The Illusive Man was brooding.
He leaned back in his chair, taking a long drag from his cigarette and exhaling the smoke with a sigh. Pain throbbed behind his eyes, intermittent and dull, and he frowned as he pressed a knuckle to one temple.
Headaches. He blew out another burst of smoke in a huff, allowing himself a brief but sharp spike of irritation. He never used to get headaches before the Lazarus Project's…detour.
"I recommend implanting her with a control chip."
Miranda's voice came unbidden to his mind, and he blinked once, lips thinning as the conversation played out in his memory—not for the first time. In retrospect, he could admit to himself, it certainly would have saved him a vast amount of time, effort and money if he'd listened to his project director.
Then again, any words Ms. Lawson had once spoken about control chips were ironic at best now that she'd fallen under Shepard's thrall. The Illusive Man's lips curled up in a humorless smile. From puppetmaster to marionette in a matter of months. Miranda, you disappoint me.
Fortunately, her defection was merely a temporary setback. Cerberus was too carefully constructed, had functioned too successfully for too long to be derailed by the loss of any one member—save himself, of course. And he'd seen to business, as he always did.
The Illusive Man stood, stretching his legs before he strode to his desk, reaching down to toggle the control switch for one of many live security feeds. A holographic vid screen flared to life at his touch, and he allowed himself a smile—his first genuine one that day, it occurred to him vaguely—as he lit a new cigarette from the old one's dying embers.
The turian on the screen looked as though he too could use a smoke—or at least, he would if his mouth's anatomical structure would allow him such pleasures. As it was, the poor beast had to settle for venting his frustration by pacing back and forth, a low and constant snarl barely audible over the speakers. His mandibles flared in a ceaseless rhythm; the Illusive Man had…dealt with enough turians to know that it was their way of expressing agitation.
On a monitor adjacent to the vid, text scrolled past at a leisurely pace: Garrus Vakarian, alias Archangel. Former C-Sec officer turned vigilante. Tactical genius, expert infiltrator, crack shot with a sniper rifle. Last known location: Omega. The Illusive Man paid it no mind, keeping his eyes fixed on the captive subject. He already knew the dossier's contents, had read it front to back on numerous occasions. It contained no intel useful to his purposes, anyway.
The information he needed was already safely stored in his mind. Garrus Vakarian, crew member of Normandy SR1 and SR2, assisted in the defeat of Sovereign in the Battle of the Citadel. Assisted in the defeat of the Collectors via the Omega-4 relay. Crewmate, confidant, and lover of Commander Shepard.
The cigarette lost its flavor, and he set it aside in the ashtray, his throat tightening. The reminder that he'd spent four billion credits to resurrect a raging xenophile never failed to sour his stomach. It would have been one thing if she'd fallen for an asari—he himself enjoyed the attentions of skilled blue hands from time to time—but fraternizing with the race that had once stood poised to wipe humanity from the face of the galaxy was another matter entirely.
Still. Loved ones were a weakness, no matter the species. And weaknesses could always be exploited.
Onscreen, Vakarian finally halted his frenzied pacing and dropped heavily onto the tiny cot, the only piece of furniture in his cell. To the Illusive Man's mild surprise, capturing the turian had been quite easy, costing him the lives of only two agents. It seemed embarking on a suicide mission directly after battling three mercenary groups almost to death took its toll even on those with superhero nicknames.
He gave a slow nod, the holograph's orange glow sliding over his face. This was a message that Shepard—with her stirring speeches on loyalty and leave-no-man-behind bravado—wouldn't be able to ignore.
Leaning over, he pressed a button on the communication console and spoke aloud. "I'm expecting to hear from Commander Shepard at any time. When she calls, be sure to put her through on this channel immediately."
"Yes, sir," his agent responded. Predictable and dutiful.
Satisfied, the Illusive Man disconnected, the tension in his head easing, and turned his focus to other matters.
The galaxy wouldn't run itself, after all.
