A/N: I'm so so sorry for the wait. I gave up on a schedule three chapters ago, but I didn't intend to take so long. I also didn't intend to apply to university for this year, given that it was so late, but that's what happened. And after moving and starting classes, I didn't have enough energy until recently for personal writing. I hope this chapter doesn't disappoint.
The hunt for evidence against Saren was going well.
Shepard's heart beat a steady rhythm, keeping time for her pounding feet. She, Alenko, and Williams were pelting for the alley they'd been told of, along with the turian C-Sec officer and the krogan mercenary. Both leads had panned out, miraculously, although that was because they both seemed to lead to the same thing. If they could make it in time to stop Saren's men from hurting or kidnapping the quarian, they should have solid evidence to back up Nihlus' testimony.
By some fortuitous chance, all five of them managed to avoid running into the people of the Citadel, who were going about their own business despite the gunshots and cacophony of battle inside Chora's Den – which was possibly a less than uncommon occurrence if the lack of panic on the streets was anything to go by – and they reached the alley without incident. Shepard ordered them to approach as quietly as possible and wait on her signal.
Four people stood in the red-lit corridor. Two salarians blocked the opposite end, and a turian loomed over a short figure in an environment suit. The quarian.
The turian reached out to caress the quarian's head and run his hand down her arm. "They'll be here. Where's the evidence?"
"No way," said the quarian, slapping his hand away and backing up. "The deal's off."
The salarians began to raise their pistols, but the quarian grabbed something from her belt and tossed it at them as she dodged the turian's grasping hands. A small explosion sent both hitmen flying.
At the crack! of Shepard's gunshot, the rest of her team began shooting. The quarian was able to duck into cover behind one of the many haphazardly stacked crates. She didn't just hide, though, and it was her shot that took out one of the salarians. The fight was over in under a minute.
While Alenko and Williams began helping Vakarian deal with the would-be assassins' bodies, Shepard offered a hand to help the quarian stand. She was waved off, but noticed the quarian leaned on the crate as unobtrusively as she could.
"Fist set me up," she muttered to herself. "I knew I couldn't trust him!"
"Were you hurt in the fight?" Shepard asked, opening her helmet's visor.
"I know how to look after myself," was the stiff reply. The mask of the enviro-suit tilted upwards, and glowing eyes took in Shepard's concerned expression. The quarian relaxed her tense shoulders slightly. "Not that I don't appreciate the help. Who are you?"
"My name's Shepard, I'm with the Alliance. We –" Shepard gestured to include the other four. "– heard you might have evidence proving that Spectre Saren Arterius is a traitor to the Council, and that you were in trouble."
"I do have something," admitted the quarian. "I guess I'll be able to repay you for saving my life. But we need to go somewhere safe."
Williams opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by two insistent beeps.
Shepard muttered, "Excuse me," to the quarian and turned slightly as she answered the call; from the corner of her eye she saw Vakarian do the same. "Shepard."
"Commander," came Anderson's voice. "There is a situation at the hospital where Nihlus is recovering. Are you able to meet me there?"
"Yes, sir," said Shepard. She glanced at the quarian. "We have someone with evidence against Saren. Where would you have us take them?"
"Bring them with you. This area should be secure. At least, it is now," The Captain muttered the last part, almost as if he hadn't intended it to be heard. Then, softly, "She's hurt, Shepard."
The Commander went rigid. She acknowledged Anderson tersely and ended the call.
"Commander?" Williams sounded worried.
"Shepard," said Vakarian, cutting Williams off. "I've been called to the Zilas Hospital."
"That's where we're heading, too," Shepard responded. She looked over at the krogan, hesitating.
Urdnot Wrex gave a considering grunt. "I'd like to see where this is headed. I'll come, if you'll have me."
The Commander nodded sharply. "Then let's move."
People crowded the area around the hospital. There was also a section that was cordoned off; Shepard glimpsed broken glass littering the ground, and what could have been blood.
Vakarian managed to convince the agitated C-Sec officers to send for Captain Anderson when they reached the hospital's doors. Anderson and a higher-ranked C-Sec officer confirmed that they had access, and the entire group was let through, despite the looks the quarian and krogan received.
"Sir, what happened?" asked Shepard as the seven of them walked swiftly down the halls toward the recovery ward.
"Nihlus was attacked. Miss Nagai was with him at the time," Anderson glanced at Shepard, watching her reaction as he said, "He'd be dead if it weren't for her. She stopped two hitmen: an asari and a turian."
