tank, and Stabby, and I think that’s Skinny, they’re here and they’ve got friends and Isotalo’s in pursuit I guess!”

Shepard swore, and were headed for the door before Garrus could even process what any of those words meant. “Do not engage!” they ordered, Garrus and the other two Alliance humans scrambling to keep up. “Get back to the suite, we’ll meet you there and armor up. Do not let them see you. Isotalo!”

Isotalo’s nametag appeared, but instead of their voice, all Garrus heard was a cacophonous clatter, followed by a startled shriek, a grunted, “Got ’im!”, and a distant, “Hey, what the fuck!”

“Ohmigod, Isotalo just- she just tackled the big one!” Jenkins reported. “And- oh, shit, look out!”

There was a sharp inhale, then an even sharper crack!

“Okay, okay, I think she’s fine, okay,” Torres said. “The- the one in white, with the whips, he came up, but she jumped up and punched him, and I, I don’t know, he reeled real bad, I think maybe she did some damage?”

They were half-running, half-falling down the stairs now, or at least, Garrus and Lin were, doing their best to keep up with Shepard nearly leaping down three steps at a time. Turians were better at going up stairs than they were at going down, and Lin simply seemed too damn short. Alenko, meanwhile, was doing fine enough to bark, “Isotalo, watch out for that one! We hit him with a truck, and it just made him mad!”

There was a second of nothing, then a quiet whomph, a much louder thwack!, a yelp, and an awful lot of thuds.

Shepard pulled up short at the bottom of the stairs, and Garrus nearly tumbled over them headfirst trying to stop in time. “Isotalo!”

Silence, then a long, low groan.

“She’s moving, but the gang’s running off,” Torres informed them. “Heading for the garage.”

Shepard sighed in relief, then shook their head and took off again. “Jenkins, go help Isotalo. Turn your trackers on and follow them, but do not engage. Neither of you is armored, you won’t stand a chance. Torres, escort Marinov back to the suite, then armor up. We’ll be there shortly to get our gear, then follow Jenkins and Isotalo. With any luck, we can confront them before they leave the port.”

Isotalo wheezed, then managed to get out, “Roger.”

While Garrus had the fleeting thought about what that word meant, Shepard nodded, hung up, and took off in a dead sprint down the hall.

Chapter Text

Chan-mi beat her personal record for getting armored up and ready to go.

The team decisions were made on the agonizingly slow elevator back up to the suite: Vakarian, Kaidan, Isaiah, and Chan-mi with Shepard, while Kia, Jenkins, and Feliks stayed behind with Niazmina. Surprisingly, Marinov had volunteered to go with, having noted the lack of any tech experts on the team. Shepard had asked Kryik if he and Arterius would go along, but Arterius had been on the comms with Binary Helix about something-or-other, and Kryik had wanted to stick with him in case it was anything that also required bullets. Chan-mi was quietly very glad about that; Kryik seemed nice enough, but she knew how Spectres worked. She couldn’t be sure how well he’d stick by the group if need be. And, well, everyone knew how Arterius worked. She wasn’t too terribly happy about Vakarian coming with, either, but there wasn’t exactly anything she could do about that.

Hopefully, they weren’t about to get kicked out for startling any patrons by bursting out of the elevator in full armor and charging off to the garage after the signal from Kia and Jenkins’s trackers.

Mercifully, security let them sprint right through the atrium without getting in their way. Chan-mi guessed they’d been alerted already. Maybe Niazmina, or Anoleis’s assistant? Either way, there was nobody to stop them as they barreled on through, around the corner, and up the ramp to the garage.

Kia and Jenkins were crouched behind some crates just inside the door, and, upon noticing their arrival, gestured frantically for them to stay down. The team scrambled to do as bid, and Chan-mi ended up crouched on Shepard’s right, Kia on their other. “What’s going on?” Shepard hissed straightaway, hastily pulling their helmet off so they could talk without the squad radio.

Kia held a finger to her lips, then carefully peered through a gap in the crates. “They’ve been arguing since we got here,” she hissed. “One of them’s trying to hack through the security clampdown and get the doors open.”

Shepard glanced at Chan-mi and motioned for her to look past the crates, too. “Think this is all of them?”

“Probably,” Jenkins whispered as Chan-mi eased herself into a position to peek over the top of her crate. There was a light in her eyes, making it hard to tell what else was going on. She twisted her head a little to try and look past the glare, only to quickly wish she hadn’t: no less than seven fully-armored humans, three female and four male, paced before an older model of Mako, probably an M25 or M30 rather than the M35 they had in the Normandy’s cargo hold. Most of them were of the lean variety that always seemed to feature in the history vids, walking with posture that was just a little too predatory to be fully human. One of the two bigger ones, clad in snow-white armor, was twisting their head around erratically, like a dog trying to get a flea between its shoulder blades. “The female in black’s the ninja from Eden Prime,” Jenkins continued. “I think she’s the leader.”

It wasn’t hard to guess how he’d come to that conclusion. “Hurry it up,” she was snapping now, hand drumming out an anxious, erratic rhythm on her thigh armor. “The longer we take here, the more likely we are to get fucked over with a rusty rake. And for fuck’s sake, stop spinning your head around, you look like you’re in an Exorcist vid! We get it, you don’t like the helmet!”

The one in white paused and looked at her, body language suggesting affront. “Easy for you to say,” complained the deep voice that came out. “You didn’t get your helmet stolen.”

Out of the corner of Chan-mi’s eye, Kaidan’s eyes snapped open so fast she almost expected them to pop straight out like in a cartoon.

The woman in black was oblivious. “No, I just stabbed Saren Arterius, no big deal!”

“Could you guys shut up?” asked one of the smaller ones, wearing significantly less armor than their compatriots and fussing with a terminal beside the garage door. “Contrary to popular belief, pressure actually makes me work slower.”

“I’d just like to point out,” announced another, presumably a man, with a sword strapped to his thigh, “that there wouldn’t even be any pressure if somebody wasn’t so paranoid.”

The leader-woman bristled. “Hey, if you’ve got somethin’ to say to me, say it to my face, Ghost,” she demanded, swarming up to the swordsman.

“Oh, well, I would, if I could, but I can’t,” he taunted. “You’re wearing a helmet.”

“You-”

“Guys,” cut in a new voice, and for a second Chan-mi thought it had to be one of the two other women in the group until she realized everyone was instead looking at the mountain of green armor. “Don’t fight, if we fight they’ll make us do team-building workshops again, and I don’t think I can handle that!”

The two sword-users glowered at each other for a bit, then the man sighed and patted the green-armored one’s arm. “Okay, big guy, I promise I won’t kill her.”

“That’s not what I’m afraid of…”

The man paused. “Really? Then what are you afraid of?”

“That she’ll kill you!”

The man jumped back, one hand over his heart. “Oh, thanks for the vote of confidence!”

“Listen, I don’t think you understand how mad you make people sometimes…”

Chan-mi sat back a little as the man continued to gripe, frowning. There was something familiar in the man’s voice, but she couldn’t quite place it.

Shepard nudged her. “What is it?”

She glanced at them, pursing her lips. “I don’t know,” she said. “I think I know that man, the one called ‘Ghost.’”

“You do?” Kaidan hissed from her other side. “Who?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know,” she stressed. “Perhaps he just sounds like an actor in a vid I watched.”

Any further speculation was interrupted by a cheerful chime, a crow of “Yeah! Told you I’d get it!”, and the creaks and groans of a garage door arrested by cold doing its very best.

Chan-mi jolted back to her lookout. The garage door was inching its way up, complaining every millimeter of the way. “The blizzard might be our friend here,” she heard Kaidan whisper off to her right. “Even with fancy anti-freezing tech these days, winter still takes a hell of a toll on gears and stuff. And if Anoleis has had the place on lockdown, I bet it’s gonna take a while for anything to heat back up.”

“Didn’t Sheach say Anoleis is a cheapskate?” Kia asked. “Bet they haven’t even sprung for the good stuff, anyway.”

Their targets must have had a similar thought process. “Can’t it go any faster?” asked one of the women who hadn’t spoken yet, wearing a hood and a mask rather than a proper helmet like the rest. “We’re sitting ducks here.”

“And I’m cold,” added the other.

The leader paused. Chan-mi fully expected her to yell at her, but instead, when she spoke her voice was decidedly gentler. “It’ll be warmer in the tank,” she said, motioning for her to get in. “Hawkeye, Glitch, Ghost, and Blink, you guys get in, somebody get it ready to go. Lash and Hammer, you’re the strongest, see if you can help the door go up faster.”

The little one who’d gotten the door to start opening raised a hand. “Come to think of it, why haven’t they shown up? We’ve been here for kind of a while now.”

Chan-mi froze, then hastily dropped back down as the group slowly turned to look towards the door. “Hey!” one of them bellowed. “It’s not polite to eavesdrop!”

