"Come see me in engineering when you get back. Urgent. -T"
Garrus plucked the handwritten note written on a purple stick-it from the hatch to the forward battery. Tali is at it again, he thought and folded the note between his talons. He sighed and walked slowly back down the stairs towards the lift.
Mess Sergeant Gardner nodded at the turian as he passed by the galley a second time. "Forget something?"
Garrus held up the note as he walked. "Nope. Just another present from my secret admirer. How long ago was she up here?"
"Bout ten minutes. She went in to see the Doc right afterwards. Maybe you can catch her."
"Thanks," Garrus said, his eyes turning toward the med bay windows. The compartment was empty and the Doctor nowhere in sight. He wondered what had gotten under Tali's suit this time? Ever since coming aboard, she had been obsessed with the idea that Cerberus was spying on her and everyone on the ship. So when she had something important to discuss, she wouldn't use the comm channels or instant messenger because it might be monitored. Instead she'd leave cryptic notes for secret meetings when she wanted to talk about something sensitive, which usually meant a field trip to the drive core.
But, Garrus had to remind himself, she'd only been on the ship for a few weeks and hadn't had time to adjust and trust the new crew like he had. She just needed time.
Besides, it gets you out of the battery, Garrus thought. He'd been spending far too much time in there as it was. After two months on the new Normandy, he was almost finished calibrating the weapon systems to peak efficiency. Another day or two and he'd be done with it, he was sure. He could afford to take a little time off. He sauntered through the mess, waving or nodding at the off-duty personnel sitting around the tables as he made his way to the lift.
"Garrus!" Tali stood up from the rail overlooking the drive core. Joker and Chakwas both stood with their back to the access way but turned when Tali said his name. The throbbing hum of the mass effect generators filled the chamber.
"Well isn't this a nice little gathering," Garrus said, joining the small circle. "Should we call Shepard down here? Make it a proper reunion?"
At the mention of Shepard's name, Tali stiffened and began to pace. "That's what we're here to talk about."
"A reunion?" Garrus glanced about. "Let me guess. You're having trouble picking out a centerpiece for the table?"
"No." Tali glared at him. "We're talking about Shepard!"
Joker gave Garrus a here-we-go-again look.
"What about him?"
Tali pulled up her omnitool. "I've noticed something. Every time the Normandy has docked at the Citadel, Shepard checks himself out and is gone an extra hour. We've been back four times since I've been on board. And each time-"
Garrus cleared his throat. It was no secret that on the original Alliance Normandy, Tali had a strange habit of turning up wherever the Commander happened to be almost any time he wasn't in CIC. It stopped being coincidence the day Kaiden observed Tali entering and leaving the galley five times carrying her protein shake. It turned out Shepard had his regular lunch delayed by a lengthy call to the Council. And on her sixth pass through Tali "happened" to run into him and he invited her to sit and eat with him. After that, her excursions throughout the ship in search of her crush became legendary. Garrus peered at the quarian from under his brow. "Tali, you're not... uh... stalking him again, are you?"
Tali held up her omnitool. "No. I was just going over his- hey! Stalking him?"
Her friends stared at her silently.
"I never-! I didn't! So you honestly think I...?"
Joker hmm-ed and nodded. "Yeah, ya kinda did. It was a little creepy, even for me."
"I was just trying to familiarize myself with the ship," Tali protested. "It was my duty as assistant engineer!"
Chakwas smiled warmly at Tali. "I thought it was sweet. I don't think he minded at all."
"Wait, does Shepard think I was...?" Tali leaned against the railing, suddenly out of breath. "Oh, keelah..."
"You weren't fooling anyone," Garrus said. "Even Wrex knew, and he wasn't exactly up on the social scene."
Tali gave an exasperated gasp.
"Geez, Tali." Joker sounded hurt. "You never stalked me. She stalk you at all, Garrus?"
"Never." Garrus held up Tali's note between his talons. "All I get are post-its, and they're never very romantic..."
"You are deliberately misinterpreting my actions!" Tali switched off her omni. "Nice to see some things never change. And here I was worried you two might have actually grown up!"
"Don't pay them any attention, dear," Chakwas said. "What were you wanting to tell us?"
"I was saying..." Tali glared at the two males who were still busy smirking at each other and reactivated her omnitool. "Any time he goes off the ship, Shepard has to log himself out with the warden-"
"Warden?" Chakwas asked.
Garrus leaned close to the Doctor's ear. "Miranda."
Tali continued, holding her omni for the others to inspect. "He always logs where he'll be going and how long he'll be."
"And?" Garrus asked, now missing his calibrations.
"And recently, each time we dock, there's a window when he's unaccounted for." Tali brought up her records. "You can see the people he's logged himself as visiting here, and side trips to see friends like Anderson here, even time taken shopping for souvenirs. But then there are gaps when he just... disappears."
Garrus winced at the collection of data. The amount of detail was disturbing. "Don't you think this is a little obsessive?"
Tali flung her hands to her sides. "These are Cerberus records, not mine! I keep telling you, they're tracking all of us like this!"
"That's them." Garrus' voice was firm. "Not us. We're supposed to be better than they are."
"We are," Tali said. "But Shepard never goes anywhere alone. He always takes somebody with him. But now it's like he's trying to hide something."
"Well if Cerberus is spying on him, they must not be too worried about what he's during this missing time. No one has made any mention of it before."
"My point exactly." Tali began to pace. "They may be responsible for it. We don't know what Cerberus did to him while they had him, or what they're making him do. It's not like him to just... wander off like that without telling anybody."
The two humans and the turian all glanced at one another uncertainly.
