As the reality of the Leviathans sank in, Shepard didn't waver, didn't flinch, didn't so much as blink, and yet Garrus, who'd learned her tells, saw her cheeks pale slightly beneath the blush afforded by her cosmetics, saw the spasm as her fingertips pressed briefly into her thigh, and knew the knife had slid deep, the bullet had struck something vital. She'd been haunted after the mission on Despoina, though she'd rarely spoken of it, even to him. Even when he'd asked. But he'd known. He'd seen her tells then, too. She'd missed a few of her usual conversational rounds with the crew. For weeks, the water she'd showered under had been scalding enough to leave her pale skin angrily red afterward. She'd eaten less, and claimed it was because she wasn't hungry. Her sleeps had been shorter, and more troubled by bad dreams. Not that he could blame her. His own sleep had been just as restless. The trickle of blood seeping from her nose, the thunk of her armor as she fell from the Atlas, her gasp back to life: those had been the shape of his ghosts. She'd been cold then, lurching awake in the small hold of the Kodiak, gazing around with unseeing eyes whose stark horror couldn't be hidden, even by someone as talented at hiding things as Shepard was. She looked colder now. And just as haunted. She touched her fingertips to her temple, and then brushed them over the skin beneath her nose, though no blood lingered there for her to mop up. Her gaze shifted, went distant, and the crease he recognized as I'm thinking, don't interrupt appeared between her brows.
The medbay door chimed.
Shepard started to laugh.
Even with only six fingers, Garrus could easily have counted the number of times he'd heard a sound so chilling and still have had digits to spare. The laugh wasn't Reaper horns or his mother calling him by someone else's name because she didn't recognize him, but it was just as awful. Worse, somehow. A very unShepardlike hopelessness lurked in it; he knew exactly how her laugh would have grated if she'd had a turian's subharmonics. It wasn't a sound he was accustomed to hearing from her. She'd faced Reapers and thresher maws on foot without succumbing to that brand of darkness, but here, now, in the medbay of her own ship, she sounded like she was drowning. His own gut twisted in response, and his hands twitched with the desire to comfort even as he knew how little she'd appreciate the gesture with an audience of eyes all turned her way.
"What's it going to be this time?" she asked of no one in particular. "We're running out of shoes to drop, here."
When Zaeed and Chakwas exchanged a look, Garrus realized the door was locked. And this time, he suspected, it was to protect the people without more than the people within. The way Shepard folded her hands in her lap told him she'd come to the same conclusion, and her silence was nearly as chilling as her laugh had been.
"This is unnecessary," Garrus said, not quite able to keep the growl from his own tone.
"Is it?" Zaeed asked, for once entirely without belligerence. If he'd been feeling any less irritated, Garrus might even have granted him the benefit of the doubt and allowed it to be apologetic. Zaeed's gaze dropped to meet Shepard's, the furrow of his brow pulling unpleasantly at the scar tissue around his eye. "Until the doc gives the okay, the door stays shut. It's the goddamned order you'd give if our situations were reversed, and you know it."
In her crispest, most accustomed-to-being-obeyed voice, Miranda spoke before Shepard—or Chakwas—could. "I sincerely doubt it's one of her original targets on the other side of that door, and even if it were, the effects of the trigger have likely worn off. Or she wouldn't be awake. And herself."
"Trade one trigger for another," Shepard replied, jerking her chin in Zaeed's direction. "You can point the gun directly at me, if it makes you feel better. I won't take it personally. But I'd like to see who's here and what they want. All intel is good intel at this point. And you know that."
Chakwas' lips thinned momentarily before she crossed the room and opened the door herself. Grunt stood on the other side, arms crossed over his huge chest, clearly impatient about being made to wait. Garrus supposed they had to be glad he hadn't simply broken his way in. Grunt peered over Chakwas' head and shrugged in Shepard's general direction, ignorant of or indifferent to the strained silence greeting his arrival.
"The woman won't leave," Grunt said bluntly. His eyes narrowed in some blend of delight and anticipation and maybe a little good old-fashioned krogan bloodlust. "Could make her, if you want."
