Chapter Thirty-Five - All the King's Horses
Private Council Chambers, Citadel, Serpent Nebula,
April 20, 2183 CE
Returning to the Citadel didn't feel like the relief that more than few of the Normandy's crew thought it was, at least not for Shepard. The entire trip had been one nerve-wracking problem after the other, and she could really use a chance to relax and let go.
As a Spectre, she got the hint that she probably wasn't going to be able to take a vacation anytime soon though.
She'd heard that Thessia was nice this time of year.
Berating herself for her wandering thoughts, Shepard brought herself back into the present moment.
Standing in her dress blues before the Council, Shepard did her best to try not to appear too weak or tired, standing at military rest. She'd made the conscious decision to not wear her System's Alliance rank of Commander, the pins instead having been replaced by the Spectre insignia.
The Council was reading over the last of her report, a precaution that she still wasn't sure whether or not was a wise idea. Still, it was better to be paranoid. As a Spectre, there was every chance that everyone and their cousin was trying to hack into her messages. Off the top of her head, she could think of quite a few who'd like nothing more than to know everything that passed in front of her eyes.
The Shadow Broker, for one. The others were too numerous to fully catalogue, but she had come to realize that she'd only gained more enemies than she had friends over the years.
Damn, that was a grim thought.
Tevos was the last to finish the report, Sparatus and Valern patiently waiting for her. As she shut off her omni-tool, she began to speak.
"This is quite an achievement, Commander." She pursed her lips, her mind still churning through what she had just read. It seemed like something that belonged more in a pulpy adventure novel, or film. She'd seen 'Blasto' after all. This rang true to that type of storytelling.
"If you want to call freeing the last Queen of the species that brought us all to the brink of extinction an achievement, then yes, I agree," Sparatus grumbled unhappily. This was going to come back and bite them all in the ass. It was only a matter of time.
"Killing the Rachni Queen would have been genocide. Unsavory." Even though Valern had said the words, there were no real feelings behind them. Out of all of the Councilors, he was the one most likely to understand where Shepard was coming, and the only one who could possibly pass judgment. The Krogan were a living reminder after all.
"We'll set up a task force to keep an eye on the situation, but I believe you made the right choice, Shepard." Tevos had the benefit of being able to take the long view on matters. It didn't matter if it took a thousand years. The Rachni would show their true colors, whatever those actually were, and they would be taken care of then.
"I did what I felt was right." Shepard didn't at all regret not telling them that the Rachni Queen was currently onboard the Normandy, scared out of her mind being in 'the hive' of the beings responsible for the near extinction of her race. "That's all I can do."
"We'll have to see how right you were, and hope this doesn't come back around to bite our collective backsides." Sparatus grumbled unhappily, but he didn't push the matter any further. What else could he see without repeating himself? He'd made his feelings clear.
"Do you have anything else to add?" Tevos asked, glancing at Sparatus from the corner of her eyes with a look of long suffering.
Like what? That the Rachni at least partially originate from Equestria and that the Queen and all her children are still on the Normandy? That said Queen was probably hiding under Shepard's bed, where she'd been ever since they'd arrived at the Citadel. As it stood, none of the Councilors had seemed to have any idea about the Rachni's transforming abilities. If they didn't know (and Shepard had no idea how that had happened), then she wasn't going to tell them.
"No," Shepard said with a completely straight face.
"Very well." Tevos' gaze lingered on Shepard for a moment, but she seemed to accept what she'd said without protest. "Before we conclude this meeting, I'd like to talk about Matriarch Benezia."
"Of course." Though her face didn't show it, Shepard mentally sagged in relief.
"You spoke with her, did you not?" Tevos asked, curious. She'd known the Matriarch in several fashions over life, from a distant acquaintance, to a political rival, to what some would loosely call friends. She wondered where things had gone so wrong, and why no one had noticed it earlier. What Shepard had written in her report was simply… terrifying.
"Yes. She was…" Shepard trailed off as she tried to figure out what she wanted to say. Crazy? Insane? Delusional? Psychotic? Evil…
She didn't feel comfortable telling the truth.
"She was what?" Valern prodded, unwilling to wait for Shepard to make up her mind. As a Salarian, he already thought and spoke at a pace that all the other races could barely match. The fact that Shepard was adding to his growing frustration.
"I'd like to say insane, but I'm not sure if that would fit her or not." Shepard sighed, feeling like she wasn't doing the entire concept justice. She just couldn't decide.
"What do you mean?" Sparatus asked, leaning forward ever so slightly in interest.
"It's like I was talking to two different people."
"A split personality?" Valern hypothesized, jumping on what Shepard had said.
"No." Shepard shook her head, pursing her lips. "It was almost like something was controlling her, or wearing her like a puppet."
"How so?" Tevos pushed Shepard to explain what she had said.
"I couldn't say for sure, not with absolute certainty, but the two... versions of her I guess you'd call it, they were so different from each other. I can't honestly explain it away in my head as a disorder, or anything of that nature. It was just too cold, too malevolent. She knew what was happening, the regular Benezia, and it scared her beyond words. Whatever is happening to her, I'd wager that Saren is involved in some fashion." Shepard did her best to ignore Sparatus' glare at her. He was trying to shake her up, but at the end of the day, there was nothing he could actually do to her.
"A likely conclusion, given the circumstances." Valern agreed with her assessment, stroking his chin.
"I find it interesting, Commander, that before you even returned to the Citadel, you'd called for a meeting with your Diarch's. I have to wonder, is there something you're hiding from us?" Sparatus definitely was hiding his antagonism behind subtly or anything useless like that. He didn't bother looking to see how the other Councilors reacted to his question.
"I need to speak to them about a personal matter. It involves no one else but them." Shepard met his glare evenly, unashamed.
"Very well, Commander." Tevos stepped forward, drawing everyone's attention to herself, and away from any brewing fights that might have been close to erupting. "Excellent work bringing Benezia in alive. You're dismissed."
Saluting sharply, Shepard turned and left the Council Chambers. The Three Councillors waited until the doors closed behind her, then turned to look at each other.
"She's hiding something." Growling, Sparatus' mandibles flared in frustration. His plates itched, but he didn't dare relieve that now. Valern was already watching every move he was making. "Those damn Alicorns would never leave their planet unless something truly important came up. We need to learn why."
"Are you suggesting we spy on beings who can control the movements of the heavens themselves?" Valern resisted cringing, remembering back to the first time the STG tried to spy on the Equestrian royalty. It hadn't gone well, and a diplomatic incident had only been narrowly avoided.
"Are you saying you aren't already?" Sparatus couldn't believe that the lauded Special Tasks Group wasn't keeping an eye on the most dangerous beings in the galaxy.
Valern simply smiled in response, but didn't say anything one way or another. In truth, the STG had been reluctant to spy on the Alicorns, especially after the first… issue. The price for doing such was simply too high in return for what they might possibly gain.
