Summary: Shepard burns.
Notes: Hey so I guess it's time to update or something! Many thanks to the indomitable Odyle, who put this chapter in order. There's a lot of mood whiplash here, since it goes from the high of 'Lair of the Shadow Broker' to the low of 'The Arrival'. Coming up next: turians. Lots of turians. [Edited 23 October 2014.]
Shepard found the wine bottle in the back of her armor locker. There was no way in hell it should've been able to migrate there, but Normandy had taken a lot of damage hitting the collector base, and not all of it visible.
It wasn't until she heard Liara's voice that she realized she'd left her cabin hatch open—it jammed now, unless she hit the manual overrides.
"Hey, Liara. Just doing some cleaning," she said, and fished the bottle out from behind her spare pair of boots.
"I shouldn't be surprised that it's taken you this long to attend to your cabin. The mess below is..."
"Overwhelming?" Shepard suggested.
Liara made a face. "We could get a crew up here, you know. I'm certainly not financing Normandy's repairs for Cerberus's sake."
"Don't worry about it. I don't have a lot to my name, anyway. Mostly the books and the model ships."
"Yes, when did you take up that collection?"
Shepard shrugged and bent to pick up the intact model of the SR-1 that had made its way under her desk. She thought first about keeping both the model and the wine bottle and then nearly pitched both in the trash canister out of shock. Liara's brows were doing a complicated dance on her face as she watched her former commander linger over the momentos.
"Oh, you know," Shepard said, aware that she'd taken too long to answer the question. Liara's expression clearly said she didn't, but Shepard plowed ahead and tossed the bottle out. The model went in her closet. She was aware that she tended to be an emotional desert, but even deserts had a spot of rain now and then.
"...Of course," Liara said.
"Quiet," Shepard said, in her best master-and-commander voice. "No way you came up here just to ridicule me for being a soft touch."
"Actually, I thought I'd see if you wanted to join us for dinner. Tali and I thought we'd have a night out to celebrate your safe return."
At the invitation, Shepard's stomach grumbled; she'd slept for eighteen hours straight and then started working beside Liara's crews almost immediately, with only a handful of whatever processed rations were close at hand. While it went against her principles to break before the job was finished, Shepard felt an exception could be made after surviving a suicide mission.
"Yeah. Sounds good, actually. Give me a minute to shower?"
"I hate to ask, Shepard, but does your shower even work?"
"Point," Shepard said. "Somewhere casual?"
"I'll be sure to pick a restaurant where the smell of unwashed human won't get us thrown out," Liara promised. "There's a sampler bar not far from the dock that I think Tali would like."
"Unless it's too soon?"
"It's fine, Liara," Shepard said. "Let me check in with my XO before we go." She slipped into her officer's jacket but left it open, and as they waited for the elevator she ran her grubby hands through her hair.
"It has to frustrate you to not have a stairwell," Liara said, and Shepard groaned.
"You have no idea. I have an emergency access tunnel and that's it."
"How awful," Liara said, but she was smiling as she said it. Shepard grinned back. Something in her eased at Liara's presence; whether it was her youth, her lack of pretense, or her genuine concern Shepard didn't know, but there was a quality about Dr. T'Soni that was damn near soothing.
Shepard stepped out of the elevator and neatly into Garrus, who hauled up short of running her down but only just.
"Garrus!" Liara said.
"Liara," he said, and then, "Shepard." He was stripped to the waist and had smears of grease all up and down his bare arms. Shepard kept her eyes glued to a point six inches above his head.
"We're shipping out for dinner," she said. "Care to come along?"
"'We'?" he said, and then halfway looked like he regretted asking. Or maybe like he wanted to bolt in the opposite direction—it was hard to tell when she could only see him in her periphery.
"Shepard, Tali, and myself," Liara said.
"I have some things I should..."
"I know we would be delighted if you joined us." Shepard spared a second to be impressed at how far Liara had come; the young scientist she'd picked up on Therum would never have stooped to outright manipulation, but the information broker was clearly made of sterner stuff.
"All right," Garrus said. "I'll just grab a shirt and—"
"Don't," Shepard blurted.
Garrus stopped. "What?"
"Don't...forget you said you'd let me borrow your M-5," Shepard said. Which was what she'd intended to say all along. Clearly.
"I thought you said laser sights were for the—I believe your exact words were 'the elderly, the infirm, and Conrad Verner.'"
"Do you always give this much lip to your superior officers?"
Garrus smirked, infuriating man, but Shepard would take smug over terrified any day. "I don't know," he said. "I've never had a superior officer who was so unreasonable before."
"Go put on a shirt, Vakarian."
"Is that an order?"
"Do you want it to be?"
He took his time sauntering away, but after he disappeared behind the forward battery airlock Shepard replayed the past thirty seconds in her mind and went cold. Simple pleasure at seeing his face faded at the realization of exactly how unprofessional—exactly how flirty—they'd been. She turned to Liara...
And found that her friend had one hand over her mouth, hiding a shit-eating grin.
