A/N: So, finally, I managed to get this done.

As usual, the EG was not totally happy with this chapter, and I'm not so much overlooking what they are saying as much as trying to find a way to incorporate it. I'm behind on this thing already and I've had to do two plot rewrites due to EG feedback, at this stage, doing a third just makes finishing things off harder.

Working on the next chapter, but if you've been in the Discord chat you'll know work is a hot mess right now, so it may be a couple of months before the next one comes out.

Read the following authors when you get a chance, you won't regret it: SLotH4, Nolanstar, Xabiar, Pallan Minerva, Aberron, TungstenCat, Exstarsis, and YukiKazami.

'My impression? Tired exasperation mixed with well-hidden but tangible self-doubt. The main reason she hasn't acted is that we're not as big a danger as GOI-545… but I suspect that if by some miracle we do triumph over them, her very first act will be to come after us. And frankly, given what she has already achieved after her "death," that should worry you.'

-Lord Baron Jonah Ashland, private communications with Maxwell Manwell

Pel sighed as the small group walked toward the transport pool staging area, glancing around out of long practice to find sniper overlooks or people who were out-of-place. Beside him, Kai Leng's stride was relaxed, but his hand never left the hilt of his sword. Although his features were hidden behind his mask, Pel could hear the stress in his voice as he spoke.

"Explain to me again why we are marching about in open spaces begging to be shot in the head."

Pel chuckled, shrugging. "C'mon, slant-eye, you know better. Bossman has always been about the drama, and Shepard is going along with it. She got rid of most of the extras, at least." He gestured to the group, where only a handful of the guards – a turian female, one of the elcor, and two asari – had accompanied the rest of the group.

He grunted as Kai didn't even respond to the taunt, glancing around again. Pel knew that wasn't a good sign – the only time Kai didn't rise to his insults was when he was in killing mode. The big man took another second to glance around.

"…Well, you can always take a shot. Problem is, be a lot of shooting back, and old girl don't look like the type you can just take out with one shot." He gestured at the mass of people in front and around them.

Ahead, C-Sec officers and a pair of Spectres led the group in the direction of a large grav-bus, while Garrus had detailed off Zaeed and Mordin to ride on the gravbikes also supplied by C-Sec as escorts, alongside no less than six more already being ridden by C-Sec Special Response. Overhead, a trio of C-Sec armored police cruisers and a Special Response gunship circled, scanning in all directions. Behind them was a small group of the Palavanus Ceremonial Guard as well as a handful of justicars, escorting a limping and bandaged but upbeat Uressa T'Shora and Thanix Palavanus.

Pel gestured to these airily as they approached the bus. "Sides, with all the guards and shit, no one has much of a shot." He grinned behind his helmet as he could almost feel Kai's withering glance, and the man's voice was deadpan.

"I am not even a good sniper and I can pick out at least four positions for direct raking fire with heavy weapons – or an augmented Straekaar cannon." The last was said in the closest Kai got to levity, and Pel laughed, remembering the mission where he'd used the frigate cannon against unarmored STG goons.

The bus's side slid down, turning into a ramp that the group walked up, sitting in comfortable chairs along the side of the bus. C-Sec police formed a cordon to keep the following crowds at a distance, and Pel took off his helmet and set his Phaeston rifle down between his legs as he sat. Kai sat on his left, placing his sheathed monoblade onto his lap, while the turian female in the group sat on his right, placing her lance cannon next to her against the corner bulkhead.

It took about five or six minutes to get everyone settled – the damned giant-ass krogan and the elcor had to have positions adjusted for their bulk – and then the sidewall slanted up and sealed them in, as the bus began moving in the direction of the Second Towers, the Presidium location for member governmental offices outside of the Embassies. Pel knew that they'd actually not go to the Second Towers, but a side trip to some place in the Upper Wards, but beyond that, the route was a mystery to him.

Pel sighed as he saw Kai had gone into meditation, leaving him with no one to talk to. Even as he did so, the turian female half-turned her head, gazing at the turian rifle he had for several seconds before speaking in a low, soft tone.

The voice struck him nearly numb, sounding the same as it did twenty years ago. "I am more than a little amused at you still carrying turian rifles, given who you work for."

Pel turned his head to face her, saying nothing for long seconds. "…I could say I only fuck with the best shit, but that would be a lie, now wouldn't it? The fuck are you even here for? Sign up just to see the damage, Exy?"

The turian female shook her head, tapping her armor collar and taking off her helmet. Xhealea looked mostly as she did so long ago, with the exception of a long band of fractured, damaged plating that crossed her face, leaving one mandible broken and an eye replaced with black cybernetic inserts. Her old face paint was gone, all that remained was a single stripe of red trimmed in white – a pattern approximately meaning 'betrayal of duty.'

Her voice was quiet as she spoke, her gaze fixed on the wall of the bus. "I was… thrown out of the Hierarchy. Criminal charges were dismissed, but my Family disowned me. I had no way to support myself and none of the 'honorable' independent mercenary companies would take me. So, I became a merc, shooting people and training goons for various gangs on Omega, Ilium, and some other places. Most recently, I was working for a data hacker on Omega itself – after the mess on Omega, my employer was dead and I was apparently on Aria's tork-hunting list. Cerberus was signing up people for their projects, quietly. I joined up."

The soft voice of Kai Leng sounded in the pause after she spoke. "And you just happened to be here, of all places. How oddly convenient. You've done enough damage already."

Xhealea gave a turian snort, flicking both mandibles, the broken one doing so erratically. "I didn't do the assignments, someone named 'Kelly Chambers' did. And I wouldn't have taken this one if they gave me options. I'm well aware of the damage I caused."

Pel gave a grimace at that, and Kai's voice became even more cuttingly harsh. "Your regrets mean nothing. I should have cut your lying alien head off the moment you started acting odd, but I was distracted in my own pain. This time I am not."

Xhealea gave a tilt of her head, mandible flicking in and out. "I'm well aware of what I did, and what it cost Pel. I'm also here because of what it cost me. Unlike the tramp that betrayed you, I actually paid the price for my stupidity, Leng. But if you really want to test me, we should do that after the whole escort gig."

He leaned forward. "Any time, witch."

The two glared at each other, and then Pel gently pushed Kai back into his seat.

"I appreciate it, but… I got this." He turned to look at her directly. "So, if you ain't here just to see what's left, why did you show up?

She leaned back and sighed. "I didn't come to see what damage I wrought with my stupidity. I won't pretend I didn't want to… see if you were okay. But I didn't expect to be this close, and, well… I heard that you had died, and later whispers and rumors that you were alive but in Cerberus."

Her good eye closed, her voice dropping. "I figured that was a pretty final statement on how you felt, all things considered. No point in expecting otherwise."

Pel said nothing, while Kai's blank cybernetic gaze fixed on the turian female as the bus made a sharp turn. "Your statement is exactly why your sudden reappearance is unwelcome. If you try anything—"

She met his gaze calmly. "I am here because I believe in what Shepard is saying and doing. I am here because I got tired of standing on the sidelines and watching people get used, murdered, and destroyed. I saw ugly things on Omega the past twenty years, and all of it just reinforced in my mind that our entire galactic civilization is sick to the core. I made a fool of myself and hurt a lot of people. I'm here because Shepard is trying to fix things, not to… not to mess things up any more."

She looked back at Kai. "I'm not here to be cursed at, but if I do anything stupid, I expect you to do what you should have done back then and cut my head off."

Pel shook his head, and Kai shot him a glance before leaning back. "I begin to remember why you liked this one." His voice held an odd note to it, and his features lost some of their angry lines.

Pel's voice was tired. "…I'm glad you made it out okay. You'll understand if I'm not super thrilled to see you here, you know. But I never…" There was a ragged edge to his voice, and Xhealea glanced away as he trailed off.

A moment later, her voice was calm. "For now, I am here to do a job. Given what has already happened so far, I would expect more trouble sometime in the next few days. Once the situation is calmer and we're not in the sights of every single slaver, ganger, and criminal who stands to lose everything to Shepard, we can talk."

She gave a faint smile. "But there's not a lot to say, Pel. Nothing's changed."

Pel looked at her. "Do you wish you'd done things differently?"

She gave a bitter laugh at that. "Yes, of course. Regret and misery won't fix the damage, though. How much scar tissue did my stupid selfish actions leave on you? On my family? On my superiors, who suffered due to my ignorance?"

Pel's voice dropped. "Dunno. How much did it leave on you, Exy?"

She didn't answer him for a second, and then spoke quietly. "The difference was I deserved mine, Pel. The scars on the outside aren't the worst."

He waited for her to say more, but she simply laid her head back against the seat, closing her good eye. After a long moment, he leaned back in the seat as well, lost in his own thoughts.


