“So?” Dean asked, leaning forward eagerly as Kaidan sat down. “How did it go?”
“Well enough,” Kaidan replied, looking quickly around the bar to make sure no one was within earshot. “In the end, I think it was best you didn’t come after all. Anderson doesn’t know your name, and that’s probably best. I don’t think he’s in on it, but still…” He broke off suddenly as an asari waitress began walking toward their table. The alien asked for their order; Kaidan ordered some food, Dean a stiff drink. They both waited until she had walked off again into the nearly-empty bar before Dean turned to Kaidan and said, “But you don’t know that.”
“I don’t know that,” Kaidan admitted. “I’ll take my chances with Anderson, but I don’t want to put you at risk, too.”
Dean frowned at that. “Doesn’t seem right, man, me dragging you in to all this, then leaving you to take the fall like that.”
“I think it was me dragging *you * in, Dean. No, really,” Kaidan insisted when Dean waved a hand at him dismissively. “And I’m sorry for that.”
“Sort of wish I had just let the whole thing slide,” Dean muttered, looking down at the table in disgust.
“I don’t,” Kaidan said firmly. “I’ve had nothing but questions for two years now. I’m finally in a place where I can get some answers. Heh,” he added with a rueful smile, “I’m finally in a place where I can deal with the answers.” He shook his head as if to clear it and shrugged. “I’ll be fine,” he assured his friend.
Dean still looked uncertain. “So Anderson didn’t know anything about it?” he asked.
“He seemed completely shocked,” Kaidan told him, “for Anderson, that is.”
“What does that mean?”
“Anderson is hard to read,” Kaidan replied. “Comes with being a captain – and a Councilor, I guess. I don’t think he surprised to hear that Cerberus was in the system, but he sure was angry when he found out about the monitoring program on his email.”
“So…” Dean prompted, “What’s he going to do about it?”
“Well,” Kaidan said, “he advised me to tell my contact to change jobs at once. Didn’t ask who you were, though, and I didn’t say.”
“Dang it,” Dean scowled. “Katie isn’t going to like me leaving the Citadel.”
“Just marry her and move to Earth,” Kaidan said with a shrug.
Dean made a sound like he was choking. “ Marry …? What?”
“You like her, don’t you?”
“I love her,” Dean said. He then seemed startled by that admission. “Yeah, I do. But…”
“But what?” Kaidan asked, his dark brows drawing together. “You love her. You have nothing standing in your way. She can finish her residency somewhere else and you can get another job. Hell, Dean, if we all had it so easy, we’d all be sitting back on Earth, paired up two by two and making all the other races sick with envy.”
“Hey,” Dean frowned. “Marriage isn’t sunshine and bunnies, man. I mean – it’s hard. Or so I’ve heard.”
“I’ve heard that too,” Kaidan replied. “But it’s got to be a hell of a lot better than regret.”
Dean considered that. “This about that girl you lost, man?” he asked, not quite meeting Kaidan’s eyes.
Kaidan knew he meant Ashley, but he was thinking of Shepard when he said, “This is about you, Dean. Don’t hold yourself back waiting for everything to suddenly turn up perfect. If you two are actually together, then, hell,” He waved a hand, “Just stick together.”
Dean opened his mouth like he was about to say something, but just then the waitress returned with their order, neatly ending that uncomfortable line of conversation. Kaidan waited until she had gone again, then said, “Just get off the Citadel, Dean. You’d probably be better off if you got a job with a private company than asked for a transfer.”
“Ugh,” Dean sighed. “I knew you were going to say that. Alright. I guess a bunch of suits won’t be that different than admirals. Might even find a place with a better budget.”
“You’re a good tech,” Kaidan told him. “I’m sure you’ll find something. And I by the way, I ah…I sent you a wedding present already. A few credits to help with the move,” he explained when Dean looked at him questioningly. “Since I got you into this mess, you know.”
Dean blinked at him. “Shit man, you didn’t need to do that.”
“Just take it, Dean,” Kaidan said.
“So what about you?” Dean nodded at him. “You gonna be okay?”
