A/N: So, it wasn't a fast update, but it was faster. This chapter was tricky to write. I had a great deal of trouble organizing the information and eventually decided to skip over some stuff. There's a slight jump in continuity here, but I think it's easy enough to follow.

Chapter 8: Density

~0~


xxXxx

Serpent Nebula. Widow System, The Citadel

2183 CE, September, 15

GST: 23:41 Designated Night Cycle.

...

The Lower Wards were always dark.

In this part of the Citadel, the simulated sunshine that bathed the upper levels was entirely absent. Thousands of meters below the artificial lakes and lush parks that stretched over the Presidium, under layers upon layers of metal, there was little light and less warmth.

The thirty-second Ward block on the Citadel's third arm was one of the largest on the entire station. It was a catacomb, hundreds of levels deep and each one composed of tall metal corridors that branched and interconnected in a seemingly random design. Interspersed throughout this maze was the occasional open room, some no bigger than a thrashball pitch and others large enough to contain a modest city. The darkness was a near constant. It receded somewhat in the more affluent or economically relative districts, but for the most part, the residential portions were submerged in varying degrees of gloom.

What little light there was to be found was hardly an improvement. Countless neon signs dotted the district, appearing over storefronts and doorways or else simply fastened to a bare spot of wall. They advertised every service imaginable and their harsh array of electric colors reflected off the metal passageways with sickening intensity. Actual street lighting was few and far between outside of the markets, so to compensate, the local residents in each neighborhood took it upon themselves set up their own lights. The result was like walking through a mad carnival contained in a tunnel. Nothing was consistent and the blurs of noise and color all blended into chaos.

It might have been a festive ambiance under better circumstances, but the truth was that everything just seemed seedy and vaguely menacing. Those efforts at illumination only emphasized just how dark it was outside of their glow, and it was a wonder to think that people might spend the greater portion of their lives in this lurid contrast of light and dark.

Then again, Shepard mused to herself as she let her eyes trail over her immediate surroundings, given that I spend most of my time on a spacecraft, I suppose I shouldn't be quick to judge.

And yet, she was judging. There were plenty of people in the Wards who were hardworking and decent, but now the night cycle was in effect and they were sensibly staying indoors. Over the last hour alone, she had been treated to a procession of people who looked like petty criminals on their way to a Caligulan orgy. It seemed like everyone down here was either drunk, looking for trouble, or else a nasty combination of two.

Shepard blew out a long breath and sagged against the railing behind her. The central column of the Ward district yawned at her back like a vast and bottomless pit. It was a chasm some seven hundred meters in diameter, perfectly circular and so deep that Shepard could look both up and down without seeing where it ended. Each individual Ward level stood out in stark contrast, evenly spaced every hundred yards along the column's length and discernible as bands of light that blazed in the fathomless shadows. A number of personal skimmers zipped through the open space, the reverberating thrum of their ME engines adding to the muted chaos of shouts, distant music, and the general clamor of several thousand people living in what amounted to a steel tube.

She hated it. Just being around this concentration of other people was making her tense and uncomfortable. She was tired after a long day and wanted nothing more to retreat to the quiet isolation that the Normandy would offer.

Sadly though, she still had business here.

That business took the form of a nightclub that loomed in front of her like a temple dedicated to the god of debauchery and poor taste. Its vibrant façade of pink neon lighting glowed like a miniature sun, and the charming sign above its entrance featured a lit-up silhouette of an asari that gyrated back and forth as the lights flickered on and off. Dance music was playing inside, so offensively loud that she could feel the bass line thudding in her chest even from clear across the street.

Chora's Den: the number one place on the Citadel for anyone interested in contracted a hideous form of space syphilis.

Shepard stood far enough away from the entrance to avoid looking overly suspicious, but close enough to keep an eye on the front door. No one at Chora's Den had taken notice of her thus far and that was precisely the intention. The clock on her omnitool told her that she'd been waiting for almost ninety minutes. If this took much longer, she'd have to go with a new plan.

Now, of course, there was a long story explaining how she had come to stand outside a strip club with a half-empty bottle of vodka in one hand, but the short version was far more palatable.

She had gone to C-SEC on Anderson's recommendation and after a spectacularly failed attempt to wrestle information out of the on-duty desk sergeant, had wound meeting two interesting people. The first was a young turian officer with a chip on his shoulder and a fanatical ambition to catch Saren, and the other was an ancient krogan mercenary who had outright told her that all he wanted to do was kill a man.

Shepard joined up with the turian on the basis of him having a lead on how to implicate Saren, and then she had invited the krogan along because he was the type of goal-oriented individual she could admire.

From there, they had followed the turian's lead to a medical clinic in the Wards, met a local gang, killed said local gang, rescued a doctor, and finally learned that several hours prior, a young quarian girl had stopped by the clinic needing treatment for a gunshot wound that could only have been caused by a geth phasic round. Moreover, after getting patched up, the quarian had confided in the doctor and asked if there was any way she could get a piece of evidence to the Shadowbroker.

The Shadowbroker. Evidently, Keyser Söze was unavailable and the quarian had stopped believing in Santa Claus a long time ago.

That fanciful notion aside, the quarian girl had claimed to have evidence that she didn't want to show C-SEC and a mysterious wound that almost certainly resulted from an encounter with the geth. That alone was enough of a coincidence to interest Shepard, and after speaking with the doctor a little longer, it became clear that the quarian had been referred to a man named Fist.

Fist ran Chora's Den and most of the criminal enterprises in this Ward Block. He was a man that the krogan wanted to kill, the turian officer wanted to arrest, and Shepard wanted to question. It was almost like it was meant to be, and though she had reason to doubt in providence, she still let herself be led whenever she felt its hand on her shoulder.

This time, it was simply bad luck that providence had led her to a criminal den filled with blast doors, security measures, and a veritable army of hired guns. A frontal assault would be the kind of messy and murderous episode that would result in a court martial, so after a quick conference, their little group had slapped together something that bore resemblance to a "Plan B".

