Chapter Twelve - The More Things Change

Med Bay, SSV Normandy, Exodus Cluster

April 7, 2183

"Ow."

Riley woke up with a groan, a massive headache throbbing behind her eyes. Blinking against the dim lights above her, Riley tried to focus on the dark spots dancing across her vision, but failed. For just a moment, she could have sworn that she saw the barren branches of skeletal trees waving over her. As soon as she tried to focus on that, they disappeared.

"Doctor?" A feminine voice chimed off somewhere to her right. "Doctor Chakwas! I think she's waking up."

Squeezing her eyes shut, Riley sat up, cradling her head in her hands. Her headache flared like a rusty nail poking through her brain before settling down a second later to a manageable hum.

"You had us worried there, Commander." Dr. Chakwas said as she stood from her desk in the corner. She walked over to Riley with soft steps, an annoyed look on her face. "How are you feeling?"

"Like I got kicked in the face by a krogan," Riley said with a groan, wincing as her own voice made her head throb. "A blood-raging krogan high on cocaine."

"That sounds about right," Chakwas agreed drolly. Opening her omni-tool, she ran a scan on Riley, taking careful care to focus on her brain. "Do you remember what I was saying about having to patch up crew members in the infirmary, Commander?"

"Yeah…" Riley blushed, remembering the conversation. "How long was I out?"

"About fifteen hours." Chakwas shut down her omni-tool, apparently pleased with what she saw. "Something happened down there with the beacon, from what I've been told."

"It was the turian's fault!"

Looking over, Riley found Ashley sitting on a chair next to her bed. She had obviously been sitting there for a long time, an empty cup of coffee clutched in her hands. Dark bags were under her eyes, and she leaned forward intently. "Some sort of security field activated when he approached. You pushed him out of the way."

"Actually, we don't even know if that's what set it off." Chakwas shot a warning look at Ashley. Turning back to Riley, she frowned. "Unfortunately, we'll never get the chance to find out."

"The beacon exploded!" Ashley stood from her chair, a strange, passionate look on her face. "A system overload maybe. The blast knocked you out cold. We had to carry you back to the ship."

"I appreciate it." Riley nodded, giving her a small smile while squinting her eyes. She looked back over at Dr. Chakwas. "What about Rainbow?"

Chakwas gestured towards the other bed. Following her pointing, Riley looked over her shoulder to see Rainbow Dash smiling weakly at her from under her covers. She also appeared to be wearing her favorite pair of Daring Do pajamas, which threw Riley off for a moment.

"Yo." Rainbow waved a tired hoof.

"Didn't I tell you to stay safe?" She distinctly remembered telling Rainbow not to get shot. The pegasus simply could not listen for the life of her.

"Being safe is for wusses." Rainbow scoffed, lifting her muzzle up into the air proudly.

"You say that now," Riley said, shaking her head. Lifting her eyebrows, she gave Rainbow a pointed look. "Just wait until mom hears about this."

"What, this?" Rainbow looked down at her bandages, just barely visible under her pajamas. "It's just a flesh wound. Nothing serious."

"Yeah." Riley snorted, laughing at Rainbow's denial. "You remember after Akuze?"

"Right…" Rainbow winced. "Save me?"

Firefly had gone crazy after Riley had been put on medical leave after Akuze. She hadn't let Riley leave her bed for a month, and she hadn't been satisfied until Riley had agreed to go through sessions with Alliance therapists. That year had been absolute hell, and it wasn't anything that she ever wanted to repeat.

"You're going to have to bribe me." Just because she didn't want to have her mother going all controlling on her again didn't mean that it wouldn't be hilarious to watch Rainbow go through the same.

"My first edition Daring Do collection," Rainbow said with absolute conviction.

"I've got one of those too." Looking at her little sister with a straight face, Riley giggled on the inside.

"Darn it." Scowling, Rainbow looked away for a moment before turning back to Riley. She fell back against her bed, tired. "I'll think of something, and I'll get back to you!"

"I'm going to go get the Captain." Ignoring that entire conversation, Ashley beat a retreat to the door.

"Physically, you're fine." Chakwas continued with her explanation to Riley, ignoring everything that had happened in the last minute. "But I detected some unusual brain activity, abnormal beta waves. I also noticed an increase in your rapid eye movement, signs typically associated with intense dreaming."

"I don't know if I'd call them dreams." Riley slid around on her bed so her leg were dangling off the edge. "I… I saw… I'm not sure what I saw. Death. Destruction. Nothing's really clear."

"Hmm." Eyebrows lifting, Chakwas looked down and started typing on her omni-tool. "I better add this to my report. It may—"

The door to the med-bay slid open, and the two women and the mare looked over to find Captain Anderson striding in, an intense look on his face. His fists were clenched, and there was a deep frown set into his face. He walked right up to Riley's bedside. Almost unnoticed behind him was Nihlus, following after him.

"Oh, Captain Anderson." Chakwas nodded in greeting before turning back to her omni-tool.

"That was quite the blow you took, Shepard," Anderson said, concern tinging his voice despite the angry look on his face. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine, Captain." Riley nodded in assurance to him. I'm okay, David. You can stop worrying.

"I'm sure, Commander." David smiled, the anger easing from his face. I'm glad, Riley. Stop trying to jump at trouble. You make your parents and I worry every time you're hurt. He turned to Chakwas, crossing his arms. "Doctor, how's our XO holding up?"

"All the readings look normal." Chakwas finally looked up from omni-tool, giving Anderson a terse smile. "I'd say the Commander's going to be fine."

"I'm glad to hear that." Anderson fully relaxed at hearing that, the muscles in his shoulders and neck untensing.

"We need to speak with Commander in private," Nihlus said, stepping forward, his arms crossed over his chest. He gave Chakwas a pointed look.

"Of course." Though she spoke softly, Riley noticed that there was a hint of warning in her voice. Forcing the Doctor from her domain did not seem like a good idea.

"Should I…" Rainbow squirmed in her bed, wincing as she jostled her wound. She pointed a hoof at the door. "Uh…"

Anderson and Nihlus looked over to see Rainbow looking at them with wide eyes and a worried look. She really didn't want to get out of bed. She looked like she was about to climb off her bed and limp out of the room, though she obviously didn't want to.

"No." Anderson motioned for her to just lie back down, rolling his eyes. "Just remember everything spoken of here is classified."

"Yes, sir." Rainbow saluted weakly before pulling her covers up to the edge of her muzzle.

"Good." Nodding in satisfaction, Anderson turned his full attention back to Riley.

"I've never seen anything like what happened down there, Commander," Nihlus said, stepping forward to Riley's bedside. His mandibles shuffled as his voice flanged with his sub-vocals. "The beacon hit you hard."

"Are you sure you're okay, Shepard?" Anderson asked, concerned.

"I was too slow." Ducking her head, Riley cradled her forehead in her hands. Horrible guilt joined her headache and she suddenly felt sick to her stomach. Cracking an eye open, she found the closest trash can, just in case. "I don't like marines dying under my command."

"The corporal wasn't your fault," Nihlus reassured her. He had seen and done far worse in his time as a Spectre. "I've review all of the combat footage. You did an excellent job."

"That didn't help Nirali." Riley grimaced, remembering the expression on Nirali's face just before she had been impaled on the geth spike.

Anderson and Nihlus shared a look with each other, a silent conversation happening right in front of her, before Anderson stepped forward.

"I won't lie to you, Shepard." Sighing, Anderson massaged the bridge of his nose. It was only something that Riley had seen him do when things were about to take a turn for the worst. "Things are bad. The beacon was destroyed and the geth have decided that now was the best time to reappear. The Council's going to want answers."

"You won't be alone." Nihlus spoke to both Anderson and Riley at the same time. "No one was expecting this mission to be so difficult, including me. I've already made my report, and I'll be standing behind you."

"We both will be, Commander. You have the Alliance's full support, and that includes the Admiralty." Anderson turned away, picking up a book that was just sitting on Chakwas' desk. He held it, turning it over in his hands, using it as something to occupy his hands. "That's not why we're here. It's Saren, the other turian."

"Damn bastard shot me," Rainbow grumbled quietly from her bed.

Remembering that she was there, Nihlus turned to look at Rainbow, giving a small bow to her. "Thank you, Flying Officer. You saved my life."

