A/N: So, here we are again.

I'd apologize for taking almost a year to put out a new chapter, but the past few months have been extremely bad, even given my life to this point. The changes in the outside world, the pressures of family, medical issues, financial issues…

I am sure many of you are dealing with the same. The truth is I simply didn't feel like writing this for a long time, and the initial effort was seen by the Editing Gang as not worth pushing out. So, I spent time working on other side stuff and chipping away at this, a hundred words here, five sentences there, a paragraph here. And eventually, here we are.

The good news is that a LOT of the delays up this point were caused by having to rejigger the entire outline and scrapping six to eight chapter outlines, both to incorporate new material and to change things based on feedback. The next couple of chapters are already outlined and (in theory) shouldn't take that long. I know what I want to happen in the Broker chapters and the Collector Base.

The bad news is that I'm pretty much staring at scraps when it comes to the linking piece, and I'd be lying if I didn't expect another slowdown or gap in my work. I also badly need to expend focus on rewriting and updating older chapters, both of the main fic and the Cerberus Files.

In any event, with all the bad shit going on in the world, maybe a new chapter will cheer you all up. Most of the heavy lifting in this was done by inputs from Xabiar, Quentin, Mrosera, and Sikor, with some bits by Aberron and Ariel. As usual, I'd like to thank all of the Editing Gang for their hard work and keeping me from derailing my own story into some kind of anime wattpad isekai of Ahern in cat ears fighting Eggman to the Caramelldansen.

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

'The primary and overriding rule of any Spectre operation must be the sublimation of personal belief and practice to the needs of the Citadel civilizations. As a Spectre, one is given a great deal of leeway and authority, access to in-depth economic, intelligence, and military data, and near-complete personal discretion in how to achieve their stated goals. The high tide of this is that agents are trusted to use this without direct oversight – the low tide of this is that abuse of this trust not only endangers the resources and the Council's authority, but can destabilize entire star-nations or kick off civil war. If Spectre Asahris had been more circumspect when dealing with investigating the Krogan Emperor, would the Krogan Rebellions have occurred? If Spectre Jani Ergoha had notified the Council of his findings regarding Remembrance, would Sur'Kesh have faced near-annihilation?

"A Spectre who cannot put the Citadel above nation, above personal vendetta, above doctrine, above love, above everything else is not only a danger and a traitor – they are a fool."

-"The SPECTRE Mandate: A Guiding Tide," written by Matriarch Hazuma, one of three required reading materials for new Spectre agents

On any given day, the Citadel docks handled thousands of ships.

Some were cargo haulers, loading and unloading wares. Others were diplomatic couriers, commercial carriers, private crafts, and even tourist ships. All of them had various levels of pilots, some very skilled, some very new. Scheduled arrivals and departures were so complex an entire tower of high-end VIs toiled away at all hours of the day and night cycles, simply to coordinate things and prevent collisions.

Given how much control was invested by Traffic Control and the detailed scans run by the scanning probes at the arms of the Citadel on all incoming traffic, concepts such hostile forces or the like breaching the docks was almost nil. The C-Sec's presence at the docks was therefore focused mostly on smaller-scale threats to the Citadel – and, of course, customs issues. Automated security, overlapping scanners, and a large team of focused agents worked to ensure that things like hazardous materials, bombs, and disruptive criminal elements did not get into the station proper.

As the small pinnace reached its assigned docking berth and came to a halt, however, it was pointedly ignored by the C-Sec scanning teams. The four figures that got out of the ship were nondescript – three salarians and a single turian – who dressed in dark clothing and were trailed by a pair of mechs carrying long cases marked with the stamp of Citadel Customs and the marks of the popular turian brandy known as 'fire-wine.'

The turian was in the lead as the group passed the C-Sec security cordon, pausing to trade a subtle nod to the C-Sec tech at the entrance, and the group remained quiet until they were well past the docks area before speaking.

The turian's voice was low but smooth, his eyes glancing around as he pretended to examine a manifest on his omni-tool. "Targets are already being tracked, channel six. The safehouse is in Zakera, third level of the Lower Ward. Dinus, take the mechs and the gear there. Masus, Anthera, scout the embassy and the approach to the upper Bachjret Ward, and place the beacons."

The tallest of the three salarians gave a jerky nod. "We move when we get confirmation, Kalsk?"

The turian named Kalsk flicked a mandible. "From what I was told, some of the Immutable's remote units are already in place. So confirmation is less of a message and more of us having all the data they've indicated is needed. Dahlia wants this done discreetly. The actual wet-teams are going to be here in two days, we need to have the targets ready to go by then and the data package uploaded."

Another of the salarians rubbed her horns, her voice almost raspy. "This is insane, Kalsk. No matter how many assets we have in C-Sec, the entire Citadel will come down on us like a tsunami if we kill relatives of the Councilors. Why are we escalating like this? Dahlia's insane if she thinks this shit is going to get the Citadel to back off."

The turian spread his hands. "Above my pay grade, but I think she wants the option. So, we scout and plan for kidnap first, and if that doesn't work, then the wet-teams go in." He tapped the omni. "List is coming in. Udina's wife, Thin'Koris's daughter, and… Sparatus's eldest boy, who's in C-Sec. Along with a secondary list the other prep team is handling." He looked up at the rest of the team. "Let's get moving. Dinus, once the mechs are set, deploy the remotes. Masus, once you're done with the embassy, ID the locations and their travel routes, and insert the tracers into the AVINA software to track them. Anthera and I will handle the weapons drop."

He made a gesture and the group split up, each heading in a different direction. None of them noticed the pair of figures observing them from atop a nearby warehouse.

"So, your intel was on point, Ghask. Interesting." The salarian who spoke wore the uniform of a member of Citadel Intelligence, his hands still holding his magnoculars to his eyes as he watched the group go their own ways.

The other salarian leaning on the warehouse's air exchangers next to him gave a snort, tugging the lapels of his synth-leather long coat. The light of the constant stream of ship traffic above them glittered off the wraparound smart-glasses he wore, and his voice was low-pitched and almost sluggish for a salarian. "The ginnister doesn't like getting involved, but the Broker is no longer trustworthy and the Shifter feels that the situation with the Network is getting… out of hand. Not to mention the absolute insanity we saw earlier with the attack on Uressa."

The CINT agent lowered the magnoculars and turned to face his companion, his voice harder. "You think the two are linked?"

The gangster snorted again, and then laughed. "Melha, I think that if someone is brazen enough to try to blow up the most beloved person in the galaxy, they're scared of what she's doing – and she's clearly working with Shepard. I can't prove they're related, of course. But whatever Shepard knows is enough to make people like Uressa and Thanix back her up – and to force the Council to listen and the governments to back down. So, it's likely to be bad news for P. and the Broker alike." He paused to light a slender cigar, then blew out a cloud of bluish smoke. "With that in mind, them going after the Councilor's families strikes me as… odd. Not the Broker's usual style."

The intel agent shrugged, putting his devices into his pack. "The bits of intel we have suggest that Shepard is going after the Broker, Ghask. So it's not unexpected for them to try to apply pressure to ensure the Citadel doesn't help. Still, whoever planned this…" He trailed off, scanning the docks area again. "It's a mess."

Ghask merely grinned. "Fair enough. And what about this bunch?"

Melha grimly smiled and tapped his omni-tool. "Others will deal with them. For now, my people have two corrupt C-Sec agents to handle. Your assistance and that of your boss is appreciated."

The other salarian merely sketched a salute and left, while Melha brought up his comm-link. "Second team identified. Overheard conversation confirming the Shifter's proffered intel – the Broker has wet-teams inbound to attack the families of several Councilors, they may try to kidnap first. They also have some kind of tracer or malware they plan to upload to AVINA. Do we have action authority approval yet?"

A soft voice answered. "Yes, but we need to make sure we identify all the players in this mess. I want tracking teams on every one of the targets, full comms pulldown and net surveillance. Iridian is still with the Council and Shepard's people, so I'm moving us to go status on my own authority, I'll get him up to speed later."