“I think so,” Kaidan said. “Anderson wants me to stay here on the Citadel in a new position. My official title will be ‘Alliance Liaison to the Human Councilor’,” Kaidan smirked at his plate. “My real job will be a little more – open ended than that.”
“You’re going to be a secretary ?” Dean said, his brow furrowing.
“Yeah,” Kaidan said with a dry laugh. “But obviously, that’s not really what I’ll be doing.”
“You’re going to be cleaning up the Alliance computer systems,” Dean added.
“If I can,” Kaidan nodded.
That wasn’t all, of course, Kaidan thought as he took a bite of pasta. Anderson had promised Kaidan access to some of the Alliance’s sealed files. *That * was what Kaidan was willing to take this new job for, to take this risk for. His own reports on the Normandy attack had been locked away as classified, along with a whole host of Alliance intel on Cerberus, the Normandy crash, and the missing colonies. Kaidan suspected it was all related somehow. Though Anderson had been hesitant to promise him everything, Kaidan figured whatever he could get his hands on was a good place to start. Anderson had seemed quite rattled by Kaidan’s discovery of Cerberus’ hacking and had implied to Kaidan that the only person he trusted to give this information to was Kaidan himself. In return, Kaidan had agreed to poke around the Alliance systems and see how deep Cerberus’ spying went.
“So you’re just going to sit on the Citadel and mess with Cerberus’s monitoring systems?” Dean gaped at him. “Shit, man. That’s like poking a sleeping tiger.”
“Or a sleeping dog,” Kaidan laughed. “Hopefully with three heads, Cerberus be too busy to notice me if I sneak around back. Of course,” he added, “that dog had a snake for a tail, didn’t it?”
“What the hell are you talking about, man?” Dean asked.
“Myths,” Kaidan replied with a shrug. “Look, just get yourself off the Citadel, Dean. And don’t worry about me. Cerberus is going to have a hard time taking me out if I’m right under Anderson’s nose.”
“Unless Anderson is in on it,” Dean pointed out.
“Like I said,” Kaidan replied. “If he is, then I’m already in trouble. But truly, Dean, I trust him. I know he’s been keeping things from me, but he’s always been up front about his reasons why. Most of all, he always stood up for Shepard.”
And that was the bulk of why Kaidan trusted the man right there. He knew it was perhaps a gamble to trust anyone at this point, but he did trust the councilor. Anderson had been proactive about the colonies, but wary of Cerberus; he had defended Shepard, but kept her dealings secret from the public. While Kaidan hated being on the receiving end of Anderson’s secrecy for so long, he felt that the man had made the right call in every situation Anderson had told him about.
In retrospect, Kaidan thought, he only wished he could have acted more like Anderson had. Anderson, apparently, had met with Shepard in a respectful, adult like manner, then told her that he hoped her association with Cerberus would be short-lived and offered to help her from afar as best he could. Anderson’s behavior towards the entire situation was both cautious and reasonable. Whereas, when Kaidan had met with Shepard, he had behaved like a jilted lover, with all the attendant irrational shouting.
“Look,” Kaidan told Dean, “I feel like someone who was really trying to pull the wool over my eyes wouldn’t be as apologetic about keeping secrets as Anderson is.” He shrugged. “He’s the only person left that I really can trust. And he’s the only one with access to the answers I need, so I’ll take my chances.”
Dean frowned at that. “This is more than just Cerberus, man,” he observed. “You aren’t taking a desk job like that just to poke around the Alliance databases on Anderson’s say so. This is personal, isn’t it?”
Kaidan looked down at his food and took another bite. He considered his answer carefully before he replied, “Yeah. It is. Shepard was my CO. I followed her on the most dangerous mission I’ve ever been on. When she died, it was like the Alliance wanted to forget she ever existed. Then she shows up with Cerberus and everyone’s pretending she’s still gone. I want to know why.”
“Well hell,” Dean said, making a face, “Given what the brass has been saying about her, I’m not surprised she joined Cerberus. You were gone for the worst of it, man, but they smeared her in the press.”
“I heard enough,” Kaidan replied. He didn’t like what had been said, but he also knew Shepard. She’d heard a lot of speculation thrown around about her character in the past and it hadn’t caused her to lose faith in the brass. He couldn’t imagine what could have turned the war hero of Elysium against the Alliance now.
