A/N: So that's a hiatus.

I wrote the first draft of this chapter eight months ago. With the help of a beta, I realized things such as that there was way too much going on in that chapter, and that I did not know how to write either gunfights or people being upset. A fandom and a half later, I have some more experience in both. That chapter is also now going to end up being three chapters.

I also finally asked wordswithout, the excellent beta, to look over it again. The end result has some bits here and there written by her. Hopefully this story will start back up again at a decent pace now that my mind's been on ME a bit more. It's nearing its end, and I want to finish it long before ME3 comes out. I'd also like to thank Marianne Bennet for reminding me that this fic was something I needed to do.

When last we left our heroes, they were invading The Illusive Man's fortress to try to get the cure for Joker's disease...


XV.

Shepard put her back to a crate and braced. She pointed her rifle toward the Cerberus guards, firing two bursts on the momentum of that one movement. One guard got caught in the leg, stumbled, and was hit again by Garrus's shot to center mass. Then Shepard was stepping over him on the way to more.

"I'm sorry," she murmured again.

Shepard, Joker, and Garrus tracked through the base this way, up long spiral ramps that outlined the curved walls of the building. Shepard saw the red laser lines indicating someone had them in her sights, so when she turned the corner she made sure to proceed gun-first. Garrus and Joker were a good squad: quiet, and focused. Shepard kept an eye out for laboratories, and poked into rooms that more often than not turned out to be featureless closets, little spaces where the hall did not quite fit into the wall, or where the guards stored their guns. She was beginning to feel like they would never find anything when one unguarded door opened onto the interior of the tower and a large room filled with lab tables.

The human occupants, one male and one female, immediately raised their hands over their heads.

"Wait!" said the woman, stiff and sharp. "We just work here. It pays better than retail. We don't even have weapons."

Shepard lowered her gun slightly, but did not signal Garrus and Joker at her back to do the same.

The woman said, "Whatever you want, take it. That's what we're supposed to do. Not get killed. What are you here for?" Her voice was flat, with barely an upswing at the end.

"Medical development," Shepard said. "We're looking for a cure." She was reminded of the scientist on Virmire, that not-quite civilian whose life she had spared. She would spare these two as well, but they couldn't know that yet. It wouldn't be safe for Shepard.

The man's expression shut down. He had had emotion before, something frightened and with a little bit of personality to it, but then there was nothing. "It's been taken. We thought—we heard this might happen. I don't have it, I swear."

Garrus said, "Who told you we were coming?"

"It came right from the top. The Illusive Man."

The man gained expression again, nervous wrinkles between his eyes. "He wanted it to be kept secret."

"No he didn't," the woman snapped. She kept one hand on the silver lab table, her body hidden partially behind it. Her curly red hair shook as she turned her head, looking at Shepard instead of her coworker. "He wanted you to go up there. You're Shepard, aren't you? You saved the Citadel. But the Illusive Man has something waiting for you. I wouldn't go."

Shepard said, "Then that's where we're going. Can you get out of here?"

"If—yes. If you let us."

"The doors are open. Go."

Shepard turned, keeping an eye on the nervous scientists as she left the room. Garrus kept paying attention to them too.

"I'd get going if I were you," Garrus said to them in deadpan, momentarily occluding her view with his neck and shoulder armor. "When she pays visits, things tend to explode."

Shepard moved back out into the hallway, and heard the two scientists make quick footsteps down the ramp toward the distant bottom of the building, or maybe toward a lift she didn't know about. Joker stepped up beside her.

"So, we're going to walk into the trap that they just said we're going to walk into?"

"That's the plan."

Joker started to speak, showing teeth biting at his lower lip. Then he reconsidered and shrugged. "A'right."

They spiraled up and up through the silver building. Then there was one last door. Ajar, it could be seen to be a foot and a half thick. One person stood in front of it.

Shepard thought at first glance that it was a young boy, with black pants stretched tight over thin hips, but the face—the face was of an old man, wrinkled and white-bearded. Empty holsters crisscrossed his narrow chest. One bare arm was raised, with a biotic energy sphere glowing bright white in the center of his palm and its blue-purple corona lashing around him. The other arm was thinner, limp and scarred, its skin crisscrossed with pale red hatch marks. Shepard raised her rifle tentatively, watching the man's watery eyes and the set of his shoulders for signs that he might be about to move.

She signaled for her squad to move back, but neither of them went very far.

"Stand aside," Shepard said.