Shepard heard Alenko let out a low whistle. Her own features were pulled into a frown. "How did she manage that?"
"Apparently by doing something she shouldn't have been able to," The Captain held up a hand to forestall more questions. "I'll let Nihlus explain – he has the security vids. It's something you need to see to believe."
They passed a room filled with busy C-Sec personnel. It was one of the rooms directly above the part of the street covered with broken glass. Shepard only got a short glance at it, but the room was a mess – and that was definitely a splattery puddle of turian blood on the floor just inside the door, and another of a human hue on the wall. The Commander took discrete note of the others' expressions as they, too, took this in. Alenko and Williams appeared grim; Vakarian had a calculating shift to his facial plates, data scrolling across his visor; the quarian's body language suggested anxiety, but that could have been due to her precarious situation; Wrex seemed to casually assess everything, though he gave no hint as to what he made of it.
There were C-Sec officers outside Nihlus' new room. It was a larger one that normally held multiple beds, but at the moment there was only the injured Spectre's, positioned beside a table that held several datapads. The man himself was propped up in a sitting position, typing something into his omni-tool as he perused the datapad in his lap. He looked up as the group entered.
"Anderson. Shepard," Nihlus took a moment to wave his typing hand for them all to enter. "Quite the entourage you've got there."
"They've earned the right to be here," said Shepard firmly.
Nihlus merely nodded. "Would you like to go first, or shall I?"
"Have you been informed of the meeting with the Council?"
"Yes," said the Spectre, a turian grimace shifting his facial plates. "It's not surprising, considering the lack of conclusive evidence in my absence, but it still chafes my cowl."
"We went in search of further evidence once the meeting concluded. Officer Vakarian –" the C-Sec officer made a gesture in salute, "– was in charge of C-Sec's investigation. After it was closed due to time constraints, he discovered a possible lead. We met him at a small clinic in the wards where we learned about a quarian who had possible evidence against Spectre Arterius, and followed her trail to Chora's Den. A human man called Fist, who used to be an operative of the Shadow Broker, sent her to an ambush with Spectre Arterius' men under the guise of meeting with the Shadow Broker. Urdnot Wrex helped us... deal with him, and then accompanied us to try to save her."
Considering looks were turned on both the Commander and the krogan. Shepard continued without changing expression. "We reached the meeting in time to stop the attackers. She confirmed that she has information for us."
"Er," The quarian shifted nervously when all eyes turned to her. "My name is Tali. Tali'Zorah nar Rayya. I was on my Pilgrimage when I began hearing reports of geth in the galaxy," Everyone seemed to understand the significance of this, but in her nervousness, the quarian explained anyway. She described tracking down and disabling one of the geth that had left the Veil, and how she had been fortunate enough to salvage data from its memory core before it could fry itself completely.
Then she played the audio file.
Everyone stilled, rapt.
"Eden Prime was a major victory. The beacon has brought us one step closer to finding the Conduit."
There was more, but several people began speaking at once.
"That's him alright," rumbled Wrex.
"This proves he was involved in the attack!" the Captain exclaimed.
"'Involved'?" Williams muttered. "It almost sounds like he ordered it."
"What could he mean by 'finding the Conduit'?" Alenko wondered aloud.
As they speculated, Shepard watched Nihlus silently. The turian gripped the datapads so tightly for a moment that she thought they might break. It looked like he had to force himself to relax and set them down.
Tali'Zorah said something, but was drowned out by the discussion. After a couple false starts, she raised her voice in order to be heard. "There's more to it than that!" Once she had the room's attention again, she replayed the file.
"Eden Prime was a major victory. The beacon has brought us one step closer to finding the Conduit," Saren's voice said again.
"And one step closer to the return of the Reapers."
The rest of the audio file devolved into harsh static, and 'Zorah quickly shut it off.
"Hmm," Nihlus tapped a talon on the rail of his bed. "That voice..."
"I feel like I've heard of 'Reapers' before," mumbled Shepard.
"According to some of the other data I recovered from the memory core," The quarian scrolled through something else on her omni-tool, "the geth believe that the Reapers were a hyper advanced machine race that existed 50,000 years ago. That it was the Reapers that hunted the protheans to total extinction, and then they vanished."
The Commander stiffened. "The vision," she said, and Anderson's gaze snapped to hers. "What if it showed me the protheans being wiped out by the Reapers?"
"The geth revere the Reapers as gods," 'Zorah added. "the pinnacle of non-organic life. The rest of the memory core's data indicates they think Saren knows how to bring them back."