Fine. One slip in front of Liara was acceptable; in the future, Shepard would just make sure that her stress relief stayed where it belonged—in private.
"Shepard," Liara said. "It's fine. I honestly can't even say I'm surprised."
"About that," Shepard said.
"Who else knows?"
"I'll be discreet," Liara said, and that was all—no questions. Shepard thanked the lucky star that had put the other woman in her path.
Garrus came back, his features schooled into an expression that was merely friendly; she wouldn't be surprised if he'd experienced the same flash of panic she had. His shirt was a ragged old thing with the C-Sec emblem on the front and lettering in a turian script below; it hung loose at his waist and pulled taut across his cowl and shoulders. Unsurprising, since Garrus packed a hell of a lot more muscle than most turians.
He didn't register Liara's floor-length dress until he'd reached them, and then he twitched sheepishly. "Uh, this isn't going to be a formal event, is it?"
Shepard rolled her eyes and pulled apart the flaps of her jacket to display a shirt almost as stained as his. "You're safe, Vakarian."
"Now that's a novel experience. Where's Tali?"
"Waiting," Liara said firmly, and herded them towards the elevator.
The restaurant Liara had picked overlooked the commercial docking bays. Volus merchants rubbed elbows with elchor explorers and turian requisitions officers, with human executives and salarian suppliers, and in the corner two quarians huddled together, their body language screaming discomfort. And the asari dominated all: bartering, networking, coaxing or commanding as the situation demanded.
Tali was sitting at a round table with twice as many seats as their party needed. She waved to them from across the room; Liara noticed her first, but Shepard and Garrus started towards her at the same time. There was a silent, furious, and ultimately brief jostle for dominance as they both tried to shove their way between the crowded tables, but when Shepard managed to land a kick on one of Garrus's spurs hard enough to make him wince, she yielded and let him lead.
"Shepard!" Tali said. "You made it! I was so happy when Liara said she'd made reservations, but then I thought you might be too busy to go out—"
"Nice to know where I stand in your esteem," Garrus said. "Sure, the Commander gets all the enthusiasm, but what about her trusted munitions officer?"
Tali crossed her arms. "I will shoot you."
"You'll try," Garrus said, with the supreme nonchalance that made Shepard want to shoot him herself.
"We're three dozen people short to make this a real reunion, anyway," Shepard said, and took her seat.
"It would be nice to have all of the ground squad in one place again, though. Shepard, didn't you say you'd seen Wrex on Tuchanka?" Liara said.
"Saw Wrex. Saw Ashley, too."
"Oh?" Liara said. "I was under the impression that the Gunnery Chief was on a classified assignment in the Terminus Systems."
"She is. She's..." Shepard hesitated. "...Working through some problems."
"I suspect that's uncharacteristic understatement, Shepard, but I hope you're able to sort out your disagreements."
"Ash always sees reason. Eventually," Shepard said, and buried herself in her menu. The platters were color-coded, as was the custom at most dual-chiral establishments; Shepard punched in an order at random from the levo selection, ravenous with hunger and not caring what she ate to sate herself. She hadn't put in so many hours of straight physical labor since she'd graduated from N-school.
Liara ordered a sandwich sampler that she offered to share with Shepard. Tali's food came on a purple platter just like Garrus's, as pointed a demonstration of Ilium's prejudices as any Shepard had seen. If the place was really as committed to universal service as its banners claimed, it would've served any quarian his or her food in a sealed container fitted with the universal connector that fit any face mask—food in a tube. As the situation stood, Tali would have to trust that the airlock that sat underneath her suit's vocal unit could decontaminate her meal.
Garrus had ordered twice as much as the rest of them—a platter of sliced fruits and another bearing something that resembled a crawfish but smelled far sweeter. "What's that?" Shepard asked.
"Trimen," Garrus said. He didn't seem to need to break it out of its shell the way a human would and was in fact relishing the sounds the tail made when he bit into it. "We used to eat it every year at my grandfather's."
"It's a delicacy, isn't it?" Liara said.
Garrus shrugged. "I guess, but I ate so much of it as a kid that I didn't realize how rare it is."
"Your father's father?" Liara asked.
"I haven't heard you speak of her," Liara said, and wiped her fingers on a napkin. "What does she do?"
"She's a linguistics professor with a background in programming. Did a lot of work on the translators. Her dad's a fisherman, which scared my dad sh—uh, scared the life out of my dad."
"Why's that?" Shepard said.
Garrus pried a claw off his trimen and bit into it with a crack. Shepard was forced to wait until he was finished chewing for an answer.
"I don't know if you've noticed—"
Shepard rolled her eyes.
"Turians weren't exactly designed with swimming in mind," Garrus said. "Only crazy people want to fish."
"So you're saying it's genetic."
"You want to talk about that Best of Stellar Fantasy anthology that came in the mail bag yesterday?"
"You want to talk about Gone with the Wind in Space or whatever the hell that holodrama you love is called?"
