After the crew of the Normandy SR-2 returned to Citadel space from the Omega-4 Relay, they trooped out to the Dark Star and bought up every drink in the place, from the most expensive asari liqueur to the cheapest batarian ale. The celebration and subsequent inebriation would make for a hefty tab at the end of the night, but Jillian Shepard wasn't concerned about the cost. After the horrors they'd witnessed at the Collectors' base, the team had earned a night out, a few hours to kick back and forget about the imminent threat of galactic destruction from a race of very determined and nearly invincible sentient machines. Besides, the Illusive Man didn't know it yet, but they were drinking on his dime. The bill would be a nice parting gift to Cerberus and its donors, just a little something to say "fuck you and thanks for the memories", as Jack had so aptly put it.
The atmosphere in the club was dream-like, a velvety haze of milling bodies, of faces sliced into shards of blue and yellow light, of walls that seemed to ripple with heat and electronic music pulsing from the speakers. Conversation and laughter wove between the songs. Even from across the room, Shepard could hear Mordin nattering on to Dr. Chakwas about his latest scientific discovery or eavesdrop on Jack telling Grunt a bloody anecdote about her pirating days.
Garrus sauntered over and leaned back against the bar, still seeming a bit ill at ease in his civilian clothes. He was sipping the same mystifying green beverage that Shepard had seen Tali order several times that night.
"What is that?" Shepard asked.
"Tupari. I hear it's made from 10% real tupo berry juice."
"I know," Garrus said. "It's impressive."
She smiled. "Your favourite word."
"Yeah, well, you know what's also impressive? My vocabulary."
Shepard glanced towards the dance floor, where multi-coloured electric tiles were flashing quickly enough to induce seizures. Kasumi and Jacob were already out on there, executing trendy and increasingly complex dance moves amidst a circle of bemused asari. The rest of the crew seemed to need a bit more liquid courage before they'd even consider getting out there and busting a move.
She turned back to Garrus, smirking. "So, tough guy, you planning to just stand around or are you going to ask me to dance?"
He cringed, choking back his drink. "Uh, I would, but turians don't dance. I think it might be against the law or something."
"I'm sure C-Sec can overlook it just this once."
"Really, Commander? Are you sure we can't just go shoot down a gunship instead?"
"No can do."
"Maybe another suicide mission? C'mon, Shepard. It'd be fun. "
"Nope. Dance floor, now. That's an order."
He chugged down the rest of the Tupari and plunked his glass down on the bar. "Alright. Just because I like to make you happy. But I'm warning you, it's not going to be pretty."
There were three things in the galaxy that Shepard could assert with absolute certainty: 1) The Reapers were coming; 2) The Council wasn't going to do anything to stop them and 3) Garrus Vakarian, veteran officer of C-Sec, steely-eyed sniper and notorious vigilante, could not dance to save his life.
He had no sense of rhythm, even by turian standards, and found the most improbable ways of trampling on her toes and bumping into other dancers. His best moves consisted of bobbing his head, bending and unbending his gangly legs and awkwardly gesturing with his arms, occasionally pointing his claws at her as if they were guns. She couldn't understand how someone who was so capable, so co-ordinated on the battlefield could be such a mess on the dance floor. It was baffling and more than a little endearing.
"See? It's not so bad," she said.
Garrus nodded, his eyes narrowed with concentration. "Alright, not so bad. Just sort of...undignified. I can't believe you humans do this for fun."
She laughed. "What do turians do at parties?"
"Pick fights and complain about the music."
"Sounds like a blast."
"If you like that, then you'll love Palaven," he said. "I still can't believe you're going to try telling the Primarchs about Reapers."
"We're going to need the Hierarchy's Fleet against the Reapers and Councillor Velarn thinks I'm a nut-job with a license to kill. The Primarchs are our best chance."
"Call me cynical, but good turians like to tow the party line. We're going to have a hard time convincing them that the councillor made the wrong call."
She mulled over her previous diplomatic efforts. She'd had some recent success with the quarians but her relationship with the Council was...rocky, to say the least. "You're right. But we have to try. We have a strong team, but we can't defeat the Reapers on our own."
