Just a note to say that this story is still ongoing, and now that a few post-Christmas life things have been settled, I'm hoping to get back into regular updates. So I do apologise for that, and always a big thank you to everyone who's still adding this to favourites/alerts. Bioware owns nearly everything, and reviews are always welcome.

Chapter Forty-Two: Paths

He saw greyness, and briefly wondered if his eyes were even open yet. There had been dreams, he was almost certain, dreams and bits and pieces that were memories. The doctor, from her last drop-in, her voice brisk and clipped and incisive as always. He tried to grasp at it, whether she had already been here today, or whether he was remembering it slightly wrong again.

His hands clenched in the white sheets, crisp and cleanly folded. His thoughts swam again, uselessly. He waited while the unhelpful blur of his vision finally resolved into the lines of the wall and the desk on the other side and the array of blinking machines that tagged his pulse and his breathing and every awkward motion he tried to make.

It had been days – too many, and he had counted every one of them that he could remember – since Mars, and still each morning was like this, clumsy and slow.

Through narrowed eyes he saw the flat grey of the ceiling, and the curve of Liara's shoulder, and he could hear someone else pacing, too close, each step wincingly loud. He moved his mouth and Liara shook her head.

"No. Kaidan, it's alright. We're going to the Citadel. You'll be alright."

He fought through the ragged gaps in his thoughts. He remembered the shuttle, spinning down too close and too fast. He remembered the Cerberus scientist, doctor Eva something, Liara snapping out her name, and how she had bolted ahead of Shepard, too fast and too agile.

He remembered the scientist standing up, impossibly, wrapped in flame and her skin crackling away from whatever was underneath, all blackened metal and the punishing grip of her hands at his throat. The sudden swell of darkness and the baffling gulf in his thoughts.

He flipped the sheets down, his breathing easing. Patience, he thought, he needed stillness and patience and carefully he willed each prickling nerve steady. It had been the hours, the doctor'd said, the awful stopgap hours when he had been supine in the Normandy with Liara doing anything and everything she could with handfuls of medi-gel and hope. The stifling, shocking pressure around his neck and the way his helmet had buckled and how he had heard it as it had given way.

As carefully, he lowered his feet onto the floor and pushed himself upright. He stood, teeth gritted through the few lurching seconds of dizziness. He made it across the cool white floor to the locker, one hand braced hard against the wall while he fumbled around for a clean shirt. Kaidan sat at the vidscreen next, as he had every morning – morning, afternoon, whenever he clawed himself up out of the darkness that had its hooks under his skin - and cycled through the news channels.

Nothing new, and part of him wondered why he expected any different. Colony names that might have been the same as yesterday's reports, refugee numbers that he suspected were massaged down, and the insistence that the Citadel was fine, safe, the centre of everything, holding. Afterwards, he scrolled through his messages, as useless, as bland. Gaps of days that stretched into weeks and he flicked through them until he found himself staring at Admiral Hackett's frantic order, to cut losses on Earth and retreat, pull back, to swallow pride along with defeat and run.

No, he thought, and leaned back from the screen. Not a defeat if it might be the only way to square up some kind of survival later.

He thought of the day again, that day, the recollection of it swallowing the order of his thoughts. The morning had been bland, he remembered, and wondered why that detail stuck, knifing, the sky above HQ grey and rippling with cloud. Orders had called him in to present to the defense committee, and afterwards, he'd walked into Shepard and said something and even now he was not quite sure how long it had taken, after that. Long enough to stop and stand and talk with Lieutenant Vega, swapping introductions and brief words. Long enough to hear how the thrum of conversation around them was changing, turning terse and harried.

Long enough to suddenly, fiercely, wish he'd kept his armour strapped on before the floor tilted and all he could taste was heat.

Outside, the air was worse, scorched, painful when he gulped it down. Overhead the sky was thick with smoke and the dark, glossy shapes of the Reapers as they moved, clawed legs unfurling as they sank into the ground. Somewhere nearby, another landed, the impact of it nearly throwing him off his feet.