"Regardless of the actions of the STG, it would be wise for all of us to remember it would be a particularly bad move to draw their ire. We are allies after all." As always, Tevos was the voice of reason among the Council. She was well aware of how antagonizing Sparatus could be.
"Only because such an arrangement suits them." Frowning, Sparatus did his best to calm himself.
"And us as well." Valern was quick to remind the Turian of that matter. There was no reason to make enemies were there were none.
"For now." Shrugging, Sparatus wasn't convinced.
Before their conversation could devolve any further, Tevos received a message on her omni-tool with a soft ding. She read it quickly before looking up at the other two Council members. "The Matriarch has been cleared to be brought to the hospital. I would like to be there to see her for myself."
"As would I." Valern was eager to see just what had happened to the Matriarch. He was curious as to what Saren had done to turn the Matriarch so completely to his will. The STG was very clear in their reports that the Matriarch was an altruistic, pacifistic person before she had become involved with the ex-Spectre. The change was quite dramatic.
"Likewise." Sparatus agreed.
"Very well." Straightening her shoulders, Tevos started towards the private entrance to the chambers. "Let us depart."
The Night's Fury was a marvel of engineering. It had only been completed a few months ago, one of the finest ships in the galaxy. It was fast, it was silent, and it had the teeth to go up against anything the galaxy could throw at it. Solar One couldn't compare, thanks to one little issue. It had been built before the contracts for the Normandy SR1 became a joint project between the Systems Alliance, the Hegemony, and Equestria.
Seeing as Twilight Sparkle was currently making use of Solar One, and would be for the foreseeable future, the Night's Fury was the only option when Commander Riley Shepard requested the presence of the two Princesses of Equestria.
The message had been urgent enough that both Luna and Celestia had left the same day, burning at full speed for the Citadel.
The flight had been relatively quiet, and both Alicorn's had spent their time catching up on the tasks that inevitably fell behind thanks to sheer amount of work it took to run an entire planet. Little things like catching up on personal mail, personal projects that weren't important enough for day to day life, and other little things like that.
Luna had spent her time reviewing the designs the Wonderbolts had drawn up for a new class of ship. They were one of the few Equestrian military groups that had seen direct combat since the cracking of the sphere. It was a brilliant design, that favored the same fighting style that the Wonderbolts used. She had approved the design with only a few suggestions for changes.
Sitting on the bridge now, Luna focused on other things as her pilots brought the Night's Fury in to the Citadel to dock. Her pilots, two Pegasus stallions with grey coats and violet manes (a spell that all of her guards used) professionally ignored her as they went about their jobs. She was thankful for that, as she had no wish to put on a mask and respond to social niceties.
Even though she was sitting there, she was only half watching the traffic of the ships passing by all around them. None of them were a threat, nor were they of any real interest. Instead, she pondered on just what had brought her and her sister to the center of galactic government.
The message had been remarkably brief, but it had more than contained enough urgency that they both agreed that the best thing to do was to accept the invitation.
It all passed by her, a blur of sound and color. She had mastered the art long ago off being present while also being in her own world.
She knew Riley Shepard, and had spent quite a bit of time around her over the years, but she had never fully gotten to know her as more than an acquaintance of Twilight Sparkle. That meant that whatever the human had to tell them must have been important. She could think of no other reason as to why the woman would want to see both of them immediately. When she had brought the matter up to Celestia, her sister had agreed.
The message contained no information as to why they needed to come, but it was obviously a matter of great importance.
They both trusted humanity's first Spectre to not waste their time on something unimportant.
"Night's Fury, you're cleared for approach." The calm voice of an Asari, obviously working for Citadel Flight Control, rang clearly through the bridge. "Your flight path has been cleared, and the Ascension is on Overwatch. Welcome to the Citadel."
"Copy that, Citadel Control," the Night Fury's lead pilot responded, his hooves gliding over the holographic controls with ease that came from years of training and experience. "We're making our final approach now."
Luna glanced up, breaking from her thoughts, as the Night's Fury passed underneath the Destiny Ascension. It was certainly an impressive ship, but she knew that the Night's Fury was a match for it at only a fraction of the size. She still marveled at how far Equestrian engineering had come since the breaking of the Sphere.
Even though the Destiny Ascension was a massive ship, the Night's Fury was fast, and it passed by the lithe behemoth in just a few seconds. The Citadel gulfed both of them though, and it took nearly a minute to travel from the tip of its Wards to the Presidium Ring. They continued onwards, past the normal civilian and military docking slips, towards the Presidium. The docking facilities there were for special use only, like visiting dignitaries and Spectres.
With all of the grace and ease that could be expected from the best of the Night Guard, the pilots pulled the Night's Fury into its designated docking slip.
Standing, Luna took a moment to straighten her clothing (she happened to wearing a rather simple, but elegant gown) and adjust her crown, wondering at the strange feeling in the pit of her stomach for a second. She walked off the bridge and found her sister waiting at the airlock, a serene smile on her face. She was dressed similarly to Luna, though in colors that complemented her coat.
"Sister," Luna greeted her, taking her place at her side.
Celestia glanced down at her (and Luna tried to ignore for what felt like the billionth time the annoying height difference between them), her smile turning more genuine at the sight of her. "Luna."
It was all they needed to say to each other, wrapped up in two simple words. I love you. I'm here for you. Please don't let me go. Both of them had gone through traumatic experiences that would have broken lesser ponies, and it was only thanks to the other that they had made it through the millennia as level headed as they had. They would never take each other for granted again. Not after all that they had been through.
They lapsed into silence, made uncomfortable by Luna's brooding.
Luna couldn't help herself after a while and asked for what must have been the hundredth time. "Do you know why Commander Shepard has requested our presence?"
"I know nothing more than you do, Luna." Celestia gave her sister a look of long suffering, which Luna thankfully didn't notice.
"Oh." Luna pawed at the floor for a moment, studying the designs of the midnight blue carpet at the entranceway. Silvery vines of ivy snaked their through the carpet, embroidered so lifelike that some actually mistook them for real. "I was hoping you'd learned more while I was watching our arrival."
"What has you so restless?" Celestia asked, ignoring the nervousness that seemed to have hounded after her little sister ever since they had left Equestria.
"I don't know." Luna shrugged with her wings, stretching her back before schooling her face in as regal a manner as possible. "It's just a feeling. A feeling that everything is going to change."
"It will all be fine, Lulu." Celestia would never have said that if she had known anypony had been around to overhear, but they were alone, and more sisterly affections were safe. "Riley would have warned us if it was bad news."
"Mmm…" Luna hummed thoughtfully, pondering her own inner thoughts.
"Princesses, we've arrived," one of the pilots said over the intercom. "You're cleared to depart whenever you're ready."
"After you, Lulu," Celestia said, pressing the button to open the airlock, gesturing for Luna to go ahead of her.
"If you call me that in front of any cameras…" Luna glared at her sister in warning. It would take years for everyone to forget, and with the extranet being a relatively new thing, it was completely possible that no one ever would.
