"So, what's the scene?"
Seiuus casually gestured at Garrus with the infopad in one hand, lifting his shoulders in an offhanded shrug. "As you can see, we had two gentlemen conferring with each other over a minor financial disagreement." He paced around the room, pointing out details as he went. The wet ring of a disappeared glass. The scratch on a table. The tear in a synthetic leatherette chair. "Came to a bit of a hitch over a high-profile transportation contract. They'd had some previous history. Our fellow's been in the med shop for instability a couple of times. Twitchy."
Garrus wasn't impressed. "He's a volus."
"Well he's an extra-twitchy volus. And, as it turns out, a pushy kinda guy to boot."
"All right…" Garrus flicked a talon at him, suggesting he get on with it.
"Not much else to say. They argued, shoved each other around the balcony, and then… this. Mostly by accident, I'd say." Seiuus came to a stop by the bent, open-air railing and pointed down with almost lazy sauciness. The other side of the 'financial disagreement,' an unfortunate older volus banker by the name of Drun, was being collected by two different reclamation teams on two different balconies below. All of the techs looked a touch pale blue around the mandibles.
Garrus had a hunch they'd be dining light afterward. He was feeling sympathetic on that score. Drun had taken a hard bounce. "Um."
"So, in the end, I'd say the two of them decided to go their three separate ways." Seiuus finished by looking back up at Garrus with a thumb's up.
. . .
Garrus let the gaudy fabric catch and flutter against a talon on his left hand. His right gripped it reflexively as he stared through it. He no longer saw its bright orange and yellow patterns, instead seeing the grinning face of his partner, full of life, leaning against a balcony rail with a thumb in the air.
Almost everything personal in the room was neatly boxed up, the plastisteel and ceramic crates lined up by the wall next to the door. What didn't go into the family's personal storage would be picked up by a trooper, passed down to some other investigator or cadet. A way for a part of Seiuus to live on, letting his spirit guide some other young turian. Spirits help them, he thought with a quirk of the jaw by way of a real smile. All that was left was a small pile of clothing and a few trinkets. Things Seiuus's family had no idea what to do with.
At first he didn't notice the turian child in the doorway, or his mother behind him. It was the lightly flanging, immature voice that alerted him. "What's that?" Hard consonants still lisping against a youthfully soft mandible. Garrus didn't remember being that young, so young to have to try to understand why his favorite uncle's things were suddenly disappearing. Too young for that kind of aftermath.
He sharply turned his head towards the boy, startled out of his memories. The boy backed up and his mother put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing her fingers gently. Garrus swallowed, realizing his hand was still flexing around the fabric. "He said it was called a 'Hawaiian shirt,' Stolo." He looked down at it, his features softening at the recollection. "Bought it off a trader we picked up for a flight-weight violation. Minor problem, good kid. Human, of course. He had a cargo hold full of pointless junk. Seiuus… Your uncle bought this to help pay off the man's fine."
The kid twitched a mandible, sounding absurdly matter of fact. "It's ugly."
Garrus rang out a laugh despite himself. It was the truth. "You know, he wore it to the office once. I mean, that I know of, that he got away with." He shook his head, remembering. The shirt had hung off Seiuus and his wiry frame like a tacky cotton cloud. The buttons had little birds on them, something called a flamingo, and Seiuus tapped at them throughout the day, calling them 'cousin' in an affectionate tone of voice until another officer started to yell at him for it. Garrus put the shirt down abruptly. It hurt to look at it anymore. Something stung at his eyes.
"Are you shamed?"
"It's all right, Tulla." Garrus forced his eyes open and gestured at her until she stopped shaking the boy's shoulder. "He can stay with me for a little while. We can keep talking."
Stolo's mother let go, but she hesitated in the doorway. "Thank you, Garrus." A click in her throat, hesitation, confusion. "What do you recommend I do with that… thing?" She pointed at the shirt in his hands.
Garrus's mandibles creaked in an honest smile. "I'll keep it, if you don't mind."
Tulla inclined her head in gratitude and left him with Stolo.
Stolo quickly wriggled his way up onto a wide container next to Garrus, plopping there and staring at him in that sharp, inquisitive way kids had. "So you are shamed."