Melha frowned. "Can't you just call him?"

The voice gave a laugh. "He's got his TTL in 'do not disturb' mode. Doesn't matter, standing orders are sufficient. Neutralize any C-Sec that appear to be on the Broker's payroll, and set up snipers and interdiction groups on the targeting teams. When it looks like they're ready to move, move to capture them alive if possible. If they escalate unexpectedly or surveillance is made, kill them. We'll have the tech teams deal with any hacks to AVINA."


The silence in the Citadel Council Chamber, broken only by a muttered curse from Tevos, was ended a moment later by a series of chimes from each Council member's plinth. Sparatus tapped his first, his plates shifting and his mandibles flicking slightly downwards in clear surprise, before glancing back up.

Udina scowled and Thin'Koris shook his head. "Of all the…"

The quarian trailed off as Sparatus straightened and spoke, his voice laced with thinly veiled disgust. "We can deal with that irritation later. Let us focus on what has just been proposed, with regards to Shepard and her Spectre-status."

Tevos nodded. "Indeed. The arrogance of batarians…" She trailed off before refocusing her gaze on Udina. "However, to the point – there are some major issues that need to be rectified before we agree on such a thing." She made a sign of siari calm. "The words of Matriarch Uressa and Prince Thanix are taken in the spirit – and the understandable frustration – they were offered in, but we were also not put here to issue knee-jerk responses that could lead to a large number of people dying. We acted in great haste without fully grasping the threat at Feros."

Thanix's eyes narrowed, but Sparatus spoke. "Let us attempt to process this… logically. First, Councilor Udina has suggested making the Collectors a Class One threat. I don't really think we need to waste time on putting that to a vote, given they have the capability of destroying a star and – just based on what Shepard has presented so far – are likely to be associated with the Reapers."

Thin'Koris and Valern both nodded and the Turian Councilor continued. "Good. Second, in dealing with this Class One threat we need more information to plan and understand what resources would be needed to nullify it. We need a direct connection to Aria, but the optics of such are unpalatable."

Iridian coughed. "We do have a… somewhat backchannel connection already: Division Silver."

Valern glanced at Shepard, but she had a confused expression on her face. After a long moment, the Salarian Councilor spoke. "This is true, and we have an infrastructure in place for communications – but I doubt it will be sufficient for an operation of this size."

Shepard arched an eyebrow. "You've lost me. Some kind of intel operation?"

Sparatus shrugged. "More a contingency in case of events. It is a tool we'll use if needed. More to the point, like I said, optics are involved. Like it or not, there are a great many parties who will need to be handled carefully in this mess. The more we can blame you for it all, the better." He coughed. "Sorry but that's just the blunt truth."

Thin'Koris folded his arms. "Additionally, there is a second data point that might be useful. If Shepard's information is correct, the Broker is dealing with the Collectors – thus, he must have useful information on their activities. Even I know that Aria has a well-known hatred of the Collectors, and I think that means we can find some points of commonality that will serve us well in this operation."

The other Councilors said nothing, Udina's wry expression turning into a smirk.

Sparatus then folded his arms. "That is a good point. Aria's optics on working with the Citadel are probably worse than ours working with her – if we're careful, the average citizen won't even know it happened on our end. But on hers, it has to be done… carefully. I'm sure that the criminals in the Traverse have enough fear of Shepard by now that they won't try to interfere, so appointing Shepard as a Spectre gives us another conduit to Aria that can be handled discreetly, without leveraging existing assets."

He glanced around the room. "But if I don't miss my trail spoor, there are some issues with just allowing that to happen."

Pacifia and Hazuma traded glances before the latter spoke. "There are, Councilor. And before that we need to discuss the why. Is there no other option but to have this fleet under the command of Cerberus?"

Shepard shrugged. "If you have your own channels, you can ask, but I'm pretty sure Aria has no intention of backing off on her demands about who is in charge." She paused, clearly thinking about something, then glanced at Liara.

Liara's voice was cool and quiet. "There is also the reality of the situation of Aria's warlords. It is conceivable that they would accept Aria allowing the fleets through under Shepard's command if Shepard has agreed not to go after their criminal operations. No one is going to believe the Council has any control over her in that regard. And given what Ghadi Saan has explained to us regarding Citadel laws involving command of Citadel assets, there is no other… legal vehicle to allow this to happen."

Hazuma nodded, her expression fixedly placid. "I cannot disagree with the rationale for it, but there are many issues to discuss before such a thing is implemented. First and foremost is the issue of the Mandate. In its most essential form, the Mandate is the antithesis of 'black ops' – it demands a clear understanding of what a Spectre is doing with the authority of the Council. Not to belabor the point made earlier with Tela's unforgivable transgression, but we must face absolute facts."

She half-turned to face Shepard. "Shepard works for the Illusive Man, or with him. And his motives are not clear, and possibly not benign."

Matriarch Uressa sighed softly. "I have met with the Illusive Man in-person. I do not disagree that he is not a figure that inspires trust, but the threat of the Collectors and the Reapers is more dangerous than anything Cerberus could perform."

The elderly matriarch made a sign of siari agreement toward Uressa. "The statements made about the threat facing us are not the source of my hesitance. No one in this room is fool enough to ignore the danger, and the fact is that Shepard has stated she and her… group… have the location of the Broker and enough power to take him out on their own."

Hazuma spread her hands. "But that only makes this action more troublesome." She exhaled slowly. "Since Shepard is well-known for her bluntness, I will do the same. The position of Spectre gives one an enormous amount of access to critical intelligence and technology, a tap into C-Sec FINCIN, almost unlimited carte blanche in terms of carrying out actions in Citadel Space, and implies both implicitly and explicitly that the person is acting as a direct agent of the Council. For us to sign off on this, it depends on what Shepard is willing to do."

The old asari smiled. "Assuming Shepard is willing to put herself back under the authority of the Council? Then her status should be reinstated, with an apology for the issues we had in her first service term." She eyed Shepard. "However, before that is done, Shepard, answer me this question: are you willing to place yourself under the authority of the Citadel Council?"

She paused, glancing at the Councilors. "I ask this of her because the ultimate truth is simple. The Mandate is firm, and aside from rarely used stunts such as deputization, we have always maintained a firm line about Spectre enrollment – one must be willing to fully and totally embrace Council authority. If she isn't…"

She trailed off, and Valern nodded slowly. "Then why would the office be given?" He sighed. "Please do not misunderstand. As Matriarch Hazuma stated, this is not merely about 'access' – it is about the other resources Spectres have, as well as the reality that we doubt your ability to act independently… no, wrong word." He paused. "If you are capable of acting without prejudice in the concept of undivided loyalties. For example, what will you do if Cerberus becomes a problem for the Citadel Council in the future? If you are asked to work alongside and with slavers? Or a host of other possible issues – Spectres are tasked with many unpleasant and perhaps to your view, morally suspect tasks, after all."

Shepard rolled her eyes, and Liara frowned and shook her head. Shepard then spoke, her voice almost tired sounding. "I'll answer the last one first. I would like to think that after everything I've done and gone through, people would figure out I'm not really into tolerating stupid evil bullshit. I've already told Harper if he fucks this up and messes up our chance to stop the Reapers over some human-supremacist bullshit, I'm going to punch his head off his shoulders. And I mean that literally."

She looked up. "As for the argument about the 'authority' of the Council, let's get a few things clear. I'm sure Hazuma and all the Spectres think you and this Mandate thing are great, but the reality of life is a lot worse. There's a lot of evil shit going on, both inside and outside the space you control, and you let it happen because you don't give a shit as long as things are stable."

Pacifia sighed. "We've already explained this is not a matter of 'morals.' I fully agree there are many things we could do to improve the galactic state. In the past, when we tried to do so unilaterally, we failed, and the second-tide reflections of those acts only caused worse chaos. I grasp your point – you don't want to be put in a position to execute what you see as 'evil shit.' However, please consider from our point of view – we must have reasonable and secure precautions to ensure the people we entrust with enormous powers and very little active oversight can be relied upon to support the Citadel Council's decrees."