This was, when things were boiled down, the reason Shepard was standing outside of a strip club with a half-empty bottle of vodka in one hand.

A cold draft wafted up from the column behind her, bringing with it a smell like cooked noodles and causing Shepard to shiver as it traced along the back of her neck. Though her attention was still firmly fixed on the club's entrance, she was also watching a group of turians out of the corner of her eye. They had paused several feet from where she waited, dressed in clothing that was uncommonly nice for the district and laughing amongst themselves as one of them checked something on his omnitool.

It was probably nothing, just a couple of friends out for a good time. The only problem was that one of them had taken notice of her.

The turian was tall, even by her own people's standards, and the yellow markings on her brown plates stood out brightly in the uneven light from the club's façade. Her chin was raised, her jaw mandibles slightly spread, and there was no attempt to disguise the fact that her eyes were on Shepard.

Sadly, it wasn't aggression. It was interest.

Most people who didn't grow up around a significant alien population assumed that they would not receive much interest from outside of their own species. The asari were an exception, of course, but the prevailing attitude seemed to be that something that looked like a turian would have no interest in something that didn't.

Not the case, as it turned out. The asari had been busy redefining the galactic perception of sex appeal for the last few centuries, and humans weren't too far off the mark. Besides, if two intelligent species were placed in a room together, it wouldn't be long before both started to wonder what it would be like to bang the other. That was just a fact of fuckin' nature.

Honestly, Shepard might have shared the interested under different circumstances. Turians were fun if one did not mind looking like a scratching post afterwards. They were also the only species who seemed to a societal concept of what casual sex actually meant, so both genders were good choices for a night's company.

Tonight however, Shepard was in no kind of mood. Tempting as it was to just ignore the attention, turian courtship was a goddamn crapshoot and it was better to address it head-on rather than risk her admirer taking it as a challenge.

Shepard inhaled a deep breath and turned her head to make direct eye contact with the turian. Holding the female's gaze, she counted three slow seconds and then turned away without making the slightest gesture or display of emotion.

Eye contact. Turians were big on it. Three seconds was long enough to demonstrate that she wasn't afraid or weak, but not so long as to indicate aggression. She'd acknowledged the invitation and passed on it all in the span of a few seconds.

In her periphery, she saw the turian shrug and turn back to her friends. After a half-minute of further discussion, the group of them continued on their way.

Shepard let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding and relaxed. She hated waiting, it made her anxious. Once she got to doing something, it was easy to follow instinct and act in the moment. These long periods alone with her thoughts, poor company all things considered, were much harder to bear. This was the time for doubt, for wondering if her slapdash plan was as stupid as it now seemed in retrospect. She wasn't built for waiting, and if it dragged on much longer, she'd start getting restless.

On their own accord, her eyes drifted down to the bottle that she held loosely in her left hand. She had poured out the other half earlier, but there was still plenty left. Maybe a drink would calm her nerves. Not a big one, of course, just enough to take to make things a little easier.

No, no that wasn't realistic. It had never made things easier before and it probably wouldn't start now.

She was spared further deliberation when the doors to Chora's den banged open and let out a fresh blast of music. A man stumbled outside, and before he'd even cleared the doorway, she could hear him shouting.

"-give a shit when your weekend starts! I got that son-of-a-bitch Pallin calling me up on charges and I'm not going to be defended by some shitheel union rep!" His voice was shrill with outrage, slurred from drink, and loud enough to make her wince. At first, it seemed as though he was berating the thin air, but then she noticed the orange glow of a comm unit along the left side of his jaw. "Fist pays you good money and he's looking out for me, so you get your ass down there on Friday and be ready for it! You understand me?"

Without waiting for a response, the man slapped his comm unit to deactivate it and proceeded to unleash a piercing string of obscenities. He had an impressive vocabulary in that area, and after venting a good deal of spleen, he turned and began walking unsteadily in Shepard's direction, muttering darkly under his breath all the while.

Shepard straightened up slightly as he drew closer. He was of an average height, prematurely bald and carrying a few extra pounds that he really didn't need. His unpleasant face was marked by mean little eyes and sallow skin stretched too tightly over his skull. The rumpled C-SEC uniform he wore looked like it had been too long without a proper washing, and the dark stains under his arms just completed the picture.

Shepard recognized him from the holo-still the turian C-SEC officer had shown her. Rick Harkin: notorious drunk, corrupt police officer, and firmly entrenched on Fist's payroll. A waste of humanity by all accounts, but this was the man Shepard had been waiting for all night.

Never once glancing in her direction, Harkin walked up to a piece of the railing not fifteen feet from where she stood and hocked loudly before spitting over the edge. Still grumbling his near unintelligible resentments, he fumbled unsuccessfully at one of his pockets for a moment before finally drawing out a battered carton of cigarettes and a lighter.

He was just starting to pat a cigarette out from within the crumpled confines of the carton when Shepard cleared her throat. "Sounds like you could use a drink."

Harkin startled, the carton of cigarettes falling to the metal floor with a soft thump as he jerked his head up to see who had spoken. His expression was initially suspicious, apparently by default, but as his eyes landed on her face and then trailed down to the bottle in her hand, he simply looked bewildered by the situation as a whole.

All told, it took him nearly ten seconds to produce a response. " You offerin'?"

She smiled and extended the bottle in invitation. Harkin pushed off the railing and cautiously walked over to take it from her hand. He examined the label with a judicious eye before shrugging and lifting it up to drink. He took two solid gulps, released a satisfied sound, and then held it back out to her. Accepting it with a nod, Shepard pretended not to notice the way his eyes flicked over her in quick appraisal.