The strange-featured man raised his healthy arm. Shepard jumped to the side as the biotic corona flared, and she felt the edge of a singularity pick her legs up and nearly turn her over. For a moment she felt like she was floating on a bubble, and then her arms smacked against the floor and she got a good look at the dust at the edges of the hall. Her gun and the armor plates protecting her forearms poked against her stomach.

Garrus filled the hall with gunshots as the biotic was recharging. Shepard army-crawled a few feet and stood ready, facing the biotic a few meters away. Garrus backed toward her.

"He's on something," he snarled. "Probably red sand."

Joker was hanging back, almost around the curve of the hall, firing intermittently, working on a curve to keep from grazing Shepard or Garrus. Finally, the wide, open hallway felt like a disadvantage.

Shepard could almost still feel that floating, off balance feeling on her back. Whoever gave humans biotics, she thought, was no friend of the Shepard family. Her usual standard was to get out of the way, make sure the thing she was hiding behind couldn't be lifted up, and shoot them as enthusiastically as possible.

Lacking the 'things to hide behind' part, she skipped right to the end.

The biotic hunched like an old man and threw up a shield that the bullets dissolved into. Shepard almost growled. She backtracked a few steps, made sure her squad was continuing to fire, and switched weapons, racking the rifle back against her shoulders and pulling the Collector particle beam.

The strange door guard sent out another singularity that Shepard dodged. Garrus powered through the edge of it, but behind her Shepard heard a thud as it caught Joker hard enough to drop him. She squeezed the trigger on the particle beam, heard the sheering sound as the energy swept like a taut wire across the hall as she panned. Sparks poured off the biotic's shoulder like off the blade of a saw.

He raised the scarred arm, and threw another biotic power while maintaining the singularity that was causing havoc in Shepard's squad. He pulled her, wrenching the gun from her hands and sending her sprawling on the floor and cursing out biotics again.

Her knee jolted against the floor. A shot overhead muffled her hearing, and the deformed man dropped to the floor with the limp jolt. Shepard followed the glowing trail of the gunshot back to Garrus, standing crouched and slowly lowering his rifle. She was reminded of the shots Wrex fired in anger on Virmire, out beyond the turquoise sea.

Garrus was, after all, a law-keeper at heart. His brand of justice had slightly more dividing lines than hers did.

Joker and Garrus drew nearer as Shepard knelt down beside the fallen guard. His mouth moved slowly, his arms and shoulders twitching. Shepard examined the small hole burnt through his clothing near his heart. "Stay still. You might live through this if we help you."

Garrus kept looking straight ahead. "We need to open that door."

"The door is open," said the guard. He was bleeding through his dark gray shirt. With all the armor in her life, Shepard didn't usually see that. His mouth was going slack, spit bubbling behind pale, almost transparently weak teeth.

Joker said, "Well thank you. Wait. This is supposed to be the Illusive Man's stronghold. Why is the door open?" He growled. "Those scientists said it was a trap."

Shepard knew that he was right, but it still didn't feel right. She tried to think about all the possibilities, envisioning the building like a map. There was a something hidden behind one of those walls. She looked down at the fallen guard and prodded him with her boot. "Are you the trap?"

He started to laugh.

She was taken aback so much that she almost leveled her weapon at him again; the laugh started at the back of his throat and bubbled up, malformed like his limbs. When he spoke his voice was very human and calm, as if she'd asked him whether he worked in a cubicle and he'd said yes he did, you're standing in it.

He said, "I'm not the trap. I'm not sure I could manage to be a trap. I aspire one day to traphood."

Shepard tipped her head.

Joker said, "Maybe I'm not the one to talk, but being at gunpoint doesn't seem to be the best time for humor. Do you want to explain that a little, or..."

The guard leaned his head back on the floor. He said, "My name is Paul, Shepard. And I was the you before you."

Shepard tipped her head again. She moved her gun farther from his arms.

Garrus said, "You did a pretty good job of being a trap. I haven't seen many human biotics that strong. What are you, exactly?"

"I was an experiment, okay? I worked for the Alliance on a couple side jobs..." He paused to breathe, pained gurgles rattling up from burnt-out lungs. "Then Cerberus started talking about new experiments with human tissue, something that could change the way the world worked-" He coughed, cleared his throat, licked the bubbles of spit away but couldn't quite get it all. "The Alliance sent me to check it out, and Cerberus got me. You ever try escaping from Cerberus? Even if I'd bashed my head open they'd be able to...glue the bits back together. They'd been keeping me locked up in here."

Shepard had a feeling that she knew where this was going. But the end of her mission was so close, and she could choose just to ignore Paul and move on…! "Why?"

"They were using me to test how far a person could be gone before they revived him again. They had your body, but it was too valuable to experiment on. So they used mine."