Celestia just laughed as the airlock closed and the air cycled through. "Only if you wipe all that brood off your face."
Luna's groaned, glaring at her for a moment, but did as Celestia said. She put on a calm, serene mask, something she'd had a lot of practice with over the countless millennia she had lived.
The airlock door finally cycled open after what felt like an eternity (and they would know).
As the door slid open, they were met with the sound of fifty Equestrian Royal Guards snapping to attention. Their ceremonial armor was specially made to make as much of an impressive sound as it did sight. Lining the walkway and ramp, they were a vision to behold in their golden armor, each of them polished to perfection.
At the end of the walkway stood Ambassador Blueblood, calmly looking watching his aunts arrival. Beside him stood Captain Anderson, dressed in his Alliance Blues.
The two sisters strode across the ramp and down the walkway past the guards to meet them. As the Alicorns approached, both Blueblood and Anderson gave them low bows.
"Princess Luna. Empress Celestia," Blueblood greeted, straightening up. "Welcome to the Citadel."
"I don't think all the pomp and circumstance is needed for such a small visit, Blueblood," Celestia said, a bit of slight reproach in her voice.
Blueblood glanced meaningfully at the mass of people watching their arrival with adoring eyes. They were on the overlook above the docks, behind panes of a glass like substance that had been proven to stand up to heavy arms fire, where anyone could come to watch the ships come and go. At the moment, it was absolutely packed. Everyone wanted to see the arrival of the only two true immortals in the galaxy (Princess Cadance was so often forgotten by almost everyone).
"Don't let me get in the way of your adoring fans, sister mine," Luna drolled callously, never letting the serene look drop from her face.
"Shut it, Lulu." Celestia nodded gracefully towards the adoring crowds. "Remember your promise."
Neither of them dropped their masks as they bickered like the siblings they were.
"Aunties," Blueblood reproached them, taking full advantage of the fact that he was turned away from the crowds. "They might not be able to hear you behind all that glass, but they are filming you, and it isn't that hard to lip read."
"Right." Though she gave no outwards sign, Celestia couldn't hide the blush that shone ever so faintly through her fur. "Yes. Of course."
Anderson clasped his hands behind his back, deciding that they had spent enough time on idle chit-chat. "We're here to escort the two of you to the Normandy. The Commander wants to meet with both of you right away."
"Please, lead the way, David." Celestia addressed him by name, mostly because they had met each other many times since Riley's adoption by the Rainbows.
"Of course, Empress. Princess." He led them off the walkway towards a waiting line of aircars, with the Equestrian flag painted on the hoods and the doors of each. They made a regal sight, and they were sure to look beautiful and powerful on the news that evening.
They entered the aircars, and the convoy took off, heading towards Docking Bay D24 in the Wards.
It was a seldom known secret, but the Council did not use the same hospitals as the ones the rest of public did. It was obvious if anybody ever actually thought about it, but very few actually did.
The Council kept a private hospital in the Presidium Tower, on a level that no one officially knew existed, and kept it staffed around the clock with the best doctors and nurses that money could buy. When you were in charge of multiple trillions of lives, the threat of assassination was very real, not to mention sudden medical issues. It only made sense that they had doctors close at hand.
It also came in handy when you had a high profile suspect that you needed to keep away from the eyes of the galaxy.
A suspect like Matriarch Benezia T'Soni certainly fit that bill.
The doors to the private hospital slid open and an army of Spectre officers moved in, escorting the shambling, zombie like Asari commandos that Shepard had arrested on Noveria. After destroying the Geth, they hadn't been able to put up anything even resembling a fight. Even just looking at the state of their bodies, they were pretty much useless as soldiers, and would be for the foreseeable future.
Behind the Spectres, doctors carefully brought in the cryopods with the Asari who had strayed a bit too close to death on the flight back to the Citadel. The cryopods were suspended through the judicious use of anti-gravity and element zero.
The very last one held the one everyone was interested in, Matriarch Benezia.
Even before the Spectres could get the Asari they were escorting onto beds and into restraints, an army of doctors and nurses descended upon them, getting to work. The Asari were as close to death as one could possibly get without tipping over, and that was without taking into account the severe mental trauma they'd undergone.
Observing the organized chaos with experienced eyes, the head doctor immediately got to work, directing everyone with all the finesse of a conductor. She had served the Council for nearly five-hundred years, and during that time, she had thought she had seen everything. Her scalp crest itched as she stared at these Asari though. They were worse than anyone she had ever seen that wasn't in a morgue.
Pushing those thoughts to the back of her mind, she jumped into the fray.
Above the large room serving as an operating center and trauma care (there were simply too many of them to treat separately, at least in this facility and in secure conditions), the Councilors enter, to find that there were two occupants inside already. They weren't surprised, having known that they were the moment they had stepped inside. It was only thanks to Spectre Shepard's insistence that they had been allowed, an Asari and a Pony (a foal more accurately). Tevos recognize one of them, but doesn't know the other.
"Liara T'Soni." Tevos recognized the Asari, but didn't know the Pony. She had only met a few Equestrians since their arrival onto the galactic scene. This one was definitely female, from the shape of her muzzle. If Tevos was any less of a professional, she might have even cooed at the sight of the little white coated and purple maned filly.
Thankfully, she didn't do that. She could only imagine what Sparatus would think of her.
Liara startled when she heard her name, her eyes widening in surprise when she saw the Councilors behind her. She turned, fumbling with her body like she didn't know what to do with her limbs. The little filly at her feet stared up at her in confusion and excitement, like all little children did.
"Councilors," Liara said, thankful that she was able to get that out with minimal amount of stuttering. The past few days had been far too nerve wracking for her, and she'd only managed to get a few hours of sleep. It had taken hours to convince the little Rachni that followed her around to transform into a pony filly as she had been utterly unwilling to leave Liara's side. There had been simply nothing for it than to allow her to come with Liara to the hospital. "Forgive me. I didn't hear you enter."
Sparatus strode straight up to the window, unconcerned by Liara's presence, giving off every vibe of an alpha predator that he could. The other Councilors knew that it was only thanks to the presence of the Turian Spectre in the back of the room that he was able to act so confident.
"That's the Matriarch?" He finally asked, his voice little more than a growl. He glanced at Liara, unimpressed by her and her mother.
"Oh…" Liara almost took a step back in surprise at the glare in Sparatus' eyes. "Yes."
Valern and Tevos joined the two of them at the window, watching as the doctors tried their best to keep the Asari alive. Tevos actually gasped in horror when she saw them. She flashed back to what she remembered of the Equestrian slaves rescued only a year before. It looked to be a losing battle, but they were the best of the best, and they would do everything in their power to keep them alive.
"Goddess!" Tevos murmured, her crest crawling uncomfortably. She fidgeted with the hem of her dress, scratching the fabric between two of her fingers. "How are they still alive?"