The place where Shepard was to meet with the High Lords' representative was the same building in the Upper Wards where she had once met Prince James during the aftermath of taking down Benezia. As it had been back then, it was guarded by packs of X-operatives, as well as a pair of what looked like augmented RRU teams. Several of the N7s she saw she recognized, but as she exited the bus trailed by Liara and her other allies, she kept her gaze fixed forward, and concentrated on walking calmly. The radiating lines of aching pain in her back didn't help that, but she took a deep breath as she moved forwards.

Liara walked beside her, gently taking her arm. "The pain in your back is getting worse."

Sara gave a wince. "I'm sorry, hon."

The asari made a waving motion with her free hand. "Pain is sadly a familiar companion at this point, Sara. I am just worried about your health. Do we need to do this today, before you have had any in-depth medical treatment?"

Behind them, Mordin gave a small huff. "Lacking facilities to perform in-depth operations on pinnace. Ironic Gesture's facilities technically sufficient, but no diagnostics. Complete repair would require base facilities. Plans to add this exist but not completed prior to trip, not expecting heavy casualties during photo op."

Sara nodded along with that. "I kinda figured. I mean, the heavy stuff at the base is too big to fit on the Normandy, putting a copy on the big ship is kind of pointless since I probably won't use it much. As for doing this now, we need to strike while the iron is hot. I'd rather get it all over with and know where we stand than be in limbo any longer." Her lips quirked. "Plus, my boss is in there."

The massive doors were opened by the heavily armed agents standing to either side, and beyond them was a pair of naval lieutenants in dress uniforms. The one on the left spoke in quiet tones. "Please follow me. Your security team will not be needed."

Grunt immediately scowled at this, but Shepard put a hand on his massive forearm as she turned. "This shouldn't take long. I'll be back in a bit. Garrus, while you guys are waiting, go ahead and make sure the Ironic Gesture has the eezo core still spun up. Depending on what happens here and at the Council, we may not even stay the night."

She turned to face the two officers. "I will be accompanied by my wife. I presume that is not an issue?"

The other lieutenant shook her head, her black hair waving. "No, milady. Please follow us."

The corridor beyond was the same as Shepard remembered, blank armor plate pierced irregularly by doors, ending in a massive set of double armaplast doors embossed with the seal of the Systems Alliance.

They opened, revealing a wide circular room she hadn't seen the last time she was here, with various people sitting at a semicircular table. In the middle of the table sat Prince Charles Windsor, his aged features set in a hardened mask, flanked on his left by a Commandant she didn't recognize and on his right by Jonah Ashland with his characteristic pitiless and empty expression. Further to the left were Commissars Jiong and D'Alte, David Anderson, Ashley Williams, and, of all people, her old squadmate David Jackson. While the expression of the Commissars was blank, Anderson's face split in a beaming smile as she walked in, Ashley looked worried and curious, and Baby Blue merely gave a smirk.

The right side of the table was taken up by Prince James and his daughter Eliza, both looking pensive in plain gray suits that were not well tailored. Shepard ground her teeth at the drawn look of pain on the younger woman and the hollow-eyed despair of the Prince, and the cheap fabric of their clothes only drove home how fucking petty the High Lords really were.

Next to them was General von Grath, Doctor Chakwas – both who grinned as they saw her – and surprisingly, Admiral Ahern himself, looking a mix of pleased and disgruntled.

She came to a stop in the middle of the room, Liara standing next to her, and gave a shallow bow. Speaking in the formal Japanese of the Modes of Address, she smiled. "Good morning, milords. As you so politely requested, I am here."

Prince Charles' features curdled as he responded, his voice heavy and slow and his Japanese accented oddly, which meant he wasn't using a translator device. "Good morning… Baroness. And to you as well, Lady Liara. The purpose of this meeting is threefold. To ascertain and ensure you are who you claim to be, to determine what exactly you want from the Systems Alliance, and to define the terms and conditions of your… relationship with us."

She nodded. "Might we sit down? My wife recently had cybernetic surgery performed on her legs."

Charles gestured, and a pair of burly Commissar lancers brought out two heavily padded chairs identical to the ones the persons at the table sat at. Shepard sat down followed by Liara, who gave a faint sigh of relief as she stretched her legs out. After a moment of checking to make sure she was okay, she looked back at the Prince.

"I am ready."

What followed was almost twenty-five minutes of questions about her past from various people, mostly involving conversations with no other participants or otherwise private ones. More than a few were 'gotcha-style' questions, or ones that only Shepard would have had any information on. The sharpest ones came from Ahern, while most of the ones from von Grath and the rest were easier.

Shepard answered them all easily, and after a final battery of questions from Commandant Chisholm, the latter nodded. "Your Grace, I cannot fathom by any method known to us how anyone but Sara Shepard could have had such an in-depth knowledge of so many private conversations. Furthermore, we've had EDI modeling her facial expressions, body kinesthetics and motions and the match is one hundred percent."

Shepard glanced at Liara, wondering what 'EDI' was, but her wife's emotions indicated she was just as baffled, even if her expression was coolly blank.

Prince Charles nodded, while Jonah Ashland merely steepled his fingers and spoke, his voice as gray and grim as his clothes. "Very good. Now that we have agreed that you are who you claim, we come to the sticking point – what exactly you want. Your… tantrum in your call to the High Lords was not very clear. I'm aware you have already stated some terms, but we need proper clarification on what is expected… and what we in turn can expect."

Sara nodded back. "My 'wants' are simple. First, for the High Lords – and by extension, SA High Command – to actually listen to what I am saying for once and to act on it. Second, for the SA to act decisively against the Broker Network operations in their space."

Ashland nodded. "You'll forgive my ignorance on this, but exactly what is the message you wanted to convey?"

She leaned back. "I've prepared an OSD with all the details to back up what I am saying, but the gist of it is simple. My death was not done by 'geth,' nor was it accidental. It was deliberate, with the provided data about geth anchorages being fake, the idea to send me in the Normandy being planted by Broker agents, the Normandy itself sabotaged by Broker agents and a tracking device implanted in the hull. The Broker planned to give my corpse to the Collectors – we are not exactly sure why yet. The Collectors have proven their hostility but we are now convinced they themselves are little more than agents or scouts for the Reapers."

She shrugged. "We also found evidence that the Broker was making money off the colony attacks, based on financial transactions he made. Vigil has found records in the Vol Banking system that indicate the Broker is moving a ton of assets out to the galactic rim and that he is also tied up in more crime and slavery than everyone believes."

Ashland arched an eyebrow. "He is defined by dealing in secrets, expecting the Broker to be clean in that regard is naïve."

Shepard tamped down on her anger and smiled thinly. "I grasp that. But this is street crime, straight up drug production and slavery, not tech-war espionage. I've tied him to a lot of the gangs on Earth causing a lot of disruption in the arcologies too. I'm sure shutting a lot of that down is both important to you and I, for different reasons."

Charles Windsor frowned. "While that is certainly off-putting, and indeed worthy of reacting to, I'm not really seeing a link between what the Collectors are doing now and the Reapers, or how the Broker ties into this."

Liara spoke. "It should be obvious. The Collector attacks on Horizon employed husks. We are aware of the disaster that befell Alliance R&D at Mnemosyne, Your Grace, so you know full well that the Reapers directly employed husks. The geth did so using Reaper technology and so have the Collectors. And at every site, the Broker had deployed agents to recon the worlds in question weeks or days before the Collector attacks."

Ashland looked at Windsor, who grimaced. "I'll not insult you by asking how exactly you know of Supernova-Blackflash materials. I'll say instead that it is possible – not likely, maybe, but possible – that the Collectors aren't Reaper allies but only using their tech?"

Shepard shrugged. "We don't know one hundred percent. But we already have Collector and husk corpses – from Horizon – and those match the tech on the husks from Eden Prime. I get that some people will want harder confirmation than that. That's why we plan to capture a Collector ship and use it to access where they come from – the Omega-4 Relay. We will need assistance from the SA and the Council at that point, but we expect we'll find enough evidence to convince everyone at that point, as well as hopefully rescue the captive colonists."

"As to the why…" She exhaled. "There has been a large amount of speculation as to why the Collectors are kidnapping humans from wildcat colonies. It is the assumption that whatever they are doing is not in the best interests of humanity or galactic society, and that in any case their blatant destruction of Horizon should show they are a threat. The geth were already proven tools of the Reapers and what they did to Ilium is no less horrible than the Collectors killing a star."

She paused, glancing around, and the Commandant she didn't recognize spoke. "You seem to imply they killed you for a reason, and it obviously took a great deal of effort to do so. Why would the Collectors or Reapers be interested in you?"

She smiled. "The only thing I can think of is that I have a complete understanding of the Prothean language via the Beacon mess in my head, and that my involvement led to the death of Nazara. There may be some other reason – Vigil has hinted at that but not said directly what it might be – but I know it's a real thing. When I was on Horizon trying to beat the Collectors back, one of them… scanned me or something and knew who I was. That was when they suddenly fell back and detonated the star."

