Summary: When the prison-ship Purgatory fell, more than just Jack got out in the chaos. And now someone is stalking and killing the Citadel's war refugees — but when the killer suddenly changes his MO, Shepard has little choice but to get involved; can she catch someone who's already slipped through the cracks once — more importantly, can she do it before he hurts anyone else?
Written for the 2012 Mass Effect Big Bang Challenge
Disclaimer: Not mine. Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental.
Hell of a day.
Hell of a week, really.
Bailey leaned back in his chair, pressing palms against his burning eyes. It'd been a damned mistake accepting this promotion, and he'd known it was a mistake even at the time, but he also knew Donnel Udina was a tenacious son of a bitch who took no for an answer just about as well as his ex-wife ever had. So he went along with it, trying to tell himself it wouldn't be that different, that he could deal with Udina and still do the job he wanted to do. The important thing was shutting the damned windbag up.
Now Udina was dead and he was still stuck in a position he hated. Adding insult to injury, he had to process all the paperwork surrounding Udina's death. And all the crap that led up to it. So on top of C-Sec being stretched out too damned thin — thanks to those Cerberus bastards and the chief bastard himself, Udina — there was an internal affairs investigation going on, and while Bailey was more than happy to let internal affairs do whatever the hell they wanted to do with whatever dirt they found on Udina, they were still expecting him to take a hand in the investigation. Far as Bailey was concerned, the case was as cut and dried as they came. The councilor was a traitorous bastard and sold them all out, then got his lungs ventilated for his trouble. Yeah, he knew there were bigger things in a bigger picture — greater implications and all that — but damn it, he was the commander here. What the hell good was that if he didn't even get a say as to what cases he got to work on?
He missed the old days. He missed getting his hands dirty. He missed being a cop. Whatever it was he was doing here in an office with a desk and a big flashy sign with his name on the door, it wasn't anywhere near being a cop.
The door opened and he dropped his hands, taking in a deep breath — probably another internal affairs stuffed shirt with another datafile of Udina's illicit transactions — but stopped when he saw one of his own men standing in the doorway. Tallix Arturicus. A good cop.
It wasn't usually a good sign when one of the better cops showed up on his doorstep looking this… troubled. Hell, any day a turian looked troubled generally turned out to be a bad one, in his experience.
"Sir," the officer began. "There's been another."
Bailey's stomach went cold, icing over with the lead weight that settled down at the pit of it. Keep your head, man. Could be he means about a million different things, the way the station's gone to hell. "Gonna need a little more than that, son."
"Another victim, sir."
The weight in the officer's tone told him everything he needed to know, and some of what he didn't want to know.
"…And there's been a change, sir. In his MO. Something you should see."
He leaned back in his chair, wincing a little as his still-healing wound bitched at the movement. "I'm not gonna like this, am I?"
"No, sir. Definitely not."
Located several decks below C-Sec, the Citadel's morgue was about the size of a shipping warehouse. Seemed big, too, until you thought about how damned many millions of bodies lived on the station to begin with. With this last round of rebuilding, given how many remains they were recovering, the morgue got expanded and updated — the place was built like a goddamn bunker. Climate-controlled, with a couple thousand pods designed to hold and preserve the remains of any species for an indefinite amount of time. Some species were downright particular about their funeral rituals — the hanar came to mind — and it was sometimes necessary to hold on to remains until such time as the deceased's planet's third moon waxed full, just as a for instance.
The morgue was also one of the few places on the Citadel that didn't get blown to hell with Udina's coup. Good thing, too, since it was a little fuller now than it was before. C-Sec didn't need more pods yet, but given the way things were going… well, given the way things were going on in the galaxy, having a place for people to store their dead might wind up becoming a moot point.
Not that Bailey was in a hurry to share that particular opinion with anybody.
The viewing bay was a stark room, all white tile and steel tables, with a wide window overlooking the containment area. For the most part, "containment area" amounted to a whole lot of compartments set to accommodate all known races. The tech was cutting edge, Bailey knew that much — had to be — but to his eye, the whole damn morgue looked like a bunch of skycar garages stacked hundreds high and thousands wide.
