Chapter Nineteen: One Night on Illium
Garrus was already at Eternity when Liara arrived. He'd chosen a corner booth with his back to the wall and a clear view of the entire club. Scanning the room, Liara didn't spot anyone familiar except Aethyta, behind the bar. She approached her to order her drink and start her tab. "I'm buying for the turian in the corner as well," she said.
Aethyta glanced in that direction and nodded. "Whatever you say, kid. Date tonight?"
Liara put on a smile. "Something like that. It's rather... complicated."
Aethyta snorted. "If it's too complicated for you, let me know. I'll give you some pointers."
Liara rolled her eyes. Innuendo from Aethyta was nothing new. Taking her glass, she turned from the bar and moved across the room. Garrus watched her approach with no particular expression. Her heart was pounding, a fact he was undoubtedly aware of. She slid onto the bench, settling herself not quite within arm's reach. She took a sip, not really tasting the drink, and not sure what to say.
Garrus broke the silence. "So I'm thinking you didn't go to Thessia, after all."
She sighed. "No. I'm sorry."
"And where did you go instead?"
"Omega," she said, and saw him tense out of the corner of her eye. "I... you told me to let it go, about Shepard, but I hadn't been able to. I'd hired an agent to look into certain rumors on Omega. Feron. He's the one the Shadow Broker captured. So in a way, it's my fault he was involved in this at all." She frowned at her glass. "In a way. So I went to Omega, and from there we raided one of the Broker's bases. After that I came to Illium."
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked, his voice low but resonating harshly. "You didn't have to go alone."
She dropped her head. "Believe me, I have a great many regrets about what I did."
She stole a glance at him. "I suppose I wasn't sure you'd agree."
"Because of Cerberus?"
She shook her head. "I didn't know about their involvement, or the Shadow Broker, or the Collectors, until I got to Omega. Afterwards... yes, afterwards I thought you'd be angry that I gave Shepard to Cerberus."
Garrus was silent for a few moments. "Yeah. I suppose I would have been."
"As for why I didn't tell you before I left the Citadel..." She took another swallow. "You had a life there, a job, family ties, prospects of becoming a Spectre. I didn't think I could ask you to throw all that away."
"Mm." He emptied his own glass and set it down on the table, turning it with gloved hands. "I did that anyway, all by myself. I took off for Omega a few months after you left."
She knew that already, but she seized the chance to ask him a crucial question. "Why?" She turned to look into his face.
He sighed, looking off into the distance. "I didn't have much patience, I suppose. C-Sec was an even worse grind than before. Well, you know what it was like. It didn't get any better. Long shifts, new regs, more forms to fill out. We were badly shorthanded and the new personnel didn't always adjust to the work well. All of us who'd stuck it out were burning out. I was having more and more trouble seeing the point of staying. And then I had a case that went bad. I'll spare you the story, but I traced the culprit back to Omega and went after him myself."
"What happened to Spectre training?" To her annoyance, she'd never managed to crack the Council's highly classified files, including candidate evaluations.
Garrus turned to face her. "I could have made it. If I'd been willing to say Shepard was lying or deluded, or that everything to do with the Reapers was Saren's fabrication. That was made clear to me very early on."
She smiled. "And of course you wouldn't."
His laugh was short and bitter. "No. I told them what they could do with those demands. I was on Virmire and Ilos myself. I wouldn't disavow Shepard or the evidence I've seen with my own eyes. Not that my testimony mattered to them."
So his prospects as a Spectre had foundered on the rock of his own integrity. His father should have been proud. Liara almost asked him if he was in touch with his family, but thought better of it. She took another drink. "How is Shepard, really?"
He considered for a moment. "She's... herself. She fights just like she used to—well, except for that new tactical cloak thing, which is unnerving. She commands just like she used to. It's her. I'm certain of it."
"Good," she whispered.
"She talks to me more than she used to. I don't think she trusts the Cerberus hires as much. She's winning them over, too. Most of them were in awe of her before she set foot on the ship. By the time this mission is done, they'll be hers."
Liara smiled. "That sounds familiar. How's her state of mind?"
His mandibles pulled in and down. "She keeps a lot under wraps, so it's hard to tell what she's really thinking. You remember how she was after Virmire."
"Yes, I do." She looked down, feeling a pang of grief for Ashley.
