Still here :) Huge thanks to everyone who's following and favouriting this story. As always, nearly everything belongs to Bioware, and reviews are always welcome.
Chapter Forty-Three: Questions
"Okay," Shepard said, and squinted again at the maze of blue lines and interlocking edges that floated above the small table. "That's everything they've done to it?"
Liara nodded. She gestured at one side of it – it, the plans, the tangled thing that had Hackett's resources scampering madly to make some sort of sense out of it all – and traced a jagged dipping line with one hand. "As of five days ago, according to Hackett's report."
Shepard snorted. "They're adding bits and pieces to it that fast?"
"Perhaps that desperately. And it's still no real guarantee that this project will amount to anything."
"And here I thought I'd already imagined everything that could possibly go wrong."
Liara laughed, the sound of it halfway to relief. "I'm sorry. That was a terrible thing to say."
"Not at all," Shepard told her mildly.
"I suppose I'm concerned that even with the time I spent with the plans on Mars, even with how I spoke to the Council about it, I suspect the project will need to have progressed significantly towards completion before, well," Liara said, and shrugged lightly.
"Before we'll know if we'll be able get it done any further."
"Okay. Anything else we need to go over?"
"Most of the comm traffic from my sources isn't good. Usually, at best I've got Glyph combing through information that tells us what we've lost." Liara hesitated, her eyes flickering. "Who we've lost."
"I know. That's the tough part."
"One report, though," Liara said. "Very short, bare details only. But if nothing changes on the follow-up, it seems that the Shanghai evacuated the colony of Uqbar."
Shepard leaned forward. "Alliance? How many did they get?"
"The initial report suggest all the colonists. I'd prefer to wait for confirmation, but," Liara said, and smiled.
"How'd they pull it off?"
"Shuttle runs, I read."
"A fucking lot of shuttle runs," Shepard said, quietly marveling. "That's good to know."
"Yes. Yes, it is."
For brief moments Liara sat wordlessly, her gaze indistinct and shifting somewhere between the floor and the pale spread of the wall. "Shepard, can I ask you something?"
"Actually, tell you something, I mean." Liara turned slightly, her hands sliding against the edge of the table. "I meant to come to Earth. After I was sent to Mars, I mean. Ridiculous that I thought I had too much to do."
Shepard grinned. "Doubt I'd've been very good company. Six months complaining to myself about the food, playing cards with Vega and memorizing the cloud patterns through my window. Not all that much to talk about."
"Still, I'm sorry."
"It's okay. I'm just impressed I managed to get you out of your office this evening for more than ten minutes."
"There's a lot of data coming in," Liara protested.
"Isn't that what the most helpful and enthusiastic information drone in the whole galaxy is for?"
"He's not that bad," Liara said, and paused. "You're making fun of me."
"Maybe a little."
"You know what trips me up at the moment?"
Shepard laughed. "Okay. I'll give you that one. You know when you're thinking one thing, and it doesn't stay where it should?"
"Yes," Liara answered, softer.
"Great catching up with Jack. Seeing her with her students, getting them all out." She remembered it, how Jack had finally let herself slow down, let the rock-hard tension bleed away until she was leaning back against the wall.
"Okay, give me some advice."
Shepard blinked. "About what?"
"My kids. They're tough, but they're not as tough as they think they are. I want them safe." Jack grinned. "Safe as I can make them."
"And the issue is?"
"I want them running back-up."
"You've been asked to ship them off to frontline combat?"
"Not yet," Jack said sharply.
"Okay," Shepard said. "I can give you a recommendation that they stay as support crew. I need you to know that I can't tell you how much help that will actually be in the long term."
"Yeah. I know. Fucking Reapers. Changing things up by the week."
"Yeah. They're good at that."
"Funny. Hey, Shepard? Thanks."
"But," she answered, and exhaled slowly. "I don't know. We landed the Normandy with a full crew those six months and a bit ago. That's a lot of people and a lot of names out there somewhere."
"Sorry." Shepard slouched back against the couch. She swung her feet up onto the table, planting them somewhere between two datapads and a half-folded set of fatigues. "That really wasn't very helpful."
Wryly, Liara said, "I'll survive, I promise."
