AN: The final chapter! Eternal gratitude to everyone who has been reading, following, favoriting, and following – your enthusiasm was so encouraging. It's been quite an adventure.
Kaidan had hoped his return to the Citadel wouldn't be met with any uncomfortable questions regarding his whereabouts for the past week, yet, as soon as he set foot on the public transit dock in the Wards, he received a summons to the human embassy. Part of him wanted to delay for as long as possible, but the reasonable part knew that the sooner he faced Anderson, the sooner he could move on to his next assignment. Involuntarily, his hand flew up to his cheek, to the place where Shepard's bullet had grazed him. The fresh scar would fade with time.
Making his way up to the Presidium on auto-pilot, Kaidan had time to sort through his thoughts and decide on what he was going to tell Anderson. He'd tell the truth about what happened, of course. His mind drifted back to the data he'd found on Kasumi's partner's graybox, the identity of the new Shadow Broker, and Shepard's continued relations with Cerberus. Maybe it was better if some parts of the truth never came to light.
"Alenko. Good to see you in one piece." Anderson greeted Kaidan from his desk, waving off his salute. "We have a few minutes before Udina gets here. What the hell happened to you? We received intel from an asari Spectre, Tela Vasir, that there were some major terrorist attacks on Illium. Something about an underground mercenary group? How'd you get caught up in that?"
Kaidan had prepared himself for Anderson's inquisition. "The bombings were a result of the Shadow Broker's operations on Nos Astra. Commander Shepard was... involved."
"Involved with the Shadow Broker?"
Involved with. Kidnapped, tortured, then brainwashed by. And then there was the part where Dr. Liara T'Soni was currently in control of the Broker's base. "We disrupted the Broker's operations in the Terminus Systems." Disrupted was a good word for it. "There won't be any more terrorist attacks, sir."
Anderson was silent, staring at Kaidan, waiting for him to continue. After it became clear that Staff Commander Alenko had nothing further to add on the subject, he said, "Son, I don't know what kind of mess you got mixed up in, and I get the feeling it's better for everyone if it stays that way."
Anderson exhaled loudly, then gave a rough shake of his head. Just when he thought he'd heard it all. "Okay. I don't like it, but I get it. Just tell me – is Shepard okay?"
Shepard still had to face the Illusive Man after everything that had happened. Kaidan guessed that things on the Normandy were about to get even more interesting. "Yes, sir. She told me to tell you hey."
To Kaidan's surprise, Anderson laughed. "Noted. Now, the official reason I called you up here is because the Council is – speak of the devil," he added under his breath. The doors slid open and Councilor Udina strolled in with his signature grimace. Anderson slowly got to his feet to greet the councilor.
"Anderson." The councilor turned to face Kaidan. "Alenko. You've got some explaining to do."
"With all due respect, sir, I don't. I was on leave for the past two weeks, and since I haven't broken any regs, I'm not obligated to go through a debrief. Official or unofficial." His stone-faced expression betrayed nothing.
Udina's grimace deepened as he studied Kaidan. "You sound like you've been spending time around Commander Shepard."
"I wasn't aware that was a crime. Sir."
"No," Udina conceded, "but some of your recent activities in the Terminus Systems have been brought to the Council's attention."
Kaidan felt his blood chill. The Council had little authority in the Terminus Systems; that didn't mean they were completely blind to what went on there. If they were aware of his part in the battle against the Shadow Broker, there could be serious repercussions. He noticed Anderson watching him for a reaction. Kaidan did his best not to give him one.
"Well, we were all quite... impressed. Especially with your biotic abilities and your part in destabilizing a major terrorist organization. As you know, the Council is always in search of capable individuals. And it's about time there was another human Spectre."
The last two words caught Kaidan's attention. For a moment, he wasn't sure how to respond. Udina took that as his cue to continue talking. "Your name has only just been put forth for candidacy. It may take several months, but I'm confident that if you maintain a certain conduct of behavior and do not associate with those who could jeopardize your reputation, induction is almost guaranteed."
"And by that you mean stay away from Shepard," Kaidan said, leaning back and crossing his arms over his chest.
Udina looked put off that his news hadn't elicited shouts of jubilation and rejoicing. "Her involvement with Cerberus has put a black mark in humanity's ledger. The savior of the Citadel fakes her death to work with terrorists: don't be like her, Alenko."
Kaidan opened his mouth to retaliate, but Anderson stepped in. "I'm sure Commander Alenko knows how to behave himself, Councilor. Now, if you'll excuse us..." Udina threw both of them a suspicious glance over his shoulder as he exited.
