Shepard looked from Garrus to Bethany and back again. He felt slightly amazed that Garrus had managed to talk some sense into his sister. "I'm glad you've calmed down a bit, sis," he said.
Bethany laughed. "Calm?" She shook her head. "I'd need a whole pharmacy worth of happy pills before I'll feel calm."
Shepard looked at his sister, saw the look in her eye, the tense stance of her body, the clenched fists. "Come here," he said, holding out his right hand. She stood there, eyebrow raised. "Come on," he said and waved her over. As his sister crossed over to him, Shepard opened his arms and pulled her close. Bethany stiffened inside the circle of his arms then surrendered to the comfort they offered. Slowly she felt herself relax.
Bethany rested her head on her brother's shoulder and muttered, "Why do things have to be so hard? My whole life, I've screwed things up."
"Shhh," Shepard said and stroked her hair. "You're not a screw up."
Bethany laughed against the back of his head, "I've been fired from or quit every job I ever had. Then I finally find the one thing I'm actually good at..."
"Being a gun for hire?" Shepard replied doubtfully.
Bethany pulled back from her brother to look him in the eyes and nodded. "Yes, dear, being a hired gun. I'm just like you, in a way. People want me to clean up the messes they don't want to handle themselves."
Stepping away from her brother, Bethany went on, "On the upside, at least I don't have random Joe Six-Packs hitting me up for help wherever I go."
Garrus nodded in rueful agreement. How many times during the geth war and hunt for Saren had Shepard been diverted from his investigation by some mundane problem or other? Defusing a simmering feud between volus and salarian scientists over who got the data from the keeper scans that Shepard had also been talked into assisting with for example
Bethany waved Shepard and Williams over to the couch while she perched atop one of the chairs around the kitchen table. "So, would I be safe in assuming you have a plan?" she asked and began winding strands of dark red hair around her index finger.
Shepard nodded. "I do."
Williams took up the explanation, leaning forward on the couch, "We know they're operating out of a clinic here in the Wards. We also know that we can't just go in shooting," Williams paused, eyeing Bethany's hardsuit and the small arsenal clipped to it. Bethany rolled her eyes. "So we should go in undercover."
Bethany stopped coiling the hair around her finger, raised an eyebrow. "Undercover how?"
Shepard answered. "We go in as patients, gain access to the surgical area...hopefully catch Simons and his people by surprise. Williams," he turned to his partner and turned to face him. "You'll go in posing as a patient."
"Why her?" Bethany asked.
Shepard patiently explained, "I'm too well known and they'd recognise you so it has to be Ash." Williams nodded agreement.
Bethany removed the combat talon from its sheathe on her left forearm and began using the tip of the blade to tease out minute grease particles from beneath her fingernails. "Let me get this straight," she said, not looking up from her nails. "You want to send a perfectly healthy woman into a med clinic and have her pose as a patient? Yeah, that'll work."
Shepard crossed his arms over his chest and threw out a challenge. "You have a better idea, sis?"
"Actually I do, bro." Bethany slid the blade home and looked up at Williams, "Ash, how are you at acting brain-damaged?"
"What?" Williams asked.
"Like this," Bethany said and sat in her seat, shoulders slumped, head tipped to one side, chin on chest and adopted a truly scary faraway look. After several seconds a runner of drool descended from her lower lip and pooled on the ceramic of her armour. Straightening up, she wiped her mouth. "Put her in a wheelchair, have her imitate a drooling zombie - nobody'll want to look twice at her, or even once. Garrus here can act as her nurse, and push her right past everybody. That way you get two people inside."
Shepard nodded. "Interesting idea. You and I can sneak in the rear entrance - I'll pull up floor plans beforehand so we all know where we'll meet up then..."
A smile slowly blossomed on Bethany's face, "Then they'll learn why you don't ever cross the Shepards."
The four of them stood outside the sliding doors that led to the clinic run by Dr Chloe Michel. "You sure she'll let us have a wheelchair?" Bethany asked as Shepard palmed open the door.