She was halfway through summoning a retort when the comm button buzzed. Gracelessly, she lunged upright for it, slapping it on and mumbling, "Yeah?"
"Sorry, Commander," Traynor answered.
"No problem. What have you got?"
"Priority report and mission briefing from Admiral Hackett. I'm looking at a lot of data here, so I figured you might want it soon as possible."
"Good. What are we walking into this time?"
"It's about something called Task Force Aurora."
The wide, glittering ward arms of the Citadel were fiercely bright this early, slicing into the glow of the sunlight. Joker leaned deeper into his chair and eased the speed down another notch. Idly, he wondered how many times he'd made this landing. He'd silently counted past a dozen before the Alliance docking officials crackled their way onto the comm and clarified the ship's course. Mechanically he responded, and minutes later, he'd glided the ship in and through the gleaming curves of the shields.
Footsteps snapped against the walkway behind, and he said, "We're in, Commander."
"Nice flying," Shepard said, almost absently. "You prying yourself out of the ship?"
"We'll be here a while."
"That mean you've got an exciting day planned?"
"Depends. Does that include running all over the Citadel talking to people?"
"Rather you than me." Joker swiveled the chair slightly.
"Unless you hear otherwise, you've got six hours."
"What would otherwise count as?"
Shepard grinned crookedly. "Me, shouting at you to get the damn ship back in the air because I simply cannot handle another second of speaking to Councilor Udina."
"Fair point. And alright," he said, when she stayed there, half-leaning against the portside console. "I'm taking the hint."
Thirty-five minutes later he was out of the Normandy, halfway across some teeming plaza and mercifully sitting again, EDI on his other side. Opposite, Garrus settled himself in one of the chairs, James slouching next to him. They'd talked on the way through, and he'd listened, mostly, Garrus swapping old C-Sec stories with James, both of them vaguely agreeing about crowds in narrow corners and how quickly cramped terrain might turn into a bitch to work with.
He'd found himself watching EDI, the silent and sinuous way she'd walked beside him, never once quickening her pace beyond his, never once letting him catch her deliberately slowing for him, even when he'd stumbled at the steps twenty metres back.
"Okay. Vakarian, got a question," James said.
"The Reaper troops. The ground troops. You and the Commander saw them before, right?"
"The husks, yeah." Garrus nodded. "The ones that used to be human, I guess."
"What did you think?"
"Back then?" Garrus flattened his hands against the table. "Shepard and her ground team saw them way back on Eden Prime. Then we'd see them, remote planets, isolated locations. Usually a science team or a mining team or something, and they'd've been changed by something they found."
"Yeah," Joker said, quieter. "It was weird. Places tucked away that no sane person would look at. Send down a planetside team, you'd get a face-full of the things. Well, you would, being on the ground."
Garrus laughed. "Strangest part is that we used to think that husks were okay. Well," he amended. "Not okay."
James nodded. "I get it. And now the mess they make of turians, and rachni, and whatever the hell the big hefty bastards used to be."
"Yeah," Garrus said. "Which makes you wonder what we get to see next."
"You people are so bizarrely cheerful sometimes," Joker muttered. "When I get back to my cockpit, I'm never leaving it."
James responded, saying something mildly mocking that made him smile slightly. He leaned back until he felt the digging pressure of the chair and wondered why his thoughts were jumping, fitful like this. He'd been here God knew how many times, officially and less so and there was no damn good reason for the way his nerves were jangling.
Maybe, he thought, maybe he was just too tired. Maybe the ward was too loud, too busy, too thronged. Maybe he'd been shipboard too long.
He sat through the service because he knew he damn well had to, because he couldn't not be there. He made it through almost to the end before he swallowed thickly. Afterwards, he pushed upright and very carefully made his way out through the door and into the bigger hall beyond, where the walls were covered in shivering images of her. Alliance promo shots, he was almost sure, and unaccountably, it dug under his skin. Shining armour and the colours all prettied up and too bright.
At the door he found Garrus, the turian standing statue-still, his arms folded.
"Hey," Garrus said, his voice rough and flat.
"On the Citadel?" Joker shrugged. "I don't know. I just – yeah. Don't know."
"No," Garrus said heavily. "Me neither."
"You want to," Joker said, and shoved unsteady fingers through his hair. "You want to get out of here?"
