Author's Note: Oh, guys. I am SO sorry about the delay. For those of you who don't follow me on tumblr, and so may have been in the dark about the reason for my extreme tardiness in updating, I moved from one side of the world to the other at the end of May and the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the move just completely threw me for a loop. I'm REALLY hoping things settle back into a new normal soon, and thank you SO MUCH for your patience. I'll try not to disappear for quite so long again. 3
Knowing the tidal wave of concern—most of it justified, since waking up with fractured memories (and sometimes bones to match) was becoming something of a recurring problem—was coming, Shepard braced herself as Chakwas rushed through the doors at a jog, eyes wide, coffee in hand but half-forgotten and sloshing over the lip of her mug. Shepard inhaled longingly as the rich scent of the beverage filled the air, teasing her with promises of caffeine, but Chakwas deposited the mug out of arm's reach, fingers already flying over the interface of her omni-tool. One of the machines Shepard was still hooked into, and which she'd graciously (she felt) declined to immediately detach herself from, gave an indignant beep, an echo of the questions she held carefully beneath her tongue while the doctor ran through a series of frantic diagnostics. The pace told Shepard a great deal, the furrowed brow said even more, and the complete silence as Chakwas worked said most of all. None of it good.
Finally, like she was afraid the answer might be something she didn't want to hear, Chakwas peered directly, unnervingly, into her eyes and asked hesitantly, "Shepard?"
"Karin?" Shepard replied, mimicking her doctor's tone, softening the mockery with a faint smile. She'd meant the attempt at humor to reassure, but it failed miserably. Chakwas didn't flinch, but she looked, for a moment, as though she was thinking about it. For the third or fourth time since waking, Shepard tried to parse the strange bits and pieces of memory hovering on the periphery of her thoughts like the last remainders of a night of bad dreams, searching for something to explain the strained tension that went beyond her once again having woken in the Normandy's medbay without recollection of having been brought in. Her gaze flicked past the doctor to linger on the prone figure she hadn't at first glance realized was Miranda. The woman lay curled on her side, hunched as though genuine rest were impossible, and Shepard's smile dimmed, punctuated by a crease of genuine worry and no small amount of confusion. She'd thought she was imagining things until Solana had insisted Miranda was real and not some bit of errant hallucination.
Shepard's smile vanished entirely as Zaeed stepped through the medbay door, very obviously armed, his gaze sweeping the room with paranoid precision. Shepard lifted a brow, but the grizzled merc's expression gave her nothing, and she began to fear the flickers of horror—break, dislocate, snap—she'd put down to mere nightmare had a much deeper root in reality than she'd given them credit for. She folded her hands in her lap to keep them from clenching into impotent fists, stilling her own expression into a mask of bland calm to hide the sudden adrenaline kick. Zaeed remained near the doors, leaning against the wall, deceptively relaxed if one ignored the proximity of his very capable finger to the trigger of his very capable weapon.
Solana, Shepard noted, didn't miss Zaeed's arrival, either. Nor, if the shift in her expression was any indication, did she misread its implications. The sudden disapproval—and irritation—was almost identical to her brother's, right down to the particular twitch of mandible and mulish tilt of head. Shepard couldn't bring herself to laugh. She and Zaeed hadn't always seen eye to eye. They had, in fact, butted heads with alarming frequency, and his had been the loyalty she'd been least certain of before they'd headed through the Omega-4. Afterward, though? Afterward, just like everyone else who'd made that run with her and survived against all odds, she'd have trusted him with her life, with the lives of those she held most dear.
In this case, she knew he was watching over the latter. Because through no fault of her own, hers was the questionable loyalty, the suspect actions. Instead of explaining this to an indignant Solana, though, she returned her attention to Chakwas, lifted querying brows, and said, "Really? Nothing? That's how you're playing it? But I've been so patient. A good ten minutes I've been awake, and haven't pitched a single fit or threatened death to anyone who wouldn't answer my questions."
The doctor turned away slightly, her full attention on her omni-tool as if the information she pretended to absorb was riveting beyond compare. Shepard wasn't taken in. Not for an instant. And the earlier adrenaline turned up a notch, accompanied by its vicious little friend anxiety.