Agent Arturicus led Bailey to the main computer terminal, and punched in his access code. Beyond the thick safety glass (not even glass, really — some kind of polymer, but it looked enough like glass to Bailey) a metal panel slid open, revealing eight pods. Four of them were full, and one of them — the newest — was in the process of being transported from refrigeration to the viewing bay. "I've got the newest with the others," he said.
"You're sure it's our guy?"
The agent gave a grim nod. "I am, sir."
"Has the ME been by yet?"
"Not yet," Arturicus said, "but… well. You'll see." He punched a series of keys, and one of the pods slid out on a panel. Several more keystrokes and the pod let out a long hiss as the lid slid open. Bailey looked down into the chamber and felt his stomach drop.
"Guess it was too much to hope for this asshole got shot to hell in the coup, huh?"
"My thoughts exactly, sir."
The woman in the pod was young; her biotag had been fried, and even after some coaxing didn't spit anything back other than corrupted and garbled nonsense. Without a 'tag, the chances for getting a positive ID were slim to none, especially since her head had been freshly shaved, and someone had gone and drawn all over her body. Odds were good she didn't look like that before she died.
"What makes you so sure it's the same—"
Arturicus pressed another button and the rollers inside the pod began whirring, gently turning the body over. Their guy had been carving up his victims good, and it was the best clue they've got to their killer. The Herdsman, they took to calling him — he carved the word "shepherd" into all of his victims — four of them so far, including this girl. He figured the guy for some lunatic who thought he was "leading sheep to the fold" or some nonsense that always seemed to crop up when times got tough. Could've been he was a crazy who managed to get himself indoctrinated and thought he was doing the Reapers a favor, could've been one of the other million and a half theories and rumors floating around C-Sec.
Turned out, Bailey realized with a wave of sinking dread, he was just a crappy speller, and they'd been barking up the wrong tree for a while.
The word — no, the name — carved in this young woman's back was: SHEPARD.
"Shit," he breathed, shaking his head. "Shit. This thing just got a whole lot messier." Bailey leaned against the console as Arturicus closed the pod; after a few more taps against the keyboard, it slid back into place with the others. He was getting a headache — it was climbing on top of the one he was already dealing with, and he wasn't sure if that made it a new headache, or just a worse one.
"I imagine we're going to have to notify Commander Shepard of this development," Arturicus said, sealing the morgue and signing out of the interface.
"You're not wrong about that. I'm just not looking forward to being the one who's gotta do it." The commander had a whole lot of other things on her plate, not the least of which were the damned Reapers. But if someone out there was killing people and branding them with her name, she needed to be told. He pinched the bridge of his nose, hard. It did exactly crap for the pounding ache in his head. "All right. I'm gonna head back upstairs, send a message out to the Normandy and see if we can scrounge a few minutes of Shepard's time."
Arturicus took out his omni-tool and tapped quickly against the keys. "Agent Seldra mentioned he saw… hmm…"
"Thought he saw what?"
"A member of the Normandy crew hanging around the docks."
"Any trouble?" he asked, already knowing the answer. Shepard put up with exactly no shit from her people. One of the reasons he liked her.
"No, just a game of Skyllian Five, sir."
"Still? How the hell long can they keep that up without going broke?"
"Different players come and go, sir. The game's been going on some weeks now." The omni-tool beeped, and a graphic flickered to life on its display. "Looks like the Normandy's docked in Bay D-24, sir. Shall I send a message?"
"Yeah. Give the commander a holler and let her know there's an urgent matter I've got to talk to her about. …And Arturicus?"
The turian put away his omni-tool. "Yes, sir?"
"You ever join in that game?"
His officer stiffened, like he'd been caught pilfering a cookie-jar. "It's an effective way to keep an eye on the area when refugees outnumber C-Sec agents ten to one, sir," he replied, linking hands behind his back and standing at attention.
"…Ever win anything?"
Arturicus' mandibles gave a twitchy little flutter, and for a second Bailey was almost convinced he wasn't going to answer at all.
"Two hundred, twenty five credits the last game I played in, sir," he finally said, before adding, "…I was off-duty at the time."
