No one in the docking arm paid the turian waiting next to an empty airlock any mind, but on Dashta Interchange Station, paying too much attention to anyone could cause trouble. That didn't stop this particular turian from doing just that, though, as he squatted atop a foot locker as battered looking as his blue combat armor.
Garrus had long since mastered the art of observing without being observed. He sent casual, disinterested glances up and down the nearly empty corridor, studying a pile of disused packing crates ten meters away, tiredly contemplating the condensing mist crawling from an uninsulated transfer pipe in the ceiling, or noticing a flickering light panel in need of maintenance like everything else on the station. That meant the pair of batarians doing a red sand buy two bays down never gave him a second look, nor did the teenaged human boy suspended in the rafters who was relieving another set of transfer pipes of their insulation.
To them, Garrus was just another anonymous traveler on his way to another undisclosed destination. The station was the space-borne counterpart to the salarian spaceport on Erinle, providing an easy-access trading arena and cargo outlet for customers that for whatever reason did not want to go through the formality of registering to land on a planet. Much like Omega, the space station's motto was "no one saw nothing."
"Twenty-five minutes," he said to himself. If anyone did notice him for anything it was because he obsessively checked the time, and they would assume it was for the flight he was waiting to catch. They would be wrong. The ship coming for him wasn't due for another four hours. Twenty-five minutes was how long before the Normandy left Dashta without him and the rest of the squad as well.
Not long after Shepard's call with the Council, and just after the Alliance officers left, Shepard called an all-hands meeting in the CIC. The Normandy was off to Osun to hand off Tali and the geth to a quarian ship that was going to take them back to the Migrant Fleet. That meant a quick layover at Dashta to deliver the delegation, pick up a few supplies, and return to Sahrabarik before the Council or its fleet could react.
Time was the key component, Shepard told the crew. Though he appealed to the Council for amnesty for all aboard the Normandy, the data handed over by Enlea T'Vari proved that should the Normandy be captured, any personnel on board would be taken into custody and compelled to "assist in investigations" against Cerberus. Given the nature of their mission the past year, there would be dire charges for anyone taken into custody as the ship had left its mark across dozens of systems at the behest of their Cerberus overlord.
Fortunately Enlea's datapad also revealed C-Sec had no clue who was on the Normandy other than Shepard himself. Cerberus had been extremely efficient in altering or outright erasing the Normandy's existence from databases throughout the galaxy. The information T'Vari had been gathering would have brought an end to that anonymity had she not given it over to Shepard. With Captain Lorian on his way to testify and all the attention the Normandy had drawn lately, it was not going to last.
So, in front of the entire crew, Shepard announced that all previously granted leave requests were granted, transportation would be arranged, and anybody who needed to leave the ship had as long as it was going to take to reach Osun to get ready. He regretted that there wasn't time for a proper send-off, but a dragnet was certain to close around the ship. The time to get off was before that happened.
Not everyone, Garrus reflected, was eager to go.
"Garrus," Shepard walked up behind the turian in Normandy's CIC as he headed for the lift. "Hold up."
Shepard held a datapad up for him to see. "You canceled your request to go to Palaven."
"Huh," Garrus squinted at the display. "How do you suppose that happened?"
Shepard placed the pad firmly on his workstation. "Go home. That's an order."
Garrus' mandibles flared as he crossed his arms."I don't know that your authority extends as far as telling me where I go on leave, Commander."
"You can go hang out at the duty free shop at the spaceport for two weeks for all I care, but I'm kicking your ass off the ship."
"But nothing. You've earned this. More than anybody else here you've paid your dues and then some. Let your family know what you've been doing for the past three years. Go visit your mom. Get straight with your dad, and your sister. Because if you don't..." Shepard put his arm around Garrus' shoulder. "I'll call them up myself. You heard me right. I'm gonna tell on you."
"Nobody likes a snitch, Shepard."
"I'll call them right now if I have to."
Garrus' eyes fell to the deck.
Shepard shook his head. "Why are you keeping your family in the dark? They'll be proud of you if you'll just tell them."
"That's not the problem. I just... want to be sure I can come back."
"What, are you kidding? You run out on me and I'll have Tali call your folks. Just think about that for a minute. I'm not trying to get rid of anybody. I just want you all to lay low for a while until all this crap blows over. Come back when the heat dies down a little."
"That's not what I mean. The last time I left... it didn't go well. For either of us."
For once, Shepard did not have a ready answer. He shrugged. "What are the odds that a guy can die twice?"
"I'd prefer not to find out."
"Go home, Garrus. I'll see you in a couple weeks."
Garrus looked up at the dingy station corridor, surprised to see that the red sand deal had concluded and the buyer was standing over him. "Hey buddy, I said do you know what time it is?"