Shepard said, "And you got biotic powers out of that?"

"No. I got biotic powers because being killed on command makes a guy really, really angry. It had been latent before. But then it got shocked into action, or they infected me with somebody else's blood who had it just right. I don't know. It, nnh, it doesn't matter. Does it? They gave me a new, stronger body...or body parts, anyway. And then the Illusive Man decided he could keep me around as a guard once you'd been successfully made. A happy ending." He looked up at her with burning eyes and gave a laugh that wept.

To drown it out Shepard said, "And you didn't, you know, want to get revenge on the people who captured and experimented on you?"

Paul's shoulders and knees relaxed, leaning him flat against the floor. He closed his eyes. "Sure I did. But it doesn't matter what I want. Ah, just try to go in there, Commander Shepard. Go." He paused. "It was always about you, Commander Shepard. They told me that it was for you while they drugged me. I'd seen your face on the news."

Shepard felt cold. "I never knew," she said, and wondered why it sounded like such a tired excuse. There was blood drying on her hands and splashed against the side of her face. "They never told me what they did."

"Was it worth it?"

She flattened her scarred palm on the cold, smooth floor next to Paul's gnarled arm. Small blue-white bulbs of metal like the lights inside Legion bubbled inside his skin. It made him less human; it made all the blood seem incongruous. Still there was real human suffering in his eyes and she alone could understand what sort of pain the biotics were giving him now. If she'd been anyone else but who she was, she would have avoided the question.

"Yes," she said. "It was."

"I started to hate the Illusive Man," Paul said. "He put wires in my head and I thought maybe he could control my thoughts. That maybe he was making me think things. He would come in and just stare. But I think maybe he didn't change anything in my head." He sat up. She reached out to gently ease him back, but he pushed her away.

"Then I started to think, why am I the guinea pig? Why can't I be the end product? Why can't I live forever?"

The mutilated arm lifted and flared with biotics, and Shepard's stomach lurched as she was lifted off the ground, buoyed on a singularity.

Paul said, "And then I started to hate you, Shepard. Because you were lying in the next room dead while I was having things done to me, and you were going to get all the best of it when it was done."

She clamped both hands around her gun even as she arced dangerously toward the wall.

He said, "The Illusive Man didn't have to control me. He just had to promise that when you came to get him I'd get to stand at this door. And I did. He never breaks his promises, don't you get it, he never does—"

Shepard squeezed her eyes shut as she hit the curved wall at the other end of the hallway. The hall filled with light as she got to her feet, her armor suddenly feeling very heavy. Maybe it was the shrill laughter weighing her down. Joker and Garrus shot at Paul even as he created biotic singularities to send their fire wide. Red sparks and blue and purple coronas made the hallway a confusion of color. Footsteps slammed on the ground.

Shepard slalomed through the hallway. With her rifle tucked up next to her chest, she ducked under her teammates' lines of fire. There was no cover here, no crates or benches to hide behind. She dodged between billowing, curling gravity fields tossed by biotic hands.

When she was close enough, she shot him.

It was not pretty or dramatic. It was like every other death she had encountered in loud, crowded battlefields. Paul crumpled with sparks beading above his heart and between his eyes. Shepard let her own momentum carry to her knees beside him. His eyes were open and glazed, his monstrously distorted arm twisted behind him as his body weight brought it to the floor.

That had been a shot almost in the dark.

She wondered how much of it had been luck, and how much of it had been Paul turning out to be not as strong as either of them thought. It hadn't been Shepard's skill. She hadn't planned. She had just acted. It had reminded of her days before the Normandy, when she was just another recruit.

She stood with her arms folded and, although she didn't make a habit of it, prayed in her mind for him to receive some kind of cosmic justice. She wasn't sure what kind.

Joker helped her up, squeezing her hands. She met his eyes and couldn't find anything to say.

Garrus could. "Commander. This man was being controlled. With all due respect, I think maybe we shouldn't do this. Too much could go wrong."

"Cerberus didn't do the same to me." Shepard couldn't keep a snap out of her voice. She had to be sure. They hadn't messed with her brain like they had with Paul's. "Miranda said so." And she had to believe it, or else anything could happen in the next room, Just as anything had happened out here. The back of her neck itched.

Joker said, "And you trust her?"

"Yes. I don't like her, but I trust her." Shepard nodded.

With a quiet hiss, the door opened behind them. All three turned, raising their weapons. Shepard felt the back of her neck prickle as if a wind had brushed at her hair where before the air had been still.

She looked into the Illusive Man's office.