Ashland and the Prince traded looks. "You are implying the Broker is then directly in league with the Collectors, the Collectors are Reaper allies, and thus the Broker is working for the Reapers? That seems… unlikely."

Liara made a sign of siari disagreement. "As unlikely as my mother, and a galactic hero like Saren doing so? Indoctrination is a constant, dangerous threat that is subtle and could be why this is being done. Given his proclivity for acquiring exotic items, the Broker may be indoctrinated by Reaper tech, or he could simply have decided to try to make money off the situation."

Sara nodded. "Either way, dealing with him now is better than waiting around."

Prince Charles sighed. "Very well. Is there anything else, aside from my brother and his daughter?"

She leaned forward, spreading her hands. "What I need from the SA isn't very much, directly. I need you to make a much larger effort to support and protect the wildcats. Cerberus will do what we can, but our numbers are limited and, in any case, we don't have the infrastructure to support a fleet to defend them all. I also need the SA to get off their ass and start preparing for total war with the Reapers – all that data the Shadow Broker has been giving you is fabricated and there are thousands of Reapers out there.

"In return for the SA doing that – and not doing anything to make my life harder – we're prepared to be cooperative. At a minimum, that means forwarding you all intelligence we take in – and given we plan to take out the Shadow Broker, that's a lot of intel. We will provide technical schematics and plans for various useful technologies Vigil has provided us that are on the bleeding-edge of tech, including cyclonic barrier shielding and the exact design specs for full-spectrum visual cloaking that the salarians use. Cerberus will act to reduce piracy in human border space and in the Attican Traverse as well as counter any hostile moves the Batarian Empire makes.

"Finally, we do envision having to take out the Collectors. We've come to… an agreement of sorts with Aria, involving access and eezo mining. The former is useless, but we're willing to act as an intermediary for the SA with Aria for additional eezo, and to make sure to keep it quiet so no one else finds out. The cost of the eezo in question is almost twenty percent lower than the rates the asari sell it to us now and forty percent below the Citadel index cost. I'm sure the SA will be interested in that."

Prince Charles exchanged glances with Jonah Ashland, then the blue eyes flicked back in her direction. "I see. The eezo offer and intelligence is… very helpful and likely to be appreciated. Technical specifications of cutting-edge tech are always helpful. The rest is… tricky. Going back to your second request, the SA entering into direct conflict with the Broker is likely to produce a great deal of backlash. We can probably handle that, but it produces political detritus and openings for the STG or other parties to take action. As for increasing our fleet, we are already at peacetime capacity for shipbuilding at this point. We are just now laying the keels for a 7th Fleet."

She shook her head. "You aren't in peacetime, Prince Charles. That is what I am trying to tell you. Vigil's best guess as to why the Reapers haven't already come and wiped us flat is that they're busy somewhere else, and the Collectors are just keeping an eye on things. But according to him we may only have two years until they show up – and you've already wasted two years not preparing due to the Broker's bad intel. You need to spin up to wartime production levels right now."

Ashland interjected. "Even assuming we take that as a factual, throwing any support behind this idea has a number of knock-on effects we need to think about. The Shadow Broker does not strike me as the sort of being willing to simply lay down and be taken out. He could release disruptive secrets on various state agencies, banking information, or use his networks to generate vast amounts of chaos. Even assuming you are successful at doing so, my concern is hardly lessened – we not only know what kind of fallout will come of this but what additional blackmail may be placed into your hands."

Shepard inclined her head. "I've thought of that, Your Grace. Quite a bit. My initial impulse was to simply blow the hell out of the ship and let that legacy die, but I don't have any idea what information he has on Collectors or Reapers. The Broker is gonna have something on them because he will want some kind of ace in the hole if they turn on him.

"As for the aftermath… honestly, I don't need any other blackmail on you and yours. I'm sure you are leery of what might or might not happen when we take the Shadow Broker down, but Cerberus is capable of handling that aspect on its own. And if other parties try to 'take advantage of the chaos' I am more than likely to take a dim view of that and use the intel we gather to put them back in their place."

The two High Lords traded glances, then Ashland shrugged as Windsor frowned. "What if going after the Collectors sets the Reapers off? Wouldn't it be wiser to build up our strength without bearding the dragon in its den?"

Shepard folded her arms. "Not really. I mean, our tech does jack-shit all to Reapers in a straight fight – and that was against one. Kyles can hurt them, but the numbers alone are hard to deal with. Vigil is pretty sure the Collector Base will have technology we can use and adapt to fight them with. Aside from that, we don't know what the Collectors are planning, but the fact they've been sampling the genetics of every known species in Citadel Space is probably indicative that they are cooking up something to weaken us. All of their tech is biotechnological in design, and I really don't want to think of what to do if they spread some kind of virus."

She glanced at Liara, feeling her wife's slight irritation, and the asari spoke in a calm and even tone belying her emotions. "There is the additional caveat that it is unlikely the Reapers are not already fully aware of what is going on – that is the entire purpose, I suspect, of the Collectors. If we let them merely occupy us and keep us from building up our military force out of fear and hesitance, then we have already lost. If we remove the Collectors, we remove their advanced warning and can build up our forces without the Reapers being prepared. Most importantly, Vigil's statement that the Reapers are distracted should be taken with the understanding that the Reapers have been performing this series of events for millions of years. They may be capable of getting here in two years, but they may also take a decade or a century. We must make use of all the time we have now to maximize our chances."

Windsor nodded slowly. "A cogent analysis. I suppose one could also make the argument that if they did not arrive when our combined fleets killed one of their own, they are unlikely to do so if we dispose of their lackeys."

Jonah Ashland smiled thinly. "Agreed. And of course, since sitting on our hands is rarely the best use of time, I concur. Time is money. However, the flip side of that is execution will be a herculean task. Leaving aside the financial stresses, upgrading the fleets and going into a wartime production mode will be politically difficult in the situation we are in now, which is one where there are no other extant threats outside of the Collectors."

Liara snorted while Shepard shot him a look. "Your Grace, I know we like to pretend the Alliance is a representative democracy but we both know the truth – if the High Lords of Sol move this, it will happen. I'm going to be laying down the same information to the Council in a few hours, so you don't have to worry about what the other races will think, and we both know you couldn't care less about the public. So, what is the real sticking point, money?"

Ashland leaned back. "Money, people, and resources. Ninety-five percent of all the heavy industry is concentrated in Sol – we can't build up crash programs to leverage everything outside of Sol quickly and we have bottlenecks in shipping resources as it is. Additionally, we're already focused on deep refits of all our existing fleets to update their standards to the newest optronic deployments, backfitting of Kyle systems, and the new volus rack missiles – laying even more keels runs into the problem of us lacking trained shipfitter personnel, and they are trained slowly."

Shepard shrugged. "I know the lot of you are alien-haters, but seriously – work with the quarians and volus. Both of them are far more aware of the threat, and the volus have huge shipyards already, and quarians would definitely be able to use the work. Neither is… problematic for the Alliance as a whole."

Ashland sighed. "That would infuriate the Corporate Court as well as cause additional political and financial friction. We'll take a look at doing so." He paused, thinking, then continued. "That being said, milady, I doubt you've exposed yourself needlessly, and the threat is as dire as you claim. I have long suggested relying on questionable intelligence given for free from a criminal who only works gratis when he is personally threatened is unwise, but other voices among my peers thought otherwise."

He glanced aside at Prince Charles, then continued. "For the moment, assume that the SA will not… interfere… with your actions as long as they are contained outside of SA borders and that we will be willing to examine the… possibility of additional support for the wildcats. As to any other deals, involving shipbuilding, we'll need to consult with the rest of the High Lords, but given that your information suggests we are being played for fools, I can imagine that we will do something, if not a full crash build program."

Prince Charles spoke. "Direct action against the Broker will require us to converse and come to decisions with Prince Aloxius and the AIS – that is not something we can commit to today, although we are prepared to accept the need for reexamining the issue."

Commandant Chisholm smiled as he spoke. "Baroness, the government has to do things via red tape. I can take your suggestion back to the High Commandant, and the Commissariat is more than happy to act against Broker resources in the Systems Alliance immediately."

Ashland scowled at him, then sighed. "As for the fleet issues – aside from handing the work to the volus and quarians…" He gestured to Ahern, who stared back for a second before shaking his head. "I'll let the Admiral describe the situation."

Ahern's voice sounded more tired than Shepard or Liara remembered. "The ugly truth is the entire system is overstressed already. We had a lot of ship losses to the damned geth when we took out Haestrom and two-thirds of the active fleet is in need of hard refit or actual drydock. That isn't even counting the ships still being repaired from the batarians' little stunt in the Damocles Incident. Adding additional capacity at this time is just fucking impossible – we're behind on enlistment, biotic signup, and technical rates. Building additional shipyards in the Belt at this time is our only option, but that would take at least a year, even if we did a crash program and hiked the tax rates twenty percent. We just don't have the cash, the people, or the damned shipyards."

