A/N: So, I seem to have made a bold statement back on (checks, snickers) Dec 18, 2022 that the next chapter wouldn't take half a year. And I was right, it took damn near the entire year.

But, I still live. Again, this chapter is not a 30k word monster, and it mostly leads up to the bigger segments and sets up things down the road, while expanding on character interactions.

As to why it took so long? A mix of things. Writer's block. The fact that for a long time, it simply was not fun to write this fic any longer. The RP was more interesting and more fulfilling. And several times I had pieces written I didn't like and just got rid of.

The chapter after this? I don't know. Putting ETA's on my writing nowdays seems almost insulting, as I never seem to hit my targets. Instead I will say that I will try to get something out for Christmas, but it may not be a new chapter.

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 most difficult trials in life are not the ones where fate or the cruel machinations of others have taken choice out of your hands. Indeed, while it may seem that being helpless to alter one's course, or to avert fell things happening to those you love would be difficult and frustrating, it is also freeing in that you do not have to question who to hate for such privation. When the hand upon the tiller of your fate is your own, when your own choices and decisions are what leads to the demise of a loved one or the fall of that which is important to you - then, and only then, do you come to realize that real pain is not when you are helpless to act - but when you do so and make the wrong choices."

- Matriarch Benezia, 'No Single Raindrop Blames Itself For the Flood'

Shepard warily answered her commlink. "Shepard here."

The voice of Udina came across, sounding irritated. "Just keeping you updated on events. The Council is calling in the Citadel Fleet Admirals for a discussion of support against the Collectors. After that, the CDF generals will be queried. Once that is completed, they'll probably summon you back... but it won't be quick. I'd recommend finding a place to spend the night."

She rolled her eyes. "Shocking. I appreciate the heads-up, Donnel." She paused. "...what is your take on what I laid out?"

His voice was musing. "It was a mix of unexpected, and frankly things I've had concerns about for some time. The fact that a force like the Collectors is attacking low-visibility colonies – at least, until Horizon – makes me think that they took the colonists for a specific purpose, and I cannot be optimistic as to their fate, or what purpose that might be. That the Shadow Broker is an active participant in this, and in misleading us... well. Prince Maxwell informed me some time ago – nearly six months back – that Alliance scientists working with the Quarians were unable to verify any of the so-called 'scans' that the Broker said indicated the Reapers were not active."

Shepard felt Liara's flare of anger and frustration that very nearly matched her own. "If he knew that why the fuck didn't anyone do anything or press?"

Udina's voice turned wry. "Because both the Quarian Admiralty and the High Lords felt the information would be either dismissed – or used as an excuse to withhold asari and salarian fleets from the war effort against the geth, to drain our own military while leaving theirs intact. And I had the same opinion."

Liara's tone was dark. "I do not doubt that assessment is accurate, Councilor Udina, but it strikes me that something effective could have been done to attempt to show the Broker was not a trustworthy source."

"It was handled with backchannels – I believe the AIS reached out to C-INT at some point, which is when C-INT, after crushing the Shifter's networks, moved to aggressively counter the Shadow Broker. The point is that none of it was a total surprise to me, Shepard. The evidence you laid out and that Ghadi Saan presented is detailed enough that action must be taken – and it didn't hurt both Thanix and Uressa pushed for such. I have little doubt that you'll have enough troops when it comes time to attack the Collectors, but you're mostly on your own for the Broker fight."

Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose. "Yeah. I was a little more alarmed at the fact the fleets are a pile of fuck, honestly. The hell has been going on there?"

Udina's sigh was exasperated. "On the fleet-side of things, the Geth war has drained and damaged our fleets a lot more than I was fully aware of. The fleet admirals usually report to the various military committees, and I'm not involved in any of those. From what the Primarch said, and the other comments, it sounds like there's not enough ships being built. Some of that is probably due to the fact that we're still working on pieces of Reaper tech."

She frowned. "What's that got to do with the ships being built?"

"Simply put, we're still learning a great deal from the Reaper fragments. Hull construction to resist their weapons, changes to power conduits for magnetic shielding - all of that is integral to the design of a ship, you can't just refit it. It is similar to the host of differences between a first-gen FCW era ship and a modern ship. The Reaper engines also require a lot of change to incorporate into a new hull. Not a lot of good points for building a ship that you will have to dismantle in a year that cannot be upgraded."

Udina's voice dropped in tone. "Also, recently some lone researcher in Watson found out additional ways to use eezo. The ramifications are pretty incredible - again, it affects everything from engines and power systems to eezo cores and the airframes. From what I understand, this would be a more comprehensive effort than an update of existing tech and refitting."

She nodded. "That's very good news. One more thing… well, two. First, up, I had some… weirdness in the meeting with High Command." She felt a slight flare of alarm from Liara and smiled at her. "Not gonna get into details over comms, but I was a little taken aback at how… disorganized things were, and their frustration with the High Lords."

Udina's voice went wary. "I have been busy... trying to smooth out issues with the Council from the actions of the Lords of Sol and the administration. Some of that is due to the actions they've taken, and some of it is due to..."

He trailed off, silent for a few seconds, then continued. "Much has changed in the past two years, Shepard. The High Lords, for a long time, spoke with a single voice. The industrialists were busy, the traditional lords were content, and Prince Maxwell acted evenly. The destruction of six entire Houses, not to mention political fallout from the recession even driving the Lords to new directions, has made everything fragmented. BuShips and the federal bureaucracy are following High Command and the House of Maxwell. Most of the Corporate Court is in lockstep with Prince Coleman and Bekenstein, the judiciary and Parliament are a mess..."

His voice was tired sounding. "Maybe having to deal with the reality you laid before them will wake them up and unify them again. I don't know. I have had to put out so many fires... say what you want about the Coleman Administration, but even Jason could deal with the aliens when he needed to. Addison is a snake, plain and simple, Huerta is utterly useless, the Parliament whip is spineless, and the only man who has any ideas is Richard Manswell."

Her expression soured at that, but she didn't say anything. "I just am trying not to cause, as you put it, a shitstorm."

His voice softened. "Unwise choices – by the Council, the High Lords, the Thirty, the STG – even in some cases the Terminus Clans – already had us in a shitstorm before you started up, Shepard."

Shepard wasn't even really sure what the Terminus Clans were - she'd heard the term a few times, but nothing solid, and turned to her wife. Liara, for her part, looked and sounded bewildered. "Counselor, I can see issues with the Thirty and STG, but the Terminus Clans are mostly insulated from the rest of the galaxy, with minimal trade..how could that become…a shitstorm?"

Udina chuckled. "Aria's hardly cooperative with Citadel fleets trying to get to the Perseus Veil. There's approaches through the Terminus systems that would have been a lot safer, but Marshal O'Zerova was definitely not interested. There was not any real hostility - a polite denial - but we ended up having to take the frontal route - and now there are idiots on the Citadel - mouthpieces of the Thirty, mostly - claiming that the clans are in league with the geth or some insanity I can't even fathom."

Shepard blinked, shook her head, then blinked again. "Christ. Every fucking time. The stupidest goddamned action for the worst fucking reasons."

Udina's voice was rueful. "A perhaps cutting but sadly truthful summary of my job, Shepard. So, for the most part? I don't mind having to deal with you. At least with you, I do not have to worry at night if what I am doing is the right thing... which in this role? Is very rare."

That hit her harder than expected, and she swallowed and nodded, before remembering it was audio only. Liara squeezed her hand as she answered. "Thank you for that. I... was starting to wonder. The things I've done..."

His voice sharpened. "It is very easy for old fools in fancy clothes living in luxury to criticize you and your actions, Shepard. I made my choices when it came time to listen to you – in our first mess with Saren, and when you had to steal the Normandy. I am a political creature. I lie. I misrepresent. I twist the truth. It is what we all do. Taking your side could have... cost me my career, my marriage – my citizenship or even my life."

Udina's voice paused, then continued. "And it was the first time in my entire life up to that point that I made a choice that I knew was the right thing to do, and was not in my own best interest on the surface, but there are things more important than merely pontificating and posturing. I took the chance before, and I will do it again, and again if I must – because you don't worry about whether it's in your best interest, only if it's right."