Rather, she settled back against the railing and made it easy for him to look. She was wearing the dark navy slacks from her dress uniform, but she'd stripped off the accompanying double-breasted jacket to expose the black tank she wore underneath. Her battered pair of dog tags hung over its front, dangling between her breasts and glinting as they caught the light. Her short shock of black hair was mussed, there was a splash of vodka on her collar, and she'd adopted the lazy, liquid posture of someone who had been drinking and was looking to pursue it further.

The narrative was there. She was a marine on leave; young, drunk, and looking to have some fun before being called back to her posting. The only thing that could spoil the image was if Harkin recognized Commander Shepard beneath it all.

"So," Harkin cleared his throat and handed the bottle back over. "Marine, huh?"

Shepard leaned back to prop her elbows on the railing behind her. "That I am, officer."

Harkin glanced down at his uniform and let off a short little chuckle. "It's detective, actually."

It wasn't, but Shepard shouldn't have any way of knowing that. Feigning surprise, she cocked one brow. "Detective? Must've been hard to wrangle that in C-SEC."

"You got no idea, honey. Those fuckin' turians won't give us an inch unless we fight tooth and nail for it." Harkin grunted and started fiddling with his cigarettes once again. He was well on his way to lighting one when he belatedly remembered Shepard's presence. Lifting the cigarette up, he indicated with it a wave. "Err…you mind?"

"By all means."

Harkin grunted and bent to light his smoke. Shepard turned her head so she wouldn't have to watch. Five years, eight months, and twelve days since she'd last had one and she still had to stop herself from asking if she could bum an extra.

"So," Harkin paused to suck from his now glowing cigarette and then blew out a gusty breath. "You got a name?"

"Sían."

"Rick Harkin," he stuck out a hand and the two of them shook. "Sían, huh? Odd name for a chick."

"Suits me well enough."

"I guess that what counts, right?" He ground out a chuckle that sounded forced to Shepard's ears. "Whatcha doin' out here, anyway? Don't you know that the party is inside?"

He waved an expectant hand at Chora's Den as if she could have somehow missed the night club in all of its classless glory. Shepard pretended to regard the building for a moment and then shrugged. "I was considering goin' in. My squad ditched me a few hours back and I heard the Lower Wards were good for some fun. Could be that I was fooled, though, this place smells like shit and you're the first human I've seen in a long while."

"Those are the drawbacks, but the Wards aren't all bad. If you're looking for some cheap drinks and the right kind of entertainment, you'll find plenty down here." Harkin laughed again. He was growing comfortable with the situation, having moved to rest one arm on the railing while shooting intermittent and very blatant looks at her chest. "That being said, a fine lookin' thing like you shouldn't be out here all alone. These Wards aren't what you'd call 'safe'."

Shepard watched a pair of salarians burst out of Chora's Den, each trying to support the other as they ambled off down the street. Turning her head in Harkin's direction, she put a faint slur over her next words. "Then I suppose it's a lucky thing I'm not alone."

The cop frowned. "Yeah? You waiting for someone?"

Don't roll your eyes. Don't roll your eyes.

Shepard rolled her eyes and gave him a pointed look. "You're here, aren't you?"

Harkin blinked, a broad, smarmy grin spreading over his blotchy face. He apparent liked his flirtation served right under his nose. "Heh, I guess that is a lucky thing."

Shepard had to resist the impulse to sidle away as Harkin shifted to close some of the distance between them. There was a familiar gleam in Harkin's eye that told Shepard that she had accomplished at least one of her goals tonight. Deciding that she shouldn't be too proud of attracting the interest of a drunk who had just stumbled out of a strip club, Shepard maintained her slouched posture as if she hadn't registered his movement.

"Soooo…" Harkin drawled out the word as he fixed her with what could only be considered a leer. "You look a bit familiar; any chance I've seen you before?"

"It's possible. My ship docks here often enough."

"Nah, I know what it is!" Harkin snapped his fingers and gave her a sly smile. "Sure, I've definitely seen you before."

Shepard went still, forcing herself not to react. "Oh?"

"Yeah," he leaned in close enough for her to smell cheap vodka and cigarettes. "In my dreams, honey."

Lord Almighty…

"Ha," Shepard forced out a laugh as she willed herself to relax. She wondered if killing someone over a pick-up line that atrocious would fall under justifiable homicide. "You're flattering me, detective."

"Maybe, but only if it's working." Harkin laughed louder than she had, looking mighty pleased with himself. "Seriously, though, if you're cruising for a good time tonight, I happen to know the owner here." He jerked a thumb toward Chora's Den and covered up the impressive nature of the claim with some false modesty. "I could get us a table, maybe an extra bottle, and we can see where the night goes from there."

Shepard smirked at him and finally uncoiled from her slouched position. She turned to face the vast pit at the center of the Ward block and brought the vodka to her mouth. Their positions were such that he couldn't see her thumb firmly sealing the mouth of the bottle and Shepard worked her throat as though taking several swigs. Lowering the bottle, she bit off a gasp and shook her head violently.

Theatrics, but then again, that was part of playing a role. Shepard had been doing it long enough to know that people believed what they expected to see.

"No offense, detective, but I'm not looking for a date." Shepard cleared her throat with a cough and turned to face Harkin with a level stare. "I've got to be aboard a ship in six hours and this will probably be the last drink I have for a month. That's gonna be a month of regulations, strict schedules, and an asshole XO who doesn't know better than to turn a blind eye on fraternization." She leaned in, lowering her voice so that it was husky and soft. "So, how 'bout we skip the foreplay and find us somewhere to fuck? I can always tell everyone you charmed the hell out of me if that's what you're after."

Harkin stared at her, looking for all the world as if she had just grown a third arm and then slapped him with it. His mouth worked uselessly for a moment, but he recovered soon enough. "You serious?"

"Does it seem like I'm joking?"

"No," the sly grin wiggled back across his face in a heartbeat. "No, I guess it doesn't. You got anyplace particular in mind?"