"We have to tell the Council," said the Captain, still holding the Commander's eyes.
"This is a lot to handle," argued Shepard. "They might just ignore everything we tell them!"
Anderson shook his head, one hand raised placatingly. "No matter what they think about the rest of this, that audio file proves Saren's a traitor."
"Captain Anderson is right," interjected Nihlus. "We need to present this to the Council right away. It will be the perfect back up to my testimony."
"I'll go contact Ambassador Udina and get started on gaining another audience," Anderson gave Shepard a reassuring nod and strode out of the room.
Nihlus made a noise to draw their attention back. "How much were you told about what happened here?" he asked when Shepard met his eyes.
"That there was a situation," she said. "That the civilian Elyse Nagai was injured stopping hitmen from killing you."
Alenko and Williams immediately straightened; Wrex, Vakarian, and 'Zorah glanced between Shepard and Nihlus with varying levels of confusion and curiosity.
"That's the short version," Nihlus admitted, sighing. "The kid was in my recovery room; she had some sort of problem that required treatment. I offered her a space to get away from the poking for a time," Shepard marked the Spectre's micro-expression – something like happiness? – and that Vakarian noticed, too, if the tilt of his head was any clue. "She was there when they came in. The salarian stood just outside of the room, was probably their inside man and lookout. The asari and the turian had armour and weapons. And a syringe. If I'd just had my gun..." He broke off into a growl, running a hand over his fringe.
"So how'd she do it?" Wrex sounded mildly interested.
"With biotics," said Nihlus, picking up a datapad and offering it. Shepard took it from him and the others crowded around her. "on a level previously unrecorded in humans."
Shepard watched several clips from security cameras, bystanders, and one from just beyond the room's door – the salarian likely – which was the only one that showed anything with clarity. Together, they painted a gruesome picture: Elyse Nagai's face as she took in the situation and paled. Her leap over Nihlus' bed and grapple with the asari. The sudden blue glow of biotics as the two exchanged blows, and the impossibly powerful attack that sent the asari through the reinforced window; from a different angle, the unmoving body crashing to the road below. The turian's first shot striking Nagai in the shoulder; her oddly blank expression as she raised a Barrier. People screaming and jostling the salarian as they watched the blue glow surround the turian.
The distorted remains falling to the ground as the girl's eyes rolled up into her skull and she collapsed bonelessly.
"Spirits!" exclaimed Vakarian.
Vakarian's outburst reminded the Commander to take a moment to consider everyone's reactions. Wrex had an expression equivalent to a human's raised eyebrow. 'Zorah couldn't seem to speak. Alenko's jaw was hanging open slightly. Williams looked like she couldn't decide on whether to be angry or shocked.
She met Nihlus' gaze; he was also gauging their reactions. She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. He imitated it.
"How is she?" the Commander asked.
"That's hard to say," The bed-ridden turian raised one hand when Williams opened her mouth. "They patched up her shoulder just fine, and it should be good as new shortly. But there was more damage than just a gunshot wound."
Alenko's attention was back on Nihlus. "From the biotics?"
"Yes," Another datapad from his lap was offered. "The experts said she's lucky her implant didn't suffer a catastrophic failure, even if it's a newer model that should have failsafes," He paused while Shepard and Alenko glanced over the datapad's contents. "According to the doctors, she'll sleep while her brain rests and recovers from the overuse. She should recover quickly with no lasting damage – this time. There's no telling what might happen if she tries this again."
"What about the salarian?" Shepard asked after a moment.
"Detained and questioned," Nihlus sorted through more datapads before finding the one he was after and passing it over as well. "Didn't take much to get him talking, but he didn't know a lot. Probably why he was used. But the asari's omni-tool linked her to a bank account that was traced to Saren."
The report was short, but the summary of the salarian's confession was still concerning.
"She was also a target?" the Commander demanded incredulously.
"So it seems."
It was Williams who asked, "But why?"
Nihlus shifted, looking sheepish to Shepard's eye. "The salarian apparently said that he overheard the asari mention Eden Prime."
Shepard's mind whirled. Behind her, she vaguely heard Alenko giving Vakarian, Wrex, and 'Zorah a very brief explanation of what had happened on Eden Prime without mentioning their original mission or any specifics. She met Nihlus' eyes; he'd been watching her again.
"She can't stay here," Shepard said.
"Arranging for protective custody will –"
Nihlus cut in. "I'm taking her with us."
The room was silent.