"...Will that be all, Commander Shepard?"
"That will be all, Officer Vakarian," Shepard said.
Tali was trying unsuccessfully to stifle her laughter.
"I hadn't realized your tastes in literature were so..." Liara interposed.
"It's fine, you can say it," Shepard said.
"Trashy?" Garrus offered.
"Look." Shepard leveled her utensil at him. "The galactic community as a whole may have had spaceflight long enough that pulp stellar novels are considered quaint and old-fashioned, but most of humanity's better ideas were written up in fiction long before our scientists caught on."
"Which ideas?" Tali said. "Buffets?"
"Hula hoops?" Liara suggested.
"Wait, I've got one," Garrus said. "Socks."
"I've never understood that," Tali said. "Why not manufacture your shoes with linings?"
"While I'm glad to know that my species has left its mark on the universe, I was thinking more of organic computing, bionic limbs, artificial gravity, FTL communications..."
Liara blinked. "You aren't joking."
"Nope," Shepard said.
"Well, something like it," Shepard said. "Humans aren't all meathead soldiers or scientists scrambling to catch up to the rest of the worlds, you know. We have our creative types."
"I'm certain of it," Liara said. "But still, how romantic of you, Shepard. Ashley once shared with me that you said you'd joined the Alliance to see the stars, but at the time I'm afraid I thought she was exaggerating."
"Come on, don't turn me into some bleeding heart," Shepard said. "If we have to pick on someone, pick on Tali. She's been getting letters."
"You aren't supposed to know about that, Shepard. If you've managed to break through my privacy protocols..."
"I haven't. EDI has," Shepard said.
Garrus popped his last slice of fruit into his mouth and swallowed. "Kal'Reegar?"
"The one and only," Shepard said.
"Garrus, shut up," Tali said.
"Did I say anything?"
"You were going to," Tali said. "Consider it a preemptive strike. And my aunt thinks I don't know anything about battlefield tactics."
"He asked if he could see her the next time we took a turn near the Flotilla," Shepard told Garrus.
"Why are you terrible to me?" Tali said. "See if I ever touch Normandy's engines again."
"Like you could—" Shepard started to say, but her communicator buzzed before she could finish. She touched the first and second fingers of her right hand to her ear to activate her subdermal implant. "Shepard here."
"Shepard, it's Miranda. I have some information that might interest you."
"Yeah?" Shepard said.
"Bring Dr. T'Soni,"" Miranda said. "It's about the Shadow Broker."
"The information's good?"
"I've verified it in every way I know."
"ETA in five," Shepard said. "Have Joker prep the engines. Garrus?"
"Go. We'll be behind you."
"Roger that," Shepard said, and wiped her face one last time with her napkin, pushed back her chair, and left.
Although life quickly descended back into its usual contentious mix of tedious negotiations and harrowing shoot-outs, she carried the glow of that meal with her. Shepard was not a sentimental woman, whatever Liara thought, was in fact above all things a marine and a pragmatist. Still, she carried her own memories to shore her up against the dark. This one she tucked alongside the night before, so she could take it out and examine it when she wished, and the rest of the time leave it to gather dust while she went about her business.
Garrus didn't go with her to the Shadow Broker's base, nor did he join the Shadow Broker when she visited Shepard's cabin. Shepard was...satisfied with Liara's decision, but she couldn't prevent a thread of worry from spinning around her thoughts when Liara cavalierly handed over a stack of digital paper that turned out to be very thorough, very complete dossiers on the Normandy's fire team. Shepard drained the last of her glass of wine as she sat before them, elbows on her knees, hands folded; ultimately, there was no decision. Eleven of the files she wiped clean and then tossed in the trash chute for good measure; the twelfth she took with her to the forward battery.
The Normandy was in better shape than she'd been since long before their run through the Omega relay, but there were still telltale signs of disarray hidden beneath the sleek design and state-of-the-art technology. Gardner's mess had never been quite set to right, in memory of the man himself; the far bench at the first table no longer squeaked if someone sat on it; the door to Miranda's office was still lacking the layers of locks that had made it a veritable fortress before. Shepard had no doubt, though, that the Thanix cannon was as precise as the manual allowed, and possibly more than.
"Shepard," Garrus said, without looking up from his station. "Need me for something?"
"Not really," she said. "Nothing exciting, at any rate. How's she firing?"
He shrugged and finished tapping something into the terminal before lifting his head to look at her. "Steady enough. EDI and I ran some simulations this shift, but you know, that's no real substitute for in-the-field experience..."
"Officer Vakarian, that sounds suspiciously like you want to waste Cerberus resources by taking this big fucking gun and using it to shoot at some big fucking asteroids."
"Commander Shepard, that is exactly fucking correct."
"Noted and logged," Shepard said, and hopped up to balance on the safety rail. "We'll put it on the schedule."
"Are we planning on shipping out anytime soon?"
"Don't have an answer for you." She sighed, went to run her fingers through her overlong hair, caught a tangle, and scowled. "Strictly off-the-record..."