Panicked looks flashed around the squad. Then Kaidan, for some godforsaken reason, decided to raise his voice in response. “We were just letting you finish your conversation!” he hollered. “It only seemed polite!”

There was a pause, then, “Oh, come on! It’s the fucking Canadian!”

Shepard heaved a sigh and shook their head, then jammed their helmet back on, got to their feet, and pulled out their assault rifle in one fluid motion. “Hands in the air and step away from the tank,” they commanded, Chan-mi and the rest of the squad following their lead.

The targets didn’t seem to think too highly of that idea. “Let’s not and say we did,” mused the leader, pulling a pistol off her hip. “Lash, Hammer, get that door open. Glitch and Hawkeye, in the tank, Ghost and Blink with me.”

The swordsman and the hooded woman moved up to flank her while the two big ones turned and bolted for the door that was still groaning and grumbling its way towards the ceiling. The less-armored man scrambled for the tank, but the other woman apparently didn’t like this plan. “What!?” she demanded. “Glitch, I understand, but what about me!?”

The leader tensed, then sighed and tilted her head at Shepard. “One moment, please, Commander Shepard, then we’ll be right with you,” she simpered. Then she turned to face the other woman and told her, “Sweetie, I don’t know how to break this to you, but you don’t have a gun!”

“You’ve kinda been bitching about it for, like, three days now…” the masked woman added. She had to be Blink, Chan-mi assumed. She had a very heavy accent. Was that… Irish? Chan-mi could never tell.

“Five,” corrected the less-armored one mildly, by now sitting on top of the Mako and holding the ceiling hatch open. “It’s been five.”

The third woman folded her arms, and Chan-mi was almost certain she was pouting. “I really liked that gun…”

“And we’ll get it fixed,” the leader assured her. “Just as soon as you get in the tank and that damn door gets open!”

Blink looked at Shepard then. “You really shouldn’t have broken her gun, Commander,” she said innocently. “She’s rather attached to it.”

“Honestly, it’s kinda weird,” Ghost added.

Chan-mi glanced at Shepard, hoping they had a plan, and noted the hard light in their eyes behind their visor. “Listen, we can end this without bloodshed,” they said. “I just want to ask you a few questions.”

“Sorry, nothing doing,” declared the leader, turning back to them as the other woman scampered off to the tank. “Love to sit around and chat, but we’re on a bit of a tight schedule.”

Shepard made a small show of looking past her to where the two big ones were trying to get the door to open faster than blizzards and cheapskates intended. “I think you have time.”

She crouched, and wisps of biotics snaked up her arms. “Let’s agree to disagree.”

Chan-mi forced herself not to flinch as Shepard’s own biotics flared to life. “Suit yourself.”

And then everything started happening at once.

The whoom of biotics went off in Chan-mi’s ear, then several more whooms, and she promptly decided the best place to be was crouched right back down where she’d been. She didn’t have biotics, or anything tech-y to make up for it. She was just a soldier, and a soldier who wanted to stay alive kept their damn head down.

As dark energy roared and guns barked, she hastily swapped out her assault rifle for her pistol, not wanting to accidentally hit any of her comrades with the spray. Beside her, Jenkins almost melted into a puddle, apparently suddenly realizing he had neither armor nor weapons and deciding to hide like a very reasonable chicken accordingly, and Kaidan was just beyond him, back up against the stack of crates while he leaned around for a good look at what was going on. The others had all either vaulted over the crates or were scrambling for new positions; Marinov and Vakarian were sprinting for the ramp up to the storage area above their heads, and Isaiah had clambered on top of another Mako and taken up a defensive position behind the turret so he could… well, she wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing, but his biotics were all a-flare, so she assumed he had a plan. “Non-lethal shots only!” Shepard barked over the squad radio. “We want answers, not corpses!”

Personally, she thought corpses would be a lot easier to get answers out of, but oh well.

She popped back up over the crates and looked around, trying to line up a shot. Ghost was dancing around Shepard, occasionally lunging with his sword but to little avail. Shepard was practically leaves in a summer breeze, ducking and dodging too fast for Chan-mi’s eyes to track. Sometimes, they’d only just barely make it, and turn it into an opportunity, grabbing for Ghost’s arm or leg before he could withdraw. But every time they did, a sharp crack! would ring out as the leader fired her pistol, forcing Shepard to pull back.

Kia didn’t seem to be faring much better, antagonized as she was by Blink. In action, the reasoning behind the masked woman’s nickname was obvious: every few seconds, she flashed in and out of reality, biotically… teleporting, apparently, from place to place, keeping Kia from getting a good bead on her – and, in turn, Chan-mi. Every time she thought she had an opening, Blink would, well, blink away in a splash of dark energy, the brightness of it leaving afterimages on Chan-mi’s retinas. At the very least, she figured, at least Blink didn’t seem terribly interested in injuring her. Without any armor, Kia was perfectly defenseless, but her opponent seemed content to just dart around confusing her.

Chan-mi decided her gun was better suited firing at Ghost. So that’s what she did.

Pok! Pok!

She only had the semi-shitty, standard-issue Kessler the Alliance provided, so not even in the top five of best pistols ever, and she was fairly certain she’d only barely glanced Ghost’s shields, but it had the intended effect. He stopped dead in his tracks, whipping his head around to figure out who’d just shot at him like a bird at the zoo.

Unfortunately for him, that left him a perfect target for Kaidan, who got off a couple shots of his own. His actually hit their mark, one on each shoulder, staggering him back a few steps. As he fell back, there was a sudden splash of dark energy, and Blink appeared – right behind where Ghost was trying not to fall over.

The two collided with a THUNK and collapsed in a tangle of limbs, Ghost’s sword clattering as it fell out of his hand. Apparently dizzy from trying to track Blink, Kia promptly put a hand to her head, stumbled a little, and sat down hard. Meanwhile, Shepard lunged forward, but before they could do anything, the leader shot again, this time firing off several wild, erratic shots rather than the single, controlled ones she’d been managing before. With a yelp, Chan-mi dropped back down behind the crates, waiting for the pings to die down before raising her head again.

Shepard appeared none the worse for wear, but now the leader was back in their face, holding Ghost’s sword out in a defensive posture that nonetheless looked like a threat. “Lash!” she bellowed. Her mask was tinted so Chan-mi couldn’t get a good look at her face, but from the angle of her head, she had no doubt she wasn’t taking her eyes off Shepard. “Get over here!”

Chan-mi raised her head a little more to look past her, and her heart sank to see the door was already most of the way open, by now at the bigger one’s shoulder. The big one in white glanced back and made some sort of gesture, presumably accompanied by something she couldn’t hear, then threw his arm down, shook his head, and came loping over.

There was a sharp thud from off to one side, and Chan-mi glanced over to see Kaidan had pressed himself up against the crates like he was trying to make himself entirely two-dimensional. “What is it?” she asked, glancing between him and the targets.

Kaidan looked over at her. “He’s the one we hit with a truck on Eden Prime. I stole his helmet, and it sounds like he’s not too happy about that!”

Chan-mi blanched and went back to looking over the crates. Shepard had moved between the one in white and Kia by now, and the leader was sprinting back off toward the door, biotics flaring. There was a series of awful clacking sounds as the two on the ground tried to pull apart, and Ghost cursed. “My leg’s caught! Why the fuck do you have all those straps!”

“Don’t ask me, I didn’t design it!” Blink snapped back.

Ghost made a vulgar gesture at her, then tried to yank his leg free again.

And with a sickening snap, he did.

Everyone Chan-mi could see, including herself, flinched. To her surprise, he didn’t cry out, or curse; he only let out a loud, shocked gasp. And then cursed as Lash helped him to his feet. “Great! Just great!” he complained, leaning on Lash as he tried to put weight on a leg that was now suspiciously bent in a place that typically should not bend on a human.

Lash looked rapidly between Shepard and Ghost, then helped Blink to her feet and moved Ghost over to leaning on her. “You two get in the tank,” he ordered. “I can handle this.”

Then there was a loud rumble, and a wailing gust of frigid air announced he wouldn’t have to.

The blizzard came sweeping in with a howl as the garage door finally pulled itself up fully, and Chan-mi ducked down again, praying the crates would be enough to protect her from the ice and wind. Barely a couple heartbeats later, Shepard and Kia rounded the side of the one next to her and huddled against it. Over the radio, Vakarian barked some unintelligible series of rattling clicks. “Sorry, Shepard. I couldn’t get a good shot.”

“Me, neither,” Marinov grunted.

“I was trying to get that one in the gas mask to hold still,” Isaiah admitted. “Couldn’t get a lock on her.”

An engine roared, followed by the distinctive sound of a tank lurching forward and onward. Chan-mi risked a look over the crates, and through the snow whipping around the garage saw, to her dismay, the old Mako trundling out of the garage. All that remained of their targets was a hand pulling the entry hatch shut.