The Commander must have looked fearsome, because the bed-ridden turian held up both his hands in a placating gesture. "She was affected by the beacon, just like you. But she's not a soldier –"
"That's right, she's not –"
"– she's not a soldier and she's going to need protection, so –"
"The Alliance can take care of –"
"From Saren? A rogue Spectre? With all his resources, even if his status is revoked?"
Shepard pressed her lips together in a thin line, but said nothing.
Nihlus sighed. "I've spoken with Captain Anderson. He's agreed. I will be responsible for her. Once she's recovered enough, I will begin training her to protect herself; she won't be able to face a Spectre, but I'll make sure she can keep herself safe," When the Commander didn't respond, Nihlus growled, "Can you think of a safer place for her than a ship like the Normandy?"
"The Normandy is a military vessel," Shepard started stiffly.
"With specs like no other – even Saren's," retorted Nihlus. "None of the people he sends would be able to find her, let alone kill her."
A moment of quiet. Then Shepard said, "You know my feelings on the matter," She placed the datapads on the table. "We should prepare for the Council."
Captain Anderson met them at the steps leading up to the petitioner's stage, much like the first time. Tali'Zorah asked nervously if she would be required to speak. After giving the group a glance, the Captain replied that only those who didn't mind the possibility of being questioned should follow him, Shepard, and Nihlus up. Most of them remained one level down, but Vakarian continued to keep pace just behind Nihlus, a not-so-subtle gesture of concern for the yet unsteady one-legged turian.
"You wanted proof," Udina was saying as the four made their way to the stage. "There it is."
"Together with Spectre Kryik's revised testimony, this evidence is irrefutable," Sparatus, the turian Councilor, admitted. "Saren Arterius will be stripped of his Spectre status and all efforts will be made to bring him in to answer for his crimes."
Shepard watched from the corner of her eyes as Anderson and Nihlus exchanged grim looks.
Then Councilor Tevos spoke, an edge of horror in her tone. "I recognise the other voice, the one speaking with Saren. Matriarch Benezia."
The salarian Councilor flinched, his large eyes widening slightly more than normal. The turian Councilor glanced at his asari counterpart with curiosity. On the petitioner's stage, only Nihlus showed any reaction to the name, a tensing of his facial plates that Shepard struggled to name. Apprehension?
"Who's she?" Shepard dared to ask when the silence continued.
"You must understand that matriarchs are powerful asari in the final stage of their lives," the asari Councilor explained. "They have centuries of experience and wisdom, and often serve as guides and mentors for younger generations. Matriarch Benezia is an incredibly capable biotic, an influential individual, and has many followers. She will make a formidable ally for Saren."
Valern, the salarian Councilor, cleared his throat. "What about this 'Conduit' they spoke of? And 'Reapers'... does that refer to what I think it does?"
"There's nothing else about the Conduit in the remaining data on the geth's core," said Anderson. Shepard found herself stiffening up as he continued. "But it did have something about the Reapers. The geth believe they were an ancient race of machines that wiped out the protheans. Then they vanished. The geth seem to think the Reapers are gods, and that Saren is going to bring them back."
"That would explain why they're working for him. And from the audio recording, it sounds like the Conduit, whatever it could be, is supposed to further this goal," Valern muttered, almost to himself. "However, it could also be an convenient myth, a legend he is using to bend the geth to his will. This is only one piece of evidence, one clue. Guessing wildly at his motives will not help to stop him."
"Agreed," said Sparatus. "Besides, I find it hard to believe that even a supposedly advanced machine race could destroy a galactic civilization like the protheans' without leaving so much as a trace."
Interestingly, the salarian Councilor gained a somewhat uncertain expression at that.
But Anderson was speaking again. "Whatever Saren's purpose, he's made it clear he has no reservations against destroying colonies in pursuit of his goals. He needs to be stopped."
"Saren Arterius is now a rogue agent who will be on the run for his life," the turian Councilor scoffed. "He no longer has the rights or resources of a Spectre."
"That's not good enough!" Ambassador Udina growled. Shepard noted the barest hint of a smirk on his face. "You know he's hiding somewhere in the Traverse. Send your fleet in!"
"A fleet cannot track down one man," said Valern.
"A Citadel fleet could secure the entire region. Keep the geth from attacking any more of our colonies," the Ambassador pressed.
"Or it could trigger a war with the Terminus Systems!" countered Sparatus. "The Council will not instigate a galactic confrontation over a few dozen human colonies!"
"There's another option," said Nihlus before the Ambassador could continue. "One that doesn't involve fleets or armies."