He snorted, then spoke again. "...pagh, another meeting. I'll call you later. Go get something to eat."

He clicked off, and Liara's voice was musing. "There's a lot he said in that statement that I wasn't expecting to hear."

Shepard nodded, walking towards a restaurant in the distance. "I certainly didn't. The stuff about knowing the Broker was off... I guess I get why they didn't do anything, but it still pisses me the fuck off." She shrugged. "Then again, didn't expect that crazy convo we just had with High Command either. I think we definitely need to chat with Minsta and Harper after we get something to eat."

Halfway across the broad Presidium Plaza, however, they were intercepted.

Four C-SEC officers escorted a batarian, of all the goddamned things. Wearing dark black and silver armor, face covered with a bone mask and trailing long white hair, the batarian soldier walked right up to Shepard and Liara.

He tilted his head to the left, very slightly, and spoke in accented asaric. "You are Baroness Shepard, correct?"

Shepard tamped down on her anger. This had to be an Imperial, a batarian sub-type she'd often heard about but had never actually seen. The escort by police meant this was probably something official. Her voice was cold as she answered. "Yes, that's correct."

The batarian's voice was cool, even, and dead. "There are things that must be discussed, in relation to your actions against the Collectors and their masters, and the assistance of the Batarian Empire. The Emperor has sent an official here, the Augur, to speak with you. He has invited you to Paragon Restaurant to do so – at his expense, of course. Lady Liara is also invited, but no others."

She folded her arms and put her weight on one hip, even as she felt Liara's bafflement. "I'm not exactly a big fan of the Emperor – or batarians in general. Why would I bother to sit down to eat with a guy who thinks I am better suited as a sex slave?"

The soldier's voice didn't change in pitch. "The Augur predicted such a response. He merely asks for your time to listen. If you prefer not to do such, he has offered his TTL for a later date."

Liara squeezed her arm. "A moment, please."

The two turned away from the batarian, Liara's voice a whisper. "From what I know about batarians, and the Imperial Caste in general, he is far too polite, Sara."

Shepard nodded slowly. "Yeah, got that much. And it hit me that the Batarians had what we found in Goto's… findings. Might be a good chance to ask about it. But if he gets me angry and I cause a diplomatic incident -"

Liara smiled. "Clever. A chance to derail you and disrupt our efforts here? He could be planning that..."

Shepard hesitated, then turned back around. "Got two questions first. One, anyone else coming to this thing? And two, I need more than a 'discussion' as a reason."

The imperial was silent for a second, then spoke, again with no evident tone. "No. The dinner will be with you, your mate, the Augur, and the human Senator Adkins. And the discussion is in regards to things the Empire knows about the Reapers – and their creators – that you should know which is not safe to release to the general public."

That set her back on her heels. "Senator Adkins? The hell?"

The batarian held out a small flat metallic card, an invitation marker. After a very long second, she took it. "Tell him I'll be there, but if this is a trick, he won't like what happens."

The Imperial gave no indication that he had heard the last part and walked the other direction, the C-SEC officers following him. Liara shook her head after a few moments. "Very strange. I can not fathom what purpose the Batarian Emperor would possibly have for attempting to open communication..."

Shepard thought for a bit, then took Liara's hand and moved to a nearby bench. "Had an idea. Something Ok-"

Liara cut her off, before pulling something out of the thin pouch on the belt she had on. "Sonic disruptor. In case of eavesdropping." She placed it between them on the bench.

Shepard arched an eyebrow. "Huh. Smart. Anyway… Okeer mentioned he knew the Emperor. Gonna call him and ask his opinion on this pile of shit."

Liara's face took on thoughtful overtones, and her emotions flickered – curiosity and wariness. "If he can be trusted, you mean? Or the significance of even wanting to talk?"

Shepard tapped her omni. "Ideally, both, marazul. I trust the Emperor less than I trust fucking the High Lords."

The resonant, almost amused baritone of Okeer came over the comm. "Ah, mighty Shepard. I might remind you that comm security and the no doubt thousands of hak-scripters and data hounds following your moves will be listening in to any comm-cast of yours they can isolate..."

She nodded. Something else she hadn't given much thought to, with Vigil handling everything. "A point, we'll keep it to 'old man', then. I just got an invite to eat dinner. With a rep of the Batarian Emperor."

The amusement fled from Okeer's voice. "That is incredibly unusual. I suspect a trap. What sort of invitation was delivered, personal or via drone? And who are you to meet?"

"Imperial Guard soldier, I think. Had some C-SEC escorting him. Said I'm going to meet someone called the Augur. And if I didn't want to meet, he gave me his TTL."

She actually heard the intake of breath that passed as a krogan shocked gasp, then Okeer's voice was even more on edge.

"The Augur is one of the most powerful officials in the entire Empire, Shepard. More critically, he is the head of the batarian religion, one gifted with... what seems to be prescient abilities."

Liara frowned. "You are suggesting he can see the future? I have heard vague rumors of mentalists in the asari and among turians, but..."

"I only speak to my own experiences, Lady Liara. The Augur is not a figure that would be risked in any kind of 'trap', and a personal invitation to dine with him means that he will have to remove his ritual mask and allow a dispensation to be seen by a non-batarian. And that is an honor that is almost never given out."

Shepard nodded. "I accepted it. He said a human, Senator Adkins, would also be there… no idea what the fuck this is about."

Another voice broke in. "This is Doctor Minsta, Shepard. Can you confirm he said Senator Adkins?"

She sighed. "Yeah. All I know about the guy is bits from the holos."

"Senator Adkins is perhaps the most senior of the senators in Parliament, and has long been somewhat odd in terms of luck and opportunity. He's extremely rich – because he won two different lotteries – and his contacts span the entire Alliance and beyond. Adkins is usually very conservative and almost never takes risks though, so this… dinner… does not make any sense."

Shepard glanced at the card. "It's about an hour out. Should I try to dress up or..."

"Unneeded, I suspect." Okeer's voice was calmer now. "The Augur is unlikely to notice either way, and you will need to be as comfortable as possible when dealing with two master political figures. I do not have any insights as to the reason for such a meeting, however."

A long pause, then he continued. "Only that the Augur is dangerous, Shepard – even to ones such as you and I. Do not dismiss him as some soft mouthpiece. The weak do not prosper in the House of Batar, and this one has lived through three Emperors."

"Thanks for the info, guys. I'll… let you know how it turns out." She clicked off. "Great. What was he talking about there, prescient?"

Liara's expression was strained, her feelings flickering across the link in shades of alarm, caution and worry. "There are indications that some species have powers beyond merely biotics. Palavanus have many times been seen parrying or dodging attacks before the shot was even fired or the blow started. The Salarian Wheel Priests can make astonishingly accurate predictions of future events. There are groups in the asari that have other rumored… abilities."

Shepard frowned. "Like… reading minds or some shit?"

The asari shook her head. "No. It is a complex topic – and one that is tightly controlled by most species' governments or intelligence organs. There are rumors of groups that are focused entirely on these kinds of things and other strange matters… but I have had little time in the past few years to conduct any research, much less chasing down rumors… but there is enough on the darknets hidden from the common glance that indicates to me such things are real."

She shrugged at Shepard. "Ultimately? The little I know is from reading stolen Broker files, who keeps tabs on such things. That the batarians also have such is alarming, but not surprising, Sara."

Shepard grimaced. "Why do things always get more fucked up and complicated instead of easier?" She leaned back on the bench. For a moment, she closed her eyes and just felt – the constant flicker of back and forth emotion from her wife, the faint throbbing pain in her back and side, the softness of Liara's hand in hers.

Liara's voice was calm, her hand squeezing her own again. "In my mind, things are simpler now. We do not answer to a complex interplay of military officials, governments, my family and asari culture and custom, or the threat of your Z2 – or nobility – hanging over your head like a relli in a shallow pool. We find the Broker and kill him and destroy his works, then we lead an assault on the Collectors and get answers."