His hands were bare and sweat-streaked and wrapped around a rifle, the stock pulled tight against his shoulder. He was too aware of the drag of his fatigues, and the way he was already aching from how he'd hit the floor when a Reaper ship had torn its way through Alliance HQ.

Beside him, Lieutenant Vega gestured to a shadowed avenue winding between two buildings, thick with rubble and the flaming shells of two shuttles. "There?"

"Yeah," Kaidan answered. "Quickly."

They'd need to get higher, he thought, higher and start shouting into comms and work out just who might be still standing, in the air or on the ground.

It was tortuous, picking a path through the avenue and up, through streets choked with debris. He could smell the raw stink of the dead, and too close, he was sure he heard the rapid thud of footsteps. As quickly, husks wheeled around the corner ahead, their feet smacking hard against the ground and their gaping, empty faces tilting up.

He hurled a surge of blue energy at them, knocking two flat and sending a third pinwheeling into the wall. Vega flanked him, the rattle of his first volley tipping the other two over. As cautiously, they cleared the rise. Kaidan paused, the slow thrum of his biotics flaring. He motioned Vega towards the slant of a crumpled wall, the stone pitted black and still warm.

Kaidan crouched, his gaze flicking up to the rippling pewter sky above. He noted too many ships already wrapped in flame, toppling against each other, others darting in between, some arcing madly past the vast bulk of the Reapers. He swallowed, his tongue scraping dry against the inside of his mouth.

"Plan?" Vega asked.

"Find someone else to talk to." He snapped his comm unit on, his fingers slipping slightly. "This is Major Alenko. We're barely two clicks north of Alliance HQ. Anyone hearing me?"

He tried again, and again, hearing the static rustling in response.

"Guess everyone's busy," Vega muttered. "Want to make a run further?"

"We still clear?"

"Looking clear."

"Give me a minute."

For a brief, wrenching moment he floundered through welling panic. Once more he shouted into the comm unit, name and location and request. Somewhere beneath his feet, he could feel the shuddering sound of what he knew had to be a Reaper, another one, however many there were, too many of them and all of them pulling the city apart.

Overhead, the roar of a turning ship filled the sky. The static rose and hissed and resolved into someone's voice.

"…Normandy, hearing you. Go ahead."

"Normandy," Kaidan repeated, marveling. "Joker?"

"Yeah. Who've you got?"

"I'm on the ground with Lieutenant Vega. Do you have a lock on our position?"

"We see you," Joker said tersely. "We'll swing around and pick you up. Keep yourselves clear."

"Will do."

He waited, shoulders rigid. He looked up, trying to see through the roiling smoke for the familiar shape of the ship.

"Kaidan?" Joker's voice again, harried and crackling.

"Still here."

"Where's Shepard? You see her?"

"I don't know," he said, the words leaden. "Don't know. HQ got torn apart. She could be anywhere."

"Okay," Joker said heavily. "Coming in. Look up and you'll see us."

Through the smoke he saw it, the sleek lines of the Normandy as she sank, all graceful, easy movement, the nosecone dipping slightly until she hovered. Part of his thoughts noted how much bigger she was, and briefly he wondered if he'd still know his way through the tangle of corridors inside.

He had known – he'd read it, the report, staring at the dry stark details of what he'd known was a Cerberus ship, shining white and black and stamped with Cerberus signs and only carrying the right name because Cerberus had dragged Shepard in. This, he thought, this was different, the ship glossy after however many months drydocked and worked over, the colours all changed again.

"Can't hold here long," Joker said.

"On our way."

Motioning Vega ahead of him, he cleared the rise. Somewhere behind, he heard the sliding sound of footsteps, dragging through loose stone, kicking past crumpled metal. As briskly, he crossed the last of the distance and then he was hurling himself up, clawing onto the ramp and further in, his boots skidding.

"Vega?"

"Good," the lieutenant snapped.

"We're in."

"Copy," Joker answered.