She exhaled. "As for your moral judgment, I would disagree with that as well. We only do what we must."

Liara's voice was icy cold. "You have just quoted my mother. I should hope this illustrates the bankruptcy of your arguments. Your operations in Ilium are known. Your group allowed slaving rings selling asari children to red sand processors to continue because you got useful intelligence on the operations of Six Sins and Aria, for over a decade. There is no moral imperative that ever allows for that – the only difference is that you justify it in your head with the needs of the many."

Pacifia looked at her in amused disdain. "And you are any better, Black Rose of Ilium?"

Liara gave a breathy little laugh that sounded almost unhinged, and Shepard grimaced at the wave of self-loathing that encompassed the bond. "Of course I am no better, but I am not the one representing the group purportedly created to defend the galactic civilization, am I?" Her voice softened. "I am very familiar with compromises. Compromises like this are why the Broker was not shut down decades ago, why Okeer was able to continue his disgusting experiments, and why our galaxy is riven with turmoil."

Shepard gave a narrow slash of a smile. "My wife has a good point. Mine's simpler. You all recall the time you locked down the Normandy to stop me going after Benezia? About the arguments you made that your perspective had to encompass everything, that the situation was under control, blah, blah, blah?"

Sparatus flicked a mandible. "Not our finest decision, I admit, and we have apologized."

Shepard's smile was glacial. "That's not the point. If I was in here arguing that I won't want to obey because you're a bunch of people just fine with slavery or whatever, I'd be arguing something that I doubt you're claiming. You do have enough decency not to call yourselves some kind of moral arbiters."

She put her hands on her hips. "My problem is this body has made shit decisions more than once. I've done some reading about the history of the Council. The Refusal. The bullshit around the krogan. Ignoring the quarians to demonstrate you were large and in charge. The way you handled the FCW before Uressa made you do it right."

She shook her head. "If I want to be a Spectre, I have to give assurances of loyalty and obedience to a group that hasn't really done such a hot job of demonstrating they can make the right call, and who has more than once repaid loyalty with jack shit. So, here's my answer: my only concern right now is stopping the Collectors."

She dropped her hands to her sides. "I don't need your help with the Broker, but I don't think I can handle the Collectors on my own. If you want to make me a Spectre just for that single operation, I'm cool with that – I won't bother doing anything in Citadel Space and afterwards you can shut it all down, since I don't need it."

She leaned forward. "I'm not any more interested in doing your dirty work than I am the Systems Alliance's. I mentioned the thing about morals to underline the fact I don't want to – and won't – enforce evil bullshit in the name of 'stability,' and the fact you have a group like the Spectres to clean up your messes makes me more certain Hazuma's right and I'm not a good fit. The view the Spectres take on what needs to be handled and what doesn't clashes too much with my inability to deal with enraging bullshit."

With a huff, she folded her arms. "As for access, I never got any kind of access, intel, benefits, or anything the fuck else from the Spectres aside from some nice armor and some omni-programs, so I have zero fucking clue what you are talking about."

Hazuma glanced at Pacifia. The other asari sighed. "Your induction into the Spectre ranks was something of an… anomaly. Saren was held at the very highest levels of trust and had access and resources most Spectres do not. Additionally, we had at least four and, as we later discovered, six compromised Spectres that we had to deal with."

She folded her arms. "As such you were only given very limited access to Spectre resources, with the intent being – as Udina and the SA agreed to – that you were on a limited trial qualification period. Part of the restriction was due to that, but most of it was that we did not want to run the risk of having intel we developed to combat Saren leaked to him if there were more compromised personnel."

Hazuma then spoke. "After your success, the Council agreed to make you a full Spectre and you were slated for training, briefings, and to be assigned a partner, who was to be Tela. The Alliance informed us you were being required to undertake high-level command training as part of taking command of your battlegroup and would be tied up for several months at the least."

Udina frowned. "I was told this training would be handled by the Spectre's after her Alliance training."

Hazuma nodded. "Correct, for the most part. But given that she was a full Spectre, giving her the codes and other access was seen as a start, so she could at least review it in detail. So we sent you the training package and the security codes for access to the Spectre networks as well as all the indoc and briefing materials, and DRM codes for other Spectre… equipment." She trailed off as she saw a look of baffled incomprehension on Shepard's face.

Hazuma frowned and glanced uncertainly at Udina. "You should have received all of this during your training at Pinnacle Station. We sent that to your office, Udina."

The older man nodded warily. "Yes. It wasn't made clear to me what it was, but the transfer directions were simple and I forwarded it to Alliance Command, with instructions to send it to Shepard's training command under Admiral Ahern. At the time I was told she was training and it would be given to her at the first opportunity." His gaze slid across the room toward Admiral Branson, who merely shook his head.

"Shepard's command training was not fully completed and I made the decision to delay any such complications until after she finished up with Ahern, as that would be a more efficient use of her time. Given that Ahern's report indicated certain deficiencies in training, it was deemed more… prudent to delay such until after her political training was completed. There was some concern that she and her officer corps were already under a great deal of time pressure and that there was no rush to have any of this completed by a given date."

He smiled. "Furthermore, given that we did not know what this data package contained, the decision was made that we needed more insight into the process of someone under our command. Frankly, High Command felt that letting her access unknown information at that time was… unadvisable."

Hazuma's eyes narrowed. "As an active Spectre, Shepard did not fall under your command status. That was not your decision to make." A pause. "And what exactly was done with the encrypted package that was sent to your systems?"

The Admiral smiled. "I do not answer to you, matriarch."

Udina's voice was hard as he slowly walked away from his podium, around the narrow walkway that led to the supplicant's pier. "No, you do not. You do, however, answer to the High Lords of Sol, and they tend to listen to me when I indicate one of our command officers has made an intergalactic mockery of the Alliance. Answer the question."

Branson glared at Udina for a long second. "It was held until Shepard completed her command level training – which, I need to reiterate, was not completed on Pinnacle. After that it was codelocked into secure data storage at High Command. It's still there, as far as I know." He smirked. "Do not worry, no attempts were ever made to decrypt it or attempt to determine its contents."

Hazuma scowled. "You interfered in Spectre operations."

Branson sighed. "Matriarch, I am here because, despite whatever collective insanity has gripped everyone to recognize this Cerberus mockery as Shepard, she is still considered a member of the Alliance military and will need to work with us. The nature of how she works with us changes depending on whether or not she is a Spectre."

He took a deep breath. "Bluntly put, we had concerns about Shepard's ties with certain groups even before her death. Concerns I do believe, in the discussions ranging around Shepard's candidacy, were also brought up by the Council and the selection committee. We withheld it until we could verify to our own satisfaction that Shepard could be trusted with this material. And frankly, we now have more concerns about her reliability."

Hazuma's expression soured. "It is not the job of a local race's military to qualify if a Spectre is trustworthy after they've already put them forward for approval! And even if we allow this argument, that does not justify interfering with privileged Spectre communications, Admiral. Has it ever struck you that if she had access to said materials that some of the events that led to her death could have been avoided?"

Branson's expression hardened. "That's not my concern. The point is that Shepard was at the time under some internal suspicion of having improper access to certain intel, and the decision was made to ensure she underwent a further PRIDE examination and more political training before throwing her into the deep waters of black operations that full Spectre access would entail."

He gave a mocking smile. "Of course, if she had completed said training we would have forwarded her the materials and this would not be an issue. It's an issue because she died." The Admiral folded his arms.

Hazuma's expression was one of weary disgust. "Councilor Udina, this interference in Spectre operations is intolerable. Why was my office not notified of this oversight when it happened?"

Udina exhaled sharply, his expression unhappy. "Matriarch, I am afraid I was not kept in the loop on this development. I grasp this… oversight… on the part of Admiral Branson – and High Command – does not put us in the best light, but I submit that it is possible the intent was not malign."