Shepard heaved a sigh. “Don’t worry about it,” they said, shaking their head. “Everyone pile in the tank Torres is sitting on. We know where they’re headed, we can go after them.”

Chan-mi nodded, and started moving towards the edge of the crates. Kaidan and the others were big enough that the wind was more of a nuisance than anything else, but she was so short she still needed to sit on a box to see out the windshield when she drove a skycar. Wind this strong could easily knock her back to Port Hanshan.

She’d just reached the end of the crates and was sizing up the tank to figure out the fastest way to get in before the wind could turn her into a very unfortunate kite when she heard an indignant squawk from behind her. “Whaddya mean, stay behind!?”

She looked back to see Isotalo scowling fiercely at Shepard, Jenkins looking like a startled deer just behind her. Not happy about being left out, that much was obvious. And she supposed Shepard had tried to avoid making a scene over it, too, if they’d waited to tell them until now. Whoops.

Shepard, to their credit, wasn’t intimidated by condensed Finnish death-glare. “Neither of you has any weapons or armor. The enemy has guns, heavy armor, some weird whip things, and swords. Biotic barriers won’t help you against those last two, and we don’t have time for you to run back and armor up. Stay. Put.”

Kia somehow puffed up even more, but before she could protest further, Jenkins pulled on her arm. “C’mon, Isotalo, it’s not that big an issue,” he insisted. “Besides, there might be more of them still in the compound. And if there isn’t, we can check out that bar in the lobby, right?”

Slowly, like trying to move an action figure fresh out of the packaging, Jenkins managed to tug her away back towards the door, definitely aided by the wind determined to make them go that way whether they wanted to or not. Once they’d reached the door back to the compound, Shepard finally looked away, and crouch-waddled their way over to Chan-mi so they could also avoid the wind. “That was close,” she commented to them.

They grumbled a little, but otherwise said nothing, simply motioning for her to get in.

The Mako line of tanks generally made leaps and bounds technology-wise with each new iteration, but stayed stuck in the Stone Age on the comfort end. The Prothean Stone Age. The driver and navigator in front got nice, cushy, plush seats (and she’d heard the new M35 had heated ones), but any other passengers got stuck with hard carbon-composite benches and no seat belts, one on each side of the cargo hold so as to make room for whoever got to man the turret. Supposedly, it could seat up to twelve, not including the two in front, but she doubted more than nine would fit comfortably.

Besides, they had a turian, and anything bigger than asari probably counted at least double.

Marinov and Vakarian were the last to clamber in, and once the hatch had shut, Shepard pulled their helmet off, shook their neck out, and asked, “So, who knows how to drive?”

Everyone looked at each other, then Kaidan joked, “We could always radio Jenkins back.”

Shepard just gave him a baleful look. “You know, I get the strange sense that a farming cargo truck and a tank are two radically different driving systems.”

Isaiah grinned, setting his helmet on the floor so he could prop his feet up on it. “Hey, you never know until you try.”

Shepard stared off into space with a long-suffering expression still on their face, then sighed. “I’ll drive, then. Hopefully this isn’t too different from the M20s I learned on. Marinov, did Anoleis say anything about how to turn these on?”

Marinov startled, then blinked owlishly at them for a heartbeat before managing, “The garage passes function as the keys. It should recognize you.”

“Great. Congratulations, you’re navigator.”

Panic flashed across Marinov’s face, but Shepard was already climbing into the driver’s seat, so he just swallowed and went after them.

Kaidan settled in on the back bench next to Chan-mi, and Vakarian made himself comfortable on the bench along the left wall, Isaiah opposite him. “So, here’s a question,” Kaidan mused. “Why does Noveria, a multi-species holding, have Alliance tanks? I mean, sure, I assume a tank’s a great idea for the kind of terrain, but we’re still new to the galaxy. Why’s our stuff here?”

Vakarian coughed. “Honestly, Lieutenant, C-Sec has Alliance vehicles. Not these tanks, obviously, but some of your shuttles and things like that. No offense, but your military sells its surplus for very cheap.”

Kaidan considered that. “Huh. Guess that explains how you knew how to work on the Normandy’s Mako. So then, another question entirely… The rest of you noticed the guy in white knew I’m Canadian, right? I wasn’t just hearing things?”

The Mako’s engine turned over with a sputter and a groan, interrupting anybody who may have wanted to speak. Chan-mi waited until the noise had faded to a low rumble that echoed through her bones, then said, “Yes, I noticed it, too. Do you think they’re stalking us?”

Isaiah cleared his throat and pulled up his omni-tool. “Probably stalking the extranet, more like. Here, look what my mom tagged me in the other day.”

He scrolled for a bit, then held out his arm so everyone in back could see. A screenshot from a news article read,

UPDATE: Alliance and Council representatives have released the names of the persons involved in the Eden Prime incident, pictured below. From left to right: Lieutenant-Commander Matteo Shepard, Systems Alliance Marines; 1st Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko, Systems Alliance Marines; Corporal Richard Jenkins, Systems Alliance Marines; Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams, Systems Alliance Marines; Agent Nihlus Kryik, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance; Agent Saren Arterius, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance.

Below that, as promised, were pictures, the standard forward-facing, stoic-faced photos found in every military file ever dating back to the dawn of time. Chan-mi lingered on the two turians on the end, caught by the slit pupils and sharp teeth. There was something sinister in their eyes, something vicious, even with blank expressions. Predators if she’d ever seen them.

The Mako lurched forward, forcing her to tear her gaze away and see that, below the screenshot, somebody named Malaya L. (Isaiah’s mother, she assumed) had tagged him to say, Isn’t this your commander? Be careful, Siyo!

“I mean, if I attacked a major colony, I’d probably be watching the news about it,” Isaiah was saying. “Keep track of how much the enemy knows, y’know?”

“Regardless of how they got the information, they know more about us than we know about them,” Shepard said from the front. “I’d like to rectify that.”

The four of them in the back all traded nervous looks, and that was the last thing anyone said as the Mako trundled out into the blizzard.

Chapter Text

Transcription of running audio and activity log from the comm terminal of Niazmina Khulozai [Chief Warrant Officer Three, Systems Alliance Corps of Engineers, SSV Normandy], recorded automatically by user command

< INCOMING CALL; ID: Contact designation “Shepard” >

< CALL ANSWERED >

Shepard: Shepard to Control. Come in, Control.

USER: This is Control, I hear you, Shepard. What’s going on?

Shepard: There was an altercation in the garage, and our targets got away. We’re in pursuit through the Aleutsk Valley, but the weather has us navigating on LADAR alone. Requesting a map of the Valley if you can find one, something we don’t need a GPS to figure out.

[background noise, unintelligible; voice recognition ID: “< UNDEFINED >”]

USER: One second, Commander. [distant] The weather’s bad, don’t be rude!

[further background noise; voice recognition ID: “< UNDEFINED_2 >”, contact designation “ears”]

USER: Do I look like I care where you’re from!? [no longer distant] Stupid Finn…

Shepard: Everything alright, Khulozai?

USER: Nothing I can’t handle, Commander. Haugen, Isotalo, and Jenkins are headed down to the bar to watch for anything else suspicious. I’ll find you that map, but I can’t promise it’ll be quick. The download rate here is abysmal. I’ll call you back once I have something.

Shepard: Roger. Shepard out.

< CALL END >

< Log accessed; voice recognition ID updated: “< UNDEFINED >” == “Isotalo”, “< UNDEFINED_2 >” == “Haugen” >

< Voice ID “Haugen” synced to contact “Haugen”; voice ID “Isotalo” synced to contact “don’t pick up” >

< New extranet browser window: Havai, search term “noveria aleutsk valley map” >

[low conversation, unintelligible; voice recognition ID: USER, contact designation “Ri-ri <3”]

< CALL INITIATED; ID: Contact designation “probably Pressly :( ” >

USER: Ground team control to Normandy, come in, Normandy.

probably Pressly :( : Uh, this is Normandy, who’s this?

USER: Landry, is that you? Where’s Pressly?

< Voice recognition ID added to database: “Landry-Torres” >

< Call settings edited; ID priority == voice recognition >

Landry-Torres: Let’s, uh, let’s say “busy” and leave it at that. Why?

USER: Doesn’t matter, I was looking for you, anyway.

< Download started: HEGM file, user designation “map.hgm” >

Landry-Torres: Oh, no.

USER: Relax, I just need a favor. You have access to all the Alliance’s databases, right? Like, personnel and stuff?

Landry-Torres: Yes?

USER: Cool, I need you to run a face search for me. I ran into this guy in the elevator, and he looked really familiar, but I didn’t know why? So I figured I’d search Stanford’s registry of alumni, but I couldn’t dig anything up, so I think maybe I know him from somewhere in the Alliance? And I think the Normandy will have better extranet connection than I do in here, anyway.