"EDI, that means you," Garrus said.
"Turning off external sensors in the forward battery. Will that be all?"
"That'll be all, EDI," said Shepard. "Off-the-record, I have no goddamn idea what to do next. Working with Cerberus hardly engendered trust, but right now they're the only organization willing to acknowledge that the Reapers exist. On the other hand, we've cut our ties with the Illusive Man, and we can hardly expect to win a galactic war without some kind of military support. We need money, we need ships, and we need warm bodies."
Garrus bent over and braced his elbows against his station, so that their faces were only centimeters apart. She didn't mind the intrusion. "How long is the Shadow Broker's credit line?" he asked.
"Not that long."
"Pre-emptive strike's off the game field," he said. "Let's assume that when the Reapers attack, the galaxy at large accepts their existence and prepares a counterattack. Who do we need most?"
"The salarians," Shepard said immediately. "What? We need innovation to win this thing, not just battlefield prowess."
"All right, given. But they're not going to attack the salarians first—we both know they're going after Earth. Then where?"
"Palaven," she said. "They'd be idiots to not corral the Citadel races as quickly as possible, but the Hierarchy are the most immediate and most dangerous threat to Reaper dominance, especially as long is Tuchanka walled off behind the DMZ."
"Yeah, I was afraid you'd say that. They're not going to be easy to convince, you know."
"Who is?" Shepard said, and leaned forward to bump her forehead against his. "At least we've got Wrex, he might be able to pull together some krogan merc squads for us. Hey, uh, not to change the subject from our impending demise, but Liara dropped off some data before she left."
"Please tell me this doesn't have anything to do with archeology."
"No, you're safe on that front." She pulled the folded file out of her back pocket and slid it in front of him. His brows rose when he saw the label and climbed even higher as he flicked through the information.
"This is...frighteningly thorough."
"I didn't read it," Shepard said. "Actually, I deleted everyone else's, but I thought since you and I are..."
"Friends with benefits is the human expression," Garrus said mildly.
"Right. Well, since you're sleeping with the commander, you get all the perks, so there you go—thought you might want to see that."
He was silent as he read; Shepard hopped off the rail when her ass started to hurt and walked over to his workbench, where at least three firearms were laid out in various stages of disassembly. She'd have to see about getting him hooked up with a Valiant—he'd like that. Good rifle. Certainly better than any the Alliance would ever waste on her again.
"Here," Garrus said, reaching over her shoulder and dropping the file in front of her. "All yours." She tilted her head back to stare at him, and he shrugged at her. "Nothing in there you don't know," he added, "and if there is, well, it's something I've been meaning to tell you anyway."
"The shearing mechanism on that hand cannon is busted," Shepard said.
"It is—oh," he said. "Huh." He never did care about his sidearms as much as his rifles.
"If you've got time," he said.
"Chakwas' orders. I have to spend at least thirty minutes a day engaged in some activity unrelated to warfare or she'll ground me." Shepard's mouth twisted. "I think she's worried about my sanity."
"Aren't we all?"
"Laugh it up, Vakarian," Shepard groused, and then settled herself against the bulkhead with her legs splayed apart and her reading material propped against a knee.
It was wrenching stuff, and initially she thought that the blackest parts were the Shadow Broker's notes on how Shepard overshadowed Garrus's potential for leadership. He would make—had made, did make—a hell of a fine commander, but this was first her fight and her ship, and they both knew it. The logs on his mother were painful, but nothing unexpected; he'd hinted that she wouldn't be in his life for much longer. Shepard was scrolling through the list of shitty music he kept on his visor, a combination of cheap synth-pop and soundtracks from telenovelas and porn flicks, when he came over and nudged her with his boot.
"Shepard. Did you fall asleep down there?"
"I feel like I owe you five free questions after this," she said. "Liara didn't turn up a dossier on me, but christ, Garrus, it's yours when she does."
"I'd rather have the five questions," he said, dropping down on his haunches to study her face. How he balanced so adroitly in ten tons of heavy armor was beyond her.
"Shoot," Shepard said.
Garrus's mandibles flattened into a frown, and then with one hand he reached out and caught a tendril of her hair between his covered thumb and near-finger.
"Why's it so long?" he asked. "You never wore it this long before."
"That's your question?"
He shrugged, immoveable.
"Yeah, okay, fine. That was Cerberus's call—they accelerated the growth. Humans treat their hair sometimes for cosmetic purposes, and Cerberus thought I'd look prettier with longer hair."
"Thought your mother wore hers long," Garrus said. A piece of her hair caught in the armored joint of his off-finger and broke; Shepard didn't flinch.
He hummed, in the bottom register of his lower voice box, and withdrew his hand back to where it belonged.
"That's my thirty minutes," Shepard said, heaving herself to her feet, suddenly angry with no identifiable cause.
"Liara gambled her life on the hunch that you'd pick up a picture of the SR-1."