The turian stayed silent all the way through the twisting corridors beyond, and as wordlessly, Joker trailed him into the crowded haze of the ward. Later, sitting with his hands wrapped around a mug of coffee, he stared at the twining steam and tried to muster up the desire to start drinking it. Opposite, the turian was staring at some point over his shoulder, his eyes all blank shadows.
Still, he thought almost sourly, at least he wasn't being asked questions. Wasn't having to stand rigid and formal, his dress blues too encasing, too distractingly unfamiliar. Wasn't being herded from group to group and saying the same raw words over and over.
We'll miss her. It shouldn't have happened like that. She's in our thoughts.
"So," Joker said, and tightened his hands around the mug. "Did you want to..?"
"Anderson told me how it happened."
"Good," he replied automatically, and winced. "I mean – God. My God. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. You know what I mean."
"Yeah." The silence stretched until Garrus moved, blinking, as if he'd begun shaking himself loose of whatever thoughts had their hold on him. "You okay?"
"Yeah," he lied. "Talked it through in debrief."
"Not the same."
He hunted for something else to say, something that might make sense of the swarming, guilty mess of his thoughts. "I feel like I don't know what to do," he said, blurting it out too quickly and too honestly.
"Yeah," Garrus said. "I know what you mean."
"You know, it was," he said, and the words failed, dry and thick suddenly.
"Don't know. I don't know."
Joker shifted, surfacing from the whirl of his thoughts in time to hear James ask, "So, EDI, you get tackled by security down here yet?"
"Not yet," she answered, slightly wry.
Joker grinned. "We decided we'd call her my personal assistance mobility mech."
"Assistance," James echoed, deadpan. "Right."
"Yeah, yeah. Keep laughing."
Shepard paused in front of the door, halfway to hesitating. She waited a half-second longer, squared her shoulders and knocked. She heard footsteps, and the familiar whirr of the lock clicking apart, and then she was looking at Alenko.
"Shepard," he said, mildly. "Thanks for coming."
"Just in the neighbourhood. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get back here."
"No, it's okay. There's a lot going on. I get it."
"Yeah, there is."
The words were hollow, she thought, useless and floating between them. She glanced at the spare, white confines of the room, all wall-to-ceiling windows and empty space. He was moving too slowly, she noted, slowly and carefully and with that taut kind of wariness that masked lingering pain.
Gently, Shepard asked, "How long's it taken?"
"Waking up didn't take all that long," he answered. "Everything else seems a bit tougher."
"You'll get there."
She chose one of the chairs by the windows and sat, her back to the glass and her elbows on her knees. The silence clawed at her, blanketing, and briefly she wondered where the hell to start.
"I keep seeing the oddest things on the Alliance news channels," he said, almost wistfully. "Something about Tuchanka?"
Despite herself, Shepard grinned. "Yeah, that was an interesting one."
"Interesting," he repeated. "Nice to see your customary method of interpretation hasn't changed."
"The way things are going, it's that or never sleep again."
"Yeah. Yeah, I know."
His words faded again, and when the quiet rushed back, she simply sat, waiting. Under the low spill of the lights he looked wrung through, all ashen pallor beneath thick dark hair.
"Did you see Councilor Udina today?"
"To my great delight," Shepard answered. "And yes, he mentioned the Spectre offer."
"Good." His gaze flicked up to meet hers before darting away again. "I wanted to ask want you think."
"I think if you think you can make something of it, say yes."
Alenko smiled, the movement brief. "That's diplomatic."
"Okay," she said, firmer. "But if I were you, if I said yes, I'd be damned sure not to get tied too close to Udina."
"That's the problem." Alenko scrubbed a hand over the back of his head. "We're falling apart. Earth's cut off, the Alliance is scattered, and I'm stuck here."
"Then you want to find me a suggestion for getting back to Earth before we're good and fucking ready that won't end up with us all getting killed?"
"No. I didn't mean that." His eyes flickered. "I meant that it feels like all my options got taken away. So if I'm going to make something of this, I have to do it the right way."
"Right." She heard her own voice grating and hauled back the flare of her temper. "My opinion's still the same. You'd make a good Spectre. You do what you can with what they give you." She shrugged. "Not entirely sure what you want me to say here."