He narrowed his eyes as he glanced at Branson. "And I will personally see to a data disposition investigation and a formal apology from the Alliance towards the Corps. If you wish to freeze and review all pending Spectre applications as a result of this incident, we will fully comply."

Hazuma's expression didn't change. "I will take your word as your bond for the moment, and I realize we are getting away from the topic at hand. However, this does not reflect well on the Alliance's ability to cooperate – or your ability to keep control of your own underlings – and we will indeed be reviewing all pending and current Alliance Spectre applications and offices."

Hazuma turned to Shepard. "Given that you were never properly briefed, your lack of understanding into Spectre operations is more… understandable. The point I was attempting to make was that if your own government had not blocked such, you would have had executive-level access to a wide array of intel reports, classified documents, data feeds, and other… sources that require a high level of trust in order to hand over to anyone. Some of this information could be used to harm Council members, and letting a group like Cerberus have access to such is not something I am comfortable with."

Shepard gave a slow nod. "That… is understandable. I'm not a hundred percent sure I totally trust Harper either, but I'm dealing with the best of a bad hand. And honestly, given how much Vigil has already found out, I'm not sure I want to know how much further down the rabbit hole goes."

Hazuma's expression finally relaxed at that, but Udina pressed on, turning back to the rest of the Council. "I submit that my recommendation of Shepard as a Spectre acting with our authority is the only way forward. Aria will not be cooperative, even if she hates the Collectors. Sending anyone else in command would only result in additional friction.

"That being said. Given the fact that Shepard never got full Spectre access, the concerns from both certain Alliance officers and the Spectre Corps that such access could be problematic, and the fact that there are clear and bright lines that Shepard is unwilling to cross, there is always a third option, one Matriarch Hazuma herself mentioned."

At the puzzled looks of everyone, he smiled. "Deputization."

Pacifia snorted. "We have not done that in literally centuries. It was always a flawed and dangerous bending of rules that really should never be bent and it blew up on us almost every time."

Udina shrugged. "If this was anyone else, I'd agree. Do you honestly think that Shepard would misuse that level of very limited authority, however?"

The room fell silent, then Tevos sighed. "Very well. Your proposal?"

Udina's expression turned rueful. "If Shepard is amiable, we can do a… limited authority transfer as we did with her first candidacy, isolating her from any sensitive intelligence information or other access points of note. The methods used in deputization already have that set up, and we can always backstop data restrictions."

Valern glanced at Tevos, then at Thin'Koris. "With all due respect, Matriarch Hazuma, I do not see that we have much choice. However, our limits on this… access must be clear. Shepard will only have authorization as a Spectre for the operation against the Collectors. There will also need to be at least two other Spectres with her at any time she wishes to access Spectre intelligence or resources, and she cannot take any actions – or even reference – her Spectre authority within Citadel Space. Once the Collector operation is over and done with, we will revoke all such access until such time as she formally requests reinstatement."

Shepard shrugged. "That works for me. In this instance, yes. I will obey all Council issued orders and mandates in regards to activity against the Collectors, and under no circumstances will I use any authority or whatever else I'm given for any other reasons and I will cooperate fully with the limits you set."

She paused. "Was it that hard?"

Sparatus flicked a mandible. "And our immediate action? Both Prince Thanix and Matriarch Uressa have pressed us to act instead of talk."

Tevos spoke. "And act we shall. Matriarch Hazuma, please put together two strike teams that are prepared for forward hostile insertion operations. A backstop of support Spectres using Action Plan Ciditha would also be useful. Fidel, we need a briefing on the capabilities and threat profile of the Broker Network, and all the information on the Collectors you have. Once that is completed, Sparatus, please liaison with Admiral Hierax and the Command Cadre of the Citadel Fleet on ship and troop readiness acceleration. I will reach out to the Thirty and Republic Fleet Command for additional forces."

Tevos made a sign of siari unity. "If you would grant me your time, Matriarch Uressa, I also have some questions and clarifications I need from you."

Thin'Koris glanced at his podium. "Is anything needed from us at the current time?"

Tevos paused, thinking. "The STG sent us a list of human colonies that are vulnerable to Collector actions. If your scout fleet or their proxies can maintain scans on those systems and alert us to any action there, that would be immensely helpful, as our own ships would look somewhat look out-of-place."

The quarian nodded. "Not to change directions, but are we going to formally greet the batarian emissary? His communique indicates he has some information on the Collectors…"

Sparatus snorted. "The fools never bother talking to us directly anyway, if he wants an audience let him petition like everyone else." He turned to Shepard. "For now, that is all. We will tentatively agree to your plan with the Collectors, although I suspect details may change. As for the Broker…" He glanced at Hazuma, who gave a slight shake of her head.

The matriarch spoke. "While there may be volunteers who agree to join, I do not think a formal declaration of any kind serves us. I will reach out to the Corps and see who is interested in accompanying Shepard on the operation."

Shepard frowned. "So… that's it?"

Tevos gave a thin smile. "We need to determine what our course of action is, and for that we need to talk to our military commanders; a discussion that we do not think you should be a part of. Once we have determined what our best course of action is, as well as pinned down any other elements we need, we can present the final results to you and have our people talk to your own fleet… command figures."

Udina nodded. "Tevos, while I agree, I am also not needed for that discussion. I believe a better use of my time would be to accompany Shepard and her… entourage" – Udina gave a longer look at some of the people with Shepard – "to speak with Alliance High Command. There's a great deal that needs to be discussed regarding your status with the Systems Alliance, Shepard, and coordinating any response the Alliance will have in this conflict with the Collectors."

Tevos and Sparatus both nodded, and the group broke up, Udina turning to face Shepard more fully, glancing scathingly at Branson. "As for you, Admiral, you can prepare a meeting to discuss this fuckup and the Alliance's response with Shepard. At the very least, the assault against the Collectors will require fleet and Marine support, and probably elements of the special forces."

Branson frowned, his eyes narrowing. "I'm not sure that's appropriate, Councilor Udina. While for the moment the High Lords have instructed us that this cybernetic mockery is indeed Shepard, we have received no orders indicating we need to oblige her or her terrorist backers. Furthermore, any such theoretical discussion would be of a legal aspect, as many of her… associates… are problematic, both legally since some were presumed dead and in terms of their backers being a terror network."

The Admiral folded his arms. "Furthermore, I am completely unconvinced the Alliance fleet has any role to play in whatever she's up to. I am certainly not about to let a Cerberus agent command SA fleet vessels without very clear oversight."

Udina shook his head. "You seem to be missing the point that the Collectors are the threat here."

Branson sneered. "And you seem to be missing the point that Cerberus is a threat, and is blackmailing the Lords of Sol, consorting with known criminals, and is working with Aria. Perhaps what needs to happen is for you to be replaced with someone less willing to kneel to aliens and with more spine when it comes to dealing with jumped up street trash."

Shepard's fist tightened, but Liara laid her hand on her shoulder, squeezing slightly.

Udina's voice dropped in tone, his eyes narrowing. "Admiral, you seem to be particularly insolent and stupid today, so I will be more blunt. The High Lords have already accepted her as Shepard. The Council has done so. Her closest confidants who would be able to pick up on any deception have done so. Your cooperation at this point is not optional. If you refuse to assist me, I will have to report to the High Lords that you are refusing their orders, as well as the fact that your decision involving the Spectre data could lead to political fallout and that you should be relieved of command."

Branson rolled his eyes. "You are overstepping your bounds. I am a Lord of Sol. You are a flunky, and this discussion is over." He stared down, sneering, then glanced at Shepard.

Udina smiled thinly, then backhanded Branson across the face. The bigger man stumbled and then fell on his back, a look of shock then anger surging across his features. He rose to his feet, eyes narrowed. "You dare?" He took a step forward, only to find Shepard's finger pressed against his chest.

"Please give me a reason, hero." Shepard's voice was undercut with an almost amused malice as she tapped her finger on his collarbone with a smile. "I'll do a bit more than slap you."