"0430 station time," he told the batarian.
"Thanks," the man said, and walked on by.
Twenty minutes, Garrus thought. Shit.
Zaeed gulped down another shot of whiskey at one of the station's open-air bars. Like every other Terminus shithole, Dashta Interchange consisted mainly of the port, a few shops, and two dozen bars and brothels where travelers could get anything that had been outlawed everywhere else. The stores themselves weren't worth visiting. They might have actually done good business at one time but now had only a few overpriced, outdated pieces of garbage dotting the dingy shelves.
If Shepard knew this is where he'd be sending his crew he might have reconsidered, but as he kept telling everyone there just wasn't enough time to be picky. Dashta was where the quarians had arranged to pick up Zorah and the bots, and with the Citadel breathing down their necks, that's where the Normandy went. But even if Shepard hadn't urged everybody to leave, Zaeed would have made his exit. His contract with Cerberus was up and paid in full. It was time to move on.
Move on, Zaeed thought. Going from one garbage dump to the next, more like. The Normandy wasn't bad though, he had to admit. If he had made an issue of it, he wouldn't have even had to share his quarters with the garbage masher. Hiding down below decks was just as much his own desire as anybody's. Shepard just obliged him. He pushed his empty glass forward on the bar's chipped and stained plastic surface. The human slinging drinks took the hint and ambled over to pour the glass full once more.
"Helluva place for a multi-millionaire to hang his hat, eh?" Zaeed said.
"Oh yeah," the bartender replied. "Get your kind all the time in here. Just don't forget to pay your tab, Moneybags."
"So what are you going to do with all that money?" Shepard asked him, back on the Normandy.
Zaeed looked him right in the eye. "Put it up as a reward on Vido. Then hunt his ass down and kill him so I can collect."
"And then what? Another job somewhere?"
"Dunno. Haven't thought that far ahead."
"You know, you could always stay on with us," Shepard said. "I can't pay as well, but I think our benefits package is pretty competitive."
"People gotta stick to what they know. And I don't know nothing about a big goddamn hero."
"Well you are one, whether you admit it or not-"
"Save the pitch, Shepard," Zaeed said. "I just sat through one of your speeches. I ain't got time for another."
Shepard's lips tightened. If his goal was to talk Zaeed into staying, he wasn't trying very hard. "Good luck then, Zaeed," he said and walked away to talk to the thief. Around CIC, the rest of the crew continued to crowd another in a hurried attempt to get in their congratulations and good-byes. Zaeed leaned back against the railing at the center of CIC with no one to talk to, and nothing to say even if he had.
"You ever met anybody who went through the Omega Four Relay?" Zaeed asked the handful of patrons at the bar.
The bartender shrugged and glanced over at a salarian who shook his head at the grizzled old human mercenary that seemed unable to stop with his impossible stories.
Zaeed's bad eye twitched as he looked down at his glass of whiskey. "You know, it's funny. I wasn't the only one to make it back from that one..."
The glare in Grunt's eyes would have made any normal enemy before him flee in terror. But the vending machine in front of him merely blinked "insert credit" over and over after taking his money. Behind a scraped and grafiti-covered translucent display, his chocolate bar dangled tantalizingly above the delivery chute, stuck on its dispenser.
The plexiglass was maybe a centimeter thick. He wouldn't even need to use full strength. He pulled his thick arm back, fist clenched.
"I can't believe you're sending me back to that waste of a planet," Grunt told Shepard.
"Believe me, I'd be happy to keep you here," Shepard said. "But your clan leader needs you more than I do right now."
A low growl rumbled deep inside Grunt's throat. "All there is to kill there are krogan and varren. That's not worth my time."
"Don't forget about thresher maws," Shepard suggested hopefully. "All we're going to be doing here is talk about the reapers. You don't want to stick around for that, do you? Trust me, Grunt, when the time comes to start killing them, I'll send for you. In the mean time, if I hear from Wrex you're not living up to his expectations, I'm gonna come to Tuchanka and kick your ass."
Grunt grinned. "Oh, that would be epic."
Shepard moved close, bringing his face right up to Grunt's. "I mean it. You're not just muscle. That's something your enemies don't understand about you or Wrex. You've got strength in both body and mind. That's what's going to return the krogan to glory. You hear me?"
The big krogan stomped his boot against the deck at the same time he slammed his cannonball-sized fist into his palm, making everyone standing around them in the CIC jump back suddenly. "Yes, battlemaster!"
Shepard didn't flinch of course. "Good. Don't disappoint me."