He folded his arms. "Even if the fucking volus and quarians magically produced the ships, we don't have the sailors or Marines to man them, and sending out alien-built versions of our ships with green crews is a perfect storm of goddamned stupid accidents waiting to happen. If we went to full conscription and relied on hyperhypnotic training…?"

He rubbed his chin, then shook his head. "Still would be a mess." He gave her a deadpan look. "Although, given how it would mess up things if we let volus build other ships and how fast you churn out ships, maybe you should make some for us and hand 'em over."

She managed to mostly smother a grin. "I don't think you'd like the VI on those ships, Admiral." She turned back to the Prince and Ashland. "And the rest?"

The Prince smiled. "Would depend very much, I think, on the nature of our relationship. We have ascertained that you are who you claim to be. But you are certainly not in our service." He gestured at the white and gold uniform both Shepard and Liara wore. "Cerberus—"

She laughed. "You really wanna have that conversation now, in front of a bunch of Commissars?"

She suppressed a grin as all the Commissars in the room looked up, then continued. "We both know why Cerberus became what it turned into – and that's not the point. I have no intention of taking orders from SA High Command. I shouldn't have to point out why, but if it isn't obvious, the fact that they tried to cover up what happened and cashiered my damned crew and ruined the lives of my officers and General von Grath sort of pisses me off.

"As for the High Lords… I never asked to be made a noble." She paused to flick a glance at Prince James, who winced, then softened her tone. "But it was a gift, from someone who saw past what I let myself fall into being and looked at what I could be, and I owe him the duty of making his choice the right one. You know exactly why I am not enthused about working with you, and I know exactly the fuck who Richard 'Manswell' really is. Spare me."

Windsor looked alarmed, but Ashland only gave a long-suffering sigh and spread his hands. "Then I have a counter suggestion. A modified chain of command, so to speak. I have never cared one way or the other for certain programs that you obviously dislike, but the cold hard reality is that this is an issue of public relations. In return for our public acknowledgment of your identity and nobility, and issuance of a Red Note authorizing you to conduct your actions outside of SA Space and our support with the Council, we would ask you to liaison with Commodore David Anderson and Admiral Tradius Ahern. Any such… orders… issued through them would be for the purposes of public relations and private communications. Additionally, we could suggest you take on a Commissar."

She paused, glancing over the strained features of Jiong and the exhausted ones of D'Alte, noting a scar she had not seen before. "…You give me back my old Commissars, Alfred and Susan, and you have a deal. I'm not blind to the, uh, optics around this. And I would like to think that now that I have threatened to push things out into the open, you and your lot will back off from fucking stupid ideas like that and be what you're supposed to be."

Ashland muttered under his breath. "Your appraisal of our collective intelligence is optimistic, Baroness."

Shepard coughed to cover a laugh at the older man's acid tones and the confused look Windsor shot him, wondering if maybe the guy wasn't a complete asshole like the rest. She folded her arms after a moment and smiled. "I'll work with the SA and be a good girl in terms of the media as long as you actually do your part. If you do, we can proceed and figure out how to clean things up after we deal with the genocidal galaxy-killing robot fucks. If we don't get past that…"

She shrugged and Liara spoke softly. "We understand there are a great number of legalities involved in this. Our legal representative is standing by – Ghadi Saan, esquire."

She smiled savagely as Ashland groaned and shook his head. "Of course you would employ that…" He broke off in search of a curse then shook his head again. "Understood. We'll have SA Legal contact him with the nightmare this is likely to induce." He looked at the Prince. "That's all we have, yes?"

Prince Charles nodded. "…Very well. For the moment, we are in agreement… Baroness." He tapped his omni-tool, then nodded again – this time to Ashland – and stood. "As we agreed, the custody of my brother and his daughter are in your hands now. I believe most of these people would like to speak to you, so we will be departing."

The Prince glanced at Chisholm. "I presume reassigning the Commissars to the Baroness will not be an issue?"

Chisholm glanced at the other Commandant, who shrugged dismissively and made a throwing away motion, then shook his head. "I'll pull someone else to monitor the Commodore and… well. You know what we set Delacor aside for. Given that we won't need that option, the Kazan still requires almost six months of repair and refit – we have time to find a new Commissar for him."

The other Commandant muttered "Does he even need one, given his luck?"

Chisholm laughed at that, then stood. "Commissar D'Alte. The commentary from the Guidance Cadre still stands – your performance thus far has been… adequate, but you will continue to be judged on adherence to our goals. You are assigned, along with Commissar Jiong, to the service of the Baroness. Your guidance code in this instance is Papa-Hotel-India Direct, with reports expected weekly." He paused to look at Shepard. "They will need a comm access link of some kind to make that."

She frowned. "Yeah sure. Comms aren't an issue. What is that… code thing?"

Jiong spoke, his voice soft. "A direct injunction to prevent hostile intent. That is to say that as long as you do not threaten the Alliance or its interests, we are not required to act in any way but to observe."

"And if I consider something not in their interests, what then?" Shepard's voice was wry.

Susan gave a smile, a faded echo of what used to be her default cheerful expression. "Probably a lot of bleeding and dying, I expect. But hey, that's what we signed up for, right?"

Shepard stared at her, and for a moment all she could think of was Preston Kyle, killing Commissars and dying.

Liara on the other hand had a sad expression as she stared at Susan, then found a weak smile from somewhere. "You are our friends, and I am sure it will not come to that. We are all working towards stopping the Reapers, not scoring points against the Alliance."

After a moment, Shepard just shook her head, pinching the bridge of her nose. "I am not gonna argue, given God knows what kind of hell you've put them through. The Commissars are fine. Is there anything else, Your Grace?"

Prince Charles looked at his brother. "…I guess this is farewell, James. Be…" He paused, then forced a smile. "Be happy. If you can."

James said nothing for a long second, and his voice when it came out was cooly bitter. "It is perhaps past time for well wishes, dearest brother. But I will take it all the same."

Eliza looked away, a grimace on her features, and after an awkward long second Charles then nodded to Jonah. "I believe that is the balance of our business here."

Ashland stood, nodding to the Lieutenants who had shown them into the building. "Lieutenant Jale, please have the cruiser spun up and ready to depart. We will liaison briefly with Admiral Branson for the meeting with the Citadel Council then return directly to Arcturus. Commandant Lakings, we appreciate your cooperation." He turned to face Shepard. "As for you, Baroness… I am aware you dislike working with us. But to borrow an old saying, changing horses mid-stream is a poor idea."

She tilted her head. "Maybe. But getting out of a boat that's headed for a waterfall is more accurate here, Your Grace." She rose and gave a bow. "If that is all…"

The High Lord and the Prince walked past her, with Commandant Lakings, Commandant Chisholm, the lancers, and security lieutenants following, and the doors shut behind them. A moment later Anderson stood up, walking around the table.

"…You look different, Sara." His voice was the same as always, calm and warm and reassuringly there, and Shepard had to take a calming breath and work through the clashing emotions that hit her all at once. She exhaled as Liara's hand gently touched her elbow, a surge of support in that single moment, and bit her lip as she smiled back.

As he stepped up closer, she began seeing the strain in his features, faint lines of stress in his face that she didn't remember, and more gray in his hair than before. He looked thinner, somehow, frailer… but his expression was open. Half a step behind him, Kahlee Sanders had an anxious worried look in her eyes, even as she dredged up a thin half-smile for Shepard.

For all that she was more cybernetic than human, her throat was dry and her stomach flipflopping as she managed to get out a sentence. "…To be honest, I was kind of scared of this moment, I think. Of coming in from the cold, of meeting my friends, the people I… love. That people would yell at me for Cerberus, or for what I'd done.

She exhaled again, meeting his gaze. "That people would think… I wasn't… me."

He smiled. "Anyone who thinks it wasn't you should have known better the moment you dove down there to save those kids. I can't understand what it must be like, having to not know what would happen. But you haven't done anything I don't approve of – I already told you before… you have never disappointed me."

She looked down. "I've disappointed myself a few times, sir."

Anderson nodded. "I'm sure you have. So have I. All we can do is get better, and you've gone through hell and beyond just to get to this point. I'd only disappoint myself more if I didn't have your back now." He smiled, and opened his arms.

She stepped forward with a half-broken laugh and hugged him, smiling as he hugged back, and felt a weight fall from her shoulders. Feelings rocketed through her, in bursts of relief and fear and joy, and she had to swallow back a sob as he simply held her for long seconds.

She could feel Liara's calm happiness in her mind, and a split-second echo of sadness with a memory of Benzia – but she just let it all go, and gave another shaky exhale.

Finally, she let go, stepping back, and Anderson smiled. "You did good, child. Anyone who says otherwise can go through me first."