Garrus gave him a weary look. "When you grow up, kid, you're going to learn about a thing called tact."
The boy sounded the word out, then discarded it with a shrug. "But you did everything right. It wasn't your fault. You went by the rules?"
"Yes, I did." Garrus tried to fold the messy shirt into a less messy pile on his lap. "That won't always change how you feel about things."
Stolo looked down at his feet, flexing one little claw and then the other.
"It isn't about honor or duty, sometimes. Sometimes it's just how we feel. So yes. It happened. I lost your uncle, and while by the letter of law I have no blame, I can't help but keep thinking about what could have been done differently. What I could have done." He paused. "Law… isn't completely solid. Don't tell people I said that until you're older and think about it some. Law can't answer our emotions. Sometimes it's just a bright light to guide us by."
"But… you're getting a de-moww-tion today." Stolo peered up at him, his voice flanging hard on the tough word. "So they think you did something wrong anyway?"
Garrus harrumphed his way through a resonant little chuckle. "Not at all."
"I don't understand."
"You will. They'll teach you a lot in your first year of boot. Are you looking forward to that?"
"Oh yes!" That perked Stolo up for a moment, wriggling anew across the box before remembering he had feet and staring at them again. "But, why are you being punished? You go down ranks. Down isn't good. Down means you misbehaved, right?" His low, phasing tone said Stolo knew all about getting into trouble for bad behavior. Garrus's mandibles quirked until his whole jaw bent into a real smile. He couldn't remember being that young, but by the spirits, there was a piece of Seiuus alive in the child. A little bit of hell left to raise.
"Not really. It's more like… meditation. Peace. Something bad happened, and my commanders want to be sure that I get time to work through my thoughts. Time to step back and breathe, center myself on the job. When I'm ready, I'll go back. Up the stairs, Stolo, up and up. There's no dishonor to a demotion like this, when we lose someone. It's actually more like a courtesy." Well, he thought. It probably will set back that C-Sec application by a year. Or more.
He couldn't help but let a small sigh out to escape. Even telling Stolo the truth, there was a little bit conflict inside. His demotion was a decision meant for all, himself included, and he felt touched by that. He understood, it was part of who they, as turians, were. It didn't mean he couldn't feel a little rueful at the time he'd need, the time he would lose.
"You're not happy, though."
"Well, no. That's part of grief. Knowing a thing doesn't always change what your heart feels."
"Mm." Stolo gave a little clack of his thumb talons. "I still don't get it."
Garrus shook his head and gave up trying to be the family philosopher friend, gently giving the boy's back a final pat. The hearing would be in another hour, and it was time for his thoughts to wander towards it and whatever was next for his future.
. . .
In his three years since boot, Garrus had personally witnessed nine different demotion processes. Three of them had been minor interventions, turians who had cracked under pressure and gone too far into intoxicants or other vices. They had each shaped up within months and were back on duty to this day. The other six had varying causes, some with similar roots as his current situation. Only one had permanent results which, with that same chilly turian tact, were not discussed publicly. The process itself was always brief. A listing of what troubled Command staff on behalf of the summoned officer, and a short data packet on how the turian could care for themselves and work back towards being designated fit for original duty.
Not once had there ever been a human present.
To be fair, technically, this one still wasn't. The human waited outside Command's door during the short proceeding. Garrus spied him having a hushed conversation with his own immediate commander just before, which was odd. After? Another quick look and a curt nod. The universal consent to further discussion. Strange. Was it related to Seiuus, somehow? He couldn't know, and it wasn't for him to obsess over now, so he didn't.
Now stripped of his own command of an investigate ops unit, Garrus waited patiently for further orders. He spent a day or two doing housework, straightening up his spartan quarters, getting old stains out of armor, calibrating the sights on his personal load-out kit. His self-care packet suggested a little unconstructed downtime, with a note that Command and Med would send him some further instructions soon. Not unusual, either. Squad losses usually meant psych followup.
Still, when the call did come, it was not what he expected. Rather than a med note suggesting one of Palaven's nicer equatorial retreats, it was an order to arrive at the nearby Alliance embassy the next evening, 2100 sharp.
. . .
The voice came from behind him, crackling slightly in baritone gravel. "Agent Garrus Vakarian?"