"It's not a problem." Rainbow waved a hoof at him, as if to deflect his thanks. She immediately regretted it as she jostled her wound. "Ow."

"Please, don't hurt yourself."

"Yeah." Rainbow settled back into her bed and shut her eyes, taking short, shallow breaths. She really had to stop forgetting that she'd been shot. "I'm just going to… close my eyes, ya' know."

Watching her for a moment, Nihlus decided that he didn't want to bother with that and turned back to Riley. "Saren's a Spectre, the best of us. He was with Blackwatch before he was selected for the Spectres. He trained me. For him to try and murder me…"

"He's gone rogue, Shepard." Anderson practically growled that out, composing himself before continuing. "Saren's dangerous, and he hates humans."

"He hates humans?" Riley asked. That really wasn't good. "Why?"

"He thinks we're growing too fast, taking over the galaxy," Anderson explained, his eyes narrowing ever so slightly. "A lot of races think that way. Most of them don't do anything about it."

"That's not completely accurate," Nihlus said, breaking into the conversation. He might have been angry with Saren, but there was no reason to demonize him. "He witnessed the death of brother on Shanxi, and he's disliked humanity ever since."

"This isn't normal, not for him." Nihlus started pacing, clasping his hands behind his back. "Saren hates humanity, but he has never let his emotions rule him. If he's allied himself with the geth, there must be something else going on."

"It has to have something to do with the beacon. It's a shame it was destroyed." Anderson frowned. "We've gathered up the shards, but it doesn't look good. It could have helped us figure out what he was after."

"Just before I…" Riley bit her lip, rubbing her right hand and massaging the pad of her thumb. Her headache flared up again. "Just before I lost consciousness, I saw something."

"What did you see, Shepard?" Anderson asked.

"Some kind of vision." Shaking her head, Riley tried to figure out how to explain what she had seen. "It was a lot, but I remember the feelings. Fear. There was so much fear. The sky was being torn apart. I saw synthetics, and they were slaughtering everyone. Butchering them."

"We need to report this to the Council, Shepard." Punching his fist into his other hand, righteous fire burned in Anderson's eyes.

Before he could do anything rash, Nihlus laughed, shaking his head. Riley and Anderson looked over at him, waiting for an explanation.

"This would be the single worst mistake that you could possibly make." Nihlus started chuckling again, his mandibles flaring in mirth.

"Why?" Anderson's brow furrowed and he took a step forward, challenging the Spectre. "This is proof!"

"No." Nihlus shook his head, standing up straight. They needed to understand. The Council worked in a certain way, and it was never good to challenge them if you wanted to get something done. "As much as Saren hates humanity, you have your own past with him. It would be seen as nothing more than an attempt to tarnish his reputation. My statement will be more than enough to get him removed from the Spectres."

Anderson looked like he wanted to argue, but he couldn't fight Nihlus' point.

"We don't know what information was stored in that beacon," Nihlus continued. "Lost prothean technology, blueprints for some ancient weapon of mass destruction? Whatever it was, Saren has it now. There is no way that the Council will let him get away with this."

"We'll find some way to take him down," Riley said. She wasn't sure if she was reassuring Anderson, or herself.

"I want you with me when I go before the Council, Shepard." Nihlus nodded, running a hand over his fringe.

"Yes, sir," Riley managed to say. She was more than a little startled, but she wasn't going to tell him no. "Definitely."

"I'll contact the Ambassador." Anderson was already working through what he needed to do. "He'll want to see us as soon as we reach the Citadel. We should be getting close."

"I'm going to watch from the bridge." Standing from her bed, Riley paused for a moment to see if her headache was going to smack her down. When it didn't, she smiled in appreciation. She left the med-bay, and Anderson followed after her as she went. Nihlus lingered for a moment, waiting until the door slid closed.

"I know you aren't sleeping," he murmured, glancing over at Rainbow.

"Yeah, I am." Rainbow cracked an eye open, looking at Nihlus in a complete contradiction of both her words and the context of the statement.

Nihlus just stared at her, unamused.

"How could you tell?" Rainbow asked, scoffing and opening her other eye.

"I know things," Nilhus deadpanned, settling his mandibles against his cheeks.

"That's not an answer." Pushing her blanket down, Rainbow's eyes widened when she realized she was wearing her favorite Daring Do pajamas in front of the deadly, rich Spectre. She pulled the blanket back up to her chin as quickly as she possibly could, blushing.

"No, it's not." Nihlus shook his head, ignoring Rainbow's embarrassment. He instead put a hand on her shoulder. "Thank you."

"You already said that," Rainbow noted, pointing the tip of her hoof from under her cover at him.

"I know." Nihlus shrugged, crossing his arms. "You deserve every bit of thanks I can give you."

"Right." Rainbow chewed on her lip, glancing to the side. "Don't worry. We're cool."

"Cool." Nihlus tried the word out.

"It doesn't really work for you." Rainbow giggled, shaking her head. "You probably shouldn't say it again."

"Yes." Nihlus agreed with her. Done with the conversation, Nihlus turned and left the med-bay, leaving Rainbow alone. Pushing her blanket down again, she tapped out a tiny beat on the mattress.

"Right," she said to herself. "Now I'm just lying here, talking to myself… wonderful."

###

Stepping out of the med-bay, Riley found Kaidan and Ashley sitting at one of the tables in the small dining area of the ship. They were speaking in hushed voices, Kaidan picking at the remains of a meal. Seeing her emerge, they stood, saluting.

"Commander." Kaidan greeted, smiling in relief to see her up and about.

"Ma'am." Ashley followed Kaidan's lead.

Riley waved them back down into their seats. Gingerly, she slid into a chair next to Ashley, wincing a little as her joints creaked.

"I'm glad you're okay, Commander," Kaidan said. He finally pushed his plate away, having scraped away every single last bit of food from its surface. "The crew could use some good news after what happened to Jenkins."

"He shouldn't have died." Riley grimaced. She really didn't want to think about what had happened. "We should have moved faster."

"How are you holding up?" Riley turned to Ashley, remembering that she had lost a lot of people too.

"Nirali was good people." Ashley ducked her head, staring down at the table. Folding her hands together, she twisted her thumbs together. "She mothered everyone. Her contract was ending this week and she was going to join her husband on the Citadel. She was going to open a restaurant and invite us all to its opening. She didn't deserve this…"

"We'll make sure she receives the highest honors," Riley murmured, nodding in understanding. "We'll make sure that they all do."

"It's not enough." Ashley shrugged, straightening up.

"It never is," Riley agreed with her. Her squad on Akuze had still to receive their full honors, and she fought as hard and as often as she could for them whenever she had a moment to send another letter to the Admiralty.

"I just feel so guilty over what happened." Ashley rubbed her palm over the smooth surface of the table. "If Jenkins was still alive, I wouldn't be here."

"You're a good marine, Chief," Kaidan reassured her, patting her shoulder in a gesture that was not at all useful, but the meaning was clear.

"He's right, Williams." Riley agreed with Kaidan. "You belong on the Normandy."

"Thanks Lieutenant." Ashley nodded her head in thanks to both of them. She straightened, leaning back in her chair. "Thank you, Commander, that means a lot from you. I've never met anyone who was awarded the Star of Terra."

"I was just in the right place at the right time." Riley shrugged. If you could call being stuck on a colony and having to fight off waves of batarian raiders lucky…

"It wasn't just being in the right place, Commander." Ashley leaned forward, passion in her eyes. "No one else could have stood up to an entire pirate company."

"Rainbow helped." Riley blushed. She never did well with praise of any kind, at least not the kind that didn't come from the brass.

"Yeah, but she wouldn't have been able to do anything if you weren't there to guide her!" Ashley had seen the vids. She'd watched them with her little sisters when they had a sleepover with their friends.

"Face it, Commander, you're a hero." Kaidan shook his head, laughing.

"Things were pretty rough down there. How are you holding up?" Riley moved the conversation onward, wanting to talk about something else. Being the senior officer meant she could do things like that.

"I've seen friends die before," Ashley said, catching the hint. "It comes with being a marine, but to see my whole unit wiped out…"

"We couldn't have finished the mission without you, Williams," Riley said.

"Thanks Commander." Ashley looked like she had to resist saluting again, her shoulders hunching over nervously. "I have to admit, I was a little worried about being assigned to the Normandy by the Captain. It's nice when someone makes you feel welcome."