Her voice softened even further. "It is only in the clearing smoke of that, Sara, in which things are truly complex. Whatever this Augur wants, and whatever Adkins wants – in the end, it is them coming to us, meaning you make the choices and decisions. Given the past two years, being able to choose and decide a path instead of being forced down one and suffering from it is a pleasant change."

Shepard nodded slowly. "...I guess we'd best alert the rest of the team. Plus, sitting down lets you rest your legs. I'm still pissed that Harper didn't give you a lift chair for this trip."

Liara smiled impishly. "I am more astonished Pressly did not think to do so either."


The escorting forces of Sara Shepard to the Citadel had split up, with Shepard and Liara heading off to speak with High Command. The huge krogan and Doctor Minsta were chatting at the Citadel Tower. Minsta's daughter had taken James Windsor and his daughter, as well as the two Commissars, to the Cerberus flagship. Jacob, Zaeed and the rest of the guard detachment had taken off to go eat, while the asari Mirala had wandered off somewhere with Zero.

That left only Pel, Kai, and Xhaela. Pel frowned and examined his omni, and then sighed as he glanced around the Presidium out in front of the tower, the bus they came in on still parked and open. His gaze fell on the person still standing next to Kai, the turian Xhaela, who was herself glancing around as the group of departing security forces left.

Old memories flashed through his head, but his voice was quiet. "C'mon. There's a nice place down in the Wards to pick up something to eat. No point standing around here, waiting for some C-SEC puke to start asking questions."

Kai Leng turned, his features invisible behind his helmet, but his voice full of sarcastic doubt. "What 'place' would that be, Chora's Den? The Undertow? Bobby's Sexin's and Fixin's?"

Pel laughed. "Naw, and goddamn who told you about Bobby's?"

Kai's voice was even more deadpan. "Blame the Brazilian. Now, where?"

Pel exhaled. "Destrada's. Old marine buddy. Italian. Quiet. No one likely to bother us. Serves turian ale." He paused, somehow forcing the words out. "Includes you, Exy."

The turian female gave a very slight start, her own face hidden behind her helmet as well, before sighing. "...lead on, then."

Kai shook his head doubtfully as they headed to the Ward stairs. "Every time I am on this accursed station I feel an instinctive need to just stab something. The dissonance between reality and this... canned luxury revolts."

Pel smiled. "How's it any worse than the shit in Vancouver or Neo-Hawaii, built on a pile of fuck-ass class I servants who make six credits a year or some shit?"

Kai's hand moved in a flat line. "The scale of it. You could fit six Vancouver-sized cities into this mess with room left over, and the Lower Wards are worse than some foulbergs I've seen. At least the nobles don't preach about everyone being equal like this lying pack of thieves and rapists does."

Pel shrugged. "I mean, no matter how you cut it, it's the same shit everywhere. The rich and powerful do their thang, everyone else either works themselves to death trying to get their kids a better life, or ends up just falling through the cracks. I kinda like what old girl Shepard had to say in that interview about how the problem is the motherfuckers on top."

Kai's own tone was harder. "And there we disagree. If you let yourself be victimized, you cannot then complain about being a victim. No one has tried to change things meaningfully – those who gain power merely end up more of the same shit as the ones in power, and those subjugated never fight back."

Xheala's voice was soft. "There is no way for someone to gain the strength of belief in themselves to fight and change if they are constantly told they are not... good enough. Is that not the true problem, that people listen to the lies of those unworthy to lead?"

Pel thought about this for a second. "What's that say about the Primarchs, then, Exy?"

She gave the most bitter, hateful laugh he'd ever heard from her, a sound of such pain and anguish Pel saw Kai turn to look at her. "It says the turians are far more stupid and self-victimizing than your people, Pel. At least you celebrate your rebels and eccentrics. We just kill ours."

Nothing more was said, and ten minutes later they pulled up in front of a small kiosk built directly into one of the station walls, flanked by tables and chairs, a bright red and green awning with the words 'Destrada's Delights' above it. The man behind the steel counter was broad and thick, a crude FCW era cybernetic arm holding a rag as he wiped the spotless metal countertop.

Pel's voice was gruff as he came up to the counter. "Pair of Pasta Bologneses, and a vakar-meat braciole. Three turian ales."

The man's expression tightened slightly as he took in Pel, Kai, and Exy, and the Cerberus armor they wore, before he shrugged massive shoulders and opened a fridge behind him. "No problem. A hundred and thirty credits."

Pel tapped his debit card against the small padd for payment, which chimed. As he did that, the man pulled out three pale blue bottles and three metallic mugs.

Pel tapped his omni, a tiny drone popping up over his shoulder, displaying the plaza behind them on his omni-tool. Once he was sure he could see anyone coming, he slowly took off his helmet.

Destrada's features twisted with sadness and fondness mingling. "So… you really aren't dead, huh? Haven't seen you since they told me you bought it in that turian mess, Theo."

Pel chuckled. "Long story, Dave. Not entirely by choice. Had to do some shit after we offed a crooked general... and lover boy here tried to off his cheating whore of a wife. It was either court-martial and bust rocks as a Z1 or..." He trailed off.

Destrada grunted. "Saw enough of that shit in the marines and RIU."

Kai said nothing as he removed his helmet, Exy doing the same as she sat, setting her helmet on the counter-top.

The big cook shrugged again, working on their orders. "Things have changed since the bad old days. First Big Tulsi died in the mess on Mindoir. Ambrose bought it here on the Citadel when the blue bitch hit us. Billy and Addami died in the mess fighting the geth. Then Jason Kinnix… vanished. Then others. Corporations have been laying people off. Revolts, in turian colonies, lots of homeless refugees forced here. Lords have been infighting constantly, the Fleet is a wreck… since the recession started, money is tight. Now the geth are back and destroyed Ilium."

He worked the food on the counter top, cutting up the meat. "The station itself is tense. People are full of fear. The politicas, they prattle on, a pack of bugiardo even worse than a corpo-rat. C-INT ran the Shifter off the station six months ago… and now crime is ten times as bad, and people are realizing just how much he did to keep the place quiet."

Kai spoke in a low tone. "People only appreciate things for their value once the value is demonstrated via loss, I have found."

Destrada laughed, hands working the meat and noodles. "Ain't that Victor's truth? A lot has changed, like I said, most of it bad. And the reaction? More parties. More clubs. More spending. More... ignoring the real for the fake."

Pel nodded, keeping an eye on the omni-tool feed. "I figured. Lot of shit has gone down over the years, most of it bad. Ain't a lot better elsewhere. Been a minute since I was here last, shit looks about the same, but seeing so many quarians around is a bit of a 'huh' moment."

Destrada nodded. "Heh. Quarians don't really go for noodles." He paused, glancing at Pel. "...good to see you again. I'll have the food ready in a bit." He turned away, to the cook-stoves, and Kai eyed the large combat knife on the cook's waist approvingly before sipping his drink.

Pel smiled, then it faded as he turned to the turian. "So. Speaking of shit that has been a minute, you said you were on Omega. Doing what?"

Exy flicked her good mandible, and stared hard at the counter. "...training Aria's green-suits. Helping set up her battlesuit program. Slapping down idiot warlords. Showing some of her people how to use milspec and heavy weapons, instead of shooting like Blood Pack morons."

Pel nodded slowly. "Trainer, huh? Would have figured you out for leading your own shit. Or at least trying to change things up, like you used to talk about all the time."

Her voice turned bitter, her mandibles flickering. "Wouldn't work. No one – well, no turian – is going to follow a disgraced outcast, you should know that. And if turians won't follow, a lot of others won't either. I tried clawing it out for a few years, independent merc work. Got sick of killing for money. As for trying to change anything... the usual. Trying to make things work that never actually worked out."

She sipped her ale from the bottle, ignoring the mug. "The Hierarchy throws away a lot of good people, and Aria's a lot better paying than most who could hire outcasts. And despite what people think, most of what she tasked me with wasn't as revolting as some of the merc jobs I got." Another sip, and a wry tone. "Besides, there's not a lot of opening for good battlesuit trainers."

Kai sneered. "Like you, for instance?"