Udina's smile turned almost gleeful, although his voice was nothing but polite. "Perhaps I was unclear, High Admiral, or maybe you like being slapped around. Your stupid paranoia just ruined years of delicate negotiations and cost us a great deal of good will with your errant and thoughtless stupidity, and frankly, if the Silver Prince doesn't have you shot and dumped in a ditch, I'll be surprised."

The older man's voice took on an edge. "You can run off and tell the High Lords whatever you like, but I have already been given my instructions." He pulled out a Red Note. "Per the orders I have, anyone causing issues that are likely to further turn Shepard against the Alliance should be treated as disloyal elements and remanded to the Commissars."

Branson paled, eyes widening, and the Councilor's voice grew even harder. "You don't get a choice in this, as the High Lords have already decided that working with Baroness Shepard is preferable to the alternative. You can either cooperate with me, or we can call Prince Manswell and discover how quickly you will be replaced as High Admiral."

Udina walked right up to Branson, coming to a stop before the taller Admiral. "We are having this discussion now. If I am not satisfied with the answers and outcomes of said discussion, the High Lords have already informed me that they will become rapidly involved. Your arrogant fuckups during the Magog Incident and the handling of the Geth War have already cost us enough – further intransigence on your part will not be acceptable."

Shepard looked at Udina curiously, and made a mental note to ask about this later.

He brushed off his coat lapels. "In the meanwhile, there is a meeting room on level two I have already reserved and had my local Commissar secure for this conversation. We will meet you there in about a half-hour, Admiral. Or your replacement shortly thereafter."

Branson gave him a sneering shake of the head and turned to leave, followed by his aides.

Udina turned to Shepard… and after a second wrung out his hand. "Insufferable idiot." He smiled at Shepard and Liara. "If I had known he had stalled giving you Spectre information, I would have done something, Shepard."

Shepard snorted, watching as the Councilors left their podiums. "Donnel, that was fucking awesome. I've wanted to punch that fucker in the face for years."

Udina's voice was droll. "Your barbarity has infected me, perhaps." He shook his head. "God, if you had the full Spectre access to see other reports besides what…" He glanced aside at Tela Vasir, as she was led away by Pacifia. "…you were fed, perhaps you would have seen the trap."

Shepard's voice was calm as she reached down and held Liara's hand. "Like I told someone else, 'what-if' stuff just makes you angry and sad." She shrugged, jerkily. "It hasn't been easy, but… we're here. That's what matters."

Liara's voice was edged with amusement. "Agreed. And I see your temper has not improved since we last met, Councilor."

Udina sighed. "Nor would yours, Lady Liara, if your job was to ride herd on the most incompetent pile of disreputable morons in uniform and the political equivalent of a particularly inept and painfully racist clown show." He smoothed his jacket sleeve with his left hand, shaking his head. "In the end, it matters little. Branson will obey or I have full confidence he'll be replaced in short order – your clever usage of media and extranet have made you too politically hot to dismiss, and this last stupid stunt of his is probably going to infuriate the High Lords to no end."

Shepard shrugged. "That guy's always been a PR talking head. Ahern once said to his face he had no idea why they made him High Admiral. As for my use of the media, the Butcher videos were all me, most of the rest is probably Harper."

Udina nodded. "I'd caution you in dealing with that snake, but as you have already no doubt ascertained, it's not like the Systems Alliance would have dealt with you as freely or fairly. A depressing realization, only exceeded by the fact that rumors…" He trailed off, glancing at the form of Doctor Minsta next to Shepard, and instead merely gave a grimace.

"I would suggest, at least for the moment, you can dismiss your guard and staff to the Tower's base. The restaurants there have been given instructions that you are all on the credit of the Council, so they can get something to eat while we finish this up. If you need to make any secure calls, you can use my offices on the Tower's fifth floor. I am going to head down to the conference room and have my duty Commissar secure it, I'll see you in half an hour or so."

Shepard gave a small exhalation. "Alright." She turned to the few people behind her. "Saan, I'll need you with me in case there are legal issues. Doctor Minsta, can you…?" She made a vague gesture, and the older man chuckled.

"There's certainly no reason for me to be in a military briefing, Baroness – especially as my presence will only incite further discord. I will let the rest of your detail know what is happening. Then I will avail myself of the Presidium Arc's best chefs, and perhaps have a glass of wine, and certainly pursue a discourse with our… guest." He gestured aside at Okeer in Grunt's body, who gave a genteel chuckle.

Minsta's voice dipped in volume. "I would advise, however, that you take Lady Liara with you as well, but no one else."

Shepard frowned. "Why?"

Minsta's smile was predatory, even as he watched Udina catch up to Branson and leave, arguing about something. "This went… too smoothly, Shepard, even with the mess about Tela Vasir. Too accommodating. I was expecting far more pushback, frankly. More resistance. More questioning. Something feels… off."

Okeer spoke, his own voice disquieted. "Indeed. The other Councilors are something of an unknown to me, but Tevos did not display any signs of agitation. She herself seemed, if anything, too agreeable. And the fact that the STG's matron Dalatrass was standing to one side observing is all too neatly done. Someone – or someones, perhaps – have decided that you are too dangerous to trifle with. It is almost as if they were expecting a completely different outcome or request… Which is curious indeed, as I cannot think of what that would entail."

Minsta nodded. "Which means that there is probably backroom dealing… or they are assuming something based on data we do not have. What concerns me more is that Admiral Branson – who is usually an astute political animal who would never risk his prestige or position over something as trifling as morals – is clearly not read in on this agreement, or the position of the High Lords. His reaction is too hostile for anything else to make sense, and it strikes me that he would only be excluded from such information if the High Lords found him… untrustworthy. Which raises its own set of questions, particularly since he had to have known what he did with this Spectre data package would come out sooner or later."

Okeer snorted. "My good doctor, his reticence is perfectly logical if he has dabbled in illegalities of the sort the mighty Shepard usually remedies with biotic balefire or polonium pellets. The High Lords may have simply distanced themselves knowing this, and while it may be politically inconvenient for them to dispose of this Branson directly, having Shepard do so solves two mazes with a single path."

The krogan paused, then spoke again. "I have not had the time to truly study your people, but there is literally no other reason for a political officer to be obstructionist."

Minsta inclined his head, silver hair glinting in the dim lighting. "A point I was reluctant to pursue. It implies High Command itself is compromised, which – combined with the reality of 'Richard Manswell' – does not suggest that cooperation with Alliance Command will be fruitful."

Shepard folded her arms. "So High Command is dirty, shock. Tell me another one I didn't already know before I died."

Minsta shrugged. "The actual revelation is not important, compared to the result. However, if they're going to play it like that, I suggest we act as calmly and conciliatorily as possible. They cannot possibly object if just you and Lady Liara attend, Baroness. You already know how Alliance High Command views aliens. While the lawyer will not trouble them, marching in there with anyone but Lady Liara will harden whatever views they have."

She shrugged. "Usually I don't give a shit about offending a bunch of bigots, but…"

Minsta gave a small bow. "Your… deference in this matter will only highlight any irrational reactions Branson has in more detail, and will perhaps convince other High Command members you are reasonable. In the interim, I will mingle with the elite and do some cautious digging to find out more."

He looked at Garrus, who stood stiffly. "I'd like to have Mr. Vakarian at hand when I attempt to speak to Primarch Fedorian, and of course, I am sure some of the others who came along can find out things. By the time you are done with your meeting, I should have laid the groundwork for a quick resolution to the Spectre question if there are any other people opposed to the concept, as well as gained a better grasp of why the Council reacted so oddly."

Garrus nodded. "My sire wants to speak with me privately before I talk to Fedorian, so I'll bring it up then."

Minsta gave a small bow. "My thanks, cera Vakarian. The rest of the team can mingle, as I am sure everyone can make contacts or at least keep an ear open for news we may have missed. Once Shepard is done with her briefing, we can reconvene at a chosen location of the Baroness's choice."

