Author's Note: For Iunctio readers, this takes place right after the events of "Zero".
The gauntlet fit perfectly, of course.
The wrist swivel was partially jammed, the cuff caked with whitish corrosion. The technology was primitive but robust, a relic of the salarian uplift. Thick metal plates socketed into cunning joints over his fingers. At one time this armor would have sealed against radiation and pressure when necessary, and the surface was heavily enameled against acidic attacks. But centuries of neglect had worn away his grandfather's once-proud armor, and no turian could restore it properly. The heavy battery plant had long since been stripped of reactive materials, and the feeds along the thick power-assist exoskeleton had rusted away to dust.
The joints creaked quietly as Wrex flexed his fingers. "The rachni are coming back, Grandfather."
Shepard had let the queen live, let the giant bug escape into the frozen wild of Noveria. For a human to make such a decision... a creature who would breathe her last in the merest blink of time's eye. Humans lumped their solar cycles into convenient bundles and gave them important-sounding names. They spoke of one hundred cycles in awed tones. Until their recent history, few of them ever lived that long. Small wonder they never seemed to see past their own meager lives.
"How long do you think we have?"
Wrex's thoughts drifted to the statue that stood in a place of honor in the Citadel's Presidium. He hated that statue. He wasn't alone; over the years there had been petitions to have it removed, a punishment for the Rebellions. Wrex couldn't help but think it might be just as well to take it away, the rank hypocrisy of it grated on him every time he laid eyes on it. Better the Council drag in the carcass of one of their gunships and set it on a pedestal- it would mean the same thing.
The gauntlet creaked. Behind closed doors, the turians already called the humans a sleeping giant. Perhaps they would be the Council's next sacrifice. They seemed naive, plentiful and eager. No doubt with some careful manipulation, their population could be roused and made to batter themselves to pieces against a threat. Perhaps the salarians were already hard at work, concocting a 'solution' for the humans, just in case they got out of hand. The Council would not make the same mistake twice.
He wasn't at all surprised to hear Kirrahe speak of the krogan people that way, but in the spur of the moment, stunned by the news of Saren's facility, he had reacted.
The years should have inured him to all foolish hope. He'd heard every promise, every sales pitch, and learned to tune them out. But suddenly pieces began to fit together- the relative youth of the krogan warriors under Saren's command, the profusion of strangely trained biotics, the talk of new conquest...
And his own words came back to him, coolly delivered in one of the Citadel's humming elevators. Killing them is a favor to the universe. At the time, his opinion assumed that those krogan warriors had chosen to go over to Saren's side. The turian Spectre was obviously not wanting for credits, and there was no lack of mercenary krogans willing to hire themselves out.
A storm of conflict Wrex thought long dead dogged him through the labs of Virmire. Each step echoed with the aftershocks of Shepard's words. Is this how you want your people to live? The banks of liquid-filled tubes mocked Wrex in silence- because this wasn't choice, it was slavery. That fact was only reinforced when bald evidence cast a harsh light on the insinuations of Sovereign's ability to control organic minds.
And yet, there they were, living, breathing krogan warriors. Was anything better than the slow slide into oblivion? The Citadel had strong feelings about bioengineering of any kind, but given their role in the genophage, Wrex was disinclined to care about their opinion. It wasn't quite a cure, but it was a solution, well past theory and into execution beyond anything he could have imagined possible.
It was so close that it rose like a foul bile in his throat.
The air in the cargo hold smelled stale. The ship was running hard for Citadel space, all of its systems bent to the single task of getting back to the mass relay as fast as possible. From within his makeshift den of cargo crates in the ship's hold, Wrex watched as Shepard appeared from the elevator and made her way to the crew's weapon lockers.
Wrex cocked his head, regarding the commander across the room. Her movements were brusque, shadowing the mood on board the ship. The humans went about their business is sullen, wounded silence, as if stunned by everything that had happened on the tropical planet. He couldn't argue with Shepard's choice to honor the fallen with action. Would their news actually rouse the reticent councilors? Wrex was skeptical, but then they'd certainly had their strong opinions about the rachni queen.
Shepard had made another choice. The salarians' drive core had seen to it that neither Saren nor anyone else would benefit from the massive cloning facility. At length, the human turned and walked toward him. She stopped just outside his space and regarded him with a pointed stare.
"Well?" she asked, crossing her arms. Her face was a thundercloud, at once flinty and alive with the storm raging beneath.
Wrex considered her. Her habit of talking to her crewmates in a notably direct fashion was something that had left Wrex both curious and suspicious. Employers normally didn't care a whit for the opinions of their hires, and those that seemed to were usually more concerned with displaying their own bravado. But he'd ended up telling her about Aleena, much to his own surprise.
"We hit Saren hard," Wrex rumbled. "Novaria was a maybe... an asset he could lose. But Virmire was his territory."
Shepard nodded, her gaze suddenly distant. "He couldn't be allowed to keep that place..."