She shrugged. "Not really. I was good, but normally ex-Blackwatch battlesuit pilots would have made a fuck of a lot more than I did. Aria didn't really like me when it was obvious I wasn't going to do wet-work for her – or give up military secrets. I was useful – not wanted."

Kai's hostile tone faded a bit with curiosity. "Then what is she wanting?"

Exy's tone was musing in turn. "From what I can gather? She is mostly looking for people willing to be loyal to her, personally. Above the warlords, above the gangs and merc units and all that. Her own daughter was caught up in some shit not that long back and there's a lot of rumors that some of the warlords were convinced she'd be a better leader than Aria."

Her long clawed fingers tapped on the bar top. "And of course, Archangel fucked up a lot of things, the balance of how it worked."

Kai's voice was faintly amused. "I would have thought the stupid bitch had enough sense to only back people who would back her."

Exy laughed. "She didn't have the luxury. From what I get, when she first showed up there was a lot of back and forth. The warlords and the Black Fleet have allowed her to stand off the Citadel – and the Terminus Clans – but the problem is they're all looking for more. A lot of them would double-cross her in an instant if they could take over, but taking over is the problem."

She sipped the ale. "It isn't like she has no backing at all -there's two warlords always backing her, Ymoosk, and the Unnamed. The rest vary. The clawmark of it all is that Aria's in a delicate position, and she can't really afford to throw her weight around. Archangel killing most of her internal problems gives her some more freedom… but now she has to worry about other things."

Pel drank and grunted. "Like what?"

Exy shrugged. "The usual. Trying to convince people to trade with Omega even while she's running pirate ops. Dealing with shady fucked up corporations looking to make a quick buck. Internal issues. The Thirty. The killings may have knocked off standing enemies, but that only leaves openings for new, unexpected ones - or more Broker infiltrators."

The turian drank her ale. "So, basically - a lot on her plate. Toss in all the mess with the geth… they've been hitting the Terminus Clans and the Traverse hard while the inner systems pat themselves on the back for Haestrom. Ilium isn't the first planet they've waxed."

Kai sipped the ale. "Typical. Ignored, I suppose, by the Council?"

She laughed. "You have to ask?"

Pel frowned. "And now? I mean, with you. You didn't just take off because of seeing the Butcher's vids."

Exy sipped more ale. "...after the fucking Archangel went through the place, and Shepard busted up the gangs, Aria's… partner came back. We talked a bit. The writing on the wall was pretty clear to me, given she was just as good in a suit as I was – and only one of us was fucking Aria. And I was sick of Omega by that point. Watching it all slowly go back to shit once the Archangel left was a little too much to bother with, so I went looking. Caught Vaughn's transmission. Figured I'd check it out. Pays five times what I had at Omega, and not killing innocent people is a plus."

Kai drank his own ale from the provided metallic mug, his voice low and bitter. "So nice to have clean-cut choices on which throats to open or not. I shouldn't be surprised, but I never measured you for one to follow the rules of others."

Exy only nodded, sipping her drink. "I've never claimed to be spirit-clean, but I think I can honestly say I was never like a lot of outcasts, just shooting the vakar-fuck out of anything that pissed me off. I did bad things, Kai. So did you. And I didn't expect you two joined Cerberus because you were gung-ho about human goddamned supremacy, but then again, people change. Didn't matter to me. A job's a job."

Kai glanced at the cook, then at the turian. "To echo Pel, and now? We are not concerned with keeping our hands clean, and given Umlor, neither is Shepard."

Exy faced him, her dark eyes empty. "Now, at least, if I have to kill someone, I can be sure they probably deserve it. Like I said back at the bus – nothing's changed. I'm glad to be doing work for something... honorable. It doesn't have to be perfect, and fuck Umlor. Even if it goes to vakar shit, at least Shepard and you people are trying to fix things instead of just breaking them."

She sipped the ale again. "I'll have your back in a firefight and I'm as good as I was, I suppose. But I don't expect forgiveness, or for anything to happen or be any different just because I'm here."

Pel's voice was curt. "Didn't invite you along to ignore you, Exy."

The turian woman's mandible flicked out. "There are a lot of reasons you could have done so. I somehow doubt that invalidates anything I said. I know what my failings are, and what I did in the past. I cannot imagine somehow that it suddenly becomes not a source of… pain."

Pel stared at his drink. The sound of the Citadel in the background, the smell of cooking food, spices. The cold metal of the bar top. The memories of days long ago, in a hammock, of alien flesh and a barely pursued dream that ended up in an empty cold nothing.

His voice was tired as he answered. "The past isn't something we can alter. It doesn't mean we can't change who we are, or how we react. Focusing on what already went down doesn't resolve a fucking thing."

He gestured at Kai. "He's had to deal with the shit Kahlee put him through all this time. Man's son is getting married soon. You know what kind of nightmare that is for him? Sure, this girl is completely different… but it's a recurring nightmare nonetheless."

Kai lifted his cup and drank. "She is different from Kahlee. And Jhal is not me."

Pel snorted. "That first breakfast was fuckin' hilarious when she called you out on your shit to your face."

Kai shrugged. "The point, idiot?"

Exy sighed. "The point I already get, Theo. I will move forward with… whatever I can do. I have ideas of my own. That idiot Vakarian playing Archangel is a disgrace to battlesuit pilots everywhere, so I will try to share some of my experiences with him. Vaught wants me to ride herd on the turians joining the Freedom Regiments, as I'm a veteran."

She paused, as the cook laid out three plates before them. She tilted her head, then began to eat.

Pel took a bite – as good as usual – then turned. "You gonna finish that sentence there?"

Exy's voice was slow and sad. "There's not much more to say. I won't be around to be a constant... reminder of days gone by. I presume your boss has jobs for you and Kai, so it isn't like you'd have to work with me constantly. And if you do have to work with me, I won't be a problem for you to have to deal with and work around, or a temptation for Kai to try to behead."

Pel shook his head and ate more of his food. "That… ain't the real problem here, you know."

The turian woman's voice was both sad and bitter. "I know. But that doesn't go anywhere either, Pel. There's things you can't undo or take back, and 'sorry' hardly fixes it."

Kai merely nodded. "It never does, and yet people keep repeating the same mistakes and failing to learn the lessons from them. No matter. As long as you are only here to do what you said, we can be... professional."

Xhaela' s voice was soft, almost unladen with harmonics. "But he is the only friend you have, and if I hurt him again you'll kill me."

For a long second, the Chinese man said nothing, and Pel frowned. When he spoke, turned his face to Exy, the empty white eye-shapes in his face-plate staring and cold.

"You are already hurting him. If you were not regretful, if you had not clearly suffered, if you were not as empty and broken as he and I are, he could hate you. He could disdain you. He could simply hurl you away. But you are." He turned back to his food. "I could hate you as well, but to my disgust, an alien female has more basic decency than my own wife did. All I ask is that you understand that your wounds to his soul never healed. He has never bothered with another woman for more than one night stands since you betrayed him. I doubt he ever will."

He didn't say anything else, and Exy herself bowed her head as she watched Pel flinch in pain, and then focus on his food. She picked at her own, her voice bitter. "You talk too much, Leng."


Alfred Jiong had been in a number of odd situations in his life as a Commissar. A part of a six-man team to try to watch Princess Aish Ashland. Doing oversight and arrests of smugglers of counterfeit Seducer boots. Battling all manner of foes under Shepard, and later, Delacor. And who could ever forget having to stake out a corrupt judge, by dressing as a pimp late at night in the SEA-TAC foulberg?

But never had he imagined he'd be aboard a Cerberus warship, being put through medical exams by a woman he had extensive dossiers on. The expansive medical bay aboard the dreadnought was beyond even most of the Lords' private medical facilities, complete with what looked like a full operating theater with robotic arms and more equipment he didn't even recognize.

The fact he and Susan D'Alte were being examined was played off as a simple medical check for possible booby traps, but it had gone much further than that, and he was becoming both confused and irritated.

"Might I ask the importance of this, Ms. Lawson? My assignment was to watch over Baroness Shepard, after all, which I can hardly do from here."