Garrus shrugged. "Tali, the Commander is... the Commander. I've been back with him for a while now, and I assure you he's fine. Whatever he's doing out there, I'm sure there's a perfectly logical explanation. And the man is entitled to some privacy, don't you think?"
"Precisely," Chakwas said.
"Psh," Joker snorted. "There's no mystery. He's banging some chick somewhere." Tali took a swipe at the helmsman, who had wisely taken a step back as he said it.
"Look," Tali said after composing herself, "Shepard asked each of us to watch him for unusual behavior, in case Cerberus did do something to him. We can't ignore this. We're not just his crew, we're his friends. And I'm telling you, something is wrong here." When her shipmates all started to look randomly around the room, she pushed past Garrus and Joker. "But if none of you care enough to find out, fine. I'll go by myself."
The three of them watched her go in guilty silence. Garrus groaned and started after her. "Tali, wait up."
"I'm coming too," Chakwas said, giving Joker a scowl and a beckoning finger.
Joker rolled his eyes and slowly hobbled after them. "Great. This doesn't have disaster written all over it."
"He got off on level 29," Tali said, following the blip on her omnitool's mapping application.
Garrus pressed his head against the clear plexi wall of the elevator, eyes closed. "I can't believe you bugged Shepard."
Tali looked up, surprised. "How else are we supposed to find out where he's going? He'll never find out if we don't tell him. Don't worry so much."
"Why worry?" Garrus asked. "We're just off the ship without permission so we can spy on our captain. There's no way this will come back to haunt us."
Doctor Chakwas also had her face against the windows of the elevator, but her eyes were wide open. She never got tired of looking across the wards of the Citadel. Between the massive supports of the lift, a tubular cityscape stretching as far as the eye could see, backlit by the glowing purple inferno of the Serpent Nebula. Vistas like this were one of the reasons she could never settle planetside. She listened quietly to the conversation next to her.
Joker propped himself tiredly against the handrail. He didn't care what was going on one way or another, at least that's the image he was trying to project. The walk to the lift nearly wiped him out. He could have stayed behind, but he knew whatever the outcome of this, it was going to be epic. "Where the hell did you pick up a homing device, anyway?"
Tali scoffed. "I sent some of my veils down to the ship's laundry two weeks ago because I got really busy with the drive core. When they came back, somebody wove one into the fabric of my favorite head scarf." She emphasized somebody with an especially distasteful sneer. "As if I wouldn't notice. I re-purposed it in case it might come in handy. I never thought I'd be using it on Shepard, though."
"You're cute when you're paranoid," Joker said. His eyes drifted up to his hat. He slowly pulled the SR2-emblazoned ballcap from his head and started feeling along its brim and stitching.
Garrus took a step toward Tali and attempted to shut off her omnitool. "This is going too far."
She pulled it out of his reach. "Hey! What are you- stop that!"
"Turn it off!"
Tali squirmed in all directions to keep her omnitool away from Garrus's hands while the Chakwas and Joker looked on. "Stop it!"
The turian, half a meter taller and half again her mass, used his bulk to push her towards the wall. "Don't make me put you in a choke hold."
With her small stature, Tali twisted easily away, hiding her omnitool behind her back. "You'll be glad there's a doctor here if you try it!"
"Wait, stop," Joker shouted. They stopped and stared at the human, who stepped forward with his data pad, its camera facing them. "You were out of frame. OK, go!"
Garrus plucked the pad from Joker's hand and held it out in front of Tali without looking back at her. Unconcerned about the previous struggle, Tali brought her omnitool up and held it up to Joker's device. It sparked, then fizzled and the pad screen went dark with a tiny puff of black smoke to mark its passing. Garrus offered the burned out remains back to Joker.
"Dude!" Joker snatched it back with a disgusted look. "Not cool."
Tali crossed her arms. "I hope you have a good disaster recovery plan."
"Awww, there goes my vid collection," Joker groaned and staggered to the far corner of the lift, trying fruitlessly to boot his ruined datapad. Chakwas glanced over her shoulder, a thin smile on her face, then turned back to the window.
Tali looked up at Garrus with apology evident in her eyes. "Think we can play nice?"
"I think we can," Garrus said, feeling a little ashamed himself. "Sorry. "
"Me too." Tali shook her head and gave a soft laugh. "Since when does Garrus Vakarian worry about playing by the rules?"
Garrus hung his head. Hothead. Insolent. Renegade. Rule-breaker. Every one of his commanders from his days of civic service, through Spectre candidacy, to his time at C-Sec used those words to describe him and ultimately drive him from their ranks. His father had all but disowned him because of it. There was only one person in the universe that Garrus ever followed without question because, even more than himself, he always believed in doing the right thing. "I have too much respect for the man to spy on him like this," Garrus said quietly.
Tali tilted her head back so he could see her eyes. "And I care too much about him to turn my back in case he's in trouble. I just want to be sure. Okay?"
"Okay." Garrus turned back toward the window just as the view disappeared behind the walls of a solid elevator shaft. They were entering Zakera ward proper. He flashed back to a young turian police officer and quarian girl on her pilgrimage, bickering on these very same elevators as their new commander tried to keep the peace. In actuality, it was only three years before, but for both of them it seemed a lifetime. But now, they didn't need their referee to stop the fight. Just talking about him had been good enough.
Tali was right. Shepard's disappearances were unusual. And harmless or not, Garrus wanted to know what was going on. Partially because he still had an investigator's instinct, but mostly because he couldn't stand the thought of Shepard having to face any kind of trouble alone.
They rode the rest of the way down in silence except for the the tinny ersatz muzak emanating from the speakers hidden in the ceiling. Garrus sighed as the lift display ticked by, floor by floor.
"Damn it," he muttered. "Have these elevators always been this slow?"