"I don't know." Liara shrugged, desensitized, having spent too much time around them to realistically be considered healthy. "It was as if they weren't in charge of their own bodies."
"From the looks of them, I can believe that." Valern's large eyes took in every detail of the scene below. He could already pick out three of the Asari who gave less than a twenty percent chance of making it. "No one should be able to still be fighting looking like that, much less standing."
"They weren't doing a lot fighting when we found them." Liara felt no shame at all at not informing them of her true whereabouts during said fight. Riley had told her enough that she could reliably talk through any conversation about it.
"The only reason the Commander survived, I imagine." Sparatus grunted. He couldn't imagine that the new human Spectre would last long against Asari Commandos in a fair fight. Even with all of her experience, and her N7 training that humans valued so much, he reasoned that it would only take a few moments for her to be killed or otherwise incapacitated.
Liara bristled at the comment and the hidden barbs underneath, but she didn't say anything about it, probably for the best.
The little rachni had been toying with her mane with a hoof, but sensing Liara's anger, she paused and chirruped angrily at Sparatus. He only glanced at her from the corner of his eyes before dismissing her as completely beneath his attention.
"I'd like to see it for myself." Valern, having ignored that entire byplay, stroked his chin in concentration. He'd been watching as the doctors carefully brought Benezia out of her cryopod and strapped her to a medical bed, inserting all sorts of IVs and wires.
"Excuse me?" Liara asked, wondered if she'd heard the Salarian Councilor correctly.
"Second hand accounts are no good," Valern explained, still stroking his chin. "I would like to see the Matriarch's state of mind for myself."
"I agree." Tevos spoke up, having pulled herself out from her dark thoughts.
Sparatus didn't say anything, but he didn't argue with them either.
With the rest of the Council in agreement (or at least not protesting), Tevos pressed a button on the wall that immediately connected her on a private speaker with the head doctor. "Wake up the Matriarch. We would like to speak to her."
The Head Doctor froze. She'd read the report about Benezia too before the Normandy had arrived. She glanced up at the window with the Councilors watching her, flexing her jaw uncomfortably.
"Do…" She paused, her voice halting. "Do you think that's wise?"
"We have to speak with her." Tevos' voice was firm, and it was clear she wouldn't take any argument from the doctor. "Fit her with a biotic restraint if you must."
"Very well, Councilor…" The doctor reluctantly said before starting to direct the other doctors and nurses to get everything ready to do as the Councilors had requested.
They quickly set up an isolation chamber in front of the observation room, moving Benezia to the middle of chamber. Just as quickly, they fitted her with biotic restraints and padded cuffs to keep her from hurting herself by flailing about or trying to get out of her bed.
It was all they could do, but from the looks of it, that would be more than enough.
Making sure that by waking her they wouldn't end up killing her, the Head Doctor finally started the process of bringing her out of her medically induced coma as soon as she was sure of her observations.
Liara watched as her mother started to stir, curious and afraid. She hadn't had a chance to see her awake, Benezia having been brought out of Noveria unconscious, and she wasn't sure that she was going to like what she saw. The little filly next to her chirped quietly in response to her nervousness.
Benezia's eyes opened, and for a moment, she didn't do anything, still as a statue. It was only thanks to the slow rise and fall of her chest that any of them could even tell that she was alive.
"Matriarch T'Soni," Tevos said as she pressed another button, activating the intercom. "Do you know where you are?"
Finally moving, Benezia coldly looked up at the observation room, meeting eyes with Tevos. When she spoke, her voice sounded like bricks grating over each other, cold and malevolent. "Let me go."
"We can't do that, Matriarch," was Tevos simple response.
Looking over the entirety of the group observing her, Benezia's gaze lingered on Liara, turning even colder. "Did you think bringing my daughter here would move me? That it would break me? Force me to spill the knowledge I have?"
"She's here out of her concern for you, Matriarch." Tevos was surprised at how successful she was at not flinching under Benezia's gaze.
Benezia rolled her jaw, stretching, and Liara grimaced as she could see every muscle and ligament under her skin, paper thin as it was.
"All of you will be dead soon anyway." Benezia stared at Tevos, like she could see directly through the Councilor's soul. "None of this matters. None of you matter. He will bring the entire galaxy to its knees, and there is nothing you can do about." Meeting Liara's eyes and noting her quivering lip, Benezia snarled ever so slightly at her daughter. "You can spread your little wings and run, but they will only be torn off, and you will die."
Before Benezia could say anything else, Liara turned and left the observation room and her mother behind. The little filly followed after her, hopping in her footsteps, without a clue of just how tense the entire situation was.
Riley had been leaning against the railing at the back of the briefing room for the better part of an hour, watching Chrysalis pace back and forth in the human form she'd taken since they'd left Noveria. The Rachni Queen was as nervous as anyone could be, which was understandable considering that there were very few beings as powerful as the Alicorn Princesses of Equestria.
"Just cal-" Even as Riley tried to tell Chrysalis to calm down, she turned and glared at her, her green eyes burning angrily.
"If you tell me to calm down one more time…" Chrysalis let her words trail off, the warning unspoken, but definitely present.
Riley just raised an eyebrow, unimpressed.
Traveling to the Citadel had been a rather interesting experience, and more than a little cramped once they had let all of the Rachni loose from the boxes they had used to smuggle them onboard. There had been more than a few tense moments for the Normandy's crew when they found Rachni in unexpected places. During the flight, Riley had managed to convince Chrysalis to tell her story to the Princesses before deciding what to do next for her race. It seemed important, and the most logical choice going forward.
Before either of them could say or do anything else, the door to the briefing room slid open. Turning to look, Riley and Chrysalis watched as Blueblood and Anderson entered, followed by Celestia and Luna. Chrysalis shifted nervously at the sight of them.
"David. Blue." Riley greeted the two of them with a warm smile. "Thanks for bringing the Princesses here."
"It wasn't a problem," Blueblood said rather quickly, blushing ever so slightly. It was a sort of open secret in the Royal Castle that he'd had a crush on Riley ever since he met her at the palace, but she'd never noticed him as anything other than a friend.
He'd wisely decided years ago that he wasn't going to bring it up.
"Could you…" Riley glanced at Chrysalis before turning back to look at Blueblood and Anderson. "Could you give us the room?"
"Of course." Blueblood said without any hesitation, giving Riley a friendly smile before turning and giving a brief bow to the Princesses. Without further discussion, he left the briefing room.
Anderson, however, lingered for a moment. "Shepard, do you mind if I look around."
"Go right ahead." Riley gave her permission. By all rights, this should have been his command anyway. Far be it for her to keep him from what should have been his. "The Normandy's always open to you, sir."
Anderson gave a nod of thanks, then a short formal bow to the Princesses before leaving to tour the Normandy. It was all so different from his work in the System Alliance Ambassadorial office, and though he hadn't told anybody, he missed it.
He was an old soldier, not a politician.