Kaidan dragged himself upright by the time the ramp snicked shut. He was sweat-soaked, he realised, his fatigues clinging to his shoulders. He felt the surge of the engines and desperately, he tried to sort through his thoughts.

Reapers, and they were digging through the city while he stood here, his hands flat against one of the workbenches, the rifle hanging heavy and unwieldy against his hip.

"Move up to the CIC," Joker said. "Our comm specialist will walk you through what we know."

Vega grinned crookedly, his face grimy beneath sweat and dirt and the clinging shadows of the day. "And that is?"

"About an inch more than nothing."

"Plan?" Kaidan asked, halfway to the elevator.

"We're finding Shepard. Then we can talk about a plan."

Kaidan shoved himself away from the screen. He remembered how he'd stumbled his way up through to the CIC, the vicious knowledge of it – Reapers, Earth, and they'd known, they'd known since Virmire – robbing his mind of clarity. How he'd heard the hiss and click of the comm unit again, and then Anderson's voice, harried and frantic and something about the harbour.

Methodically, he silenced the furious whirl of his thoughts. The day would bring another round from the doctor, he knew, and another stack of examinations, and another warning to keep the biotics hushed up. He'd walk out and into the Citadel wards later, he supposed, slowly and cautiously, since there was little else to do except sit here in the circling mire of his own thoughts.

On the edge of the desk, the comm button buzzed.

He reached for it and answered, "Alenko."

"Major. You're up?"

Udina, he realised. Councilor Udina, since Earth, and his voice was clipped and impatient. "Yes," he said, slightly wary. "What can I do for you, Councilor?"

"There is something we need to discuss."

"Shall I come up to your office?"

"Don't bother," Udina replied crisply. "I'll be there within the hour."


Joker glared at the cooling dregs in his mug for a long moment. Automatically, without looking up, he noted the slow slew of the ship as she straightened around, the kick of the engines as they hiked up. "Clear in the landing bay?"

"Clear," Shepard answered brusquely. "Get us going when you're ready."

"On our way already."

He leaned back in the chair, his gaze finding the sliding data on the screens and the blur of the darkness beyond them. Some backwards no-name sector of space, he knew, and they'd spent too many tiresome hours here, the ground team hopping down to some stifling concrete jungle of a colony to chase Cerberus troops around. Briskly, he slapped the mug down and turned his attention the glowing keyboard. He tapped in three tiny adjustments, his fingers shifting with practiced ease.

Six minutes later he heard armoured footsteps against the companionway, measured and deceptively light. He shifted the chair slightly and said, "Hey, Garrus. How'd it go?"

"Good," the turian answered. He paused, shrugged, and amended, "Well, as good as it was going to. Civilians on the ground, running scared."

"Getting in the way?" Joker said, more waspishly than he'd meant to.

Mildly, Garrus said, "Just makes it more complicated. You get why they're scared, but you can't always get them to understand."

Joker scrubbed roughly at the back of his cap. "Sorry."

"It's okay. We got it done." Garrus' head tipped slightly to one side. "EDI's fine. Just running through a debrief with Shepard."

Joker exhaled sharply. "Okay, good. I mean, thanks for saying."

She'd explained it two days ago, clipped and precise and he'd understood, understood why she wanted to get off the ship, why he shouldn't worry, because she knew her way round her own damn circuits, and still, stupidly, he'd worried. He'd sat restless in his seat since the shuttle had touched down, remembering how she'd said it, that her platform's capabilities clearly encompassed combat, and stealth, and how she was curious as to how this body might perform.

He'd bitten back what he'd really wanted to retort and nodded.

"Hey, yeah. If you want to, then, yeah. Go for it."

"I have spoken to Commander Shepard. She is willing to let me test this body's capabilities."

"Great."

"In fact," Garrus added. "I think she probably got shot at less than I did."

"You're a bigger target."

"Fair point."

He swiveled the chair round properly, tilting his head back so he could see the turian's face, all severe angles. "So what did you make of Cerberus and their latest attempt to piss us off?"