Shepard didn't laugh at this, and though her expression remained fixed and inscrutable, the scroll of her stats on Garrus' visor caught the shift in her pulse. She said, "And by 'the woman' you mean Moira Callahan?"
"Says she wants asylum. Says she'll be safer here." Garrus recognized Grunt's smile as the same one he wore when thinking of particularly gruesome imprints in the how to kill aliens mental file Okeer had left. "Heh. Shows what she knows, battlemaster."
Too quietly for anyone but Garrus to hear, Shepard muttered, "A hanar's worth of shoes it is, then. If hanar wore shoes." Louder, she said, "That's the exact word she used? 'Asylum'?"
"Shepard," said Garrus, mandibles flaring in sudden dismay. "Even apart from your history with her, I have every reason to believe she's been compromised by the Leviathans. You don't owe her—"
"Trust me," she interrupted, lips twisting in a wry grimace, "this is not about owing. I balanced that ledger years ago. But if she's here, she's not making trouble elsewhere."
"Unless her purpose is to make trouble here," protested Miranda, stumbling forward another step. Her haughtiness vanished, replaced, Garrus thought, with genuine fear the like he'd never seen on her face, except, perhaps, when she'd thought Oriana compromised beyond saving back on Illium. Solana, closest to her, actually reached out and grabbed an arm, though it made them both waver on their unsteady feet. "You mustn't underestimate her."
Shepard's fingers closed into a fist again before flattening. "I can safely say that's something I will never do."
Miranda's cheeks flushed beneath the bruises, but she didn't try to take another step. "And yet she managed to maneuver you—us—into this position. She had ties with Cerberus—to the Lazarus Project itself—even I never knew about, and I don't think they were the only cards she was holding." She winced as her lip split again, a bead of blood welling from the cut. Her tongue darted out to catch it, and she continued, "Perhaps the Leviathans used her. Perhaps she, for a time, was as unwilling a pawn as she made so many others, but her game is long, Shepard, and I doubt even a conversation with Garrus at his most menacing was enough to frighten the ambition out of her. She'll find a way to use this to her advantage."
"You think I'm not aware of that? You're mistaken if you believe this is charity, Miranda. This is a friends close, enemies closer situation. If she's one of the pawns I know belong to Leviathan, I don't want her back on the board." Shepard's eyes were cold, all hint of her earlier distress vanished behind the armor of her competence. Her pulse still tripped along at a slightly elevated pace, but her posture betrayed none of it. She turned her attention back to Grunt. "Inform Mrs. Callahan I am willing to consider her request if she is willing to accept several inflexible and doubtless uncomfortable provisos. I will require her consent to these in writing, and she must understand my Spectre authority, and the authority Garrus holds as current commanding officer of the Normandy, supersedes any other consideration, including Alliance law." Shepard's omni-tool interface blinked to life, and the orange shadows it cast across her face banished any trace of her paleness. She glanced up thoughtfully, and then spoke as she began typing. "Due to the sensitive nature of our current mission, she will have no access to the extranet and will be required to surrender her omni-tool. She will cooperate fully with all requests for information, regardless of subject or previous confidentiality agreements. Additionally, operational security requires her to be under observation at all times. If she chooses to remain aboard the Normandy, she must understand she does so by forfeiting her right to counsel or outside contact, until Garrus or I decide to lift that ban. She will not be mistreated, but nor will she be a guest." For a moment, Shepard's smile was almost as bloodthirsty as Grunt's. "Also, see that she's hosed down and scrubbed to within an inch of her life. With the strongest disinfectant we have available. I'd like her to stink of nothing but bleach for the foreseeable future. Once bitten, twice shy, as they say."
She glanced up at Garrus, and he caught the echo of the worry she hadn't voiced. She said, "Is that acceptable? This is still your operation. Say the word and Grunt can toss her out into the mud."