She looked down again, biting her lip. "I…"

He gently placed a hand on her shoulder. "We'll talk a bit more… later. For now, everyone else needs to see you as well, yes?" He stepped aside, and Ashley and the rest came forward. Shepard smiled at them all – Ashley, a quirky smile on her face, the tired but pleased features of Jiong, Susan's faded but still impish grin, and finally, the placid and gentle smile of Jackson.

She gave another half-laugh, turning to Baby Blue first. "How and why in the fuck did you get involved in this shit? Not that I am not happy to see you…"

The giant man shrugged. "Wasn't sure if you wanted to, given how we left off—"

She snorted, stepping up to him. "Past is the past and if we keep dwelling on it we end up going nowhere, Baby Blue." He smiled as he pulled her into a hug as well, and she laughed as he picked her up, like he always did, even though she probably weighed three times as much.

He set her down and gave an 'oof' noise before holding her out at arms' length. "You look… magnificent. But you got heavy."

Shepard laughed. "More metal than woman nowadays. How did you get here?"

"The SA was a little rattled by the Butcher, and once they figured out it might be you, I got dragged into this by Admiral Ahern, who sent people out to Tuchanka to pick me up – once they negotiated with Wrex."

She arched an eyebrow. "And how is Wrex doing?"

He shrugged. "The SA was pretty iffy on if they needed me, but apparently, the Diplomatic Corps wanted more influence on Tuchanka. SA always ignored the place before, but Wrex – and that crazy bitch Sederis – have gone a long way into reorganizing things, and Wrex has been sending out feelers to various governments trying to get some investment going."

He grinned. "The Corps saw this as an opening, so they went along to cut a deal with Wrex – some heavy earth-working machinery, a few hundred tons of plascrete, omni-gel, two tankers full of fresh water. Some other stuff, cultural exchanges – anyway, I'm going to be the liaison for that once we get done here, and in return, Wrex is sending thirty younglings to Ahern for training. I think the old man is trying to move out from under the CDEM because who knows how long Sederis will stay sane?"

Shepard muttered something under her breath that made Liara cover her mouth and stifle laughter. Jackson smiled in confusion, but after a moment, he shook his head. "Anyway, got some talking to do to you from Wrex later, when you have time." He stepped back, and behind his bulk was the form of Admiral Ahern in undress blues, his arms folded and eyebrows lowered.

"Thank you for coming, sir." She stood there for a moment, then he shook his head.

"You even think about hugging me and you'll kiss the floor again, Shepard."

She snorted back laughter. "Perish the thought, but… you were the one who organized this?" She gestured around the room, and Ahern gave a tired sigh.

"You scared the shit out of a lot of people with that Butcher crap, but it makes sense. The SA was sure you were a member of the Thirty or worse, and eventually when an… associate of mine, EDI, put it all together, the High Command fucking freaked out. I argued – along with Anderson and Jackson – that going after you hostile was just going to eat another asswhipping, and I was proven right after fucking Ilium."

He glared at her. "Which reminds me, I'm not sure what's stupider, playing whack-a-mole with a live reactor or diving into a goddamned four-story drop when injured. And I'm still baffled as fuck as to why you are playing along with goddamned Harper of all people."

She smiled. "I wanted the SA to be scared. Found a lot of stuff I wish I hadn't, but I figured they'd figure me out as the real deal quicker than they did…" She trailed off. "My little stunt earlier today has already been pointed out as dumb. As for Cerberus," She shrugged. "Because there weren't any other options I could take."

Ahern grunted, but next to him, Ashley Williams stepped forward. "…Hey, Skipper. You had other options besides a pack of terrorists, you know. You could have just come back. We would have had your back…"

She smiled. "Ash." She hugged the other woman as well, then smirked as Ash punched her in the gut, before recoiling and shaking her hand. "Sorry, sub-dermal plating, and what was that for anyway?"

Ash rubbed her knuckles. "Ow, fuck. That was supposed to be for making us think you were dead, but… goddamned cyborg…"

Sara laughed. "Sorry, Ash. And I was… I was very dead. I've had several overviews of all the crap they did to bring me back but I keep getting the feeling they were surprised it worked."

Ashley nodded slowly. "I mean, I don't want to attack you for working with Cerberus exactly – if they were doing the same sick shit we saw earlier that's one thing, but the whole good guy angle is just throwing me. I just don't get why you couldn't come back to the Alliance."

Shepard paused, thinking on how to frame this without making a mess of the conversation. "As for 'coming back'… I hate to say this, but it's a little complicated. There's evidence that people inside the Alliance were partially responsible for maneuvering me and the Normandy into position to be blown up in the first place, and on top of that there was the way they treated my crew."

Ash grimaced, as did Anderson and Ahern, and Shepard continued. "More importantly, Harper pointed out that me showing up out of the blue back from the dead with no explanation and having Cerberus as the people who did it would be… suspicious to say the least."

Jiong's voice was wry. "That is an understatement. She'd have been thrown in the Black Zone and dissected, or worse." At Ashley's shocked look he smiled thinly. "The threat of a fake Shepard – or worse, one compromised by alien technology – would not be taken lightly by the Alliance security organs. I am sure after some time they might have recognized her… but the odds of such are not even fifty percent."

Shepard smiled at Jiong. "Yep. That being said, Ash? When they woke me up they had a shuttle for me to go my own way. The other half of that story is Harper has given me a lot more intel, resources and manpower than the SA did – and I didn't have time to sit in a jail cell for nine months or whatever with Reapers out there and Collectors stealing colonists."

Ash nodded. "I get it, Sara. You know why it's touchy for me, with Uncle Richard and all that." She gave a slanted smile. "Not trying to be a bitch about it—"

Shepard grinned back. "Nah, I get it. Jesus, I did not want to work with them to start with, I was this close to punching Harper's smug fucking head off his shoulders."

She watched as Anderson smirked and Ahern sourly handed him some credits, then chuckled. "Betting, sir?"

Anderson's voice was smugly pleased. "I bet him that you were probably angry as hell and Harper would have needed some really good silver if he wasn't slick, Ahern thought you just went along with it."

She gave the Admiral a deadpan look, and he rolled his eyes. "Shepard you looked like you were having a fucking giggle-fit on Umlor from the footage we had, what was I supposed to think?"

Shepard snorted, and Liara smothered another laugh with a series of coughs. Shepard muttered 'traitor' at her then turned to Jiong and Susan. "And I'm happy both of you are here as well."

Jiong gave a shallow bow, followed by a long exhalation. "I am… sorry I failed you so utterly, Baroness. If I had gone on that last trip with you on the Normandy this might have all been avoided. All the… suffering, of you, your friends, Lady Liara…"

He trailed off. "…others…" His voice was bitter, and his eyes flicked over Susan for a moment before seeking hers again. "I was too concerned with making sure you were stable to remember to make sure you were safe."

Sara shook her head. "Alfred, you didn't fail me. A lot of people sold me and the Normandy up the river, and the deception that lured us into that trap was perfect. As for you being there, if you think for a second I would have let you sacrifice yourself in my place, you must not know me very well. And…"

She trailed off. Looking at the damage done to Liara, body and soul, to herself. To Garrus, Melenis, Telanya. To her crew, to Pressly, to her Marines, Matt and Mike, to poor dead Dunn, to Beatrice Shields…

She looked over the tired, somehow almost sorrowful features of Jiong and the battered gamey smile of Susan and then met his gaze directly.

"If I had not died, then yeah – a lot of pain would be avoided. But the flip side of that is a lot of shit would have just kept on going the way it was before. Omega would still be a fucking cesspit. Umlor would be hawking children and grinding people up into drugs. There'd be no one going after the Collectors or figuring out the Broker was not to be trusted. And I am not entirely sure what would have happened but…"

She looked down. "I don't like the word 'fate.' I hate the idea that suffering is required, that we're just railroaded through painful events to fit some kind of fucked up schedule. But the blunt reality is that if not for what we all suffered, what we all endured, we wouldn't be here with a chance to fix things."

Jiong looked at her for a long moment. "You'll understand why I am skeptical of Cerberus fixing anything, but I suppose that is why we are coming along."

Liara spoke, her voice soft and distressed. "Susan… what has happened to you? You are limping, and…" She gestured at the scar bisecting the woman's cheek and the ragged short hair, and D'Alte gave a brittle laugh.

"The Guidance Cadre wasn't happy I let you get yourself killed, or so we thought. I was going to be… recycled. Someone intervened. But I am still… not in good graces." She tried her best to give her bright smile, but there were ugly shadows in her gaze that Liara recognized all too well.

"Fuckers." Shepard shook her head. "Figures." She turned to face Prince James and Eliza, the latter in her lift chair. "Your Majesty. Milady. I've made sure to prepare our base for your arrival, and my doctors feel we can have Eliza back on her feet in under a week."

The expression on Eliza's features twisted. "My spine was crushed, Baroness. The doctors—"

Shepard snorted. "And I was dead. Trust me."