Landry-Torres: [exhales quickly] Oh, yeah, sure, I can do that. Just a face search?

USER: Just a face search. And it doesn’t have to be exact, I’m probably just, like, thinking of somebody he happens to look like. I’m gonna look up actors who look similar, too.

< FILE SENT: “elevator man.hgm” [RECIPIENTS: “Landry-Torres”] >

USER: Here.

Landry-Torres: Cool. I’ll get to it in a minute, we’re making lunch.

USER: Great. New best friend. Thanks, bye!

< CALL END >

< Voice ID “Landry-Torres” synced to contact “Landry-Torres” >

USER: Hey, baby, do you wanna do me a favor?

Ri-ri <3: Are you really that hungry?

USER: I lost track of time, okay? And all I had for breakfast was a bowl of cereal.

Ri-ri <3: Hey, don’t give me those puppy eyes, I’m the master of those, they won’t work on me.

[silence]

Ri-ri <3: Fiiine. I’ll go see what’s in the fridge.

USER: Yaaay, love you!

[low grumbling, muffled movement; long silence]

USER: Where are you going?

[background noise, unintelligible; voice recognition ID: “< UNDEFINED >”, “< UNDEFINED_2 >”]

USER: I mean… Okay, I guess? Do you want me to let Shepard know?

[unintelligible]

USER: I mean, alright… Have… fun?

[distant door chime; sigh]

< Log accessed; voice recognition ID updated: “< UNDEFINED >” == “Kryik”, “< UNDEFINED_2 >” == “Arterius” >

USER: Oh my God, could this download any slower… Shepard’s gonna be there by the time I have this file, hurry up, you stupid machine…

< INCOMING CALL; ID: Contact designation “Haugen” >

USER: [yelp] What! Oh my God! Relax for, like, five minutes, you people!

< CALL ANSWERED >

USER: Yes?

Haugen: So, good news, might have found something to distract Kia from being mad about getting left behind.

USER: Oh, really.

Haugen: Met this old turian at the bar. Apparently, he’s the boss over at Synthetic Insights here, Anoleis is on the warpath over him, and he wants a little help retrieving his things from his office before Anoleis’s thugs can get to it.

USER: You’re kidding.

Haugen: Nope. He also said we might have to fight our way through said thugs. Personally, I’d rather avoid it, but at least a fight would let Kia burn some rage.

USER: Oh, joy. Wouldn’t a fight risk legal trouble?

Haugen: Probably, but Qui’in hinted ERCS might be willing to keep quiet about it, and he’d take care of it. Something, something, problem people.

USER: Fun. If you need a lawyer, I know a guy.

Haugen: Remind me to start keeping a list of guys you know. We’re coming back up for some armor and weapons, be there in a few.

USER: Alright, don’t die.

< CALL ENDED >

USER: Is it done y— stalled at ninety-four percent. This is it. This is how I die.

[silence]

< NOTICE: Download complete; alert sound “custom_ringtone_01.mp3” played >

USER: [shriek]

USER: Oh. Oh, it’s done. Okay. Lemme look-see…

< PROCESSING FILE >

USER: [unknown sound]

Ri-ri <3: [distant] Mimi, is the computer being mean?

USER: I am on the verge of a mental breakdown.

< CALL INITIATED; ID: Contact designation “Shepard” >

USER: Control to Shepard.

Shepard: This is Shepard, go ahead.

USER: Do you still need that map?

Shepard: It would be appreciated, yes.

< FILE SENT: “map.hgm” [RECIPIENTS: “Shepard”] >

USER: Here you go.

Shepard: Thanks.

USER: One other thing. Remember how Arterius was on the comm with Binary Helix when you left?

Shepard: Uh… Yes?

USER: Found out what that was about. He and Nihlus just left for Helix’s facility here, up on Peak 15. Something about them asking Arterius a favor, since he was on the planet anyway.

Shepard: Huh. Guess we know why they were so happy to help Saren get into the port. Do they want backup?

USER: No, Nihlus just said to let you know where they’d be. If they need you, they’ll call you, he said.

Shepard: Works for me. I think we’ll be occupied for a while longer.

USER: I mean, obviously.

[background noise]

USER: Oh, I’m gonna have to let you go, Commander. Good luck out there.

< CALL ENDED >

Chapter Text

The lights were on at the Haribon facility when the Mako rolled to a stop outside. A good sign, Shepard hoped.

With the wind doing its damnedest to push the tank over, they would have preferred to pull into the garage, but that was just wishful thinking. Only the barest sliver of the garage doors were visible above the snowdrifts barricading Haribon’s employees inside. It could have been an opening shot in a horror vid, they mused to themselves. Their brother would love it.

They were nearly blown in half by the wind as they tried to get out, the force of it slamming them down onto the roof of the Mako. All the air left their lungs with a sharp half-grunt, half-yelp, and their vision went white as their still-tender ribs shrieked with pain.

Concerned gasps and murmurs broke out over the squad radio. “You alright, Shepard?” came Kaidan’s voice.

They groaned and woozily pushed themselves back upright, arms shaking with the exertion of fighting the gale. “Keep a good grip as you’re getting out,” they said, internally wincing at how their voice cracked. “Travel was banned for a reason, and we just found it.”

They managed to slither the rest of the way out and slide down the side, taking shelter by one of the massive wheels as the others followed suit. Isaiah and Kaidan used biotics to keep themselves steady, and Shepard cursed internally. Why hadn’t they thought of that?

Small mercies, the facility had a small, open-ended breezeway they managed to get to without much trouble. And whatever the opposite of a mercy was, the door was locked.

A small, inconspicuous keypad sat next to the frame, with a small speaker and a button above it. PRESS FOR ASSISTANCE, read the little plaque beneath the button. Sharing an apprehensive look with Kaidan beside them, Shepard reached up and did just that.

There was a brief stretch of silence. Not terribly long, but enough for Shepard’s stomach to tie itself into a knot and start working on a second. Then the speaker crackled, and a thin, reedy voice snapped, “We’re closed.”

Shepard nearly jumped out of their skin, but composed themselves quickly. “Special Tactics and Reconnaissance,” they said, eyes darting around for any cameras. “Council business.”

There! A small, outdated-looking camera up in the corner of the breezeway peered at them, a little red light blinking ominously away. “Since when is there a human Spectre?” sneered the voice. “Unless you’re an asari with a deep voice and some stolen N7 gear.”

Oh, joy. “It’s a recent development,” they told the empty air. “You might have seen it on the news.”

There was a pause. Apparently, the voice didn’t know how to respond to that. “Hold on.”

The wait was longer this time. Shepard took a long, slow breath, trying to keep themselves calm. The voice was probably just fact-checking. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to worry about, dammit.

The holo-lock changed to green and whooshed open, once again nearly startling Shepard out of their skin. Behind it was a small, mousy-looking woman with a decidedly mortified expression. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry, Commander Shepard,” she said, wringing her hands. “Wesson usually isn’t on sentry, he’s got a bit of a complex going, but with this weather, we had to pull our usual security team to help get some of the generators online, and, well, he was the first one to get to the button.” She paused, then asked, “It is Commander Shepard, right?”

Shepard took a deep breath, wincing when their chest protested, then nodded and offered a hand. “That’s me.”

She shook it quickly, her stiff and professional grip at odds with her sudden sunny smile. “Dr. Tabitha Montgomery, head of this outpost. What is it you need? Oh, here, come in, get out of the cold.”

She stepped aside, and Shepard motioned for the team to follow them in, taking off their helmet as they went. They squinted against the sudden bright, harsh lights, but did their best to survey the room.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be surveyed. While big, open, and spacious, the room was all sterile and white, with terminals lining the left wall and storage lockers on the right, interrupted by hallways on either side. The far wall was home to a row of switchboxes that hummed angrily beneath a large sign that declared, POWER SUPPLY – USAGE RESTRICTED TO ADMINISTRATORS ONLY. Maybe a dozen scientists milled about, fussing with datapads, their omni-tools, and whatever tech parts they happened to be carrying. And, they couldn’t help but notice, all were human.

Spotting not a single armored person besides the five they’d entered with, they told Dr. Montgomery, “We’re looking for somebody. Several somebodies, actually.”

Montgomery’s customer-service grin faltered for a fraction of a second. “Well, uh, we’re all pretty busy trying to keep the place up and running – the storm took us by surprise here, you see, been snowed in, can’t get back to Hanshan if we can’t get the vehicles out of the garage, but I can get on the intercom and see if they’re available?”

Shepard shook their head. “We don’t know names. They would have just arrived not long before us. Seven humans, four masculine and three feminine, all in full armor.” The end of the clash in the Hanshan garage flashing into their mind’s eye, they added, “One of them would have had a pretty bad limp.”