"That was the odd part," Garrus answered. He leaned back against the side of the co-pilot's chair. "Hackett's original report suggested they were herding civilians, targeting them."

"Human civilians?"

Garrus' teeth flashed in something close to a brief smile. "Yeah. And yeah, it was weird. Not like them at all."

"Damn. And we spent months running around pretending to be them."

"Pretending to be working with them."

"There's a difference?" Joker sighed. "Yeah. There's a difference."

"You see anyone else who was happy to stand up and run after the Collectors all the way out to the ass-end of space and back?"

Joker smiled. "No, I guess not. And I'm not sure I'd say happy."

"We can call it duty if it makes you feel better."

"It does. A little."

Garrus' gaze sharpened, raking over him. "You okay?"

"Fine," he said. "Tired."

"I get that. You're always welcome to come lose a hand of cards to me some time."

"Sounds like a challenge. Remind me some day when I don't have to dodge Reaper signals."

"Is it random?" Garrus asked. "The Reapers, I mean. Their patterns."

"Don't know," he answered honestly. "Sometimes I think, no, absolutely not. Planned to within an inch of whatever the hell it is they're up to. They circled Earth and cut us off in hours, and not very many hours at that, and I'd swear they damn well chased the Normandy to Mars."

"But?"

Joker pushed back the urge to grin at the studied, slightly determined tone in the turian's voice. Pushing towards angles and queries and briefly he remembered how it'd been years ago, the turian in the briefing room and picking through every line and unanswered question in the info they'd gathered on Saren. Stone-skulled obstinacy, he'd thought at the time, but he was damned if he'd ever confess that sometimes it worked.

"But we're moving all over the place. Half the time it's got to be random. They're attacking everything they can, not just us."

"Not sure if that makes me feel better or not," Garrus muttered.

"You were thinking of what Harbinger said. Or what all those – whatever – you know, what they did with the Collectors."

"Yeah." Garrus shrugged. "That and getting up too close with Sovereign, and then the damn Reaper scout at the Shroud and suddenly I'm seeing personally vindictive Reapers everywhere."

"You and the rest of the galaxy."

"Well," Garrus said wryly, and straightened away from the co-pilot's chair. "When you put it like that."


Four days later, Garrus stepped into their quarters, aware of the heavy encasing press of his armour and the stinging burn of exertion under it. A brief drop-off onto some snow-ridden, forsaken corner of Noveria had turned into a fifteen-hour stand-off with Cerberus troops, and more than once, he'd silently cursed whatever determination it was that pushed the Cerberus soldiers on, wave after wave of them. Sourly, he'd concluded that obligation had severe downsides when it entailed being holed up in a wind-raked station while every inching step outside got you nothing more helpful than shields buzzing out and the rattle of gunfire too close overhead.

Trailing him, Shepard keyed the door closed. "Hey," she said, the word half stifled by a yawn. "You warmed up yet?"

"I'll live."

Gently, she nudged him. "Told you you could stay on the ship."

"Yeah, yeah. And pass up the opportunity to complain about Cerberus and the cold?"

"Still," Shepard remarked. "No rachni."

He unslung his rifle onto the workbench. "After Utukku, that's hardly a guarantee any more, packed full of Reaper tech or otherwise."

"True. Though I am at least hoping the latter will stick to their promise this time and not try and eat, kill or otherwise harm us."

He straightened up in time to see her regarding him, not censuring. "What is it?"

"You," she answered softly. "You know, you don't have to run your ass into the ground all the time."

"Like I have anything better to do." He peeled his gloves off, the thick undersides still smelling of the sharp, glacial air they'd spent the day wrapped up in. "It's frustrating, I guess. It doesn't make sense, but sometimes, when we spend so long chasing Cerberus, I keep wondering whether we're missing something really important that the Reapers are cooking up somewhere."

"That does make sense." She flipped her helmet over, her fingers running under the edges, checking for scrapes or nicks or the needling persistence of pressure damage. "I suppose it would make it easier if the Reapers just sent us a nice, sparkly, detailed map with their intentions clearly spelled out."

