A/N: First off, I wanted to apologize for the lack of updates! I'll be changing that in the near future, but things have been absolutely crazy (and I've been suffering from a bit of the old writer's block when it comes to this chapter). And secondly, I'd like to thank everyone who drops by. Your readership makes me happy.
From below the councilor's office, a sudden flare of blue interrupted the gait of a well-dressed turian. He cast his eyes up to the balcony only to see the color intensify – nearly doubled in brightness in comparison to the dimly lit area. Even so far down below, he could hear a firm, male voice nearly shout.
"Stand down, Shepard!"
Dia's eyes narrowed at Anderson, tendrils of blue rising off of the Cerberus uniform she wore. "No," she said. Her voice was strong; stronger than it had been in weeks. She wasn't angry. That much was obvious in the control she held over the quiver that threatened to overtake her speech. She was frustrated. Upset. Backed into a corner she never expected to see from all sides. "I didn't come here to stand down." Her gaze flicked to Alenko to see him leaning forward in a defensive stance, his own biotics flaring, though not as brightly as hers.
"What did you come here for, then?" Kaidan replied, his fingers twitching as he repressed the urge to ball them into a fist. "I know enough about what's going on. You don't have anything to explain to me."
"You're wrong," she countered. "I have a hell of a lot to say to you, Alenko. You'd know that if you hadn't run off before you let me explain myself. How long have we known each other? Two years? Three? You know me better than anyone in this room. And yet you still think I've betrayed you. To Cerberus, no less!"
The blue glow surrounding the staff commander dissipated, but he didn't step out of his stance. "Look at what you're wearing, Shepard."
She didn't look. She didn't have to. The stiff collar of the Cerberus dress uniform brushed at her neck. Its synthetic fabric ran over every limb, pulled taut around her upper arms and shoulders. Everything in her cabin's closet was emblazoned with the Cerberus logo, and she didn't have the means or the time to find a new set of clothes.
"Do you honestly think they would give me an Alliance uniform?" Dia pulled herself up to her full height, mere inches taller than Kaidan. For weeks she'd contemplated asking Anderson to give her something more suitable to wear, but it felt meaningless now, knowing that a change of uniform wouldn't actually change anything. "Everything I had was destroyed with the Normandy. My uniforms were there, too."
Garrus stepped up behind her. "You shouldn't have to explain yourself, Shepard. He's... 'grasping at sticks.'"
The turian's mandibles flared slightly at Kaidan's correction.
"Her clothes don't matter," Jacob pressed from her left. "What she's wearing doesn't change who she is. You should be mature enough to realize this."
"It's still her choice," the biotic murmured. Shutting his eyes for a moment, he stepped back. She no longer presented a threat, so he wouldn't treat her as one. Even from the slight shift in his expression, she could tell that he was getting a headache. She was surprised he hadn't gotten one already. Or maybe he had; he'd become skilled in hiding the signs from just about anyone.
Dia let go of a frustrated puff of breath, shaking her head. "But it's not my choice, Kaidan. If it was my choice, I'd be standing right here in blue, and we'd be working together."
"And in what way is the Illusive Man forcing your hand?" He took a step forward before turning his back to her. One stride in the opposite direction. Two. Turn. His brown eyes locked onto hers, completely unabashed in their glare. "He can't just be sitting there, watching you do good deeds, Shepard. That's not how he does things."
"How would you know how he does things?" she asked, her chest rising and falling in a failed attempt to keep herself in check. "You're blanketing a subject that requires a lot more detail than that. You don't know shit about what's happening. Not really."
Jacob opened his mouth to agree with her, but he was silenced by a steely gaze from the turian at his side. He knew better than to get between either of them in this sort of situation, and he'd rather not let Jacob learn his lesson right now.
A look of disbelief crossed Kaidan's features. "You're making excuses for them?" he asked, thick brows skewing in a baffled expression. "After all we've seen them do? After what happened with Admiral Kahoku?" Shaking his head, his voice softened. "You lost your entire unit because of their sick experiments, and you're standing here, telling me they're just misunderstood?"
"Alenko..." Anderson interjected, stepping in between the two of them before Dia could respond. While he hadn't seen her face, he could almost feel the air sparking around him. The councilor's voice dropped to a mutter. "Maybe you should quit while you're ahead."
Taking a long stride forward until she stood just behind Anderson, index finger pointed directly at Kaidan, her words were barely able to fight their way out of her clenching, suddenly dry throat. "You're lucky we have so much history," she told him, "And you're lucky the Alliance needs soldiers like you. Because so help me God, if you were anything less than you are..." Her voice shook, and she faltered, a fist clenching around her already racing heart. "You'd regret saying that."