“Well,” Dean said, finishing his drink. “I guess I’d better go give my notice – and start looking for a job. Wonder where I should go.”
“Vancouver is nice this time of year,” Kaidan suggested helpfully.
“It rains there, man,” Dean frowned.
“It’s just rain,” Kaidan shrugged.
“Yeah,” Dean said. “Okay. Well, I guess this is…goodbye, for now.”
“For now,” Kaidan said, shaking his hand. “Stay safe, Dean.”
“Yeah,” Dean replied, rising to leave. “You too.”
Shepard rushed up the stairs, a cold sense of dread settling in her gut.
“You don’t think she…?” Garrus’ voice trailed after her, slightly out of breath from the run. Shepard didn’t break stride to answer him. She came to the landing at the top of the stairs. The desk outside of Liara’s office was empty. When Shepard opened the door, Liara was standing at the window - alone.
“Shepard,” the asari said, coolly, turning to face her.
“Oh my God, Liara,” Shepard murmured. “What did you do to her?” Behind her, Garrus came into the room and looked around, then positioned himself by the door, pistol out and ready.
“Nothing more than she would have done to me,” Liara replied, raising a brow. “Nyxeris was quite talented, but not talented enough.”
Shepard frowned at that. Did that mean Liara had killed her traitorous assistant, or simply handed her over to the authorities? Shepard decided that she really didn’t want to know.
“Nyxeris was very well compensated by the Shadow Broker,” Liara went on, sitting at her desk with a detached grace. “I leave her earnings to you. Those credits should come in handy on your travels.”
“I don’t want that…money, Liara,” Shepard said, only just refraining from calling it ‘blood money.’
“I already sent it to your account,” Liara replied, arching an eyebrow. “Take it as payment for helping me get one step closer to taking down the Shadow Broker.”
“What the *hell * is up with you and the Shadow Broker?” Shepard asked taking a step towards the desk. “This can’t all be because of what you told me so far. What is this really about, Liara?”
The asari frowned and stood. She turned her back on Shepard and gazed out of the window.
“I suppose that’s fair,” she said at last. “You have helped me very much, you know.”
Shepard came and sat down in a chair before Liara’s desk and waited for her old friend to go on.
“Did Cerberus ever tell you how they recovered your body, Shepard?” Liara finally asked, her soft voice now sounding pained. Shepard shook her head, then realized that Liara could not see her. But the asari went on without prompting.
“I gave it to them,” Liara said, closing her eyes and sighing. “I gave you to them, even though I knew Cerberus would use you for their own business.”
Shepard sat there, stunned. She opened her mouth, yet she was completely unable to speak.
“They told me they could bring you back,” Liara went on, turning to her, “And I believed them. I told myself I was doing it for you, for a chance to bring you back. But truly, I did it because…” She paused, then looked down at her feet. “…Because I couldn’t let you go.”
Shepard swallowed, a million thoughts colliding in her mind. Liara had given her to Cerberus ? All this modification, this subtle cage about her, the reason that Kaidan had abandoned her and had called her a traitor - all of it was Liara’s doing? Shepard spoke before she could think better of it.
” You did this to me!” Shepard shouted as she jumped to her feet. “You gave me to Cerberus! Damn it, Liara! How could you?” Behind her, Garrus tensed and took a step into the room.
“And if I hadn’t,” Liara cried back, “The Shadow Broker would have given your body to the Collectors. What else could I do, Shepard?”
“What?” Shepard blinked, taken aback. “The Collectors?”
“What did they want with her?” Garrus asked, lifting his chin. Shepard looked back at him, and if by silent agreement, the turian closed the door. Liara looked at them both, then told them the story: how the Shadow Broker had mysteriously gotten hold of Shepard’s body by means unknown, how Liara had gone to recover it before he could give it to the Collectors, how she had lost a friend in the process, and how Cerberus had played every angle to ensure that they would be the ones to gain Shepard’s body in the end.
“It was Cerberus or the Collectors,” Liara told Shepard at last. “I made the best decision that I could.”