"It's like that. She's very focused on the mission. She doesn't talk about her... disappearance, except to joke, now and then. Frankly, I'm surprised she's not... less functional." His voice grew warmer. "In spite of everything she's been through. Being disavowed, Cerberus, the Council and Alliance holding her at arm's length now, Alenko... she just takes it in stride. I don't know how she does it. She's not drinking, as far as I can see, she's not hiding away in her quarters, she seems perfectly sane. She just keeps going."
"What happened with Kaidan?" Her surveillance had caught a bit of muttering about Alenko and Horizon, but not in enough detail to give her the full story.
Garrus sighed deeply. "He was stationed on a colony that the Collectors hit. We ran into him in the aftermath. Harsh words were exchanged. Strangely, he's less willing to overlook the Cerberus connection than you or I." He took a drink.
"Oh dear," Liara murmured. "Perhaps I should try to explain—"
Garrus shook his head. "I doubt it would help. You can if you really want him to shout at you, I suppose. I'd recommend just staying out of it, myself."
Liara nodded, still troubled, and cast about for another topic of conversation. "She seems to rely on you a lot," she ventured.
"She keeps a pretty fluid rotation, actually. I think she's getting acquainted with everyone's quirks, making sure we know how to work together. But yeah, she wanted me to be here on Illium. We have a couple of team members who are not... the most trustworthy around a large civilian population." He grimaced.
Liara had a fairly good idea of which team members he was referring to. "I didn't just mean in the field. It must be good for her to have someone she can trust on the team." She caught herself pleating her napkin with the fingers and smoothed it out again.
Garrus looked toward her, and she found her face heating under his scrutiny. "Yeah. It was good to see a friendly face."
Liara nodded stiffly. She wanted to ask more questions, to ask about him, but she wasn't sure it would be welcome. He was the one who spoke, saying quietly, "I hadn't heard anything from you in two years."
She flinched, took a breath, and spilled it all out at once. "I was afraid you'd be angry, and I wouldn't be able to explain. And I couldn't bear to give you more lies. I kept trying, I started message after message, and none of them seemed right. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I don't know how to apologize enough."
At that, his eyes softened. "I suppose I can understand that," he said, then paused. "What have you been doing? You were clearly leaving a lot of things out, back at the office."
She scanned the crowd around them out of reflex and inched closer to him so she could lower her voice. "Well. I took a job when I came to Illium. I—" she pushed down the thickness in her throat and tried to keep things light. "I'm not sure there's really that much interesting to say about the work of an information broker. Obviously there are things I can't talk about in public. I spend a lot of time staring at screens and analyzing data. Goddess. It's even harder to talk about this than about being an archaeologist." She forced a laugh. When she looked up and met his eyes, his gaze was measuring, thoughtful. She swallowed and tried to smile.
When she'd made her confession to Shepard, back in her office, Garrus had wanted to charge across the room and demand to know why she hadn't fucking told him, asked for his help. He'd stopped himself after the first step, and when she looked him in the eye, her expression was no longer guarded, but full of sorrow and guilt and worry.
It was how she looked now, tense, eyes damp, writing off her work as dull and tedious when he could tell there was more to it than that. Something had gotten to her, badly; something she didn't want to talk about in public. He couldn't maintain his anger when she looked like that.
He could understand why she'd made her choices, too. He remembered snapping at her when she couldn't stop talking about Shepard's disappearance; he remembered being relieved that she'd dropped the subject afterwards. Maybe if he hadn't... he pulled himself back from the thought. There was no point in revisiting the past that way. Her explanation made sense. More than that: it fit with the person he'd known and cared for two years ago. That gave him a deep sense of satisfaction. It meant he hadn't been wrong in assessing her character and personality back then, and the uncertainty and bafflement he'd felt in thinking about her ever since faded.
He just wished she had talked to him then, instead of making a choice for him.
Changing the subject, he took a drink and said lightly, "I'm surprised you haven't asked about this yet." He waved his hand vaguely at the right side of his face.
She looked down and took a breath. "I know what happened."
"You do?" He was only momentarily surprised. "Ah. You have eyes on the Normandy."
She looked up at him, unwavering. "I had eyes on Omega, too."
He blinked, startled again. He thought he'd covered his tracks well enough. "What? How?"