Garrus cocked his head politely as he turned, hands clasped neatly before him in a usual greeting. "Presently just Garrus, sir."
"Mmhm." The human put his hand out in that strange but common greeting. He was on the tall side for one of their species, pale like a long-time spacer. Sharp green eyes. Garrus wasn't skilled at marking human age, but this one had no wrinkles or grey on him. Middle age, perhaps. Relatively unremarkable, as they went. Garrus had done well on his interspecies courses, but males without any marks on their face still looked odd to him. If that tweaked in his eyes, the man didn't notice. "I'm Captain Gabriel."
Garrus thought of Seiuus, the practiced way he could handle humans on their terms, the way he himself rarely did, and finally, gingerly, offered his own to shake. The flesh felt fragile against his firmer hand, causing his jaw to quirk, just a little. He had no animosity for the species, but it was hard to get over the general, cool way his own people felt towards them. Though logic and the benefit of post-war analysis saw both sides of the Shanxi encounter, his blood still said he sympathized most with the turian legions. "Captain," he said, staying professional.
Gabriel guided them through a nearby door and then gestured towards a chair on the other side of the waiting desk. "Have a seat. Please."
The office was lightly furnished, made up of the smooth, buffed steel and generic fabrics that suggested it was either the cell of a cultural ascetic or, more likely, the result of an architect working overtime on a low-bid government contract. Garrus ran his gaze over his surroundings. There was the usual vidscreen on the wall, blandly tan ceramics cast over metal, a window with a junk view of a nearby government office wall, and the tiniest glimpse of hazy sky. The desk had another vid, a lamp, a computer set into its surface… nothing for him to catch a personality from. Other rooms he'd passed had plants, kitschy mugs, the usual clutter of life. The absence of facts told him Captain Gabriel was using a spare office - not a regular visitor to Palaven. By the way the human settled into that brand new chair across from Garrus, it might even be the first time he'd been to this embassy for longer than a minute.
Garrus leaned back into the chair, realizing the piece of furniture had been designed for humans. It was set far too stiffly in the seat despite his attempts to shift his weight to compensate. It took less than three seconds before he realized it was going to be his destiny to have a permanent cramp in the ass. Rather than complain, he slid automatically into his most casual investigator's voice. "What brings you to Palaven, Captain?" More to the point, what brings me here?
Gabriel wasn't a mess-around kind of guy. He blanked out the vid after glancing at something and got right to it. "You ran a four month long investigation into an illegal dealer moving military-grade arms. Lost your partner on stakeout over it."
"That is the logged summary of events. Yes, sir." His tone stayed neutral, regaining its coolness despite himself.
"Mm." The green eyes flicked to his, as if assessing what was there. "I've asked your command to give you to us as a consultant. An assistant investigator in a related matter. He's agreed in the main, but due to turian guidelines post-incident I'm informed it's still up to you."
Garrus considered. It was a highly unusual request, and it implied Alliance had something to gain from him specifically. Related matter. That was a cagey way of saying there was a link here, something he and Seiuus hadn't found. Irritation formed a pearl in the back of his throat, the idea that he missed something, or maybe something else. "My files are already open to you, I'm sure."
Captain Gabriel cleared his throat meaningfully. "I read them. You tracked a line-form irregularity through two shell accounts because it hit a hunch. You and your partner then ran over a half-dozen witnesses until you put together that you had a major arms deal going down in your local space. Then you tracked their trails, made a spreadsheet of cargo fraud until you were sure. You also confirm in your report that you saw a biotic emerge from an unmarked black vessel with comms disruption capability." He glanced at something on the vid. "And you personally verify that you saw military-grade Armax weaponry in use."
Something itched under Garrus's throat. That word. Hunch. Not what he'd have used. "Yes. I did. As you see. I'm not sure what else I can offer, sir."
"You got that much and more in four months." Gabriel was still giving him that searching, studying look.
We're talking crosswise. Do all humans do this? "Seiuus - my partner and I spent a lot of time on the issue. It was our primary investigation." Our final one. I'm sorry, Seiuus.