Miranda Lawson didn't bother looking away from her scans, which seemed about par for her. His own files on Cerberus were old and out of date – the commissars had dropped monitoring after the destruction of the group, after all – but she was believed to have been a high ranking officer and almost certainly related to Henry Lawson's daughter Oriana in some fashion that was as yet unclear. The fact that Oriana wasn't a biotic - and that Miranda Lawson was one - left some disturbing problems with how exactly she was born.

The notes he did recall didn't have much on her personality, but from what he'd seen she was efficient, organized, cool, and frustrated. Given she was probably some kind of executive officer to Shepard, the frustration part was expected.

Her voice was even, however, as she finally responded. "A number of reasons, Mr. Jiong. Given how you and your partner have been treated, I wouldn't put it past the High Lords to lace you with black nano or something to try to spy on us, or kill Shepard. Additionally, I was given very specific orders by Shepard herself to make sure you two were 'healthy'."

He arched an eyebrow at that. "We are healthy enough to perform our duties."

She finally looked up, eyes narrowed. "You are malnourished. You have sixteen different hairline fractures in your ribs and left leg that have not been addressed, keloid scarring on your back and shoulder from what looks like plasma blasts, and the integration on your cybernetic leg is almost a full inch short. Ms. D'Alte is in even worse shape, and looks like she was starved, beaten, and tortured."

The voice softened, very slightly. "Sara said you are her friends. I am unsure how well aware you are of what that means – or the terrible risk posed to her by trusting two people who are not even in control of their own thoughts and perceptions and who ultimately answer to the High Lords. But she doesn't have a lot of people she can call friends. When she comes back to talk to you and Ms. D'Alte, given her already low opinion of the Alliance, what do you think she will do when she sees how ragged and run down you two are?"

She sniffed. "I'm not about to get my head torn off by not addressing the issue up front."

Next to him on another medical bed, Susan was in an anesthetic sleep as a salarian named Mordin Solus worked on the cybernetics in her eye – replacing it, actually. "Noted deficiency in healing. Signs of extreme stress, stimulant abuse, untreated radiation damage. Unethical. Criminal. Disgusting. Agree with Lawson. Needs addressing."

Jiong looked down at his hands – lightly scarred from pulling soldiers out of plasma fires on Haestrom. Lined with old cuts from hacking through husks to get at the wounded on Horizon. He closed his eyes as his conditioning and his emotions collided in his head.

As he opened his eyes – and his mouth, to respond – Miranda's eyes narrowed. "And if you hand me that Pinocchio tripe about 'We Are Not Really People'I will have your vocal cords muted. You could make that argument about a lot of people. Including myself." She paused, her own eyes looking down. "...it never mattered to Sara, not one bit. And it does not matter now, either."

He sighed. "I do grasp that, even if I disagree. My concern is that our orders are not exactly... flexible. If something should happen to the Baroness – "

Miranda chuckled. It was so unexpected that he stopped talking, tilting his head curiously.

"Commissar, Shepard is badly injured, with compromised heat sinks and armor and is still recovering both from Ilium, and the stunt with the shuttle. Liara T'Soni is on legs only a few days old and recovering from two years of neglect and nearly going insane. And also, the events on Ilium." The smile widened. "And either one of them could still kill you in two seconds flat. If something happens to them in the safety of the Presidium, with an entire C-SEC division out on patrol and no doubt other security measures trailing them, the only aid you could provide would be to take a bullet for one of them."

She returned to her scan. "They do not wish for you – or anyone else – to do that. Now. You are going to rest, and once Mordin is finished with that hack-job of cyberware they stuck into D'Alte, we're looking at your leg. Once you get to our base, both of you are getting full overhauls."

He laid his head back against the pillow. Oddly enough, the throbbing headache from his conditioning faded. He found that somewhat concerning, but he put it aside for the moment - he could figure out what it might have meant after he had a more complete idea of the situation as a whole. "May I ask a few questions then?"

She walked over to him, a medical scanner in one hand. "Depending on the nature of the questions, provisionally yes. I need to examine your bio-amp port. Turn your head."

He did so, gathering his thoughts as she examined it. "Shepard seemed very... confrontational, with Prince Ashland and Prince Windsor. And she made an allusion to things that she felt the two lords would not want to discuss in front of commissars." He paused as she turned his head. "I find myself worrying about how likely it is that Shepard – or Cerberus – will be operating in a space where we may find ourselves at an impasse regarding our orders, especially if Shepard intends hostile acts against members of the Alliance."

Miranda's frown was accompanied by a small noise of distaste. "They didn't even… Mordin, add a bio-amp port redo on both of them. His is occluded with scar tissue at the nerve interface."

The salarian gave a sharp inhale. "Appallingly sloppy. D'Alte will need an entire replacement – leg, eye, spinal balance mod. Gyro. Also, sub-dermal armor is breached and broken and needs extraction, open sores below dermal layers from infection that were never addressed."

Miranda blew out a long breath of her own and shook her head. "As for your question, Mr. Jiong. We've uncovered a lot of what I suppose could be called blackmail, but is better classed as criminal evidence about a lot of star nations, the Alliance among them. Some of it is indiscretions by the High Lords, and it is bad enough that it could possibly bring down the entire Alliance."

She injected something into his neck, and he felt the muscles loosen up. "Along those lines, some of what we found was personally infuriating to Shepard, including evidence that some slaves were being bought by... parties… within the Alliance for various, illegal and disgusting purposes."

Jiong digested this set of facts and came to an immediate, and unhappy, conclusion. "That implies the High Lords are cooperating with her demands due to her threatening to release such information."

Miranda nodded, turning his head and shining a light in one eye, then the other. "Correct. Addressing such things will need to, unfortunately, wait. The dangers of the Shadow Broker, and dealing with the Collectors – and Reapers – take priority. I certainly don't anticipate it coming to any kind of level of open conflict that would trigger your conditioning, if that's the question."

He mused on this. "It is… and it isn't. My own fate is unimportant. But I can't imagine that pleased the Baroness very much, having to ignore criminality. She is unlikely to simply let it go… although I do agree, the Reapers come first. "

The very slight curl to Miranda's lips answered that well enough, and he merely nodded as she moved to check the actuators of his cybernetic leg, a constant reminder of his time with Shepard. "On a different topic… What exactly is our role – and clearance – in her organization? I can't imagine you'd let us have free access."

Miranda attached leads from her medical tool to his leg, her voice a touch sharp. "Manifestly not, but my own recommendations will probably be ignored. That being said, we are checking for tracking and trace devices, and you will not be allowed any navigation data or the location of our... base."

Jiong's lips twitched. It was clear that the woman was very talented - organizer, medical specialist, probably intelligence agent. But she wasn't as polished as she could have been. He suspected that her hesitation on the last word, and the fact that they already had a procedure setup for track tracing meant that wherever Shepard's base was, it probably wasn't the only base.

Another thing to come back to later, he thought. Instead he kept his voice calm and questioning. "Ah, I see. And that would be the only real limits or rules?"

She stood up straight, pushing her hair back from her face, her expression stern. "You are either there to support Shepard and assist us in fighting the Reaper threat... or you are there to try to cause difficulty. I will not make any kind of hard and fast rules. I will instead ask that you think about what side of that line you really want to be on. I suspect that if you are cooperative, you'll be able to do what you like but..."

She shook her head. "As it stands, neither of you are in any kind of shape to be going into combat against the Shadow Broker. Your own sub-dermal armor is so worn down it might as well not be there, and you have, as I said, a number of poorly healed wounds and ongoing damage. Therefore your primary job will be to ensure we have a good line of communication and to see what we do, so that the Commissariat, Alliance High Command and the Lords of Sol do not think we are a 'problem' in need of a quick and violent resolution."

Mordin snorted at this. "Solution likely to be final, for idiot trying it on Shepard."

Jiong could only sourly nod at that. "If..." He winced, but focused on the need for his partner to be a functional part of the mission to get past his conditioning block, which faded sullenly. "If I could ask, how is Susan? We… spoke, some, but not in long detail in many cases."