Liara nodded slowly. "A good plan. I am somewhat surprised at their sudden agreement, and this reference to a batarian representative is also somewhat confusing. I was under the impression the batarians did not deal with the Council – or the Citadel at all."

Grunt's shoulders moved, Okeer's voice calm. "It is nuanced, but until the fall of the Hegemony, the Emperor allowed the Hegemon-caste to handle all outside communications. If he is sending some lesser princeling here, it may amount to nothing. If he sends someone with power…"

Minsta arched an eyebrow, but Ghadi Saan walked over, glancing at his omni-tool. "I believe I have an insight on that."

He turned the tool to show the vid-screen image he had pulled up, the dark and elegant shape of a batarian cruiser sliding into the Citadel Docks. The volus's voice was almost grim as he spoke. "The Augur, the highest agent of the Batarian Emperor himself, has arrived. He hasn't ventured outside of Batarian Space since just after the First Contact War, when the Skyllian Verge was denied to the batarians. And if the media is correct, Shepard? He is here to speak with you."


The curved walls of the room were bare, blackened metal, the floor covered in silken mats and the ceiling inset with acoustic-deadening tiles. Two trioliths of black marble stood in the far corners of the room, with small piles of slow-burning sobha peppers atop them generating fragrant tendrils of smoke. The sounds of the K'lahta Manaa, one of the most elegant pieces of batarian high force opera, sounded faintly in the background.

The figure kneeling on the floor was dressed simply – silken black robes over a blackened leather tunic, black leather pants and knee-high black leather boots. Black leather gloves with an interwoven pattern on the backs held a single orb, shimmering with various colors.

The figure was silent, his four eyes staring into it from behind his bone mask. There was a faint chiming sound, and the orb glowed brightly. The figure tilted its head far to the left and down.

"All is understood, Mighty One. I will reach out to the agent of the Other momentarily, and will attempt to discern his interest in this Shepard."

The orb darkened, and the massive figure kneeling looked up as there was a faint knock on the hatch door. "Arrive."

The hatch hissed open, revealing the corridor beyond and the slender figure of the ship's Captain, already bent in the ritual bow, his bone-white hair in a long queue studded with silver bands. "Great Augur, we have arrived at the Citadel, and C-Sec has sent an honor guard to greet you. However, none of the Councilors are coming to greet you themselves. How should we respond to this insult, and how should we deploy to serve you?"

The Augur rose smoothly, his silken black robes falling around him silently. He placed the orb into a pocket and knelt to pick up the heavy black mace laying on the floor beside him. "The Council's mouthpieces are hardly relevant. They think themselves too important to deign to talk with us. This serves our purposes just fine. As for the escort… Four Imperial Guards, no weapons, full regalia, formal masks. Once I disembark, they will remain here and secure the dockside. Tell media inquiries I am here to speak with Shepard and deny all other requests for contact. Maintain standard readiness but go ahead and draw down the core and top off fuel, drop charge, and purchase any needed supplies."

The Captain bowed again. "…You wish us to inform the monkey of your desire to speak to her."

The Augur's smile bared ritually sharpened teeth. "The media will do that task for us. I have ensured such, but if not, the guards will have the same effect. However, she is… more formidable than most of the useless breeding sluts of the aliens, so dispatch one Imperial Guard with an invitation. Pick a restaurant. The Guard should be respectful and polite – she defeated Okeer. Such a feat warrants a more formal display of respect. If she declines, have the Guard give her our TTL number and withdraw without further comment. If she accepts, inform me immediately."

He paused, then handed the mace to the Captain, who took it reverently with both hands. "I will not need this, I think. Between the servitor of the Other and myself, we could leave this pitiful station a smoking ruin. Depart. I will be ready shortly."

The hatch door shut, and the Augur turned to the far wall, touching a segment of the unmarked metal. It slid down and back, revealing a modern communications panel, and he touched a series of TTL routing numbers and waited.

The man appearing on the screen a moment later was gray-haired and stout, his steely eyes narrowed in amusement as he puffed on a cigar. His suit was an expensive cut wool, the SA pin on his lapel done in gleaming gold the same as the rich rings on his thick fingers.

After a long moment, the Augur inclined his head a bare fraction to the left. "Senator Adkins."

The Senator reciprocated the motion, with a smile. "Lord Augur." Another puff on the cigar. "We never really get to chat much."

The Augur's voice dipped in amusement. "There is little to discuss, aside from whatever errands our gods have dispatched us to perform, and opera, of which you are not a connoisseur."

Adkins' smile widened. "Do I even want to know how you learned Italian, Venkarith?"

The Augur tilted his head to the left again. "Music is a language universal, but I have also studied Russian and German." A pause. "And our lack of discussion is by default an artifact of the artificial hostility practiced by our subordinates, as your Lords deal with the Imperial. What of it?"

The Senator shook his head. "Your command of our languages is truly amazing. As far as talking, I merely meant that all of this, of what we've done, has to be moving towards some… point. But my boss is almost entirely hands-off all the time, while yours remains always involved. Kind of in the dark as to why."

The Augur rolled his shoulders forward, the batarian equivalent of a dismissive gesture. "That is almost certainly by personal preference, not design. The Dark Gods only chose to become… directly involved when I captured their interest. Perhaps this Shepard breeder has done the same for yours."

Adkins' smile widened. "She's welcome to this shit. Why she interests the boss is beyond me, though. She doesn't strike me as much of a thinker." He dumped the ashes of his cigar. "Ah, well. I suppose you're ready to start this ridiculous mess?"

The Augur gave a batarian shrug, the shoulders rolling back. "I am not in the practice of questioning my gods, Adkins. We are both mouthpieces. Attempting to assign meaning – or worse, reasoning – to their instructions is a waste of both time and effort. I suspect I am only here because your master showed an interest – and if you don't know why, then the entire issue is moot."

The human snorted. "Your loss. I question my boss all the time, and he seems to like it when I do. Can't complain, given all the toys he hands me, but this… is kind of lowering myself and you, don't you think?"

The batarian exhaled. "I do not think both your master and mine would have interest in a single mortal – much less your master having draped her with enough Words and Wards to make her literally unkillable – if it was not of vast importance to their plans. And this is wasting time. I have decided to invite her to a restaurant for a meal. I will TTL you the details once things are finalized – or, if she declines, I would expect you to invite me to wherever you will be meeting her."

Adkins' smile faded. "I can certainly do that, but I thought I'd get a chance to break things to her first. It is a pretty big mindfuck."

The Augur's own smile widened. "She is ringed with enough power to give me a headache, and we both know the risks of doing so openly given that Kidun is still active. If she's worth the risk of all that, she should be able to adapt. My master is… simply making sure that we are allowed to make our own case as well as you are able to. Whatever that case may be."

Adkins ground the cigar out. "Shit, Venkarith. I don't even know what I'm supposed to say to her, so it's likely she's gonna get to experience the lovely experience of being talked at directly through me. But I'll do my best to cooperate. My pinnace is just now coming up on the relay, so I'll be waiting for your message."

He paused. "And, well. She doesn't like your kind very much. Might want to tone down the 'breeder' stuff a bit before you go in to meet her."

The Augur reached for the comm control, pausing just before touching it. "That a breeding slave doesn't know her place is not important. Her obedience to reality is." He killed the signal, and then sealed the panel.

For a moment he glanced upwards, his eyes narrowing, as he muttered to himself. "The human isn't wrong. To lower myself to this level… What are you planning, my masters?"

The orb in his pocket did not respond.


The central Presidium park area was thronged with people, but Garrus found his way toward the turian embassy fairly easily. He was stopped at least a dozen times by admiring turians (and one particularly disturbing quarian) and more than a few turian females or asari glanced at him coyly. The fans were easily dealt with, the admiring females were glared off by the combination of Mel and Tel.

The fact that at least two reporters asked if he was starting a 'P.-style breeding circle' of asari and got decked by Archangel fans made him feel vaguely sick in the gullet.