Williams answered, "Well considering we saved her from Fist's thugs and took out the blackmailer who was threatening, I think she'd be more than happy to help."
"Always helps to have few people owing you favours, I guess," Bethany shrugged.
"I didn't do it so I could use it to get a favour from her later!" Shepard snapped as they entered the clinic.
"Riiiight, you helped her out of the goodness of your heart..." Bethany trailed off as she saw the doctor emerge from behind a curtained off area with a patient. "...and apparently also because she's quite fetching."
"I helped her because she needed help. You might want to try it some time, Beth. You could do with a dose of the warm and fuzzies."
"Uh huh. Warm and fuzzy feelings don't pay the bills, Augie," Bethany replied.
As Dr Michel's patient walked towards them, heading for the exit, Williams cringed and even Shepard muttered, "Oh dear God no!"
"Who is it?" Bethany whispered to Garrus as the tall, blonde haired man stopped alongside Shepard, a beaming smile on his face.
"Oh my! Commander Shepard, what an honour it is to see you again!"
"Hello, Conrad," Shepard said evenly, jaw muscles bunching together.
"I was just seeing the doctor for a refill of my medication and now I'm standing here with the most famous human in the station," Conrad gushed effusively.
"Medication?" Bethany whispered to Garrus whose mandibles were quivering in mirth.
"Trust me," he said quietly back. "You really don't want to know. Just stay absolutely still and don't get his attention."
But it was already too late. Conrad Verner's eager gaze passed over Shepard and Williams and Garrus before settling on Bethany. "Oh, and who is this saintly person?"
Before Bethany could answer, Williams spoke up, "That's a business associate, Conrad. She never speaks...at least not in words. You see those big guns she's carrying? Yeah, they speak for her and she has a really short fuse so it might be best to just leave her be."
A concerned look crossed Conrad's face and a brief struggle was visible in his facial features as he weighed up the pros and cons of continuing to hassle the tall, gorgeous redhead...who was apparently also batshit crazy. After several seconds, sanity won out, and making his farewells, Conrad quickly left. Shepard sighed with relief.
"Thank God, Ash...nice improvisation by the way."
"Yeah," Bethany deadpanned, "I so love being characterised as the crazy trigger-happy chick."
Williams shrugged, "If the shoe fits..."
Dr Michel arrived before anybody could reply. "Commander Shepard," she began, her French accent dancing musically in their ears. "What can I do for you today?"
Bethany smirked, and, before he could speak, said, "He needs a refill of his little blue pills, doc," she nudged Williams, "You know the ones...he just can't keep up with his girlfriend here."
Dr Michel's eyes widened before she schooled her expression into one of detached politeness. "Of course, Commander, right this way."
Williams sniggered as Shepard's face turned an unhealthy shade of purple. "Actually, doctor, we're here to procure a wheelchair, if possible," he managed to get out, glaring at his sister who merely smiled beatifically. Garrus watched the sibling rivalry with amusement.
"Oh?" Dr Michel asked.
"It's for an undercover operation," Shepard explained, his colour returning to normal.
"I really don't want to know the details, do I?" the doctor guessed and received four nods in return. "I'll be back in a moment," she said and disappeared into a side storeroom.
When she returned a few minutes later, she was pushing a collapsible wheelchair before her. She spun the chair around so that the handles set alongside the chair back were towards Shepard's hands. He nodded appreciatively, "This should work perfectly. Thanks a lot, Doctor. I'll bring it back as soon as we're finished with it."
Dr Michel nodded. "Of course. Take as much time as you need. Now, is there anything else I can help you with?"
Shepard started to say no but Bethany quickly cut in, "He's shy about it, but he really needs those pills..."