He reached over and rubbed her shoulder, trying to cheer her up. "Shepard, if anyone can do it, it's you. You can be very persuasive. Especially when you've got a rocket-launcher."
"Thanks for the pep talk, coach."
"I mean it. You're...impressive."
"Like Tupari sports drink?"
He chuckled. "Well, let's not go overboard. I mean, Tupari brings your ancestors back from the grave."
It wasn't long before Tali, Kelly and some of the human crew members flooded onto the dance floor. The rest of the night passed in a blur of toasts, jokes and reminiscences, until final call and then closing time. For some of the crew, their tour with the Normandy was coming to an end. Some would go scurrying back to Cerberus and the Illusive Man, while others were departing for safer jobs, ones where they wouldn't have to worry about being melted into grey slurry or transformed into husks. EDI could manage many of the roles they'd once occupied, but Shepard was still disappointed to see them go, to watch them retreat from the grim reality of the Reapers into the comfort of everyday routines. It was so easy, so tempting to do. There were some moments when she envied them that luxury.
Shepard awoke the next morning with parched lips and a headache forking its way along her skull. When she rolled over, she was surprised to find Garrus still lying there, the scarred side of his face pressing into the pillow. It was odd - he usually didn't sleep over. In fact, it was rare to catch him napping at all. During his stint on Omega, he seem to have gotten in the habit of sleeping in short bursts, snatching an hour here, an hour there, always ready to bolt awake in case of an emergency. He'd kept this up after moving onto the new Normandy and it wasn't an extraordinary occurrence to find him strolling around the gunnery in the middle of the night, humming a tune as he toyed with the weapons systems or paged through extranet news reports about the skyrocketing crime rate on Omega.
She didn't mind him sleeping over - in fact, it was nice to wake up to the gentle rhythm of his breathing, his fingers cradling the indent of her waist - but it did make for awkwardness the next morning. There were always crew members wandering the corridors and those were just the ones you could see. Kasumi, for one, had a bizarre fondness for roaming around the ship under tactical cloak, collecting gossip to regale her VI diary with. Plus, Shepard didn't even want to think about the number of hidden cameras that might be installed along the hallways, giving EDI and Miranda almost unlimited options for surveillance. With all the rumours already floating around the ship, she was starting to think that it might be best just to get everything out in the open, politics be damned.
Peeling Garrus' hand back from her waist, she eased her way out of bed, trying not to wake him. She stooped down and picked up her robe from the floor, wrapping it around her body and knotting the sash around her waist.
Tiptoeing into the bathroom, she opened the medicine cabinet behind the mirror and plucked out the analgesic Mordin had prescribed for her after his disturbing clinical assessment of her sex life. She pressed down on the child-proof cap and unscrewed it from the orange bottle, pouring two capsules into her palm. She managed to gulp them down without water. The maximum daily dose was four a day, but she was trying to work her way down from that, to get accustomed to the pain until she ceased to even notice it.
Examining her face in the mirror, she noted that the scars had almost completely healed over. Now they were just two pale lines etched under her cheekbones, barely noticeable amidst a sprinkling of tawny freckles. She scraped a hand back through her short blonde hair and smiled, trying to perk herself up. She had a meeting with Councillor Anderson at noon and the digital clock on the wall already read "10:47" in a ghostly, glowing blue.
When she got out of the shower, Garrus was awake, already dressed in last night's clothes. He perched on the edge of the couch, tenting his hands together and staring into the middle distance. Even in the morning, he managed to seem intense, focused, his lanky body like a coiled spring.
"Hey. Was wondering where you got off to."
"I didn't want to wake you," she said. "You're not usually such a deep sleeper."
She reached into her closet, pulling a pair of form-fitting black pants off a hanger and then selecting the mandarin-collar jacket that she opted for on days when she wanted to look professional, business-like, but not as if she was going to shoot someone.
He shrugged. "I guess I've been...different lately. Not necessarily such a bad thing, right?"