The door hissed closed, leaving the four of them alone in the room together.
"Thank you, Princesses," Riley said, turning her attention to the two Alicorns, who were looking at her with a degree of familiarity that might have made others uncomfortable, "for coming so quickly. I know it couldn't have been easy getting away without any warning."
"It wasn't a problem, Riley." Celestia's voice was as smooth and cultured as it had ever been, just like Riley remembered it. The larger alicorn shifted her wings against her barrel, the only sign of her impatience and curiosity as she watched the two of them in front of her. "Your message sounded urgent, especially to call both of us here."
"Yes, well... it is…" Riley glanced at Chrysalis, who looked like she was ready to bolt. The only problem was that Celestia and Luna were in between her and the door. If she could have dug through the floor, she might have tried, but as it was, she was stuck and would have to deal with the situation.
"And what, exactly, is it that it required us both?" Luna was willing to do a lot for humanities (and some would say Equestria's) first Spectre, but only if it was for a good reason. If Riley was wasting her time, no one would enjoy the consequences.
"That'd be for her to explain." Riley gestured at Chrysalis, who wilted when both Celestia and Luna turned their full attention to her. Her legs were shaking, and her eyes were wide with fright.
Shepard glanced back at her, then drowned when she realized that Chrysalis was still in the form of a human woman. "You don't have to hide in front of them. You can trust them."
Chrysalis squeaked, the thought of revealing her true form to them having never even crossed her mind. Her eyes went wide, looking every inch the child that she actually was, frozen in a flurry of emotions and anxiety.
Shepard took a step forward, and leaned in close to whisper to her. "Don't worry. I'll be right here with you the entire time."
Chrysalis gave a jerky nod after a surprisingly long amount of staring at Shepard, then shut her eyes, taking a deep breath.
Both Celestia and Luna watched as Chrysalis started to ripple and change before their eyes taking on her real form. They didn't have the words to express the surprise they were feeling when she became quadrupedal, her long tail tucked around her legs.
She didn't open her eyes when her transformation finished. Wincing, it was like she's expecting to be struck down where she stood.
"This is Queen Chrysalis…" Riley made introduction, glad that she was able to keep all of the nervousness out of her voice. Both Celestia and Luna looked at each other in surprise when they heard that name, and Riley thought she saw a flash of recognition. "...and she is the mother of the last of the Rachni race."
"Queen Chrysalis?" Luna spoke slowly, as if testing the name in her mouth.
Chrysalis cracked an eye open when she realized that the Alicorns had yet to smite her, and when she saw that neither of the Princesses were looking to immediately kill her (and it was sad for Riley to realize that it was all Chrysalis had ever been raised to expect, pain and hurt), she relaxed. She still looked like she wanted to run away as fast as she possibly could.
"Yes…" Riley looked at the two sisters carefully, her eyes squinted as her mind raced. "You sound familiar with her." She glanced between the Princesses and Chrysalis. Wondering if she had missed something rather major on the flight over. "Do you know each other?"
"No." Celestia shook her head slowly, her gaze never leaving the Rachni Queen. She looked contemplative, her mane waving in a soft solar breeze."We have heard the name before though."
Chrysalis couldn't help her little squeak of surprise. Thousands of thoughts raced through her head, the most prominent being wondering if they knew her mother. She didn't know that the Equestrians had been frozen inside the Equestrian Sphere when the Rachni evolved on their homeworld, and there was no way for her to know that.
Her cage back on Noveria hadn't given her a lot in the way of schooling and knowledge. It was only thanks to her racial memories that she wasn't a snarling feral beast after all.
"Where?" Chrysalis was finally able to ask.
"There's a journal…" Celestia trailed off, looking to Luna. An entire silent debate passed between, presumably about whether or not they wanted to tell the entire story with Chrysalis in the room.
They made a decision after Luna gave a snort and a stomp of a forehoof. Celestia just nodded, accepting of what needed to happen.
"It is a story we are only just beginning to understand ourselves…" Luna began, her voice soft and contemplative. She didn't meet either Riley or Chrysalis' eyes, instead focusing at some far off point in space and time. Over the course of the next hour, she explained the entire matter of the Journal of Friendship, the missing Elements of Harmony, and the alternate Equestria. An alternate Equestria that included a version of Twilight Sparkle that wrote about a Queen Chrysalis. Luna wisely didn't mention the fact that the name was only brought up because of an attempted coup of Equestria that ultimately failed and led to Chrysalis' death.
"You're Equestrian." Celestia finally said, a statement and not a question.
"Apparently." Chrysalis shrugged, not really seeing why it had captured the two Princesses' attention.
"We thought that our Equestria was different…" Celestia looked at her sister, wondering what other similarities that she had missed. If the Changelings existed, then it would change everything.
"Different?" Chrysalis asked.
"The book mentioned many names." Celestia looked back at Chrysalis, focusing on the situation and away from the hypotheticals that one could spend ages trying to solve. "None of them were familiar to us. Yours was among them."
"Mine? Who else?" Chrysalis was too young to really see just how strange such a thing was, for her name to appear in a journal from another universe entirely. Still, she asked the question.
"Yours…" Luna spoke slowly, keeping a careful watch on Chrysalis for any hint of recognition. For any reaction at all, actually. "Discord, Tirek... and others."
Chrysalis shook her head. She didn't recognize them, nor did she see why she maybe should. She was a unique being after all, not a straight copy of somepony else from another dimension.
"It doesn't matter in the end," Celestia said, part relieved, the other part disappointed. For a moment, she had thought that she would have gotten more answers to the questions that had been rattling around in her head. "You're a... Rachni Queen?"
"Yes?" Chrysalis asked, not seeing where she was going with her questions.
"Interesting." Chewing on her lip, Celestia looked over Chrysalis' body, making the young Rachni shift uncomfortably.
"Why's that interesting?" Noticing Chrysalis discomfort, Riley drew the Princesses' attention to herself.
"What does the word Changeling mean to you?" Celestia ignored Riley, instead asking another question.
Chrysalis shook her head, the word unfamiliar and foreign to her. It meant nothing.
"No reason." Celestia finally drew her gaze away from Chrysalis, and the Rachni Queen relaxed ever so slightly.
"A lost race of Equestrians." Luna answered when she realized her sister had no intention of speaking further on the subject. She had no such reserve however, always having been the rasher of the two. "You must have been taken off the planet before the sphere was put in place."
Chrysalis just blinked, her mind furiously trying to process that, she didn't have any clue about how she was supposed to respond, much less feel.
"That's only part of the reason why I wanted to speak with you in private." Riley spoke up, feeling the nervousness and anxiety rolling off of Chrysalis in waves. She had no way to know that what she was feeling actually was from Chrysalis, and not a figurative statement. She was the only one in the room that the Rachni Queen fully trusted after all, and Chrysalis had latched onto her emotionally the moment the Princesses had walked onto the ship.