Back at Bethany's Wards apartment, Williams and Bethany retreated to Bethany's bedroom where Bethany helped Williams remove her hardsuit and loaned her some street clothes to wear. They returned to the main room a short time later, Williams now wearing an old pair of jeans, sandals and a T-shirt bearing a picture of a dolphin and the words The Other Other White Meat.
"Classy," Shepard remarked as Williams sat in the wheelchair and adopted the slumped postured Bethany had demonstrated earlier.
"Let you mouth drop open a little....good," Bethany said and stepped back to observe the effect. A thin strand of saliva connected Williams' collar bone to her mouth.
"Just so you know," Williams muttered into her chest, "If I ever ended up like this for real, I'd really appreciate being shot in the head."
Shepard nodded sombrely. "We need a blanket to cover her with so she can conceal a pistol."
Bethany nodded and picked up a thin ragged blanket from the floor. Shepard shook his head, "One that doesn't smell like dog."
"You don't ask for much, do you?" Bethany said and retrieved a blanket from the bedroom. This she tucked around Williams' body. "Perfect."
As expected, people were at great pains not to look at the woman slumped in the wheelchair as she was pushed along by a tall turian dressed in civilian clothes. Garrus' eyepiece was concealed in a pants pocket. It's like she's not even there, Garrus mused to himself as he pushed the chair through the open sliding doors of the Lady of Mercy clinic just off one of the main transit hubs. Foot traffic was fairly heavy as people entered and exited the hub but they all gave the chair and its occupant a wide berth, as though afraid of contracting whatever had reduced the woman to the state they saw her in.
"That's right," Garrus said under his breath as they entered the stark white interior of the clinic. "Just bury your heads in the sand and pretend she's not even alive."
The clinic was a large facsimile of Dr Michel's office: cold and uninviting. This isn't a place you go to get better, Williams thought as she observed the staff ministering to patients. This is a place you come to die. Gripped in one hand beneath the concealing blanket was her sidearm. Williams' right index finger rested outside the trigger guard and the familiar weight of the weapon was comforting. Her neck began to ache from the unnatural position her head was in and she longed to be able to stand upright and stretch. That would have to wait though.
Looking neither left nor right, Garrus pushed the chair and its apparently inert cargo past the reception desk. A white clad nurse with a stethoscope around her neck looked up and seemed about to protest. Garrus turned a stony glare on her and snapped in as imperious a manner as he could, "This woman requires immediate attention, move aside!"
Williams emitted a low pained-sounding groan and the nurse's eyes widened and she hustled out from behind her desk, waving Garrus over towards a set of double doors at the rear of the lobby area. "Through there, sir. A doctor will arrive soon to assist you."
"Thank you," Garrus replied as he pushed the chair through the doors. Once on the other side and out of view of the waiting area, Garrus paused outside the door marked Exam Room One and carefully peeked around the open door. "Clear," he said to Williams in a low voice. Williams, still playing the role of patient to the hilt merely groaned a bit more. Garrus quickly pushed the chair into the exam room and shut the door. As the turian reattached his eye piece, Williams sat upright, feeling her spine crackle and cast aside the blanket.
"God this thing kills!" she hissed as she all but flew from the chair and shoved it into a corner. The chair rebounded off the wall before rolling to a stop.
Garrus keyed his comm, "We're in," was all he said.
As promised, Shepard had used his Spectre status to gain access to the clinic blueprints and had located a rear service entrance that he and Bethany now stood outside, waiting for word from Garrus and Williams. Both he and Bethany were in full armour - she in her heavy-class Colossus suit and he in a lightweight Armax suit in a jungle-green camouflage pattern that did nothing to help him blend into the surroundings of grey Citadel hull metal. Then again, Bethany mused, her own black and red armour wasn't exactly helping her to maintain a low profile. Especially given the 'grafitti' scrawled across the cuirass in her own hand.
"Why do you do that?" Shepard asked, and pointed to the collection of quotes and phrases on her armour. It's only illegal if you get caught read one.
She shrugged. "Because I can."