"I think you're going to fit in her just fine, Williams." Leaning back in her seat, Riley winced as the aches in her side flared for just a moment before fading into a dull throb. It wasn't the best feeling in the world, but it was light enough that Riley could handle it. Smiling, she threw an arm over the back of her chair. "Have either of you been to the Citadel before?"

"No," Ashley said, shaking her head.

"Neither have I, Commander." Kaidan looked more than a little eager about being able to step foot on the center of galactic civilization.

"Well, you both are certainly in for a surprise," Riley said with a laugh.

"Why's that Commander?" Ashley sounded both worried and intrigued.

"You ever been to New York?" Amused, Riley watched the expressions on their faces.

"Yeah." Ashley, said, and Kaidan nodded too.

"Well, the Citadel makes New York look like the Mars colony," Riley leaned forward. "Take all of the weirdos and the creeps, give them millions of credits, freedom to walk all over any laws that are inconvenient, and you've got the Citadel."

"Mars colony?" Brow furrowing, Ashley looked over at Kaidan. "We have a colony on Mars?"

"Exactly." Riley laughed at the realization on Ashley's face.

"We're approaching the Relay." Joker's voice rang out over the intercoms. "Brace for jump."

"I'm going to go watch." Gingerly, Riley stood up out of her chair. "You can come if you want."

She headed for the stairs, not looking back over her shoulder as she heard Kaidan and Ashley's chairs screeched backwards. Before Riley could take the first step, the ship juddered underneath her as the Relay grabbed it and shot it across the galaxy. Hearing a scuffle behind her, she looked back to find Kaidan with his hand on Ashley's back, keeping her from falling over.

"First relay jump?" Riley asked.

"No, ma'am." Ashley shook her head, sounding more than a little sick. "It's been awhile though."

"Don't throw up on the floor of my ship, Williams." Turning, Riley jogged up the stairs and onto the command deck of the Normandy. The three of them walked the length of the ships neck, stepping onto the bridge.

"Good timing, Commander," Joker said, glancing over his shoulder at them. He nodded in greeting, tipping his hat to them. "I was just about to bring us into the Citadel. You might like seeing all that taxpayer money at work."

"It better be damn impressive," Ashley muttered, crossing her arms.

"You'd hope so, wouldn't you." Spitfire nodded in agreement with Ashley's statement. No one enjoyed the extra drain on their bank accounts that came along with being a member of a Citadel race.

Through the transparent steel of the bridge, they watched the purple nebula of the Widow system speed by. For a few minutes, all that they could see where the clouds. It almost seemed as if every particle glowed, though they were just reflecting the light of the Widow deeper in.

Out of the clouds, the engines of hundreds of civilian ships emerged, waiting to dock with the Citadel. It wasn't uncommon for civilians to wait days to be able to get off their ships. Open docking bays were a rare commodity, and often cost more credits than most could afford. Because of that one matter, the Citadel often only attracted those who could afford the heavy fees.

The Normandy being an Alliance ship, she was able to skip past all of that. As soon as the Systems Alliance opened an embassy on the Citadel, they were granted an entire dock, with enough room to house almost all of the First Fleet.

Rolling the Normandy, Joker grinned as he gave his audience the best possible view of the Citadel as it emerged from behind the clouds. It was partly hidden within the nebula, one of its massive ward arms peeking right through, before the entire thing disappeared again as the Normandy flew onwards. Moments later, the clouds parted and the ward arms peeked through again, before they disappeared just as quickly.

"Stop teasing us, Joker." Kaidan slapped the back of the pilot's seat, his frustration growing.

"Fine." Grumbling, Joker made the Normandy dive, and it emerged out from the nebula moments later. Riley, Kaidan, and Ashley gasped in awe as the Citadel was revealed in all of its glory, its five ward arms opened welcomingly like a delicate flower. The moment seemed to last for an eternity, but like all things it could not last forever. With a flaring of its engines, the Normandy descended down towards the Citadel.

Within its arms, hundreds of ships seemed to linger about like grouper fish surrounding a shark. The Normandy passed by all them, sliding around them effortlessly. Before they could blink, they passed under the lone Asari dreadnaught, and Ashley's jaw went slack.

"Look at the size of that monster!" She cried, rushing forward to press her face against the window.

"That's the Destiny Ascension," Kaidan said, recognizing it. "It's the flagship of the Citadel fleet."

"Yeah, well, size isn't everything," Joker grumbled, scoffing at the ship. He waggled the Normandy's wings, as if to show off his own ship's nimble speed as they passed right under one of the behemoths four arms, getting a clear sigh of one of its massive guns. The weapon was almost three times larger than the Normandy itself.

Sitting next to him, Spitfire snorted, having to hold a hoof over her mouth to keep from outright guffawing.

"Why so touchy, Joker?" Kaidan smirked, sharing an amused look with Spitfire.

"I'm just saying." Looking up at Kaidan, Joker narrowed his eyes at him, willing to fight to protect his ship's dignity. "It's not the size. It's how you use it!"

"Look at that." Ashley ignored the conversation behind her between the two males, too focused on the impressive lines the dreadnaught cut through space. "That gun could rip through the barriers of any ship in the Alliance fleet."

"It's a good thing its on our side then." Turning away from Joker, Kaidan moved to stand next to Ashley, looking up at the Destiny Ascension.

"Citadel Control, this is the SSV Normandy requesting permission to land," Joker said into the Normandy's communications.

"Stand by for clearance, Normandy." Citadel Control replied nearly instantly, before going quiet just as fast.

A moment passed, and the Normandy sped by a pair of turian dreadnoughts holding station over the Presidium tower, ready to defend against any possible attack that could threaten the Councilors.

"Clearance granted, Normandy." Citadel Control responded finally. "You may begin your approach. Transferring you to an Alliance operator."

"Roger that, Citadel Control. Normandy out." Joker deftly kept the Normandy from a civilian ship that seemed to be erratically flying towards one of the ward arm docks.

"Hello there, Normandy," a soft feminine voice spoke over the comms. "This is Alliance control. Welcome to the Citadel. Dock 422 has cleared for your use. I'm transmitting coordinates to you now."

"Roger that, Alliance Control. Thanks for the welcome." Joker looked over at Spitfire.

"Receiving coordinates now." Spitfire nodded to Joker, pushing over the coordinates to him.

They brought the ship in to land. Smoothly, the ship slid into the Alliance docking bay. Massive clamps slid into place, grabbing the Normandy and keeping it from floating away.

"Shepard, Alenko, Williams, with us."

Turning, the three of them found Nihlus and Anderson walking up the neck of the Normandy to stand in front of the airlock.

"Yes, sir." Riley fell into step with the two of them, Ashley and Kaidan following her.

The airlock cycled open, and together they all stepped in. As soon as the inner door closed, the decontamination cycle began. The Council had made decontamination a mandatory part of all ships after an Asari plague had managed to wipe out nearly three-thousand before they were able to put a stop to it. All Council races were mandated to include the feature as soon as they joined. There was nothing that they could do but wait for it finish.

After just a minute, the outer airlock opened and the group stepped out of the Normandy, entering the Alliance docks. At the end of the gangplank, Ambassador Donnel Udina and several aides waited impatiently.

"Ambassador," Anderson called out, striding up the humans ambassador.

"Do you know how much of a shit storm this is going to be, Captain?" Udina ignored Anderson's greeting, starting right with the yelling.

"We have a bit of an idea, yes," Nihlus said flatly, having absolutely no patience for the Ambassador.

"The Council wants to see all of you, now," Udina said, scowling. His voice was filled with frustration. Gesturing over his shoulder, he pointed out a row of several waiting aircars. "We need to get going."

Anderson, Nihlus, and Udina climbed into the first car, leaving Riley, Ashley, and Kaidan to take the second, and the aides the last one. The cars took off flying as soon as the doors closed.

Ashley peered out her window, trying to take all of the views in as they skimmed above the outside of one of the ward arms. Massive towers rose up, like reaching fingers. She was more than a little disappointed that she couldn't see the interior of the wards. Now that she was her though, she realized that it made sense that a ceiling kept the atmosphere down in the lowest levels, the skyscrapers rising up above it.