The fact that both Telanya and Melenis were chitchatting about drinking and hangovers and the occasional faint snicker was only making a plate-raising nervousness even more so, and as he climbed the steps to the embassy, his spurs tightened to almost painful levels as he saw his father standing out in front, arms crossed, gazing up at the Tower.

And, of course, Primarch Fedorian and Executor Pallin were next to him, chatting away.

He found he'd come to a stop, and Melenis touched him on the arm. "Are you alright, Garrus?"

A burst of wild-sounding laughter made it past his mouth before he could cut it off, and he shook his head. "I'm about to find out, I suppose." He firmed his posture, before half-turning to look at both Melenis and Telanya. "…Are you sure this is a good idea?"

Telanya's laugh was even darker than his had been, and her voice bitter. "By the Goddess, this is the stupidest idea since you tried to bust that red sand dealer in his own hideout and nearly got killed." She tilted her head. "I don't see any other good options. I can't keep going. She can't keep going. You can't keep going."

The younger asari turned to look at Melenis, who merely shrugged. "It's not what I would have chosen if I thought there was another way to handle things, Garrus. Leaving aside all the interpersonal awkwardness and Telanya's own issues with her past, I know the Hierarchy is going to look at this even more sourly." Her eyes wouldn't meet Garrus's, and after a long moment he simply nodded.

"Well, then, my ladies, let us see how bad this is going to get." He moved forward, politely declining a request for comment from a turian news reporter, and stepped up the three shallow steps to the platform at the embassy's entrance.

"Primarch Fedorian. Executor." A pause. "Sire." Garrus was surprised at how firm his voice was, and his salute was crisp.

Fedorian and Pallin exchanged glances, before the former spoke. "Good to see you are in one piece after that mess taking out the Broker's goon. Impressive fight. I look forward to your next triumph."

Pallin snorted. "No you don't." His gaze traveled to the two asari behind Garrus, and then back to him. "You really do not do anything in half-measures, do you, boy?"

Regilus flicked a mandible. "Enough, Venari. This is difficult enough for him – and them – as it is. If you want to poke fun, go bother that crazy bitch who dragged all three of them into this mess."

Pallin snorted again. "I like having all my arms and legs attached, thanks. But spoor tracked." He shrugged. "I'll be in Central if you need to talk, just keep in mind what I said about the Broker – this is going to get stupid, very fast." He stalked off.

Fedorian nodded a moment later. "Don't mind him, Vakarian. He's still bitter that his most outrageous old detective is breaking more rules."

Garrus bowed. "I only do what I must, Primarch. Also… a member of Shepard's team, one Doctor Minsta, would like to speak with you when you are available – he didn't say about what, but he's…"

Garrus trailed off, and Fedorian's expression hardened. "I know who Minsta is, Vakarian. I have had the displeasure of meeting that genteel sociopath before. I shudder to think what that person wants to discuss – or why in the spirit's sight Shepard invited him along – but I will speak with him. Sometime after Shepard is done with her own military people."

Regilus flicked a mandible out. "Never heard of him – is he important?"

Fedorian sighed. "He was once part of the human ambassadorial detail – he gave presentations on human psychology and society, and was tight with the old ambassador, Goyle. The mess with the damned Talids and that fool who killed one of their General's offspring soured the entire mess, and Minsta very nearly managed to convince the asari to sanction the Hierarchy."

Garrus winced, and Regilus whistled. "And he wants to speak to you? Have fun with that pile of rabid vakars."

The giant turian leader folded his arms and grunted. "No matter. In the meantime, I need to speak with a few of the turian Spectres to get their take on the situation, but I'll be on TTL if you need me, Reg. Garrus, you can reach me via the same when the doctor is ready to… talk."

"Thank you, Primarch Fedorian." Garrus saluted him, as did Regilus, and they both waited until the Primarch departed before turning to face each other.

Garrus spoke. "Sire…"

Regilus shook his head. "Not yet, son." Gesturing to a table along the railing overlooking the plaza, he spoke in a softer voice. "Let's have a seat and talk. And you can introduce your new lady friend."

Garrus followed him, his asari trailing him with nervous expressions on both faces, and Regilus sat down with a weary sound. Garrus waited a moment, then sighed. "Sire, you know Telanya already. This is Melenis, daughter of Avenasi, a member of the Mountain Reach Clan."

Regilus gave a faint nod. "I am not familiar with that particular Clan."

Melenis gave a tired smile, her voice as gentle as usual. "Not surprising, cera Vakarian. It is a small Clan on one of the outlying colonies that was involved in recycling."

He leaned back in the chair, the light of the Widow Nebula casting the silver hue of his ceremonial armor into a faint purple. "I see. And how exactly did a minor Clan member from an outlying world end up fighting alongside the Archangel on Omega, of all places?"

She looked away. "I made mistakes, in judgment and in who I trusted. I committed an act that I couldn't forgive myself for, and I used the excuse of my sister dying on Omega to give myself a reason to go to avenge her, and probably die. Things… didn't turn out that way."

Garrus muttered. "She was the one who found me after Tazzik beat me, and insisted on saving my life."

Regilus smiled then, the act lifting his face-plates and his voice warm. "Then you have my deepest gratitude and debt, cena Melenis. We've all done things we regret – the choices we take after, to make up for those things, to prove that we are more than our mistakes – that is what matters. And in saving my son's life, you have given me a gift I can never repay."

Melenis actually blushed at this, and even Telanya smiled. Garrus gave a shaky sigh, and thankful that his father didn't ask for more details, shifted topics. "Not that I am not glad to see you, sire, but… why are you on the Citadel? Just to see me?"

Regilus shook his head. "No, if that was all I'd have simply met you at the docks. Fedorian is under increased pressure from the Cluster Primarchs to step down, and the riots in Vorasonti and Sector Six-B with the new batarian colonies are only the beginning of what looks like a small-scale Unification War. He doesn't have a lot of people he can trust, so I'm basically acting as thetarch."

Garrus grimaced. 'Thetarch' was an archaic title, one from the ancient imperatorial era, that indicated a sort of co-primarch for most tribal matters, one who was usually given the harder tasks that might embarrass the main primarch to handle. "That's not much of a way to treat an old friend, sire."

Regilus shrugged. "He's doing what he can. Palin is pretty sure the Broker's people are also making the situation worse, and frankly, we don't have the kind of intel framework to stop them." He sighed. "So, I get roped in to oversee… a few new projects."

His father straightened. "It's not like we haven't gotten anything out of it." He rolled his shoulders. "Due to his influence, and of course, the work your sister has been doing, the Family has been given several contracts. Your sister's paper on magnetic resonance was apparently useful to Thanix in figuring out the weapon systems of the, ah, geth flagship."

He glanced around, and Telanya rolled her eyes. "Still haven't gone public with the truth about that, cera Vakarian?"

The older turian barked a laugh. "No. Idiots are sure people will panic. They'll panic a whole lot more if a mess of those monster ships show up though." He flicked his hands out, as if throwing something away. "I can't really reason with the Council, and I keep getting told to back off. At any rate, we're one of six chosen to oversee building the new Thanix weapons systems. That's taking up a lot of resources and I need to hire more workers – salarian ones – to do the detail work. And on top of that, I've been dealing with a lot of news interviews and applications to join the Family since your true identity came out."

Garrus grinned. "Hopefully some who are less of a runaway shakan than me."

The reference was to an animal known for breaking away from the herd and getting killed by vakar, but his father shook his head.

"No, I don't see what you've done as dishonorable, or in any way not keeping with the precept of the Hierarchy. You brought justice and security to a hellish place the rest of the galaxy wrote off in return for cheap eezo and a dumping ground for the unwanted. You fought to protect the helpless, you refused to back down even at risk to everything you had, and you took down the single toughest sirefucking cyborg monstrosity in the entire galaxy."

Regilus placed his hand on his son's shoulder. "Even if I don't always agree with you, son, I am always proud of you. Always be who you are, not what tradition demands us to be. That only has value when tradition aligns with honor, and not fear or spur-licking or surrender due to despair."