The salarian closed the access port on her eye implant. "Not optimal. Ongoing abuse, neglect. Lots of small issues. Will need full medical workup, cybernetic replacement, additional bone augments. Quality of cyberware barely above street." The salarian's dark black eyes blinked, once. "Level of abuse implies complete lack of medical care. Barbaric. Batarians do better than this."

Mordin put away his tools, and gently pulled a blanket over her. "No need for worry. Illusive Man oddly yet consistently generous. Best cybernetics in galaxy at this point. Nothing irreversible."

Miranda nodded along to this. "Shepard has already spent tens of millions on cybernetics for both Garrus Vakarian's crew as well as the Black Blades. I doubt she will begrudge having you two brought back to full health. But your partner is in no serious medical danger. If you two simply focus on healing, you should both be fine."

Jiong leaned back again, sighing. "I understand. I trust I can make a report to my superiors, if you are done?"

Miranda nodded. "Your omni-tool hasn't been blocked. If you need anything, merely use the comm-link on your bed. We'll be back in an hour for your omni-port, and that disgrace of a cybernetic leg is getting replaced." She and the salarian stepped out of the medical bay, and Jiong gathered his thoughts several seconds before tapping his omni-tool.

"Jiong here with initial report, case file V-440a-Shepard, 4L-FR3D reporting."

The voice across the commlink was cool, dispassionate. "Copy. Provide condition code."

Jiong glanced around. "Umbrella Sierra, in general." He used a simple code indicating he couldn't be sure if he was being observed or not.

The voice on the com changed, much harder and deeper, and Jiong recognized it immediately as Commandant General Verity. "Your orders remain the same. As long as Baroness Shepard remains cooperative and on mission, and as long as the acts taken by this... new Cerberus group don't directly impact the Alliance or its interests, you are strictly an observer. Anything powerful enough to kill her where Okeer and Tetrimus couldn't would not be stopped by a pair of Executors, so asset protection is of minimal importance. Define your findings thus far."

Jiong considered this. "So far we have been taken to a medical bay and informed that our cybernetics are so subpar that Cerberus will replace them for free, apparently. And that we are in poor medical condition. The ship is luxuriant on the interior, but there are heavy turrets in the ceilings and walls every ten meters, and an entire army of war mechs on board."

He paused. "No possible force I can see could hope to capture the ship before the command crew could trigger a self-destruct. Given Cerberus' penchant for retributive weapons – like the M/AM charges on that mess on Vol Prime – hostile isolation is not advised."

"As expected. Don't bother trying. The fact they're fixing your cyberware may be a method for them to insert monitoring subroutines or the like." Verity's voice turned grim and hard. "Or it may just indicate they're more fucking decent than our own masters, which is upsetting and revolting."

Jiong could certainly agree with that. "Our mission profile, then?"

"Mission profile from the High Commandant is as follows: observe and assess Baroness Shepard's mental state, level of hostility towards the Alliance, and willingness to work with the Commissariat to resolve her issues."

Jiong's eyebrows nearly went into his hairline at the last statement. "Her issues seem to be more with the High Lords than the Alliance proper, from the little I have seen thus far."

Verity's voice had an almost satisfied tone. "There are events above your clearance. Perform the task assigned to you."

Jiong managed to keep his voice steady. "And Commissar D'Alte?"

"What happens – or doesn't happen – to her is now entirely dependent on a successful mission and Shepard's acceptance of the Commissariat. As a token of good faith, however, we've removed her from the recycle list – unless, of course, she makes another grievous error in judgment."

Jiong nodded, more to himself than the unseen caller. "Understood. We will comm daily at 1000 hours then. Jiong out."

He clicked off, then reviewed what he knew – and what was and wasn't being said. As Executors, both he and Susan should have been answering to Commandant-General Hazred. Yet from the beginning, their oversight – assigned by the High Commandant himself – had been Commandant-General Verity, the Brute overseer. Verity was a straight shooter, a man who'd risen to Commandant-General solely on his skills and performance. The fact that more political figures in the Commissariat had never been assigned to Shepard had always bothered Jiong, but it took on a new, and unhappy, light in the most recent days.

The only reason Verity would be placed in charge was that there were internal Commissariat politics involved, and the High Commandant wanted her to be treated neutrally. And given the chaos in the Alliance in the past six months – not to mention shifts in command and the fact that FCW era Commandants like Alkan and Hayle suddenly being active – it wasn't hard to imagine that whatever Commissariat command was up to might not be in lockstep with the wishes of the Lords of Sol.

The only problem was that Jiong knew Shepard. And if she had not been changed by death, having her take a hand in events – especially if the Lords of Sol were involved in some of the more outrageous crimes that tended to infuriate her – would not end peacefully. Verity being more concerned about Shepard working with the Commissariat, in that light, was very ominous.

It meant that someone in the Cadres - maybe even the High Commandant - had decided that the Lords of Sol themselves were a possible threat to the Alliance. He wasn't sure what was worse - that the entire Commissariat leadership was behind that - or that the entire leadership wasn't. He had no real way to figure it out, after all , and the mere thought gave him a headache. Following that line of thought would lead him to conclusions he'd rather not contemplate right now.

He sighed and closed his eyes. It was out of his hands now, and for once, he was inclined to rest and recover, and try to figure out what was going on with his conditioning.


Grunt was not sure what to make of the human called Minsta. Then again, most of the people Okeer was interested in made no sense to him.

At a glance, listening to him and Okeer chit chat about boring things made him dismiss him as another soft clown. It wasn't that Grunt disdained intellectual conversation, precisely. He was hardly stupid. But for him, things had to have a reason, something that Grunt found interesting and worthy of his attention. The conversation Minsta engaged in mostly consisted of things that either didn't affect him, or about things he failed to see the importance of. Shepard, in that regard, was much more understandable – the books she suggested he read were complex, but all underlined her own beliefs in how to interact with the world. More than that, she explained not only why these things were important to her, but how they had an impact on how she operated and lived her life, and how Grunt should.

Minsta, on the other hand, talked about things that could never impact him – or, for that matter, Okeer or Grunt – directly, bits of historical and scientific debris that swirled around the man trying to show how smart he was. Grunt had seen this in others that served with Shepard, people going overboard trying to show they were smart by talking big at her. It did nothing but frustrate her, and he agreed.

Besides, if Minsta was smart, he'd hardly be talking to Okeer.

But he slowly realized that Okeer – never one for coddling people – seemed to respect the human. Grunt took a while to reason out why – the human, for all his softness and weakness, his human-centrist view and arrogance, said something that few other 'smart' people he'd run into had – that he had made mistakes, and that his views had been proven wrong more than once.

A lot of Okeer's philosophy, codified in simple words, could be summed up as the acceptance that you were not perfect. Okeer himself had made many mistakes in his long span of years, and had tried to turn each one into a perfection of his plans and ideals. Most people were so wedded to certain beliefs and ways of looking at things that having it invalidated would destroy their entire self-image – so they lied to themselves, or denied reality.

The collapse of the krogan people was a good example of that precept in action. Rather than change and adapt to new situations, the Urdnot had attempted to apply Tuchankan politics to galactic actors. The failure of the Krogan Rebellions and the deployment of the Genophage were steps Okeer had taken to avoid the alternative, the complete genocide of the krogan. That this wasn't accepted as a necessity by the rest of the krogan species... had led to the current state of affairs.

When the conversation turned to discussions of the krogan people – a topic that Grunt did have some level of interest in, finally – Minsta seemed to find them not pitiable but worthy of respect, although he did agree with Okeer that many of the wounds were self-inflicted. His points as to why they were not merely victims surprised Grunt.

In his eyes, despite what Okeer argued, Minsta said the ultimate blame had to be laid at the feet of the Council – not the turians, not the Urdnot Emperors, and not even the krogan people. The Council – more likely the manipulations of the asari and salarians – had set up a perfect storm of events that had only one result, and Minsta at least found it unlikely that even if the Urdnot had worked with the Ganar they could have turned it aside. Furthermore, he pointed out that the asari, in making common cause and winning over Okeer, had ensured the wisdom of the Ganar was not going to be available to the Urdnot, and any hope of mitigation had been lost from the start.