"Did anyone else think that we'd have more time before we met with the Council," Kaidan asked, leaning back in his seat.

"I'm more surprised at the margin of error that the Ambassador seems comfortable with." Riley wondered what Udina would have done if the Normandy had been delayed in any way. She couldn't imagine that it had been easy to get a live meeting with the Council.

The three aircars neared the Presidium and they fell in line with precision that could only come from trained pilots or virtual intelligences. They rushed through a series of small barriers, holding the atmosphere back from rushing out into space. From there, it only took a little less than a minute to arrive at the elevator that rose up to the Council chambers at the top.

As they all clambered out of the cars, Udina turned to his aides. "Go back to the embassy. I'll be back as soon as we're done here."

The aides left wordlessly as the rest of them entered the elevator. It started rising up as soon as the door slid shut, moving almost as fast as the aircar had been moving.

Ashley shuffled uncomfortably from her position behind Nihlus, looking pointedly everywhere but the much taller turian.

"Nihlus," Udina said, completely oblivious to Ashley's uncomfortableness. "Thank you for our help on Eden Prime. I shudder to think what would have happened if you hadn't been around."

"I was just doing my job, Ambassador." Nihlus glanced down at Udina, looking rather ambivalent about the entire thing.

"Still, that doesn't lessen your help." Udina nodded in thanks to the Spectre. "Thank you anyways."

"You're… welcome, Ambassador." Nihlus shifted and clasped his hands behind his back, side glancing at Udina before turning his gaze firmly to the elevator door.

He did it not a moment too soon, as the elevator arrived. The door slid open to reveal the Citadel chambers, and Riley was barely able to stop herself from gasping in surprise. Even though she had seen the rest of the Citadel, the chambers were on a completely different level. The Presidium might have been the showpiece for the power of the Citadel, but the chambers that the Councillors inhabited were even grander. Cherry trees blossomed in carefully tended gardens, the latest of a series of displays that showcased the most beautiful plants from every council world. The trees were lit up by hidden lights, adding an otherworldly appearance to the entire chamber.

The chamber themselves was built in a roughly diamond like shape, with long legs leading down to the elevator. The entire room ended in a point, all paths leading directly to the podium that the Council used to preside over the galaxy. The chambers were lit up almost solely by the light of the star behind the Citadel, softened by the serpent nebula between them. Riley figured that it probably backlit the Councilors, adding to their own godlike power.

"Would you look at that?" Ashley murmured, staring with wide-eyes. She had never seen anything like it, having been raised on Earth and living on colonies after joining the Alliance. "I wonder how much it costs to maintain all of this?"

"I don't really want to think about it," Kaidan said, shaking his head. His taxes were too high, and he didn't really want to consider how much of his money had gone into maintaining the chambers.

"I think we can safely say it's more than all of our pay, combined," Riley said with a laugh, shaking her head.

Together, they all entered the Council chambers, Nihlus, Udina, and Anderson leading them up the stairs towards a large fountain near the center. Ashley looked around at the towering ceiling of the chamber, estimating it to be about a thousand feet above her head. She was walking just far enough behind the much higher ranking men to not be heard.

"You know what?" She glanced over at Kaidan. "I'd buy a nice couch."

"A couch?" Kaidan looked at her, confused. Riley shared his look and waited for the woman to continue.

"You know." Ashley gestured around at the chambers. "If I had this type of cash."

"A couch." Riley blinked. It certainly wasn't the most ambitious dream that she had ever heard of. At least she never had to worry about Ashley being consumed by her own ambitions and betraying her.

"Yeah." Ashley shrugged, not at all offended by their lack of understanding. "What good is being rich and famous if you can't find any place to sit down?"

"A couch…" Even if Ashley wasn't ever going to rebel, Riley wondered why she didn't set her sights just a little higher.

"It'd be a comfortable couch," Ashley offered, giving an unapologetic shrug.

"Right…" Riley glanced at Kaidan, who simply chuckled and shook his head. "It's good to know you have ambitions, Williams."

The conversation over, Riley stepped faster, following after Nihlus, David, and Udina. As they came up the flight of stairs, the group was met with a pair of turians, one in a set of grey C-Sec armor and the other in a finely tailored suit. Riley recognized the turian in the suit, Executor Pallin, the head of Citadel-Security.

"Saren's hiding something!" The armor turian protested, mandibles flaring in frustration. "Give me some more time. Stall them."

"Stall the Council?" Pallin almost laughed in the other turians face, shaking his head. "Don't be ridiculous! Your investigation is over, Garrus. Accept that. If you know what's good for you, you'll drop it."

"Are you threatening me?" The turian, Garrus, sounded surprised and wary, taking a cautious step back.

"No." With a sigh, Pallin put a hand on Garrus' shoulder. "Saren's a Spectre. Just… be careful, Vakarian. I don't want your father coming after me. That's the last thing I need."

Pallin left Garrus, walking further into the chambers. Garrus watched his retreating form, his shoulder's slumped in defeat. With a sigh, he hung his head until he caught sight of Nihlus, standing to the right of Udina.

"Spectre Kryik!" He straightened, almost saluting before he realized that he wasn't a part of the turian military anymore.

"Detective," Nihlus greeted.

"I'm Garrus Vakarian," he introduced himself, admiration shining in his eyes. "I'm trying to build a case against Spectre Arterius. I've tried, but no one will listen to me. Is there anything you can do to help?"

"I can assure you, Vakarian, Saren is going to be brought to Justice." Nihlus nodded, grim.

"What?" Garrus blinked, surprised. He cocked his head in a manner that reminded Riley of a bird.

"Watch the proceedings, Vakarian. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised."

Garrus stepped out of their way, watching the group carefully. He blinked again as he noticed Riley. Something told him that he had seen her before, but he couldn't remember from where.

Going up another flight of stairs, they emerged out onto the main level of the chambers. People lingered about, all from the biggest of the Council races. Some of them conversed on benches that were evenly scattered around the chambers. Military officials from almost every race stood stiffly on the edges of the room, out of place in their starched uniforms decorated in livery and ribbons. Others lingered near large pillars that held up the second level, overlooking the rest of the chamber. They were there for the sole purpose of allowing more of an audience witness important Council decisions.

Near one of the pillars, Riley glimpsed a salarian standing by a four legged buggy looking alien, shiftily working on his omni-tool. It took her a moment to place the alien. Keepers they were called, she remembered. They had been there when the Asari had first discovered the Citadel, and despite all attempts at contact they had proved to be little more than mindless caretakers of the space station. As time had gone on, they had eventually decided to leave the Keepers alone and let them do their self-ordained task. As even more time passed, the Council (after it had been formed) had ruled that to interfere with the keepers was a punishable offense.

It certainly looked to Riley like the salarian was 'interfering' with that Keeper, whatever that meant.

Nihlus ignored everything happening in the chambers, heading for the massive flight of stairs at the other side. He strode up them, taking them two at a time, all the way up to the podium where the Council held their meetings. The rest of them followed after him, taking the steps at a much more normal rate.

The innermost part of the Council chambers were built to emphasize the power of the Council as much as possible. The platform that they stood on was higher than the platform that all those who came before them. A pair of trees bloomed on either side of their podium, the most well cared for in the entire chamber.

Stepping onto the platform, Nihlus held his hands behind his back as he looked up at the three Councilors. Tevos T'Kalas stood in the center, her hands clasped gently in front of her waist. The Councilor for the Asari Republics, Tevos was the oldest lived Council member, having seen more of her colleagues come and go than most could ever fathom. Sparatus Adratus stood to Tevos' right, his mandibles firmly held against his face, a very stern look. He had a long a storied history within the turian military, and it was only natural that he had been offered the Council seat. Valern Wajii was both the youngest and (in the terms of his species) the oldest member of the Council. From a society that was matriarchal, Valern had risen through the Dalatrasses houses until they couldn't push him away any more and instead placed him as far away from them as they could. That the Salarian's Council seat had been the only position of high enough rank for him had been a misfortunate happening.

Udina followed just behind Nihlus, Anderson sticking close to his side. Behind them, Riley waited at the edge of the platform, never quite stepping up with the rest of them. Ashley and Kaidan flanked her, looking overwhelmed by the amount of wealth arrayed before them. By comparison, the Systems Alliance only had the Arcturus Station. Only now that they had stepped foot onboard the Citadel, they both realized that Arcturus could docked within the closed arms of the wards with room to put another five from end to end.