Shepard consulted the holographic head-up display generated by his hardsuit computer and displayed on the inside of his helmet visor. Zero contacts and the indicators for both his and his sister's hardsuits registered no armour breaches or operator trauma. So why did he feel so uneasy? Shepard turned to his older sister who was leaning with studied nonchalance against the wall of the clinic, beside the door. Her arms were crossed over her chest and her right ankle was crossed over her left.
"Beth," he said quietly and something in his voice made her stand up straight and turn to face him. He paused, trying to find the right words. "I just wanted to say...it's not too late to back out and tip off the authorities. If something happened to you..."
"Shhh," Bethany said softly and pressed the tip of her right index finger to his lips. "We can do this. We're not dealing with trained soldiers or gun-happy mercs. It's a bunch of mad surgeons with a sick sense of humour. We'll be fine. Trust me."
Shepard sighed as she removed her finger. "It's just that...you're my sister and I wasn't there for you when I needed to be and...you got hurt."
"BS," she hissed and pulled him close to look into his eyes. "You aren't my keeper, Augie. It isn't your job to...don't shake your head at me."
"We're family," he said simply and shrugged. "We look out for each other. I'm sorry I wasn't there."
"You're not gonna start self-flagellating yourself over this are you?" Bethany asked quietly. He shook his head, a slight smile tugging at his lips. "Good," she answered, "Because I imagine that'd be all kinds of painful...not to mention messy. You're here for me now, here and that's all I need. OK?"
"Yeah," he said quietly then again with more conviction. "Yeah."
Shepard put a hand to his helmet and nodded to himself. "Copy," he said into his comm unit. "That was Garrus," he told Bethany, "They're in."
"Let's rock," Bethany said. Shepard nodded and bent to look at the door controls.
"This won't take long," he assured her as his omni-tool bathed him in amber light. The control panel by the door turned from red to green as the maglocks snapped open. A short well-lit hallway led to a similar door. Signs on doors on either side of the hallway indicated store rooms and the incinerator for disposing of hazardous waste. Nobody else was around.
Sidearms in hand, Shepard and Bethany moved quickly to the next door.
Dr Robert O'Hara stood outside the closed door to Exam Room One and consulted his watch. He hoped this patient wouldn't take too much time; he'd already been on the clock almost twelve hours already. He pushed the door open and was greeted by a turian and young woman...both pointing guns at him.
"What the-?" O'Hara began. He never got a chance to finish speaking as the woman neatly cold-cocked him and the turian caught his body before it could hit the floor. Williams checked the man's pulse. "He's fine."
Shepard's voice sounded in their earpieces, "Williams, Garrus, we're in. Key into our suit beacons and rendezvous, over."
"Copy that, on our way."
Garrus eased open the exam room door and looked both ways. "Clear," he whispered. He and Williams slipped out, closing and locking the door behind them. Presently this area of the clinic was quiet but Garrus knew that wouldn't last long. Consulting the map display generated by his omni-tool, Garrus led Williams past rows of beds, pieces of medical equipment and exam cubicles partitioned by curtains.
The omni-tool's display led them to a door marked Staff Only. Williams covered Garrus as he opened the door and slipped through. Williams followed him. On the other side stood Shepard and Bethany.
"Have any problems getting in?" Shepard asked.
Garrus shook his head. "I'm somewhat disturbed by how willing humans are to overlook those they consider to be 'disabled' though."
Bethany shrugged. "What can I say? Humans are jerks." Surveying the hallway the four stood in she asked, "Where to now?"
Shepard consulted the floorplans. "I found a curious thing when I acquired these schematics. There's an entire surgical suite off the main clinic that isn't part of the original floorplans. I imagine that's where the surgery is conducted and where we'll find the perpetrators."
Bethany smiled and felt a mix of emotions: relief that soon this would be over, fear that something would go wrong, anger that she'd been put in this situation in the first place. And, struggling beneath all that, hope for the future.