Her shoulders rose and fell. "I put the pieces together. I wanted to keep track of my friends. I found you'd left the Citadel, and I tried to guess what you'd do. I took a look at your unsolved case files and made a guess from there."
"That's a secure database," he muttered, fixating on the irrelevant. He felt oddly stunned, trying to process this latest revelation.
"I've learned a lot about hacking." Her lips pressed together. "It's hard to get good information on Omega. I collected a lot of surveillance footage. I tracked all kinds of sources of news, most of them unreliable. But you left... a wide trail, as you went. I knew what you were doing. I tried... I tried to help where I could."
"Help." The word fell from his mouth. "How?"
"What I do now. Information. I found ways to get you things you might need."
"The weapons shipment," he said, more pieces coming together. "Mierin's contact on Illium."
"He didn't know it was me. I worked through intermediaries. It was the only way I could think of." She swallowed. "I wanted to help you, but I wasn't sure you'd take help from me."
The stream of information they'd gotten from Illium had been priceless. Names. Codes. Locations. Credits. Crucial intel. He could easily think of half a dozen times when they'd needed information badly, and gotten a tip at exactly the right time. He'd never suspected that someone had been watching, quietly pushing resources their way. It made him feel a little guilty for all the times he'd let his anger run rampant, back on Omega. He leaned toward her and put his hand on her shoulder. "Liara—thank you. It did help. A lot."
She leaned closer and her left hand came up, touched his face, the gentlest sensation of pressure on the injured side. "I placed informants where I thought it would do some good. It wasn't enough. I would have warned you, but I didn't hear in time."
He started to ask, "When did you—" but stopped when she leaned close enough that her cheek brushed against his. She flinched at his response and drew back, ducking her head. Her cheeks were tinged violet, and he was reminded of the first time they'd been this close, back on Noveria. His visor helpfully informed him her heart was pounding. His was, too.
He slid his arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer. She came willingly, slim and light and warm. "I'm so sorry," she whispered, a puff of breath against his skin, and then her lips were soft and warm on his neck. He flicked his tongue against her jaw line and the side of her neck, and she tasted exactly the way he remembered.
Liara gasped at the sensation of his hot, raspy tongue on her skin. His answering chuckle seemed to settle somewhere in her midsection, filling her with warmth and yearning. Her kisses grew more urgent, traveling over his neck and face; she looped her arms around his neck, seeking out the sensitive skin at the back of his head. His right hand traced the curve of her waist and hip, while his left arm pulled her in, closer, until she was firmly pressed against the unyielding ridges of his armor.
"Ow," she said, muffled.
"Sorry." He relaxed his hold, drawing back far enough to look into her eyes. "Let's get out of here."
Yes, her body agreed, and she pulled back to give herself a little space to think. Her apartment was halfway across the city. "My office is just a few minutes' walk," she said.
"Perfect," he rumbled.
She passed Aethyta a credit chit as they left and got a knowing smirk in return.
Liara didn't quite recall, afterwards, how they had gotten across the trading floor without colliding with anything. They stumbled up the stairs, arms wound around each other, and as soon as they made it into the office and locked the door behind, she was fumbling with his unfamiliar heavy armor, her fingers small and clumsy on the seals. Garrus laughed and took over while she undid her own clothes and slipped them off. The air was cool on her bare skin, the smooth surface of her desk strange under her naked bottom as she leaned back against it to watch Garrus undress. Revealing the natural shape of his body, heavy shoulders and broad chest, narrow waist and strong limbs made heat pool in her body, the longing tug on her mind. She reached out and ran her thumb across the old scar on his arm, where the shot had grazed him on Noveria, a groove hardly noticeable on the plating. She followed with her lips. His breath caught, and she found her way to a scar across his ribs that she didn't recognize.
"What happened here?" she whispered.
"Vorcha with a blade. Wasn't wearing armor. Stupid mistake."
She kissed it, felt the first light touch of their minds joining, and saw, briefly, the vorcha's savage face.
He ran his hand over the ridged scar on her arm. "And this?"
She swallowed. "Assassin. Also a stupid mistake." She thought of that night and felt him catch the memory from her.
