DISCLAIMER – I do not own Mass Effect franchise, the story, or any of its characters. All rights go to Bioware.
Greetings to everyone. Sorry about the wait. It's been almost a year, I know. This chapter is to blame for that.
Basically, as this story advanced, so did I gain new ideas that I realized would be greatly beneficial to the story and would open up new possibilities. But it was problematic integrating those new ideas in an already-developing plot. This chapter, in particular, needed to be amended to do that. Furthermore, I felt a great need to create a backstory for Marcus and Jaina, and while I had a very clear picture of what it should look like, I had great problems on how to incorporate it. The result was that this chapter was rewritten 6 times, and I'd often abandon it in frustration and go write something else. So, basically, I never stopped writing. It's just that I never felt satisfied with what I've written.
The end result is this chapter that has 20000 words and spans several big scenes. There was no way for me to split it, because it flowed too naturally.
And I want to thank you all for giving me reviews for the previous chapters, both the good and the bad. Sorry I didn't reply to everyone, but I'm grateful that you have taken the time to do it. Trust me, I really do appreciate it. I hope you continue to do so.
Thanks to your pointers, I plan to fix the inconsistencies in my story (for example, Wrex and the one time I mentioned his blood rage; I fully intend to make Wrex as if he is a mutant that is not susceptible to blood rage.) I just don't know when I'll get down to it (I'm lazy. Too lazy.)
There are so many more things that I'd like to say, but – well, there's just too much, so I'll just say the usual one: trust me, I'm an engineer. So, instead, here's the new chapter. I hope you enjoy it.
And - oh yeah! Remember, I seem to have a major issue with using articles; I purely doubt I've fixed it. So, there you have it, a fair warning...
Chapter posted on 16.12.2018. - almost a year later...
Main Tags: Action, Sci-fi, Adventure, Friendship building, Love.
Additional Tags: Slowly turning AU, Technology-heavy, Geopolitical themes, Economic themes, Intrigue, Militaristic…
Rated M – for mature and adult content.
Chapter 32 – Revelations
Six hours after Noveria incident has come to a conclusion, Marcus stood before the comm room's communications system, with Jaina standing behind him and a bit to his right.
Before them, the three Councilors' holographic projections were materializing with a light shimmer. Even through the holographic projections, their somber and tense mood could be visualized.
"Commander," Tevos greeted him, her voice obviously grim. "We have just finished with reviewing your report and mission combat cam recordings from Noveria."
"You have obviously taken your time," Marcus said. "I assume you were thorough?"
"Very thorough," Valern replied gravely.
"The shear amount and scope of the events and their implications are both staggering and alarming," Sparatus spoke grimly in a crisp military manner.
"Then, I suggest we go through one key event at a time as the mission unfolded," Marcus offered. "It'd be easier to cover the elements of lesser concern first."
"Yes, that would be the most efficient way," Valern said as he shared a look with his colleagues. "This meeting will take some time no matter how we look at it."
"True," Tevos agreed, with Sparatus giving a curt nod as well, before she turned to Marcus. "Starting from the comparatively least worrisome fact on this list, we are very alarmed by the fact that the Binary Helix had managed to retrieve a living Rachni egg, as well as to keep it a secret."
"It is obvious that the corporate liberties are proving to be a huge threat to galactic peace," Sparatus said. "First, there was the ExoGeni incident on Feros, then the fact that Saren was a major shareholder of the Binary Helix, and finally this with Rachni – all of which were a huge threat and which we knew nothing about."
"That is true," Valern concurred. "We will have to seriously re-evaluate our intelligence capacities, as well as corporate leeways we grant. The fact that Saren could appropriate facilities right in front of our very noses is not something we can afford anymore."
"We're already sending a large C-Sec contingent to Noveria," Tevos said. "The fact that the Binary Helix labs has attempted breeding rachni soldiers for the purposes of war is most alarming."
"And with that in mind, we are dissatisfied with the fact that you've let the Rachni Queen go, Commander," Sparatus said gruffly.
"What Councilor Sparatus means is that we feel you should have detained the Rachni Queen and brought her to the Citadel," Tevos said. "Despite what your young Dr. T'Soni might think, we'd have treated the Queen with civility. This is a surprising olive branch from the rachni species – a polar opposite from what we've witnessed during the Rachni Wars – and it would have given us an opportunity to forge a true peace."
"Councilors," Marcus spoke up with a hint of irritation coloring his voice, "What you've just described was completely unattainable. The Rachni Queen is not an idiot – that much was clear. She would have known that she'd still be a de-facto prisoner, and I had no way – no leverage, nothing to barter with – to convince her to come peacefully. Any attempt of forceful detention would have left us trapped on a ship, in tight spaces, with a creature that spits acid that eats through metal. That's not a risk I was going to put my people in."
The Councilors looked taken aback, and they looked uncertainly amongst each other.
"Yes, that does seem to put your decision into a completely different perspective," Valern said, sharing a look with the other two. "In that case, it was wise of you to negotiate peaceful intentions with the queen, at least. It is still troublesome that we won't know for sure where she will be until she feels ready to come out of hiding."
"And we have no guarantee that she won't come out of hiding with guns blazing," Sparatus said. "How sure can we be that she was telling the truth, Commander?"
Jaina spoke up, taking a step forward:
"Because we have recovered and examined the rachni translation device, the software, as well as research data that the Binary Helix made on the Rachni Queen," she said. "All data points to the fact that the rachni are truly incapable of lying because they communicate by directly sending thoughts and emotions – which is what the device reads and translates. A lie can be detected in that way."
Sparatus was silent for a moment, mulling this over.
"I see," he said grimly, sharing a look with the other councilors. "Then that makes the next piece of intel even more worrying."
"Yes – the implication that the Rachni were essentially mind-controlled by a third party into attacking us two thousand years ago," Valern said.
"And all data points to it being done by the Sovereign itself," Marcus said.
The Councilors looked amongst each other somberly, before Sparatus spoke:
"Normally, we'd require more proof, but given everything that was revealed during that mission, we cannot ignore the apparent Reaper scenario anymore. We were greatly disturbed with what Benezia had revealed." He then shot a look at Tevos. "Especially about the implication of another Prothean Beacon on Thessia that the asari had kept to themselves."
Tevos's face twitched into a brief grimace of displeasure, before she spoke diplomatically:
"Regardless of that, there was no doubt about it: Benezia was mentally compromised in some unnatural way. We, who had known her, have seen it the moment she spoke on that combat cam recording."
"We have considered the possibility of her being drugged, poisoned, or forced by Saren into committing some type of suicide for some reason or another," Valern spoke, "but we have quickly dismissed it; one does not send their top lieutenant to die like that in order to disseminate a lie, and it is obvious that Benezia held high decision power in his organization. If she was drugged, she would be incapable of doing so. Even if she had a batarian implant in her head, that implant would have crippled her in many ways. Obviously not the case here. Something was done to her, that much was obvious, but none of the technology in existence is capable of performing such a heavy mental distortion to another person."
"Especially to an asari Matriarch," Tevos stated vehemently with fire in her eyes.
"Especially to an asari Matriarch," Valern agreed. "They are bulwarks of mental power. Have you found any traces of implants or surgical tampering with Benezia?"
"None," Jaina said. "Her body was clean. Her mind, though, shows clear evidence of subtle physical alteration, and it was not done by the presence of a foreign body or a surgical tool. Our best guess is that it was an energy field of some kind – one that can be controlled to such a fine precision as to affect only the targeted pathways inside a person's brain, while leaving all others intact. Our ship's doctor assures us that alterations were made, and that they were so precise that they left Benezia's higher functions intact."
The tense mood could be seen settling down onto the councilors.
"It is as we have feared," Tevos said icily. "This is technology unlike anything we have ever thought possible."
"Are you willing, then, to at least operate under the assumption that Reapers are a threat?" Marcus asked.
"At this point, it would be beyond irresponsible of us to assume otherwise," Sparatus stated. "I hate to admit, but everything Benezia revealed puts many former events into a whole different perspective."
"Yes," Valern said, nodding. "An implication that Sovereign mind-controlled Rachni, caused Geth Uprising, even Krogan Rebellions… all of it is most disturbing."
"But even if we do assume that Sovereign is an ancient killing machine bent on destroying all organics, why would anyone, let alone Saren, want to ally himself with it?" Sparatus asked, shaking his head.
"He might not be doing it willingly, Councilor," Jaina said. "There is every chance that he has been indoctrinated himself, and is only doing the Sovereign's bidding. After all, according to Benezia, he found Sovereign a decade ago. It is more than enough time for him to fall victim to whatever technology Sovereign might be using."
"That is perfectly plausible," Sparatus reluctantly agreed. "But what we don't understand is why would Sovereign need Saren at all?"
"Commander," Tevos spoke to Marcus, "At one point during the exchange with Benezia, you touched her, and at that point, it is obvious that you were the one who initiated a mind-meld type of connection. This shouldn't be possible for a human, yet you do have it. And from Benezia's reaction, it is obvious that you know much more than you are letting on. I think the time has come for you to be candid with us."
Marcus crossed his arms over his chest.
"You understand that I don't have the time to waste proving anything of what I'm about to say, then, Councilors," he challenged.
Tevos nodded. "At this point, we are well aware that it would be very detrimental and dangerous for us to not take your every word with utmost seriousness, Commander. Please. Speak."
Marcus shared a look with Jaina, then spoke:
"The reason I have abilities similar to mind-melding, is because Thorian had transferred them to me via Cipher; it was a piece of Prothean physiology, and Thorian considered it a standard piece of that package. Also, the Cipher has, since then, completely solidified the Eden Prime Beacon images in my head. I now have a very clear picture of what has happened."
Valern nodded. "We're listening…"
"Very well. The message that the Beacon has transferred to me showed how the Prothean Empire fell to the Reapers," he said. "It happened with a sudden strike that caught the Protheans off-guard, and has resulted in a complete, one-sided obliteration of their Empire. The reason for this was because the very first target that the Reapers had struck was the Citadel itself, from which Protheans ruled their empire – the very same Citadel where you stand now."
"How is it possible that the Reapers have struck the Citadel in a surprise assault?" Sparatus asked, frowning. "The Citadel is at the core of the galaxy. The Reapers would have had to travel all the way from the border; they would have been noticed and intercepted long before that."
"Exactly the point," Marcus nodded. "The Reapers didn't travel from any border at all. They have jumped directly through the Citadel. Through the Citadel itself, Councilors. The beacon had shown me those images of it as clear as day: the Citadel is one giant mass relay."
A bomb of silence fell upon everyone. The Councilors just stared blankly at Marcus for a moment, before all three of them slowly raised their gaze and looked around, wide-eyed, visualizing the huge station around them for a few moments, before they returned their confused and somewhat shocked gazes back to Marcus.
"Are you sure about this, Commander?!" Sparatus demanded.
"The imprint claims that is the truth," Marcus said.
"But you'd think we would have noticed!" Sparatus continued as he shared a look with his fellow Councilors.
"With respect, but it's purely doubtful that anyone ever could, Councilors," Jaina said, shaking her head. "When it comes down to it, nobody knows next to anything about The Citadel. The whole station is completely autonomous. It's maintained by the keepers, and nobody else. It power source is completely hidden and unidentifiable. Nobody really knows how the station functions, where does it draw its energy from, and it's obvious it doesn't waste some fuel to do it. The only other known structure to show the same properties is a mass relay. Frankly, from where I'm standing, the connection is pretty damn obvious!"
When she finished, Tevos was tense, Valern was frowning in concentration as his eyes darted around and scenarios played out through his mind, and Sparatus was looking angrily around, presumably at the Citadel's interior, his mandibles fluttering rapidly.
"I do not understand," Valern spoke slowly, extremely slowly, as he looked to other Councilors. "What Commander Jaina says makes every sense. How come nobody ever considered this?"
"Organic nature," Marcus offered. "We're designed to only seek things out if we're lacking in something, but if we have everything we need, then we tend to become blinded by it. And Citadel provides everything except food. Keepers take care of everything, and all we need to do is enjoy."