Shepard shrugged. "You're the one who lives here. You tell me."

That energized him. Harkin perked up, his eyes sliding toward a nearby alley that loomed dark and foreboding off to the right. "Well…"

Shepard scoffed. "Standards, detective."

"Right, right," Harkin waved a hand as if the thought had never crossed his mind. "Uhh..I got a skimmer parked nearby and my room isn't that far away?"

There it was. Give someone a needle and a good reason to thread it, and they'll happily stitch your plans together for you. Shepard eyed him up and down as though considering before nodding. "I gotta be at the starport in five hours. Give me a lift afterwards?"

"Heh," Harkin spread his hands out wide. "Sure, honey, whatever you want."

Shepard straightened, rolled her shoulders, and then cracked her neck in a long series of pops. Tossing Harkin another smirk, she lifted one hand to indicate the street before them. "Well then, lead on, detective."

Harkin let off another grating laugh as he stepped up and wrapped an arm around her waist. Tugging her against his side, he steered her off to the right and away from Chora's Den. He was grinning, palpably excited, and they hadn't gone more than a dozen feet before he reached over to point at the bottle in her hand. "Give me another slug of that, will ya?"

Shepard passed it over absently. She was busy trying to ignore both the smell of stale sweat and the general sense of revulsion she felt at being this close to him. "Seducing" someone while on a mission was definitely a first in her book, and having now experienced it, she decided it would also be a last. Activating her biotics and leveling a night club might well prove to be an entirely less diplomatic approach, but at least she wouldn't have had to touch some slimy son-of-bitch old enough to be her father.

Distracted by her own thoughts, it took her a moment to realize that Harkin had asked her something. "Sorry, what?"

"I said: how'd you get those scars?" He thrust the bottle toward her face in emphasis. "And don't you dare say that you cut yourself shaving."

Harkin chuckled at his own joke once more, a tendency that made her seriously consider the merits of tugging his lower jaw free from his skull. Cheered up by the thought, she shrugged. "Had a disagreement with a batarian."

Harkin took a deep swig of her liquor. It didn't seem likely that he'd be offering it back to her any time soon—which was just as well. "Must have been a shit kind of disagreement."

"Most of them are."

They were moving farther into a relatively deserted portion of the Ward block. Ahead, Shepard could see a sizeable plaza that had been turned into a docking area. Less than a dozen skimmers were parked in the designated spots. A single streetlight was set up in the center of the lot, its sullen cone of white light spluttering as the ancient generator at its base struggled to stay in working order.

The only person in the general vicinity was a giant elchor, and he seemed preoccupied with vomiting in the doorway of a closed storefront. At least, Shepard assumed he was vomiting. She didn't really know enough about the elchor to say whether spewing translucent ichor from their mouth slits was normal behavior, but she sincerely hoped it wasn't.

That vile exception aside, however, this place was dark and empty. She saw no one, so either her new allies were doing their job very well or incredibly poorly.

It was then that Harkin's hand drifted down from her lower back, and without so much as a by-your-leave, he started squeezing her ass like he was checking fruit at the store.

Shepard clenched her jaw and came very close to killing him. She was halfway to swatting his hand away when he let go on his own accord and came to stop by a rusty skimmer. Then, in a surprisingly quick move on his part, Harkin caught her about the waist with both hands and pushed her against the driver's door.

Shepard reacted on instinct. One hand moved to press flat against his stomach and the other flitted up to grip the side of his head. All it would take was a flare of her biotics, a tiny little spark, and then she'd see whether or not he'd survive the cerebral hemorrhaging long enough to feel her rip out the greater share of his intestinal tract.

Her throat tightened with anticipation. It would be easy.

"So, here's what I'm thinking," Harkin wet his lips as his right hand began to trail along Shepard's side. "I'm thinking we've got plenty of time before we need to get you back, so there's no need to rush off. How 'bout a little taste of what's comin'?"

Shepard blinked at him, slowly coming to terms with the idea that he hadn't been attacking her. She glanced to either side, taking in the secluded parking lot and lingering on the faint blur of motion over Harkin's shoulder. Tossing him an inviting smile, Shepard relaxed her grip on his head and shrugged. "Well, if that's what you want."

Urdnot Wrex entered the conversation with all the subtlety one could expect from a krogan. A dark, bulky shape loomed up behind the officer, well over two meters tall and nearly three times as broad as the human man. Harkin's eyes screwed up in confusion as he noticed the direction of Shepard's gaze, but before he could so much as turn, it happened.

An armored forearm swept out and slammed into the side of Harkin's skull with a sickening thump. He was practically ripped off of Shepard from the force of the blow; not making the slightest of sounds as he half-flew, half-collapsed to the dirty metal street.

A monster of a krogan stood in the place that Harkin had so recently vacated. He was ugly as sin and probably as old. Scars covered the leathery skin of his exposed face and neck, crisscrossing along his face and tugging the thin lips of his reptilian mouth into a cruel sneer. The thick, broad scales that flared out from the top of his skull were so chipped and worn that Shepard could only assume that he must have headbutted a grenade at one point. His metal armor was in no better condition, pitted and marked by countless instances of gunfire and shrapnel.

There was no denying that he looked every inch the vicious bastard, but beneath that, Wrex had an air that suggested life had kicked him around something fierce. He just felt old, and was it not for the fierce intelligence glittering in his red eyes, she might have been inclined to discount him as a relic. As it was, however, Shepard felt more or less confident that this battered old krogan was ten degrees more dangerous than he looked.

Wrex took a moment to examine his handiwork before offering her a short nod. "Shepard."

"Wrex." She acknowledged him tersely as she brought her hand up to rub at her brow. "What in the hell was that?"

His eyes narrowed. "What?"

"You damn near took his head off!" Shepard shot over her shoulder as she moved to examine Harkin's body. "Ah, for Christ's sake, he's bleeding. Why didn't you just shoot him while you were at it?"