A hologram of Saren appeared to the right of the Councilors, the left of the platform. He towered over the rest of the chamber, his image reaching almost all the way to the top of the ceiling. He looked smug, leaning his weight on his right leg, his arms crossed.

"These are worrying charges, Spectre Kryik," Tevos said, starting the meeting. Her lips were thin, and she watched Nihlus carefully. "You must understand our disbelief."

"They are more than just charges, Councilors." Nihlus glared up at Saren for a moment before turning his full attention to the Councilors. Opening his omni-tool, Nihlus transmitted all of the data he had collected on Eden Prime, including both his and Rainbow Dash's suit recordings, to the Councilors. He had kept it from his official report, waiting until he was standing in front of the Councilors to do it. It was entirely possible that Saren had his own agents within the aides and secretaries of the Council, and they would certainly mess with any information against their master.

"On Eden Prime, Saren brought the geth," Nihlus said, watching as the Councilors began to review the data. They had long ago become accustomed to reading while listening. "He destroyed the beacon, and he tried to murder me. If it weren't for Flying Officer Dash, I'd be dead."

The Councilors reached their conclusions one by one, and Saren growled in anger, the data having been relayed to him as well.

"It's a forgery!" He protested, his mandibles flickering as he glared down at Nihlus. "I'm on Illium. Nihlus is obviously trying to frame me."

"To what end?" Valern looked up at the image of Saren, squinting his large, inquisitive eyes.

"I wouldn't know. You'd have to ask Nihlus. That doesn't matter." Saren growled, the speakers relaying his voice vibrating the air with his subharmonics. He turned to look at three Councilors. "Councilors, you know me. I've faithfully served you for decades. I wouldn't do this."

"Yet you also have a history of rash actions and violent outbursts." Valern frowned, crossing his arms. He blinked owlishly.

"It doesn't matter." Saren scowled, his eyes squinting ever so slightly at Valern. "The archivists will tell us whether the data is real or not."

Tevos glanced at Valern, and then Sparatus before looking up at the hologram. "Saren, you are ordered to return to the Citadel for immediate questioning."

Saren froze, his face going blank. He looked down at the Councilors and bowed. "As you wish, Councilors."

Before anyone could say anything else, Saren's hologram disappeared.

Before anyone could say anything else, Saren's hologram disappeared.

"He's not going to do that, is he?" Ashley whispered, leaning over to Kaidan. She didn't at all look convinced.

"I'd be surprised if he did," Kaidan whispered back.

"Yeah…" Ashley nodded, straightening back up. "I didn't think so."

Now that Saren was gone, the Council turned their attention to Nihlus.

"You have never lied to us before, Nihlus." Tevos sighed. It was plain on her face that she didn't want to believe anything, but knew that she need to. "We will still have the archives go over your date, but at the very least, I believe you."

"The evidence is irrefutable," Sparatus agreed, rubbing the plates of his forehead. "We'll strip Saren of his Spectre status."

"All efforts will be made to bring him in to answer for his crimes." Valern sounded the most level headed of the Councilors, having already processed the information that their most effective agent had betrayed them.

"Nihlus." Tevos straightened, taking a breath. When she let it out, it was as if nothing had happened to her. "We can't send our fleets after Saren. It could trigger a war with the Terminus Systems."

"We're sending you into the Traverse after Saren." Sparatus was the last to gather himself back together. In all likelihood, he would be having several long, intense conversations with the Hierarchy over the consequences of Saren's betrayal. "He's a fugitive from justice, so you are authorized to use any means necessary to apprehend or eliminate him."

Nihlus nodded in understanding to the Councilors before glancing back at Riley. Firming himself, he met the Councilors' gaze. "Commander Shepard performed admirably on Eden Prime."

The Councilors were silent for a moment, glancing at each other.

"What are you saying, Nihlus?" Sparatus finally asked.

"I am recommending her for the Spectres." Nihlus stood tall. It was a bit premature, but he could already see that she deserved. To spend anymore time watching her would be a waste for both of them. "She would be a great asset on the search for Saren."

"Are you sure, Kryik?" Valern cocked his head, paying careful attention to every word that Nihlus spoke.

"I am." Nihlus nodded, assure of himself and his own observations.

"Very well."

The Councilors glanced at each other as an aide hidden away in a control room several levels away quickly threw together the voting program and projecting it onto the thin consoles before the three of them. Silently, they cast their votes with a simple check of a box. Within moments, the results had come back and the answer was shown to all three of them. They glanced at each other again before turning their attention to the woman standing at the back of the platform.

Riley could only blink in surprise at the whole proceeding. She could hear Ashley and Kaidan shuffling at the suddenness of the entire thing. This was not at all how she had expected her day to be going. She could only imagine the conversation that she would have to have with her parents over this.

It probably wouldn't be pretty.

"Commander Shepard, step forward," Tevos said, her voice almost amused.

Riley looked to Anderson, and he nodded in reassurance, smiling at her in congratulations. She stepped up next to Nihlus, standing at attention, trying to put out the best of humanity.

"It is the decision of the Council that you be granted all the power and privileges of the of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance branch of the Citadel." Tevos spoke plainly and clearly, her voice carrying every bit of the power and gravitas that only a seven-hundred year old Asari could convey.

"Spectres are not trained, but chosen." Valern took over for Tevos, his voice thin and reedy compared to hers. "Individuals forged in the fire of service and battle; those whose actions elevate them above the rank and file."

"Spectres are an ideal, a symbol." Tevos began again. "The embodiment of courage, determination, and self-reliance. They are the right hand of the Council, instruments of our will."

"Spectres bear a great burden," Sparatus spoke for the first time. He didn't look fully happy about what was happening, but he wasn't going to go against the others. "They are protectors of galactic peace, both our first and last line of defense. The safety of the galaxy is theirs to uphold."

"You are the first human Spectre, Commander Shepard." Tevos finished up the speech. "This is a great accomplishment for you and your entire species."

"I am honored, Councilors," Riley said, bowing her head.

"You will assist Spectre Kryik in his mission," Valern ordered, his voice growing bigger than the size of his species.

"This meeting of the Council is adjourned." Tevos bowed her head, and just as suddenly as everything had happened, it was over. The Councilors were gone and the podium was empty.

Ignoring all of that, Nihlus turned to Riley. He bowed his head, his mandibles flaring in acknowledgement of her achievement. "Congratulations, Shepard. You deserve this."

"Congratulations, Commander." His voice full of pride, Anderson walked up to Riley. He shook her hand, but in his eyes, she could see that he wanted nothing more than to hug her. That would be something for later, when they were alone.

"I'm sure you will do humanity proud." Udina was already on his omni-tool, flipping through what looked like hundreds of messages. "There's a lot of work ahead of us. You'll need a ship, a crew, supplies…"

Blinking, Udina turned to Anderson. "Captain, come with me. I'll need your help to set all of this up."

"And you need to come with me, Shepard." Nihlus stepped up to Riley, putting one of his hands on his shoulder.

"Alright." Riley glanced at Ashley and Kaidan. "You two should head back to the Normandy."

"Congratulations, Commander," Ashley murmured, admiration burning in her eyes as she looked at Riley.

"Thank you, Williams," Riley said, nodding to her.

Before she could say anything else, Nihlus led her out of the Council chambers.

###

Almost all races (save the Volus) had ended up imagining some type of hero that could work outside of the law by the time that they emerged out into space to join the rest of the galaxy. It seemed to be one of those things that happened sooner or later in a race's evolution. Humanity had James Bond. Equestria had Daring Do. The turians had Caius Orosis, a rogue general who took down his legion after they betrayed him and the Hierarchy. The salarians simply leaked the stories of their Special Tasks Group, several generations removed of course. The Asari had the Justicar, who were both common characters in their entertainment and an actual order who all maidens dreamed of being (or oftentimes bedding).

It was only inevitable that the SpecTRes emerge after the formation of the Council. It was after the murder of the current Council at the beginning of the Krogan Rebellions that it was decided an extralegal force was needed, with the authority to do whatever they needed to to preserve galactic peace. In a very real way, the Spectres had a direct lineage with all of the heroes of the races that joined the Citadel.

It was that thought that sat in the pit of Riley's stomach, an uncomfortable feeling that made her wonder if this was all just a dream.