Jaina picked up:
"It has lulled us into thinking it was a safe harbor, when in fact it might very well have been intended to be that kind of a trap all along. We come and make it the center of our society. Then, at one point, the Reapers come from the other side and lock down the Citadel – and with it, most likely lock down the mass relay network. Suddenly, the entire systems are completely isolated and the Galactic comm system goes dark. Nobody knows what's going on while the Reapers go one system to another, slowly but methodically wiping out all organics that they consider a threat to them, just like any machine would. After it is all done, they retreat to the other side and wait for some other species to make the same mistakes."
Marcus continued, "And what she said is exactly what the Beacon had shown me happened to the Protheans themselves. A perfect wipeout. Just like a machine would do."
"Wait," Sparatus spoke agitatedly, raising his hand. "Just… wait. You keep saying that Reapers have used the Citadel to jump in and wipe out the Prothean seat of government, but how could have they done it if the Citadel was built by the Protheans and controlled by the Protheans?"
It was Valern, then, who dropped the logic bomb that silenced the room:
"Unless… it was not built by the Protheans at all," he said slowly in realization.
The other two Councilors looked at him in shock, before all three of them slowly turned to Marcus, their faces expectant, questioning.
"The Beacon message does not explicitly confirm nor deny it," he said stoically. Then he added, "But it did contain the comm logs from the Prothean Citadel Fleet when it all started happening. When the Citadel started activating, it was clear that they had no idea what was going on, and it was clear that they were seeing something like that for the first time."
The councilors were numb.
"Spirits…" Sparatus mumbled. "This… this would be the perfect method to destroy organics indeed! A perfect trap. And a machine would have all the time in the world…"
Tevos raised a placating hand.
"Let us not jump to conclusions too hastily," she said calmly. Her voice bore the tiniest bit of tremble, though. "Everything suggests that Reapers cannot return as easily. Saren is attempting to help Sovereign bring about their return. It indicates that they are unable to until he does whatever he needs to do. That means that Reapers won't be jumping right on top of us yet."
"Agreed," Valern said. "Commander, do you know why is it that Sovereign cannot open the Citadel on his own?"
"Because according to the Beacon imprint, one small cell of Prothean resistance managed to remain hidden on the planet Ilos by weathering the war in stasis pods," he replied. "From there, they devised a method to sabotage the means through which the Citadel opened to the other side. They used the Conduit – the Relay Monument – to reach the interior of the locked Citadel and sabotage it from within. In order to undo the damage, Sovereign must fix it in the same method, because if he attacks outright, the Citadel will close its arms, preventing him access. Besides, he's a bit on the large side to enter the tower. He needs an agent to go through the Conduit, and Saren, with his extensive Spectre skills, knowledge, and access was the perfect pawn."
"Then why didn't Saren do it before he was discovered to be a traitor?" Sparatus countered. "He was a Spectre. He had access. Why would he need to seek out the Conduit at all?"
"Likely because he is not skilled enough to undo whatever it is the best Prothean minds did," Jaina replied. "I can bet that Sovereign needs to undo the damage himself, and I bet that the only way for him to do it is by docking with the station itself – not something he'd manage to do quickly enough. The moment a two-kilometer unknown appears in the Widow system, the Citadel would close its arms down, and the fleets could drive it away."
"Which is why Saren needs to take over the Citadel Tower in order to prevent the closing of the Citadel arms," Marcus picked up. "To do that, he needs an army – geth and krogan clones. But he cannot bring that kind of army to the Citadel via conventional means. Hence – the Conduit. The prototype relay that the Protheans themselves reverse-engineered and built. Likely a security measure – that if the Citadel was ever attacked, that they could summon instantaneous reinforcements from a hidden base. They never managed to do so, but fortunately, the relay remained; most likely, the keepers didn't dismantle it is because they thought it was their masters' technology."
The Councilors digested this, then Sparatus spoke up:
"Valern, has there been any development about the relay monument?" he asked.
"There… has been something," Valern said slowly. "The team has discovered a certain type of resonance within the monument that corresponds to element zero containment field found in other dormant mass effect relays, only much weaker, which is why it was never discovered before with the older equipment. The reason I didn't alert the two of you was because the resonance could be explained in other ways as well. I wanted them to perform more targeted in-depth tests that would undeniably prove or dispute whether the relay monument is an actual relay."
"Well, I'm not taking any more chances concerning the Citadel's security now that you've provided that info," Sparatus growled. "I'll be issuing orders to Palin to triple the Presidium C-Sec presence and to bring forth heavy weapons and armored C-Sec shuttles."
Tevos raised her hand toward Sparatus in a placating motion.
"If we must do it, then let us do it discretely," she practically demanded. "The last thing we need is sudden hysteria on the Presidium."
"In the meantime, we need to decide on the course of action concerning Ilos," Valern said, turning to Marcus and Jaina. "I assume you've considered going there and cutting Saren off from reaching the Conduit?"
Marcus shook his head firmly.
"No, Councilor, that would be tantamount to suicide. I have only one frigate and fourteen ground team specialists – maybe twenty if I pull some of the Normandy's personnel. Saren, in turn, has dozens of ships, and thousands of foot troopers. If he's to be cut off above Ilos, no less than a fleet would suffice, and I don't think even that would be enough considering Sovereign's power that he advertised above Feros."
"Hmm… Understandable, but we cannot have a large fleet just sitting in the middle of Terminus waiting for Saren to come, and this is not diplomatic tensions I'm talking about," Sparatus said. "Those ships need supplies, logistics – all vulnerable to pirate sabotage – and we'd be crippling our defenses. What if Saren pulls some other stunt to get to the Citadel?"
"Agreed, which is we weren't thinking of sending the fleet there at all," Jaina said. "We were thinking of doing something else – something to stop Saren before he even moves."
"What do you have in mind?" Tevos asked.
"Has there been any news from Captain Kirrahe from Virmire?" Marcus asked.
The other two Councilors looked to Valern.
"Nothing new," the salarian replied. "The last time he reported back, they were about to land a scouting party onto the planet, and the protocol has them maintain radio silence. They will, of course, report immediately if they find something, and the updates are streamed directly to me," he said, and tapped the side of his head where his earbud was, then continued, "Do you still think that Saren is there?"
"That's the only lead we've got," Jaina said pointedly. "We were thinking of joining Kirrahe. Maybe if we're there, we'll be able to point out to something that Kirrahe might not be able to tell simply because of our current experience in hunting Saren. And besides, there was that issue of cloned krogan on Noveria. Virmire might very well be his base where he is cloning them."
"That might be wise," Valern commented. "Your stealth frigate might help him investigate the situation in a much better way than…"
He suddenly trailed off, then quickly raised his hand to his ear, listening to someone sending him a report from the other side of his secure comm. Everyone waited for a few seconds, before Valern slowly lowered his hand.
"I've just received the word," Valern started hurriedly, "We've received an emergency broadcast from Kirrahe's team. It is heavily garbled, but our technicians are saying that they're seeing fragments of the codes for 'Black Tide' and 'Thunderclap'."
Marcus's eyes narrowed.
"Those are codes that denote critical danger to Citadel and a call for a full fleet!" he said.
"They are," Sparatus replied. "This whole thing just got more complicated. I'm calling Palaven. They can have the tenth fleet fully mobilized in hours. Commander, we need the Normandy above Virmire ASAP. That fleet will need to know what it's facing, and your ship is the only one that can do it."
"We're on it," he stated. "What else?"
"Nothing from you," Sparatus said as he exchanged a look with the other Councilors. "There's a lot that needs to be done on our side, and we don't have much time. War spirits be with you, Spectres. Council out."
The line cut and their projections winked out of existence.
Marcus breathed a sigh of relief and leaned forward against the console, sinking into a hip. He felt Jaina's hands snaking over his flanks from behind and hugging him around his broad chest. He turned around in her arms, raising his own over her shoulder and hugging her back.
"All is right with the world," she said as she cuddled into his side, her palm tracing across his front.
"Yeah," he agreed, then sighed. "We managed to convince them, but I swear it's like herding wild cats. I'd rather be chasing Larry, the Shifty-Looking Cow any day of the week."
She barked a laugh. "Yeah, I could sense it from you." She trailed a finger across his chest, then took his free hand into hers and felt it up. "I also sense that you're like a coiled spring. The mission, the post-mission work, this report with the Council… it has left you high-strung. You feel as if there's another shoe that's about to drop."
She trailed her hand up his forearm and bicep, then onto his chest again – homing unmistakably right onto a bruise from a bullet impact against his armor, and pressing gently with two fingers.
"And these wounds you've received during the mission aren't helping things," she said as she began to gently massage the bruise. "Dumbass. You let your shield drop five times," she chided softly.
He wondered absentmindedly how she knew the exact location of that bruise.
"It was a calculated risk, you know that," he said.
"I know," she agreed. "And I'd have done the same. Still doesn't mean I have to like it much. Now you're bruised and hurting… here… here… here… and here," she said, her fingers touching each of the hidden bruises dead on. "And this one here, it pierced right through. Oops! Sorry; didn't mean to make it hurt," she said when he flinched.
Marcus was looking down at her incredulously.
"How do you know where each of my impact wounds is?" he asked. She hadn't seen any single one of them, there was no way she could find them so accurately.
Jaina smiled up at him, placing a palm right at the center of his chest and spreading her fingers widely.
"The same way I know that you feel high-strung," she spoke. "The way you're tense because you think the day is not over yet and that you still have that post-mission debrief with each of our people to see if they're okay, if it affected them. The way you're tired to the bone, yet you keep quiet and are drawing on those hidden reserves to appear strong and on top of things, even though you'd rather just be Marcus instead of Commander Shepard, drink some beer and relax at this moment, then bend me over our cabin desk and fuck me senseless… The way you're realizing right at this very moment that this is far more than that usual feminine intuition of mine that I like to brag on about…"
His piercing gaze settled on her for a few long seconds, and she couldn't help but remember how that gaze never failed to make some interesting sensations in her lower tummy.
His hand gently encircled her neck, his fingers gently trailing across her skin. She felt his Prothean senses seep through her skin, sinking deep, and she surrendered to it, welcomed them as they searched and prowled through her, feeling deliciously invasive, and greeted them with the fledgling Prothean senses of her own.
They were weak. Still underdeveloped. Only beginning to grow. But, Marcus recognized them exactly for what they were.
"You…" he muttered, looking in amazement down at her. "How's this possible?! Since when…?!"
She shrugged with one shoulder.
"For about a week now," she said. "I think they were there even longer than that, but I didn't sense them at first." She narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. "I'm pretty sure that the first time it happened was when we took out Ton Actis and Haliat on Tuntau," she smiled, running a finger down his chest. "It was when Liara and I were with you, teasing you. That sexual haze was quite something. That's the first time I really felt it; wasn't sure what it was at the time, though. So I decided to keep a close inner eye on it. Didn't take me long to figure it out for what it was."
"And you didn't think to inform me?" he asked incredulously, his eyes never leaving hers.
She tapped a finger over his mouth to shush him. "Of course I didn't want to inform you," she said placatingly, her eyes not shying away from his. "Hell, I wasn't even sure what it was. It was weak. I could barely feel anything with it. It wouldn't do to raise a false alarm. Even if it is real, it would have definitely made you worry. Not something I wanted to do with what was coming our way."
They were silent for a moment, and then he took that hand into his, kissing the finger that was pressed against his lips.
"The unknown burdens wives take on for their husbands and all that?" he asked with a small smirk.
She snorted, faking dismissiveness. "You wish! I was just thinking of the mission first. You men like to think you're the center of the w-hmpf…" she was quieted with his lips capturing hers into a scalding kiss.
The kiss smacked, and she licked her lips, looking coy. "Alright, so maybe it was a little bit about you," she admitted. "A teensy-tiny bit."
He shook his head at her.
"How the hell hadn't I noticed them?" he wondered out loud.
"Pfffft!" she blew air dismissively. "Please. You're talking to a Spectre candidate who lost by a tiny margin. I know how to handle my mental facilities to keep it hidden."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." He smacked her ass. "You're amazing and all that. Now, how is it possible that you've developed them?"
She shook her head, turning serious. "No idea. I figure you must've infected me somehow. Maybe a remnant Thorian spore got out of you and into me. We do share the same bed, after all…"
"I guess that makes sense. Did you go to Chakwas with this?"