Montgomery reacted as if she’d touched a live wire, her eyes going wide and her shoulders jerking up before she managed to put a lid on it and force back on a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “We haven’t seen anybody like that here, Commander,” she said, and Shepard swore there was an undercurrent of malice to her voice that hadn’t been there before. “I’m sorry, but I think you’ve come all this way for nothing.”

Shepard pursed their lips, a million retorts bubbling to mind. Starting a fight would get them nowhere, they told themselves. They had to be careful.

So instead, they pulled their lips back in a brittle smile. “Well, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a look around anyway. If you haven’t seen them, they’re probably not here, but it never hurts to check.”

They couldn’t see their own face, but they were sure Montgomery’s expression was a perfect mirror. “I mean, far be it from us to impede a Council investigation, Commander,” she simpered, the venom dripping from her words almost palpable. “I assure you, there’s nobody like that here at Peak 41, but if you insist.”

“I most certainly do,” they replied. Their face hurt from smiling. Their father had been a master of fake pleasantry, and they had a sudden, newfound appreciation for that skill.

Montgomery’s smile faded, and was almost certainly a scowl by the time she turned and stalked off. Shepard watched her go, then shook their head and turned back to the group. “That went about as well as I could have hoped,” they grumbled as the others arranged themselves in a haphazard circle.

“Did anybody else get the sense she knew it was a lost cause?” Kaidan mused. “She didn’t exactly scream confidence in her argument.”

“Maybe she thought arguing too much would look suspicious,” Isaiah suggested. “I mean, if you broke the lamp, but you try too hard to convince your mom your little brother did it, she’ll know it was you.”

“Something you want to confess, Torres?” Shepard joked.

Isaiah grinned. “Oh, absolutely not.”

Garrus cleared his throat. “That squad has to be in here somewhere. I smell biotics, more than just what the three of you give off,” he said, gesturing to Shepard, Kaidan, and Isaiah.

Shepard nodded to him. “There’s two hallways. We’ll split up.” That morning in the hotel and Saren’s bemused comment echoed in their head, and they pursed their lips. Okay, they did suggest splitting up a lot. So sue them. “Alenko, you take Torres and Lin down the right hall. Vakarian and Marinov, you’re with me on the left. Keep it casual, we don’t want to alarm anybody.”

Kaidan nodded. “Right. What do we do if we find them?”

Shepard considered. “Assess the situation. Only engage if you’re sure it’s safe to do so. Remember, one of them’s injured, so I don’t think going in guns blazing would be the best approach. Try to get them talking. We want information, not heads.”

“Got it.” Kaidan snapped them a quick salute, then motioned for Isaiah and Chan-mi to follow him off towards the hallway on the right once they’d returned it.

Shepard waited for them to disappear, then turned to Adrian and Garrus, arms folded. “I don’t suppose that nose of yours can tell you which way they went?”

Garrus blinked, then shook his head, mandibles flicking. “Sorry, Shepard. The scents in here are too muddled. I just know they’re here somewhere.”

They sighed and shook their head. “Worth a shot. Come on, let’s go.”

The halls at Peak 41, as the facility was apparently called, were long, winding, and decidedly similar-looking. Every door they passed, every security camera they avoided eye contact with, every scuff on the floor tiles seemed to be of the same design and location as the last. Shepard would have killed to be wandering around in something more casual than armor, but instead simply had to deal with being keenly aware of how suspicious they looked peering through every window like a parent trying to discern if their child actually was in class before they picked them up early.

They’d passed by labs labeled FIREARMS TESTING, CHEMICAL LABS, and VI CONTROL ROOM when their comm buzzed. They bit back a yelp as they jumped, then hastily put a hand to their ear to turn on the earpiece, motioning for Garrus and Adrian to do the same. “Yello.”

“It’s me,” came Kaidan’s voice. “We found the garage, and you’ll never guess what we found.”

Shepard exchanged a glance with Adrian. “Unicorns and a bake sale.”

“I wish. Try ‘proof Garrus’s nose was onto something.’ There’s a Mako in here branded with Port Hanshan’s emblem. Everything else is a Grizzly, with Haribon logos. And the engine’s still a little warm.”

Shepard frowned. “You couldn’t even see the garage door when we got here.”

“Surprise. Looks like there’s a back entrance they used, there’s snow and puddles all over the ground by this door. Torres is giving Lin a boost up to the window so she can check.” His voice got a little distant as he asked, “Any luck?”

There was a pause, then he came back. “Yeah, Lin says there’s barely any drifts on that side.”

“Guess that explains why we didn’t see their Mako out front,” Garrus said.

Shepard nodded, resuming walking down the hall. There was a door not far away, and they might as well see what it was. “Good work, LT. Did Haribon give you any trouble getting in the garage?”

“Just more Stepford smiles. I think maybe our friend Dr. Montgomery might’ve radioed ahead to tell them not to bother.”

“Strange,” they mused, eyes falling on a sign that read PROTOTYPING. “I’ll have to call you back, LT. Think I just found you one better.”

“Aw, you get all the fun.”

Kaidan hung up with a click, and Shepard motioned Adrian and Garrus over. “Marinov, send Alenko and company our location,” they said, dropping their voice to a whisper as they cautiously padded forward to look through the window. “I think we just… bingo.”

Sure enough, past the wire reinforcement on the glass, they could make out a handful of human figures in distinctly familiar armor. The one in the hood – “Blink,” that was what they’d called her – was sitting on a bench drinking from what looked like a very large juice box, the swordsman “Ghost” perched beside her while a woman in a lab coat huddled over his leg. Or, well, where his leg should have been. All Shepard could see was a stump. Beyond them, the tank in white (Lash?) was fitting a new helmet into place, this one much more like the deep-space one they’d stolen on Eden Prime, while the tank in green stood by wringing his wrists. The rest, presumably, were out of view.

Shepard debated for a moment, trying to decide the best course of action. Seven fully armed people, and at least one civilian. Ghost was clearly vulnerable and not going anywhere fast, so going in with weapons out and voices raised could easily go sour if the squad was more inclined to stand their ground and protect their weak than to grab everything and run.

Then they remembered they had a seven-foot-tall turian with them, and cracked the slightest of smiles.

“Alright,” they whispered. “In their state, they probably won’t be too keen on running. We don’t want to draw them into a fight. Weapons away, hands where they can see them. The less threatening we look, the better.” They pulled up their omni-tool and flicked through to the audio controls. “I’ll set this up to record the conversation, so we don’t have to worry about trying to remember everything.”

Adrian and Garrus nodded, and once they’d clicked RECORD, they took a deep breath and looked at Garrus. “Would you like to do the honors?”

Garrus’s head jerked back a little, and his mandibles fluttered rapidly, but then he shook himself, nodded, and cautiously moved for the door. Sending the big, scary one in first. It was like those shitty action vids Shepard’s brother had dragged them along to when they were in therapy.

It turned out to be a good idea, because no sooner had the door opened and Garrus walked through than there was a loud THWACK!, Garrus yelped, and Shepard’s backup intimidation plan crumpled to the ground.

Admittedly, also like the shitty action vids. The perils of having a film critic brother.

The moment Garrus’s head hit the ground, Shepard heard a loud gasp. “Ohmigodhe’sC-SecI’mgonnadie!” exclaimed a voice Shepard didn’t remember hearing back in the garage.

“Chill,” drawled a much more familiar one. As Shepard moved up into and through the doorway, the leader of the team came sauntering into view, casually sheathing a sword. “Shepard.”

They glanced back at Adrian and motioned for him to help Garrus up, then folded their arms and looked back at the leader. “You know my name, but I don’t know yours,” they pointed out. “Seems a little unfair.”

She snorted and mirrored their pose. “Smitty Werbenjagermanjensen.”

They raised an eyebrow. “Is that the best you can come up with on short notice?”

“I’m bad at improv. So sue me.”

“One time she had to come up with a contact on the spot, and came up with ‘Dorian,’” supplied another voice, and Shepard looked over to see the third female checking over a sniper rifle. “If she’d’a been looking three inches to the left, he woulda been named ‘Lampy.’”

The team snickered, and Shepard took the opportunity to quickly glance around the room. Backing away from the door and hastily putting down a chair was a black woman wearing a lab coat and an expression somewhere between “sheepish” and “frightened.” Ghost’s leg, it turned out, was on the floor next to the other coated woman, probably being repaired judging by the array of tools next to her and the wires and rods sticking out of it. Well, that explained why he hadn’t seemed to care about his leg breaking, they supposed. Robotic prosthetics with minimal nervous connection, had to love ’em. Ghost himself had tensed like he was ready to jump at Shepard, but the tank in green had come over and put his hands on his shoulders, keeping him anchored in his seat. The rest of the team, except for Blink, seemed about equally as happy about Shepard’s arrival, all stiff movements and ready stances. Blink, meanwhile, seemed perfectly unaffected, still focused entirely on her juice box.