"Anderson, how long have you known about this?" Kaidan asked. He doubted that the Councilors had just based their decision off his actions on Illium.
"Honestly, it's been a long time coming. After Shepard's death, both Udina and I pushed for another human Spectre. Her return complicated things a bit – and the fact that she refused to be reinstated."
Anderson waved his comment away. "Look, that's all in the past now. You are going to accept... aren't you?"
Kaidan glanced at the door, where Udina had just exited. "Not if it means abandoning Shepard."
"Oh, don't listen to him. No one's abandoning the commander. Anyway, it will take a while to get things going with this, but when the time comes, I hope you'll be prepared to take on the responsibility. Trust me, I don't plan on casting her out for destroying the Collectors, even if she had to work with Cerberus temporarily to do it. And neither does Admiral Hackett."
Even though he knew nothing was for certain, Kaidan couldn't help but be excited over the possibility. Spectre Kaidan Alenko. It didn't sound half-bad. "Of course, sir."
"Good. Now, if that's everything..." He noticed the uneasy expression on the lieutenant-commander's face. "Out with it, Alenko."
The OSD loaded with the information from Keiji's graybox was burning a hole in Kaidan's pocket. He couldn't even begin to fathom what would happen if anyone else discovered its contents. And the stakes had changed. Once the Council learned of the Alliance's actions, humanity's reputation as self-serving would be more deeply ingrained than ever. The possibility of becoming a Spectre would be out of the question.
"Nothing, sir. Nothing at all." There was too much at risk. Shepard's loyalty. Humanity's reputation. His own career. At the end of the day, it was not his secret to share. He would leave Shepard to decide what to do with the graybox intel. Back on Illium, Kaidan had promised the commander that he hadn't given up faith in her. That he still believed in what she was doing. The burden of knowledge was heavy, but for Shepard, any weight was worth bearing.
Shepard entered her quarters slowly, taking everything in as if for the first time. While being tortured at the hands of the Shadow Broker's minions, she must have imagined her return a thousand times before giving up hope that she'd ever see her home again. After mentally burying everything she loved and surrendering to the Ardat-Yakshi, she wasn't sure how seeing it all again was supposed to make her feel. Hesitantly, she entered as if trespassing in a stranger's room. A light on her private terminal flashed, letting her know she had multiple unread messages. Assorted clothing was scattered around the room, untouched. Laid out neatly on her bed was her cracked leather jacket. She sighed to herself. "Welcome home."
One Week Later:
With Shepard on the mend, Garrus spent much of his time in Operative Lawson's office. The two of them were devising a strategy for how the Normandy was to become a privately operated vessel. The Shadow Broker's resources were more than enough to keep them flying, but their mission of finding ways to prepare for the Reaper invasion was much more complex. After cutting ties with Cerberus, they needed allies more than ever. And to do that, they had to convince a lot of powerful people that the Reapers' arrival was imminent. Liara had already set them up with as many leads as she could scrounge up from the Broker's files. The number of people and organizations who had illegally obtained Prothean technology was astounding – luckily for them. It was well within Shepard's rights as a Spectre to repossess them for the sake of galactic security. With force, if necessary. There were also more than a few benefactors willing to throw in support for the preparation effort, at a price of course. Most of their missions consisted of tracking down Prothean data caches, securing funding and promises for future support in return for some dangerous favors, and investigating possible remnants of Reaper artifacts. Very few suicide missions were involved.
"Quite the productive week," Miranda said at last, leaning back in her cushy chair and stretching. "Humanity – and the rest of the galaxy – won't go down without a fight. This is good, Garrus."
But will it be enough? He knew that if they were really going to make a difference, they'd need the Council's support. They couldn't keep operating out in the Terminus Systems forever. The turians, asari, and salarians all needed to get on board with the preparations in order to have a chance at beating the Reapers.
"You don't seem satisfied," Miranda said, reading his silence.
"I won't be. Not until this is all over."
"I know. It's going to be a long war. But the progress we've made, it's…"
"Better than nothing," Garrus finished one of Lawson's new favorite phrases for her, eliciting a small smile. Miranda had taken on an almost optimistic attitude since they parted ways with Cerberus. Perhaps she'd realized that now, more than ever before, they needed some kind of hope to hold on to.
"Speaking of progress, how's Shepard?"
Shepard. She wasn't the same as she had been, and he didn't know if she'd ever completely heal. But she was alive and fighting for the fate of the galaxy. That was one thing that would never change.