He tilted his head to study her, and with that familiar and usually endearing gesture Shepard started to rein herself in. Anger, like all emotion, could be useful, could be fuel, could be a tool if she remembered how to use it, but this anger had been dogging her steps since she woke up with her insides rebuilt; it was anger born more of confusion than any healthier source, and in the night it gnawed at her until she stared, sleepless, through the transparent viewport Cerberus had installed over her bed, wondering which parts of her were real and which weren't. She would touch her arm and wonder, is this real, touch her thighs and wonder, is this flesh, wiggle her toes and crack her jaw and think, was I born with these parts, am I still me.
Garrus's nearness may have soothed those thoughts, but it did nothing to alleviate her confusion.
"Nothing," he said finally. "Taylor rigged a bag up in the shuttle bay, though. Nobody's down there right now; you'd have the place to yourself."
"I can take a hint," she said.
"Don't hurt yourself."
"Please," Shepard said. "Worry about the ship if you're going to worry about anyone." She thought fleetingly about inviting him down with her, but with the way she was feeling it wouldn't do either of them good, especially because he was more sensitive to her moods than she herself was. "Look, Vakarian, you know it's nothing personal—"
"Shepard, I can tolerate ninety-nine percent of the sentient beings in the galaxy for less than three minutes a day. Take some time alone. I'll keep the crew off your back for an hour."
"Thanks," Shepard said. She didn't have a smile, a quip, or any more intimate farewell in her, but she held up her fist and he caught her intent almost immediately, rapping the back of his knuckles against the back of hers. It was their old firefight gesture, the one that meant, Got your six.
She went up to her cabin first, to collect the gear that had been gathering dust for too long in the bottom of her locker, and then wound tape around her hands as the elevator rumbled its way down to the shuttle bay. Sure enough, there was a Cerberus-issue bag hanging from a chain next to the all-species weight bench Jack had hauled on-board from Zakera Ward. She'd made them all pay her before letting them use it, but her fee wasn't outrageous—for Shepard, at least. Shepard suspected she'd charged Miranda triple the going price.
First Shepard stretched and did a couple of rounds of light calisthenics to get her muscles warmed up; only then did she start to work her hands. Her punches were light at first, little more than taps, but then she started to find her rhythm and began to hit harder. She'd never boxed competitively, but it had been something to do, a way to fill her time on backwater postings. Not during training, at least not N-school, but most ships had at least one jarhead who would take her on for a couple of rounds.
And before that, there had been a time when she'd liked getting hit. There was a time when she thought she deserved to be hit. Hell, beneath all the hard-earned swagger that came with being very good at being very deadly, there was still a part of her that wondered if she deserved it. Killing had been far from her mind when she joined the Alliance; her mother had never let her forget that part of the military life was making other people dead, but as a dumb kid Shepard hadn't understood that. She'd left a lot of bodies in her wake.
She didn't let it bother her excessively, lest it interfere with her efficiency as a soldier and commander, but she couldn't entirely let go of that body count, either. It was good not to brood, but to remember. She remembered Mindoir, when she was fighting, and Torfan, and Eden Prime, and Horizon, and the Citadel, and to her those were not places but great lists of names and sacrifices.
Her fingers and wrists started to ache about ten minutes in, but she worked through the pain and kept at it. She hit faster than before—more powerfully, too. All the cybernetics had given her an edge that would earn her an automatic ban from any official ring.
What it came down to was—
Shepard hated owing anyone. No, that wasn't entirely accurate; she hated feeling beholden. She had her professional responsibilities, and those were a burden she was more than willing to shoulder; and she had friendships, the easy comraderies that grew out of a shared battlefield.
She'd never had a partner before, though.
That was increasingly what Garrus was becoming, and why he felt threatening when her friendship with Liara—which was, in its own platonic way, nearly as intimate—when her sisterhood with Tali—
Garrus Vakarian, Shepard thought to herself, you are a confusing son-of-a-gun.
There were far more important stakes than her sexual entanglements, though, and as always Shepard's mind soon snapped back to her private war. She had years, maybe years enough to win the Council or the Alliance to her cause. She had to start laying the groundwork now or the Reapers would tear the entire galaxy to pieces even before the politicians were desperate enough to admit what godless terror was upon them.
Shepard stepped back and dragged a hand over the damp, sweaty tangle of her hair. "What is it, EDI?"
"Jeff requested I tell you that there is a high-priority encrypted call coming over your private line. Would you like to take it in the CIC?"
The rivulets of sweat running down Shepard's back told her just how long she'd been down there, beating the inert bag senseless when she should've been making her rounds; she sighed. "Give me a minute and I'll head up. Tell Joker he better not hang up even if he thinks it's the Illusive Man, got it?"
"I would not allow him to hang up, Shepard," EDI said. "I have told him that I find organic males who disobey orders unattractive." A beat. "That was a joke." Another beat. "I have not told Jeff that it is a joke."
"See that you don't," Shepard said.