"You made your choice. You won't find absolution here."
"I'm not looking for it."
Wrex grunted. It was clear she wasn't thinking about cloning tanks and the genophage. It was the other choice that weighed on her- one human or another.
In the scurrying aftermath of their escape from the planet, Vakarian had offered something of an explanation involving the humans' system of ranks, but it was mostly meaningless to the mercenary. Trust the turian to fall back on hierarchy. That was an abstract thing, and Wrex had learned to look for more elemental tides beneath the surface of motivation. He decided to test a theory.
"You preserved a biotic warrior and a potentially worthy mate," he said with a shrug. "No one would argue-"
"I protected the bomb," Shepard growled, eyes narrow.
Wrex fixed the commander with a calculating eye as some inscrutable expression played across her shadowed face. He was no master of human cultural signals, nor had he ever bothered to decipher their weak, alien pheromones, but he understood body language very well. It hadn't been hard for him to read the protectiveness Alenko exhibited toward Shepard, but her own motives hadn't been as clear... perhaps until that flicker of defensiveness cracked into her voice.
It seemed foolish for such a fragile species to risk getting attached to one another. Loyalty of any kind was dangerous, a knife that cut both ways. The krogan shifted his weight, placing both feet on the ground, but stayed sitting. He flexed his hand inside the gauntlet as he regarded the commander, pleased that his patience had won out. He finally had a weakness.
As if sensing his confrontation, Shepard stepped forward, boldly crossing the invisible line of territory he'd created for himself. Bristling, Wrex slowly pushed himself to his feet, baring a thin line of teeth. She was within arm's reach now, unarmored. Would she still be an easy kill? Perhaps not. She knew better than to let down her guard. Wrex relished the knife's edge as the challenge hung in the air.
"One way or the other, this is all coming to a head," she stated, "and I don't plan on hiding under a rock. Whatever the Council decides. I will stop Saren."
If he struck, the rest of the ship would turn on him. In a krogan warband, the death of a warlord sometimes meant the killer would be crowned in his place, if that killer was canny enough. But these were humans, bound by their own convoluted loyalties. He would kill many before finally, they overwhelmed him. Then again, most of them were asleep...
Perhaps it didn't matter any more. The final death-curse of the Urdnot clan; to break the Normandy and pave Saren's way to the oblivion of all, to share in the doom of the krogan species.
Shepard lifted her chin. "And when Sovereign, the eternal Reaper of life, screams it's last into the stars, what names will it curse?"
Wrex felt his eyes widen slightly. Then he split the silence of the cargo hold with a roared laugh. In his gut, the moment of bloodlust peaked and waned, deflected to a much bigger target. He'd once thought of Saren as a worthy challenge, but a Reaper?
"Oh, that's good, Shepard," he rumbled, "did you practice that one?"
"In front of the mirror every night," Shepard said with a smirk, her weight shifting subtly out of the challenging stance. "Well, are you with us?"
An eons-old god-machine, with uncountable kills to its name...
Shepard gave a curt nod, then turned on her heel and strode away toward the elevator.
Wrex chuckled softly to himself, settling back into his makeshift den. He marveled at how skillfully Shepard had defeated him at every turn. It wasn't just the moment she had stared him down over the sights of their respective weapons, and been the first to lower hers... There were countless other moments. With patient, subtle cuts, she had sliced away at his long-held distrust. Each time a moment ripe for betrayal had come, it had gone again and neither she nor Wrex had taken it up.
Now, finally, he'd been cornered into facing the truth, and as strange as it sounded to his ears- he liked fighting with this human. For the first time in many cycles, he was fighting with warriors, not for them. And for what stakes? Instead of demanding that he follow her beliefs, Shepard had left it to him to decide for himself. He was under no obligation, either in the form of pay or ties of blood, but of all the opportunities he'd had to leave, doing so had never crossed his mind.
He flexed his fingers in his grandfather's gauntlet. The elder Urdnot's voice drifted back to him across the gulf of so many cycles.
All warriors have Weakness, Wrex.
The foolish ones deny it, and blind themselves with arrogance. And when their enemies discover their secret, they are destroyed.
The great warriors know their weakness, and when you move against them, they turn it away from you.
But the very greatest warlords, Wrex, know their weakness, and use it. They use it surely as the dagger by their sides. For when they seem to falter, it is only to draw you close... to strike.
What a krogan Shepard would have made.
Wrex removed the gauntlet and laid it back in the case with the rest of his grandfather's armor. He would avenge the death of the warrior Ashley Williams. He would kill Saren for the insult of using his people. And he would test himself against a being that made even the rachni pale and weak.
And he would do it alongside a warlord that did not demand it, but instead offered him a place, to be taken up at his own choice.
Perhaps that alone demanded it.
Another Author's Note: When I first started writing, I promised myself I'd always finish what I started, and for this one, it took far too long to bear the promise out. So, my apologies.
Thanks, as always, to my beta Lossefalme, who continues to put up with my requests.