Simons stood clad in his surgical gown, mask pulled up over his mouth and nose, hands scrubbed clean and sheathed in white latex. Really, they didn't have time for this, they should have completed loading the surgical gear and supplies and been off the station by now but...
"Karen here is to serve as an example of those who cross me," he said aloud to the surgical team as they prepped the traitorous bitch for surgery. First, he was going to take her kidneys, one at a time. Then everything else. He already had buyers lined up, very interested in her heart and lungs. Funny, she'd be much more valuable dead and harvested than alive. The said could be said of most everybody, he mused. Even the lowest bottom feeder would be worth far more dead than he could ever amount to alive.
Simons stood over the inert form of Karen O'Donohue. The woman's dark hair had been pulled back and concealed beneath a sterile cap and she'd been wired to monitors tracking her heart rate, blood pressure and O2 levels. Everything was just so.
"Scalpel," he said and his assistant placed the gleaming surgical steel implement into his gloved hand.
A chipper-sounding bleep from the locked doors of the OR sounded moments before the doors themselves hissed open. Encroaching on the ordered quiet of the theatre were a number of booted footfalls as four armed figures burst into the room.
"What is the meaning of this?" Simons barked as he turned to face the interlopers. "This is a sterile area! You can't be here-" his words dried up along with the saliva in his mouth as the familiar looking redhead at the front of the assembly swung a compact shotgun up to aim at his chest. The surgical team gasped. The nurse assisting Simons screamed briefly before the sound gave way to startled sobs.
Several dots began connecting themselves in Simons' mind. The redhead in the lead was familiar because not so very long ago she'd lain where Karen was lying now, anaesthetised, her skin and flesh parting effortlessly under the razor's edge of the scalpel he wielded so skilfully. The man beside her Simons also recognised, this time from the vids - Commander Shepard. The other woman and the turian were unknown to him but he could not afford to dismiss them. Both aimed sidearms in two-handed grips. The muzzles of both weapons were aligned with his head.
The redhead spoke, her words bitten off one at a time, "Drop. The. Scalpel. Now."
Simons looked contemplatively at the woman before him for several heartbeats before his eyes flicked to the pristine instrument in his hand. When he spoke again, his voice was calm and well-modulated, "You possess quite beautiful organs, do you realise that?"
The woman barked harsh laughter for an instant before her eyes narrowed. Simons' keen gaze picked out the fine lines radiating out from the corners, the shadows beneath them. "I'll take that as a complement, Doctor. Most men are more interested in my boobs, so you're a refreshing change of pace. That said, drop the scalpel."
Simons sighed. Behind him, he could hear the minute sounds surgical gowns crinkling and shoes shuffling on the floor as his team shifted uneasily. "I don't suppose we can come to some kind of accommodation?" he asked.
The woman smiled, laugh lines appearing momentarily before her expression turned serious again. "The fact your insides aren't already decorating the wall behind you is about as accommodating as I'm prepared to go." Simons noted the way her right index finger tightened fractionally against the shotgun trigger as she took a deliberate step forward.
He sighed, "Very well," and placed the instrument on the tray from whence it had came.
Suffering darkness in my eyes against the night of Rome
I get confused and all I hear is just myself
I will resign and search for peace of mind, I'm on my own
I need to be alone and lost in this solitude
Lacuna Coil, Shallow Life
Simons and his people were arrested, tried, jailed. With testimony from Charles Sinclair and Karen O'Donohue who were granted immunity from prosecution for their co-operation, the prosecution had one of the easiest cases in recent memory. The news-vids all hailed Commander Shepard for his tireless dedication in cracking this latest black market organ trade. Bethany was more than happy to let her brother take the credit. She was tired, just wanted the entire affair over and done with so she could move on.