"Maybe we should file a request," Garrus said drily.

"Very funny."

He reached for the catches on her armour, shoulder pieces and arm coverings first, until he could feel the heat of her beneath. She did the same for him, reaching up so she could start at his neck until she hauled him across the room and into the shower.

It was slow and slightly clumsy, the two of them stumbling against each other under the spray until Shepard spluttered. He laughed and guided her back out, dripping and half draped in a towel and as indolently, they ended up tangled on the couch. She rolled above him, her damp hands trailing across his chest, tracing the dips and ridges there, the softer patches above. He cupped her hips and saw her answering smile, flushed and warm and wanting. Tenderly, he eased into her, and the shuddering hitch of her breath against his mouth made him ache.

Afterwards, she flopped full-length against him, her head buried under his chin and her hands wrapped around one of his. "Not moving," she mumbled.

"Never?"

"Eventually. Maybe."

He bit back the urge to laugh. As carefully, he straightened up slightly, carrying her with him. She muttered something about treachery and curled herself around him instead. Minutes later she was asleep, or very close to it, the tense lines in her face loosening, and the rhythm of her breathing relaxing. He'd felt it in her on Tuchanka, this marrow-deep exhaustion that she hadn't quite shaken off, that she probably hadn't shaken off since Earth.

Hell, he thought. He'd barely shaken it off since Palaven.

Garrus stayed there, moving once, leaning over her slightly so that he could scoop up one of the datapads he'd left on the table. He tipped the flat of it against her shoulder and flicked it on, his gaze finding Primarch Victus' update.

Drydock ships to be kicked into gear and shined up and sent off to Hackett's fleets, and communication lists between Palaven Command and a handful of incoming krogan vessels. Transmissions between Menae and Palaven were still sketchy, he read, luck of the day and the distance and whether the Reapers circling the planet had their attention fixed and pinned or otherwise. Pushing forward and back at the same time, he thought, and somehow he made himself read through the rest of it, because he'd sworn five times over to the Primarch that he'd keep at it, because he had to.

He lasted another thirty minutes before he was too aware of Shepard's sprawled, languid weight across his lap, her head pillowed on the inside of his thigh. Very gently, Garrus touched the back of her neck, his fingers skimming across clean skin and into the spiky mess of her hair. She stirred, arching into his palm.

"Sorry," Shepard muttered. "Fell asleep on you?"

"Yeah," he answered.

"You weren't doing anything important?"

"Reading through a report."

"The report that I think is on my back right now?"

"Yeah."

"That's so romantic."

"I thought so."

She grinned, lopsided and drowsy. "You're finished?"

"Getting there," he said, and threw the datapad back onto the table.

"I'm not taking the blame for any slacking off here."

"Not even if I give you a really good reason to?"

"Well," she said, and shifted over and up so that she had her hands flat on his shoulders. "Maybe if it's really good."

He had time to laugh before she'd yanked him down beside her, one leg up over his hips and one hand busy tracing distracting circles under his fringe and against the back of his neck. The unhurried, easy pleasure of it made his stomach tighten, how she took what seemed like so long to map out the angles of his face, markings and scars and all. The way her lips followed her fingers until he could taste her at the corners of his mouth, lingering. He traced the line of her shoulder and then in, under the dip of her collarbone.

"I just," he said, and the words ran dry. "Hell. I'm sorry. Not making any sense. You know what's insane?"

"Take your pick," she suggested archly. "Start with the Reapers and then work down."

"Very funny." He cupped her hands between his, her fingers sliding between his, softer on the inside and strong. "I know everything's gone to hell – still going to hell. But, ah. This feels good. You and me, I mean."

He heard the way her breathing caught, the sound barely-there. "Yeah," she said. "It does."

"I guess," he said, and weighed the words. "I guess I saw that tower fall apart on Tuchanka and well, you start thinking. It's easy to push it all to the back of your head and then it happens to someone on your ship. Well, your ship."