If the leader (Shepard refused to call her “Smitty,” even if by some bizarre coincidence that was her codename) was aware of her colleagues’ unease, she showed no sign, taking a few steps closer to Shepard with almost catlike grace. “Well, obviously, running away is going to be hard, and judging by how your guns are still holstered, I’m guessing you’re not too interested in killing us, so I’ll make you a deal, Commander,” she practically purred. “You ask five questions, we give you five answers. When we’re done, the two of us go our separate ways. You tell your handlers you couldn’t find us, we tell ours we made a clean getaway. Everybody wins.”

Shepard frowned. “What do you mean, handlers?”

“Ah-ah-ah!” she chirped, wagging a finger at them. “No freebies.”

Shepard gritted their teeth, weighing their options. On the one hand, this was far more cooperation than they’d expected; she was offering to tell them what they wanted to know, rather than making them drag it out of her. On the other, letting them leave meant giving up the trail entirely, and they’d already come so far.

Of course, they reasoned, there was no reason questioning couldn’t lead to a new trail.

“Alright,” they said slowly. “Deal.”

“Glad you saw reason.” She had one of those voices, Shepard noticed, where you could hear her smiling, even in spite of the helmet hiding her face. She put up a hand, all five fingers splayed, and purred, “You may begin.”

They paused, thinking. Well, the obvious first question was… “Who are you people?”

Her thumb went down. “Galaxy Scouts.”

Shepard bristled. “You’re lying.”

“I said I’d answer you, Commander.” Now that smile in her voice was a definite smirk. “I didn’t say I’d answer truthfully.”

The one in green fidgeted. “Vikto-”

She spun around before he could finish, leveling a finger at him. “Hey!” she barked. “Watch the names!”

He flinched, but soldiered on. “I don’t think that’s very nice, that’s kinda like lying, isn’t it? You said you’d answer questions, and he accepted thinking you’d be honest, you should honor that, don’t you think?”

“Ohmigod, fine, I’ll play nice.” The leader shook her head and folded her arms again. “But only cause you’re the one asking. Be proud of yourself.”

Vikto. A name, or at least part of one. It was a hell of a lot more than they’d had a minute ago, so they’d take it. And she’d caved fairly quickly, too. What was special about the green guy?

Shepard shook their head, opting to save those questions for later, and for somebody else. Like, say, a volus in the financial district. “What were you doing on Eden Prime?” they asked instead. Better to get the more important questions out of the way first.

“That?” The leader, or “Vik” as Shepard decided right then to call her, shrugged and put down her pinky. “We were just doing what we were told. I’m sure you understand.”

“We didn’t even get paid,” complained the sniper. “All that stuff, and not a single credit.”

“They pay us in room and board,” piped the tech, sitting in the corner with his omni-tool. He cast an aside glance at Ghost, still sitting on the table, and added, “And, uh, maintenance.”

Ghost casually raised his middle finger over his shoulder. “I got a present for ya, Glitch.”

“You shouldn’t have,” Glitch responded in deadpan, returning to his work.

“Y’know, you guys really suck at this whole ‘being mysterious and secretive’ thing,” Vik pointed out.

“Maybe we’d be better at it if they paid us,” Lash suggested.

“And maybe you’d be prettier if you shut your mouth more,” she retorted.

Lash shrugged modestly. “You already think I’m hot enough to sleep with. I’m not too worried.”

Opting to interrupt that train of thought, Shepard cleared their throat. “Who is they?” they asked. “Who are you working for?”

“Y’know, I’ll be nice to you and count that as one question.” Vik’s ring finger went down. “And frankly, you seem like a nice guy, got a reasonable head on your shoulders, I’d like to tell you, I really would. But I also like staying alive and keeping my body parts, so I can’t. Love to, but can’t.”

Shepard frowned. “What do you mean by that?”

Middle finger went down, but instead of speaking, she just tilted her hand so her last remaining finger pointed directly at Ghost.

Shepard swallowed and looked at Ghost, who, even in spite of the visor, seemed to be looking them dead in the eyes as he reached down, unlatched his other leg, and let it fall to the floor. “You learn real quick,” he said, tone startlingly grim.

The lab tech on the floor gave him a cross look and snatched up the good leg. “Don’t abuse your prosthetics,” she hissed.

Vik waggled her finger to get Shepard’s attention again. “You have one more question, Commander,” she mused. “Choose wisely.”

Shepard’s mind reeled. What kind of people chopped off body parts to enforce authority? Were all of them like Ghost, parts removed whether they should have been or not? And Vik had also mentioned staying alive – would they be killed if they didn’t keep their mouths shut? What was going on?

Any number of questions tumbled through their head. Names, locations, Eden Prime, anything that could have given them another clue. But when they opened their mouth, none of them came out.

“It sounds like you’re in a bad situation,” they said. “How do I help you get out of it?”

Time stood still. Shepard’s neck prickled like the entire universe was watching them and the masked face watching them, Vik’s index finger curling back in and hand falling to her side so slowly they swore they could hear her bones creak. “They said you’re a smart one, Commander,” she said, and all traces of play were gone, volume lowered to barely a whisper in the wind. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

They stared into the black glass for what felt like years, but was probably only a few seconds before the spell was broken by a loud, obnoxious, rasping sound. Shepard’s head whipped around to see Blink’s juice box collapsing in on itself as she fought for the last drops, the woman’s shoulders creeping skywards as everyone turned to look at the interruption. She paused, then removed the straw from her mouth, waved the box a little, and managed a little, “Sorry.”

“Oh, here,” said the tech who’d hit Garrus with a chair, digging in her pocket. “I have a nutrient bar you can eat.”

Vik sighed as Blink reached for the offering. “Thanks and all, but we need to go.” She looked back at Shepard and added, “You should run, too, Commander. And a bit of advice: Right now, you’re not on our list. I suggest keeping it that way.”

Shepard frowned and started to take a step forward, opening their mouth, but all they managed to get out was a sharp, “Wait!” before Vik raised her arm. Then there was a flash of biotic blue, and all they were aware of was the rough shove against their chest before they went flying backwards.

Their vision went white, ribs screaming in pain again. Chakwas was going to kill them, was the only coherent thought running through their head as they struggled to sit up. By the time they could open their eyes, the door to the lab was closed, and the lock had turned red.

From behind and beneath them came a long, low groan, and they twisted to see a mess of armor. “Oh, dammit,” they spat, doing their best to scramble to their feet without aggravating their ribs again. “Are you two alright?”

“I’ve had worse,” Garrus wheezed, rolling off Adrian’s legs. “Spirits…”

Adrian just gave a pitiful little, “Ow…”

Shepard shook their head and offered Adrian a hand to help him up. “Well, that went well,” they grumbled, glancing over their shoulder back at the lab door. A panel had slid up over the window, hiding the gang – and their escape, whenever that would be – from view.

Adrian grunted and dusted himself off. “You did say you wanted information,” he pointed out. “That was a fair amount of information.”

Garrus rumbled a subvocal and pushed himself up. “The question is what it means,” he said.

Shepard pursed their lips. “It means they can be reasoned with,” they mused. “And they’re not wholly responsible for what happened. They’re the perps, but there’s somebody behind them. The question is who.”

“That always seems to be the question,” Garrus groused. “It’s never easy in this line of work.”

Shepard nodded and pulled up their omni-tool. Still recording. Good. They hit STOP, then put it away. “I should have a full recording of the conversation. We can go over it later, once the team’s regrouped.”

Garrus’s mandibles flicked, and he turned to look down the hall. “Speaking of.”

Shepard paused, and shortly after heard what Garrus had picked up: footsteps hurrying towards them. Sure enough, within seconds Kaidan and the others rounded the corner, looking more than a little harried. “Sorry we’re late,” Kaidan panted, slowing to a stop. “We tried to hurry, but this place is like a maze, and the employees aren’t exactly helpful.”

Shepard nodded. “It’s alright. There wasn’t any fighting.”

“So you found them?” Chan-mi asked, eyes wide.

Shepard nodded, and was opening their mouth to explain when their omni-tool went off. “I’ll explain in a minute,” they said, pulling the display back up and checking the caller ID.

Nihlus. Oh, boy.

They took a deep breath, then hit ANSWER, quickly putting it on speaker so the others could hear. “Shepard.”

“And here I thought I was calling my mother.” Nihlus’s voice filtered out of the speaker, surprisingly deadpan. Shepard couldn’t remember him being deadpan with anyone but Saren. Was that a good sign, or bad? “How are things going on your end?”

Shepard glanced at the others. “We had a little chat with our stabby friend. I’ve got a recording. Why?”

“Oh, nothing major. We’ve just walked into a horror vid and would appreciate a little backup before the part where the plucky investigator gets eaten.”

Their eyes snapped wide open. “What? What’s going on?”