Move on to where though? was a question she'd asked herself more than once and was asking herself again as she sat at her usual rear booth at Chora's, soda water before her, keeping an eye on the clientele and another on the vidscreen as it played the latest updates on the Simons case. He'd pleaded guilty and was going down for twenty-five years with no possibility of parole. Bethany thought he was getting off lightly. How many people had died due to the surgeries carried out by Simons? At least half a dozen that the authorities knew of. In a different context, Simons would be a multiple murder and be facing a long stay on death row before getting the needle.
"Are you OK?" her brother asked quietly. He and Williams sat opposite her in the booth. Dragging her out of her apartment had been Williams' idea. The Gunnery Chief had though Bethany could use cheering up.
"Not really," she confessed at length. "I mean, I'm grateful that you're spending time with me but..." she trailed off, tried to marshal her thoughts. "I thought bringing them down would have made me feel better, you know?"
Shepard nodded and squeezed her hand. Beth squeezed it back. "Instead I don't feel better. I don't feel anything. Nothing at all."
Bethany's eyes moved about in their sockets as she sized up the beings passing their table, searching for possible threats but Shepard could tell it was an automatic gesture. Part of Bethany wasn't there at all and it made him ache to see her like this. He took her hand again, wishing he could do something to make her feel better.
"Beth," said quietly. Her eyes, tired and bloodshot turned to him. "I don't know what I can say or do to make things easier on you but...I'm here for you if you ever need to talk or vent or need somebody to throw stuff at." Bethany's lips turned up in a small smile and Shepard felt better for it.
She inhaled through her nostrils and she felt her eyes widen. An idea had been born, fully formed in her mind, in the briefest of moments between one heart beat and the next and when she turned her gaze to meet her brother's, there was a renewed spark in them, a hint of who she'd been before she'd woken in that bathtub in what felt like another life.
"I need to get off-station," she said. Shepard nodded. "I want to serve on the Normandy with you," she continued. Shepard's head paused mid-nod.
"What?" he blurted.
"Uh, isn't that against regs?" Williams put in.
"Beth, you aren't military anymore," Shepard said gently.
She laughed softly, swept a strand of hair from her forehead, "Neither were Liara or Tali. That never stopped you putting them in harm's way. Come on, brother, you know I can carry my own weight and God knows I could use some firm structure in my life. Left to my own devices...well."
Shepard sighed, "Williams is right. The brass won't just let you sign on with the crew."
Bethany raised her soda water to her lips and sipped. "I'm not asking the brass. I'm asking you. We can be some kind of butt-kicking double team like Starsky and Hutch, Cagney and Lacey, Luke and Obi Wan." She paused as the familiar expression of mixed confusion and exasperation dawned on Shepard's face. "And, as usual, all my twentieth-century pop culture references have just flown right over your head."
"What about Mister Darcy?" Williams asked. "You can't bring a dog on a ship."
"Your brought a krogan along, so why not?" Bethany quipped before she raised her hands in surrender. "Fine, fine, I can find somebody to look after him while we're off-station. Look, all I'm asking is that you think it over. Please? I know you can pull some strings and sign me on as an independent contractor or some such. I just need to be in a place with some stability and to be with people I can rely on."
Shepard turned to Williams and Bethany saw something pass between them, unspoken. It hung in the air between them for several seconds. Shepard sighed and the exhalation of breath was audible even over Chora's music and the drunken jeers of the patrons as they drank in the vista of half-naked women.
He turned back to Bethany and said, "Fine. But there's a list of conditions attached to this longer than my arm...and believe me when I say that if you step out of line even once, I'll boot you off the ship and leave you to find your own way back home."
Bethany smiled and felt happier than she had in days. "You know I love it when you talk tough."
Shepard sighed again and the three began to talk terms.
A/N: I'll admit I wasn't quite sure how to finish things off and a Happily Ever After ending just seemed wrong so I put Simons in the slammer for a good long time and left Bethany feeling a little lost and alone after everything. And I leave things open for a follow up if/when inspiration strikes.
Thanks to the readers and reviewers. To quote former boxer Jeff Fenech, "I love youse all."