One of the reasons she and Karin Chakwas had always gotten along when she and so many other medical professionals had not was a distinct lack of dishonesty in their dealings. Chakwas never sugarcoated her diagnoses, and never pandered to what she believed the patient wanted to hear. She never offered hope when it was false. She'd never lied to Shepard, never tried to force an agenda Shepard didn't know about or agree with, never tried to play mind games with her. Shepard's mouth twitched, not quite giving in to the desire to sneer. Her evals were full of notations about medical attempts at mind games and manipulation; hell, her canny eye and—what one evaluation had termed it—fine-tuned bullshit meter were what had made her a prime recruitment prospect for spec ops infiltration in the first place.
No bullshitting the bullshitter, she thought, staring hard at the back of Chakwas' neck. The other woman shivered, but didn't turn. Unless you reach inside and flip all the switches, of course. Unless you mess with her on levels no doctor was ever willing to try. This time the shudder was her own, quickly tamped down, quickly smothered. She closed her eyes for a second too long, took a breath a moment too deep, and continued, "She's not exactly hidden over there."
Still the doctor said nothing. "You've got to have a better poker face than that, Karin. I know you're no slouch at the table. What's Miranda doing here? And in that state? Hell, for that matter what am I doing here, and in this state?" A flicker of fear threatened to light the tinder sitting dry and ready in the pit of her belly, but Shepard ruthlessly blew out the flame and forced herself back to stillness, coolness. Serenity.
Solana's mandibles flicked, the turian woman's irritation at Zaeed momentarily replaced by surprise. Shepard bit down on the side of her tongue. Heard that, did you? She'd been aiming for amusement, but even without subharmonics, a turian who spent any time around humans learned quickly and well to pay attention to the nuance of what was being said between words; too much of their own communication depended on it. Whatever Solana had thought she'd heard in Shepard's voice, none of it showed in the clear amber gaze. Solana didn't insult her by pretending at distraction or work, but she remained as silent as Chakwas. Shepard was no slouch at turian expressions, either; she saw Solana's confusion plainly, and beneath it, a little fear of her own.
But fear of what? Me? Shepard shook her head minutely. Unlikely, given that Solana had viewed Zaeed's arrival with irritation and not relief. Something worse. Something I don't know. She looked to Miranda again, and this time Solana's gaze followed, darkened, lingered.
"Tough crowd," Shepard murmured, and this time the humor masked not fear, but a tiny frisson of rage. "Do I need to order someone to give me a full report?"
They were spared the necessity of answering by the swish of the medbay door. Zaeed shifted, but his sharp eyes never left her. Shepard noticed, filed away the merc's concern, and then ignored him as well as she could ignore a friend with a weapon trained on her.
This time, Garrus didn't hesitate in the doorway. He didn't waver, didn't pause, and though his expression was as hard and dire as she'd ever seen it, Shepard couldn't stop the smile that pulled at one corner of her mouth. Even though he still wore civilian finery to match her own, Garrus moved like a soldier on a mission. No. Like a commander, like a leader. Leadership potential overshadowed, my ass. She'd met admirals with less poise. He carried his determination like a weapon, but unlike Zaeed's, Garrus' wasn't pointed at her. She almost pitied the idiot who dared stand between him and his objectives. Almost. A little of the fear ebbed when he didn't look at her like she was a proximity mine a second from blowing the entire room to smithereens.
Quite the opposite, really. As if he and Shepard were the only people in the room, he crossed the medbay, his long stride effortlessly eating the short distance between them. Chakwas began to protest, but Garrus shot her a look—just that, a look—and the doctor took a step back. Before Shepard could rise, Garrus' arms slipped around her, one tight around her upper back, the hand of the other lifting to cradle the back of her head. His own head dipped, the scarred side of his face pressing against her hair.
"Shepard," he said, just that, just her name. And she believed him. No matter what else was going on, her most private fear hadn't been realized. Tears stung her eyes, swifter than she could blink back. For once, she didn't bother. She only lifted her own arms, sliding them around him, stealing a moment's comfort in the feel of his familiar back beneath her palms, his familiar heartbeat beneath her cheek.
"Moira Callahan's a piece of work," he said, soft but not a secret. "I'm sorry."
"Moira?" Shepard asked, but confusion lasted only a moment as the memory slammed into place with force enough to make her rock backward. That familiar sneer, the cool eyes always primed to see faults, the cloud of cloying perfume. You're not supposed to be here. Garrus' arms tightened ever so slightly, the briefest of embraces, and then he released her, stepping back but leaving one hand on her shoulder, its weight reassuringly grounding. Still, Shepard's head spun and she blinked three times before she could manage with feigned disinterest, "Is she dead?"