- • - • -
Not more than an hour passed before the comm unit buzzed, the sound cutting through the silence in both the room and his mind. The Illusive Man turned in his chair, unhurried, ocular implants sharpening on the softly blinking indicator. "Receive," he ordered.
He heard a brief crackle of static followed by a voice. It was flat, feminine, and familiar. "Illusive Man."
"Commander Shepard. How nice to hear from you again." Reaching over, he slid another cigarette from the container, letting the pause lengthen as he ignited it. "I've been expecting you."
"Mmm," she said. Waited a few beats. "In the flesh?"
His smile stiffened around the edges, the cigarette wavering halfway to his mouth.
Across the room the door creaked, its seal morphing from orange to green, and slid open. Shepard strode in without flash or overture, each armored footfall echoing in the quiet room. Her pistol was drawn but not aimed, her grip casual, and two of her teammates—Goto and Krios, he noted—trailed silently in her wake, nearly invisible in the room's dark corners.
She came to a stop in front of his chair and stared down at him, her face expressionless, the faintest glint of red cybernetics still visible in her irises.
"Damn," she muttered. "All this time, part of me was hoping you might just be a rogue AI that I could blow up."
The Illusive Man met her gaze, unflinching, and pointedly ignored the remark. "Shepard. I'm impressed. You managed to break in without setting off a single alarm. That's not exactly your usual style, is it?"
She jerked a thumb over her shoulder to her shadowed companions. "One of my squad is a professional thief with a personal cloaking device. The other is an assassin who regularly travels through vents. It was easier than you might think."
"Such loyalty you inspire." He leaned back, steepling his fingertips. "Yet you have an odd way of showing it, yourself."
Her impassive façade cracked for the first time, her jaw tightening and eyes flashing in tandem. His implants honed in on her, feeding him information in a steady stream. Heart rate and respiration increased by 20%. Probability of aggressive action increased by 35%.
"Save me your Cerberus propaganda." Her voice was low, but the undercurrent of fury was unmistakable. "Where's Garrus?"
"The turian is secure." He tapped his cigarette against the ashtray, the motion automatic. "In a remote base, far away from here. You didn't think I'd keep him in the same facility as me, did you?"
She took a step closer. "Give the order for his release. Now."
He sighed. "Listen to me, Shepard—"
The cold metal of her pistol's barrel lodged itself hard and sudden against his windpipe, reducing his words to a rasping hiss. Her face was inches from his, all traces of stoicism vanished, her teeth bared in a snarl that reminded him of a rabid varren. "Don't think I won't pull this trigger," she ground out. "Don't think I haven't wanted to for a long time."
The blood seemed to pound behind his eyes, as though someone were taking a hammer to his skull. He drew a deep breath, searched for indications of a bluff, and found none.
"All right, Shepard," he said. "It would seem that, for once, you have the advantage. If you would kindly remove your weapon from my vocal cords."
Shepard narrowed her eyes, but took a half-step backward, keeping her gun leveled at his forehead. He cleared his throat, refusing to rub at the sore spot on his neck. "Computer, establish a real-time connection to Agent Clark, audio only."
A tense moment passed before the VI's pleasant female voice sounded. "Connection established."
"Agent Clark," the Illusive Man said. "I have new orders for you. Release Vakarian."
The silence stretched for a moment before the agent responded, uncertainty in his tone. "Yes, sir."
"Don't hang up yet, Agent Clark." Shepard's voice lanced the air, clear and hard. "I want to talk to Vakarian."
"Who is this?" the agent asked, skepticism replacing unease.
Shepard cocked her pistol.
"Just do it," the Illusive Man ordered, unable to keep irritation from seeping into his tone. The forgotten cigarette rolled between his fingers, and he stared down at it for an instant before returning it to his mouth.
"Tell it to enable video as well as audio," Shepard said.