The cramp in her hand let her know that it wasn't. Who knew that becoming a Spectre would require so much paperwork? Actual paperwork, instead of just a holopad. That was an extreme rarity with the majority of all Citadel cultures, save for Equestria, which was still undergoing a cultural revolution from its reawakening.

After nearly an hour of signing her name again and again on countless documents, Nihlus brought her to awaiting aircar. They flew in silence through the ring of the Presidium, until finally the aircar descended and landed in front of a small, nondescript office building that sat nestled between the Asari and Salarian embassies. It was near featureless, with no windows or signage of any kind.

"I'm about to show you one of the most heavily guarded places in the entire galaxy." Nihlus grinned with his mandibles, striding towards the only door in the building.

A few feet behind him, Riley took in the building. It looked completely unremarkable, but that didn't mean anything, especially with what Nihlus had just told her.

Nihlus led her up to the front door, which opened without a prompt from either of them. Riley glanced at Nihlus, but he didn't seem at all surprised or worried by that development. He stepped inside, and she followed behind him. Crossing the threshold, she found herself in what looked like a small waiting room. A few chairs lined the walls, which were decorated with several paintings from what looked like Asari artists.

"What is this?" Riley asked, unsure.

"The first line of defense." Nihlus walked up to a small desk at the other side of the room, opposite the front door. Carefully, he placed his hand down on the surface of the table, and winced as it took a blood sample, scanned his DNA, and ran his finger prints.

A soft ding sounded in the room and Nihlus stood up straight, massaging his palm where the needle had taken his blood. He stepped aside, gesturing for Riley to step up next to him.

"Place your hand there," he said, pointing at the spot on the table.

"What this for?" Riley asked as she followed his instructions. The process repeated itself, and she didn't so much as flinch when the needle jabbed into her palm.

"It's your first time coming through here," Nihlus said, crossing his arms. "So right now it's just inserting you into the system."

The system was apparently satisfied, because a hidden door behind the table slid open, revealing a long, narrow hallway. The door itself looked like it was three feet thick, and clearly designed to repel a major assault.

"No one is allowed any further without being in the system." Stepping through the door, Nihlus waited for Riley to follow after him. "There are a bunch of nasty surprises waiting for anyone who tries."

"Huh…" Riley glanced back as the door slid shut behind them, locking with a solid thunk.

Ignoring that, Nihlus led her down the long hall, which branched off at the end into another long hallway that ran parallel with the front of the building. The halls were incredibly narrow, barely enough room to walk single file either direction, and Riley guessed that it was probably another hidden defense feature. It would be far too easy to turn these halls into a funneling point, killing anybody who had gotten through the front door and using their bodies to block any movement forward.

Nihlus led her down the right hall, and it led to what appeared to be a dead end. He placed his hand on a spot a little more than halfway up the wall, and once again, he was scanned and tested and another door opened. He stepped in.

As soon as Nihlus was through the door, Riley blinked in amazement at what she saw before her.

The room housed one of the biggest, most well-stocked armories that she had ever seen before in her life. There wasn't a single piece of equipment that could be considered sub-standard, or even mid-range. She didn't even recognize some of the items that lined the racks.

"Oh yes…" Stepping into the room, Riley felt a wide grin growing on her face. She did nothing to try and hide it from Nihlus.

"You have the appreciation, I see," Nihlus said, laughing. He held out his arms, seeming to encompass the entire room as he did so. "There are definitely benefits to becoming a Spectre."

Walking over to the nearest rack, Nihlus lifted up a matte black assault rifle, unfolding it into its full sized version. It was sleek and slim, unlike the standard M8 Avenger the Systems Alliance issued to every new marine. "As a Spectre, you get access to the best weapons and prototypes from the finest armorers across the galaxy. This is the M447, a prototype assault rifle from Hyland-Sorah."

"What don't they make?" Riley's eyebrows raised and she took the rifle from Nihlus almost reverently, testing its weight against her shoulder. The rifle felt like a work of art, like nothing she had ever seen before. It was light, yet it felt strong, like it wouldn't break if dropped from any height.

"Excuse me?" Nihlus asked, not quite understanding.

"Sorry." Riley blushed, ducking her head ever so slightly. "I was just thinking of their slogan."

"We get the best toys." Nihlus nodded, not really understanding, but he didn't care enough to dig any deeper there.

Riley collapsed the rifle, holding it back out for Nihlus to take.

"Do you like it?" Nihlus asked, holding his hand up.

"I want to see how she fires first, but yeah." Riley looked at the rifle, almost hungrily.

"You like it, it's yours."

Riley looked down at the rifle with new appreciation, then at the rest of the armory.

"We're here to outfit you." Shifting his weight onto one of his legs, Nihlus chuckled.

"I thought Spectres outfitted themselves." Raising an eyebrow, Riley cradled the rifle in her arm, just like Gunny Ellison had taught her. "I thought the Council didn't support us financially."

"We do, and they don't," Nihlus said, nodding at her points. He gestured at the racks of weapons surrounding them. "But there is nothing worse than having a new recruit die in the first month. We set all of this up for ourselves. The Council has no involvement with any of this. We tend to fend for ourselves, but it always helps to have a place that we can retreat to, in case the worst ever happens."

"Huh." Riley hadn't been expecting the Spectres to be so practical.

"Step up here." Walking over to line of fabricators at the back of the room, Nihlus pointed at the closest to them.

Handing him the rifle, Riley did as he asked. With a quick press of a button, the fabricator started, measuring every imaginable part of her with state of the art scanners. Through her clothes, gathering every single possible measurement of her body. With a quiet whine, the machine turned itself off.

"You can step off now." Behind a large grouping of holo-displays, Nihlus was typing quickly on a keyboard.

"Custom armor fabrication?" Riley asked as she walked over to join him behind the holodisplays. A 3D recreation of her body had appeared on the screens, sheathed in a simple suit of armor.

"Another experiment from Hyland-Sorah." Nihlus nodded. "It really only works for humans and asari, but I've heard good things."

Before Riley could start working on her armor, the door to the armory slid open. They both turned just in time to see an asari and a salarian enter.

"Tela." Nihlus recognized both of them, nodding in greeting. "Jondum."

"Nihlus." Tela sauntered up to them, resting a hand on her hip as she look over Riley. She looked her up and down before holding out a hand to shake. "You must be Commander Shepard. I'm Tela Vasir. Welcome to the Spectres."

"It's good to meet you." Riley shook Tela's hand.

"This is Jondum Bau, STG." Tela motioned for Jondum to come forward, and he also shook Riley's hand, an easy grin on his face.

"Tela's one of the oldest Spectres working for the Council," Nihlus explained. Tela grinned cockily at that. "She's trained more than a few of us.

Out of the corner of her eye, Riley saw Tela's mouth turn downwards just for a second before settling back into a look of careful neutrality.

"Saren?" Riley asked, her voice low.

"Yes." Tela nodded once. Glancing at Nihlus, she held his gaze for a moment. "Can I speak to you in private?"

Studying her face, Nihlus nodded. She led him into a side office that Riley hadn't noticed before, leaving her and Jondum alone.

"So…" Riley nodded appreciatively. "STG?"

"Yes." Jondum grinned widely, nodding almost too fast for her to see. "Wonderful organization. Hope to join the Spectres soon."

"Huh." She didn't really have anything else to say to that.

###

Tela pulled Nihlus into the side office, slamming the door shut, leaving Riley and Jondum alone. Grabbing Nihlus, she shoved him against the closest wall before wrapping herself around him, kissing him as deeply as she could. He wrapped his arms around her, and after the kiss ended a glorious three minutes later, they relaxed against each other. Tela rested her head against his shoulder, taking a deep breath of his scent. She had always loved that about him. He smelled of gun oil, sandalwood, and something she had never been able to identify, and closing her eyes, she thanked the goddess that she had another chance to hold him in her arms.

"Goddess…" She murmured. "When I heard…"

"I'm fine." Nihlus did his best to reassure her. "I survived."

"You did." Taking a breath, Tela took a step back after kissing Nihlus' forehead. Shutting her eyes, she let out that breath and felt all of the emotions that had plagued her since she had learned about Eden Prime leave her body. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have that."