“My God,” Shepard said, sitting down heavily. “I can’t imagine…” She trailed off. “And no one knows what the Collectors wanted with my body?”
“You could ask Cerberus,” Liara said. “My intel regarding their intentions is very limited.”
Shepard thought back to the piles of bodies they had found on the Collector ship, back to the corpses of Collectors, modified beyond recognition from their Prothean ancestors. She also thought back to Harbinger’s interest in her, personally. It made sense, she thought, that the Collectors had somehow taken an interest in her body, in her DNA. It seemed that everything with them came down to DNA, to treating genetics as a tool that gave one species an edge over another. They weren’t unlike Cerberus in that regard, she thought, frowning.
“I have a few thoughts on the subject,” Shepard said, softly.
“Not pleasant thoughts, I imagine,” Garrus murmured.
“Please, Shepard, don’t be angry at me,” Liara begged, her eyes pleading. “I don’t have enough friends left to lose you, too. I did what I thought was right.”
“I…” Shepard trailed off, feeling completely torn. The thought passed through her mind that perhaps this was how Kaidan had felt to find that an old friend had gone off and done something rather unexpected and morally dubious. What Shepard had done in joining Cerberus was not the same as what Liara had done in giving her to them, it was true. Still, the realization that there were similarities between her choices and Liara’s choices was enough to soften Shepard’s anger toward the asari.
“I’m sorry, Liara,” she said with a sigh. “I’ve been on a short fuse these days. I don’t like Cerberus, and it’s been…hard. But I guess you did what you had to.”
It was all that she could manage. Liara simply nodded, her eyes still troubled. The two of them sat there, looking at each other across the desk. Then Liara looked away and cleared her throat uncomfortably.
“There is one more thing,” she began. “You see, Nyxeris…I had her send your message to Lieutenant – excuse me – Commander Alenko.”
“Shit,” Shepard hissed, making a face. “I forgot about that.”
“Therefore,” Liara went on, “I think we can presume that Commander Alenko will not be receiving your letter. I only hope she did not forward it elsewhere.”
“Damn it!” Shepard said, dragging a hand through her short hair. “I was trying the keep the man safe, not tip my hand to the Shadow Broker.”
“There, perhaps, I can help,” Liara said, her soft voice turning cold. “I am putting pressure on the Shadow Broker, so he should have little time to chase after you and your friends. Maybe now you can see why I have to take down the Shadow Broker – for your sake, and for mine.”
“I don’t see that,” Shepard replied. “Not really. But I suppose…” She sighed. “I don’t know, Liara. I suppose we both have to make ugly decisions nowadays.”
“Yes,” Liara said, quietly. “That is true.”
Shepard looked out to the sunset beyond the window and thought for a moment. “I don’t suppose you could get another message to Kaidan?” she asked. “Just something to warn him to be careful, and that I…” She stopped herself from going any further. Liara must have understood, however, for the asari turned a slightly darker shade of blue.
“I’m not sure I should risk it,” Liara said. “Not if my contacts were so compromised as to allow the Observer to be one of my own staff.”
“Of course,” Shepard said. She knew Liara was right, but still, she felt as though a door was slamming in her face.
“And besides,” Liara went on, giving a wry smile, “Commander Alenko and I did not part on…good terms. I don’t know if he will listen to any messages from me.”
“Really?” Shepard asked. “Why is that?”
From his position by the door, Garrus snorted. Liara’s gaze flicked to the turian before she replied. “The commander didn’t want to retrieve your body. I did. We…quarreled over it.”
”‘Quarreled’,” Garrus muttered. “That’s putting it lightly.”
“He didn’t want to open old wounds, I think,” Liara said, glancing from Garrus to Shepard.
“I suppose not,” Shepard said, her forehead furrowing. “Well, I’ve seen pictures of what I looked like when they got me. I don’t suppose that was easy for you to stomach either, Liara.”
“It wasn’t,” Liara said, looking away. “It’s…strange. Seeing you here, now, I feel as though you are not that body, Shepard. I feel as though that was someone else, and that you were just – gone – for a time. I’m not sure how to describe it.”