"No," he replied, and though his voice sounded as bland as hers on the surface, Shepard heard the war beneath, the echo of the man who'd once nearly murdered Harkin with his bare hands, who'd have sacrificed bystanders to take out a organ-harvester's ship. "No, she's not."
She tilted her head back and arched a brow, reaching up to curl her fingers loosely around his wrist, completing a circuit where they supported each other.
"Tell me," she said. Something true.
From him, at least, she had no hesitation. His pale gaze found hers, didn't look away, warmed a degree or two. He said, "What do you remember?"
Her mouth twisted unpleasantly, but she swallowed the words I remember I'm sick of that question, and instead answered, "It was a nice party. Kasumi really outdid herself. Pity about the perfume."
"That much?" Garrus asked with a startled head tilt. "Good. Nothing after?"
Shepard shook her head, dragging her bottom lip between her teeth. "I wouldn't kill you," she added, the words themselves accompanied by a rush of impressions and images and the ghost of that compulsion—break, dislocate, snap—even now she couldn't place and couldn't entirely banish. It didn't seem like anything she'd have thought herself. She pressed her fingertips to one temple, and gave her head a little shake. The words felt distant, unremarkable, disconnected. "I don't think I—I didn't kill anyone else?" Garrus' expression darkened, which told her how close it must have come, but he shook his head. A tiny knot in her gut gave way. She didn't allow herself to wallow in the rush of relief. "Miranda was there." Ashley was there. "I thought I'd dreamed her. Imagine my surprise to find her here when I woke up. Not," she said, with a pointed look at Chakwas, "that anyone was particularly forthcoming about the circumstances. I trust Liara finally found her?"
"Yes," Garrus replied. "But it's… complicated."
"When isn't it?"
He didn't laugh, didn't chuckle, didn't so much as indicate he'd heard, and the pang of warning she'd woken with began to bleat twice as insistently. "Garrus," she said grimly, "how about you explain why you're all looking at me like I've got three days to live."
He closed his eyes briefly, but didn't hesitate here any more than he had at the doorway. Before he could say more than her name, low and thrumming with chilling grief, an insistently cleared throat wrested her attention away from him. With no small amount of effort, and the halting lurch Shepard instantly recognized as resulting from several broken ribs, Miranda levered herself upright. Her eyes took a moment too long to focus, and even when they managed to find her, they remained damp and blurred with both exhaustion and barely-controlled pain. Shepard's own newly-healed limbs twinged with sympathy.
"There's a saying about shooting the messenger," Miranda said, her voice rougher than Shepard had ever heard it. "None of them deserve to be caught in the crossfire, Shepard. I'm the one you want to talk to. The responsibility was—and is—entirely mine."
"I'm not sure I like the sound of that, Lawson."
"You'll like the actual content less." Miranda inhaled, attempting to straighten her shoulders. She couldn't quite do it. Chakwas shook her head, making a note but not yet interfering. "After Lazarus Station, I told you I'd wanted to implant you with a control chip."
"And were overruled," Shepard agreed, not quite raising the final inflection into a question, as the little knot tied itself again, over and over, a grim double constrictor she feared she'd never be able to wriggle free of. Garrus' hand twitched on her shoulder. The knot twisted tighter.
"I didn't implant you then," Miranda continued, slowly. Not hesitant, Shepard thought, but careful. Like a soldier caught holding a live grenade in a square full of civilians. Somehow she felt certain she was about to get blown up anyway, no matter how delicately Miranda lobbed the grenade her way. It was going to be her job to throw herself on the device. One more sacrifice. In a clipped tone that said more about Miranda's state of mind—she was always sharpest when she was worried—she said, "When I was… recruited to oversee your care several months ago, I did."
Shepard heard the words, but distantly, as though she was not quite in her body to make proper use of her ears. Miranda was still speaking, her cracked lips still moving, and Shepard couldn't make out a single sound.
Break, dislocate, snap.
For all the blood on her hands, very few of those deaths felt like murder. Watching Miranda's mouth moving, Shepard remembered the batarian prisoner she'd killed in cold blood on Elysium, that dark mark no one in the Alliance wanted—or chose—to acknowledge, when the accolades were handed out later. She hadn't thought about him in years, but now his sneering face, neck bared in blatant insult, swam up before her eyes, somehow more real than the scene playing itself out in the Normandy's medbay. I believe I will have fun breaking you, the way I have broken so many others of your kind, he'd taunted. I like to break the ones who fight back.And she'd shot him. She'd spent the rest of her career trying to atone for a sin her superiors refused to admit even existed. On the good days, she almost believed she'd done enough. But now, now, she realized that blood had not been washed clean, because if she'd had a gun she couldn't have guaranteed she wouldn't add Miranda's blood to that of the long-dead batarian. Her memory of him smirked, all four eyes fixed on her, all four eyes judging her and finding her lacking.