She dressed quickly, with a twinge of embarrassment, feeling his gaze upon her the whole time. She'd always felt a bit vulnerable naked, even in the presence of human lovers, but it was different with Garrus. She didn't just have to worry about whether he liked her small breasts or the muscular shape of her thighs. No, in his case, she also found herself questioning if he was even attracted to human anatomy or if his scrutiny was just out of curiosity, for science. The constant presence of his targeting visor upon his left eye was not particularly reassuring either. She kept wondering what he was using it for.
"I have an appointment with Anderson this afternoon, but I should be back later," she told him. I was thinking we could talk."
He blinked. "Talk? That sounds ominous."
"Look, Shepard, if you're not comfortable with this, if it's not working for you..."
"It's not that." She sighed, irritated with her inarticulateness. "Sorry. It's not that kind of talk. Not at all."
"Alright, I'll look forward to seeing you later then. Have fun playing politics. Give Udina hell for me, will you?"
"I'll be sure to. Just to keep you amused."
Garrus tilted his head towards the door. "You want to leave first or should I?"
When he visited her quarters, they tried to stagger their departure times by fifteen minutes to avoid arousing suspicion. It wasn't a brilliant tactic. Shepard doubted they were fooling anyone.
"Let's just head down together," she said. "I think we can risk it."
"Bold move, Commander."
She still found alien faces hard to read, but his mandibles flared slightly and she could swear he was smirking – or at least, the turian equivalent.
"C'mon, Officer Vakarian. Let's get back to work."
"Yep. Back to calibrations," he said.
When Shepard stepped off the elevator, she found Kelly huddled over a communications console, trying to rub the creases of worry from her forehead. "Commander, you have a lot of new messages. You might want to..."
"I have to get up to the Presidium. I'll check them later."
"There are reporters outside in the docking bay. They've been trying to get in and see you."
Shepard flexed her fingers, giving her knuckles a satisfying crack. "I'm all for freedom of the press, but this is getting ridiculous. Did you let them know I still have a good right hook?"
"I informed them that you don't have a lot of patience for media interference."
The commander grinned, turning on her heel. "Damn straight."
As she strode to the airlocks, EDI's pale blue form popped up on a nearby console like an upside-down exclamation point. "Shepard, I would urge you to exercise caution..."
"Don't worry, EDI. I was just joking. I won't take a swing at anyone. I learned my lesson the first time around."
The doors sealed behind her, light strobing over her face as the decontamination chamber did its work. She stepped out at the docking bay of Zakera Ward and into a frantic scrum of reporters, a cluster of vid drones orbiting her face like tiny moons. Squinting into the merciless light of the cameras, she shaded her eyes with one hand and tried to fend off journalists with the other. As she pushed through the crowd, the reporters scurried after her like hungry varren, peppering her with questions.
"Commander Shepard, what is your connection with Cerberus?"
"My loyalties are to the Alliance and to galactic security. Enough said."
"Why did you fake your death? Have you been working undercover?"
"Yes, I'm on a top-secret mission. You just exposed me. Nice detective work."
"Is it true that you're romantically involved with a turian? How will this impact will your role as representative of humanity?"
Shepard stopped dead in her tracks, glaring at the female reporter who'd had the nerve, the unmitigated gall, to ask this latest question. "What? Excuse me?"
"Are you denying it? There are rumours all over the extra-net, Commander. Humanity has a right to know where your allegiance lies."
Her lips formed the words before she even considered the repercussions, the inevitable political fall-out, the lectures she'd be sure to get from Anderson, Hackett and Udina. "Go to hell."
Shoving a vid drone out of her way, she took refuge in a nearby taxi. The salarian driver craned his head around to stare at her, no doubt surprised that half of the Citadel press corps was converging at the back of his cab.
"Presidium, please," she said. "I'm in a hurry."
He started the meter and the taxi sped away from the docking bay, leaving a flutter of excited reporters to choke on fumes from the tailpipe.
She arrived at Councillor Anderson's office just in time to hear the conclusion of Udina's rant.
"She's lost her mind. The woman is a liability, a political menace. No accountability. No sense of timing. We can't afford to be associated with -"
Shepard waved hello. "Sorry I'm late."