Turning away from his stunned silence, Dia left the room without saying another word.
She didn't look back to see if Jacob and Garrus had followed her out. In fact, she knew they hadn't as she didn't hear the sound of movement behind her as she made her way through the still-unfamiliar hallways of the Council's personal offices. Not that they would have been able to keep up with her anyway. Even Garrus' lengthy strides would've fallen short of keeping up with her determined gait.
Even as she passed by Councilor Velarn's office, not a single potential word or action crossed her mind. Everything was white noise, her thoughts pushed aside in favor of clearing her mind as her tutors taught her early on. She couldn't think; if she thought about what was happening, she'd get angry. And if she got angry, she wasn't entirely sure she could smother it all down.
Taking a shaky breath, she turned around the corner, narrowly avoiding a collision with an asari. The violet-hued receptionist gave a startled gasp, but said not a word when she saw the line of Dia's mouth, content with getting past without any more than a shock.
The antechamber was full of politicians. Most of them continued talking (or murmuring or ranting) to the being next to them as she made her way through the very center of the room, but a few went quiet, dropping the din to a slightly more manageable hum of speech. One particular individual turned away from the man beside him, watching with a pair of alert gray-blue eyes as the door hissed closed behind her.
Holding up a hand to silence Udina, Steven Hackett rose to his feet, nodding a silent, not entirely genuine apology before moving after her, a slight hitch in his step.
"Shepard!" Dia was stepping into the elevator by the time he caught up with her, but she didn't have the heart to let the door close in his face. Holding a hand out in front of it, she managed her best smile, though the admiral didn't appear very impressed. The sight of his apprehension caused the poorly faked grin to fall as he stepped in next to her, thin brows hitched high on his forehead. Pulling her hand back, she allowed the elevator's door to slide closed. "I wanted to thank you in person, but it appears you've got something else on your mind." He tilted his head in the direction of the room they'd just left, lying across an open-air promenade. "Something Councilor Anderson wasn't able to help you with."
When she didn't reply, pressing the necessary buttons on the console to bring her to the first floor and holding her hands behind her in a stance that couldn't have been stiffer if she tried, he didn't press the matter. Instead, he watched as the floors flew past, the altogether short ride coming to an end even as silence stretched out in front of them.
Just as she was taking a step forward, his voice stopped her in her tracks. "I don't suppose a drink would get an answer out of you, would it?"
Glancing towards him, her eyes narrowed a little, not in annoyance or anger, but in curiosity. She looked over his face, and she found nothing there aside from concern. What had she expected? An agenda? From the man who she owed and owed her? "Do you have anything in mind?" she asked, voice roughened by its misuse mere minutes before.
"Panacea," he replied simply. "It's not far off, and it's too early for it to be crowded."
Dia's tongue flicked out over her dry bottom lip, her head bobbing in a nod. No harm would come of her from one drink. Her metabolism kept her from getting anything more than tipsy if she watched her intake, and she trusted Hackett. "Sounds good."
They walked together in silence, far enough apart not to touch, but close enough that it was clear they were together. Only when she realized how leisurely his pace was did she find the will to slow down, preferring to stay in stride with him than stick her neck out any farther than she wanted to.
As he'd mentioned, the bar wasn't far off. She'd been there a few times before – with Kaidan and Ash, her stomach reminded her with a little flip. It was a nice place, run by a human and asari couple. Most of the drinks human in origin, but with an alien twist orchestrated by the woman's partner. Panacea was known for one drink in particular – the Elixir of Life, the bar's expected specialty considering the bar's namesake. The very thought of the drink comprised of coconut milk and liqueur made from an asari fruit not unlike a strawberry made Dia's mouth water, prompting her to order two of them the moment she sat down at the counter.
This time, Hackett looked impressed.
"Is it really that bad?"
Dia shook her head, her hands laced in her lap as she stared at the bartender's back. Her dark eyes focused intently on the man's protruding vertebrae, unwilling to look at Hackett as she replied with a quiet, "I really don't want to talk about it. Not without my drink."
"Or drinks, rather," he intoned as the man turned and presented her with twin hourglass shaped glasses. "I'm not going to just let this go, Shepard."
Lifting up one of the glasses, she tipped it back, shutting her eyes as she took two large gulps of the drink. Her brows knitted together above her nose as she set it back down with accidental force, cringing slightly at the sound of glass impacting glass with a noticeable thump. "Is that really necessary?"
"Not as necessary as some clarification." Hackett removed his glasses and replaced them in the front pocket of his uniform.