Nihlus sighed. “Binary Helix asked us to come assist with an issue at their facility on Peak 15. We were assured there would be people available to meet us, but when we got here, the lights were out, there’s no heat, and we tripped over security guards who froze to death trying to get to a vehicle to keep warm in.”

“Oh, my God.” Shepard exchanged horrified looks with the rest of the team, relieved that they seemed as unsettled by such a description as they did. “Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

“No. We’re still trying to find a way to get the power on.” There was a distant crashing, then Nihlus amended, “Correction, Saren just found emergency generators. We’ll see if we can at least get the lights, we’re navigating with hardsuit lights here.”

“Roger. We’ll be there as quick as we can. Keep me posted.”

“Of course. And make sure to keep your helmets on when you get here, temperature’s reading in the ‘die in a few heartbeats’ range.”

Shepard decided asking if that was by turian or human standards would be in poor taste. “Got it. Thanks.”

They hung up, then looked around at the rest of the group. “So,” they said, making what they considered a very weak attempt at a cheery voice, “who wants to go be the premise of a horror vid?”

Chapter Text

After the creepy smiles at Haribon, the doors sliding open at Binary Helix was almost a relief.

Keyword being “almost.” There was still the ominous silence in the entry hall and the knowledge that that door, Isaiah was pretty sure, should have been locked.

They found Nihlus not far inside, a mountain of black armor investigating a stack of crates piled to one side of the garage. Shepard cleared their throat, and he glanced over. “Shepard, there you are,” he said. “Just trying to poke around for any clues as to what’s going on.”

“Any luck?” Shepard asked, loping over. Gesturing to the lights overhead, he added, “I see you got the generators working.”

“Yes, after some trial and error.” Nihlus shook his head. “The generators we found are old and outdated, but they do the trick.”

“Old tech?” Garrus echoed. “Isn’t this supposed to be a state-of-the-art facility?”

“Yes, which is what’s concerning,” Nihlus mused. “Apparently, all the money Binary Helix pumps into this place doesn’t go to keeping its workers comfortable and prepared for emergency.”

Kaidan snorted. “Sounds like corporate for you.”

Shepard cleared his throat. “Did you find anything else?”

Nihlus looked at him for a moment, then sighed. “Only bodies,” he said, motioning for them to follow him as he started walking.

Shepard followed immediately, while the rest of the squad exchanged uneasy glances first. Dead bodies, cool, yeah, just what everyone likes to find when they go investigate a place, he groused internally. Yeah, sure, that was the entire reason they’d come in the first place, but that didn’t make it any less unsettling.

Nihlus led them to the back of the garage, where a tarp lay over several very suspiciously people-sized lumps. Isaiah’s stomach churned, and he took a few hasty steps back. “Eight in total, multiple species, all died of exposure,” Nihlus told them solemnly. “Five security guards, three I’d guess were low-level techs supervising. None of them were wearing anything near what you’d need to survive the cold for very long.”

“I’m guessing they weren’t like this when you found them?” Shepard asked.

Nihlus shook his head. “Saren and I moved them over here, then found the tarp in a maintenance crate for the tanks. Give them a bit of dignity in death. We can see about having them taken care of later, after we get to the bottom of this.”

Isaiah shuddered, and bile rose in his throat. He swallowed to try and stamp that back down, and instead just shook his head and muttered, “What a way to go.”

Shepard must have heard him, because he glanced back and nodded. “The best we can do for them now is to find out what happened here, and why Helix left them to die. Any clues on that end, Nihlus?”

Nihlus shook his head. “Just one. The station’s VI is a chatty sort, she should be telling you herself fairly soon. Beyond that, nothing. Saren went to investigate further in once we got the lights on. I wanted to stay here and wait for you, so we don’t all get lost.”

“Aren’t you worried Saren would get lost?” Garrus asked dryly.

Nihlus looked at him for a moment, then snorted and shook his head again. “He won’t go beyond the lit area, and judging by the generators, that probably isn’t a very wide radius.”

His inflection seemed to imply he wasn’t done talking, but he was anyway, because right then was when a loud, feminine voice echoed through the garage, announcing, «USER ALERT! All Peak 15 facilities have suffered a great deal of damage. Biohazard materials present throughout the facility. Virtual Intelligence user interface offline.»

Isaiah was very relieved when he was not the only one to jump out of his skin – really, Nihlus and Chan-mi were the only ones not startled. “And that’s what I meant about the VI and the clue she gave us,” Nihlus commented. His voice was way too calm to not be amused, if you asked Isaiah. That was the tone of a man who was very used to keeping his gut-busting laughter completely internal. “She’s been repeating that message about every ten minutes or so since we got the generators on.”

While Shepard shook himself, Isaiah brushed some imaginary dust off his pauldrons and said, “Damaged facilities, biohazards, and an offline VI. Anyone else think our best strategy is to turn around and go home right now?”

Nihlus turned to look at him, and even with the dark tint of his helmet visor Isaiah got the distinct impression his eyes were boring into his soul. “If only we could.”

Turians, Isaiah was learning, were a disturbingly intense lot. He didn’t like that. Not one bit.

Chan-mi cleared her throat. “It sounds as though our best course of action would be to repair the VI and see what we can learn from it,” she suggested.

Shepard nodded to her. “Agreed. Preferably before we find out what these ‘biohazards’ are the hard way. Anybody confident in their ability to repair a VI?”

Slowly, the whole team turned to face Adrian. Somehow, despite being approximately ungodly tall, he actually managed to seem small as he looked back at them. His helmet visor gave them all a good, clear view of his eyes stretched wide as dinner plates as Shepard mused, “Oh, Marinov?”

Isaiah didn’t hear him swallow, but he was pretty sure he could see it in the slight hitch of his shoulders. “I- I- uh, I think I can,” he managed. “I-I mean, I was passably good at the mechanical intelligences course back at—and I guess I could…”

He cast a pleading look Garrus’s way, but the turian just shrugged. “Virtual intelligences never really fell into my scope back in training,” he explained. “My only experience has been getting them to shut up when they won’t stop whining about the toast being done.”

Adrian’s shoulders slumped, and Isaiah took a step closer so he could pat his shoulder sympathetically. “You’ll do fine, man,” he said, hoping he sounded more convincing than he thought.

“I’m beginning to see the benefits of an extended roster,” mused Nihlus to himself. “If it were left up to just you, me, and Saren, Shepard, guaranteed we would just stand around staring at it for a few minutes until somebody decided to just shoot it and hope it has a percussive maintenance protocol.”

Shepard’s eyes widened a little behind the visor. “Are those actually things?”

“They were on Palaven,” Adrian mumbled. “Mistress Actinus always said to try kicking it before calling tech support. And then tech support would ask if you’ve tried kicking it already.”

Garrus gave a small sigh. “It’s what happens when most of your race are soldiers,” he said in a tone that, to Isaiah, sounded more than a little defeated. “After so long of everyone’s solution to technical trouble being to just beat on it a little, somebody got the idea to hook up some pressure sensors, code in a way to detect percussive maintenance, and use that as a system reboot signal.”

“So like turning it off and back on again, except instead of hitting a button, you abuse your machine?” Kaidan asked.

“Essentially, yes.”

“My father’s dream come true,” Shepard deadpanned. “Come on, if we’re going to get anything out of the VI, we have to get there first. Nihlus, where’s Saren?”

Nihlus checked his omni-tool. “Last I checked, he’d said he’d found an office of some sorts, not far from the doors in. Security, my guess. This way.”

He motioned with his head for them to follow him as he moved away from the bodies, towards a short flight of stairs leading up to a walkway. Now that nobody was talking, Isaiah couldn’t help but notice how their footsteps echoed around the garage; the sound hung in the air, never really dissipating so much as just… stopping. The hair on the back of his neck stood up, and he got the distinct impression his earlier suggestion of turning and running like gazelles had really been the best plan.

That feeling only intensified when the doors at the end of the walkway slid open to reveal two big, automated turrets, mounted on either side of a tiny entry hall and pointed inwards towards the main facility.

As the team padded through the short hallway, he got a good look at the powered-down drones. “So,” he said, trying not to let his voice shake, “anybody else feel like security drones don’t generally point at the thing they’re supposed to defend?”

Chan-mi paused to look at the drones, too. “I suspect that Binary Helix is not the best work environment.”

“No kidding,” Kaidan muttered.

Shepard nodded back at them over his shoulder. “I agree with you, but let’s not pass judgement just yet. We still don’t know what happened here.”

Isaiah exchanged a look with the others, then shook his head and kept walking. He’d pass judgement on a company willing to let people freeze to death all he wanted, thanks.

At the end of the hall, Nihlus took a right, and they followed him down another one to a set of doors that opened with a small chime. “Knock, knock,” Nihlus deadpanned.

They filed inside to find a decent-size office, stocked with a few armor lockers and a table and lined on one side by a counter with a microwave and mini-fridge. Security break room, he guessed. One of the lockers was open, and on one corner of the table, a small cube sat humming away, metal coils on the end facing them glowing steadily orange. And next to that, a white turian helmet.

