24.

The Illusive Man drains the last of his bourbon, and while the ice melts he reviews status reports from across the entirety of Cerberus' empire.

The research on Klencory is proceeding, although key technology has yet to be obtained. Acquiring it will be a significant undertaking. The strategy for infiltrating the Mars facility has multiple hurdles to overcome, one of which is a disposable attack force.

He pulls up a file from Tuchanka. Early trials have shown promise, and negotiations with Wreav are progressing as planned. That the krogan betrayed his clan and brother shows his ruthless ambition. The Illusive Man does not doubt for a moment that the krogan will betray him. him at the first opportunity. Wreav is as predictable as he is aggressive.

While relying on Wreav is a minor gamble, curing the genophage presents a greater risk. The key is control. If krogan who have been cured are allowed into the general population once more, control will be lost. The Illusive Man makes a note to request an additional status report. The one he reads is lacking details regarding the holding cells and cranial implant success rates.

The report from the Austere draws his attention. He opens it and stares at the figures.

A catastrophic failure with catastrophic losses. Men, equipment, cargo. The majority of the turians on board had been eliminated, but enough had survived that the Hierarchy would no doubt retaliate. Given turian philosophies on war, the thought isn't comforting.

All these difficulties have a single root cause. Somehow, Shepard had discovered his intentions, and once again she has frustrated him. It would be amusing, were it not so infuriating.

The door opposite opens. Leng is early for the briefing. The Illusive Man lifts his eyes from the screens organized in front of him, watching as the assassin approaches. He nods at the space beside him, waiting until Leng takes his place and can read the report as well.

"This is disappointing," the Illusive Man says, gesturing at the losses. "But ultimately unsurprising."

Leng makes no reply. His hands tighten into fists at his sides.

"I chose to resurrect Shepard because she is the very best humanity has to offer." His eye move over the statistics before him. "I was correct. She is. But I failed to account for her stubborn refusal to recognize certain truths. Now humanity is faced with her as one of its greatest enemies. Seemingly unstoppable."

"Every enemy has a weakness."

"True. Do you understand Shepard's?"

Leng stares down with a blank expression and the Illusive Man allows himself a faint, dark smile.

"You've evaluated the mission reports from her fight against the Collectors. You noticed the multiple delays to complete non-critical tasks for each of her team?"

"Yes." He makes no attempt to conceal his disdain. "She was strengthening their resolve by eliminating personal conflicts."

"You see it as a waste of time." A pause, while he draws his silver cigarette case from a compartment of his chair. "You overlook so much. Her strength lies not only in her stubborn dedication to her cause, but in the loyalty of those under her command. They would follow her anywhere."

"But she can be cowed. Anyone can. It's simply a matter of method."

Leng is silent, cybernetic eyes blank and unreadable. "How?"

He pulls a cigarette from the case. Before he answers, he deliberately lights up and takes a slow drag.

"She isn't the one we hurt."

25.

The elevator ride from the bay is filled with tense silence. When the car stops and the doors part, Shepard steps out without a word, striding away.

"Wait." Kaidan starts after her, only to feel a hand fall on his arm. He turns and shrugs off Garrus. He glares at the turian. He's pissed and tired and he wants answers.

Garrus stares back, eyes just as hard. "She's going to the med-bay. Wounded take priority." Then he follows Shepard's path. "Come on. Mess hall's this way. She'll be out when she can."

Not like he has a choice. He walks behind Garrus as they enter the mess hall. He sees the med-bay, Chakwas working on a still form on an exam table, Shepard standing opposite. Her arms are crossed over her waist and her jaw is set. She's pale and more worn out than he's ever seen her.

"Have a seat," Garrus says.

Kaidan understands it's not an invitation. He says nothing, sitting down at the long table. Across the room, behind the counter, a greying soldier is wiping down the top. He alternates between scowling at Kaidan and the windows of the medical suite.

"Coffee on, Gardner?" Garrus asks, crossing to the area behind the counter.

"You look like hell. And coffee's always on in my kitchen," Gardner answers, eyes on Kaidan. "Looks to me like we picked up some ballast."

"Rupert Gardner, our mess sergeant. Kaidan Alenko, our... guest," Garrus says.

Guest. From where he's sitting it feels a little tense to be called that. He watches as the cook sets out cups and a dextro-purple box from the cupboard

Garrus looks at Kaidan. "You still take your coffee black?"