"Stop." Miranda's mouth closed, as though Shepard had meant the admonishment for her.
Every eye in the room turned her way; the weight of them dragged her beneath a wave of horror she was trying and failing to keep herself above. She tried to speak and found she couldn't. She swallowed, then moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. Tried again. "Take it out. Now."
"I can't," Miranda insisted. "You have no idea how jury-rigged the entire fix was. It's a house of cards, Shepard. There's no telling what will happen if I pull out the supports, but I guarantee it won't be pretty."
"Jury-rigged," Shepard echoed slowly, tasting each syllable as if deliberation might somehow change the word into something palatable. The roll in her stomach proved the notion wrong. Garrus' hand on her shoulder tightened again, briefly, and she spared it a sideways glance, staring at the long fingers, knowing they should have been familiar, comforting, and instead feeling nothing. Not relief. Not even anger. I like to break the ones who fight back. She imagined that batarian laughing now, wherever he was.
"Shepard," he asked, pitching his voice low even though any privacy must be imaginary. A sharp, bitter little laugh rose before she could swallow it. Garrus' mandibles fluttered, the nervous gesture spilling forth before he could successfully still it. She almost laughed again. She almost cried. "You need a minute?"
"Jury-rigged," she repeated, lips parted in a mirthless, pained smile. "I don't need a minute." She brought the heel of her hand sharply to the side of her skull, but the pain didn't clear her head. It just made her headache worse. "I need this fucking thing out of my head." When she moved to strike herself again, Garrus caught her hand, held it. Not hard. She could've broken free of his grip effortlessly. She didn't. "Why, Miranda? You could have slit my throat. Told them I was irreparably broken. I know I was already half-dead when I hit that beam in London. It would have been kinder. Why this, why this of all things?"
Behind the bruises, Miranda looked stricken. "Because I—it never occurred—"
"Obviously," Shepard snarled, half-rising to the anxious bleat of the various machines she was still attached to. "You crawled through every goddamned second of my life after Alchera and it never once occurred to you then, either. You what? You thought you were doing me a fucking favor? Slapping shackles on me and then having the nerve to act surprised when I say I'd really rather be dead than a prisoner?"
"That's not how it—"
"Do you have any idea how much damage I could do in the wrong hands? If you know how to use the chip, so must others, and I can't risk—"
"Being their weapon? You already are! You'd rather their fingers were on your trigger? Moira Callahan and her ilk? Worse?"
"Enough," Garrus snapped.
But Miranda only staggered upright, eyes bright, jaw clenched, weaving on her feet but no less determined for all the unsteadiness. Solana, nearest to her, reached out with a placating hand, but Miranda jerked away, heedless of the pain she had to be causing herself. "You're right," Miranda said, each word a bullet fired at point-blank range. Like Shepard had done to that batarian. "I used you so they wouldn't. I could have left you to die just like I could have left you dead after Alchera. And I didn't. Because we needed you. Need you. You want me to regret what I've done, but I don't. I won't." Her expression softened, just for a moment. "You deserve better. I know it as well as you do. And you're not going to get it. Not yet. For what it's worth, I am sorry. Truly."
"And if I disagree? If I say I've done enough?" Shepard's eyes narrowed. "You'll flip the switch and make me?"
"I know you well enough to doubt it would come to that."
"Not a no, though, is it?" Shepard shook her head, but halfway through the gesture she froze, running Miranda's words over again. "The Reapers are dead. Destroyed." Her brow furrowed. "What's worse than Moira Callahan?"
"Our aquatic acquaintances from Despoina seem to be under the impression that the destruction of their synthetic progeny gives them the right to step back into their previous role as galactic overlords. Complete with enslavement for all those upstart 'lesser species.'" Garrus explained. "You, however, still make them uneasy. Enough to have wanted you openly discredited." His register shifted, his subharmonics angry even while his dominant tone remained steady. "Lawson's stopgap—" and there was no missing that emphasis "—prevented that."
"Oh," Shepard said, the syllable startled from her half-voiced. "Shit."
"Yeah," Garrus agreed, the steeliness of his gaze telling her exactly who—what—was in his sights now. "Definitely."