He gritted his teeth but relayed the order, and the monitor produced a holographic image of the agent, the Cerberus logo emblazoned on both shoulders of his uniform. He started as the video link established, blanching visibly even through the holographic distortion. "Holy—" he stuttered. "C-Commander Shepard?"
"Clark, was it?" Shepard aimed a mirthless smirk at the screen, her grip tightening on the pistol. "If you have any love for your boss at all, you'd better do as he says."
The agent swallowed. "I already transmitted the order," he said. "The guards are bringing the turian here now."
"Good," Shepard said. "After I make sure he's okay, you're going to give him a shuttle with FTL capabilities. If anything happens to him, the Illusive Man won't be the only casualty. Am I making myself clear?"
If possible, Clark went even paler. "Crystal, ma'am."
A door hissed open behind him, and he practically leapt out of the holographic field, replaced a moment later by the turian. The Illusive Man's lip curled. Even divested of his armor, the alien was a bulky, ungainly eyesore.
Shepard, unsurprisingly, disagreed.
"Garrus," she said, making no attempt to disguise her relief. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Shepard," he replied. "My pride's more hurt than anything else. It's damn good to hear your voice, though."
"Likewise," she grinned. "You'd better never scare me like that again, Vakarian—but I do have to say, you make a handsome damsel in distress."
The turian blinked, mandibles twitching in mixed amusement and confusion. "You lost me on that one."
She laughed, and her face shone. "I'll explain it to you later. Contact the Normandy for pickup once you're clear of the planet. I'll see you as soon as I'm finished here."
Vakarian glanced back and forth between her and the Illusive Man. The gleam in his eyes needed no translation. "Take your time, Shepard."
The connection severed, and the Illusive Man watched Shepard's face as she turned back toward him.
"Now that that's been dealt with," he said, "perhaps you and I should talk."
She raised her free hand, palm toward him. "There's nothing you can say that I'm interested in hearing. I worked with you because you gave me information and resources to help defeat the Collectors. We did that. Now I'm done with you." She paused. "I put in a call to Councilor Anderson as soon as I got here. A fleet of Alliance ships should be descending on this station before too long."
He curled his fingers into fists, crushing the cigarette against his palm, ignoring the pain as it scalded his skin. "You're making a mistake, Shepard. Again."
"No, you're the one who made mistakes," she growled. "You made a mistake bringing me back. I never asked for that. You made another one when you assumed I would be willing to overlook the fact that you're a bunch of terrorists. And again when you thought you could manipulate me through my relationship with Garrus." She snorted. "Did you think I would melt into a puddle of tears and beg you not to hurt him?"
An insistent beep from the communications console preempted his response, and he leveled a glare in its direction. "Receive."
"Sir!" The words on the other end were rapid and frantic. "Alliance ships are jumping in! I count twelve so far…" His voice faded out in a crackle of static, then resumed. "…More coming!"
"Understood," the Illusive Man said, and terminated the connection.
"Well." Shepard holstered her pistol. Satisfaction flickered in her eyes. "Looks like my work here is done."
She turned toward the door.
"One more thing, Shepard," the Illusive Man said. "Just out of curiosity. How did you find this station?"
Shepard looked over her shoulder with an expression that could be described only as devious. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"If you insist." Pivoting fully, she strode over to a side table and closed her fingers around his package of cigarettes. "How many of these boxes do you go through in a day, do you think? Two? Three?" Her grin widened. "I asked Miranda what brand you preferred—she sends her regards, by the way—then I had Tali and Kasumi hack into the company's sales and shipping databases. Trust me when I say they weren't sending 'em out wholesale to very many remote, off-the-grid locations."
She let the package fall back to the table with a clatter. "It's the little things that trip you up."
And with that, she turned back toward the entrance, motioned to her companions and disappeared through the door.
Alone in the room, the Illusive Man rubbed his aching temples and turned to face his hologram of the dying sun, listening as the approaching footsteps of a dozen Alliance soldiers echoed in the hall.