"Never said you weren't, son. And were there any… ah, incidents with the refugees?"
"None, sir." The officer tilted his head at Bailey. "Is there something you're getting at here, sir?"
"Just this: Arturicus, if you think playing poker with the refugees helps keep the peace and helps us keep an eye on things, I want you to keep on doing it," he said, turning and heading for the elevator.
"Is there anything else, sir?"
"Yeah. Don't lose your shirt."
I love you, Garrus Vakarian.
Simple words, really. Five of them. Nine syllables. Twenty-two letters.
But saying them, actually saying them was a leap and free-fall — an appropriate metaphor, considering where they were — a moment of terror followed immediately by a rush of freedom. There had been reasons to hold back before, or they'd seemed like reasons at the time. What it had all come down to was fear. Fear of letting Garrus in (he was, already), letting him see her vulnerable (he had, already), putting herself on the line and saying something that needed to be said, no matter how hard it was to give voice to it.
Thing was, it hadn't been that hard — and not just because of an inspired mood, either.
The truth of the matter was… kind of grim, when you got down to it, but she didn't want to die without having said those words to him.
Thena had died once. And she still remembered it, the clawing panic, the icy fear, and then quiet acceptance as her oxygen hissed away, as she realized and saw what she was facing, knowing there would be no last-minute rescue, no eleventh-hour miracle — nothing but a cold, quiet, lonely death. With those last stuttering, struggling breaths, she'd whispered goodbyes only she heard. That experience had brought with it the knowledge that it was a whole hell of a lot worse saying goodbye to someone you knew wasn't there to hear you than it was saying "I love you" to that same someone who was.
Besides, it wasn't every day she got to knock Garrus cool-as-a-cucumber Vakarian for such a loop, and she wondered if "whomperjawed" was an appropriate term for a turian — a lot more jaw to whomper, after all. It didn't take long for her to figure out he'd recovered from his shock well enough to gloat, and as he did, she decided missing a shot was a small price to pay to see Garrus that pleased with himself.
"So," she said, turning against him and smiling as his arm tucked tight around her shoulders. "That's what it takes to make this your favorite spot on the Citadel?" She hooked one hand in the neck of his armor and pulled Garrus down until they were eye to eye. "Crowning yourself King of the Bottle-Shooters?"
He breathed a short laugh and though his mandibles stretched in a grin, the look in his eyes was something else entirely — something else that made her stomach give a pleasant flip. "I think you know the answer to that, Shepard."
"I think if there are a hundred and thirty-seven regulations telling you not to go to the top of the Presidium," she replied, lowering her voice and leaning in closer, "there are probably at least three times that number telling you why you shouldn't debauch your girlfriend there."
"Doesn't mean I didn't think about it," he said, the words rumbling so deeply with subharmonics that they were practically a purr. Thena she slid her hands to either side of his neck, before traveling upward, fingertips intent on finding a very specific spot beneath his fringe. He chuckled again, hands tightening on her waist. "And it looks like you have, too."
"I think you've given it more thought than I have." Her breath caught at the way his hands slid from her waist to her hips and she swallowed hard. "You're way ahead of me, Vakarian."
"And I think you're catching up," he replied, leaning closer, tipping his head to give her hand better access, eyes closing as her fingers searched and stroked.
"What can I say?" she asked, lifting her eyebrows at him the very moment her fingertips glided across the exact spot she was looking for. "I'm a quick study."
Garrus' quick, sharp intake of air told her all she needed to know. "Believe me," he rumbled, eyes opening and meeting her own, "I've noticed."
"Mmm, I bet. There's a reason you wore armor on a date, isn't there?" she asked, pressing a slow kiss against his mouth.
His answer came murmured against her lips. "About three hundred and five reasons."
"Enough for you to give a damn?" she asked, her short nails gently scratching a path down from beneath his fringe along the side of his neck.
"Seventy-two of 'em have some pretty steep fines, Shepard," Garrus pointed out, tilting his head at her. "Whatever you've got in mind, it's going to have to wait until we get back to the Normandy."