Grunt smiled in his mind as he felt Okeer's mix of amusement at the possibility the asari had manipulated the Ganar being something Okeer had not already considered, but a flash of consternation as well. The idea that the asari had been sabotaging the Urdnot and encouraging that split was something he hadn't given much thought to, but the doctor covered it by asking Minsta why the krogan were worthy of respect outside of being tricked into their own demise.

Minsta sounded impressed by the krogan, noting their longer lives – even far outstripping asari – made them a threat to the Thirty, and their power, size, and durability made them too powerful for the asari and salarians to really counter. He even mused that if the krogan had come to a high technology state prior to the asari they could have ruled the galaxy.

That surprised him, given how much the doctor seemed to disdain most aliens, particularly asari. Hearing him say that he didn't blame Urdnot as much as the asari, Grunt wondered if the human realized just how much the Ganar clan was tied up with the asari, then dismissed it as a stupid thought – Cerberus knew seemingly everything, and it was unlikely Minsta wasn't aware.

He finally paid full attention to the conversation once sleep proved elusive and the doctor started talking about the current state of the krogan.

"Any fool, my friend, can state with an alarming amount of confidence that past actions are a reputable predictor of future actions if over the course of three millennia that pattern hasn't changed. But I would argue that the situation has changed recently with the advent of Urdnot Wrex taking over, the shift of the CDEM to the control of Eclipse – and Jona Sederis, a long time ally of the Urdnot and Wrex in particular – and especially with Shepard's own links."

The two of them – with Grunt a hapless witness – were chatting in the lower levels of the Citadel's Tower, while the rest of the retinue that had accompanied Shepard were already gone. There were many rooms here – lounges, full of expensive, soft furniture and data screens – that seemed to serve no real purpose Grunt could find. He remembered something Shepard had told him – whenever you see pointless luxury and comfort and everyone takes it for granted, be on your guard.

Okeer's answer brought his attention back to the conversation. "I do not dispute the factual evidence, my good doctor. Indeed, it would be rather boorish to argue that the Urdnot methods are any kind of step backwards. I merely point out that the House of Urdnot is known for stubbornness, reckless actions, a lack of respect for the power and rights of others, and so forth. The boy has already proven unwise – he nearly let his own father kill him in a Crush, then stupidly took his only child into full combat with one of the most terrifying Weyrloc war-leaders in the current era and got him killed."

Grunt grimaced at this reminder. He'd put enough of the curious issues about his own creation together to figure out that – most likely through Collector science – he was somehow 'created' using the corpse of Urdnot Urv. But that had no real influence over him – one of the very, very few things he and Okeer agreed upon was that the krogan people lost most of what made them a civilization due to Urdnot ignorance, even listening to the Urdnot side of the story from the Loresingers.

So he didn't identify with Urv, any more than Shepard did with robots simply because she was more metal than flesh. Choices had weight, decisions had outcomes. The boy had died because his father didn't keep him safe. There wasn't a connection there in Grunt's mind... except to note how careful Shepard had been to pull him back when there was a threat.

Minsta's thin voice lanced into his thoughts. "I would counter-argue, perhaps pedantically but with a hope that the pursuit could be argued as perspective on the position of humans, that his lack of wise choices is something he seems to have learned from, unlike previous Urdnot. He is not taking on the trappings of some emperor, but is working with many clans."

Okeer laughed softly at this. "The Thax will never deal with him, nor will the Ganar. The Weyrloc killed his son, even if they exiled the one who did so. And the Blood Pack is hostile - they've clashed with the Urdnot for centuries, after all. Thus, all of the most powerful forces in krogan society oppose him, and rallying the rest behind him will take more than the application of… common sense. And Urdnot cannot merely forgive, or his own clan and those who follow will see him as weak. If he is lucky and they challenge, he might hold on to power – or fall."

Minsta gave a faded, thin smile. "Your own expert opinion is no doubt closer to the mark than my own, my friend. But I fear we – that is, Cerberus - are at no juncture to turn down potential forces, given what we likely face. Shepard's connection with Urdnot Wrex – and the fact that krogan warriors en masse could prove terrifying under her command if they accept she is the new Warmaster – could provide us with a great deal of the manpower we'll need to storm the Collector base."

The human's smile sharpened. "And in the fullness of time, if they prove to be less than useful, well… we're going to have an abundance of situations where stubbornness and unwise decision making could be advantageous, no?"

Grunt didn't like the laugh Okeer gave at that.


Jack wasn't sure what to think of the Citadel, for a lot of reasons.

The beauty of the place made her feel uncultured and stupid. The masses of aliens, all elegantly dressed, the sky full of expensive air cars, the sheer scale of the Presidium – it was all overwhelming. Fancy stores were flanked by exclusive restaurants. Major corporations had towers here. She even saw villas of High Lord families, members of the Thirty, and super-wealthy megastars.

All of it blended together in an almost fantasy-like peacefulness. The Presidium was littered with green-spaces and parks and pools, a far cry from the slums of her youth and the sterile and cold space stations she'd been used to.

Pressly had given each team member a secured debit card loaded with cash, and she'd had vague ideas about shopping. After the disaster at the docks, Shepard nearly dying, and then the long trip after, she was pretty much kinda done in. When the group broke up once Shepard got to see the Council, she didn't feel much like going with Zaeed, as he was headed with the rest to a bar or something like that.

She'd been considering finding some cafe and writing when Mirala had approached her and asked, "Have you been to the Citadel before, Jack?"

From there, they'd simply begun to wander, talking as Jack looked around at everything. It was all so clean, the white sloped buildings and towers so elegant and graceful. She listened to Mirala describe her last time on this station – before Jack was even born – and nearly dying in the Lower Wards. About how the rich had literally built sub-levels to ghettoize the poor, keeping them out of the sight of tourists, and how C-SEC had been corrupt for centuries, looking the other way as high-level crime flourished.

So there was a dirty underside to it all, she thought sourly. Hardly surprising, in her view. The only difference between rich and poor were the rich being able to lie and conceal their own shit better. Every time something looked perfect, the rot below the surface was all the worse.

The asari ended up taking her to a small restaurant in a corner of the Presidium – oddly enough, run by salarian cooks, dealing in fish and baked goods. The food was good but expensive. Then again, it wasn't like it was her money she was blowing.

Mirala was eating slowly, talking as she did so between bites. "I am hoping that after this odd trip here, we still have a few more days – or a week – of recovery. I have not taken so many life-threatening injuries in rapid succession in my entire life."

Jack's knee throbbed, as if to punctuate the point, and she glanced at her arm where the particle beam from the krogan monstrosity had nearly blasted her arm off. "Yeah, getting that feeling too. Then I look at how Shepard and the rest came back from that last fight on Ilium..."

Mirala shrugged, an oddly circular motion that looked wrong, and drank more of the odd blue wine she had. "I do get that. But I saw Shepard's biotics shatter an entire building. Lady Liara stood up to Tetrimus alone, and made him run. The things the Dark Matriarch did are beyond what some war priestesses can do. I am, in the depressing words of Ezno, simply not that badass."

She picked at the fish. "I worry most of all that in finding a reason to... fight, in doing something besides running from my mother, myself, and my curse, I am also running towards my death. I should be upset at that, and I am... not. My life is too empty to matter, and it bothers me more that I don't care than it does that it will end."

Jack ate her own fish and thought about that. Her time with the Hand of Eris seemed so long ago – the parties, the sex, the planning. Freeing down and out people enslaved for no other reason than debt or bad luck had been something that made her feel good about herself… and it had ended up in death and fire – and ice.

She thought back to that first shower, in Shepard's quarters on the Normandy, at the terror and exultation and above all else that feeling of wanting to belong – and being scared to try.

Jack's voice was quiet. "I haven't lived very long, so I guess I don't have much to go on in terms of the things I've done. I don't want to die. I just haven't ever figured out a reason to live. Everything goes to shit, I get used and thrown away, and no one pays." She shrugged. "It's not like anyone would really care, anyway. No family, no one... waiting for me or interested in me." She sipped her own drink. "So I guess I get it but at the same time I try not to think about it."