When she saw that the call was from Hackett, she had it forwarded to her cabin. She wasn't Alliance; she had no commission, no colors, nothing that linked her beyond sweat and memories, and she had never been one for nostalgia, considering it one of the more useless emotions in god's green galaxy. When Hackett called, though, Shepard still asked how high.
She hadn't been on a mission like the one he requested of her in years, although back then she'd more often been sent to make a corpse than smuggle out a live body. The Bahak System wasn't exactly her first choice for a vacation, either, but she owed Hackett and they both knew it. The Fifth Fleet was still rebuilding itself from that suicidal rush at Sovereign two years ago.
Joker wanted to bitch her out when she told him the coordinates, of course.
"Why the hell are we heading into batarian space, Commander? We just put ourselves back together after Liara's little stunt, poor EDI's systems were scrambled for days, and now you want us to go off chasing slavers? This isn't some grudge match, is it? Because they put a nice statue up on Torfan for you. I took a picture. It's shiny."
"They put up a what—no, nevermind, tell me later. Punch it in, Joker, and stop whining. You're only playing delivery boy, anyway."
"Oh yeah? How'd that happen?"
"Need to know, Flight Lieutenant. You can note in the logs that I'm running a private, personal mission as a favor for an old friend, and that I'll be doing it alone." She folded her hands behind her back and lifted her chin, staring out at the rush of stars overhead and seeing nothing.
"Yes ma'am, Commander sir."
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that."
"Hear what?" Joker said, but she heard him muttering to himself under his breath as she walked away. How he hadn't been court-martialed was one of the universe's constant mysteries; not many superiors were as willing to overlook insubordination in the face of loyalty as she was.
Garrus caught up to her in the armory, which was empty of all but, appropriately enough, arms. They were late into the third shift, when only a skeleton crew manned the ship—insomniacs like her pilot aside—but instead of crawling into bed for a solid hour or three of sleep, Shepard was digging out her hardsuit. The red blood-stripe up the right arm gave her brief pause, during which she wondered how much she really owed the Alliance, but the fact of the matter was that Shepard had a debt. She would do her best to repay in kind.
"Shepard," Garrus said. "What's our destination?"
"Classified," Shepard said, checking the seals on her helmet.
Garrus huffed. "You know I could—"
"But you won't," she said. "Get some rest, Garrus. Or go find Tali and ask her if she needs some help with Legion, god knows nobody sleeps on this damn ship. Stand down." When he didn't move except to grip one hand over the lip of her locker, she added, "I mean it, Vakarian."
His fingers tightened compulsively, and then he took a step back. "Fine."
"Jane," he said. "Watch your back." He waited for a sign, some signal of comprehension, and only at her nod did he turn and disappear through the cabin door. Shepard kept her eyes on the broad, sturdy line of his back until the lock sealed behind him.
Hackett had sent her hunting.
That was how it felt, anyway, and until Kenson had trapped her in a room with Object Rho, Shepard had felt as close to relief as she'd come in weeks. She'd travelled light, nothing more than her standard short-mission rig and a couple of energy bars tucked in a small magnetic case that clamped at the small of her back. Even the presence of the batarians wasn't enough to rattle her preternatural calm; she'd needed this, maybe more than she'd realized.
Here there were no collectors. There were no Reapers. There was no Cerberus, no admiralty board, not even the welcome albatross of an advanced ship that required fuel and upgrades and supplies for the crew. There was Shepard, and there was the mission.
Of course, then Dr. Kenson revealed the nature of her project, and the whole thing went to hell. Shepard managed to hang on to her belief that there had to be a better way than blowing the relay for all of five minutes; her optimism that destroying the Bahak System would delay the Reapers significantly lasted until shortly before she passed out after fighting over half a dozen waves of indoctrinated troops. Her last thought before the world went black was, Did I remember to tell Joker to turn down the ambient lighting on the crew deck?
And then it was dark, and quiet. Shepard remembered the dark. It was broken by a spray of stars, little pinpricks of light against the vast emptiness of the cosmos; one of the stars fell, and Shepard tried to catch it...
She thought she was back in Miranda's lab when she woke up. For the first disorienting minute, she saw only the overbright lights and heard only the throbbing in her head; then the voice of a woman nattering about sedatives cut through the static, and Shepard realized that Kenson had knocked her out, had locked her up, had taken all of her equipment, and was likely about to doom the entire galaxy to a short war and a sudden extinction.
They'd dented her pistol. Funny thing, cheap, lightweight, not at all like the old Spectre-issue HMWSR she'd requisitioned prior to Alchera, but she'd reverse-engineered a couple of Cerberus's fancy upgrades, streamlined them, and then integrated them into the standard-issue grunt sidearm she'd lifted from a storage locker.
The pistol still fired. It fired a double-tap into Kenson's head, and another three rounds into the security guard who tried to stop her from reaching the comm station, and then—already low on heatsinks as she was—she tossed it away in favor of the security guard's hand cannon with the fancy laser sights. She shot three—four—twelve more men with that gun, discarded it, and reached for her rifle; killed three—six—another eleven with her rifle—and when Harbinger spoke to her, Shepard reacted without thinking and put four shots into the hologram.