"Yeah." The way his head is starting to pound, he's going to need more than coffee.

Garrus fixes his own cup before picking up one of the mugs. He looks at Gardner and nods at the third. "Take that in to Shepard, black out those windows, and tell Chakwas I said you'll give her a hand."

He walks back to Kaidan, setting the extra mug down, waiting until Gardner follows his orders. Then he sits down heavily, lets out a long sigh, and rubs his eyes.

Kaidan notices the blood on the turian's armor has dried to black streaks. He breathes out, the image of Garrus holding Amicus' limp body all too clear. She's is a hell of a soldier, and if she dies, it's on Cerberus.

"How's your head?" Garrus asks.

"I'll live." Kaidan takes a long drink from his cup, barely tasting the scalding coffee. He sets it down carefully, looking pointedly at Garrus' chestplate. "You think she'll make it?"

Garrus' mandibles tighten against his jaw. "Don't know. Depends how fast that carrier gets there. Livilla's tough."

The 'but' goes unspoken and another uncomfortable silence settles between them. Kaidan drinks his coffee.

Garrus looks past him, toward the darkened windows. "She was turning herself in. Back on the Citadel. Cerberus grabbed her. Only reason she hasn't yet is she thought she could stop what happened on that cargo ship."

Kaidan considers his words. "I want to believe that," he says, slowly. "But there are vids. Few months back an asari research base was hit. It was Cerberus."

"Shepard on those vids?"

"They all wore helmets, but I know how she fights, Garrus. I know the hand signals she uses and what her biotics look like. Hell, I know how she reacts when she gets a head shot with whatever crappy little submachine gun she's using at the time."

Garrus finally looks at him. "If it was her, it was the chip."

"You mean the one she still has in her head?"

The door to the med-bay opens and Shepard comes out alone, coffee in one hand. Taking the seat next to Kaidan, she nods at Garrus.

"No internal damage. Chakwas will have him up in a few days." Her armor is smeared with blood, too. She starts pulling off her gloves, setting the first into the seat of the chair beside her. "Get cleaned up, Garrus. I've got this."

Garrus looks like he might argue, but he pushes away from the table, armor creaking as he stands. He takes a step, then turns to face them again. "Shepard. That soldier I pulled out of the hold. She was a good friend."

Shepard's jaw tightens as she yanks off her remaining glove. Her exhaustion is clear as she looks up at him. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. We hadn't shown up, she'd be dead," he answers, turning away, heading for a set of doors behind the galley. "They all would have been."

Kaidan hears the implication in the words, but says nothing. It's likely true. The attackers hadn't seemed interested in taking prisoners.

Shepard waits until the doors close behind Garrus, then curls her hands around her coffee cup. Kaidan glances sideways at her. Two years he spent trying to move on with his life. Not get over her, because he's come to realize there is no getting over Shepard. Not for him. During those years he would have given anything to see her again, to hear her voice, see her smile.

Then Horizon happened, and now this—whatever this is. He looks down at his coffee, growing cold in the cup, at the Cerberus sigil emblazoned on the side. The damned thing is everywhere he looks. He hadn't lied to Garrus. He does want to believe her.

"Shepard—" he starts, only to have her interrupt.

"Sorry about your boots," she says. "Thought I cleared them."

The comment catches him off guard and he turns to look at her. Shepard. Close enough he could touch her. The person he once trusted with his life, who he believed stood for the same things he did. A soldier who bled Alliance white and blue.

The light at her throat blinks steadily and he looks away. He doesn't know who she is now and that makes his gut twist.

"You have me here," he says. "I'm listening."

"One of our engineers will be up shortly to act as an escort, but I've ordered full access for you to all of the logs from the time the Normandy left the Citadel."

He raises an eyebrow at the word 'left,' but says nothing, and after a pause Shepard continues.

"Your weapons will be returned to you and you'll be given clean clothing. The quarters are comfortable and the food is decent. When you've made a decision, whatever that is, I'll honor my end of the agreement."

Chakwas interrupts them, tapping on the window, and Shepard stands. "For what it's worth, Kaidan, I'm sorry."

She doesn't say what for, and he doesn't ask. He listens to her walk away, and the med-bay doors close behind her. Then he's alone, with only the quiet of the ship around him.


Sorry, I can't update this more often—my original projects are taking up the majority of my time and energy. A huge thank-you to everyone who has followed, favorited, or commented. It really does lift my spirits. :)