She shook her head. "No. I wanted you to know first."
"Ah-hah," he nodded. He swatted her firm posterior once more for good measure. "Consider me notified. Now – forward, march!"
"Yes, sir! Doctor Chakwas's place it is, sir!"
The medical scanner's arm finished its run, moving up and folding up by the side of the medical bed. Chakwas read the results, then nodded.
"Well, it's confirmed," she declared officially, then looked at Jaina who was already standing up from the medical bed. "I'm seeing the same types of retroviruses as the ones that have been originally introduced into Marcus's organism by Thorian spores!"
Jaina shrugged as if it was nothing. "Told you."
"This is a quite an interesting development, I must say," Chakwas continued examining the reads. "I'm seeing the early development stages of the same new organs that Marcus has – a new brain lobe, new glands, new skin receptors… They are at an earlier development stage than Marcus's were at the moment when we discovered them, but they are undeniably there, and they are progressing steadily. It seems like they're developing more slowly than his were, true, but I'm seeing a full potential for them to grow as mature and as potent."
"Any adverse effects?" Marcus asked from where he stood over Jaina's shoulder.
"None that I'm seeing," Chakwas said. "Her body chemistry is in perfect balance. What's more, I'd be so bold to say that because the pace of the new organ development is slower with her, there's a lesser risk for something to go awry."
Jaina puffed with bravado.
"Please," she said, smirking. "If this guy can get away with it with no adverse effects, I'm even better off than him." She smirked at him. "And it looks like I'll have an even better access to all those little things you men try to hide."
He merely snorted, then nodded up at Chakwas.
"We still need to know how this happened," he said.
"Way ahead of you, Commander," Chakwas said as she scanned Jaina with her omni-tool. "This didn't come from the Thorian, that much is obvious."
"She didn't get infected at the same time as I did?"
"No. And there are no remaining Thorian spores in her that could have crossed over from your body to hers to deliver the retroviruses; they had been flushed by your body long ago. And in fact… it is clear to me that the one who 'infected' her really was you, Commander."
She flicked the screen, turning it toward them and pointed out.
"These retroviruses in her body are the ones who have transferred the needed ingredients for her to develop her fledgling abilities. They carry your gene markers, Marcus."
Marcus stood frozen for one second.
"Are you telling me that I have been spreading this unknowingly all over the ship?" he demanded slowly, the vessel's Commanding Officer coming in full force of authority to the fore.
Chakwas chuckled mirthfully.
"Hardly, Commander," she said. "These retroviruses cannot survive in open air – especially not in the ship's controlled atmosphere. They require a bodily fluid transfer with a minimal temperature variance. Hold still," she said to Marcus and began to scan various parts of his body with her omni-tool.
"Hmm… no traces in saliva or sweat glands… and very little concentration in the blood," she mused out loud. "Hmm… I wonder…"
She moved her omni-tool all the way down and held it over his crotch, and the omni-tool chirped cheerfully.
"Hah!" she cackled, the skin at the corners of her eyes crinkling in amusement. "Well, now we know how she got infected!" she declared.
An understanding dawned on both Marcus's and Jaina's face, before Jaina frowned.
"Wait, doctor, shouldn't have my birth control implant killed off all of his guys and anything they might have been carrying? You know – like, the fabled 100% anti-baby and anti-STD it's supposed to be?"
Chakwas chuckled. "And normally you'd be right, but, you see, darling… you have been ingesting, remember?"
Jaina blinked, then made a silent 'oohhh' expression. And then a coy smirk appearing on her lips, looking like the cat that got the cream. Literally.
"How the hell do you know she's been ingesting?" Marcus demanded.
The two women just gave him a blank stare, and it dawned on him.
"Female talks!" he cursed out, then sighed exasperatedly. "Doesn't that break some sort of doctor-patient confidentiality?"
Chakwas barked a laugh. "In your dreams, Commander."
He just rolled his eyes and sighed in exasperation.
"So, you see, Commander," Chakwas continued smugly, "unless you start having the liaisons of such type with an entire ship, I'm pretty sure that the Prothean abilities will remain squarely within the Shepard family."
Chakwas then suddenly seemed to realize what she just said and looked more alert.
"You're kidding," Marcus said, both him and Jaina realizing the unsaid implication.
"… I don't think I am," Chakwas replied slowly. "With your permission, I'd like to prepare the groundwork for that. Your case is unique. The fact that this might transfer through your genes is not an insignificant matter. I will contact some of my colleagues – using the highest security protocols, of course, and with no rush."
"That… actually sounds wise," Jaina admitted as her hand unconsciously found Marcus's.
"In the meantime," Chakwas continued, "you report regularly to me so that we can monitor the progress."
"Will do, Doc," she nodded, then turned fully toward him, stepping in close. "Aren't you a lucky son of a bitch? Now you get to use an excuse about me wanting to increase my newly-developing Prothean powers to get more blowjobs."
He snorted. "If I remember correctly, it was you who woke me up the other day demanding your protein shake."
That earned him a lighthearted elbow to the gut.
"Ass," Jaina smirked, turning away and crossing her arms. "You're lucky that I love you. And your protein shakes. That tap better not run dry, ya hear? I want my superpowers, pronto."
He hummed pensively, languidly hugging her around her stomach with one hand and pulling her in for a kiss on the cheek from behind. "Hmm… I think I can make that sacrifice."
"Wiseass," Jaina amended, glancing at him from the corner of her eye. Her eyes fell on the doorway to Liara's quarters, and her mirth turned to seriousness.
"On to important matters?" Marcus asked, sensing the mood shift in her.
"Yeah," she agreed. "I had the thought that she'd be completely blown away by the fact that I, too, have gained these Prothean abilities, but then I remembered that she just lost her mom," she spoke, thinking of Liara. She then frowned, adding in a wry, self-admonishing manner, "Somehow, I don't think that trying to talk to her about joining me for a regular daily blowjob would be a very good idea."
Marcus snorted. "Yeah, no kidding."
Jaina nodded. "Now that her mom is dead, she'll need some support. She could argue all she wants that they weren't in the best of relations, but I'd bet my ass that she could do well with some hugs and cuddles right about now. Losing your family is never easy." There was a solemn pause. "I should know that better than anyone."
He rubbed her hips supportively. "You pulled through just fine," he said softly.
She smirked. "Weeellll, I dunno… If there wasn't this dashing young ruffian to hold me tight and scoop me up with him onto a certain freighter, I don't know what would have become of me."
He chuckled. "I happen to remember you calling me other names than 'dashing' back then. Mostly it was 'bastard' and 'I hate you', if I remember correctly."
"I still hate you, you bastard," she said lovingly, then led him by the hand. "Come on. Our asari needs us."
The moment they stepped through the door, he felt that something was wrong. Very wrong.
Humans, by nature, have that innate ability to sense the general mood, but the moment he and Jaina stepped into Liara's room, his Prothean senses screamed of the sour, rancid sense of dejection and simmering fury.
His eyes immediately homed in on its occupant. Liara.
She stood in front of her information station, leaning heavily against the desktop, her head low, cold fury radiating out of her. Fury… and a sense of deep, deep betrayal.
He knew immediately that something more than Benezia's death had occurred.
His hand shot out to Jaina, stopping her; he knew she sensed it too, but this was not something that gentle touch and talking could fix. He felt it… Liara was seconds away from tearing the room apart. Whatever it was, it was big.
Liara raised her head and looked at the two of them, and he almost flinched.
The young scientist was gone.
Her blue eyes had turned darker. Crueler. Cold and determined. It was a look that killed. He knew then, that he was seeing a young version of Benezia at her prime. A woman so strong that she could contain her fury and sense of betrayal with willpower alone, as she was doing right now. It was something worthy of absolute respect in his eyes.
"What happened?" he heard himself demanding calmly, but firmly.
Liara was silent for a moment, motionless, her hard glare meeting his unflinchingly.
"They revoked my academic license." Her voice was deep, cold and hard, promising retribution. "The rector of Armali University herself told it to my face not ten minutes ago."
Marcus tilted his head. This didn't make any sense. From the look of Jaina, she thought so too.
"Did they explain themselves?" he asked, his voice just as hardened.
"Oh, they did," Liara said, her voice trembling in contained fury and disdain as she looked back toward the screens. "They didn't want a stain on the University's name." She spared a brief glance back at him. "Turns out that the Council of Matriarchs of Thessia has been holding out hope that Benezia was either actually secretly trying to undermine Saren or that she would be quietly taken care of. They didn't like the truth we found out; they most certainly didn't like what Benezia told us. Now, they're labeling Benezia a traitor to asari and trying to censor everything in connection to her. They have already confiscated all of T'Soni assets, all the properties, and all of mine and Benezia's accounts." She shook her head. "But that's not anywhere near the worst of it. It's that they want to shut me up. They want to discredit me. They want to ruin all the credibility and face that I had worked so hard to build. They've issued a directive to the University to revoke my license, they have demanded that the University put a black mark on my name so that I cannot apply to any other universities either, and the worst thing of all… they have frozen my college and doctorate degrees." She looked back at them. "Any government jobs would reject my degrees as invalid."
"What the fuck?!" Jaina exclaimed loudly. "That's an illegal thing to do!"
Liara snorted ruefully. "Maybe in human territories. Not with the Asari Republics," she said acidly. "They may be a democracy outwardly, but I can assure you that they have worked hard throughout the history to build such laws and traditions to ensure obedience by the high-educated intellectuals – the ones who would rock the boat. It's just that I never believed that they'd ever been so rotten to ever do it to anyone. Now, though, I have to wonder how many others like me have been fed to the darkness throughout our history."
Jaina was stunned. And Marcus… for some reason, he was not surprised by the move at all. He knew governments did such things. It's just that it was harder to do in the Alliance. The Republics, though? They were outwardly democracy, but everyone knew that it was the Council of Matriarchs who held the true power. They gave bread and games to their maidens, social security to their matrons, and they could do whatever they pleased under the traditional guise of their matriarchal wisdom. And money, of course.
"Well, the money is not a problem," Jaina said, crossing her arms. "The freeze on your accounts and property can be easily rectified with a Spectre clearance."
Liara's face scrunched up in distaste. She pushed herself away from the desk and shifted away from them, raising her hand.
"I don't want you to fight my battles," she said angrily to Jaina. "And I don't even give a damn about my inheritance. My entire life, I've had to fight for the right to be recognized as a true academic, a true scientist, and because of my inheritance, everyone was seeing me as an entitled little girl. I've had to fight every step of the way, I've had to be the best. I had to prove that I am the best. For 50 years, I've worked my ass off to get to where I was. I had conquered adversity, rivalries, and I came on top of it all to become one of the youngest doctors in the history of the Armali University, and one of the greatest experts and researchers in Prothean field ever. And now, these… these cunts want to take it away from me just so they could cover their blunder? They want to trample all over my academic achievements just so that they wouldn't look bad?!" By then, she was openly seething. "I. Will. Destroy them."
Marcus, his face stony, nodded. "And you don't want us to interfere."
"You're damn right I don't want you to interfere," Liara stated, her voice trembling from fury. "I will not be a damsel in distress. I will not have you rescuing me. I will not be using your Spectre authority and have people point fingers at me for taking shortcuts. I want to make them pay for screwing me over like this by my own means."
She was shaking from fury, but her body had taken on a challenging posture. Her fists were balled, her eyes were firm. She was ready to tackle.
"Good," Marcus rumbled menacingly. "Then act on it. One condition. No shady, backstabbing work. I don't want anything to come back to me. If you want to destroy them – destroy them. But you will do it so that they can see it coming from a mile away, that it's coming from you, and you will do it in such a way that it cannot be said that you used underhanded tricks."
Marcus then tapped the comm system.
"Cargo bay: prepare the sparring mats," he said. "Ground team report to the sparring mats in 15 minutes." He looked back to Liara. "Well, what're you waiting for?"
Liara wordlessly stormed past him and Jaina, nearly ripping her clothes off with purpose as she went toward her locker to switch them for her sparring ware. Marcus caught Jaina's gaze and nodded toward the door.