"It's meant to be an honour. Just feels…"
"Something like that."
Shepard shifted against the back of the chair. The heavy press of the silence assailed her, and when she struggled to dredge up the right words, she failed. Time, she thought. Time and distance and maybe sometimes the edge does wear itself down until you can't dredge up anything useful to say that isn't a platitude.
"I guess it is an honour," she admitted. "In my case, it was also clearance to go chase Saren Arterius."
"Not just that."
"No. No, it wasn't then and it isn't now. But, hell. If the Council jumped at a reason to try out a human Spectre, then I jumped at the chance to dig right to the bottom of whatever Arterius was doing."
"I get it," Alenko said, and frowned.
"I don't know. I guess it's the politics of it that's bothering me." His mouth shifted into another fleeting smile. "And yes, I know this is the point where you tell me that human Spectres are never going to be anything but mired in politics."
The briefing room was still and silent this late, lit by the glow from the display above the main table. Shepard leaned on her elbows and made herself go over it again, just the one more time, blinking against the sudden swell of fatigue.
Assignment list from the Council, topped by some tiny rock of a planet that the mission notes helpfully explained would be likely scalding hot and full of fucking lava. Security details followed, along with far too many files on Spectre activity. Eventually she turned her attention to the compiled report she'd cobbled together, every fragment they'd dug up on Arterius, Eden Prime and the quarian's data and the turian's obstinate papertrail and every tiny connection they'd wrangled.
Small prints between worlds that made some kind of pattern, made slowly and carefully and briefly she recalled Arterius' voice at the hearing, measured and clipped and granite-hard.
The door hissed open behind her, and Kaidan said, "You're still up?"
"So are you," she retorted without turning. "Going over the thousand and one things we need to get done."
"Hah." She straightened up, aware of the sudden twinge in her back. "I'll let you know if I can narrow it down."
He leaned against the table, arms folded. "So how does it feel, making history?"
"Not exactly what I had on my to-do list for the day." She dragged herself away from the screen. Summoning a smile, she added, "And I know damn well that if I have a look at the vid, my armour will look scuffed to hell."
"I don't know. Looked pretty good from where I was standing." He paused, his gaze dipping down to the floor. "Commander, you reckon it'll help?"
"Off the record, LT?"
He smiled. "Of course."
"We're in this and we need to get it done."
"And that means playing politics."
"If that's how we get it done," she said. "And yes, I know this is the part where you ask me if I meant what I said. I did. It's an honour. It just happens to be an honour that gets us on our way."
"Finding this bastard," he said. "Feels like it could be a long mission."
"Had other plans, did you?"
"Now that I think about it," he said, and grinned. "Not right now."
"So," Alenko said. "Where are you off to after this?"
"More of running around with my ass on fire, courtesy of the Alliance."
"Isn't that what we sign up for?"
"Yeah," she said, and found herself smiling slightly. "I guess sometimes I forget."
"You? Never," he retorted.
"Look," he said abruptly. "I, yeah. I wanted to, well. About Mars."
She said nothing, only sat, her gaze on his face, on the way his eyes were flickering, uncertain.
"It was a hell of a day," he said. "I wasn't thinking right."
"Some of the things I said."
"I get it." She shrugged. "Last time you'd seen me, I was all decked out in nice new colours. Makes sense you'd be wary."
"Yeah, but," he said.
"Kaidan, we'd just seen Earth get torn up. No one was thinking right."
"Yeah. Yeah, I guess."
Guardedly, she asked, "So what's really eating you up right now?"
He paused, his forehead furrowing. "What you just said, I guess. Decked out in nice new colours."
"Did you change them back?"
Shepard leaned forward, linking her hands together. "You really want to tell me that I could've walked away from Cerberus at that point? They'd patched me up. They'd handed me a ship, a mission, payment, and a way to find out just what the fuck the Collectors were up to."
"I'm just remembering all those times we came up against them. They'd – the things they did. They things they thought were worthwhile doing."
"Yeah," she said, nodding. She remembered it, the bases they'd combed through, often on garbled packets of information that had been filtered twice through Hackett's communications personnel before they'd found themselves there. "I remember it. The rachni. The experiments. Anything they thought they could get their hands on."
"And all of it apparently for the good of humanity," Alenko muttered.