The facts dropped with blunt gracelessness. "Systems Alliance has been tracking this target for two years, ever since he popped up on our grid working with a major crime ring. We haven't cracked them, either. So we know he doesn't like to work alone."
Curiosity went to war with his irritation. "Who is he?"
"He's a salarian. Lorben Krent. Dropped off the Sur'Kesh radar entirely, skipped out on what we've been told was a promising intelligence career. Took a good chunk of his base's armory with him when he did. He started with that, of course, building up business the old fashioned way. Grunt work, a little murder, and a growing list of contacts. Lately, I'd guess he didn't think the knockoffs of your gear were good enough. He decided he was going to collect some top stock and sell it for equally top prices." Gabriel broke his stare to tap his fingers across the desk. A grainy station vid began to play on the wallscreen behind them.
Garrus turned in the uncomfortable chair to watch, getting his first good look at Seiuus's killer. His guts and gizzard shifted unpleasantly, acid building into refreshed anger. "You've got his name, you've got footage, and apparently, Captain, if I'm hearing you right, you knew he was going to go for us. But we didn't know anything about it until now." The acid turned into frozen heat, a talon clanking irritably against the arm of his chair. His feet flexed. He wanted to tear something. Anything. The salarian. The desk. The captain, for not telling him this before his friend died. Yes.
Captain Gabriel's voice held no reaction to his outburst, just as dead calm as before. If someone so much as winks at Krent, he drops everything and takes off to who knows where, agent. We decided, with permission from your commander…" The voice trailed for a second, drawing Garrus back to let him see the human's pointed look. He couldn't keep his mandibles from flexing. "That not interfering with your investigation was our best bet. Your team got under his radar. Your team got closer to real-time information on his activities than we've managed so far.
"Son," Gabriel said, and he leaned towards Garrus for emphasis. "You got a meeting. We never got that close." He snapped off the recording and leaned back again. "Out in turian space, it looks like he had fewer resources. Changed up his methods, had none of the backup he's been enjoying the last few years. So he got greedy, took extra risks. We think that gave you a chance to get close before he shored up the gaps in his armor. That means we were doing our best, but your small team was doing a hell of a job."
The anger was still there, fading under confusion. A compliment. From humans. Who hadn't blindly walked them into death, not in the way he'd wanted to assume. "We could use that insight of yours, agent. Get Krent taken down once and for all. Maybe even blow a few holes in his network along the way."
Garrus didn't miss the way Gabriel stressed his title, ignoring the demotion in a way that said everything. It meant there was an implication, something said to the human by turian command. Despite the way the human phrased it, maybe even believed, to Garrus it meant something else. He really had no choice but to sign on. Anyway, by rights, the title was still his. He just had no command, no current investigation as of the ritual demotion brief.
The captain, however, was telling him otherwise.
Garrus felt unease trickle through him, showing in his posture and his face. The anger still lurked. Even with the situation clarified, it hurt to know that Seiuus's fate could have been avoided. There had been a moment where the two of them could have been warned away. But he couldn't sit on that moment forever, could he? It wasn't the right way to honor the spirit. The spirits said go forward, so that was all he could do. Garrus dipped his head, his eyes not meeting Gabriel's.
He saw Gabriel lean back in his seat. "I respect if you'd prefer your time away from the case, of course. Human agents wouldn't even be permitted to work such a case under these circumstances, dealing with a loss of another agent. Your commander assures me turian tradition is sometimes pretty different. In any case, you'd be working with us directly, on board my ship as what we're writing in the books as 'independent consultant.' As per turian hierarchy, you're both agent and liaison. However, you'd also answer to me."
Something cooled inside Garrus. It was a track in front of him. Something new. All right. "Sir, I'm at your command."
A broad, warm smile filled Gabriel's face, the first honest emotion so far. "For what it's worth, agent, I have some friends in C-Sec. I understand you have an application there."
Garrus paused, considering the implication. "I do, sir, but I believe it's presently tabled as per my demotion."
Gabriel shrugged. "Well, we'll just see how everything turns out, shall we?"
"Of course sir." It was all he could say.
Gabriel placed both hands on the armrests of his chair, signaling he was done. "Be at the shipyard at 0900 tomorrow. Bring a travel kit."
"Yes, sir," said Garrus with a nod.