She put six shots into the holographic projector.
She put three shots into the body of what had been the communication specialist before Harbinger's interference.
She put two shots into the face of the the man who pursued her in her desperate race to catch up with Normandy.
She put one shot into the center mass of the Bahak System.
That was her best shot of all. She didn't even have to pull a trigger, and yet she managed to take three hundred thousand lives anyway.
Jack and Mordin were waiting for her outside the medbay after Hackett left. Shepard hadn't expected the head of joint forces to board a vessel not long out of Cerberus's hands, but he had. "Face the music," the Admiral had said; she had a feeling it would be sooner rather than later.
Mordin had one arm folded against his chest and the fingers of the other hand curled against his lips. He was staring after Hacket with narrowed eyes, which made Shepard wonder exactly what he was thinking. If anyone would be sympathetic to her actions it would have to be the engineer of the genophage, if only because she wasn't sure she could bear his judgment.
But he only said, "Shepard. Talk later. Important matters to discuss, but—will wait. See me tomorrow."
"Yeah. Sure thing, Professor. Need anything, Jack?"
Jack waited until Mordin had bustled off to the elevator and presumably back to his lab before withdrawing a bottle from behind her back. "Here," she said. "Me and some of the guys got kinda worried when you didn't show up for a few days, and, uh, anyway. You look like to need it, Shepard."
The seal on the wine bottle was broken and more than a third of the wine was gone, but Shepard recognized it from the case Liara had sent to Normandy as a re-christening gift. "Thanks," she said, and tucked it under her arm.
"Well damn, don't read too much into it," Jack said. "Fuck if I'm going to go around giving presents or nothing, but hey." She punched Shepard companionably in the shoulder—Jack's version of 'companionable' could knock a krogan clean off his feet—and bobbed her head. "Glad you're alive or whatever."
"Thanks," Shepard said again, and, because she didn't cry, laughed.
She popped the stopper as soon as she was alone in her cabin, thought hard about drinking straight from the bottle, and instead went hunting for the glasses Liara had brought. All class flowed from the Shadow Broker, apparently, at least on this ship. She found them tucked up on her bookshelf, where someone—not her—had thoughtfully stored them stems-up. She drank two cups down straight, corked the bottle, and told herself to finish her damn mission report.
It was a lot easier to have a third glass of wine.
She was curled over her desk when Garrus let himself in; the lights were dimmed and she had the viewscreen pulled up over the display case. On the empty page a cursor was blinking in time with the throbbing of her too-loud heart.
"Shepard," Garrus said. "I can't go if you don't want—"
"No, stay." She ground the palms of her hands into her sockets. "I've got something to ask you about anyway."
"If I'm not interrupting you, I have a couple of questions myself. The Normandy's sensors picked up a hell of an explosion. At first, I wasn't sure you'd made it out alive."
"You can say it," she said. "I blew up Aratoht. Three hundred thousand batarians gone like that, and you want to know the worst part? The worst part isn't that I did it, or that I'd do it again—it's that, for that second before I hit the shit button, I thought about those slavers that killed my family, and I was glad."
Garrus didn't look half as startled as she'd expected, was, in fact, looking at her with far more gentleness and compassion than anyone that hardened had the right to hold. "I'd be surprised if you didn't," he said.
Shepard choked. "Sorry," she said. "What was that?"
"I talked with Hackett before he left. He said that you tried to send out a warning, probably at the risk of your own life. Thinking about revenge doesn't make you evil, Jane. It makes you—"
"Real, I was going to say. It makes you a person. You still lace up your boots one at a time, you know. You don't have to live up to your own legend."
"Don't I?" Shepard wondered. "I'd hoped they would put something other than 'Butcher' on my grave. So much for that."
Garrus looked at her with a grave expression, and then he said, "If I have to personally fight every member of the Council, I will make sure they put 'Battlemaster Shepard, Queen of the Girl Scouts' as your epitaph. I don't even know what a girl scout is," he added. He must have seen some tension in her ease, because he held out a hand. "Hey. Come here."
Shepard let herself be led down the steps and over to the sectional, where Garrus pulled her down next to him. "Hackett said something else before he left," Garrus said. "He, uh, led me to believe that you plan on turning yourself over to a tribunal to be charged for war crimes."
"I don't know if 'war crimes' is the right term."
"You're joking." Garrus's voice did something indescribable in human terms when he was angry; his upper register flattened while the lower became more emphatic.
Shepard hauled herself up on her knees to grab the bottle of wine from the edge of her desk; she had to reach for it and ended up bracing herself against Garrus's shoulder. "Here," she said, and offered it to him. "You have a lot of catching up to do. Take it, Vakarian, come on."
He took a swig to placate her. "Now I know you're joking," he said. "There's no way you're trying to soften me up for some terrible news."