Something softened in her face, in the way her eyes were on his, dark and thoughtful, and he knew she'd read straight through him, careful words and mild tone be damned.

"Yeah," she answered. "I understand. I do. And sometimes saying it through is the only thing that makes sense."

"Even if it sounded so much smoother in my head?"

"Wouldn't be the first time."

"I'm wounded," he said wryly.

"You'll live."

Shepard moved first, her hands clasping his waist and dipping lower, teasingly. His thoughts went helplessly, wonderfully blank. He buried his face against the side of her neck, against the warmth there that smelled of them both, soap and skin and sweat. His tongue found the fluttering place where her pulse leaped.

"You know," she said, and he felt her laughing, her whole frame shaking with it. "That's somewhat unfair."

"Only somewhat? That sounds like a challenge."


The tail end of the redeye watch brought a garbled distress call. Shepard jolted out of sleep in time to hear Joker fielding it through to their quarters, EDI already picking her way through it. Listening to the bare-bones detail, she fastened her armour on, groused her way through lukewarm coffee, and briefly wished whoever the hell was in trouble could've left her an extra hour or two of downtime for civility's sake.

Cerberus, Shepard thought an hour later, needed to stop digging fingers and interests into every fucking tiny corner of the galaxy, and she needed to know just how the hell Jack had managed to latch herself onto the Alliance as an instructor.

"Vega," she snapped into her comm. "Tell me what you see down there."

"Same as before," he answered, half-blurred by static. "We got a room full of the bastards, and too much space to run around in."

"Okay. You take front, EDI with you. Moving slow and careful. Don't outpace yourselves. Liara?"

"Shepard?"

"I want you covering those kids, you hear me?"

"All the way to the shuttles," Liara answered fiercely.

"Good." She twisted slightly, eying the open stretch of white corridor. "Got a guess at our chances?"

Beside her, Garrus shrugged. "The way they've been pouring around the corners? Give us ten feet before we get swamped."

"Damn. You're cranky when you get woken up early."

He laughed, a clipped, terse sound. "You and me both."

"Fair point." She waited an instant longer, taking in the low thrum of noise, somewhere below, and the deceptive silence of the corridor ahead. Sanders had called the students – they were kids, Shepard thought, viciously, and they'd been minutes away from being hauled off by Cerberus – away and through to the main hall and yet she couldn't quite quell the needling uncertainty of it.

"Okay," she said. "I'll move up first. Time your movement, and time your shots twice as sharp."

"Got you," Garrus answered.

Close walls and cramped ceilings made for wretched, too-quick decisions, and she heard her own thoughts in his voice, that the Cerberus troops they'd already run into had been hurtling as if they had fire behind them. What was here, she wondered, what was here or who was here that made it so damn important to the Illusive Man and whatever it was he'd vowed he was planning. She remembered his words on Mars, glacial and measured and startlingly as brisk as an afterthought.

"I'm improving them."

Six crouched steps took her to the sweep of the corner, and another three rolled her past. A rattle of gunfire followed, fierce and deafening, burrowing into the floor behind her heels as she kicked clear and past the rise of a pillar.

"Shepard," Garrus said, almost wearily. "I hear what I think I just heard?"

"Yes, yes, you did. They have a nice shiny turret out there."

"Lovely."

She bit back a grin and gauged the distance from the pillar. Pale walls, she noticed, all open space and an arched chamber that would be a bitch to get themselves stranded in. "I got it."

The arcing thump of a grenade half toppled the turret, the barrel of it still spitting bullets, juddering wildly. A follow-up volley sent it tipping over, all coils of thick smoke and a mess of sparks. She registered running footfalls next, and had time enough to settle her shoulder against one side of the pillar before she saw the first of them, white-armoured and moving fast.

Her first round sliced the feet out from under one of the Cerberus soldiers, and the next knocked another onto his knees, hands flailing up to the ruin of his throat. She heard the familiar, measured sound of Garrus firing, each shot precise and snake-fast. Three more of them crumpled. Launching upright, she darted past the pillar, her boots snapping hard against the floor. Eight more hurtled steps took her across the room.