"I've got… quite a few things in mind. The trip back to the ship might be long enough to alphabetize them." Reluctantly, she stepped away; just as reluctantly, Garrus loosened his arms and let her go. "You?"
"Oh, I've just got the one thing in mind." His mandibles flared slightly into something akin to a smirk. "But I think we should do it as many times as possible."
It felt… wrong, impossible, even, to feel as lucky as this. And something inside of Thena fought against that happiness, reminding her that the galaxy was going to hell, that people were dying — every day they were dying, or worse, that the galaxy still had people like Kai Leng and the Illusive Man in it, that there would still be politicians who cared more about politics than keeping people safe. Did she deserve such happiness amid such tragedy and pain? If anyone else had asked her that question, Thena's answer would have been a resounding, unflinching yes. Hold on to it, she would have told them. Don't let anyone take that from you. It was different, though, ascribing those same attitudes to herself. She still wasn't sure she deserved… this.
All the same, she wasn't giving Garrus up, and she wasn't letting anyone take him — or what they had — away from her.
Together they collected the rifles and unbroken bottles, loading everything into the skycar and heading back to the docking bay.
"So," Garrus began, expertly maneuvering the vehicle into traffic. "Good day?"
"Best in a while," she replied, relaxing lazily into the seat.
"I thought about… doing something else. Actually scoped out Purgatory, figuring we might unwind with a few drinks, but… I don't know, didn't seem right."
"And you thought taking me to the highest point on the Presidium to illegally shoot bottles with sniper rifles you pinched from the armory sounded like the sort of thing I'd think was a good time?"
"That's about the long and short of it."
"I am one lucky woman, you know that?" she asked, flashing him a smile.
Garrus, to his credit, only sent her a pointed sidelong glance before turning his attention back to the traffic. "Not half as lucky as you're gonna be—"
Shepard's omni-tool chirped suddenly. Unwelcomely.
"Hold that thought," she said as she pulled up the comm interface. "Shepard here."
Samantha Traynor's voice came through the channel, and she sounded strangely… guilty. "Commander, ah, I… hope I'm not interrupting anything…"
Thena shot Garrus a look, but his expression gave nothing away. "No, you're fine Traynor. We're actually on our way back to the ship. What's the problem?"
"A message came through from an Agent Arturicus, with C-Sec. Commander Bailey's asked for a moment of your time. Apparently there's an urgent matter he needs to discuss with you."
"Did this Arturicus say any of what it was in regards to?"
"No, ma'am, he didn't. Just that it was urgent."
"Could have to do with Udina and the coup," Garrus said under his breath. Thena nodded; she'd been thinking much the same thing. Everything was still a hell of a mess and she knew just how full Bailey's hands were trying to put things back together again. It was also a mess Cerberus caused — instigated by Councilor Udina, who'd probably been indoctrinated somewhere along the way, or just swayed by the Illusive Man's deep pockets — and any mess Cerberus caused, Thena knew she'd be cleaning up. As much as she tried to distance herself, her ideologies, her priorities from Cerberus while she worked under their colors, as much as she'd hated being the Illusive Man's pet project, there was a tether between them — when Cerberus caused damage, she fixed it; when Cerberus endangered lives, she saved as many as she could; and when the day came that she could do more than simply fix whatever the Illusive Man broke — or ordered broken — she'd be waiting to punch the son of a bitch right in the mouth. For now, though, it was time to fix what was broken and clean up the messes left behind.
"All right, Traynor — no problem. We'll head over now."
"I'll relay that to Agent Arturicus and Commander Bailey, ma'am."
"Thanks. Shepard out." The omni-tool went dark and Thena looked askance at Garrus, who was pulling the car into dock. "Bailey never says anything's urgent."
"Yeah, same thing crossed my mind. You want some company for this?"
She nodded. "And admit it; you're just as curious as I am."
"Shepard," Garrus said, opening the doors and pushing himself out of the car, "when a C-Sec man like Bailey uses the word 'urgent,' it doesn't get me curious; it makes me wonder who blew what up and how big the blast radius is."
"So you're thinking Udina?"
"I'm thinking I hope it's Udina."