For a moment, he imagined it and enjoyed the mental picture, but Shepard had a point, as always. Like she'd had a point about Saleon, even like she'd had a point about Sidonis. If she could set aside her hatred for the woman, his own frustration and dislike could hardly compare. Even with her world tipped sideways and her faith shaken, Shepard still looked at the big picture and not merely the personal one. His mandibles flicked, and he bent his head in mute acquiescence. "See she's kept away from Brooks. Turns out they've worked together in the past. I don't want to see a repeat performance." He sighed and added, "We're going to want to be careful about personnel, too. I don't want to think any of our people would listen to her, but…"
"She's got resources that're hard to argue with?" Shepard nodded. Her I'm thinking crease returned full-force, and Garrus was almost grateful to Moira Callahan for giving Shepard a problem she could actually chew on and potentially fix. "You're not wrong. I'd ask Samara, but she's got her hands full. Alenko, maybe, if we can spare him." She smiled faintly. "He's always been charmingly incorruptible. I'd like to see Moira beat her head against that problem. Grunt? You okay with watching her until Alenko can take over?"
"Sure, Shepard," Grunt replied, still with the terrifyingly krogan smile. "You humans talk too much. I've gotten good at tuning it out."
"Well, don't kill her unless it's absolutely necessary. She might be useful."
Grunt turned around, the door closing on his menacing little chuckle. Chakwas retreated to Miranda's side, finally helping the battered woman into bed.
"Now," Shepard said, once Miranda was settled, "before we were so rudely interrupted, we were talking about the anvil that just landed on our heads."
"I thought it was shoes dropping," Garrus replied mildly, and was rewarded with the tilt of one corner of her mouth.
The smile vanished, however, as she said, "You've already got people looking for any artifacts?"
He nodded. "And Sol's working on an armor or omni-tool version of the shielding EDI used in Bryson's lab."
Shepard sent Solana an approving, if still somewhat distracted, nod. "Then we should go back to the party," she said, plucking at one of the wires tethering her to the bed. "We should make an appearance, prove I'm—"
"No," Chakwas said. "Absolutely not."
"And let them think they've won?" Shepard asked, shaking her head. "We know Moira won't be there."
"Moira or no Moira, for this evening let them believe what they will," Chakwas said. Not unkindly, but her firmness of purpose was unwavering. She turned away from Miranda, arms crossed over her chest, and for an instant she wasn't merely the ship's doctor—she was queen of the medbay, whose word was law, regardless of anyone's version of chain of command or Spectre authority. Even Shepard paused, stilled, and after a long moment, inclined her head in unspoken surrender. "Soon you will prove how wrong they are. But not tonight, Commander, and likely not tomorrow. I must understand the parameters of what was done to you. Until then, you remain a threat. Zaeed's correct: were it anyone else as compromised as you are, you'd be absolutely intractable about keeping them under watch."
The knife slid deeper, twisted. Garrus saw it in Shepard's eyes, though her expression betrayed nothing. Nor, however, did she argue. Her hands fell back to her lap, half-curled and still. The confidence he'd seen as she dealt with Moira Callahan dimmed, like a light turned low. Not quite switched off, but muted.
He said, "We'll be in the cabin, then."
Chakwas' frown deepened.
"No, Garrus," Shepard said softly. "She's right. Hell, I'd be safer in the brig, if I didn't already know half a dozen ways to break out. Which I do."
"You're not a threat to me," he insisted. "Or you'd have taken me out on your way to Hackett and Wrex and the primarch without a second thought. Sleep on it, Shepard. In your own bed."
"Because I'm in a real great place for optimizing firing algorithms right now." She said it lightly enough, but her smile was another knife, this one also turned inward. "Sleep might not be a bad idea."
"My ideas are never bad."
Shepard snorted, almost a laugh, and held out an arm. Chakwas hesitated only a moment before beginning the process of once again freeing her from the prison of her machines. Garrus watched, hoping it would be the final time, and fearing it wouldn't. Shepard was like the punching bag Vega kept down in the hold, forever swinging back into form, no matter how many hits she took. But even the sturdiest bag split sometimes; all the scars and bandages of tape were proof enough of that. Shepard's wounds weren't so visible; most people never saw them at all. He knew they were there. He just didn't know what he could do to adequately patch them.