When the doors closed behind them, and they walked across a currently empty medbay, Jaina spoke:
"Did we just have our first fight with our girl?" she asked.
"I wouldn't go that far," he said.
"Yeah, I thought so, just wanted to make sure," she said, then paused. "Hey… Is it weird that I felt the need to have Liara angrily order me to my knees and have me satisfy her with my tongue?"
He glanced at her once, then back to the front of him. "No, I too wanted to see Liara angrily ordering you to your knees and have you satisfying her with your tongue," he said as they passed beyond the medbay and through the crew deck. "But that's not what Liara needs right now. That negative energy of hers needs to be emptied out. Violently. And simple sparing won't do. What she needs is to flex her biotics. And flex them to bursting."
She looked up at him questioningly. "Nobody on the ground team is anywhere near her equal in power," she argued.
"That's why I summoned the entire ground team," he said as they entered the elevator. "Down there, on the mats, Liara will face all four of us biotics at once. Wrex, Kaidan, you, and me. Each of us fighting at 50% to her 110%. We will be coordinated. And we'll do it safely and sanely to draw out and burn out that insanity that's gripping her."
"You always did know how to handle an angry, irate female," Jaina said, reminiscing.
She sighed, closing her eyes and mentally composing herself. When she opened them, she was once again a hard, focused commander that made her enemies piss their pants with that look alone.
"You're right, though," she said, determined. She focused on him, reaching out with her new senses, and touched his upper arm, feeling. He was furious at what was happening to Liara, but he kept it contained. He knew that having Liara solve it on her own was the right answer, but it still tore at him to not be able to act. "Don't worry, Marc. Nobody messes with our girl."
The cargo bay was abuzz with contained excitement.
The bystanders watched with bated breath as the Normandy's specialist team prepared for a biotic showdown. Wrex, Kaidan, Marcus, and Jaina all stood fully prepared to face off against a single small asari. But it was that little asari that radiated the most menacing, erratic aura of them all.
"The rules are as follows," Marcus said. "Biotic barriers are active at all times. Warp assaults are forbidden. Detonations are forbidden. Anything else goes. Tali?"
"The dampening fields are ready, Shepard," she replied. "They'll catch anyone or anything that gets sent flying beyond the border."
He nodded, then, "Garrus?"
"Ready to referee," the turian replied.
"Medkit is ready."
Marcus nodded then looked over at Liara who paced menacingly near the center of the sparing area, her demeanor dark and impatient.
Garrus called out, "On your sets!"
Liara immediately stopped her pacing and dropped into an aggressive stance, her biotic aura flaring mightily. The other four biotics that surrounded her responded in kind.
Liara screamed like a banshee and charged.
It ended up being less of a spar and more of a biotic fireworks. Incessant 10-minute long fireworks. Something that far surpassed un-augmented body limits. And Liara had given it her all. Every ounce. Every last spec of her biotic power. There was no winner; there never was any intention for there to be one in the first place. It was just a fight to burn out all of the negative energy, and banish all the negative thoughts and emotions that had gripped her, until it was all spent and she was left as nothing more than a bundle of raw, primal instincts.
Goddess, she had needed it badly.
Now that the spar was over, she was back in her quarters with Marcus and Jaina. Or, more accurately, she was nearly carried off back to her quarters by Marcus and Jaina. She felt so empty and drained that she could barely lift her arms.
But it felt good. So good. So Goddess-damn good!
Her body had a light spattering of bruises that would be quickly healing away with medigel. The most annoying thing was the sporadic nosebleed from biotic overuse – something that medigel couldn't quite contain. With annoyance, she kept sniffing and wiping at the thin trail of purple blood with her knuckles as she sat on her bed, wearing only a sports bra and boy shorts.
A large form appeared right next to her.
"Let me see," Marcus's voice reverberated.
He took the tips of her tentacles between the fingers of one hand and lifted her chin with the other, tilting her head back. Still holding her tentacles gently so that she had to keep her head tilted, he began to swab under her nose with a wet tissue.
"Marcus!" she complained in mild irritation. "I'm not a baby, I can…"
"That's enough, you," he said, his fingers tightening the slightest bit around the tips of her tentacles.
Liara dropped her hands back down into her lap in annoyance and consigned to her fate.
Not that it didn't feel bad to be pampered.
And not like his strong fingers tightening around her tentacles in such a dominating way didn't feel very nice.
And that stern look he gave her sure did cause some interesting sensations deep in her lower tummy, alright.
Not that she'd ever admit it out loud, dammit! She was a strong and independent woman! Who, right now, wanted nothing more than to be pampered. Which was weird, because she also wanted to deliver excessive amounts of pain and righteous fury to the entire Council of Matriarchs of Thessia so badly at the same time. Damn these asari emotions of hers! Why did they have to be so complex? She pondered this conundrum and decided that she'd take pampering now and topple governments later. No way would she forget what those cunts on Thessia have done to her.
Marcus was trying not to chuckle as he read the shifting tides of Liara's mood with extreme accuracy of his senses as he wiped the remaining traces of blood off her face. Especially considering how she unconsciously made an extremely cute pouting face.
It was a stark contrast to her eyes, though.
Strange, how the combination made her look alluring.
A young female she might be, but her eyes had lost a lot of their old brightness. There was a cold, dark, merciless fury residing in them. Yet somehow, that darkness made her look all the more alluring. All the more beautiful.
Just like Jaina was all those years ago, right after Mindoir.
Speak of the devil, the woman walked into the room from the medbay, carrying a few packs of medigel bandages and energizing drinks. She carried herself with a spring in her step and a cheerful casualness, despite, at one point, being thrown clear across the ring by Liara earlier during the spar.
She handed him a couple of bandages, then plopped down onto the floor next to Liara's legs and busied herself with adhering a bandage over a bruise at Liara's side while taking up possession of Liara's lap with her upper body, just as Marcus busied himself with adhering a minor bandage to the corner of Liara's brow.
"There. All done," Jaina declared, then fully draped herself over Liara's lap, resting her chin on top of her crossed hands. "Feeling better?"
"I'll feel better when I get back at those cunts for doing what they did," Liara said. It was definitely interesting to hear her use that language. "I will not go quietly into the night the way they'd like me to."
"Oh, I think that this spar can attest to the latter already being the case," Marcus said as he sat onto the bed behind Liara and drew her back against him. "Those banshee screams of yours should be weaponized. Or at least used as a psychological weapon."
Jaina slapped his thigh reproachfully.
It made Liara crack the first tiny ghost of a smile in the corner of her lips. "Well, I sure am thankful that you gave me the opportunity to vent it all out… Goddess knew I needed it."
"Trust me, the ship needed it more," Marcus said in dry humor. "I can't chase Saren with its bulkheads gone."
Liara gave him a half-serious glare over her shoulder; the corners of her lips were rising, though. "Is that a roundabout way of complimenting me, or pacifying an irate female – hmm, Commander Shepard?"
"Well, I am doing a fine work out of it either way, ain't I, T'Soni?" He rumbled next to her ear as his hand roamed her midriff.
Liara was silent for a moment.
"Yes. You are," she said quietly. "Thank you. To both of you," she said to Jaina who lounged over her lap. "Especially for putting up with me. I know it isn't easy for you to do, but I really appreciate it for letting me handle this affair on my own. I need to do this."
"We know," Jaina rubbed her thigh. "Just don't summon the Reapers on their asses in your quest for vengeance, okay?"
Liara coughed a small laugh. "I won't. Believe me."
"We will," Jaina said. "And don't worry. We'll be putting you up as much as you need," she said solemnly, before a mischievous smile appeared on her lips. "We'll be putting you up over Marcus's knee whenever our Normandy's bulkheads get threatened."
Liara blushed, but she was smiling – lightly, like a ghost of a smile, but a smile nonetheless. Her hand traced over Marcus's on her midriff, lacing her fingers through his.
"There's few other places I'd feel safer at," she said, looking up at him. "And few other hands I'd feel safer under."
The two shared a deep, long look, the darkness in her eyes diminishing at least a little bit.
Marcus took her cheek with his opposite hand. He traced his thumb across her lips. He felt their texture, their softness and warmth under his pad. The soft folds of flesh felt exquisite. Bewitching.
He leaned in, and she met him halfway, the two of them settling into a deep, lingering kiss. Jaina enjoyed every moment watching it. Her eyes absorbed every detail with great relish – the way their lips mashed together, the way they molded against each other. The way they smacked, their tongues writhed together, and the way gasps escaped them. The way the doors to Liara's room hissed open. The way that…
Jaina's head shot toward the doors just as Marcus' and Liara's lips parted with a loud smack, the two of them turning in surprise.
Right there, at the doorway, were Ashley and Tali carrying bottles of liquor and a few glasses, and blinking as they took in the scene.
For a few moments, nobody moved a muscle.
"Well, I best get going," Marcus declared in a most casual manner as he extricated himself and stood up. "I still need to check up on Wrex and Kaidan down at the cargo hold, see if they've pulled a muscle or whatnot."
Jaina's eyes narrowed.
"You're seriously bailing out on me?" she asked incredulously, with the slightest tinge of edge to her voice.
"I wasn't the one who forgot to lock the doors on their way in," he said, and she had the decency to look sheepish. "And besides, honey, I'm a married man; I got a wife to do all the thinking and talking for me. Ash, Tali…"
With that, the doors closed behind him and sealed shut on everyone's fate.
For a couple moments more, nobody spoke.
Then, Jaina stood up, turning a resigned look Ashley and Tali's way.
"Okay, guys," she spoke, taking a deep sigh. "This is… well, there's no way around it. It's exactly what it looks like."
Ashley was giving her a blank look.
"Ma'am, I don't know what you're talking about," she declared.
"That's right," Tali chirped in. "We don't know what you're talking about."
Beautiful hope blossomed in Jaina's heart. Then Tali added,
"The entire ship doesn't know what you're talking about for the past month, either."
Jaina's hope crashed and burned.
"… You're kidding!" Jaina exclaimed incredulously, a clear tone of despair in her voice. "For the past month?!"
"Well, for the past couple of weeks at the very least," Ash said studiously, sharing a sagely look with a nodding Tali. "Frankly, I don't know what you were expecting to happen, Commander. This is a small ship."
Jaina slumped down onto the bed and buried her face into her hands.
"Oh, god," she mumbled. She then looked up over her fingers at the other two women. "Were we really that obvious?"
Tali's amused voice matched her amused, glowing eyes:
"Oh, puh-lease," she lilted, "It was painfully obvious every time you three were together – on the ship, on the field – everywhere. It was as if you'd jump into each other's suits the moment you were out of sight!"
"It was so sweet," Ash agreed, smiling. "Especially the way Liara looked at Skipper with those doe eyes, and the way the two of you did girl talk about him when his back was turned. It was such a sweet thing to see."
"Wait, you don't have a problem with this?" she asked.
"What? No, of course not! None of us do."
"None of y… Including the entire ship's crew?"
"Yes! Shepard, they're practically rooting for you!" Ash exclaimed, raising her arms.
Both Ashley and Tali rolled their eyes.
"Shepard," Ash spoke, "don't you get it? You and Skipper are goddamn icons! You're idols to the entire crew. You're kicking ass across the entire galaxy, saving lives and ending enemies. You're like Kirk and Spock – well, sorta – and as such, banging hot alien babes is practically mandatory!"
Jaina went from flabbergasted to sheepish, self-consciously twirling a strand of hair behind her ear.
"Well… that was… definitely unexpected," she breathed. "Quite a high standard to live up to, I guess."
"Not, judging how things were when we entered," Tali quipped slyly.
Jaina huffed. She looked miffed.
"Well, now we look like idiots with all the trouble we went to pretending we're just friends," she muttered, then looked at Liara. "And what are you looking so smug about for?"
Liara, who had by now donned a long white t-shirt, sat down next to her, gave her a soft kiss on the cheek, and smiled lovingly at her; it was almost a smile a mother would give to her child.
"I'm smiling because you two worry so much and care so much about your crew that you fail to realize how much your crew cares for you in turn. And it makes you all the more worthy in my eyes." Her tone then turned wry. "And frankly, I'm happy that the pretending is over; now I can tell the whole world that I'm your girlfriend."