After a long second, Eliza nodded, and Sara looked back up at James, who merely sighed.

His voice was tired sounding as he spoke. "For my part, Baroness… I also feel that I failed you, and your wife. I had thought the danger to be easily predicted, the risks all relating to politics aimed at me, not my daughter, and not you and Lady Liara. I anticipated treachery or antics from Prince Aloxius. I had not anticipated my enemies would be so brutal as to crash a vessel into Earth itself, nor send an entire warship to their deaths to silence a single voice."

Shepard shrugged. "Neither did I, Your Majesty."

He shook his head. "I am nothing, now, Shepard. No more than you."

She smiled, her voice softer. "No, you are still my boss. I can't answer to the High Lords because the things I've found out are… sickening. I can't deal with them. I can honestly use your help in that regard, because it took about all my self-control not to strangle the shit out of the two of them. The unmitigated fucking gall to upbraid me about Cerberus after the shit they've pulled…"

Ashley Williams chuckled. "I kinda-sorta did the same thing, no?"

Liara smiled "Yours is not hypocrisy, Ms. Williams. You do not cavort with slavers and criminals and write off the lives of millions and then claim the moral high ground, and ultimately, all of us are still somewhat wary of Harper. The High Lords are responsible for what he became, to judge Sara on the backwash of their own filth borders on hyperbolic ignorance."

Jiong frowned at that, and Ahern shook his head, but the Prince merely nodded. "I cannot say I am well pleased at dealing with my… former peers at any distance these days either, Baroness – my brother's farewell was especially galling – but I am at least unlikely to attempt murder. My daughter and I are at your disposal and in your care."

He bowed deeply, as to an equal, and Liara felt Shepard's rush of pleased gratitude and a tinge of embarrassment as she did the same.

She finally turned to von Grath and Chakwas, who had watched all this with pleased smiles. "Why am I totally not surprised at this development, General?"

The General stroked his chin, a smirk on his features as Chakwas rolled her eyes. "It is a relief to know that you still live, Shepard. The Systems Alliance…" He trailed off, then shook his head. "We did not handle the situation properly – not your crew, nor your officers, nor the manner of your death. The fact that I have had to sell myself to Cerberus still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but I suppose the alternative would have been worse."

Shepard met his gaze squarely. "Not about to defend the crap they got up to back in the old days, but I've already told everyone from Harper on down that I'm not going to tolerate that now. I'm hoping that at some point people will start looking at what we've done recently and not the shit in the past."

Von Grath gave a good-natured smile, and Sara turned to Chakwas. "You look happy."

The doctor grinned, pushing her silver hair back a bit. "I am happy, Shepard. While I enjoyed my time in space, I'll easily admit that working as both a surgeon and medical researcher is very rewarding."

She glanced aside at her husband. "The company is also tolerable."

Von Grath arched an eyebrow that made Shepard smile. "As if I am bottle of some third-rate brandy…"

"Hush you… I'm also happy that you are still with us. More than once reading the extranet on the Butcher's antics I wondered at what you'd think of them. I have to admit, I didn't expect you to be the one behind the mask."

Shepard's own smile faded a bit. "Not sure it is the same person anymore, doc. A lot of cybernetics, even if they aren't visible, are packed in here."

Chakwas just gave a brief nod at that. "Doctor Sedanya was kind enough to forward me some of the medical and cybernetic information that wasn't deemed too sensitive, and the Citadel Council's scanning teams sent me their scans. I am… somewhat alarmed at the sheer audacity of what they did to your body, and how invasive it is."

Shepard shrugged. "It's… what I have to deal with. All of us have a lot of silver now, unfortunately. And we'll probably end up with more, when we go after the Broker."

She glanced at the chronolink on her HUD, then gave a thin smile. "Unfortunately, now I have to get ready for meeting the real clusterfuck, the Council." She turned to Prince James and Eliza. "Doctor Galen Minsta and his daughter are outside to escort you to quarters aboard our warship, Your Majesty. The doctor aboard, Miranda Lawson, is one of the researchers who helped bring me back to life, and Tiffany Minsta will see to any other needs you may have. I understand the doctor will be accompanying me to the Council meeting."

She sighed. "Once the Council meeting is over, I'll probably reassess what the fuck to do next. If I need to stay a few days to meet other people, I'd like to invite you all to eat somewhere nice, David can pick a good place."

Shepard glanced to the side, at the two Commissars. "As for you two, if you're up to it, you can tag along so everyone can see I'm being an obedient and dutiful servant."

Jiong snorted. "Said no one ever, Baroness. But we would be delighted to accompany you."


Shepard firmed her jaw as she glanced across the bus at the semi-inclined form of Doctor Galen Minsta, who met her gaze squarely. "I'm not the sharpest tack in the room, doctor, but remind me again why exactly you are tagging along with me and not the Prince and his daughter."

Minsta smiled, his handsome features slipping into a look of contrition. "My apologies, Baroness, for not briefing you properly. My daughter Tiffany has the Prince and his child well in hand, I believe, for the moment. Miranda is also… skilled… in handling guests."

He pushed himself forward, elbows on knees. "I am here because I am the best equipped in Cerberus to advise you on the Citadel Council and other, hm, possible impediments to our goals. While I have little doubt you both have convincing arguments for the Council members to consider, diplomacy is not considered your strong point, Shepard."

Sara gave a small laugh. "Point taken, doc. Still…" she trailed off, and glanced at Liara.

Liara gave the man a cool look. "I acknowledge the point as well, but I am still somewhat curious as to your presence. While your name is hardly unknown in scientific and medical circles, doctor, you are not known for your diplomatic skills – and you have a reputation for being somewhat racist. I believe I share Sara's concern as to just how effective you can be with such a handicap."

The smile did not fade, his voice taking on a wry note. "The funny thing about learning, Doctor T'Soni, is that one only ceases to learn when they make up their mind to close themselves off to new evidence. I have learned over the years that monolithic dislike is as ignorant as babbling adoration when it comes to aliens. I will not deny that I despise the Thirty. I dislike the methodology of the Asari Republic, I loathe the insidious nature of the Discerning and the tormented souls of the Nightwind. The justicars are so far beyond merely 'hypocritical' as to make batarian justice seem fair, and the less said about that conniving bitch Tevos T'Sael, the better."

He sat up. "However, the past few years have forced me to reconsider much of my rancor." He tilted his head. "The word 'racism' is probably not the… best phrasing to use. Humans look back on our own days where skin color meant more than a triviality, to the injustices heaped on indigenous cultures, to slavery, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and all of that."

He waved a hand. "But racism is best defined as illogical and biased dislike or hatred of internal variations in a species. We can debate the critical aspects of it – cultural clashes, outgroup psychology, so on and such – but it is not the same as distrust of the absolute Other that is an alien being. After all, xenophobia is something every alien species grapples with on one level or another."

Liara arched an eyebrow. "And so…?"

He inclined his head, glancing back at Shepard. "And so along the way I had to make myself critically reexamine my views on the asari. The asari of the Systems Alliance – and you yourself, milady – do not share the revolting traits and downright manipulative sexuality of the parent culture."

He leaned back. "I am… distasteful of salarians while acknowledging their intelligence and savvy. I can admire the courage and fire of the turian while dryly pointing out much of their honor is both situational and hypocritical. I actually rather like volus, quarians, and krogan - all are refreshingly direct."

Shepard twitched her lips. "And batarians?"

Minsta shrugged. "I'd say throw the lot of them into a star, but I understand that some batarians are not the trash we've had to entertain over the years. I digress." He exhaled. "You are going to deal with the Council directly, and they were not picked to lead galactic civilization out of some hat. All of them are masters of the spoken word, misdirection, psychology, and xenology. Even Sparatus has multiple degrees in xeno-interpretive body language and speaks flawless asartic."

He leaned forward again, his silver hair catching the dim lighting of the bus. "They will try to sidetrack you and distract you, and attempt everything in their power to give you nothing and impress upon you limits, warnings, and rules. The fact that the Systems Alliance High Command did not meet with you in private with the High Lords is also… troubling.

"So, I am there to parry and deflect nonsense, Baroness. It is a role that must be played by someone, and Mr. Harper felt that you were both… emotionally fatigued by recent events enough that the Council had a non-zero chance of trying to trip you up on trideo."

Shepard frowned. "Fine. But let's get something clear, doc. We are done with 'old' Cerberus methods. I've read your files, and yeah, the other races are up to some stupid shit. But the average person is innocent of all that. I don't need someone who is so caught up in their past and the wrongs done to them that they can't see reason."

Minsta folded his arms. "Not to put too fine a point on things, Baroness… but I believe Mr. Harper tried to make the same statement to you regarding Aria T'Loak."

Liara's voice was a cold whisper. "Aria has done more offensive things, doctor, than commit sexual infidelity."

The older human nodded. "Touché, milady. And of course she has. I personally agree with Shepard in regards to Ms. T'Loak – regardless of her situation, she has actively made the galaxy a worse place."