"There's more?" Celestia couldn't imagine what else there could possibly be. Today had been momentous, and it had given her a lot to think about. For there to be something else...
"I'd say so, yeah." Riley glanced away, unsure of what she should say next. There was no instruction manual or anyone she could turn to for advice about how to broach this topic. She was in the wild lands, forging a new path, just like she always seemed to be.
It was becoming rather tiring, actually.
"Well, if it's as momentous as this little reunion has been, then we can't wait." The sarcasm in Luna's voice was palpable, and Chrysalis wilted a little. "Please, continue."
"Chrysalis, this is kind of your story to tell." Riley spoke up when she realized that the Rachni Queen was lost in her own thoughts.
Jolting back to reality, Chrysalis gulped, meeting Luna's eyes which were eagerly curious for whatever she might say.
"There's a message," Chrysalis began, stumbling over her words. She felt oddly breathless, and it seemed like the room was closing in on her. She tried to ignore all of that, continuing on, "it's been a part of my species racial memory for so long that we can't even remember where it came from. It was a message for Commander Shepard... and for you, I suppose."
"Me?" That caught Luna's interest. A message for her, not her sister? That was almost unheard of, especially during occasions as momentous as this one was turning out to be. Celestia was the public face of Equestria to the rest of the galaxy after all. "Why me?"
"W-Well, it has to do with you, specifically." Chrysalis pawed at the floor nervously.
"You have a message for me from how long ago? Is that even possible?" Luna realized that for Chrysalis to have forgotten (and by extension the rest of her race) where and when the memory had come from could only mean a vast amount of time had passed since that moment.
"Oh, it's possible, and you're going to want to hear it." Riley crossed her arms, leaning back against the railing that protected the holo-projector at the back of the room.
Luna hesitated, wondering just what was making Riley act so serious. "Very well... go on."
Chrysalis glanced away, but from the corner of her eye she saw Riley at her encouragingly. Sighing, she began to speak. "The daughter of the night princess still lives. You must find her if you want to save the galaxy from extinction."
For just a moment, Luna's heart skipped a beat and the world seemed to come crashing down all around her. Her ears folded back against her head, and her pupils shrunk until they were little more than pinpricks. She couldn't find the words to speak, the peacefulness that she'd forged for herself and around herself for a thousand years disappearing in an instant. She couldn't think. She couldn't breathe. The briefing room felt like it was closing in all around her.
"W-What?" Celestia was the one who was finally able to speak, knowing her sister wasn't going to be able to do much of anything for a bit. Like Luna, she had spent the last thousand years mourning the loss of her niece. Little Aurora had been one of the most amazing foals that she'd ever known, sweet, kind, and so carefree. She'd never caused too much trouble or threw a fit.
That she had died as a result of a fight between the two of them had broken both of the Princesses hearts in ways that still had yet to fully heal.
"I know it sounds unbelievable-" Shepard began, but Celestia interrupted her.
"Unbelievable?" Celestia choked back a sob, shaking her head. "I saw her die myself! This…"
She turned her head to look at at her sister, wanting to protect her, to shield her from whatever this was, but she knew deep down that there was nothing she could do. Instead, she directed her anger on the ones who'd brought up such painful memories.
Before she had a chance though, Shepard held up a hand, stopping her.
"I know how crazy it sounds, but... For what it's worth, I believe her." Shepard spoke in a normal tone of voice, but somehow her presence filled the entire room. Celestia had to force herself from taking a step backwards, away from the human. It was a feeling she'd never had before, and it scared her.
"If that's the truth, then who gave you the message?" Celestia asked. Her thoughts were a jumble, but she was careful to not let any of it slip past the mask she kept up.
"I don't know." Chrysalis was surprised to find herself talking, but for some reason she couldn't stop herself. Her heart raced, the edges of her vision dimming. She tried to act courageous, but it wasn't anything more than a show, and even she didn't believe it. "It happened so long ago that it's just... gone. The message was the only thing that lasted."
"Of course." Celestia nodded, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "That's so believable. It's the only explanation."
Chrysalis ducked her head at that, scared again, remembering just who she was in a room with. Celestia took a single step forward, but before she could do anything, everyone stopped at the sound of a voice full of sadness, grief, and more than a little bit of anger.
"Let me see."
They all turned to look at Luna. No one made any other moves. Luna stalked towards Chrysalis, her eyes boring holes straight through her, making the young Queen shrink back in fear.
"Let. Me. See." Luna growled out the words, grinding her teeth together. Her mind was solely focused on one thought, and she could still remember the feel of the torn, bloody blanket so long, long ago.
"Let her see what?" Shepard asked, seeing that Chrysalis was unable to form a coherent sentence on her own.
Luna's voice was shaky and uneven, but somehow, she managed to keep herself together. Celestia couldn't even imagine how. She wasn't sure she was doing as good of a job at it as her little sister.
"Let me see the memory." Luna stopped just a hoofs length away from the Rachni Queen. "I will decide for myself the truth of what you say. We will go into your mind and see what your memories hold."
Chrysalis was so surprised by her that she forgot to be afraid for just a moment. "You can do that?"
"Yes," was the only answer Luna gave. Her face was emotionless, not even a twitch passing over her muzzle. "Will you allow this?"
Chrysalis looked to Shepard for any idea of what to do. Riley just gave a single nod of her head, silently saying you can trust them. Chrysalis got the message, looking back at Luna and flinching under her gaze, Chrysalis meekly agreed with a nod of her head.
"Very well." Without any preamble, Luna's horn ignited with a storm of magic and before any of them even realized what was happening, the entire world went black.
Reality crashed back down around them with the roar of crashing waves and winds through the trees. Riley hit the ground with a startled yelp, followed immediately by Chrysalis, who landed in a sprawl on top of her. For a moment, Riley waited for the pain to hit her, but nothing came and she realized that she was lying in sand.
It took her another moment to realize that she was lying on a beach, just a few feet away from the shore.
Chrysalis rolled off her with a groan, getting up on all four of her legs, and as soon as she was off her, Riley sat up. She blinked in surprise at what she saw.
An ocean stretched out before her, glowing vibrant orange and shimmering violet in the light of two setting suns.
"What the hell?" Riley muttered, standing. She went to brush off whatever sand might have clung to her clothes only to find herself completely spotless. There wasn't so much as a speck of dust on her, and she noted that she'd never worn anything more immaculate in her entire life.
It was a little embarrassing, actually.
A quick look around the beach revealed that Chrysalis and Luna were standing just a few feet away from her, looking much more put together and acting unsurprised by whatever it was that had just happened. She did note that Celestia looked a little annoyed at Luna though, something she hadn't ever seen before in all her time spent at the Royal Palace with Twilight.
"We are in your memories," Celestia said, looking meaningfully at Chrysalis, who was looking around at her surroundings in sheer and utter awe. It was as if a devout follower had just stepped foot for the first time into their most holy of places. Mahadobi. Jerusalem. Stonehenge. Mecca.
It was as if she was there.