"Talk about priorities," Jaina muttered. "Well, don't gloat too soon. Remember, us banging a hot alien babe is mandatory. So, you better watch out."
"I'll be watching out for it eagerly."
Jaina shook her head with a smile. She then turned her attention back at Ashley and Tali.
"So how did you two ended up here anyway?" she asked. "And carrying a bottle of ten year old Irish, no less?"
"Oh! Well, we felt that Liara was in a bad place, so we felt like cheering her up," Tali said.
"Yeah, so we brought some hard stuff and felt like making it a girl bonding time tonight," Ash finished, then smirked. "Looks like it wasn't really needed."
"Yeah? Well I need it. Gimme!" Jaina commanded dryly and swiped the bottle out of her hands, popping it open and taking a good swig. She huffed through the burn, then seemed to finally perk back up. "Well, waddaya all standing around for? It's girls' bonding time tonight!"
Ash and Tali shared a grin, with Ash promptly plopping her ass cross-legged down on the floor and Tali taking up a chair, the two of them doling out glasses around (with Tali having her own smaller bottle of triple-filtered turian brandy, into which she promptly struck her emergency induction port).
Marcus exited the elevator and walked into the ship's bay, casting his gaze around.
The sparing mats had been removed, but the bay was crowded despite that. With two Scorpion assault vehicles, two Triton mechs, omni-fabricators, and a bunch of crew busy at their work, it was a veritable anthill.
But it felt like home.
The scent of grease, weld, and machine oil, the sound of whirling servos, droning of the fabricators, hammering of metal, and shouting of men at work brought a sense of purpose. A sense of power.
He placed his palm onto the armored hand of the large Triton walker and examined the modifications they had done to them over the previous month. The original glass cockpit was replaced with armor plate and set of high-resilience cameras that fed all sorts of tactical data to the pilot, and additional weaponry was installed at the best of places, giving it a high-pounding shock vehicle value.
A sense of power indeed. Just what they'd need in the upcoming days.
He patted the walker's forearm and walked off toward the leftward Scorpion that had Garrus sitting on top of it, doing some calibrations with a terminal hooked into its systems. Kaidan was there, too, tinkering around the hover drive, while Wrex was at the side, sitting on top of some crates as he did slow, monotonous maintenance on his machine gun.
"Shepard," Wrex greeted him.
"Wrex," Marcus greeted him back. "Came to see how you guys were doing after the spar."
Wrex snorted. "It'll take more than that to take me down. Still, that little asari sure packs a punch when she's angry."
"One mean battle scream, too," Kaidan added as he got up from underneath the vehicle. "I swear, it should be weaponized as a psychological weapon. But yeah, other than that, we're all good."
Marcus chuckled, then placed his palm on the Scorpion's armor.
"So, what's the status here?" he asked Garrus.
"It's in pretty good shape," the turian replied from the roof. "Had to recalibrate the optics – nothing major; the cold and the ice particles from the blizzard shifted the targeting by point-zero-two degrees."
"And the hover systems?" he asked Kaidan.
"Able to grind living thresher maws," Kaidan replied.
Wrex chuckled. "My kind of machinery." He looked to Marcus seriously. "So, with all that's happened to Liara, we hadn't heard what news you bring from your briefing with the Council. What have you got for us?"
"I bring the good news and the great news."
That brought their attention to him.
"Really? That good?" Kaidan asked.
"So, the Council has finally listened to you," Garrus commented.
Marcus nodded, leaning back against the nearby crate.
"We've finally got through to them," he said. "Or, better yet, what they saw from Noveria did. They're scared. Real scared. Is it fear of losing their power or real concern for the galaxy? I don't really give a damn. The point is that what Benezia and the Rachni Queen revealed – what they've seen for themselves on those cam recordings – has given me the opening to drive the entire Reaper background that the vision from the Eden Prime beacon has given me. It was a final nail in their coffin. It got them so scared they've officially decided to operate under the assumption that the Reaper threat is everything I told them it is. Compared to that, the rachni don't even scan."
"Sounds like pretty damn great news, alright," Wrex agreed.
Garrus hummed from his position on top of the Scorpion.
"I wouldn't jump to conclusions that quickly if I were you, though," he said as he finished his calibrations, yanking the connecting cables out and closing his laptop terminal. "The councilors are politicians. They speak one thing and do the other." He agilely slid down the Scorpion's side and landed on his feet, moving closer. "So the question isn't what they said they believe; the question is what they're going to do about it."
"Sparatus has called for a full mobilization of the Hierarchy's 10th Fleet," Shepard replied.
Garrus's mandibles lowered in surprise. "Well, color me impressed," he said as he sat back against a crate. "They're finally doing something."
"And what do we do meanwhile?" Wrex asked. "Don't tell me we're taking the back seat on this."
Marcus shook his head. "No. Right in the middle of that video conference, Valern received an emergency transmission from the STG team we had them send to Virmire. The message was garbled, but they managed to isolate emergency codes for critical danger to the Citadel and a request for sending an entire fleet. That is where the 10th is going, and they need us to lead them."
"I see," Garrus nodded. "So, it would appear that our STG friends have stumbled onto something."
"Saren's base, no doubt," Marcus said. "And it must be brimming with geth and krogan clones."
"You really think that this is the cloning facility we're facing?" Kaidan asked.
"I do," Wrex stated gruffly.
Garrus nodded in agreement. "If Saren has bought as much cloning gear as Liara's sources suggest, and with the time he's had to set up the whole thing, then we're looking at three to four thousand krogan," he said grimly to Marcus. "We might be having an entire brigade on our hands. The Council sending the fleet in seems like the first wise thing they did since the beginning."
"And if they are to be successful, they need us over there beforehand; they need to know what they're facing."
"So – we do the dangerous part, while the fleet just swoops in and mops up," Kaidan said. "Figures."
"Personally, I see it as an opportunity," Marcus said. "Being a Spectre, I'd have a leeway to direct the fleet as I saw fit, especially considering that I'd be the one feeding them any actionable intel. So, no, that's not the problem; the problem is that Kirahee's STG team has been intercepted by Saren's forces. They might all be already dead, and with them any data they might have found. So, spying on Saren and the geth will be a non-issue with the Normandy present; what I actually want is to know what Kirahee found, because it's obvious he has stumbled onto something. Trying to find him would be the primary objective once we get there – or, barring that, trying to recover any intel he left behind. After Virmire cleanup is finished, we can proceed to Ilos and secure the Conduit. Hopefully, Saren will be dead by then."
Wrex nodded pensively. "Hmm… Makes sense." He then gave a measured look to Marcus. "With that attitude, the mission should be a no-brainer. So, what's got you in such a strange mood, then? I can tell there's something else on your mind."
"Oh, that? No, it's nothing much," he waved it off dismissively. "It's just that Ashley and Tali caught me and Jaina making out with Liara."
Kaidan did a violent spit-take, and Wrex hollered in a laughter.
"Hahahaha! So, they finally caught up on you three?"
Kaidan's head whipped to Wrex.
"W- It's true? And you knew?"
Wrex gave him a funny look. "You telling me you didn't?"
"Well… I thought… it would be wrong to, you know, assume anything," Kaidan defended. "I thought that it'd be the best to pretend that rumors are just rumors."
"Well, they aren't," Wrex stated. "He even smells of Liara," he pointed at Marcus. "All the time these days. And Jaina does too. Asari unconsciously exude their pheromones on their lovers. They're weak, but us krogan can sense them."
Garrus was chuckling. "So, someone finally caught you," he said. "And?"
"And, I left Jaina to handle it," he said diplomatically.
"Uhuh," Kaidan said. "You… you are aware that the entire ship already knows of you two and Liara, are you?"
"I think it's safe to say I kinda inferred it when I saw your reaction," he said wryly. "For how long?"
"I've known it since the beginning," Wrex said. "You can't hide it from a krogan nose. But nobody heard it from me. Another man's business is another man's business."
"The crew inferred it on their own," Garrus told him. "It's the little things when you three are together. The glances, the smiles… The body talks, Shepard. You can't hide it. And you don't need to be a detective to recognize it."
Marcus looked around the cargo hold, his demeanor shifting to one of a serious commanding officer.
"And the crew's reaction?" he asked seriously as he observed the various Alliance personnel from a distance.
Kaidan chuckled. "Hah! You gotta be kidding, Shepard; every crewman knows that Captain Kirk is supposed to bang hot alien babes. This is a point of pride."
"That's the male crew," Marcus said, still serious. "What about the female part?"
"What is there to tell?" Wrex said as he cleaned the weapon on his lap. "Every single one of those kids looks at you like a father figure. Every. Single. One of them. And that includes women." He raised his eyes in amusement. "Don't tell me you haven't heard of your and Jaina's nicknames."
Marcus snorted. "Yeah, I picked it up alright." He thought on it. "To think that's what they call me when I'm, in fact, younger than some of those people."
Wrex shrugged. "So had I been when I led the tribe on Tuchanka. Being young doesn't matter. What matters is the strength of character, and you have the kind of life experience that's decades beyond theirs. I'd say that qualifies," he finished. He then smirked as he gave him a sidelong glance with one reptilian eye. "So… how does it feel conquering one more female and bringing her into your pride?"
Marcus chuckled, thinking back on the various moments of that journey fondly.
"Conquering? Not likely. The missus was the one who decided for me; I had no say in the matter."
"Ah. Marriage," Garrus said.
Gruff, coarse laughter exploded out of four throats.
"I don't think he can complain," Kaidan said to Garrus and Wrex.
"That he can't," Wrex agreed.
"Being married to a woman who not only helps in handling the ship's affairs, and kicks ass on the battlefield, but also brings other women into her husband's bed?" Garrus spoke. "Is there a club for finding women like that? Sign me right up!"
Marcus was laughing.
"He's right, you know," Wrex said. "Women like that don't grow on trees. Where the hell did you find a woman like Jaina anyway?"
Marcus smiled fondly as he reminisced, his eyes far away.
"Mindoir," he said. "I found her on Mindoir."
"I didn't know you were a survivor of the 2170 Mindoir raid!" Ashley said in surprise.
"Not something I like to advertise," Jaina shrugged.
The girls sat in a circle – Jaina on the bed, Liara sitting between her legs with Jaina hugging her around her waist, with the comfortably seated Ash and Tali forming the other parts of the circle.
"Whenever someone heard I was the raid survivor, they began treating me like I was a kid with special needs," Jaina continued. "The drill sergeants in the boot camp, too, but they wanted to use it as a weapon. They thought it'd have an effect on me – it was their job to weed out the weak-minded, after all – but it was merely annoying. I'd gotten over it a long time ago by then."
"Somehow, that's what I expected you'd say," Liara said with a small smile from where she sat comfily between Jaina's legs.
"I agree," Tali noted in amusement. "There are not a lot of people who talk of their experiences in that way.
"Your experiences mold you," Jaina shrugged. "Mine molded me into the woman I am today – both the good and the bad. But that doesn't mean I'm supposed to be an emo crybaby, whining about how other people don't know pain or loss. It would make me less than what I can be. Sure, losing family had hurt bad, I won't ever deny that. When it happened, I thought my world was gonna crumble. The first few weeks have been a living hell, but I've gotten over it. " She then smiled fondly, shrugging her shoulders. "Well, actually, a much more accurate way of things was that there was this young, dashing ruffian who practically forced me to pick myself up and dragged me off with him…"
"No!" Ashley exclaimed with a broad grin. "Skipper?!"
Jaina nodded proudly. "Yep. Marcus. He was on Mindoir at the time."
"Okay, you just gotta tell us!" Ashley gushed, and the other girls leaned in in full attention mode.
Jaina laughed and smiled broadly as she reminisced.
"What is there to tell?" Marcus shrugged. "I grew up on the streets of Los Angeles and fled off of that god-forsaken place the first chance I got; it was pure chance that the colony I ended up on was Mindoir."
"Ha!" Wrex barked with a toothy grin. "You're not getting yourself out of this one, Shepard. There's a good story behind it – you know, like the ones you pestered me to tell you about krogan, Ailina, genophage, me being betrayed by my father? Well, now it's our turn to pester you. Spill it!"
Marcus laughed loudly, his laughter reverberating through the cavernous cargo bay.