He gave an eloquent sigh. "But if there is any part of the game of Cerberus and its actions that is hard to learn, it is balancing anger and frustration against the needs of the organization as a whole. I do not like asari. They rely far too much on corruption, misdirection, and seduction – and they shade the truth constantly. But I apply that as a gestalt, not on a person-to-person basis. I am confused as to your problem with this as you both have suffered from such even more than I."

Liara tilted her head. "So your racism is, what, clinical? How neatly convenient."

Shepard felt like she was missing something as Minsta shook his head. "Not at all. It is focused. I will freely admit that in past days I was not so evenhanded, but we are living in the now. I have no problem working with Matriarch Trellani, or you, or the forces now under your command. You do not exemplify the traits of the rest of your… species, or of the Thirty, Doctor T'Soni."

The asari's mouth formed a thin slash of a smile. "Faint praise, Doctor Minsta."

He shrugged. "I've read enough of Shepard's profile to know of her dislike for unnecessarily circuitous speech. And that you are much the same now. Bluntly put, I dislike your culture and behavior as a whole, doctor. Not you, not individual asari aside from those that did me and mine direct harm."

Shepard gave a slow nod. "Alright, I'll bite. I get that Li and I may overreact if we get told some stupid shit, and the Council is the hands-down champion in stupid shit. So we go to the Council, what do you expect to happen exactly?"

Minsta sighed. "As you stated, a great deal of stupidity, milady. If the ideal of our new Cerberus is to protect the innocent, as both Mr. Harper and you have stated, then by logical elimination the only way to accomplish such is to reform, imprison or destroy the guilty. A priori, that makes our targets the Collectors, the geth, and the Broker."

He paused. "The Citadel Council, on the other hand, is only concerned with the status quo, the calm maintenance of a well-oiled machine. I do not think for a moment they are blind to the danger the Collectors represent, but they presume that they have an understanding of the situation and that the danger is thus to outlying human colonies, not their core constituents. They may even be right… but the corollary to that is they will also feel pushing an assault on them is dangerous and may draw reprisal."

He gave an eloquent shrug. "We can perhaps come to agreements with them, but not if we are off-balance from the start. They will do what they can to avoid open support unless they have no other choices in the matter.

"Furthermore, it is unlikely the Council will agree to any direct action against the Broker from their end, as the Broker almost certainly has enough blackmail and compromising information to start a galactic war or bring down the economy. Pushing them to act against him will probably make your task harder to accomplish."

He paused, then met her gaze. "It is also not an impossibility that the Broker has agents seeded in the staffs of the Councilors, or has made back-channel arrangements with some of them to deny any requests we may have. Even if he has not, the Council prefers to move slowly and act even slower, unless they can personally benefit.

"Finally, anything else – such as the… facts… we have discovered about the various star nations – make us a similar danger to the Broker. The 'guilty' are both their backers and instruments, and us putting ourselves in a position to be an active threat will draw unwanted hostility."

Liara nodded. "In other words, we should expect to be questioned, doubted, and once again ignored. The Collectors are seen as a human problem, and the Broker should be left to his own devices to maintain the peace and quiet that leads to profits and easy governance of the blind. I am hardly surprised by this prediction. And if you are correct about Broker infiltration, we need to be circumspect about what intelligence we share with the Council."

He spread his hands, even as the bus slowed to a crawl. "I suspect we'll find out soon enough if my suspicions are correct. If they are, I can handle it. And if they are not, well…"

He gave a slanted smile. "This is history in the making, and I am a student of history. I would not miss this for the world."

Shepard traded a glance with Liara and a pulse of wry amusement before nodding. "Just… don't cause problems. They're likely to be fucking stupid and negative anyway, so we don't need more of the same coming out of our side, doc."

The bus lurched to a stop, and the doctor stood, smiling. "Of course, Baroness."

Grunt got out of his seat, glancing around as the handful of Cerberus bodyguards triggered the sidewall to deploy. "He is asking if you want him to be in there."

Sara thought for a long second. "…Do you mind, Grunt? He knows these people—"

He waved a meaty hand. "It's fine. It's going to be safe and probably boring. Listening to idiots talk instead of acting never interests me. Have him wake me up when all the stupid talking is done."

The krogan swayed for a moment, then Okeer's cultured tones sounded, quietly. "I despair at making the boy see there is more power in words than weapons."

Sara eyed the krogan warily. "…While true, at least with weapons you can see who's pointing them at you."

The krogan laughed. "Very well. I will observe and communicate anything you need to know via subvocals, so please keep your comm implant on, mighty Shepard. I look forward to this, it should be vastly entertaining."

Sara rolled her eyes, and stepped down off the bus. "I'm glad I managed to entertain someone in this mess. I'm not having much fun at all."


"And now, it looks like the entourage of Sara Shepard has arrived at the Citadel Tower. Reporters and drone cameras are being kept at a distance due to the earlier terrorist attacks at the Docks, but we expect a statement from the Council upon the completion of their briefing—"

The asari sitting across from the Shadow Broker gave a short laugh. "Entertainingly stupid. Attacking Uressa of all people…"

The Shadow Broker's eyes trailed across the trideo screen for a long second before he tapped a control and cut it off. "It was a well devised attempt. However, they clearly did not expect Uressa to perform as she did. Whoever made the attempt failed in such a spectacular fashion that it has made Shepard out as heroic. It appears our source in the SA was misinformed about them being ready to kill Shepard as well, or they decided that doing so was not worth the political backlash."

Across from the blackened metal desk, Dahlia Dantius shook her head. "Still, the Council hates people who cause problems. I'm kinda surprised at them actually treating a nutjob like her as a VIP."

The Broker's maw drew together, teeth grinding. "The Council is neither shortsighted nor unaware of the larger picture. Our expansion of the Network's reach has always been concerning, and the détente we had due to our cooperation in the hunt for Saren and Benezia has faded. They simply seek a more pliable tool. Shepard is one that they cannot lose with – if she succeeds, they eliminate a potential threat, if she fails, it has cost them nothing and also neutralized whatever information or blackmail she has on them."

He tapped another control. "Unfortunately, due to the situation, our reactionary options are very limited."

She frowned, glancing at the wall of mission status monitors. "How are we limited?"

The yahg placed his massive hands on the table, his eyes fixating on her. "By our focus on the Rim Project. The Council's attention is, by force, divided. They are dealing with recession, with increasing levels of tension in the Turian Hierarchy, with the continuing fallout of the volus-turian mess, and, of course, with the constant interplay between asari and salarian. As long as we are seen as an untriggered threat, they will be reluctant to act directly against us."

Dahlia shook her head. "For fuck's sake, Ty. The Council isn't the problem. Or rather, not the problem to address right now. If Vevonis is right, C-INT has been making moves for months and just because they aren't wild about doing it won't mean they won't take an opening if Cerberus gives them one. You yourself said that assuming they'll always pick the same moveset isn't accurate or valid."

The yahg's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps, but I am disinclined to open a direct preemptive conflict with the Council. But in your view, what is the problem? Harper and his ilk?"

She threw her hands up. "Yes! Ty, they've slaughtered our Omega and Ilium operations, cost us dozens of our best operatives, and are actively attempting to turn the galaxy's nations against us. I get the Rim op has to take priority for our economic resources and that thanks to Tetrimus fucking up Ilium we have less than half our military wing left intact – but we can't just sit and wait."

She got up, pacing. "I'm not saying we go to war, but dammit we cannot just react to whatever Harper cooks up next! We have options – hit these fuckers where it hurts! It's time to remind people of their place. A warning shot across the bow – ruin a few lives, take down a few people, make them really consider if they want to start down this path or not."

The Broker leaned back. "All actions of that nature that could be undertaken would simply play into Shepard's hands. The leaders of the various star nations are fully aware of my influence and capacity. However, the Network has always been careful about using such. Bringing to bear our operatives to disrupt the situation now would only reinforce that whatever Shepard is saying or claiming is the truth."

He interlaced his fingers. "Shepard and Cerberus would not bother dealing with the Council or the other nations if they did not need to do so. Given that, there are only two possible reaction sets to expect at this juncture. One, Shepard is attempting to convince the Citadel Council that we are a direct threat to them and in league with the Collectors and by extension the Reapers. Her proof of such is by force going to be conjectural and circumstantial."

She folded her arms. "Okay, and? Athame's tits, they already think we're dangerous, dangerous enough that they sank goddess only knows how much money into rebuilding C-INT from the ground up. It won't take much to convince them. C-INT and Iridian already are working to attempt to reduce our influence, and the truth? They don't need truth, they decide what 'truth' is. Shepard could make up anything and they would take it as an excuse to start acting… and if they do decide to take action—"

The Broker's shoulders settled back. "If we act preemptively, I am unsure it will do anything effective. The Council, whenever it bothers to act, will be something heavily telegraphed. They are monolithic and slow and despite what they may think, we can survive any attempted neutralization attack. My concern is that acting too early will lead to the discovery of the Rim Project – and we cannot afford to act until the team reports they are secure. Else, all of our work will be wasted and we will be obliterated alongside the rest of the galaxy when the Reapers arrive."