There was a creak of metal as the krogan folded his arms across his barrel chest. "This was your plan, human. I'm just playing along."

"No, I never said you should hit him. My plan was to lure Harkin somewhere private so that Fist's men wouldn't see us when we accosted him."

Wrex grunted. "Doesn't he seem accosted?"

"He seems concussed to hell." Shepard straightened up and jabbed her finger into Wrex's breastplate. In spite of herself, she could hear the anger creeping into her tone. "And though if anyone deserves to have their skull caved in, it's Officer Shitbag down there, we're supposed to be questioning him and that is goin' be very difficult if he never wakes up!"

Wrex took a step forward in a fashion that deliberately emphasized the difference in their sizes. His gaze turned flat as he met her eyes. "Not my fault you people are so delicate. Take that hand away or we'll be having a problem."

Shepard bared her teeth, feeling excitement beginning to rise in once again. Could she win if she fought him? She always did, but Wrex didn't strike her as the type to go down easily.

It would be a good fight.

The moment stretched on for a dangerous length of time as they stared one another down. Things might have gotten significantly worse if a new voice hadn't cut in.

"So, how's this going?"

Both Shepard and Wrex turned to regard the speaker. It belonged to a turian who was in most regards the polar opposite of the old krogan. Tall and dressed in blue and black C-SEC armor that practically shown from regular care, Officer Garrus Vakarian looked like he'd stepped out of a C-SEC recruitment poster and into the real world.

He wasn't much shorter than Wrex, but his turian frame was less bulky with slender limbs and a heavy cowl of metallic carapace that rose up behind his neck. His plates were silver in color and they covered most of his face and body in a smooth configuration of protective armor. Blue markings had been etched along the bridge of his flat nose and over the rise of his cheekbones until they reached the base of his fringe. His facial features bore some resemblance to a human's, but the differences were readily apparent in the sharp, avian eyes and the long mandibles that ran the length of his jawline. A targeting computer was fitted over the left side of his face, its holographic interface glowing a light-blue that was too bright in the near darkness.

Garrus was about her age and their brief acquaintance had impressed that he was driven, if somewhat idealistic. He was in this for justice more than anything else, and higher motives tended to make Shepard uncomfortable.

She took her finger from Wrex's breastplate and stepped back. "It's going."

"Yeah, looks that way." Garrus peered down at Harkin. He didn't seem displeased by his fellow officer's condition. In fact, his mandibles were spread in a fashion that Shepard was fairly sure indicated amusement. "I thought the plan was to avoid violence."

"There's a difference of opinion on that account."

"Is he even alive?"

Officer Harkin answered that question with a low moan. It was probably a good sign for his eventual recovery, but Shepard knew more about hurting people than fixing them. One way or another, there was no point in crying over spilled blood. "C'mon, let's get him somewhere less visible. Last thing we need is for someone to come along and make a scene."

Garrus pointed over to the other side of the metal walkway. "There's an alleyway over in that direction that's deserted, but I wouldn't worry too much in any case. People down here don't like to get involved if they can help it."

"All the same, let's go."

She let Wrex and Garrus collect Harkin off the ground. Together the four of them skulked off in the direction Garrus had indicated. It was a relief that Harkin did seem to be coming around in small increments. He was twitching feebly as the aliens hoisted him along, and the moaning had become more of a constant thing.

They entered a narrow alleyway that couldn't have been more than four feet across. A feeble strip of tube lighting ran along the top of the right wall, its meager illumination casting everything in a hazy orange light that deepened the contours of their faces into ghoulish contrast. Heaps of unidentifiable refuse were strewn about at apparent abandon, and the wet stench of decay and stale beer mixed poorly with what was unquestionable the reek of urine.

Garrus and Wrex deposited Harkin on a stack of what appeared to be wet cardboard. The old krogan then grunted something illegible at Shepard before moving to the mouth of the alley and leaning his considerable bulk against one wall. As lookouts went, he was a damn fine choice who would encourage people to forget their curiosity.

Garrus, on the other hand, lingered at Shepard's elbow. "Just as a warning, it may be harder than you think to get him to talk. Harkin might not be a paragon of virtue, but he's a stubborn bastard. I wouldn't be surprised if he clams up out of spite."

"I'm not worried. Did you get what I asked?"

The turian glanced at her and then drew a small plastic bag from within the storage compartment of his armor. Though he was obviously reluctant to pass it over, he didn't put up any resistance as she tugged it from his hand. "Dr. Michel had some in her store. She asked for it back, I think she uses it as a cheap anesthetic."

Shepard held the bag up to inspect the contents by the dim light of the alley. "Not gonna arrest her for it?"

"She's one of the few good things this Ward block had going for it. If she thinks it has an application in her clinic, I'm more than happy to look the other way." Garrus was still studying her with the measured suspicion that seemed unique to cops everywhere. "Why exactly do we need it?"

She chuckled and passed the bag back to him. "You certain that Harkin's dirty?"

"Entirely." A dark current of anger, startling in its intensity, leapt into the turian's voice as he hissed out the word. "There's a reason why he's being called up in front of the review board next week. The human embassy has been covering for him for years, but I know he's taken bribes and done worse besides."

"Well, then, this will be a nice instance of poetic justice." Shepard paused. "Or is it poetic irony? Could be both."

"I don't—"

"Doesn't matter, really." Shepard murmured as knelt down to examine the unconscious Harkin. His head was lolling about freely and there was a magnificent bruise blooming just above his left temple. Blood was trickling from a small gash at its center, the dark trail of it falling over his brow and splattering against his cheek and shirt collar.

Shepard poked him in the chest. "Officer Harkin?"

A drawn out groan was her only response.

"Officer Harkin?"

Another groan.

Shepard sighed and glanced about until her eyes landed on a metallic food canister that was filled with a mysterious brown liquid. Reaching out to pluck it from the surrounding trash, she jingled the can so that the liquid sloshed about and then with a jerk, flung the contents on Harkin's face.