They explored each other, mapping new scars with touches of fingers and tongues, drifts of memory. They fell more deeply into each other, a long, slow meld. She explored his mental landscape, too, tentatively, softly, even as she gently traced the edges of the half-healed wounds on his neck. There was a core in him that remained solid, fundamentally unchanged, perhaps tempered and refined, the clear intensity and passion and discipline that had always defined him; but there were knots of guilt and grief and glass-edged ridges of anger surrounding it like shattered tombstones. And as they merged together, she became aware of his own slow exploration, and showed him her own pools of rage and guilt.
She wasn't sure whether she was pulling or he was pushing, but she fell onto her back on her desk. She dimly heard something clatter to the floor, but she didn't care. She wrapped her arms and legs around him, moaned as their bodies came together. She reveled in his heat and the roughness of his skin and the low rumble of his voice as pleasure built up and washed through both of them, pushing the pain of the last two years aside.
When she slipped out of the meld and came back to herself, sometime later, she was still on her desk and wrapped around him, both of them panting and sweaty. Garrus was resting his head on her shoulder. Behind him, she could see the stars above Nos Astra's skyline. Her fingertips traced the edges of the scales on the back of his neck. "I missed you," she said softly.
He laughed, rumbling pleasantly against her chest. "I missed you, too. Between being angry and baffled."
She bit her lip. "I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have left like that. I regretted it, later, but I could never find the words to explain." Her hands wandered to his shoulders, the ridge of his collar, muscle and plate, feeling the calm rise and fall of his breath.
"I was pissed as hell at first, but I wasn't going to chase after you," he muttered. "And then the more I thought about it, the more I was confused. I'd thought things were actually working between us, and when you left, I didn't know what to think. Was something not working for you? Had I been reading you wrong all along? Were you bored?"
"No no no," she said. "It wasn't anything like that—"
He went on, "I just kept swinging between anger and confusion, and I couldn't let it go." He propped himself up on his elbows and looked down at her. "And then when you explained to Shepard today, everything suddenly made sense. So I thought we should talk, maybe clear the air."
"And here we are."
He grinned, a lopsided but real, relaxed grin. "Here we are."
"I'm so sorry."
"Liara. You've apologized enough. You did what you thought was necessary, and I understand."
She closed her eyes. "Thank you."
After a moment, she pushed on his shoulder and he obligingly stood, letting her climb to her feet. She went to the liquor cabinet and found a bottle of racemic wine and two glasses.
His browplates twitched up. "Keeping liquor at work? Tsk."
She shrugged, pouring. "Some clients like to meet face to face, and some of them like a glass now and then."
He took a look at the label as she handed him his glass and coughed. "Spirits, that stuff costs a fortune."
She smiled as she took a sip. "I know."
They both drank in silence, the wine cool and crisp in her mouth. "So," said Garrus. "Where are we now? Was that—" he made an unfamiliar gesture with his free hand "—the last old business between us, or... something else?"
Liara bit her lip. "I don't know. What do you want? For me, there hasn't been anyone... serious. The occasional casual encounter, that's all."
"And the assassin. The same for me, minus the assassin."
"Good," she said, shivering at the memory. "So if you want to... well. Try again." She looked down, swirling the wine in her glass. "I would."
"I can't stay on Illium."
"I know. Any chance you'll be back?"
"Definitely. There are only so many places to resupply." He was drifting closer to her. "And I happen to like this one."
She relaxed. "Any chance you'll write?"
"Sure. If you do."
"It's a deal."
"I do have a request."
"All right. What is it?"
He stepped closer, until he was right in front of her, looming tall, and she could feel his breath when he said, "If you are ever in trouble, or need help, you ask me."
Liara couldn't stop the brief flash of annoyance. "I can take care of myself."
"I don't doubt that. But if something comes up, don't presume I can't or won't help. Ask." His eyes were sharp and intent.
She took in a breath and released it. It was a fair, reasonable request. Especially after what she'd done before. "I will."
"Good. Now." He finished his glass and set it down. "The Normandy leaves tomorrow, but I don't have to report for several more hours."
Liara smiled, setting down her own glass. "Oh? And how do you propose to spend them?"
He bent and pressed his face into the side of her throat. She sighed and relaxed into the touch. His arms came around her, his hands sliding under her thighs, and he lifted her effortlessly. "I have a few ideas. Starting with this nice big window over here."
Thanks to the fabulous Smehur for the beta. I'm not quite sure how long the next chapter will take, possibly a little longer than usual.