"You don't have to put up the mask around me, Tela." Nihlus laughed, his mandibles fluttering. He put a hand on her shoulder, his eyes shining with admiration.

"What if they had seen that?" Tela gestured over her shoulder back outside. It would have been completely unprofessional.

"Shepard wouldn't care." Nihlus shrugged. Tela had always tried to keep herself professional around those that hadn't been able to worm their way through the cracks in her mask. "And Jondum probably already knows."

"You're probably right…" Tela shook her head, realizing the truth of his statement.

"You should know better by now that I'm always right." Leaning back against the wall, Nihlus crossed his arms over his chest.

Tela scoffed, shaking her head.

A moment passed, the levity of moments before fading away, and Tela pulled Nihlus close again.

"I've lost too many friends," she said with a quiet voice, steel hidden within them. "Too many lovers… Saren is going to pay for even trying to take you from me."

"Don't do anything rash, Tela." Nihlus knew Tela would do whatever she wanted, but maybe he could be the voice of reason.

"You can't tell me what to do." She narrowed her eyes, watching him carefully.

"No." Nihlus agreed with her. "Take it as a suggestion at best."

"As you wish." With a sigh, Tela nodded and pursed her lips.

Nihlus turned to step out of the office, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. He glanced back at her, shifting when he noticed the shift in her posture.

"I'm not leaving until tomorrow." She let her voice trailed off at the end.

"You know where I live." Nihlus had to look away to keep from laughing. For all the years that he had known her, she had never been able to pull off the seductive asari like the rest of her race. She was too much the Huntress to ever be able to do that.

"It's a date, then."

###

SSV Normandy, Docking Bay 422, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

There was nothing quite so boring as being confined to a bed in a med-bay. There was nothing to do, nothing to read (her omni-tool was left in her locker and she wouldn't be able to get it until Riley returned), and no matter what she did she couldn't find it in herself to fall asleep. Looking over, Rainbow looked at Karin. She was sitting at her desk with a pair of reading glasses perched on her nose, reading her book. Every so often, she would flip the page, her eyes scanning over the text.

The door to the med-bay opened, and they both looked over. Rainbow couldn't quite help the little squeak of surprise when she found Twilight Sparkle and Gilda standing there, Twilight with a happy little smile on her muzzle and Gilda a slightly nervous stance as her eyes darted about, almost like she was expecting someone to tell her she wasn't supposed to be there.

"Can I help you?" Chakwas asked, taking off her glasses and setting her book down. She stood, looking down at the two Equestrians in her doorway.

"We're here to see Rainbow Dash!" Twilight chirped, trotting in. Gilda followed after her at a much more sedate pace.

"And you were just allowed to walk onto the Alliance's most secure warship to do so?" Raising an eyebrow, Chakwas gave the pony a chance to explain.

"Yep!" Twilight beamed, not quite catching Chakwas' subtle demand for more information. That woman held an iron fist over her patients, and she was doing quite a bit to protect them, including kicking the third most important Equestrian out of her med-bay if she wasn't supposed to be there.

"She's asking why the Captain let you onboard, Twi," Rainbow said, rolling her eyes.

"Oh!" Twilight blushed, ducking her head ever so slightly. She looked up at Chakwas, smiling apologetically. "I'm Twilight Sparkle. I've known Rainbow nearly my entire life."

"She's the third most powerful pony in the galaxy." Gilda rolled her eyes. Twilight hadn't answered the question and she wasn't sure whether her marefriend had actually understood the question.

"Really?" Chakwas raised her eyebrows. She activated her omni-tool. "Let me just check that. Pressly, did you allow a Twilight Sparkle onboard?"

"Yes." Pressly answered with a short voice.

"Thank you, Pressly." Closing her omni-tool, she gave a much friendlier smile to Twilight and Gilda. "I apologize."

Looking over at Rainbow, Chakwas eyed her patient for any sign of distress. "Would you like some privacy?"

"I don't really care," Rainbow said, shrugging.

"I'll just go get some coffee." Chakwas left them alone, stepping between Gilda and Twilight and out of the med-bay. The door slid shut behind her, leaving the three Equestrians alone.

"Hey guys." Rainbow waved as Twilight and Gilda trotted up her bed. She sat up to greet them, wincing as she readjusted around the pillows to support her back. She hoof bumped Gilda, nodding at the quiet griffin. "G."

"We heard you were on the Citadel and that you were shot." Twilight explained, looking Rainbow over. She raised an eyebrow at her rather ridiculous pajamas, and Rainbow just shrugged.

"Yeah." She liked her pajamas, regulations be damned. "I can't really recommend it. It sucked."

"What happened?" Gilda giggled. "I thought you were too awesome to get shot?"

"I saved someone's life!" Rainbow Dash blustered, scuffing. She crossed her hooves, glaring at her.

"I dunno Dash…" Gilda snickered, poking the pegasus with one of her claws. "That doesn't really sound that awesome to me. Does that sound awesome to you, Twilight?"

"Not really no." Twilight couldn't help but giggle at Rainbow's wounded look.

Rainbow glared at both of them for a moment, but none of them could hold it for very long. Within seconds they started giggling. It was a good moment, and Rainbow was glad that they had decided to come and visit her (though she was wondering just how they had managed to talk themselves onto the Normandy).

"What are you two doing on the Citadel?" Rainbow asked, moving onto bigger things. "I thought you guys were on Equestria."

Twilight glanced at Gilda, who urged her on to explain everything to their closest friend.

"Right." Twilight nodded. "Princess Celestia asked me to search for the Elements of Harmony."

"The what?" Rainbow had literally never heard of whatever it was that Twilight had just said.

"They're a physical manifestations of the magic and harmony that holds Equestria together!" Twilight stomped her hoof for emphasis, wondering not for the first time what was wrong with Equestria's educational system.

Rainbow looked at Gilda for an explanation.

"They're cool magic weapons."

"Got it." Rainbow nodded and looked back at Twilight, waiting for her to continue.

"That's not all that they are!" Twilight growled, scrunching up her muzzle in frustration.

"Seems pretty straightforward to me."

Dropping back onto her haunches, Twilight crossed her forelegs in annoyance. She grumbled to herself, too quiet to hear.

"Don't pay any attention to her," Gilda said, waving a claw in her direction. "She gets grumpy when she can't go full egghead."

"Never go full egghead, Twilight," Rainbow said, looking over at Twilight.

Twilight just rolled her eyes, continuing to grumble to herself.

Ignoring her, Rainbow turned her attention to Gilda. "What's up with you, G? You look like you're doing better."

"I'm doing good." Surprisingly, Gilda did feel like she was doing better. It had been almost five moths since she had last seen Dash, and she knew that she hadn't been so hot then. "If it weren't for Twilight and Princess Celestia, I'd still be a gibbering wreck."

"Looks like she's rubbing off on you." Rainbow laughed, covering her mouth with a hoof. "Gibbering."

Gilda blushed, and Rainbow laughed again, looking between her and Twilight. "Maybe in more ways than one."

"Rainbow Dash!" Twilight cried out, blushing at her friend's insinuation.

"Oh Celestia, too much." Rainbow cackled and giggled, clutching her barrel until the laughter actually started to hurt. She winced, tears gathering in her eyes. "Too much!"

"Only you'd hurt yourself making a sex joke, Dash." Rolling her eyes, Gilda leaned against the bed.

"Oh, shut up." Rainbow crossed her forehooves.

"How long does the doctor say you're going to be out for?" Twilight asked, hoping to move the conversation along.

"Another week." Rainbow scolded at them, her good mood disappearing at the reminder of her situation.

"That's not so bad." Twilight smiled.

"Yeah, easy for you to say." Rolling her eyes, Rainbow scoffed. "I'm bored out of my mind."

"You have your omni-tool don't you?" Twilight asked, trying to offer a suggestion.

"No. It's stuck in my locker." She shrugged. "It doesn't matter anyway. I want to get moving. My hooves itch. My wings itch. These sheets itch."

"Read a book, Dash." Gilda offered.

"Are you betraying me, G?" Rainbow scoffed at her, faking hurt with a hoof over her heart. "Have you joined the legion of eggheads?"

"I'm dating the biggest of them all." Gilda shrugged, unapologetic. "It's certified, notarized, and everything."

"Hey!" Twilight pushed Gilda, only half offended.