"Rrrraahh!" Harkin sputtered into the waking world in a series of coughs and gasps. He wiped at his eyes blindly, reeling in place as his feet kicked out in a confused jumble. "Ah! The fuck? The fuck is this?"

Shepard lifted the now empty can and gave it a cautious sniff. "Cooking oil."

"Cooking…?" Harkin lifted one hand to his head and moaned. "My fucking head!"

"Hurts, I suspect."

Harkin tenderly probed at his injured forehead for a moment before finally looking toward Shepard. At first, he simply struggled to see her through a haze of bleary incomprehension, but then recognition dawned. "Ohh…you chose the wrong guy to rob, bitch."

"I assure you, the regret is already settling in." Shepard settled back onto her haunches and rested her crossed arms over her knees. "Although, one does have to wonder, if my aim was to rob you, why'd I bother wakin' you up?"

Off to the right, Garrus let out a grim chuckle. "It's a good point."

Harkin jerked, taking notice of the turian for the first time. "Wha-? Vakarian?"

"Hello, Harkin."

"Wait, you're with her?" His voice grew shrill with indignation. "You hit me?"

Shepard waved an idle hand toward the mouth of the alley. "Nah, that was Wrex over there, and if it counts for anythin', it was his idea."

Harkin turned an incredulous look from her, to Garrus, and then finally, to Wrex. "What the fuck is this shit?"

"A group of people all after the same thing." Shepard spoke slowly as it was clear that Harkin needed a moment for things to seep in. "And, as it so happens, we have become aware that you may be able to help us in that regard."

"Help?" Harkin croaked out a bitter laugh. "You lie to me, lure me into some alley, have your krogan boyfriend knock me out, and then ask me for help?"

Shepard pointed a finger at him. "Yes."

"Fuck every one of you." Harkin snarled as he scrambled to find a more dignified position amidst his cardboard. "I don't care what you want, fuck all the way off!"

"See now," Shepard sighed heavily as she held up at hand to prevent him from rising. "I worried that might be your response, and all things being equal, I hafta' wonder if that is the way you want this story to read."

Harkin paused as her fingertips settled against his chest. "Meaning what?"

"The story." Shepard took her hand away and flashed him a smile. "You ain't heard it? Goes like this: an Alliance officer is investigating a sensitive matter for her superiors when she meets up with a turian at C-SEC. The two of them end up collaborating, which brings them down to this here Ward block where they happen to encounter one of the turian's colleagues. Now, this colleague has been partying a touch too hard and he seems pretty upset." She sighed ruefully and gave a short shake of her head. "I don't want to speculate, but I suspect there were some professional or personal issues goin' on there. Wouldn't you agree, Officer Vakarian?"

Garrus tilted his head to regard her for a long moment. Then, without displaying any emotion that Shepard could discern, he nodded. "I'd say so."

"Officer Vakarian says that his colleague was visibly upset." Shepard continued on airily. "While that partially explains his behavior, I'm not sure it excuses the unprompted and disgustingly xenophobic remarks he directed at Officer Vakarian. Were you offended, Garrus?"

"I was offended."

"Officer Vakarian was offended and I was offended on his behalf. Although he made every effort to deescalate the situation, I fear things got out of hand once the other officer attempted to strike Officer Vakarian."

Harkin's small eyes narrowed into little glittering points. "Wait a minute—"

"Hold on, Harkin, this is the good part." Shepard brushed a quelling hand in his direction. "It got ugly enough that Officer Vakarian decided to subdue his colleague and even went so far as to place him in custody. You might call it an extreme measure, but honestly, I can't think of anything else that could have been done. This colleague was practically manic; a danger to himself and everyone else around him."

"Oh no, you people are not going to pull this bullshit on me."

"And after the scuffle was over, Officer Vakarian searched his colleague as part of the standard arrest procedure. That is standard procedure, isn't it, Officer Vakarian?"

Garrus was warming to the role. His flanging voice took on a soft trill of satisfaction as he responded. "By the book, Commander."

"Commander?" Harkin's eyes snapped from Garrus to Shepard. "Who are—?"

"And as Officer Vakarian performed this routine search," Shepard raised her voice sharply to ward off any further interruptions. "He happened to find something. What did you find, Garrus?"

It was a pleasant surprise to learn that even without being told beforehand, Garrus was able to recognize a cue. With only the briefest of glances in her direction, the turian pulled out the plastic bag from earlier. "Two hydrolyzed inhalers and about twenty-three grams of Red Sand."

"A big bag of drugs, is what he found." Shepard murmured quietly. "Selling them? Using them? Either way, how do you feel about that kind of behavior from a fellow C-SEC officer, Garrus?"

"It's disgusting."

"He says it's disgusting." She dropped any trace of humor from her tone and leaned in close to emphasize her next words. "And when I'm asked, that's the word I'm going to use as well."

Harkin licked his lips and shifted a nervous glance between her and Garrus. He had drunk an impressive amount in the short time Shepard had known him, but this conversation seemed to have sobered him up plenty. "You think people will believe that horseshit? I'm a cop, lady."

"Maybe they'll believe it, maybe they won't." Shepard eased back and slowly rose to her full height. "From the sound of things, you don't have many friends at C-SEC. I wouldn't be all that confident in your position."

"I'll take a drug test and show 'em where you cracked my skull."

"Drug test might not be the best of ideas if we were to bring you in with Red Sand in your system." She glanced significantly at the bag still clutched in Garrus's talons. "And do you mean the injury you sustained while resistin' arrest?"

"Bullshit."

"Yeah." Shepard nodded. "But bullshit will still make you stink to high hell when you go before that review board. See, you've been writing this story for most of your career, Harkin. I'm just giving it an ending."