"This is…" Chrysalis voice was chock full of emotion, and she wondered how she was able to stay standing. "This is the homeworld."
"It's what your ancestors remember of it, yes," Luna confirmed, unmoved by whatever emotion Chrysalis was feeling. Chrysalis didn't pay it any attention.
Ignoring her, Chrysalis dug her claws into the sand, looking up at the clouds, painted so vividly that for a moment she wonders if she had actually been here herself. She couldn't have, but that couldn't be. This was the first time she'd ever been off Noveria since she'd first been hatched.
"It's…" Chrysalis looked at Luna, almost as thankful to her as she was to Shepard for freeing her. This was something she had never thought she'd see. Something that she'd never dreamed of experiencing.
"It's beautiful." No matter how hard she tried, Chrysalis couldn't keep the tears from coming, a goofy smile crossing her muzzle. "Thank you."
"I'm only here to see the memory." Luna ignored Chrysalis' gratitude, instead looking meaningfully past her to what could only be an exceptionally tall Changeling. She looked far more Equestrian than Chrysalis, but different than anything that any of them had ever seen. Instead of fur, she had a dark black carapace, with a dark green mane and antenna that surprisingly looked like a small crown. Her legs were covered in holes, as if someone had come along and cored pieces out of her. "A true Changeling Queen."
Chrysalis took a step back in surprise, noticing her for the first time.
Standing next to the Changeling was a Rachni Queen, completely different than anything Chrysalis had seen before. Dark red, almost brown, the Queen was much more insectile than other the Changeling Queen or Chrysalis, but there was true intelligence lurking within her. The Queen looked about as different as an Ape to an Asari.
The two Queens stood staring at each other, frozen, though still breathing, unsure of what was happening to them. They didn't so much as glance in the direction of their spectators, and why would they? It was only a memory after all.
Between them, there was a presence, a dark shadow. Riley was just barely able to make out a figure present in the center of the shadow, but any actual detail beyond that was missing. It was if the memory had been… removed, for lack of a better word. She had to focus on it to keep her gaze from wandering. It was if whatever it was didn't want to be seen, her vision sliding off it. This wasn't what had happened in the memory, but it was all that Chrysalis could remember.
"Do you understand what I am offering?" The Shadow asked, its voice just as indistinct as its identity. Riley couldn't tell whether it was male or female, much less what species it was at all. For all she knew, it was something so long extinct that no record of it had been left for the galaxy to find.
"We... We believe so." The Rachni Queen spoke in what could only be described as a song, speaking in no language that any of them had ever heard, but the intent behind them were perfectly understandable as if there was a translator whispering into their ears. The tune she sang to was hauntingly beautiful, full of sadness and loss, but there was a hint of hopeful resignation. "You would truly save us from the long dark?"
"Your extinction?" The Shadow gave a nod, though Riley couldn't say how she knew that. It wasn't as if she could see its face. "Yes. Yes I would, in exchange for what I ask."
"We do not know…" The Rachni Queen shuffled nervously, but without what could be called a face, Riley couldn't fully tell what she was feeling. "We are... scared."
"I understand." The Shadow was sympathetic, trying to be as conciliatory as possible. "You don't have to be afraid. It won't hurt."
"You would do this? Why?" The Changeling Queen asked, thankful, but ever so suspicious.
"I've told you already. There's no more stalling. My time grows short. Make your decision now." The Shadow spoke urgently, but not unkindly.
The Changeling Queen thought things over, big green eyes studying the Shadow before glancing away. Turning, she looked over and seemed to meet eyes with Chrysalis. No matter what it seemed like though, it was only an illusion. She was just staring at the sunset through Chrysalis, without any clue that there was anyone else on the beach other the three of them.
Taking a deep breath, the Changeling Queen turned to look at the Rachni Queen, staring at her destiny. When she spoke to the Shadow, she didn't look away from her. "Do it. Save my children. Before I change my mind."
"Very well." The Shadow clasped its hands together, and the entire beach exploded in blinding flash of light and sound.
Riley felt a tingling of power, familiar in its rush and surprising in its appearance. Magic. The Shadow had just used magic. That could mean only one of two things. Either it was Equestrian, or magic wasn't unique to Equestria.
When the light cleared, Riley took a step back in surprise. Where once the two Queens stood, now there was only one. The First Queen of the Rahni. A merging of two species into one. She looked like she could be Chrysalis' older sister.
The First Queen looked down at herself, seeing herself for what she was for the first time. Everything was new to her after all, and it was almost completely overwhelming.
"It's done," the Shadow said, looking down at the Queen.
"I don't... What happened to them?" She looked around for any sign of the other two Queens, but there was nothing besides their tracks in the sand.
"They gave their lives to create you." The Shadow sounded respectful, and even a little understanding. It reached out a hand and put it comfortingly on top of the new Queen's head. "You could consider them your mothers."
"Mothers…" The Queen rolled the word around in her mouth, testing the way it sounded before latching onto the first thing the Shadow had said. They had given their lives to create her. "Why?"
"To ensure the future propagation of their species." The Shadow sounded regretful, but not apologetic. Whatever was happening, it believed that it had done the right thing for everyone involved.
"Extinction." THe Queen didn't ask, understanding filling her as she remembered. She knew everything that her mothers had known.
The four observers suddenly understood. Both the Changelings and the Rachni were destined for extinction in just a few centuries unless something drastic was done. Neither were suited for long term survival, but together… they might have just had a chance, which had been borne out through the survival of Chrysalis.
"And now for my side of the agreement." The Shadow spoke, finally sounding apologetic.
"Yes, of course…" The Queen nodded in understanding, turning her eyes towards the beach.
"When the time comes, say this: the daughter of the night princess still lives. You must find her if you want to save the galaxy from extinction." The Shadow, though his shape was still as indistinct and slippery as before, looked straight at Shepard, Chrysalis, Celestia, and Luna, and unlike the Changeling Queen, it actually was looking at them. They couldn't see its face but somehow they knew it was smiling.
"And how will I know who to give it to?" The Queen asked.
"It won't be you, and the one who says it will know." This time, it spoke directly to their observers. "The truth will come in strange, far places."
And with that completed, the Shadow ejected them from the dream with an unbelievably powerful burst of magic and power, reaching them even though more time and space than most beings could ever fathom separated them.
Just like that, the four of them found themselves back in the briefing room. Even through her midnight blue coat, Riley could see that Luna was as pale as the surface of the moon, realizing that Chrysalis had been speaking the truth.
"I... I need to think this over." She stumbled over her words, sounding more like a foal than she had in thousands of years. Turning, she looked over at Celestia. "I'll be on the ship."
Igniting her magic, Luna tried unsuccessfully to keep the shaking from her hooves, but when she tried to desperately teleport away, she found to her great surprise that she couldn't.
Shepard winced in understanding.
"Sorry. The ship is warded against all spells," Shepard explained, apologetic. "If you step onto the dock, Princess, you can teleport."