"I'm glad you guys are here." Smiling, Rainbow Dash wondered what she had done to deserve such good friends.

"What type of friends would we be if we didn't come and visit you?" Twilight fell silent for a moment. She looked down at her saddle bag, and the journal she knew was within it.

"Rainbow…" Twilight stammered, wondering how she was supposed to ask Rainbow her question. "Have you ever…"

"Spit it out, Twi." Rainbow had grown used to Twilight's ways long ago. Sometimes you just needed to push her along.

"What…" Twilight sighed, before firming herself up and trying again. "What would you say if I told you that I found a journal that both you and I have written in, about events that have never happened."

"I'd say that you're crazy." Rainbow raised an eyebrow.

Taking the journal out of her saddle bag with her magic, Twilight set it gently on Rainbow's bed.

"What's this?" Rainbow poked it with a hoof.

"A journal I found that both you and I wrote in, about events that never happened." Twilight explained, an eager look on her face.

"Huh…" Rainbow stared at it for a moment before opening it with her hoof. Almost instantly she found a journal entry in her own familiar, sloppy hoof-writing. "That's definitely new."

"Tell me something I don't know." Twilight nodded in in excitement.

"Why are you trying to find these artifacts of harmony?" Rainbow asked, looking up at Twilight.

"Elements, Rainbow, not artifacts." Twilight corrected her almost without a conscious thought. "And Princess Celestia believes that we need them to stop something bad from happening."

"Why does she think that?" Something bad?

"The dream."

It took Rainbow a moment to understand what Twilight was talking about.

"The dream…" She tapped a hoof against her chin. "I thought I'd just had something funky to eat."

"All of Equestria has a shared nightmare, and you think you just had some bad salad dressing?" Gilda laughed, shaking her head in amusement. "Only you, Dash."

"So I don't always pay attention when I should," Rainbow did her best to defend herself, "but I get the gist of things!"

Twilight rolled her eyes.

"Where'd it come from?" Rainbow pointed at the journal with her hoof.

"Under the throne room of the Princesses' old castle," Twilight explained, going into her teaching mode. "Somepony took the Elements, but they left clues on where to find them."

"Clues?"

"The Citadel was the first one!" Jumping up to all four of her hooves, Twilight practically danced in excitement. "We're here, but there's no sign of the Elements."

"Right…" Rainbow looked at the two of them. "Well, good luck with that."

###

Nihlus' Apartment, Presidium, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

As a Spectre, Nihlus didn't get much of a chance to settle down. He was on the move so often that he didn't have much in the way of physical possessions. Despite all of that, he kept an apartment for himself on the Presidium. He could more than afford it, and it was nice to have a place to relax whenever he was on the Citadel. It was kept constantly clean by the C-Sec cleaning crew that came by every other week.

Entering his apartment, Nihlus dropped his bag just inside his door, taking a moment to look around. Everything was just where he had left it, all the way down to the incredibly expensive painting of Armali that Tela had given to him last time she was here.

Walking to his kitchen, he opened his refrigerator. The C-Sec cleaning crew always restocked the apartment with fresh food when they dropped by, on the off-chance that he made an appearance.

Popping his beer open, he took a long drink. Closing his eyes, he enjoyed himself for a moment. There were so few times that he was able to just relax. It was good sometimes to just pretend like he had a normal life, like he wasn't shot at what felt like every other day.

Walking into his bedroom, Nihlus started to pull off his armor. The chest piece came first, and he set it gently into its slot in the wall next to his bed. That armor had saved his life more times than he was willing to count, and he made sure that it was always carefully tended to. He did the same with the rest of his armor before throwing on his casual clothes, making sure that it was something nice that Tela would appreciate. He hadn't seen her for months, and he was looking forward to tonight.

Finishing off his beer, Nihlus headed back to his kitchen, where he pulled out a bottle of Thessian honey wine for Tela and a bottle of Palaven brandy for himself.

The knock at the door pulled him away from doing anything else.

Walking over, Nihlus opened the door. Tela was on the other side, dressed in smooth clothes that showed off all of her curves in just the right way. She had never been one for doing anything that wasn't entirely practical.

"Spirits Tela." They embraced, touching their foreheads together in a turian kiss. They were bondmates, though they had so few chances to see each other. It wasn't exactly a secret, but they never broadcasted it to anyone who didn't ask. So far, no one had. "I've missed you."

Laughing, Tela stepped around him and into his apartment. He shut the door and followed after her. In the kitchen, she found the bottle of wine and looked back at him, her eyebrows raising as she turned to look at Nihlus.

"I see you're bringing out the good stuff." She studied the label for a moment before looking back up at him. "From the T'Goni vineyards… God, this was bottled the year I was born."

Popping the bottle open, she poured herself a glass. Taking a sip, she savored it.

"I think it's deserved," Nihlus said, leaning against the wall, watching her every move.

"You're certainly right about that." With a wink, Tela sauntered forward and kissed him on the cheek, never letting go of glass. "Happy anniversary."

Chuckling, Nihlus poured himself a tumbler of brandy before pulling Tela into the living room. Together, they settled down onto one of his couches that looked out over the rest of the Presidium. They rested in silence for several minutes, just enjoying their alcohol and each other. When two people who spent so much of their time fighting and killing, it was good to just sit in silence sometimes.

"So…" Tela finally broke the silence. "A human?"

"Yes." Nihlus nodded, rubbing her shoulder.

"Huh…" Tela chewed on that for a moment. It wasn't the craziest thing she had ever heard. That had been when someone had suggested a hanar Spectre. "She any good?"

"She has the spark, if that's what you're asking." Spectres weren't trained, they were chosen. Either you had what it took to be one of the Council's best agents or you didn't, it was as simple as that.

Boom!

It took Tela a moment to understand what had happened. She heard the breaking of glass, the splattering of fluids, and the rush of a bullet. She didn't immediately feel any pain, which was a good thing.

She didn't feel Nihlus pulling her down off the couch in response to the gunfire. Instead, she pulled him down with her. "Shit! Nihlus, did you see anything?"

There wasn't any reply from her bondmate.

Looking over, Tela found the most horrific sight waiting for her. Nihlus was completely still, the back of his head missing and his blue blood draining out onto the floor between them. That shot had never been meant for her. Someone had just assassinated him.

Someone had just assassinated Nihlus.

The next thing that Tela felt was boiling rage. It built up in her chest until it was too great to withhold anymore and she screamed. Leaping up, she pushed herself over the couch and ran towards the window. With a roar, she pulled back her fist and ignited her biotics, punching through the bullet proof glass, right where the bullet had smashed through.

Tela landed on one of the boardwalks above the Presidium lake in a shower of glass and shimmering biotics. Civilians screamed in terror as she pulled her handgun from the back of her waistband and started firing shots at the distant figure across the way.

She glared as the figure tried to flee.

"Oh no you don't!" Tela growled under her breath. She started running towards the edge of the boardwalk, crouching down and punching at the ground with both of her fists. Biotically, she blasted herself across the Presidium lake all the way to an overlook on the other side with restaurants and shops. She ignored the cries of terror and surprise at her sudden appearance, taking off running. She was already plotting it all out inside her head. There were only two places where the assassin could flee, one if the assassin was trying to escape into the wards.

She knew what she needed to do.

Tela rushed onto a walkway, one of the many keeper tunnels and incredibly out of bound for the public. Taking a deep breath, she stopped, firming her brow and preparing.

She didn't have to wait long.

A figure rushed out at the other end of the walkway, a turian female cradling a broken arm. Before she could react, Tela had already fired.

Bang, bang, bang!

The turian dropped to the ground with a cry, a folded up sniper rifle rolling out other hands.

Stalking forward, Tela kicked the turian over onto her back. She couldn't resist the need to punch her in the face, knocking the assassin out cold. As much as she wanted to, she restrained herself from killing the assassin.

Taking a breath, Tela tried her best to keep herself from crying.

Kneeling down, Tela pulled the turians omni-tool off her wrist. Opening it, she started a cursory look over.

One file immediately stood out.

From: Senka Wright

To: Vatia Ramlin

Target Information - Operation Level 9009

SPECTRE Nihlus Kryik.

Terminate with Extreme Prejudice.

Message End.

The rage that had burned inside her died out almost instantly. Tela had a suspicion where the message had come from, and it definitely was not good.