"Look, Garrus—" She sighed. "I've done a hell of a thing, and we can't afford to fight a war on two fronts. If the batarians want retribution, it's better for me to take the fall than it is to tie up our forces in what would end up being a pretty damn vicious war."
"You're already in a pretty damn vicious war," he countered. "Who's going to fight that war, if not you?"
"You," she said. "Hackett. He'll do what needs to be done."
Garrus looked her in the eye and deliberately reached for the wine.
"Maybe I'm tired of fighting," she said.
"Never stopped you before."
"No. No, I guess not."
They sat side by side, staring in the same direction, for a long breath, before Garrus said, "You had something you wanted to ask me."
"Yeah. Here, pass that over." She stole the wine back for a mouthful and returned it to him, but her hand, stubborn thing, stayed caught around his wrist even after he'd set the bottle back on the table.
"I can be...difficult," she said. "I don't—I haven't had people in—oh, hell. I trust you, Garrus, so I need you to promise me something."
"Anything," he said.
"You might think twice about that after you hear what I have to say."
"Shepard," Garrus said. "Anything."
"Promise me that if I ever show signs of indoctrination—I mean even the slightest thing, I trust that you'll know if I'm not behaving like myself—if I ever act indoctrinated, you put a bullet through my head." She pressed her thumb to the center of her forehead. "Right here, you understand?"
"No," he said.
Shepard jerked her hand back from his arm. "You said 'anything'—"
"I'm capable of a lot of things, Jane. I'm not sure I'm capable of that."
"You'd rather see me turn into a puppet?" she demanded. "You'd rather see them pull my strings than you would give me a clean death—"
"You aren't the only one who has nightmares about indoctrination. I don't think anyone on this ship hasn't thought hard about what it must be like at least once, but you can't ask that of me."
He hesitated and then, very softly, touched a finger to the line of the scar that ate across her cheek. "You'll be the first to know when I have an answer. Until then...you said you trust me. So—trust me."
"You drive a hard bargain, Garrus Vakarian."
"I have a lot to fight for," he said. "And if it makes you feel better, I promise that if you're indoctrinated and the situation is fucked up beyond all hope, then...then I'll do what you ask."
"Fair deal," Shepard said.
"Can we please talk about something else now?"
She slumped against him and let her eyes fall shut—just for a second. "Sure. How's your mom? Sorry, should've asked about that sooner—selfish of me. I'm sorry."
He groaned. "I'd almost rather have you ask me to shoot you again. She's fine. Improving. She isn't speaking to my father, not that I can blame her for that."
"Good. I'm glad to hear it." She couldn't imagine what it would be like to watch your mother—especially a mother as brilliant as Garrus's was—slowly slip into dementia. His relationship with his father was rocky, but he'd never spoken about his mother with anything other than utter respect.
"When are you leaving?" he asked.
"Earth," he said. "Somehow I doubt you're going to drag the process out."
"Tomorrow or the next day," Shepard admitted. "I have a few loose ends to tie up, and I'll have to leave enough time for the rest of the crew to make alternate arrangements, but you're right, no sense in waiting around. I thought I'd surrender the SR-2 at the same time. The Alliance needs her more than Cerberus, that's for sure. Have you thought about what you're going to do?"
"Wait for you," Garrus said, with a surety that was breathtaking.
"Not going back to C-Sec? Or Omega?"
He shrugged. "Too late for that. Someone has to keep the momentum going on this war of yours, Shepard. I'm going to go make some racket, lay some plans. Maybe I'll kill another Reaper and send it to you as a momento."
"That might be over the shipping limit."
"I like to think of limits more as suggestions," he said. "Speaking of mementos—" He patted at the sides of his torso, where turians put their pockets; he was wearing his under-armor suit rather than his nicer civies, which Shepard suspected were of a quality where the pockets were sewn shut. "Ah, here it is." He pulled out a chain and dangled it in front of her face.
"Those are my tags," she said, surprised.
"Moreau gave them to me after your, uh—" He coughed. "After your funeral. Liara took the spare set, but these are the ones they used to identify you. They're a little banged up, but I thought you might want them back."
She took them and held them up to the light. They were scratched all to hell, and when she wrapped her hand around them she could tell they wouldn't lay flat against her palm anymore, but they were hers, all right, her serial number and her blood type stamped under her name. Come to think of it, Liara's set was still in decent shape. Besides the battle wear these had taken, there was the matter of the small 'N7' etched amateurly on the back by a young marine who had known very little of what life would bring.
"I would. I mean, I do," she said. "Thank you."
Her fist was still closed over the tags, and he wrapped his hand around hers and squeezed. "You're welcome."
"If I don't see you again," Shepard started, because she felt she should give him some sort of closure, "you should know—"
"Don't be an idiot, Shepard. You aren't getting rid of me that easily."
"I can't make any promises," she said.
"No," Garrus said, and cleared his throat. "No promises." Something about the way he said it made her wonder if he was making the same kind of not-promise she was.
"Okay then," said Shepard.