The asari's pale gray eyes closed. "I am very sorry to hear that, Jack. And I confess to... confusion in that regard, as well. I am not trying to be forward, but you are... very beautiful. No one has ever pursued you for love?"

It had been a long, long time since Jack had blushed, and she ducked her head, trying to push down the weird fluttery sensation in her chest, keeping her voice sarcastic. "Nah, most people ain't really feeling the tatted up crazy chick with a head full of bad memories and no money. Why bother when there's other girls out there with less baggage? I've had people fuck me, but it didn't..."

She shrugs. "It didn't mean nothing. And they weren't there for me when shit went… bad." She glanced up. "From what you told me about yourself, not even an option for you."

Mirala's laugh was so bitter Jack flinched. "There was a turian hastatim – a sort of mix of bounty hunter and vigilante – who fancied me, long ago. This was before I started using my curse to kill my targets. We worked together, fought a great amount of evil – saved many lives. I was, I think, happier then, that at any other time in my life, before or since. So I took a chance. I told him the truth of what I was, at what it did, at how it affected me and how I had rejected it. And despite working with me for five years, despite seeing me bring the evil to justice – he reacted with disgust and fear."

Jack put her own hand on top of Mirala's on the table, remembering her words about people being scared to touch her. It made the asari jerk a little, and it suddenly hit Jack like a ton of bricks. The asari wasn't used to being touched.

She made her voice as firm as she could, doing her best to channel Shepard a bit. "It don't matter what stupid assholes who don't fucking think about it say or do, Mirala. It matters what you do and how you keep stepping."

The asari looked at the pale, tattoo-covered hand on hers, then inverted her own to hold it. "You do not really grasp, I think, how simple a gesture is more than I have had in centuries. Even my Commissar handlers treated me like a… weapons system."

Jack bit her lip. "But you aren't. You didn't ask to be born the way you did – and instead of trying to help, your own fucking mother tried to kill you." She glanced away, her voice sad and bitter. "Me, now, that's different. I was turned into a weapons system, fucked with to produce something to mess up biotics."

The young woman glanced up at the fancy 'sky', at the smug, clean, happy people walking about, and felt a surge of anger and frustration. "And the fact that even people here keep avoiding you after you fought just as hard on Ilium as anyone else is bullshit, too."

Mirala's voice was calm, if sad. "I long ago learned that expecting people to understand something which terrifies them is a losing proposition, Jack. Fear is what motivates division, and it is all too easy for people to hate what they fear."

"That's bullshit!" Jack squeezed Mirala's hand. "This isn't fuckin' killing me, now is it?"

The grey eyes met hers, calmly. "It very well could, if I were to even try to link to you, much less meld."

The younger biotic snorted."I don't think you're gonna suddenly start to just randomly sex me up in the middle of a nice restaurant. Or that you'd just do that to anyone for any reason. So people just being assholes and ignoring you aren't even scared of the reality of the sitch, just want to look down on someone. I got lots of experience with that."

The asari glanced down at her plate, her voice soft. "...a few weeks ago, I had no family. My own mother wanted me dead. The sisters I had were trapped in an isolated system under control of the asari military, and their only message to me was to die for being a monster. My life consisted of being assigned targets by Commissars to kill via melding and seduction… and a cold, empty apartment on an orbital station around a barren moon in Arcturus, lest I get any ideas of mingling."

She exhaled. "Since then, I have discovered my aithntar. That I have other sisters. That, even if it is hesitant and uncertain, I have been accepted. That I was worth enough that Aethyta risked her life, and her entire future with the Asari Republic, to save my life."

She looked at their linked hands."And if there are those who do not accept me or show fear, there are also those who do not do such a thing. In light of all that, I can handle the fear and distrust from some who do not matter in... the face of the trust and support from those who do."

The voice grew sad. "But this is all I will ever really have, Jack. A more preferable half-life, perhaps, but half a life nonetheless. Sooner or later, someone will see past the colorful skin-art and your shell of defensive wary fear, past the walls you built to protect yourself from being abused, to the real you, and give you that reason to live that you are missing."

Jack gave a bitter laugh. "Not fuckin' likely." She ate with her free hand, stubbornly not letting go of the asari's own, something in her chest and head even more confused than before. "I got nothing to offer anyone, aside from my biotics… and they're broken. Sure I can mess stuff up, but I can't..."

Her head dipped. "I can barely read. Never finished school. I've been abused and raped so many times I don't know what to do with a 'real' relationship. I keep expecting Shepard, or someone, to demand I pull my pants down and put out, since that is all I knew. Even in my best times before this mess I wasn't... anything."

Mirala's voice grew sharp. "And who is anyone but you to define who you are, Jack? Who is to say you cannot find happiness, that all who look upon you will reject you? There is nothing wrong with you, not in the core of your person – you are not cursed and... foul like I am."

The asari sighed, and pulled her hand away. "I am… not hungry."

Jack blinked, then grunted. "No."

Mirala looked up, confusion on her features. "...no?"

The young woman looked at her, then closed her eyes for a second. This has to be the dumbest shit you've done since making a pass at Shepard, she thought ruefully.

"No. I'm not gonna let you withdraw and run away or be alone, Mirala. I'm sorry if I upset you, I'm bad at talking… but there's not anything wrong with you if I can fucking hold your hand all this time. You're right. Shepard said the same thing 'bout me… I curled myself up to avoid feeling pain from being used and hurt. I... never fit in. Never belonged."

She watched the asari's expression shift, but continued. "Never knew what I wanted. Shepard gave me all that back, voided my criminal record. Tried to find my family. That went nowhere, but... what she told me is that if I never let myself try to reach out I'd always be alone. That I just needed to pick the right people."

Mirala's voice was very, very soft. "...Jack, I am never the 'right people'.

The woman almost sneered, but remembered to keep her expression neutral. "Yah, got that. Neither am I, is the point. Your shit is biotic, this… problem you have, yeah?"

Mirala leaned back, bewilderment clear on her features. "What does that have to-"

Jack somehow kept her cool. "Just… please answer the question, okay? Yes or no?"

The asari nodded slowly. "Yes, it is biotic in function. It is not well understood, but the.. effects are always the same. Overwhelming pleasure that locks into a nervous loop. If continued long enough, the other person's mind buckles and their nerves overload and are damaged. It doesn't kill, but it can inflict crippling long-term nerve damage and brain disorders, or shatter the mind."

Jack popped the last bit of fish on her plate into her mouth, chasing it with the last of her drink. "Primo. That's what I figured. So here's what we're gonna do. YOU are gonna finish that meal, and then we're gonna go to a club and dance. And after that, get shitfaced in a bar, and you're coming with me and I want to try something."

Conflicting emotions flickered across the asari's face – confusion, anger, misery, uncertainty. "Jack, I-"

She held up her hand. "Mirala. No one else talks to me. No one else cares. Are you actually gonna sit here with the one person who can maybe… I dunno. We can try. You can stop it if it hurts me, yeah?"

The asari sat back, her eyes pools of confusion. "...you think your odd abilities can prevent you from entering the loop of … Jack, no. It is too dangerous."

Jack's voice was soft, as she gently pushed Mirala's plate closer. "You said it yourself. We're running towards death. I know I'm not strong enough to make it. I'll fight as hard as I can, but the fuck am I fighting for, huh? People who think I'm a trampy freak? People who treat you like shit when you haven't done anything wrong?"

Mirala closed her eyes, rubbing her forehead. "There..." She paused. "We can't..." Another pause. "...why?"

The last was anguished. Jack smiled.

"Shepard said something to me, first night on the ship. That she came from the same place in life I did – alone, untrusting, never able to get it or make it all make sense. When I asked her why she bothered, she said because when she was my age... she wanted so bad for someone to reach out – and no one ever did."

Jack extended her hand, palm up, across the table. "...sides. You are hot as fuck."

Mirala just stared at her hand for almost a full minute. Just when Jack was going to pull it back and try to say something else, she sighed and took it. "...I am not sure it is wise for me to be… drunk… if you are serious about this. I am terrified I am going to hurt you… and I need to be sober for the best level of control..."

Jack tilted her head. "So that's a yes to the dancing then?"