"They're not me," she snarled.
"I know. I do."
"Then tell me why you walked away on Horizon."
His head jerked up. "Of course I walked away. I had my orders."
"Shepard," he said.
"No, I heard you. Orders."
"You were gone," he said fiercely. "I saw the Normandy fall apart. I saw it happen."
"And then you decided you'd rather not even try and talk it through?"
"On Horizon? I didn't know what you were," he said. "Who you were."
"I don't know what it is you want me to say here."
"Nothing, I guess," she said crisply. "Unless you want to tell me that it's easier to kick against orders when you're not the one making the hard choices."
His shoulders stiffened. "That's unfair."
"Yeah." Between heartbeats, the anger seeped away. "You're actually okay?"
Alenko blinked at her. "Yeah. Getting there. Still getting prodded by doctors too much."
"As much as it takes." Shepard straightened up in the chair. "Seeing soldiers get an inch away from dying on my watch is not something I want to get used to."
"And that's all," he said, and stopped. "God. Sorry."
"We can start yelling at each other if it'd make you feel better."
He smiled, the motion slow and surprised. "No, not really. Hey, Shepard?"
"Thanks for coming."
She laughed, the sound of it short and catching in her throat. "Really?"
"Yes, really. It's good to know you're still breathing. After the Reapers," he said, and shrugged. "Hell. You know. You were there."
"Yeah," she said, and wondered what else she could say, what else she was meant to say. "I know what you mean."
"So you'll be careful out there, right?"
"You know how I define careful." She pushed upright and out of the chair. "Let me know if you choose the Spectre position."
"Of course." He clasped her hand briefly, the pressure of his fingers rough and dry. "Stay safe, Shepard."
Three hours later, Shepard strode across the docking platform, her thoughts whirling and fixing on the tangled mess she'd found in Doctor Bryson's office. She tapped her comm and said, "Joker? You there?"
"Here and waiting," he responded, almost immediately. "How'd your day go, Commander?"
"It was weird."
"In light of recent and not-so recent events, I feel like I'm going to need you to explain a bit more for me, Commander."
"Short story is that our contact, Doctor Bryson, is dead."
"Killed by his assistant, right in front of me. Single shot to the head. Long story is that his assistant swears blind he didn't do it."
"That's….not one I've heard before."
"I'm filing it under well, shit."
"You're so organised, Commander."
"That's supportive," she said drily, and flicked the comm off.
Brisk minutes took her through the airlock and into the CIC. There, she handed Traynor the jumble of research notes and fieldwork reports she'd scrounged from Bryson's quarters, along with a wry apology. At the loft deck, she keyed the door open and grinned when she noticed Garrus leaning over the workbench, his gaze locked on the snapped-apart pieces of his rifle.
"You cleaned that yesterday," she said mildly.
"Day before yesterday." He turned, blue eyes lifting and meeting hers. "You okay?"
Shepard sank onto the couch, twisting so she could sling her feet up. "Task Force Aurora just hit a fairly significant snag."
Brusquely she explained, Bryson's quarters and the lab with its odd artefacts and the glowing constellation charts mapping research and exploration and the absurd, frantic hunt for something that sounded carved out of myth.
"Leviathan," Garrus echoed. "That's a cheery name to start with. You reckon Bryson pushed too far? Got himself singled out?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "It was – shit, you'll think I'm insane."
"Don't worry. I already do." He crossed the floor to the couch and tapped the side of her leg until she moved slightly. He sat beside her, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully. "What do you mean?"
"I spoke with Bryson and Hadley while I was there. Before it went to shit. Seemed normal. Typical. They gave me a walkthrough of the lab and got me caught up on how they'd approached Hackett."
"Then Bryson said something about how his team had found something new. And Hadley's voice changed. Hell, he changed."
"Best I can describe it," she said. "His voice was different, his face was different. The way he fucking moved was different. You know what it made me think of?"
"You remember Harbinger?"
Garrus tipped his head to one side. "Not likely to forget that talkative bastard for the rest of my life."
"Yeah, that's an ingrained memory for me as well, I think."
"What else do we know?"
"I can forward you about a thousand and one pages of Bryson's research, if you want."
"I'm touched. You want to keep digging on this one?"
"Guess we have to," she answered.