He leaned back. "Certain contingencies have already been put into place, but the bulk of those are obfuscatory in nature."

Dahlia grimaced again. "And what if they don't react the way you think? What if they come at us full force?"

The yahg shrugged. "If they are unwise enough to act openly, we will reciprocate. In short, we will transmit the information we have on Fedorian's negotiations with Facinus and trigger the leak from the Reach Research Compound, as well as kick off Operation BURNDOWN. The chaos and political damage that would cause would serve to give us more time to cover our tracks."

Dahlia nodded slowly. "BURNDOWN would be a good start, the volus would be panicked and it would completely disrupt most military operations. But kicking it off now, before Shepard pulls whatever she is trying—"

The Broker growled. "Dahlia, think. We know Fidel has been attempting to convince C-Sec and the Council to take direct action against the Network, and that he claims he can mitigate any backlash. You yourself said they are only waiting for an excuse. If we strike first, then not only do we confirm that Shepard's claims must have value but now we have also expended our surprise – what is to restrain them from acting against us at that point?"

He sighed. "If we let them hit first, as long as we mitigate any action towards the Rim, then when we react, the Council will go into damage control mode. The point is not 'avoiding a conflict' – it will come eventually – but 'avoiding it long enough for us to pull back all traces of the Rim Project from being located and isolated.' "

She frowned, her features troubled and thoughtful. "I… disagree. But you're in charge." She tilted her head. "And the second possibility?"

"Based on our own interpretation and information, it is very likely Shepard and Harper think they have us at a disadvantage. Thus, they are going to the Council to attempt to have them give them permission to act against us directly. It is far more likely that Shepard is attempting to place the Collectors as the primary threat and convince the Council and associated nations on a military strike against them."

He leaned back further, massive fingers tapping controls on his desk and a section of monitors reconfigured. "Harper is pulling together ships at several locations he is unaware we have spy drones in, all in easy jump- and FTL-range of our current position. A number of these ships are reconverted batarian assault and boarding vessels and high-speed salarian missile frigates. At the same time, his 'legions' on several recruitment worlds are being outfitted for naval boarding combat."

His voice took on a rumbling note of amusement. "Shepard gains very little by convincing the Council to attack us, even if they were stupid enough to do so. But convincing them that we are lying about the Reaper threat and saying she can prove it by attacking us is another thing altogether. This is why I said our responses are limited. If we counter her with releases of damaging information to besmirch her and disrupt her plans of cooperation, we still do not have anything firm to counter Cerberus itself with. And it is… unlikely that showing our hand as hostile to the Council will make them back off if all Shepard is asking for is to neutralize a now-proven threat."

Dahlia sighed. "I hate sitting around waiting for them to attack us. They are vulnerable. We could go after Shepard herself – spill some shit about her hero Anderson, push out information on what Liara got up to on Ilium in terms of killing innocents. Something. We're vulnerable too, Ty, and people tend to pounce on vulnerability."

Ty'Tra'Thect shook his head, lights gleaming from the facets of his eyes. "You misapprehend the situation. Cerberus cannot know of our preparation for them. Shepard is gambling she can kill me and use that to convince the Council to assist her. And the only thing more dangerous than appearing vulnerable is appearing to be untouchable. If the Council knew of everything we could expose, they would stop at nothing to have the entire Network annihilated because they cannot tolerate a threat to their power of that scope."

He stood. "No, we will draw their strike instead. Both I and the Immutable have run the numbers, and based on the telemetry we gathered at both Omega and at Ilium, the amount of ships we have will overwhelm Cerberus. And once this irritant is handled, and the Rim Project secure, we can… reexamine on how best to remind the Council of how precarious their position really is. As long as they are willing to maintain the current level of noncommitment, escalation only serves to increase the chance of the Rim Project being disrupted."

"I really feel this is the wrong call, Ty. Once you would have reacted to this a lot more aggressively. You're just counter-punching now, and not even taking into consideration that we could be dealing with more than we know about. Shepard has pulled out way too many surprises from her hat already to just assume we can beat her. So, I'm not sure why you're like this…"

The yahg half-turned to face her. "The revelation of the Reapers has adjusted my priorities, Dahlia. The Council, C-INT, the STG… even Cerberus cannot know of our true power. If things go badly, we will simply escape on the Shadow Dart and trigger the Nightfall Protocol."

Dahlia paled slightly. The Nightfall Protocol was a final measure, designed to wreck the entire galaxy if the Network was assaulted to the point of annihilation. She didn't know the details, but she'd seen hints – vials of biohazard-marked materials in sealed labs, cases of gray goo, and worse.

She shuddered at the chaos that would ensue and let out a breath.

"Ty, I know you measure these things out pretty well. Your judgment at predicting the Council's reactions has always been spot-on. But if your answer is 'wait for it' and then if things go bad unleash Nightfall, don't you think we could come up with a better plan?"

The yagh shrugged. "I am confident that we can handle whatever Cerberus throws at us and triumph. The contingencies are just that – unlikely to be needed."

Dahlia frowned. "Aren't you forgetting Vigil?"

The Broker's voice was amused as the inner doors opened. "Not at all, Dahlia. I am merely anticipating Almnrut's reactions. Ensure our guests are secure and I will see you at the evening status call."

The door shut heavily behind him, and the asari turned to leave herself. As she did so, the door leading into the office hissed open, revealing the unnatural and cybernetic form of the Immutable's 'prime' body, a salarian.

"The Broker is unavailable" she said quietly, and the thing nodded.

"Understood. I am concerned about our lack of reaction to recent events. Will he be available later on?"

Dahlia grimaced. "Yes, the evening status call. And I am also concerned, but he seems to think it is better to react than overplay our hand."

The machine intellect stood there for almost a full second before stepping forward, speaking as it did so. "Defense is only a logical deferral for offense when the latter is counterproductive. I see why he makes this analysis."

She shrugged. "I get it but I don't agree with it."

The machine paused. "Nor do I. The element that is missing is that a dependence on defense implies confidence in the ability to withstand attack, which does not correlate to a hesitance to attack. Deterrence is only effective once a demonstration has been evinced."

The asari folded her arms. "Then why is he taking this way out? We'd talked earlier before about reactions if Cerberus looked like a serious threat, things we could do to counter them."

The Immutable was silent for another long pause. "After reviewing all data, the only possible answer is that the Broker is convinced any hostile attack would draw immediate reprisal to the Rim Project."

Dahlia gave a soft exhale at that. She knew how yahg thought, after years with Ty – they were paranoid and fixated on survival at all costs. If he'd associated the Rim Project with 'survival,' then anything that was a remote risk to that was to be avoided. And given his supreme self-confidence in his ability to kill any attackers…

"…Let's hope he is right. Is everything else in preparation?"

The salarian AI gave a short nod. "Affirmative. Mechs and static defenses are in place. We expect the final warships and the remainder of Broker troops from Utisa and Carva Six to arrive in a day and all minefields and missile banks to finish completion in thirty-six hours. Assets on the Citadel are in the process of remotely scanning the large dreadnought and associated Cerberus vessels now for potential weaknesses."

Dantius gave a sour smile. "That's good… but I worry Ty is not seeing the real danger. Even if he's right and the Citadel won't get involved, there's a big number of groups who would happily join in – Aria's Black Fleet, the Shifter's goon squad – hell, what's to stop some of the Circle of the Fallen to throw in some help to keep Shepard off their back? We need more."

The machine stood silently. "You have a suggestion."

Dantius nodded. "Call it a precaution, rather. Two things. One – we still have three wet-teams left; they were on task elsewhere when Ilium blew up. They're straight distance assassins, they won't be of much use here. Can you get them onto the Citadel? They're currently on Okos IV, in the Shrike Abyssal – I need them to hot target vulnerable family members of the Councilors."

The Immutable spoke quietly. "That will take a few days, but yes, that can be done."

Her smile widened. "Good. Two, there's one group we can be absolutely sure won't be on Shepard's side. See if any of your puppets can make any peaceful contacts with Hades."

The AI's voice took on a dubious note. "That is both contraindicated by their goal and operating statements, for them to cooperate. The Network cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of Manswells."

She rolled her eyes. "I know that, but the goal here is to make absolutely sure this doesn't blow up into something bigger. Hades has every reason to try to sabotage this whole thing and they have people inside the SA to do it – which won't point any fingers back at us, since Ty is so paranoid about that."

The artificial salarian was motionless for several seconds, then nodded. "Orders have been dispatched. And now?"

She gestured down the hall. "Let's check our guests, and do a final walkthrough of all the systems. We can't afford any fuckups at this stage."