"Another idea," he said, and she tilted her head at him inquisitively. "Also a good one, it goes without saying. We've had a lot of new intel, and more's bound to come in. I think a crew meeting is in order. Get everyone up to speed. We don't want mistakes made in ignorance. Tomorrow, maybe. Once we've checked and rechecked the ship for compromising artifacts."
Shepard nodded once, then, a second later, more decisively. "I'd like to bring the admiral into this. Primarch Victus and Wrex, too." She raised her eyebrows at Miranda. "Or are we looking at a repeat of tonight? Because I can honestly say the last time I was alone in a room with the three of them, the only murderous thoughts I had were the result of how poorly they were managing to get along."
Miranda shook her head. "The trigger's in the scent. As long as everyone in the room is clean, my programming—the measures I took should hold."
"Why scent?" Garrus asked. "Couldn't anyone with the same perfume have pulled the trigger early? And unknowingly?"
"It's not the vector I would have chosen," Miranda agreed.
"No, Miranda would have relied on an undetectable, unremovable piece of tech to do her dirty work," Shepard said, so mildly a less savvy listener mightn't even have heard the anger just beneath it. "Tidier. Less chance of messy mishaps."
Miranda ignored this. "Time was limited and scent has powerful ties to memory. At least for humans. In a way, the choice of perfume was fortuitous. Moira's own body chemistry was part of it. Someone else wearing the same blend wouldn't have had the same effect. I did make sure of that."
"Why not throw a wrench in the gears, then?" asked Zaeed. "If you were calling the goddamned shots?"
"You think I didn't?" Miranda asked, with a little heat of her own. "I didn't have carte blanche. I was a skilled prisoner held against her will for the purpose of completing a task, not a project leader. The scent was intended to be a redundancy. Had Moira's brainwashing succeeded as she intended, Shepard would have killed her targets the moment she saw them, no hesitation, no perfume necessary. That was the biggest wrench I, and my undetectable tech, managed." Miranda moved as if to toss her hair and froze midway, when she realized her short tufts were unequal to the task. "I could not have done more. I was watched. They didn't trust me. Even when I proved I could do what was asked, they never trusted me. And every step of the… alteration was monitored and tested. Had I failed—had Shepard failed to do as they wanted—"
"Miranda," Chakwas said. "You're in no condition for this now."
She looked as though she meant to protest, but Shepard's voice, as used to being obeyed as Miranda's snapped out, sharp as a whip, as another knife. "We'll debrief tomorrow. Yours is definitely intel I want to pass along."
"Shepard," Miranda said. "If there'd been another way…"
"You'd have taken it. I understand."
And perhaps she did, but she didn't bother trying to sound happy about it. Garrus offered an arm under the pretense of helping her from the bed, and Shepard took it, flashing him a glance no less grateful for being brief.
They spoke to no one on their way through the crew deck, and the elevator was empty when it opened. Garrus sent a vague thank you to whatever Spirits were looking out for them, hoping they'd won a reprieve from further interruption. On the upper deck, however, the door chimed open and revealed Liara waiting on the other side. Her eyes darted immediately from him down to Shepard, and a smile brightened her face.
"Shepard!" Liara took a step forward, and with his fingertips resting lightly against her lower back, Garrus felt the subtle tension in Shepard's spine as she prepared herself. "Thank the goddess. You had us all so worried."
The tension intensified as Liara stepped closer, arms already opening for an embrace. Shepard let herself be hugged, returning the gesture one-armed. He heard the weary lie Shepard so often used for everyone except him as she said, "I'm okay, Liara."
Garrus said, "Anything yet?"
Liara stepped back, facing him. He schooled his expression to stillness as Shepard lifted grateful eyebrows behind the asari's back and gave him a one-shouldered shrug. "No. Tali and her team are combing the maintenance shafts, but the main areas of the ship are clear." Shepard's eyebrows snapped down instantly when Liara turned again, saying, "Forgive me, Shepard. It took so much longer than I anticipated to track Miranda down. I suspect your Moira Callahan employs quite an accomplished information broker—or information obfuscator—of her own."
"She does enjoy employing people," Shepard remarked drily.