"I somehow expected you were gonna say that," he said, then shrugged. "Well, there's really not much to tell. I was an orphan on Earth, shuffling through the system. You know how it is – neglectful foster parents or downright abusive. You had to learn how to recognize when the old man was in such a mood to unbuckle his belt so you could make yourself scarce. Ran with street gangs a lot. Pickpocketing, thefts… there were a lot of low-level drug transfers involved. But it was the street. People you deal with in that environment would gladly stab you in the back or traffic you off. You had to keep your eyes open and keep your wits with you. Girls were even worse than the thugs. They'd seduce you, trick you to get hooked up on amberjoy, bliss, or even good ol' heroin, so you'd become some thug's bitch. Or worse, you'd go with her to a motel room for a round or two of hot lovin' and wake up in a bathtub of ice with your kidney sliced out. So yeah, I had to be very discerning about people from a very young age. Anything less, and I might not have made it."
Kaidan shook his head. "Hell… I grew up in a comparatively nice city and a nice neighborhood. I don't even want to imagine what it was like for you. How the hell do you survive the street like that? How do you find protection?"
"You do not," Marcus said. "You don't survive the streets by seeking protection, you survive by being protection. You need to throw yourself into the deep end. It earns you street credit – a far more valuable thing than money. I protected the other kids whenever I could, and I did it well, and that's how I kept the vultures at bay – be it on the streets, or in the school that I was obligated to attend to by the social services." He smirked then and looked up at Garrus. "You're not about to arrest me for all the bad deeds I did, Garrus, are you?"
Garrus's mandibles fluttered in amusement.
"I think you've repaid your debt to society many times over."
Marcus snorted, then continued. "Yeah… a few good things did happen somewhere along the line too, I guess… I got into mechanics and electrics – the school that the social services made me enroll into was a local vocational technical high school, and there I realized I liked machines… They're easier to deal with than humans are, anyway. Started running with this old guy who trafficked guns, cars, and other gear about that time, too; he taught me a lot about tech work. I used that knowledge well when I fled Earth and wound up on Mindoir."
"I heard about that," Kaidan said. "You were in a Mindoir raid in 2170."
"I call it my bad luck," he replied dryly. "I got away from Earth after LA Terror in 2169 only to wind up in a slaver raid barely a year later."
"LA Terror?" Wrex asked. "What was that thing?"
"Religious fanatics took over the city of Los Angeles in a sudden and well-organized coup and went on to spread terror on the defenseless populace," Jaina said to Tali and Liara. "They held the populace hostage so the troops couldn't react. Never been there to see it, but Marcus told me stories alright. You know how batarians slavers are depicted as savage monsters?" Her face darkened. "Turns out human religious fanatics are just as bad. They killed a lot of defenseless people in the name of their religion. They wanted to cleanse the city of all who they deemed unworthy, and it just happens to have also been the people just trying to get by living the life on the streets."
"So, basically, for us, the people of the streets, it was either fight or die," Marcus said to the three men. "Guess which one I chose. Ronan, that tech trafficker I told you I worked for, had taught me how to use weapons and how to defend myself. When the shit started, he just tossed the gun into my hands; didn't even need to tell me anything. It was a three-day firefight to stay alive. Killed a lot of fanatics. Never regretted it. What the gangs did by fighting back was what gave a window of opportunity for the Alliance to take them out. That was the turning point in my life. With shit like that happening, I figured enough was enough, so I left Earth for the colonies – fresh start and all that. Minors aren't allowed to travel solo, so I did the needed works to become legally emancipated. Under Systems Alliance laws, it grants full adult rights, if you can successfully argue your case before court – which I did. With that done, and getting my high school degree by accelerated studies program, I gathered whatever cash I had and grabbed the first colony ship that went to the colonies."
"Mindoir, huh?" Garrus asked.
"The idyllic, burgeoning colony world with clear blue skies, green fields, and forests as far as the eye can see," Jaina spoke to the girls as if she was citing a dream travel add. "It was the frontier. The New Wild West. Cowboys and aliens. Life was hard, but it was good. The colony was alive. People were constantly coming in, freighters were constantly rolling in and out with commerce and exporting food, and I…" She slumped almost pitifully. "And I was stuck in high school."
"Aww, don't tell me you hated school?" Ash teased. "No sweet sixteen? No regular run-of-the-mill teenage girl from the colony, having her own high school problems such as: who said what, who did what, who did who, following the fashionable trends and stuff?"
"Aw, hell no, I was a wild child," Jaina retorted. "I never belonged and adamantly refused to be a part of that kind of standard social clique. But I allowed it in my school."
"Err… wait. You allowed it in your school?" Tali asked.
"What does that mean?" Liara frowned.
"Th… That means that she was the school's tough guy," Ash spoke slowly, wide-eyed. "The toughest guy! The top of the food chain. The one to whom all the other kids bowed down to."
Jaina held her head up high in smug self-satisfaction.
"Okay. Yeah," Ash was nodding away. "I can totally see how that could have happened."
"Damn straight you can," Jaina quipped. "I was the high school Empress of All Things. Best grades – straight tens across the board, colonial high school champion in athletics and karate, solver of problems, protector of the weak, bully of bullies, and one mean ladies-girl, thank you very much!"
"Ladies-girl?" Tali quirked an eyebrow.
Jaina shrugged with one shoulder. "Well, don't get me wrong, I swung both ways, but it's just that – come on! A bunch of horny, pimply, hormone-stricken adolescents with too much bravado and young male ego needing to prove themselves? Pffft! No way! Besides, most of them were insecure and intimidated in the presence of strong girls, and they constantly tried to fix their inferiority complex by being hostile."
"Ugh," Ash snorted. "Men and their fragile ego."
"Exactly!" Jaina said. "I had to knock quite a few of them down a peg. As you can see, this was quite the turn-off. But girls though? They're cute, soft, and adorable. And as we all know, all girls like a strong and protective type – which was yours truly. So, the girls were attracted to me, and I happily reciprocated, of course. So, as you can see, I was the Undisputed Empress, and everybody in the city knew that! Mindoir was mine!" She then turned grumpy. "Until one day, my position gets threatened by this guy who dropped outta nowhere! Turns out he came from Earth, and some other kids met him and spread the rumor that he was way cooler than I was. And apparently he had already graduated and was legally adult despite being 16!"
"Why do I know that this is Marcus you're talking about?" Liara asked knowingly.
Jaina gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "Because I am," she smirked. "Anyway, suddenly, everybody wants to meet him, and all the guys especially are affected by it, that they want to have another shot at me because it bruises their egos otherwise. And the worst thing was, he was hanging out at the spaceport! The gall!"
"Gall?" Tali asked amusedly.
"Yes! Gall!" Jaina grumbled. "Spaceport was my hangout, dammit! I loved spaceships and spaceplanes. I wanted to be a pilot and a spaceship captain one day, and the spaceport was my private zone. Everybody knew it was off-limits. Yet here you have this guy setting up shop over there, and high school kids noticed him. Everything he did was rocking the boat, and I was gonna have some serious word with him."
"And by 'word', you mean 'kick his ass'," Ashley grinned broadly.
"Naturally," Jaina shrugged. "So I immediately went down there."
"Hah! Atta girl!" Ashley cheered.
"But, why did he decide to hang out around the spaceport in the first place?" Tali asked.
"Oh, that's the best part," Jaina quipped. "He didn't decide to hang out there. He actually worked there."
"That was the very first thing I did when I came out of the transport," Marcus said to the other three men. "Finding a job. The moment my feet hit the tarmac, I went straight into the hangar and asked if they needed mechanical workers – which, of course, they did because any new colony world was in dire need of, and I had the degree. With that done, I went and found a place to stay near the port. Only then did I go to find something to eat. Priorities – you know how it is. In any case, things became same-old quickly enough. Work, rest, go around the colony at my spare time… It was a much more peaceful existence than LA. Until it wasn't. See, the thing is, Mindoir wasn't Earth, no matter how big the colony's capital was. People started noticing me very quickly. And that brought in all sorts of trouble."
"How come?" Kaidan asked.
Marcus shrugged. "I was a sixteen-year old who was alone. I had no legal guardian. That was a unique case on Mindoir. Cops quickly started nosing, stopping me at every corner for a 'friendly talk'. Other kids noticed me because of that, but to them I was a matter of great interest. I was legally adult, so I could live alone, work, be served at the bar – the works. They couldn't do any of that, so they wanted to hang out with me, pretend to be my friends so they could get some of that. Told them all to piss off. It made some guys angry and they wanted to teach me a lesson, so I had to kick the shit out of them. And naturally, the girls like bad boys a lot, so all my stunts only served to attracted them, and the trouble just kept on growing…"
"Hah!" Garrus laughed. "If it was any other man, I'd say it was a load of bull. So – getting all the ladies from an early age, huh?"
"Nah, not really. I could tell those girls were trouble. I could tell from a mile away they just wanted to fool around a bit with the new guy in town, and that kind of behavior reminded me of how the street girls were back in LA, so I steered clear of them. Didn't work, because apparently, the more you run, the more they chase you."
Laughter echoed around.
"It all culminated one day when, out of nowhere, there comes this crazy guy to have 'a word' with me – apparently, he was the top dog of the city's great high school, and my very presence was rocking the boat. He was pissed off because he had to knock some guys' heads around, because I was encroaching on his territory, because this town wasn't big enough for the two of us, because I needed to stay away from his girls…"
"Yeah, yeah, we get the picture – what happened?" Wrex interrupted.
"The age-old story happened," Marcus shrugged. "We had a confrontation which resulted in us ending up as fast friends, agreeing never to tell what happened."
Wrex narrowed his sullen eyes at the evasion. "Cute," he said dryly. "Well, can't say I never made such friends. An honored rival. He must've been something."
Marcus snorted, smiling as he reminisced fondly. "Yeah, he was something alright. Told me his name was Jay. He had a wild side about him, always rocking a mess of short red hair, baggy shirts, cargo pants and boots. He was a tempest of moods and demeanors. Calm and rational, hard to anger, but then he suddenly turns like a live warhead when something pushes him the wrong way, and then woe be to his foes. He'd be like a mix of a hound and an Irishman – wild, fiery, unyielding, and never staying down. And then, after a good fight, he'd have this upbeat, chirpy, outgoing personality that simply got to you – you know what I mean? It felt real good to hang out with him. Got me into trouble plenty of times, too… but I can't say it wasn't good times every single time… Made for some damn good memories. He was the first true friend I ever had…"
"Then, one day, he shows up at spaceport dressed as a girl."
"He what?" Kaidan croaked.
"Oh, no," Garrus laughed, "I know exactly where this is going!"
"Yep," Marcus nodded gravely, remembering. "It was some kind of formal school girl's uniform: short, pleated skirt, white knee-high socks, white shirt, fancy jacket, and a tie – all ruffled and looking like they were haphazardly tossed on. At this point, I have no idea just what the fuck was this all about, so I'm like:
'Jay, dude, I mean, I get that chicks dig that girly face of yours, but – come on, man! A skirt? What the fuck is going on?'
"And he says, 'Don't ask. School had this stupid ceremony and we were forced to wear these; hang on, I brought my clothes in my bag, I'll change.'
And I was like: 'Dude, what kind of a fucked-up school is that?! Crossdressers-r-us? Whoa, whoa, whoa, where do you think you're going, get over here, I gotta record this for posterity! I mean check these out' – and I grab with both what I think is a pair of fake boobs and start to grope and fondle, going like – 'But damn, dude, these sure feel real! Where'd you get em? A sex shop or something? They feel goddamn awesome.'
"He didn't!" chorused Liara, Ashley, and Tali.
"He sure did!" Jaina quipped amusedly. "And I was so caught off guard and confused with what he's doing that I just stood there for a moment as my goodies are being felt up all over. So, I shake out of it and grab his wrists all annoyed, going like – 'Marcus! Dude! Those are my boobs, dammit! Dafuq do you mean where I got them? My mother gave them to me. You so desperate to get to second base that you actually do this…?' – and then, he freezes, and his completely shocked, wide eyes start to slowly rise to meet mine, and I finally add two-and-two together and realize that, all this time, the doofus had actually though that I was a guy, and that only now had he finally realized that I'm actually a girl!"
"WAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA," Wrex was hollering as he rolled on the floor while hammering away against the floor with his fist, and Garrus and Kaidan weren't too far behind.
"In my defense, she always wore baggy, male-styled clothes," Marcus shrugged. "Her hair was shorter back then, too. Not to mention she dated girls, and she was the school's tough guy. Come on, I grew up in LA; it was packed with gender-queer-looking weirdoes on every corner. What was a guy to think?"
"Well, yeah, that was true," Jaina replied sheepishly to a grinning Ashley's question, "but I didn't realize I was so good at being tomboy that someone from the outside couldn't tell… I mean, everybody else in the city knew me. I understood his motivations since then, though; especially later when I first saw how many gender-queer-looking people there can be in some big cities."
"Which is why my young, straight, male brain felt it was imperative for me to be certain right then and there as to Jay's nature," Marcus said. "So do what any sensible man would do: I drop her boobs, and lift the hem of her skirt and grab at her crotch."
"NO!" chorused the girls in shock.
"Yep!" Jaina declared proudly. "So, naturally, I clock him with my right as hard as I can – enough was enough – and I go screaming – 'I'm a girl, you nimrod! It's Jaina! Jaina O'fucking'Neal!"
"Which, obviously, means that my priorities have switched from confirming she's really a girl to dealing with an angry female," said Marcus. "Which, in Jaina's case, isn't easy by any stretch of the matter, so I try to tackle her to subdue her,"
"But I don't want to be subdued, so I kick back, but at the same time I don't actually want to injure him much,"
"Which means that it devolves into a grappling match," Marcus says. "Until I somehow manage to pin her with my body against the wall, holding one of her hands pined up too, but she's got her legs firmly wrapped around my hips and is trying to suffocate me by pressing my face into her chest of all places…"
"But the slippery bastard manages to hump and wiggle his way out of there, and burry his face into my neck… And then we hear a pointed cough."
"So we freeze and turn our heads, and – lo, behold – there's a goddamn cop standing right there in the doorway."
"And I realize how the two of us actually look in that particular position," Jaina says. "Me pinned up against the wall, my legs wrapped around his hips, me holding his head buried in my neck, him pinning my wrist against the wall, both of us panting, humping against each other, the fact that both of our clothes are half-torn off…"
"And I soooo don't need that shit right now," Marcus says. "So we instantly separate, but the damage is done. My shirt's in tatters, and hers is hanging wide open with all of its buttons torn off – I mean, here I'm thinking the things couldn't get any worse! And then she says…"
"'Dad, this isn't what it looks like!'," Jaina says.
Ashley was screeching in laughter as she rolled the floor, and the other girls weren't far behind.
"So. Yeah. At that moment I can totally feel the fight going out of Marcus and him saying farewells with his life, and I can't help but want to protect him from dad's wrath with everything I got… But instead, I see dad is smirking in that god-awful, knowing, dad way, and goes like – 'Not what it looks like? Suuuuuuuure!'"
"Let tell you something," Marcus says, "Being in that kind of situation, and realizing that the girl's dad has a sense of humor is the best feeling a teenage boy can have. So, the man goes – 'Ms. Crabapple called me to tell me that you snuck out of the School Day celebration. Might have known you'd end up here.' – And then he looks to me, smirking, and says – 'So, you must be Marcus! Carson O'Neal. Jaina here has been going on nonstop about you for this past month. Which is goddamn impressive, I gotta say! There was not a single boy on the planet that she hadn't thoroughly torn to bits and scared away. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love that my little girl can take care of herself, but I was becoming afraid that she was gonna remain alone her entire life. So you imagine how happy I was to know there was a guy she talked all day about. And I have to admit, I'm pretty damn glad to see a man that can handle her. Why don't you join us for lunch this Saturday? The missus is making lamb. We'd both be very happy to have you."
"And so, our short mishap ended," Jaina said. "We made awkward peace, he came to lunch the next day, and the awkward peace returned to being more akin to our usual bickering, only a bit more embarrassing. We were forced to divulge our story to the family. My sister, Lira, who was senior year, immediately spread it around town, so it resulted in me having to knock a few heads around just on principle…" She paused and smiled fondly. "And Marcus and I became and stayed thick as thieves from then on out."
"What? No romance?" Ashley whined petulantly.
"No, it wasn't on either of our minds back then; it would have been too awkward," Marcus said to the three guys who had, by then, recovered their breathing. "Don't get me wrong; even then, I was damn well aware that, once you took away the tomboyishness, she was quite beautiful. But while I cared about her more than anyone in the universe, we had been buddies first, so it'd have been just weird if we tried it. And we both kinda knew it."
"But the times we had were still good," Jaina spoke to the girls. "Better than good! The times were a blast! I don't think I've had anyone who was like Marcus in my life. With him, the world felt right." She paused, and her face turned somber. "And then, that day came…"
"I was at work when the sirens went off," Marcus spoke grimly. "It happened so damn fast that it was staggering. The planetary militia garrison, the police, and the few GARDIANS were all taken out by orbital precision bombing, after which the dropships came blazing in. Batarian-led slaver gangs were dropping all over the colony." He paused. "And I remember it as clear as day: at that very moment, the only thing that I could think of was Jaina. That's the only thing that mattered.
"The spaceport was a high-profile target, so the slavers came there first en masse. Many people died. Many, many more were taken. But I was a street rat. I had learned how to how to hide and prowl so that the trained police squad couldn't notice you when they did a raid, so I knew how to stay unnoticed by a few mere slavers. I waited for a small group to be separated from the main body, and that's when I struck. The workshop had plenty of bladed tools; It was easy to get the drop on the first batarian. The second and third one died from my biotics. Not that I was any strong with them – I didn't even have an amp – but my days of pickpocketing had made me develop super-fine control of them. Lifting a credit chit was no different than snapping an aorta. I did take their weapons, but I never tried anything as stupid as trying to defend an entire spaceport; that was folly. Instead, I rushed for the parking lot and killed the batarians that were too busy capturing the people who were trying to flee with their cars to notice me in time. Then, I jacked a skycar and burned rubber toward Jaina's home."
"I was home, in the fields," Jaina spoke. "My family was an atypical thing; dad was a cop, but he was also a rancher thanks to automatons and robotics doing the menial work at home, and it was run by mom while he was away, uhhh… Yeah, anyway… Anyway… I saw the batarian shuttle landing next to our home. There were many gunshots. My dad and brother, they had guns, but… well… there were two of them, and twelve of the batarians. Seven by the end of it, heh… The remaining batarians were mad. They wanted to have some fun with my mother and big sister before they chipped them. Four of them were dragging them out, while the remaining three were advancing on me as I ran in from the fields, thinking they'd overpower me easily. It didn't go as they planned… I was a biotic, I owned a biotic amp – courtesy from the planet's healthcare system – and I was blind with rage.
"To this day, I still don't know what kind of an attack I used to cave that first batarian's chest in and launch him ten meters across. I must've used a warp of some kind on the second one, tearing him in half, and I've grabbed the last one in a biotic field to use as a living shield…"
"…That's not something you learn by being a school bully," Ashley said softly.
"No," Jaina smiled. "They teach you that at the spaceport."
"Hah," Ash coughed. "Hell yeah."
"So, there I was," Jaina continued, "holding that final batarian with a biotic field so that the others couldn't shoot me – though the morons tried to, and killed their own man – and when they saw they couldn't fight me and hold the prisoners too, they tried using my mom and sis as hostages to force me to surrender. My mom had other plans, though. She wrestled away the pistol that was held to her head and tried to fight back; she always was a lioness. Batarians had shielding, though, and there were more of them. They reacted and killed her. Lira, my sister, tried reaching for mom's body, but one of the batarians reacted on impulse and shot her dead on the spot.
"I went berserk, then. I flunked that dead batarian's body away and assaulted the remaining four. But, I was already tiring from biotic overuse, and there were too many of them. I remember a strike to the gut from the butt of the batarian's rifle, and falling on my knees. He grabbed my hair, holding me while the others stepped forth. He wanted me dead, but this other guy stopped him and took out a control implant. They were gonna implant me right then and there, without anesthesia. I was this close to becoming a slave."
The other girls were leaning close, holding their breaths, watching her in wide-eyed suspense. Jaina just smiled at their reactions and continued:
"But then, the batarian that was coming at me with the control chip grunted and simply fell down to the ground – dead from his aorta being biotically ripped! Before any of the remaining batarians knew what was going on, their leader was flying through the air in the shower of blood, courtesy of a point-blank shotgun blast from inside his shield layer. The remaining two were staggered away from me with a biotic push, there was another shot, and another… and, it was over. I looked up to see my rescuer, and there he was."
"Marcus," Liara said quietly.
"In the flesh," Jaina said, her smile broad. "Holding a smoking shotgun and a pistol hooked through his belt, and was sprayed with batarian blood."
"Wow," Ash murmured. "He must've already loved you when he went through all that trouble and risking his own neck to save you out of all others."
"Well, Marcus and I weren't there quite yet," Jaina said. "Oh, there was this cute, awkward something right underneath the surface, but neither of us wanted to act on; it was because we had been buddies first, and we were both silently afraid to change it. But in the six months since we met, we had definitely become tied at the hip. It was a sense of companionship that you can't really replace."
There was a collective 'aww'.
"That's so sweet," Tali said. "You must've developed feelings for him right after he rescued you, haven't you?"
"I developed feelings, alright," Jaina said. "I hated him for a month!"
"WHAT?!" was a collective exclaim.
Jaina grinned almost sheepishly, and then sighed.
"After he rescued me, I broke down. My whole family was dead. I remember going down to my mother's and sister's bodies, trying to cradle both of them in my arms as I cried. Marcus didn't want to waste time, though. He was, understandably, more level-headed at that moment, and knew that more batarians were inbound. So, he grabbed me by the bicep, pulling me up with him, explaining that we had to go. I didn't want to hear it. I punched back at him, called him names, telling him he could go to hell for all I cared but that I was staying there with my family."
"You didn't!" Liara said accusingly.
"I sure did," Jaina said, shrugging. "I wasn't quite right in the head at the moment."
"So, how did he react?" Ashley asked.
"He listened to my tirade for a few seconds, and then he backhanded me across the face for all he was worth."
"He didn't!" the girls chorused.
"He sure did!" Jaina deadpanned. "He struck me so hard that I got reacquainted with the ground. I swear the left side of my face was numb for a whole day after that."
"Is that why you hated him?" Tali asked.
"No, it wasn't that," she said. "I am actually forever grateful that he did what he did back then. For all the humiliation I felt at that moment, I was not myself. I was lost. I needed someone to take the reins and lead me through the paces, which is exactly what Marcus did. He took care of me."
"So, what happened to make you hate him?" Liara asked.
Jaina sighed, thinking back on things…
"It was because, after the raid was defeated, and the Alliance stepped in, there were many orphans out there, and Jaina was one of them now," Marcus spoke grimly. He shook his head. "I've been there. I've lived through it. And there was no goddamn way I was gonna allow her to go through the hell of being thrown into the social care system. She was in a bad place as it was. I could see it in her – she was a wreck, an immense, crippling grief slowly eating her up from the inside. It was pushing her into a stupor, and I didn't want to lose my friend to it. But my hands were tied. She was a minor, and the social services had all the power over her, and I didn't qualify as a caretaker. So, that meant that there was only one way for her to drag herself out of it."
"He pushed for me to go through the legal work of becoming emancipated, like he was," Jaina said, "to start working so that it would take my mind off the pain, and to leave the planet with him so that I'm not reminded of my loss… Essentially, he wanted me to become the master of my own destiny. And it was this pushing, this constant pushing to act at a time when I only wanted to curl into a ball and die of grief that angered me. He wanted to help in the best way that he felt he could, and it angered me so much."
"So, lemme get this straight," Ash said as she downed a glass of whiskey, wagging the empty glass at Jaina. "Skipper pimp-slapped you for your own good, and then he started pushing you to become a strong and independent self-made woman?! Unforgivable! It's obviously all his fault from where I'm standing."
The women burst into a fit of laughter.