Saren glanced up from the assault rifle he’d been inspecting. “Took you long enough,” he groused, surprisingly without malice. “I found a space heater,” he added, motioning to the glowing cube. “You can take your helmets off, for now.”

Isaiah glanced at Shepard, then reached up to do so when he did. The rest of the team did the same, spreading out as they did so everyone could fit in the room comfortably. Garrus and Nihlus sniffed as their helmets came off, then snorted quickly. “Spirits, what’s that smell?” Garrus asked.

Saren fluttered his mandibles. “I don’t know. I assume the biohazards the VI has been going on about. Scans read no airborne toxins, so it’s safe to breathe.”

Isaiah eyed him as he meandered closer to the space heater for a few more degrees of comfort. It was kind of weird, seeing Saren in armor. All the sleek black had been replaced with the pale gray armor of a Hierarchy officer, accented with imperial orange. Granted, Isaiah had only really seen Hierarchy officers in the news feeds, but as far as he could tell, the only difference was the black Spectre logo emblazoned on the pauldrons and lapel where normally the Hierarchy’s emblem would go. It somehow seemed… less intimidating, despite still being worn by a misanthrope with a mean streak a solar system wide and biotics powerful enough the engineering crew had preemptively banned him from getting anywhere near the drive core. He seemed more official somehow, more like he was supposed to be there, rather than being Nihlus’s rude shadow.

Meanwhile, Nihlus ambled over to Saren, Shepard hot on his heels. “Good news,” he told him. “Shepard brought someone who can fix the VI.”

Saren tilted his head back and forth a few times, then huffed so hard his nasal plates rattled. “I still say we shoot it.”

Nihlus sighed patiently. “That’s the worst idea you’ve ever had, and yet you have it every time you’re confronted with technical difficulties.”

“I’m just saying,” he muttered, “it usually works. And besides, you do it, too.”

“Not my point.” Nihlus shook his head and gave him a friendly nudge with his shoulder.

Shepard cleared his throat. “What have you found?” he asked.

Saren eyed him, then the gun in his hands, then Shepard again. “You’re the student here,” he said slowly. “Pop quiz.” He tossed the gun over to them and asked, “What does a biomedical research facility need with high-end firearms?”

There was half a second for surprise to flit across Shepard’s face before he caught the gun, almost fumbling it in the process. Once he’d stilled, he stared down at it, then shook himself and squinted at it.

While he looked over the gun, Nihlus rumbled a subvocal and nudged Saren. “You haven’t said ‘pop quiz’ since you were training Avitus,” he pointed out, mandibles lifting. “Saren, do you miss being a mentor?”

Saren stiffened, then hip-checked him and hissed. “Absolutely not,” he retorted. “Need I remind you how foolhardy you and Rix both were? The two of you combined took twenty-seven years off my lifespan.”

Nihlus rumbled again. Wait, was he purring? Could turians purr? “I think you miss mentoring.”

Saren paused, then pulled up his omni-tool, slapped at a button, then spun and hissed, “Zu at ongik yulak’uiz fohe av dimu.”

Nihlus blinked, then turned off his own translator and replied with his mandibles at a jaunty, dare Isaiah say smarmy angle, “Am vax’ta, am vax riut viz baau vuz.”

Isaiah glanced at Garrus to see if he’d translate, but one look at the “trying very hard to pretend he’s deaf” expression on his face, and he decided he probably didn’t want to know.

When he looked back, Saren’s neck looked a couple shades bluer than usual. Yeah, definitely didn’t want to hear it.

While Saren and Nihlus turned their translators back on, Shepard finally spoke. “Garrus, you said a lot of places get Alliance surplus for cheap, right?”

Garrus jumped a little, then nodded and flicked a mandible. “Yes, that’s right. Why?”

Shepard looked up, frowning, and slid the gun across the table. “Alliance stock is all Hahne-Kedar. This is Rosenkov Materials.”

The gun slid to a stop near Chan-mi, who picked it up, brow furrowed. “This is from the Kovalyov line,” she said. “Model number RMK-IX, I believe. It was just released a couple of years ago.” When the rest of the group all looked at her, she frowned a little. “What? I was in charge of the armory before Chief Williams came onboard. We still do it jointly, to compensate for the staff shortage.”

Probably wisely, nobody said anything to that. Instead, Shepard looked back at Saren. “Is it all Rosenkov?”

“Mostly,” he confirmed, drifting closer to the open locker. “There are a few Haliat Armory weapons at the bottom. Very old models. Discarded in favor of superior weaponry, I expect. And Hahne-Kedar, also buried.”

Shepard put a hand to his chin. “New models from a high-end supplier, versus old ones from stock companies. Either somebody got a present, or Helix was worried about something.”

The VI chose that moment to make its announcement again, and Saren flicked a mandible. “I suspect the second option.”

His words hung in the air for a minute, and Isaiah had to fight not to shudder, looking around at the others. Finally, Nihlus shook himself, cleared his throat, and said, “Well, we won’t figure it out standing around like lost shatha. Did you get into the other lockers?”

Saren blinked, then he shook himself, too, and clicked his mandibles. “No, not yet. This one happened to be unlocked, so I started with it.”

Nihlus glanced at Shepard, then shrugged as if to say fair enough. “Fine. Anyone good with electronic locks?”

Kaidan cleared his throat and raised his hand. “I am.”

Nihlus nodded to him and moved over so he could get to the nearest locker. Meanwhile, Shepard sidestepped closer to Saren and reached into the locker. “Let’s get a closer look at these,” he said. “I thought I saw something on that Kovalyov…”

He pulled a few more guns out of the locker, mostly assault rifles, but there were also a couple of sniper rifles and pistols, plus one shotgun to boot. “Here,” he said, sliding the guns across the table for the rest of the team to grab. “Look these over, see if you find anything odd.”

Chan-mi immediately began scrutinizing the Kovalyov already in her hands. Isaiah gingerly picked up a pistol with KARPOV printed neatly along the grip, trying not to flinch when it sprang out to active mode. So he wasn’t the best with guns, big deal. He had biotics.

He carefully turned the gun over, holding it close to his face for a better look. With the barrel very definitely pointed away from his face and fingers far away from the trigger, of course. When he’d joined the Alliance, his mother had told him very firmly that if his obituary could go on a list of examples of gun safety gone horribly wrong, she’d write him out of the will with fire. He’d opted not to remind her there was no point in him being in the will anyway if he was dead; the point was clear enough.

As he was rotating the gun, a small light at the top of the stock caught his eye. “Hey, Chan-mi,” he asked, “what’s this little light mean?”

She glanced up from the assault rifle and squinted, then blinked. “Oh! That is the ammunition light. It indicates how soon you need to change the ammo block, or if you have any mods active.”

He nodded sagely, as if he knew anything about guns. “And, uh, this light. Is it supposed to be, uh… orange?”

She froze, then almost frantically started combing over her gun. “No,” she said firmly. “Not normally. That indicates the gun has been equipped with shredder rounds.”

He paused, her sudden surge of activity setting off a little alarm bell in the back of his head. The fact that the rest of the group had gone still and had all eyes on them didn’t help. Still, he had to know. “Which means..?”

She didn’t answer at first. Instead, she turned her gun all over until she found her own light, then stiffened, staring down at it. “It means,” she said slowly, “that these guns are using ammunition specifically designed to deal significant damage to organic targets.”

Isaiah froze. Off to the side, Shepard said, like each word was a struggle, “How many of you have orange ammo lights?”

Nobody moved for a minute. Then Isaiah raised his hand, cautiously, like he was in a dream. And around the room, as if moving through molasses, everyone else did, too.

Shepard sucked in a breath. “What the hell is going on here?” he practically whispered.

Again, nobody moved. The three Spectres looked at each other like they were silently discussing the best way to tell the Council they ran for their lives. Isaiah couldn’t blame them. Shiny new guns, way better at hurting people than the ones they were replacing and equipped with ammo meant for killing organics super dead; turrets pointing towards the people they were ostensibly meant to protect; eight people left outside to die of exposure; and some sort of biohazard loose in the facility. Things were not looking good for their survival odds.

The tension was broken by a cheerful chirp and the locker Kaidan was working on sliding open. “Uh… Hey guys?” he asked. Was that a tremble Isaiah heard? “I think we have a new question.”

Shepard and Nihlus turned so they could see him as he got to his feet and pulled a stack of something out of the locker. He gingerly stepped over to the table, then tipped the stack over, letting countless tiny boxes cascade across the surface. “What did they need all these anti-toxin armor seals for?”

The team stared. After a long moment, Shepard spoke. “Do you ever get the feeling the universe is trying to give you a sign that you should turn back right now?”

Nobody got a chance to respond, because that was when a loud, piercing, rattling screech echoed out of the vents.