Garrus nodded, pleased but worried. "Thank you. I just worry that people will look at me and what I've done and get the wrong idea. Like the talk shows saying I should have announced my real identity a long time ago…"

Regilus snapped his mandibles against his jaw angrily. "Carrion feeders. They don't know what they are talking about. I admit, I thought that way as well, until we had that call. And I probably should have said this before now, but I did some checking."

The older turian's good eye was fixed on his son. "While I'd like to think that our House is secure, the ugly fact remains that the Shadow Broker isn't an enemy you can ignore. Not long after your real identity as the Archangel was known, two attempts at breaching security were attempted. The latter killed six of our guards. The thasvar investigators are pretty sure these were Broker assets."

Garrus clenched his fists, and Telanya's voice was almost bleakly dispassionate. "Standard op for the Broker. Identify family members as leverage and kidnap – or kill – to make an enemy react in rage and without thinking, usually to draw them out for a sniper to handle."

Regilus gave a stiff nod at that. "Unfortunately, that tracks with what we found." He took a deep breath. "I'm not happy about thinking my son was dead for years when he wasn't. I understood the reasons, I get that the danger was real. I just wish you'd…"

He trailed off, looking at his son – and his cybernetic eye and arm. "I never wanted you to have to lose parts of your body to prove your valor to anyone, least of all to me."

Garrus shook his head. "It's not that, sire. When I went to Omega, I knew – and Tel knew – it might be a one-way trip. If I'd been thinking straight, I would have tried to get more help from people I knew… but Cerberus said there was no time. And we barely arrived in time to stop that bastard P. from handing her corpse over to the Broker." He paused. "The mess after was me thinking Tel was dead, and thinking I'd failed at everything – in my career, in my inability to protect my mate, in failing my friend in both life and death. The last thing I wanted to risk was to fail my family utterly in getting them dragged into this mess."

Regilus's mandible shifted. "Fair enough. Are you sure you want to go through with this, then?"

Garrus mandibles tightened. "…Sire, I know this – the both of them, Tel and Mel, with me – looks… odd, but the reason they're both here is—"

His father slashed a hand through the air, laughing. "I don't give a tark's tooth about that, son. If I didn't think your mother would claw me in half, I'd say I'm jealous." His voice softened. "I'm not blind, or stupid. What you do with who you love is your decision, and if the Hierarchy doesn't like that they can go fuck themselves. It would be the height of hypocrisy to criticize you on that, son."

He turned to Telanya, who was staring at the ground. "Besides, cena Telanya already made her point with me a long time ago, when she offered to give up her life and dreams to ensure your success."

She looked up with a weak smile, and Regilus inclined his head.

"Also, son, if I didn't listen to the Hierarchy telling me who to marry when I met your mother, I'm certainly not about to bother to listen to that tork-shit now. I'm not familiar with the exploits of your other partner – that is, Melenis – but I'm fairly sure there was a reason you chose to pursue this path."

He leaned forward. "No, I am worried about your life. Or its ending. I'm talking about going after the Broker on his own turf, son. That's a sirefucking death sentence and you know it."

Garrus looked up. A part of him was filled with a shaky relief that his father didn't care about the mess with Tel and Mel. The other part of him was suddenly angry. "I know that. By the spirits, sire, I fucking know that. What am I supposed to do? Let my best friend walk into that death sentence alone? Pretend the Broker hasn't ruined the lives of almost everyone I care about?"

Regilus's voice was steady. "I lost my son for two years to death. I only got him back a few days ago, and already he wants to head into a situation that has no good chance of ending well – without so much as thinking about what else could be done. No father wants his child to do that."

Garrus was about to speak when Melenis laid a hand on his shoulder. "No, cera Vakarian, no good parent would want to stand by as their child walked into darkness. Having seen – and lived in – the hell of Omega for so long, coming back to regular society – where I don't have to worry about being shot, or raped, or enslaved, or if the food is poisoned or bad, or if the life-support will cut off until we bribe the block monitor – is a process I am still adjusting to."

She smiled thinly. "I truly understand your fears for your son. It is not a lack of belief in him, only in that there's a chance you could lose him again – this time for real." She made a motion of siari agreement. "However, if he stands aside at this moment – when the Broker and his foul masters threaten not only him, and those he loves, but the entire galaxy – then is the turian who remains, still the person you would be proud to call a son?"

Regilus leaned forward. "Pride, cena, does not fill the empty heart. Pride has cost the turian people more suffering, anguish, death, and loss than any amount of enemy action. Shepard is surrounded by the mighty and the powerful, she has suborned and forced the hand of those who rule into aiding her – why must Garrus throw his own life away chasing that? Was Omega not enough?"

Garrus spoke, his voice soft. "Omega taught me one thing. That if everyone stands aside and lets evil happen, then the evil only gets worse and worse." He looked up. "When I was standing alone against the tide of Omega's filth, Shepard came for me against odds I couldn't even imagine, she rescued me and all of my people and did so without even knowing who I was."

He met his father's gaze, and then gently shook his head. "I know what you want, sire. But I have to see this through to the end."

Regilus said nothing for long seconds, until Telanya spoke. "Cera Vakarian?"

The older turian looked up.

Tel's voice was low, and while it had a hard edge, it was also filled with pain and something else. "I don't want Garrus to die, or to suffer. But, like with Saren, this isn't something he can just walk away from. I've spent the last two years… defiling myself, to find out about the Broker. And everything I have learned, and seen, tells me the Broker is the antithesis of everything turian."

She leaned forward, the scars on her arm and face garish in the fading light from above. "The Broker champions the coward's strike from the rear. He sells us out to Collectors, to Reapers – all in an attempt to save his own cowardly skin. He isn't a nexa, fearsome and strong – he's a bottom feeding relli, a serpent that poisons all he touches and can only strike from the shadows."

She laid her hand on Garrus left arm, and Melenis did so with his right, and the younger asari looked steadily at Regilus. "We won't let him die, cera Vakarian. I have gone through too much pain and loss and suffering, and endless nights nigh unto going mad, to finally have him back only to lose him again. We are going to find the Broker and kill him, and then the nightmares can stop and we can heal."

The older turian's voice was soft and almost frail. "And if you fail, and he dies? Or if you die and it leaves him a hollowed wreck?"

Melenis smiled faintly. "Shepard is not going to let him die. We are not going to die or let him die. We are in this together despite everything to make sure he stays alive." She paused. "I read your book, cera. Didn't you once say it was better to fight and die against evil than to live bowed in regret that you failed to stand and do so?"

Regilus looked away. "…I was a younger, more foolish person back then."

Melenis's smile widened. "Your son didn't think so. When we were bloody and half-starving on Omega, feeling like we couldn't achieve anything, he told us that. When entire gangs marched against us, hundreds against twelve, he told us: 'all that matters is that you do not dip your talons in fear and weakness.' And when he saved a little turian girl and her father from a gang beating, he told that girl something that will never, ever leave my heart or my mind."

She leaned forward, staring at Regilus. "It only takes one flicker of light to push back darkness."

The older turian closed his eye, saying nothing, before giving a deep sigh. "Your mother is going to kill me for this."

Garrus chuckled. "For letting me go with Shepard?"

The turian stood. "Fuck that, I'm not letting you go in there by yourself, or with your girlfriends. Tell your Shepard she'll be having an additional soldier sign up."

Garrus stared at his father for long seconds, then opened his mouth to protest. Regilus shook his head. "Sorry, son. But… your ladies are right."

He turned to look up, at the Citadel Tower. "Let us pray the Council has as much wisdom as your mates do, son." He clapped his son on the shoulder. "I'll see you later. I need to get my war-gear out of storage and make sure it all works."

He stepped past them and down the stairs, and Garrus stared after him.

Melenis turned to Telanya. "I think he's in shock."

Tel only leaned her palm against her cheek, smirking. "Hey, at least this didn't turn into a discussion about – what did Kasumi call it?"

"Harem manga?"

Garrus jolted. "Oh, shut it."