Harkin fixed her with a nasty glare. It was hardly the worst thing that Shepard had ever endured, so she simply smiled back as she waited for him to assess his options. After a slight pause, he scoffed. "What do you want, anyway?"

"A private and unexpected meeting with Fist. Either arrange it or give us a way to get to him."

"You wanna see Fist?"

"Yes."

Harkin let loose with his grating laugh. "You're wasting your time. Not going to happen."

"Unfortunate." Shepard did her best to disguise her annoyance. "Do I need to go over the story one more time?"

"I got your dumb story," He sneered. "And I'm betting my volus lawyer will tear it to shreds faster than you can tell it. If that's your best, then you might as well stop wasting my time."

"It's not my best, Harkin. Ain't even close to that."

"Ooh, fucking terrified over here." Harkin rolled his eyes and made to stand. Shepard let him do it this time, mildly impressed to see that he was only swaying a little in spite of how much he'd drank. "Do you have any idea what Fist would do to me if I talked?"

She lifted one shoulder in a disinterested shrug. "Something torturous?"

"Yeah, probably something like that." He spat at the ground, narrowly missing her left boot. "So, you'll forgive me if I'm not all that impressed with this nonsense."

Garrus Vakarian made a disgusted sound. "You're really going to risk what remains of your career to protect some criminal?"

"Don't get all high and mighty, Vakarian. Not after the shit you pulled tonight." Harkin slurred angrily as he waved an unsteady hand at the turian's face. "Hey, maybe I'll get to drag you down with me."

Shepard held up a hand as Garrus started forward with his taloned fists clenched. "Garrus? Why don't you and Wrex give us the alley?"

The turian paused to look at her. "What?"

"Harkin and I need to discuss things further. Give us a few minutes alone."

"Are you—"

"I'm sure."

He seemed unhappy about it, but after a short pause, Garrus turned and walked back toward the alley's entrance. She could hear him mutter something to Wrex, and together, the two aliens headed back out onto the street.

Once alone, Harkin stared at her with a shrewd intensity that suggested he was weighing his options. If he tried to run, she'd catch him. If he tried to attack her…well, she hoped he did.

"Don't bother trying to throw yourself at me again." He snorted out a forced laugh that echoed flatly off the metal walls. "I wouldn't have even looked twice at some scarred-up bitch if I hadn't been drinking."

"But you were, and here we are." Shepard murmured as she eased closer to where he stood. "Two people about to have a very unpleasant conversation."

"I'm not scared of you, princess, so stop with the—"

"I don't want you to be scared of me, Harkin." She lifted one hand and brought it up to hover in front of his chest, fingers splayed wide. "And I don't think you should be afraid of Fist, either." She held his gaze and spoke her next words with measured care. "It's my opinion that right here and now, what you should really concern yourself with is density."

Static electricity raced along her skin and the alleyway was suddenly awash in a surge of indigo light as her biotics erupted forth. Particles of dark energy streamed from her skin in fiery torrents, licking and biting at the air before coalescing around her silhouette in a crackling shroud. A peculiar combination of scents, like hot metal and burned meat, rose up all around them in an acrid cloud.

In a heartbeat, Shepard's vision field of vision shifted into a monochromatic swirl of blue and purple. She could hear Harkin's shout of surprise, but the expression on his face was mostly lost as both hue and texture drained from the world. All she perceived of him was an outline of dense bone, standing stark against the less massive and lighter shades of fat, muscle, and viscera. She could feel the atoms in him, the carbon and oxygen that were so different from the metallic alloy behind him.

Dark energy poured from her outstretched palm in an icy stream of energy. It slammed into Harkin's chest, knocked him back against the alley wall and twisted his alarmed cry into a stunned woof of breath.

"Density, Harkin." The biotics altered her voice, making each word sound distant and distorted with an electrical reverberation. "Mass increases, volume remains constant, a substance becomes denser. Take the air in your lungs for instance."

Harkin made a sound halfway between retching and coughing. An oily torrent of shimmering blue vapor suddenly rushed from his open mouth like water drawn from a spout. He flailed, inhaling with a loud whoop as he lurched to one side in an attempt to get away.

Shepard's foot lashed out, the heavy sole of her boot catching him mid-calf and sending him crashing to alley floor. Another cloud of vapor burst from the depths of his throat as he landed heavily on his side. She tracked his movements with her glowing palm. The effort of keeping the mass effect field active dragged at her like someone had clamped a vise on the base of her skull.

"It's a small difference, all things considered, but it makes it hard to get the air in, don't it? Even harder to get it back out."

Harkin scrambled, trying to get his feet back under him. Shepard took a step closer, drew heavily on her biotics, and then wrapped a second ME field around his skeleton.

The C-SEC officer was abruptly flattened to the floor as if ground downwards by an invisible hand. His body arched, twisting about weakly as muscles strained to function around a frame that had exponentially increased in mass. The loss of control launched him into a panicked frenzy. Harkin's arms flopped and writhed like two great pale snakes, his fingers contorted as he grabbed at the empty air. Shepard fancied she could hear his ribs creaking as they bowed inwards.

"Eeeerrrgghhh!" Harkin made an animal sound, high-pitched and terrified. His breaths were coming quickly now; alternating between harsh exhalations and rapid, sucking gasps.

"Ssshhhhh…" Shepard hushed him softly as she watched the almost constant stream of dense air spill up from between his lips. "No sense in making it harder. You'll either hyperventilate or just get tired of forcin' it out. Either way, won't be long now."

Her head was aching from the strain of keeping both fields active. It was a sharp pain that only grew more intense with each passing second. Harkin's movements began to go sluggish, the frenzied pace of his inhalations slowing as he lost the fight against his own breath. His head sagged backwards, his arms thumped to the ground, and the acrid smell of urine filled the air as he pissed himself.

Shepard released both of the mass effect fields.