Grunt sighed and let his arm fall to his side, hand open. He reached out and gave the machine a shove at its top that was gentle by krogan standards. The machine rocked back and forth, and candy bar dropped into the chute with a thud. He squeezed his thick hand through the narrow slot to retrieve his prize.
"Grunt?" asked a high pitched voice from behind.
Grunt whirled around, instinctively hiding the confection behind his back. A human female that barely came up to his chest watched him cautiously.
When he turned toward her, she smiled broadly, relieved. "Oh good, I thought it was you. A few of us are grabbing a bite over at the cantina while we're waiting for our flight. It's kind of sketchy but it's the only game in town. You want to join us?"
Grunt studied the woman. She had short black hair and brown skin, and was relatively thin but all humans looked that way to him. She wore the uniform of the Normandy, now stripped of its insignia, but he was ashamed that he could not remember her name. Outside of the squad, he didn't have that much interaction with the Cerberus crew. He stood in front of her in awkward silence.
She smiled at him. "Ines Peralta. You don't remember me, do you?"
Grunt shook his head.
Ines pantomimed picking up something under her arm. "You gave me a lift the other day, when we got attacked by the oculus?"
Grunt nodded. He'd dragged the human back to safety during the attack, but that's not what he remembered most about that day. His mind flashed back to a dead man's body tumbling away into space, jetting blood into the vacuum. "After the explosion."
"Yeah," Ines said. "I never got a chance to thank you for hauling me back to the airlock."
Grunt shifted his weight nervously from foot to foot. This was the human who saved him from drifting into the graveyard of derelicts. He never saw who it was, nor did he attempt to find out afterwards which only made him more nervous now. Talking to weaker creatures, meaning anybody for that matter, shouldn't have that effect. "You're welcome," he grumbled and looked down the corridor.
Ines took a step back and waved, now feeling she was intruding. "Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks, you know?"
"I never thanked you, either," Grunt had to force the words from his mouth. He could not look her in the eyes. "I would have been left behind if you and the others hadn't grappled me."
Ines smiled at him, which for some reason made Grunt's redundant hearts pump faster. "No problem. Same team, right?"
"Same team," Grunt said. "Thank you."
The krogan still couldn't make eye contact. He had absolutely no idea what to say next. Shepard and the others tried to teach him a few things about polite conversation, but his concentration always drifted off to figuring out where the pressure point was in the speaker's neck to achieve a clean break. It varied from species to species. But for some reason, he had no desire to snap the neck of this female. But he had to say something, before she wandered off. She was probably getting bored with him. "Hey, you want to see me lift this vending machine over my head?"
As with many things Kasumi did, she watched from the shadows as Commander Shepard, Tali and the two mobile platforms walked together down the Dashta's main access corridor together. She wanted to see the reaction of the locals, but this arm seemed pretty dead. That was a relief, actually. Dashta was remarkably seedy - the fewer of its denizens they met, the better.
A human, a quarian, and two geth walk into a bar, Kasumi thought. There's got to be a punchline in there, somewhere. She had to smile. In a universe that seemed to routinely dispense only disappointment and despair, she was genuinely happy to see the geth and quarians moving towards peace, especially for her friends Tali and Legion.
Tali's feelings towards the bot were understandably dim at the start. Most of the crew had bad feelings towards the geth for that matter. Kasumi found the mechanical being fascinating. It was always very polite and seemed to want to be trusted by the organics on the ship. While she particularly enjoyed stealing from the rich suckers in the galaxy, she always had a soft spot for those whose naivety sprung from innocence, and that's the way Legion struck her. It wasn't a murderous machine sent to kill them. It was more like a child trying to figure out how things worked. Anytime Legion got caught in one of his loops after an organic member of the crew confused it, Kasumi's natural impulse was to give it a hug.
So, being the new kid on the block herself right before the geth came aboard, she took every opportunity to include Legion when she introduced herself to the ship's crew to try and change their attitude toward it. While Shepard deserved most of the credit for swinging public opinion in favor of her favorite geth, she took full credit for bringing one particular hard case around. Jacob Taylor hated geth almost as much as Tali. He thought the best thing to do was to space Legion.
So Kasumi made sure to invite Legion to join her in the mess hall any time she ate, and more often than not other crew members would join them when they heard her talking to it. Pretty soon the pair became a fixture in the mess, with Kasumi and the others giving lessons to Legion about human behavior.
All she had to do was to was subtly alter her dining schedule to be around right before Jacob showed up to eat. Jacob was stubborn and rigid enough in his daily schedule that he kept coming even when he saw the geth in the mess. Kasumi never pressured him or forced interaction, but she persisted in her routine, and one day Jacob angrily interjected himself into their conversation when the subject of Eden Prime came up.