Garrus had been privy to enough of Liara's lectures to see one coming from several clicks away, and before she could get more than a few dozen words into the debrief, he settled a hand on her shoulder, startling her into silence. "We're up here on the doctor's orders," he said, offering an undetected little lie of his own.
"We'll discuss it tomorrow," Shepard added, before Liara could say anything. "I know you did the best you could with the resources you had available, Liara."
Liara bit down on her bottom lip, a gesture, Garrus suspected, she'd picked up from Shepard. "If only we had had access to—"
"Tomorrow," Shepard repeated, stepping aside, heading for the cabin door, only to be caught by Liara's fingers curling around her wrist.
"I am sorry, Shepard. About—"
"Don't be," Shepard said, and these words, too, were knives. "It's not your fault. None of it's your fault." Shepard shifted, drawing her arm away until Liara was reluctantly forced to release her. Thus freed, Shepard immediately stepped into the cabin. Garrus lingered a moment in the hall, while Liara gazed after Shepard with wide, sad eyes.
"Is she, Garrus?" Liara asked. "Is she okay?"
"Would you be?"
"Don't ask her to be something she's not, Liara." He shook his head. "She's good at—what's that saying? Rolling with the punches. But this one caught her in the gut when she wasn't prepared. Don't push."
He didn't wait for her response, following in Shepard's footsteps, closing—and locking—the door behind him. Shepard leaned against the wall next to the door, head tilted back and eyes closed. The strain showed in the faint creases around her eyes, the shadows beneath, the jumping muscle in her jaw. "You know," she said, almost conversationally, "I wouldn't mind tearing a page from her book and throwing myself across the bed to sob for a while."
"I wouldn't judge you for it if you did," Garrus replied softly. "It's—it's all a lot to take in. Liara—"
Shepard waved a dismissive hand and scowled. "Liara means well. I know that. She always means well."
"But you don't have it in you to make her feel better about things while you're busy dealing with the shit you've just landed in?"
"Ahh, Garrus, so poetic."
She didn't immediately argue with him, though, so he knew he wasn't off the mark. Instead, she pushed herself away from the wall, stalking toward the fish tank, slamming the side of her fist against the button even though the VI had kept the fish in perfect health in her absence. The hamster was back in the little prefab unit Garrus caught himself thinking of as theirs, and she grimaced as she turned toward the shelf only to realize it was empty. Tucking her arms close, she folded them over her chest as if uncertain what to do with herself now that the small task of caring for her pets had been stolen from her.
"Shepard," Garrus said. "Talk to me."
She reached up to drag her hands through her hair, but the gesture was thwarted by the braids and curls still piled atop her head. Glaring at her fingers as if they'd betrayed her, bright spots of color burned high in her cheeks. "Leviathan," she snapped. "Of course. We should have left it alone."
He leaned against the wall in the place she'd so recently vacated, leaving her room to pace. "You didn't wake them. Isn't it better to know they're out there? Isn't it better to know what we're facing? We had no information about them before you spoke to the one on Despoina. None. If nothing else, your experience with them at least gave us intel. Think about it. Fear of the Reapers kept them in check, but with them gone, how easily might the Leviathans have made slaves of us all? Those poor bastards on Mahavid were enthralled for a decade."
"It might still happen." She raised a hand and covered her eyes. "I don't know how to stop them, Garrus."
"You didn't know how to stop the Reapers, either, and that—"
"Don't say it turned out okay," Shepard said, suddenly sharp. "The price was higher than I wanted to pay. I think it's highly unlikely we'll find a convenient weapon of mass destruction just waiting for us to build it this time."
He inclined his head, feeling the sting of the old wound, the weight of EDI's body in his arms as he laid her to rest in the AI core, seeing Tali's purple-clad figure moving amongst the rows and rows of too-still, too-silent geth. "We still won."
"By turian standards?" she asked with a bitter edge. "If even one person is left standing at the end, it was a success? Tell that to the geth."
"I don't envy you the decision, or the weight making it heaped on your shoulders. Hell, I'll help you carry it if you'll let me, because it's the decision I'd have made in your place. But this isn't about the geth." He lowered his voice, even with no one to overhear them, and added, "It's just us here, Shepard. It's just me."