Harkin's ragged intake of oxygen sounded curiously loud in the suddenly quiet alleyway. He hacked a cough and rolled onto to his side just in time to be violently sick.

Shepard settled back against the opposite wall as he retched, hands now stuffed into her pockets as she tried to still her own harsh breathing. Sweat had gathered along her hairline and trickled down the back of her neck. Sustained biotics had never been her specialty. She'd never been good at using them at range, nor had any talent for the more subtle displays.

What she did have was power, and though Harkin probably couldn't appreciate it, that little episode had been the equivalent of using a waterfall to fill a teacup. If she had spent ten years of her life receiving biotic instruction at the academy, she might have been able to do the same thing with for a fraction of the effort, but as it was, the overall effect was the same.

She waited for Harkin's coughing and gagging to subside. He was facing away from her, curled inwards on himself and trembling so furiously that he could barely keep himself propped up. After he'd mostly quieted, she spoke.

"This ain't torture, Harkin. This is me giving you a second chance." Her voice was back to normal, the only trace of her biotic display being the fading smell and the thin wisps of vapor that rose from her exposed skin. "Next time around, I won't stop. That'll be how you die."

Harkin's lifted his head and swung it around to stare blearily up at her. He didn't make any move to get up. His eyes darted furtively from her face to the open mouth of the alleyway. "You…y-you, won't kill me."

Shepard smiled humorlessly. "That a fact?"

"You need me."

"Your help means that I won't have to kill a whole bunch of people to get what I want, but if it comes down it, I'll get what I want."

"Horseshit." In spite of his words, Harkin didn't sound at all confident. "And then what'll you tell Vakarian, huh? He won't let you."

"Garrus does seem like a good man." Shepard mused thoughtfully as she rested the back of her head against the wall behind her. "But he's got his ambitions. You should have heard him going on about people abusing their power and how he wanted to set things right." Her eyes flicked down to settle on Harkin pointedly. "It's admirable on one level, but the problem with taking on a grand evil is that it becomes easy to overlook the lesser ones. He made himself complicit with some nasty business tonight, and should he rediscover his moral compass, I'll have to remind him of that."

Pushing off the wall, she took a few strides toward Harkin, carefully avoiding the assorted filth beneath her boots. "Of course, if he really can't be convinced to play along," she shrugged emphatically. "Well, I've always been good at coming up with stories."

She drew her hands out of her pockets and Harkin flinched back as much as he was able in the cramped confines. Shepard regarded him for a few seconds and then cocked her head to one side. "Second chance is here, Harkin. What'll it be?"

She didn't even need to flare her biotics for effect. Harkin took one look at her empty hands and raised his own as if to ward her off. "Alright! Alright, goddamnit. I'll do what you want."

"Good. How do I get to Fist?"

"I'll show you, but I gotta reach for my omnitool, alright?"

"Hold out your wrist. I'll get it."

"No, not that one." He carefully lifted his left hand and pointed at it with his right. "That one."

Shepard frowned, looking first for the characteristic metal band of an external tool, and finding none, glanced up at the C-SEC officer. "Sub-dermal?"

"Nah, the ring."

She looked closer, noticing the thin metal ring that circled his middle finger for the first time. It was small for omnitool, probably little more than a glorified comm unit. Keeping her hands loose and ready at her sides, she nodded to him. "Give it here. Move slowly."

Harkin complied, periodically shooting the odd wary glance up at her as he screwed the ring free and held it out. She bent down to snatch it from his palm and examined it closely.

As these things went, it was cheaply made. The activation numb was no more than a simply button on one side and she guessed that its OS was probably stripped down to basics. "And this is?"

"The key." He muttered sullenly as he began a laborious climb to his feet. "Fist gives them out to people he trusts. There's a maintenance door out back behind the club. Go inside and you'll find an entrance to the club—"

"Don't waste your breath, you're coming with us."

"What?" Harkin's head whipped up. "Shit! Why?"

"To get us in without any problems." She tossed him the ring and folded her arms under her breasts. "And so we can revisit our conversation if it happens that you're tryin' to fuck with me."

"Fist will kill me if he sees me with you!"

"I wouldn't worry none about Fist. That big krogan out there aims to murder him and I don't have a compelling reason to stand in the way of that. You just get us in and then you'll be on your way." She pretended to consider things for a moment and then shrugged. "Tell you what, 'this goes well and I'll put in a good word with the human ambassador for you. Might even save your pension."

"Shit! Shit, shit!" Harkin screwed up his face and looked like he'd rather be any other place on the Citadel. He almost seemed on the verge of refusing, but better sense wore out and released an angry snort before turning a glare at her. "You know something? I know who you are. Took me a while, but I know."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, you're that woman from the Blitz."

"I am at that." She gestured him toward the mouth of the alley. "Get a move on, now."

He spat on the ground as he started walking, his voice taking on an almost accusatory note. "Thought you were supposed to be some kind of hero."

"Oh, I'm some kind or the other." Shepard let him lead the way, keeping close enough to catch him in case he bolted. "But you're forgettin' something that a man like you should know better than most."

Harkin grunted, managing in that small sound to convey both incredulity and disdain all at once. "What's that?"

"There's no such thing as a hero when you're in a dark alley." Shepard placed a hand on his shoulder and jerked him to a sudden stop. Leaning in close so that her lips were almost brushing his ear, she lowered her voice to a scarce whisper.

"And in case it's escaped your notice, there's nothin' but dark alleys down here."

xxXxx


A/N: Here's to hoping that the updates keep getting quicker. This was a tricky chapter and I ended up rewriting and editing it upwards of ten times. I want to thank everyone for their support. If you're thinking of leaving a review, would you mind giving any feedback on Shepard's character? She's tricky to write because she is constantly lying and I feel like I'm always trying to balance what she says with what she actually thinks. I'm really hoping she's not just coming off as incredibly inconsistent. Anyway, next chapter is Tali's POV and they finally meet up.