"Is calling me by my last name necessary? Is your sudden interest in what's going on necessary? Pick one. Or both." Lifting the glass up a second time, she took another long drink from it again, giving her head a little shake as the chill ran directly into her brain. "I don't care."
Hackett nodded to the bartender, who then took his order of scotch with a smile. The amber liquid curled around the carved crystalline glass as it was pushed out in front of him not a moment later. "Why is it necessary? I can't have humanity's best and brightest doubling up on novelty drinks on the Presidium because she isn't getting the help she needs."
"'Not getting the help she needs' is the understatement of the century," she said despite the tightness in her jaw, working the almost painful tension out of it as she set her now empty glass down. "I assume you know what happened on Horizon."
"I read the reports, yes," he murmured, lifting his much shorter tumbler of liquor up to his lips. "Nasty business."
Dia gave a huff of laughter. "Nasty. Right. Having my former lieutenant call me a traitor and insinuate that I'm working against the Alliance. Nasty. Another understatement." When she looked at him, he could see right past the fire in her eyes. It heated up the facets of bronze until they almost glowed, but he could still see past them, winding up face to face with the woman Hannah Shepard's eldest very rarely allowed herself to be. "You're two for two, admiral."
"Then let me try to break the pattern." His hands curled around the glass, wrists resting against the curve of the bar, posture as straight as was possible. "You're above this because you have to be above this." When he looked to her, she was staring down at her remaining drink. Condensation was beginning to form around the glass as it remain untouched. "This is a hell of a lot bigger than any of us, but you're the closest to what we need that we have, making you infallible in my eyes and in the eyes of just about anyone whose opinion actually matters." Tilting his glass against his mouth, he pulled another swallow of scotch from it, shutting his eyes for a moment to enjoy the feeling of it crawling down his throat. "I was talking to Udina before I saw you. Do you know what he said?"
The look Dia shot him told him that she didn't feel like playing guessing games, especially ones about anything the ambassador had to say. "He told me that Staff Commander Alenko was short-sighted." Tapping his index finger on the bar, Hackett tilted his head just enough to look at her. "He said that anyone who knew what was happening – and experienced it first hand, nonetheless – should have kissed your feet, not berated you in front of your party."
Hackett paused, a hint of a smile curling at the corner of his mouth. "Last week, he started having nightmares about being abducted. I would appreciate it if that was kept between the two of us."
At that, Dia gave a quiet rumble of a chuckle, her eyes moving up to his. "That really shouldn't be the thing that makes me feel better," she sighed, lifting a hand to rub at the bunched skin between her eyebrows. "God, I feel terrible."
They were both quiet for a long moment, and it was Hackett who finally broke the silence, his empty glass pushed away, mere inches away from hers. "Dia," he began, "If I focused on what those close to me said every time I had to make a difficult decision, I wouldn't have anyone left. It's difficult, but putting all of this away to solve later is imperative."
"Thank you," she replied in a near-whisper.
"For what?" Hackett nodded to the bartender, digging into his pocket for a credit chit to hand to the man. When she saw the man swipe the chit, she deflated slightly, having been ready to pay for herself. "For the drinks? There's no need to thank me."
Dia shook her head. "For speaking to me," she said, her shoulder hitching up a little in a shrug. "For actually being impartial and giving me advice."
"Well..." Rising from his stool, he stood next to hers, his hand resting on the curved back of it. "I wouldn't say I was entirely impartial, but you're welcome." She looked up at him, one of her brows tilting upwards with a peaked curiosity that would remain dissatisfied for the time being. "Next time you're planning on visiting the Citadel for more than a few hours, you should contact me in advance. We could do this again, hopefully with less tension and more food."
Before she could say something, he took a step back, giving her time to do nothing more than nod before he turned on his feet and walked off.
No more than a few minutes later, she heard a quiet chirrup, reflex driving her to tap her fingertips against the wristband hidden beneath her sleeve. Her arm sheathed in orange instantly, a small screen extending upwards. At the sound of Joker's voice, an aqua-colored line began to dive and climb. "Shepard, Jacob and Garrus just got here. We should probably get going." He paused. "I think Tali'd appreciate it."
Dia rose from her seat. "I'll be there in twenty unless I can't find a cab," she said, her voice finally leaving whatever lingering roughness behind to reveal her usual even tone. "Don't leave without me."
"Nah, I think I'll keep my skull attached to my spine for a little while longer, thanks."
Shaking her head with a laugh, she pressed against the band a second time, her omni-tool flickering out of existence as she left the bar.