"And you're intrigued."
"Interested," she protested. She tried to stifle a smile and failed. "Know me that well, huh?"
"Well," Garrus said, and leaned close enough so he could mouth at the side of her neck, his teeth grazing down to her collarbone. "Yeah."
She traced the side of his face and further, until her fingers dipped around and under his fringe. "I'll give you that one."
He laughed, the edges of his mouth shifting against her skin. "I'm overcome."
"Sure you are." Shepard slumped back against the couch. "I talked to Kaidan."
"He's up and walking?"
"Up and walking. Still looks wretched." She shook her head. "That mech nearly slugged the life out of him and you can still see it."
"You reckon he'll pull through it?"
"Yeah. I think he's just spinning himself in circles on the Citadel."
"Yeah, I get that. It's always tough, not knowing where to point yourself next."
"Udina's leaning on him for a Spectre position."
Garrus blinked. "You think Udina would've pushed if Earth hadn't been hit?"
"I'm not sure," she replied honestly. "But I guess it gives Udina another angle to keep kicking at the rest of the Council. And hell, we sure as shit need them hearing us. You know the part that gets to me?"
"The Citadel's meant to be the centre," he said, nodding. "And if this goes on long enough, it won't be. Somehow it'll split itself apart before the Reapers even get there."
She nudged him idly. "And here I thought I was the nasty, cynical one."
"Realist," he retorted.
"Uh-huh." She traced her way across the back of his hand, finding the softer patches between his fingers. "I just realised I never asked you whether you all got EDI back to the ship without getting arrested."
Garrus laughed. "You'd've heard about that already, I promise." He paused, rolling his hand over hers so that their fingers were locked together. "Whole wards full of refugees now."
"Yeah. Udina said something about it. Coming in by the dozens every day, he said."
"He'd be right," Garrus said.
She looked at him, at the sharp angles of his face. "What happened?"
"Victus sent me a tracking report. Movement, numbers, that kind of thing. Mostly wounded. Mostly from Menae."
Very gently, Shepard closed her other hand over the top of his. She understood – painfully, achingly, she understood – the gaps between his words, how he'd shied from naming Palaven, how she knew she had to fight with herself to parse Earth down into the blunt brutality of numbers.
"He threw me a contact, Tactus. Said he was on Menae until Reaper ground troops tried to rip him apart. He's been handling refugee processing, food storage, med supplies, the usual."
"Somewhere someone's orders got tangled, and a fair amount of supplies got diverted up to the Presidium."
Shepard frowned. "Because they're just wallowing in privation up there."
"Yeah, well. I talked it through with Tactus and then took it straight to Bailey." Garrus' teeth flashed in a smile, vanishing as fast. "Asking for favours still occasionally works, I guess."
"You name-dropped yourself?"
He snorted. "Yeah. I guess I did."
"Did it feel good?" she asked teasingly.
"If it hadn't been about getting supplies through to starving people, then yeah," he told her wryly. "Don't know if it'll help, not in the long run."
"It'll help for now. That matters."
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah. It does. You think it's weird that I can't wait to leave?"
"We already left," she said, and kissed the side of his face. "Remember?"
"I know what you mean. And I don't think it's weird. There's too much to think through."
"So what do you do?"
"You keep pushing it into boxes. Don't let yourself think about it until you have to."
Garrus gathered her closer, his hands finding the arch of her back and stroking. "And that works?"
"Last time it worked for me? I think I was twenty, and trying to compartmentalise a scouting mission."
He laughed against her throat, and the warmth of his tongue followed, dipping over her pulse. "That's reassuring."
She let herself sink onto him, marveling at the uncomplicated ease of it, of the way she cleaved against him, the way they fit together. "Downtime's usually the worst for it. When you've got nothing else to occupy your thoughts."
"I don't know," Garrus said, and mouthed at the junction of her neck and shoulder. "I have quite a few ideas occupying my thoughts right now."
"Quite a few, hmm?" She held him there against her, her hand sliding up to the back of his head. The rhythm of his breathing changed, turning hot and erratic against her skin.
"Maybe even enough to keep us busy until we have to go find this monster of yours."
"It might not be a monster," she protested.
"With that name, our luck, and the way things are going? Shepard, there's no way I'm betting against it."