Luna only gave a single jerky nod before retreating from the briefing room as fast as she could, her hooves echoing loudly off the floor.
As the door closed behind her, Celestia looked over Shepard and Chrysalis, both of them still shaken from what they had just seen.
"Riley…" Celestia began.
Shepard ducked her head, feeling awful about what Luna had to go through, and feeling like she was responsible for it.
"Thank you." Celestia finally said. "Luna has been living a half life ever since... well, ever since the accident. To know there's still hope… I should go after her."
And just like that Celestia left the briefing room, and once the door hissed shut, Chrysalis and Shepard were left alone. Chrysalis fell to the floor in relief, her legs having given out on her.
"I think that went well." Shepard finally said after a long moment.
The events of the past hour hitting her, Chrysalis toppled over to the ground and started crying in relief.
"Come on. Let's get you somewhere to rest." Helping her off the ground, Shepard led Chrysalis out of the briefing room.
Still shaken from what she'd seen of her mother, Liara was grateful to have made it back to the ship. She was exhausted.
The airlock slid open with a quiet hiss and just as they were about to enter, Liara and the little Rachni find themselves almost bowled over as Princess Luna galloped out. The second her hooves touched the dock outside of the ship, she teleported away with a crack.
Smooshed up against the wall, Liara blinked in confusion. She glanced down at the little Changeling, who just looked up at her and chirped, having no answers whatsoever.
That little bit of confusion over with, the two of them stepped onboard. The Normandy began its routine cleaning scan, which they could do nothing but stand and bear through it. As they were walking down the neck of the Normandy towards the CIC and the stairs, they once more had to jump out of the way as this time Princess Celestia came galloping towards them. She was at least polite enough to shout over her shoulder, apologetic, but unwilling to stop. "Sorry! We're having a bit of a rough day."
And with that rushed apology out of the way, Celestia charged out of the airlock.
Spitfire and Joker looked back from their seats where they'd been performing diagnostics ever since they'd docked with the Citadel. The life of a pilot was never much fun after all.
"Was that a pony?" Joker asked, confused and bewildered.
"Those were the Princesses…" Spitfire raised an eyebrow. "I didn't even know they were on board."
"Those are quite the eyes you've got there, Shitfire. Nothing gets past you." Joker laughed, cracking himself up.
"If you ever call me that again," Spitfire's eyes narrowed, and she shook her head. "I will make your life hell."
"Yeah? How you gonna do that?" Joker was unimpressed, confident in his superiority.
"I'll let everyone know what your nickname at the Academy was."
Joker went even paler than normal, suddenly very scared. "You wouldn't!"
"I won't if you keep your mouth…" She trailed off when she noticed Liara and the little Rachni staring them, her wings fluffing up in surprise. The fact that Liara's face was stained with tear tracks didn't help matters at all.
"Apologies, doc." Joker waved at her, unconcerned with the fact that she'd just seen their entire banter session. "Just a friendly spat. Nothing to see here."
"Doctor," Spitfire managed to say, much more respectfully than Joker she was thankful for, ignoring the blush that was burning through her cheeks.
With that done, Spitfire and Joker turned back around to their workstations, pretending that nothing had just happened and they hadn't made asses of themselves in front of someone with more PhDs than they could ever dream of.
Liara stared at the back of their chairs for a few moments before deciding it wasn't worth her time. Turning, she ambled down the neck of the Normandy, ready to collapse into her bunk and sleep for what felt like the next hundred years. That was a good amount of time, wasn't it? All this would be over by then.
It should be.
It was at that moment that Liara remembered a health class from her childhood so long, long ago. That was an actual asari illness, sleeping for an incredible amount of time. It was very rare, but known to happen on occasion.
Before she knew it, she'd managed to make it through the Normandy without having to talk to anyone. Liara fell down on her cot, and a moment later, the little rachni jumped up with her, curling up next to Liara's side, nuzzling as close as possible to her as she chirped contently.
A moment passed.
A knock at the door drew both of their attentions.
"Go away!" Liara groaned.
Despite her request, the door hissed open and Liara looked over to find Riley standing in the doorway, a sheepish look on her face, her fist raised to knock.
"Oh, Commander!" Liara tried to jump out of bed, accidentally knocking the little Rachni off at the same time. Before she knew what was happening, she found herself on the floor after tripping over her.
"You okay there?" Riley asked, looking down at her as she tried to figure out what she had just seen.
"Just fine, Shepard," Liara grumbled, her face smushed into the floor.
Laughing under her breath, Shepard helped Liara up. As the Asari dusted herself off, she noticed the tear streaks stained on her face. "You okay there, doc?"
"I…" She trailed off, staring off into space. Unable to say anything else, Liara broke down in tears and pulled Shepard into a hug, desperate for contact. The Rachni chirped in confusion, but neither of them were in a position to help it.
"You okay there, Li?" Shepard asked, rubbing the Asari's back.
Taking a shuddering breath, Liara pulled away from Shepard, but only enough they could see each other's faces. "It's all just…"
Liara trailed of when she noticed Shepard staring at her with a strange look on her face, a little uncomfortable, and a little amused. "Riley? What is it?"
"Uh... you're doing it again." Shepard gestured at her, giving her a quick up and down look.
Following Riley's look, Liara glanced down at herself to find that instead of the typical scaly blue she was used to and expecting, she was pale pink and smooth.
In her sadness, she'd lost control of her newfound abilities and turned into an identical replica of Shepard. She'd been doing it ever since they'd left and had yet to figure out how to control it. The Rachni had some very interesting abilities, and it seemed like quite a few of them had transferred over to her during her transformation. Ever since Noveria, life had just been a confusing, sad mess.
Everything except for Riley, that was. The human had been the one bright spot in the entire universe, keeping her from collapsing into a complete mental and emotional breakdown.
Shepard pulled Liara back into a hug, ignoring the fact that she was pretty much just hugging herself (or at least a mirror image of herself). "It's alright, Li. We'll figure all of this out. We'll do it together."
"Together…" Liara repeated in a quiet voice.
"We can do anything together." Shepard didn't have a lot of experience comforting people, and in her head she wondered if she sounded as stupid as she thought she did.
Liara pulled back, and before she could even come up with anything in response, she found herself leaning forward and kissing Riley.
The world stopped around them, both of them frozen in surprise. Liara's own actions were enough to surprise her into transforming back into herself.
"Oh!" Eyes wide, Liara scrambled out of the room, leaving Shepard staring after her, blinking in confusion.
"Huh…" She looked down at the little Rachni, who looked just as befuddled as she did. "Did that just happen?"
The Rachni just chirped again, nuzzled against Riley's leg, then trotted out of the room after Liara.
"Yeah…" A goofy little grin spread across Shepard's face. "Cool."
Walking out of the room, there was a spring in Riley's step. The galaxy might have been falling apart all around her, but she just got kissed by a beautiful woman.
Things were looking up.