After leaving Lawson's office, Garrus made his way up to Shepard's room. Over the past few weeks, he'd been spending most of his spare time going over the Shadow Broker's records of what they'd done to Shepard: video logs, timetables, progress reports… everything was there. Liara had been reluctant to hand it over, claiming that the commander would talk when she was ready. Of course, Garrus argued that he had just as much a right to the information as she did. He was trying to help her, after all. Liara ultimately hadn't needed much convincing. Shepard needed someone who had some idea of what she had gone through, and Garrus was in the best position to help her. If she didn't shut him out first.
The elevator ride up to her quarters felt much longer than it usually did. He'd attempted to plan out something to say to her, some way to finally broach the subject of what the Shadow Broker had tried to turn her into, but as always, he'd come up with nothing.
"Garrus? That you?" Shepard was sitting on her bed cross-legged, surrounded by data pads.
"Hey." It seemed as if she'd spent some time putting her room back together, but somehow, it all felt out of place. If she noticed her missing Prothean sphere, she didn't mention it. Instead of the Cerberus uniform she used to wear while on the ship, Shepard had put on the black, high-collared work suit that hugged her curves. "I wanted to check on you. See how you're doing with everything."
Shepard used to welcome his interruptions to her work. Lately, she just looked uncomfortable. "Oh. I… appreciate it. Just getting back in the swing of things. There's a lot to get done here." As he sat down next to her, she pulled her legs toward her chest and grabbed another data pad. Putting up barriers: her specialty.
Garrus wasn't going to let her get away that easily. The time had come to confront her about what happened. The words tumbled from his mouth. "Shepard, I know you have your own way of dealing with emotions and crap like that." She looked up at him, lashes fluttering as she blinked. "But it's killing me to know what - to see you like this," he quickly finished. That lost look she had in her eyes was unbearable.
Shepard let the data pad slip from her fingers. "So. Liara told you what they did to me."
"Yes. I asked her to give me access to the records. I've looked through nearly everything, and Shepard…" He reached out to rest his hand on her knee, but the second he made contact, she jerked away. Suddenly, she jumped off the bed.
"I know you mean well. But you need to trust that there is nothing that you can say or do to help me find peace or whatever." She began pacing, restless energy burning with in her. For some reason, she seemed on the edge of panic. "Even though I killed Kamala, the memory of what she did to my mind still haunts me. It was far worse than any of the beatings. It's the kind of pain that will never fade. Every day for the rest of my life, I will remember how it felt for her to destroy me from the inside."
"You don't have to bear that alone," Garrus told her, rising to his feet. "Don't push me away, Shepard. For once, just let me in." He took her hands and when she tried to withdraw, he held fast. She didn't resist.
"Garrus, I -" Her breath caught. Her deep red eyes flashed as they darted back and forth. Finally, she rested her gaze on Garrus. She was lost at sea and his blue eyes lit up like beacons on the shore, calling her home. "She broke me. She filled my head with lies and made me think that you were dead. All of you. And I believed her." She bit her lip. "I gave up, Garrus. I wasn't strong enough to resist." Her eyes closed, and Garrus thought he saw a few crystalline tears clinging to the edges of her lashes. "How am I supposed to fight the Reapers if I just surrendered to her like that?"
He hesitated. How can I respond to this? That Ardat-Yakshi demolished her faith in herself. What can I possibly tell her that can repair the damage? He smoothed her hair away from her face in one smooth, fluid motion. "You never completely succumbed. You didn't kill Kaidan, not even when the Ardat-Yakshi used all her strength to force you to pull the trigger. And as powerful as her biotics were, you managed to overcome her influence and defeat her."
He was so close, he could feel her trembling. "I would never have made it if you hadn't come for me," she breathed.
"I'll never leave you, Shepard. Whatever the Reapers or Cerberus have to throw at us, I promise that I will be right there to pick you up and dust you off when you fall."
Her trembling ceased and she looked up at him. "I'm holding you to that, Vakarian." His mouth parted to respond but before he could get the words out, Shepard silenced him with a rough kiss. Her face felt damp from the tears, but he could tell she was done crying.
She pressed against him, backing him up toward the bed. She was consumed by the desire to be as close to him as possible, and to create new memories with her lover that were completely her own. Her fingers fumbled at the fastenings of his armor. Garrus tore his gloves off with his teeth then moved to help. How he'd yearned for her, not knowing whether he'd ever be able to hold her again, to run his hands over her skin…
"I thought I'd lost you for good, too," he whispered to her.
"I'm here now." He seized her by the waist and kissed her fiercely. Shepard flopped back onto the bed, dragging him down with her. She quickly discarded her clothing. Even if it was only for the night, there was nothing in the galaxy that could separate them.