"No, it's too soon!" The turian Councilor glared at the Spectre.
"Spectre Kryik's suggestion holds merit," said Councilor Tevos. The glare was turned on her, but she continued mildly. "It would take time for other Spectres to respond, time in which more damage would be inflicted, and for whatever goal Saren pursues to come to fruition."
"And Spectre Kryik is not yet recovered enough to take this on alone," added the salarian Councilor. "But with some help – with another Spectre..."
When Councilor Sparatus stonily accepted the logic of the situation, Shepard caught a vicious, triumphant grin on Ambassador Udina's face. It was there for just a moment, gone so quickly that she had to be looking for it to see.
After the short ceremony, Shepard was congratulated by the Captain, her mismatched team, and Nihlus. The turian Spectre looked very smug about it, too.
The Ambassador reminded them that there was no time to celebrate, gruffly directing Captain Anderson to help him tackle the issue of a ship, crew, supplies, and all the associated paperwork. But he did give the Commander a wink when he thought nobody else was looking.
Shepard wasn't quite sure how to feel about that.
It was the women's bathroom on the Normandy, but everything had an unnatural gleam. When she turned around, Elyse couldn't see the door; that was what first made her think she was dreaming.
"Hey!" someone called, and the strangely familiar voice echoed in the room.
"Who's there?" Elyse looked around, squinting against the light. There! In the mirror above the sinks was movement. Elyse approached hesitantly. Then stopped with a shocked gasp. "You!"
It was not her reflection that looked out at her from the mirror. The girl – young woman? – stood slightly taller than she did, and had more fullness to her overall figure. Where Elyse's nearly black hair curled in lazy waves, this girl's brown and auburn hair lay mostly straight. Her youthful face was closer to a true oval, lacking Elyse's sharply outlined bones, and splotches of red the colour of the girl's lips marked her chin and right cheek near the jawline. Behind the large round glasses, though, her eyes were the same.
"You're Reeva," said Elyse.
The girl in the mirror nodded. "And you're Elyse."
"You look like me," A pause. "Or maybe I look like you?"
"We could be sisters, from appearances," Reeva agreed. "It's no wonder Shepard thought you were sixteen, Asian heritage being what it is. Perhaps we're distantly related?"
They gave each other considering looks. After a moment, they both shook their heads, and the weirdly synchronised movement was unsettling.
"I don't think we're related. At least, not that way," Elyse began.
"Because otherwise you'd have heard of a game that predicted what's going on in the galaxy right now," said Reeva, finishing Elyse's thought process.
A shiver shook the two at the same time, and further discomfitted them. An idea was beginning to take shape in Elyse's mind, one that chilled her to the bone. From Reeva's expression, it was possible she thought the same.
There was a question she'd had since the seizure in the hospital. Elyse asked, "Are you..." She had to clear her throat to continue. "Are you really dead?"
"I think so," said Reeva, looking even more troubled. "I'm not sure, but the last thing I remember – you saw it, didn't you? In the hospital."
"You were very sick," said Elyse, making as if to reach out to the mirror but letting her hand drop before she could touch it. "Your parents were there the last time you woke up."
"How is this possible?" Reeva shouted, slamming her hands on the sink in the mirror. Elyse flinched, and Reeva grimaced, looking contrite. "Sorry."
Elyse waved it off. "I feel the same. This feels so unreal."
"Well, this is a dream. But I know what you mean," Reeva also made an abortive motion to touch the glass between them. "What are you going to do?"
"Don't you mean 'we'?" asked Elyse. Reeva showed her an eerily familiar raised eyebrow. "When we're awake, we have both our memories. You affect my body just as much as I do. Or have you forgotten what happened in Udina's office?"
Reeva made a mildly disgusted expression. "That's right. Do you think we finally have the answer to our question from then? 'Who am I?'"
"Could it be possible?" Elyse's voice broke. "We are both?"
So did Reeva's. "And neither."
The dream ended abruptly.
Elyse opened her eyes as the pain in her shoulder reached through the sleep-fog. The bulkheads of the Normandy's infirmary were illuminated only by the glow of the machines that surrounded her on the cot.
Fear struck her heart. She'd been trying to avoid the Normandy, not get stuck back on it! This shouldn't be happening!
"Fuck this," she mumbled to herself. She shifted slightly to a less painful position and tried to go back to sleep.
A/N: Thanks to all the people reading this story, those who have the courage to review and those who just like to lurk! And a huge thanks to my ever-patient beta-editors! Look, it's up! Don't hurt me!