Like a compulsion, her hand drifted over temple and upper lip again, before tracing her collarbones through the sheer silk of her dress and trailing around to the back of her neck. She ducked her head, but not before Garrus saw that familiar haunted look.
"We'll figure out how to remove it," he said. "You have my word."
"And if we can't?" Her voice broke on the final word, and she coughed. "If you take my gun and you take my ship and you take my mind, what's left?" Her hand curled around her throat. "No wonder the clone was insane."
"You're not her," he insisted. "You are not her."
But if Shepard was listening, she didn't acknowledge it, turning on a heel and striding from one side of the cabin to the other, one hand still clutching her throat, the other opening and closing into an impotent fist at her side.
"Shepard." She ceased her anxious pacing, turning to face him so abruptly it took a moment for her skirts to catch up. They swirled to stillness around her ankles. For that moment, it was the only movement in the room. "This isn't a problem you can solve in an evening." Her lips parted, eyes bright with protest. He shook his head, taking a step toward her, extending a hand. Her gaze dropped to it as though she had no idea what it was for. "And it isn't a problem you have to solve alone. She was alone. You're not. You are not alone."
When her eyes lifted to his once again, they were full of the tears she so rarely let anyone see, and for a moment he was half-tempted to simply run her a shower and leave her alone to do the cathartic, solitary weeping she usually needed after taking a hard blow. She shook her head, though he hadn't spoken, and took the step toward him necessary to grip his hand in hers. He tightened his fingers around hers and was gratified when she squeezed back just as hard.
"I'm tired, Garrus," she admitted.
"And I'm scared."
"I know. I am too." He paused, taking a steadying breath. "And I'm worried."
She blinked up at him, wounded. "About me?"
Shaking his head, he plucked at one of the pins half-slid from her hair. When he tugged it, one of her little braids sagged. He began unraveling it as he spoke. "Sure. And about Solana, and my dad, and the mess the Reapers made. About Palaven, and the people I left behind there. About the Leviathans, and every damned bastard who wants you dead. Hell, I'm worried Wrex is going to name one of his kids after me. Or you. Turns out there's no shortage of things to worry about. That's a selection. We'd be crazy not to worry, right? And we're not crazy."
She reached for her hair, and he gently batted her hands away, loosening the pins himself, freeing her hair curl by curl and braid by braid from its upswept prison. He glanced at his visor and noticed her stats finally returning to something approximating normal, heart rate slowing, vitals stabilizing. She even made a contented, almost-turian noise when he finished releasing her hair and dragged his blunted talons through the cloud of strands, paying extra attention to her scalp. He dropped his hands to her shoulders, massaging them just the way he'd learned she liked, until at least a fraction of the tension eased from them. She sighed, half-sorrow and half-relief.
"This wasn't how I thought this evening would go," she said. Garrus rescued her hands before she could undo all his hard work by twisting them anxiously in her skirts, folding her slender fingers between his large palms. "And this certainly isn't how I thought it would end."
"You're awake, Shepard. You're alive, and so is everyone else. It may not be perfect, but I'm still calling it a win." He dipped his head, bringing his brow to hers in a moment of solidarity, relieved when she pressed back against him, her lips curling.
"I guess it's not strictly over yet, either," she said.
"Plenty of time to turn things around." He wrapped an arm tight around her shoulders, and murmured, "You owe me a dance, at the very least."
"Metaphorical, I hope."
"Definitely literal." He chuckled, tickling the soft skin of her cheek with a mandible. "Maybe a bit of the metaphorical kind, too."
"You're pushing your luck, Vakarian," she said, her grin at odds with her tone.
"I'm certainly trying," he replied.
But she laughed, so different from the chilling sound of the medbay earlier, and was the first to reach for the music controls. "Fine," she said. "One dance." She narrowed her eyes, glowering out at him from beneath severe brows. "And you make sure to twirl me at least once, because this skirt was made for twirling."
"Aye, ma'am," he said smartly, trying not to think of the calm before the inevitable storm.