Legion listened patiently to Jacob's diatribe as he angrily denounced the geth as murderers. It got so tense that some of the other crew thought the former marine might actually make good on his threat to finish the job someone had started on the damaged geth after Jacob asked why the geth destroyed the colony.
The geth buzzed and clicked while the plates circling it's eye did a cute little dance. "We did not anticipate the heretics violent behavior. We were in error in not intervening."
"In error," Jacob responded. "And thousands of people paid for it with their lives."
"Taylor-Jacob," Legion said. "It will not happen again."
Either it was just fate or Legion had planned it all along, but less than a week later the mobile platform revealed the location of the Heretic Station and the geth there were wiped out to a program. After that, Jacob's attitude towards Legion changed markedly. Maybe it was because Legion saved all of their lives at one time or another in their repeated battles, or because the Legion directly gave up the geth responsible for the massacre of the human colony, but soon everybody but Tali was treating Legion like a friend. And then, after that terrible day when everyone thought Legion was gone for good, even Tali finally came around after saving the geth's life.
That thought made Kasumi smile. She made more friends in her time on the Normandy than the entirety of the rest of her life. The truth was as long as she had Keiji, she felt like she didn't need anybody else. But since his passing, the loneliness was taking its toll. She loved to joke and make people laugh, but with no one around, she discovered being one's own audience only worked for so long.
As a thief, though, personal connections were a liability. They were a danger to her, and she a danger to them. Which is why when Shepard told them of the plan to let people of the ship, she jumped on it. Painful or not, it would be better for everyone.
"Touching speech, Shep," she told Shepard as he continued to make the rounds through CIC. "Though I would have played up the 'eat, drink and be merry' aspect myself. Though Shakespeare would have approved, I'm sure."
"Like I already told Jacob, that's not from Shakespeare," Miranda didn't look up from her datapad as she scribbled on it behind Shepard.
"I don't care who it was," Shepard said, looking up at the ceiling. "I wasn't trying to quote anybody. Why don't you go see if Garrus has re-booked his fight yet?"
Miranda shook her head and waded into the throng of people surrounding the central galactic display. Shepard sighed. "So... You given any thought to coming back in a couple weeks?"
"I have," Kasumi said brightly, a direct inversion of how she felt about what she was going to say. "...And I'm not."
Shepard's face fell. "Oh. Why not?"
"It kind of goes against best practices for a cat burglar to hang her hat on the most wanted ship in the universe."
"Yeah, I guess I can see that. We do have a lot of attention on us right now, don't we? I kind of figured this day would come, but... I'm going to miss you, Kasumi. For someone who chooses to live in the shadows, you've been a real ray of sunshine."
"Awww," Kasumi reached out and hugged him. "That's sweet. Thanks, Shep. It's been fun. For real."
Shepard grinned as he hugged her back. "Do I need to check my wallet?"
Kasumi smiled and pulled away. "No need. What would I do with three maxed out credit chits, a pocket bartender, pictures of the SR1 gang, and a library card that expired when you were declared dead?"
Shepard's hand dropped reflexively to his pocket, but his wallet was right where it was supposed to be. He arched an eyebrow at her. "Try not to steal the airlock on your way out, huh? We still need that."
Shepard looked around the room. "So... does he know you're leaving for good?"
Shepard cocked his head. "You know who."
Kasumi's smile faded slightly and her voice dropped. "Just between the two of us, he never really knew about... my affection."
"Truth. In spite of every opening I've given him, every hint I've dropped, he's never given me anything more than a pat on the shoulder. I don't know if I should be honored or insulted."
"Honored," Shepard said quickly. "Jacob's a soldier. Before anything else. Always will be."
Under her cowl, Kasumi's eyes drifted to Tali standing near Kelly's podium. As usual, the quarian had positioned herself so she was just slightly facing the Commander, no matter where he moved. It was so sweet how Tali didn't realize that her glowing eyes made it easy for everyone to see where she was always looking, even when she was talking to someone else. Kasumi wasn't the only one on the ship with a bad case of unrequited love. She looked back at Shepard. "There's got to be room in there for something else."
"Not until the mission's over."
Kasumi's eyes once again shifted to Tali. "With an attitude like that, it'd be easy to miss a very good thing."
Shepard looked over at Jacob. "Well, don't be offended. Some guys are just clueless."
Hugging the wall of Dashta's dingy corridor, Kasumi watched Shepard disappear around a corner with Tali walking happily next to him. "Yes they are," she said to herself. She felt sorry for her quarian friend, but at the same time she admired Tali's determination. Jack and Miranda had long given up on the Commander. But Tali never seemed to give up hope.
Some things are worth the effort, she thought, and disappeared into the darkness even though no one was around to see her.