The thudding impact of a round against her shoulder stole her breath and poise and she staggered. Heartbeats later she was up and moving, aware of the dull whine of her shields as they buzzed flat. She spun, and swore when she registered one of them closer than she'd assumed, steps closer, his rifle lifting and leveling at her. Wildly, she snapped the barrel of his rifle aside with the flat of one arm. The round whipped past her head, the burst of heat and sound shockingly close. She twisted closer, another half-step taking her inside his guard. An elbow to the side of his neck sent him stumbling away from her. She straightened in time to see him topple, half his head gone.

"Clear?" Garrus asked.

"Clear. You know I had him."

"Wasting time dancing around."

She mustered up a half-decent glare. "Critic. Thanks."

The severe lines of his mouth shifted into a small smile. "You're welcome."

"Liara, you hear me?" Shepard paused under the last arch. Through open doors she noted the white expanse of another corridor, untenanted.

"We're at the shuttles," Liara responded, slightly harried. "They were very persistent."

"On our end as well."

"No casualties, Shepard."

"Good," she said, sighing the word out. "Give us two minutes and we'll catch you."


Jack was prowling, Shepard thought, that same tight-shouldered motion she'd seen whenever they'd crashed headlong into the clamour of a Cerberus firefight. Even now, however long later and with the reek of combat scrubbed off and still, she understood. Sitting on the couch, both booted feet slung up and crossed on the table, she watched as Jack paced the length of the cabin again.

"Okay," Shepard said mildly. "Given that you slugged me in the jaw earlier, I think I'm owed some kind of decent story."

"Fairly sure you deserved it."

"Debatable."

"You'll get over it."

"Somehow, I'm sure."

Jack turned, halfway between the armour locker and the workbench. "Heard about Earth. Rough as it sounded?"

"Wasn't easy. Hell," Shepard said, amending. "It was fucking hard. Seeing it and then leaving it."

"Yeah." Jack sat, perching on the end of the couch, both hands flat over her knees. "You still rolling around with the turian?"

"Rolling and a few other somewhat more interesting activities."

Jack laughed, the sound short and clipped. "Glad someone's having some fun." Her hands darted again, brushing her shoulders and the trailing end of her hair, swept back and tied. "I pulled some files from the academy. Well, I lifted some files from the Cerberus bastards while they were plugging into our systems. Nothing spectacular, but still enough of a fucking suggestion that they're interested in pulling in biotic recruits."

"Your words or theirs?"

"Theirs." Jack grinned, all teeth. "I assumed it meant collecting people for the cause. Whatever the hell the cause is."

"That's the tricky part. Honestly, I'm not sure. To a point, I guess I get that bit about wanting humanity to come through not just breathing but somewhere on top."

"You think there's more to it."

"Yeah, I do, and I notice that that wasn't a question." Shepard shrugged and added, "We ran into the Illusive Man a while back."

Briefly, she ran through it, Mars and the archives, and the Illusive Man's voice, clipped and controlled.

"Improving them," Jack echoed, her lips twisting. "Fucking bastard. Tell me you're going to split his fucking head from his shoulders someday."

"Should the option come up," Shepard said. "Count on it."

"Good."

"What are your plans?"

Jack shrugged. "Get my kids checked out after this fuck-up and see where we can be useful."

"Wasn't a fuck-up, Jack."

"They blindsided us," Jack said crisply. "Should've seen it. Something like it."

"You can't see everything."

"Doesn't mean it feels any good afterwards."

"No," Shepard said, softer. "It doesn't."

"Yeah, so," Jack said, and frowned. "Glad you were, you know. In the area."

Shepard stifled a smile. "Yeah, well. I just wanted to know how the hell you got yourself mistaken for a responsible citizen."

"Nothing better to do," Jack snapped. "That and maybe, hell. Maybe I spent too much time around you and picked up some of your worst habits."

"Charming."

"I know. Hey, Shepard?"

"Yeah?"

"Good to see you're still breathing."