“I’m sorry,” Shepard said, frowning. “I didn’t mean to…” She didn’t know how to finish. She didn’t mean to bring up Kaidan, her death, any of it, and yet, she had stumbled right into that conversational minefield. She felt like she kept doing that a lot these days. She had once considered herself to have a way with words. That silver tongue certainly seemed to be failing her these days.
“No, no,” Liara said, kindly. She paused, then opened her eyes again. “Shepard, I feel I ought to…give you something.”
“These,” Liara said, opening the drawer of her desk. “I should have given these to you from the first, but I didn’t want you to know how I’d gotten them. But now that you know…”
She placed something on the desk before Shepard. Shepard took the object by one end, then slowly uncoiled it and held it before her face.
“My dog tags,” she murmured. “That’s right. They weren’t there on Alchera.”
Unlike the tags she’d found in the ice and snow, these had been cleaned and polished to a bright shine. Shepard imagined they hadn’t looked like that when they’d been taken from her body. In the setting sun, they caught the light and sent reflections dancing into the corners of the room.
“Miranda let me keep them,” Liara said, softly.
“You know Miranda?” Shepard said looking at her in surprise.
“Yes,” Liara said, “I take it she didn’t mention that?”
“No,” Shepard frowned. “She didn’t.” She turned her attention back to the tags. She had owned so little, even back aboard the original Normandy. These old things had been with her for years - well, the chain had, at least. The tags themselves had been updated with every promotion, but she had worn tags every day of her life since Basic. It was a tie to her old life, her Alliance life, and she suddenly felt an unexpected attachment to them. Shepard smiled a little. She rarely got sentimental about physical objects, but this was certainly turning her up nostalgic.
“These were with me – with my body?” she asked.
“Yes,” Liara said. “I kept them all this while.”
“Would you…prefer to keep them?” Shepard asked her. She wanted to keep them for herself, but felt she ought to ask.
“No,” Liara said, shaking her head. “I have had them long enough.” She smiled a little. “And I imagine that you want them.”
Shepard chuckled. “I’m that transparent, am I?”
“No,” Liara shook her head. “Only to your friends, I think. And then, even then, it’s hard to tell what you are thinking.”
Shepard nodded grimly, then slipped the tags over her head and tucked them into the collar of her armor and down below the heavy plastic breastplate.
“Thank you, Liara,” she said, truly meaning it.
“Of course, Shepard,” Liara said.
Shepard looked at the asari, then made a face. “You know, Liara,” she said. “You’ve been a good friend to me. I’m just sorry I wasn’t a better friend to you back…back then.”
Liara ducked her head, flushing an even deeper blue. “Well,” she said. “You had something else on your mind.”
“Kaidan, you mean,” Shepard replied. “God,” she murmured, “What does that mean when I know I’m being selfish but just can’t bring myself to stop?”
“Among my people, we say one is being a Maiden,” Liara told her, smiling a little.
Shepard snorted. She hadn’t meant to say that aloud. “Well,” she said, shrugging it off, “I guess that goes to show that my people tend to take selfishness for granted. We don’t really grow out of it with age, much as we’d like to.”
“With age?” Liara asked. “You’re hardly aged, Shepard.”
“I feel aged,” Shepard said, rubbing her shoulder absently. It ached a little from all the shooting she’d been doing lately with the upgraded hand canon. Such things had never bothered her before, but even with the muscle and bone upgrades, she’d been feeling aches and pains at the end of the day.
“You’re young,” Liara told her. Then her voice dropped and her eyes grew serious. “Far too young to die.”
Shepard blinked at her, startled by Liara’s haunted tone. The two females stared at each other for a long moment, then, as if by silent agreement, they stood.
“Well,” Shepard said, holding out a hand. “Take care, Liara.”
“Yes, Shepard,” Liara replied, giving her a businesslike handshake. “You know where to find me.”
“Right,” Shepard said. “Well…” She gave a small shrug. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, Shepard,” Liara replied.
And as she walked out of Liara’s office and Garrus followed her down the stairs, the thought crossed Shepard’s mind that perhaps Liara was the most lost of all of her old friends.