"Just on time, Commander," Anderson said. "Take a seat."
"I think I'd rather stand."
Anderson shook his head. "Suit yourself. You've caused quite a stir around here, Shepard. I take it you've seen the news?"
"No. But from what I can tell, I was the news."
Udina glared at her, indignation thickening his Scots burr. "What in the hell were you thinking? Do you even think? Gallivanting around some sleazy bar! Getting pawed at by a turian! I don't suppose you're familiar with a little something called the First Contact War?"
Shepard feigned a vacuous smile, tilting her head to the side, as if innocent of any knowledge pertaining to galactic military history. Udina seemed to be under the impression that anyone who'd joined the Forces and learned to shoot straight must be an irredeemable nitwit. "Wait, you mean the Relay 314 Incident? No, never heard about that."
Udina stammered and breathed a few curses, a snaky bluish vein bulging from his forehead. Shepard had a feeling she might have sent his blood pressure spiking to unhealthy levels and reactivated that painful ulcer he was always muttering about. All in a day's work, she thought.
She turned to Anderson. "Where did this big scandal come from? The crew and I just went out for drinks. Nothing controversial."
"They must have been holding off on an investigation, waiting for a good photo op of you with the crew. Khalisa Al-Jilani posted the story to the Westerlund news site this morning."
"It's absurd. People can't be buying into this. I can't be a shill for the Council, a Cerberus extremist and an apologist for the turians all at the same time, no matter how much muck Al-Jilani rakes up about me."
"It doesn't have to be logical, Shepard. It's about perception. You have to admit that, from the outside, at least, your behaviour seems suspicious."
Udina scowled, folding his arms over his chest and widening his stance. "Not just suspicious. Downright traitorous. Coming back from the dead in a Cerberus ship. Showing up in human colonies just before they mysteriously disappear. What did you think people were going to say?"
Shepard shrugged. "I was hoping they'd say thanks, considering I just saved their asses."
"We need to think about damage control," Anderson said. "We can leak a story about you working undercover to undermine Cerberus. In the meantime, I'm sure the Alliance can afford to get you a publicist."
"A publicist? Do you really think that's necessary?"
"It's necessary," Udina muttered. "Unless you plan to go on punching every reporter in sight."
Shepard rubbed her knuckles, enjoying the texture of the bony ridges under her fingertips. "Right now, that sounds like a very appealing plan."
Udina sighed, looking so tired and put-upon that Shepard almost felt sorry for him. Almost. "You enjoy making my job difficult, don't you?"
"On occasion. I know you can handle it."
"Don't test my good nature too much, Commander. I may be the political rainmaker around here, but I can only work so much magic."
"I suggest you go make the arrangements for a press conference, Udina," Anderson said. "The Alliance is going to have to work fast, if we want to nip this in the bud."
After Udina was gone, Anderson slumped down into the leather chair at his desk, his stony-faced expression crumbling into something much more human.
The past few years hadn't treated Shepard's old mentor kindly. His face had a haggard appearance and his calm brown eyes were sunken in dark sockets that bespoke many sleepless nights. His golden-brown skin looked sallow, as if leeched of blood. She felt sorry for having gotten him appointed to the Council. Diplomacy obviously didn't sit well with him. Of course, when she looked at Udina and saw the alternative, she couldn't feel too regretful.
"I'm sorry it's come to this, Shepard."
"So am I," she said. "So, are you going to ask me?"
"Ask you what?"
"If it's true."
"Your personal affairs are your business, Commander. I'm not sure it's my place to judge. We'll defend you no matter what. The Alliance owes you that much."
She nodded. "Thanks for that. You know, I'm still trying to figure out what I did wrong."
"The memory of Shanxi still runs strong with people," Anderson replied. "Your generation may not understand it so much – you grew up with the idea of other species, a whole galaxy of cultures out there to explore. For my generation and my parents' generation, it was different. Aliens were...alien. Dangerous. We didn't go into space to make friends."