"Well, it did seemed so to the little ol' teenage me," Jaina said as the giggles subsided, and then sighed. "The thing was, Marcus wanted us to go away from Mindoir, to start over, but I didn't want to go. I had grown up on Mindoir, and leaving felt like I would be abandoning my family's spirit. So… he blackmailed me."
Everyone's eyebrows shot up.
"With what?" Liara asked incredulously.
Jaina shrugged, a small, wispy smile on her lips. "He said that he'll go off without me." She sighed. "I couldn't take another loss, and he knew it. For better or for worse, in the six months that I've known him, Marcus had become my pillar, even before the raid. So, I did what he asked, and hated myself for being so weak-willed that I had to follow him, and especially because I knew from the start that he was right. And, since I hated myself because he was right, it was obvious that it was his fault. So, I hated him."
There was another fit of chuckles and giggles.
"But you did leave the planet with him," Ash said.
"Yeah, we did," Jaina agreed.
"Where to?" Tali asked.
"Well, Marcus had struck a deal with one of the freighter captains that came to Mindoir to bring in relief supplies for the two of us to become members of that ship's crew – the MSV Grenada," she said. "The whole process of me becoming legally emancipated was pretty quick, so we boarded Captain Haralson's ship and started working there. We've spent the next two years as freighter crewmembers, learning the ropes, earning money – that sort of thing… and I've spent the first month of it hating Marcus's guts. My grief often manifested as anger, and I often tried being confrontational, venting my temper on him. But he wouldn't be phased by it. He was stoic. He… he had this way of handling me… Whenever I tried fighting him, he'd end it by holding me firmly pinned and thrashing and screaming against him until I vented my wrath and was left a sobbing wreck. And then he'd hold me for a while. At first, I hated him for it. It conflicted with my badass high school persona. But I couldn't deny how good it felt to vent and then be held by someone.
"And ultimately, he was right all along. Time and constant work on that ship had healed me. And I had realized what a bitch I had been toward him and how great he had been toward me." She chuckled. "I gotta say that the rest of the crew was quite happy when I apologized – both to him and to them. I knew I had been a bother, but the crew had been good people; they knew my history, and had been understanding, so it all worked out. And from then on, I worked extra hard to make up for everything I did. The crew had accepted us, and we started going out whenever we hit port. I became more outgoing…" She smiled. "Captain Haralson's wife, who was also a crewmember, took me under her wing. After losing one bet against her, I had to consign to her dolling me up for our next shore leave. It was only a bit of light makeup and feminine clothes, but, uhh… that day when we all went out, Marcus kept looking at me all day long. I liked it. It was the first time that I started wanting to be more feminine, and Vanessa was more than eager to teach me how."
"You wanted to do it for Marcus," Liara said discerningly. "You started liking it because you could see he liked it."
Jaina nodded, smiling. "Yeah. I did. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was starting to become really attracted to him. But I was still afraid to ruin what we already had. Which was why instead, I relegated to teasing him. Which was why the sexual tension started mounting between us."
"She was a goddamn tease!" Marcus grumbled to the guys as he reminisced. "She started dolling up with a tiny bit of light makeup, and it looked damn good on her, but it started to evolve into showing just the right amount of skin, of wearing different clothes – and she was doing it all on purpose to tease me. All the time. Couple that with her old nature resurging back, an insatiable zest for life, and a growing confidence in herself, and you get the most attractive type of woman in the whole goddamn universe!"
"And, truth be told," Jaina spoke to the girls, "I wanted him to be my first, just not quite yet. I enjoyed teasing him, but I was also using it to see whether he was merely a horny teenager or if he had more self-control. And he passed with flying colors."
"Sooo…" Ashley mused out loud.
"Sooo…" Tali joined in after her.
Jaina just grinned at them, biting her lip and glancing at Liara, who was arching a stern eyebrow at her expectantly.
"Okay, okay," she relented. "By then, we had spent two years on the Grenada. We were 18, and by then I had realized by then what I wanted to do with my life. The raid of Mindoir had left a strong impression on me, and a desire to make a difference resonated strongly within me. I knew that the best path to do it was to join the Alliance, and that meant that Marcus and I would be separated – at least for a while. So, I felt that it was time. I wanted to do it with Marcus; god knows I've teased him enough about it. So, I talked it over with him, gave him an offer with a few rules of conduct, and uh… well… he said no."
"What?!" Ash whined.
"I don't do conditions," Marcus explained to the guys in firm voice. "Never did, never will. And then I promised her: I promised her that, some day, she was going to be mine – completely and utterly, with no conditions at all – and that she was going to like it."
"So," Jaina spoke, "I agreed. I told him that if such time ever came, I would surrender completely and utterly. But I was a stubborn, tough, independent cookie, remember? I told him outright that it was not gonna happen in a million years."
"It was a challenge that I couldn't back down from," Marcus said.
"So, the next thing you see is him enlisting with me," Jaina said. "Ever since then, the two of us have been blazing a fiery trail through the Alliance, steadily breaking all the records ever made on our way to the top and performing achievements to put all others to shame – our own silent competition against each other. The statement of who would be the dominant one."
"Neither of us could make a solid lead," Marcus said. "We were always switching in the top spot by achievements. That's how we went through the boot camp, through the Officer School, and through our service time."
"And all the while, the sexual tension between us kept mounting," Jaina spoke. "We dated other people to scratch the itch, but it was never enough – you know? Everyone paled in comparison."
"Well, how the hell did you two finally hook up?!" Ashley whined. "Come on, Commander, don't keep us in the dark!"
Jaina smirked impishly. "Well, it was simple, really: he won me in a poker game."
"You're kidding," Garrus said to Marcus, slack-mandibled.
Marcus shook his head. "Nope. Dead serious."
"It was a poker game that occurred during a scheduled 15-day leave," Marcus spoke. "We had met up with a few friends that we made over the years – most of them were Jaina's civilian friends; she had always been outgoing, and the army life only enhanced it, so when she let her hair down, she tended to become the center of attention, and to lead the entire social circle she was in. In comparison, I was there with only a couple of my good army buddies. The three of us liked playing friendly poker, and Jaina and her friends were really eager to join in – and I could tell it was just another facet of 'her-versus-me'. But I was okay with it. So, that night we set up a game once more – Texas hold 'em. The game started out as usual, then morphed into an unofficial guys-against-girls. By the peak of the evening, as I suspected, it had evolved into me against Jaina, with only the two of us left in that round. She was a great player. Good bluffer. We enjoyed the game a lot. But she ended up losing the clothes off her back – literally! She was a graceful loser, though."
Jaina shrugged. "It was all good, really," she said. "I was never ashamed of my body, and I liked to flash my boobs to people to mess with them, so there was almost nobody on that table who hadn't seen my tits before. So, during that game, I pawned my clothes, and lost to Marcus, and since I was a good sport, I had agreed to be the naked cocktail waitress for the rest of the evening as the rest continued playing. Besides, it was a good opportunity, and I had real fun yanking his chain and teasing him – between serving drinks, I sat exclusively in his lap! I enjoyed watching him work hard to hold his steely composure as I perched there, close to him, him trying his damnedest to look all cool and casual about it as he kept playing the new rounds, appearing to be in total control. But I knew he was boiling inside, and he kept checking me out boldly, and I was liking it a lot. It was sexy as hell, and it was pushing all the right buttons with me."
"By that time, the night was mostly winding down," Marcus spoke. "I was mostly tossing in chips and losing to keep the night going and keep her naked ass on my lap longer, and the little minx knew what I was doing! She was smiling at me knowingly." He sighed, shaking his head. Then his face turned dark. "It was all fun until Veronica, one of Jaina's friends, who didn't have any more chips, but was likely emboldened by Jaina's carefree, brazen behavior, decided to bet in her pussy into the pot as a means to try to wiggle more money out of her boyfriend, Glen, who was also present at the table and playing the game."
"Marcus didn't like that," Jaina said. "Not one bit. He considered it the lowest of lows – what Veronica was doing was basically selling her pussy to her boyfriend of all people. And Marcus hated the hypocrisy of it to the core. He considered it no different than being a cheap hooker. So he wanted to stomp mercilessly on that kind of behavior and teach her a harsh lesson: he was going to win that pot she had so carelessly and thoughtlessly thrown her pussy into and fuck her that night. And he bit down like a pit bull.
"So now, everyone at the table starts to freak out. But Marcus – well, you know him – one glare was enough to silence them all. Veronica starts to freak out, her boyfriend is thoroughly cowed, and I just want to avert a disaster. So… I give him the offer: I buyout Veronica's debt. I take her place. And he dude actually says no! He knows that there would be conditions, and he refuses that. And that right there – him staying adamant to his old promise to me that he would have me with no holds barred – is what I find so insanely sexy. I mean, I've been high-strung, hot and bothered this whole night, and everything about him is so fucking sexy that I think – to hell with it – and go like:
"Okay. Then, I'll be your sex slave for a week."
"No!" Ash exclaimed.
"Yes!" Jaina grinned impishly. "Oh, you should have seen the look on everyone's face! But the best one was Marcus's. He was hungry. He wanted to devour me. I loved it! And to emphasize it further, I say: 'sex slave – no conditions'. I swear, I've never seen anyone pile in their winnings so quickly. He marshaled my naked ass into the skycar, and then sped down to his rented seaside bungalow. And from that night on…" Jaina bit her lip, closed her eyes, and crooned. "It was seven days of hot, hot, hot bliss that opened both of our eyes to each other. Seven days. And we married on the eighth."
"Awww, Commander!" Ashley pouted. "Not fair! You're supposed to share all the dirty, juicy details of everything that happened!"
"Ahah," Jaina chuckled huskily. "Well, Ash… let's just say that if I were to tell you about all the things we did – all the dirty, juicy little details of all the depraved sexy stuff we did, well… then, we'd be here a very, very long time. And I don't think the Normandy's heat sinks would be able to compensate for the rise in the room's temperature."
"You're so mean!" Tali whined cutely as she squirmed in her seat.
"Tell you what. I'll tell you all about it another time," Jaina promised. "All the details. Scout's honor."
"So, now we have to stew in our own juices?" Liara complained.
"Not necessarily, we can pursue other topics tonight," Jaina said easily. "For example, we can have Ash talk in detail about her and Kaidan."
Ash suddenly froze. Three pairs of eyes turned knowingly toward her, and she gulped.
"Umm… Commander?" she tried innocently.
"'Commander' nothing!" Jaina commanded jokingly. "We've all seen how you two look at each other! There are sparks flying all over the place when you're together."
"True!" both Tali and Liara chorused.
"Oh, boy…" Kaidan sighed uncomfortably as he was confronted. "Look, Commander, nothing major had happened between Ash and I…"
"Except you two kissing whenever you think nobody can see," Wrex stated with an evil krogan grin.
Kaidan gave him a stink eye. "What I'm trying to say is that we weren't trying to get away with it! It just happened. We… we just wanted to be discreet, you know – so that it does not appear to someone from the outside like this ship is turning into a pleasure yacht, and…"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, it's alright," Marcus interrupted. "I'm fine with it. This mission to hunt Saren is tough as it is. Unconventional mission, done beyond Alliance's standards and supervision, prolonged stealth operation behind enemy lines, continuous chase with little to no rest, and nobody to rely on but each other. Crew fooling around discretely? Of course I can turn a blind eye to it. I'd be crazy not to. So, as long as you and Ash remain casually discreet, everything is perfectly fine."
Ashley breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Commander," she said to Jaina.
Jaina nodded solemnly. "You're perfectly welcome, Chief." Then, a mischievous twinkle appeared in her eye, along with the other two females present. "So, now, we want details. Spill it!"
Separated halfway, across the ship, two voices, male and female, spoke as one in defeat:
 The term "burning rubber" during car chases should remain firmly rooted in the English language since there shouldn't have been any true skycars until the mid-22nd century.
A.N: I'll fix any spelling or grammar mistakes some other time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go start preparing the next chapter. Virmire, I think. I can't remember, it's been a year since I wrote it (like I said, this chapter was the block). On another note, I've been also recently considering to do a parallel release of this story on AO3 as well.
But, in the meantime, I'll buckle up and await your reviews and PMs…
… Aaaany day now…