"I respect the sacrifices of the people who fought in the First Contact War. I do. But I'm a person, not a symbol, not an Alliance recruitment poster. I'm not going to abandon people who I care about - my shipmates - just to appease the Terra Firma Party."
"That's what the publicist is for, Shepard. To take some of the heat off. It'll make things easier for you."
"I appreciate your support on this one."
She loaded up her omni-tool. "So are you ready for the mission debrief? I can't promise you're going to like it. The Reapers – they have big plans for us."
Anderson leaned his elbows on his desk, his expression attentive. "Go ahead, Shepard. I'm ready for the worst."
Shepard presented the data EDI had gleaned from the Collectors' systems, although she skimmed over the fact that the intelligence came from an illegal AI, one who had effectively replaced most of the Cerberus crew and who had claimed the Normandy itself as her body. That bit of info wouldn't have gone over too well and Anderson had enough to handle just coming to grips with the revelation that the Protheans had been transformed into DNA-harvesting monsters, mindless slaves for the Reaper called Harbinger.
She explained the fates of the human colonists from Freedom's Progress, Ferris Fields, Eden Prime, New Canton, trying to keep things matter-of-fact, although she was sure the horror showed in her eyes. It was hard to forget the look on that female colonist's face as her skin dissolved, her hands gripping her corroding cheeks, her eyes frantically scanning for an escape hatch. Shepard had tried to pry open the pod, but by the time she'd prised apart the lock, all that remained of the woman was grey sludge dribbling on to the floor, baby-food to nourish a Human Reaper.
Anderson looked down at his desk, cradling his head in his hands. "The Reapers were harvesting humans to reproduce? I think I liked them better when they were just out to destroy us."
"If it comforts you at all, I'm sure they consider it an honour for our species. A compliment of the highest order," Shepard said. "If they succeed, we get to be one of them. No doubt they think of it as a step-up, our route to immortality."
"That doesn't comfort me, Shepard. Not at all."
"Sorry. Guess I'm not good at breaking things easy. Do you think any of this would convince the other members of the Council?"
The councillor heaved a sigh, one that racked his weary frame. "It's doubtful, not unless you can provide outside confirmation for your information. My colleagues will view anything coming from the Normandy as subject to your influence and prone to manipulation, even outright fabrication."
"I don't suppose they'll accept Cerberus as a source? We could try to subpoena the Illusive Man, but I don't think that would go over too well."
Anderson's lips twitched into the semblance of a smile. "Well, it'd be interesting to see you try. You did a good job here, Commander. I'll take this info to Alliance Command and we'll see what we can make of it. We might be able to dig up something that will prove useful for diplomatic purposes. In the meantime, you have our full support and a whole lot of back-pay coming to you. Might as well make use of it."
"Thanks. I will," Shepard said, turning towards the door. "Take care of yourself, Anderson."
"You, too, Shepard. Try not to let the political bullshit get you down."
Shepard left Anderson's office, strolling back along the cold, narrow corridors of the Presidium's diplomatic sector, paths that coiled around each other like a pit of snakes. Along the way, she took in the holographic portraits of ambassadors that shimmered across the walls, finding herself amused at the symbols used to depict the galactic community: a circle of laurel leaves, a planet orbited by colourful moons, a sky speckled with stars. If they'd asked her to contribute an image, she would have drawn a bunch of ostriches with their heads in the sand.
But anger was useless and so was bitterness. What was really bothering her were the hunger pangs. She'd be better off getting some lunch than brooding on the ignorance of the Council. There was a nice little sushi joint down on Zakera Ward – if she kept a low profile, she might be able to grab a bento box.
She'd just ordered a green dragon roll and an assortment of maki when she heard someone give a polite little cough behind her, clearing his throat. Her first instinct was to tilt her head downward, to obscure her face.
That voice was unmistakeable, slight rasp in the back of throat like two pebbles rubbing together. It definitely wasn't a reporter. Just when she thought her day couldn't get any worse, any more...uncomfortable. She turned around, slowly, hesitantly, just to confirm the bad feeling boiling in her gut.
"Kaidan. Small world."
"Small galaxy, Commander."